Saturday, March 6, 2010


While it's become somewhat fashionable to slag off the artist-driven explosion in comics in the early 90's and grit our teeth at the . . .uh, gritted teeth, pouches, big guns, and other wretched excesses of comics during that time, there are those rare moments when we must admit that the 90's weren't all bad.

For one thing, it saved Uncanny X-Men from utter creative collapse. The X-Men Visionaries: Jim Lee trade paperback gives us an excellent cross-section of what that transition looked like.

Not in terms of sales--Uncanny X-Men was still Marvel's top seller, more or less--but creatively they ended the 80's in a right awful state. Chris Claremont, now a decade and change as writer of the comic seemed to either be burning out or hell-bent on dragging the title into the most turgid boring long-term plot seen up to that point.

Basically, after Fall of the Mutants, the X-Men are considered "dead" and have relocated to Australia because, well . . .we're not sure, exactly. The general notion seems to be that the X-Men will ride in, save the day, and leave before they can be thanked (not unlike the Lone Ranger, I guess--that's the metaphor they keep using) they vanish and everyone thinks of them in hushed tones as this awesome group of strangers who totally rocked the faces of the bad guys.

The dramatic effect of all this is lost on the reader, perhaps because the X-Men at this point consist of Dazzler, Longshot, Havok, Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Rogue, Psylocke and Paul Roma--wait, not him. It's not one of the more awe-inspiring lineups to be sure.

Anyways, in the background of all this is the return of the X-Men's oldest and most feared foe The Shadow King.

Yeah. It was news to me as well. The Shadow King originally showed up in a flashback story in wherein Professor X busted Storm for nicking his wallet and fought a dangerously-close-to-racist-caricature Big Fat Egyptian Telepath Guy who illustrated to Xavier the inherent danger of mutant powers used for evil.

It was an OK done-in-one, but he came back anyways. The Shadow King returned in New Mutants a few years later because Bill Sinkiewicz really enjoyed drawing evil fat people that day or something. It involved mind control and slavery because hey, Chris Claremont, right?

Anyways, somehow the Shadow King comes back to life as a result of Polaris getting her powers taken away (in a story that, itself is so damned ridiculous I refuse to waste precious time recounting it) and becomes a living battery for negative emotions and spends a number of back pages stirring the pot on this plot. It never becomes interesting.

Jim Lee arrives on Uncanny X-Men #248 as a deputy penciller (as Marc Silvestri is on the way out) after a well-regarded Punisher War Journal run and his first big break embarrassing himself at the tail end of Bill Mantlo's Alpha Flight run (but then, who didn't?) His first issue is, naturally in the midst of several dangling plotlines, one involving the Reavers (Nearly the bottom of the barrel of the X-Men's rogue's gallery) and Nanny and the Orphan-Maker (Under the barrel itself and digging deeper still) The issue itself is well-drawn and generally action packed. It is also, however, dangerously insane and incoherent, as it covers Longshot leaving because an aborigine told him to and the X-Men getting taken to school by an evil robot egg (not that one) and their own intense personal stupidity. Oh yes, and Storm dies--again, for frighteningly little reason.

This is, as a reader of the title for the entirety of my life, undoubtedly the X-Men's low point (yes even Chuck Austen was better than this). From here, the team angsts, angsts some more, gets killed off yet some more, goes through the Siege Perilous in an issue that aspires and fails to reach the general coherence of a Rob Liefeld comic about an Ultimate Warrior promo and the title begins running twice-monthly because good Christ, once a month of this utter tripe wasn't enough, I guess.

The overall goal is this, I suppose--the X-Men are scattered all over the globe, living different lives with no memory of their past as X-Men. The plot of the X-Men coming together again will parallel the rise of the Shadow King, culminating in a big fight between the two in Uncanny X-Men #300 and it will be a Crowning Moment of Awesome. Whether anyone will give a shit by this point is left up to the individual reader to decide.

Oh yes, and some issues will be drawn by Bill Jaaska, which if it isn't a violation of the Geneva Convention, damn well ought to be.

