Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Uncanny X-Men: Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire

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!

rise and fall of the shi'ar empireWriter: 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).

uncanny x-men #475 team

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.

uncanny x-men #479

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.

uncanny x-men #484Despite 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.

uncanny x-men #476

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.

uncanny x-men #482

 

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – X-Men: Deadly Genesis

Thanks to 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 x-men deadly genesis 1

Artist: Trevor Hairsine

Issues: X-Men: Deadly Genesis #1-6

After the excellent character-focused treatment we got in Captain America: Winter Soldier I became a big fan of comic writer Ed Brubaker’s work. I’m pleased to report that his work on a special limited series starring the X-Men in the wake of the Decimation caused by the events of House of M is even better. Deadly Genesis is a bold semi-retconning exploration of the events of the original “Deadly Genesis” storyline published in 1975 that introduced most of the X-Men we know and love (Storm, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Colossus, etc) on a quest to save the original X-Men (Cyclops, Jean Grey, Beast, Angel, Iceman) from a powerful sentient island named Krakoa. The original story is analogous to The Transformers: The Movie in that it got rid of most of the old cast to make room for the new guys (unlike Transformers, it didn’t brutally kill everyone off, however).

This new Deadly Genesis boldly shakes that sacred story down to its core by exposing some previous unknown truths about how Cyclops managed to escape and form a new team. Before he and Xavier gathered new mutants from across the world, Xavier went to on-again off-again lover and scientist Moira McTaggert, who had her own training facility for young mutants set up. In an uncharacteristically but interesting move, Xavier pulls them out and uses his telepathy to instill months of training into the young mutants in a matter of days. They are Earth-powered Petra, time-manipulator Sway, the constantly evolving/adaptive Darwin and generic energy-wielding Vulcan. Oh, and Vulcan happens to be a long-lost third Summers brother!

The original comic from 1975; Deadly Genesis Issue 1's cover is a dark homage.
The original comic from 1975; Deadly Genesis Issue 1’s cover is a dark homage.

The team assaults the living island wielding their powers, and combined are still only able to rescue Cyclops. Scott escapes while the rest go back for the others, only to be killed in the process. Cyclops is terribly distraught and having just gained and lost a brother as well as knowing so many had died, and Xavier does another crazy uncharacteristic thing and mind-wipes him, allowing him to forget and believe the island itself was sentient.

All was well until Scarlet Witch gave us the No More Mutants world-state, and the sudden ripping apart of mutant powers caused Vulcan to reawaken and return to Earth (after having been thrown into space along with Krakoa at the end of the original “Deadly Genesis”). Turns out while the rest of the team died, Darwin bonded with Vulcan’s cells, allowing him to survive even in space. Vulcan returned to Earth super pissed off about being sent on a suicide mission, and wants revenge on Professer X and the X-Men.

While that whole tale is fascinating in a very retcon-y kind of way, it’s the way it’s told that makes it work so well. Emma notices the powerful mutant signature entering Earth’s atmosphere, and Wolverine, Cyclops and Rachel Grey are sent to investigate. They meet the god-like Vulcan who quickly kicks their asses and captures Scott and Rachel. Meanwhile the rest of the X-Men are seeing ghosts and nightmares around the mansion as a dark foreboding shrouds the mansion.

While Vulcan hints at a large conspiracy by Xavier (and uses Marvel Girl to dig around her mind for answers) Wolverine and Nightcrawler try to meet up with Banshee, who’s discovered Moira’s secret tapes on her team. Vulcan picks up the X-Jet and crashes it into Banshee’s plane, just as he gets out trying to save everyone inside. It’s a thrilling and brutal moment, and one that I unfortunately spoiled for myself as I read the first arc of X-Factor before this (where Cyke shows up to tell Banshee’s daughter Syren that he’d died).

The mystery plot builds up nicely over several issues as our heroes race to uncover the truth behind Vulcan and his ill-fated team, but it’s not until Charles Xavier shows up at the end that he spills the beans behind his greatest mistake. Since the events of House of M, Xavier is one of the many now de-powered mutants, and the reason the team had been unable to find him.

deadly genesis vulcan xavier

The X-Men attempt to fight Vulcan, but only after Marvel Girl senses Darwin still ‘inside’ him and rips him out do they weaken him enough to stand a chance. Even then, Xavier reveals the bloody truth about his birth – his mother was killed and himself ripped out of his mother’s womb while she was pregnant by the Shi’ar Emperor D’Ken, and the child was raised as a slave to the Shi’Ar Empire. Pro tip to all evil rulers – Kill all offspring of people you kill, otherwise they will always find a way to bit you in the ass.

Vulcan realizes that D’Ken is the far worse person in his horribly tragic life, and takes off through space (apparently he’s still powerful enough to fly in space) to begin the events of The Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire that take over the Uncanny X-Men line for several issues, and which I’m very excited to start.

Deadly Genesis could’ve easily turned into a hot mess with its huge events and bombs (a third Summer’s brother! Banshee dies! A team in between the original two! Xavier is kind of a fuck-up!) but thanks to Brubaker’s masterful writing always stays grounded on the mystery of those past events and the build-up to Vulcan’s identity. Despite given fairly generic ‘energy manipulation’ powers, Vulcan is an intriguing villain with tons of backstory. It’s also nice to see a vigorous nod to continuity and current events, as the Sentinel Squad of O*N*E are there to help (and hinder) the X-Men during the events.

