Saturday, September 12, 2015

Review: All-New X-Men Vol. 7: The Utopians

Imagine a big, red stick of dynamite the size of a grain solo, with an incredibly, almost unbelievably long fuse. Imagine someone lighting that fuse, and then imagine watching as the spark traveled slowly down the fuse over the course of, say, two and a half years. Then imagine the spark finally reaching the end of the fuse, disappearing as it came into contact with the impossibly large explosive and...nothing at all happening.

That should give you a pretty good idea of how Brian Michael Bendis concluded his 41-issue run on All-New X-Men, the last five mismatched issues of which are collected in the poorly-named All-New X-Men Vol. 7: The Utopians.

To say it fizzled at the end wouldn't even be accurate, as fizzling is something happening. Rather, Bendis' run just ends. To keep casting about for metaphors, his All-New X-Men wasn't a journey of any kind. Sure, the starting point might have been rather compelling, and yes, there was a great deal of movement, but there was apparently never destination in mind–Bendis just packed up his characters and readers and started driving in a particular direction until the car ran out of gas.

I honestly don't know how typical this is of Bendis' long-form comics writing, as I didn't make it to the end of his much longer tenure on the Avengers franchise or Ultimate Spider-Man, driven away from both by the price increases and constant rebooting that has made it difficult to find where I left off (His Ultimate Spider-Man run had at least three different titles and relaunches, for example; I would need a list of reading order and a lot of patience to find all those trades and read them...and that would be if I skipped all the Ultimate "event" comics, like that series where Marvel Universe Peter Parker first met Ultimate Universe Miles Morales).

This is particularly frustrating in the case of All-New X-Men, as the title launched with one of those big violations of the status quo that really doesn't seem as if it can or should last forever: After the events of Avengers Vs. X-Men, in which Cyclops and a handful of other mutants possessed or were possessed by the Phoenix Force and essentially went crazy and conquered the world for a while, a dying Beast used a time machine to bring the original, teenage X-Men to the present in order to remind Cyclops of who he (and they) used to be. But then they decided to stay in the present rather than go back and live their miserable lives full of death, horror and loss.

Such time-travel has been done on a temporary basis before, and this read an awful lot like a reversal of what DC did with Legion of Super-Hero characters a couple of times, but in the context of X-Men comics, it was was kind of clever, since the modern team travels to or otherwise interacts with nightmarish dystopian futures on a pretty regular basis (the twist here being that the nigmarish, dystopian future was actually our present...which has also been done before by the Distinguished Competition).

The fact that the past team wouldn't go back and then, eventually, couldn't go back was a pretty big deal, as it would violate all the laws of time travel known to man and mutant, in the Marvel Universe or otherwise. It was pretty much taken for granted that Bendis' run would end with either a restoration of the status quo, some sort of tweak, or, at the very least, an explanation. The fact that the end of his run was aligning nicely with Marvel's Crisis On Infinite Earths-like line-wide crossover story, the premise of which involved crashing alternate realities, suggested that Bendis could just take the easy way out and let Secret Wars hit the reboot button for him.

Well, to Marvel's credit, based on the books they've solicited post-Secret Wars, they don't seem to be using it as a way to un-do recent dramatic storylines, like the death of Wolverine, or the replacement of Captain America or Thor with new characters using their names and weapons. But the teenage X-Men all still seem to be hanging around after Secret Wars too, in a pair of books (most of them in a relaunched All-New X-Men, Jean Grey in Extraordinary X-Men), although Bendis is writing either. It really seems as if he's just passing the baton mid-story.

That's fine, I suppose; I'm sure the writers taking the baton aren't going to complain over-much since they're getting the paycheck associated with writing X-Men books, but it's unusual in these days of, a creator-specific runs on titles, which Marvel often talks about in terms of television-like "seasons," and certainly an unsatisfying pay-off to reading a book for so long.

It should be said that All-New X-Men does have the words "To be Uncanny X-Men #600" at the botto of its last panel. Uncanny X-Men is the sister book to All-New, following the grown-up Cyclops and his allies at a rogue X-Men school, and also written by Bendis. That hasn't come out yet, nor will it...until after the conclusion of Secret Wars, which, evidence suggests will not put the teenage X-Men back where Bendis found them. (By the way, the last issue of Uncanny that Marvel published was #35, so they are apparently doing one of those random re-numbering stunts where big numbers are preferable to small ones, but only when they have two zeros in them.)

So if the final collection of the final issues of All-New X-Men doesn't include a conclusion, what does it include?

Well, nothing very good, that's for sure.

