Thursday, July 28, 2016
Artists: Chris Bachalo, Frazer Irving
Collects: Uncanny X-Men #1-5 (2013)
Published: Marvel, 2013; $24.99 (HC), $19.99 (TPB)
Brian Michael Bendis’s Uncanny X-Men exists at a strange remove from All-New X-Men, being at once a companion piece to the writer’s other flagship X-Men title and a series with a coherent raison d’etre of its own. The first collected volume, Uncanny X-Men, Vol. 1: Revolution, focuses on the shambles Cyclops and his cohort (Emma Frost, Magneto, and Magik) find themselves in as they attempt to train a new generation of mutants. (It’s ironic, isn’t it, that Bendis’s “all-new” characters – Tempus, Triage, Fabio, and Benjamin – make their home in Uncanny, while the stars of All-New are the time-displaced “all-old” X-Men of the 1960s?)
Some of the most interesting and best-written moments in Revolution are actually ones previously seen in All-New X-Men, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, presented here with a focus on the character interactions we didn’t see in Bendis’s other X-book. When Cyclops & Friends show up at the Jean Grey School to recruit more mutants to their cause, for example, Bendis overlays the war of words between Cyclops, Wolverine, and Kitty Pryde with a psychic showdown between Emma Frost and her former protégés, the Stepford Cuckoos. The girls feel betrayed by Emma’s apparent loss of her mutant abilities, casting a harsh light on Emma’s own sense of betrayal – one directed at herself on the one hand, but also at Cyclops, both for unintentionally breaking her mutant powers and for breaking her heart as well.
As fascinating as moments like these are in their own right, they also serve as consistent springboards to what gives Uncanny X-Men its own identity in relation to All-New X-Men: the “broken” nature of its cast’s mutant powers in the wake of Avengers vs. X-Men. If All-New is about inexperienced young mutants learning to utilize their talents to their fullest potential, then Uncanny is about experienced older mutants half-conscious of their new limitations but who try to do what they think is right anyway. Throughout Revolution the utter inability of Cyclops and his team becomes increasingly disconcerting, especially considering that half of them are completely untrained. While the team narrowly escapes potentially deadly encounters with Sentinel robots and the Avengers in this volume, it seems only a matter of time before Cyclops’s hubris will result in tragedy. Chris Bachalo’s artwork, fittingly, is as beautiful as it is unsettling, his frequently off-kilter panel layouts creating a near-constant sense of unease and impending danger.
The final issue collected in Revolution features painted artwork by the equally talented Frazer Irving, but unfortunately the story itself – about denizens of the demonic Limbo dimension coming after team member Magik – leaves much to be desired. As longtime readers of this blog might recall, I’ve never been too keen on demons serving as the antagonists of superhero comics (see also: my reviews of Superman: Kryptonite Nevermore, Batman – The Dark Knight: Golden Dawn, and Nightwing, Vol. 1: Traps and Trapezes). At best such stories tend to read essentially as cardboard cut-outs of one another, offering up supernatural excuses for the main character(s) to fight endless hordes of generically ugly bad guys. At worst, though, they legitimize the use of sexually violent language and imagery as a plot device; just consider the number of stories we’ve all read and watched about death-cults sacrificing virginal young women to Satan (or some other demonic entity). Only adding to the unpleasantness is that these types of stories tend to wrap themselves in pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo, adding yet another dimension of poor taste to the proceedings.
In Revolution we have the worst of all these worlds, with characters threatening to “damn” and “punish” each other and Magik in particular singled out as a “stupid mortal girl,” a “broken doll” who “must be punished.” Magik, for her own part, sprouts horns and hoofs and begins referring to herself as “the Darkchilde.” It’s pretty insufferable stuff. It never gets quite as perverse as some of the character’s earlier appearances – I’m thinking especially of Chris Claremont’s Magik (Illyana and Storm) and the hopefully never-to-be-reprinted Magik miniseries of 2000-2001 – many of which more explicitly evoked pedophilia and rape. But even so, one might hope that this character’s thirty-plus years of publication would be long enough for us to have moved past this brand of storytelling.
