Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Review: Amazing X-Men Vol. 2: World War Wendigo

I can't help but wonder what Amazing X-Men might have been like had Jason Aaron remained onboard as its writer, instead of jumping ship for greener pastures (Star Wars, Thor). And if Marvel's X-Men plans didn't end up being so closely tied to Brian Michael Bendis' work. And if the board re-setting Secret Wars wasn't looming, building an expiration date into so many of the books in Marvel's line as it existed prior to their decision to rejigger their fictional universe.

That's a lot of ifs, I know; this second volume is just so very different from the first volume, and it certainly seems like Marvel's plans for the title changed pretty drastically at some point during Aaron's work on the initial story arc.

Aaron had, of course, been writing Wolverine for years by the time Amazing X-Men launched. For a while he wrote Wolverine: Weapon X, which was the "good" Wolverine title when there were multiple Wolverine titles. Then he wrote Wolverine. Then he wrote the excellent Wolverine and The X-Men. And, at that book's conclusion, this seemed to be the next step in Aaron's exploration of the X-Men through the prism of Wolverine, having gone from writing the character's solo adventures to writing about the X-Men's school, faculty and student body, to now focusing on the X-Men as an old-school, traditional superhero-team.

With the two A books in the franchise, the Bendis-written ones, focusing on two upstart squads of X-Men–Cyclops' outlaw, rebel faction and their New Xavier School and the time-lost original X-Men, who eventually transferred from Wolverine's school to Cyclops–Amazing X-Men really should have been the "real" X-Men book. Maybe it was techincally the (or a) B book in the franchise, but it would star the characters who both readers of the comics and the characters of the Marvel Universe would regard as the X-Men: Wolverine, Storm, Iceman and Beast...plus Northstar, Firestar (in for Kitty Pryde, who Bendis appropriated for All-New) and, at the end of the first story arc, "The Quest for Nightcrawler," Nightcrawler.

How odd, then, to open up the second collection of the relatively newly-launched title to find a fill-in story by a fill-in creative team, featuring Spider-Man teaming-up with just two of the Amazing X-Men for what reads a hell of a lot like an inventory story that could have run pretty much anywhere, but ended up in the pages of Amazing X-Men to...give Marvel an extra 30 days to find a new creative team, I guess.
That story is the one originally published in Amazing X-Men #7 and entitled "No Goats, No Glory," by writer Kathryn Immonen and the art team of Paco Medina and Juan Vlasco. It feels a little under-cooked, as if it's missing an element or two that might have improved it, but its major problem is that it just doesn't feel anything like an X-Men story at all, and doesn't seem to have anything to do with the storyline that preceded it or the one that will follow it (It's the sort of done-in-one that Marvel probably should have just not collected at all; I often wish the Big Two publishers would better curate their collections, and not just collect every single issue chronologically by default. Not doing so might actually encourage the purchasing and reading of the serially-published books–either in their comic book form or their digital form).

It's a Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends reunion story. Iceman and Firestar, in their civilian clothing, are at a Pik N Pay gorcery store right before closing (in the middle of the day, apparently), doing the shopping for a "game day" party. In the parking lot, they encounter a weird baby of unknown origin, and then Spider-Man, who is chasing the baby.

The baby has mutations and powers, and was left with Spider-Man as some sort of alien changeling when its owners/parents stole the goat Spider-Man was watching, the goat being the mascot of one of the teams playing the sport that is occurring on this particular day (Details are vague. Wait, Spidey mentions "kick off," so it's a football game of some kind). Why Spider-Man is watching a goat, why aliens might have stolen it and replaced it with their baby even though they want their baby back and why there is 21st century comic book plot about someone stealing the goat mascot of a sports teams is all left up to the reader to imagine possible explanations.

Immonen's scripting is often pretty funny, and as someone who used to watched the cartoon show that inspired this as a child, I enjoyed the reunion of these particular characters for purely nostalgic reasons, but what might work on the micro-level certainly doesn't work on the macro-level. This comic is just weird, not in its content, but in its existence, and not-finished quality.

The artwork, on the other hand, is fine, although there were details that bugged me (Like the position of the sun at closing time, or the fact that it took a raccoon two hands to hold an off-brand Oreo. Little stuff, really.)

That "intermission" of sorts between "The Quest For Nightcrawler" and the "World War Wendigo" storylines over, we have the return of artist Ed McGuinness inked by Mark Farmer for the first 1/5th of the title story, and the arrival of the new writers: Craig Kyle and Christ Yost. McGuniness and Farmer depart after that first issue, and Carlo Barberi and Iban Coello draw the rest of the storyline, with six additional inkers joining them (Barberi and Coello do some inking themselves, so there are eight inkers on the five-issue story altogether; maybe Marvel needed more than a one-issue fill-in inventory story to stall for the necessary time to put together an Amazing X-Men creative team).

Now, as many of you who have been reading EDILW for long know, I am not exactly expert in the Marvel Universe, having "only" read Marvel Comics for about 15 years now, and among my many, many, many blindspots is pre-Morrison X-Men history. So I don't have much in the way of background for a story in which The X-Men team up with Alpha Flight to fight Wendigos. And there were a couple of twists in this story arc where I was completely surprised by what occurred; it wasn't necessarily a bad thing, just surprising because I could tell that when certain new characters entered the narrative, I was meant to recognize them and perhaps have some sort of attachment to them. I didn't, and thus it just seemed like a random introduction of bizarrely random characters, but that actually contributed to my enjoyment to those twists.

