Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Xth Iteration

Depending on how one looks at it, Uncanny X-Men #1 has either two jobs, or three.  The first is the most obvious: it has to work as a jumping on point for new readers.  The second and third jobs are to still be recognisable as part of the progression of a book now in its forty-second consecutive year, and to justify the fuss and bother of a) removing half of the characters and setting them down on the other side of the country and b) renumbering a book which was only five months away from reaching UXM #550 [1]. One could argue that the second task is contained within the third, but whatever.  This book has shit to do.

(Spoilers after the jump)

So, how well has Gillen done?  Given the difficulty of the task, I'd say pretty well.  Somewhere around a B, maybe a B+.  The biggest problem this issue has (up until the last two pages) is that it feels like we've seen it all before.  More specifically, we've seen it all before in UXM #500, when Matt Fraction took over the reins, and presented us with his own re-shuffle.

The similarities range from the presentational (the bite-size introduction panels for each character are back), to the narrative (the Dreaming Celestial once more makes an appearance, and is targetted by an old enemy the X-Men never expected to face again) to the tonal.  It's that last one that really stood out - watching Cyclops gather together his A-roster and discuss how everything's all shiny and new again really reminded me of the opening days at Graymalkin Industries.

Are such echoes of the past really such a problem?  Well, maybe not, and given my opening to this post, I clearly can't bitch too hard about UXM #1 drawing on the past.  It's the specific past it's drawing on that worries me.  I generally agreed with those people who consider Fraction's X-Men run to be a little disappointing.  The man can clearly write some excellent comics (Invincible Iron Man is always readable and frequently brilliant), but for whatever reason, his magic didn't quite work when it came to the X-Men.  If I had to guess, I'd suggest it was the ludicrously unwieldy number of characters the exodus to Utopia left him feeling obliged to juggle, but that's a conversation for another time. 

My point right now is that UXM #500 promised a great deal that later issues frankly failed to deliver.  The Dreaming Celestial was presented as desperately important in some nebulous way to the future of mutant-kind, but not much was really made of it.  Graymalkin Industries was intended to be a genuine new beginning for the team after they finally left the shattered remains of the Xavier Institute behind (naturally, Wolverine has now gone back there), but pretty much the only interesting story that was ever particularly reliant on the San Francisco location was "Utopia", which ended with the team settling on an island off the coast for a new new beginning. 

Obviously, Gillen can't be blamed for Fraction's fumble four years ago.  At the same time, though, this first issue does have me worried that Gillen is going through the same process - casting around for something, anything to make the book about.  Throwing Sinister back into the mix doesn't really reassure me, especially since I'm not at all sold on Gillen's take on the man.  The humorless and mysterious Machivellian super-villain of the '80s and '90s have had their day, true, but that doesn't necessarily make it sensible to recast them as a sword-carrying Victorian adventurer type (now, if Sinister had started that way...)  I mentioned above that it's only in the last two pages of the issue that I can't claim there are parallels to UXM #500; that's because the book ends with Sinister using the Dreaming Celestial's head to create his own theme-park.("EVERYTHING IS SINISTER!", indeed). Readers of my other blog will know how aggravating I found Arcade even amongst the excesses of the '80s, I dread to think what a 21st Century equivalent might do to my blood pressure.

Still, that's a lot of complaining, and I did say this was a B-grade book at the very least.  There are five reasons why.  First, the actual battle between Sinister and the X-Men is competently done, with none of the deliberately exaggerated macho posturing involved in the similar battle with Magneto forty five issues earlier (Emma having her arm chopped off is also a bonus).  Second, the new team roster (included at the end of the issue) allows Gillen to deal with the large number of characters on Utopia (over forty are listed here) without it becoming the unwieldly mess occasionally demonstrated by Fraction.  Third, as a related point, that same roster, along with an extract from a San Francisco guidebook and a letter from Scott to the United Nations, goes a long way to clueing newcomers into exactly what's going on, and why this book is different from, say, Wolverine and the X-Men.

 Lastly, Scott's idea of an "Extinction Team", which consists of his most powerful X-Men and exists purely to repeatedly save the world and rub humanity's nose in it is absolutely fantastic.  I've never understood why the X-Men didn't answer every anti-mutant slur with "Fuck you, we saved you from the Z'Nox."  Hell, there is literally not a single lifeform, sentient or otherwise, across the entire length and breadth of the Marvel Universe who doesn't owe their lives to the X-Men.  Not one.  If Scott is right (and he may well be) that his top-tier mutants are actually better than the Avengers, then they're damn well going to get their props.  And in the meantime, they can scare the ever-loving shit out of anyone who might be gunning for Utopia.  It'd be like how the US nuclear deterrent worked in Independence Day, the morning after they'd used that nuke to destroy the alien mothership.

That, though, brings us to our final reason to love the book: the very real possibility that Cyclops has very genuinely lost the plot.  Storm notes almost as soon as the "Extinction Team" idea is floated that more than half its members are one-time supervillains, and now Scott wants to use them to scare people.  Hell, Magneto tried this trick years ago in UXM #150, and all it got him was a brace of nuclear missles fired at his face, and a beating at the hands of the X-Men.  And now the guy who was in charge of that beating is sitting across the table, telling him it's time to give it another go.

It's mainly that degree of moral ambiguity that's keeping me interested.  Whether or not that interest can survive if issue two introduces Sinister's Log Flume, we shall have to wait and see.

[1] Of course, one can one point out that once you remove reprints, that issue should really only have been #523 in any case.  Comics are nothing if not difficult to precisely quantify.

Also, it's a small point, but you'd think the people in charge might wonder if things have gone too far when they need to write "brand new ongoing" onto one of their most high-profile comics, wouldn't you?  Presumably they were worried that without that label, people would assume that this was just the first issue of an Uncanny X-Men: Regenesis mini-series.  This is why slapping banners on everything you can find and renumbering whenever the mood takes you is probably ultimately counter-productive.

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