Monday, April 13, 2015

Review: All-New X-Men Vol. 5: One Down

Brian Michael Bendis has been writing the main books of the X-Men franchise for a while now, and I've been keeping up with it in trade, mostly by borrowing the trades from the library as soon as they are available. But I've been wondering how difficult it might be to come in on the series, like, right now. Would it be terribly difficult to figure out what trades to read in what order?

As of right this second, there are five volumes of All-New X-Men and four volumes of Uncanny X-Men (the fifth will come out on Wednesday). They are all numbered, which certainly helps, at least in terms of which volume in each of those titles to read in which order. But the two series are inter-connected, so you wouldn't want to read, like, all five volumes of All-New and then start in on Uncanny. Also, Battle of The Atom, a massive, 250-page collection of a storyline running through several different X-books including All-New and Uncanny, happens between volumes of both series. So that's pretty important to read. And Guardians of The Galaxy/All-New X-Men: The Trial of Jean Grey is kinda important to the proceedings of All-New (but not Uncanny), so you'd want to read that too. I think the reading order would be something like All-New Vols. 1-3, Battle of The Atom, All-New Vol. 4, Trial of Jean Grey and then All-New Vol. 5. That's at least half of Bendis' run on X-Men, but just the half that follows the All-New team, the five original X-Men brought forward from their past into our present/their future. Oh, yeah, there's time-travel involved too!

These movies, they're kind of hard to walk in on the middle of, aren't they? Even if you're watching them on DVD. Because some have numbers on the spine, and some don't. I guess the trades, like this one, all start with a recap page, but the two paragraphs of text at the beginning of this one are pretty vague and meaningless. I'd prefer a, "Hey dummy, make sure you read these trades in this order" kind of thing.

Anyway—All-New X-Men Vol. 5: One Down.

This was kind of a frustrating read, because it was a Brian Michael Bendis-written comic and an X-Men comic, so of course it was frustrating, but what I found most frustrating was that I couldn't figure out what the sub-title referred to. Was it that one of the original X-Men left? Because he did that in comics previous to the ones collected herein. I thought it might refer to a runaway student of the New Xavier School—the one Grown-Up Cyclops runs, not the establishment school that Wolverine was running until he "died"; that's called The Jean Grey School now—but she actually comes back shortly after she tries to leave. I thought it might also refer to one of the time-traveling villains, who gets caught by the end of this trade, but then he gets away by writing a letter to himself in the future. So that's probably not it either.

Speaking of frustrating, this six-issue collection kicks off with All-New X-Men #25, which is treated as a noteworthy anniversary issue, despite the fact that Marvel's randomly accelerated publishing schedules means it doesn't take 25 months to reach 25 issues anymore, and their willingness to reset the issue clock back to #1 at the drop of Tom Brevoort's hatsometimes the creative team doesn't even have to change—that numbering's not really relevant anymore.

Unequivocally awesome? Rafael Grampa's variant
I'm sort of torn on whether All-New X-Men #25, which includes a slew of high-profile guest-artists, some of whom are actually really great, and really unlikely, "gets"—is an example of Bendis using his powers (i.e. his clout) for good...or for evil. Because on the one hand, yes, we do get to see the likes of Bruce Timm, Ronnie del Carmen*, Maris Wicks, Jason Shiga and Jill Thompson contribute pages of X-Men art alongside more traditional superhero artists, like Arthur Adams, J.G. Jones, J. Scott Campbell and so on.

But on the other hand: The plot.

It boils down to this: The Beast is having trouble sleeping, and a bald man is in the corner of his bedroom, mumbling a bunch of random nonsense about alternate realities for 32 pages, with the 18 guest art teams mostly contributing pin-ups with random subject matter. There are a few examples of sequences that occur within the pin-ups, like a segment in which Adams draws a bestial Beast hunting and eating dinosaurs in The Savage Land, and, more weirdly still, there are entire short, jokey, 1-2 page comic strips that occur within the story—during which time the mysterious bald figure conveniently stops narrating. It's a really fucking weird comic; I liked seeing so many great artists play with the characters, even if the majority of them are restricted to what often amounts to no more than a cover featuring a single character, but at the same time it's irritatingly pointless. In fact, it may or may not be a dream of Beast's, and it doesn't matter either way if it is or isn't.

Well, a bald man talking endlessly at a frustrated, captive audience about completely irrelevant non-events to kill time does serve a pretty good metaphor for an awful lot of Bendis' writing for Marvel. His X-Men run in particular, as Secret Wars looks like it will be resolving the plotlines of All-New in a rather expected and transparent fashion (although I hope I'm wrong, as "and then we rebooted the timeline" would be the most disappointing ending imaginable to this story of the time-lost X-Men).

After the story of Beast's dreams of pin-ups—which Marvel charged $4.99 for, despite the fact that 15 of those pages were simple splashes, and three of 'em double-page splashes!—the book resumes telling a story of some kind.

The narrative apparently picks up after the events of The Trial of Jean Grey, with Jean troubled by her newfound power and power levels and Teen Cyclops missing from the team, having elected to stay in space with his space-pirate dad.

X-23, who has barely been in the book at all—a subject of repeated jokes, actually—elects to leave, but as she's going she meets someone else coming—The Brotherhood from Battle of The Atom, i.e. the evil future X-Men lead by Charles Xavier Jr. who came back in time to force the present X-Men to send the past X-Men back to the past before they fuck up the future.

It's essentially a big rematch fight then, but this time there are relatively fewer X-Men around to oppose The Brotherhood, and Bendis takes time to jump around in the villains' own personal timelines, to show their origins and what banded many of them together. It ends with a pair of significant revelations, and a clever twist on the idea of time travelling villains from the future...although it's an aspect of time travel stories I've never liked (I remembered being really upset by it while watching Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure as a 12-year-old).

The final issue is a chill-out one of the sort that often occurs between big story arcs in super-team books, in which Angel and X-23 go dancing at a club together and then hook up. It, and thus the collection, ends with a pretty big cliffhanger, as a handful of the Jean Grey School's X-Men arrive at the supposedly secret location of the New Xavier School, but it's a cliffhanger that will pick up in Uncanny rather than All-New; next on All-New's agenda is a trip to the Ultimate Universe.

*One of my favorite artists, and one whose work appears in comics way too infrequently. I have no no idea who his two-page splash depicted though. Magick or two or three other X-ladies...?

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