Review: Uncanny X-Men 539

“Losing Hope”

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Ibrahim Roberson
Colorist: Jim Charalampidis
Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna
Cover: Simone Bianchi

Let’s get this out of the way first and then move on to the story itself:

Uncanny X-Men 539 cover by Simone Bianchi

I mean, really, it screams JUST BUY THIS ALREADY.

Yes, yes, Uncanny is getting a renumbered reboot. Yes, yes, people are increasingly voicing the opinion that lame-duck titles’ remaining issues “don’t count” and can be safely ignored. “Losing Hope,” being a single-issue story, isn’t going to sway anyone who holds that viewpoint…

…but the X-Office has, in a remarkable burst of foresight, put a fantastic Simone Bianchi Wolverine cover on this issue. That alone should distract the nerd rage and draw some of the hard cases to the book. Look, it’s got Wolverine on! I have to appreciate canny sales moves like that, since we’re mired in the mysterious Current Climate and whatnot.

Moving on. This is a fairly uncomplicated story that hinges on a dubious Claremont-era X-trope: female mutants love to shop and need to shake off their angst about their persecuted status, so they go shopping. Of course, since they’re persecuted mutants, shit goes down by the Hot Dog on a Stick, and they have to accept that their lives will never be normal enough to permit them the joys of a limeade. I estimate that I read some variant of that plotline eight or nine times as a teenage comics fan. (When I wasn’t reading that, there were mutants playing baseball.)

Gillen, to his credit, subverts the trope in this story by focusing it squarely on Hope Summers, the alleged mutant messiah around whom a great deal of recent events have focused. Hope’s teammates have to force her out of her armory and off the island; once they’re out, her fashion sense proves as nonexistent as her ability to accept critique. There are no armloads of Nagel-inspired ’80s dresses here, just one cranky, hyperfocused mutant savior and two reluctant disciples.

It’s a shame that those disciples– Laurie and Idie, two of the more interesting members of the Generation Hope cast– are cast aside as soon as Hope is kidnapped and the actual plot kicks in. Admittedly, this isn’t an issue of Gen Hope; expecting some elucidation on Laurie and Hope’s uneasy alliance, or Idie’s ongoing struggle to assimilate into mutant culture, is expecting something Uncanny’s not designed to deliver. But would it be too much to ask to let them participate in the action beyond summoning Wolverine? Watching the newer mutants participate in a mission alongside the definitive combat expert on the older team would have been enlightening.

What we get, instead, is a pretty straightforward Wolverine solo operation– he breaks into the Crimson Commando’s base and stages a rescue, and he and Hope fight their way out. Grudging respect is achieved in the heat of battle, and Logan monologues a bit about his reluctance to get emotionally involved with Hope. Exeunt all, including, presumably, Idie, whom we never see again after page 5.

It’s an efficiently told story, and Ibrahim Roberson’s art lends it a kinetic, muscular feeling. I believe this is Roberson’s first Marvel work, and it leaves me wondering what his take on Iron Fist or a similarly visceral character would look like. Certainly, he’s presented a compelling argument for his future employment.

And there’s nothing particularly wrong, per se, with a Logan/ Hope adventure that runs its course in 17 pages. The Crimson Commando has a compelling reason for his attempt to capture Hope. Logan’s reasons for keeping a wary distance from her are valid. Logan’s arrival in Hope’s cell is understated so heavily as to be both absolutely hilarious and perfectly fitting. (When a man is the best there is at what he does, there really does come a point where there’s nothing to be gained by showing him doing it over and over again.) But I was still left wanting a little more here… and the sort of thing I wanted is, ironically, laid out in an earlier throwaway scene with Logan, Hope, and the feral savant Teon.

