Saturday, October 16, 2010

X-Campus #4 - Awesome That's Over Too Soon

So when I first offered my review to the limited X-Campus series I admit I wasn't expecting much. Whenever Marvel churns out these gimmicky minis they're about as hit or miss as a Stevie Wonder at an archery tournament. Most are going to miss and kill a few innocent civilians in the process. But every so often one does hit the target. When I first saw X-Campus it looked too cartoony and too out-there to be anything more than a nice way to kill 12 minutes in between Skinemax marathons. Some have called it a cheap European import, sort of like Mili Vanilli except instead of lip syncing he's ripping off X-men Evolution. However, this is one of those books that takes a premise any half-brained idiot with low quality pot can come up with and makes it awesome. I didn't expect to like the first issue as much as I did. I expected even less to like the second issue. Now I'm all the way at the end and I can safely say that X-Campus has been a rare hit of awesome from the overused bong that is Marvel minis.

The last issue was really what prompted me to review X-Campus #4. The last issue continued the story that began with the first two issues while throwing in a hell of a twist at the end. That twist involved a revelation that Professor Jean Grey (who for the first two issues was more her older, mature, MILF movie version) was actually only a professor of jail bait. She was actually a teenage girl like the rest of the X-characters, who just happened to be parading around as an adult with the help of Professor Xavier. A twist like that is harder to top than Sarah Palin's shopping receipts. But that revelation helped set the stage for this issue because it put the X-men (bearing in mind they're not officially the X-men yet and just a bunch of teenage mutants) in position to uncover some secrets that have been brewing at the Worthington Foundation. Those secrets involve killer robots and mutant domination plots. In other words, it's a standard representation of 80 percent of all Marvel comic book plots. The key for X-Campus #4 is keeping it interesting.

It starts with the subtle approach, taking some of the proto X-men and having them patrol the campus on the look out for the sentinels. Except these aren't those lame, over-sized purple sentinels with a color scheme that would make a gay fashion designer faint. These are are a bit more practical and terrifying, taking on the shape of bugs and creepy crawler knock-offs that test their skills by harassing students that stay out too late. It seems a little underhanded until you take into account it's the perfect way to test these systems covertly because any student out that late at night is either drunk or stoned and would chalk the sighting up to mixing too much tequila with vodka.

These tiny incarnations of the sentinels act as sort of a pre-cursor to the greater plot that's been unfolding with the X-Campus students for the past few issues. These sentinels aren't exactly being built in factories. They're more the Braniac version of the sentinels in the sense that they inject nanomachines into regular humans (college students) and turn them into machine-like drones. In other words, they become part cyborg and part zombie. It takes one awesome concept and mixes it with another to make a new kind of awesome. It's simple, but damn it if it doesn't work nicely. It's a hell of a lot more efficient than building giant humanoids, that's for sure. It leads me to believe that Bolivar Trask in this universe is Japanese.

They pay Professor Magnus (Magneto) a visit to let him know they're onto his little side-projects. He reacts with about as much enthusiasm as Christopher Walken on Botox. He doesn't pick a fight with the X-men just yet. He essentially leaves them to ponder and worry as teenagers are so adept at doing with or without mutant powers. While they keep searching for answers on this techno-zombie hoard menace, they get a visit from someone else who has been habitually fucking with them since the beginning of this series. That's Emma Frost. She's still the preppy bitch in X-Campus (which alone makes her more true to her character than the 616 version at the moment) and she has the audacity to call out Jean Grey, the girl whose cover she blew so that she can't get into a bar anymore or a male strip club.

However, she's not up to her usual trick this time. She's actually trying to be somewhat of a help, which would make her seem somewhat less bitchy even if she's still in another zip code of Matt Fraction's Emma. She reveals that someone else has been developing this sentinel techno-zombie technology. Someone who isn't Magneto and isn't satisfied with Nazi style domination. She acts as a mediator between them and Magnus. It's like the Rebels and the Empire coming together to stop Jabba the Hut. Needless to say, that's a tough sell.

So Xavier still agrees to meet with Magnus. He brings Mesmero and Mystique with him. It has a very Bloods vs. Crips atmosphere to it and nobody is too thrilled to be working with each other. But they seem to agree that they would rather not fight a hoard of techno-zombies. These are still teenage X-men and Brotherhood. They're a few years away from that so they have to be pussies to some extent and find a way to stop it. That means breaking into the labs and putting a stop to the Cyberno research that has been developing for the past few issues.

Colossus and Nightcrawler are already a step ahead of the game and enter the lab. They're tasked with pulling the plug on Cyberno. It should be as easy as tripping over it in the dark and blaming poor lighting or inconsiderate roommates. But it's a plan that goes bad faster than a sub-prime mortgage from Bernie Madoff. Cyberno is a high tech piece of equipment. Like Skynet in Terminator, it's going to have defenses and these don't consist of a bunch of naked Arnold Schwarzeneggers.

