Sunday, October 31, 2010
Uncanny X-men #529 - Redemptive Awesome
I admit, I've been pretty harsh on Matt Fraction despite my fondness for his work. Not harsh in the same way Michael Vick is fond and harsh on dogs, but I don't deny setting a pretty unreasonable standard for him. It's hard not to. This guy is in a position every X-men fan would surrender a left nut to have. He's actually in a position of power to determine the course of the X-men comics. For the most part, he's steered that course pretty well. He led the X-men to San Francisco and he set up Utopia. He did this and made it pretty freakin' awesome in the process. For that he deserves some credit.
Where my panties start riding up my ass crack is his blatant and often unmistakable flaws. As a writer, he's about as objective as Fox News. He wears his bias on his sleeve and I admit it bugs the living hell out of me. We all have biases, but when we're in a position of power like Matt Fraction is we have a Spider-Man inspired responsibility to keep those biases from affecting our work. Matt Fraction for whatever reason seems to view that responsibility the same way Homer Simpson views his job as safety inspector at a nuclear plant. He's in it for the donuts and an excuse to get out of the house. In that he's written some fairly contrived stories and made no secret about which characters he loves (Cyclops, Pixie, and Emma Frost) and which he could do without (Storm, Beast, Hope, and damn near every other X-man).
Few have suffered under his pen more than Emma Frost. Since she left the comforting embrace of Joss Whedon, she's turned into a walking punchline with big tits. Under Fraction's pen she lost her edge faster than Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. She has become Emma-lite/the blond Jean Grey. In Uncanny X-men #527 she took six steps down and became a flat, unfeeling, irrational bitch. She was essentially a young Madonna. It was so blatant it took away from the ongoing story with the Five Lights, which involved Hope seeking out the five new mutant signatures that emerged after Second Coming. It has limited my enjoyment of Uncanny in a big way, but I've always given Matt Fraction a chance because no matter how many missteps he takes in his books he always manages to pull together a surprise helping of awesome to set him apart as one of Marvel's most exciting scribes. Uncanny X-men #529 gives him a chance and he makes damn good use of it.
The book starts like the previous two in that it introduces a new mutant. This one goes by Teon and he's about as complex as a dog...literally. This guy somehow ended up in Miami Beach where he's prowling for women like a dog in heat. In other words he's blending in perfectly. He has no inner monologue or inner musings. He's very basic in a fight, flight, or mate sense. Again, he blends in perfectly with the Miami night life except he has the strength and temperament of Kanye West on PCP.
Hope enters the scene with Rogue and her growing team, which include the other new mutants. Here Fraction throws in some old fashioned stereotyping, having the younger mutants get all giddy and upbeat about being at the beach. They talk about swimming and malls the same way Japanese school girls talk about Hello Kitty. It's not very inventive, but it does help remind the readers that these mutants aren't X-men. They're kids and they're still learning how to be X-men. The burden falls on Hope to teach them.
We leave that less than mature moment and get into a much more mature issue with Emma Frost. In the last issue she was in an especially bitchy state and plans to take it out on Sebastian Shaw, a guy who in many ways made her who she is. Few are deserving of a wrath like Emma's, but Shaw is the exception that proves the rule. At the end of the last issue she enlisted the help of Kitty Pryde for reasons that would confuse the Watcher on an acid trip. Now she enlists the help of Fantomex, who is not only excited at the challenge. He uses it as a chance to hit on Emma Frost. I would say this is another lame stereotype, but honestly...pretty much every guy in his position would do the same.
Now somewhere at this point is a transition. Fantomex goes to get Madison Jeffery's help at getting Danger to let her guard down by seducing her. Apparently he has a robot fetish. I would have a joke about that, but let's face it that's not the craziest fetish anyone can have in the X-men comics. There are Japanese anime series that make that seem like an animated Disney movie form the 50s.
That's not the strange part. What is strange is that there's some scene in Chinatown that involves men dressed like slightly cooler agents from the Matrix and they sport Jamie Madrox type powers. Now there's no clue as to which plot this relates to, if any. It's confusing and seemingly unnecessary. But it's there and it doesn't take up too much ink so it (barely) serves as somewhat of a bridge.
The focus goes right back to Hope. She, Rogue, and the three other lights get a hotel room and discuss what they know about Teon. They offer a nice rundown without it sounding too much like narration. Apparently Teon is like a predator, going after alpha women who are rich and well-educated while beating the shit out of their boyfriends. Basically, the people Paris Hilton doesn't have listed as Facebook friends. He's got superhuman endurance and healing that allowed him to hop a plane to America where he kept going on his prowl. He sounds like an easy guy to catch since he goes after the kind of women that make it onto TMZ every other night. He takes it a step further though. He saves Hope the trouble of finding him and basically seeks her out, but isn't sure whether to fight her or fuck her. It's like what happens the first time every guy sees Lady Gaga.
