Saturday, September 25, 2010

Uncanny X-men #528 - Better But Barely

The last time I reviewed Uncanny X-men I to keep a thesaurus by my desk to help me find new words for things such as "disappointment" and "downgrade." Apparently, the English language is limited in a lot of respects. There only so many syllables you can use to lampoon a comic that was fell so incredibly short of the mark that if it were a football team the Detroit Lions would route it by double digits in a nationally televised game. Perhaps I was too harsh on Matt Fraction. The man does love his job and these characters, almost too much in some cases. But he seemed to let some of that love get int he way of his writing. The good thing about comics though is that unless your name is Chuck Austin, you always get another chance with the next issue.

Uncanny X-men #527 was brought down by terrible characterization, especially in that of Emma Frost. It's not like the book was Ultimate style horrible, but it was pretty lousy given how high the bar was set by Second Coming. Uncanny X-men #528 has the job of coming in to clean up some of the mess done by the previous issue. It also has to move the whole Five Lights story along. For any writer that's a challenge. It's like auditioning for American Idol with 10,000 Simon Cowells as the judge. But Fraction has shown some balls before and pulled it off. Can he do it again?

Uncanny X-men #528 starts by introducing the third of the five lights. This time the light is a 12-year-old girl from Nigeria named Idie Okankwo. In a nutshell, she's the bastard love child of Iceman and Firestar if Iceman and Firestar had two African parents in their family tree. She can freeze people and burn people. She's basically a two-for-one elemental. Yeah, there are any number of fire or ice super-powered beings in comics and adding another one is like pissing into a toilet that's already full of shit. But this girl is offering a two-for-one deal! In this troubled economy, you gotta go after bargains!

Like the other two lights, her powers didn't manifest in a very subtle way. She's frozen and burned people who tried to kill her for being a witch. In Nigeria where all those wonderful scams about inheriting money from dead relatives come from, there's also a very strong "witches suck" sentiment and when people start freezing and burning around you that's bad news. Then we find out from storm the men responsible for dealing with witches killed Idie's family and laughed while they did it, so you don't feel too sorry for the assholes she burned and froze. Plus, Storm and Hope make a hell of an entrance that probably put some extra hair on artist Wilche Portatio's chest. If you're still bitter about the last issue, this should lay some of those feelings to rest and put a smile on your face if you like seeing Storm be a badass and not a Wakandan housewife.

As much as you want to keep seeing Storm kick ass, books like this need to delegate some time to real-world issues. In this case Bobby Drake steps up in a role that's more serious than anything he's done since he banged Mystique. He understands that like every controversial group, mutants need a good PR agent. If it's good enough for Lindsey Lohan, it's good enough for the X-men and carries only half the level of drug use. Now that mutants aren't going extinct anymore, they need to get a little love back from the public. He has the unfortunate task of pitching to a PR woman named Kate Kildare how the X-men now have Magneto with them in addition to all the other mutants on the island. That's like a football team saying they just welcomed OJ Simpson back on their team. It's an uphill struggle to say the least and you gotta feel for Kate, who probably wish she majored in finance in college at this point..

This is all well and good for Uncanny and does move the story along, but you know at one point Fraction was going to have to address the elephant made out of whale shit in the corner of the room. That elephant with tits that might as well be on an elephant is Emma Frost, a character who was so poorly characterized in the last issue it might as well have been published by the National Inquirer. It was Fraction's biggest shortcoming of that issue and it's what needed the biggest remedy.

To spare others from having to read that issue, Emma was basically lamenting at how she kept Sebastian Shaw alive when she said she would kill him for Namor. Now she's keeping him in a holding cell on Utopia and only she and Danger know about it. Even though Namor wants in her panties, he'll want to cut her throat if he finds out about Shaw. She knows this and would prefer to be rid of Shaw in the same way Iran prefers to be rid of Israel.

Speaking of Namor, he's got his own problems in this issue. In the previous issue the most depth he showed was in his love of sushi. Here we're actually reminded this guy is the fucking king of Atlantis and like any king, he has people looking to fuck with him. He meets with some of his advisers, who sense just as much as the reader that he wants to bone Emma Frost (but seriously, who doesn't?) and that's keeping him immersed in the affairs of the surface world. Like any king with an appetite for pretty girls, he doesn't respond too kindly and shows some backbone (not a sexual innuendo this time). He reminds his crew he's still the top pimp and they better listen to him. It's nice to see Namor being king again, but if even his people know he's being pussy whipped he's got a problem.

Back in Africa, Storm and Jean Gre-I mean Hope Summers (sorry, I still can't tell them apart) continue to demonstrate why they're so awesome. They confront Idie, who shows the genuine fear of a 12-year-old girl. It's a great moment for Matt Fraction because he writes this perfectly. Idie is doing what a lot of people do when shit goes south. She prays for help. Since her god is still on a bender from from that whole Spanish Inquisition shit, Storm and Je-I mean Hope (sorry, still can't tell) answer her prayers. Show me a god that responds by sending two beautiful women to solve your problems and I'll show you a god every guy on this planet can get behind. Even so, Idie is going emo on them and losing her grip on life and everything in between.

Back to Emma. Fraction's been putting her off long enough. In the last issue she entered a new level of complete and total bitch when she basically yelled at Colossus and the still permanently phased Shadowcat (who has been stuck like this since Uncanny 522). Since then she's been helping them communicate and mind hump each other. Kitty's vocal chords are intangible so she can't exactly have phone sex with the guy. Telepathy is all they got. It robs readers of a chance at the witty exchanges that made Kitty and Emma such a lovable pair during the Joss Whedon run. However, it seems they get their chance again because Emma leaked some thoughts about Shaw to Kitty. And she has to push Colossus out so they can have a little pep talk.

