Sunday, December 26, 2010

Uncanny X-men #531 - Sick or Healthy Awesome?

It's the most depressing day in the world. The day after Christmas is upon us. It is the day where peace, love, and goodwill give way to being a regular asshole again. Kids wake up depressed. Adults wake up hung over from too much eggnog mixed with vodka. Diabetics curse the world when they accidentally slip a sugar cookie into their pocket when no one's looking. So if ever there was a day in need of comic books, it's the day after Christmas. Depending on how many people are stuck having to return the crap clueless relatives thought you wanted, most anyone is open to a reprieve to this most depressing of days. Some douse the leftover eggnog, some douse themselves with Nyquil until the wake up for the next Christmas morning, and some seek a distraction. If there's one thing comics have proven to be great at over the years, it's distracting people from how shitty the real world is.

In case you too doused with eggnog this past week, some pretty major titles were released by Marvel. One of them was Uncanny X-men #531. Now this may be a gift or a big lump of coal covered in cow shit depending on what kind of X-fan you are. Since the end of Second Coming, the quality of Uncanny has been as inconsistent as the size of Barry Bonds's testicles. Matt Fraction is one of those writers where fans either love him or want him tarred and feathered at the next comic con while fans dressed in Cyclops costumes piss on him. He's had his moments. He's also had issues that are akin to that annoying kid in elementary school who purposefully steps in piles of shit, thinking it's cool while the other kids hold their noses. He's also had issues that show signs of development. After some poor issues during the Five Lights arc, he did rebound a bit with the last issue. This issue he gets help in a way that may qualify for a viagra commercial. He's joined by Generation Hope writer, Kieron Gillen.

Now this is a bit of an anomaly because it's rare for a new writer to join in mid arc. The current arc, Quarentine, began in the last issue and only Matt Fraction's name was attached to it. For the first issue, Kieron Gillen's name is attached as well. He's someone who is still proving himself in Generation Hope. He's off to an admirable start. The first two issues have been decent, but not the kind that will have Geoff Johns or Mike Carey watching their backs. His entry into Uncanny comes as a bit of a surprise because this is the guy behind the SWORD series, which many recall got canned after four issues because too few people gave two shits from a donkey's ass about it. So what can he bring to the table with Uncanny? Does it even matter?

Gillen comes aboard after the last issue set up a fairly generic plot. The mutants on Utopia are getting sick. A mysterious flu has broken out and it's effecting only mutants. So yeah, it's a knock-off of the legacy virus. Anyone who has enough brain cells to use wikipedia can find out what that story entailed. But it's not a carbon copy. This virus is making the X-men sicker than Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. It's unique in that it's purposefully going after their powers, rendering them weakened and undermanned. So Cyclops has essentially quarantined the island (gee, wonder where they got the title from?) and left all X-men duties in the hand of a small bunch of mutants that include Storm, Dazzler, Pixie, Angel, and Northstar. It's basically the B-minus Team of the X-men. They're seriously lacking in the heavy hitters department, so much so that even Namor is infected. Yet even when he's sicker than Nick Nolety's mug shot, he's still the lovable arrogant douche.

The number of sick is growing, but as of now there hasn't been a case of any human getting ill. So the quarantine remains in effect and Cyclops has placed Dr. Rao as the one in charge of finding a cure. She's basically gotta be Dr. House with only a quarter of the awesome. The Five Lights make a brief appearance, which seems to be Kieron Gillen's way of making his presence known in this book. It's only one page and does absolutely jack shit with the plot, but it does demonstrate that everyone is being affected.

That even extends to Wolverine, a guy who has been effectively blown up Afghan style and survived. He's left even sicker because his healing factor is essential for him to cope with having adamantium bonded to his bones. He's essentially worse than Michael Jackson when he didn't get his daily dose of surgery-grade tranquilizers. He doesn't care to be bedridden because he's aware of an event that transpired in Chinatown (which was covered in the previous issue) and he can't do shit about it. He's pissed, but even the big bad Wolverine is rendered as weak as a kitten with it's eyes gouged out by this virus.

While pretty much everyone on Utopia is taking a sick day, the X-men still have work to do in the city. Storm, Angel, Pixie, Dazzler, and Northstar report in to let them know how they're doing. It's about as well as you would expect a horribly undermanned team to be, meaning they're in over their head. They stopped a robbery, but unlike your traditional super-hero photo op the bad guys get away. And they don't get away by making fools of the heroes or getting help from someone with more than just a ski-mask and a pistol. They just slip into the shadows as Angel described. It offers hints at the conflict in Chinatown that Logan mentioned, demonstrating that whenever a plague breaks out it has to come at the worse possible time.