Anyways, thankfully, little of that makes the book, because we pick back up with the three-parts of Acts of Vengeance crossover from Uncanny #256-258, wherein Wolverine fights the Mandarin. I am totally OK with this instead of him stinking up Iron Man again, I should add. While this has only superficial things in common with the Acts of Vengeance crossover proper, it does give us a pretty sound installment of the overriding X-Men plot of the late 200s--that of getting the band back together. Wolverine with Jubilee (who is absolutely, positively not Carrie Kelly in Asian drag) encounter Psylocke, who, upon going through the Siege Perilous ended up with those wacky ninjas the Hand, who are presently working for the Mandarin (The Mandarin, looking very Shredder-ish in this arc, brings to mind the other appendage-named ninja clan) Being that ninjas are stealthy assassins who kill silently and leave no trace, naturally Psylocke runs around with purple hair and a skimpy swimsuit stabbing people with her new psychic knife which at this point is only "the ultimate focus of her psi-powers." Because Female Empowerment, that's why.

Anyways, she beats up Wolverine and tries to turn him into the Hand's master assassin (another dropped plot thread that an enormous amount of time was sunk into only to be abandoned, then picked up ten years later for something else) This doesn't work, and upon defeating the Mandarin, Psylocke joins the party and Jubilee goes up a level, learning a new heal-spell and becoming +10 against Chaotic Evil.

While this story is more concerned with beating up ninjas than answering serious questions, it's still an important story, and not just because Psylocke is finally worth a damn after poncing around in pink and being mostly useless since she joined up, having been granted the formerly unheard of for telepathic characters ability to kick people's asses physically. For one thing, things seem like they're finally going in some kind of forward direction instead of just approaching the Angst Event Horizon--this is the first time the "band getting back together" subplot moves forward (Banshee and Forge's utterly pathetic Muir Island X-men don't count, as that's feeble window dressing for the Shadow King plot and it's utterly stupid anyways) and we're not just dicking around in stupid vignettes where Dazzler gets stalked by an obsessed fan or Colossus becomes an artist and finds Callisto's inner beauty or crap like that. Things are actually happening in Uncanny X-Men again, and thank God, too.

Despite the utterly silly plot that completely falls in on itself (and the Psylocke makeover, which ultimately requires two retcons a couple years down the road before it collapses under its own turgid convolution and everyone just pretends they never brought it up) when you think about it for more than two minutes, Lee brings an incredible energy and detail to the proceedings, ably assisted by Scott Williams (the Terry Austin to his John Byrne) in parts 1 and 3. Josef Rubinstein inks him on the middle chapter and while their styles don't consistently mesh quite as well, it gives the proceedings a darker, almost Kevin Nowlan-ish kinda vibe to them, which is an interesting effect.

The book then skips ahead to the late #260s, wherein Marvel gets a clue and put Jim Lee on the book full-time. They also decide to pull their finger out and get moving on the whole "getting the band back together business." But there's still time for a detour or two, as Uncanny X-Men #268 features an extended flashback with Captain America teaming up with Wolverine to beat up Nazis in a flashback story constructed with such care and precision it veritably screams that Jim Lee just felt like drawing Cap kicking ninja ass that month, plot be damned. We're still dealing with the fallout of the whole Psylocke/Hand business, as Matsuo and Fenris (or "who?" and "who, now?") team up in a moment so dramatic one can't stop scratching their heads and/or shrugging (for all they tried, did anyone manage to make Fenris interesting? I never saw anyone who managed it) It's a sound enough issue and Cap demonstrating the Law of Conservation of Ninjitsu is exciting enough, but in the grand scheme of things, it's not much.

