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Uncanny X-Men #22 – Review

By: Brian Michael Bendis (writer); Chris Bachalo (pencils); Tim Townsend, Marc Deering, Mark Irwin, Jaime Mendoza, Victor Olazaba, & Al Vey (inks); Chris Bachalo & Jose Villarrubia (colors)

The battle with S.H.I.E.L.D. comes to an end this week as Cyclops, Beast, Maria Hill, and even Magneto put aside their differences to combat the rouge heli-carriers. Everything comes together this issue as the huge cast of Uncanny X-Men finds its way into the climactic battle.

Bendis does do an impressive job of laying out the stakes. Particularly if you respect Logan’s dream for the Jean Grey School, the threat of annihilation is exceedingly real and present throughout the issue. Likewise, each victory for the X-Men, no matter how small, feels like reason to celebrate, thanks in no small part to the sheer amount of set up that’s led to these crucial moments. The whole affair is appropriately cataclysmic, but Bendis actually gets a couple of nice jokes and fist pumping moments in amongst the gloom. Despite the building feeling that this is the end, a sensation that is all the sweeter for its rarity on this series, Bendis’ plotting has some serious problems.

There’s no denying that this is something of an abrupt ending, and one that deals more in expectations than in actual content. The best example is probably our villain. After last month ended with Beast dramatically announcing that he knew who was behind this, you’d expect that the answer would be fairly forthcoming, but I assure you, you’ve got a bit longer to wait. Despite repeating his certainty on page 5 and again on page 13, Hank isn’t ready to reveal his findings to his fellow X-Men until halfway through page 14…off panel. The scene actually ends with Scott demanding “Who?! Who is it?, leading me to actually throw up my arms on a crowded subway and cry “oh come on.” In actuality it doesn’t take too much longer to learn the identity of the mastermind, but, like much of this series, it’s absurdly and painfully drawn out.

Worst of all, when we finally do meet our villain, it comes out of nowhere, lacks any attempt at motivation, and is largely without value for the title going forward. I respect Bendis as a writer too much to believe it, but it almost feels like he planned this arc without knowing who the villain was himself! More likely, the rushed and confusing resolution is the result of the upcoming “Original Sin” tie-ins. There may be any number of reasons why things turned out this way, but it doesn’t change how flimsy the ending comes across.

Luckily that apocalyptic tone I mentioned is beautifully realized by Chris Bachalo, who provides one of his strongest issues in recent memory. Bachalo starts with an unusually stark style that works wonderfully with the bright simplicity of the Canadian sky. The next scene introduces a little bit of grit into this style before it all breaks loose on the grounds of the Jean Grey School.
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Uncanny X-Men #21 – Review

By: Brian Michael Bendis (writer), Chris Bachalo (pencils & colors); Tim Townsend, Mark Irwin, Jaime Mendoza, Victor Olazaba, & Al Vey (inks)

The Story: One of these days S.H.I.E.L.D. is just going to give up on helicarriers…but it is not this day.

The Review: After an intriguing but uneven showing last month, things are really heating up in Uncanny X-Men. While the premise of the New Xavier School actively going to war with S.H.I.E.L.D. is an exciting idea, Bendis’ story is playing out in a somewhat different fashion than expected. With Scott’s powers gone haywire and S.H.I.E.L.D. closing in, I think it’s fair to say that things are very much going wrong for Cyclops, however the trick of this issue is that he’s not alone in that.

There’s a rule of storytelling that says that if you can make things worse for your character you should. Certainly it’s hard to deny the potential for building narrative tension, but when you have to make things worse, it can actually get somewhat rote. Still, where many stories feel like the gods of their world hate the protagonist, Uncanny X-Men #21 is the sum of its people’s machinations, their fortunes rising and falling, building a web of fascinating intrigues. Bendis is playing with our expectations, throwing several wrenches into the works, and to great effect. The whole thing feels unexpected and organic.

The issue is also thankfully free of the padding that plagued previous installments. While one could certainly argue that we didn’t need an interlude on Madripoor, watching Mystique struggle on two fronts really sells this issue as an essential read and highlights the interplay of the characters’ differing principles and ideas about the place of mutants in society.
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Uncanny X-Men #20 – Review

By: Brian Michael Bendis (writer); Chris Bachalo (pencils & colors); Tim Townsend, Wayne Faucher, Jon Holdredge, Jaime Mendoza, Victor Olazaba, & Al Vey (inks)

The Story: Cyclops has declared war on S.H.I.E.L.D. and his opening gambit is a ballsy one indeed.

