When I compare this current volume of Uncanny X-Men to the last, I’m astounded by the contrasts.
Kieron Gillen’s run on a post-Schism Uncanny X-Men volume showcased an Extinction Squad made up of the most powerful mutants who also carried a lot of baggage from their checkered pasts. Cyclops, in building the ranks, knew it had to play more than a public relations role for all mutants. The team had to be Marvel’s version of the Miami Heat — a loaded group built for shock and awe.
They faced off against Mr. Sinister — a brilliant foe whose genius gave him the power to predict outcomes — and the mental and physical battles tested the team. But it was the rivalry with the Avengers that ended the title and ushered in a new era of X-Men. After being taken over by the Phoenix Force, Scott Summers did something he would not have done without any outside influence short of the Phoenix’s fire burning inside him: the killing of Professor Charles Xavier.
With Brian Michael Bendis taking over the X-Men, members were divided by those who stood by Cyclops and those who felt he should be brought to justice. Wolverine became headmaster of the Jean Grey School, and various female members joined together to form another awe-inspiring and fully capable unit. Complicating things, the original X-Men were brought to the present by Hank McCoy in the hopes of setting present-day Summers straight.
As for Summers, he became a fugitive revolutionary. With a team of former villains in charge of training a cast of newbies, Summers worked out of the ruins of Weapon X to jump to the aid of humans and mutants alike.
Sides changed, powers regained, and conflicts rose.
And the contrasts that I see now when I look back on Gillen’s run make me wonder whether the X-Men as a collective whole are in a better place. I’m not talking about whether there is peace in the X-Universe — my concern is whether the stories we’re being given are worthy of the characters at this stage.
Now, before anyone thinks I’m here to tank Bendis, I did enjoy a lot of his material post-AvX. Though I was hesitant at first to jump into All-New X-Men, I gave it a try and fell in love with what I was reading. Bendis not only paid tribute to the X-Men of old, he began to lace historical bits into the fabric being stitched piece by piece through the new issues. I especially loved the instances when the estranged X-Men were forced into close quarters because we got to see friction in the relationships which — in my belief and opinion– are critical elements and key to telling X-Men stories.
The main X-Men titles I grew up reading were based on finding acceptance in a world filled with differences. I fell in love with the X-Men and comics because of the threading of politics, human nature, and current affairs topics being played out by larger than life characters. And those larger than life characters fell in love with each other, fought with each other, and fell in and out of relationships because of political and motivational differences.
Their struggle was real.
But after reading Uncanny X-Men #26, I couldn’t help but want to read issue #27 immediately. And the reason why frustrated me and led me to think of Gillen’s run.
In Uncanny X-Men #26, Cyclops reluctantly joins Rachel Grey and Logan on a mission given to them by Xavier’s hologram. Scott’s reason for not immediately jumping onboard to take down the most powerful mutant threat to all life on the planet — his stance that Professor Xavier’s decision to depower Matthew Malloy was hypocritical.
It takes a village to raise a Cyclops, and we get Iceman, Storm, and Emma Frost putting him on blast in their own unique ways. I still don’t understand Iceman’s uncharacteristic tantrums, even after he gets to tell everyone how angry he really is about everything. Angelica Jones proves to be the voice of reason here — it’s obvious Scott’s guilt and shame have basically destroyed him, and though it’s understandable that the surrounding emotions have been twisted, she points out the most obvious thing which keeps getting lost in the shuffle: Professor Xavier’s death was an accident.
Storm manages to be as condescending as she’s been recently — her acerbic potshots at Summers have really put a damper on her character. Though she isn’t on Scott’s level as a tactician, Storm’s prowess as a field commander shouldn’t be understated, and her stance on many issues has been regal and matronly — characteristics which also make her a very different leader than Cyclops. That her relationship with her former commander has deteriorated to the point where she can’t even show a bit of respect puts her on Iceman’s level at this point.
And that brings us to Emma who hits Cyclops right where it hurts — and perhaps it’s Bendis speaking to his readers. I really, really liked that Frost’s reasoning hinges on the fact that at the end of the day, Xavier was a father figure to Scott with everyone’s best interests in mind. It’s a bit of a shock that Frost, the queen of mean, has the least edge yet the most effectiveness.
After Maria Hill tries to gain control of a spiraling-out-of-control situation with Malloy exhibiting more Omega than Omega-level powers to no avail, she calls in the X-Men.
And it turns out Charles Xavier may have made the best decision for all — Malloy’s powers range from animating skeletons to releasing power blasts that could level states, one at a time.
