With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.
Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!
Writers: Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker
Artists: Greg Land, Terry Dodson
Issues: Uncanny X-Men (1963) #500-511, Uncanny X-Men Annual #2, X-Men: Divided We Stand #1
The awesome, status-quo changing events in Messiah Complex destroyed the X-Mansion and shook the X-Men to their core in 2008. Marvel took the opportunity to breathe some new life into the mutants, moving them out West to San Francisco, a city known for its liberal policies and eclectic population.
Where the X-Men go, trouble always follows, and their initial time in California is anything from peaceful. The stories are a mixed bag of dumb and silly, but with some fun action scenes and effective usage of the ever-expanding cast. I wasn’t a big fan of Greg Land’s touched-up, supermodel-esque artwork for each character but the action is bright and vivid. Matt Fraction’s Complete Collection Volume 1 has some fun dialogue and tons of ongoing stories and little character moments, I just wished the major story arcs could’ve been elevated above silly comic book fare.
The X-Men’s move to San Francisco was handled in multiple limited series and one-shots, including Divided We Stand and a limited series called Manifest Destiny. The initial Matt Fraction-penned arc of their flagship series Uncanny X-Men, beginning with the landmark issue #500 is likewise called “Manifest Destiny” (#500-503).
In trying to make the 500th issue something special, Fraction completely screws up the character of Magneto, having him randomly attack and assault the X-Men in a public gathering in an ill-conceived throwback. Magneto is still de-powered but working with the High Evolutionary to first use a specialized suit, and then get his powers back – through science or something. It’s all pretty much bullshit, and both a bad start to a new arc and a terrible attempt at making a special 500th issue.
The rest of the arc follows a mutant hate group that targets mutants around the city, leading to former New X-Men Pixie being brutally beaten on the streets. Thankfully we avoid the damsel’d trope. In fact Pixie gets a chance to be the big hero in the end as we discover the ex-New X-Men Empath behind the attacks. Turns out he’s only working for a bigger bad – Madeline Pryor, clone of Jean Grey, ex-wife of Cyclops, and mother of Cable. Pryor hadn’t been seen since the 90s and with good reason, as her very existence further complicates the muddy, continuity-destroying past of the X-Men.
The Empath-led Hellfire Cult segues right into Madeline Pryor’s new Sisterhood of Mutants (a play on Magneto’s Brotherhood) in “Lovelorn” (#504-507). Pryor, now going by Red Queen, screws with former lover Cyclops’ head. There’s several interesting Emma Frost vs Madeline Pryor moments as both powerful telepaths go (literally) head-to-head. For her squad Pryor recruits Chimera, Lady Deathstrike, Spiral, and the Mastermind sisters. I’m not sure how Lady Mastermind and Deathstrike survived the events of Messiah Complex when Wolverine and X-23 brutally stabbed them after their respective melees.
Meanwhile there’s lots of little stories happening to various X-Men around the city, and it’s here that Fraction’s style really shines. Colossus ends up working for an evil tattooed man from his past and rescuing a bunch of Russian refugees, and I liked that he’s still mourning the loss of Kitty Pryde from Astonishing X-Men. Cyclops and Frost argue about everything, including the future of mutantkind, what the X-Men can do in SF, and if Cable will ever return with the first mutant born since M-Day.
The biggest side story stars Beast and Angel in a psuedo-sequel to Endangered Species. Beast was one of the few people actively trying to solve the mutant crisis, and now with the first mutant birth he renews his research by targeting a new group of scientists, including a biologist, machinist, and chemist. I really enjoyed these side stories even more than the main plots, and there’s always a lot going on in every issue.
In “Sisterhood” (#508-511) Pryor’s team launches a direct assault on the X-Men’s new military-esque base. There’s a lot of fun fight scenes and moments, but things get silly again as one of Pryor’s tasks is to separate the consciousness of captured X-Man Psylocke into a dead body. Or something.
I’m not sure why Fraction specifically chooses the more convoluted and bad X-Men plot threads to expound upon. Eventually the X-Men are able to free Psylocke, or something, and she rejoins the group. They also recruit Northstar from Canada to gain a speedster, and now I worry that this already big cast (Cyclops, Emma Frost, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Storm, Wolverine, Beast, Armor, Iceman, Pixie, Nezhno, Cannonball, Karma, all of X-Force, etc) is just bulging at the seams.
The finale is suitably goofy given the buildup of the plot – Pryor stole a lock of Jean’s hair, locates her buried body in the remains of X-Mansion, and attempts to posses her body. Cyke anticipated this (because that’s a perfectly normal thing to them, I’m sure) and had the bodies switched, leaving Pryor screaming as she attempts to posses an unworthy vessel, and disappearing. So was she a ghost? I don’t know and I stopped caring several issues ago.
Two more issues are included in the Complete Collection. The second Uncanny X-Men Annual issue is a mostly unnecessary story of Emma Frost recruiting Namor for the X-Men. It shows off her crafty manipulations, as well as some sexy chemistry between the two, but it mostly takes place in the past.
The Divided We Stand one-shot is a collection of five stories that mostly explain where certain characters are (Cannonball, Nezhno, Anole, Hellion, Nightcrawler) following the events of Messiah Complex. Anole’s is heartbreaking and poignant as he tries to adjust to being back in the real world after the whirlwind of insanity that came with being a New X-Men, while the rest are pretty dumb and pointless.
There’s a lot to like with Fraction’s take on the X-Men, and their big move and updated character roster refreshingly shakes up a lot of their events and situations. The individual character moments are a lot of fun, with lots of respect to previous continuity, but I still rolled my eyes at Greg Land’s supermodel version of all my favorite characters. Empath as a vengeful villain was fine, but Madeline Pryor’s whole plot was super dumb, even if it led to some entertaining action scenes. Matt Fraction’s Complete Collection Vol. 1 is fine for X-Men fans, but there are definitely better stories (and art) to be found.