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Mar 28

Uncanny X-Men vol 1: Superior

Posted on Monday, March 28, 2016 by Paul in Uncategorized

Of the current crop of X-Men titles, I greeted Uncanny X-Men with perhaps the least enthusiasm.  Cullen Bunn’s run on Magneto was very good, and even though it was generally strongest when it steered clear of the mainstream of the Marvel Universe, the prospect of putting him on a higher profile X-Men title with Magneto in tow should have been attractive.

But Uncanny X-Men is drawn by Greg Land, who is a dealbreaker as far as I’m concerned.  I’ve suffered through his work on the X-books before, purely through completism, but he’s one of a very small number of artists that can drive me away from books by writers I generally enjoy.  That’s how enthusiastic I am about the prospect of Uncanny X-Men drawn by Greg Land.

In all fairness, then, I’ve seen far worse work from him than these five issues, which are largely pretty competent, and even have some decent moments of action.  His characters express emotions better than usual, and the action is easy to follow.  But there are still major problems here – Land’s tendency to draw women with vacant grins seems to have been largely confined to Monet, but dear god, Monet.  And despite some heroic efforts on the colouring side, it struggles to maintain any atmosphere.  A panel which is supposed to show a bunch of shellshocked mutants being left to wander urban Detroit looks more like a bunch of catalogue models posing in front of a postcard.  An establishing shot in the Hellfire Club feels like a roomful of mannequins.  There’s too much of this stuff to keep the art the right side of “annoying”.

Part of the issue, to be honest, is that Land is an odd choice for this series, even on his own terms.  Uncanny X-Men, despite the title, is really the latest incarnation of X-Force, in as much as it’s the one with the renegade team who are fairly relaxed about lethal force.  While I’m hardly going to argue for a return to overly serious murk, Land’s air-brushed, sunlit scenes feel too far in the other direction, and it’s not like anyone is leveraging that tension for effect.

But what about the story?  Extraordinary and All-New chose to kick off their current runs with two shorter stories, which gave them plenty of time to set their tone before entering April’s Apocalypse crossover.  Uncanny takes the other approach, devoting its first five issues to setting a whole bunch of storylines in play.  So we’ve got the general internal tensions of Magneto leading a team who are broadly on side with his agenda but don’t trust him not to screw them over.  We’ve got a mystery about what happened to Warren during the eight month gap – he’s turned back into Archangel, but he’s also become an empty shell who Psylocke calls in for aerial attacks in between trying to get some sort of response from him.  There’s a subplot about a dodgy outfit called the Someday Corporation who are offering to put mutants into suspended animation until the world gets better.  They get introduced with great fanfare in issue #1, but turn out not to be the real focus of this first volume at all.  Oh, and Fantomex and Mystique are running around investigating them, presumably to join the core cast somewhere on the other side of the crossover.  There’s direction here, to be sure.

The Someday Corporation is quite a good idea, partly because it makes a certain sense within the logic of the Marvel Universe (after all, wouldn’t cryogenics make a lot more sense if you went into it before you actually died?), but also because it allows Magneto to take the (questionable) moral high ground against both sides.  Even though Someday is transparently a scam, Magneto’s sympathy for the victims pretty much stops at breaking them out; there are no bystanders for him, only traitors to the cause who won’t do their duty for their people.  Psylocke is well written too, and the tension in her wanting to be Warren’s carer while actually just using him as a drone has some promise.

On the other hand, a scene where Magneto tries to draw parallels between the Terrigen Mists and the gas chambers is misguided, and there are serious problems with both Monet and Sabretooth.  Monet, of course, suffers from being stuck with the vacant grin so much of the time, but her general air of superiority is pretty much absent here, and not much comes along to replace it beyond a sort of mild flirtatiousness that feels wildly wrong for the character.  As for Sabretooth, suffice to say that Bunn becomes the latest in a series of writers to fail to demonstrate that the post-Axis “inverted” version of the character is in workable or interesting.  There probably are things you could do with this version of Sabretooth – maybe you lean in to his completely unnatural character development and do stories about whether any of his current feelings are “real”, and whether it would be morally right to change him back – but just writing him as a spare Wolverine isn’t working.

The actual story of these issues centres on the Dark Riders, a bunch of obscure 90s villains who would normally be a very odd choice.  But in the context of 2016, they have two big things going for them.  One, they’re associated with Apocalypse, so they can help lay the groundwork for the crossover – even if the story is simply that they’re running around killing people in an attempt to impress some unseen force.  And two, some of them are Inhumans, and the list of X-Men villains with a connection to the Inhumans is very, very short.  In fact, it’s pretty much just them.

The Dark Riders were never exactly models of psychological depth, but the story doesn’t really require them to be – they’re here to be the foils for Magneto’s X-Men.  The less human character designs, many of which originated with Whilce Portacio, actually bring out the better side of Land’s art – he tends to improve when he’s doing things that can’t be photo referenced – and Bunn has a neat idea that the group’s one-dimensional personalities are actually the result of the team telepath routinely keeping everyone (presumably including himself) on message.  They’re not great villains, but they serve their role by having some degree of recognition factor, and by plugging conveniently into the big picture.

