Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
December 2009

The Twelve Days of X-Men: Countdown to Jolly Holiday DOOM!

Deadpool Classic Vol. 2, X-Men: Messiah Complex, Fray, Wolverine & The X-Men: Heroes Return Trilogy, New X-Men Omnibus, Astonishing X-Men Omnibus

Welcome back to the Twelve Days of X-Men, the only column that wraps your Mutant Filth while you wait and includes a healing factor to keep off those holiday pounds. This month I complete this review on twelve of the best, worst, and bought-it-cuz-it-looked-okay-turns-out-it-wasn't-that-great X-Men comics.

Wolverine just might come down your chimney. Leave out some beer and cigars.

On the seventh day of X-Men my true love gave to me: wit and repartee.

Whither Deadpool, you say, and how be he an X-Man? Hark! I shall tell you.

Deadpool is a mutant Spider-Man without a conscience.

He was once a mere hired assassin, but upon discovering he had cancer, he volunteered for the Weapon X program that created Wolverine. They gave him an artificial version of Wolverine's healing factor.

Instead of making him a short, hairy Canadian, Deadpool ended up as a walking (also oozing) tumor; his skin is constantly restoring new flesh over slightly-older new flesh. Ew. To deal with his grotesque condition, he keeps a healthy sense of humor, but don't mistake him for a hero. When Spider-Man beats a bad guy, he webs them up for the cops. When Deadpool incapacitates his enemies, he sticks live grenades in their mouths.

Deadpool Classics collects the first ten or so issues of 'Pool's first unlimited series, a career-making-run for writer Joe Kelly and Ed McGuinness. Though these comics are legendary, they came out at a point in my life where I thought I was too old for comics (translation: willing to give up anything for a date). This is my first time with Deadpool solo.

Aaaaand . . . I'm underwhelmed. Maybe I've heard too much about how funny these comics are, but Ed McGuinness's art, while dynamic as all get-out, seems a bit too minimalist. Deadpool himself is a great character, but the first story arc revolves around his semi-romance with the heroic Siryn of X-Force, and falls into a clichéd "there is a good man under there" deal, as Siryn talks him out of killing the mad scientist who experimented on him in Weapon X.

The story gets a lot better once Deadpool hooks up with Typhoid Mary, a multiple-personality pyromaniac ninja who wants to kill Daredevil. Of course, Daredevil and Deadpool team up for damage control. Some of the best moments come when Daredevil tries to stop Deadpool from killing the mobsters on Typhoid Mary's side.

"We don't sink to her level!" he says to Deadpool, blocking Deadpool's gun.

"Uh, in case you forgot, I kind of got a lock on that level."

As soon as Daredevil leaves to find Typhoid, Deadpool blows away all the thugs who are messing with their agenda.

Deadpool's repartee is generally funny, though you have to adjust your humor meter back to junior high, ie: "You just killed the hot chick from the juice bar that I was gonna score with someday maybe!"

This is before 'Pool acquired the habit of breaking the fourth wall, a feature that made him funnier. It's a bit of fun, but not the howling, stomachache-inducing-from-laughter book I always heard it was.

On the eighth day of X-Men my true love gave to me: baby McGuffin.

Messiah Complex is a big huge X-Men crossover, running through the four main X-Men comics. The tradition of the crossover is sometimes a proud epic, sometimes a shameful attempt to sell gobs of comics.

Messiah Complex is one of the best ones in years. It's funny, because it was made possible by a not-so-great crossover, House of M.

In House of M, the Scarlet Witch, Bonkers Lady Who Slaughtered The Avengers, created an alternate world where mutants were the upperclass of society. The main reason she created this world was so she could have her imaginary babies back, whom she created through her reality-altering powers.

At the end, when the X-Men shattered her illusion, she got so angry that she took the powers from every mutant on earth.

So in the beginning of Messiah Complex, mutants are a nearly-extinct species. Things are looking grim when Professor Xavier registers a mutant birth so powerful in Alaska it nearly fries his brain.

(No, it isn't Logarithm Palin.)