Revolution ends right in the middle of this dreadful story, leaving it to drag on for another two issues in the series’ next collected volume. I’ll say more about the story’s conclusion should I get around to writing about that book, but in the meantime it’s worth noting how irritating it is that both this volume and All-New X-Men, Vol. 2: Here to Stay end on cliffhangers. Since characters weave in and out between All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men, this makes it impossible to read either series in trade without spoiling the other, even if you switch from one series to the other between individual collections. (And that’s to say nothing of how both series intertwine with Brian Wood’s X-Men, Rick Remender’s Uncanny Avengers and, eventually, Bendis’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man.)
In short, while the first four issues collected in Revolution represent some of the strongest work by both Bendis and Bachalo in recent years, the way this volume concludes sends up serious red flags. I’ve mostly enjoyed Bendis’s two X-Men titles so far, and I sincerely hope this isn’t a sign of things to come.
Friday, June 3, 2016
Artists: David Marquez, Stuart Immonen
Collects: All-New X-Men #6-10 (2013)
Published: Marvel, 2013; $24.99 (HC), $19.99 (TPB)
All-New X-Men, Vol. 2: Here to Stay delivers on the promise of the series’ first volume with a story that, even more so than Vol. 1: Yesterday’s X-Men, prioritizes character development over plot. In fact, this volume represents some of writer Brian Michael Bendis’s strongest character work in years.
There is forward plot progression, to be sure, with Mystique gathering the villains Sabretooth and Mastermind for a crime spree that comes to a head in the next volume. But the real star of Here to Stay is the series’ time-displaced version of Cyclops, who wastes little time, following the events of Yesterday’s X-Men, in stealing Wolverine’s motorcycle to search for answers about his present-day self. As one might imagine, this makes for an amusing series of misadventures in which Cyclops comes to grips with the modern world as Wolverine tries to track him down.
The first two issues of Here to Stay, beautifully illustrated by guest-artist David Marquez, culminate in a conversation between Cyclops and Mystique (who this young version of Cyclops has never met). Mystique acts as something of a sounding board for Cyclops at first, allowing him to talk through the major events of Yesterday’s X-Men and granting readers the clearest access to his thoughts that we’ve had so far. But what makes this sequence most interesting to me is that it can also be read as a total inversion of Bendis’s much-celebrated Ultimate Spider-Man #13, in which Peter Parker comes out as Spider-Man to Mary Jane Watson (who, prior to this issue, thought Peter’s big secret was that he had a crush on her). The same honesty that characterized that conversation initially seems present here as well, with an empathetic-looking Mystique offering seemingly thoughtful advice to the angst-ridden Cyclops. Bendis turns that perception on its head, though, in the very next scene:
The time-displaced Jean Grey develops in interesting ways here too, with the ethics of her newly acquired mind-reading powers brought repeatedly into question. The other three original X-Men – Beast, Iceman, and Angel – are given a lot less to do this time around. Angel in particular feels like a dead weight on this series, and despite a tedious subplot in which he fights generic Hydra robots alongside his present-day counterpart, his only real function here is to have his thoughts questionably manipulated by Jean. And while I’m not confident that the plot development teased by this volume’s cliffhanger ending – Angel’s departure from the Jean Grey School for the present-day Cyclops’s New Xavier School (and, thus, for the series Uncanny X-Men) – will make the character any more compelling or relevant, the prospect of a slightly decluttered cast in All-New X-Men is a hopeful one.
One final thing I couldn’t help but consider as I read these issues is exactly when Bendis proposes the original X-Men to have been formed. All signs seem to point to the late 1980s: the young Cyclops is baffled by cell phones and water bottles, and there are repeated references to the present-day Cyclops being around 40 years old while the younger version “looks twelve” (although I suspect he is closer to sixteen). For two and a half decades to have transpired since the formation of the X-Men contradicts the (frankly stupid) principle of Marvel’s “sliding timeline,” which would have us believe that all the events of the modern Marvel Universe have taken place over the course of less than ten years.
Here to Stay may lend some credence, then, to a theory advanced by Rich Johnston: that Marvel editorial at one point was purposefully seeding such continuity aberrations in order to justify a future “quarantine” of the X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises – the Fox-controlled film rights of both being the subject of much dismay among top executives at Marvel and Disney – from the rest of the Marvel Universe. It’s impossible to render a verdict based on the issues collected here, of course, but it’s something I’ll certainly keep in mind as I continue to read this series.