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“Positive fan reaction sort of rearranged my whole life” – Writer Leah Williams unpacks ‘Age of X-Man: X-Tremists’

Plus, Leah explains how Emma Frost could single-handedly dismantle an entire alternate universe.

I last spoke to writer Leah Williams in November 2018 as part of AiPT!’s Uncanny X-Month event. At the time, the die-hard Emma Frost fan was redefining the beloved White Queen in X-Men Black. But clearly, Williams’ work transforming the way X-Fans view classic X-Men characters was far from over, as she once again has fandom abuzz with her Age of X-Man mini-series X-Tremists.

Whether Williams is revamping classic X-Villain the Blob into a sex symbol or making longtime readers question whether Fred Dukes–and not Warren Worthington III–could be Psylocke’s one true love, the writer’s certainly taking X-Fans on an emotional roller coaster from one issue of X-Tremists to the next. I mean, have you read the recently released issue 4?

As there’s so much to unpack in this limited series, I reached out to Williams to learn more about all the thought and care that’s gone into making X-Tremists special to so many X-Fans.

AiPT!: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Leah! Radical overhauls of characters are nothing new in comics, but it’s rare to see a classic character altered on a fundamental level and have the change immediately resonate with so many fans in such a positive way. As a writer, how does it feel to take Blob–one of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s early creations–and get to put your own stamp on the character’s legacy?

Leah Williams: It feels overdue. Not my stamp, in particular, but respecting his character and not using his size as a punchline. But even though that felt overdue, it’s also terrifying to make leaps of creative interpretation like this. I was scared to take this legacy character and alter him so drastically–how would his fans react? Would they be losing what they loved about him? How would everyone else react? And, just how much hate will I receive for gLoRiFyInG oBeSiTY?

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

I always worry that I’ve somehow misinterpreted the canon and will be reviled for individual bricks I add to an overall structure, but once I was able to register for the first time just how strongly uwu Blob actually was resonating with readers, I stopped being scared about it. From the earliest conceptual stages for this book I could always see, very clearly, how Age of X-Man’s environment would result in a different, softer Freddy, but all art is pretty much just a hallucination you’re having until it resonates with someone else. That sounds snobby, or like I’m up my own ass about being nice to Blob, but I just mean my initial fear always comes from, “Am I the only one who sees this?” and I tend to feel uneasy until I get confirmation that I’m not. Art’s an oasis mirage out in the middle of the desert that only you can see. The hardest part isn’t getting there, but convincing other people to come see what you see, too. So I only felt safe making these kinds of changes once I knew people could see Blob the same way he’d looked in my head the whole time, too.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

AiPT!: X-Tremists is one of those series that sneaks up on you and stays with you long after you’ve put it down for many reasons. One is unrequited love and all the feelings that come with it. Everything Fred goes through after revealing his love for Betsy is so relatable. Did you draw on your own past experiences to help readers experience something that is universal while also feeling so deeply personal?

Williams: More so than anything else I’ve written in comics, and it’s very uncomfortable to me. I obfuscate everything, of course, I am not self-inserting because that’d be one of the shittiest things I could do with this opportunity. However, my bottom-line is just wanting to provide something authentic. I like an airtight narrative (and obviously that gets more complicated in a collaborative medium like comics; not all of the moving components, many of which aren’t your responsibility to interpret, will land together perfectly), so drawing from some emotional experiences I know are authentic just as a means to provide gravitas is something I made an exception for in Freddy’s case. He deserved the credibility at the expense of my discomfort.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

The way readers reacted to the moment of him confessing his feelings was sort of harrowing and humbling at the same time. For me, what he describes is a part of the queer experience–like, knowing you are attracted to your same-sex friend while closeted and fearful of consequences should you speak up. You love them. But you also love just getting to be around them. So you choose the pain of longing instead of the pain of loss or rejection, and after awhile you convince yourself that you’re maybe even happy like this. It was for the best. Then you dig yourself a pain rut and remain inside it indefinitely.

When X-Tremists #2 came out I learned the extent to which that’s a shared experience, though, and the way I learned this was because maybe dozens (I want to say?) of people reaching out to me and admitting they’re each feeling that same pain. And they just live like this. I’m still staggered breathless by that day.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

I was similarly unprepared for how Betsy’s confession in X-Tremists #3 would land. Someone tweeted “Thank you.” and only that to me, and after glancing at their profile and seeing them speak to their own audience with the specifics of what they were going through and why Betsy’s confession mattered to them, I knew what that “Thank you.” meant and it made me want to cry just looking at it. You know exactly what it means in that context. And then for the second time, I just had this day of learning the extent of just how many people who read it are all hurting with the same specific pain.

