Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
November 2009

The Twelve Days of X-Men!

X-Men: Days of Future Past, Exiles: Down the Rabbit Hole, Wolverine: Origin, X-Factor: Life and Death Matters, Uncanny X-Men: Rise and Fall of the Shi'ar Empire, Ultimate X-Men: The Tomorrow People (Marvel)

Gather round the Yuletide log of DOOM, my children, and commemorate the many times when Wolverine wouldn't stay dead. This month and next I review not one, not three-and-a-half, but TWELVE X-Men stories from decades of mutie goodness. It's the Twelve Days of X-Men.

On the first day of X-Men, my true love gave to me . . . a dirty rotten no-good mutie.

'Twas a time when no one could dethrone the X-Men from their comic kingship. Through the 80s and 90s Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Jim Lee and a multitude of other creators married traditional superhero sensibility with prejudice, hatred and fear.

AIDS, the Civil Rights Movement, LGBT rights, Jewish heritage and the Cold War all made their way allegorically into the mutant pages. X-Men, looking back, was the great predictor for some of the best work ever done in comics. When Alan Moore, Frank Miller and others deconstructed the heroic archetype, X-Men was the book they mined for ideas.

That's why our first story is the classic "Days of Future Past" by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Published in Uncanny X-Men #141 and 142 (for context, the book has now passed 500 issues), this story was the first I know of in which a hero travels back from a dark dystopian future to warn the people in the past that they have to prevent that future from happening.

In this case, it was a future overrun with Sentinel robots seeking to eradicate mutants or keep them in prison camps, a future that had come about because an evil mutant, through a senator's assassination in the present, set off a wave of hysteria.

The X-Men of the present's storyline was pretty standard -- fight the evil mutants, stop the assassination, and get out before anyone throws things at them. In the future, though, things were a different story as a group of mutants attempted to destroy the Sentinel Master Mold and were slaughtered.

The classic Byrne-penned image of a Sentinel burning all of Wolverine's flesh off, leaving only an unmoving metal skeleton, is burned (pun intended) into every reader's mind. In "Days of Future Past," the heroes lost, at the cost of their lives and their world.

(Of course, it's silly now to think Sentinel beam could kill the unstoppable Wolverine who has, since 1981, survived reentry, been nuked, and regenerated from one drop of blood.)

The dialogue hasn't aged as gracefully as I'd like it to have. Writer Chris Claremont had a bad habit of having each character review their powers every few pages. "Razor-sharp adamantium claws emerge from Wolverine's hands, slashing through even the strongest steel." "Without this ruby quartz visor, beams of force would burst from my eyes and destroy everything in my path."

But the plot still holds up, not only for the sheer visceral power, but the way in which it springs so many possibilities.

On the second day of X-Men my true love gave to me . . . two giant breasts!

Okay, so that really has nothing to do with the next one, or at least any more than usual, but seriously now . . . How do they stand with those things? I think that's how Rogue flies. She has a helium tank in her chest.

Anyway . . .

Exiles: Down the Rabbit Hole is a ton of fun, even for those who haven't read all the various spinoffs and crossovers and well . . . every X-Men comic ever.

The Exiles are alternate-universe incarnations of X-Men who have become "unstuck" in time. Two characters, Blink and Morph, are familiar from the "Age of Apocalypse" crossover, a dystopia that channeled "Days of Future Past." Thunderbird, a member of the X-Men long dead, is here a bionic horseman of the villain Apocalypse. Nocturne, Nightcrawler's daughter, hails from a future of the modern X-Men comic.

Manipulated by a strange force they don't understand, they must travel around righting wrongs in different timelines, often variations on our own Marvel Universe, which can be a ton of fun for the longtime fan. But it's not bad for the newbie, either. Speaking as only a novice X-Maniac, the writing in Exiles is fun and accessible enough that it covers my lack of knowledge.

The writing by Judd Winick (oddly enough, a former star of MTV's the Real World) is funny and heartbreaking, as they must often face old teammates and deal with their isolation. The art by Mike McKone is beautifully alive and animated without being cartoony, especially with the treat of seeing Morph turn into something different on nearly every panel. Plus, every few missions they lose a teammate, only to have them replaced by another from a random timeline.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: with icons like Cyclops, Wolverine and Storm, there is little that can be done to truly change the characters. But when a good writer gets a hold of some minor characters and actually invests them with depth and power, the story is more memorable than the main titles.

