Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review: Uncanny X-Men #544, The Final Issue

The Uncanny X-Men are Dead. Long Live the Uncanny X-Men.

Yesterday the "final" issue of Uncanny X-Men, #544, was released. Written by Kieron Gillen and penciled by Greg Land, this issue marks the fallout of Schism and sees the final division between the two new X-teams, to be followed by Uncanny X-Men starting with a #1 in November.

For all intents and purposes, this renumbering is merely a way to delineate the new era for the X-Men, split in half by ideology and purpose and operating on opposite coasts of the United States. While it was billed as the equivalent of a Series Finale, in truth it was just a one-shot concerned with the characters in the wake of their great divide. And since Gillen already wrote that comic with the X-Men: Regenesis One-Shot, it was more like an epilogue to a story we've pretty much had concluded three times now.

Which isn't to say that there is a limit to the amount of character-centric stories about the X-Men that I want to read. Gillen has written an eloquent coda to his brief term tying up the loose ends of Matt Fraction's recent run, mixing the old and the new, showing us which characters he has a handle on and which feel less fully formed, and setting the stage for his new, extreme, international vision for the title.

The first page had a lovely nostalgic touch, presenting us with art from X-Men #1, the debut of the team, with the narration and dialogue rewritten by Gillen to show not only the new state of affairs but just how far each of the original team have grown beyond their origins. A classy, touching way to do what is usually a "Previously..." page entirely in prose.

Immediately after we are shown who the true narrator of the issue is; Nathanial Essex, aka Mr. Sinister, in the process of cloning and refining his mind and body (he was killed by Mystique back in Messiah Complex, who forced contact between him and baby Hope Summers) while reviewing the entire history of the X-Men, whom he later ominously calls an "experimental data set."

Sinister as a distant, omniscient Point of View character was a perfect choice, and not only because it sets up the first arc of Gillen's Uncanny relaunch. As one of the great X-Men villains, Sinister is cold, shrewd and scientific, completely unaffected by the moral quagmire and philosophical debate engulfing the team at present. He can give us the relevant plot developments and speak to the depths of certain characters by correctly predicting their actions. He quite literally writes the book on the X-Men, and while the issue pulls off the nostalgia that such events require, Sinister's narration gives us a chilling tone. To him, our heroes are completely predictable, and what is even more disturbing, they are possibly just the result of unknown influences and experiments perpetrated by Sinister himself throughout their whole lives.

Gillen chooses to show us the meaty, emotional part of the X-Men breaking up through a single personal relationship, but not between the two opposing leaders Wolverine and Cyclops. Instead we get Cyclops and Bobby Drake, Iceman, founding X-Man and perpetual kid in grown up snow boots.

This choice was inspired. Bobby is not a member of the team I ever found profoundly interesting or dynamic, and few writers used him with great success. But Gillen recognized his place in the history of this dynamic species (Bobby refers to himself, Cyclops, and the other founders as "The Beatles") and used it to show just how much they've grown apart.

Bobby is the last X-Man to leave the island and join Wolverine at the site of the new school in Westchester. He uses a training routine in the Danger Room as an excuse, but in truth, despite believing in the change, he feels the expected guilt of a good man leaving one of his oldest friends. Bobby is untiring in his optimism, and refuses, despite Scott's repeated rebuffs and continued coldness, to attempt a new mature relationship with his friend. Instead he sticks to the jokes that he has cracked for decades, through thick and thin, probably knowing better than to expect a response, but most likely as his own way of telling Scott he still loves him, he's still his friend, and he always will be, no matter what war and death and division do to them.

Scott's reaction, or lack thereof, is actually one of the things I dislike about the issue. Cyclops as General, President, Dictator, Leader of Utopia, &c. is well covered ground. Yes, he carries a large burden. Yes, he seems to think the survival of his species depends on him alone, training soldiers, making his "hard decisions", spinning their PR and living on an island nation removed from human civilization. He is a character that could be shown with so much pain and hope and ambition and, at the moment, loss. But I fear Gillen was too subtle in this, and Scott ends up coming off as the embodiment of what anti-Cyclops fans believe; a boring, stiff bastard.

If I may make one suggestion for the humanizing of Scott's character, even if that isn't the direction Marvel wants to go: Change his costume again. It's a big factor for Cyclops that we can never see his eyes, and undoubtedly a relief to those artists not skilled in facial expression. This only makes him more distant, again acceptable if that's what they want Cyclops to be. But please oh please, cut off the top of his skullcap and let us see his hair! Scott "Slim" Summers is your clean cut average American orphan with uncontrollably destructive mutant powers, and a great head of brown hair that Jean Grey used to run her fingers through. Right now he walks around in a full body stocking, either to intimidate enemies and subordinates, satisfy some unknown Emma Frost fetish, or to hide a rapidly receding hairline. Either way, it takes me out of the comic when half of the panels are a close-up of his face and the only flesh we see is a stubborn jawline with a five o'clock shadow.

His interaction with the few other X-Men he encounters in the issue only enhances the dearth of endearing qualities in our protagonist. He compliments Bobby's skills but executes any attempts at nostalgia or connection. He monosyllabically responds to Hope saluting him and yelling "Sir!" (which I genuinely hope was sarcastic, since I don't recall them being so entirely on the same page.) He declares his superior maturity over Hank/Beast by announcing that no one would be alive without the hard decisions he's made. (That's another problem I have with Gillen's character work. In this and X-Men Regenesis, he writes Beast as a silly, bitchy, snarky, vindictive, pretentious and self-righteous teenager, when he could be a brilliant, noble, mature adult who is in a relationship and an Avenger. It's almost as if Gillen is going back to Morrison's idea that Hank is actually a gay drama queen.) And finally, when Scott is alone in a room after taking down all the "family" photos he once cherished, he speaks with Emma, his lover and partner, the character we're supposed to believe he connects to most deeply and often off-panel. She basically asks point blank about his feelings (though I recall her having a residency in his head before now) and he tells her "I'm not a machine, Emma. I feel anger. I feel sadness. I feel doubt. But mostly? Closure."

How achingly simple and on the nose. He is capable of human emotion, how astonishing. I get the point of it; Gillen, after walking through the past and present, injects that previously missing humanity, and sums everything up on the final page as a sense of "Graduation," bringing us to the imminent future. But there could have been so much more! He could have talked to his closest confidant with passion, he could have revealed some random thought or memory that kept bubbling up, some specific doubt that he harbors. But no, we just get stuck with a two dimensional action star when we could have the most conflicted visionary hero in comics.

This comic reads quickly, like most comics these days, and I can't help but compare it to my dear friend Chris Claremont's X-work; the definitive era of Uncanny and the source of the majority of images in the center-book double-page spread of X-History (which quite honestly is stunning, and I want a poster of, and Greg Land is a beautiful, beautiful comic book artist):

Claremont had the same page count, but he could make you sit with an issue for ten minutes. He managed to dig through the thought processes of several characters in a single issue, present conflict and action, domesticity and grief, joy and reconciliation, all in 20 pages. In the past decade comic styles have run towards an economy of language and a maximum of drama, bright colors and action. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of those things, but first and foremost I'm a reader, and when you have a cast like the X-Men to play with, and Scott Summers as your main character, give me some lines and insight and dialogue to sink my teeth into.

Uncanny X-Men #544, The Final Issue, was a very good comic. It was gorgeous, lightly sentimental, fastidious, and refined. But it could have been so much more.


  1. I hope Cyclops keeps his classic design.


    The five o'clock shadow can go take a hike though.

  2. just now read it. an interesting read. i still like cyc. people forget he's had a hard life. not everyone is cheerful 24/7.