Hope approaches Teon and Logan’s sparring practice on her way off the island, and Teon is instantly smitten. He runs to her feet. He’s immediately present in a raw, physical way. Hope puts her hand down and tells him to stay, like one would a particularly slow dog– and in Logan’s body language and stone silence, we see that he’s watching himself with Jean Grey, years before. It’s a brilliantly played moment, four panels of showing without telling. For the reader, Logan’s speech later is just exposition for Hope’s sake; it’s the subtle set of his shoulders as Teon rejoins him that tells us everything we need to know, and a number of things that Hope has yet to even guess.

“Losing Hope” is worth reading for that page alone. It’s a lesson in storytelling– you can be efficient, you can run from point A to point B along a well-traveled plot arc, you can subvert a trope or two along the way, but you have to deliver the unexpected punch to the gut while you’re at it.

Capsule Reviews, Week of July 25th

Unrelated topics I’m wondering about today while I write my capsules:

  • How the hell did I go from not reading the Avengers for 20 years to “hm, I have six Avengers books on this pull sheet, and might need to add a seventh?” How in God’s name does that even happen?
  • I need to actually read the first issue of Neonomicon; it’s in the inbox of comics under my coffee table. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be Alan Moore’s version of Charles Stross’s Laundry series, and that concept kind of frightens me.
  • Yes, I have an inbox tray full of comics under my coffee table. I bought it at the Container Store when I noticed that my living room was draped in bright-yellow comic-shop bags, like some sort of giant sequential-art spider had been throwing webs around the place.
  • I got around to Hawkeye and Mockingbird #1 on my iPad. Jim McCann writes them well, and it was nice to see a little Casanova in-joke in there for us Cass diehards. I’m not sure my budget can afford another Avengers book, but I certainly enjoyed the free sample.
  • No shit, Vertigo cancelled Madame Xanadu? Mmmmmmmmrrrrrrrppppppph. Where am I supposed to get my Anglo-Saxon fix now, dammit.

Uncanny X-Men #526 (Fraction, Portacio, Tadeo, Reber)

Uncanny X-Men 526 cover

Back in the X-saddle again. Cover by Terry Dodson.


“The Five Lights, Part One”

The X-Men have finally gotten out of Second Coming and can focus on their own direction for a bit. I think that should’ve happened months ago, but Marvel’s overarching plan for the X-books can be a little inscrutable at times.

Now that the big arc is out of the way, though, this book serves up a lot of old-school X-action. The ensemble-cast onslaught of the last year is nowhere to be found. Hope, Rogue, Cypher, and Dr. Nemesis make up one branch of the team, and Bobby, Warren, Scott, and Emma fill in all the cracks. Their goals are simple– investigate Hope’s family, and render assistance to newly emergent mutant Laurie. Back at the ranch, Emma has dinner with Tony Stark, and the X-Club finally make some time to attend to Kitty’s predicament. Nothing too hand-wringy, nothing too political; Scott doesn’t even have time to make an angsty speech about being the leader of all mutantkind.

Laurie deserves special mention here, as the first “light” on Cerebro’s display since M-Day. Fraction’s taken great pains to make her an appealing character– she’s geeky, she’s a little fixated on her studies, she’s having a standard finals-week breakdown. Sure, her origin is painful and upsetting, but a few minutes spent chatting with Hope and the others and she’s right as rain. I could use more mutants who aren’t totally consumed by their nasty beginnings.

The only downer here for me is that we’re losing Magneto for a while. Allan Heinberg and Olivier Coipel’s backup story, “Rebuilding,” shuffles him away from his campaign for Mutant Class President and into the Avengers’ “Children’s Crusade” miniseries. Heinberg delivers a great setup, but I love any Scott/ Erik tension I can get. I’ll miss the old man while he’s away.

Thor #612 (Gillen, Braithwaite, Rauch, Troy, Sabino)

Thor 612 cover

Tonight, he dines in... yeah, you know.


