First, the short version
There's going to be a major spoiler in this review of X-Men Legacy #249, so go no further if you actually plan to read the issue and want to get its dramatic impact. The cover might give you a clue, but covers can be misleading. Notoriously so with comics.
in the previous issue - with elaborations, reversals, and one or two outright shocks. I do propose to discuss the significance of these, so this is not a spoiler-free review. Fortunately it's going to be a long one, so if you stop about now you should be safe.
In a nutshell, this issue and the previous one are must-reads for anybody who wants to follow the comic-book version of the X-Men mythos. Read together, they also provide a jumping-on point. You don't even need to know all the background that I'll be describing later. Mike Carey gives us brilliant, sophisticated writing; he can have all the stars he wants for this character-rich two-issue story.
That will do for a short review.
Now for the long version
Anyone who has a short attention span and subscribes to the philosophy of "too long; didn't read" can stop now. The following is a (much) longer version of my take on the things.
Taken together, X-Men Legacy #248 and #249 make up a story called "Aftermath" - specifically, it's the aftermath to the wonderful Age of X event that occupied the pages of X-Men Legacy and New Mutants for three months. The X-characters spent a week in another reality, where they and their relationships were all changed ... though their underlying personalities were similar, showing how they could act in altered circumstances. Having found their way back to what counts for them as normal, they now possess true memories of the week that actually happened, plus years of false memories of how they'd seemingly lived their previous lives within Age of X.
Many, perhaps most, of the characters choose to have their Age-of-X memories - both true and false - removed, though some keep selected highlights. Some, however, decide to retain the memories and come to terms with them. For those characters, what happened within Age of X will now influence their personalities and decisions going forward.
By the time we get to issue #249, the focus is on just a few characters who still have their Age-of-X memories for one reason or another. These are the ones whom author Mike Carey evidently wants to concentrate upon for the foreseeable future. As a result, the "Aftermath" story serves as a two-issue bridge from Age of X and what came before to what looks like a new status quo for the book.
Going back a few steps
I think that "Aftermath" is fairly self-explanatory for someone hitting it cold. It might be more confusing for someone who knows a bit about the X-mythos, but not the right parts of it. If you're in that situation, you might find the story contradicts some of what you thought you knew.
For those who want it, let's go into some background. It will help me say what I think is so good about the way the story is handled. If you don't want it, skip ahead a few paragraphs to the next section.
X-Men Legacy's storylines are centred on the mutant power-absorber Rogue. She has been portrayed for the past 20 years (representing maybe five years of time passing within the diegesis) in a romantic relationship with another mutant, Gambit - it's a relationship that has been unsatisfying all round, since they've been unable to touch each other for most of that time. Rogue's powers, which she learned to control only very recently, involve absorption of others' memories, their superpowers if any, and even their consciousness (characters with superpowers tend to be rendered unconscious for a period if she so much as touches them; the effects on ordinary human beings can be far more drastic). Some very powerful characters have been able to resist the effect of her touch to an extent, but they are rare (and resistance to her touch seems to require more than just a high power level, since some other very powerful characters have shown no ability to resist).
Rogue and Gambit have actually made love a very small number of times in the five or so in-world years concerned, since it was possible only if Rogue was depowered at the time. Your mileage may vary as to whether this enforced chastity seems romantic or merely counterproductive (both to the characters and to the plot going anywhere). Now that Rogue has control of her powers - she can choose just what memories or powers to take, she can duplicate them without harming the person she touches, she can make her touch of no effect, or horribly effective, and so on - you'd think that she and Gambit could live happily ever after, which is doubtless what many of their fans want. Alas, placing characters into happy ongoing relationships is often the last thing that the writers of serial soap opera (which is a large part of the essence of X-Men) want to do. Where's the drama in that? It can stultify characters.
Mike Carey gets my applause because he's taking Rogue's story forward. There's still the chance that one day she'll end up living happily ever after with Gambit; but if so, not here in this issue. Not yet.
