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!
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artists: Billy Tan, Clayton Henry
Issues: Uncanny X-Men (1963) #475-486
“We have to end this threat…he has to die. And X-Men don’t kill, so I guess we aren’t X-Men anymore. We’re what my brother turned us into.”
The X-Men return to space! Some of them anyway. In fact, the X-Men have been in and out of space for decades, ever since Chris Claremont first introduced the Phoenix Force and Shi’ar Empire back in the 80s. Having at least vague knowledge of the triangular-coifed Shi’ar would help immensely toward understanding the events of this book, as beloved comic writer Ed Brubaker takes over Uncanny X-Men beginning with this epic space adventure.
The massive twelve issue story arc, titled “Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire,” is actually a follow-up to Brubaker’s limited series story, X-Men: Deadly Genesis, which was by far the best story to emerge from the ashes of House of M and the Decimation of mutants on Earth. I won’t rehash it here since you can read my Final Thoughts on Deadly Genesis, but suffice to say it’s very much required reading to know what the hell is going on.
The end of Deadly Genesis had a very pissed off Vulcan, the third Summers brother that Professor X tried to use to save his original team, flying off into space to get his revenge on the man that had murdered his mother and made him into a child slave – Emperor D’ken of the Shi’ar Empire.
Having been frozen in space for quite some time, Vulcan isn’t quite up on his Shi’ar current events. D’ken is in a coma, and the Empire is ruled by the much kinder Lilandra, former lover and bride of Professor Charles Xavier. The seeds of discontent have grown for years, however, and Vulcan’s arrival in Shi’ar space sparks the growing dissidents to make their move and depose Lilandra.
The story arc is told in an awkward A-B style, with the X-Men’s journey into space taking up the brunt of the time, while every 3rd or 4th issue focuses on Vulcan’s personal journey to the Empire. Vulcan kills entire spaceships and commandeers another, but when the rebels of the Shi’ar send the Imperial Guard after him, it equals an insane battle that ends with Vulcan getting his eyeball punched out by Gladiator. After he’s imprisoned they engineer his own escape along with Lilandra and D’ken’s long-lost sister Deathbird, and the two fall in love over mutual love of hatred and destruction (I’m sure that’ll last).
Meanwhile the X-Men take their sweet time finding a spaceship, getting into space and creating their own stargates to travel. The new team that Xavier chooses includes Rachel Grey, Havok, Polaris, Nightcrawler, Warpath and Darwin. Darwin was introduced in Deadly Genesis as part of Vulcan’s team, and whose mutant power is what kept Vulcan alive all these years in space. He’s both guilt-ridden over his former friend and teammate and armed with a desire to help everyone even though he’s pretty green when it comes to combat. His ability to quickly adapt to any situation becomes quite invaluable, especially in as hostile environment as space, and I enjoyed his earnest and selfless demeanor.
Warpath is Brubaker’s attempt at bringing in an old character and making him relevant again, but he never quite worked for me. As the team’s brawler he comes off as a poor man’s Wolverine (armed with heightened senses and vibranium daggers). He’s full of rage and super aggressive in every situation, which mostly just comes off as immature and tiresome, especially with cooler heads like Nightcrawler around.
Brubaker excels at relationships; maybe not to the extent of Joss Whedon’s phenomenal writing of Kitty Pryde/Colossus and Emma Frost/Cyclops in Astonishing X-Men, but he does attempt to repair the relationship between Havok and Polaris (one of those cute ‘kiss me you fool’ scenes) as well as giving us a new love interest for Rachel Grey in the Shi’ar phoenix hunter Korvus.
Korvus is armed with a silly Final Fantasy-esque giant sword, and unleashed by the Shi’ar to hunt down Rachel Grey. From the events in previous story arc “The End of Greys,” Rachel was hunted by a Shi’ar death squad and though survived, was branded with a mystical tattoo, acting like a beacon for the Shi’ar in their constant attempt to eradicate all possibility of the deadly Phoenix Force’s return. Their battle ends with some typical mind-linkage that’s involved with engaging telepaths, and Korvus’ change of heart (in more ways than one) is a nice evolution and addition to the team.