On the third day of X-Men, my true love gave to me . . . three adamantium claws!

Anyone who comes to Wolverine: Origin expecting a Wolverine story will be surprised. This story brings a creepy Dracula-esque horror to the wilds of British Columbia. In that way, it's one of the purest mutant stories of all time, and a very deep archetype of what has become the X-Men story.

Let's turn the clock back a minute, waaaay back, to those heady days of the eighties -- 1880s, that is. You will find yourself wearing a crinoline and a whalebone corset. Don't worry. They'll come off in a moment. Just take shallow breaths.

Nothing more clearly symbolizes the alien within us, that thing we all fear, than the late Victorian autonomous beast that was incarnated in Mister Hyde and Dracula. As an example, in the 1880s, Jack the Ripper's legend became so inflated that it seemed he could go anywhere or do anything. The press constantly hounded the police for doing nothing, and almost admired the Ripper for his autonomy. The horrors of the novels we now know so well were drawn from that same well of terror; that there lurked a beast out there who could not be confined by class, ethics or economy.

And so Origin, burdened with the heady task of revealing Wolverine's past, cast Wolverine as exactly that monster. Misunderstood and bound to a fate he never asked for, but an animal nonetheless.

The young Rose has been hired to nanny for the sickly James Howlett, who lives in a lonely plantation with his sequestered mother and his businessman father. At the bottom of the hill live one Mister Logan and his son, Dog, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the future Wolverine.

Dog, Rose and James become friends, when James is able to leave the sickroom. Rose suspects that something strange is going on -- there are whispers of a dead older brother for James and Mister Logan seems embittered and resentful of Mister Howlett's fair treatment.

Spoiler ahead. Let your coachman drive carefully, dear.

One particular night, Mister Logan breaks into the house to take Elizabeth Howlett away from her husband. They are discovered by Mister Howlett, whom Logan kills with a shotgun blast to the chest in front of James, Rose and Dog.

The shock causes familiar bone claws to burst from James's knuckles.

He uses them to impale Mister Logan. Rose and James flee the scene.

And the dear reader is shocked. The sickly little kid is Wolverine?

Rose begins to call James "Logan," after the man who killed his father, explaining the origin of the name, (though why Rose chooses that name, I dunno) and he grows to look quite a bit like his biological father, with the same animal urges, slipping away into the woods to cavort with wolves and . . . well, I won't give it all away. Suffice it to say that this is one of the few superhero comics that truly creates a different world from your standard underpants-on-the-outside fights.

The art is by Andy Kubert, a star of the Marvel Universe, but one whose art has always been a bit too gritty for me, and afflicted by an overuse of extreme close-ups. I wish he would simplify his art and stylize it a bit more, as his brother Andy does.

Paul Jenkins, as I've said before, masterfully tells this very different story. This is one for the fan who thinks beyond superhero fights.

Okay, you can take the corset off. Breathe. Come on, breathe for me. Yes, I see the dancing Smurfs too. Just breathe.

On the fourth day of X-Men my true love gave to me . . . four mutant clones!

X-Factor continues to rule. Peter David rocked Stephen King in the Dark Tower books, and he rocked Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, and he rocked Peter Pan in Tigerheart. And he rocks the X-World.

I reviewed the first trade of X-Factor a few columns back. At this point, I really can't say where the story goes in Life and Death Matters, because David packs so much surprise and character development into the issues that it is near-impossible not to give some twist away.

I can say this: Quicksilver, the vain, insane mutant son of Magneto, shows up. He's stolen the Terrigen Mists, property of lunar alien tenants the Inhumans, and is using them to restore the formerly depowered mutants to a very unpredictable version of their former abilities.

And then there's other stuff. Lots of other stuff, including one of the very best, well-sustained plot backflips I've ever read in comics. There is a deep and thorough exploration of the noncharacter of Jamie Madrox and the various duplicates who have split off from him over the years and gone on to their own lives. There are thoughtful and funny explorations of certain characters' sexuality, hetero, homo and otherwise.

