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Aug 31

Uncanny X-Men #17-22 – “We Have Always Been”

Posted on Saturday, August 31, 2019 by Paul in x-axis

There’s a moment in these six issues that I really like. It’s at the end of issue #17, when Cain – who only showed up partway through the previous arc – finally takes a look at the X-Men’s hit list of mutants they want to track down and asks why Emma Frost isn’t on the list. And everyone turns to look at him and asks: Who’s that? It’s a lovely reveal, since it’s not telegraphed, but at the same time, Emma is such a prominent character that it is indeed odd for nobody to have mentioned her up to that point. It’s really well done.

Viewed as a whole, though, “We Have Always Been” goes in the pile marked “interesting failure.” It’s taken me a while to get around to reviewing this, and it does benefit from being viewed in the context of the stories that surround it. Matthew Rosenberg’s run came out alongside the “Age of X-Man” crossover, with most of the cast off in a mock utopia for several months; understandably enough, it contrasts with that by going in the opposite direction, and cranking up the angst and misery.

But it also leads into the Jonathan Hickman run. And given what a drastic change of pace that is, with a drastic change in the X-Men’s place in the world, it’s perhaps more understandable that Rosenberg aims for a definitive version of the X-Men standards – the persecuted, marginalised group. Hickman’s story also seems to involve at least some characters returning from the dead (the Stepford Cuckoos are back up to five, for example), which may explain why Rosenberg feels so relaxed about casually killing off cast members. Dani even tells us outright in the final issue that she expects we’ll see them all again – and she’s a Valkyrie, so she ought to know. That’s not to say that these plot points are actively intended to set up Hickman’s run, but they seem to at least be taking advantage of the opportunity presented by the impending reboot.

It still doesn’t really work, though. The basic shape of these six issues is to reveal that Emma Frost has been pressganged into service by O*N*E’s evil General Callahan, who wants to use her against other mutants. For reasons which are unfathomable, except for the fact that there wouldn’t be a plot otherwise, Callahan releases her back onto the streets after putting a bomb in her head, and Emma has been trying to steer the X-Men in a safe direction while finding a way to get out from under Callahan’s control. The X-Men wind up allying with Emma and some baddies, and Emma has the bright idea of erasing humanity’s knowledge of mutants so that they can live in peace. Everyone’s still a bit depressed, General Callahan shows up with some Sentinels in tow (having protected himself with some sort of psychic blocker), and there’s a big fight where the rest of the X-Men arrive from the Age of X-Man in time to sort it all out. And then everyone decides not to hide but to live openly as mutants because of course they do.

There’s not much shape to any of this, and the assorted plot threads don’t knit together into any larger whole. Remember the subplot about the anti-mutant vaccine? That’s got nothing much to do with O*N*E, so it gets casually disposed of by having Dark Beast knock up a cure in his basement. That cure then turns out to be poisonous in its own right, but Dr Nemesis (who has barely appeared in the story up to that point) then knocks up a cure for the cure in equally offhanded fashion. The story needs the vaccine thing in order to justify the claim that, honest, it’s the end for mutants this time – but having introduced it, it struggles to find a way of incorporating it into the unrelated Callahan plot.

Callahan, meanwhile, is a completely one-dimensional villain who isn’t strong enough to anchor the story. He’s an off-the-shelf sadist and bigot with no real distinguishing features beyond that. All of which would be fine if he was a faceless antagonist, but the story gives him more prominence than that. And his casual brutality barely stands out against the meat-grinder bloodbath of the rest of the series, which casually slaughters Wolfsbane, Chamber, Vanisher, Shinobi Shaw (!), Velocidad… The misstep here, I think, lies in killing them one at a time in seemingly unrelated ways. If a bunch of them got blown to smithereens at once then that would feel like a disastrous error that Scott as leader would have to live with – instead, it just feels like the writer has got trigger happy. There’s no obvious in-story reason for characters to start dropping like flies, and that’s a problem.

