Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Uncanny X-Men #15.INH. Written by Brian Michael Bendis (All New X-Men, Guardians Of The Galaxy) and drawn by Kris Anka (All New X-Men Special, A+X), this “Inhumanity” tie-in uses humor and stylish design to emphasize character while exploring Marvel’s latest event. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
The bond shared between X-Men has yet to be matched by any other superhero team of this size. There have been plenty of Avengers and Justice League members, but those groups of characters are tied together by membership status, not a fundamental biological change that separates them from the rest of the world. Marvel’s mutants have incredible abilities and wear flashy costumes and spend their time fighting injustice, but the superhero elements of their story are contained within the core idea of a school where an oppressed minority can feel safe to learn and grow. And schools breed families: For the mutant students that attend the Xavier Institute or Jean Grey School, classmates are the closest things they have to siblings, and professors fill a parental position. Those individual graduating classes and their respective faculty members create smaller family systems within the ever-expanding X-Men roster, and the best way to strengthen those relationships is by pulling the characters away from action and showing how they connect in everyday life.
The X-Men have a tradition of taking time to blow off steam and find some sense of normalcy in their extraordinary lives, whether it’s the regular Xavier Institute baseball game, a slumber party among New Mutants, or a girls’ night out of shopping. The spiritual successor of Chris Claremont and Mark Silvestri’s “Ladies’ Night” in Uncanny X-Men #244, Brian Michael Bendis and Kris Anka’s Uncanny X-Men #15.INH takes the women of the new Xavier Institute on a trip to Piccadilly Square for some much-needed shopping and eating. Like most mutant holidays, things don’t stay calm for long, and the London visit ultimately serves to pull the X-Men into “Inhumanity,” the latest Marvel Universe status quo change.
Here’s what you need to know about the Inhumans: They are a genetic offshoot of Homo sapiens created by alien Kree scientists experimenting on prehistoric Neanderthals. Inhumans look like ordinary humans until they undergo a process called Terrigenesis at puberty, which physically and mentally changes them in vastly different ways. Until recently, it was believed that Earth’s Inhumans lived on the floating city of Attilan, but the events of Infinity and last week’s Inhumanity #1 have revealed tribes of Inhumans scattered around the globe, tribes that are about to get a lot bigger. Black Bolt, king of the Inhumans, destroyed the city of Attilan in the Infinity event, and with his mad brother Maximus’ help, set off a bomb that triggered global Terrigenesis, encasing anyone with traces of Inhuman DNA in a green cocoon that spits out something much different than what it grew around.
Terrigenesis is not very different from mutants manifesting their powers at puberty. Both serve as metaphors for the struggles of adolescence, and provide an easy way to grant superpowers to normal people. There’s no need for an extensive origin story with mutants and Inhumans; one second they’re ordinary, the next they’re not. A popular conspiracy theory presumes that “Inhumanity” is Marvel’s way of making Inhumans a replacement for the mutant race that is off-limits to Marvel Studios because Fox owns the X-Men rights, which actually makes a lot of sense for the cinematic universe. That doesn’t mean that the X-Men are suddenly going to drift into the background in comics, especially because mutant titles make up a large percentage of Marvel’s monthly output.
Uncanny X-Men #15.INH shows how the X-Men are going to co-exist with the surge in the Inhuman population, which basically means continuing with their usual business of trying to survive in a world that hates and fears them. Now there’s more for that world to hate and fear, and while mutants and Inhumans may differentiate themselves, it unlikely that the human population will do the same when looking at two growing groups of superpowered individuals. The last line of Uncanny X-Men #15.INH has Emma Frost saying, “I think our world just got a lot more complicated.” That’s what “Inhumanity” does for the X-Men. It complicates things, but it’s not dramatically changing the place of mutants in the Marvel Universe.
The latter half of this issue focuses on the X-women encountering a Terrigenesis cocoon, meeting the transformed man that emerges, and getting knocked out by his superpowers before a crew of A.I.M. scientists appears to take in the new Inhuman. (For more on A.I.M.’s plot, see Avengers Assemble #21, another delightful “Inhumanity” tie-in spotlighting a female cast.) The crossover material works well, but what makes this issue so enjoyable is everything that comes before. Beginning with Illyana “Magik” Rasputin falling asleep during her sorcerer’s apprenticeship with Dr. Strange, this issue spotlights Bendis’ talent for putting superheroes in humorous situations, which is always a welcome change of pace in the predominantly serious superhero genre.
