Posted on Sunday, January 6, 2013
by Paul in x-axis
It’s been a weirdly quiet couple of weeks for the X-books. Pretty much the whole industry took last week off, but even with the X-books’ overabundance of output, this week is also quiet, with only All-New X-Men #5 coming out. As it happens, that’s also where the first collection is due to end (it ships in February), so let’s take this as our cue to look back at the first arc.
All-New X-Men is the product of one of Marvel’s now-familiar marketing strategies: cancel a book, launch what appears to be a replacement, and then relaunch the actual book a couple of months later. The idea, presumably, is that this creates two books that inherit the sales of the original title. In reality, All-New X-Men is taking the place on the schedule of the unwanted, unloved, unadjectived X-Men, which stumbled on for a couple of fill-in issues for no apparent purpose other than to distract from that fact. And it ought to work; they’ve taken a book that even the most avid completist would regard as supernumerary, and replaced it with a book that will be seen as a flagship setting the direction that Brian Bendis will take as the X-Men’s new lead writer.
The general verdict so far seems to be that the book has exceeded expectations, and it’s certainly miles better than Bendis’ rambling and unfocussed Avengers run. Naturally it helps that this book has the benefit of Stuart Immonen on art; not only is his work beautiful, but it also holds its own against Bendis’ very distinctive authorial voice and gives the book a rather greater sense of connection to Marvel’s past than you often find in his books. Immonen is hardly an artist who works in any sort of house style, but there’s something reassuringly traditional and primary-colour-ready about his work that balances Bendis out.
And you really do need that balance if you’re going to do a series where the high concept is that the original X-Men from 1963 come to the present. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this storyline is likely inspired primarily by the search for something to celebrate the X-Men’s fiftieth anniversary this year, but that doesn’t make it a bad idea. It does mean, though, that the book has to be capable of accommodating something vaguely evocative of Marvel tradition. The balancing act here is to find a way of accommodating the original X-Men into the present day set-up that preserves the gimmick but makes them into characters rather than a metafictional gag. And since they can’t be written in the style of the original 1960s stories – that would just be jarringly weird in any modern writer’s style – you’ve got to evoke some sense of tradition and history about them instead. Visually, the book manages that.
As for the writing, Bendis has a dubious track record on books with large casts, but this time round his pacing and focus seem much improved. That said, this first arc is really five issues of set-up. What Bendis really wants to do in this arc is to establish the premise of this book (the original X-Men come to the present day) and to establish the premise of sister title Uncanny X-Men (Cyclops is running an underground version of the X-Men with revolutionary aspirations). Ideally, in an ongoing title, you’d have an actual story which doubles up to establish those plot points for the wider series. In practice, though, these five issues aren’t really a story in their own right, and don’t seek to do anything more than nod in the direction of being one.
There are two plot threads that are meant to give this arc its shape: first, the Beast thinks he’s dying but a cure is found; and second, the original X-Men are brought to the present and decide to stay. The first, while it dominates issue #5, is really just handwaved away when his condition simply turns out to be curable after all. That’s pretty darned weak. The plotline is here to provide an excuse for a redesign of the Beast, which I guess has the advantage of moving away from a design which has become overly familiar, and to ostensibly motivate him to serve the purposes of the plot by going back in time to fetch the original team. (In fact, a better explanation is offered by characters who suggest that the real reason Hank didn’t do this earlier is simply that his true motivation is to take emotional revenge on Scott for killing the Professor.) Fundamentally, though, Hank’s illness is not much of a story in its own right, distinct from the functions it serves in other plots.
As for the original X-Men, their situation is a little more interesting. As a set-up, it’s a clever inversion of a standard superhero trope, where the characters travel into their future but go home afterwards vowing to try and make sure this world never comes about. We’re doing that story from the perspective of the “dark future” being visited, and we’ve got the characters sticking around for a while to try and make a difference and reassure themselves that the future is good enough to make it worth their while going back. And there are interesting character points here, most obviously with Scott having to interact with people who now view him as a potential future maniac, Jean being aware of how everything turns out for both of them, and the potential effect of that on their relationship. (Putting Kitty in the position of being their liaison is also a nice inversion of her original teen-sidekick role.)