I don’t know where to put this knowledge. It’s definitely breaking my heart, and overall, the X-Tremists experience has changed me on some fundamental level. I didn’t know what the f--k I was doing with Fred’s confession, to be honest–I just wanted something real and raw, and ringing with sweetness. I mostly feel like I stumbled into significance with Fred’s confession. I knew it rang true for me; I never realized the extent to which it would for everyone else. And learning it leveled me.

AiPT!: In the regular Marvel Universe, Psylocke is often portrayed as one of the X-Men characters who is most confident in her own skin–even when the skin hasn’t been that of her original body. Where did the idea come from to explore Betsy’s body issues?

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

Williams: Betsy Braddock was only ever body-confident when inhabiting Kwannon. She’s never once been satisfied with the body she was born with. She expresses this a few times prior to her journey through the Siege Perilous but earliest, I think (?) is when she just indicates dissatisfaction with her body’s physical limitations compared to her brothers’. Then there are some circumstantial details that could or could not be used in a discussion of Betsy’s body image issues, depending on how you feel about it–she starts dying her hair purple. She starts modeling. These things aren’t indicative of anything in particular on their own. But later, Betsy allows Mojo to give her cybernetic eye implants and that’s when we really start to explore Betsy Braddock’s profoundly unsettling obsession with body modification. And after this, we get a truly harrowing glimpse into Betsy’s body dysmorphia: in the Uncanny X-Men Annual #11 by Chris Claremont and Alan Davis, each of the X-Men is presented with their heart’s one true desire via the Siege Perilous. The trick is not to fall for this trap, obviously, and they have to resist overwhelming temptation despite it being the one thing they’ve always desperately longed for. All of them succeed.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

Except Betsy. And her dream, her most desperate desire, is to be physically perfect–an armored woman. Sleek and made of steel. Impenetrable and strong. She says she chooses this path to protect those that she cares for, but once this is undone by the end of the issue: cut to like a year later, in a different book, of a different run, but with same pre-Kwannon Betsy: she’s still chasing the “perfection” of this ideal body and has started wearing custom armor just to mimic it.

It’s the usage of the word “perfect,” plus her blatant disregard for her original body that alarms me the most. She’s only joyful and confident once she’s inside Kwannon. That’s when she’s finally as dangerous, lethal, vicious, strong and sexual as the way she’s always dreamed of being. Closer to perfection. She outruns all of her insecurities inside Kwannon, and sure enough, whenever she’s presented with the option of reverting to her old self throughout the years, Betsy still consistently chooses to remain inside Kwannon. Betsy’s body issues have been in the canon for a very long time. I find them terrifying and sad.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

AiPT!: While there have been many surprising relationships in Age of X-Man, Blob and Psylocke seemed to take many fans by surprise. But forget the fans–what was the initial reaction to Blobsy in the X-Office from the wider Age of X-Man team?

Williams: [X-Men Senior Editor] Jordan’s polite and professional no matter what canon shenanigans (cananigans) I propose. I pitched Blob/Psylocke on the phone to him when we were just tossing ideas back and forth about the cast as I learned who was still available, and I found out Blob still was. Betsy was already locked in as someone I definitely wanted by this point, so it was considering Blob as a possibility and then realizing how this world would affect him uniquely when I started to see the pieces fall into place. Betsy’s deep-seated body dysmorphia + the chance to give Fred an environment that loves and supports him regardless of his size and the resulting changes of who he’d be in this world. To me, it was just a natural alignment.

I made this connection instantly but internally, so what I blurted out on the phone to Jordan was more like, “Oh, Blob’s available!?” and then two seconds later “Blob/Psylocke romance!” I think his instinctive reaction a polite “????” but after hearing me out, he was just like “Sure!” and then I questioned him for months about whether or not he was still sure.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

AiPT!: Also surprising: Moneta. While it’s easy to root against her, you managed to make me feel somewhat bad for her at the end of X-Tremists #3, as she believes so strongly in her mission. Despite being a character we have no prior history with, is Moneta just as much a victim of Nate Grey’s bizarre reality as everyone else?

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

Williams: She’s not. The biggest difference between Moneta and everyone else is that she’s from that world. She’s a (sorry) true believer in the guiding principles. Don’t feel sorry for her, she’s a little sex-fascist! She’s very devoted to saying slurs! I worked very hard to make her as unlikeable as possible, and you managing to empathize with her despite that speaks more to the clarity of your soul than anything I intended.

AiPT!: Well, thank you… I think! As I’ve mentioned, so much has happened in just four issues of X-Tremists that has resonated so strongly with fans of various backgrounds. What has the positive fan response meant to you?

