Friday, August 01, 2008

Comics! Uncanny X-Men #500!

Last week saw a milestone in Marvel Comics - the publication of the 500th issue of the Uncanny X-Men. Marvel marked the occasion by commissioning a painted front-and-back cover by quasi-deified comic book artist Alex Ross, and Marvel definitely got its money's worth (just how much does Ross get paid for a painting like this? Anybody out there hazard a guess?): the painting depicts all (well, most - the guy with the super-powered pet maggots is nowhere to be seen) the various ages of the X-Men caught between their two most emblematic foes, the mutant-hunting robot Sentinels and the world-dominating mutant master of magnetism, Magneto. There in the background is a ghostly telepathic image of Professor X, who recruited those five young mutants way back in 1963's first issue. Directly below him are the heroes those teenagers became: Iceman, Marvel Girl, Angel, Beast, and Cyclops, whose devastating ruby eye-beams carve an angle through the painting in classic Ross style (he loves the play of light in all its thicknesses). And surging forward toward the foreground is the new team that revitalized the comic in 1975 and changed the face of Marvel Comics forever: Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Kitty Pryde, Gambit, Rogue, and of course Wolverine, bigger and better drawn than all the others. It's a bravura piece of work, even for an artist from whom we've come to expect such work.

It would be wrong to say that cover painting is the best thing about the 500th issue of the Uncanny X-Men. It's the only good thing. As for the rest, Marvel has pulled off something uncanny indeed: they've commemorated the 500th anniversary of their most popular title with the single worse X-Men issue ever published.

That's saying something. Uncanny, through its countless variations and incarnations, has published some truly crappy issues over the decades. This issue has to compete with the aforementioned maggot-guy, with the disco-heroine Dazzler, with the onslaught of Onslaught, and with the mini-era of the snub-nosed Wolverine (a manifestation that still confuses us, here at Stevereads). It handles this competition easily; it's worse than all of those eras before it even reaches page 10.

We'll get to page 10, but first a bit of true confession: Uncanny X-Men was never our favorite among the Marvel titles. When it first came out, we bought it of course - at the time, this new imprint Marvel Comics seemed able to do no wrong, and this seemed like another winner. The organizing principle? These super-powered kids, this team of kids and their somewhat creepy instructor (I wasn't the only one who suspected Marvel of doing a quickie-ripoff of the Doom Patrol, which, if memory serves, came out only a few months earlier and also featured a creepy instructor), were born that way. They didn't study with the Ancient One in a mountaintop retreat; they weren't struck by radioactive waste, spiders, rays, or bombs - instead, they just developed their abilities at puberty, the same as all their readers! When I first read it, I immediately started mentally listing all the other heroes who fit the same bill (what can I say? Way, way back then, I was something of a geek): Wonder Woman (who even as a child was stronger and faster than other Amazons) but not Superman (if Krypton hadn't exploded, he'd have been a poor powerless schlub like everybody else), the Martian Manhunter (on Mars, it seems, everybody could shapeshift) but not the Flash, Green Lantern, Atom, or Supergirl. The Sub-Mariner, but not, as mentioned, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Daredevil, or the Hulk.

(And what of my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes, you ask? I did the rundown on them too! Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, Phantom Girl, Chameleon Boy, Shadow Lass, Shrinking Violet, Triplicate Girl, Matter-Eater Lad, even Element Lad, yes - Wildfire, Lightning Lad, Cosmic Boy, Mon-el, Invisible Kid, Sun Boy, Colossal Boy, Princess Projectra, Timber Wolf, no ...)

It was an interesting take, but the first issue was sloppily done. Too much exposition, boring action sequences (even Jack Kirby could nod), and a team of weaklings the Thing alone could probably stomp into the ground before lunch.

The title won me over a few times ("Not a Dream! Not a Hoax! Not an Imaginary Story!" was an unbeatable hook for one issue, and of course there was the great Neal Adams for a too-short while, giving us the first truly great X-story with the introduction of the Sentinels) and lost me a few times, and like everybody else, I thought the 1975 re-launch (featuring Cyclops leading a team of heroes nobody'd ever heard of) was really good. But even during the Dark Phoenix Saga, my comics-reading heart lay elsewhere - with Thor, and Conan, and the Avengers, and Superman, and, of course, the Legion. And like all sensible sentient beings, I've had two parallel reactions to the modern incarnation of the title: one the one hand, a growing and awestruck appreciation of Joss Whedon's run on Astonishing X-Men, and on the other hand, a near-hysterical avoidance of the 100 percent pure crapola being produced in all the other X-titles.

