Certain cartoon characters need to be pushed down the path of villainy. Some naturally gravitate towards it. Characters like Lex Luthor, the Red Skull, or Thanos always carry a certain amount villainous momentum. No matter how many influences or incentives they have to be good, they’ll always find their way back down that familiar road in the long run. That’s why a character like Emma Frost is so compelling. She occupies a narrow but critical gray area on the spectrum of heroes and villains.
When she first shows up during the original Phoenix Saga in Uncanny X-men, she’s a standard villain on a team full of them. She carries herself with a self-serving greed that makes her a prototypical member of the Hellfire Club. Later on, from the Generation X era of the ’90s to the New X-men era started by Grant Morrison, Emma Frost gains more complexity that takes her down a more heroic path. For a time, she conducts herself as co-leader of the X-men and plays an instrumental part in helping mutants survive hardships like House of M and Chuck Austin’s run on Uncanny X-men.
She’s still selfish, vain, and crass every step of the way. She’ll save the lives of her students one day and start a war between the Inhumans and X-men the next. She makes no apologies or gives no excuses. She’s still Emma Frost. She’s a queen in her own right. That makes her a rare instance a character who can believably navigate that tenuous gray area that separates the Captain Americas from the Dr. Dooms. X-men Black: Emma Frost #1 gives Emma an opportunity to show off her greatest strengths with attitude, sex appeal, and cunning. Anyone who still doesn’t respect her after that is just being difficult.
There’s nothing elaborate about the premise. Leah Williams and Chris Bachalo keep the stakes simple but relevant for Emma Frost. Her goal is as clear as it is self-serving. She seeks to take down the Hellfire Club once and for all. This organization that is so tied to her character needs to end for her to move forward. It almost seems too simple, her seeking to shed the years of baggage. With Emma Frost, though, there’s always a larger agenda in play.
It’s not a typical revenge scheme like the ones Wolverine carries out every other week. Emma never comes off as damaged, weak, or broken. At no point in her plan does she go into a Hulk-like rage or give an impassioned speech in the spirit of Charles Xavier. She’s as cold and calculating as she’s ever been, using her connections to the X-men to complement her willingness to cross lines that others won’t. It’s the kind of approach that the Avengers, the X-men, and SHIELD would not approve of. However, there’s no arguing with the results.
X-men Black: Emma Frost #1 reads like an instruction manual on how to get things done, look good doing it, and demand a new level of respect from your peers. It doesn’t require betrayal, treachery, or a deal with Mephisto. It just requires planning, foresight, and an attitude as tough as diamonds. Emma Frost employs all of that to take down the Hellfire Club and Sebastian Shaw. It’s scary, yet surreal at how effective she is. Like so many of her greatest feats, she makes it into a show in which she’s the undisputed stare.
At no point in her plan does it feel like something is about to go horribly wrong. There’s never a point where she underestimates or enemies or makes a critical mistake. She’s in control every step of the way, almost to the point where it seems as though she’s playing a game and using cheat codes. Even when it seems like Shaw is making things hard for her, she finds a way to take advantage of it. She doesn’t just fight this man who is so integral to her past. She relentlessly belittles him, pointing out just much he has failed as the Black King. It’s brutal honesty at its most potent and Emma is so blunt that it’s refreshing.
It helps set up what may very well be a defining moment for Emma Frost. The outcome of her vendetta against the Hellfire Club is never in question. Emma, true to her history of operating in morally gray areas, makes a critical decision that will make her either a powerful ally or a dangerous enemy. Defeating Sebastian Shaw gives her plenty of options. She can let the Hellfire Club collapse, merge their resources with the X-men, or reinvent it entirely. In the end, as has often been the case, she chooses the option that best serves her interests.
It’s a testament to the power of Emma Frost’s character. Any other story where a hero defeats an enemy so easily runs the risk of being boring. It’s difficult to root for those characters sometimes. It is possible for a hero to be too effective and it’s just as possible for a villain to be too inept. Emma gets around this issue by not conforming to a particular archetype. Writers like Claremont and Morrison imbue her with a rare blend of flexibility in the hero/villain dichotomy. Williams embraces the full spectrum of that dichotomy, so much so that Emma becomes someone you can root for and dread at the same time.
It would be redundant to say that Emma steals the show since she is the catalyst for everything that happens. While she makes clear that she is without egregious flaws in her plot, other parts of the story can’t make that claim. Even though she gets the X-men involved, there’s never a sense that they contribute much. It’s easy to imagine Emma accomplishing everything she wants without their help.
It doesn’t derail the story or its effectiveness in highlighting why Emma Frost deserves our admiration. If anything, it takes away additional opportunities for Emma to show off and she can never have too many of those. This is her story and while the X-men are present, they’re an afterthought in the grand scheme of things. They still don’t consider her an enemy, but she doesn’t give the impression she’s an ally, either. That kind of ambiguity leaves more than a few questions that can also count as plot holes.
The ending of X-men Black: Emma Frost #1 leaves the character in a position to do plenty of good and just as much bad. However, there’s never a sense that Emma seeks to become another Magneto, Red Skull, or Thanos. At the end of the day, she’s going to be Emma Frost. Her allies will respect her. Her enemies will fear her. Everyone else will just be in awe of her. That makes her one of the most uncanny character in all of comics.