The first issue is by artist Mike Del Mundo, a rather prolific Marvel cover artist–one of their best–and it is a done-in-one story in which Emma Frost takes Jean Grey to Madripoor for some field training in the arts of psychic combat. She temporary blocks Jean's telepathy so that she'll have to rely solely on her telekinesis. Then she picks a fight with The Blob, who's been in Madripoor and addicted to Mutant Growth Hormone in the pages of Uncanny. There are a few, interesting and salient points about how Xavier and The X-Men turned out from the perspective of villainous mutants (including Emma, who is now at least more hero than villain), and perhaps something in a way of Bendis settling the "When is Jean going to freak out and become Dark Phoenix?" question for now. More annoying is his resolution of Cyclops' teams unreliable, "broken" powers. Emma declares that she fixed it off-panel, when no one was looking.

The art is predictably great.

That's followed by the two All-New X-Men chapters of the 13-part "Black Vortex" storyline, meaning that All-New followed the pattern of Legendary Star-Lord, and just stuck a few random chapters of the crossover into a trade collection. I've expressed my confusion at DC's habit of double-collecting crossover storylines like this in the past, but "Black Vortex" is the first time I've noticed Marvel doing it.

For an overlong aside, the problem is this. If you're an All-New X-Men reader following the book in trade, you're probably going to want to read all of "Black Vortex." Sure, there are a lot of wasted, pointless pages, but there are a few relevant bits to "your" storyline: Teen Cyclops is reunited with his team, Grown-Up Beast learns that the time-stream is irrevocably screwed-up and he can't return the kids home, Iceman and Angel get different designs, and their Professor Kitty Pryde gets engaged to Star-Lord. But here you just get 2/13ths of the story, and they are essentially unreadable in this form; I mean, you can read them, but they won't make a whole hell of a lot of sense. And if you then buy the "Black Vortex" collection, Guardians of The Galaxy & X-Men: Black Vortex, these issues will also be in there. So if you don't buy both trades, you're missing a chunk of story and getting charged for unreadable nonsense in All-New Vol. 7. If you do buy both All-New Vol. 7 and Black Vortex, you're paying for twice for the same 40 pages. (The solution? Just get your Marvel collections from the library like I do, I guess; it's still annoying to see the middle of this book full of Andrea Sorrentino's inappropriately realistic art, but at least you're spending any money on it!)

That, finally, brings us to the last two issues, "The Utopians" story from which the book takes its sub-title. Or, I suppose, I should say "story," as it's not really much of a story.

Back on earth after the events of "Black Vortex," the teen X-Men are just hanging out, enjoying not being in space, and eating fast food that Professor Magik brought them. Iceman Bobby Drake comments on how hot Magik is, at which point Jean pulls him aside and tells him he's gay. Yes, this is the Teen Iceman Is gay issue that you've likely heard about.

I can understand Bendis' intention, and it's not a bad one. The diversification of a superhero universe like The Marvel Universe is a noble goal, but, problematically, reaching that goal often involves legacy characters, which can boil down to simply giving new characters of color the  hand-me-down costumes and codenames of white characters...who almost always return to either reclaim or share the role with their one-time replacements (Think Green Lantern John Stewart, for example). This is because when the Marvel Universe was founded, there were few or any non-white, non-straight characters...and because it's extremely difficult to get a brand-new character to stick, regardless of race or sexual orientation. Even the legacy strategy doesn't always work, as readers simply don't embrace new characters or ideas or approaches in large enough numbers on a regular basis to guarantee success (Looking at recent books starring legacy characters that I personally enjoyed, Ms. Marvel sells well enough to stay in publication, but Ghost Rider did not, and was cancelled).

Outting a character previously thought of as straight is a little easier, since a reader can't "see" sexual orientation in the same way they can see race. Like, you can make The Punisher gay, but you can't make him black (Er, for very long, anyway). And if you're going to make a pre-existing, semi-prominent-ish Marvel character gay, why not Iceman? He seems pretty straight and all, having dated women (like Kitty Pryde, in the rather recent past), but, at the same time, he doesn't have, say, a Mary Jane Watson in his life or anything, you know? (Actually, has Beast had any long-term, serious, character-defining relationships with women? I know he's currently dating SWORD's Abigail Brand off-and-on, but before that? When Grant Morrison first took over the X-Men, he had Beast outting himself as gay, and Cyclops continually arguing with Beast that he's not gay, he's just trying to be provocative. Those were weird exchanges, and nothing ever came of them, either way, that I recall.)