The Review: There are two ways to look at the war between the New Xavier School and S.H.I.E.L.D. On one hand the book has been building to this moment for twenty issues, on the other it took twenty issues to get here and we still have no assurance that things will be resolved any time soon. Both are valid and illustrate one of the key issues that Bendis has on this series, balancing the future and the present.

Many of this issue’s moments don’t make sense in themselves requiring further developments or the clarity of hindsight. Mystique’s continued plotting, for instance, can intrigue but really offers very little to a reader. This same pattern plays out again and again, whether in Hijack’s home or at the New Xavier School. At the same time, however, much of Bendis’ best writing doesn’t expand the scope of the story, but deepen it. Even in the same scene I just mentioned we find biting dialogue, like when Sabertooth asks how much longer Mystique will continue impersonating Dazzler and she responds, “Until Scott Summers is a party joke and S.H.I.E.L.D. is sold for parts. So I’m thinking until next Friday.”

Even if it doesn’t rank among his best, Bendis’ dialogue lives up to his lofty reputation. When it comes to engaging a reader in the moment, this issue really is quite spectacular. Brief scenes like Scott’s confrontation with an old teammate can feel very substantial. Admittedly that example is rather text-heavy but, while there is a bit of harried visual storytelling, there’s such tension in the dialogue that you might not be able to help getting sucked in. That’s a quality that Bendis has been shooting for for a long while, but it’s very much present in this final scene and the central confrontation of the issue.

It’s clear that Bendis saw Scott’s appearance on the helicarrier as the core of this chapter. Unfortunately a side effect is that most of the rest of the issue is a bit dull, but you can’t deny the power of this sequence. There’s perhaps a little too much time spend on Director Hill’s romantic preferences, but rarely has Scott’s cult of personality been clearer or Bendis’ grasp of his characters’ psychology more apparent.
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Uncanny X-Men #19 – Review

By:  Brian Michael Bendis (writer); Chris Bachalo (pencils); Tim Townsend, Al Vey, Jaime Mendoza, Mark Irwin, and Victor Olozaba (inks); Chris Bachalo and Jose Villarrubia (colors)

The Story: We heard you like Sentinels so we put Sentinels in your Sentinels…

The Review: Back in August Uncanny X-Men received a slight boost when it featured a story about Cyclops facing off against a new breed of Sentinel. In the seven months that have passed, Uncanny has been growing and changing, largely for the better. Now that it’s time to pick up that thread, will it have the same oomph that it once did?

The answer is an ever charming sort-of. Bendis makes no attempt to hide that the past half a year of stories were a distraction. While the events of issue seventeen are mentioned, it’s clear that this series has been off track since the last Sentinel arc. The problem is that, for the most part, the filler was far better than anything that preceded it. So while it is intriguing to return to the mystery Sentinels again, there’s a sense of a backslide that I can’t deny is worrisome. It’s also strange since the event that took us off track, “Battle of the Atom”, ended with a dramatic reveal that S.H.I.E.L.D. has Sentinels, and different Sentinels at that.

Regardless, we’re diving back into Bendis’ main story. Summoned by a surge of mutant activity, the New Xavier X-Men find themselves lured into a trap. Bendis knows his collaborators and the creative team deliver a slick futuristic take on the X-Men. These aren’t the simple androids of the Mark I, and panels like a swarm of alien-looking mutant hunters spawning from the maw of a gigantic Sentinel are powerful and eerie. Likewise, a scene inside Cerebro is the stuff of science fiction, the kind that convinced us to buy sunglasses in middle school.

These new model Sentinels present a solid challenge for the team and Bendis’ answer serves to resolve the problem while significantly deepening the mysteries surrounding it. It’s a situation that is all the more fascinating for the removal of Hijack from the team, but the answer is pretty simple. Indeed, much of the issue seems designed to highlight Chris Bachalo’s contributions.
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Wolverine and the X-Men #42 – Review

By: Jason Aaron (writer); Nick Bradshaw, Pepe Larraz, Ramon Perez, Shawn Crystal, Steve Sanders, Nuno Alves, Tim Townsend, & Chris Bachalo (artists); Matt Milla & Lee Loughridge (color artists)

The Story: It’s graduation day for the Jean Grey School and Quentin Quire is in for a reckoning that’s been building all semester.

