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 clichĂ©-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.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Year in Review - 1993

1993 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the X-Men, which Marvel celebrated by flooding the market with even more X-product. The X-Men animated series, after months of delays, began airing weekly early in the year, exposing the characters to a new audience. Friends who had mocked my hobby were now trying to find the best lighting to view a holographic cover under and asking me questions about Mr. Sinister. Despite fierce competition from Image and an increasingly gimmick-driven DC, the X-franchise continued to endure.

Uncanny X-Men – Brandon Peterson leaves for Image a few issues into the year. He’s replaced by John Romita, Jr. while Scott Lobdell remains as writer. The Legacy Virus is introduced, and Illyana Rasputin is its first high-profile victim. Magneto’s return is teased for a few issues, finally culminating in the “Fatal Attractions” crossover. After another crossover with the Avengers titles, the rest of the year is spent on small self-contained stories of varying quality. Towards the end of the year, Cyclops and Jean Grey are engaged, which enables Lobdell to produce a few more quiet issues. UXM #309 is the strongest issue of Lobdell’s run; an issue-long examination of Xavier’s character that reveals that he has his own flaws (subconsciously, a part of him resents Cyclops and Jean Grey’s happiness), but allows him to maintain his integrity and still feel heroic.

X-Men volume two – Fabian Nicieza lays on the melodrama, as every issue has elaborate purple prose detailing all of the inner anguish the cast is living with. Colossus’ parents are senselessly murdered, Cyclops is tempted by Psylocke and can’t deal with his feelings, Psylocke is accused of being a sleeper agent, Beast is just moody in general (he hints that he’s turning 30, which is the only clue given), Xavier turns Magneto into a vegetable, and Rogue and Gambit deal with their own multitude of issues. The angst reaches comical levels, but the introduction of Sabretooth as the team’s prisoner at the end of the year gives Nicieza another direction to explore.

X-ForceX-Force improves dramatically, as Nicieza turns the title into an entertaining teen superhero comic. Cable returns, and receives a more thoughtful interpretation that makes him less of a Punisher clone. Greg Capullo leaves to pencil Spawn, and Tony Daniel is brought in to replace him. It’s a step down in quality, but Daniel is usually pretty competent.

Cable – For reasons that were never very clear, Cable receives his own monthly series. Fabian Nicieza and a rotating series of artists go through the motions, but the title never clicks. At the end of the year, Cable’s origin is finally revealed, but the story goes out of its way to present the details in as confusing a manner as possible.

X-Factor – Peter David only lasts a few issues this year, but he does produce X-Factor #87, the acclaimed psychiatric examination issue. Joe Quesada arrives as artist, merging Bart Sears with Todd McFarlane into a kinetic style, but he barely lasts five issues. Scott Lobdell plots half of the issues this year, and while the Legacy Virus makes its first official appearance in one issue, most of the stories are filler. J. M. DeMatteis, after scripting a few of Lobdell’s issues, takes over the plotting and begins his Haven storyline. DeMatteis’ character work is pretty strong, but it seems as if his run never lives up to its full potential.

WolverineWolverine is drawn closer into the rest of line, as the character is sent to the Savage Land to investigate Magneto’s return as an indirect prelude to the “Fatal Attractions” crossover. Magneto rips the adamantium out of Wolverine’s body, which is probably the most flagrant “event” you can conceive, but Hama actually manages to turn the stunt into a character-driven story. No one really believes that Wolverine is going to die, but Hama is able to make the character’s emotional arc feel real. Most of the artwork for the year consists of disappointing fill-ins, but new artist Adam Kubert does manage to do two nice issues.

Excalibur – Alan Davis departs midway through the year, giving Rachel Summers’ “Days of Future Past” reality a happy ending (the most shocking thing you can do for mutants in the future). The book goes back to fill-in mode for a few issues before it’s drawn back into the X-universe by the “Fatal Attractions” crossover. The team moves to Muir Island and now faces opponents like the Upstarts’ Siena Blaze. The stories and art are a mess, and the title languishes until Warren Ellis arrives next year.

X- Men Unlimited – Marvel launches its Unlimited line in 1993, which consists of quarterly double-sized issues on glossy paper. The original edict was that something important was supposed to happen in each issue, which lasted all of one year. The first issue has the X-Men's team leaders pitted against the new villain Siena Blaze, who was apparently supposed to be a big deal at the time, the second is a “Fatal Attractions” prelude with Magneto, and the third has the X-Men taking Sabretooth in as a prisoner/psychiatric patient. Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza trade off on the early issues, and the stories aren’t bad. The dull filler begins next year.

Limited Series and One-ShotsDeadpool receives his first miniseries, written by Fabian Nicieza and featuring early artwork by Joe Madureira. Nicieza gets around the fact that Deadpool is still clearly a villain by pitting him against Black Tom and Juggernaut, which works pretty well. It’s fun, but four issues just feels too long. Larry Hama and Mark Texeira create a manic Sabretooth limited series that’s so over the top it has to be entertaining. The Gambit mini has attractive Lee Weeks artwork, but most of Howard Mackie’s story is just nonsense with the Thieves Guild.

The Events: Illyana Rasputin dies of the Legacy Virus. Magneto returns as a bloodthirsty villain. A distraught Colossus betrays the team and joins Magneto (we soon learn he’s brain damaged). Wolverine loses his adamantium skeleton. Xavier mindwipes Magneto. Someone named Revanche, who may or may not be the original Psylocke, appears. The X-Men team up with the Avengers in Genosha, which is now a Bosnia allegory. Feral betrays X-Force and joins the MLF. Sabretooth is kept prisoner in the mansion as Xavier attempts to cure his bloodlust. Cable is confirmed as baby Nathan and Stryfe is revealed as his clone.

The “What Were They Thinking?” Award: The entirety of Uncanny X-Men #304 could win this award. Magneto crashes the funeral of Colossus’ little sister, kills one of his followers because he didn’t ask permission before he slaughtered a hospice (Magneto has no problems with the murders, just the lack of a permission slip), and Colossus decides to leave the X-Men and join Magneto.

What’s the Appeal? : Well, a lot of things happen this year. Characters are getting killed and mutilated, heroes are betraying their teams, and just general craziness is all around. There is still a sense of forward momentum in most of the titles, and the number of unresolved mysteries and dangling subplots hasn’t quite reached overload yet. The animated series serves as a thirty-minute commercial for the X-line every week, and new readers are introduced to a world filled with death, double-crosses, and mysteries. I can see how a twelve-year-old who wants more X-Men could just immerse himself in all of this.