“The Fine Print, Part Two”

Mephisto has never been better than when Kieron Gillen’s writing him. He struts through every panel appearing to be fully in command of the situation between Asgard and Hell, then admits his weaknesses to the camera when no one else is looking. He’s got a soft spot for the man-eating Disir and an eye to tempting Thor, balanced only by a mortal terror of triggering all-out war between his hordes and the armies of the Aesir. Gillen makes Mephisto seethe with a brutal, sexual need for conquest, the hot-blooded converse of Loki’s cool-headed, disdainful ambiguity.

Doug Braithwaite offers up suitably epic pencils, and the rest of the art team responds in kind; this is an issue of Thor that looks and feels like a high-end RPG supplement about Mephisto and his realm. This is the book that will convince your Thor-dubious pals of his badass status. (Unless they’re fans of everything light-heartedly heroic, that is. In that case, you want Langridge and Samnee’s Thor: The Mighty Avenger, a book that is so fluffy I could die.)

Capsule Reviews for June 30th

Heralds #5 (Immonen, Zonjic, Harren, Fairbairn, Fabela)

Now that it’s done, I think it’s safe to say that Heralds will probably be best read as a trade. Marvel certainly made the right choice in releasing it weekly; the plot and action careen so wildly from place to place that most readers would’ve been completely lost with a month between issues. It makes for an interesting (and not negative) contrast with Kieron Gillen’s five issues of S.W.O.R.D., with his similar frenetic pace but neatly pinned down plot. The full run of Heralds reminds me most of the scene in Apollo 13 where our intrepid astronauts have to use the engine on the LEM to make a course correction. They light the engine and their ship corkscrews crazily through space, bouncing everyone and everything inside around. But when the burn is done, the Earth’s where it ought to be in the window and everything is fixed, if a little frayed around the edges.

Still not sure why Agent Brand was involved at all, but, hey, a party’s a party.

Atomic Robo and the Revenge of the Vampire Dimension #4 (Clevinger, Wegener, Pattison, Powell)

It’s a testament to Brian Clevinger’s worldbuilding that it’s taken a full four volumes and almost three years before he’s needed to bring Tesla’s perennial foe Thomas Edison into the Atomic Robo universe. So deep is the well of random, hilarious things Robo could encounter that Team Robo didn’t even need to go here for us to feel like we were getting a solid story. History has given us the perfect Tesladyne foil, however, and so it just feels right that Edison takes his place as the Big Bad. The callback to concepts introduced in The Shadow from Beyond Time is a nice touch, too.

The best part of this episode? The fact that the entire team- including Robo- felt it was necessary to don Ghostbuster jumpsuits at the appropriate time, but the entire gag passed without editoral comment from any of them. Brilliant.

Thor #611 (Gillen, Elson, Troy, Sabino)

Did you like New Mutants #11 Siege tie-in? Did you love the Siege: Loki one-shot? Do you wish the story threads from those books would be tied together into the arc of a relevant major ongoing series? Well, friend, your wait is over! Kieron Gillen, having towed the line through JMS’s outstanding arc plot and a major crossover event, has come back around to reap the seeds he’s sown along the way. And boy howdy, am I looking forward to this. Come for the wonderful scene between Mephisto and Brün of the Disir, stay for… everything else. Kieron’s ending his time on Thor with an absolute bang.

Review: Siege: Loki

Siege:Loki cover by Marko Djurdjevic.

Marko Djurdjevic provides the shiny wrapper for Jamie McKelvie's best work yet.

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Jamie McKelvie
Colorist: Nathan Fairbairn
Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna

The Loki of Norse myth is a god of many faces– oath-brother to Odin, master sorcerer, trickster deity, child of the giants. He schemes and plots to disrupt the order of the Aesir and Vanir, suffers their punishments, and then is loosed at the Ragnarok to battle his former comrades alongside his giant kin. In the Marvel Universe, Loki’s relationship to the other gods is more clear-cut– he’s a supervillain, all right, and recently, he’s spent a lot of time bending the rest of that less-august pantheon to his whim. His relationships to guys like Doom and Norman Osborn define him more than his own deeds at times.