So there are some decent ideas here.  There are long term plans being established, and aspects of Bunn’s Magneto run seem to have survived – and Land has certainly been worse.  But he’s still a significant hurdle to be overcome, and the irritation factor is pretty huge.  It’s not in the same league as Magneto and it’s far too flawed to actually recommend, but the book seems to be planning for the long term.  As with a lot of the line, it does at least give the impression of knowing where it’s going, which at least offers some reason for cautious optimism.

Bring on the comments

  1. NS says:

    Despite Land, I actually kind of loved this.

    ANX seems to be spinning its wheels to tell formative stories of the baby x-men. They’ve been writing those for years and haven’t gone anywhere new.

    EXM seems to focus on how beat down the x-men are, but that they’re still family. The story seems to fall by the wayside for some saccharine asides about when the going gets tough…

    UXM is the only book with intrigue, uneasy alliances, mysteries, subplots, and good character pieces (that aren’t only character pieces), high stakes, and a tinder box of story elements. It’s like marvel broke the core components of the x-men (formative character stories, mystery and a sense of high stakes, and hated and feared family) into 3 different books, but it seems to me that UXM has most of these pieces in a way that the other books don’t.

  2. Nu-D says:

    he’s one of a very small number of writers that can drive me away from books by writers I generally enjoy.

    You meant to write,”he’s one of a very small number of artists…” not “writers.”

  3. deworde says:

    If you hunt far enough back in the X-Axis archives, you can actually find Paul heaping praise on Land’s style (Phoenix: Endsong #2). I mean, everyone has a right to change their opinions, but I had to laugh when I stumbled across it.

    “Greg Land’s artwork is absolutely beautiful; his characters sometimes lean a little bit too much towards airbrushed perfection, but that’s about the only thing to be said against it. It’s full of good strong visuals, and if it invites comparisons with Cassaday’s work on Astonishing, at least it can live up to them.”

  4. Paul says:

    There was indeed a time when I remember being relatively positive about Land’s art – looking back at those pages now, I can’t begin to imagine what I was thinking. As I recall, the real deterioration set in about a year or so later, around the time of Ultimate Power, when his cut and paste tendencies became really glaring. But hindsight has not been kind to Endsong, or to my views on it.

  5. Paul says:

    (And I’ll correct the error, thanks!)

  6. Keran says:

    Huh. I remember liking Land’s art on Endsong as well. It was my first contact with his work. The copy-paste effect becomes glaring only after you have something to compare it to – i.e. any other Land book…

  7. ChrisV says:

    Yep. I’d say Land’s work looks fine, until you realize he only has three possible females, and that they all seem to have that same stupid grin. It’s very formulaic.
    His art style has problems, but when you first see it, you think it’s good.

    I enjoy Uncanny X-Men the most out of all the current X-titles, as well.
    I’m surprised to say that, as I thought I’d hate the book after the first issue.

  8. Nu-D says:

    Count me as another who liked Land’s art on Endsong when I first saw it, but quickly became disillusioned.

  9. JCG says:

    Me too on Endsong.

  10. Martin Smith says:

    I first saw Land’s art on that Crossgen fantasy title he had (cannot remember the name of it, but I think Ron Marz wrote it) and liked it then, but that didn’t hold up at all either. I can see how it gets approved by busy editors.

    The really weird thing about Land is that if you go back to his work for DC in the mid-90s, he was a fairly promising artist. They even had him inked by Sienkiewicz for the Nightwing/Huntress mini-series, which would be unthinkable now.

  11. Paul says:

    The CrossGen book was Sojourn, which from memory was well received at the time.

  12. Zach Adams says:

    There are so many things you can do with inverted Sabretooth, especially now that he’s washed out of the Avengers and finds himself back in old patterns, following Raven onto a new project and being somebody else’s muscle. Shame that isn’t happening.

  13. Kelvin Green says:

    But Uncanny X-Men is drawn by Greg Land

    “Drawn” is such a strong word.

  14. Suzene says:

    Land’s a deal breaker for me as well. I’ve heard tell that he really is doing better than his usual on this title, but in the one full issue and various snippets I’ve seen of the book so far, I’ve been able to recognize a handful of his recycled faces/poses… and I’m someone who typically avoids his work. Not convinced.

    Also not a big fan of Bunn going back to the well of “I’m killing off this minor/kid character to prove that the stakes are REALLY high this time!” There’s never been a time when that particular gimmick made me anxious for the more popular cast or mutants overall. It’s just annoyingly unimaginative. So I’ll likely continue to give this one a skip unless I hear amazing things down the line.