Were the Critics Right? : It’s obvious at this point that there are too many titles. Quality control was already getting shaky, and now the line adds another monthly, a quarterly, and various miniseries into the mix. The glut just gets worse as the years go on, dividing the line amongst a series of editors as obscure characters like Maverick are given their own books. This year has quite a few highs and lows, probably best represented by Uncanny X-Men. Just a few months after an atrocious story that causally tosses out the previous decade’s characterization of Magneto, Scott Lobdell writes what’s likely the best Xavier story ever. The tiresome gimmick storylines that dominated mainstream ‘90s comics don’t do the titles any favors, but the smaller stories that actually focus on the characters still work fairly well. Looking at the overall line, it seems like only Cable and the post-Davis Excalibur issues are truly dire, but a sense of mediocrity is infecting most of the remaining titles.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Year in Review - 1992

In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been that much of a shock when Marvel’s most popular artists banned together and formed their own publishing imprint. Marvel’s new focus of art over story had created a new breed of superstar artists, and it really was a matter of time before they traded in on their star power and marketed their own creations. Since the majority of Image’s founders were working on the X-titles, this could’ve spelled disaster for the line. The books managed to survive, however, and remained competitive with Image for years. As the various Image titles began to disappear from the Top 10 listings, the X-line maintained its commercial appeal. Editor Bob Harras continued to find “hot” artists for the titles (and even after the later artists also left for Image, he found even more), and the storylines continued the trend of introducing mysteries and occasionally actually resolving them. As the Image titles began to debut, Marvel released “The X-Cutioner’s Song”, a twelve-part crossover that brought the X-teams together, teased the death of Professor Xavier, and promised to shed light on the past of the mysterious Cable.

Uncanny X-Men – John Byrne departs early in the year, leaving Scott Lobdell to take his place as scripter. Lobdell begins as a last minute fill-in, but is soon the full writer of the book, a position he’ll maintain for five years. Whilce Portaico remains the artist for the first half of the year, but only plots a few issues. After Jim Lee co-plots a few issues with Portacio, Lobdell is credited as the sole writer. The early issues of the year have the team discovering Colossus’ brother Mikhail while in a strange dimension. When they return home, they run into Bishop again, who is quickly inducted into the team. Within a few issues, Lobdell is handling the plots and turning in a series of nonsense stories. The soap opera elements return, as Forge suddenly decides that he wants to marry Storm, then leaves with Mystique when she doesn’t answer him fast enough. The next few issues have Callisto and Mikhail, both suddenly insane, committing group suicide with the Morlocks. The quality improves with “The X-Cutioner’s Song” as new artist Brandon Peterson debuts and Lobdell’s stories take a more coherent direction. The crossover’s epilogue issue, which has Xavier temporarily able to walk again, is a sign that Lobdell is at his best when doing small, character driven stories.

X-Men volume two – Before the Omega Red arc can finish, John Byrne also departs this title, and he’s replaced by Scott Lobdell again. Jim Lee remains as plotter and artist until he leaves during the summer. The “X-traitor” subplot is introduced, as Bishop meets Gambit and immediately identifies him as the X-Men’s murderer in the future. A crossover with Ghost Rider introduces the Assassins Guild and Thieves Guild, two regrettable portions of Gambit’s backstory. After an unremarkable two-parter with Mojo, Jim Lee departs the title. Fabian Nicieza takes over as writer, kills some time by hinting at a connection between Wolverine and Xavier’s father, and then it’s time for “X-Cutioner’s Song”. Andy Kubert replaces Jim Lee as artist, putting him in position to become one of Marvel’s new “name” talents.

X-Force – A flashback issue reveals that Cable is a time-traveler, just as Rob Liefeld reduces his role on the title. Mark Pacella draws a series of fill-ins as Liefeld remains as plotter and Nicieza scripts. It’s revealed that Cannonball is an immortal “High-Lord’, or External, and that Cable came back to this time in order to mentor him. This is forgotten very, very quickly, becoming one of the more infamous dropped storylines. After Liefeld leaves, Fabian Nicieza becomes the sole writer and another future fan favorite, Greg Capullo, becomes artist. “The X-Cutioner’s Song” pits X-Force against the other X-teams, after Stryfe shoots Professor Xavier and frames Cable. Stryfe repeatedly hints that he is Cyclops’ son, who was sent to the future years earlier (later on, we’ll learn that Cable is Cyclops’ son and Stryfe is his clone). This story never actually confirms anything though, making the conclusion mostly unsatisfying.

Cable – Cable stars in a two-issue miniseries by Fabian Nicieza and John Romita, Jr. The mini reveals why many of Cable’s friends from his mysterious past hate him, and begins the journey of making him a more sympathetic character. Romita’s bulky, testosterone-fueled art suits the story very well.

X-Factor – Peter David writes a series of short arcs, as Larry Stroman begins to disappear from the title. An arc about the Mutant Liberation Front targeting a doctor who can detect mutant fetuses is neutered by editorial, but it still has nice character moments for Wolfsbane and Quicksilver. A group of Genoshan immigrants named the X-Patriots debut, setting up a storyline that’s supposed to send the team to Genosha. The team won’t actually travel to Genosha until next year (and Peter David ends up leaving before the storyline is finished), because the book is derailed by the “X-Cutioner’s Song” crossover. Cable, Wolverine, and Bishop suddenly headline the book for a few issues, while Jae Lee provides the art.

Wolverine – Following the revelation that many of his memories are false, Wolverine begins to devolve into the person he was before he joined the X-Men. Basically, he develops a nastier attitude and has an implied sexual encounter with Mystique. Hama doesn’t seem comfortable with the idea (I suspect it was an editorial “suggestion”), and just goes back to his standard personality after a few issues. During Silvestri’s final issues, Wolverine has another adventure in Japan that ends in the death of his long-ignored fiancĂ©e Mariko. Mark Texeira debuts as artist, as Wolverine is dragged into an adventure with agents from his black ops days. Another one of his former loves, Silver Fox, is killed (in a baffling scene poorly rendered by guest artist Mark Pacella). The tone of the series becomes remarkably dark, and Hama produces some of his strongest issues.

