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Apr 19

X-Men Gold #23-25: “Cruel & Unusual”

Posted on Thursday, April 19, 2018 by Paul in x-axis

I’m late with this one, but that’s what I get for trusting the solicitations, which insist that “Cruel & Unusual” is a three-parter.  It certainly seemed to have finished with issue #25, but you never know, do you?

So this is the prison story, which is a somewhat interesting idea.  If you’re going to plonk the X-Men in Central Park then one side effect of that should be that the team get to deal with the authorities a lot more directly than when they just hid out in upstate New York and tried not to get noticed.  So there’s some mileage in a story about the X-Men knowing they’re innocent, but recognising that the police have sensible reasons for arresting them, and deciding that they’d better play by the rules.  It’s not how the X-Men are used to working.

Plus, on top of that, you’ve got the usual prison story material, which is relatively underused territory for the X-Men.  This ought to work.

And it sort of doesn’t.  It starts off promisingly enough, with Kitty finding that she’s been saddled with Callisto as a cellmate.  For some reason, this story treats Callisto as a baddie rather than as someone who was generally an ally.  We’re apparently meant to take it that this is a very unreasonable choice of cellmate on the part of the prison authorities, but when you consider how many actual supervillains must be in there, Callisto’s surely not so bad.

Guggenheim doesn’t really seem to get the character of Callisto.  He treats her as being entirely out for herself.  But that’s surely not how she was played as the leader of the Morlocks, where her loyalty to the outcasts was always a big deal.  This is annoying, because the basic idea is sound; Callisto would be better than any of the X-Men at negotiating the prison environment and playing people off against each other.  And her agenda doesn’t necessarily align with the X-Men.  So that should be a good story; they need Callisto, but how far can they trust her?

Meanwhile, since Guggenheim is an old-school sub-plot juggler, we have some stuff about Rachel’s continuing visions, and a stand-in team of X-Men gathering back at the Mansion.  That stand-in group turns out to be Iceman, Rogue, Magik, Armor, Magma and, um, Ink – Guggenheim really, really likes Ink, doesn’t he?  But again, pet character aside, that’s a perfectly sensible batch to be rounded up.  Following up from issue #22, the new Pyro shows up at the mansion asking to join.  And they can’t really say no, since Rogue’s standing right there.

So that’s not a bad start.  By part two, though, we’re into off-the-peg prison brawls with generic randoms, and the stand-in X-Men having a fight with an Uncanny Avengers villain.  For some reason they take Pyro straight into the field, even though there’s a whole school there to train him with.  Of course, this is there to give Pyro a chance to prove himself as a vaguely useful person.  So, fine.  But that takes a huge chunk of the issue, and it’s nothing to do with the prison stuff at all.  This wouldn’t be a problem if the prison thread was getting more time to play out, because it’s an entirely acceptable single-issue story; it just seems weird to relegate the supposed main story to the B-plot.

I enjoyed Thony Silas’s art on the first two issues, though I can see it dividing opinion.  It’s very bold, simple, angular stuff, and reminds me vaguely of Geoff Senior.  It’s not subtle.  But it’s energetic, which is no bad thing.  Part 3 goes with Paulo Siqueira and José Luis as pencillers, who are also quite good, but in an utterly different and more conventionally rendered way.  Most of the art in issue #25 is just fine, but it’s a jarring style shift on re-reading.

At any rate, with issue #25, Scythian – the god from the Kologoth arc – shows up in Paris.  Naturally, the X-Men decide that they have to break out of jail to fight him because… um, why?  It’s not like they have any special insight into how to beat him, or there’s some particular reason why it has to be them.  Even if you turn a blind eye to the fact that the X-Men exist in the Marvel Universe, we’ve just spent two issues establishing that there’s a stand-in team.  So sure, we get a cool sequence of Storm bringing down the lightning after being stuck in solitary confinement, and then the X-Men just trot off to Paris to stop Scythian, in the sort of sequence where the French people are yelling “Courir!” (which means “To run!”, guys).

There’s a very out-of-nowhere bit about Storm suddenly summoning up her magic hammer from the 1988 Asgardian Wars storyline, but mainly the solution to Scythian is for everyone to pile on him, and Magik to teleport him to Limbo.  Except… Magik wasn’t in jail.  So why did everyone need to break out of jail?

I sort of get how this is meant to play out.  The X-Men do the decent thing and play along with the obnoxious humans until their patience is exhausted and they go off to save the day.  But since part 2 is barely about the prison at all, and the prisoners don’t actually seem to contribute anything essential in part 3, the actual effect is that the prison plot just runs out of steam and stops.  Of course, it would make more sense if there were going t be repercussions for the X-Men just deciding they can pack up and leave prison – but issue #26 tells us that the charges were just dropped.  So, okay, they had a proper defence to the original charges; did nobody in authority have a problem with the prison break?

There are a lot of half-formed ideas in here, many of which feel like they could have been a lot better if they’d been followed through to their logical conclusion, instead of just losing focus and meandering off.  “Cruel & Unusual” winds up feeling incoherent.


Bring on the comments

  1. Greg says:

    I think a lot of this is rushed because of the timeline for the Peter/Kitty wedding. It feels like they should have been stuck in prison a lot longer to justify the breakout.

