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Apr 11

Uncanny X-Men #515-522

Posted on Sunday, April 11, 2010 by Paul in reviews, x-axis

“Nation X”

Writer: Matt Fraction
Pencillers: Greg Land, Terry Dodson, Whilce Portacio and Phil Jimenez
Inkers: Jay Leisten, Rachel Dodson, Ed Tadeo and Andy Lanning
Colourists: Justin Ponsor and Soto
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Editor: Nick Lowe

Goodness, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these.  But then, “Nation X” has been running for six months.  And besides, I’m not getting this week’s comics until Monday, so let’s start on the backlog.

Despite the “Nation X” logo on the cover, this isn’t really a single storyline so much as a bunch of stuff that came out between the “Utopia” and “Second Coming” crossovers.  There are several different strands here.  They don’t entirely add up to a coherent whole, but then they weren’t necessarily meant to.  View it as seven issues of an ongoing title rather than as a single storyline, and it makes rather more sense.  In that context, it’s interesting to note that the “Nation X” hardcover, scheduled for May, features not just these seven issues, but also the Dark Reign – The List one-shot and the entire Nation X anthology.

“Utopia” ended with the X-Men retreating from San Francisco to live on their own little artificial island in the bay, something which was presented as something of a victory over the corrupt officialdom of Norman Osborn.  It seemed a rather strange thing to do, when the X-books had only just relocated to San Francisco with such fanfare.  Marvel’s wider publishing schedule may play a part here.  We’re told (though the book never finds space to actually show it) that the team are still popular with the people of San Francisco, and there’s nothing really to stop them from moving back… except Osborn.  But his story ends with Siege, so if they’re going to do this story, there’s a fairly narrow window of opportunity.  What happens next is anyone’s guess; logically, there’s nothing to stop the X-Men simply moving back to the mainland in a couple of months time.  This is a problem with the whole set-up; Fraction seems to want us to see Utopia as a permanent move, but the plot’s driven by something that we all know is purely transitory.

Rather more interesting, and more successful, is the general uncertainty and ambivalence about the island.  Scott clearly wants it to be some sort of mutant homeland and source of pride.  As a haven for virtually all the surviving mutants, it’s at least managed to unite them all in a single group and put an end to the usual inter-mutant squabbling (though again, this is really just asserted as a fact, since Fraction doesn’t find time to show us the low-rent villains and bit part characters supposedly wandering around the island).  Other characters see it as last-ditch retreat by a team who are increasingly backed into a corner.  And Hank, channeling the feelings of long-time readers, spends the first few issues wondering why on earth he’s still bothering, before throwing up his hands in despair and walking out at the end of issue #519; for him, this just doesn’t resemble the X-Men any more.  Of course, Fraction might just be writing him out so that he can be used in the Avengers titles, but it’s a smart move to use him as a mouthpiece to acknowledge all the problems with this direction.  Scott’s pride in the island hovers somewhere between making a virtue of necessity, and outright denial.  That’s a promising angle; is he suppressing things that are just too depressing to think about, or is he simply losing the plot?

Fraction also makes good use of Magneto, who shows up apparently to lend his support, and who naturally spends the next few issues trying to persuade people that he doesn’t have an ulterior motive.  He probably does – he’s Magneto, after all – but his attempts to get the X-Men to trust him are well written.

On the other hand, the idea of the island as a “nation” never really comes across.  It’s basically the X-Men running a facility and offering free board to any passing mutants – and that’s essentially what we had a couple of years ago when there was a refugee camp in the X-Men’s garden.  This is presumably meant to feel different, but it doesn’t.  And the main plot for these issues is a bit weak too.  It involves a bunch of new villains attacking the island with Predator X’s, apparently as a cover to infiltrate the island with nanotech so that they can catalogue all the remaining mutants.  This eventually builds to the revelation that they’re in league with John Sublime.  But it doesn’t really go anywhere in the course of these issues, and the bad guys are not well established as characters.  A couple of them have nice one-liner powers (a kung-fu speedster is a fun idea) but they have no personality and the designs are uninspired.

