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May 4

Uncanny X-Men #11-16 – “This Is Forever”

Posted on Saturday, May 4, 2019 by Paul in x-axis

This isn’t an ideal point to be reviewing Matthew Rosenberg’s current Uncanny X-Men storyline, which to all intents and purposes is still going.  But for whatever reason – most likely, to give different names to the trade paperbacks – issue #17 is titled “We Have Always Been, part 1”.  So officially, at least, issues #11-16 are a single arc, and let’s go with that.

Except… well, except it very obviously is the first part of a continuing storyline, and not an arc at all.  And I’m bearing in mind that Rosenberg’s New Mutants: Dead Souls looked like a bit of a mess at the halfway mark, only to cohere in the end stretch.  Then again, his Multiple Man miniseries also looked like a bit of a mess at the halfway mark, and it was.  Still, I’m inclined to reserve judgment to some degree.

Of course, I wouldn’t be talking about reserving judgment if I was blown away by the story so far.  “This is Forever” is a strange book – a retread of the “mutants on the verge of extinction” schtick, but played in a different way and against a different context.  And, within that framework, kind of all over the place.

The first page of part 1 is a black page with the caption “Every X-Men story is the same.”  Cyclops goes on to explain that the X-Men always get knocked down and always come back, but this time it’s apparently the end, because…  Well, because of the vaccine which was introduced in the previous arc, I guess, because we all know how thoroughly effective vaccination programmes are in the contemporary USA.  And I have a whole range of problems with this whole set-up before we even get to this story, some of which I covered in reviewing “Disassembled” – this stuff about mutants being on the verge of extinction again doesn’t emerge sensibly from the previous story, doesn’t have any coherent plot link to the regular X-Men being missing in Age of X-Man (despite that being presented as some sort of big turning point here), and seems a ridiculously rapid turnaround from the immediately preceding stories where the X-Men were living more or less openly in the middle of New York.

On top of that, we’ve had this basic idea dominate the X-books twice in recent years – the “no more mutants” period after House of M, and the Terrigen Mists storyline when the Inhumans were top of the spreadsheet – so it’s been run into the ground.  And on top of that, not only have we had it at length twice in the recent past, but it was absolutely dreadful both times.

So before we even get to page one of part one, (a) I don’t buy the premise, (b) I’m fed up of the premise, and (c) I think the premise is crap anyway.

I think we can all agree that this is not a congenial starting point.

Still, “This is Forever” does bring a different slant to the idea.  Part of that is because, however illogically, this is all being presented as somehow linked to the absence of most of the cast in Age of X-Man – and since we know that’s a five-month storyline, there’s a tacit suggestion that this is a relatively short-term deal.  And another part is that previous iterations of this storyline have seen the X-Men withdraw ever further from the real world, barricading themselves into compounds or islands or mystic dimensions.  “This is Forever”, in contrasts, strips the remaining X-Men of their usual trappings and leaves them operating out of the back room of a pub.  It relies on the characters themselves to legitimate this as an X-Men team – and since Rosenberg still has Cyclops, Wolverine, Havok, Magik, Chamber and a bunch of New Mutants characters on hand, it’s certainly an X-Men team.  Ironically (and no doubt intentionally), the return of Cyclops and the “real” Wolverine give this team two of the core elements that have been absent from the regular X-books for a while.

Within that, though, it’s all terribly scattered and unfocussed.  Issue #11 isn’t too bad as a set-up, if you don’t mind it being heavy on the misery.  Having missed the X-Men’s big fight with Legion, Cyclops wants to find and re-start his team, despite warnings from Blindfold (whose precognitions are so depressing that she rather gratuitously kills herself in a back-up strip), and a general lack of interest from the handful of mutants he does manage to track down.  Finally he resorts to a public appeal to any X-Men still out there, which inevitably attracts a bunch of villains, but also brings out Wolverine.  And that’s a nice finish which offers a moment of hope at the end of a grim issue – except for the questionable pacing decision to follow it with a bleak back-up story about Blindfold’s suicide.