The only complaint I have about X-Factor is the schizophrenic art. It boggles back and forth between okay, good, and terrible. Things seem to have stabilized lately with the well-spaced, dynamic work of Pablo Raimundi and Marco Santucci, but for a while there, between the constant changes, the book was unreadable.

The worst part was that artist Larry Stroman, original X-Factor artist, perpetrated the greatest crimes. I loved the bizarre dynamism of Stroman's work in the 90s, but he seemed to have lost any energy or charm in the run of issues he drew for the recent incarnation, creating hideous static characters that were genuinely ugly to look at.

But even that shouldn't stop you from reading the best-written comic out there. Just grit your teeth and bear it. It's not as bad as that corset, anyway.

On the fifth day of X-Men my true love gave to me . . . five space ka-booms!

Uncanny X-Men: Rise and Fall of the Shi'ar Empire is a sequel of sorts to X-Men: Deadly Genesis, a creepy and affecting little story written by Ed Brubaker. Brubaker has proven himself as one of the best writers in Marvel's stable. He took over Daredevil from Brian Michael Bendis and actually stepped up the moody conspiracies and risk-taking. He successfully killed off Captain America and brought back Bucky, two stories I would have thought were impossible to pull off.

And in Deadly Genesis, he successfully introduced the long-wondered-about third Summers brother, evil foil to Cyclops and Havok. Turns out, in best retconned style, that the Professor had another secret team of X-Men years ago. They died when the Professor sent them into the field against his own better judgment.

Among these dead ones was the brother of X-Men leaders Cyclops and Havok, secretly raised by the alien Shi'ar as a slave. Vulcan, as he would later call himself, shows up in Deadly Genesis, angry and elevated to Omega Mutant status. He rains death and mayhem upon the X-Men until he discovers the truth about his past, upon which he promptly flies off into space after the Shi'ar aliens. (The Shi'ar, in true Star Trek fashion, look just like humans except for funny hair. But they have an interstellar empire.)

Deadly Genesis was a good book, but no one expected otherwise. Ed Brubaker had written a moody piece about a spectral figure from the past in Captain America: Winter Soldier, the book that brought back Bucky. Of course he could do the same for the third Summers brother.

The real test was in the Rise and Fall of the Shi'ar Empire, a space opera in which the X-Men followed Vulcan in his trail of destruction across the galaxy. It was an epic 12-parter that would touch on the infamous Phoenix Force, on Vulcan and his old hero buddy Darwin, and on Charles Xavier's relationship with the alien queen Lilandra.

Rise and Fall delivers on its space opera premise, at least visually. Ships pinwheel through space against godlike figures that dispatch them with a whim. Rows of soldiers stand and fire their bolts of green energy, blowing away other soldiers who blow them away back in turn. (That sentence might not have made sense, but this is the holidays, and I can get away with it because you're in a jolly mood.)

Billy Tan's epic pencils dart in and out of close shots and wide-as-a-galaxy-battles and Clay Henry's fill-in pages aren't bad with their clean aesthetic, though they're not as epic as the Tan-Man.

So what about the writing? Well, thus is the problem: Brubaker is not on his game here.

He's always been a master of subtle characterization. Here he over-subtles himself. Like X-Factor, the X-Men of Rise and Fall are lesser-known cult favorites. Nightcrawler, Havok, Polaris, Warpath, Darwin and the Rachel Summers Phoenix aren't the icons Cyclops and Wolverine are, but they have their demons. Warpath, for instance, saw his family murdered and blamed Professor X for years, yet now he is an X-Man. Nightcrawler has struggled with his faith as a rejected priest from the Catholic Church, thrown out for being a mutant. This could have been like Peter David's work and made a group of also-ran heroes into a compelling team.

Instead, Brubaker just gives hints of what the characters are feeling. We know that Rachel Summers saw her family murdered by Sentinels, but we don't get a strong sense of that aching loss, even in her romance with the alien Korvac. We don't get a lot of backstory, which makes it hard for even a longtime reader to remember why Havok and Polaris aren't together anymore when they were, or why Warpath has such a tormented relationship with Xavier. None of them really get the screen time they need. Or perhaps Brubaker doesn't make enough of that screen time.

