Monday, January 26, 2009

Uncanny X-Men Annual #2

"White Queen, Dark Reign"

Writer: Matt Fraction
Artists: Mitch Breitweiser and Daniel Acuna
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Colourists: Elizabeth Dismang Breitweiser and Daniel Acuna
Editor: Nick Lowe

By including Emma Frost in Norman Osborn's inner circle, "Dark Reign" has taken the X-Men in an unaccustomed direction: they're participating in a line-wide crossover. And the X-Men don't normally do that. They're above that sort of thing. But sales aren't what they were, so apparently it's time to take a deep breath and interact with those other comics for a change.

At first glance, putting Emma in a cabal of villains seems a questionable move, and a tiresome piece of backsliding. But if you accept Brian Bendis' take on Norman Osborn, it makes a little more sense. Osborn doesn't necessarily see these people as villains, so much as characters who might be sympathetic to playing along with him. Three of them - Emma, Namor and Dr Doom - would tend to see themselves as wronged antiheroes. They're more ethically-challenged than outright malicious.

Taking this unlikely collection of characters as his springboard, Matt Fraction uses this annual to set up a previously unmentioned history between Emma and Namor, the two most sympathetic members of the group. More importantly, it also gives him the opportunity to tinker with Emma's back-story and re-cast her Hellfire Club days in a more sympathetic light.

Much of the story is a flashback, with Sebastian Shaw trying to recruit Namor as the Hellfire Club's White King, for no particular reason other than that he's terribly impressive. Emma, naturally, is packed off to seduce him.

The story takes quite a few liberties with history. In an apparent attempt to downplay her time as a villain, Emma is shown as a sidekick rather than a co-leader, subservient to Shaw. She's a dancer who made it big - something that was foreshadowed in the short-lived Emma Frost series - and she's naively convinced that the Club is about building a power base for mutants to protect themselves. As for Shaw, despite his protests about wanting to conquer the world, he's a rather pathetic figure, obsessed with appearances - actually a fair take on a character who insists on dressing like a Regency fopp, and it's surprising nobody's gone that way before.

In Emma's earliest appearances, she was also running a school and a multinational business, but none of that's mentioned here; it doesn't really fit the relationship that Fraction's trying to set up. There was a time this sort of thing would have got on my nerves, but it's a fun take on Emma - and if you like, you can always argue that these are Emma's flashbacks, and her take on things might be a little skewed in her favour. I don't greatly mind if this fits neatly with what came before; Fraction's characters are entertaining company.

Now, granted, there's one really enormous continuity error. The flashback is set before the Dark Phoenix Saga, and yet the Inner Circle includes Selene, who didn't join until years later. At this point in continuity, she should be sitting around twiddling her thumbs in Nova Roma, waiting for the New Mutants to show up so that she can debut. This doesn't seem to be a piece of artistic licence - by all appearances, it's just a huge cock-up. I suspect somebody got her confused with Sage, who looks a bit similar if you squint, and does appear in some early Hellfire Club stories. Unfortunately, Selene's involvement is essential to the plot, which is a slight annoyance.

Never mind, though. It's a refreshing take on Emma and Namor which builds a convincing relationship from scratch. And it's got beautiful, graceful art from both Mitch Breitwerser in the framing sequence, and Daniel Acuna in flashback. A lot of artists struggle with Atlantis - underwater is hard to draw - but Acuna pulls it off brilliantly. As for Breitweiser, he deserves a lot of the credit for making a retconned rapport between two unrelated characters seem natural and unforced.

Continuity purists will come out in hives with this issue, but the rest of us will have a great time.

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