Issue #12 follows on logically enough, with Cyclops and Wolverine rescuing the New Mutants from the subplot where they were stranded at the end of Rosenberg’s miniseries, thus bringing together some sort of X-Men team again, albeit one mostly infected with the Transmode virus.  But from here, the story meanders off, with a random-seeming mixture of things sometimes going well, but mostly going rather badly.  Cyclops draws up a list of bad guys for the X-Men to finish off in their final run, which leads us to some very scattershot issues.  The Dark Beast gets recruited; Hope shows up as a bad guy and then turns back almost immediately.  The Juggernaut shows up (with his new status quo, only just established in X-Men Black, completely ignored).  Magneto (but obviously not the real Magneto, because he’s in Age of X-Man).  It doesn’t particularly feel like it’s heading anywhere, but then again it’s the first half of a story and for all I know at this stage, it’s laboriously putting all the pieces on the board.

Artist Salvador Larroca turns in perfectly solid work, but he seems miscast on this material.  He’s a very solid artist but one who’s generally at his best doing bright, shiny, colourful work.  He does have some good character work here, and brings a bit of life to some of the minor characters (though his Rahne is a bit of a mess).  He’s neither a realist, nor a widescreen cynic, nor is he an artist you particularly turn to for atmospherics.  Somebody in the vein of  Steve Epting might have been a better match for stories about a weatherbeaten run-down X-Men team in reduced circumstances, if that’s really the direction we’re going in.

Supposedly there’s a rule of thumb in wrestling that when the bad guy is beating up the hero, before the big comeback, the hero should at least get some offence in every three or four moves, even if he gets cut off again immediately, to remind the audience that he’s still fighting and to stop them giving up hope.  This series reads a bit like that, with some genuine wins for the X-Men mixed in amidst near-comical bleakness that you’d expect from a Mark Millar comic – people being blown up with internal bombs or shot in the head or Madrox having to absorb a tortured and dying dupe…  It’s not as unrelentingly cynical as that story would have been, which is obviously a plus, but the overall effect isn’t so much a balance of tone as a story swerving around the road.  But none of the X-Men’s scattered victories really does anything to shift the sense of despair.

If there’s a theme discernible in here, it’s about what this X-Men team is actually for, against a background of seemingly total futility.  The traditional X-Men answer for “why keep fighting” is to have hope and defiance to the last.  This story opens part three with the words “We’re together again.  Now we need a reason why.”  One reading would be that Cyclops needs an X-Men team more for his own sense of identity, and so that he can atone for his mistakes, than because there’s actually anything terribly compelling reason for them to exist.  The overall effect is of a comic that isn’t so much depressing as depressed, preoccupied with questions like “why is this book still here” and “why get out of bed in the morning”, and toying with the notion that there may in fact be no satisfactory answer to either question.

We’re only halfway through and it would be premature to guess where Rosenberg is ultimately going with all this.  What I can say at this stage is it’s certainly different from most X-Men stories, more in tone more than pure plot.  Yet precisely because of that tone, it’s not much fun.  I’m curious to know where it’s heading, yet not especially looking forward to the bit where I actually have to read it in order to find out. But we’ll see; it’s entirely possible that it’ll all knit together beautifully in the second half.

Bring on the comments

  1. Taibak says:

    I think Thom summed up my thoughts on it better than I did, to be honest. It’s the fear of prejudice that made the X-Men distinct, even if not every story was about extinction. That also makes the X-Men work better as a metaphor for real life minorities: you simply don’t know if your Uber driver is a bigot or not.

    But there’s still no good way around the shared universe problem. It’s tough to understand why the average Marvel New Yorker would hate and fear, say, Forge but be perfectly fine with the likes of the Punisher and Ghost Rider running around. It’s part of why I hope Disney doesn’t integrate the X-Men into the MCU: they work so much better in isolation.

    That said, I think Walter and Chris have the best solution: the public doesn’t differentiate between the X-Men and mutant terrorists like Magneto and Mystique, which also parallels with real-world prejudice. Since the X-Men are so insular and only tend to show up when, say, the Brotherhood is trashing Brooklyn, the X-Men become their own worst enemy because their actions make them look like a rival mutant gang.

    However, from the point of view of the average person in the Marvel Universe, the fact that the X-Men seem to distrust humans *and* have the power to, say, melt tall buildings with a glance means they have perfectly good reason to be suspicious. It also makes a good contrast with the Avengers and the Fantastic Four who tend to operate openly.

  2. Dimitri says:

    Oddly perhaps, I actually think the X-Men as symbols of the minority experience works better within the larger Marvel universe.

