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    Review: Uncanny X-Men #536 and X-Men #10

    By | April 29th, 2011
    Posted in Reviews | % Comments

    Uncanny X-Men
    Written by Kieron Gillen
    Illustrated by Terry and Rachel Dodson

    When the X-Men left the militaristic alien Breakworld, its political structure was reduced to ashes. It didn’t stay that way forever. Now a warship is crossing the gulf of space, with a mission that will strike the lives of star-crossed lovers Colossus and Kitty Pryde with all the force of a meteor. Join them as they discover what the vessel them means for them, mutantkind and the rest of the Earth.

    Written by Victor Gischler
    Penciled by Chris Bachalo and Paco Medina

    The X-Men and Spider-Man have made their way through the New York City sewers only to be overwhelmed by a legion of bloodthirsty reptilian monsters. Now they’ve been captured and turned into mindless creatures themselves with only Spider-Man and Emma Frost left unscathed. Can this unlikely pair work together long enough to restore the X-Men and defeat their mysterious opponent? Or will they too join the ranks of the Lizard X-Men?

    This week, we get two issues of the three flagship titles featuring Earth’s Mightiest Mutants, and it’s interesting how different they are — and how similar. So without further ado, after the jump let’s open them up and poke around at that.

    First, let’s look at where these comics are similar, because it’s only from there that we can really properly chart their differences. Both focus on small segments of an increasingly ballooning (and indeed island-population-sized) cast, with particular focus on single members of the team (Colossus in Uncanny; Emma Frost in Undescribed). Both focus even more on guest-stars with whom the X-Men have some prior involvement; and indeed, both are sequels to stories that occurred in other titles entirely. Both are (save for two pages of X-Men) drawn by distinctive superstar-level artists, making them very pleasant to look at. And finally, both are by writers who get so much right and yet still manage to worry me.

    It’s that last bit that holds my attention when I think about these comics. Victor Gischler’s first arc of X-Men, which I believe was titled We Heard You Like Vampires on TV and in Movies and Stuff, was effectively the Michael Bay approach to the title: people ran around making bold declarations and blowing stuff (and each other) up, with just enough characterization to remind you that at some point some kind of writer (beyond a 6-year-old going “then that blows up too”) was involved. He clearly has an at least workable grasp on the characters, but his priority is on delivering the Big Cool Moments with occasional lapses into snappy banter. Kieron Gillen, meanwhile, is very handy with characterization but seems less concerned with delivering Big Stompy Action or whatever capitalized term you want to apply. His strength on books like Phonogram comes from carving out distinctive characters within a group defined by both odd parameters and an unhealthy addiction to trivia, both of which appear to be absolutely essential to the X-Men in 2011 (for better or for worse). Sure, we’re judging three issues of (solo) Gillen against ten of Gischler, but the trend already seems apparent: we go to Uncanny to hear the characters’ voices, and X-Men to see the characters’ punches.

    So why, then, is it flipped around this week? Gischler delivers an issue with more run than fight, devoted largely to the banter and interplay between Emma and guest-star Spider-Man. Gillen, on the other hand, gives us an issue about (oh god) the Breakworld, possibly the least interesting addition to the X-Mythos since “And then we’ll put Caliban on steroids, because if there’s one thing Marvel doesn’t have, it’s a giant-sized, hyper-muscled, oddly-colored monster who talks like a child.” As terrible as I find the Breakworld to be, you’d think that at least you could get a good fight out of them showing up. And maybe we’ll get one yet, but not in this issue, where a group of people whose motivation, characterization, and sum total development consist of “Let’s hit each other to death, blargh” use… subterfuge and cunning and… science?