Still, when a comic turns 500, you gotta read it. I was there, of course, for Action Comics 500 and was very much not disappointed - it was a great, epic retelling of the Superman story combined with a first-rate Lex Luthor plotline. It delivered.

Uncanny X-Men 500 miscarries. In fact, if it were a baby, it would miscarry so bad it would cause all the other babies in the whole friggin maternity ward to croak.

Some brief background, some of which we've already covered here: the mutant Scarlet Witch, in a fit of pique, warped the world's reality and thereby eliminated the super-powers of all but a handful of Earth's mutants - including Magneto, her father, who was left a powerless wretch. The X-Men still remained, dedicated to fighting the good fight against mankind's intolerance and evil mutants. That brings us to the latest issue, the #500 landmark.

Matters open with decidedly substandard Terry Dodson artwork (how exactly Marvel got substandard artwork out of somebody as talented as Dodson is a mystery all on its own - he shares haphazardly divided art chores in this issue with the notorious Ted Land, suggesting that either Dodson or Land or perhaps both learned rather late they'd be drawing any part of this issue), showing a pretentious artist receiving some old-style Sentinels in order to transform them into a modern art display. Our scene immediately shifts to the X-Men's new headquarters on the Marin Headlands across the bay from San Francisco, whose mayor is right then being flown to meet our heroes by Storm - who, despite now being queen of Wakanda, still finds time to for the whole super-heroing thing. The mayor has been given a 'psychic blindfold' by the X-Men's resident telepath, Emma Frost, despite the fact that she's a super-VILLAIN and always has been (these days she shows this mainly by making snide remarks).

The mayor's on some sort of good-will visit, so the X-Men show her around. Here the artwork is handled by Greg Land, so Emma Frost is of course beautiful - and, um, I guess so is Scott Summers, aka Cyclops, except that he's built like a steroid-popping weightlifter (what, can't Land find pictures of skinny models?). Hank McCoy, aka the Beast (still looking like a great big kitty-cat) shows up, introducing himself as "Hank McCoy, scientist" (which causes no one to laugh, even though it's absurd), and they're all telling the mayor how 'green' their new headquarters is when Warren Worthington, aka Angel, scolds them all for not wining and dining her - he promptly shows her the view of San Francisco across the bay, which kind of defeats the purpose of the psychic blindfold, since she can see her house from here.

When she tells the X-Men (at least, I think these are the X-Men - nobody bothers to enumerate the team-roster; I think it consists of Cyclops, Beast, Angel, Emma Frost, Nightcrawler, Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, and maybe-sorta Cannonball) about the pretentious artist-type and his Sentinel-installation, they're understandably upset - they vow to attend the gala opening, just to make sure nothing untoward happens. Exactly why they think mixing mutants with Sentinels, even deactivated ones, would calm things down is a mystery our writers don't bother with; instead, they shift the scene to the gala opening, where our heroes are mixing and mingling with slobbering fanboys (who are mocked even though their real-life counterparts are the ones who'll be buying the damn issue) and growling about the Sentinels standing there. Everbody's in X-Men costumes, and when a big guy dressed as Magneto hands Colossus a champagne glass, Colossus starts to tell they guy he's not a waiter - when gasp! it turns out to be the real Magneto! Why Colossus doesn't recognize the real Magneto when he's six friggin inches away is a mystery our writers don't bother with; instead, Magneto says "Now then, where were we?" uses his apparently-restored powers to hurl Colossus through a skylight, then says' "Now then, where were we?" again.

Angel says "Magneto! Put him down!" Cyclops says "Magneto tactics, team. Response squad, you're with me" Storm says (no snickering now) "Tyrant. Your villainy will be held here." But what follows is nevertheless a disorganized fiasco in which virtually nothing makes sense. Magneto handles everything the X-Men throw at him, then Cannonball hits him really hard and - presto! - we see that he's wearing some sort of power-simulating suit. It naturally comes with a transporter, so Magneto is able to disappear once he's been beaten. In the meantime, Colossus, Wolverine, and Angel (yes, Angel, who manages to take out a Sentinel on his own despite having no powers to speak of other than big, white wings) have defeated the reactivated Sentinels, and our landmark 500th issue thus ends in an ungainly heap.

