Wednesday, March 11, 2015

If you don't buy this comic, we'll kill this X-Man: Uncanny X-Men Vol. 3: The Good, The Bad, The Inhuman

After having spent some time catching up with Jonathan Hickman's two Avengers books, it was pretty jarring to check back in with Brian Michael Bendis, former caretaker of the Avengers franchise, and current writer of the two primary X-Men books, All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men. Bendis' two-book, intertwined story isn't anywhere near as cohesive as Hickman' fact, it's not always clear that he is telling a story in these comics, as much as a series of vignettes built atop a premise. Certainly that's the case with Uncanny X-Men Vol.3, which collects five issues of the series, none of which have a whole lot in common, let alone a sense of being chapters in a serial story with any kind of momentum behind it.

Having read a big chunk of Bendis' meandering Avengers run, which regularly detoured into and through various unsatisfactory big event stories, I'm inclined to blame Bendis for this state of affairs, but I suppose it's just as likely that the X-Men franchise is just too big and too sprawling for any writer to handle too well for for too long.

Bendis had a lot of leeway when he came on to The Avengers; sure, a lot of the individual characters had their own books, but he stocked the line-up/s with his own personal favorite characters, with whom he could do as he pleased without worrying what was going on in the non-existent Luke Cage monthly or whatever.

Bendis came on to the X-Men books in the wake of Avengers Vs. X-Men, which killed off Charles Xavier and thrust Cyclops into an unusual role as a Magneto-like figure, leader of the "bad" faction of the X-Men at ideological and occasional actual war with the "good" X-Men lead by Wolverine, Beast, Kitty Pryde and the characters at the Jean Grey School.

The writer had two books. The first was All-New X-Men, featuring the original five X-Men, plucked from their own time and deposited into what to them was a nightmare future, the present X-Men line at Marvel. Naturally, they sided with the official X-Men and operated out of the mansion. The second was Uncanny X-Men, featuring Cyclops, Magik, Emma Frost and Magneto trying to found their own school for young mutants.

Both books had pretty strong hooks, and that for Uncanny involved these semi-broken X-Men trying to work through their greatly diminished powers (again, fallout from Avengers Vs. X-Men) and dealing with a status quo where everyone hated and feared them, up to and including, like, all of the other dozens and dozens of X-Men. Meanwhile, SHIELD has apparently built new mutant-hunting Sentinels that are regularly deployed against them...but SHIELD denise knowledge of who's controlling these.

Things got unwieldy fast. In addition to the Kitty and the original X-Men defecting from Wolverine's X-Men to Cyclops', Jason Aaron wrapped up his Wolverine and The X-Men and started and abandoned Amazing X-Men, Magneto and (teen) Cyclops got their own titles and left the cast, Wolverine died, thus defusing the whole Cyclops/Wolverine as Magneto/Xavier status quo that was building for years and's kind of a mess, really. Rather than building to something, these two X-Men books, like, um, all the X-Men books at the moment seem to be reacting to stories rather than telling them.

One thing the Bendis X-books share with the Hickman Avengers books, however, is they seem pretty undercut by the upcoming Secret Wars/"Battleworld" business. I know very little about what Marvel is planning and what the event will consist of, other than that they are going to temporarily smoosh various continuities into a single, shared world that will be straightened out at some point in the future, after they launch a billion intriguing-sounding titles, some sort of reboot will have to occur.

So just as we know the seemingly unsolvable problem of the incursions in Avengers and New Avengers will be worked out in the process of Secret Wars and/or its aftermath, it's safe to say that the original X-Men will be returned to their time in the same event, and Wolverine and Xavier will come back to life, and none of this will matter, even in the way that superhero comic book stories matter.

Anyway, Uncanny X-Men Vol. 3: The Good, The Bad, The Inhuman. The five issues are all written by Bendis, and drawn by three artists. Chris Bachalo draws three non-consectuive issues, and Kris Anka and Marco Rudy each draw one apiece.

As I said there's no real forward momentum, but rather, the story checks-in with various characters at various points.

In the first, drawn by Bachalo, we focus on new mutant Benjamin Deeds, who has a weird, hard-to-explain power, which merely allows him to change shape to kinda sorta more closely resemble a person near him, and put that person at ease. He's having a hard time working with hard-ass instructor Professor Cyclops, but Ms. Frost sees lots of untapped potential in him, and tries to draw it out in some intensive one-on-one training. She dresses weird in one issue, even for Emma Frost:
Is that a Punisher-themed dress? How old is Emma? 22? I assumed she was somewhere in here 30s, but it's hard for me to imagine a woman much older than 20 wearing that, for some reason. Maybe it's not Emma, maybe it's me.

The next issue? The teen girls on the team, including teen Jean (the "All-New" squad is mostly off-panel in this volume) convince Magik and, through her, Emma and Kitty to take them out for a girls night of shopping in London, since they basically lack everything, up to and including a change of clothes in their new "school" (which is the abandoned Weapon X facility, as Cyclops thought that would be the last place Wolverine or anyone else would look for mutants). This one is drawn by Kris Anka, who does a fine job, and whose style resembles Bachalo's closely enough that it seems to fit.
The X-ladies just hanging out is all fine, even fun, but things get weird near the climax when they discover an Inhuman cocoon...out of whom pops Geldhoff, the 616 version of Bendis' infamously lame original creation for the Ultimate Universe (who stood for a long time as Exhibit A that while Bendis may be pretty damn good at writing or recreating other people's characters, he sucks at creating new ones of his own...I think he's redeemed himself pretty well later on, of course; some of these new mutants are pretty okay characters).