Excalibur – Alan Davis continues his run, giving the Phoenix Force an origin that’s subsequently ignored by everyone else. Numerous story threads are brought together for the fiftieth issue, highlighting Davis' skillful long-term plotting. Psylocke guest stars and the seldom-seen Jamie Braddock is the villain for a few issues. Unfortunately, there’s a decent amount of fill-ins this year, among them the “Excalibur II” story that brings back bad memories of what the series was before Davis’ return.

The Events: The Morlocks die. Again. (And are revived a few years later when we learn that Mikhail just transported them to another dimension.) Cable is revealed as a time-traveler from the future. Bishop joins the X-Men. Wolverine loses two girlfriends. We see the first indication that Apocalypse rules Cable’s future. Cable and Stryfe have an ambiguous death scene at the end of “The X-Cutioner’s Song”. Apocalypse also has an unconvincing death scene in the crossover.

The “What Were They Thinking?” Award: Jean Grey informs Archangel that he was always in command of his metal wings. The wings that were frequently out of control and ripping innocent people to shreds in the pages of X-Factor. Archangel doesn’t seem too concerned by the revelation, because he’s cheerfully taking his girlfriend out on a date the very next issue.

What’s the Appeal? : All of the characters (except for the cast of Excalibur, which still has little to do with the other titles) unite for a massive storyline that finally has the renegade X-Force confront the other X-teams. Wolverine, Gambit, Cable, and Bishop all have new information revealed about their pasts. The idea that Cable is the baby Cyclops sent to the future (or is at least his clone) was a popular fan theory in Wizard at the time, so readers can feel the satisfaction that their ideas are just as valid as the ones the creators are dreaming up. The art remains consistent, even after almost every artist leaves for Image. Some of the styles are dated, but the only run that doesn’t hold up at all is Mark Pacella’s X-Force, which is a blatant imitation of Rob Liefeld’s work.

Were the Critics Right? : Uncanny X-Men is still a mess, but participating in the crossover actually brings up the quality. Jim Lee’s final X-Men issues are fairly dull, and Fabian Nicieza’s early issues aren’t an improvement. X-Force becomes more of a train wreck than ever, as crazy revelations about Cannonball are thrown around while the team engages in a series of pointless fights. However, the quality does improve when Nicieza becomes the sole writer and Greg Capullo brings competent penciling to the title. X-Factor, Wolverine, and Excalibur are all enjoyable, if you’re willing to forgive the fill-ins. “The X-Cutioner’s Song” is able to bring the cast together and at least offer hints of resolutions to some ongoing mysteries. However, it drags on for too long and totally derails the continuing storylines in X-Factor. I’d say only half of the line is really working at this point.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Year in Review – 1991

1991 was a crazy time for comics. Sales were soaring, back issues were heavily in demand, Hollywood was calling again, and a comics artist even starred in a Spike Lee-directed Levi’s 501 commercial. The X-Men franchise was Marvel’s cash cow, largely due to Uncanny X-Men, which had been produced by Chris Claremont and a series of popular artists for over fifteen years. By this point, a new breed of stylized, energetic artists had emerged, presenting a style of art that captivated the younger generation of readers. The new style was so commercially successful that when a popular artist didn’t care for the writer he was paired with, the writer was actually removed from the book (or else the artist was given his own book to plot and draw). Claremont’s seniority on Uncanny X-Men was essentially meaningless by this point. If Jim Lee didn’t feel like faithfully sticking to the plot, he wouldn’t. According to legend, when Claremont voiced his concerns, he was told that his plot input wasn’t needed anymore and that he should stick to writing the dialogue. Claremont left Marvel, paving the way for artists to take the lead for most of the X-franchise.

The titles at this time include…

Uncanny X-Men – The new direction of UXM begins with Whilce Portacio plotting and penciling the title, and John Byrne providing the script. The plots are mostly nonsensical, and the first two issues of Portacio’s run manage to kill off over a dozen established characters. New characters such as Bishop, Trevor Fitzroy, and the Upstarts are introduced, but the stories are so chaotic there’s no room to develop any of them.

X-Men volume two – After Chris Claremont plots the inaugural story arc, Jim Lee takes over sole plotting duties and John Byrne scripts. Lee’s first arc introduces the villain Omega Red and offers a few hints about Wolverine’s past (back when this was still a novel idea). The plots don’t hold up to a lot of scrutiny, but most of the issues manage to skate on the slick art and high levels of energy.

X-Force – Following his popular run on New Mutants, Rob Liefeld remolds the team into X-Force. Fabian Nicieza scripts the series, occasionally managing to give the characters a bit of personality, but mostly spending his time dialoguing repetitive fight scenes. The team’s leader Cable has a mysterious past, as each issue of the series manages to remind us. At this point, Cable’s still in “ends justify the means” mode, perhaps best illustrated when he shoots a wounded Black Tom Cassidy after he’s already surrendered. New characters like Kane, G. W. Bridge, and Deadpool are spotlighted in subplot scenes, dropping hints about a new Weapon X project and mystery figures like Mr. Tolliver. The team is supposed to be the “proactive” mutant group, an idea that’s only explored in the first issue. The second issue has the team sparring, the third and fourth issue has them reacting to Black Tom’s assault on the World Trade Center, and the following issues are spent on an unprovoked battle with the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

X-Factor – Widely regarded as the strongest title at this point, X-Factor is one of the few writer-driven titles in the line. Peter David takes the cast-offs from the other X-titles and forms a somewhat dysfunctional and highly entertaining team. Larry Stroman gives the title a unique look that’s aged much better than the work of most of his contemporaries during the era. The opening issues spend a lot of time developing Madrox, an under-used character that had been standing around in the background for too long. Mr. Sinister is revealed as the behind-the-scenes villain for the first arc, although David seems to be working with the idea that Sinister is a mutant from the future, which doesn’t match with the origin the character’s later given.

Wolverine – I never reviewed these issues on this site, but I’ve read them in the Essential Wolverine collections. Larry Hama continues his run of entertaining action stories while Marc Silvestri begins to add a Jim Lee influence to his art. After a few months dealing with some of Hama’s quirkier creations like Elsie Dee and Albert, the storyline begins to delve into Wolverine’s shadowy past. Sabretooth returns, claiming that he’s Wolverine’s father (an allegation later debunked by a blood test). Wolverine begins to investigate his own conflicting memories, leading him to return to the Weapon X facility for the first time. It’s hard to appreciate that any of this ever felt new, but the stories still hold up because Hama understands Wolverine’s character so well.

