Posted on Sunday, January 30, 2011
by Paul in x-axis
This week: X-books, X-books, X-books. It’s not that I didn’t buy anything else – it’s that Marvel shipped ten X-books this week, in one of their periodic bursts of demented scheduling insanity. Those would be: Age of X Alpha, Chaos War: X-Men #2, Howard Chaykin’s Magneto one-shot, New Mutants #21, Uncanny X-Force #4, Uncanny X-Men #532, X-23 #5, X-Men #7, X-Men Forever 2 #16, and X-Men: To Serve And Protect #3.
This is the definition of saturating the market. If you’re going to produce this many X-Men titles, it’s completely ludicrous to put them all out in the same week. But so it goes. Some of these books are the concluding parts of storylines, and I’ll try to come back to them later in the week once I’ve re-read the whole arc. For the moment…
Age of X Alpha – This is the first part of Mike Carey’s alternate reality storyline, which is running over the next three months in X-Men: Legacy and New Mutants (a book which is between regular creative teams and thus able to join in without interrupting anyone’s story). As Carey explains in his afterword, the approach here is to just to throw us in with the story in progress, and fill in the back story with hints as he goes along. Even the question of why we’re doing an alternate reality story isn’t addressed here, though since this is Carey, and I trust him, I figure all will become clear in due course.
So we’re back with that old favourite, a world where mutants are being hunted down and exterminated by anti-mutant bigots. We’ve seen all this before. The main difference seems to be that in this world, the X-Men never got off the ground, and the survivors – a mixture of long-established X-Men characters and background types – end up coming together only in time for their last stand. And since they’ve had rather different lives in this world, their positions in the group are also different – so, for example, Cannonball seems to be in charge, while Cyclops (or “Basilisk”) is a sulking figure off on the fringes. Done well, this sort of thing can work as a way of casting characters in a different light.
Age of X Alpha is actually an anthology book, as the cast sit around waiting for what seems to be the final attack, and introduce short stories that fill in some of the back story. That’s the back story of the individual characters, rather than the universe as a whole. Gabriel Walta draws a completely bizarre few pages with Cyclops’ origin story, which has him being used by Arcade as an instrument of execution. It’s a wildly over the top concept (which kind of works precisely because it uses a villain as absurd as Arcade), but the art’s great, and I love the character design, which replaces the familiar visor with a sort of gate that swings open when he wants to fire the optic beam. Carlo Barberi and Walden Wong draw a Cannonball/Husk segment which has them taking on the local stormtroopers (i.e., completely regular American cops); the main point of interest here is that their moral compass seems decidedly off from where we’d normally expect to find it. Katarino Rao’s story, with art by Paco Diaz, doubles as a way of removing Wolverine from the board. And Paul Davidson does a few pages which basically introduce this world’s Magneto – he’s out there somewhere, he’s fighting for the angels, but from the look of it, our heroes have no idea where he actually is.
The approach of drip-feeding exposition and leaving readers to speculate on how we got to this point (and why Carey is telling the story at all) works rather well. That said, as a world-building exercise, I wonder whether the diversity of artists plays against it. When the basic visual style varies so wildly between segments, it somewhat undermines the coherence of the setting. It’s difficult to look at pages drawn by Gabriel Hernandez Walta on the one hand, and Carlo Barberi on the other, and feel like they’re taking place in the some world. Some of the stories show a recognisable USA, some appear to be in a post-apocalyptic wasteland; that’s obviously in the script, but I think it would come across more effectively if the art had a more consistent tone to it. Still, the individual artists are decent throughout, and on the whole it’s a good introduction to the storyline.
Chaos War: X-Men #2 – Oh lordy. This is the concluding part of the X-Men’s Chaos War tie-in, and boy, is this series surplus to requirements. You can see why somebody liked the idea. Chaos War involves, as an incidental plot point, characters escaping from the afterlife. So why not use it as a device to revisit long dead characters? The X-Men, like the Avengers and Alpha Flight, have enough corpses in the back garden to fill an entire team. It could have worked.
But it doesn’t work, in large part because there’s no role in the larger story for the undead X-Men. Writers Chris Claremont and Louise Simonson have to contrive an entirely artificial goal and then hand-wavingly assure us that, honest, it’s terribly important to the wider story. The result is something of a mess. Thunderbird is reinvented as some sort of shaman – an idea that ties in to the mythological elements of Chaos War proper, and has some tenuous basis in the idea that he was a disaffected native American trying to reconnect with his roots, but really bears little resemblance to the original character. The actual use of American mythology seems a bit wonky judging from the Wikipedia entries. And to try and justify the use of some characters, the writers end up trying to tell us that, honest, this throwaway tie-in series was actually a major concern for Destiny. There’s also a baffling continuity error, where we’re told that Banshee died before his beloved Moira MacTaggert. (Wrong, by a good five years.)
