Saturday, October 05, 2013

Library Reviews - Yesterday’s X-Men & Revolution

The X-men have always been an on-again/off-again thing for me - I liked them quite a bit in the late 80s, but sometime in the mid-90s they started losing their appeal.  Then came Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run - which reminded me of everything I loved about the X-men (and is something I still pull out and re-read periodically) - but then Marvel turned around and basically undermined most of the things he did in that run with the House of M event that reduced the number of mutants in the world down to a ridiculously low number.  Suddenly instead of the X-men being “the future of humanity” with all of the baggage that entails, they were just another group of people with superpowers.  After that point I lost interest, only picking up the book occasionally in compilations from the library.

But then I started hearing good things about Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-men.  I liked the premise (Wolverine as the headmaster of the school?  Sign me up!), and I liked the proposed cast for the book.  So I got the first volume from the library and it really was very good.  I also grabbed the sister title - Kieron Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men.  And it was very nicely done as well.  The two titles had completely different tones - Wolverine and the X-men sometimes skirts the line of goofy Silver Age sorts of fun while Uncanny X-men is played a bit more straight.  (And dark - the book is basically a chronicle of Scott Summers falling to the Dark Side as he deludes himself into thinking he’s going to be able to save mutantkind.  More on that later though.)

And when the Avengers vs. X-men crossover came out in collected form, I found myself reading a Big Event that I actually quite liked in the end.  It probably doesn’t hurt that I’ve got some mixed feelings about Scott Summers as a hero, and despite not having read the X-books for the better part of a decade can TOTALLY SEE the trajectory of his life that leads him from “idealistic student of Xavier” to “leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants”.  Which is basically where Summers is at the end of AvX.  Any other hero they’d done that to would have had me irritated (as when they turned Hal Jordan into Parallax instead of letting him die a hero’s death).  But Summers?  It totally works for me.

So anyway after all that I realized I wanted to read more.  Jason Aaron still has more Wolverine and the X-men coming, but Gillen was done with Uncanny and a new writer had come onto the book - Bendis.  Sigh.  And he was writing a THIRD major X-men title as well - All New X-Men.  Sigh.  Bendis’s Avengers are, frankly, some of the worst comics I’ve read in a long time.  They just do not work for me at all.  And so I assumed that his X-men would be similar.  I almost didn’t check them out.  I almost just said “well, I’ll stick with Wolverine and the X-men and forget it”.  I came very close but, in the end, I decided to go ahead and get them from the library.  After all, if I don’t have to spend money on them there’s no real risk, right?

I’m glad I did.  They’re really both surprisingly good.

All New X-men first - since it came out first.  The core conceit of this book is that Hank McCoy, shaken by how far his friend Scott has fallen travels back in time to bring the younger original X-men to the present.  He apparently believes that if Scott can see his younger self he will be shocked into seeing how far he’s fallen from his idealistic youth.  This is, to be sure, a stupid plan.  The fact that this plan is stupid is clearly lampshaded in the story, so I reasonable sure that it’s stupid on purpose.  Hank is desperate, and as it turns out he’s also dying due to his body going through yet another mutation phase, and so he isn’t thinking clearly.  There’s really no reason to think that Scott would be shaken at all by seeing his younger self, since he doesn’t think that he’s “fallen” to this point at all - he still sees himself as the soldier that Xavier trained to find and protect mutants.  

And in fact when the younger X-men confront Scott and his Brotherhood of Evil X-men for the first time, Scott barely notices his younger self at all.  Because young Jean Grey is sitting right in front of him and THAT is what shakes him more than anything.  He’s suddenly confronted by the memories of the High School sweetheart that he fell in love with and that shakes him to the core.  He flees, and of course the younger X-men are shaken by the fact that Scott has allied with Magneto of all people and definitely looks like a villain.  In the end the younger X-men decide to stay and fix the post-apocalyptic future that Hank McCoy has brought them to before returning to their own time.  Which, frankly, is kind of a nice nod to the past stories of the X-men - fixing post-apocalyptic futures is half of what they do!

The first volume does have its share of flaws.  The book focuses a lot on Hank McCoy, young Hank McCoy, and Jean Grey.  We don’t really get to see what young Scott Summers thinks about the fact that his future self is (to his eyes) the crazed leader of a mutant terrorist organization who has killed Professor Xavier.  It really would be nice to get more of his internal monologue because, well, that has to be a WTF moment for a kid like Scott.  We get to see Warren Worthington complaining a bit, but that’s about it.  And while the two Bobby Drakes get to crack some jokes, we don’t get much more than jokes out of them (though Iceman is a major character in Wolverine and the X-men, so at least we get to see him there).  These are wrapped up in my common complaints about Bendis team books - his difficulty in juggling a large cast and giving them all a distinct voice.  Overall though it has me wanting more, which is not something I think I’ve ever said about a Bendis team book.