When Illyana teleports back to her bedroom, she’s cornered by a group of female students that really want to go shopping. It sounds stereotypical and the girls know that, but these self-described “strong independent women” would really like a change of clothes and some decent soap and shampoo. Lucky for them, their professor Emma Frost is not only desperately in need of a distraction, but also has a duffel bag full of cash from her time as the Hellfire Club’s White Queen, providing the means for a London shopping spree/bonding trip. The scenes of the students convincing their teachers highlight Bendis’ snappy dialogue, and artist Kris Anka does remarkable work depicting the talking heads so that there’s visual variety during an extended conversation.
Anka’s body language and facial expressions capture the growing intensity of the students’ begging, which at one point has one of the Cuckoos dropping to her knees to sing the praises of a mythical device that holds all your favorite songs in one place, and the manga influence on his artwork leads to exaggerated reactions that emphasize the humor of Bendis’ script. Because recent mutants events have been so bleak, the silliness of Uncanny X-Men #15.INH is even more effective. Bendis’ run has primarily characterized Emma Frost and Illyana as intense snow queens, but this issue softens the characters with comedy. Illyana has the aforementioned scene in Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum, but all it takes is one silent panel of Emma Frost sleeping like an infant to bring some vulnerability to the character. It’s a hilariously unflattering image of a character that has become a mutant sex symbol, immediately melting the icy personality Emma cultivates when she’s wearing her more provocative superhero wardrobe.
Kris Anka has become one of Marvel’s go-to artists for character designs, showing a talent for superhero looks that are stylish and contemporary. This issue gives Anka the opportunity to flex his style muscles by taking the X-women on a shopping spree that updates their civilian appearance, and Anka uses the wardrobe changes to highlight character differences. Clothing is a major way people express their personalities, but not very many comic-book artists take advantage of that relationship. Anka’s not one of those artists, and the first group shot of the women walking through Piccadilly Square wearing their new looks does amazing work establishing interpersonal relationships through costuming.
In that image, the Cuckoo triplets all wear the same foundation outfit of high heels, leather pants, white blouses, and black ties, but Irma, the sister who pursued individuality by cutting and dying her hair, has thrown on a blue jacket to separate her from her sisters. The black-and-white Cuckoo ensembles connect them to their former mentor Emma Frost, whose outfit is more feminine and high fashion with a white fur coat over a black jumper, which also feature a shield-shaped boob window because Emma loves to show off her assets. Like her Cuckoo classmates, Eva is also wearing pants, but her look is more casual to reflect her less threatening personality. Illyana is tied to her fellow professor Emma through her revealing black outfit, but because she has a more sinister personality, there’s no hint of white. (An especially clever design touch is the chopsticks in Illyana’s hair, creating the illusion of horns for a character that has spent a good portion of her life in an alternate hell dimension.)
Jean Grey and Kitty Pryde are two recent additions to the Uncanny X-Men cast, and their costuming reveals that they haven’t fully integrated into this family. The main difference is that they both wear skirts, giving them more traditionally feminine looks that don’t gel with the modern ensembles of the other women. A time-displaced refugee from the early ’60s, Jean Grey dresses like Peggy Olson in season one of Mad Men, with a knee-length skirt and collared blouse that give her a distinctly schoolgirl appearance. Kitty has never been one for showing skin, so she wears a modest pastel yellow dress with a cropped blue blazer, giving her a much more conservative appearance than her fellow teachers, who have opted for booty shorts and cleavage.
That one image quickly provides a wealth of visual information that informs the relationships between the women and fleshes out personalities by revealing individual fashion sense. Anka does fantastic work staging the events of this issue, but it’s his designs that bring the characters to life on the page. He’ll be joining the art team on Brian Wood’s X-Men in the new year, and it will be exciting to see how his fashionable point of view impacts that title’s female-centric cast. Paired with Bendis’ fun, humor-filled script, Anka’s sleek, stylish artwork makes this issue a particularly memorable event tie-in, proving that there’s plenty of room to explore character within a larger crossover.