We return once more to the Dark Reign era and another story which proves that great ideas can come from bad scenarios. S.W.O.R.D. was introduced as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s space-based counterpart back in the pages of Astonishing X-Men. Led by Abigail Brand, a half-alien, green-haired badass, she quickly became the love interest of Beast. She and her organization played a key role in Secret Invasion ... mainly by failing to prevent the Skrulls’ infiltration. With Norman Osborn in charge and anti-alien sentiment on the rise, S.W.O.R.D. is at a rough point when X-Men: S.W.O.R.D.: No Time To Breathe begins.
The trade’s title is apt, as the story takes place over no more than two days and features numerous excursions through outer space. Beast and Brand really shine as a bickering but ultimately loving couple. I really appreciate Kieron Gillen for giving Beast, one of my favorite characters, a chance to star in a book. He’s the near-perfect combination of brains, brawn and humor, and he easily fits into both the Avengers and X-Men sides of the Marvel Universe. Even though S.W.O.R.D. lamentably lasted only five issues, it gave him enough of a presence to become a headliner in Wolverine and the X-Men. Brand works as his rough, uncouth counterpart who puts the greater good of the universe before everything else.
Despite having “X-Men” in the title, Gillen works around not having a truly big-name headliner by using some well-placed second-tier characters, many of whom happen to be my personal favorites. Along with Beast, one of the main characters is Lockheed, Kitty Pryde’s purple dragon. He’s not really her “pet,” as he’s quite brilliant and is an adept fighter. At this point in the Marvel chronology, Kitty was thought dead after phasing a gigantic bullet into the Earth’s core. As a result, Lockheed is a surly, depressed alcoholic who tends to use his flaming breath far more than he really should.
The villain of the piece is another classic Marvel character: Henry Peter Gyrich. HPG has been all over the Marvel Universe, starting with his fractious tenure as the Avengers’ liaison to the government. He’s responsible for the “pick seven” rule of the Avengers line-up, and he has a long past with Beast. Later on, he joined the anti-Mutant bandwagon, becoming a key figure in Project Wideawake and Operation: Zero Tolerance. Gyrich is the ultimate symbol of Marvel’s negative world outlook: despite constantly being publically evil, he keeps getting away with it. He’s also one of Marvel’s great jerks. He’s a human supremacist, constantly on guard against heroes, mutants, aliens, or other threats to his species.
When Osborn appoints him as S.W.O.R.D.’s co-commander, Gyrich quickly uses the opportunity to round up all of the aliens on Earth for deportation. Apart from being commentary on immigration, this is also a continuation of the “Earth vs. the Universe” plot thread from Avengers Forever and Maximum Security. This gives Gillen an opportunity to put in some good cameos. The best come from Beta Ray Bill, who turns himself in to prevent Gyrich from harming his girlfriend. At the end, Brand uses him as an example for why alien races shouldn’t try invading Earth. (Bill’s arch-nemesis is Galactus, and their battles have been quite close.) Other cameos include Marvel Boy, Rocket Raccoon, Warlock of the New Mutants (not to be confused with Adam Warlock), Karolina Dean from Runaways and Hulkling from Young Avengers.
Brand’s sidekick, a red, dragon-like alien called Sydren, is featured heavily on the cover of the trade, but he really does nothing. I think Gillen had big plans for him which were curtailed by the series’ cancellation, which is a shame. Another new character is the Unit, a robot built to conquer planets through diplomacy, the last of his kind. He’s a major manipulator and a really fascinating character. Near the end, he mentions that he was one of the powers approached to defeat Thanos in Infinity Gauntlet and, as you might remember from that review, it places him near the top of Marvel’s power scale.
There’s one more key player in No Room To Breathe, and it’s one that took me by surprise. He was mentioned in a few of the lead-up interviews before publication, but seeing the grand return of Death’s Head was truly a treat. For the uninitiated, Death’s Head is a bounty hun -- sorry, Freelance Peacekeeping Agent who was a major presence in the later years of Marvel’s Transformers comics. He has a memorable look, an affable amorality and an unusual style of speaking, yes? There are even a few Transformers jokes in the book, including a visual call-back to Unicron’s eye-gougings in the 1986 movie and Brand calling him a “Michael Bay nightmare.” He’s been redesigned a bit, with a new, grille-like mouth which might homage the similar redesign of Bludgeon from Transformers: Stormbringer.
The art is by Steven Sanders, a relative newcomer, and this is a great start for him. My only complaint is that many of his aliens look too similar, with a distinct snout. Unfortunately, he also gave Beast this snout, making him look a lot like a Bothan from Star Wars. Beast has been becoming more animalistic recently, but this is a step too far. However, Sanders’ art is otherwise excellent, with the fight scenes easy to follow. Another alien creation, the Metroliths, make up for the snouty aliens by being nifty rock monsters. They also lead to the funniest joke in the book, which, as always, I won’t spoil.
While X-Men: S.W.O.R.D.: No Time To Breathe isn’t the most important of Marvel reads, it is one of the most fun. Gillen is clearly having a good time writing all of this alien action, and I want to go back and read his X-Men and Thor books. When a trade makes you want to read more from an author, then it’s been successful.