The story is filled with crazy cool action sequences and Billy Tan’s art style excels at giant two-page spreads involving an orgy of character battles and explosions. I don’t quite want to call it the Michael Bay of comics as lots of folks hate on Bay, but I definitely felt like the art and action helped elevate the otherwise okay story-telling. Tan’s style doesn’t bother much with facial features or emotions, in fact most of the eyes in combat tend to be white or glowing and most of the emotions that are displayed are of the RAAARRGGGHHH style.
Despite lots of fun action sequences to keep the story hopping – the X-Men fighting Skrulls, Vulcan fighting the Imperial Guard, the X-Men teaming up with the Starjammers to assault a Shi’ar prison, Vulcan and Deathbird fighting off waves of Shi’ar – everything is building to a final showdown between the X-Men and Vulcan. Deathbird actually succeeds in quelling Vulcan’s adolescent and frankly lame and tiresome rage-induced revenge, and Vulcan is eventually convinced to repair D’ken’s mind and wake him up. D’ken responds by letting Vulcan and Deathbird wed and have them serve under him as Shi’ar’s returning mad emperor.
The climax involves the wedding and subsequent torture and death of Xavier, who was captured early on in the adventure (Darwin spends quite a bit of time sneaking in and mounting a rescue but it amounts to nothing as they’re both captured anyway). The X-Men, allied with Corsair (Papa Summers) and the Starjammers, attack in an enormously cool action setpiece that includes spaceships exploding in the background, lots of redshirt Shi’ars dying, and everyone getting their assess kicked.
Just when D’ken has the upper hand, Vulcan surprises no one and murders him (brutally, slowly cooking and melting his flesh). Corsair attempts to intervene when Vulcan is poised to do the same to Lilandra, and Vulcan murders him as well, causing Havok to go ape shit and the action starts getting even crazier as half the X-Men mount a rescue of Professor X and the rest take on Vulcan.
With the combined powers of Rachel Grey (able to manipulate telekinetic energy on a molecular level – hot damn she’s powerful), Polaris (powers restored and augmented by Apocalypse during the “Blood of Apocalypse” story), Havok and Korvus they’re finally able to subdue Vulcan and he’s forced to flee with Deathbird. At the epilogue he crowns himself emperor of the Shi’ar, and would go on to become a major player in future cosmic events, making Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire have less of an ending and more of a change in the status quo.
The other important fallout is that our team is separated. Lilandra programs their ship to take them back to Earth after they rescue Professor X, along with Warpath, Nightcrawler, Darwin and Starjammer cat-lady Hepzibah (and former lover of Corsair). Xavier gets his telepathic powers back thanks to exposure to the M’kraan crystal, but otherwise our heroes are left with a profound sense of loss and defeat. Those left in space join the Starjammers, effectively writing Havok, Polaris and Marvel Girl out of X-Men for awhile while they continue to hunt Vulcan, and Havok radios home with that rather badass message I quoted in the beginning.
Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire is a neat idea and a fun culmination of the seeds planted in Deadly Genesis. Putting a new X-Men team through some massive battles in space with super-powerful cosmic characters like the Starjammers and Imperial Guard are a ton of fun, and Billy Tan crafts some mind-blowing artwork. Individual character moments are used sparingly, and the whole story seems very unlike what I was used to seeing from Brubaker from his excellent work on Captain America (which is much more subdued and introspective).
The focus is always on the action, and it works because the action is so damn exhilarating. The climax is over-the-top and satisfying and I like that it separated the team in the end, but it’s a shame that the whole adventure is left without a real ending or resolution. Vulcan and the Starjammers would continue in X-Men: Emperor Vulcan and X-Men: Kingbreaker, and I believe Vulcan is also involved in the cosmic event War of Kings – all of which spill out over the next two years.
If you’re okay with turning off your brain and focusing more on the action, not unlike many Summer blockbuster movies, Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire can be a lot of fun – though I highly recommend reading X-Men: Deadly Genesis for some much-needed background on Vulcan and Darwin.