There’s a half-developed idea to the effect that Cyclops is doing the wrong thing by keeping this version of the X-Men together. He’s ignoring Blindfold’s warnings, not because the world really needs an X-Men but because the X-Men and their legacy is so important to him – to his own sense of identity – that he’s willing to put others in harm’s way just so there can be an X-Men for him to build his life around. This isn’t such a bad idea, but it doesn’t click, because the story never really makes a convincing case that Scott is to blame for the body count.

As for the art, things are patchy. Salvador Larroca is meant to be the lead artist for this storyline, but he only actually draws the final three issues. The first three are drawn by Carlos Gómez, Carlos Villa and Bob Quinn, with a total of five inkers credited on issue #19 alone. It’s competent enough, but you couldn’t go much further than that. Larroca’s issues are alright, though I still think his bright and clean style is miscast on this story – except that even then, he drops out halfway through the final issue, so that the big rousing return of the other X-Men is drawn by David Messina, whose art looks entirely different. It’s been a while since I’ve seen fill-in artists thrown at an X-Men story in quite this way, but then they had to get this one done in time for House of X, I guess. You can understand how it ended up happening; that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a drag on the story.

Rosenberg may have a meta reading in mind here.  You could see this as the angst-ridden archetypal X-Men story dialled up to 11. And just as Cyclops seems to be keeping the team going for the sake of having it exist, maybe the story is trying to explore the idea that the X-Men themselves are a zombie franchise which exists simply in order to exist. But if that’s the idea, it makes the case rather too convincingly; this is too often a depressing slog to read. And while it’s certainly a relief when the other X-Men to show up at the end in a burst of  triumph, it feels tacked on, rather than any sort of true answer to the complaint – all he can really promise in his final issue is the X-Men doubling down for more of the same. (An explicit lead-in to House of X would probably have helped this arc enormously, but it wouldn’t be great for the Hickman collection down the road.)

This is a strange arc, which is clearly aiming for bleakness as a creative choice, but veers into both self-parody and outright depression. There are some good moments, but more often it’s joyless.

Bring on the comments

  1. Si says:

    Rosenberg’s run has started to appear on Marvel Unlimited. I was expecting it to be a morose slog, but I wasn’t expecting the writing to be so actively bad. Some of the dialogue is just … “is this where I’m supposed to ague with you? Because I wasn’t your biggest cheerleader before and that hasn’t changed, but you did okay.” What a mess of a sentence. Then they break into a prison that apparently has only four guards.

  2. CJ says:

    There was so much “kitchen-sink” writing that it felt like a “What If?” issue.

    I also liked that Emma scene as well as Emma talking to Cyclops in the diner.

    The whole arc felt enormously rushed because the majority of the cast was cannon fodder. Madrox’s death was particularly annoying; didn’t he just come back from the dead? Joseph shows up to die in like 10 pages. People said Fabian Cortez dies and I have to go look up where. “Oh,” I said. “Whatever, I guess.”

    I should’ve been touched by the Cyclops / Jean both alive reunion–that was what, 15 years in the making?

    This reminded me of “Eve of Destruction” just before Morrison’s run–yes, it happened, but it was right before a more influential and interesting work.

  3. FUBAR007 says:

    CJ: I should’ve been touched by the Cyclops / Jean both alive reunion–that was what, 15 years in the making?

    18, really, once you consider that Morrison opened his run with their marriage already on the rocks.

    This reminded me of “Eve of Destruction” just before Morrison’s run–yes, it happened, but it was right before a more influential and interesting work.

    And Salvador Larroca was a penciler on both!

    Your comparison is accurate. Both were even written under similar circumstances for similar purposes–tie up some loose ends and provide a bookend for the previous era of the franchise.

  4. Si says:

    By the way, if you want to read what might be the definitive portrayal of Emma Frost, go find Jessica Jones: Purple Daughter.

    These characters always seem to be so much better when they’re not in the X-books.

  5. SanityOrMadness says:

    @CJ

    Thing is, I’m pretty sure Cortez has already died multiple times over – last time in Necrosha where he was disintegrated, IIRC. Wasn’t Shinobi Shaw previously dead as well?

