X-Men Black Emma Frost # 1
Emma Frost enlists the aid of the X-Men in a bid to take down the Hellfire Club once and for all...or does she? Plus Apocalypse goes full circle in the conclusion of the 'Degeneration' story.
To say that my expectations for this issue were SKY-HIGH would be an understatement. Writer Leah Williams’ love for Emma Frost isn’t exactly a well-kept secret. As perhaps the biggest Emma Frost fan in the entire Midwest, I couldn’t help but hope that perhaps this issue might be the end to the collective national nightmare endured by Emma fans ever since Inhumans vs. X-Men concluded. This issue isn’t that comic. HOWEVER, what Williams and artist Chris Bachalo do provide is a fantastic and satisfying done-in-one story for Emma; a complete and filling meal that hopefully signals the start of better things to come. But first, let’s just confirm what we’ve already known. Leah Williams loves the HELL out of Emma, and it shows in every panel and well-crafted thought balloon. She GETS this character; what makes her tick, why she does the things she does and just how deep and canny her strategizing is.
As the issue opens, Emma meets the X-Men in a, shall we say not the most COMFORTABLE location for her; a scene that does a lot of work to establish just how vulnerable and hard-up on allies she is at the moment and how, with Emma, things are never as they appear at first glance. Emma pleads for help from her former team mates to mount a final assault on the remaining vestiges of the Hellfire Club, the organization whom she claims is responsible for all of the recent hardships experienced by mutantkind. As the issue proceeds to its middle, more action packed, portion, this certainly seems to be the case and the story beats start looking predictable. The X-Men go to work to dismantle the Hellfire Club’s satellite locations while Emma takes on the head honcho himself, Sebastian Shaw, in an utterly delicious pages-spanning action sequence that would make Neo and Trinity from Matrix 1 so proud.
This is probably some of (if not THE) the best action scenes Emma’s been given in years and my favorite part of the issue. Emma ‘Matrixes’ her way into the building’s penthouse, a term I don’t deploy here just for hyperbole’s sake, as her psychic powers allow her to rewrite the set-up and context of whatever scene she’s entering. It’s a fantastic one-woman showcase for our diamond diva and her powers as her easy dismantling of the Hellfire Club’s henchpeople reminds us how and why she is a big threat on the battlefield and the many ways in which she can ruin her opponents’ day. Williams knows how to use all of Emma’s assets to maximum effect and one can’t deny the vicarious thrill of seeing Emma dispatch a building full of disposable Hellfire Club minions through various telepathic feats and diamond form violence. It’s hard to pick a favorite moment from this montage of glorious moments, but the one that sticks the most to me is a relatively quiet scene near the end, right at the final door to Shaw’s boudoir. Emma uses a small laser, refracted from her diamond skin, to destroy the final lock barring her way. It’s a lovely moment that reminds us once again just how crafty and skilled she is with tech (she’s invented things Y’all!) and how she deftly uses all of her available resources to overcome obstacles. It’s a lovely and literal return to form from ‘½ of Scemma’-Ville.
Once Emma overcomes that final obstacle, the plot and my reading of the issue twists. After allowing Shaw to lash out in a bout of ineffective violence, Emma reveals her true plan to both the readers and the X-Men; this isn’t a plan to raze the Hellfire Club to the ground. Rather, it’s a hostile takeover meant to clear the decks and install new leadership at the top, namely none other than Ms. Frost herself, of course. And this is where the previous high of the action scenes and the promise of the issue starts to falter for me a bit. Haven’t we already done something similar to this during Fraction/Gillen’s run on Uncanny? I suppose there’s enough ‘new’ here to make this plot development not an exact re-do of Emma’s last come to Mama-Jesus moment with Sebastian, but the feeling of déjà vu the scene generates manages to yank me out of the story just as its most pivotal scene hits. To be fair though, this is balanced by a sense of finality (I hope) about Sebastian and Emma’s twisted relationship and Emma’s line about praying and changing tides is particularly spot on and hits the jugular. It is at once an epitaph and a compact summation of who Emma is and what she stands for.
Emma disposes of Sebastian, along with the rest of the previous Hellfire Club leadership, with the help of the X-Men and assumes the title of Black King; a character, plot and status quo development that leaves me both simultaneously exhilarated and somewhat frustrated at the same time. To be fair, this is perhaps just how Emma would want it. On the one hand, having her assume the title of Black King, along with her wonderful quip about Sebastian’s careless use of the organization’s resources, is a clear signal that she isn’t interested in resuming business as usual for the Hellfire Club. It’s a bold declaration, one that absolutely makes my fists pump up in the air with how it so wonderfully makes all that queer Emma subtexts oh so fabulously, deliciously text. I’ve had visions of Emma swaggering around in all her Black King fashion glory wearing Evan Rachel Wood inspired couture pantsuits as she gets down to Black King-y business for hours now. (For the love of god someone in charge at Marvel make this happen). Coupled with the lovely letter Emma writes to us in the end, discussing the nature of grief and the need for change caused by that grief, I’m hopeful that if Williams ever got the chance to take a ride with our new Black King again, the trip will be wonderful and terrifying, in all the best ways.
