Anghus Houvouras reviews the first issue of Marvel NOW!'s Uncanny X-Men...
I had read X-Men for a long time, long enough to remember reading comics featuring the founding five members. Long enough to remember "The All New X-Men" featuring 'newcomers' like Colossus, Storm, and some pint sized Canadian named Wolverine. Back when it was Chris Claremont and John Byrne creating some of the most influential stories of the era. I'm not sure when I gave up on X-Men. It was probably in the 1990s when the book splintered into a half dozen titles and became difficult and/or uninteresting to follow along. Probably right about the time when Cable showed up. X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, X-Force... It became a chore to keep up with the Marvel Mutants and I turned my attention elsewhere.
I tried to jump back in every so often. When creators I cared about took over, like Grant Morrison's strange run on the title. Or when Whedon launched Astonishing X-Men. But it never felt the same. First there were a small number of mutants. Then there seemed like millions. Then The Scarlett Witch declares "No More Mutants" and we're back down to a finite number. Last years' Avengers vs. X-Men series brought back the idea of an endless enclave of mutants, still feared by the world, and it turned Scott Summers a.k.a. Cyclops into a villain who seems to have abandoned the peaceful teachings of his mentor Charles Xavier in favor of a more militant philosophy shared by Magneto. To punctuate his shift in ideologies, he murders Charles. I suppose that's one way to make a statement.
With the Marvel NOW! relaunch, I've been trying to get back into some long abandoned titles. I'm regularly reading a Spider-Man and a Fantastic Four book for the first time in ages. So, I figured it might be a good time to try and get back into the X-Men with Brian Michael Bendis' All New X-Men series and the Uncanny X-Men whose first issue was just released. So far, it's been a mixed bag.
All New X-Men has been an entertaining read. The Beast went back in time, grabbed the founding five members of the X-Men and brought them to the future to get a glimpse at just how crazy things have gotten. His goal was to show Cyclops how far from the path he has strayed in the hopes that once they venture back in time they might help avoid future catastrophes. It's an interesting gamble since time travel has rarely worked in their favor. This tricky device works on some levels because it takes the X-Men back to their beginnings. When it was five young teenagers who were feared by the world around them and trying to learn how to control their abilities. Brought into current continuity, it almost seems like an alternate future warped beyond all recognition. It's simultaneously funny and sobering. Watching Jean Grey comb through the Beast's memories and see every transformation, every time she has 'died' and returned, every hackneyed story arc her character has been dragged through. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to laugh, but I did. If ever there was a character who deserves a "what the hell did you do to me?" moment, it's Jean Grey. It's as much an indoctrination of the creative forces behind decades of X-books than anything else, whether intended or not.
Uncanny X-Men #1 takes us to the other side of the fractured X-Men. Cyclops, Magneto, and a handful of others have taken to recruiting new mutants to be part of their brotherhood. Cyclops still believes mutants need protection from the world around them and is willing to resort to violence if necessary. S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Maria Hill is approached by a mysterious foe who claims to have inside information about Cyclops and his mutant terrorists. Much of the issue is spent catching the audience up on the current state of mutant affairs. It seems that there is a traitor in their midst as someone is intent on seeing Cyclops suffer for his sins.
The first issue was engaging enough, but it starts to boil down to the same basic problem for me: I don't buy into the idea of mutants being hunted down and hated by civilization anymore.
In the old days it was an easy enough concept to get behind. People fear what they don't understand. Mutants present a potential threat. The Government fears what it can't control. And right there you have the crux for the entire theme that has propelled the X-Men comics forward for fifty years. But that entire concept seems so thin.
This is a world where people can accept super powered beings and hail them as heroes. The world can celebrate Spider-Man and cheer on the Hulk (when he's not destroying Harlem) but have a problem with a guy who can turn into a Snowman?
It worked when Stan Lee first launched the title. And it worked for a very long time. But in this day and age the idea that somebody with super powers is immediately feared and loathed lacks credibility in the world of Marvel comics. I can't buy into the blind logic that being a mutant automatically equates to fear and hatred. It's an idea whose time has passed.
There has to be a new direction for these books. I realize that saying the X-Men need to abandon their persecution complex is like saying Iron Man needs to abandon updating his armor, but i think if I'm ever going to find myself invested in an X-Men comic again, there has to be something new to draw me in. Rather than the same, dated concepts being rehashed to varying degrees of success.
I liked Uncanny X-Men #1 for a few reasons. Number one, the idea of a traitor in the mix is an interesting one. However, since they reveal the traitor at the end of the first issue, all the subterfuge is lost. The new Marvel NOW! titles seem very focused on the NOW! Like Superior Spider-Man, they are not drawing anything out. Questions are posed and answered at breakneck speed. Bendis does a good job plotting the first issue and artist Chris Bachalo brings a great sense of gravitas to the proceedings. He draws an epic Sentinel battle and makes the characters pop.
Even without the constant cloud of mutant persecution lingering overhead, there's still tension in this story. Cyclops has killed Xavier and is now a pariah. Magneto, Emma Frost, and his allies are on the run. Not just because they are mutants mind you, but murderous fugitives. I like that the tables have been turned on Cyclops and think there's some interesting creative territory to travel. I'll be curious to see where they go with the X-Men titles but could easily see myself losing interest if this goes from being a self-contained story to a piece of the ever expanding X-Men tapestry requiring you to read six books just to know what the hell is going on.
I'm encouraged. Skeptical, but encouraged.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker.
His latest work, the graphic novel EXE: Executable File, is available