    Yes, it is odd that Marvel bystanders are capable of cheering a super-powered guy like Spider-Man donning a flashy hoodie and spandex to fight crime, while simultaneously throwing rocks at (pre-revolution) Cyclops for doing the same thing. But we live in a world where — and please forgive me for the terribly crass analogy — a black teenager can don a hoodie to walk back home, and somehow that gives people the right to stalk and shoot him, with half the conversation in the media being about how said teenager asked for it by daring to wear a hoodie.

    Bigotry in the real world doesn’t make sense, and the discongruity of the X-Men’s experience within the wider Marvel universe helps highlight that (if perhaps accidentally).

    If anything, to me, it’s the MCU that would suffer most if it got merged with the X-Men. It would be hard to argue that Peter Parker’s powers give him any higher level of responsibility when, in every classroom, there’s two or three kids who can shoot lasers from their fingers or rearrange molecules with a sneeze.

    Having said that, I too like the idea of Marvel bystanders being unable or unwilling to differentiate between the mutant terrorists and any other mutant off the street. The parallels with the real world here are also very pointed, and it’s probably easier to digest for a lot of readers/viewers.

  3. Voord 99 says:

    On that subject (serving as a useful metaphor for the real world), a problem with going so heavily for extermination stories is that it tends to let the reader off the hook.

    It’s fairly easy to feel confident that you don’t share that much territory with people who literally want to kill all members of some marginalized group, and there is, obviously, quite a lot of real-world prejudice that stops short of being in favor of actual death camps, but is nevertheless bad.

    On the compatibility with the larger MU, there are problems, but by the same token all this ridiculous technology and contact with aliens should have produced a very different world, too. (And costumes make no sense, etc., etc. Etc.) I’m prepared to file it under “Price of admission,” and accept that the X-Men are “sort of” in their own universe, except when they aren’t.

    Mind you, I’m a defender of the Jemas era (well, some of it) – I can tolerate a *lot* of incoherence in my Marvel Universe. YMMV.

  4. Si says:

    Lately I’ve come around to the same thinking that Dimitri stated above. Humanity is all about scapegoating one minority while permitting or ignoring, sometimes even applauding, the same behaviour from other groups. Of course people are able to believe that Graviton destroying a city is the act of a lone wolf supervillain while Magneto destroying the city is proof that mutants are evil and dangerous.

    There was a great story about Goldballs (of all characters), where he became a celebrity and the public loved him, until he mentioned that he was a mutant. Then all of a sudden public opinion turned on him. It was quite affecting.

  5. Taibak says:

    Si: Of course, that story runs into continuity problems. Dazzler’s been out for decades. Argh.

    That said, it could be interesting to take a mutant with fairly limited powers, like Goldballs, and put him in a street-level series where he has to deal with every day prejudice. Now excuse me while I wash my mouth out with soap for suggesting a Goldballs mini.

  6. Salomé H. says:

    “But we live in a world where — and please forgive me for the terribly crass analogy — a black teenager can don a hoodie to walk back home, and somehow that gives people the right to stalk and shoot him, with half the conversation in the media being about how said teenager asked for it by daring to wear a hoodie.”

    It’s not just a crass analogy, though. It’s one that accidentally lapses into racist thinking, I would say, because it fails to address how, say, this very book is led by the interpersonal conflict and dynamics between two white, cisgender, straight, male American mutants – this notion that somehow, out of all these markers of position and priviledge, “mutants” slides the scale enough for significant political analogy, allegory or insight to emerge (regardless of the protagonists, regardless of the politics of representation of the X-Men – and such not-so-analogically considered…) is very, very questionable.

    And especially so when foregrounding race as metaphor; these sort of structural comparisons would be a lot less awkward, jagged, or nonsensical if Storm didn’t happen to be the one black character to ever have led the main X-Men team/title, say…

    That’s part of why I dig Claremont and Morrison; the first, because he was still working within a certain niche-concept, with plenty imaginative space to fill out
    – not over-inflated, either conceptually or in market terms – and which could get take time and space with a certain narrative of subjection (from the NY sewers to Genosha) and even then, that was awkward as it was – some of Kitty’s speeches, uff…).