Excalibur – At the end of the year, Alan Davis returns to the title, now as writer and artist. Excalibur devolved into mostly filler after Chris Claremont left the book, and it only now begins to find a direction again. Davis resolves some old subplots and sets the stage for the 50th anniversary issue. The character interactions are fun and of course the art is stunning. This title is the only X-book not overseen by Bob Harras as editor, and it remains mostly divorced from the rest of the line until 1993.

The Events: The original members of the X-Men rejoin the team, as it is divided into two squads. The New Mutants rename themselves X-Force and become exponentially more x-treme. X-Factor becomes a government-sponsored mutant team with an all-new cast. Wolverine learns that many of his memories are fake and that he was once a CIA operative with Sabretooth and Maverick.

The “What Were They Thinking?” Award: It would be easy to pick on Rob Liefeld’s X-Force, as it’s come to symbolize everything we’re supposed to hate about the ‘90s. The content of the book really is indefensible, but considering the sales boost Liefeld’s creative direction brought to New Mutants, I can understand why Marvel was willing to give him his own series. But replacing Chris Claremont on Uncanny X-Men with Whilce Portacio is truly mind-boggling. Regardless of how fashionable it might’ve become to bash him, Chris Claremont was still considered one of the best writers in comics in 1991. Replacing him with someone with, as far as I know, no writing experience is just unbelievable. The resulting stories were virtually unreadable, as established characters are casually killed off left and right and poorly executed plot points have to be covered in hasty dialogue exchanges (“How could Jean switch minds with someone else?” “Well, necessity is the mother of invention!”).

What’s the Appeal? : Every title has a new starting point, making it easier for new readers to come aboard. I was already following UXM, but didn’t buy any of the spinoffs on a regular basis. With new number one issues and new directions all around, it made sense to give the other books a try. The X-Men are still the X-Men, in the sense that the cast is still broadly in-character. Some events fans never thought they’d see, like the original X-Men rejoining the team and concrete revelations about Wolverine’s past, are actually happening. Every title has some sort of mystery storyline; it could be vague hints about a new character’s past or just a shadowy villain plotting in the background. Most of the artwork is appropriate for the number one franchise in comics. None of these artists could be considered too bland, or too experimental (with the possible exception of Larry Stroman). Liefeld’s art has become an industry joke over the years, and Portacio’s frenzied look hasn’t aged that well, but the rest of the artists hold up. Some people might lump Lee and Silvestri in with the stereotypical ‘90s artists, but at least they know how to do the ‘90s look well.

Were the Critics Right? : Out of the entire line, I only count two duds. Jim Lee’s X-Men is mindlessly entertaining, X-Factor is legitimately funny and has an unlikely cast that Peter David actually makes work, Wolverine is consistently well executed by Hama and Silvestri, and Alan Davis’ work on Excalibur is possibly the highlight of the entire series’ run. This leaves Uncanny X-Men and X-Force, two books that fulfill pretty much all of the negative stereotypes of ‘90s mainstream comics. Minimal plot, nonsensical story twists, a plethora of characters with vague motivations and backstories, and needlessly exaggerated art that isn’t easy on the eyes.

So do two titles out of six drag an entire line down? I wouldn’t say so, but Uncanny X-Men is the flagship title of the line. Watching the series that gave birth to the entire franchise go down in flames had to be painful for the diehard fans to watch, and I’m sure it left people with a bad taste for the entire line. Liefeld’s work on X-Force grew more exaggerated with each passing month, making each consecutive issue even more of a relic of the time. If you want to pull out a comic to represent what happened to comics in the ‘90s, you’re not going to reach for one of Alan Davis’ Excalibur issues; you’re going to show Cable parading his giant guns on the cover of X-Force. Essentially, the bad stuff probably is as bad as you think, but it doesn’t represent even half of the line at this moment.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Brief Recess

I’ve been forced to endure the unbearable torment, uh, proud civic duty known as jury duty, so I’m taking a few days off from blogging. I’ll return in a few days with my final look at the X-Men in the ‘90s.

Friday, July 17, 2009

UNCANNY X-MEN #380 – May 2000

Uncanny X-Men #380

Heaven’s Shadow

Credits: Alan Davis (plot), Terry Kavanagh (script), Tom Raney (penciler), Scott Hanna (inker), Brian Haberlin (colors), Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Beast returns to America, explaining to the X-Men that everyone’s genetic structure will soon warp like the Mutates. The X-Men travel to the High Evolutionary’s satellite, while Magneto and Polaris continue to fight human soldiers in Genosha. Mr. Sinister sends the High Evolutionary’s New Men to attack the X-Men. The team soon realizes that their powers have returned while they’re inside the sphere of influence. Wolverine trashes a control panel, which frees the High Evolutionary. He reverses the devolution wave, as Sinister escapes in the X-Men’s craft. On Earth, Mystique escapes from prison while Polaris uses an image inducer to disguise herself as Magneto and drive away the human soldiers.

Gimmicks: This issue comes polybagged with a sketchbook promoting the “X-Men Revolution” revamp. The cover price raises a dollar to $2.99, making this another example of Marvel actually charging extra for an advertisement.

Review: Alan Davis’ run comes to a quiet end, as the status quo is predictably restored and everything is left in place for Chris Claremont’s return. The plot moves along at a steady pace, but the entire issue is burdened by the cumbersome script. Terry Kavanagh delivers one of his weakest issues, blanketing every page with superfluous narrative captions and never-ending dialogue exchanges. A sharp script can save an otherwise dull story, but all Kavanagh seems able to do is have the characters recite plot points and then laboriously complain about losing their powers (“Losing my empathy with the elements…my very personal connection to the world through its weather -- again -- has been like the loss of my senses…”). This storyline was essentially filler already, so the last thing it needed was such a dull script. Despite his occasionally odd-looking faces, Tom Raney does provide solid artwork for the issue, which helps to alleviate the boredom.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

UXM #379 & X-MEN #99 – April 2000

Uncanny X-Men #379

What Dreams May Come…

Credits: Alan Davis (plot), Chris Claremont (script, uncredited), Tom Raney (penciler), Scott Hanna (inker), Brian Haberlin (colors), Comicraft (letters)

Summary: Professor Xavier leaves the X-Men to train the Skrull mutants in space. In Washington DC, Mystique disguises herself as a federal agent to steal files from the NSA. Iceman and Beast sneak into Genosha, where Beast plans to research the Legacy Virus. Nearby, Polaris begins to question her decision to aid Magneto. At the X-Men’s mansion, a hologram of the High Evolutionary appears. He tells the team that mutant powers are too much of a threat to the planet, and that he will remove the mutant genome and make humanity whole. Suddenly, mutants across the globe lose their powers.

