Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Review: Wolverine & The X-Men Vol. 1: Tomorrow Never Learns

When first I read Wolverine & The X-Men #1–not the Wolverine & The X-Men #1 that Marvel released in 2011 upon launching the title, but the Wolverine & The X-Men #1 Marvel released in 2014 after re-launching the title because a new writer was taking over–I was struck by how pointless the endeavor seemed. In the previous volume of the series, which lasted 42 issues, writer Jason Aaron (and the various artists he worked with), told one, big completely complete story arc. He (and they) pushed the X-Men and Wolverine in a new-ish direction, re-establishing the idea of the original X-Men as teachers to new mutants (previously explored most thoroughly by Grant Morrison during his millennial run) while making Wolverine the reluctant headmaster of the newly re-christened Jean Grey School.

They introduced plenty of new characters, reinvented and repositioned plenty of old characters and invested all of those characters and the franchise with things it had been missing for way too long: A sense of fun, an aura of old-school superhero wonder, a spirit of adventure and plenty of post-modern Silver Age-style craziness...even zaniness. Job done. Aaron concluded his run, and went on to his next Wolverine-related book (Amazing X-Men, which launched as an Aaron-written showcase for Wolverine's squad of X-Men, the "real" X-Men in the five-headed hydra of the line*, but that book went off the rails after just one story arc).

So with the story of Wolverine & The X-Men already told, complete with much of its cast finding various resolutions, from leaving the stage in permanent-ish fashion or graduating, what exactly was there for a Wolverine & The X-Men title to do?

That first issue I read focused on perennial troublemaker Quentin Quire (a Morrison creation) angst-ing over his new role at the school as a teacher's assistant, given that he just graduated, while Wolverine is off doing Wolverine stuff and the Evan/Genesis (aka The Kid Who Might Grow Up To Be Apocalypse) conflict gets dragged out again. Writer Jason Latour included a few panels in which Beast literally phones-in a cameo to explain that he wouldn't be in the book, nor would most of the other X-Men, as Wolverine apparently approved leave for almost the entire faculty.

And indeed, the school would seem pretty deserted through this entire story arc (which accounts for one half of the 12-issue run of the Latour-written Wolverine & The X-Men). Wolverine, Storm, Doop and just-graduated Armor account for all of the X-Men in this book, with Quentin, Idie and Evan the students who play any real roles, although several other familiar faces from the previous run show up to fill out crowd scenes in the halls of the school and move scenes forward: Eye-Boy, Rockslide, Hellion, etc.

Yes, after I read that first issue, I was unconvinced there was any point to continuing to publish a Wolverine & The X-Men book (Marvel would agree not many months later, as they ended the book at issue #12 with Wolverine's death, replacing it with the even shorter-lived, school-based Spider-Man and The X-Men).

But after reading the first volume? Well, the book's existence no longer seemed pointless, and, in fact, I actually found myself feeling rather bad for Latour, who does a great job of writing these characters, particularly default main character Quentin Quire, and who seems to have gotten a fairly bum deal here, having to relaunch a new version of a very good, rather popular and acclaimed series, but with a greatly reduced cast and with various outside pressures informing what he could and couldn't do: This volume deals almost exclusively with fall-out from the time-travel shenanigans in "Battle of The Atom", and the upcoming second volume naturally deals with Wolverine's death, which was being telegraphed hard as far back as the first issue in this series.

The storyline is still remarkably complex, and lurches quite a bit, as new angles are introduced and then forgotten immediately. I forgave a great deal of the complexity on the basis that I just didn't remember the events of "Battle of The Atom" all that clearly, nor did I have the deep knowledge of X-Men lore to follow certain plot points until they were explained later (For example, when new [?] character Faithful John appears and beats the hell out of Wolverine saying he was trained by Askani Priests, I assumed that he was talking martial arts, not Phoenix worshippers from the future or...whatever). (After reading and writing about this, I checked Paul O'Brien's X-Axis for his take, and while he is probably the most expert writer-about-the-X-Men that I know of, he found he book ridiculously convoluted; you can read O'Brien's superior review here.)

So the basic plot, as far as I understood it, seems to be as follows. Something calling itself The Phoenix Corporation appears out of nowhere, it's teenage CEO Edan Younge making some very bold claims. This gets under the skin of both Quentin, already dealing with a bit of an identity crisis as he goes from bad kid in school to teaching assistant, who learned he'll be The Phoenix at some point in the future, and Wolverine, who thinks the corporation is disrespecting Jean's memory.

They both make a bee-line toward the Phoenix Corp's HQ (at which point the corporate angle is abandoned), and they are faced with powerful opponents. Younge plays head-games with Quentin, making him question his identity and destiny, while Faithful John–a powerful psychic from the future–beats up Wolverine and Storm and then heads for the school in an attempt to kill Evan before he can ever become Apocalypse.

What gradually emerges is that both Younge and Faithful John are agents of grown-up, Future Quentin, who manipulated them both to prevent Present Quentin from growing up to be Future Quentin, as Future Quentin killed Future Evan when Future Evan became Future Apocalypse, I guess...?

I want to say it's a simple idea communicated in a needlessly complicated fashion in order to make its revelations more dramatic, but then we are dealing with time travel paradoxes and since time travel in the Marvel Universe is supposedly "broken" and there's so much goddam time travel going on in the X-books these days that it's really a story we could do without...despite the fact that Latour has some interesting ideas to play with in terms of Evan and Quentin as characters coming of age, both with big, terrible destinies tied to big, broad forces within the X-Men mythology.