Williams: Everything. It’s meant everything to me. These are the kinds of things that can be life-changing for me as a writer. X-Tremists is a scary, and I mean absolutely terrifying story to be responsible for because it’s a gauntlet of significance with razor-thin margins of narrative navigation. That all comes from the restrictive, inherently problematic “all love is forbidden love” aspect of this AU, but also just where X-Tremists, in particular, is positioned as potentially the most problematic of them all (the “secret police” story); plus the decisions I personally made in how I wanted to write it.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

In retrospect, I know I made some bold, arguably even dumb (the French-Canadian slang: nobody but French-Canadians liked it) choices, but at the time I was deciding these things, it all felt like the natural (and only) choice I wanted to make. After that, it all got scary and I felt stupid the whole time up until I could see fans reacting positively. Then I could breathe again.

I can’t even really begin to explain how positive fan reaction sort of rearranged my whole life. It’s given me that heart-rending aerial view of just how many people are hurting that I mentioned earlier, in the context of being thanked for voicing that pain. And it’s been humbling. It’s given me a stronger sense of purpose when actually trying to provide some amount of catharsis. Positive fan reaction has also given so much strength just in pushing forward despite feeling scared the whole time because, in my mind, the scariest aspect of a choice I made in telling this story is still hanging over my head as I’m typing all this.

X-Tremists #4 is the “gay rage” Northstar-centric issue that many people have been waiting for, for a very long time. This is the issue that overtly explores consequences of LGBTQ erasure, specifically how it breaks people and makes them feel monstrous. It’s terrifying because, you know, this is the secret police book. Department X are the ones dragging mutants out of their beds at night, brainwashing them, separating entire families and sending them to prison just for loving someone else. Despite knowing that, I still chose to put two gay men on my team and bring in a third starting in this issue.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

Doing that in the secret police book is my razor-thin margin of acceptable storytelling but I did it to myself because allowing this AU to tacitly, quietly erase all queer identity without giving weight to the consequences of what that does to people wasn’t ever an option I considered. It felt irresponsible and dishonest for me to ignore that angle just for the sake of convenience.

Positive response to the first three issues has earned me enough fan goodwill that people have been very kind to me in the days leading up to this issue’s release as my stress mounts in really obvious, highly-visible shitposting ways. X-Tremists #4 anxiety has been eating a hole in my stomach for months but fans have been incredibly gentle to me and encouraging about their support for this issue based off the first three issues of X-Tremists. It’s made this part far more endurable.

AiPT!: No writers have control over characters forever. How do you hope future creators handle Blob?

Williams: Now that we’re nearing the end of X-Tremists, I’ve actively begun to worry about Fred’s future. Readers still don’t really know whether or not what happens in Age of X-Man will have long-term consequences for 616’s continuity, but I’ve starting letting myself imagine all the possibilities for if it does and recently realized something genuinely upsetting for one potential Blob outcome.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

It felt like a triumph to introduce the all-new, uwu Blob into the world and see so many people earnestly caring about him, but now I’m realizing that I could have established this soft-hearted, bookish, kind and gentle man only to have him be deposited like this right back into the world that absolutely goddamn hates him. I’m devastated by this possibility. Like, can you imagine?? (What have I done???)

And while I’m anxious for Freddy’s future, I would never tell another writer what to do out of professional etiquette! Mostly, though, I don’t want to put my real ideas for his future here out of my small hope that I could possibly be the one to someday, potentially, actually write it.

AiPT!: Finally, you’ve made no secret of your love for Emma Frost. So, had Emma made her way to the Age of X-Man, how would she have handled a world without love?

Williams: Oh man, I’ve imagined this so much! My answer is probably going to read like fanfiction.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

At first, she would retreat into diamond form to feel nothing at all. But the instant that Emma Frost psychically opens herself to this world: she’s going to feel how couples feel as they’re being torn apart and mind-wiped, or how siblings feel having their family connections erased from their minds over, and over, and over again only for those memories to keep painfully struggling to resurface, or how Northstar, a gay man, is struggling with suicide ideation because he’s had all knowledge of his sexuality forcibly removed from his mind, and feels lost. One whiff of this mass suffering and Emma would detonate.

Emma Frost has a brutal heart. She is radically compassionate. Not only is she one of the few mutants capable of single-handedly dismantling an entire alternate universe, but she’s also just someone who cares so much that upon confronting such an overwhelming injustice, she’d get angry enough that a b---h would. Same with Jubilee.

AiPT!: Thanks for taking the time to talk, Leah–and thank you for all your hard work on X-Tremists!

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

X-Tremists #5 will be available June 26, 2019.

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