Continuity Note: Shadowcat describes herself as “barely sixteen” in this issue, which caused a firestorm online. Most fans seemed pretty adamant that she was at least eighteen.

Review: This is the start of Davis’ final arc, which sounds like more of an event than the Apocalypse storyline on paper, but really only lasts three issues. The majority of this issue is spent on having characters react to Cyclops’ death, which wasn’t that convincing when it happened the first time, and just reads like an editorial blunder in hindsight. Most of the character bits, such as Phoenix telling X-Man to finally live up to his name and the X-Men’s baseball game, aren’t bad, but the pacing of the issue is odd. The first half of the story consists of conversation scenes and a few montages of what various mutants are up to, and then High Evolutionary appears out of nowhere and declares that everyone’s powers are going away. The High Evolutionary isn’t given a villainous motivation; he just thinks mutants are too dangerous to have around, which at least keeps him broadly in character. Professor Xavier leaves the team, yet again, and Shadowcat isn’t happy about it. This seems like a more realistic reaction than having everyone just solemnly accept that Xavier needs to help the little green men in space. This is really just filler before Claremont’s official return, but the majority of the issue works pretty well.

X-Men #99

Oh, the Humanity!

Credits: Alan Davis (plot), Terry Kavanagh (script), Brett Booth (penciler), Sal Regla (inker), Hi-Fi Design (colors), Comicraft (letters)

Summary: Magneto and Polaris rescue Beast and Iceman from the human Genoshans that are targeting former mutants. Beast soon realizes that the genetically altered Mutates did not lose their powers, but were instead stalled in mid-transformation. Meanwhile, Colossus tries to console Nightcrawler, who misses his powers. Rogue disguises herself as Mystique’s lawyer and visits her in prison. Storm and Marrow work at a children’s camp. Jubilee discovers Wolverine is sick, unable to deal with adamantium poisoning. Dani Moonstar has a psychic vision of Cable, leading her to believe that her powers still exist. Inside the High Evolutionary’s satellite, his assistant Dr. Essex freezes the circuits in his armor. Essex reveals himself as Mr. Sinister, who plans on manipulating all DNA on Earth for his experiments.

Continuity Notes: A very extensive narrative sequence on the first page explains that the High Evolutionary removed the X-gene by manipulating the electro-magnetic field that surrounds human DNA. It’s revealed that one of his mentors as a young man was Dr. Essex, who he doesn’t know is Mr. Sinister.

The number of mutants listed on Earth is listed in the “hundreds”, which surprised me until I remembered that it was Grant Morrison who expressly increased the mutant population. I know that Marvel greatly reduced the number of mutants in the Marvel Universe a few years ago (originally claiming that only 198 still exist, but it seems like they’ve backtracked). The move has widely been viewed as a mistake, to put it mildly. I wonder if the “Decimation” idea would’ve worked if Marvel simply tried to revert to the pre-Morrison status quo, instead of overstating their case.

The Neo appear for the first time in a one-page cameo. One of their children (who resembles a mermaid) drowned when the High Evolutionary’s devolution wave hit the Earth. Of course, they’re declaring revenge. This is a setup for Chris Claremont’s first storyline, which is the source of his second run’s horrid reputation. I seem to recall his post-Neo stories were fine, but the unwieldy first arc was such a mess it was used to justify removing him from the titles.

Review: I have no idea why Marvel limited this idea to such a small storyline. This is an event that actually should impact the entire X-line, opens doors for numerous story possibilities, and actually needs to last a few issues in order to sell its importance. If any storyline deserved its own crossover name and special trade dress, it would be this one. Instead, it runs through two issues of UXM, one X-Men issue, and apparently one issue each of X-Force and Wolverine. (I'm basing this on one footnote during Wolverine's scene and X-Force's description in the Bullpen Bulletins' Checklist section. I remember fans asking if any of the mutants in the Avengers would be affected by this, and Kurt Busiek responded that no one at Marvel even told him about the event.) There’s no name for the storyline and nothing on the covers to indicate any connection between the titles. I can see why Marvel was saving its hype machine for the upcoming revamping of the entire line, but why waste this story idea as filler?

This issue takes place weeks after the UXM chapter. Most of the X-Men have now moved on to normal lives, so we get a montage of things like Rogue riding the subway and Storm and Marrow working at a summer camp. Nightcrawler’s having a hard time adjusting to having five fingers and losing his tail, which throws off his balance. Colossus is now an up-and-coming painter and doesn’t seem to miss his old life at all. There’s a lot of potential here (well, Storm and Marrow at the summer camp probably wouldn’t be a winner under any circumstances), but the story doesn’t go into any real detail. We’re given glimpses of a few possible storylines, but the lack of depth makes it hard to care too much. The book is also thick with unnecessary captions and dialogue. Many fans at the time pegged this as another Claremont ghost-job, and it’s possible that at least a few pages are his, but most of this script reads like Kavanagh’s recent issues. At one point Rogue works the phrase “high-price legal teams” into her dialogue twice in one panel. Not to emphasize a point or for comedic effect, but apparently because the scripter couldn’t be bothered to think up a different phrase. The guest art comes from Brett Booth, who was doing X-Men Unlimited at the time. He does a very obvious Art Adams imitation, which seems to mirror the weaker elements of Adams’ early work. Most of the characters are too lanky, his faces are too narrow, and there are pointless scratchy lines everywhere.

Monday, July 13, 2009

UXM #378 & X-MEN #98 – March 2000

Uncanny X-Men #378

First & Last – Part One

Credits: Alan Davis (plot), Terry Kavanagh (script), Adam Kubert & Graham Nolan (pencilers), Tim Townsend & Jimmy Palmiotti (inkers), Liquid! (colors), Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Jean Grey relives her first meeting with the X-Men, only the team now consists of Storm, Beast, Iceman, and Gambit. The team travels to a circus, where Colossus is a sideshow freak. Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, consisting of Polaris, Sunfire, Rogue, and Marrow, arrive to recruit Colossus. Nearby, a mob is chasing Cyclops. Jean rescues him, and he tells her that this is a false reality created by Apocalypse. When his body suddenly morphs into Apocalypse’s, the X-Men attack. The unstable energies around him explode, returning the mutants to reality. Xavier claims that Cyclops never truly existed in the false reality, which angers Jean.

