Monday, November 15, 2010

X-men: To Serve and Protect #1 - The Basics of Awesome

It goes without saying that Marvel Comics needs to keep readers interested and like any good business, they'll bend over backwards and suck any number of dicks to keep delivering a product that we fans gladly fork our hard earned money over to follow this unfolding saga of awesome. The X-books are their own world. It's like the Wal Mart of Marvel's character arsenal because it has so many different characters, plots, and stories to choose from. At the same time it's a daunting task trying to keep that interest going. In a ways it's like porn. Once you jerk off to pretty much everything the internet and illegal imports from South Asia, it's a lot harder to get your rock off.

The X-books have decades of continuity, the equivalent of several internets worth of porn to work with. Usually their way to keep the gravy train pouring gravy is to throw big events into the mix. Fans need to be wowed because their standards are so high and their capacity for bitching is so strong that unless everything comes straight from brain stem of Hemmingway himself it gets demonized. To their credit Marvel tries it's best to keep one-upping themselves. The X-books have had an embarrassment of riches lately with House of M, the Messiah Trilogy, and most recently a string of #1s featuring the likes of Wolverine, X-23, Generation Hope, and Uncanny X-Force. It's all been big, flashy shit that can't always be that deep or have too much substance. That may make people actually think.

However, there is room for the negated little things. They're so easy to negate and can keep a good story from becoming awesome. Great writers and greater ideas take care of the little things. Series like Blackest Night, Superman Origins, and Civil War did a great job of covering every detail. During events in the X-books like Utopia and Mutants vs. Vampires there were some off-shoots to those stories that acted like these little filler stories. They weren't bit or flashy. They simply told smaller stories about the more personal aspects of the X-world. It's not the kind of thing that will make a fanboy's heart explode and their dick go crashing through the roof. That's a tragedy too because these smaller stories compliment the larger ones and when nobody appreciates them, Marvel has to go back to blowing shit up and that runs the risk of collateral damage.

Following in the footsteps of Nation X, the X-books began a new mini that emerges from the shadows of Second Coming. It's called X-men" To Serve and Protect. This is a series that essentially gets back to basics. For the past few years the X-men haven't been all that heroic. House of M set them up for a one-night stand with extinction and so much of their struggles were directed away from heroics and all towards survival. Well that's different now. Second Coming made it so mutants could stand up extinction. Now they have to learn to be heroes again. The story after Mutants vs. Vampires promises to be the next big tale that sends them down that road, but before they get to it X-men: To Serve and Protect sets the stage. It takes a handful of characters and tells short little stories about them doing the little things. It isn't epic, but it is a vital part to the ongoing awesomeness of the X-books and should not be discounted.

The first issue has a total of four stories, each told by a different writer. The first story involves Rockslide and Anole, two of the younger mutants who still live in a world of dreams that haven't yet been shattered by the adult world. Rockslide wakes Anole up and suddenly remembers why he joined the X-men in the first place. He wants to make a difference. So out of nowhere and most likely after watching The Dark Knight on Blu Ray for the fifteenth time, he says they should go out and fight crime. It seems random, but someone had to remember the original purpose of the X-men at one point. It might as well be Rockslide, who isn't known for his impulse control.

Anole goes along with it, but there's a problem. As with all impulses, what sounds good on paper (or what sounds good while you're wasted on tequila) doesn't always pan out when put into practice. To fight crime for some reason they feel like they have to put on masks. Given how they look, that would be like Kanye West trying to prove he's not a douche-bag by buying sunglasses laced with silver instead of gold. Anole puts on a cloak and a fake mustache. Rockslide puts on a hockey mask. They look more like serial killers than crime fighters, but that doesn't stop them from finding a crime and making a scene.

In the end they do stop the crime and save a woman who was about to be assaulted, but when she sees them she runs away like a creationist from the natural history museum. Rockslide is encouraged. Anole seems about as convinced as Michael Moore in a debate with Sean Hannity. It's easy to forget they're still teenagers. They've yet to process fully the meaning of a young woman's scream or the consequences of their actions. At least for them this doesn't involve a botched house party or a beer run. They do some heroics and for that they should be commended.

The next story is a bit more mature. It involves Emma Frost, a character who has suffered horrible characterization under the pen of Matt Fraction. She's either an outright bitch or she's submissive arm candy. If anyone is in need of a story that just shows someone being themselves, it's Emma Frost. This story is that story. Emma's doing what most would expect her to do. She's getting a massage at a fancy spa that's probably more exclusive than Steve Jobs's personal phone number. She's also naked so that alone makes the whole comic worth buying. Most male readers would be content to see a whole plot of her just getting a massage. But Marvel has to be coy here and tell a story. This time it involves a psychic attack that for whatever reason has every overprivlidged rich girl walking like drones at a GOP rally. Emma, having been inconvenienced, takes it upon herself to fix the problem so she could get back to her massage.

The asshole behind this little attack is a butt ugly man/ape named Mandrill. With his pheromone powers, he's controlling all these rich beautiful woman to look at him like he's Brad Pitt and George Clooney all rolled into one sweet man-package. Most male readers would admit, they would do the same thing if they had those powers as well.

