Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Review: Amazing X-Men Vol. 3: Once and Future Juggernaut

The third and final collection of the troubled Amazing X-Men comic includes issues #13-#19, plus the 2014 annual. It also serves as a pretty good example of how confused and formless the book ended up being. It launched with some fanfare in 2014, with writer Jason Aaron and artist Ed McGuinness telling a story about the resurrection of Nightcrawler, then they moved on and Marvel had to scramble to fill pages until the advent of Secret Wars gave them a good excuse to cancel the book.

During its 19-issue run, Amazing X-Men had five different writers: Jason Aaron (six issues), Kathryn Immonen (one), Craig Kyle and Chris Yost (four as a team, with Yost writing six more solo) and James Tynion IV (one). The annual featured two short stories, by two different writers. In retrospect, the book contained three story arcs–"The Quest For Nightcrawler," "World War Wendigo" and "The Once and Future Juggernaut," with a couple of fill-in issues and an annual that functioned as another fill-in issue. Each collection therefore has a complete story arc in it, but these last two have also had a lot of filler.

Visually, the book had even more cooks in the kitchen. There were seven different artists in those 19 issues: McGuinness (six), Cameron Stewart (one), Paco Medina (one), Carlo Barberi (four), Iban Coello (two), Jorge Jimenez (one) and Jorge Fornes (five). And, again, the annual had two additional artists. You'll note that the math doesn't quite add up with the artists, of whom I'm only counting the pencil artists and/or artists who don't work with inkers, but that's because several issues had more than one artist drawing them.

This book is the most incoherent of the three collections, featuring as it does the work of four different writers, six different pencilers/primary artists, two inkers and three colorists (although Rachelle Rosenberg handles almost all of the coloring; only the two stories from the annual have different colorists).

Let's first dispense with the fill-in material–which, of course, translates to filler when the serially-published material is republished in trade format–bookending the title story.

The first is James Tynion and Jorge Jimenez's "Charm School," which features one of the Jean Grey School students who hasn't really appeared in the book at all previously, Anole (I had to look him up; he's the green guy on the cover, and he has lizard powers). He runs away from the school to the city, in order to go on a date with a boy he's been talking with online, but he chickens out, afraid he'll be rejected for his looks (a not unreasonable worry, given the fact that he's green and scaly and, as drawn by Jimenez, has a giant right arm that looks to be about eight times larger than his left arm).

Nightcrawler eventually prevails upon Northstar to go the city to look for Anole, and they find him. This being a superhero comic, they also find a supervillain to fight. Here one of Mastermind's daughters, who has a front-less costume that makes her look like she might be Emma Frost further experimenting with the color black.

Tynion apparently chose those two particular characters to send after Anole because they both relate to the young mutant in different ways: Northstar is also gay, Nightcrawler is also a mutant who can't hide his mutation to blend in with humans.

It's basically a decent Anole story, with an inspiring be yourself and love yourself message, but, as with Kahtryn Immonen's fill-in issue that kicked off the previous trade, it's a story that can seemingly have appeared almost anywhere (Wolverine & The X-Men, Nightcrawler, any random X-Men annual or one-shot). It's a nice, dynamic-looking comic, from an artist who would go on to draw DC's Earth-2: Society book (which I hate; it's even worse than the previous Earth-2 and I wish they'd cancel it and pretend that world and those characters don't exist).

That's followed by another nothing-to-do-with-anything one-issue story, an Axis tie-in by Yost, Barberi and Coello (two artists who previously shared duties on a chapter of "World War Wendigo"). While in the pages of Axis proper the X-Men "inverted" by the PC alignment switcheroo just all went genocidally insane and decided they needed to follow Genesis/Evan/Apocalypse and kill all humans, in their solo outings the inverted X-people at least take on more individual tasks.

Here it's Nightcrawler (the only member of the Amazing cast to appear in the issue/chapter), who has decided to return to Winzeldorf, Germany in order to exact his revenge on the humans who hated, feared and persecuted him before he became an X-Man. His inverted mother Mystique, who is now as good as Nighcrawler is bad, spends the issue trying to stop him; in particular, to stop him from killing anyone. She succeeds, and the book moves on without mentioning any of these events, as Yost and Amazing X-Men have fulfilled their crossover tie-in duties.

The collection closes out with the annual. This consists of a 20-page story entitled "Goddess" and a 10-pager called "Art History." The former is a straightforward X-Men-as-superhero team story, with Storm and Wolverine leading Firestar, Iceman, Nightcrawler and Beast against a super-villain targeting members of Storm's tribe over an affront she may or may not have committed when she was a child. That story's drawn by Salvador Larroca and written by Monty Nero.

The latter is a Firestar story written by Marguerite Bennett and drawn by Juan Doe. Unusual in format, it's a series of five, two-page spreads with a drawing of a character in the upper left-hand corner, and then imagery meant to be read as drawn or assembled by that character in various styles, while narration discusses Firestar, with Doe chameleonically aping a child's crayon drawings, Hellion's sketches, photos in her dad's scrapbook, and so on (I liked Hellion's observation that "She's like the only teacher you don't have to worry might murder you"...the only teacher at The Jean Grey school, that is).

That leaves the title story, then, the five-issue, Yost-written, Fornes-drawn "Once And Future Juggernaut."

