I don’t know that there is a period where the X-Men brand has been regarded positively by the majority of readers since at least Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, though it’s possible that we haven’t seen it since Chris Claremont left the books. Every X-Men status quo of the last ten years has been divisive at best, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that this is a particularly dark time in their history. I say this with confidence not because I wish to judge the current era, but because Marvel has made it clear that, no matter how comics history looks back on this time in X-Men, dark is a word they want it to be remembered for.
No longer the flagship title of the franchise, Uncanny X-Men seems poised to be the dark and gritty X-Men book in a time of dark and gritty X-Men books. With the team established last issue, writer Cullen Bunn turns to establishing the high stakes of the current environment. The choice to have an X-Men team living in a world of Terrigen does have one major difference from the post-“House of M” world of the last ten years in the sense that this is an ongoing crisis rather than a single cataclysmic event. Though Bunn doesn’t really do anything to highlight this difference, it can be felt through the race for mutant healers.
The dialogue is much less expository this month and begins to establish the specifics of the characters. I say begins because many lines represent variations on a single character trait by which we can define our characters. Magneto is concerned for the mutant people, Psylocke is worried about Archangel, Monet is sassy, Sabretooth is uncomfortable being a good guy, etc. It’s simpler writing than I’m used to from Bunn, but while it isn’t all it could be, it must be said that, in some cases, Bunn turns these simplistic motivations into tonal languages.
This Sabretooth is probably Bunn’s strongest creation so far. He owes quite a bit to Wolverine, but Creed’s voice is strong and natural. Best of all he’s the character who most takes advantage of Bunn’s proven ability to convey the tone and emotion of a character’s voice. One line near the end of the issue is undoubtedly the issue’s emotional center and possibly the single best of the series so far.
Similarly, and probably relatedly, Bunn accomplishes something that many writers have failed in by making Monet feel as cool as she thinks she is. She isn’t a breakout character yet and she doesn’t get to show off that much, but her competence and the respect it earns her is felt within the narrative, rather than the informed ability it often becomes.
Strangely enough, Bunn seems to struggle with Magneto, despite a long history of success. There are hints of Bunn’s comfort with the character; the distinction of seeing first hand, for instance; but where Bunn seems to be trying to give the impressions of plans within plans, it ends up reading like Magneto is just being awfully thoughtless. An attempt to draw in Erik’s childhood in Auschwitz feels similarly forced, reaching for an interesting comparison but utterly failing to touch it.
With the shadow of Apocalypse hanging large over this series, Bunn is wise to use some of the mutant Darwinist’s lesser known followers as an introductory threat, and wiser still to show that they’re not to be trifled with. But I think the best part of the Dark Riders, and one of the strongest elements of this issue, is what enormous dorks they are.
That sounds mean, but, assuming it’s intentional, it’s actually a really lovely bit of character. The Dark Riders are not Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen; they’re not even his subordinates. They’re fanboys and, like Kylo Ren, they’re delightful in their pretensions of meaning.
We also get a dose of Mystique this month, though it seems she’s still working on her own at this point. Bunn clearly has some fun with the idea of a character whose ego is so malleable, but her quipping is unnatural and only furthers the action movie feel of this series. It’s also odd that Mystique is also investigating Someday but the X-Men seem to have let it drop. I suppose this is a way to keep that plot bubbling on the back burner but something about it feels off.
Greg Land’s storytelling remains strong. The art in this issue speaks loudly to the emotional part of your brain, communicating tone and urgency through original usage of familiar tropes. The reader really does bring quite a lot to this issue, their own knowledge of storytelling automatically creating connective tissue that makes the story really move. In some comics outsourcing that duty to the reader smacks of weak sequential artistry, but it feels so intentional here that it’s kind of great.
Even so, Land’s usual problems flare up again. For some reason he simply cannot draw Monet’s body. You’d think a man famous for tracing from porn would be particularly able to draw anwoman’s body, but for whatever reason Monet in particular is rendered like Mr. Fantastic. Add in a greater number of porny expressions on women than last issue and you have an issue has some seriously distracting moments.
On a more personal note, I really don’t like the face that Land has chosen for Magneto. It just doesn’t look like him to me, not only as classically depicted but as feels true to the character.
It also must be said that Nolan Woodard is a huge part of this issue’s visual success. You can’t really do realistic color art without realistic color and Woodard’s attention to lighting does a lot to trigger the imagination. As mentioned, this is crucial to the issue and it also helps to distract from some of Land’s wonkier moments.
A (Very Spoilery) Thought:
- While I’ve seen more than enough premature tantrums over very similar endings, I have to say that there is a part of my brain that is really disappointed in how this issue treats a beloved young mutant. It’s way too early to call it and knowing comics, and especially this character, there are plenty of ways out, but the flow of the narrative strongly suggests that this is the last we’ll see of Elixir. Yes, I see that an Omega Level healer kind of ruins the whole ‘mutants are getting sick’ plotline and I won’t deny that his powers had become difficult to use efficiently in a team book, but Josh was a fascinating character from the day he was introduced and it’s a shame to see him killed off with little fanfare. The fact that the X-Men couldn’t stop it doesn’t speak too well of them and the choice to gun down a young man in a church is a dark one, especially in the current environment. It just feels like this book is aimed squarely at young teenage boys and, perhaps worse, it’s not quite willing to abandon some loftier aspirations and commit to being fun popcorn entertainment.
With this second issue, the new Uncanny X-Men has started to nail down its place in the Marvel line up. Though it still feels like the Terrigen panic is a hindrance more than a help, Cullen Bunn is trying some fresh things with his heroes and villains. The series is moving slowly but forcefully, making it easy to pick up, and Greg Land’s artwork makes a definite impression, for good and ill.
Uncanny X-Men #2 solidifies the action-packed mix of old and new storytelling that this series is aiming for. The art and writing are instinctive and evocative and fans of the style will savor the cinematic reading experience. However, it must be said that the cinema it’s emulating is big-budget action movies and those aren’t to every taste.