Admittedly, it’s also unfortunate that Bendis has pretty much botched establishing what that relationship currently is – issue #1 actually does show Scott writing a letter to Jean to declare his feelings, which suggests that Bendis realised that they weren’t together at this point. But later on in the arc Jean mentions dating Scott as if she’s perfectly well aware of how this turns out. The fact that Scott and Jean learn that they ended up together – and what happened at the end – ought to be a major discovery for both of them, and it’s worryingly glossed over here. Equally, I don’t really buy Wolverine’s “hey, why don’t we just kill Scott now and alter history” argument. I just don’t believe that Wolverine hates Cyclops quite that much. Though if you’re going to go in that direction, at least give Wolverine a clearer reason not to do it. For example, if he kills Cyclops because of something that, as a result of his death, Cyclops will never have done, that’s a massive paradox and god only knows what would happen to history. In theory there might be something in the idea of Wolverine having to grudgingly bail out young Scott because he has no idea what sort of damage could be caused to the timeline if he dies.
(Continuity purists will argue that the arc ignores the established rules of Marvel time travel, but since those “established rules” have been contradicted hundreds of times by now, I don’t really care. In fact, time travel in the X-Men has pretty much always ignored those rules ever since it was introduced in the 1980s, and stories have been written on the assumption that history can be altered. If you want to condemn every story that contradicts a few lines of dialogue from a Fantastic Four storyline that were subsequently canonised by Mark Gruenwald, you’re going to have similar problems with Days of Futures Past, the original conception of the Age of Apocalypse, and the hammering of the cosmic reset button at the end of the Ulan Gath story. Yes, you can shoehorn all of these into the supposed rules if you adopt a contrived reading that ignores the spirit of the stories, but that’s letting the tail wag the dog.)
Still, there’s potential here – and there’s also plenty of potential for entertaining paradoxes as everyone ponders just what actually happens if one of the original X-Men manages to get themselves killed. But to get to that point in these five issues, Bendis just needs something or other to occur that prompts them to decide to stay. So the X-Men come to the present, act appropriately shocked, go off to confront Scott’s current team, have a confrontation, and decide to go home, and ultimately decide to stay. Nothing really happens when the two teams meet that might justify this decision, but the structure of the story kind of passes it off as an incident that has consequences; in practice, it’s just padding out the opening issues and providing a bit of confrontation. The team’s real motivation to stay comes in a scene in this issue where Jean reads Hank’s mind and discovers what happened to the team – a double page spread which does at least show that somebody’s put some thought into the whole of Jean’s career and tried to come up with a series of images that really does hit all the key points, down to the 1990s mini Adventures of Cyclops & Phoenix, the Twelve storyline, and the death of Madelyne Pryor. Immonen pulls it off beautifully.
You’ll note that I haven’t said much about the set-up for Cyclops’ current team, which takes up about half the arc but isn’t really a storyline at all, merely a string of introductions of new characters and the establishment of a new status quo. Since they serve as the antagonists here, they don’t really need their story to get under way, and in any event it’s mostly going to be in Uncanny X-Men from the looks of it. There promising ideas being established, making Scott’s team appear both ramshackle and vaguely dangerous in a way they haven’t been before. The plot thread about the team having lost control of their powers as a result of being exposed to the Phoenix Force serves a purpose in making them vulnerable and giving them something to hide, but it’s also hideously contrived, especially in the case of Magneto. (Yes, it could be that something else is responsible, but Colossus is having the same problems over in Cable & X-Force, so I wouldn’t count on it.) It also doesn’t really explain why the team all seemed to have powers working just fine in issue #1; Scott’s optic beams are drawn normally, in particular. Perhaps there’s an explanation coming but you have to wonder whether it’s just a massive cock-up.
Less promising are the new characters intended to be the trainees of Scott’s new team, none of whom has yet developed beyond the generic. They collectively provide an interesting perspective as outsiders who don’t realise that this isn’t what the X-Men are supposed to be like, but who are starting to realise that they’ve thrown in their lot with a group who are a lot more dysfunctional than they’d expected. But as individuals, they’ve yet to impress. And while there are story possibilities in breaking up Scott and Emma as a couple while forcing them to work together, Bendis has a complete tin ear when it comes to Emma’s voice. Even allowing for his own dialogue style, he’s not even getting the accent right.
So if you’re looking for five issues that actually tell a satisfying story, well, All-New X-Men vol 1 isn’t that book. But if you’re willing to take the longer view and treat this as set-up – something the series has pretty much got away with thanks in large part to its accelerated publishing schedule – then there’s a lot more to like about it. And boy, is it pretty.