Sunday, November 30, 2008

Secret Invasion: X-Men #4

Secret Invasion: X-Men #4 (of 4)
Writer: Mike Carey
Artists: Cary Nord and Ma Sepulveda
Colourist: Dave McCaig
Letterer: Chris Eliopoulos
Editor: Nick Lowe

The power of the X-franchise isn't what it once was, but the X-Men are still big enough to enjoy exemption from the major crossovers that would otherwise clog up their storylines. The compromise, over the last couple of years, has been for the X-Men and other major titles to produce tie-in miniseries, such as Secret Invasion: X-Men.

But these days, Marvel tend to structure their crossovers so that the story is confined to the miniseries, and the event merely serves as a backdrop for the tie-in issues. This is all very laudable, since it allows them to say with some legitimacy that they aren't trying to force you to buy all the tie-ins. However, it also means that the likes of Secret Invasion: X-Men face a double-whammy - not only are they irrelevant to the ongoing X-Men series, they are also irrelevant to the crossover which provides their sole reason for existing. What is a writer to do?

"Blow things up" seems to be the prevailing wisdom. Last year's World War Hulk: X-Men saw the X-Men and their extended supporting cast fighting the Hulk for three issues, for no particularly good reason, in a gleefully pointless piece of pummelling. Since it had no pretensions to be anything else, it was actually quite fun in its way.

This year, Mike Carey and Cary Nord give us a full-scale Skrull invasion of San Francisco, and the X-Men, as the local superhero team, rising to fight them off. My inner nitpicker says this doesn't really make sense, as California is quite well stocked with superheroes these days. (Eternals is set in San Francisco too. If you were a Skrull, wouldn't you be rather more worried about the awesomely powerful god-guys and their giant deity in the park?) But let's grant the book its premise. It's the X-Men versus the Skrulls. Okay.

Mike Carey has, I suspect, rightly guessed that everyone else would do paranoia stories about shape-changing Skrull infiltrators. So he's gone in the other direction, ignoring that stuff entirely, and playing up the token religion angle.

Well, slightly. He plays it up in a subplot with Nightcrawler and a stolen bible, but mainly it's just the X-Men fighting little green men for three issues. Kurt's storyline plays no part in the final issue, which is more about drawing parallels between Cyclops and the Skrull leader.

And not in a very satisfying way, either. This issue has one of my least favourite endings: the cop-out ethical dilemma. Unable to stop the Skrulls any other way, Cyclops decides to resort to germ warfare, and infects the villains with the Legacy Virus (which, coincidentally, turns out to be already capable of bumping them off). I'll grant that this is set up with a rather clever device of the X-Men surrendering and then going "ha ha, got you."

What we then get, however, is Cyclops telling the Skrulls that if they stand down they can have the antidote... and the Skrulls killing themselves en masse anyway. Um... what?

This doesn't work at all. The fact that the X-Men had a cure all the time utterly neuters the supposed moral dilemma which was the focus of earlier scenes. It also leaves the Skrulls without a remotely adequate rationale for committing mass suicide. I can't help wondering whether this is a last minute rewrite, with the existence of the cure being added at the script stage in order to stop the X-Men looking like utter bastards. Take away those few lines of dialogue, and chuck in a bit more handwringing, and the art would serve just as well.

Whatever happened, it certainly reads like a clumsy compromise, which toys with the idea of the X-Men crossing a moral line in wartime, only to back away from it at the crucial moment.

These thematic problems overshadow what would have been a flawed finale anyway. A bunch of Skrull spaceships blow themselves up right over San Francisco. Um... maybe I'm missing something, but isn't that a really bad thing? Won't they, like, fall onto the city below and kill thousands? Apparently not, but nothing in the story sheds any light on why.

This is all rather disappointing. The series seems to be hitting all the right notes in earlier instalments, at least in terms of being a harmless action story with some mildly diverting ideas around the edges. The final chapter, though, is something of a misfire.

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