There are also some gratingly awful plot problems in there.  Issue #517 can’t make up its mind about how hard it is to beat a Predator X – Magneto is wiped out by fighting one, yet some random Atlantean can beat one singlehandedly by chucking a spear at it.  That’s inconsistent.  Then, a few issues later, this same depowered Magneto is supposed to be powerful enough to pluck a spaceship from light years away and turn it back round.  That’s stupid.  Issue #520 wants to tell us that Wolverine’s sense of smell is so acute that he can sense Fantomex in the sewers while he’s standing on the roof of a skyscraper.  That’s ridiculous.  That said, these problems become less prominent when you read the thing in one go, because they tend to be matters of detail rather than going to the heart of Fraction’s story.  But they’re still bad.

Spliced into the middle of all this, issues #518 and #519 are a seemingly unrelated two-parter about Scott, Emma and the Void.  “Utopia” ended with Emma getting contaminated by a sliver of the Void, the evil alter ego of the Sentry, in a scene that came completely out of the blue.  These issues get rid of that plot almost immediately, in a way that almost makes you wonder why they bothered doing it at all.  The upshot is to transfer the Void to Scott’s mind, and then have him contain it with his staggering powers of repression.  Now, that’s a great idea, and I do like the concept of Scott having superhuman levels of worryingly misdirected willpower.  And perhaps it’s not a complete detour; Fraction’s take on Cyclops is a character who has the responsibility of leading but has no real plan.  He’s just clinging on and hoping for something to turn up.  He is, in short, on the way to a nervous breakdown.  Saddling him with the Void might pay off down the line, then.

And while these issues seem unrelated to the surrounding story, they’re still the best ones.  Partly, that’s because they have the benefit of art from Terry and Rachel Dodson, who have the visual inventiveness to pull off great sequences in the astral plane, and to make the Void a striking jet-black visual.  Their pages have all sorts of eccentric panel layouts without losing clarity.  It’s good stuff.

The rest – well, aside from issue #522, which is a fill-in by Whilce Portacio – is drawn by Greg Land.  Now, in fairness, it’s getting better.  There’s a bit more atmosphere in the inking, and less sense of airbrushing.  Some of his action scenes are quite striking, and he does good establishing shots.  But his women are terrible – interchangeable and inexpressive.  His acting’s not great generally, to be honest, and his pages are still littered with awkward, slightly odd facial expressions.  There’s too much manic grinning.  Still, there are also moments where he gets it right, and we’re moving in the right direction here.

It’s a very mixed set of stories.  There are good ideas in here, but too much of the “Nation X” set-up is left to assertion instead of being properly explained.  The main villains are weak.  The art’s patchy.  And the Void two-parter comes across as a story being aborted prematurely.  But the Dodson issues look great, Fraction does have some strong ideas for Scott’s character, and the idea of Nation X as described (even if we don’t actually see it on panel) is a decent last-stand concept, something which makes sense if this is meant to be the mutants being backed into a corner before Hope shows up to save the day in “Second Coming.”

But having good ideas isn’t enough; you need to get them across.  Even at their best, these issues all too often feel like Fraction is telling us about the story, instead of actually telling it.  There’s a stronger idea in here somewhere, but it isn’t coming through properly.

Bring on the comments

  1. yeah! ho! wah! says:

    “But having good ideas isn’t enough; you need to get them across. Even at their best, these issues all too often feel like Fraction is telling us about the story, instead of actually telling it. There’s a stronger idea in here somewhere, but it isn’t coming through properly.”

    that pretty much summs up fractions entire run so far, doesnt it. but i think its overall enjoyable enough. not as good as i want it to be, but good enough for an old x-men fan.

    can somebady tell me what storms status is? she keeps showing up and disappearing all the time.

    glad to see sublime back, but his henchmen remind me of groups like the shi’ar death commandos, the children of the vault, or the neo. thats not good.

  2. PPP says:

    Great review, Paul. Right on the money

  3. Cheeris says:

    Storm is currently ‘enjoying marital bliss’ with The Black Panther as Queen of Wakanda.

    At the exact moment, said bliss involves being bit of a Girlfriend In The Refrigerator after having been captured and brutalised by Dr. Doom in ‘Doomwar’.

  4. Mo Walker says:

    Paul, you hit the bullseye. Nation X was not a storyarc but a number of vignettes. Unfortunately a number of them were not fully developed. I would not recommend this as a trade, especially for new readers. However, I would not have a problem recommending certain issues to readers (new or lapsed).