On top of that X-Team just mentioned, a good portion of screen time goes to the evil Vulcan and his alien lover Deathbird. In fact, Vulcan and his buddy Darwin get the most characterization of all. They were, not coincidentally, the two characters Brubaker created in Deadly Genesis.

That doesn't mean Brubaker doesn't give good comic. He's just not a team guy. He does his best work on solo heroes who verge on a kind of insanity. I would love to see him write Batman, Hulk, Wonder Woman, or a dozen other heroes, but not X-Men.

On the sixth day of X-Men my true love gave to me . . . six reboot books!

Around the year 2000, Marvel decided to take one more shot at that Impossible Dream: remaking their classic characters for the modern crowd. It was supposed to be a cursed endeavor, only recently pooped out with Spider-Man: Chapter One.

Impossible Dream was impossibly achieved. Brian Michael Bendis delivered a magnificently cinematic turn to Spider-Man, and the Ultimized X-Men outdid the movie for sheer edgy badness.

Ultimate X-Men begins, as many an X-Men reboot has, with the robot Sentinels streaking overhead, hunting whatever mutants they can find. They find some, and promptly blow them up. Turns out this vicious incentive is a retaliation to mutant terrorist bombings by Magneto and his Brotherhood of Mutants.

There is, of course, a montage in which Jean Grey, here a sexy bad girl, goes around recruiting X-Men. However, it doesn't take long before Millar starts subverting everything you might expect from an X-Men comic. Wolverine is not just a surly loner here. He's an out-and-out villain.

And Magneto has none of the hesitant altruism present in his typical Marvel incarnation. He's a genuine Bin Laden, convinced that what he does is right and that his every human death is another mark of victory. From his scratchy broadcasts he hisses, "Your replacements grow impatient."

Cyclops, Jean, Wolverine and even Quicksilver don't behave as one might expect them to. And that's refreshing, because Ultimate X-Men is a great baggage-free introduction to the merry mutants, but it is also a nice edgy twist on what your average Marvel reader has been digesting for decades. That was the main success of the Ultimate line. Not only were the stories accessible to new readers, they were also just different enough in mood, pacing and plot twist from the old standbys that older readers could appreciate them.

Of all the books here, Ultimate X-Men has my favorite art, at least for a good chunk. Adam Kubert has a more simplified sensibility and an insane dynamism than his brother, who finishes up the last chapters of Tomorrow People. Adam Kubert's pictures move, I swear.

Sentinels loom like dark gods, or dart like immense hornets between city streets. Wolverine whips his claws through bad and good guys like a flashing blade in a kung fu movie. My favorite shot is a one-two punch of Quicksilver hopping on Cyclops's car hood, having super-speeded out the car parts. "Missing an engine, Cyclops?" he asks. In the next panel Cyclops shatters the windshield, his red eyes erupting like a hurricane, and yells, "Missing a face, moron?

Mark Millar's plot is spectacular in its twisty love, doing triple back half-gainers with the readers' expectations. Though his dialogue . . . well, when I first read it, I was so taken with the plot and characterization that I didn't notice. The guy overexposits like a 40s sci-fi pulp magazine.

It's funny in parts, like when Wolverine tells Jean that Cyclops is "a loser who brushes his teeth six times a day," or when the Beast, dodging Sentinel blasts, tells Iceman "Take it easy, Bobby, I've been getting shot at since my old man used to come home drunk and take potshots at me while I was sleeping in my crib."

Yeah, it's entertaining, but no one talks that much. I want room to breathe.

It's no reason to skip Ultimate X-Men, though, especially if you're looking for a good way to get into the mutants without having to buy the ten million spinoffs.

(And such spinoffs! When I first made the list for these columns, I got up to twenty or thirty storylines before I had to make myself stop. I left off Wolverine: Enemy of the State, a good little fracas in which John Romita Jr. drew Wolvie fighting the whole Marvel U, (though the obligatory carcass at the end was Northstar, Marvel's first gay hero -- this on top of the token black death in Civil War -- come on, guys) and I left off the Age of Apocalypse, 90s manga dystopia , and I left out most of the Claremont years, including even the Dark Phoenix storyline, because that stuff just doesn't age well.)

Whew.

Next issue: I dive right in to give you the last six days of X-Men, including Joss Whedon's take on the marvelous freaks.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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