Leave it to Team Phonogram, then– Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie– to present a Loki who’s entirely in line with Marvel’s editorial dictates and very much of a piece with his mythological predecessor. Siege: Loki depicts Loki at the height of his powers, an androgynous figure of menace, cutting deals across the multiverse to secure his own interests. From Hela’s lair in Las Vegas to Mephisto’s hell and back to Broxton, Gillen’s Loki is equally at home confronting the atavistic fallen Valkyrior known as the Disir (also seen in Gillen’s recent New Mutants issue), signing deals with the Devil, and slowly nudging Norman further into the grip of insanity. It’s just what Loki is, and the one-shot captures his personality in exquisite detail even as Loki himself reminds us that no one can truly know the totality of his being.

McKelvie’s linework is, as usual, expressive on a level most other comics artists can’t touch. His Loki is pouting, playful, dangerous, a Tyler Durden devoid of macho and stripped down to the bare bones of mayhem. There’s the occasional knowing take to the camera as Loki taunts Norman Osborn, the sidelong glance when he reminds Mephisto of the value of ultimate personal freedom. When he does enter combat against Bor’s Disir, it’s almost incidental, with McKelvie couching it in a striking 24-panel layout on a single page. For all his prowess as a combat magician, this Loki’s real menace is embodied in his slinking, ambiguously androgynous physicality. Likewise, the Disir are portrayed as more than simple zombie Valkyrior; in McKelvie’s hands, their lust for the flesh of the Aesir appears as a depraved, nearly-sexual hunger. One panel of the Disir consuming a fallen god is enough to give rise to uneasy dreams.

I know Kieron pushes the limits in every issue of Thor; the amoral horrors of “The Latverian Prometheus” convinced me that he meant deadly serious business when it came to the deific end of the MU. Seeing Jamie step up and do the same in Siege: Loki made me more convinced than ever that someone needs to find him a job that pays better than Phonogram did, lock him in as far as he’s willing to be tied down, and let him get to it. As a primarily verbal person, it’s rare that I say this– but the art in Siege: Loki actually speaks more powerfully to me about the true nature of the Marvel Loki than anything I’ve read so far. If you have any interest in Thor’s part of the MU, even if you’re avoiding Siege somehow, you need this book. It’s the best thing Jamie McKelvie’s ever drawn, and that alone should be enough to recommend it to you.

Review: S.W.O.R.D. #5

SWORD #5 cover by Mike del Mundo.

Parting is such sweet sorrow.

“No Time to Breathe, Part 5″

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Penciller: Steven Sanders
Inker: Craig Yeung
Colorist: Matt Wilson
Letterer: Dave Lanphear

Alas, it’s true– S.W.O.R.D. has come to its end. Fortunately for us, it’s the end Kieron Gillen intended for this arc all along, with nothing altered from the original plot. The Drenx invasion comes to a head, the internal politics of S.W.O.R.D. boil over, and there’s muffins– which, really, is all stuff you should expect if you’ve been keeping up with the series.

It’s hard not to think of what could have been, going through the wrap-up of the individual plots in this issue. Sure, Matt Fraction’s busy bringing back Kitty Pryde in Uncanny X-Men, but I’ll forever savor the notion that she could and would have had harsh words for UNIT’s fascist Utopianism during her reunion with Lockheed. Hepzibah is shown escaping the Peak’s brig… would that have brought Rachel Grey and the Starjammers to town for an uneasy meetup with Hank? Magneto’s recent machinations on the former Asteroid M might have returned him to near-Earth orbit, which would’ve put him in direct opposition to Agent Brand, someone every bit as obstreperous as Erik himself. The image of Brand and Magneto sitting in their respective offices, scowling at each other from antipodal Lagrange points, would’ve been worth the time it took to get there all by itself.