Latour also does a rather fine job of focusing on Quentin and Wolverine as parallel characters in many way. The nature of the conflict might naturally demand that Evan be paid the attention that goes to Wolverine, but, well, this book is called Wolverine & The X-Men, so Wolverine's really gotta be the, or at least a, star. In truth, the book could have been retitled Quentin Quire and Wolverine...And Some X-Men Too.

I can't say I followed the twists and turns of the plot, but I tend to give up really quickly on trying where X-Men history and, especially, X-Men time travel is involved. Latour is on much more solid footing when it comes to the scripting over the plotting, and he does a particularly strong job with Quentin's voice (in dialogue and narration) and Quentin's interactions with the other characters, particularly during a brief visit to Cyclops' school.

Latour also balances comedy with melodrama pretty well, particularly when it comes to Doop, who gets a two-page sequence at the beginning of the fifth issue that serves as the climax of the sort of things Doop gets up to between panels and pages.

I think the book would have worked far better were these issues #43-#48 of Wolverine & The X-Men, with Latour and artist Mahmud Asrar simply inheriting the title from Aaron and his artistic collaborators. I already knew all of these characters, and the set-up having read the previous 42  issues of the previous volume of the title, but Latour makes little to no effort to explain, well, anything.

The Phoneix Force is sort of defined, at least as Younge sees it, but there's no explanation given as to who any of the pre-existing characters are, who or what Apocalypse is, what's the deal with his Horsemen, what Bamfs are (and they are used extensively throughout as transportation and psychic thralls of a bad guy), why Wolverine can't heal, what the fuck Fantomex's "The World" is, who Fantomex is and on and on.

For the first story arc of a brand-new series, this sure read like the tenth story arc of a series already in-progress.

In addition to being a mess in terms of plot, it is a particularly unwelcoming and unforgiving mess for newcomers; this is not the X-Men book anyone should start with. That said, it's a fun mess, with some compelling ideas swirling around within it. And it's a smart mess, perhaps a sign of Latour's ambition exceeding his ability (or his ability within the confines of the X-Men franchise and unseen editorial constraints, if we want to give him the benefit of the doubt), as both his lead characters spot the plot holes, comment on the plot holes and continually reject the villains' stated motivations as excuses and lies they tell themselves.

Visually, the book is much stronger. Asrar manages all four of the first issues solo, and starts getting help on the last two, only the final issue of which looks messy and unlike his work. That's also about the point the book stops making sense anyway, though, so the changing, sloppier visuals aren't the detriment they might have otherwise been. He gets a lot less to work with in terms of cast and overall insane visuals compared to the folks who drew the previous run of a comic book with this title, but he designs and draws every character he's given extremely well. I could read Asrar art forever, I think.

*Just to review, if you need it: All-New X-Men featured the time-traveling, teenage original X-Men, who started out at the Jean Grey School under Wolverine, but later jumped ship for Cyclops' school for no logical reason; Uncanny X-Men featured Cyclops' rebel "New Xavier School" lead by a handful of his still-loyal allies and new, emerging teenage mutants; Uncanny Avengers featured the "Avengers Unity Squad" of half-mutant, half-non-mutant heroes, lead by Havok; X-Men was the random group of female X-Men based at the Jean Grey School that sometimes existed as a distinct team unit and sometimes didn't, depending on the writer and the story; and Amazing X-Men featured the the faculty of the Jean Grey School, regardless of gender: Wolverine, Storm, Beast and so on. There were, as always, plenty of ancillary books starring mutants and having X's in the titles, but these were the five that featured the actual X-Men, divided into roughly two camps of Team Cyclops and Team Wolverine.


I can't be 100% sure without seeing them all side by side, but I'm fairly confident than the "animal variant" for the first issue of this series, featuring Wolverine as a cat, or a cat in Wolverine's costume, is the very best of all the animal variants.

I like this Arthur Adams variant cover a lot too, even if both Storm and Wolverine have some pretty ridiculous anatomies, and that the way their costumes are drawn make them look as if their costumes are painted on, rather than worn.

This one is of interest too because it features a couple of students who were featured in the previous, Jason Aaron-written run, but don't appear at all in the first volume of this Jason Latour-written run, namely Shark Girl, Brood and...whoever the girl with wings is. I forget.

I liked this cover a lot, too. I don't know that the contents necessarily reflected the cover, but it's a fine symbolic representation of the school weighing heavily on, and threatening to crush, Storm.

1 comment:

Scott Beattie said...

When first I read Wolverine & The X-Men #1–not the Wolverine & The X-Men #1 that Marvel released in 2011 upon launching the title, but the Wolverine & The X-Men #1 Marvel released in 2014 after re-launching the title because a new writer was taking over–I was struck by how pointless the endeavor seemed.

Truer words have never been spoken.

The thing is, as you mention Jason Latour is actually a really good writer, but, more than anything, I think this book demonstrates how much the constant renumbering devalues the each title. If this had simply been Wolverine & the X-Men #43, most readers would probably have stuck around. Instead, Marvel basically gave everyone a convenient excuse to jump ship, without providing a compelling reason to stick around (other than simply being a fan of Latour, I guess).

In other words, renumbering is good for short-term sales boosts, but taints everything long-term.