[18 August 2014]
At some point between the last Presidential election and the Blackberry’s last attempt to make a successful smartphone, progress became a dirty word. It has gotten to a point where too many people believe that progress is hard, agonizing, and tedious. It’s like having to relearn how to button up a shirt using an instruction manual that might as well be written in Sanskirt. It’s a big reason why some people pine for the good old days when TVs only had three knobs, phones only had 12 buttons, and a gallon of gas still cost under a dollar. But progress doesn’t have to be so frustrating, nor does it need to have the excitement of a lecture from Ben Stein. Progress can be fun, spontaneous, and even enjoyable.
It might sound like blasphemy to those who still use flip phones, but that’s exactly what All-New X-men #30 attempts to demonstrate. And in many respects, it succeeds in ways will make some laugh and others tense. There’s no question that the X-men have made plenty of progress in their 50-year history. But due to the convoluted nature of comic book continuity, coupled with obscenely conservative attitudes among fans who gasp at the notion that these characters they love might actually change and evolve, this progress is often hindered. And thanks to the added complications of time travel, reboots, and retcons, it is even completely reversed sometimes. All-New X-men has already incorporated many of those elements since it began. It’s very premise should make the possibility of character progress into the equivalent of a million unsolved rubix cubes. But despite the Original Five X-men being displaced and preserved in their original glory, their presence in the future has allowed them to achieve a level of progress that shouldn’t be possible. Yet like the New Orleans Saints winning a Superbowl, it somehow happens.
The progress in this story comes primarily from two characters, each of whom has been going in opposite directions at time. Teenage Angel has been a pariah at times among his time-displaced peers, playing the part of a spoiled rich kid who shudders at the idea of confronting problems that can’t be solved with money or good looks. He was the only one among his teammates who didn’t want to stay in the future. After they discovered they couldn’t go back during X-men: Battle of the Atom, he faded into obscurity. He just became that guy that everybody assumed was fuming on the inside, taking his frustrations out on Sentinels and pictures of Magneto like any healthy X-man. But after the battle against a perverse future version of the Brotherhood of Mutants, he gets a chance do something more than just fume. He goes on a date with X-23, another character whose progress is often hindered the teams she gets stuck on and the inherent need to have a pissed off teenage girl to add drama in a story. Both these characters, on their own, act as plot devices most of the time. But in this instance, they’re just a couple of teenagers having fun, forging a connection, and being happy in a way that makes most adults and high school principals nervous.
It’s the kind of progress that characters in X-men comics don’t often get to enjoy because they’re too busy fighting killer robots and wannabe racist skin-heads. They get to be themselves and share happier moments with each other, creating new connections that reveal they are still actual characters with actual feelings. This may cause some fans to gasp, but it’s part of what makes these characters endearing.
That’s not to say that the interaction between X-23 and Teen Angel lay the foundation of the next iconic comic book romance. These two are not Superman and Lois Lane. They’re not even Peter Parker and Carlie Cooper. They’re just a couple of teenagers, sharing in the chaotic and often overwhelming emotions that come along with their crazy circumstances. It might not sound like progress, but it injects some much needed humanity into these characters. They’re not just a whiney rich boy and a disturbed girl who stabs things. They actually do have other feelings to deal with.
The second character to experience this progress is teen Jean Grey. Unlike Angel, she’s had to make progress of the worst kind throughout the events of All-New X-men. Now, after the events of The Trial of Jean Grey, she is tasked with training with Emma Frost, the woman destined to become her rival and her future husband’s psychic mistress. The bitterness between these characters goes back to the days of flip phones and dial-up internet. Now Emma Frost is supposed to teach this time-displaced teenager to control her powers. She might as well be a cat teaching a rat how to build its own mousetrap.
The bitterness does show. Emma Frost shoves the future right in Jean’s face, forcing her to confront the harsh details surrounding the psychic affair she had with Cyclops. She ends up pushing all the right buttons. She baits Jean into attacking her and she takes it. This creates such a spectacle that their teammates decided to make a picnic out of it, like storm-chasers driving into the path of a tornado. But it doesn’t turn out like anyone expects.
After an epic psychic ordeal, which is unfortunately left up to everyone’s imagination, Emma Frost and Jean Grey laugh. In fact, they end up laughing so hard that they embrace each other like a couple of BFFs posing for a selfie. It catches everyone off-guard, but in a ways it counts as progress. These two have been fighting each other over something that’s over and done with for too long. Emma Frost is no longer with Cyclops. The emotions from that affair are behind them. Now, with the aid of time travel and convoluted circumstances, they’re able to come together and work past it. That says a lot about just how strong their feud was, but it’s the first time they’ve ever shown an ability to move beyond it.
That’s what makes All-New X-men #30 so much fun. It offers a sense of progression with these characters, but in a way that doesn’t involve more time travel or more killer robots. These characters just get a chance to be themselves and connect in ways that don’t need to occur in the heat of combat. While it’s frustrating that some of the details are left undefined, the results are welcome and satisfying. It shows that if these characters can make progress in the midst of time travel paradoxes and psychic affairs, then we have no excuse.