On the plus side, Doug Braithwaite draws some lovely characters. The book’s lacking in a sense of place, but I suspect that’s as a much a consequence of a story that feels anchorless and directionless. This wasn’t a horrible idea in concept, but in execution, it doesn’t work at all.
Magneto – A one-shot by Howard Chaykin, because heaven knows we needed more X-books this week.
This is a flashback story about Magneto’s first visit to New York, which is indeed uncovered territory. For the truly anal continuity obsessives among you, it also explains where he got his costume from. Actually, it’s better than I was expecting. It’s got a halfway promising idea about Magneto at a point in his life when he could have gone either way in terms of how he pursued his pro-mutant agenda; it doesn’t have some of the more eye-rolling recurring themes that often crop up in Chaykin’s work; and on the whole, the art’s pretty good, though it does sometimes degenerate into lumpy people smiling at one another. Colourist Edgar Delgado deserves credit for giving it a very appealing, light feel.
And now the bad news. The story sees Magneto, somewhere in the very early Silver Age, visiting Brooklyn… where there’s apparently an entire community of mutants living in plain sight. Magneto meets a girl so that he can have philosophical arguments with her, and his basic point is that these mutants are making a mistake by cutting themselves off from the rest of the mutant community. To which the only possible answer is: er, what mutant community? This is the mutant community, isn’t it? Who exactly is he suggesting that they should be in contact with? Annoyingly, it kind of falls apart when it gets to that bit, because it’s crucial to the central argument, and it doesn’t make any bloody sense. But I liked it more than I expected to, so fair play.
New Mutants #21 – This is the final issue of Zeb Wells’ run (after this, it’s three issues of “Age of X” followed by who knows what), and I really am going to have to go back and re-read the whole thing. It’s one of those final issues where Everything Falls Into Place, or at least a lot of things fall into place, and things are revealed that make sense of characters’ motivations going back as far as issue #1. I don’t want to spoil the plot too much in case any of you are reading it in trades – since this issue really would spoil the plot of the entire run – but suffice to say that Wells reaches a nicely ambiguous ending which leaves open the question of whether this is truly a story of redemption at all, and if so, how tainted that redemption is. It’s certainly a victory, but is it morally speaking a pyrrhic one, and if so, do we care? (It’s also, by the way, an important issue for Pixie, if you’re a fan of her. Perhaps a shame they didn’t find a larger role for her in the story, but to be honest, if they’re kicking that subplot into touch, that’s fine by me.) Like team book writers of old, Wells finds something for all his characters to do and gives them all a moment in the sun – er, except Warlock, who is also in this book. And Leonard Kirk’s art is wonderful, particularly when he seems to be shifting style to vaguely echo Bill Sienkiewicz in a couple of panels. Wells and Kirk have had a good run on this book, and I’m looking forward to re-reading it all.
Uncanny X-Force #4 – The concluding chapter of the first arc, in which X-Force finally get to confront Apocalypse – or rather, the little boy who we’re told is a reincarnation of Apocalypse. Quite how we know for sure that he’s a reincarnation of Apocalypse is a little vague to me, but for present purposes let’s assume that it’s not in doubt, because that’s not the argument that Rick Remender wants the characters to have.
Instead, he wants to do the “can the little boy be saved?” angle, and that’s fine, because there’s some actual drama in there. This is a good issue – it’s half a comic of over-the-top heist, followed by everyone deciding what they’re going to with the kid, with Warren’s dual personality providing an extra dimension. It’s got some inventive ideas in the action scenes, and the argument holds up very well, with the end brilliantly executed. Beautiful art from Jerome Opena, too, and it’s nice to see that while this incarnation of X-Force is retaining the premise of a secret black ops team, it’s relying on the story ideas rather than the blood and guts.
Uncanny X-Men #532 – This is part three of “Quarantine”, and the story remains a bit of a mixed bag. There are three story threads here that seem more or less unconnected – Lobe’s plague keeping most of the X-Men holed up on Utopia, the remaining X-Men dealing with the Collective Man in Chinatown, and Sebastian Shaw dealing with Emma and co. It doesn’t really come together as a whole, and there are bits that just feel a bit random and disconnected. There are some good elements here. Pixie has some cute dialogue, and Lobe’s a good idea for a villain – I like the idea of a villain who doesn’t hate mutants, he just wants to exploit them as a natural resource. In fact, that’s a particularly good idea for the post-M-Day X-Men, since it means that he has a shared (if mercenary) interest in the survival of the mutant species. And the Emma/Shaw stuff works well enough.