Mystique and Mesmero soon show up to make good on this whole partnership deal. That's when a not-so-surprising revelation is dropped. Mystique reveals that Nightcrawler is her son. That's about as surprising as the Yankees making the playoffs, but there's another twist thrown into the mix. Remember Bolivar Trask? The other asshole behind the sentinels that was screwing Magneto over? Well he's there, but he's not exactly human anymore. He's pulled the old brain-in-a-jar stunt and actually become Cyberno. I know some people get caught up in their work, but I'm still a long ways away from linking my brain to my X-men Supreme website (not this year anyways).

Not content with just making himself a machine, Trask has done what the entire Department of Education has only dreamed of doing and turned each student within the school into a mindless machine. So instead of giant killer robots, the X-men have to fight their friends and classmates as zombie cyborgs. As much as I love killer robots and all, zombie cyborgs just looks and feels a lot cooler while throwing in that reservation and uncertainty that puts superheroes in such awkward positions. Yet it still makes for some kick ass action scenes that the Resident Evil movies haven't been able to capture despite four lackluster attempts.

The fighting isn't put on an epic scale that you would see in a Michael Bay movie, but what it lacks in mindless explosions it makes up for in the human element. You still get classic moments like Storm making Mother Nature her bitch to fight some zombie sentinels, but you also get the whole conflicted battle mentality. It's not simply a matter of blowing the obstacle up. You've gotta work around the people behind the crazy asshole looking to channel his inner Pol Pot. That helps make up for the lack of scale and ends the first half of the issue with Trask making his typical anti-mutant speech. Even though it sounds like he's reading it off a teleprompter, the fact that he's turning teenagers into zombie cyborgs helps add a bit more punch.

Now like every issue of X-Campus thus far, this issue is double sized with two issues being packed into one. For the first three issues, this usually meant two separate stories that didn't always link up. This one is different. This one is double sized, but the story is essentially a two-part arc. Except you don't have to wait a whole fucking month or two weeks to see it. Given that most fans now a days have the attention span of a flea on crystal meth, that's like being cast in a dick sucking contest for Sweedish supermodels. This issue doesn't miss a beat. As soon as the second part of the story begins, it's quick and seamless. Like the previously mentioned dick-sucking contest it continues as if it never stopped.

Trask's zombie cyborgs have both sides on the ropes. Then Nightcrawler is the one that steps it up, channeling his inner John Conner and teleporting him and Colossus out of the lab. He makes it a point to promise his mother, Mystique, that he would come back for her. Now this is somewhat strange because it's not clear if Nightcrawler knew beforehand that Mystique was his mother or if there was some sort of reaction. It's one of those little things that's overlooked, but when there are zombie cyborgs attacking it's understandable that such revelations would fall to the wayside.

Nightcrawler and Colossus's presence offer some much needed back up to the rest of the X-men. They start turning the tide with Rogue and Colossus acting as the heavy hitters along with Blob while Wolverine shows he's just as deadly as a punk teenager as he is a miserable asshole drunk adult. Even Warren, who has been keeping his wings concealed to this point makes a contribution. He rescues Nightcrawler so he can get in the action as well. He doesn't do much fighting. Wings aren't very useful as weapons, but at least he does something. His name is still on the school building so he can't feel too bad.

Once the tide turns, the zombie cyborgs of Trask's sentinel army retreat back into the school. Rather than follow them, Magnus uses this opportunity to become a total asshole again and break the truce. His solution is simple. Use his powers to basically level the school, destroying Cyberno and killing everyone inside it including the unwitting students whose only crime was not having a mutant power with which to defeat killer robots. This is definitely the Magneto we know and love, not the pussy who basically goes along with Cyclops now in 616. It doesn't even bother him that Mystique is still inside. He even hits Nightcrawler when he tries to stop him. That alone makes him the epic douche bag he's supposed to be and sets up for the long expected clash between the X-men and the Brotherhood. For old school X-men fans, this is like your favorite stripper offering you a free lap dance.

Unfortunately, that fight doesn't happen. Cooler heads do prevail. Xavier convinces him to avoid the whole mass killing part of his plan, instead opting for an electromagnetic blast that shorts out all the zombie cyborgs. It's like that favorite stripper I mentioned earlier suddenly asking for 100 bucks. I know many would have preferred an X-men vs. Brotherhood fight, but that would leave too little room with which to fight Cyberno. Since the book is running out of ink, they have to go with the indirect approach.

While this makes getting to Cyberno a lot easier, it also gives Magnus time to go over his whole "mutants are superior" shit and "we should join forces and take over the world" crap. Now for most teenagers who already think they rule the world, that's sort of a redundant speech to make. But it doesn't stop Magnus from being like Brett Favre and Ben Rothlesburger are to women and not take no for an answer. Before they can even get to Cyberno, he turns on the X-men. So it appears we'll get the classic X-men vs. Magneto fight after all, meaning that stripper bumped the price of that lap dance to a discount.

