Sunday, May 9, 2010

Second Coming Uncanny X-men #524: Fraction Falters

So far each issue of the Second Coming crossover has been a case study in kick ass X-men awesomeness. The action, drama, and characterization has been so beautifully crafted that it leads readers to wonder just how great this crossover can be. With each issue it's a nervous wait as to whether or not this insanely awesome pace can keep up. Well wait no more. Uncanny X-men #524 by Matt Fraction has answered this question with an emphatic no.

It's true. This issue has finally stemmed the awesome that made the first four issues so mind-blowingly cool. Matt Fraction seemed to write the weakest of these first four issues with Uncanny X-men 523. So it's only fitting that his next issue would be the one that brings the series back down to Earth and in a way that equals a kick to the balls and a slap to the face. That's not to say that this issue is bad. On it's on it's still pretty solid. But compared to the issues that came before it, Uncanny X-men #524 ran head first into a brick wall while wearing a rocket powered jet pack.

The transition to this issue is still pretty smooth. The action picks up right where the previous issue left off with everybody standing over the dead body of Nightcrawler.

It's a touching and powerful moment that is also coupled with anger. Hope is clearly taking some of the blame for leading Nightcrawler to his death. It was the mission to rescue her that led to this tragedy. Naturally, she runs off as any upset 17-year-old would. That's when the meeting so many has been waiting for takes place. Cyclops comes face-to-face with the girl who he has placed all his faith in for mutant kind. One might expect this to be a very powerful moment. Not only is this the X-leader meeting the mutant messiah, but he's meeting a girl that has grown a lot since their last encounter. And not only has she grown. She's grown into someone very familiar.

Let's look at the facts. Hope has red hair, green eyes, and a dress sense that is strangely similar to Jean Grey when she was wielding the Phoenix. You would think Scott Summers of all people would pick up on that and be a bit unnerved. Keep in mind this is a guy who once married a woman solely because she looked like Jean Grey. Yeah, she turned out to be an evil clone, but that's besides the point. This is the mutant messiah here and what does he tell her? Not a whole hell of a lot, that's for sure. This could have been such a powerful moment and all Cyclops really told her was to stay alive. If that's the best advice the leader of the mutant race can give then they might as well be taking orders from Dr. Phil.

While all this is going on, the stage is being set for the next battle with Bastion. Now that Hope is on Utopia, they need a new plan and Bastion has one in the form of Donald Pierce. This is where it helps to follow the continuity. Donald Pierce has been a prisoner under Danger for a while now, but somehow he's managed to reprogram Danger so that she doesn't realize she's looking at an empty seat. It's not clear on how this happens. The explanation must have gotten lost between Fraction's notion that he can make light of the Cyclops/Hope moment and that Hope looking like Jean means nothing to the story. There's is still some substance though because this reveals that Bastion's goal was to get the teleporters like Nightcrawler out of the picture so that the X-men would have nowhere to go. He's essentially boxing them in and hoping to surround them so his mutant-hating forces can beat them to a pulp, piss on their corpses, and do a victory dance all in the same confined area. Saves them the time of traveling.

Bastion isn't the only one with plans though. Cyclops has plans as well. With Nightcrawler dead and Magik stuck in Limbo, he's putting together another plan on the fly. It's a testament to his leadership and tactical skills, but this is where the biggest problem of the comic comes to light.

Matt Fraction has made no secret of his Cyclops fetish. He has said many times before that he loves Cyclops and Emma Frost both as characters and as a couple. He goes out of his way to make them seem so awesome that everyone else are just flies buzzing around a searchlight, constantly being outshined by the sheer brilliance of this character. This is all well and good for Cyclops fans, but this book isn't called Uncanny Cyclops. It's called Uncanny X-men. Fraction can't seem to see two feet in front of his nose or one foot behind his ass because he insists on giving Cyclops all the panel time he can, giving him all the important dialogue and making everyone else just pawns in his game. At times you could take other characters like Cannonball, Emma Frost, and Colossus and replace them with muppets and the cast of Thundercats and they would have the exact same impact. That's how bland the characterization is here.