Anyway, Geldhoff pops out, uses his new Inhuman powers, then AIM appears, kidnaps him, and the X-ladies are like, "Eh, whatever, we're out of pages." And that's the end of that plot.

There's a little discussion about what to do with Geldhoff, exactly, with one girl suggesting they take him back to the school, and someone else pointing out that he's not a mutant. Which sure seems like splitting hairs to me; I know there's probably some Official Handbook of The Marvel Universe definition of what a mutant is versus what an Inhuman is, and what makes the two distinct, but all I saw was a seemingly regular teenager who all of a sudden physically transformed and had extraordinary super-powers...which is pretty much exactly what happened with all of these mutant characters, save he had a cocoon.

I understand what Marvel is trying to do in terms of rehabilitating and pumping up The Inhumans into a sort of franchise of their own—likely under the impression if they could sell the world on The Guardians of the Galaxy, then The Inhumans oughta be a breeze—and that this connects to plot points unfolding in other comics, at least one of which likely has the word "Inhuman" in the title, but it's weird to see it so tacked-on here, as the "Oops, we're almost out of pages and there hasn't been any fighting yet!" plot point of a hang-out issue. Like, if any comic was going to explain the difference between an Inhuman and a mutant, I would expect it to be an X-Men comic, you know?

Bachalo returns for the next two issues. The first of these follows Magneto as he continues his obsessive investigation into SHIELD's Sentinels to Madripoor, where Mystique reveals to him what readers already know: She's been posing as Dazzler, who SHIELD hired as their mutant liaison. She bought the country of in order to turn it into a refuge of sorts for mutants, and Magneto meets here there with some other evil mutants, Sabretooth and The Blob. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Magneto is very mad at them—I think it has something to do with the presence of Mutant Growth Hormone, which Wikipedia says is maybe farmed from mutants in some cases, but it also says it can be synthetically manufactured, so I don't know—and throws bullets at them and jumps in a helicopter and flies away. The end.

In the next, the new mutants are taken to a place in Montana that's been turned weird and alien by something that happened in...a Rick Remender comic, I want to say? X-Force or Uncanny Avengers...? I could use some editor's notes here, editors. Anyway, it's basically like a different flavored Savage Land, and the kids have to survive there.
Tempus does something weird that allows Bachalo to draw her with her clothes torn off, and, for some reason, no one notices that the mutant girl with time-travel powers now has long hair instead of short hair. Cyclops kicks one of the kids off the team after he fails this trial, and, unfortunately, it was one of the few of the new mutants with an actual codename and interesting super-power.

I imagine we'll see him again though, as there's another, competing school for mutants, plus SHIELD or whoever will want to use him to get to Cyclops.

Finally, the last chapter is drawn by Rudy, and it's a very showy, rather weird issue, in which there are no traditional girds or panels. Almost all of the panels are formed by swirling red lines meant to be Cyclops optic blasts, which now come out in curvier, wavier lines rather than the traditional straight line, due to his powers being wonky. Despite the untraditional layout, most of the pages are fairly easy to read, although Rudy goes a little way too far with some of the symbolic panel borders, as when a guilty Cyclops is surrounded by optic blast panel borders that turn into hands with pointing, accusatory fingers.

This issue, with its bullshit cover (which is used as the cover of the collection; please note no one actually holds a gun to Cyclops' head*), is weird in that it shows Kitty confronting and threatening to kill Cyclops to avenge the murder of Charles Xavier. She does so not with a gun, but by sticking her hand into his head and threatening to solidify it just enough to destroy his brain. He talks her out of it by telling her how guilty he feels about it, even though it wasn't really him but the Phoenix Force that did the deed, and that he doesn't want her to have to live with the feeling of having killed an older guy she used to look up to.

I think part of this is meant to retroactively explain why Kitty up and left Wolverine's X-Men at the end of "Battle of TThe Atom," an event that made absolutely no sense at the time (And, in fact, its nonsensical, completely unmotivated nature was what Peter Milligan hung his All-New Doop miniseries on). So this issue jumps around, showing a confrontation between Cyclops and Kitty that occurred before she joined his school/side, and then reverting to the present, when the teachers and new mutants discover that Kitty and the kids were all kidnapped by space aliens. In other words, this issue is 50% devoted to answering the completely unnecessary question of What was Cyclops thinking in Uncanny X-Men while the "Trial of Jean Grey" story was unfolding in All-New X-Men and Guardians of the Galaxy?

Bendis' writing remains as strong as ever, particularly when it comes to dialogue—here he even manages to give a few characters their own, distinct voices—and individual scenes, but his plotting in both the short and long-temr remain incredibly weak. But, again, that may owe as much to the X-Men line being just too damn big for any writer to master enough to actually direct it, and the necessity of Marvel event stories scuttling any long-term planning.

*Oddly enough, the back matter in this volume shows cover artist Alexander Lozano's nine different sketches for the cover of that issue, and all of them are some variation of Cyclops with a gun being held to his head by an unknown gun-holder. It's weird, really, especially when you consider how distinct and portentous an image of, say, Scott with five fingers emerging from the middle of his face would be...


SallyP said...

Unwieldy is an excellent way to describe this.

Philippe Leblanc said...

I love that the quote from comicbookresources on the cover is "Simply a joy to read". It completely clash with the emotion they were trying to convey with the cover art. You know that X-men book where a man gets threaten with a gun to his head and clench his teeth awaiting death? Turns out it's simply a joy to read...

Jester said...

Awesome National Lampoon reference in the headline!!