Whedon fans are forced to wait just a bit longer because there is other shit going on that deals with the main plot in this story. No wait...actually, the next scene doesn't have to do with any of the shit that's been happening in this book or the previous issues. It's just a scene with Northstar and Dazzler beating up Nekra and Frenzy after they blow up an art museum, presumably because there weren't enough nudes. It makes for a short and underdeveloped fight scene, which seems completely useless even if it does get a nice butt-shot of Dazzler. But it's one of those scenes that will have most readers scratching their heads. What exactly is the point of this scene? Why was it important to show at this point when this precious ink could be dedicated to more important matters like Emma Frost's tits? I'm assuming it has something to do with that PR plot Bobby started earlier, but there's nothing linking that with this. Not that I have anything against Dazzler or Northstar, but this seems as random as a cat playing a piano (yes, I know that's a hit youtube video and all, but it's still random).

Getting back to more serious matters, Storm and J-I mean Hope (shit, I still can't tell them apart!) finally reach Idie. Just like with the previous lights, all it takes is a nice hug from from a beautiful redhead and all their problems are solved. Somewhere Barney is getting a boner. It's a beautiful spectacle and one that shows Whilce Portacio should be very proud of.

Not one to forgive and forget, Idie makes those assholes who killed her family pay by showing her the kind of witchcraft she employs. The armed men that would probably only be competent in a Forest Whittiker movie don't stand a chance. She's a bit overwhelmed as most 12-year-olds would be, given at 12 most kids feel overwhelmed by the monkey bars at recess. Since her parents are dead and she's not welcome in her homeland anymore, Storm and Hope (I remembered this time!) offer her a place with the X-men. It's the same scene that played out with the other two lights. Granted, this didn't vary very much, but it was still a nice spectacle and Fraction got the most out of it.

Finally, it's Emma again. You get the sense Fraction is avoiding addressing her after making her such a huge bitch in the last issue. But he avoids making her a bigger bitch this time around. Emma and Kitty discuss Emma's problem. Kitty found out through Emma's slip of the mind that she's keeping Shaw alive. That means she's in a bad position with a chief ally of the X-men whose primary reason for helping them revolves around his desire to sleep with her. There isn't as much witty exchange as Whedon fans would like, but there is definitely some of that old Frost/Pryde chemistry here and Fraction to his credit does his best to capture it. It ends a bit too soon though with a somewhat surprising revelation by Kitty. She wants to help Emma get rid of Shaw. It's not as big a twist as it would have been if Kitty came out and said she was bi and fantasized about Emma as much as all the guys did. But it's still a pretty intriguing revelation that opens the door for more plot development in the next issue.

So the issue is over and not once have I had to go to my thesaurus to say how disappointed I was with this issue. After Uncanny X-men #527 there was plenty of room to go up and Fraction definitely did some redeeming things with this story. His characterization of Emma Frost wasn't a total turn-around, but it didn't suck this time around. The story with Idie Okankwo was nicely done even if it was overly predictable. Plus the book deserves some credit for getting Kitty Pryde involved again.

While this was an upgrade I did get somewhat of a dry feeling from this and I'm not talking about the kind of feeling you get when you see the Detroit Lions with a 10 point lead in the 4th quarter and just know they're going to screw it up. Since Fraction began his run, he's done a great job of telling big stories with big impacts. However, his flaws revolve around his predictability. Throughout Uncanny his characterization of Cyclops and Emma Frost is as nauseating as it is expected. He won't do anything in any capacity to make them seem flawed or less awesome than they should be. He props Cyclops up to be the man with the plan and props Emma up as the new Jean Grey whose name isn't Hope, the big breasted bimbo who just stands by Cyclops and oogles how much she loves him and how she has none of her edge anymore. Because of this, some of the plots that emerge simply don't get very exciting because readers know Fraction will never do anything to make them seem less perfect. That's why Namor's desire to bone Emma doesn't trigger any excitement on whether or not she'll give in. Readers know Fraction won't let that happen. Just as was the case with Utopia, he'll find a way to make it so Cyclops and Emma just kiss and make up at the end. It's a total farce because writers will find ways to screw up iconic couples like Peter and Mary Jane or Cyclops and Jean Grey, but when it comes to throwing some conflict into Cyclops and Emma Frost they're complete pussies.

With that in mind, it's pretty easy to see how this will end up. Emma will screw up her plan with Shaw. Namor will find out. He'll go batshit insane and try to kill her. Cyclops will swoop in and save the day and he and Emma will hump their problems away. Because Matt Fraction is writing this shit, you know there isn't a chance at all that Emma Frost will be anything short of Miss Tragic Hottie. Even though he's set up so many ways in which the Cyclops/Emma Frost dynamic could enter conflicts, he's done jack shit with them and his bias will not allow him to do anything beyond just giving them excuses to kiss and make up.

I hope I'm wrong, but Fraction has shown me no reason to believe he'll be any less predictable. This along with the PR scene and the fight with Dazzler and Northstar, and this book does have it's share of shortcomings. But unlike the last book, it's hard to say it sucks. So I'm giving Uncanny X-men #528 a 3.5 out of 5. I can't be terribly disappointed, but if Fraction is going to do anything special I'll believe it when I see it. Until then, I'm trying to live with the less than exciting expect the expected. It's not easy, but that's what LSD is for. Nuff said.

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