Review: Yes, this crossover really is called “Ages of Apocalypse”. The original idea was that all of the mutants present in Apocalypse’s chamber have been shifted into different realities, but Marvel botched the idea by dragging Wolverine into the event. Wolverine wasn’t with the rest of the X-Men during the previous storyline, so there’s no reason for him to be experiencing an alternate reality. His solo title just used the event to do a riff on the “New Fantastic Four” gimmick (none of those characters were present either).

Davis stays loyal to the premise, remaking the original X-Men from the characters available to him. Gambit takes Cyclops’ place on the original X-Men, presumably because they both have red eyes (this might’ve also been a hint that he’s the third Summers brother, which is where Claremont apparently wanted to go with the idea), and Storm replaces Angel, I guess because both can fly. The Brotherhood is remade with heroes who were once villains (well, labeling Sunfire and Polaris as villains is debatable, but Sunfire’s always been antagonistic, and Polaris was possessed by the villain Malice for years), casting Rogue as Mastermind, Sunfire as Quicksilver, Polaris as Scarlet Witch, and Marrow as Toad. This is really just an excuse to put the characters in the wrong outfits, and Kubert pulls it off well. Polaris in Scarlet Witch’s original green costume looks surprisingly natural, and the hideously ugly version of Marrow in Toad’s outfit is just absurd enough to work. The basic plot is a riff on the Blob’s first appearance, only now Colossus is the circus freak discovered by Cerebro. All of this is fun, but I have no idea what the point is supposed to be. Why on earth is Apocalypse warping reality into a pastiche of the Lee/Kirby issues of this book? I guess you could argue that he’s being influenced by Cyclops, but there’s nothing in the story to indicate that. Really, the ongoing storyline about Apocalypse just stops for an unrelated alternate reality story. Davis has some clever casting choices, but it’s an odd detour to take.

X-Men #98

First & Last – Part Two

Credits: Alan Davis (plot & pencils), Terry Kavanagh (script), Mark Farmer (inker), Marie Javins (colors), Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: In the year 2099, the X-Men are an interplanetary organization. Phoenix returns to their global base and learns that Xavier is near death. She reveals to Storm that they grew apart after Cyclops’ death, while Storm tells her that Xavier never forgave himself for asking Cyclops to rejoin the X-Men. A Shi’ar scientist unveils a healing pod that might save Xavier. The X-Men combine their powers to charge the pod, but it’s revealed as Apocalypse’s new power conduit. Apocalypse returns to the past, charging himself with temporal energy. The conduit explodes, forcing Apocalypse to teleport away. Phoenix asks Xavier if he felt Cyclops inside Apocalypse, but he doesn’t respond. Later, Xavier watches Phoenix leave the mansion, wondering if they’re destined to grow apart.

Continuity Notes: According to Apocalypse, the 2099 scenes aren’t an illusion, but the actual future. He’s shifted time and space so that he can take advantage of the X-Men’s “frailties” at the end of their lives. This doesn’t quite work, since Xavier is the only character that’s actually dying at this time. Most of the X-Men appear to be middle-aged, due to medical advances in the future.

Phoenix mind-scans Apocalypse during their fight and still senses that Cyclops is inside, working to sabotage him. A few months later, Marvel released the X-Men: Search for Cyclops miniseries. Future president Bill Jemas cited it as an example of what was wrong with the X-office, claiming it was a rip-off to kill a character that everyone knew was coming back anyway.

Gambit and Marrow are married in the future, which might be viewed as a sign Davis really was trying to build a relationship between the pair. The healing pod used on Xavier resembles the one Gambit used to save Marrow a few issues earlier, which is a nice callback. Rogue, for some reason, hasn’t aged at all in a hundred years, and is now in control of her powers. Storm is now a weather elemental. X-Man now resembles Cable, and Cable is fully mechanical.

Miscellaneous Note: The cover to this issue features the same characters in the same poses as this month’s UXM issue.

Creative Differences: Alan Davis campaigned against Cyclops’ death, as seen in this fax sent to the editors.

Review: This is the very rushed, rather unsatisfying, conclusion to the big “end of the millennium” Apocalypse storyline. I actually like the scenes set in the future, and think Davis does an admirable job of connecting it to the previous issues of his run. Davis’ art is elegant as always, and the world building he manages to pull off in just a few pages is pretty impressive. There’s also a conflict set up between Xavier and Jean, which is something the books had never tried before. Making Xavier aware that he’s destined to grow apart from Jean adds some weight to the ending, and Kavanagh’s script actually manages to pull the idea off. Killing off Cyclops right after Xavier asked him to stay with the team could’ve created some interesting story threads for Xavier, also. However, this is all pointless, since Cyclops returns less than a year later, thus negating all of the conflict.

As entertaining as the future scenes are, they’re really just taking away space from the big X-Men/Apocalypse confrontation. Apocalypse has just killed Cyclops by stealing his body, and the story fails to make this feel like anything approaching a big deal. The team never even gets to fight Apocalypse; his power conduit explodes and he just teleports away (all in the course of one page). It’s rushed, anti-climatic, and just feels half-hearted. The “Ages of Apocalypse” gimmick was obviously supposed to recall fond memories of the ambitious “Age of Apocalypse” event, but it seems like an editorially-driven idea that just mangled the ending of the actual storyline (and anyone looking to these issues for more AoA was bound to be disappointed anyway). Apparently, Marvel couldn’t decide if they really wanted to kill Cyclops off or not, so Davis has to keep the door open for his return and just get rid of Apocalypse as soon as possible. It’s a copout, and it’s a shame that a storyline that was so clearly mapped out at the beginning just fizzles out at the end.

Friday, July 10, 2009

UXM #377 & X-MEN #97 – February 2000

Uncanny X-Men #377
The End of the World As We Know It – Part One

Credits: Alan Davis (plot), Terry Kavanagh (script), Tom Raney (penciler), Scott Hanna (inker), Brian Haberlin (colors), Comicraft (letters)

Summary: The X-Men meet Xavier and Magneto in Egypt, outside of Apocalypse’s headquarters. They’re attacked by Skrulls and Living Monolith cultists. The Skrulls use their shapeshifting powers to distract the members of the Twelve and teleport them away. Apocalypse uses technology to pull Bishop out of the future, where he’s soon abducted by Deathbird. The Twelve are all assembled inside Apocalypse’s chamber, where he’ll use their combined powers to reshape reality. Meanwhile, Wolverine and the remaining X-Men receive word that Xavier’s files are being hacked.