  15. Brian says:

    Land USED to be a good artist, in the Guice/Perkins/Lark school (I first encountered him on BIRDS OF PREY, the initial Chuck Dixon run, alternating with Jackson Guice). I get the sense that he started using more and more photo reference to be able to work more quickly and — in an age of perfectionist artists who would delay books for months — got on the good side of editors for coming up with a way to be able to get a book like UNCANNY X-MEN out each month for years by using muscle magazines and fashion ads as a sort of ‘breakdowns.’

    That he ended up becoming too reliant on that trick (and overusing the same pieces from his ‘morgue’) is the downside to that, but part of me — even disliking Land’s illustration in recent years — still feels the urge to point out what he did instead 15-20 years ago (and I did actually meet him at a few cons around 1998-2000, and found him to be incredibly pleasant to fans; I should scans the sketches I got from him as an example of his actual work — I’m not surprised that he gets along well with writers and editors, style aside).

  16. PeterA says:

    What’s important to remember with Land’s older good art on Birds of Prey is that he used to be inked by Drew Geraci, who added a lushness that his current work lacks. A lot of artists do not work well without proper inkers, but publishers have been trending towards cutting out that “delaying factor”. Penciling and inking are two completely different skills, which digital colorists cannot possibly make up for.

  17. Paul says:

    I’m not sure that’s the issue here. Jay Leisten is credited as the inker, with Nolan Woodard as colourist.

  18. In a radically different book and team, you could probably get some story mileage out of M flirting with Wolverine, which I could see her doing purely to annoy Jubilee (not that anyone’s really referenced those two characters’ Gen X dynamic for a decade or so). Here, with Sabretooth, it feels like just something for Bunn to have her do until he gets around to the story he actually wants to tell with her.

  19. Niall says:

    I agree almost 100% with this review. The Land art is an issue but it’s tolerable to the point where I won’t stop reading.

    Let’s forget the art for a moment – Monet’s characterisation is problematic. She doesn’t seem like the character I know – at least not yet. As for Creed, well, I’m not sure exactly how they’re supposed to portray him but so far so meh.

    There’s potential in this book and with a more grounded artist, I suspect they might yet meet it.

  20. NS says:

    I doubt Elixir’s death will stick if it helps. Everyone forgets he died in Wolverines about a year or two ago. Not to mention, I think he died once or twice before that(Necrosha maybe?).

  21. ChrisV says:

    That’s sort of more annoying. At least let minor characters stay dead, if the creators plan to kll them.

    I give Bunn some credit, as he isn’t using the death of minor characters to try to get some emotional response in the story.
    The minor characters being targeted serve a purpose with the vilain’s agenda. They believe mutants are the weak, not the next stage of evolution anymore. So, they want to take away the abilities mutants have to try to survive.
    It makes sense. It doesn’t matter exactly who they target, it matters what powers the character was given.
    We aren’t supposed to be particularly concerned that minor character Elixir died. We’re supposed to be concerned that hope is being taken away for mutants.

  22. Suzene says:

    @NS – I’m not so sure about that. They’ve got Triage now, who ticks diversity boxes as well as being a character from a recent, decently-selling run. When Josh was the only healer type in play, there were reasons to assume he’d be back sooner or later. Given his recent power boost, there’s no reason he couldn’t come back, but there’s less reason to assume he will.

  23. jpw says:

    I am also among those who thought Lands work on Endsong was pretty good on first look. It took a couple more books by him for his inadequacies to become glaring

  24. Puzzled says:

    Me too with Endsong. (Wow, that book came out so long ago.) Tastes change, styles change, but in this case the art is diminished retroactively because we’ve all seen it over and over. I don’t understand why on earth anyone would hire Land for a dark X-Men book. More than time is broken at Marvel. Anway, no “gotcha!” here.

    What bugs me about this book, besides the art and the 8 month excuse coverall and the dumb killings of C list characters, is how the book feels like, well, a 90s comic book. In that, there seems to be little narrative logic or cohesion.

    -Why are these characters, out of all mutants, even together at all?
    -What happened to M’s previous personality and why is she copying Magneto’s outfit?
    -Why are they only ever in tight fitting costumes regardless of circumstance?
    -Where do they live?
    -What’s their setup?

    I’m not expecting crazy detail and the book has gotten better about some of that stuff with each issue, but it just feels too much like random action figures doing comicbooky stuff because there needs to be another X-Men book. (I’d settle for one book done well, featuring X-Men.)

    It’s like they put this team together because Bunn was writing Magneto (and doing it well before crossovers ruined it), and Magneto’s dark so add in the heart and soul of X-Force, Betsy and Warren, and add Monet because either Bunn or an editor likes M. Finish off with something Wolverine-y just because. Boom. There’s your roster.

    And out of all the x characters with histories and relationships too. And even the characters without those things but could be organically gathered together.

    Maybe it’ll read differently in one sitting. (I was hoping EXM would. It didn’t. I liked it less. And I don’t like the art on AXM or the stories so far, either.)

    I’m a fan without an xbook. Finally there’s a manageable line but I don’t care for any of the books. I wish at least X-Factor stuck around. Although Bunn ruined Polaris too. I wish he wasnt so reliant on destroying characters for drama.

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