Nearly every X-Men is given a scene or something to do, and somehow it feels cohesive instead of shoe-horned in. Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Beast, Emma Frost and Havok in particular are all directly affected by the events, but none more than Cyclops.This story may just be the final nail in the coffin in regards to his relationship to Xavier (whom he basically says Get the Fuck Out at the end) and cementing his own path as a hardened leader.

I also really loved Trevor Hairsine’s art – lots of shadows, sweat and blood while still maintaining a comic feel. Dare I say it’s been my favorite art style of most of the comics I’ve read so far. The art style, writing, and fact that I’m actually familiar with the original classic X-Men story helped make Deadly Genesis one of the best limited series arcs I’ve read yet.

deadly genesis 6

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Excalibur

Thanks to 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: Chris Claremont excalibur 1

Artists: Aaron Lopresti, Igor Kordey

Issues: Excalibur (2004-05) #1-14

2004 was a huge year for X-Men (and the original time period I attempted to jump back into comics). The X teams were split into three ongoing series (X-Men, Astonishing X-Men, and the decades running classic Uncanny X-Men), though technically Excalibur could be considered a fourth.

Excalibur (not to be confused with the British Marvel superhero team and series) ties directly into the aftermath of Morrison’s run on New X-Men in the early 2000s, which eventually culminated in the destruction of half of New York City by Magneto and the subsequent obliteration of Mutant city-haven Genosha by an army of sentinels. Jean Grey is killed (again) and Wolverine brutally murders Magneto.

All of this I read about on Wikipedia and heard from a comic-savvy friend, as I’m jumping on now with the glorious return of beloved X-Men writer Chris Claremont. Claremont is responsible for many of the best X-Men storylines in the 80s such as “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and “Days of Future Past.” He helped create many of the best mutant heroes and villains (Gambit, Rogue, Mystique, Emma Frost, etc) and developed Wolverine into the badass we know and love of him as.

So you can imagine my disappoint upon reading Excalibur and finding it to be a hot mess.

The story picks up with Professor Xavier poking through the post-apocalyptic ruins of Genosha looking for survivors and having lots of monologues. He meets some new friends (Wicked, Freakshow, Callisto) and some new foes (more random survivors that are more pissed off than relieved) but mostly it revolves around Magneto’s inexplicable return and friendship reunion with Xavier.

The first four issue story arc “Forging the Sword” starts off promising enough with our ragtag heroes, and I really enjoyed the dialogue between Xavier and Magneto, two of the most powerful mutants in the Marvel Universe, but both deeply troubled and conflicted men. Magneto especially is super mopey and depressed throughout most of it as a tortured man and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

excalibur teamI also enjoyed the new heroes for the most part. Freakshow was a young kid who could shapeshift into terrifying elder god-style monsters, while Gothy Wicked could tap into all the ghosts surrounding Genosha. Callisto was easily my favorite; the former leader of the Morlocks is completely badass with giant tentacle arms and a fun and confident fighting style with knives.

Unfortunately the overarching storyline never quite decides on what it wants to be. After the events of Avengers Disassembled when Scarlet Witch goes crazy and half the Avengers are slain, Magneto opens a rift (they spend a good deal of time talking about how Magneto’s powers may not have any upper limit) to rescue his unconscious daughter and bring her to Genosha to watch over. Marvel fans will know that the fallout from the attack and Scarlet Witch waking up eventually leads to the phenomenal Marvel event House of M (look for my Final Thoughts soon!), so the latter half of Excalibur acts as a prelude.

But that story is sidelined until the final two issues, and even then it’s mostly Xavier failing to help Scarlet Witch on a mental level (Dr. Strange even pays a house call at some point), and as any kind of intriguing set-up to House of M, it fails completely.

Excalibur’s own story gets terribly convoluted as well, involving a looting pirate lord and his band of four-armed trolls and at some point even some random villains from Age of Apocalypse (Dark Beast is a super fun character, though). They’re not terrible plot-lines and lead to some fun fight scenes (at one point Callisto’s arms are ‘turned off’ and she still kicks ass), but things soon get even messier.

The plot shifts to a nearby city in…Africa? And involves Angel and Husk? And there’s a terminator-style sentinel that Xavier and Magneto are able to transform into an ally at some point? There’s a lot going on and it gets a little crazy and soon you forget all about Genosha. In fact every issue has to have a scene or two that’s basically “Hey where’s Magneto,” as he builds a force-field around the sleeping Scarlet Witch.

As an entry into exploring the ruins of Genosha Excalibur starts off interesting but devolves quickly into a series of crazy characters and battles (then shifts focus away completely toward the end). As a prelude to House of M, Excalibur fails to do anything that you don’t already get from the first issue of that event. Really its only saving grace is in the writing of Xavier and Magneto, which is almost completely sidelined by the second half of the book.

Unless you’re desperate to know where Xavier is among all the various X-teams at the time, or absolutely need to know how Scarlet Witch goes from Avengers Disassembled to House of M, I would recommend skipping Excalibur altogether. I do hope Callisto finds a home somewhere else as I adored her character, writing and powers.

I don’t necessarily blame Claremont, as the series is wedged uncomfortably between major Marvel events and it’s very possible he was hamstrung with what he could do, and the individual character moments and fights are entertaining, but as a cohesive story it’s just too sloppy to be memorable.

excalibur magneto