  6. CJ says:

    @SanityOrMadness yeah. I misremembered that Shinobi died _in_ Necrosha, but apparently he died off-panel before the issue! Also, Siena Blaze was killed in Weapon X at Neverland and was involved in Necrosha.

    There’s a fair chunk of villains who were dead and revived only for an issue when they were killed again. Honestly the casual resurrection-then-death-again seems a lot like some weird sequel to Necrosha.

    @FUBAR007 I’m thinking now that the entirety of Uncanny vol. 5 was supposed to 1) set up Age of X-Man and then 2) do something while HoX/PoX are being plotted and drawn.

    Not that I’m dying to read more Rosenberg stories in this vein, but as a run that lasted _8 months,_ I wanted to say that it never found its footing. But, I guess it did exactly what it was supposed to: lurch between crossovers.

  7. Thom H. says:

    “There’s not much shape to any of this” — I think that’s the crux of my dissatisfaction with Rosenberg’s run. A bunch of old standards with some interesting new twists thrown in, none of which paid off in a satisfying way. It’s like Rosenberg knew he only had a limited time on the book and tried to tell *every* X-Men story he had planned all at once.

  8. SanityOrMadness says:

    > There’s a fair chunk of villains who were dead and revived only for an issue when they were killed again. Honestly the casual resurrection-then-death-again seems a lot like some weird sequel to Necrosha.

    Thing is, that undermines the idea of death as a meaningful story element even more than something like Necrosha, or even HoX/PoX, where the resurrections are at least an actual story element in themselves.

    It’s like how, in Civil War II, shortly before he killed off Banner, Bendis had Doc Samson just… show up. When he was not only dead, but very on-panel, corpse-shown-to-still-be-rotting-years-later, dead. So why should we even *pretend* Banner’s death is “shocking” or “matters”? It’s just meh.

    Clearly, we’re never going to escape the revolving door at this point, but bringing someone back “accidentally” just to kill them again is the worst of all worlds.

  9. Brent says:

    I really enjoyed Rosenberg’s New Mutants and Astonishing X-men. I had really high hopes for this but I have to agree… it’s a mess. The whole thing feels rushed… but it definitely felt to me like they were heading somewhere. Like they have to be killing off all these characters for some reason. But then to have it all just end up where it did just made the whole thing feel awkward. I can’t shake the feeling that Rosenberg had bigger plans for this story (along with Jordan White) and where it would go after Age of Xman… but just as Age of Xman was ramping up, they decided to kill those plans and hire Hickman. The whole thing just doesn’t even feel like it mattered at all now, like some alternate universe story or something.

    And the Scott and Jean kiss at the end? What the heck? I like Scott and Jean together but that made no sense whatsoever. It came out of no where… wasn’t going anywhere. And for that to basically be the big ending? Just… why?

  10. SanityOrMadness says:

    > I can’t shake the feeling that Rosenberg had bigger plans for this story (along with Jordan White) and where it would go after Age of Xman… but just as Age of Xman was ramping up, they decided to kill those plans and hire Hickman.

    Deeply unlikely. Even if you don’t trust the editorial line that Hickman’s run has been planned for ages, for the artists to do the whole of a pair of fortnightly series would need *at least* half a year or so of lead time.

  11. Paul says:

    Hickman’s run has been in the works for ages. Pretty much everything we’ve seen in the preceding year was either deck-clearing or time-filling, and planned as such.

  12. Andrew says:

    I agree with the assessment that it feels like this decade’s Eve of Destruction which similarly was in the position of stalling for time/clearing the decks before a major relaunch.

    Eve of Destruction I recall being weird in that it set up this edgy new version of Cyclops which went absolutely nowhere because Morrison went in completely the opposite direction three months later while Joe Casey also ignored it in the one issue he got to do with the character.

    Knocking of Colossus stuck for the better part of three years even though that issue is a fucking mess, and the whole farewell to Kitty who was back in the books the very same calendar year in X-Treme X-men was weird too.

    Lobdell also clearly intended for Magneto to be dead at the end of Eve of Destruction only for Morrison to require the character for his run.