I love Cyclops as much as the next X-fan, but Fraction takes it fifteen and a half steps too far. He lets no one criticize him. He lets no uncertainty show. And he always sticks Emma Frost by his side, making her his arm candy as if to say "Look at me! I'm the man with the plan and I got a hot ass bitch I get to fuck whenever I want! I'm so awesome!" Fraction's a good writer, but when he can't get beyond his own ego then the man is on a power trip that requires some Thorezine and possibly some heavy counseling.

Cyclops isn't the only bias. He has an admitted fetish for Pixie too, who now has the burden of taking a team of mutants into Limbo to rescue Illyana. It almost seems as though Nightcrawler's death is opening the door for Pixie to take over. Because who doesn't love a cute, pink-haired mutant with wings more than a blue-skinned religious man who looks like a demon? It sounds like someone is in need of sensitivity training because Pixie could have easily been a better choice than Nightcrawler, but Cyclops kept her back and there was never much of a reason for that. It just feels contrived, like Fraction is some mischievous prankster carefully re-arranging the contents of a packed closet so that it collapses a certain way.

This isn't the only awkward characterization. Fraction also finds time to bring Magneto back in the picture. He's been in a coma since Uncanny X-men 522 when he brought back Kitty. But Hope's return was just the wake-up call he needed so when Cyclops sends Hope and Cable to the infirmary for a checkup, the master of magnetism makes his presence known. And what should be another powerful moment turns into something creepier than a pervert's pecker in a panty tornado.

He actually manages to make friends with Hope, stating that everything is still going to hell even though she's here like she's supposed to be. Magneto is taking a play out of his old battle plan, tempting others at how their potential isn't being utilized and only he can help. This in and of itself isn't bad characterization. What stands out here is that Hope seems to be taking him seriously and after what she's shown in the past few issues, that's just seizure-inducing weirdness. This is a girl trained by Cable. She should know better and Fraction shows her hesitating about as much as Tiger Woods hesitates when a pretty cocktail waitress comes to his table.

These awkward moments do bring down the issue, but there are great moments that keep the awesome flowing. The end scene was especially powerful where the team hauled Nightcrawler's coffin outside for a ceremony. This is very well-done because the death isn't cheapened. Everybody takes a chance to say some words about Nightcrawler and what he meant to them and the team. It was all very well done and captures so much of what was awesome about this character.

However, as touching and meaningful this moment was it gets soured at the end by a big furry cat who can't resist coughing up a hairball. That's right. Beast makes an appearance after having jumped ship in Uncanny X-men 520. Again, Fraction's characterization is really underhanded. If the character isn't Cyclops, he puts about as much effort into the job as Homer Simpson. Beast just comes out yelling, pissing and moaning about how Cyclops is responsible for this and how Nightcrawler's death is on him. You would expect Beast of all people to at least wait until the guy isn't carrying the freakin' coffin on his back to chew his ass out for it. But Fraction's version of Beast is about as insensitive as Chef Gordon Ramsey. Beast is the one that comes off as an asshole while Cyclops once again comes out shining. It's Fraction's writing in a nutshell and it really hinders the potential awesome.

The overall issue does help move the story forward. Fraction doesn't completely destroy the momentum or take everything off on a tangent or completely handicap every writer that has to follow this issue. But he falls short in so many ways. His characterization compared to that of Zeb Wells, Craig Kyle, Chris Yost, and Mike Carey is a joke. He's like an undrafted rookie playing in the Pro Bowl. He just can't do his part the way the others can. He makes a good effort, but his ego and his Cyclops bias prevents him from succeeding.

In addition the art was solid, but Terry Dodson really didn't come through the way others have in this Crossover. The expressions at times seemed too bland. You can't tell how shocked or saddened anyone is and it comes off as being too cartoonish. That's not the style of this series. It fits about as well as an gazelle in a lion's den, but it still gets the job done.

There is still a lot left with Second Coming. This issue just marks the end of Act 1 and now Act 2 is gearing up. The seeds have been planted and the awesome promises to pick up with Zeb Wells in New Mutants. But Matt Fraction's take in Uncanny X-men #524 adds some major bumps along the path. It's nothing that can't be overcome, but it's enough to make readers groan that this guy is still going to be on the books after Second Coming is over while writers like Craig Kyle and Chris Yost are leaving. It hardly seems fair. That's why this book gets a 3 out of 5 and a C-plus. Alone it's okay, but compared to the rest of Second Coming it's a weak link in what was once a very strong chain.

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