Comics

The Pressing Pitfalls of Powerful Minds: 'Astonishing X-men #6'

While death tends to be a revolving door with well-oiled gears in comics, there are many ways in which characters cheat it. Some are more compelling than others. By and large, clones and time travel are overused cheat codes. They essentially circumvent the agency of a character and all those around them by forcing that character into a situation. It's akin to Photoshopping wherein the contrivances can be cropped, but not removed entirely.


Astonishing X-men #6

Charles Soule, Michael Del Mundo

(Marvel Comics)

6 Dec 2017

That's why when a character cheats death in a way that doesn't involve time travel or clones, there's a greater sense of intrigue. It's like watching an escape artist survive a death-defying stunt in broad daylight. If they can do it without the aid of cosmic power or a deal with Mephisto, that makes it all the more impressive. In that context, it says a lot about Charles Soule and his work on Astonishing X-men in that he's resisted the temptation.

The death of Charles Xavier at the hands of Cyclops in Avengers vs. X-men remains one of the most impactful moments for the X-men that doesn't involve movie rights. That death is what shaped the course of the X-men for the past several years, from the arrival of the original five X-men from the past to the mutant/Inhuman war. His return to the world of the living is not unexpected since he has come back from the dead before, but his presence is such a powerful force in the overall X-men mythos that it's bound to have an impact.

Soule and Michael Del Mundo are laying the foundation for that impact and Astonishing X-men #6 acts as the final layer of bedrock. The substance of that bedrock is build around another epic psychic battle between Charles Xavier and the Shadowking. While it's a battle that has played out many times before, it's still more compelling than one involve clones or time travelers. For this particular battle, though, the stakes feel even higher than usual.

Every psionic attack, psychic illusion, and telepathic trash talk counts in this battle. It doesn't just play out on the astral plane either. Some of it manifests in the non-psychic world as well, with Shadowking taking over the likes of Gambit and Old Man Logan. It creates battles on multiple fronts, which also creates multiple opportunities for Del Mundo to craft brutal, visceral struggles that take on a very psychedelic ambience. In terms of psychic battles, it's the perfect combination.

Even though a psychic battle between Charles Xavier and Shadowking is something that has played out many times before with the X-men, as a rivalry on par with that of Wolverine and Sabretooth, Soule finds a way to make this one feel more meaningful. It isn't billed as the final psychic showdown between two bitter rivals. It doesn't even try to be some sort of over-hyped, pay-per-view style event either. What makes it and the story around it work so well is how it brings out the more cunning aspects of Charles Xavier.


(Marvel)

From the first issue of Astonishing X-men, Soule establishes the battle between Xavier and Shadowking as one driven by wit as much as psychic prowess. In a sense, Xavier dying at the hands of Cyclops finally levels the playing field between him and Shadowking. They're both disembodied spirits now. They're both stuck in a state of limbo, having limited influence on the physical world. Like having Iron Man fight without his armor, both powerful minds must now rely on other skills.

As a result, Xavier ends up relying on tactics that Shadowking has a history of exploiting. He has to fight for the hearts and minds of his X-men in a very literal sense. He can't just flash his "world's most powerful mind" card and win the battle by default. He has to reduce himself to his enemy's level, which usually gives someone like Shadowking the edge. Up until Astonishing X-men #6, he seemed to have that edge every step of the way.

This is where the true extent of Charles Xavier's cunning reveals itself. It's also what makes Astonishing X-men #6 a major addition to Xavier's resume as Marvel's most powerful mind. Even when he's stuck playing by Shadowking's rules, having next to no advantages from the beginning of the battle, he finds a way to one-up him. He's able to blend his tactics with that of his enemy to win the day in a way that never feels cheap or contrived. Soule makes it clear that Xavier earns this triumph over his greatest psychic rival and Del Mundo helps make it a sight to behold.

It's the kind of triumph that Charles Xavier hasn't had in quite some time, going back to the Grant Morrison era in New X-men. For years, it seems, Xavier's greatest enemy is his declining credibility in the eyes of his fellow X-men. From keeping secrets to battling his own students, he's had few opportunities to be the mind and the mentor that only the likes of Patrick Stewart can hope to embody.

Xavier's inglorious death in Avengers vs. X-men further limits his ability to be the character that the X-men need him to be. Like the charm of Patrick Stewart, though, certain characters have traits that give them the ability to forge new opportunities out of rough situations. Between Shadowking and dying at the hands of his first student, the situation is pretty bad for Charles Xavier. That only makes watching him and his assortment of A-list X-men beat the odds feel that much more satisfying.

That satisfying victory, along with the profound implications revealed at the end, helps put Astonishing X-men #6 in a special category in terms of quality. From the first issue of the series, this latest psychic clash between Xavier and Shadowking carries the risk of being another generic battle with stakes no higher than that of an arm-wrestling match between the Hulk and Squirrel Girl. That's the challenge of any rivalry. Everyone knows that Captain America will beat the Red Skull, Batman will defeat the Joker, and Deadpool will make a dirty joke. It's giving those battles real stakes and nuanced circumstances that give them impact.

Soule and Del Mundo put in the necessary time, effort, and psychic mind games to make Round 616 of Charles Xavier versus Shadowking feel like the telepathic equivalent of a heavyweight prize fight. Each round feels brutal and bloody, but the style and substance behind it make it more than just a spectacle. It's a testament to mind and will of Charles Xavier. There's a reason why he's the visionary behind the X-men, as well as the perfect medium for Patrick Stewart's charm.

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