When the X-Men arrive, the baby is gone and a human extremist group, the Purifiers, is fighting a mutant extremist group, the Marauders, in the wreckage. Thus begins a brilliantly tense manhunt across continents, future timelines and through a number of rather affecting X-Deaths, even if those kind of things tend not to last. No one really explains why the baby is so important, but it doesn't matter to the structure of the story. Like David Mamet's brilliant script for the movie Ronin, Messiah Complex just lets the McGuffin be a McGuffin.

Writers Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost, Ed Brubaker, Peter David and Mike Carey keep the tension high and the characters in conflict. Shocks rumble through all the X-Books, changing their status quo for good. The art, by Billy Tan, Scot Eaton, Humberto Ramos and Chris Bachalo, with a special guest-shot by X-alumnus Marc Silvestri, is quality throughout. Messiah Complex is a solid read.

I just wish that the quality of the X-Titles would stay at this level. I've picked up the ensuing issues of the main X-Men comics, post Messiah Complex, and been unimpressed. They just flounder. For some reason, this set of X-Writers seems to be searching for the comics' identity.

X-Men is a weird franchise that way. From 1975 to 1991, most of it was written by one Chris Claremont. Claremont's plots were endlessly inventive, but his dialogue was overly verbose, and his characterization was hit-and-miss. He wrote the history-making "Dark Phoenix" and "Days of Future Past," and invested thousands of pages in making Magneto, Jean Grey, Kitty Pryde, Scott Summers, Kurt Wagner and Logan into multifaceted characters. He also introduced and beat to death a host of X-clichés, like turning a character "dark" or "wild" and constantly returning to alternate timelines and horrific futures.

Not to mention the phrase, "Hit 'em hard and fast!"

But he had a stroke of genius when he made made the X-Men a stand-in for minorities. That's only part of his appeal, but it shows how clearly he knew what he was doing with X-Men. The only other writer who had as global a vision for X-Men was Grant Morrison, who sadly didn't stick around for 16 years. (See below.)

Capable writers like Mike Carey, Matt Fraction, Steven Seagle, Joe Kelly and Scott Lobdell have always labored in the shadow of Claremont. There is a sense that X-Men should be a book that matters, that has vision, that has ambition that will overcome its flaws. Even when Claremont came back, he wasn't able to quite recapture that sense.

I really like a lot of the stuff on X-Men lately, especially Mike Carey's run. Hopefully these writers will find their Special Purpose and create a new vision for the comic.

On the ninth day of X-Men, my true love gave to me: what is this, true love? This isn't an X-Men comic!

Oh, shut up.

Okay, so Fray is not technically an X-Men comic. Yeah, yeah. Technically technically it's the future of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer franchise, with vampires and the hot chick who slays them extrapolated into Blade Runner.

But come on.

She's born with a host of strange powers, misunderstood by the world around her, fated to defend those who can't defend themselves. And she's written by Joss Whedon, who wrote the best X-Men story evahhh.

Melaka Fray is a thief in a future slum filled with mutants and vampires. The vampires, called "lurks" blend in pretty well, since most of the people in the slum look like sea monsters. But the lurks are planning something big, something that relates to Fray and the brother she lost to a vicious lurk named Icarus.

The Watchers, the order from Buffy that dedicated themselves to training Slayers, have degenerated into an insane cult. The first time Fray meets one, he sets himself on fire. Luckily Urkonn, a demon with a far less altruistic (I guess setting yourself on fire isn't really altruistic) agenda comes along. He trains Fray, manipulating events behind the scenes to greater motivate her.

It works. She battles a massive monster in a truly gory showdown. The end alludes to future battles for Fray, which leads into some events in the Buffy Season Eight comic.

I loved this comic. Fray is smart, snappy, not drawn as a gratuitous "bad girl" like so many of the Maxim rejects that populate comics. The dialogue is clever and the plot twists like a pinned snake. The art is stunningly dynamic, even in the crowd scenes battling the massive demon.

Buy it. Quit complaining that it ain't X-Men.

On the tenth day of X-Men, my true love gave to me: a DVD?

Hey, this one is an X-Men story, even if it's a cartoon and not a comic.

My wife and I rented Wolverine and the X-Men: Heroes Reborn hoping that it would be like our current favorite cartoon, Spectacular Spider-Man.

