The penultimate issue of “X-23” is another great one, the kind of outing that makes you thoroughly depressed that it is the next-to-last issue and not just "issue #20.” However, pairing up Marjorie Liu and Phil Noto again this month and next (with #21 due in March) is a wonderful way to end the series if it has to end, as they have showed the true potential of this book, and how much it will be missed from the Marvel comics landscape.
In this issue, X-23 (Laura) wrestles with the decision of where she should go post-Schism -- with Cyclops on Utopia or with Wolverine in Westchester. Laura’s friends -- Gambit, Iceman and Jubilee -- try to distract her with some "definitely powers" football and then Jubilee drags her out for a night on the town. A night of dancing however turns into a rescue mission when Laura tries to rescue a girl from a pimp she recognizes thanks to her not so savory past in New York. Things go awry, and in the end it takes Black Widow and a massive S.H.I.E.L.D. team to help Laura and Jubilee save the day, at which point Natasha and Laura have a moment and Laura receives another interesting offer.
Marjorie Liu does a lot of wonderful things in this issue -- things she has been doing all along -- like nailing character voices and creating intriguing moments and good character development -- but more importantly she takes a story about the sex slave trade, which I'm sorry to say I have read far too many clichéd versions of in comics, and deals with it in an honest and realistic way. There's no "oh we're superheroes and we've saved the day and now these women’s' lives will be fine!" to see here. Instead there is honest and frank (though brief - this is Laura we're talking about) conversation between Jubilee and Laura about the situation and the limitations of what they can do. Thanks to Black Widow's timely interference (which is not a coincidence) things work out better than they were headed, but I appreciate that Liu took the time to be honest about the situation, rather than wrapping things up nicely in her 20-page comic book and calling it a day. What Liu does is much more interesting, much better, and more what I expect from smart modern comics.
As if that wasn't enough, the friendship between Jubilee and Laura is absolutely wonderful and something we also see far too infrequently in comics: a great friendship between two female characters. The dynamic here is wonderful. Add to that an interesting guest appearance from Natasha (fitting considering Liu's excellent “Black Widow” series from 2010) and it's just an excellent book.
Phil Noto's art -- what do you even say at this point? It's beautiful and subtle and incredibly smart. He is an ideal artist for a character like Laura (and book like "X-23") because his art is paced in a way that feels almost slow and quiet, as if always in deep thought. But then it just explodes with action when the story calls for it, and that is very like Laura and like how Liu writes this book. Additionally, because Laura is such a non-expressive character by design, it really takes an artist of Noto's ability to be able to capture the subtle nuance of her expressions so that a reader can appreciate what is happening inside her. In the hands of a louder, more overt artist Liu's careful writing could easily be pushed into something it's not, but instead these two creators are working together in perfect harmony.
Especially with these two creators on board, the cancellation of this book is a huge loss to comic readers and the diversity of Marvel's line, which will shrivel to zero female led titles when this and “Ghost Rider” end in a couple short months. "X-23" did not always work as well as it does now, which just further goes to prove why it's important for titles like this to be nurtured and given time to find their voice and heart. For "X-23," it has been in the last six or seven months as Noto and Liu paired up to create some exceptional comics. Perhaps we'll see Liu and Noto together again in the future sometime. Sadly, who knows where Laura will be? (Yeah, yeah, "Avengers Academy", I know.)