All of these things might have happened if the series had been given a chance to play out its overarching plot. In five issues, though, S.W.OR.D. delivers a complete and satisfying package. Not a plot point is left hanging as the remaining free members of the team set forth to stop the Drenx, contain Henry Peter Gyrich, and overturn the last vestiges of the orbital Dark Reign. Gillen knows how to deliver action at this pace, and Sanders’ artwork is easily the most assured he’s ever been on this series– check out Death’s Head on page 2, neatly framed by the geometry of the scene itself, all angular, implacable menace.

Unlike Gillen and co-conspirator Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram, which wrapped up its own run last month with an issue about the universal accessibility of the series’ magical paradigm, S.W.O.R.D. ends squarely where it began, with the focus on Beast and Brand. It’s right for this book; the emphasis on an adult adventuring couple remains the series’ biggest draw. It’s a shame more wasn’t done to play up the quirky romantic charm of the series when Marvel did the marketing, as I think it would have attracted more lifelong comics fans in long-term partnerships themselves.

As it stands, though, the chronicles of the crew at the Peak are over, and if you want to get in on the action, I recommend you grab the TPB, No Time to Breathe,and check it out. If you were among the S.W.O.R.D. faithful all along, I can also recommend Gillen’s Beta Ray Bill: Godhunter,a more-cosmic Marvel story that still bears his signature dry wit and high-stakes action.

It’s a sad day for comics, though. Now all I’ve got to sustain me is the faint hope that either the undisclosed Brian Clevinger project, or the new undisclosed Brian Clevinger project hinted at a few days ago, turns out to be a Starjammers book. After all, Hepzibah is on the loose again…

Monday, Monday

It was all work and Korean BBQ this weekend here, and now the both of us must face the dark reality of, well more work for me and new work for Janice. To get the week started off right, here’s a fun little comic from Kieron Gillen and Andy Bloor called The Goldfish. It’s a cheerful little thing about rainbows and the eternal hope of mankind. Or not. It’s still pretty keen, so check it out. Kieron’s got a little bit about its inception at the other side of that link.

The Goldfish

Kieron, what is best in life?

Gillen confirms end of S.W.O.R.D.

The cover to S.W.O.R.D. #1, by John Cassaday and Laura Martin.

Beast and Brand bravely meet their fate.

Kieron Gillen confirmed the end of S.W.O.R.D. today in a post on his workblog. Issue #5 will conclude the series, and, in Gillen’s words, “collect into an agreeably intense little trade.”

While I love the book and am hoping for a comeback in the form of the occasional special or backup story in one of the X-books, I agree that S.W.O.R.D. faced an uphill battle in a tight market. Gillen notes that an X-book is expected to sell and sell well right out of the gate, and S.W.O.R.D.‘s sales numbers landed it firmly in the lower end of Marvel’s mid-list. Steven Sanders’ snout-endowed take on Hank McCoy provoked storms of fanboy derision from Marvel readers who weren’t willing to run with the redesign. An adventuring couple like Beast and Brand is, arguably, too much of a niche for a Big Two title (witness the repeated attempts to find a winning formula for Green Arrow and Black Canary over at DC, under Judd Winick and then Andrew Kreisberg).

Despite the bad news, Gillen encourages fans to continue to send notes of support to Marvel, on the theory that expressing your opinion of any title helps a publisher figure out what people want in the long run. S.W.O.R.D. is no longer being solicited past issue 5, so trying to preorder to boost the numbers is probably a lost cause– but it’s certainly not wasted effort to point out to Marvel that you liked a good rousing adventure romp.

I’m looking forward to more Agent Brand in Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D., but all this ruckus just reminds me that I’ve got to pick up the Captain Britain and MI-13 trades. It seems that whenever I make mine Marvel, Marvel turns around and makes mine irrelevant to their larger strategy.

Review: S.W.O.R.D. #3

“Lockheed & Load”

S.W.O.R.D. #3 cover by Cassaday and Martin.

