Sunday, March 22, 2009

Uncanny X-Men #504-507

Writer: Matt Fraction
Penciller: Terry Dodson
Inker: Rachel Dodson
Colourist: Justin Ponsor
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Editor: Nick Lowe

Matt Fraction's Uncanny X-Men has been getting mixed reviews, with murmurings about a lack of direction and focus, not least from me. Re-reading all four issues of "Lovelorn" together, though, I think perhaps I've been too harsh.

This isn't to say that the book suddenly stands revealed as another Iron Fist or Casanova. But reading the book in collection-sized chunks, the bigger picture is easier to see.

"Lovelorn" is a four-parter, with two main stories. In one, Colossus gets over his depression after meeting and beating a Russian gangster from his past. In the other, the Beast recruits an unlikely bunch of mad scientist characters to form an "X Club" who will try to save the mutant race. (To complicate matters, there's also the 2009 Annual, which takes place between parts 2 and 3. It's not part of either strand, but you really need to read it in sequence to put Emma's behaviour in context, so one trusts it'll be in the collection.)

Both of these plot threads have the right idea: they're addressing outstanding points that need dealt with. It's way past time the X-Men took some meaningful steps to reverse M-Day; and Colossus needs some sort of resolution for losing Kitty Pryde at the end of Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men.

The Colossus story is weaker. It suffers from using a new bad guy who isn't particularly well defined, and comes across as a generic Russian gangster with a gimmicky power. In fact, the most interesting part of this thread is Emma's involvement; she's not a character who normally hangs out with Colossus, but the subtext here is presumably that she's hanging out with the purest X-Man around in order to balance out her involvement in Dark Reign.

Four issues, though, isn't really enough to bring in a completely new villain from Peter's past and make us care about his defeat. This is one of the problems with continuity: although you can insert events into a character's past, it's rather difficult to convince us that they were important events when nobody's mentioned them before. In Peter's case, though, I think it's a bad idea anyway. A key feature of Peter's character is that his pre-X-Men life was, relatively speaking, pastoral bliss as a simple farmer. He really shouldn't have previous experience of shadowy government figures or superpowered mobsters, because it undermines his status as a comparative innocent. His back story is uneventful, to be sure, but that's a strength.

The X-Club story is more successful. Beast and Angel tour the Marvel Universe picking up the most unlikely mad scientists imaginable: obscure Golden Age hero Dr Nemesis, Madison Jeffries from Alpha Flight and Weapon X, and Yuriko Takiguchi from the shortlived late seventies Godzilla series. At last, the X-Men are actually doing something about the problem they've been whining about for the last three years; but more to the point, Fraction is taking the opportunity to broaden their horizons and reach out to the wider Marvel Universe to inject some much-needed silliness. It's fortunate that this arc was drawn by Terry Dodson, who has the lightness of touch for this stuff. (Oh, and yes, there really was a Darwinian group called the X-Club - though judging from the Wikipedia article, Darwin himself wasn't actually a member. Still, too good a coincidence to pass up, isn't it?)

So: we've got two stories here that hang together perfectly well. Why are people grumbling about focus? Because there's almost no follow-up from the previous arc. And that's especially strange when you remember that issue #503 ended with Scott discovering that his first wife wasn't dead. It's the sort of thing you'd expect to come up in conversation, if nothing else, and sidelining it for four months doesn't really work.

I suspect that Fraction has fallen into the trap of writing for the trade. Over the arc as a whole, there are references to those ongoing stories. The Sisterhood show up on the first page of the first issue; Magneto and the High Evolutionary crop up right at the end, picking up a subplot from the previous arc. In the good old days, writers used to throw in an obligatory page every couple of issues to keep a subplot alive. Fraction seems to think that he can get away with doing an obligatory page every trade paperback.

If so, he's wrong - that's not frequent enough to keep the plates spinning, and it gives the impression of stories simply being forgotten about, not least because the X-Men should be reacting to some of the stuff from the previous arc. The Sisterhood arc starts next month; I'm mystified by the decision to foreshadow it with a single page four months earlier. Nonetheless, read the storyline as a whole, and the subplot scenes are there. Fraction does have a plan here, even if it isn't readily apparent on a month-by-month basis.

Despite that flaw, reading the story as a whole answers a lot of my concerns about where the hell this series is going. Hopefully Fraction can get the hang of keeping his balls in the air more effectively, but I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt again.

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