  5. that pretty much summs up fractions entire run so far, doesnt it.

    Indeed – Fraction strikes me more as a “concept guy” than a proper writer, in that he clearly has some interesting ideas (ie: the Sisterhood, the Dreaming Celestial, etc.) but he consistently fumbles the follow-through. That may be why his earlier work (co-written with Brubaker) looks so much better.

  6. maxwell's hammer says:

    I think you’re being awfully nice to Greg Land. Every time I see his art on the cover, I grow seriously frustrated. It’s like sitting down to a nice bowl if strawberry ice-cream only to discover that someone thought it would be a good idea to garnish it with peas and spinich. watdafug?

    I think his art has seriously undermined my ability to enjoy Fraction’s writing. Comics are a 50/50 medium. Half scripted storytellin, half artistic storytelling. Greg Land always removes an entire half of the storytelling resources.

  7. Suzene says:

    The Nation X storyline has been a fairly dull stretch of treading water, but I still don’t envy Fraction his position. Writing a flagship title with a cast of hundreds really is not the kind of assignment that allows for a lot of creativity. I’ve heard that the X-Men are supposed to start interacting more with the rest of the MU again once the Heroic Age gets underway, so, with any luck, that’ll mean he has a bit more freedom of storytelling once this Second Coming business is out of the way.

  8. Delpire says:

    Re: Storm’s status.

    Is the Black Panther (T’Challa) still alive? I thought he died around/during Secret Invasion.

  9. JD says:

    Still alive, though he barely escaped an assassination attempt from Doom about a year ago… Hence handing down the Black Panther role to his sister while he’s recovering.

  10. david says:

    re: Fraction as simply a concept guy

    I don’t know about that. There are some really good comics with his name on them that Brubaker’s never been near. Cassanova, his stuff with Thor. He’s clearly got the chops to fully develop his ideas, and his work on The Order shows he can handle a team book.

    He’s been hamstrung by a cast of thousands, inconsistent art, and a status quo that’s at the mercy of editorial fiat and whatever is going on in any of the 37 crossovers happening at Marvel at any particular time. I have a hard time believing any writer could do well under the circumstances.

  11. Nostalgia says:

    I’d prefer if Fraction handled the plotting and another writer did the scripts.

  12. Tim O'Neil says:

    Given all this, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cyclops bit it at the end of the next storyline. Sure, he hasn’t been in any of the “Who Will Die?” teasers, but they’ve been pushing his character defects so heavily for a while now I think that, given the fact that Hope will almost certainly backfire on them, his death might make the most sense, and has the most potential to lead the franchise in a more interesting direction.

    I mean, Nightcrawler? Sheesh, it’s almost as bad a case of obvious foreshadowing as the whole White Lantern business.

  13. Lambnesio says:

    “glad to see sublime back, but his henchmen remind me of groups like the shi’ar death commandos, the children of the vault, or the neo. thats not good.”

    God, you’re right! Yikes.

    I mostly do enjoy Fraction’s Uncanny, however flawed. But the only issues I’ve really been bothered by have been the ones involving any kind of pay-off on villains. The Sisterhood story was building up sort of interestingly, and then took an issue to end in a way that made absolutely no sense. The fight with Sublime’s team was weak and awful as well.

    And for that matter, Iron Fist was a great book until the resolution of its final storyline, which was very premature, rushed and lacking overall.

  14. Lambnesio says:

    Also, I wouldn’t really say this is much like the mutant refugee camp period at all. There are plenty of characters here that we don’t see, but there are plenty that we do. The important difference is that X-Men is no longer a designation for a handful of characters. So the X-Force, the New Mutants, the X-Club, all of the X-kids, and assorted characters like Dazzler or Ariel, as well as the vague cast we tend to view as the main team, are all able to be lead characters at any time.

    I would say that’s pretty cool, despite the obvious issues that set-up presents. In any case, it’s not much like having a group of mutants camped out in the courtyard at all.

  15. Scott Summers has a malevolent cosmic entity living in a box at the back of his brain?

    It’s Howard and Hilda all over again.


