Friday, July 31, 2009

The Year in Review - 1994

The speculator market began to crumble in 1994, and while sales across the board were affected, the X-titles remained the most successful franchise in comics with numbers that put today’s top selling titles to shame. The year is dominated by crossovers, most of them designed to promote a new title (Generation X), or to set up an even larger crossover (next year’s “Age of Apocalypse”).

Uncanny X-Men – At this point, Lobdell is mainly alternating one-issue stories with the crossover material. Joe Madureira takes over as artist, which soon leads to the manga look invading mainstream comics. The title spends months setting up the new spinoff Generation X, which generates a few decent issues that have Emma Frost reforming and Jubilee saying goodbye, but also gives us the tedious “Phalanx Covenant” crossover. The storyline has the Phalanx using the X-Men’s files and tracking down young mutants for unclear reasons, inadvertently raising the question of why the X-Men never bothered to seek out these kids themselves. Soon, the title is overtaken by the “Legion Quest” crossover, which sets up the massive “Age of Apocalypse” event. “Legion Quest” reads better than “Phalanx Covenant,” and actually feels like a crossover-worthy “event,” as Legion travels to the past and accidentally kills his father, Professor Xavier. Over half of the issues this year are spent on crossovers or “crossover aftermath” issues, which means the title really has no momentum on its own.

X-Men volume two – The year opens with the wedding of Cyclops and Jean Grey, which probably isn’t the highly emotional event the script sometimes portrays it as, but it’s nice enough. Nicieza then attempts to correct an earlier continuity mistake by explaining just who exactly the two people claiming to be Psylocke really are. It’s a continuity-thick rationalization that shouldn’t be dwelled on too much, but the conclusion is that Psylocke is Betsy Braddock in a new body, and the woman in her original body commits suicide rather than die of the Legacy Virus. Issue #33 is the best issue of Nicieza’s run, a dark story that has Sabretooth taunting Rogue with his knowledge of Gambit’s past. Nicieza’s scripting has dropped a lot of the melodrama by this point and it feels like he’s more comfortable with the title. He isn’t able to make “Phalanx Covenant” that engaging either, but the majority of his issues this year are pretty strong. Andy Kubert is also growing as an artist, and unlike many of his contemporaries, doesn’t need a fill-in every other issue.

X-Force – Looking back, the only real disappointments in X-Force this year are the “Phalanx Covenant” issues. Nicieza crosses X-Force and New Warriors over early in the year for “Child’s Play,” which looks like it was supposed to be the original crossover designed to set up Generation X. It’s a shame this story was ignored, as it establishes a much stronger concept for the new series: Xavier and Gamesmaster are in a race to discover the next generation of mutants. Xavier must find the young mutants before Gamesmaster tempts them over to the dark side. Instead, a few months later we get “Phalanx Covenant,” which just has the mutant teams fighting alien-infected racists who are chasing the kids. Most of the issues this year are small character-driven stories that help to develop Siryn, Rictor, and Warpath. A Nimrod two-parter revives the “proactive mutant team” concept and executes it quite well. Feral receives a two-part origin story that’s legitimately disturbing and a remarkable example of what you could actually get away with in Code-approved comics. X-Force has evolved a lot since its early issues and Nicieza receives a lot of credit for turning the book around.

Cable Cable continues its aimlessness, as Fabian Nicieza and Scott Lobdell take turns writing a few issues before bailing. Marvel editor Glenn Herdling is called in to finish both of their storylines, and the result is just lifeless. The year’s opening arc has Cable fighting Omega Red and the Acolytes, characters he has absolutely no connection with, so he feels like a generic hero plugged into a story with leftover X-villains. The next arc reintroduces Lee Forrester and S’ym, which is a nice use of past continuity (Cable’s father briefly dated Lee, and S’ym was involved in his mother’s corruption into a villain), but the story goes nowhere. Larry Hama writes a fill-in during the “Phalanx Covenant” crossover that turns out better than any of the previous issues of the series. Jeph Loeb makes his monthly comics debut in the latter half of the year, and as shocking as it may seem today, actually introduces a direction for the title. Loeb picks up on Nicieza’s attempts to humanize the character, turns Domino into a more obvious love interest, tries to make Cable’s son a tragic villain, and emphasizes his connection to Cyclops and Phoenix. Steve Skroce also shows up as the first artist willing to draw more than three issues in a row of the title. It’s far from perfect, but the quality does take a noticeable upturn by the year’s end.

