Don’t let the stripperiffic outfit, porn-star posing, and icy glare on the cover of this volume fool you: this eighteen-issue miniseries is packed tight with class, dignity, and heart. Before she was the White Queen of the Hellfire Club, before she turned her skin to diamond and spoke with a tongue just as sharp as one, Emma Frost was the rejected girl in the back of the classroom who just wanted some love from a father incapable of giving it to her or anyone else.
Coming into comics as I did meant a couple of things. With virtually no knowledge of the Marvel universe prior to 2013, I’ve relied heavily on Marvel NOW books to introduce me to long-standing characters. When it comes to the mutant side of things, this primarily consists of Brian Michael Bendis’ two X-Men books, All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men, the latter of which stars Emma Frost as the reformed villain with broken powers who is in many readers’ eyes “getting what was coming to her” after years of lording her superiority over others and misusing her telepathic skills to take advantage of people. I’ve expressed an appreciation for Bendis’ Emma (and a sneaking suspicion that she did indeed deserve all this) to several friends who decided that rather than just yell at me for my ignorance, they’d recommend I go back and find out where Ms. Frost came from; perhaps the flower would seem a little less ugly if I understood the struggles its roots had gone through. I daresay they were right.
The Emma Frost Ultimate Collection, at just over 430 pages, is a behemoth of a volume, and it will set you back about thirty bucks. Depending on who you are or whom you’ll be around, the Greg Horn cover may invoke unwanted judgmental brow-raising, but if you’re the sort who cares less about opinions and more about incredible story-telling and fantastic art (note: Horn only did the covers for this series), then I’ll tell you up front that I am going to recommend buying this collection.
The book consists of three six-part arcs, which loosely cover Emma’s adolescence, teens, and college experiences respectively. Each arc has its standout moments and star supporting characters, but perhaps the most dominant figure aside from Emma is her father, a person so despicable you find yourself wishing Emma were less restrained. For a character I’m used to seeing outclass everyone around her, it is truly a unique experience to see Emma so powerless. Eventually I realized that like the cruel classmates who tease her throughout the first arc I had made a snap judgment about Emma Frost and had never really given her a chance as a person, whose behavior might have understandable explanations, whose childhood evokes memories of Stephen King’s Carrie. Actually, that’s a pretty apt comparison in many ways.
The first arc, “Higher Learning,” introduces us to the Frost family, a flock full of black sheep with the quintessential veil of perfection hiding the terrible brokenness of high-strung parents and the children who will never make them happy. Thanks to the success of Mr. Frost’s company the family lives quite well, vacationing in Europe, being waited on by servants, being chauffeured from prestigious private school to the mansion and back again. Yet the high life has its high costs: none of the Frosts love each other, and each child has her or his own way of crying out for attention. It constantly treads the line between stereotype and believability, ultimately (for me) lying on the latter side. Emma feels like a real person who honestly tries to be decent despite the overwhelmingly against-her odds.
Pressured to perform well beyond her ability for even the slightest hint of acceptance from her father, Emma’s reaction to the discovery that she can read minds (especially during tests) is understandable. The development of her psychic abilities is slow and dangerous, often landing her in the infirmary as a result of the mental strain. As the class joke slowly becomes the star pupil, confidence and arrogance play tug-o-war. In her own way, Emma eventually comes to understand the grim double-edged sword that is great power used irresponsibly. Her boldness brings her toe-to-toe with her powerful father, and those she loves most have a tendency to suffer as a consequence.
By the second arc, “Mind Games,” Emma has tired of wrestling directly with daddy and is trying to make it on her own, with less than fantastic results. The majority of the arc deals with her relationship with a dish-washing nice guy named Troy and their mutual need to make more money than a minimum wage job will ever get them. The arc title is a wonderful double entendre, referencing both the myriad gambling attempts Troy and Emma undertake and Emma’s new-found ability not only to read minds but to project her thoughts and suggestions into them. Just as with the first arc, things get dark as soon as Emma begins messing with things she shouldn’t be. She emerges from these “games” with a wisdom bought, perhaps unwillingly, in exchange for innocence.
Convinced that her family ties are more harmful than helpful, Emma dyes her hair the signature blonde she has worn ever since and escapes to New York, hoping to become the teacher she has thought about being for years. In college we watch her “Bloom,” with the aid of a roommate, a well-meaning but clumsy stud, and a mysterious girl named Astrid. By arc’s end Emma has a much better grip on the powers she has been born to use, as well as on the way the rest of the world views mutantkind. For that is what she is: a mutant, with a genetic capacity for telepathy and the potential to use that ability for good, or for ill. Readers of the series already know that, and moreover know which path she is destined to take; the key is seeing why, and understanding finally how the poor girl in Emma Frost #1 finally lost faith in the inherent “goodness” of humanity.
The creators of this series deserve high praise for what they’ve accomplished. Emma Frost is an iconic character, but the woman most readers think they know doesn’t even appear in these pages. Instead we’re treated with a brand new creature with a believable life, relateable trials, and a heart of gold which has not yet succumbed to the frost it will be known for. Matched with a vibrant, bold art style which rarely falters, this is an easy recommendation. Trite as it may be, I’m serious when I say to forget what you think you know about Emma Frost, and go pick this one up. You will not be disappointed.