#269 (yes! Consecutive issues!) features the return of Rogue, who was killed off awhile back in a rather pointless exercise that is best left unexplained. Why she doesn't instantly return when everyone else did is never properly explained, as the main point of the issue seems to be the following:

1. Rogue is back, and a little disorientated by everything that's happened since she's been gone.

2. She doesn't have her powers and can touch people again. Of course, as befitting a character whose entire raison d'etre had heretofore been that she covered herself from head to toe to keep anyone from touching her lest she be further traumatised, decides to run around more or less fully or partially naked the rest of the issue. Because Female Empowerment, that's why.

3. Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel has somehow split off from Rogue (not that they were ever merged to begin with, but if Claremont doesn't care about this vaguely important story point, why should you?) gets taken over by the Shadow King and starts turning into a zombie, except when Rogue turns into a zombie. It's all very muddled, and really only exists to get Rogue into the Savage Land with Magneto, who is . . .down there doing stuff for . . .some reason. It doesn't flow logically from the last time we saw him in Uncanny, but . . .whatever.

It's an OK issue, and I suspect probably birthed the "Rogue fetish" some comics fans have to this very day, and it keeps that bloody Shadow King plot ticking over (which is finally going to end in about ten issues after going this side of forever) and sets up the Rogue/Magneto story which is actually (and I say this rather unironically) a very well-told story, free of a lot of Claremont's more annoying writerly tics, and not bloated to the point of ricidulousness.

We skip of the X-Tinction Agenda, because why include three issues that won't make much sense when you can get the trade of the whole crossover and enjoy the three top artists on the top X-Books--Jim Lee! Rob Liefeld! Jon Bogdanove!--and give Marvel more of your money? Just as well again, as X-Men vs Genosha round 2 just makes it more and more plain why every time Genosha comes up, creators seem to want to kill it.

We do, however, get Uncanny #273, the big "artists jam" issue, which is generally a "well, whatever shall we do now?" issue wherein everyone sits around and tries to figure out what next for the X-Men post X-Tinction Agenda and Cable challenges everyone to be all 90's and proactive because JUUUUSSSSSSSSTICE! (Thank god we learned our lesson and don't do stories like that anymore, eh?) There's a certain metatextual fun to be had with Claremont fretting over the challenge artist-driven books that characters like Cable headline and embody throw down to his more writer-driven comics and we check in with the Shadow King yet again who shows up, scares the hell out of everyone, and leaves. Naturally, everyone forgets to mention anything about it to anyone else because comparing notes is for losers. One of the things that bothers me about the Shadow King stuff is that it makes the X-Men look really stupid, and when you consider that they started this volume jobbing to a damn egg, that's really saying something.

But no time for that--we're off to space, as the X-Men don the blue and yellow uniforms for some reason and putter off to space at the end of this issue. We pick back up with them in the last few pages of Uncanny #274, having schlepped off to the Shi'ar empire for some light bondage and also to pick up Professor X.

The bulk of Uncanny #274 is taken up with Magneto and Rogue in the Savage Land, with Ka-Zar, fighting Zaladane. Zaladane is the mistress of magnetism after stealing Polaris' powers in the that story I alluded to earlier. Zaladane is probably far more famous for being the boss of the first level of Sega's X-Men game than for any impact she made on the comics, and this story will do nothing to disprove that.

She's basically in the story to be a raving loony super villain with magnetic powers and provide a contrast with Magneto, who spends most of this issue contrasting her behavior with his own in bygone days when he was a raving loony super villain with magnetic powers. These two issues do a really good job of giving some structure to the breadth of Magneto's character and makes a game effort to reconcile Claremont's vision of Magneto as an anti-villian/anti-hero with his depiction elsewhere as a fairly straightforward villain. Haunted by the choices that brought him here and those he knows he will soon make, it's a really strong story, despite the rather shaky track it runs on.

Oh and there's some sizzling sexual tension with Rogue because Claremont knew the Internet would one day be full of fanfic about the two of them or something. It's not made too much of--we're just supposed to feel Rogue gets close enough to be bitterly let down by the path Magneto ultimately chooses.

#275 brings us two parallel stories--one involving the X-Men kicking Shi'ar ass which is there so Jim Lee can draw vibrant, exciting crazy fight scenes that burst off the page. Oh yes, and Deathbird seems to be the nominal villainess and in what should come as no surprise to anyone, she looks extra slutty because Female Empowerment, that's why.