Now, as far as I knew, Marvel's Wendigo was a big, cool, white furry monster that The Hulk fought in a comic that is probably worth a lot of money, as it was Wolverine's first appearance. I also know it's based on a legend of pre-European cultures in the North Americas. And I thought Marvel's Wendigo was a character, not a whole class of monsters, although I think Jeph Loeb is to blame for turning the Wendigo into Wendigos, in the pages of his Hulk run.

The rules of the Wendigo, as Kyle and Yost present them, is that any human being that consumes the flesh of another human being on Canadian soil turns into a Wendigo...rules so specific that it's actually kind of fun, as when the rampaging monsters cross over the U.S. border and immediately revert to human form. There seems to be some tinkering going on here though. An outbreak of Wendigo-ism is caused when a guy at a meat processing plant accidentally kills a co-worker, and attempts to hide his body by grinding it up with all the other meat.

And now Wendigos have the ability to infect others, turning them into Wendigos, by wounding them. So the threat is basically a zombie apocalypse sort of story, only without the zombies. Actually, maybe it's more of a werewolf or vampire apocalypse sort of story? The essential difference, beyond the visuals, is that Wendigo-ism, unlike zombie-ism, is reversible, so the X-Men and Alpha Fight (and The Avengers, guarding the U.S./Canada border) can face a potentially world-ending threat (more on how this is more than a Canadian problem in a bit) without having to kill scores or hundreds of civilians; even characters like Wolverine can become Wendigos but go back to normal at the end of the story, as superheroes inevitably must.

So Wolverine happens to visit an Alpha Flight lady (Vindicator) the day after her significant other with a matching outfit (Guardian), has gone missing. They investigate, and find a town overrun with Wendigos. Their teams come to attempt to bail them out. This X-Men squad includes Storm, Iceman, Northstar, Firestar and Nighcrawler from the previous story arc, and the newly added Colossus and Rachel Grey, apparently there because a few scenes call for a telepath to be there. Oh, and Rockslide, who stowed away in the locked bathroom of the Blackbird. His presence is also pretty random...until the climax. Alpha Flight includes Puck, Talisman, Aurora, Snowbird and Sasquatch, a character I've always liked the look of.

A few issues into the conflict, it's revealed that events are being manipulated by Tanarq, one of several god-like "Great Beasts," and apparently the bad one. These are the characters I was completely unfamiliar with. He's defeated the other spirit creatures in his realm and is growing stronger by Wendigo-izing Canadians; the more Wendigos that are made, the stronger the curse becomes, until they're capable of existing outside of the Canadian border, and thus threatening the rest of the world and, more importantly, the United States of America.
Some characters go to the spirit realm, free the Great Beasts, get temporarily turned into elemental gods (Rockslide was needed to be an Earth god, I guess) and fight a giant Tanaraq, who is ultimately killed (or "killed"...?) in a way that I swear I see some giant monster or other get killed in comics on at least a bi-monthly basis.

On a purely surface level, I enjoyed the storyline. I liked Kyle and Yost's dialogue, for the most part, and the way the various characters play off each other...at least among the X-Men. Aside from Aurora, none of the Alpha Flight characters have much of a personality (and even hers is a one-note mean girl characterization; like a cattier, Canadian Namor). The art is for the most part very strong, especially if you can forgive the hiccups in style (the one weird thing was the behavior of Storm's mohawk, which at one point gets flattened when she's plunged underwater, but when the next penciller takes over, it's standing straight up again; I guess she can probably control humidity, static electricity and heat enough to fix her own hair though, huh?).

That said, the story's not really about anything, despite gliding over various angles that could have been explored and exploited so that this storyline was something more than a superhero fight comic: The nature of the cannibal curse in the era of factory farming, the line between eating meat and eating human meat, anxiety regarding immigration, the xenophobia that X-Men comics have always looked to for dramatic tension given the new form of Canadians, conflict between the religious and secular world. There's a lot of stuff in here, but Kyle and Yost don't do anything with it. Even the denouement seems wasted, as we get a few pages assuring us that none of the mutants who were on the ropes died, and that Wolverine was successfully de-Wendigo-ized.
I suppose a cynical reader, or just a reader not terribly invested in the fictional lives of these Marvel characters, could level the same criticism at most super-comics: Hey, this isn't about anything, it's just a bunch of sexy people with superpowers fighting and exchanging snappy dialogue! But here it seems more obvious than it should.


Brian said...

We could defeat the threat of Wendigos once and for all by just annexing Canada. By moving the US border up beyond the Arctic Circle like that, the magic of the Great Beasts would simply have no more power over the no-longer-Canadian soil. Think of how many people have brutally died over the past two hundred years thanks to British America fighting back against invasion during the War of 1812! #ThanksSiskoid

Caleb said...

So, in other words, blame Canada...? I like the sound of that. It has a musical quality to it. Someone should write a song based around those lyrics...