As long-time readers now, I'm not much of an X-Men expert, despite the dozens of trade collections I've read at this point, and I don't really follow the goings-on of the entire franchise, which strikes me as something of an impossibility, really. But apparently at the time this story takes place, there is no Juggernaut; Cain Marko is no longer Juggernaut, nor is Colossus. The opening chapter seems to be a very in-progress one, as if picking up on scenes from other comics it's assumed we would have read, or at least been familiar with.

Colossus is suddenly living at the Jean Grey School, sneaking girlfriend Domino in (if I recall correctly, Colossus was on one of the several X-Force teams post-Avengers Vs. X-Men), Wolverine is had died between volumes 2 and three of this series of collections and the Amazing team is show doing some actual teaching of teenage mutants, here Pixie, as a way of introducing her, as she'll be involved later in the story.

Beyond the plot and character specifics, Yost has some clever ideas about the god Cyttorak, the patron deity of the magic gem that creates the Juggernaut, who is supposed to be his avatar on Earth. The Juggernaut is kind of a difficult villain for repeat business, even though he is one of the bigger, more recognizable X-Men villains. His whole deal is that he's supposed to be unstoppable, but seeing as how he's a villain and he only appears in superhero narratives, he always gets stopped. Hard to believe the character has lasted 50 years now given the fact that his central trait is disproved in pretty much every appearance, but then I suppose that explains why writers have tried various things with him over the years, including making him a good guy for a while and passing his mantle (and silly hat) on to Colossus for a while).

Essentially, Cyttorak wants humanity to worship him, and so he created this monster of destruction as a way of proving how fearsome and worthy of worship he is. Thing is, his avatar always loses, proving Cyttorak's ineffectuality as a god. Would be worshippers would be better off praying to Wolverine, Spider-Man or the 8th Century Iron Fist, shown defeating him an ancient avatar in a flashback.

Yost makes Cyttorak's motivation, and an epiphany about what he really wants, central to the story, reinventing the character of The Juggernaut in the process (admittedly a strange thing to do in the lame-duck final arc of a canceled title, especially given that neither Yost nor a new-and-improved Juggernaut seem to be scheduled to show up anywhere after Secret Wars and the X-Men line gets a massive overhaul (reduced to just two books, as discussed during our last look at Marvel's previews).

So: Cyttorak sends out a call of some sort through his cartoon gem, which is so big and perfectly cut it looks like something Scrooge McDuck might have in his money bin. According to a couple of narration boxes:

The call of Cyttorak goes out. Heard by the strong. Heard by those filled with rage. Those who Cyttorak felt could be controlled. Those who would show this world his power. As well as those who knew what to listen for.

In other words, it's heard by Cain Marko, Colossus (who alerts his new old teammates) and as random an assemblage of minor Marvel villains as you could imagine, three of whom were brand new to me: Crossbones, Man-Killer, Jinn and The Living Monolith. (Is this too meant to reflect Cyttorak's weakness? That these are his best candidates for an avatar from the Marvel Universe?) Oh, and Rockslide too, I guess, who wants to be the new Juggernaut, but he was along for the ride with the X-Men already.

Storm forbids Colossus from going to the South Asian temple where the gem is, on account of the fact that she doesn't exactly trust him, which is fair (Colossus is the only one of the five characters to have been possessed by the Phoenix Force to not throw in with Cyclops at the New Xavier school or be Namor), especially since he's been the Juggernaut before and also seems rather willing to get himself killed saving others (a trait that ties in to Yost's plotting).

She takes Nightcrawler, Northstar, Iceman, Rachel Grey, Firestar and Rockslide with her to the Temple of Cyttorak, where the various villains all arrive at the exact same time. Colossus manages to talk Pixie into teleporting him there. Most of the villains (and these weird red monsters that guard the temple) are dispatch pretty easily, but in the fray The Living Monolith gets the gem, and it powers him up to a giant-size stone Juggernaut, leaving only the de-powered, gun-toting Cain Marko and the X-people to deal with it.

In the arc's early climax, Storm deals with this new complication by...just sitting down and ignoring it. Reluctantly at first, they all join her, and spend about a half-dozen pages just sitting around talking, ignoring the giant monster-man rampaging away.
It's a pretty awesome scene, really, and a pretty great one for the final arc in a book that's about to end, as the various X-people reminisce and bust one another's chops (Northstar's filter-less conversation skills are especially appreciated here; he and Namor should get their own team-up book, that's just these two pointy-eared, dark-haired mutants being total dicks to everyone all the time).
Eventually, Colossus comes up with a plan to strip the Monolith of his power–the X-Men spend exactly nine panels fighting him–resulting in Marko once again becoming the Juggernaut, albeit a newly-designed, more powerful than ever version. His first act of business? Kill Cyclops for killing his brother Xavier, after killing all these X-Men for standing in his way. Despite the power upgrade, the unstoppable Juggernaut is, once again, stopped, although Yost and company at least portray it as a delay more than a defeat.

And then...the book ends. It's a pretty great Juggernaut story, and a great X-Men story (probably a little more so for those more familiar with the ins-and-outs of the franchise and its a history), it's just a little lost in this particular collection, and in this particular series.


Far be it for me to argue with another writer-about-comics or, more likely, whoever put that blurb on the cover of this trade, but I don't think this is a great jumping-on point for new readers. In fact, I think the last third of a canceled comic is probably the worst jumping-on point for new readers.

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