X-Factor – J. M. DeMatteis continues his run, although it seems like he doesn’t have anywhere to go once his Haven arc is finished. The initial Haven storyline has a lot of interesting ideas and fun twists, and it’s too bad the character is quickly dismissed after DeMatteis leaves. Madrox is killed off, by editorial edict. Killing the character off was always a foolish idea, but DeMatteis gets a nice mourning issue out of it. After that, the book languishes without a direction for months. John Francis Moore takes over the title and gets off to a strong start, but his final issues of the year are a messy storyline with Lila Cheney that doesn’t work.

Wolverine – Larry Hama and Adam Kubert continue their solid run, as Wolverine travels the world while recovering from his injuries. Through a series of brief story arcs, Wolverine goes through Bloodscream, Cyber, Hand ninjas (of course), the Hunter in Darkness, and finally the Phalanx during the “Phalanx Covenant” crossover (Hama ended up writing the best issues of the crossover, even though it had nothing to do with his Wolverine storylines, and his Cable issue was just a fill-in). It’s an action-heavy book that doesn’t feel mindless, because Hama manages to make Wolverine a believable character and not a cliché-spouting tough guy. The book begins to suffer towards the end of the year as Adam Kubert is replaced by some ghastly fill-ins, and Hama has to kill time before Wolverine can fight Sabretooth in the final issue before “Age of Apocalypse” begins. When the extended Wolverine/Sabretooth fight finally happens, it is worth the wait. Hama adds the clever twist that Wolverine is actually trying not to fight Sabretooth out of respect for the X-Men, so the tension keeps building until the inevitable happens.

ExcaliburExcalibur is brought closer and closer to the rest of the line, as Rachel Summers is sent to the future to be in place for her role in Cable’s origin, Moira MacTaggert is infected with the Legacy Virus, and Douglock is introduced in anticipation of the Phalanx crossover. The extremely bland plots and mediocre art continue until Warren Ellis arrives (well, the art doesn’t really improve until Carlos Pacheco arrives). His initial “Soul Sword Trilogy” storyline brings an edge to title, a trend he continues with the introductions of Peter Wisdom and Black Air.

X- Men Unlimited – The first issue of the year is the unbelievably bad X-Men Unlimited #4, a story so atrocious writer Scott Lobdell couldn’t even resist taking shots at it a few years later. The story mainly consists of Mystique acting insane, leading Nightcrawler and Rogue on a chase as “shocking revelations” that don’t coincide with existing continuity are thrown around. Every character in the story is either crazy or monumentally dumb, best evidenced by Rogue conveniently forgetting that she has two arms when two people need saving. As unbearable as this story is, it does at least fit into the original plan that every issue have some importance. After this, we get filler material with the Shi’ar, Sauron, and Candra.

Generation X – Following months of build-up, the next generation of Xavier’s students receive their own series (although, in hindsight, it’s odd that Xavier stayed with the adults at his mansion and sent other people to train these kids). It’s obvious from the beginning that Scott Lobdell’s focus is on character and not plot, as virtually nothing happens in the first four issues. The cast is introduced, some mysteries are hinted at, and then the series goes on hiatus for “Age of Apocalypse.” In large part, the title is a vehicle for Chris Bachalo’s art (the book was delayed for months while Bob Harras waited for Bachalo’s schedule to open). His eccentric designs look great when he draws the book, but the characters never look right when other artists handle them. This creates a problem for the title after he leaves; without his unique look, the book comes across as even more of a gratuitous spinoff.

Limited Series and One-Shots – A Spider-Man/X-Factor team-up miniseries by Kurt Busiek and Pat Broderick emerges from the Spider-office. It’s more boring than anything, and can’t really fit into X-Factor continuity anyway. Following their wedding, Cyclops and Jean star in The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix. The characters are sent to the future, inhabit new bodies, and raise Cable as a child. (Why do they have to be in new bodies? Because no one planned any of this stuff out when Cable was introduced, so there has to be a reason why Cable didn’t recognize Cyclops and Jean earlier.) The mini’s apparently a showcase for Gene Ha’s art, because Scott Lobdell’s thin plots don’t carry a lot of the weight. A second Deadpool limited series, this one by Mark Waid and Ian Churchill, is capably handled for most of its run. Rogue and Bishop each receive prestige format miniseries, neither of which is deserving of the inflated cover prices. Howard Mackie and Mike Weiringo’s Rogue is a second-rate sequel to the Gambit mini, and John Ostrander and Carlos Pacheco’s Bishop is essentially a four-issue long fight scene. Both have nice art, though.