Here's where another twist enters the fray. Magnus tears into the X-men with his powers, going all out with his powers to take them down. And for a moment it looks like he wins. The X-men hardly put up a fight. However, that's not exactly what happens. You see, Magnus only thinks he's beating down on the X-men the same way Ike Turner beat down on Tina. In reality, Professor Xavier jacked his mind before he got past the "Let's take over the world" speech. He essentially did the dirty work and before he can screw Xavier over, he gets the better of him. It's not a Lost style mind-bending twist, but it's still damn good way to win a fight and it shows that Xavier can be pretty damn cunning for a guy in a wheelchair. In that sense he's like Stephen Hawkings if he could do kung fu.

This leaves the X-men free to journey into the lab and take down Cyberno. With no zombie cyborgs protecting him, Trask has to face fend for himself. He's surprisingly prepared because it looks like he saw War of the Worlds (the non-Tom Cruise version) and ensures his brain is in fighting condition via a Doctor Octopus spider monster. It's not a terribly original, but it's pretty damn effective. The man made a bunch of teenagers his zombie cyborg minions. He deserves somewhat of a pass for making a brain powered robot that looks like a knock-off of no fewer than 29 B-rated sci fi movies.

There is some heart thrust into this seemingly bland robot fight. Trask still has Mystique in his clutches and uses her the same way the Taliban uses their women, as cannon fodder and human shields. Trask does his typical boasting, but that doesn't stop the X-men from attacking. Nightcrawler isn't there to hold them back so Rogue makes the move to attack Trask's little brain bot, which frees Mystique but not in a very gentle way.

It's bad for Mystique, but bad for Trask as well. There's one last touching moment for Mystique, who passes on her memories to Rogue now that she's absorbed her. She becomes quite possibly the least spiteful Mystique in X-men and she goes out in a way that's somewhat heroic. Rogue, who may have been overly brash in attacking, has the sense to take on Mystique's form when she finishes the job against Trask. With help from the rest of the X-men, they make quick work of Trask. Again, it's not a terribly epic fight. This series has not really been keen on making the kind of epic fights that X-men are supposed to have. These are teenage versions of the X-men and they're not wearing uniforms so you wouldn't exactly expect it that way. It still seems unrefined, but satisfying none-the-less. It's like watching a firecracker blow up an aunt hill. Napalm would have been more awesome, but a firecracker still gets the job done.

So Trask is defeated. The X-men are triumphant. There are some casualties and some damage to the school that will make the insurance companies shit their pants. It's basically par for the course for the X-men. There's a nice moment with Rogue and Kurt as Rogue explains why Mystique got involved with Magnus and Trask. In the end she still loved him. She only helped Trask because she wanted to find her son. She did, but in the end Trask still fucked her up and Rogue managed to obtain all the memories with which he can share with him now. So it's a nice touch of emotion to go along with the triumph. It's like a gram of coke atop a bag of weed. It adds an extra touch to an already great experience.

Now that the killer brain is gone and Magnus has taken a 'leave of absence' as it were, the X-men of the X-Campus start anew. Xavier becomes the new director of the Worthington Foundation, the zombie cyborgs are cured of their condition and have no memory of their zombie badassery (which most will probably chalked up to some bad shrooms), and the X-men are now their own social click within a school. In a world where the difference between school being an ass-raping prison and a quality experience for growing teenage minds is simply having a click, it's as fitting an ending as anyone could hope for. It's actually a happy ending, something few comic books have had since the 1960s. There may be a few douche-bags out there who think a happy ending outside an Asian massage parlor is lame, but some people actually like finishing a comic book with a smile. There's actually something charming about a book that ends on a high note. Since X-Campus is a limited series, a happy ending means it can end without any loose ends. At a time when no comic company can resist leaving shit open for a sequel, this is like a unicorn fucking an elf. It's such a joy to see (in a non-bestiality way of course).

So that's it! X-Campus is over. The little mini that could has finished and in only four short (but double sized) issues, it has told a story about an entirely alternate X-men universe that is compelling, charming, and enjoyable. You get the sense that if X-men Evolution wasn't a cartoon, this is the secondary form it would take. The idea of the X-men being teenagers in a school is not new, but it's still a good idea and X-Campus does it as well as X-fans could possibly hope.

Now as I've already pointed out, this series is lacking in a few areas. There aren't the epic battles that one would associate with the X-men. Even X-men Evolution had a bigger scale than this. Hell, they had episodes with giant robots fighting mutants in the middle of downtown Manhattan. This series took place almost entirely on a school campus and was largely contained. So there isn't much of an awe factor. And because there were only four issues, the characters really didn't get much of a chance to develop. Aside from Rogue and Nightcrawler, there wasn't much of a personal touch. There wasn't even any romance or love triangles. If this series were longer there would have been plenty of time to develop it. Sadly, X-Campus was limited by it's scope.

Even so, this series has been a real treat and right in time for Halloween no less! X-Campus #4 is the perfect ending to a perfect little mini that really stands out among a vast sea of X-books that don't offer a viable alternative to the current status quo. With X-men Forever sucking more with each issue and Ultimate X-men utterly destroyed, X-Campus outshines them all with it's awesomeness. So for this final issue I give X-Campus a much deserved 5 out of 5. If you're an X-fan and looking for something different, this is your book! Marvel doesn't come out with shit like this often so enjoy it! Nuff said.

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