But. While the idea of leaving some of the team on mainland San Francisco to be an interim X-Men team is fine in theory, in practice the story doesn’t really do anything that turns on the particular characters being used. The five rich kids who have been set up by Lobe as fake X-Men have one personality to share between them, and it’s a personality with one dimension. And come to think of it, what kind of quarantine is it if Rao is popping over to the mainland to appear at a press conference? There are bits in here that seem like good ideas, but they aren’t coming together as a story.
X-23 #5 – Oh, okay, I see. I was kind of confused by the choice of Miss Sinister as a villain for the second arc, but now I get where Marjorie Liu’s going with it. Miss Sinister is supposed to be a woman whose mind was partially overwritten by the late Mister Sinister, and that kind of plays in to the whole identity-versus-programming theme of X-23’s character. It’s perhaps a little unfortunate that the story glosses over the admittedly convoluted details of her back story, since it is actually material to both the plot and the themes. But hey, at least that means that Liu has, if nothing else, found a story which really does require the use of Miss Sinister. In fact, by the end of the issue, she’s almost sold me on the character. Good clear attractive art from Will Conrad and David Lopez, too. It’s terribly emo, of course, but if you don’t mind that, this is a perfectly decent story in a nineties kind of way.
X-Men #7 – Bored of vampires? Good news! For its second arc, X-Men moves on to something entirely unrelated. Cyclops has belatedly figures out that if the X-Men want to be popular, it might be a good idea to fight some bad guys. So the X-Men are looking for trouble and… yeah, basically it’s a device to haul them off to New York to investigate a thingy. Remember those “What could make the X-Men return to New York?” solicitations? The answer, it turns out is “Pretty much anything.”
So much of this issue is a field team consisting of Storm, Emma, Wolverine and Gambit going hunting for a reptilian thingy that has been sighted in the tunnels below Manhattan. Who could it possibly be? Well, it’s the Lizard, obviously, and I’m not sure it’s even meant to be a mystery as far as we’re concerned. I’ll be fair, though – as a straightforward superhero story, this is perfectly acceptable, perhaps because it has the advantage over Uncanny of picking a small core cast and a single plotline, and focussing on them. Art comes from Chris Bachalo, and while there’s the occasional lapse of clarity, he’s on form here, with some beautiful panels that allow him to show off. This isn’t an especially ambitious story, but what it does, it does just fine.
X-Men Forever 2 #16 – The final issue of the curious “What would the X-Men have been like if Chris Claremont had kept writing it in 1991, only not really bothering too much about what he’d actually have written in 1991?” series. It’s pretty clear from this that Claremont didn’t get to follow through all of the stories he was hoping to tell here – he makes a point of throwing in a subplot about Mr Sinister abducting Nathan, and he doesn’t resolve the whole thing about anti-mutant forces usurping control of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Nonetheless, he has been given a decent amount of space to resolve the whole affair with the multiple Storms, and as an epilogue issue, this holds up decently. Guest artist Ramon Rosanas turns out to be rather good – there’s a sort of Paul Smith vibe to some of this, and that’s always a good thing. X-Men Forever may be a guilty pleasure series which didn’t get to run its full course, but at least it’s gone out with dignity.
X-Men: To Serve and Protect #3 – Now this is one of those issues that illustrates the problems with X-Men anthologies. The lead strip, with Anole and Rockslide, is good stuff; the hapless duo fight B-list Captain America villains the Serpent Society, and Chris Yost writes their reactions rather well – I like Rockslide’s admiration for his more sensible partner. After that, I’m afraid it’s a series of half-formed story ideas. “Storm Front” reminds us that Loki once made a hammer for Storm (which he did, in the “Asgardian Wars” story about a quarter century ago) and races clumsily through a resisting-temptation arc which was already done in the original story. “Invisible” is a Kitty Pryde story where she’s still coming to terms with being stuck in intangible form. Unfortunately what we get is an underwhelming “have faith in yourself” Hallmark moral, and there’s something a bit odd about a story where Kitty’s complaining that she can’t touch people while doing exactly that for much of the story. (Is the idea that she can touch people as long as she’s in the suit? It really doesn’t come across very clearly.) Finally, Chris Yost and Dalibor Talajic produce a Blink short picking up from the end of “X-Necrosha”, which is little more than an opportunity for the X-Men to stand around in a field and for Dr Strange to tell us in narration that the X-Men are heroes. There’s the glimmer of an idea in a sequence with Emma talking to Blink, but it doesn’t really come to anything. These three back-ups aren’t stories so much as ideas for stories, and the whole thing underachieves.