Thursday, May 19, 2011

X-Men: Nation X (comics)

Writer: Matt Fraction
Artists: Greg Land, Terry Dodson, Alan Davis
Collects: Dark Reign - The List: X-Men, Uncanny X-Men #515-522, Nation X #1-4

There's a question regarding where the X-Men franchise has been going in recent years that bears asking. If the X-Men have turned their back on Xaviers dream and what they stood for - mainly striving for peaceful co-existence with normal humans, understanding, an end to fear of differences and other points - are they still the X-Men? As they go further and further down the rabbit hole, I find the answer to be a resounding no; and it makes the adventures of the team even less appealing than before.

Here's the thing, I don't really care about the main adventures of the X-Men anymore. A couple years ago, I came to a realization that the only two runs on the flagship books I've ever truly cared about were the legendary Claremont run and Grant Morrisons game changing run on New X-Men. Anything else I find interesting tends to be the side books, the occasional arc in a major book that doesn't connect to the status quo much or the ones off doing their own thing with next to nothing to do with the core book.

There are numerous reasons I borderline hate the current status quo and unfortunately this volume is a pretty good encapsulation of why.

First, lets get the general overview of the plots out of the way. Opening the book is the Dark Reign - The List one shot. You may recall that I had a few choice words to say about the collection of the numerous one shots, but in the X-Men collection this fits much better. It feels like more of an epilogue to the conflict in the last volume, when the Dark Avengers and X-Men squared off, which led to Namor and Emma basically telling Osborn to take a hike. Osborn didn't take too kindly to that, so he sends a big monster to presumably eat Namor. This goes about as well as you'd expect. It's a pretty okay one shot, though there's no mistaking the fact that the vast majority of what makes it worth the time is the art by Alan Davis.

Then there's the main arc, Nation X, which eats up about eight issues of Uncanny X-Men. Basically, after the events of last volume, the X-Men have set up their "Utopia" on top of the floating Asteroid M. Now they have to figure out the nuances of how to survive. This goes on for eight issues, with a few flashes of interesting conflict with in but largely decompressed nonsense.

The back third of the book is dedicated to the Nation X anthology series, which focuses on characters acclimating to the new situations or just little vignettes; some are bad, some are good, a few are even pretty great, but that's par for the course for any anthology series of any kind. You can't really review this kind of thing, but I can at least vouch for a pretty decent batting average of good to bad.

First off, the Nation X arc is horribly decompressed and not terribly interesting. For eight issues we find our cast dealing with various problems on the island nation, from things like fresh water and food to where to put the result of a hundred plus mutants who presumably need to take a dump from time to time. Some of this is fine, but it's the focus of over half the arc. It's not exactly the most interesting reading. Fraction tries to keep things exciting with a few conflicts - and a hint or two at future arcs - but he doesn't necessarily succeed. This isn't the most riveting stuff ever put to paper.

Second, the art is pretty yuck. Greg Land is far from the worst artist to ever grace the pages of comics, but he isn't exactly good either. Some poses just look outright ridiculous, characters will look off, a character will be drawn as if their suddenly screaming out of nowhere when a second ago they had the calmest face imaginable. Land has his problems and he illustrates six of the eight issues in this collection.

The Dodsons are far better, but their contribution to the collection as a whole is a drop in the bucket. Even they aren't without their issues. I'm not sure how much of this was called for in the script - Cyclops even has a line describing it - but when we go into Emmas mindscape, it's the dullest thing ever. It's all just white. We've seen characters psychically traverse another characters head in the past and it usually reveals something about them. Apparently Emmas mind is nothing but white space. It makes a two issue conflict within a larger story blander than it should have been.

Worse than the dullness, however, is the fact that we're treading even further into territory that makes the X-Men almost unrecognizable. There's obviously potential to be mined in the whole "M-Day" scenario, but it was patently flubbed most of the time. A lot of what we see ends up turning the X-Men into a group so far removed from what the X-Men always stood for that the editors themselves feel it necessary to come out and defend the direction every interview or so.

It starts with Cyclops. I've never been a huge fan; even back in the Claremont era he was as dull as a block of wood. This is an obvious problem, since he's frequently a key player in X stories. The one time he became remotely interesting was during Morrisons X-Men run. Almost immediately afterwards he became a dick, which has been the norm since.

Ever since the X offices went out of their way to try and demonize Professor X, Cyclops has been portrayed as superior and this perfect leader. But here's the thing; he's not. It's just that no one who ever questions him lately is taken seriously. He's basically a Jerkass Stu, to go with a TV Tropes term.

Here's the thing though; no matter how much the writers try to portray him as cool or the bestest leader ever, it ends up backfiring on them because Cyclops is, long story short, a douchebag who makes questionable moves. In what reality is publicly locating just about every goddamn mutant left on a small, sinking asteroid a good idea? One orbital bombardment later and barring Colossus and Armor, the mutant race is dead. Letting Magneto on the island? Yeah, sure, he puts on a nice face, but the guy is a goddamn rattlesnake; he is going to bite you eventually. How many times has he pulled this? Professor X even states this outright. Nope, let's let the genocidal, terrorist maniac on the island, that'll be great for morale.

But this is all okay, because Cyclops has a plan. He admits he's kind of making it up as he goes along, but you have a dream Professor X and he has a plan. Except, you know, that's the exact goddamn opposite of a plan. But he's not called out on this because he's friggin Cyclops.