Continuity Notes: Caliban is now serving as the Horseman Pestilence. I’m assuming he’s brainwashed like Deathbird. (Caliban was being used during Rob Liefeld’s brief stint on Cable, which I’ve never read).

A Skrull asks Apocalypse why he didn’t have Deathbird bring him Bishop when she delivered the Living Monolith earlier. Apocalypse doesn’t give much of a reason (apparently, he wanted him charged with temporal energy, but the script isn’t clear), but he says that he had him “bio-tagged” before he went into the future so that he could be called back at any time. The real reason is that Bishop had to be free for his solo series (which sent him to the far future), which was reaching its eighth issue at this point.

The team of X-Men from the end of X-Men #96 rescued Wolverine in his solo series. The story about files being hacked has nothing to do with Apocalypse. It’s a setup for their appearance in the X-51, Machine Man series, which I guess really needed a boost.

Review: The opening chapters of the crossover worked pretty well, but this one is a disappointment. There is some novelty to seeing the X-Men fight Skrulls and Monolith cultists (who dress like King Tut’s henchmen from the old Batman TV show), but that’s really it. The dialogue is stiff as a board, and Raney’s art doesn’t bring a lot of excitement to the action scenes. The story establishes that Phoenix is able to telepathically locate the Skrulls, and Beast has developed a gas that forces them to revert to their natural state, yet it’s filled with scene after scene of heroes being tricked by Skrulls. Not only do none of the detection methods work when they’re needed, but apparently Magneto is dumb enough to believe that Astra has suddenly emerged in the desert, and Polaris is so dense she falls for a Skrull imposter of Havok.

The tacked-on final page is a bigger mess. Moira claims that someone’s hacked into the Xavier Protocols, and Wolverine (after conveniently reminding everyone that they’re Xavier’s files on how to defeat the X-Men) comments that he thought Xavier erased them. Moira replies, “He did. But whoever’s on the other end…is dredging through the garbage even as we speak.” What does that mean? The characters also comment that they should be in Egypt helping the rest of the team, but they go on the “detour” anyway. Oh, well. At least their guest shot in X-51 enabled the book to find a new audience and survive on its own for several years, right?

X-Men #97

The End of the World As We Know It – Part Two

Credits: Alan Davis (plot, pencils), Terry Kavanagh (script), Mark Farmer (inker), Steve Oliff (colors), Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Fiz asks another Skrull mutant, Zcann, to use his telepathy to expose the truth about Apocalypse to their fellow Skrulls. The Skrulls turn against the cultists, allowing the X-Men to enter Apocalypse’s chambers. Inside, Apocalypse is preparing to overtake X-Man’s body, which will enable him to wield the energy of the Twelve. Magneto’s powers burn out, interrupting the energy flow. Living Monolith breaks free and goes on a rampage. Bishop absorbs the energy fueling the Monolith and both disappear. Meanwhile, Mikhail Rasputin aides the X-Men by teleporting away with War, Pestilence, and Famine. Cable damages the energy field surrounding Apocalypse, enabling Phoenix to attack. Her blast reveals that inside Apocalypse’s shell is a frail body. Before he can overtake X-Man, Cyclops jumps in the way. Apocalypse merges with Cyclops’ body and is rejuvenated.

Continuity Notes: Deathbird is now going by “War”, which I don’t think was made clear in the previous issues. Phoenix recognizes Famine as Ahab, which is presumably another clue that he’s supposed to be Rory Campbell (he spoke with a British accent last issue). I don’t know if this was ever confirmed, though (or what the point of choosing him as a Horseman in the first place was supposed to be).

Apocalypse was shown as a body snatcher back in the Adventures of Cyclops & Phoenix miniseries, which was set in the future. I think this was the first time he was shown stealing bodies in the current continuity. He wants X-Man’s body because it’s already capable of wielding so much power. X-Man claims at the end that Cyclops’ body will work just as well for Apocalypse since they’re genetically related.

Review: This isn’t particularly good, but seeing Alan Davis draw such a wide range of characters at least makes it fun to look at. Steve Oliff’s colors are also great, making this a very pretty comic. Davis has a huge cast to work with, which unfortunately leads to some quick exits (Mikhail Rasputin, War, Pestilence, and Famine are all dispatched in one page) and a rushed ending that doesn’t convey the emotion the creators seemed to be going for. If this story was always supposed to be about Cyclops accepting his role as an X-Man and making the ultimate sacrifice, the previous chapters did very little to set up the idea. The plot also spends a lot of time on Apocalypse bragging about his brilliant plan and how great all of the disparate energy he’s collecting is going to be. With all of the goodwill in the world, I don’t see how Apocalypse putting various mutants in bubbles and draining energy from them is that interesting of a plan. The characters were already where they needed to be in the last issue, so it’s odd that so much time is wasted with Apocalypse recapping the last chapter and barely doing anything. For the most part, I like the way Davis brought the various elements together to get to this point, but it’s not much of a climax.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

UXM #376 & X-MEN #96 – January 2000

Uncanny X-Men #376

Filling in the Blanks

Credits: Alan Davis (plot), Terry Kavanagh (script), Roger Cruz (penciler), Batt/Owens/Palmiotti (inkers), Liquid! (colors), Comicraft (letters)

Summary: Cyclops and Phoenix debate whether or not it’s time to go back home, while the Living Monolith’s followers witness his rebirth in Egypt. A strange man appears and takes control of the Monolith. At the X-Men’s mansion, the young Skrull Fiz is discovered. He says that he’s a mutant and wants to join the X-Men. Xavier reads a list of “the Twelve” from Destiny’s diary, leaving out one name. After he talks Cyclops and Phoenix into staying with the team, he reveals that the twelfth name is someone he must personally contact, Magneto.

Continuity Notes: The Twelve are revealed as Xavier, Cyclops, Phoenix, Storm, Iceman, Sunfire, Polaris, Cable, Bishop, Mikhail Rasputin, the Living Monolith, and Magneto. The first reference to the Twelve came years earlier in X-Factor #14. Master Mold uncovered in his programming a list of twelve strong mutants who would lead other mutants, and tracked down one of the mutants, Cyclops. He also appeared in Power Pack a few months later, naming Franklin Richards as a member, and Dani Moonstar, Cannonball, and Psylocke as potential candidates. For what it’s worth, Master Mold was malfunctioning during this time (even declaring all humans as mutants since everyone has something that makes them special), so I guess there’s room to dismiss any discrepancies between the original candidates and the official list.

