Sunday, July 19, 2009

Messiah War

"Messiah War"
(X-Force/Cable: Messiah War one-shot; Cable #13-15; X-Force #14-16)
Writers: Duane Swierczynski (Cable), Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost (X-Force and prologue)
Artists: Mike Choi & Sonia Oback (prologue), Ariel Olivetti (Cable), and Clayton Crain (X-Force)
Letterers: Cory Petit (prologue and X-Force) and Joe Caramagna (Cable)
Editors: Axel Alonso and John Barber

Horribly late, I know.

When I belatedly reviewed the "Ghost Boxes" arc from Astonishing X-Men, somebody suggested that it was terribly appropriate that it was late. By analogy, I suppose, this review should take a year to show up and then achieve nothing.

To be perfectly honest, I've had these issues piled up next to my desk for a couple of weeks now, because I wanted to re-read the thing before reviewing it. Which is all very well in theory, but then you look at them and think, oh god, seven issues of futuristic murk... and you go and do something else.

Apparently, this story is seen as the middle chapter in a trilogy that began with last year's "Messiah Complex", and presumably concludes with something equally messianic in 2010. The previous story saw the birth of the first new mutant since M-Day. Cable disappeared off with her into the future. Meanwhile, Bishop identified her as the kid who had caused disaster in his timeline, and gave chase, intending to kill her and hit the cosmic reset button. And that's the set-up of Cable's ongoing series. (With the minor caveat that they quickly broke Cable's time machine so that he could only escape further and further into the future.)

Now, Hope is apparently tremendously important, so Cyclops - having agreed to pack her off into the future in the first place - is now equally keen to get her back. So we have X-Force being packed off to sort things out, using rickety time machines that will only allow them to stay in the future for 33 hours or so before the stress of time travel starts killing them. In the manner of plot-imposed arbitrary deadlines, it turns out that these slowly-building stresses come on awfully suddenly once the clock runs out.

The stage is set, then, for... well, for something to happen. And then, over the course of seven issues, it largely doesn't.

Here's what this story actually does achieve. For Cable readers, it brings Stryfe into the story - and quite cleverly, to be fair, playing him as a delusional pawn of Bishop, who thinks he's still the archenemy. It also brings Apocalypse into the story, and sets up the idea that he'll want to steal Hope's body once she's grown up. And Bishop's cyborg arm gets damaged. And... yes, yes, that's pretty much all we achieved in the course of seven issues.

For X-Force readers, essentially nothing happened - except that the crossover interrupted a story in progress and stopped the team saving somebody in issue #13. This comes up again right at the end of the crossover, in a hopelessly obscure scene.

It all starts off quite promisingly. Cable and X-Force - particularly X-Force - both suffer from a tendency to take themselves too seriously, so it was a smart move to bring in Deadpool for some comic relief. The opening issues are decent action stories. But pretty soon it just starts going round in circles, and by the end of the story, we seem to be more or less back where we started. X-Force return to the present day, more or less unaffected. Cable and Hope flee further into the timeline, with Bishop still in pursuit. Which is more or less where they were before the crossover. You could be forgiven for thinking that Bishop loses his time machine in this story, which would have been something... but Cable #16 confirms that he doesn't.

Fundamentally, the problem with this story is that not enough happens. You can't do seven issues of build-up with such an anaemic pay-off. Strangely, the final part actually teases a revelation which would have been vaguely meaningful: one member of X-Force announces that he's worked out why Hope is so important. Unfortunately, he still doesn't tell us why. Which seems particularly perverse, as he'll presumably be sharing it with us next month. The smart money, incidentally, is on "She's Phoenix" - which they already hinted at very strongly in the closing pages of "Messiah Complex" and would barely qualify as a revelation at all. But it would still have been better than what they did here.

With no progress on the plot, we're left with a lot of badly explained running around and fighting. Half of that fighting is illustrated by X-Force artist Clayton Crain, and boy, this story does not show him at his finest. Crain does dark and murky and (if you want to be charitable) atmospheric - and he's not even especially good at that. His fight scenes are a chore to decipher, and at times border on unintelligible.

But it's not like the dialogue does him any favours. There are some very strange lapses in exposition in this story. The end of part 1, for example, was evidently supposed to be a big reveal that Stryfe is living in Apocalypse's old base. There was no way any reader could have worked this out from the generic cityscape presented in part 1, and even the next issue takes nine pages to get around to mentioning Apocalypse's name. And the closing sequence of X-Force #16 - which depends on you knowing plot points from before the crossover, which aren't explained in the dialogue, and which aren't explained in the four-paragraph small-print recap page either - is utterly unintelligible. Curiously, it does manage a certain elegiac quality. But I have no idea how readers were expected to follow it. Even if X-Force could normally assume that readers had a working knowledge of stories from four months earlier, this is a crossover! That practically guarantees that a fair chunk of them won't!

This is a disappointing crossover. It starts off well, but never really gets going, before frustratingly petering out. The bottom line is that it simply doesn't have a strong enough story.

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