Friday, June 04, 2010

In which I review two Uncanny X-Men collections, one of which I liked and one of which I did not.

The image above is one I took on my cell phone the other day. It’s of the graphic novel section at the library in the next town over from me.

The library serves a pretty small community—at the time of the last census, the town it’s in had a population of about 12,500—so it’s not really much of a surprise that their graphic novel section is pretty small. All of their sections are small. But jeepers creepers, three shelves isn’t very many shelves.

The last time I visited there, I noticed that the X-Men seemed to be pretty well represented on the shelf, including an awful lot of Wolverine comics and just about a full run of Ultimate X-Men trades.

There were at least five Uncanny X-Men trades checked in, and I grabbed all of them that I figured I’d be able to stand reading, which, after you eliminated the House of M tie-in trade, the one featuring the grotesque photo collage stylings of Greg Land, and two from the ‘90s, left two trades—both by pretty exciting writers.

Now I’m going to write long, meandering reviews of them.

Uncanny X-Men: The Extremists contains an arc from Ed Brubaker’s run on the title, specifically issues #487-#491, all of which were drawn by Salvador Larroca.

Brubaker was, I think, a very interesting choice for the X-Men franchise, give that he’s primarily known for his work in the crime genre and, at Marvel, for his reinvention of the Captain America title, moving it away from straight-ahead superheroics and towards a much greater emphasis on past war-fighting and modern espionage.

I know from working with that Brubaker’s X-Men comics resulted in a lot of conversation among fans, and I know I was curious enough to check out a few trades from the Columbus libraries before, but I didn’t care for any of the trades of his X-work I’d read before at all. In fact, I’m having a hard time remembering much about them at this point.

I read one about Charles Xavier being a slightly more manipulative jerk than usual, in which it was revealed he had an extra X-Men team between his first two famous ones. I think I read something about Banshee getting run over by an airplane.

And then were was a whole bunch of space stuff, which always seemed like a weird aspect of the X-Men comics to me—like, I’ve always just assumed that those stories only existed because Chris Claremont and whoever wanted to do some space opera stuff one month, but they were stuck on the X-Men comic so just did it there instead of a more appropriate book. If the creators had been working on The Avengers or Man-Thing at the time, Tony Stark would have been dating the lady with the hair pyramid from the Shi’ar Empire and Rory Regan’s dad would have ended up being a space pirate. (Reminder: I know very, very little about the X-Men, and never read the “good” stuff by Claremont and Byrne, so keep in mind if it sounds like I have no idea what I’m talking about when I talk about the X-Men, it is because I have no idea what I’m talking about).

As with the other Brubaker X-Men stories I had previously read and forgotten, this one didn’t impress me much at all.

The antagonists are the Morlocks, the sub-set of mutants that live in the sewers, and I have to assume they are an extremely tired group of X-Men antagonists, because I hardly ever read any books with the letter X in the title, and I’ve seen variations of this Morlocks story—complete with Storm freaking out due to claustrophobia—a good 40 times or so, across various media.

What’s fresh(er) about Brubaker’s approach is that he uses them as a vehicle to tell a story that is kind of sort of about religious extremism and terrorism, but I found the whole endeavor sort of tasteless and overly obvious, with a moral amounting to nothing more specific or relevant than stating that terrorism is bad, that violence is bad, that it’s possible to take religion too far, that religion is no excuse to commit violence and so on.

Maybe it’s just me. Perhaps another reader would find the fact that Brubaker has taken an extremely basic, almost generic plot that could quite easily have been about any of many real-world conflicts and just X-Men-ed it up to make it X-Men-specific for the X-Men comic inspired. Certainly that sort of ham-handed obviousness in attempts at relevance is part and parcel to the X-Men franchise, historically. At least from what I know of it.

Me, I kept wondering what the point of it was—why can’t the religious terrorists be jihadists or Zionists or a Christian militia, instead of some weird made-up mutant religion ?

But no, it’s sort of a Mad Libs thing.

The blank space marked “good guys” is filled in by the X-Men (Well, Storm, a Morlock, a Native American mutant who is actually named Warpath, and Cyclops’ space-pirate father’s ex-girlfriend who is an alien cat lady left over from a preceding space opera story arc).

The “bad guys” space is filled by a splinter group of Morlocks who take their crazy new mutant religion too far. The religion is a prophecy-based one more or less invented by a mutant Morlock named after a type of keyboard.

The religious-inspired terrorism isn’t bomb or even death-based, but instead involves making innocent subway commuters look like mutants (one of the bad guys has the mutant ability to fuck up people’s faces by touching them).