Fiz’s mutant power is the ability to change his mass, along with his shape. He snuck into the mansion by shrinking down to insect size and hiding on Nightcrawler’s body. He says that Xavier is his hero because he tried to save the Skrulls from Galactus, and that mutant Skrulls are traditionally killed, but are now being experimented on. He reveals that the Skrulls have a new ally, a “Death-God” who “promise(s) much”.

Polaris reveals that the Skrulls stole Havok’s costume from her apartment. The jewel on his cowl is connected to his powers, and Polaris says it’s been glowing lately. The jewel shows up on the Living Monolith’s head, and according to Apocalypse (who is the strange man who takes control of Monolith) it enables Monolith to “maintain joint access” to the cosmic energy he shares with Havok.

It’s revealed that Apocalypse and Sinister grafted a sample of Havok’s DNA to the Living Monolith years ago, when he was a “non-mutant variant”. The experiment created a symbiotic relationship between Havok and Monolith, splitting the power between the two of them. This is supposed to explain Havok and Monolith’s odd connection in their original appearances in the Silver Age.

Rogue and Gambit have a one-page breakup. Rogue’s final words before her “death” in last issue’s “psycho-drama” were to tell Gambit that things would never work between them and that he should move on. She now sees that as a sign and wants to break up.

“Huh?” Moment: While flashing back to the past few days, Cyclops recalls Storm telling him that the traitor has been identified and Wolverine has been found. Wolverine’s in the background smoking a cigar. This hasn’t happened yet; Wolverine is still missing at this time.

I Love the ‘90s: The Living Monolith’s followers mention the dawning of a new millennium, and a letter writer to Stan Lee’s column states that Wolverine goes through more costumes in a week than the Spice Girls.

Review: This is revelation of the Twelve, and it’s not treated as that big of a deal. A few pages before the story’s over, in a normal-sized panel in the middle of the layout, Xavier just rattles off a list of names. The revelation of the Twelve was a part of an effort to resolve some of the dangling plotlines that had been hanging around for years, so it’s interesting that Davis chose to list the names in such a low-key manner. I have no idea why “the Twelve” was chosen as a dangler to be resolved, since it was introduced back in 1987 and had barely been mentioned since. Only the hardest of hardcore fans were still asking about the list by 1999. It seems like resolving the Legacy Virus storyline would’ve been more of a priority at the time. At any rate, the Twelve were supposed to be the mutant leaders of the future, not mutants used to power a machine (as we’ll see in a few issues). Plus, the clues were provided by a malfunctioning robot in the first place, so I’m not sure if it was really a mystery worth reviving. It’s possible that Louise Simonson, who introduced the mystery, just intended the list of names as a red herring for Master Mold to chase for a few issues (although I think she also had Apocalypse label himself a member, along with the original X-Men, so maybe she was more ambitious).

The story mainly consists of recaps of the past couple of issues and a few setups for what’s coming next. Because Fiz can’t speak English (he later communicates through a translator device and Shadowcat, who was telepathically taught Skrull a few issues ago), there are a few pages of a “misunderstanding fight” with the X-Men, which is the only action in the issue. There’s a small amount of character work, as Cyclops continues to question if he should stay with the X-Men or return to his normal life. Since this storyline ends with Cyclops’ “death”, it’s possible this was done to make his ending more tragic. Rogue and Gambit’s breakup scene is too rushed to be effective, and I’m not quite sure what the point is even supposed to be. Polaris and Cyclops discuss Havok’s “death” (wow, that word’s showing up in quotes a lot), which is something that should’ve happened months earlier. Even in the midst of crossover madness, Davis still remembers the existing connections between the characters, which actually makes the story easier to swallow. Roger Cruz shows up as guest penciler, this time merging Joe Madureira’s style with Chris Bachalo’s. It’s obviously not original, but he’s growing as an artist and doesn’t seem to struggle with the large cast he’s given to draw.

X-Men #96

The Gathering

Credits: Alan Davis (plot & pencils), Chris Claremont (script, uncredited), Mark Farmer (inker), Marie Javins (colors), Comicraft (letters)

Summary: Xavier informs Magneto that he is one of the Twelve. Magneto volunteers to help fight Apocalypse. Meanwhile, Phoenix uses Cerebro to contact Iceman. She watches telepathically as a brainwashed Deathbird kidnaps him. In Japan, Apocalypse’s Horseman Famine abducts Sunfire. At the X-Men’s mansion, Death arrives and kidnaps Mikhail Rasputin. Because the X-Men still view him as Wolverine, they’re reluctant to fight back. When he returns to kidnap Cyclops and Storm, Nightcrawler tries to organize a defense. Death cuts a support beam and buries the team under the roof. Fiz uses his mass to protect the team while Death teleports away. Archangel, Nightcrawler, Shadowcat, and Jubilee head for Egypt, where Phoenix has located Apocalypse’s captives.

Continuity Notes: Magneto is still recovering from overexerting himself during “Magneto War” and is using Fabian Cortez to energize his powers again. X-Man and Cable are shown to be Apocalypse’s captives, so I’m assuming this was covered in their solo books. Archangel, Nightcrawler, Shadowcat, and Jubilee’s story is continued in Wolverine.

Review: Chris Claremont shows up as scripter again, and it is an improvement over his previous issue. His writing tics are a lot less obvious this time, and he’s able to incorporate some nice character moments into an action-heavy plot. It’s definitely a step above most of Kavanagh’s work in recent issues. This is the first time Claremont’s written Magneto since he left the books, and it’s odd watching him reconcile his take on the character with the direction Marvel took him in the ensuing years. Even when the plot has Magneto smack Fabian Cortez for getting out of line, Claremont’s inner monologue has him commenting, “I should have not struck him. It is a sign of weakness.” When Xavier informs Magneto of the Twelve, Magneto’s response is that he should perhaps just kill them all before Apocalypse is able to use them. The script’s able to make Magneto seem pragmatic, and a least a little ruthless, but not irrational or outright insane. The script, combined with Davis’ artwork and the more subdued colors, makes the entire issue feel like something from the ‘80s. I don’t say that dismissively; I say it as a true fan of ‘80s Marvel (although I can understand why readers of The Authority at the time might’ve dismissed this as dull). I wonder if Claremont’s 2000 return would’ve worked out if it were shamelessly a throwback, instead of a forced attempt at new characters, new designs, and non-linear storytelling.

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