The B-story--the resolution of the Magneto/Zaladane stuff--plays a bit better. While it's generally a dust-up in the Savage Land (supposedly it has global implications, but that's never really successfully sold to us) and oh look Rogue has her powers kick back in thanks to the miracle of Plot Convenience, the whole business is generally there to get us to the climax of the story:

Magneto, his powers fully restored, has Zaladane at his mercy. If he closes his hand, a dozen pieces of metal shrapnel turn her into a pincushion. When entreaties to his sense of honor and his humanity from Rogue and outright threats from Nick Fury fail to budge him, Magneto declares his intentions, partially quoted below:

"The New Mutants were left in my charge and they suffered for it because I tried to pattern myself after Charles Xavier. I am not Charles Xavier, I will never be Charles Xavier. I was a fool to try. As he was, for believing I could succeed."

[Zaladane gets pincushioned here]

"My people are in danger--more so than ever before . . .and a kinder, gentler, Magneto cannot save them."

It's a great moment, and it's that rare face/heel turn that feels earned. It also--despite this not necessarily being the intent--sets up Magneto's return in X-Men #1-3, wherein he's more completely in villain mode. Read back to back they form a neat little arc that gets him into place without it feeling so very forced.

Meanwhile, the X-Men have overthrown Deathbird, met up with Professor X again and generally everything seems to be going swell. Except for the little detail that Professor X seems to be evil as hell and none of their familiar Shi'Ar chums seem to be behaving quite like themselves. #276-277 give the reason for this is--most of them are replaced by Skrulls, which might have had a bit more impact had they been willing to make that a little more explicit in the dialogue and also had Jim Lee done a better job of making the Skrulls look like Skrulls.

But this is an action romp, so such finer story points are glossed over in the name of action and spectacular set piece fights, and credit where it's due, it looks amazing. At this moment in time, his style is fairly clean and shiny and doesn't have the heavy crosshatching of his later Hush-era stuff. It pops off the page. This is, I should mention, within that short honeymoon period wherein Gambit was somewhat more tolerable a character (your mileage may vary) and he has some great moments in these two issues--taking on the Skrull-Starjammers and blasting Gladiator with his entire deck of cards point-blank are my favourites (I am always up for Gladiator getting his ass kicked, I should mention ) and things kind of stop rather than resolve neatly because upon being rescued, Professor X is like "Oh crap. The Shadow King. Maybe I better go back and fix that. Of course had I just told someone in the first damn place none of this would be necessary but as I am both the most powerful mutant mind on Earth and a goddamn idiot, I forgot to do that." and we're finally on the way to the end of this Shadow King nonsense. There were plans afoot to revisit the whole Skrull thing, but they came to naught more than a pinup in X-Men #1.

#277 is the end of the book proper, but we get a back-up strip from Classic X-Men, which is a perfectly rubbish story on its own merits, but it's Lee's first take on the X-Men, and so it's included. It's not very good and the whole thing turns on Storm being an utter bitch to the one complete stranger in New York City who can fire disintegrator beams from his hands (really, what are the odds?), and, well . . Storm ends up being more of an utter bitch again and really, I've spent far too much time on this than it's worth.

Anyways, if you wanted to see what the 90's were all about and see the flip from writer driven comic to artist-driven comics actually happen, this trade is a way to get a feel for it in one sitting. You also get to experience the X-Men's low point as a franchise and its rebirth all in the same go (Uncanny was a deeply schizophrenic comic during this time, and those times when Claremont was off his meds were teeth-bleedingly brutal) and, if you have fond memories of that time, this will be an excellent rush of nostalgia, good and bad, as another evolution of the X-men franchise doesn't happen until the Morrison era.

Hm . . .wonder if my appreciation for this early 90's stuff will erode my "cred" as a blogger? Nahh--that presupposes I had any to begin with.

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