Posted on Sunday, August 17, 2014
by Paul in Uncategorized
A relatively obscure story this week – this is a three-parter running through Uncanny X-Men Special #1, Iron Man Special #1, and Nova Special #1, a similar format to last year’s “Arms of the Octopus”. These stories are pretty much incidental so far as the wider continuity is concerned, but rather than treat them as complete filler, Marvel seem to regard them as a good venue to try out new creators.
So we have here a complete story by Sean Ryan, who has a number of scattered writing credits to his name, but is probably best known in these parts as a former X-books assistant editor from a while back. On art, we have three pencillers and six inkers, but since all involved are going for a relatively straightforward Marvel style (and colourist Ruth Redmond is able to impose a degree of consistency), the result reads quite smoothly.
The pencillers in question are Ron Ackins, who seems to be principally a commercial illustrator working in sports merchandise; Rahmat Handoko, who has done things like DC Universe Online cards; and John Timms, who appears to be a storyboard artist from Costa Rica. So an unusual group to commission, but they all seem comfortably up to scratch for this sort of project.
As for the story, it’s mostly a straightforward romp, until it winds up taking a metatextual turn towards the end. The basic plot has a down-on-his-luck Monark Starstalker – a fairly obscure Howard Chaykin creation from the 1970s – trying to claim a bounty on Havok’s head, dating from his stint in the Starjammers. Monark hires Death’s Head to kidnap Havok, but messes up the instructions, which leads to Death’s Head kidnapping Cyclops, dumping him on the confused Monark, and swanning off. The Uncanny X-Men trainees pose as SWORD agents to try to trace Death’s Head and find Cyclops, and end up saddled with the unwanted help of Iron Man. Meanwhile, Monark tries to enlist Nova to dig him out of the mess he’s in.
I mention that last sentence because one of the problems with this format is finding a way for all three supposed stars to actually function as protagonists. And the story doesn’t really solve that problem; Nova’s role is a tad forced, and Iron Man is really serving here as a guest star in the X-trainees’ story. But hey, it’s the X-Men who interest us, so that’s no problem as far as we’re concerned.
This is, in fact, a pretty fun story. Ryan has a decent ear for dialogue; the students feel pretty rounded here, Monark’s increasing desperation is nicely pitched, and the comedy moments mostly land well. The central joke of Iron Man being too self-absorbed to pick up on how unconvincing the X-trainees are as SWORD agents (and also having better things to do with his time than keep track of minor X-Men characters) is nicely pitched, and actually plays into Ryan’s bigger theme – though the story does enough to justify Iron Man’s self-belief to stop him looking like a clown.
So all this is rather good. Mind you – and this is a bit of a digression, because it’s a minor issue in the context of this story – it’s increasingly clear that there’s a problem with Tempus as a viable X-Man. Tempus’s power is to freeze time. This is a cool moment once, but in practical terms it amounts to a power to make fight scenes not happen.
In theory the same issue arises with telepaths, who could just zap all their opponents in the first five seconds. In practice writers have got around that by simply establishing a convention that this is not how it works, and that combat telepathy is a rather more restricted art. But that hasn’t happened with Tempus, who does indeed just shut down fight scenes in progress. Yet the genre demands that fight scenes have to happen. Which means that Tempus has to either (i) be left at home, (ii) get clocked over the head with a brick in the first five seconds, or worst of all (iii) stand around like a lemming until the writer decides it’s time for the fight to end.
I’m not completely sure that this is a solvable problem. It’s not really obvious how you come up with a workable combat version of Tempus’ powers. In terms of precursors, there’s Tempo from the Mutant Liberation Front, but she just slowed time, and besides, she was a villain – it was fine to have her give her team an unfair advantage at the start of the fight. That doesn’t work for a hero.
Or… well, yes, they did get four years of episodes out of this:
But sitcom plots usually involve the sort of problem that will still be there waiting when time resumes (plus the set-up required Evie to conceal her powers from other characters, which also limited what she could do during a freeze), so she could have that power without breaking the show. In X-Men, Tempus pretty much has the magic power to prevent the plot from happening, which might work for a villain, but raises some real workability issues for a hero.
