Just for the sake of doing something different (y’know, like me reviewing more than one book a week), I thought I’d take advantage of the fact that four books with X’s in their titles all shipped together this week: the two core books, New X-Men (which I’ll review a bit later) and Uncanny X-Men, plus spin-off titles X-Treme X-Men (proud owner of the worst title in comics today, possibly of all time) and Weapon X. If you’re a card-carrying hater of the X-Franchise, you’re out of luck this week: that’s all I’ve got for you. But you’ve got to play the hand Diamond deals you and this week, they didn’t deal much other than X-titles.
So, for the record and the sake of full disclosure: going in, I expect to a) dislike X-Treme and b) be pleasantly surprised by Uncanny and Weapon X. We’ll see how that turns out. Probably about like I expect it to… Furthermore, every book in the lot except X-Treme is the beginning of a new story arc, so they’ve got some semblance of accessibility going for them, at the very least.
I’ve never once, in this book’s year and a half of publication, even flipped through an issue. And that says something, because I work six days a week in a comic book store. What that says is that the name “Tieri” on the cover puts me off so much that I’d rather stare out the window (and our store does not have a view, let’s say that right now) or read something that I’ve already read than even give this book a chance. My past experiences with Frank Tieri books have been that bad. However, Chuck Austen’s track record is even worse than Tieri’s on X-titles, so when I was looking for a fourth X-book this week, my options were either this or Exiles. Figuring that one Chuck Austen book per week has got to be the limit for anyone other than a complete fanatic, I gritted my teeth and went with Weapon X.
And you know what? It’s not really that bad.
Lord knows I’m not saying it’s good either, but it isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be (it couldn’t be as bad as I thought it was going to be, frankly). The fact is that this book reminds of nothing so much as it does a mid-90s X-Men title. And it is what it is.
Weapon X, the shadowy international conspiracy that created Wolverine (amongst others; it seems like there was a period in the X-books where you couldn’t sneeze without hitting another fugitive from The Program) through a process of inhumane experiments, has received a new lease on life. Now funded by the federal government, The Program is tasked with researching strategic uses for mutants. To that end, a team of former fugitive carriers of the X-gene has been assembled by The Director, the cleverly named longtime administrator of the Weapon X program. However, as the intro page tells us, the reins have been pried from The Director’s hands, as part of “an elaborate coup,” leaving his second-in-command, Agent Brent Jackson, in charge.
Jackson’s first move as acting director is to recruit Jono Starsmore, the former X-Man known as Chamber, wooing him to Weapon X with a device of some sort that inhibits the facial disfigurement of his mutant abilities, as well as with cosmetic surgery to correct past injuries and a free ticket out of the jail cell he was left in. Leading Starsmore on the grand tour of the Weapon X facility, he explains that the days of darkly lit corridors and shadowy doings are a thing of the past: according to Jackson, The Program is entirely on the up and up, working for the good of society, an organization not unlike the FBI or CIA. They simply use mutants to do their dirty work, that’s all.
However, it seems that the leopard has not entirely changed its spots. Jackson is not above intentionally irritating Starsmore, for no reason other than to provoke a violent reaction. More sinister, however, is his true motive, revealed at the issue’s conclusion: he wants Starsmore to become a full-fledged member of Weapon X and, to prove his loyalty, tasks Chamber with the murder of John Sublime (a mutant “parts dealer” last seen in Morrison’s New X-Men).
Sounds OK, right? Again, it doesn’t sound particularly outstanding; just OK.
Well, there are problems.
First off, the dialogue is just lousy; it’s the thing about this book that reminds me the most of the ’90s. Every character, it seems, feels the need to constantly engage in bullshit alpha male posturing (and that includes the female characters, inexplicably). Even ignoring that, as it is sort of a cliché of the superhero genre, Tieri’s script still isn’t particularly good. The scene where Chamber awakens at Weapon X is flat-out awful, complete with a nightmare about his powers going unchecked and classic lines like “Been having those ever since that fateful day… the day my life changed forever and Chamber was born.” As I’ve said before, if there’s one trend in the comics industry I’ve been happy with, it’s the death of plot exposition masquerading as dialogue. Frank Tieri, it seems, is doing his damnedest to keep it alive and well.
Secondly (and I know this is a nitpicky complaint), the cover just irritates me. If you’re going to have Wolverine on the cover looking like he’s been through a war-zone, he should do more in the issue that just show up on the last panel of the last page (which is what he does here). Again, it’s just like the ’90s: if you need to spike sales for an issue, put Wolverine on the cover, even if he’s barely in the issue at all.
