Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Uncanny X-Men #500
Uncanny X-Men #500
by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, Terry Dodson, Greg Land, Jay Leisten, and Rachel Dodson
Marvel Comics 2008
Garrett Martin: So hey, right at the start, let me ask: what's your experience with the X-Men? Have you read any of the comics? Which ones? Because the issues that turned the comic into the phenomenon it became aren't the earliest ones, the Lee / Kirby books from the early '60's. It's the work Chris Claremont (and Len Wein, Dave Cockrum, John Byrne, etc.) did in the late '70's / early '80's that revitalized this second-rate Marvel property. That's like if Marvel relaunched the Micronauts today, and it somehow became the best-selling comic for, like, the next thirty years. With cartoons, movies, a Bug: Origins spin-off, etc. That's what happened when Uncanny X-Men was brought back in 1976. For a while the sales were completely justified. Those early Claremont issues have aged somewhat, and not as charmingly as Silver Age DC or Marvel, but they're still a lot of fun to read. Claremont knew how to balance character development with ridiculous superhero action, squeezing a good amount of both into almost every issue. Eventually, though, the book became a parody of itself, as stories and subplots dragged out indefinitely. It settled down into endless soap opera territory, but even soapier and more histrionic than your typical superhero non-sense. Claremont's deterioration as a writer, combined with Marvel spoiling the group's uniqueness by cranking out endless spin-offs, tie-ins, and rip-offs, turned the X-Men into a miserable, unreadable morass. It's been mostly awful for nearly twenty years now, with only a brief return to greatness due to Grant Morrison. Even Ed Brubaker, who's done great work on books like Sleeper, Gotham Central, Captain America, Criminal, Immortal Iron Fist, etc., has stumbled with Uncanny X-Men. Still, Marvel got my attention when they announced Brubaker and his Iron Fist co-writer Matt Fraction (writer of many great comics, some of which we've discussed here in the past) were going to partner up again on Uncanny X-Men, starting with issue number 500. I had no idea what to expect. What would win out, the reliably interesting writing of Brubaker and Fraction, or the headache-inducing black hole that the X-Men have been since I was in elementary school? Honestly, even after reading #500, I still don't know what to expect. Do you?
Hillary Brown: Okay, I tried to do this earlier and was thwarted by the evils of technology. Anyway, the only X-Men stuff I've read is the early material, the Stan Lee books that are collected in hardback, and even then not tons of it. So I'm missing years of material. Oh, and I read some of the Joss Whedon stuff because I am compelled to, as a Buffy nerd. I know Claremont is this big deal, but I have no direct experience with his writing, and little knowledge of what happened since the 1960s in the book. I've seen the movies, but that's not a big help, I gather. So that's the background.
That established, this is the second Fraction book I've now found subpar. The gay/X-Men parallel is clunky, the art is an excellent example of sucky photoreferencing (the characters just stand around, not looking at each other), and the book as a whole reads like a weird Chamber of Commerce pamphlet for San Francisco. I mean, what is the point? Is Fraction continuing with this? Did they need a whole book devoted to their new headquarters that cost a kabillion dollars? Is any of this supposed to make any of them more sympathetic? Ugh. It's just dumb and not witty and very little actually happens. Do I need to know my history to like it?
GM: I don't think you need a PhD in X-men Studies to follow #500, but it's impossible for the last 40 or so years to not color the issue in some way. And although it hasn't made the comic that much better, they are at least attempting something slightly new with the set-up, putting them in a new town where they're well-liked and work with the government, instead of being hounded by everybody. They're introducing a new status quo, one that should set their run apart from most that preceeded it, but nothing they show in #500 is all that particularly interesting. The idea of mutant culture might predate Morrison, but that played a big role in his awesome run, and the stuff with the artist harken back to that. And those two little prologues were the best things about the book. But misdirection or not, it's not a good sign that they immediately head to Magneto for a villain. In fact this issue reflects the general apathy I felt from Brubaker's first twelve issues. It's a random string of underdeveloped plot points, connected by bland scenes full of exposition. I did think the dialogue was maybe a half-step better than it was without Fraction, but still nowhere near the standards he's set for himself elsewhere.
The core X-Men titles (and Uncanny in particular) are completely bullet-proof, sales-wise, and that's led some folks to theorize that creators get lazy with this assignment. Brubaker and Fraction were fantastic together on Immortal Iron Fist, but despite being over 30 years old that character's pretty much a blank slate compared to the X-Men. So, y'know, more freedom for creativity and a personal voice, or whatever. Uncanny X-Men #500 has a bit more flair than the last stretch of issues I read (the first eight or so issues of Mike Carey's current run on X-Men, and Brubaker's first twelve issues on Uncanny), but it's still one hell of a dull comic.
And of course the art doesn't help. Terry Dodson and Greg Land each tackle random pages, and the styles do not match. Dodson's a fine artist, if a bit too cheesecakey, and should be drawing the entire book. Land really is awful, though, as overly photoreferenced as Hillary and his legions of on-line detractors point out, with odd poses and creepy facial expressions that rarely fit the moment. Just awful stuff, especially when juxtaposed with Dodson's perfectly acceptable work.
HB: And the environmental stuff? It's just so shoehorned in. I'm not opposed to any comic book character living in the contemporary world, but complaining about throwing a Prius at someone rather than a different, less hip car? Oy vey. Also, twittering.
Is there a way for these guys to write for modernity without it coming off as though they've just woken up from a thousand year sleep? I'm a little curious where they're going, and I guess they've now got some new buildings to draw, but it's certainly not enough to keep me interested.
GM: Yeah, me neither. Surprising that these two specific writers have created something so lackluster.