Enter Magneto, perhaps Marvel's greatest supervillain, one of the most powerful and intimidating of the company's Earth-based characters, and the X-Men's major antagonist. Magneto is a Holocaust survivor who has been de-aged back to the prime of early middle age (according to the continuity he must be pushing 40, physically speaking, though he is usually drawn to look somewhat older than that, helped by his naturally silver hair). He controls the force of electromagnetism on a huge scale: he can devastate entire cities or singlehandedly fight the world's armed forces; he's been a competent opponent for the X-Men who actually wins as often as not; and now he has everybody glancing nervously as he wanders freely around the X-Men's island.
Magneto is not fully reformed by any means ... but he's calmed down enough to be allowed on the team - partly because he acknowledges that Scott Summers has proved to be a better leader of mutantkind than he ever was. He's now Scott's consigliere and biggest supporter. That itself creates an interesting political situation.
But more importantly, whatever Magneto's faults may be - he's pompous, arrogant, overbearing, utterly ruthless, and mentally unstable - he actually likes Rogue. And Rogue likes him. Given his personality faults, we might wonder what she sees in him, but he's a complex villain who is depicted as attractive, and even charismatic, in various ways. And Rogue is herself a reformed supervillain who is intrigued by him.
During the 1990s, Marvel put a lot of effort into creating a sexual overtone in this relationship between enemies, but the characters had not interacted for a long time until very recently.
Even before Rogue's romance with Gambit, Rogue and Magneto had a sort of tryst, and seemingly fell in love, in the Savage Land (a lost-world-style jungle in Antarctica). Since then, even when they've fought, we've seen them going easy on each other and trying to talk each other down rather than seriously hurting each other ... and Rogue has tried to defend some of his actions to the other X-Men. Now Magneto has turned up on the island and is on the same team as Rogue, so the question is: How will they relate to each other? He's done terrible things since their Savage Land interlude, and he ended that by murdering their mutual enemy, Zaladane, then flying off leaving Rogue in tears. His reason, which he never expressed to her, was that it was for her own good for him to leave her: people who hang around Magneto tend to end up getting killed one way or another.
Rogue has plenty of reason to be angry with him, to be bitter and resentful. But Magneto is trying to restore relationships with people he cares about, such as his children, Charles Xavier ... and of course, Rogue. So here's the opportunity for some drama.
Carey has grabbed the opportunity with both hands. For well over a year now, we've seen Magneto and Rogue interacting, with Magneto making overtures of friendship (but interestingly not suggesting anything more) and Rogue invariably responding by referring to their failed romantic relationship and telling him that it's all over between them. On one occasion, he basically replies that she's protesting too much, but otherwise he's soon dropped the subject. They constantly seem at cross-purposes, and Magneto himself seems uncertain about what he really wants from her.
Meanwhile, they have been portrayed as gradually getting back onto friendly terms if only through the process of fighting on the same side and helping each other in the thick of battle. And now, following Age of X, Rogue has just interacted with a distorted version of Magneto who was a rather grim leader of mutantkind, but with nothing like the real Magneto's track record of outright murder and mayhem.
So with all that background behind what's going on, and all the questions as to how this situation is going to move from here, what about X-Men Legacy #249? In the previous issue we see Rogue dithering as she talks to Gambit, who eventually tells her to get out of his life until she's ready to commit to him whole-heartedly. As she wanders the island, disconsolate, Magneto turns up wanting to talk to her, which she eventually agrees to after expressing a few recriminations. What next?
X-Men Legacy #249 has a complex but tight structure. Pretty high literary values are involved here. It's divided into three stories or chapters: "Black", "Red", and "A Color that Tastes Like Screaming" - then we return briefly to "Black" in the two pages of "Black Revisited". "Black" itself contains a long story within the story, as Magneto tells Rogue something about his life as a Jewish prisoner in a Nazi death camp, and what happened afterwards.