Third, Tieri expects me to believe that a Brit knows how to brush his teeth, much less floss them? I’ll accept a world where mutants exist, I’ll accept a world that hates and fears them, but a world where the British understand and practice good dental hygiene is simply too much for me to bear. C’mon, man…
All disrespect to the British aside (and it’s in good fun, so no hate mail from the United Kingdom, please), the issue’s not a complete wash. I’ve never heard of Jeff Johnson (or if I have, I’ve forgotten it), but he’s a fairly solid find for Marvel if he’s new. His art is pretty slick, frankly, easy to follow and pretty much what you’d expect from an X-Men book. If there’s any complaint to be made in the art department, it’s that Johnson has an annoying tendency to use extreme close-up panels in his talking-head sequences for no apparent reason. And Tieri’s story, to be fair, isn’t the worst I’ve ever read. It’s not original, by anyone’s standards, but I will say that Weapon X does fill a niche that was previously unfilled in the X-line (the sort of anti-establishment mutant team that X-Force served as in the ’90s). Not a heaping hell of a lot happens over the course of 22 pages, but at the same time, the book doesn’t seem to be going out of its way to insult your intelligence like other Tieri stories I’ve read. It’s simply middle-of-the-road kind of fare and, as such, it gets a middle-of-the-road kind of rating.
OK, listen: I seriously can’t be bothered to devote a full-length review to this book. And you wouldn’t want to read it if I did, because it would be either very hateful or very boring. Or both.
I’ll start with the plot, such as it is: Storm has been enslaved by Masque (whom I seem to remember as an ugly hunchback in a dirty robe, but is now a blonde woman in tight clothes) and forced to fight in a series of global gladiatorial bouts known simply as the Arena. Paired off with her long-time rival Callisto (who, I’m fairly certain, had actual arms the last time she appeared in an X-Men book; now she has tentacles growing out of her shoulders and I don’t know why), Storm racks up an impressive win record, becoming a favorite of the crowds that flock to the illegal bouts. Beaten into “submission” by Masque’s S&M goon-squad, Storm bides her time and waits for someone to spring her from servitude. Meanwhile, Yukio, Storm’s best friend, plots with Guido (yep, they brought back Strong Guy; God help us all), leader of a group of escaped combatants from the Arena, to overthrow Masque’s control of the violent underworld. And of course they do.
Why is Storm in the Arena? How did she get there? Where is the rest of the team?
I. Don’t. Know.
So here are the facts of this issue, as I see them:
Chris Claremont still can’t write. His flair for the overly dramatic remains in full effect and his characters still inexplicably spout mouthfuls of dialogue during what is ostensibly the heat of battle.
Igor Kordey still can’t draw. The Quesada / Jemas era of Marvel was accused pretty regularly of favoritism and a good case can be made based on the continued employment of Chuck Austen, Frank Tieri and Ron Zimmerman. But let’s be perfectly honest here: Igor Kordey’s continued assignment to high-profile gigs has got to be the most damning evidence that the House of Ideas is a good old boys’ club, because he simply cannot draw worth a damn. His work on X-Treme X-Men isn’t as painfully ugly as the butchery he churned out on New X-Men, but it’s not good by any stretch of the imagination.
The most unfathomable sin, however, has got to be the complete lack of a summary page on this book. It’s simply counterintuitive. If there is one book in all the world that could always benefit from a plot summary page, it’s any book Chris Claremont is writing. Seriously, how do you come to the conclusion that a title penned by a man famed mostly for his overly complicated plots does NOT warrant at least an explanatory paragraph or two for new readers, particularly in light of the fact that other, more clearly written, books do have them?
So anyway, let’s all pretend that we’re shocked that X-Treme X-Men is a masturbatory exercise for Chris Claremont, a conciliatory pat on the back from Marvel, a book solely for the brainwashed masses of X-Men fans and move along, shall we?
I feel dumber for having read this and am continually saddened that a once-great, undeniably influential writer has reduced himself to producing this sad sack of nothing, a book that reads like nothing so much as bad fan fiction.
Well, here he is. Chuck Austen, Destroyer of Worlds and Eater of Babies, if the Internet message boards are to be believed. To be honest, I didn’t think his early issues on Uncanny were all that bad. They were throwaway, to be sure, but I thought they captured the soap opera subplots that Claremont made famous and mixed them in with liberal amounts of superhero fisticuffs. I thought the end result was thoroughly readable, a definite improvement over the whiny crap that Joe Casey had been delivering prior to Austen’s arrival on the book, and I reviewed it well for several months. I honestly felt that Austen had it in him to put together a quality run on the book.
And he promptly made a liar out of me.
His run has certainly been memorable since then, but only for the previously unimagined depths of mediocrity the book has sunk to under his stewardship. I’m not going to rehash all the poorly thought out stories he’s slapped together (because, frankly, at least half of the blame for those should be laid at the feet of Marvel’s editorial staff, who apparently do absolutely nothing to earn their paychecks); more articulate mouths than mine have beaten that horse to death. And then beat it some more.