    I do love that single panel of Erik in the wheelchair looking up to see the Sentinels attack and blow up his tower.

    The rest of it was transparent wheelspinning.

  13. FUBAR007 says:

    Brent: And the Scott and Jean kiss at the end? What the heck? I like Scott and Jean together but that made no sense whatsoever. It came out of no where… wasn’t going anywhere. And for that to basically be the big ending? Just… why?

    In no particular order: 1) Fan-service. Scott/Jean shippers have been out in the cold a very, very long time. 2) Jordan White is a fan of the couple. 3) Perhaps Hickman wanted them back together at the start of his run for the purposes of the story he plans to tell. 4) With Scott, Jean, and Emma all alive again at the same time, the love triangle–i.e. who will Scott choose?–was effectively a dangling plotline, and the X-office wanted to resolve it, however perfunctorily, before the start of Hickman’s run. 5) The “Extinction era”, which Rosenberg’s run is the terminal end of, began with Morrison’s run, a key element of which was the deconstruction of Scott and Jean’s relationship. Structurally, putting them back together signifies coming full circle, bookending Morrison’s run, and resetting the status quo.

    Andrew: Eve of Destruction I recall being weird in that it set up this edgy new version of Cyclops which went absolutely nowhere because Morrison went in completely the opposite direction three months later while Joe Casey also ignored it in the one issue he got to do with the character.

    I’ve long suspected Casey and Morrison had already started writing their runs while or even before Lobdell was writing “Eve of Destruction”. Factor in also that this was at the beginning of the Jemas/Quesada era, Marvel editorial was undergoing a seismic personnel shift, and so continuity coordination probably wasn’t a terribly high priority.

    I do love that single panel of Erik in the wheelchair looking up to see the Sentinels attack and blow up his tower.

    IMO, that should’ve been the end of the character. It would’ve spared us the horrid Xorn-is-Magneto storyline, still fit with Morrison’s theme of old, obsolete views and ways giving way to the new, and it would’ve been a perfectly tragic, symmetric end to the character: Magneto was forged by one genocide only to ultimately die in another.

  14. Mo Walker says:

    @SanityOrMadness and @Brent – It would make sense that Hickman’s relaunch was in finalized late summer/early fall 2018 (at the latest). Pepe Larraz was working on Extermination last fall but only provided breakdowns for the final issue. Also, the final issue was several weeks late. It was released after the Uncanny X-Men relaunch had occurred.

    Perhaps in late spring/summer of 2018 there was the possibility of Rosenberg’s run being extended past post Age of X-Man. There were was a lot of moving pieces in the X-office in early 2018. Jordan White did not become the X-Men line editor until March 2018 – https://www.newsarama.com/39130-marvel-editor-jordan-white-taking-on-x-men.html.

  15. SanityOrMadness says:

    >> Brent: And the Scott and Jean kiss at the end? What the heck? I like Scott and Jean together but that made no sense whatsoever. It came out of no where… wasn’t going anywhere. And for that to basically be the big ending? Just… why?

    > FUBAR: In no particular order: …

    Also, go back and look at Rosenberg’s last two significant issues to focus on Jean. The last issue of the Phoenix Resurrection mini had her still calling Scott her husband and the kiss goodbye; while the Astonishing X-Men Annual with the rest of the original team had her depressed, and one of the things listed was Cyclops’ absence.

  16. Dave says:

    “the whole farewell to Kitty who was back in the books the very same calendar year in X-Treme X-men was weird too”

    We got a look at her in the Mekanix mini, part of the point of which was to see what she was doing away from the X-Men, but she never featured in X-treme. She didn’t come back ’til Whedon.
    Aaand, checking my facts on that a little bit, I see Mekanix was collected as volume 4 of X-treme, which makes no sense as none of the X-treme team appeared in it.

  17. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    Kitty was in the ‘God Loves, Man Kills II’ arc in X-Treme.

  18. SanityOrMadness says:

    And the last arc of XXM, before Claremont switched to Uncanny.

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