  16. Argus says:

    Not been following Uncanny X-Men for a while. It’s far too muddy with too many characters running around, and no room for any development. How have any of these characters actually moved in the last year or so?! How do they relate? No idea!

  17. @ Argus: Carey’s X-Men series is probably the best place for actually advancing characters, first with Professor X, then with Rogue. The problem is that no one else seems to recognize any advancement, so the characters revert to form as soon as Carey moves on.

  18. Mike says:

    I’ve been having a difficult time for a while with this current set up of the X-Men basically being everyone who has been an X-Men plus any other mutant they can fit on that island (which, by the way – EXACTLY how big is that island? The way it’s depicted in the art, it looks like it can be crossed in about five minutes, so how it houses all these people is beyond me).

    I prefer smaller teams where we actually get to really come to appreciate the dynamics, rather than the dynamics changing constantly. Which, is how I feel about the current story arcs. No change lasts more than a handful of months, which is good or bad depending on how you feel about the change. But it also doesn’t let the reader fully appreciate the story, nor does it give the writer the time to fully flesh out the story. The status quo changes, and 6 – 12 months later, it changes again.

  19. Andrew J. says:

    This is one of the worst “arcs” in recent memory. It starts out as an interesting concept; issue #515 is actually quite good, with plenty of time allotted for the various characters to discuss the problems. But then it goes south from there. Fraction has no idea how to write Magneto and Xavier, let alone any of the other characters. Cyclops is portrayed as the world’s greatest leader, his strategies unflappable, with everyone in agreement, except the Beast, who’s meant to be the token questioner, and who is practically humiliated out of the book. “You didn’t rescue me for two weeks…”. The characters babble like they’re senile constantly – Emma blabs to an unconcious Magneto about how Cyclops’ greatest quality is his compassion…um, no it isn’t. The ridiculous inconsistencies you mentioned are just the icing on the terrible cake. Or maybe the Greg Land art is. Either way, this will go down in X-infamy for its lameness; Fraction needs to realize this isn’t his thing and step down quickly.

  20. the wanderer says:

    Fraction can be a good writer, but the X-men just don’t seem to be for him. I can’t excuse his “poor” writing on all those mutants being on the island because he never makes use of them outside of cameo shots, and he continuously brings more characters to that island whenever he can for little or no reason such as Cecilia Rayes in issue #522. To me, all his issues, post his stint with Brubaker, have lacked focus or sense and his usage of Beast has made me dislike the character more than I ever have.

    In fact, issue #522 is a perfect example of why Fraction annoys me even when I start to tolerate his writing again. This particular issue was marketed as the return of Kitty, so I expected the issue to revolve around Kitty and her impact on the X-men. So imagine my surprise when once again the title revolved around Cyclops and his leadership capabilities (and for some reason, Emma could only talk about him during all her appearances. How… Jean of her). That’s not even mentioning the odd ending where all the cameo characters are off smiling despite Kitty’s issues and Cyclops is off being somber for reasons not explained to us. I… just never understood what Fraction was trying to get across a good deal of the time, which is why I had to drop the title awhile back. Thankfully, though, Uncanny 523 seems to be a step in the right direction, and I hope Fraction can keep it up.

  21. Jerry Ray says:

    The way Paul describes it (Cyclops with the Void in the back of his mind, heading for a nervous breakdown), it sounds like they’re heading for an inverse Dark Phoenix – bring back Phoenix, or Jean, or whatever in the form of Hope but then Scott finally cracks and the Void takes over and we get the “Dark Cyclops Saga.” Sounds terrible, and I hope that’s not where they’re going, but that’s what popped into my mind as I read Paul’s review, and then Tim’s comment above.

  22. LAndrew says:

    Scott finally cracks and the Void takes over and we get the “Dark Cyclops Saga.”

    Oh dear. Again?

  23. Lambnesio says:

    “Cyclops is portrayed as the world’s greatest leader, his strategies unflappable, with everyone in agreement, except the Beast, who’s meant to be the token questioner, and who is practically humiliated out of the book.”

    This is actually pretty backwards. Pretty much everybody’s really uncertain about Utopia and Cyclops specifically, but they’re following him because he believes in it and because he’s who they’ve got. It definitely remains to be seen whether it’s going to work out at all, and everybody on the island seems to know that. Even Emma has questioned him (earlier on).