As the issue begins, Magneto has whisked himself and Rogue from their base off the coast of San Francisco to the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles. It's evening, and he breaks in effortlessly while Rogue remarks, "You don't get this whole being-on-the-right-side-of-the-law thing, do you, Magneto?" He wants to show her the photo of a particular Nazi doctor (the real Nazi doctor August Hirt), whom he claims to have murdered after the war - coercing the man to hang himself. He explains why he did it, detailing his victim's racism and his atrocities.
Arms now folded across her body, Rogue is unimpressed - "Do you come pre-absolved?" she asks mockingly. But he replies that he meant the opposite. He wants her to understand the darkness inside of him; forget about whatever love she feels for him; and ... for her own good ... go back to Gambit, who loves her and is ennobled by her.
"Red" tells the story of the supervillainess Frenzy, who actually was ennobled by her time in the Age of X and now wants to be a heroine, as she tells Gambit back on the X-Men's island.
"A Color that Tastes Like Screaming" focuses on Legion, Professor X's son, who has many, many personalities, each with its own superpower set. Legion is potentially almost all-powerful, but has little control of his powers and sub-personalities. Now he's working with his father and others to get them under a degree of control. At the end to this chapter, we learn that several of Legion's sub-personalities have rebelled against him and taken on corporeal forms of their own.
Then we return to "Black" - to "Black Revisited" - and here's the shock. Some time later, perhaps hours after we left the characters - who knows, exactly? - Rogue comes to Magneto's room to make love to him. She tells him she has many reasons to hate him; he replies that he'd rather she stay away out of fear. Her narration tells us that she's realised that all the reasons for and against loving someone eventually have to fall away. This time, it seems, Rogue is not going to be dumped by Magneto for her own good. She's decided she loves and wants him and will act on it, at least this once, irrespective of her fears and whether or not it's wise.
Not looking entirely happy with her own decision, she tells him she promises nothing beyond one night - she puts her fingers to his lips to hush him, and then they kiss passionately. The end.
I loved this issue. Carey could so easily have had Rogue returning, chastened, to Gambit, but had the courage to follow through with something much more powerful. I wanted to see the issue of Rogue/Magneto dealt with, but not necessarily like this. Something had to be done with their underlying friendship and mutual fascination. Now it's happened, I think anything else would have been a cop-out, leaving the characters pretty much where they were. Now the facts on the ground have changed for them, and new possibilities open up for story-telling.
The shock Rogneto ending has already, within a few days, become one of the most controversial conclusions to a comic book since Marvel retrospectively wiped out Spider-Man's marriage to Mary Jane Watson. A lot of fans are expressing horror at Rogue screwing an unrepentant supervillain, while a similar number are applauding. I'm applauding. Whatever happens next - whether it really is only one night, or whether this relationship continues indefinitely, or perhaps until the next action by Magneto that is too ruthless for Rogue to stomach - this issue moves all the characters forward.
I'm also cheering for the fine character work that has finally brought us to this point over the last year to eighteen months. It would be out of character for Magneto to apologise for any of the things he's done, or for him to use words as simple as, "I love you." Rogue has been shown to have the old relationship on her mind, to be still attracted, but also as being hurt and angry. Both characters have been made to talk in riddles, especially in this latest issue. At times, it is difficult to sort out what they mean, but that is in character as they struggle to express themselves - Magneto in hints and parables, and Rogue in impenetrable tangles of down-home similes and metaphors.
These people are supposed to be incredibly powerful superhumans - she can steal memories, or even kill, with just a touch; he can sink warships with a gesture, or hurl vast buildings across the sky like spears - but what we see when they interact are two highly intelligent, proud, hurt people trying to sort out and express how they feel about each other. Anything simpler than what we've been given in X-Men Legacy since early last year would have been a different kind of cop-out.
This had to be made damn hard for the characters, and it was - and there's no guarantee that what they have will last another issue of X-Men Legacy. I hope so - but far be it from me to lobby for what I want, wearing my fanboy hat. By now, I trust Carey to handle these characters, to tell us stories about them, in ways that are richer and more rewarding than anything I could imagine for myself.
Like I said, Mike Carey can have all the stars he wants.