The Spidey cartoon in question is brilliantly animated and brilliantly written. Like Ultimate Spider-Man, it reinvents the "Peter Parker in high school" mythos, but it adds in a dose of spinning, bare-knuckled computer-aided fight sequences that outdo even the best art of the comic. And I like the way Spectacular handles the supporting cast better than the way Ultimate did. Especially sometimes-villains Harry Osborne and Eddie Brock.

But Wolverine and the X-Men ain't Spectacular. It ain't uncanny or astonishing either. Set after a mysterious attack has stolen Professor X and Jean Grey, Wolverine follows its title character in his attempts to reunite the X-Men and battle a mutant control agency.

This cartoon's first and biggest mistake is making Wolverine the leader of the X-Men. It's the same mistake the third movie made. The X-Men need angst and danger to work, especially Wolverine. He's constantly battling his animal side. But as a leader of the cartoon, he's utterly stable, even in battle.

No no no. For X-Men to work, Wolverine has to be the wild card of the X-Men, fighting the urge to kill everything in sight.

The second mistake was in the animation. There are no Spectacular action sequences in this cartoon. The animation is pretty pedestrian. It's a shame since the best X-Men cartoon, the straight-up adaptation of the 90s, had awful animation. Sad tradition.

I get the feeling that the Wolverine-as-leader bit was mandated by the network, who wanted to put the most popular character front and center, especially since this cartoon came out around the same time as Wolvy's movie. In that case, the writers are doing the best they can. But this one will come and go without a blip. It's generic and boring.

I should mention here that I haven't seen a single episode of X-Men: Evolution, a series that came out when I was in college. That series was apparently good enough that Marvel hired the showrunners, Craig Kyle and Chris Yost, to write their junior team in New X-Men. The animation I've seen looked decent, so I'll have to give it a try. Maybe it will wash this Wolverine taste out of my mouth.

On the eleventh day of X-Men my true love gave to me: a bald guy who was abducted by aliens and eats a lot of hashish.

The above reference is to Grant Morrison, a nut if ever there was one, who publicly claims to have been to the fifth dimension.

In spite of, or perhaps because of that, he's one of the best comic writers around.

Morrison is the only X-Men writer whose vision was as expansive and ambitious as Chris Claremont's. He opens his run with a wholesale slaughter of sixteen million mutants in the mutant nation of Genosha; a tragedy on the level of the power decimation in House of M, but far more affecting. Seems an evil opposite to Professor X, Cassandra Nova, had stolen the voice of an heir to the Sentinel fortune and used it to release a far more deadly Sentinel upon Genosha.

In the second chapter, the X-Men sort through the ashes of millions of the dead. It's stunning and heartbreaking and will forever burn into your brain.

In those ashes, the X-Men discover their old enemy and occasional ally the White Queen Emma Frost, who mutated into an occasionally living diamond, thus surviving the Sentinel attack.

Emma is the best darn character the X-Men have assimilated in years. It's a tradition for X-Men to be morally ambiguous, but none have been as beautifully so as Emma. She comes into the X-Men on the heels of Cyclops's mental breakdown, possessed by the villain Apocalypse, and she makes no bones about her play for this married man's affection.

She hilariously admits to tons of plastic surgery. At one point, upon getting her nose broken, she dangles the culprit out of a window and yells "I look like a bloody heavyweight boxer! I paid a lot of money for this nose!" Referring to her time as a villain, she says, "I was high the whole time."

By account of her telepathic affair with Cyclops (according to them, shared psychic sex fantasies don't count) she makes Cyclops more interesting. I always thought that was impossible.

They're not likeable, but they're interesting, like the morally fluid characters in George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire.

Morrison also generates a billion strange ideas, like Cassandra Nova as Xavier's spiritual opposite, a power-enhancing drug, a complex mutant culture, a young mutant movement idolizing the dead Magneto, and a mutant with a "tiny star in his head," Xorn.