  24. maxwell's hammer says:

    Yeah, the impression I’ve gotten is that Scott has made a huge gamble and everyone thinks he’s a bit off the deep end. But because he’s Scott, everybody has just decided to hold on tight and trust him. With the exceptions of Hank and also Madrox and his gang, who spent an entire X-Factor one-shot explaining why they’ll take their chances on the mainland. Plus, with the most recent issue of ‘Second Coming’, Kurt has now found out about some of the gruesome X-Force shenanigans, and he’s having second thoughts.

    Scott is looking like anything but an unquestioned and unflappable leader.

  25. Taibak says:

    Still, it might be more interesting to do a story where he *doesn’t* crack and just does a long, slow heel turn. Gradually have team members depart, starting with Beast, Nightcrawler, Moonstar, and Rogue and leave Cyclops more and more isolated. Turn X-Men: Legacy and New Mutants into titles focusing on the objectors and leave Scott in Uncanny with an increasingly isolated group of followers. Give it a cast of, say, Cyclops, the White Queen, Magneto, Rockslide, Dust, Hellion, Magik, and at least one other veteran member (Archangel? Gambit?). Possibly Xavier. Set up Emma in a Lady MacBeth-type role and Magneto as a scheming, but surprisingly loyal, grand vizier; both of whom are convinced that Scott’s methods are ultimately necessary.

  26. the wanderer says:

    Speaking of Xavier… where has he been lately? I know he’s not incredibly needed right now and he and Scott are on baddish terms, but I thought he’d be around more and be a lot more vocal.

    It’d actually be a perfect time for Xavier to set up a splinter group of X-men disillusioned with what Cyclops has done… but I don’t see it happening. Also, I think there’s a bit of disconnect with how a few writers see Cyclops. Some write Cyclops as infallible with the majority of his plans working, while others write him as stone cold and unable to see even the basic signs of distress. I’m actually wondering if the X-office is setting Scott up for a big fall while someone takes over his leadership role for a bit (I.E., Storm? Magneto? Etc.).

  27. Delpire says:

    Thanks JD

  28. Armagon says:

    I really like that idea Taibak, which means it has no chance of happening.

    Someone mentioned before that setting up Cyclops as the new Magneto and Storm as the new Xavier would be interesting. I think Storm is out, but you could have Rogue fill the role, or just multiple objectors. Having Magneto around under Cyclops would cinch the deal.

  29. Rich Larson says:

    The set-up for all of this makes me doubt whether it can successfully pay off. For instance, the Void is in Scott. How does that make sense? The Void is just part of Bob Reynolds. How does one take a piece of that?

    And for Magneto. Scott didn’t trust him and was specifically angry because he did something useful (building the tower under the island) without consulting anyone. Now he trusts Magneto becuse he did something useful (brought kitty back) without consulting anyone.

    I agree with other commenters that there’s a good story to be told with Cyclops losing the faith of his people. (I like Taibak’s idea too.) But there must have been a better way to get there than the way we’re going.

  30. They’re not heading for another Onslaught, are they? A fragment of A Bad Man’s Soul inhabiting, infecting the mind of A Goodie with dire consequences?

    (typing “Onslaught” always makes me think about Onslow out of Keeping Up Appearances, of all things!)


  31. Michael R says:

    Come to think of it, they’ve already kinda done this whole thing with Scott once before, back when he was fused into Apocalypse at the end of the Twelve storyline.

    And as we all know, if something has been done once in the X-men, it’s well worth repeating again and again because now it’s a distinctive characteristic. Jean dies and comes back, Scott gets evil men stuck in his body, Kitty ends up stuck in her intangible mode, etc.

  32. david: Carey seems to get along just fine under the same circumstances. So does Peter David, for that matter…

  33. @Michael R – don’t forget “Bad Xavier” – first done in X-Men/Micronauts, then Onslaught, then Cassandra Nova and then Deadly Genesis.

  34. Delpire says:

    “Jean dies and comes back”

    Well… she is called Phoenix… must live up the those expectations.

  35. Diana, unless Fraction has done something clever and different with the Dreaming Celestial, it may be best not to count that as one of his “interesting ideas”, since it came from Neil Gaiman’s Eternals miniseries, as I recall.

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