Contrary to popular belief, the X-Men haven’t always been a civil rights allegory. Stan Lee’s famously said, at first, he just needed a way to get lots of people super powers, and genetic mutation fit the bill.
Of course, as with all successful comic properties, more meaning and structure was infused into the far out idea over time, and Magneto truly, eventually, became the Malcolm X to Charles Xavier’s Martin Luther King Jr.
Now we’re more aware of prejudice and discrimination not just against racial groups, but against all manner of lifestyles and ways of being. Writer Tom Taylor has decided it’s time for Marvel’s mutants to tackle these issue more directly than they ever have, and thus X-Men Red is here.
And it’s led by a character that’s been called the heart of the team, back to life for the first time in 12 years: the powerfully telepathic Jean Grey. She’s uniquely equipped to understand the mindset of bigotry, throwing her very self into the minds of the hateful, as she does with protesters outside Central Park’s new Xavier School in X-Men Red Annual #1.
The annual is a good story to kick off the first collected volume of X-Men Red: The Hate Machine, as it covers the time period directly after Jean’s resurrection, prior to the team being assembled. It’s a very personal story that brings her across the Marvel Universe with two people she has different kinds of ties with, Rachel Grey and X-23, as she catches up on what’s happened in the world and confronts Black Bolt, the man who caused the death of her husband, Cyclops.
The art of Pascal Alixe in Annual #1 is expressive yet stylized, and the colors of Chris Sotomayor make the issue much brighter than you’d expect for a coming-to-terms story, but it works in that there’s a palpable sense of hope, too.
Which is distinctly different from the colors of Ive Svorcina, who handles X-Men Red #1-3, and Rain Beredo, who takes over on #4 and 5. Svorcina passes the baton seamlessly in this story arc dominated by muted and, dare I say, ugly hues (?) that accentuate the uncomfortable situations. Mahmud Asrar’s pencils are suitably stark and unforgiving, setting the tone for a story that’s somber with quick hits of humor.
Taylor’s heart is in the right place throughout The Hate Machine, and there are some genuinely emotional moments, but the pacing is strange. Each issue is actually paced very well, a satisfying story-bite unto itself (with #1 being a riveting standout), but strung together, it’s a group of somethings that somehow add up to not much of anything. By the end of the volume, it feels like not a whole lot has changed since the beginning.
And what does happen has largely happened before. Nano Sentinels again? Humans being used to hunt mutants? Was anyone angling for the return of Cassandra Nova? There are some neat, new uses of Jean Grey’s powers, but the jury’s still out on the introduced character Trinary, a technopath who so far is presented as more a tool to be utilized than a character unto herself.
Oh, and Nezhno’s here, too. He actually does have a nice little arc, but the rest of the cast, including X-23/Wolverine, Honey Badger and Nightcrawler (and I guess Gambit, Namor and Storm?) can feel a little underrepresented. It really is Jean’s world, with everyone else living in it. You can judge for yourself whether that’s appropriate or not.
X-Men Red Vol 1: The Hate Machine is a decent start to what may be an important book, if it can get out of its own way. The concentration on politics removes a lot of room for action, which isn’t necessarily bad, but the physical conflicts seem especially sparse in this one. The art team helps make you forget that with their prowess, but eventually Red will have to pay off on all this setup.