It’s quite competently plotted, and it certainly supplies the necessary amounts of melodrama and action to be mediocre, but it was really hard for me to get over just how stupid the whole thing seemed.

Larocca’s art didn’t help at all, either. I’ve grown used to his work on Invincible Iron Man, where the copious amounts of photo reference and computer usage is somewhat more tolerable given the high-tech settings and amount of images that involve Iron Man armor, but most of this book takes place in darkened tunnels, so the characters themselves almost constantly in super-sharp relief against their settings, forcing the eye to consider them in great detail.

And most of them look like photos of people run through filters, with superhero costumes layered on top of them.

I know this sort of superhero comics art has its fans—and presumably a lot of them, given how popular it is at Marvel these days—but I just can’t stand the style, and generally find myself reading the story in spite of it, not because of it.

It’s really hard to give one over to the drama of a pissed off, claustrophobic Storm lightning-ing her way out of a coffin and telling the bad guys she’s going to kick their asses now when you can’t help noticing the artist is using a different model for her face on this page then he did on the last page, you know?

I wouldn’t recommend this comic.

Leaps and bounds better was Uncanny X-Men: Lovelorn, which consists mostly of Uncanny X-Men #504-#507 by Matt Fraction, Terry Dodson and Rachel Dodson, with the Fraction-written, Mitch Breitweiser and Daniel Acuna-illustrated Uncanny X-Men #2 awkwardly grafted on to the back of the book.

Like Brubaker, Fraction is another unlikely choice for an X-Men writer, which, of course, makes him a great choice for an X-Men writer. I’ve liked an awful lot of the Matt Fraction comics I’ve read over the years, and probably would have added this book to my regular single-issue reading diet when he took over the title, were it not for the fact that one of the artists he’s been working with is Greg Land, whose art I can barely bring myself to look at anymore, let alone read or pay money for.

In fact, I had to scan the credits on this book before even checking out to make sure it was Land-free.

To be fair to Brubaker, I suppose it’s worth noting that Fraction is working with a much better art team here, one that constructs images and page layouts as if they were drawing comics (which they are) and not trying to trick the eye into thinking it’s looking at something other than comic art.

And also that Fraction’s stories are further removed from the House of M/M-Day/“No More Mutants” bullshit than Brubaker’s were, so he doesn’t have to waste as much time jumping through the hoops involved with it (During Brubaker’s arc, the Xavier School is a sort of prison camp guarded by Sentinels and the X-people aren’t allowed to leave it, but they do all the time anyway, so space must be devoted to them fighting with Sentinels and arguing with government administrators throughout their adventures).

The status quo Fraction’s working with here is after all of that nonsense, and finds the X-Men now living in San Francisco, with Cyclops in the leadership position instead of Charles Xavier. It seemed a lot fresher to me, in large part because I have never experienced X-Men stories in this setting or with this particular status quo.

The title story arc follows a few different X-Men through a few different engaging sub-plots, which eventually crisscross at various points.

Colossus is feeling pretty pouty, a mood demonstrated by the fact that he keeps trying to get a tattoo to remember his dead-again girlfriend by on his skin, but he keeps turning into a giant metal dude during the process and breaking the tattoo artists’ needles. Cyclops and Emma Frost tell him to get his head on straight, so he goes out and gets involved in some solo superhero stuff in the local Russian community, which just so happens to involve a bad guy from his own past.

Cyclops is feeling pretty stressed out and having a hard time explaining things to Emma, so she psychically visits his head, presented as a hotel populated entirely by, as she tells him, “your memory of every woman you’ve ever cast a furtive glance upon,” giving the Dodsons and excuse to draw all the sexy X-ladies they want, wearing whatever costumes strike their fancy (Here’s the cover to #504, for an idea of what the inside of Scott’s head looks like here).

Meanwhile Beast and Angel are trying to put together a team of super-scientists to help them crack the mutant population problem that resulted from the House of M/M-Day/“No More Mutants” bullshit I referenced earlier.