    Continued below

    Maybe it’s an intentional swerve, a wink at the readers by showing us the oncoming threat of a one-armed warlord by showing him hard at work in the lab. Maybe he fires his bunsen burners way too hot, to show that he’s a warrior and that he lives on the edge. But mostly it just feels like boring convenience; “we need the bad guy to be able to do this, so let’s just get that part over with and get on with it.” Fair enough, but there are more artful ways to do it. And you might be saying in response: “Fair enough, but this is Uncanny X-Men and you’re saying stuff like ‘artful,’ get off your high horse.” To which I might be saying: “Yes, well, I realize that this is not a comic book renowned for its great history of aesthetic scholarship and narrative experimentation, but a more creative approach might have at least kept the idea of these Breakworld characters consistent, rather than mining their cultural differences for comedy when it suits the book (that is, the first third), or for drama when it suits the book (the second third), or just ignoring them when it suits the book (the third third).” The Breakworld is one of my least favorite ideas in the X-Men canon, yes. It’s a thin plot device as it is and it was done no favors by having a plan more or less stolen from Marvin the Martian. If the goal is to rehab them, then keeping them consistent would help. As it is, I’m not sure what goal using the Breakworld here accomplishes, rather than giving Colossus and Kitty some mutual enemy that can be used to develop their characters; this would work better if Colossus and Kitty had more than “standing around” to do this issue (although to be fair, Colossus sits at one point, and Kitty kneels at another).

    So what we get is that Gillen’s a smart, ambitious writer, but he’s making some (what I would call) dumb mistakes. Like I said, though, this is his third solo issue; not every run springs fully-formed from Zeus’s skull. Gischler, meanwhile, keeps it simple, to an even greater extent than X-Men‘s first arc, and it works marvelously. “Some mutantsy stuff is going in New York, so Emma Frost, Storm, Gambit, and Logan head out there to check it out. There they encounter one of their villains exploiting one of Spider-Man’s, which leads to a team-up to save some kidnapped lab-rat children.” At four issues, the concept is a bit stretched — thus we get the exciting return of The X-Men Turned Into Lizard People, something I don’t think we’ve seen since Claremont took the team to the Savage Land five or six years ago — while Emma and Spider-Man try to save the day without critically irritating one another to death.

    Using that relatively simple framework (and accompanying relative lack of ambition) is the best idea Gischler could possibly have here. Emma Frost and Spider-Man is a team-up dynamic that doesn’t need complicated Rube Goldberg plots; just find some way to keep them in the same enclosed space(s) for a while, and watch them find each other insufferable. It’s a solid buddy-hero pairing with lots of opportunity for witty asides. Gischler also seems to know, to his eternal credit, that his story is being drawn by Chris Bachalo. He could have made it an issue of the X-Men giggling at semi-obscene names they found in the phone book and Bachalo would still find a way to make it weird — it’s when the writer also gets weird that he starts skewing incomprehensible. (If the artists had been swapped this week, both books would have suffered.) That trust in Bachalo is only slightly misplaced, because for whatever reason the last two pages of the story are drawn by Paco Medina doing his best inexplicable Chris Bachalo impression.

    The Dodsons, meanwhile, are excellent artists when it comes to character acting — they not only give their characters (for the most part) distinct faces, but distinct ranges of expressions. I know, most people aren’t looking at the faces on their women, so maybe you’ll just have to trust me on that one; they’re pretty great. Their action is also good, but neither of these strengths is really given a chance to shine as much as I’d like. (Surprisingly, a plotline about aliens from a planet where the emotional range consists of “hitting” and “whining” — this last one being a new development — does not really lend itself to a dynamic range of expressions, especially when the humans get less devoted panel time.) You can always count on a Dodson-drawn comic to at least look good, so I find myself resenting this one for not looking great. Irrational, yes, but… irrational, yes.

    Continued below

    In the end, though, I know which X-Men book I found more satisfying this week. Gischler, in playing things more conservatively and not trying to solve the great mysteries of continuity, has given himself more freedom to make a flat-out enjoyable comic, where we get to see a straightforward adventure filtered through Chris Bachalo’s bizarre but wonderful sensibilities. Gillen, in going headfirst into recent X-Men continuity, fills his plate with so much of it — not his fault, it’s just all ridiculously complicated and largely unresolved thanks to Matt Fraction’s (shall we say) “open-ended” approach to plotting — that there’s not much room left for things like ‘defining characters’ or ‘advancing subplots’ or… well, anything, really. So unless you really, really, really like the Breakworld, based solely on this issue there’s just not much reason to care. (That might change next issue, though. Unless I’m wrong about who’s gonna get stuck with that knife. But it seems pretty obvious to me!)

    Final Verdict: 5.5 (Uncanny X-Men) / 7.5 (X-Men)

    Patrick Tobin

    Patrick Tobin (American) is likely shaming his journalism professors from the University of Glasgow by writing about comic books. Luckily, he's also written about film for The Drouth and The Directory of World Cinema: Great Britain. He can be reached via e-mail right here.