The Review: It’s been a long strange road for this series, but it’s finally over.

For this capstone story Jason Aaron returns us to the Jean Grey School of the future from WatXM #29. As the mutants of Earth-616 prepare for graduation, a tired old Logan prepares to shut down the school on Earth-13729.

Aaron, in no uncertain terms, focuses this story around the three most important characters of his run: Logan, Idie Okonkwo, and Quentin Quire. When the Jean Grey School opened, each one of them entered with blood on their hands. The struggle for each has not been to atone for past deeds, but rather to redefine themselves so that they have a future going forward.

Idie definitely gets the short end of the stick in terms of billing, but she’s actually one of the best characters in this issue. Both as her present self and as a confidant X-Man of the future, Idie shows drastic change from the beginning of the series. While I wish this transition had been more of a gradual process than a couple of off-screen leaps, the character that Idie has become is absolutely lovely. Her simple dialogue with Quire and Future Logan is probably some of the best work that Aaron has done with a female character over the whole of the run and makes her relationships with Logan and Quire feel real and substantial.

Meanwhile Quentin is dealing, or perhaps not dealing, with the fact that the Jean Grey School has changed him. Like a less flamboyant Stewie Griffin, he longs for the days when the mere thought of his dastardly plans made the hair stand up on Cyclops, Captain America, and Wolverine’s necks.  What Aaron fails to bring in reality, he certainly provides in humor and heart.
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Uncanny X-Men #17 – Review

By: Brian Michael Bendis (writer), Chris Bachalo (pencils & colors), Tim Townsend w/ Al Vey & Jaime Mendoza (inks)

The Story: The newest X-Men battle chickasaurs, carrot people, Shelob, and S.H.I.E.L.D. while simultaneously acting in the greatest Verizon commercial never made.

The Review: In the past few months Uncanny X-Men has become a home for some of the best one-in-done stories in modern comics. After a look at the women of the New Xavier School and a spotlight on Magneto, Brian Michael Bendis gives us a, debatably, more traditional team story.

Another interesting trait of this title is Scott Summers’ emerging habit of putting his students in life threatening danger for training. While the issue hints that Magik is keeping an eye on them, it’s certainly in keeping with his mutant revolutionary status and differentiates his teaching style from Wolverine’s. Indeed, rather than retread classic X-Men ground and send his squad to the Savage Land, Bendis explores a newer locale. In the end the actual difference is pretty limited, but it’s an apt metaphor for what’s going on here.

This is the first issue of Uncanny X-Men where the teaching staff is largely absent. For the first, and the long overdue, time the success or failure of this issue rests entirely on the New Xavier’s students and, fun as a book about Scott, Emma, and Ilyanna can be, these kids are entirely up to the task. Likewise, while we all love a good Savage Land story now and again, Tabula Rasa presents a feeling of mystery and possibility.
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Uncanny X-Men #16 – Review

By: Brian Michael Bendis (writer); Chris Bachalo (pencils & colors); Tim Townsend w/ Al Vey, Mark Irwin, & Victor Olazaba (inks)

The Story: This old soldier refuses to fade away.

The Review: Despite being one of the most fascinating and important characters in comics history, I comfortably ranked Magneto as my worst character of 2013. Uncanny X-Men’s 2013 was marred by a near obsession with Scott Summers, willfully disregarding other, more interesting characters and quickly dropping plot points unrelated to his journey.

Tellingly, this series has made a remarkable recovery over the past two issues, each of which barely featured Cyclops. This issue generally continues both trends. While I stand by my criticism of Bendis for ignoring Magneto’s reaction to Charles Xavier’s death, his relationship with S.H.I.E.L.D., and the force of his personality, after reading this issue, I can say that what mistakes were made were not made in ignorance, as Bendis quickly tackles all three. I’m not sure that hastily throwing these at the reader fully compensates for past missteps; however it is nice to know that these issues have been on Bendis’ mind to some degree.

From there Bendis takes a page out of “X-Men: First Class”’ book and sends Magneto on an exotic undercover adventure. It’s really remarkable how well this formula works for the character and, as ever, it quickly proves how dangerous Magneto can be. The issue does a great job of reminding us that, though he could easily rip a ship apart, Erik has always been most dangerous for the care, inventiveness, and dedication that he’s brought to his control of magnetism.
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