There's a brief scene in between where Madison Jefferies distracts Danger by asking her out on a picnic. It's a sweet and only slightly disturbing scene, but it is what it is. It's just filler for the fight scene that's about to unfold with Hope. Not saying it's a bad thing. It still works, but just isn't subtle. Very little of this book is. If you're reading it for the subtlety then someone has played a cruel and hilarious joke on you (unless you too have a robot fetish, in which case you would be masterbating rather than reading this review).
We go right back to the fight with Hope and Teon, which is done pretty damn well. Whilce Portacio's artwork really shines here and for the first time we see the Five Lights (or three at the moment) work together with their new powers. It's sloppy as one would expect and Teon doesn't go down easy. He shows just how inexperienced Ida, Gabrial, and Laurie are in how he makes them look as inexperienced as their age. It's Rogue and Hope who show them how it's done. Like the other lights, Hope needs only to cop a good feel to complete their mutation. This turns Teon from a raging animal to a domesticated dog. He essentially goes from rampaging college student to a domesticated husband in the span of an instant. All the women on the View would soak their panties in seeing this scene. It accomplishes the equally impressive task of bringing together the next to last of the five lights.
With this plot almost ending, Fraction already sets he stage for the next arc. It seems to come out of nowhere. Cecilia Reyes reveals that there's a strange little epidemic striking Utopia. An illness is spreading like the flu among the mutants. There's already talk of a pandemic. Again, not so subtle. It doesn't even drop any hints about whether or not this is connected to those wannabe agents of the Matrix that showed up earlier. But it is another plot that seems to be pulled out of nowhere. At least like the previous contrived plot, it only lasts a page and does offer some new promise for the next issue.
We finally get back to Emma Frost, who is looking as snide as she should be in the face of another somewhat contrived plot. Apparently, Kitty Pryde is now able to walk and talk again. The X-Club concocted a special suit for her to wear. It looks just like her old uniform with a Mysterio style fish bubble on top. Again, it comes from nowhere. Seriously, how long has the team been working on this? Did they really make that many breakthroughs off panel? It's starting to feel like Fraction is rushing the plot and it doesn't feel right. Even so, it's nice to see Kitty Pryde up and running again. She's also back to her witty exchanges with Emma, which is always a plus.
With Madison Jefferies now fully distracting Danger, they meet up with Fantomex after he abducts Shaw. The strange thing is Danger knows he's been taken, but she doesn't do anything about it. Her reasons are actually somewhat compelling. In trying to rehabilitate the X-men's prisoners, she reasons that they need to be given a chance at redemption. Some are beyond it, but she's not sure Emma Frost is one of them. By letting her take Shaw, she's giving her a chance.
And she seems to make good use of it. The next scene finally gives Emma a moment she hasn't had under Fraction in a long time. Instead of being a cold-hearted bitch or just filler for Cyclops's random displays of awesome, she shows some personality. She finally talks about how she feels on those she's lost like Nightcrawler. She mentions how all this stress caused her to have two gray hairs. It doesn't seem like much, but the way she talks about it makes it something very symbolic. It shows that for all her callous attitude, this sort of mess is getting to her. It's striking her on a personal level and she doesn't seem to know how to process it. This is the kind of Emma Frost that's a far cry from her outright bitchiness that dominated Uncanny X-men #527 and it's very welcome. It seems fitting that this is where the issue ends. There's no hint as to what they're going to do with Sebastian Shaw at this point. Except now there's more of an underlying reason behind it and it makes the next issue all the more worth picking up.
It really happened. Matt Fraction did it. He wrote an issue where Emma Frost was nicely characterized. For once I can't bash him for this flaw that has dominated so much of his run. He took a story with Emma that was really going nowhere and made it interesting again. That's really saying something. This on top of the Teon makes for a pretty solid issue. There were still the same irregularities and inconsistencies that the other books had, but they were much less apparent here. The story is moving forward. The plot is progressing. You can't ask for much more of a writer and for once I kneel before Matt Fraction's greatness.
That's not to say there isn't room for improvement. He still has a long ways to go before he can prove that he's capable of writing balanced characters like Emma Frost. He also has to work on the little things so that when Kitty Pryde suddenly has a suit that allows her to walk around without phasing, it doesn't feel contrived. He's not the only writer who struggles with this. Most do, but his is to a greater degree. He puts together a decent plot that does work on most levels. It simply lacks the refinement to make it truly awesome.
I want to give this book a higher score because Fraction really brought something back to Uncanny with this issue. Yet I can't place it in the same league as other books just yet. I need to maintain some perspective here so the best score I can give Uncanny X-men #529 is 3.5 out of 5. It's above average, but not by much. It has potential to be truly awesome. It just has to be realized. Fraction has a lot to work with here. It's not clear if this story is going to truly progress, but with issues like this Matt Fraction deserves a chance! Nuff said.