And part of that ending? Emma Frost telepathically amplifies Cyclops' thoughts as he broadcasts to every mutant on the planet that X-Men headquarters is now a mutant sanctuary, that every mutant who wants to can now come there and be safe. Why on Earth he would say this, when his telepathic broadcast has just drawn a gigantic bullseye on the Marin Headlands location, is yet another mystery. The issue's full of them, and none of them the good kind. To put it mildly, this kind of X-Men execution is as far away from the stuff Joss Whedon was doing over in Astonishing as it's possible to get. In that title, Whedon made a fantastic new epic out of almost entirely new characters and material; in this one, two already-great characters and concepts - Magneto and the Sentinels - are wasted simultaneously.

Who knows what happened? Maybe despite the 499 rehearsals, issue 500 somehow snuck up on all involved. That would explain the lack of any cohesion in this issue, the feeling that it's all been cobbled together at the last minute. It's issue 500, so you have to read it, but there's nothing here to warrant anybody obeying any kind of telepathic summons to show up for issue 501.


Kevin said...

Steve - great review. The best kind of review - one that saves me money! Times are tough and all.

I would guess that Ross made over a grand for the cover painting. Which, to my eyes, is far from his best work. Ross states in just about every interview that he doesn't give a wet slap about the X-men and it shows - only Wolverine and Colossus are really well realized. And it suffers, as all of his work has for years now, from this strange shift in palette. Gone are the blacks, greys, and browns of his Kingdom Come/Uncle Sam days - now, his paintings glow with pinks, with yellows, with pinks (did I mention all the pinks?)...

I'm with you as far as reading X-books currently goes - Astonishing was the only foray into X-verse I've made in about a decade. Unlike you, I was a pretty huge Claremont-run fan. And I firmly believe that the franchise can be saved - though I'm practically impressed with how bad a job Marvel's been doing for the last 10 years. Perhaps their problem is that they're trying to get back to the wrong X-men - to the Jim Lee reboot, rather than the best of the Claremont run. (Whedon knew better, clearly).

Greg said...

Great review (a fine retrospective as well), and indeed a money saver. Issue 500 might have caused me to come out of my comics hibernation and plunk down the four thousand dollars I'm sure it costs. At least it's not a hologram or foil cover. Remember the 1990s? And it may not be his best work (hard to top Kingdom Come), but I think its a fine cover. The colors - maybe there could have been less pink - work well for the X-Mex.

I might point out that the perennially shitty and mystifyingly popular Gambit appeared in the late 80s, and for some reason, wasn't immediately made to choke on a bowl of gumbo.

Despite some low points (there almost had to be, no one stays on for runs like that anymore), I was raised on the Claremont run and was also a huge fan.

steve said...

so what would a really good X-Men 500 ideally do? What team? What concepts?

Kevin said...


I would start a new take on the book, and handle it, in some ways, like Giffen handled the V4 Legion - create a large, multi-character backdrop, mining all of the millions of X-men characters and dangling Claremont subplots for material - while still focusing on a core team in the foreground.

Personally, I like 'good Magneto' (or, at least, 'complicated Magneto') - so he wouldn't be the villain - though he'd probably be in the story.

One thing I like about the X-men is that most of the characters look just as interesting in regular clothes as they do in brightly colored costumes, so I'd probably keep them out of uniform unless necessary.

Greg said...

Well, Professor X would be there. I'm sick of writers killing off characters to make their comics edgier (Books too: Star Wars books might have sucked but they sucked even more after they killed Chewbacca). Formulas work for a reason. You don't tinker with the main ingredients. Leave that for the Ultimates.

I'd make it a hundred pages with a few stories of a few different types. Small stuff too; remember that issue where Wolverine and let the Juggernaut kick Colossus' ass in a barfight because Colossus wasn't being a good teammate? Something small like that: in continuity, and revealing, but not a major event. Something X-Meny.

Bigger stories too, and if we're sticking with continuity, I would want to see Magneto and the X-Men team up (after a fight probably) and go ripshit on Tony "Benito Mussolini" Stark and SHIELD. I agree with Kevin, Magneto is much more interesting in "complicated" mode.

Kevin said...

I agree with everything Greg just said.

Especially the part about Magneto.


Kevin said...

Uh-oh: X-men 500 was so bad, it froze the SteveReader...

As Ben Grim once said:

"Fire up the BetaMax, Stretcho!"ke

Greg said...

Steve, where are you?