Morrison also wisely focuses on Jean, Beast, Cyclops, Emma and new character Xorn's roles as teachers to a new generation of X-Men. This new generation is anything but the Barbie-and-Ken that Cyclops and Phoenix are. They include a see-through kid, a group of creepy identical telepathic quintuplets, and the hideous plucked-chicken-man Beak, who gets involved in the most bizarre romance in X-history.

Morrison's stories disappoint a bit toward the end of his run, falling into an ill-conceived twist and a clichéd dark future for the X-Men, though he still packs some surprises in, including a long-overdue second death for Jean Grey, the Phoenix, whose ensuing Phoenixish return is a brilliant time-twister. Despite his clichés, his masterful characterization, strange powers and made-up mutant culture are amazing.

The art, though, is bipolar. Marc Silvestri, Frank Quitely, Ethan Van Sciver and Chris Bachalo contribute some beautiful pages. I especially loved Quitely's quirky, sometimes purposely ugly people. Artists Igor Kordey and John Paul Leon are too dirty, and Kordey is hampered by his status as a fill-in artist who often had to draw entire issues in one day. You have to give the guy credit for that, even though is art is not great.

Morrison is a nut. This comic is a squishy bath in his mental peanut butter. Dive in.

On the twelfth day of X-Men my true love gave to me: the best all-time X-Men story.

Yep.

Astonishing X-Men, by Joss Whedon and John Cassady, is the best X-Men story of all time. Ever.

Joss Whedon just gets it. Remember Firefly? Of course you do. You loved those amazingly rendered characters, turned inside-out in each episode.

Now imagine the X-Men just as well-rendered by John Cassaday's stunning art, as if they were actors, and portrayed as real, whole people as Claremont did, only with genius dialogue instead of melodrama. Cassaday gives each member personality, accompanying it all with huge cinematic shots of alien worlds, monster fight sequences and the most stunning finale shot of all X-time.

Whedon brings back Kitty Pryde, the once-junior member and her sometimes lover Colossus, the massive Russian metal man. Whedon just gets Kitty Pryde, a character every other writer has struggled with since she grew up from junior member status.

Kitty serves a foil for Emma Frost and a down-to-earth grounded character who keeps the team accessible. In their first scene, Kitty shows up late to the first-semester meeting. "This, children," says Emma, "is Kitty Pryde, who feels the need to make a grand entrance."

"I'm sorry," Kitty says to the scantily clad Emma, "I was busy remembering to put on all my clothes."

Whedon is not trying to blow the concept of X-Men beyond what we've seen before, as Morrison was. He is creating a series of character studies, especially an extended study of Kitty. In the third act of this amazing series, the X-Men suffer a psychic attack that strips them to their emotional basics. Beast becomes an animal and eats a chunk of Wolverine, Cyclops loses his optic blasts.

Wolverine, hilariously, regresses to the young sickly boy from Origin. "Say my doll is the best or I shall be cross all day!" he yells to Emma.

And Whedon's one-liners are so freaking funny. After Beast and Wolverine get their brains back (you will never laugh as hard as you will at the way Wolverine remembers who he is), Beast apologizes for eating a good chunk of Wolverine. "Pfft," Wolverine says. "That's what friends are for."

"I'm pretty sure it's not," Beast says.

During the psychic attack, Kitty lives three years of an imagined life. In those years, she is married to Colossus. She has a son, who Professor Xavier takes away supposedly because of the child's "horrible power." It's all a ploy by the imprisoned Cassandra Nova, since Kitty's phasing power (she can pass through solid material) is the only thing that can get Nova out of her prison.

The trauma and pain Kitty goes through leave her scarred and furious, but she does not sit around and whine like, oh, Cyclops. (I never liked Cyclops. Can you tell?) Instead, she becomes the catalyst for the epic ending, which WILL make you cry, I don't care if you're Wolverine.

I am fanboy gushing all over this Internet page, I know. So what. This is the best comic ever. Ever. If only Joss Whedon would come back to the X-Men for another run, maybe a long long run. But he's busy with that show -- oh what's it called -- I Can't Believe It's Not Firefly.

Pshaw, Whedon. Get back to where you once belong.

And thus the Twelve Days of X-Men end, with lots of wrapping paper, dying pine trees and explosions to clean up. God bless us, everyone.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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