Like I say, though, while this is an issue for Tempus generally, it’s completely marginal in the context of “No End In Sight”. So let’s return to what Sean Ryan’s really interested in here.
Ryan’s fundamental concern actually seems to be the open-ended nature of superhero comics – hence the title. More specifically, his interest seems to be in the idea of characters simply drifting off into obscurity without ever getting a proper resolution to their story. So Monark is a character whose glory days are long since behind him, for reasons he can’t quite understand, and now finds himself eking out a living on the foothills of continuity. An entire subplot sees Triage realising just how many obscure X-Men trainees have come before him and angsting about what this implies for him. This ties back in with the main story, where part of the point is that the likes of Triage and Goldballs are just so far down the pecking order as to be beneath the notice of an A-list character like Iron Man. It’s not that they’re doing a great job of posing as SWORD agents, it’s that he wouldn’t recognise them even if he met them in the street. Keep track of the X-Men trainees? Who can be bothered?
In keeping with this, the story itself ends in a weird anticlimax. The X-Men get their win, in as much as they track Cyclops down and rescue him. But the wider story notionally ends simply with the guy who put the bounty on Havok’s head turning out to be a very old man who dies when he falls over while trying to reach a high shelf. Nova dutifully proclaims this to be the resolution of the plot, only for Monark to point out that nothing has been resolved from his point of view. And the story then just keeps going for a couple of pages in which Nova stands around looking unsettled and confused while minor characters clear things up and complete paperwork in the background.
This is a very neat moment of selling the ending as an anti-climax, and seems to suggest that Ryan is trying to explore the tension between, on the one hand, the never ending nature of superhero franchises, and on the other, the idea that conventional resolution would be artificial anyway.
But it feels like the story stops short of pushing these points as far as it could. It ends with Iron Man giving a moral (which is itself a bit too neat of an ending after what’s gone before), which pretty much boils down to “yeah, it’s all terribly unsatisfactory but we’ve got to make the best of it”. And there are a few very curious choices in the way the theme is developed. So, for example, when an obscure villain shows up in a bar complaining that his life was ruined in an Avengers story that nobody ever followed up on, Iron Man’s you-brought-it-on-yourself response pretty much ignores the ostensible theme. Perhaps that’s the idea – that Iron Man, as the A-list character, is utterly complacent about the minor characters below him – but it doesn’t come across very clearly.
There’s a decidedly odd decision to play up the New Mutants as examples of forgotten characters. Presumably this is because Ryan is trying to map his story onto the available cast members and has settled on Magik – but the New Mutants are about the only X-Men trainees who aren’t forgotten. Two of them are in the Avengers; two more are in X-Factor; another two have been used prominently in recent comics. Interestingly, Magik claims that the characters who’ve disappeared are luckier than her, but the story never does much to explain why this should be so, beyond the fact that 2014 Magik is generally sulky and depressed. Magik is actually a neat fit for this theme because the original concept of the character had a defined end point, which was reached in “Inferno” – but the gravity of the Marvel Universe meant that she just got brought back anyway, even though her story was done and she had nowhere left to go. If the story is intending to play off this, though, it’s assuming that everyone remembers it.
And what’s Death’s Head doing in this story? If he’s here to represent characters who can do the same basic schtick indefinitely, it’s odd that he doesn’t do his trademark speech patterns. And in fact he’s a bad example for the theme, because he’s a rare example of a character who does have an ending story – his personal timeline ends with Marvel UK’s Death’s Head II miniseries from the mid-90s. For that matter, what does Nova bring to this story, beyond his name being in the title of issue #3?
So while there are interesting ideas being raised here, the story has rather too many elements floating about that don’t seem to cohere with any real stance emerging. For all that, though, it’s a pleasantly diverting read. It certainly aspires to more than merely filling the pages, but at the same time it does a decent job of selling the Uncanny trainees as characters who are fun to read about, and (at least until the epilogue) it doesn’t allow its underlying themes to overshadow being a romp first and foremost.