Tom Taylor’s X-Men Red is one of the best comics of 2018, and this week, in its penultimate issue, it delivered the most unsettling comic book moment I’ve read in a while. It seems like just your regular supervillain plot, until Taylor and Rogê Antônio give it a too-close-to-home twist.
[Ed. note: This post will contain spoilers for X-Men Red #10.]
The issue opens with the X-Men watching Jean Grey deliver a threatening anti-human manifesto on international airwaves — when Jean is standing right next to them. The fake Jean claims that humans have driven themselves to extinction with their shortsightedness, greed and hate. She says she’s telepathically hijacking twelve commercial airliners and a North Korean helicarrier and taking them to the island of Genosha as hostages.
The broadcast is clearly the work of Cassandra Nova, X-Men Red’s antagonist, who wants to sow fear and hatred between humans and mutants — but how did she duplicate Jean so well?
“I don’t suppose you have an evil twin?” X-23 asks.
“Could Cassandra Nova have a shape-shifter? Someone like Mystique?” Storm wonders.
Luckily, one of the X-Men’s newest members, Trinary, has technology-based powers, and is up on the latest developments. The fake Jean isn’t a twin, a shape-shifter or a clone.
The Jean Grey video is a deepfake.
A lot of the technology we see in comic books is science fiction, or so cutting edge as to not be readily available, all to make our heroes seem like they’re cut out to do what normal people can’t. But videos that convincingly make a person look like they’ve done or said something they never did aren’t tomorrow’s technology.
Deepfaked video, and audio, is a reality that online spaces are scrambling to confront even now. The potential uses of deepfakes are spooky enough. What’s spookier is the connection that X-Men Red #10 makes in this scene.
There is a commonly available real-world technology that can do what comics books used to have to invent clones, evil twins and shapeshifters for.
Trinary points out that the video of Jean is not a perfect fake, and can be disproven. But the damage is already done.
“There will still be people who want this to be reality so much they will reject any proof,” Storm replies. “They want the worst. This supports their narrative. No amount of truth will sway them.”