The Events: A new group of students, Generation X, is formed. Emma Frost reforms and joins Banshee as co-headmaster of the new Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Rachel Summers is lost in the timestream. Cyclops and Jean Grey marry. Jean Grey retakes the name Phoenix to honor Rachel Summers. Madrox dies after Haven attempts to cure him of the Legacy Virus. Nightcrawler is revealed as Mystique’s son. Legion returns with a plethora of new powers. He travels twenty years into the past and accidentally kills Professor Xavier. Consequentially, a crystallization wave consumes the galaxy.

The “What Were They Thinking?” Award: Legion travels back in time, hoping to kill Magneto in order to ensure his father’s dream can survive. This somehow leads to Legion raping his mother in Uncanny X-Men #321.

What’s the Appeal? : A new title with an entirely new cast is introduced, and after months and months of hype, it actually does feel like a big deal. Compare that with the collective yawn you hear whenever the latest teen mutant book is released and you’ll understand how much stronger the X-brand was at the time. If you like seeing the mutant teams interact with one another, there’s quite a bit of that this year (although it mainly comes through the massively disappointing “Phalanx Covenant” crossover). There’s still a decent amount of quiet, character-driven issues, which are a nice break from the event-driven storylines.

Were the Critics Right? : There’s a massive amount of material released this year, so if you go by the old saying that ninety percent of everything is crap, there’s a lot of crap this year. Out of five miniseries, only Deadpool is particularly good, and even that series peters out at the end. The monthly titles are all over the place, as Excalibur and Cable remain blatantly superfluous for most of the year, X-Factor becomes aimless again, and X-Men Unlimited turns into overpriced filler. As I’ve mentioned seventeen times already in this post, the “Phalanx Covenant” crossover is weak. Generation X looks promising, but the first four issues are a very slow start. X-Force, X-Men, and Wolverine do remain consistent for the most part. Uncanny X-Men is hard to judge. Most of the individual issues aren’t bad, but looking at the overall year it’s obvious that the series is directionless. It feels as if the book is just treading water in-between crossovers, which isn’t what you want your flagship title to do.


wwk5d said...

For me, this is actually a good year. Uncanny is still good, and X-men actually got better this year. Wolverine and X-force are also good, though X-force suffers due to the art. Then again, Nicieza deserves some kind of medal, as he makes Feral interesting for an issue or 2. X-factor is....ok. The fun tone is still missed, thought DeMattis does an OK job. Gen X is in the OK section also...good art, good character work, but it seems like Lobdell really is treading water before the AoA. Excaliber is still crap, and while Cable has some direction, it's still crap. As for the 2 cross-overs, Phalanx is saved by decent artwork on the X-men issues, the Excaliber/X-factor/X-force issues are atrocious, but the Wolverine/Cable issues are actually good.

My rankings:

*The Good:
Uncanny X-men

*The OK:
Generation X

*The Crap:
X-men Unlimited
Excaliber (tho it does pick up when Ellis starts)

wwk5d said...

Whoops...also meant to say, Legion Quest was actually good, and overall, much better than the Phalanx story.

wwk5d said...

One last rant: The rebooting of Excaliber was horrible. I can understand them writing out certain characters who don't have close ties to the X-men as a whole, but why in God's name did they write out Captain Britain? Considering how HIS SISTER was on the X-men at the time, it made no sense. And then they brought him back in a horrible version of the character...and sacrificed Rachel, who had previously served on the X-men and had ties to Cyclops and Jean Grey, so that she could end us as Mother Askani? They could've kept her on the team, and still had her show up int he future anyway. Why keep her, and then write her out? Too much behind the scenes meddling. Cerise's exit was the worst, they got rid of her as she dodn't have close ties to the X-universe...but in order to write her out, they gave her a backstory (which, given all of Davis' hints, clearly wasn't what he had in mind for her AT ALL) that ties her to Lilandra and the Shiar? Seriously, what the hell were Lobdell and the editors thinking?

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