At the same time, however, this concluding scene also leaves me feeling anxious as when she donned that ridiculous, ‘who the hell approved this’ outfit at the end of Inhumans vs. X-Men. Ok, not as anxious as when I read THAT issue. But still, there’s a definite feeling of anxiety. Williams takes us on a much more scenic and enjoyable route in this journey, but it still leaves us, I’m afraid, mostly where we started: Emma on the outs with the X-Men, with them (and some X-fans) considering her as just (despite Williams protestations to the contrary, protestations that I agree with wholeheartedly) a maniacal, manipulative villain who’s willing to sacrifice everything to get what she wants. There must have been an editorial reason for giving these set of books the ‘Black’ banner, why Emma’s book is last and why her coronation as the new Black King concludes this tangential exploration of some X-Men ‘villains’. It’s not that hard to read between the lines. So while Williams’ story offers a lot of nuances and rich possibilities as to where this new status quo can take Emma, one can’t help but feel that what’s to come next for the character isn’t what her fans have been fervently hoping for, but more of a retrenchment of the current, and let’s just generously say, ‘not ideal’, status quo she’s had for the last few years; a status quo that, with this story’s ending, just feels even more irrevocable than ever before. I acknowledge that it’s odd, perhaps unfair, to review an issue not just for what’s contained between its covers and mostly, this part of the review is coming from an IvX-XmenBlue-PTSD place. BUT, with a character like Emma Frost, I think it’s somewhat disingenuous and unreasonable not to, particularly given how Marvel editorial has treated her in the recent past.
Chris Bachalo’s art style has always been something of an acquired taste and this issue probably won’t change this impression for many readers. As someone who thoroughly enjoys his quirky style, I’m glad he was able to fit in the art duties for the entire issue in his schedule. There’s enough of that trademark flair for whimsical detail that clearly makes this a Bachalo production, though that does sometimes take a back seat to the needs of having to move a pretty hefty and substantive script forward to its conclusion. Still, it’s those small, subtle touches that make the art in the book really pop. I particularly enjoyed all the background detail that went into the Mal-Mart scenes; just enough to give a sense of chaos and discomfort that nicely conveys Emma’s emotions but not cluttered enough to distract. The subtle insertion of roses in a few panels also serves as a lovely callback to Emma’s favorite flower and stylistic motif. It also wouldn’t be an Emma production without the requisite wardrobe changes. It was a lovely move to give her a different outfit for each story beat that nicely parallels the current status of the plot and character development in each scene that an outfit was worn in.
I do wish Bachalo constrained some of his more…habitual artistic choices in the issue. While I know the ‘Punisher Lolita’ outfit that makes its comeback here has some fans, it seems like a weird choice of outfit for Emma in that first scene and I don’t think it’s a look that’s consistent with her aesthetic. (Maybe she was just trying to blend in with her ‘MalMart’ surroundings?) The reveal of her new code name/job title also would have had more impact had the outfit that came with it was a new design, rather than a simple palette swap.
The four colorists credited for the issue should also be commended for the wonderful palette they provided for the issue. The bright whites that contrasted with the shades of red and rose throughout really exemplifies Emma’s aesthetic while serving to effectively convey the tense mood of the story. The brightness of the opening pages that gradually shifts darker as the story draws to its conclusion also nicely parallels Emma’s journey in this story: the bright pages alluding to some clarity in her plans and motivations and the darker shades highlighting both the uncertainty of the new status quo she’s created for herself and the readers.
Apocalypse, Degeneration Part 5
Apocalypse’s backup story also concludes in this issue, with En Sabah Nur once again resuming his place at the top of the evolutionary food chain. While fans of good ol’ Pocy’ might enjoy the showcase, the story served more to emphasize and maintain Apocalypse’s current characterization, rather than further develop the character. The best of these ‘Black’ one-shots were those that showed the focus character in a new light (Mojo and this one), something that this backup story didn’t do. It would have been more interesting for me to see Apocalypse grapple with his new condition more, or perhaps have him end at a different place than where he started than just a simple, and seemingly far too easy, return to where he was at the story’s start.
Bachalo and Williams tell a rollicking and satisfying story that, most importantly, understands the nuances and complexity of Emma Frost. There’s a lot here for Emma fans to enjoy. Whatever flaws the issue may have, and it has at least one, isn’t anything inherently attributable to the issue itself, but rather to my expectations of what it should have done and where its end will lead for Emma in the future. I hope my fears on that score are unfounded, but only time will tell.
X-Men Black Emma Frost #1: It is Not Enough To Pray Without Ceasing
- Writing - 9/109/10
- Storyline - 8/108/10
- Art - 8/108/10
- Color - 10/1010/10
- Cover Art - 7.5/107.5/10
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