Marvel’s new X-Men book imagines if cosplayers became superheroes

When Charles Xavier announced a new era of mutantkind, we got a new era of X-Men comics. But Marvel’s latest book in the X-Men umbrella is something new even for that new status quo.

Children of the Atom isn’t about Krakoa, but a team of young superheroes who decline to visit the mutant utopia. These teenagers, the eponymous Children of the Atom, struggle to survive in their typical, casually cruel and bigoted high school, but beyond its bounds they thrive as superheroes, taking up the mantles of their idols, the X-Men.

Will they succeed in becoming heroes? What place is there for them in this changed world? And above all else: Who and what are they? Children of the Atom #1 asks these questions and more.

Who is making Children of the Atom?

New Mutants writer Vita Ayala is joined by Bernard Chang on pencils, Marcelo Maiolo on colors, and Travis Lanham on letters. Ayala is one of comics’ rising stars, having written a number of Marvel and DC one shots and short series (such as the “Batgirls” of Future State: The Next Batman, Nebula, and Marvel Knights). They’ve also written Valiant’s Livewire and a number of well-received indie titles (such as Submerged, a kind of Orpheus-meets-Jung horror story, and The Wilds, a floral zombie apocalypse with shades of Mad Max and the aesthetics of Midsommar).

Chang, on the other hand, is a veteran of the ’90s, having worked on properties ranging from Turok to Batman Beyond. Neither are new to the X-Men; Vita Ayala wrote one of the hidden gems of pre-Krakoa X-Men, Prisoner X, and Bernard Chang not only drew several issues of X-Comics in the 90s, but recently returned for S.W.O.R.D #3.

What is Children of the Atom about?

Five new superheroes — Cherub, Marvel Guy, Daycrawler, Gimmick, and the delightfully named Cyclops-Lass — debut on the streets of New York City, seemingly wielding the powers of and modeling their appearances after Angel, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, Gambit, and, of course, Cyclops. We primarily follow Cyclops-Lass, aka Beatrice “Buddy” Bartholomew and learn about her struggles with her family, her strained relationships at school, her crushes, and her realization that she is, in some way, different.

The premise is in large part classic Marvel fare: These teenagers have to balance their lives as superheroes with the demands of high school. In both pacing and premise, its closest antecedent is the blockbuster Ultimate Spider-Man #1; a fairly decompressed beginning to a Bendis-esque teen superhero story, though starring a team rather than a solo character.

But the premise is complicated by the nature of the Children of the Atom themselves, which is the central mystery of this issue.

[Ed. note: The next paragraph in this piece has some light spoilers in it, in order to address the central themes of Children of the Atom. If you’d like to go in totally blind, skip to the next one!]

A depowered mutant bank robber slugs Cyclops-Lass one in the gut. “Tired of being looked down on by mutants who got to keep their powers,” she snarls, in Children of the Atom #1, Marvel Comics (2021).

When the X-Men attempt to bring the Children to Krakoa, they flee. Later, Jean reports that the Children cannot be detected by Cerebro. We’re left to ask: Why? What are they, and how are they really related to the X-Men? No matter the answer, there’s plenty of space to explore. If these are mutants, and X-Men adoring mutants, why is their relationship to the actual X-Men so strained? What does it mean for a mutant to live in the human world when Krakoa exists? If they’re something else, then what does it mean for a non-mutant to identify with aspects of mutant existence? Is it an act of allyship, or of appropriation? Does it help or harm mutant causes? It seems clear that Ayala and Chang will have their eyes on these ideas as the X-Men interact with the Children further.

The basic premise of CotA also seems poised to reflect on readers and X-Men fans. Legacy characters of this kind allow fans to see ourselves in superhero stories; Robin is the wish fulfillment character of young readers who want to adventure with Batman rather than be him, who want to know Batman and be part of his life. To the Children, the X-Men are celebrities and heroes, and that speaks to the experience of many, many comic book nerds. Is there a power in embracing this kind of nerd fandom, nerd culture? Can people discover themselves through superheroes? Or is there something harmful in building your own sense of identity through other people, real or fictional?

Even the choice of villains in the issue — criminal mutants — speaks to this character-to-fandom parallel. Is acting like the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants-era X-Men actually showing respect to the X-Men, or is it counterproductive to their Krakoan goals? Does clinging to the past harm the present? Again, this issue doesn’t begin to provide answers, but I expect these questions will be investigated as it continues.

Why is Children of the Atom happening now?

The oddest thing about Children of the Atom is that it’s not supposed to be happening now. Many of Marvel’s books were delayed thanks to the pandemic, and even after shipping resumed, Marvel lightened its publishing line, emphasizing its top sellers and event titles above all else. Children of the Atom was originally slated for last March, but its primary purpose remains the same.

