Posted on Monday, May 19, 2014
by Paul in x-axis
Marvel’s new line of graphic novels is an odd beast. After all, everything gets collected in trade paperback format anyway. So what makes a graphic novel different from a trade paperback collection of a four or five issue arc?
At one time, the answer would have been that a graphic novel was liberated from the requirements of monthly serialisation. Collections of single issues from the 1980s or even 1990s read like collections of single issues, dutifully pausing near around page 3 or 4 of every story to recap the plot for new readers. But writing for the trade has become so commonplace, and the traditional aspects of serial storytelling have become so unfashionable, that the differences have largely been eroded.
The graphic novel is nonetheless seen as a prestige format, even if that’s more symbolic than due to any actual difference of content. Hence we have here an outsize hardback by Mike Carey and Salvador Larroca which is nothing if not keen to generate a sense of occasion.
The high concept is pretty much self-explanatory: all the humans in the world suddenly disappear, leaving only the mutants. The X-Men must sort it all out. So we have a massive premise straight out of the Silver Age; we have the two X-Men factions teaming up for the first time in ages; we have a rare story that tries to get all of the X-Men involved, even the likes of Triage and Tempus; and just in case you weren’t feeling enough sense of occasion, an alternate reality Phoenix turns up at the end to hit the cosmic reset button.
It’s a story that’s working damned hard to appear important, even though it faces the difficulty of being a firmly in-continuity story (Nightcrawler’s there, young Cyclops isn’t, Magneto’s split from Scott’s team) that can’t actually do very much to advance the stories of individual X-Men. That’s hardly fatal; God Loves Man Kills had so little plot impact that it was about twenty years before it was even established to be in continuity. But people were still talking about it as a classic twenty years later because it was a really strong self-contained story that got to the core of what the X-Men were about, particularly in Chris Claremont’s interpretation.
It’s hard to imagine “No More Humans” having that sort of impact. The idea of what the mutants do when the humans disappear sounds like it ought to be a really solid X-Men premise, and it’s certainly a good strong springboard. But the story ends up juggling a large cast and dealing with the plot mechanics of putting the world to rights, more than it really gets to grips with the idea of what a human-free world might be like. There’s a neat development of the premise by suggesting that the largely-vacant Earth will become a refugee camp for mutants from other dimensions, but the story never gets to grips with anyone trying to build a new society in the ashes, or obvious questions such as “what do we do with all those empty cities”, “who’s going to grow the food” and “what are we going to do all day now there’s nothing on television”? Given that the story was always obviously heading for the cosmic reset button – which is no criticism in itself – I’d rather have seen it chase the “no more humans” premise a little further down the line, instead of spending quite so much time on baddie-hunting.
None of which is to deny that it’s a solid piece of work; Carey knows how to put a story together, Larroca has always been an impressive superhero artist, and his art reads well on this scale. But it wouldn’t have seemed particularly out of place as five issues of Amazing X-Men. There’s one page which sticks out as seeing Carey stretch his wings a bit – a montage of Phoenix reading everyone’s minds and the thoughts appearing as stream of consciousness sentence fragments rather than the more conventional thought balloon contents. For the most part, though, it’s a strong X-Men story but not one that can quite live up to the sense of occasion that it’s trying to generate.
Perhaps the biggest surprise here is the choice of villain – Raze, from the future Brotherhood who were introduced in “Battle of the Atom”. Oddly, instead of appearing here alongside his cohorts, he’s used as a freestanding villain who suddenly goes up the scale to “massively genocidal” – even if plot necessity precludes him actually being able to wipe out the human race. If one thing from this story does stick in people’s minds, it’ll be the re-branding of Raze as an A-list villain, something that it sells remarkably well. His role here could easily have been generic but Carey gets over the idea that this guy isn’t so much anti-human, as psychopathically indifferent to everything and everyone outside his tribe. He kind of works here, and the X-Men are overdue to refresh the list of A-list villains (something that’s largely absent from the core books).
This would have been – is, in fact – a good five issue arc. The format may work against it, raising expectations of something more than that; and the book’s attempts to live up to those expectations don’t always help it either. Did the final act really need a Phoenix? But leave the format out of consideration and it’s a fun story that offers the rather gentler fan service of simply bringing all the X-Men together to take on a great big baddie. It’s been surprisingly long since we did that.