Thursday, October 15, 2009


Dark Avengers/Uncanny X-Men: Utopia
Uncanny X-Men #513-514
Dark Avengers #7-8
Dark Avengers/Uncany X-Men: Exodus
Writer: Matt Fraction
Pencillers: Marc Silvestri, Terry Dodson, Luke Ross and Mike Deodato (with Michael Broussard, Eric Basaldua, Tyler Kirkham and Sheldon Mitchell)
Inkers: Joe Weems, Rachel Dodson, Rick Magyar, Mark Pennington and Luke Ross (with Marco Galli, Eric Basaldua, Rick Basaldua, Jason Gorder, Jay Leisten, Sal Regla, Jon Sibal and Ryan Winn)
Colourists: Frank D'Armata, Justin Ponsor, Rain Beredo, Dean White and Christina Strain
Letterers: Chris Eliopoulos, Joe Caramagna and Cory Petit
Editors: Nick Lowe and Tom Brevoort

Yes, it's the biggest crossover since the last one. And yes, it finished ages ago, but hell, at least the collected edition isn't out yet. I think.

"Utopia", by Matt Fraction and a veritable football team of artists (most of whom, to be fair, are backing up Marc Silvestri on the opening chapter), is a relatively rare example of Uncanny X-Men crossing over with a book from outside the X-stable altogether. In previous years, as Marvel's lead franchise, the X-Men tended to sit out the major events that were designed to boost the sales of lower-ranking titles. But the X-Men's star is not in the ascendance, and so for the first time in ages, Uncanny X-Men finds itself doing a crossover with a higher-selling title.

But in reality, this is an X-Men story which simply happens to take over two issues of Dark Avengers as well. True, Norman Osborn's all over it, but you could say that about all the "Dark Reign" storylines. The other characters from Dark Avengers are more or less banished to the sidelines, emerging sporadically to fill the role where a squad of random HAMMER goons might normally be.

And let's start with the positive. "Utopia" may be sprawling, but it does have a sense of scale. The rapid cutting around Los Angeles in the riot scenes is nicely chaotic. About half of it is drawn by Terry Dodson. It has actual, lasting consequences for the series, by driving the X-Men out of San Francisco proper and moving them onto an island in the bay. The feint of Emma turning on the team is well executed. The "Dark X-Men" turn out to be a relatively engaging team - instead of an outright travesty of the X-Men, they're mostly presented as a group of slightly reluctant draftees who are making a reasonably sincere effort. The big fight scenes with the Avengers come across well.

Plenty to like here. And yet, it doesn't quite work for me.

The first time round, I thought the problem might be that Fraction was once again losing his focus, and piling on too many cameos by minor characters, causing the story to lose focus. Reading it again, though, that's not the problem. There's a lot of characters floating around, but they're mostly in groups, and the number of plot threads isn't so unwieldy. True, "Utopia" could stand to lose things like Dani Moonstar striking a deal with Hela in order to take out Ares in an extremely peripheral subplot. But for the most part, the scale isn't the problem.

In fact, with Fraction trying to sell us on the idea of mass riots on the streets of San Francisco, you can hardly blame him for wading through the list of surviving mutants and hauling out some of the most obscure ones he can find. After M-Day, he can't really have generic mutants wandering the streets all of a sudden. So it's understandable that we suddenly end up with a speaking part for the likes of Meld, a character whose only previous appearance was in the Sentinel Squad O*N*E miniseries, but who has indeed cropped up on the official list of surviving mutants before.

There are some unfortunate lapses of exposition. The raising of Asteroid M is meant to be a big set piece, but the story never really identifies it or explains what it is. You have to read the recap page for that. And the stuff with the Sentry in the final issue comes completely out of the blue, foreshadowed only by a scene which appeared in New Avengers about five years ago. If you aren't familiar with the Sentry/Void concept, god knows what you're supposed to make of it. But again, this is minor stuff.

No, the problem here is... what's the story about, other than shifting the X-Men's status quo from A to B? What actually drives them out of town?

On the face of it, Fraction seems to want to write a story about the entire mutant race being driven into retreat. There's a lot of talk about civil rights campaigns, and mutants as a "people", and so forth. The story opens with our old friends the anti-mutant bigots lobbying for special breeding laws for mutants; it ends with the mutants setting up their own "nation". And that's a problem for starters: the number of surviving mutants is simply too low for this to work. Even so, Fraction nearly pulls that one off.

But there are two main forces at work here: the Humanity Now! coalition lobbying to restrict mutants from breeding, and Norman Osborn making a power play. And neither of them really have much resonance with the X-Men.

The coalition ought to work - but that story shoots itself in the foot when it reveals that they aren't a genuine grass roots movement, so much as a single maniac with mind-control powers. Which means the X-Men get to fight some cyborgs for a few pages, but there's no social movement after all. In fact, the whole storyline seems weirdly disconnected from the Avengers/ X-Men feud, as if Fraction needed something to justify his initial riots, and then wanted to sweep it under the carpet as quickly as possible. It seems a terribly wasted opportunity, since the Proposition X subplot seemed a promising idea.

As for Osborn, Fraction might be trying to tell the story where the X-Men can't stand up to the might of the US government. But Osborn doesn't really work in the role of evil bureaucrat. The central idea of Dark Reign is that he's a dangerous maniac posing as an authority figure. He's a travesty of Nick Fury. Which is fine, if you're writing Iron Man and want to confront him with an ironic moral lesson about power concentrated in the wrong hands. But Osborn is always going to be a supervillain, and he can't stand for authority in general. And he has no real reason to fight the X-Men, other than that he wants more power, because he's evil.

In fairness to Fraction, if Dark Reign is about anything, it's about a corrupt government invoking the trappings of authority to buy un-deserved trust, and he does present the story as something of a propaganda war. And presumably that's the idea: the X-Men flee San Francisco because they lost the PR battle, only to outwit Norman in the end and buy their safety on the beachhead. But for that story, we ought to see some sign of the public reaction, and why it matters so much. And the public are almost totally absent from this plot. There's no room for them. Even when Scott and Norman deliver their respective press conferences in the closing pages, their audiences are represented only by anonymous cameramen.

Oddly enough, this story would probably have worked better during the "Initiative" period, with Iron Man and his Avengers cast in Osborn's role, representing heavy-handed and patronising officialdom. Osborn isn't an interesting antagonist for the X-Men, because he doesn't stand for anything that resonates with the themes of this series.

That's the problem, I think: it's a story where the X-Men are driven out of town by two supervillains, neither of whom have any particularly interesting agenda or theme underpinning them. And the propaganda battle which Fraction seems to be trying to write about is played out in a vacuum, seemingly untouched by audience reaction. For all the epic scale and bombast, it can't help but feel a little hollow.

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