Saturday, March 21, 2009

Young X-Men #11-12

"End of Days"
Writer: Marc Guggenheim
Penciller: Rafa Sandoval
Inker: Roger Bonet
Colourist: Ulises Arreola
Art on future sequences: Daniel Acuna
Letterer: Dave Sharpe

Continuing the deathwatch theme, we have the final issue of Young X-Men, a book which tanked so spectacularly that it got axed within a year.

Marc Guggenheim is not a bad writer, but this book embodies one of the worst tendencies of superhero comics: the endless fiddling with concepts for no apparent reason other than a reluctance to let them go. Young X-Men is the successor to New X-Men, which itself was retooled drastically halfway through its run, and which in turn was the successor of a shortlived New Mutants book. Embarrassingly, New X-Men was actually on something of an upturn before they axed it to make way for this title, replacing half the cast, and driving the book into a ditch.

Through no fault of his own, Guggenheim has spent his first year introducing characters and setting up stories which will never see the light of day. We've had lengthy build-ups for Graymalkin, Ink, and Cipher, none of which went anywhere. The first six issues were devoted to an extended "gathering of the team" arc which was very badly received and, even in hindsight, still looks suspiciously like an exercise in killing time while the book was waiting for "Manifest Destiny." Once that was out of the way, the book actually improved significantly, but evidently too late to turn things round. And even once it had settled into a reasonably promising team book, it never overcame the feeling that they would have been better off sticking with the New X-Men cast - the likes of Mercury and Hellion had great potential, still relatively untapped.

This final story does at least try for some sort of resolution. Guggenheim completes his running subplot about Dust's terminal illness; and he wraps up Ink's story into the bargain. On the other hand, the story seems mainly designed to set up the idea that Dust becomes a villain at some point in the future. Which she won't - at least, not in this cancelled book. And perhaps that's for the best, as she seems to become off-the-peg crazy, rather than being an interesting bad guy. There's some blather about her soul becoming corrupted but, without any sort of symbolic overtones, it means little more than "she went evil."

Whatever the plan was, this feels like pure set-up, and doesn't belong in a final issue. And that's unfortunate, because the story has a parallel structure, cutting between the Young X-Men in the present day, and a bunch of survivors fighting Dust in the future. There's no direct plot connection; presumably the idea is to add a layer of dramatic irony to the team saving her in the present day. And since the Dust-as-villain stuff doesn't work, that bit falls flat - taking the future scenes with it.

Still, Ink gets some resolution, and subplots are dutifully resolved for the final issue, which is just about enough for the story to work. Kind of. Cancellation issues are always a compromise, and you can't really hold that against the creators. The book also offers guest art by the talented Daniel Acuna, working on the flash-forward scenes. It's a shame he's doing the half of the book that doesn't work, but there's definitely some flair to his pages.

The moral of this book, I suppose, is "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Or, more accurately, recognise what you need to fix. New X-Men certainly had its problems: most obviously, it had become oppressively miserable, massively over-reliant on shock killings, and generally didn't give the characters a chance to function as teenagers. But it had a cast of strong, likeable characters - all they needed was a shift of emphasis and a lighter tone. It wouldn't have taken much to sort out the book's problems and bring out its strengths.

Instead, we got Young X-Men. And to be fair, this book did lighten up from its wrist-slitting predecessor. But it still didn't feel like the characters were teenagers, and the new roster was not an improvement. Throw in its widely panned six-issue opening arc, and it was dead in the water.

The book is being replaced by a relaunch of New Mutants, the original 1980s team. Frankly, this strikes me as the sort of thing you do when you've run out of ideas altogether. But it's written by Zeb Wells, whom I have a lot of time for, so hopefully he'll prove me wrong. As for Young X-Men - well, it just goes to show that the X-books won't support satellite titles so easily any more.

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