    Morrison, in turn, and that’s why I think his was such an awkwardly loyalist version of the X-Men, was to work that scene of subjection angle precisely via overinflation: too many mutants (and such as no hex euphemism…), mutant media scandal, the increasing visibility of the grotesque and all-too-odd (i.e., Morlocks out and about, so to speak), “MAGNETO WAS RIGHT” (yet an awkward fool), etc.

    I tend to feel since Morrison’s run, and the way it imparted surrounding titles with at least a partial sense of scenery, context, and direction, too many major narratives have been shaped as sort of narrative tricks of reversal in their attempt not to exhaust the concept of the subjugated group, and they’ve majorly fucked up (and exhausted…) the very concept in the process: magical decimation, mystical toxins, yet-another-pocket-dimension… Ways of magicking the status quo back in to miserly shape, and mostly very, very silly and poorly told.

    (With good, sound, exciting exceptions too – I’ll always love Messiah Complex for the sordid sci fi 90s flamboyance of it.)

  7. Salomé H. says:

    Sorry, long post and messy paragraph I’d like to revisit:

    *”That’s part of why I dig Claremont and Morrison; the first, because he was still working within a certain niche-concept, with plenty of imaginative leeway to fill it out – not over-inflated, either conceptually or in market terms –, and could take his time with the bits and ends of a certain narrative of subjection (from the NY sewers to Genosha, say: 1980s) and even then, that was awkward as it was – some of Kitty’s speeches, uff…”

  8. Dimitri says:

    I was waiting to see how long it would take for someone to twist and completely re-invent what I wrote for the privilege of calling me a bigot without knowing anything about me or addressing anything I actually said.

    The answer is three comments. It took three comments for somebody to chastise me for something they completely made up in their heads, and call me a racist. Wonderful.

    So, for all the good it will do (I suspect none), let me clarify:

    1. In comparing how Marvel bystanders deal with Spider-Man versus Cyclops to the tragic way some people in the real world deal with white people wearing hoodies versus black people wearing hoodies, I was highlighting the fact that the accidental double-standard in the Marvel universe creates a helpful parallel with real-world double-standards. Nothing more, nothing less.

    2. I never said that “mutant” is more important than race or sexuality or other bases that have suffered real-life discrimination. You just conjured that up from thin air.

    3. As far as my not acknowledging that “this very book is led by the interpersonal conflict and dynamics between two white, cisgender, straight, male American mutants,” you seem to have arbitrarily decided that I am passing judgement on the book and have found it superior to books that discuss similar issues with actual minorities in the lead. When did I ever say that?

    Here’s the thing: When something somebody said is truly bigoted, you don’t have to make up three quarters of it to demonstrate how it’s bigoted.

    Apologies to everyone else, who probably didn’t need to read this.

  9. Chris V says:

    The way I see it, this is the nature of analogies.
    It’s not just done with the X-Men, but has been done many times in the science fiction genre.

    The book could be about real-world minorities dealing with discrimination on a day-to-day basis.
    However, that’s not really the purpose of a superhero comic book set in the Marvel Universe.

    Isn’t part of the point of basing something on an analogy to make a majority relate to these characters?
    They see white, straight American characters who look like everyday people (for the most part)….like Cyclops.
    Except, he’s being persecuted, as if he were a member of a real-world minority.
    If Cyclops were a gay African-American man, who happened to be a mutant, it sort of takes away from the usage of mutants as an analogy.

  10. Nu-D says:

    I understand and agree with Dimitri’s point, and rebuttal. I think Salome’s comment was out of line.

    I also think Si offered an easier illustration with Graviton/Magneto than Dimitri did by pointing to our double-standards when it comes to race.

    The double-standard in the MCU for mutants and other super-powered characters can be seen as an analogy of such real-world double-standards like attributing the acts of “radical Islamic terrorists” to all Muslims, while simultaneously regarding the IRA as not representative of Irish Catholics.

  11. Thom H. says:

    This back-and-forth is maybe an example of why the X-Men work better as stand-ins for an invisible minority like queer people.

    It’s true that Wolverine and Cyclops have a lot of markers of privilege, but even Storm lives in a fucking mansion, so…

  12. […] it’s intensely irritating.  When I reviewed the first part of Rosenberg’s Uncanny, I was reserving judgment somewhat.  But this has many of the things I like least about his run – an overreliance on killing […]

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