S.W.O.R.D. #3 cover

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Penciler: Steven Sanders
Inker: Craig Yeung
Colorist: Matt WIlson
Letterer: Dave Lanphear
Cover by John Cassaday and Laura Martin

I admit it. I’m a big, fat, hopeless sucker for S.W.O.R.D. I’d be one even if I didn’t have regular back-and-forth with Steven Sanders on Twitter. I’d be one if I’d never met Kieron Gillen and found him to be the kind of creator who always has time to talk to a fan.

(There. Now I’ve done all my full disclosure up front.)

What’s not to like, really? It’s a Dark Reign spinoff book that largely ignores the earthbound aspects of that mega-crossover. Hank McCoy is honestly smitten with his green-haired beloved, Abigail Brand… who seems like she reciprocates the feeling, when she doesn’t have ten other action items on her agenda. Lockheed drinks, swears, roughs up Henry Peter Gyrich’s goons with great abandon, and makes dubious deals with the enigmatic UNIT, an alien artifact locked up in S.W.O.R.D.’s basement.

By the by, if you don’t like drinking, swearing dragons with personality disorders, it would be better for you if you just stopped reading now. Department H has nothing to interest you in that case.

Issue three brings us to the conclusion of Gyrich’s “Operation Grace,” an attempt to round up all of the aliens who work for S.W.O.R.D. and bring them under control. This is part of his larger agenda– the eventual deportation of all aliens on Earth– and it plays out, like most major events in the book, at lightning speed. Gillen recently described the book’s narrative style as “hyper-compression,” and it’s true. Expository dialogue is at a bare minimum, subtext is everything, and Sanders packs his scenes with painstaking technical detail (check out UNIT’s cell, complete to the wiring and life support). It’s a busy, breathless approach that still manages to remain accessible.

Speaking of UNIT, this issue begins to peel back the layers of mystery around everyone’s favorite sociopathic android super-genius– or, well, maybe it doesn’t. In three issues, Gillen’s set UNIT up as a reliably unreliable narrator; sure, he’s telling the truth as he sees it, but he’s not above omitting details, dropping broad hints, or just toying with the staff to his own ends. UNIT’s big discussion with Beast this issue begins with an origin sequence and ends in the opening moves of a chess match, which UNIT promises will end in “mate in 18.” Are we getting a hint about how many issues it will take for UNIT’s ultimate plan to unfold? I don’t know, but I’m half-tempted to keep a chessboard around for my own reference as the game progresses.

(Chad watched me play Dragon Age: Origins one night and drew comparison between UNIT and Shale, DA:O’s gleefully misanthropic golem. Kieron’s reply to a tweeted inquiry was “They’d certainly get on. They’re very personable.” Take from that what you will, comic geeks with RPG-fan leanings…)

On the Beast end of things, Sanders continues to render him in extravagantly snouty fashion, a decision that’s raised some fan hackles. I don’t share the hate; I think snouty!Beast works well for his role as S.W.O.R.D.’s resident holy fool. Hank’s renounced his ties to Scott’s X-Men and the new Utopian order and gone haring off after his girlfriend, armed with only his superior intellect and a tray of blueberry muffins. He’s comic relief and worldly wisdom in one adorable package. He’s throwing himself into Brand’s cause as much to remind her that there’s life outside of it as to support it, and I can’t argue with that depiction of their relationship. (Shit, they have a close relationship, and it shows no signs of being abruptly dissolved to suit editorial whim, which is more of a positive vibe than I get from most partnered Marvel heroes.)

One small editorial quibble, too: I know the issue title is “Lockheed & Load,” because it was on Marvel’s site when the solicitation came out… but it’s nowhere to be found in the actual issue. A bit puzzling, that.

Definitely a rollicking read, though, with Sanders’ art firming up (although Gyrich’s a little long in the face on page 3) and Gillen continuing to find high-adventuring romantic comedy in the current grim state of Marvel’s alien affairs. Plus, Lockheed spends most of the issue in full draconic John McClane mode, crawling through ductwork and creating mayhem in his wake. As I said, what’s not to like?