(An aside: That particular plot point, that the Scarlet Witch used her magical powers, or mutant powers that mimic magic I guess, to suck the X-gene out of all the mutants on Earth that weren’t popular X-Men never made a whole lot of sense to me. If Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada simply wanted to make mutants seem more unusual and thus “special” in the Marvel Universe, he could have simply had editors, writers and artists quietly quit introducing new ones—and stop using the more obscure ones—without having to do a sort of cosmic “fix.” He’s referred to this as one of the genies he wanted to put back in the bottle, but, much like the Spider-marriage, you can’t really put genies back in bottles, and doing so has only created storytelling hurdles and barriers. Tim O’Neil had an interesting essay about the “No More Mutants” problem, essentially arguing that it’s turned the X-Men into their own villains; from my perspective as a casual reader, the main thing it did was create a bunch of new problems I had to wrestle with whenever I think about Marvel’s mutants in an attempt to fix a problem I hadn’t even realized existed).

However here that fall-out is being used as a source of storytelling potential (the X-Men’s science guy is going to put together a Justice League of scientists to solve a big science problem), rather than a storytelling roadblock that needs to be hopped over or tunneled under (a scene of a tense stand-off between a government employee in piloting a Sentinel and an X-person added into every issue).

It no doubt helps that not only is Fraction approaching the mutant de-population as storytelling opportunity rather than an anchor dragging him down, but that he’s having so much fun with it. Beast and Angel track down three mad science types, of various levels of madness.

The first is someone named Dr. Nemesis, whom I liked so much I had to Wikipedia, and I guess he’s a public domain hero who appeared in some Invaders stories in the second half of the last century…? Fraction basically writes him like an arrogant, mad scientist version of Warren Ellis’ online persona though, so, you know, that’s fun. The final one is a Japanese dude who built some crab monsters and a Godzilla to protect himself, so the story arc’s climax can juxtapose two battles of various levels of seriousness and silliness.

In one, Emma Frost and an unarmored Colossus battle Russian gangsters who were attempting to sell immigrants as sex slaves, while in the other Angel turns blue and gets metal wings to fight Godzilla.

That right there is good superhero comics. By all means, use real world crime, even X-Men it up a little bit (The Russian gangster has super-mutant tattoos that swirl around and reveal secrets or some such), but don’t forget to include the occasional mad scientist, giant monster and some jokes.

It also helps if the comic book is drawn and looks like part of the wonderful tradition of cartooning that makes the medium so special, instead of something that looks like it was put together inside a computer by someone who finds lines on paper shaped like amazing people doing amazing things to be irrelevant and joyless compared to making Storm look like a photo of a real woman.

I would recommend this comic.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the Annual, which was decently written and interestingly drawn (Breitweiser drew the modern scenes in the sketchy, gritty style you see from the likes of Gabriel Hardman, while Acuna draws the flashbacks in his sorta slick, plastic-y, overly textured style, although it’s modulated to be more cartoony than some of his past work). It’s a Dark Reign tie-in, and is basically the history of Namor and Emma Frost’s relationship, which naturally includes them fucking, because Emma Frost has did it with everyone in the Marvel Universe…or at least she eventually will have, once they do enough stories retconning more and more Marvel heroes into her sex life.

It wasn’t as fun or interesting as the lead story, the colors were darker and less bright, and the artwork less clean and bold in style than that of “Lovelorn.” And it reads like a weird detour, as it has next to nothing to do with the story that preceded it, aside from having Emma Frost in it. Also, Namor didn’t commit enough acts of incredible violence or act as massively prickishness as I would have liked him too. But then, this is my favorite Namor story, and I know they can’t all have Namor slapping mayors and throwing the Empire State building at babies.


tomorrowboy 2.6 said...

It could just be that the GN section is really popular and most of them are out all the time.

When I lived in Vancouver a few years ago a brand new library opened near my house. The graphic novel section was huuuge, but it gradually shrank (by entire book cases) as so many of the books went out on loan. They still had lots, just not as many.

Hdefined said...

Caleb, you would fucking love Claremont's run. It's aged pretty well - it's not as corny as full-on Silver Age material, and it tackles some weighty issues for its time, and features really good character work for its time, too.

Plus, it helps going into it with the mindset that it was the ONLY X-Men book at the time, and the ONLY book to feature Wolverine. Therefore, when Wolverine does something badass in his run, it's usually the first time Wolverine does that badass thing, which defined the character we now know and are really sick of.

Seriously, just do it. Go from Giant-Sized X-Men #1 through Uncanny X-Men #190. You'll be glad you did.

grifter said...

you skipped over the second "mad scientist", which is Box (Madison Jeffries), a sadly-underused now-appealing Alpha Flight character.

Matt D said...

Bru fell to the X-Men curse, where very good writers have very terrible X-Men runs.

Fraction on the other hand, is doing great work and I get the feeling the key fanbase is hating it for some reason, maybe the fact it doesn't take itself completely seriously (while still having really big stakes).