Instead, I’ll do something that most other reviews don’t do: I’ll offer a point of defense for Austen. Because I genuinely think that part of the reason his recent run has been so poorly received has been because of the art on Uncanny.
Now, I’m not saying that the stories haven’t been bad. Doing so would be folly, because they’re undeniably awful (don’t believe me? Then by all means, visit Paul O’Brien’s excellent site, for a better analysis).
But let’s look at it this way: Kia Asamiya was clearly ill-suited to Uncanny X-Men. The man is a legend in his field, but let’s face the facts: his field is manga, not X-Men comics. There’s nothing wrong with his art, per se (other than his unsettling tendency to draw people with only having one eye); it just didn’t fit the bill for the kinds of stories that Austen is telling here (i.e., crappy ones), nor was it ever going to be accepted by the vast majority of those still reading the book. Phillip Tan, on the other hand, was just a disaster. His work is similar to Asamiya’s in the sense that he’s clearly a manga-style artist, but that’s as far as any comparison can go. He is apparently possessed of all the knowledge of human anatomy of a toddler with his first box of crayons. As such, any story he touches is going to come off as even worse than it already is. So he and Austen’s recent stories (like the now-infamous Draco storyline) were made for each like a ten-car pile-up and a lonely stretch of road.
My point here being that you aren’t doing Austen any favors by uniting his memorably awful stories with lousy art in some sort of unholy marriage of mediocrity. I mean, Hush wasn’t exactly Watchmen, but it sold like no one’s business and few readers noticed how thoroughly average it was because they were all too busy drooling over Jim Lee’s artwork. That’s the same sort of thing Marvel should be doing with Uncanny. If they absolutely insist on shoving Austen down the throat of their readers, the least they could do is pair him up with an above-average artist. I mean, for God’s sake, at least one member of every book’s creative team should be competent at his craft…
In this issue, another member of the Guthrie clan (the same family that Paige and Sam Guthrie, both X-Men, sprung from) endures the mistreatment that all mutants in the Marvel Universe can grow to expect during adolescence. Instead of dealing with it in the classically pacifistic Xavier manner, Jeb (that’s right, Jeb) Guthrie schemes to lure his antagonists (a rival family, the Cabots) into attacking him in public by taunting them, giving him just cause to use his powers (some sort of electricity that shoots from his eyes) in self-defense. Of course, his plan backfires.
Returning home to Kentucky with her on-again, off-again love interest Warren Worthington (Archangel), Paige Guthrie finds her family in a state of unrest. Jeb’s encounter with the law looks more and more likely to result in his arrest. Meanwhile, her other brother Josh, a mutant whose powers manifest in the form of brightly-feathered wings and an angelic voice, spends his evenings serenading customers at a local restaurant, where a Romeo and Juliet affair appears to be brewing between Josh and a girl from the Cabot family. Set against the backdrop of Paige’s continuing melodramatic relationship with Warren, Austen plays the classic X-Men angst to the hilt.
The difference in this issue is that a solid artist, Salvador Larroca, backs Austen up this time around. And that, combined with the fact that this arc’s plotline, so far, doesn’t have any glaringly obvious holes in it, Austen is on his way to a solid ending for his run (Chris Claremont and Alan Davis are scheduled to take control of the book sometime this spring). I’m not always impressed by the facial expressions on Larroca’s characters, as they sometimes seem a bit wooden. But the fact remains that at least the characters, under Larroca, have distinguishable expressions, which is more than can be said for them previously. In any case, there are several occasions where Larroca really shines (several one and two-page splash pages come to mind immediately), and overall he’s a good storyteller in both the action sequences and talking head bits, so that’s certainly to be appreciated.
Austen, to his credit, doesn’t overdo the teen angst too badly. My adolescence was relatively well-adjusted (that is to say that I was popular in high school and never picked on in junior high) and I don’t live in a world that hates and fears me (well, not the whole world, at any rate), so I can’t really vouch for the accuracy of his angry mutant teenager bits. But I do remember what pining after someone who wasn’t interested in you felt like and those portions of the issue seem to ring fairly true, if a bit too Dawson’s Creek to be entirely true-to-life.
In the final analysis, Austen’s run on Uncanny X-Men, as a whole, has been pretty awful. Without a doubt, his “communion wafer conspiracy” and Draco arcs were everything short of a crime against humanity. And the thing with the mutant werewolves, that was pretty damned bad as well. But the last three issues (this one and the two part “Trial of Juggernaut”) have shown some signs of improvement. They’re not great, by any means, but they’re not complete garbage either (like the ten or twelve issues preceding them). If Austen’s entire run had been like this (or if he’d just stayed the course after his initial arc), fandom would look back on it as a thoroughly average, utterly readable stint. As it stands though, it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than another relatively decent arc like this one to redeem Austen in the eyes of X-Men fans (arguably the most rabidly nitpicky in all of comics). And one arc is about all he has left.