I'm not even joking. No one really dissents. He's like King Cyclops and almost all of his little subjects fall in line. It's kind of striking when Wolverine - the guy who would basically question every move Cyclops or Professor X made - basically says "he's making tough choices and he's right".

There are people who speak up, but they're written like they're heels for doing it. Professor X immediately suspects a trap when Magneto arrives, but his outburst is treated as if it's unnecessary and over the top. Despite the fact that, you know, Magneto has pulled this "I'm good now, really" business before. Even Beast isn't wild about some changes, like Magneto being on the island, and gets a lecture from Iceman for his trouble. He - and his departure - is written to come off as a whiny douche instead of a fair portrayal of someone disillusioned with the choices the fearless leader has made. Half the island barely even notices he left.

Beast himself even brings up how he was left to be tortured until the "time was right" for a rescue, presumably for the greater good of the mutant race. This is spliced between scenes where Cyclops has dropped everything to perform "psychic surgery" on Emma Frost once it's been deemed a viable option. No one questions this hypocrisy or pats Beast on the back. The mutant race comes first, except when it doesn't.

So many things about this arc just come off as false because of it. Magnetos sudden, practically out of nowhere change of heart just doesn't jive with how he was even a short time ago. He even goes so far as to say he was wrong about mutants being the future. The X-Men themselves have basically become a glorified military group and represent everything the group has ever fought against, yet it's handwaved away as necessary and made in the midst of tough choices.

All this and the fact that Cyclops is content to put all of his eggs in one basket with the "mutant messiah". Then there's something that isn't brought up in this arc in particular, but is an important bit; the fact that Cyclops - leader of the X-Men - has personally sanctioned a kill squad. So what we're reading is another step in the destruction of everything the X-Men ever stood for; they've essentially turned their back on Xaviers dream because times got tough and the only people who care are Professor X himself, Beast and Nightcrawler.

As it stands, the way mutants have been acting under Cyclops stewardship, there's plenty of reason for regular humans to be scared of them. Hell, they now have Magneto chilling with them on their island. The guy that's committed numerous terrorist acts and wanted to wipe humans out if they didn't go with his demands a time or two. Add this with them declaring their own nation of super powered mutants just off the coast of San Francisco and it's a miracle missiles aren't headed their way.

Worse still, the status quo this book begins to explore not only hurts their appeal, but it unwittingly sends several bad messages. It's no secret that the X-Men have long been a concept following the general theme of fighting against hate. Racism, homophobia, all that stuff. The editors and writers freely admit it. But now, mutants are segregating themselves because the government doesn't agree with them, they have kill squads, they stop caring about advancing their standing in the world and they generally start acting like a military group.

So what message is this sending? Should the blacks all be congregating on their own island nation? Should gays have a kill squad to take out their enemies because they might be harmful to them? Should hispanics form themselves into a military group? You can't have it both ways, but Marvel wants to take this team in a darker, grittier, the-end-justifies-the-means direction while still trying to make the team a metaphor for race relations. I don't think I need to tell you it doesn't work and this volume does nothing but make it worse.

Matt Fraction is a talented writer. He is. He's deservedly a big star in comics. But the X-Men do not seem to be gelling with him. I don't know if it's the direction not agreeing with him or what. But this is not his best work. Which isn't a big deal - even the greats have off days - but it's disappointing. He is unable to make any of this work, if only because of the fact that this status quo he's working with - and advancing - is anathema to what the X-Men have always stood for.

As you can tell, the writing is completely unable to make this work on several levels. But at the core of it all, it all comes back to the point I made earlier; this arc is just dull, dull, dull. There's always the chance this could be made to work by using action to keep you from thinking too hard on it, but there are maybe two real action beats in the whole eight issues that are relatively short. The subplot that contains said action scenes ends up having nothing to do with the rest of the arc. It's just overlong, doesn't seem to go anywhere and if anything seems to just be buying time until Second Coming, the crossover that sees the "mutant messiah" return.

On the plus side, Second Coming doesn't have to do much to be more interesting than this, that's for sure.

Obviously, I don't like where the franchise is - and has been - going. I don't think that's all of this volumes problem - I've tried to list everything I find wrong with it here, but I'm sure I've rambled way too much for it to be concise - as the writing in general isn't up to snuff, but it is an issue. But if you like where the X-Men have been going, you may like this more than I did; it's still very dull and bland on a writing level and the arts not that great on six of the eight issues, but it does advance the status quo, for good or ill.

There's definitely a positive or two here though. One very good thing about this - whether you like the direction or material or not - is that this is a thick, thick volume. It contains, after all, the eight issues of the arc, The List one shot and the four Nation X anthology issues. That's thirteen issues total for thirty dollars SRP; you can even get it much cheaper online. Considering Marvel's really annoyed me with their habit of four issue trades lately, I feel I must applaud them when they give us a volume with good value for the money.

Now if they'd just do it more than once in a while, we'd be set.

Some of the various short stories that make up the Nation X anthology are pretty good too. Though, as expected, the quality varies. But there aren't many that are outright bad, which is kind of a win for any anthology.

Another good thing is, well... uhh... did I mention the one shot was drawn by Alan Davis? That's always a plus. I think I'm about out of good things to say already.

The Score: 5.5 out of 10

Skip it. For the love of everything good, just skip it. Matt Fraction just couldn't pull this one off. It's inoffensive reading, but it's also pretty bland and dull. Not worth the time or money unless you really, really like where the franchise is going. I don't, which makes the volumes problems even worse for me.LinkLink

No comments:

Post a Comment