Wednesday, April 29, 2009

X-Men: The Times & Life of Lucas Bishop

"The Times and Life of Lucas Bishop"
Writer: Duane Swierczynski
Penciller: Larry Stroman
Inkers: Mark Farmer and Robert Stull
Colourists: Matt Milla and Thomas Mason
Letterer: Cory Petit
Editor: Axel Alonso

Anyone who follows the X-books will have realised by now that just because a miniseries says X-MEN in big letters on the cover, that's no reason to think it'll be an X-Men story. But while X-Men: The Times and Life of Lucas Bishop may not be an X-Men story, the sub-title is a pretty accurate reflection of what you get here. It's a three-issue miniseries recapping Bishop's origin story.

In other words, it's a spin-off from Cable, where Bishop is currently cast in the role of a demented zealot chasing Cable and Hope through time, trying to wipe out the whole timeline in the hope of hitting the reset button and averting his own disastrous future. But Bishop's origin story has been covered in flashback minis before. So, does this add anything new? Is it something that Cable readers need to pick up, and does it at least cover the territory entertainingly?

Well, for the most part, it's a relatively straight recap of Bishop's back story, from his childhood in the prison camps of a dystopian future, through to the point where he travels back to the present day and joins the X-Men. The general thrust has all been covered before. There are two main additions - first, there's the obligatory explanation of why he thinks Hope will destroy everything. And that explanation turns out to be some scattered recollections and a message from the past (which we don't get to hear). It doesn't tell us what we really wanted to know, which is what she did wrong. But formally at least, it goes some way to justify Bishop's paranoia.

Second, there are some amusing sequences with Bishop imagining what the X-Men must have been like, apparently without the benefit of pictures, and of course getting it all horribly wrong. Artist Larry Stroman has fun with these, and they certainly raise a smile.

Stroman got quite a bit of criticism for his recent work on X-Factor. This is significantly better, with his exaggerations working to good effect, and his settings more atmospheric. There are still some of those love-'em-or-hate-'em tics, such as the haywire swirling of long hair, but it's a definie improvement, and something of a return to form.

The problem is that Bishop's back story was never really designed to work as a story in its own right. The basic premise was pretty clear from the word go: he's a paramilitary X-Man from a dystopian future. What followed was a rather fragmentary collection of flashbacks and anecdotes which appeared in different places at different times. To the extent that those flashbacks do have an arc, it's about Bishop joining the XSE and his sister Shard getting killed, when Swiercynzski really wants to write about the prophecies surrounding Hope. This isn't really his fault; it's the material he has to work with. But it's a problem nonetheless.

I suspect the real point is for us to read between the lines. When Bishop finally meets the X-Men at the end of the issue, we ought to get a cover version of Uncanny X-Men #281-282. But we don't, not quite. The stuff with Fitzroy's base is skipped entirely, as we go straight to Bishop's sidekicks getting killed, and X-Men picking him up. Cable seems to be wandering around the Mansion (a few years out of synch). A caption identifies it as the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning (against, about four years early).

These could be minor continuity errors, or simply a relaxed approach to streamlining history. But there might be a simpler explanation: that this isn't our Bishop, but merely one from a reality close enough that nobody has picked up on it. Close enough so far, at any rate. If the usual rules of dramatic irony are in force, chances are it'll turn out that Bishop screwed things up and brought about the future he was trying to avert.

Normally I'd say this was a cop-out - but in this case, there are two good reasons why it might work. First, it allows them to use the "real" Bishop in future without having to painstakingly absolve him of genocide. But second, as I mentioned at the start, this Bishop's whole ideology is that he thinks he can get away with slaughtering alternate timelines because they don't really count, and they'll all get cancelled out in the end. So if the pay-off is that he's not "our" Bishop, that's a nice twist - and a better one than just the straightforward time loop.

If that's the idea, I like it - but it didn't need a three issue miniseries to set it up. The bits that work would have worked just as well as flashbacks in Cable itself (or back-up strips, if you prefer). The rest is a broad recap of well-established history. That's fair enough for new readers, especially as Bishop's back story is scattered through a range of issues, most of which are long since out of print - if you haven't read it before, then this is as good a place as any to do so. But if you're familiar with the material, chances are this will mostly seem rather familiar.

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