The Dawn of X titles all focused on engaging with different aspects of the new Krakoan status quo, in which the X-Men attempt to create their own mutant nation and a mutant culture. The perspective that was missing was from the outside: An X-Men book that takes an extended look at life in human culture now that Krakoa exists.

“Maybe you should actually pay attention to things happening in the world,” some mean kids tell Cyclops-Lass and Gimmick while they’re in class. “Yeah, Dazzler’s a mutant. Mutants are building an army to come invade us.” in Children of the Atom #1, Marvel Comics (2021).

The delay might, in fact, have been fortuitous for Children of the Atom. Reign of X, the current banner for X-titles, is like the second season of a TV show. It doesn’t need to bother with all the board-setting and introductions of Dawn of X’s season one. Instead, the X-ongoings are settling into a status quo readers are already familiar with, and there may be more appetite and a better foundation for a book that engages with the setting from the outside.

Is there any required reading?

The only really required reading for Children of the Atom is the miniseries that began this current era, House of X/ Powers of X. At the very least, I would also recommend reading X-Men, in order to better understand the various details of the X-Men’s new setting of Krakoa, and X of Swords, which functioned as the season finale to HoXPoX’s pilot.

One of the neat things about the Dawn of X and Reign of X books, however, is that many build on each other. If you’re interested in books focused on Mutant/Human relations, then in addition to Children of the Atom, you can also read Marauders and X-Force, which both approach the subject in different ways. If want to learn more about mutant culture, you can pick up X-Factor, which explores the ramifications of Resurrection in this society, Excalibur, which details the development of mutant culture and community through the lens of magic, or the upcoming Way of X, which purports to follow Nightcrawler’s creation of a mutant spirituality.

If you’re interested in stories about younger generations of heroes, you can also read Cable and New Mutants. Of all the Reign of X titles, New Mutants is the easiest to pick up, having softly relaunched recently with issue #14. It’s also the most likely to crossover with Children of the Atom, as it’s also written by Vita Ayala.

Is Children of the Atom good?

Your response to Children of the Atom #1 will vary wildly given your expectations of a #1. If, like me, you grew up with your expectations shaped by the modern style of decompressed comics, I think you’ll find the issue intriguing. If, on the other hand, you want a #1 to establish its cast, premise, and narrative fully, you will be frustrated.

After reading the issue several times, I don’t quite know what this comic is. I know what kinds of questions it will likely raise, and I know the general direction towards which it is headed, but beyond that, I know very little. I know the designs of these characters are striking, and that Buddy is an engaging lead. I know I want to learn more about these kids, their powers, and their history. I want to learn about the smaller mysteries too, like why a classmate returned with “uncanny” strength from a near death experience. I want to see if Maggott — everybody’s favorite mutant whose power is that he has two slugs named Eany and Meany and they are his digestive system — will return and finally become a breakout character.

Storm sips from a teacup, Cyclops plays pool, and Wolverine pulls off his mask as the X-Men discuss the Children of the Atom. The panels are interspersed with smaller images of pool balls bouncing around with a POK, in Children of the Atom #1, Marvel Comics (2021).

If you measure quality in terms of satisfaction, you will not rate this issue highly, but if you measure in terms of desire, of wanting more, I think you’ll do the opposite.

Unfortunately, one thing that I don’t want more of is Chang’s action sequences, at least as they’re structured here. I found the opening fight sequence, which presents four or five simultaneous one-on-one bouts with a great many close-up shots, a bit disorienting. When the action ratcheted up again in a basketball game, the camera frequently pulled in extremely tightly on characters or actions, the panels thinned or narrowed, an effect more muddled than frantic.

On the other hand, I think Chang excels in quieter and dialogue-driven scenes. In the middle of the issue, the X-Men discuss the Children over a game of pool. Chang inserts small panels of a ball being hit at turning points throughout this conversation. It’s such a small choice, one I imagine many people won’t consciously notice, but it aids in both the immersiveness of the scene and the pace of the dialogue.

Overall, I think anyone invested in the current X-Men comics will want to give the issue a try.

One panel that popped

“The X-Men!” cry the Children of the Atom, excited to see the relatively obscure mutants Pixie, Magma, and Maggot in Children of the Atom #1, Marvel Comics (2021).

This panel in isolation is a beautiful reveal superhero reveal shot — but by giving the Big Damn Heroes moment to such obscure and often sidelined mutants as Magma, Pixie, and Maggott, the panel becomes something sublime. At the very least, it’s sublime to people who care about ultra-obscure X-Men characters, and may or may not have been demanding that Marvel #BringBackMaggott.