The way Bendis handles it, however, is pretty problematic, from Jean telling Bobby he's gay and then arguing with him that he's gay, definitely not bi, but gay. More problematic still is the fact that they both seem to agree that grown-up Bobby Drake isn't gay (and Jean should know, if she knows teen Bobby is gay). That implies that being gay is a choice, and that grown-up Bobby chose not to be gay because he came of age in the 1960s (or, on a sliding timeline, is it the 1980s or 1990s now?) when society was less accepting of gays, but now teen Bobby is coming of age in a post-Obergefell world, so he can choose to be gay if he wants. I know there are still plenty of folks that do think it's a choice, and while I doubt Bendis is one of them, his story seems to imply that it's a choice rather than something determined at birth. (Also, with two Icemen running around the Marvel Universe, this isn't so much the same thing as Marvel's Iceman being gay as it is a Iceman being gay; technically they're the same person, but, looked at another way, this Iceman is an alternate version, and having him be gay isn't really as big a deal, in the same way Ultimate Colossus being gay wouldn't be the same as Colossus being gay, you know?)

Given the fact that this is Bendis' second-to-last issue of the series, it also seems somewhat mercenary. I hate to assign motivations to someone, so maybe it's unfair to say this is here simply to gain attention (and money), but it can seem that way, given the fact that Bendis is doing it right before jumping ship, rather than, say, 40 issues ago.

Anyway, a few other things happen in this first chapter of "The Utopians," although the Bobby conversation accounts for six of the 20 pages. The Utopian-related business lasts only six pages (two of which are a double-page spread).

Remember Utopia, the island nation the X-Men founded prior to the Cyclops/Wolverine schism? Well, it's been abandoned for a while, but recently seven completely random mutants wearing blue and gold uniforms (only one of whom I recognized on sight) have decided to make their home in the ruins of Utopia, and violently repel invaders.

Having attacked scavengers and then a SHIELD team, they appear to be trouble for the outside world. So, in part two, Maria Hill asks the teen X-Men to look into it for her, and they do. In this second issue, captions name all of The Utopians, and so I can name the ones who aren't Boom Boom: Random, Masque, Elixir, Karma and Madison Jeffries. So the All-New X-Men and The Utopians fight for a few pages. Then they decide to stop fighting, and the All-New X-Men take them back to their base, the recently-shuttered New Xavier School (the repurposed Weapon X facility), and the X-Men invite the other mutants to live there, and that doesn't seem any worse a place to live than the ruins of an island. At the very least, it ought to be easier to get food.

Jean wonders what they can change, since it's hard out there for a mutant, and then the issue, and thus All-New X-Men ends. Thanks for reading! I guess!

These last two issues were both drawn by Mahmud Asrar, who is very good at his job, and whose style is a nice fit with the general style of this title, although his are the only issues that look like they adhere to that style in this particular volume. I suppose we'll–well, I'll–have to wait until the final collection of Uncanny X-Men to see if Bendis does indeed have an ending in mind for his X-Men epic or not, and before Marvel publishes that, they need to publish Uncanny X-Men #600, but before they publish that, they have to publish Secret Wars, I guess.

But for now? Everyone out of the car; All-New X-Men is over. Not concluded, just over.


oneofthejonesboys said...

I did read all the way to the end of his Daredevil, and (from memory) that does have a proper ending that broadly fits with the theme and plot of the overall run. This being corporate serialdom, it doesn't really "finish" Daredevil's story, but ties off the run and sets up a new status quo for his successor.

The Iceman thing does sound, as the kids say, problematic. But the way you describe it doesn't entail, per se, that being gay is a choice. It might be developmentally fluid -- not fixed at birth -- but ultimately determined by factors outside one's immediate control. Real, straight Iceman and offbrand, gay, sure-to-be-eventually-sidelined Iceteen do share DNA, but their developmental histories diverge at the point when Iceteen gets pulled to the "future"/present. So it could be that things happening to Iceteen post-divergence make him gay -- or alternatively that things that happened to "our" Iceman after the point in the timestream where his counterpart got pulled to the future made him straight.

Beast had a long-term on-again off-again girlfriend, Trish Trilby...and probably pined after some beatnik waitress in that cafe they used to hang at in the 60s...

Farseer said...

I am mostly a DC reader, but I had been thinking about reading this series. I loved Bendis work in Ultimate Spiderman (both Peter and Miles). I think he writes teenagers really well. Your article makes me think twice, though.

David said...

Iceman has always struck me as a powers-flipped Human Torch, so outing him as gay seems pretty odd.

Maybe Bendis did it because he's a teen, and all teen teams seem to require a token gay member nowadays like teams had a token black in the 70s.

I find it interesting that you mention not knowing most of the Utopians when three of the only mutants I like (Elixir, Karma, Madison Jeffries) were on the team. Maybe Madison needs to go back to being Box.