However, it doesn't work on Emma Frost. This is a woman who went toe-to-toe with the Phoenix and made her living manipulating men as a stripper. To manipulate her would be like getting Satan to kiss your shoes while dressing up in a school girls costume to dance to your entire Ipod playlist. Mandril isn't amused and tries to attack Emma with the girls. Somehow a bunch of overprivileged rich women against someone like Emma Frost hardly seems like a fair fight.

Needless to say, Emma barely breaks a sweat fighting off the attack. Being beautiful, tough, and thoroughly pissed off for having her massage interrupted she makes quick work of them. Then to punish Mandril, she messes with his mind in a way that all men would consider to be a fate worse than death. Originally, he busted into this spa to get a bunch of beautiful woman a man as ugly as him could never get under his control. Emma turned that around on him, twisting his mind so that whenever he sees a beautiful woman he'll just see his own butt ugly face. That means he'll never be able to look a woman in the eye without being repulsed, thus making even a simple task like masterbating to internet porn next to impossible.

It's the kind of cruel yet fitting lesson that makes Emma Frost so lovable. She does it with a cool attitude that hasn't been seen since the Joss Whedon days and for this, Emma fans of all stripes should finally have reason to celebrate. For she is still the most awesome bitch with a heart of gold in Marvel Comics.

The next story isn't quite as sexy. This one involves Doug Ramsey, aka Cypher. He's a computer geek and overall braniac who has to rely on old fashioned fighting skills to be a hero. In that sense he's like Batman if he was an awkward and sometimes annoying teenager. He hasn't had too many chances to be heroic since Second Coming.

This little story changes that. On a sunny day in San Francisco he picks up a disturbance (which in San Francisco could mean any number of crazy things) and looks into it. He discovers the source to be your typical hissy fit from Hydra. Some douche-bag thought it would be a good idea to stage a suicide attack in a city near where the entire mutant population lives. This doesn't even qualify as a it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time moment. It's more of a what-the-fuck-were-they-on-and-where-can-I-get-some moment.

Cypher stops one attack, getting some unpleasant attention from the police in the process. They look to question him as if he was OJ Simpson. Then without the help of a white Bronco, he runs off to find another Hydra suicide bomber that his senses are picking up on. Now I'm not sure if this is some broader statement about how the police can be assholes, but there seems to be little reason why they treat Cypher as a suspect after he's stopped a suicide bomber. In this day and age that would get you a personal blow job from Sean Hannity. He probably would have Cypher on speed dial because he succeeds again in taking down the bomber.

It doesn't become quite the subliminal advertisement for the GOP because the cop does end up being a somewhat nicer guy. Instead of questioning him the second time, he figures out that Cypher isn't the enemy and the guys with bombs to their chests are. Somehow that shouldn't have taken more then one suicide bomber to figure out, but at least he came around. Cypher gets to be a hero and he doesn't get arrested. In comics where cops almost never show up and aren't always shown in the best of light, this is probably the most balanced story in the X-books that they've had in years.

The final story involves our old friend Fantomex. He's a bit of a douche, but at least he has manners. His story starts off with him showing his douche side by breaking into a museum and stealing a large gem. Only he didn't steal it himself. He actually stole it from another thief who stole it beforehand. I know that sounds confusing, but it's actually pretty easy to follow. Fantomex doesn't like some other French guy stealing his thunder so he decides to fuck with him.

Not one to take this sort of shit lightly, the thief goes after Fantomex and the two fight it out for the diamond. It's a pretty well-developed scene. It's not heavy on the inner monologues like Cypher's story was. It's just pure hand-to-fist ass-kicking and in a book that has smaller stories at it's core, this actually fits quite nicely. It's a little cartoony at times. You could probably put Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in this story and rate it TV-14 and it would still work.

Eventually, Fantomex does get the upper hand. He fights off the thief and grabs the diamond while crashing into a window. He takes a moment to proclaim his greatness and how he has a super valuable gem that he can use to get money for expensive French wine and very liberal French women who actually shave their arm pits. Then comes a slight twist. Remember, this story is centered around the X-men being heroes again. Stealing a gem isn't very heroic even if it's stolen from another thief. For Fantomex, he has to put off all that bling he would have bought because that window he crashed through was actually a police station. So instead of risking a PR nightmare for the X-men or becoming an even greater douche, he gives the diamond back over to the authorities. He probably doesn't like it, but it beats the hell out of prison rape.

That final story caps off the end of the issue. It's a fitting and more humorous story to end on, bringing together an all around entertaining and insightful collection of tales that show the X-men in less epic parts of their lives. They aren't fighting off aliens or killer robots from the future. They're just living their lives and doing some cool shit along the way.

It's a great premise to a series and one that really follows the same mold of Nation X. These are simple stories that get in a bit deeper to the characters. However, some of the stories didn't dig deep enough. They just showed the characters doing heroic shit. In Nation X there was more emphasis on character development. That's not really apparent here. In some arcs like the Cypher and Emma Frost arc, there was some decent development. But in the others it was limited. Just having characters do something isn't enough. A little depth goes a long way because fans can't dive head first into a series if the pool is too shallow. Plus, the humans skull can only take so much punishment.

But these criticisms are minor. I still have no problem saying this series was awesome and a worthy addition to the X-books. For that I give X-men: To Serve and Protect #1 a 5 out of 5. A series like this is vital to keep these characters grounded. With all the other crazy shit Marvel probably has brewing, a series like this is a great way to keep everything in perspective even in a fantasy world. And for once, no hallucinogens are needed! Nuff said.

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