“X of Swords” and the Battle Against Expectations

"X of Swords" isn't the story many thought it would be. It’s better for it.

Event comics are curious things.

Given the past few decades they’ve been a core element of superhero storytelling, beginning with Marvel’s first Secret Wars in 1984, we’ve all come to expect a certain cadence and structure to each of them. The set up. The conflict. The twist. The conclusion. All battles and iconic images and nothing will ever be the same, these immense crossovers and the shapes they take come with attached expectations of what they could – or should – be.

That’s part of the reason readers love them, I’d wager. There’s comfort within events, even if it’s couched in dramatic uncertainty. You know what you’re going to get, despite each being described as earth-shattering, senses-altering, universe-shifting mega-stories. Because of that, crafting an event is probably not unlike driving a time trial a second time in Mario Kart, except the creative team is always racing against a ghost version of their driver that they never, ever were. You’re always squaring off against expectations of performance, of what was and maybe should be again in the eyes of readers.

That puts something like “X of Swords,” the first crossover of the Jonathan Hickman era of the X-Men, and the creators behind it in an interesting position. Do you play the game the way history suggests you should, or do you roll out the crossover that matches the ethos of the line you’ve built, expectations be damned?

It’s fascinating because in the buildup, we all 1 bought into the idea that it would be the former, with many believing this story would prove to match its appearance on the surface: a sword fight between ten champions from two opposing lands, regardless of any prior expertise. 2 And yet, with Hickman at the helm – alongside co-architect Tini Howard – the answer should have been obvious the whole time. It was always destined to be the latter, as the X-Line went with the “you do you, no matter what people might think” route.

Predictably, the response has been polarizing to say the least. Some love it! Some hate it! Some are utterly confounded by it and feel little towards it! There’s a different flavor here for everyone, something for anybody if what you’re looking for is opinions about comics. The interesting thing for me, though, is I was deeply skeptical as it moved through the early chapters. In my head, I wondered about how this fit and that worked and so on and so forth. I ping ponged back and forth, trying to grasp what the teams behind it were trying to do.

That is until this past week, when a trio of issues made me – not unlike Dr. Strangelove – learn to stop worrying and love the Swords. 3 But I’m not everyone, and “X of Swords,” for better or worse, is its own thing. That makes it a perfect encapsulation of the true conflict at the center of every heavily bandied about story: expectations vs. reality, and whether your version of the former allows you to accept the latter, even if that chasm is often greater than the one between Krakoa and Arakko themselves. Whether it’s “good” or “bad” is almost immaterial. “X of Swords” faces something far more complicated than any qualitative questions, and that’s trying to bridge the gap between “what it is” and “what it isn’t” in the minds of readers.

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  1. Seemingly, at least.

  2. Sorry Doug!

  3. Let it be known that I really, really wanted to make an analogy in this paragraph to Slim Pickens riding the bomb in Dr. Strangelove but unfortunately my quota of Kubrickian references was already met in the same paragraph.