The companion title - Uncanny X-men - follows Scott Summers and his merry band of X-men.  Scott has decided that he’s going to open his own school where nobody would think to look for it - in the abandoned Weapon X facility.  His team consists of himself, Magneto, Emma Frost, Illyana Rasputin, and a handful of mutant teenagers his team shows up to rescue over the course of this book and the first volume of All New X-men.  It turns out that hosting the Phoenix Force has messed with his, Emma and Ilyana’s powers and, for some reason, Magneto’s as well.  Since Magneto didn’t host the Phoenix Force like the other three did, I hope that this is the setup of a real mystery about why Magneto’s powers are wonky and NOT just Bendis performing some lazy writing. Anyway everyone is mad at Scott because, well, the end of AvX had him basically screwing everyone over.

This title has more problems for me than the first volume of All-New X-men does.  For starters the first chapter sets up the idea that Magneto is a traitor as he sells out to SHIELD.  For some reason they let him go when he promises to deliver Summers to them in an embarrassingly public way.  Like McCoy’s time travel plan this makes no sense.  But unlike McCoy’s plan, Bendis doesn’t give us any indication that he realizes it’s stupid.  Why would SHIELD let a mass murderer walk even if he can deliver Summers up to them?  And it’s also clear that SHIELD doesn’t even trust Magneto to do it - nor, as it turns out, should they, since Magneto is only pretending to sell Scott out so that he can … something?  It isn’t really clear.  He apparently thinks he’ll be able to get information out of SHIELD, but Bendis makes it clear that Maria Hill and Nick Fury Jr. know that Magneto was “playing them” when they send the Avengers to get Scott using Magneto’s information and the Avengers get their asses handed to them by a new mutant who can stop time.  Frankly the entire “Magneto is a traitor” thing reads like a story beat that Bendis had to combine some exposition and a cliffhanger into the first issue and then didn’t have any idea where to take it.  At least he had it play out rather than dropping it once he realized he had nowhere to go with it, but really it doesn’t work.

But overall it’s still interesting.  And it’s mainly interesting to me because Scott Summers is a fascinating character for me.  The idea of Scott Summers as the leader of the Brotherhood of Evil X-men is actually a great one - the trajectory of his hero career over the last 30 years had led to this moment and it completely works for me.  Even before he abandoned his wife and newborn baby in Alaska because his High School sweetheart came back from the dead, Scott had been written as someone who didn’t always make the best choices.  After that point it only got worse.  He might be a great field leader (tactics) but he’s terrible at the big picture.  And this is exactly the kind of mess that a guy who makes one bad decision after another would land in.  Now he’s the boss of a group that hates him.  He nearly caused a global apocalypse because of his short-sighted desire to use the Phoenix Force to bring mutants back - an apocalypse only narrowly averted by his “granddaughter” Hope and the Scarlet Witch who actually end up bringing back mutants into the world (though Scott in his delusion continues to tell himself he did the right thing because mutants are now back).  He’s on the run from the Avengers and SHIELD because he killed Charles Xavier while under the influence of the Phoenix (the closest thing he’s ever had to a father or a mentor though, to be fair, most of Scott’s problems are Xavier’s doing) though he deludes himself into thinking they’re after him because of his “mutant Revolution”.  The whole idea is great and I want to read more.

And what shocks me is the idea that I’m interested at all in a book about Scott Summers.  Scott Summers was always at best a cypher to me when I read the X-men.  I identified more with Kitty Pryde, or Colossus, or even Nightcrawler than I did with Scott.  When he was the leader of X-Factor he wasn’t exactly a sympathetic figure either, but he also wasn’t very interesting.  But I read that book more for Iceman and Beast and (eventually) Archangel than I did for the Scott/Jean romance.  If anything I mostly felt bad for his ex-wife Madelyne - who I have long felt got the raw end of every deal where Scott Summers is involved (Madelyne is one of the most tragic figures in 90s X-men comics - and given the tragedy of 90s X-men comics, I think that says a lot).

I suspect the whole point of Bendis’s Uncanny X-men (and All New X-men) run is to provide a redemption narrative for Scott Summers.  But to be honest, I kind of hope not.  While I still don’t think he’s a very sympathetic character, I think he’s more interesting now than he’s been in years. And while there is some merit to the "redemption" narrative, that really just leaves him back where he was when this whole thing started except even mopier. I'd almost rather see them go the other way - drive him even farther into "villain" territory, even as he has convinced himself that what he is doing is right in an "ends justifies the means" manner. I doubt Marvel would take this route - Cyclops is an iconic X-man character and turning him into a villain "permanently" isn't going to happen - but it would be interesting to see.

So I’m looking forward to volume 2 of both of these books (I already have the second All New X-men volume on reserve from the library).  Hopefully Bendis can keep it up. And hopefully he really does have a plan with these books and isn't setting up a bunch of stuff he has no intention of actually paying off on.

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