    Also, I’m almost certain that Storm had a big storyline about overcoming her claustrophobia, and at the very least she has learned over the years to control and manage it, but this story treats it like it’s completely uncontrolled. Does anyone else remember that story or am I crazy?

  2. Richard Larson says:

    You’re not crazy, although I don’t remember exactly when either. This series is often throwing in an element of a character from the good old days without any sense that they’ve changed in 30 years.

  3. Moo says:

    Oh, well. If Claremont wrote this story, Storm would have beat up the prison boss in a duel and become the new prison boss. Then she’d hand the title over to Callisto.

  4. Si says:

    Storm’s guide to making it in prison:
    1) beat up the warden and become the warden
    2) find the biggest, scariest murderer in the whole place, and have him instantly develop a crush on you
    3) make liquor by manipulating air pressure ions

  5. Mikey says:

    The most recent issue of Black Panther, which ended the current volume, also had Storm getting trapped under rubble. She went full-catatonic before T’Challa talked her out of it, so it seems that Marvel writers aren’t ready to let that particular issue go.

  6. Moo says:

    I really don’t mind. I always thought Storm being claustrophobic was a nice touch and fitting given the outdoorsy nature of her powers. I prefer writers resist their urges to “cure” characters of whatever little tics and phobias they might already have. Makes them more interesting.

  7. Voord 99 says:

    I notice that our host can’t bring himself to call Rachel “Prestige.”

    This is the sort of plot that sounds as if it might have worked better when the X-Men were hanging out in San Francisco. “We have to break out of prison because no-one else can stop this guy!” might seem more sensible if the characters weren’t in Marvel New York.

    Which I think is maybe part of the problem here? The point of putting the mansion in Central Park would seem to be that the X-Men in this book are in the center of the Marvel Universe. Which would suit a book in which a focus was having the X-Men interact with the rest of the MU, deal with threats that aren’t particularly associated with them, etc.

    That could be good. For instance, I think you could have some nice commentary on how the X-books have been replaced as the flagship element of the line by the Avengers-related books. Get into character things like how Rogue has a different relationship with e.g. Johnny Storm thanks to Uncanny Avengers than she used to have, and contrast that with her traditional depiction.

    (I really want it to be acknowledged at some point that, thanks to Champions, Cyclops has a bunch of friendships with young powered people from various backgrounds that the other O5 don’t have. That scene in a big crossover where the other O5 are standing around being a little awkward because they don’t know anyone, and he walks up to Kamala Khan and says “Hi, Kamala. How are things?” Cyclops is not only not the most X-Men of the X-Men in the way that his adult counterpart was, he’s one of the least, having been out in space and now hanging around with a different group.)

    But that *doesn’t* work with the nostalgic old-school ‘80s feel that Guggenheim is trying to bring to the book. Because that’s the era in which Claremont worked his way to making the X-Men stand off to the side in their own little universe. One of the techniques that he used was to keep them away from New York a lot of the time.

    So you’d be better off following that lead and, if you’re going to relocate the mansion, relocate it to another part of the US, or for that matter the world, entirely. Which would still allow you to do the working-with-authorities stuff, and in fact the San Francisco era did a lot of that, which is what gave us the experience of seeing Greg Land trying to adapt his — let’s call them “idiosyncrasies,” to office scenes of people meeting with the mayor.

  8. Rich Larson says:

    I think that’s some spot on analysis! I hadn’t thought about the fact that the different writers aren’t just off character, but really at cross purposes in what they are trying to do with the characters. While back in the day Claremont often did keep the team off to the side, he often brought in quick cameos or reflected bigger Marvel events that were seamless with the other books. It read like a shared universe instead of shared- characters. That would be a more interesting way to go old school instead of rehashing old stories.

  9. wwk5d says:

    Guggenheim = good ideas, not so good execution.

  10. ASV says:

    What’s so frustrating about this book isn’t that it’s bad, but that it’s so bland and half-assed. Bleeding Cool has a piece up about another dumb screw-up from #26, and altogether it just seems like Guggenheim and Paniccia aren’t paying any attention.

  11. Mikey says:

    Off-topic question:

    In the very first issue of Extraordinary X-Men, Headmaster Ororo is having a conversation with someone, and the last page reveal was that it was Professor X, presumably a vision of him.

    Did anything every come of that?

  12. Rich Larson says:

    Nope. We had that, Bendis’ set-up for him to avoid death because he got a visit from the future on what would happen, and the current tarpped in the astral plane version in Astonishing. Oh, and his brain (which had all the telepathic abilities) being grafted on to the Red Skull. And maybe we saw him in Nightcrawler’s heaven? (I could well be misremembering that.) Every storyline wants to set up the Professor to come back but there doesn’t seem to be an actual plan.

  13. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    Even at the time I read it as Ororo just imagining that conversation – though of course it wasn’t clear.

    It happens basically everytime a superhero is dead for a prolonged period of time. Mockingbird had several afterlife appearances only for Bendis to reveal she never really died but was kidnapped by Skrulls. Thor summoned the spirit of Captain America, even though Cap wasn’t dead, just stuck in the timestream by Red Skull. And on and on it goes.

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