Even with this major threat on the horizon, I couldn’t help but feel unsatisfied when I finished the issue. Bendis has been great at teasing, building, and adding conflict. But looking at the story arcs as a whole, and we’re in 26 issues now, I’m starting to see that the Uncanny X-Men haven’t had any real moral victories. Even the reveal concerning the Sentinel-controller — it was Dark Beast all along — seemed anti-climactic because it didn’t really bring the story home. It didn’t repair the relationship between Scott and present-day Hank or push the wedge any deeper. That plot stalled without creating bigger jumping off points. It felt hollow and stale.
And when it comes to the development of the other characters — and I’m leaving out the Uncanny X-Men members for now — the members at the Jean Grey School have looked incredibly petty and desperately bitter. I’m not asking that they give Cyclops a pass just because time heals all wounds — but it doesn’t take Angelica’s superpowers to point out the glaring truth that Scott didn’t kill Professor X, the Phoenix did. I doubt they were as angry with Jean Grey when she supposedly committed genocide (ret-cons!).
So, bringing it back to the comparison between the two writer’s approaches, I’m not here to say Gillen is the better writer. I just want to point out the things I’m observing — which are of my own opinion. One of Bendis’ strengths, as I mentioned earlier, is his ability to write the X-Men as if he was there sitting next to the X-Men writers past and present. The parallels and repeating structures show Bendis is well-versed and cognizant of the paths carved out before him.
Bendis also has an amazing ability to shore up momentum and build hype. Stories begin like roller coasters with climbs that suggest huge payoffs.
The disparity reveals itself in the climaxes and resolutions. Story arcs have gone through periods of compelling groundwork only to build up into a weak climax where plot points end bluntly with no major bearing on the real conflicts. Pacing gets rushed, foes are instantly defeated, and everyone walks away to return to their positions hating or defending Cyclops. And in the case of Kitty Pryde who just sort of jumped ship at the end of Battle of the Atom, things happen that leave readers scratching their heads.
I think part of the problem is the scope. Bendis has several titles under his pen, and the X-Universe seems like it’s building towards some ultimate conflict. Whether that leads to a reboot, relaunch, or just a retitling remains unclear, but Gillen’s run on Uncanny X-Men lasted 20 issues, and AvX seemed to be the end goal. Gillen weaved major plot points through his story arcs with Mr. Sinister making several appearances during the run to continue the momentum. All roads led to AvX, but there were issues that felt like they had enough going on within themselves.
For this current volume sandwiched between AvX and Axis, while there have been epic moments, there have also been tremendous letdowns — and more so in recent issues. Take for example the new mutants under Cyclops’ care. There was a span of one-shots that focused on each member, but what’s really happened since then besides David Bond leaving and rejoining the team? Looking back now, I’d much rather a separate title — the newbies are compelling enough, and why not call it New Mutants? — but we’ve watched as two teams were brought to simmer one by one like two pots on a stove with only one working top. We still have no idea what happened to Eva Bell when she was time-displaced, and while it’s sort of funny that Goldballs is still being called that, I hoped we’d finally get to a point when he’d get something a little more dignified.
So while there’s foreshadowing that Cyclops could lose his life on this mission, will it suddenly lead to the rest of the X-Men suddenly caring? And will readers accept what’s to come? If anyone can make me look like I don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s Bendis — provided we get some actual development with some hearty resolution. Past issues have taken full advantage of the 20-page format with a familiar formula — start where the last issue ended, bash on Cyclops, show what everyone else is doing, cliffhanger. I’d like to see more of what Bendis has done well — character interaction leading to growth. The one-issue arcs, though they weren’t all winners, at least gave us a chance to get to know the players we thought were going to have major impact on future stories.
On visuals, Kris Anka delivers some really good panels, though I’m not completely sold on his artwork. Some faces have no real distinction except for eye color and hair — check out Magik and Kitty Pryde standing next to each other or Captain Marvel and Black Widow looking like clones.
Anka’s awesome at expressions, and his characters emote very well, and there’s a rhythm to the artwork that hits peaks and dips into steady valleys. Anka’s best page this issue is a brutal one with Bennet Du Paris and Headlok succumbing to a mental attack that wrenches their bodies. It’s visceral and shocking the way it needs to be.
On colors, Anka uses a lot of red as the story takes place near sunset. It feels like a bit of foreshadowing as it could be Cyclops’ sunset, though that’s purely conjecture at this point.
What comes could lead directly into Axis, and who knows what will happen to the X-Men therein and after? Wolverine presumably won’t be alive to hold a grudge against his former pal, and if the Watcher’s death couldn’t bring Hank off his high horse, I’m not sure what can.
What I do know is that Uncanny X-Men #26 really split me with part of me wanting some actual developments and the other part of me seeing this as a slow boil to an inevitable finish. The tone of the series has devolved into a bit of melodrama that feels less mature. Looking back on Bendis’ entire run, I would rate it favorably. But I can’t help feeling during issues and arcs like these that I’m being led by the nose. I want to have my cake and eat it too, but I am just so hungry.