The second act of X of Swords comes to a head in X of Swords: Stasis #1 from writers Jonathan Hickman and Tini Howard, artists Pepe Larraz and Mahmud Asrar, and colorist Marte Gracia. X of Swords began in epic fantasy fashion with the threat of an invasion from another world stymied only by the intervention of a mystical being who levied a tournament challenge. Since then each X of Swords chapter has followed one of the chosen champions of Krakoa as they seek their named blade and prepare to face the Swordbearers of Arakko. It's a testament to the storytelling ability of all involved that Stasis, which covers little more than the Champions' arrival and the Swordbearers' introductions, is an utterly thrilling, totally captivating read.
X of Swords is a marvel of structure, rewriting the rules on how comic book crossover events should unfold. The ongoing X-series each follow separate threads involving their usual cast and feel like the books they've always been. The critical crossover moments occur in these one-shots. Stasis uses this structure in microcosm, bookending the introductions of the individual Swordbearers of Arakko with scenes involving Krakoa's assembled champions to progress the larger plot and build anticipation for what's to come.
The issue presents Arakko as the mirror image of Krakoa, or perhaps the reflection in the dark waters surrounding the new island nation. Larraz beautifully illustrates this with a single depiction of the Champions and Swordbearers standing on either side of a rippling pool, which deftly transitions the story into the Swordbearers' point of view.
There's a remarkable economy of storytelling on display in how this issue introduces the Swordbearers. They aren't characters readers are already invested in; thus, there's no need for the full issue focus bestowed on Krakoa's champions. In a matter of, in most cases, a single page you get a fully-formed sense of these who these characters are. That's due in large part to Asrar's keenly expressive body language. The White Sword of the Ivory Spire is he who led the vanguard and refused to surrender to Amenth, making his relationship with the other mutants of Arakko complicated at best. Pogg Ur-Pogg is no mutant at all, but a violent mercenary monster of Amenth. Redroot is the voice of Arakko, a mirror to Cypher's role as the voice of Krakoa. She's a reluctant warrior who begrudgingly takes up her sword only at the promise of finally reuniting Okkara. These scenes efficiently invest the reader with more than cheap dread or unearned awe at the threat the Swordbearers pose, but an understanding and appreciation of why they choose to bear their swords.
It's a credit to the artistic team that an issue as heavy on lore, backstory, and dialogue as this one still feels dynamic and viscerally thrilling to read. Gracia is the unsung hero of the "Dawn of X" line. No one imbues Krakoa with as much natural majesty as he does with his lush green flora and orange-yellow skies. It turns out his ability to bathe all the right moments in a sizzling glow of natural light is as well-suited to the mystical realm of Otherworld. His talent unifies the two artistic styles at play in the issue making it read seamlessly.
As mentioned, Asrar has a knack for expressive posing. Larraz makes his layouts sing with simple narrative flair. One page depicts the Champions' arrival at the Starlight Citadel; over five full-width panels, Larraz circles around the group, showing different characters in each frame and leaving readers as disoriented as they are. Each panel draws nearer to them, the borders closing around their faces, building the tension of the moment, which is only cut slightly by Staurnyne's dominating presence on the following page.
"Presence" may be the best way to describe Saturnyne's role in the X of Swords saga. It's certainly deliberate that readers know as little as they do about her motivation to intervene in this conflict. Still, the more Saturnyne boasts about her power, the more frustrating it is not to understand why she's bothering with this game at all. 11 chapters into this story, she still feels less like a character and more like a plot device with attitude. It is, admittedly, an issue that will likely resolve as the story continues, and it's not the only lingering mystery weaved into the "Dawn of X" tapestry. Yet, her presence remains acutely frustrating for its vagueness.
When writing serialized comics, it's hard to make a middle chapter stand out. First issues, epic finales, and the occasional very special one-shot draw all the attention. Pay attention to this issue. It is the definition of a quality middle chapter: investing more in building stakes, deepening mysteries, and selling the threat of what's to come, never relying on "shocking" reveals. When the level of craft is as high as it is in X of Swords: Stasis, that's every bit as rewarding as anything that comes before or after. X of Swords: Stasis is a vital, enthralling chapter in the X of Swords saga.
Published by Marvel Comics
On October 28, 2020
Written by Jonathan Hickman & Tini Howard
Art by Pepe Larraz & Mahmud Asrar
Colors by Marte Gracia
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Cover by Pepe Larraz & Marte Gracia