In addition, it's revealed that Cyclops has become ill as well. He hasn't shown it to this point. He's put on the usual poise and strength that make him so strong (and annoying to some fans). It's not really showing in him the way it is the other characters. I'm not sure if this is because he's not at a certain stage yet or Fraction's love of Cyclops simply won't allow him to look like the impotent guy in the viagra commercials. It doesn't seem fair and it could make for a much more interesting story if Cyclops was out of commission. But it doesn't happen and predictably so. Even if Cyclops is sick, he's not doing as good a job as making it work for him as Wolverine and Namor.

While the X-men are raising the stock of Campell's Chicken Soup, John Sublime is celebrating their suffering the same way a Dominatrix celebrates when a bowl of hot candle wax is poured on a 45-year-old state senator from the bible belt's scrotum. He's using the X-men's weakness as an opportunity to promote his own X-men. He's not doing the whole Bastion plot of trying to eliminate the mutant race. He's doing the Wall Street equivalent of scratching an itch on the underside of his balls by testing a new procedure that gives normal humans X-men powers. It's so X-men-ish that he essentially creates his own original five with a Cyclops, Beast, Angel, Marvel Girl, and Iceman. The only difference here is that Angel is a hot blond chick because what's better for publicity than a hot blond chick? Paris Hilton being the lone exception? It's not about humans versus mutants. It's not about upstaging the X-men to make them weaker. It's about setting up a business model. If you're a member of Greenpeace, this is by far the most evil plot ever hatched by a comic book.

The book doesn't take too much of an anti-capitalist stance as Dr. Rao plays the role of the non-asshole aspects of the pharmaceutical industry. She not only has to play the role of Dr. House without Hugh Laurie's caliber of awesome, she has to use his methods and all their insanity. What she does to further her research would make House partially crack a smile before demeaning her horribly as an idiot. She injects herself  with the virus. In terms of science, that's the equivalent of boxing a meth-laden Maney Pacquiao naked with anvils strapped to your ankles. Dr. Rao hasn't shown too much grit just yet, but she sure makes a statement here. She shows she too has the testicular fortitude to be in the X-men.

While she's giving House a run for his money, crime continues to plague San Francisco like another marijuana legalization campaign. As was shown in the previous issue, Absorbing Man is showing he's watched the Godfather one too many times and is taking over the street. He confronts a local business to shake them down for protection money. It turns into a scene from a Republican campaign ad on crime with stereotypical thugs coming out to fight. All the gang showboating doesn't really do shit when you've got mutant powers to deal with.

The X-men are close to the scene to pick up on this, having traced the source of the crime to this area. Wait...when did they do that? Was the comic I got defective. Nope, it just happened off screen. Somehow they know Absorbing Man is their guy and they're there to stop them. There was no detective work. There was no hiring Scooby and the gang. They just show up and are in the right place to confront the guy. I understand Fraction and Gillen have a finite amount of ink for these books, but that's too big a plot hole to ignore. It's not an 800 pound gorilla. It's more like a 50 pound gorilla sitting obviously in the center of the room taking a shit on what was once a pretty decent carpet. Even a mention of a tip they got would have made the shit less smelly, but no dice.

So while the X-men make their dramatic entrance to take on Absorbing Man, Sublime's new X-men show up and attack. Well, actually they don't attack. They go to help the X-men. In doing so they sound like a bunch of cheerleaders from a Glee fan club that's about to get a guest spot as an extra that will show for a grand total of fourteen seconds. It is somewhat appropriate since these are regular people who are just testing Sublime's research, but they still come off as goofy teenagers standing in line at a Justin Bieber concert.

Whatever confrontation these two teams have will have to wait until the next issue because from here on out, it's all Emma Frost. She's had her own sub-plot going for a while now and it's a plot that's been a mixed bag on Fraction's run. As I've pointed out before, Matt Fraction's take on Emma Frost is like a migraine mixed with a hangover. It's so pestilent it's hard to follow at times, but in the last few issues he has made an attempt to give her some depth. He's had her confront Sebastian Shaw and having deceived Namor. She still comes off as a whiney shadow of her former self from the Morrison and Whedon days, but at least she's becoming less like the Jean 2.0 that Fraction has made her into.

In the last issue she, Shadowcat, and Fantomex successfully abducted Shaw and were trying to figure out what they were going to do with him. Emma wants to kill him. Kitty doesn't want her to walk that route. Fantomex is basically sitting in the corner looking pretty. Finally, they do wake Shaw up and he gets to have his say in this affair. He's been pretty quiet to this point and it's easy to forget that this guy is very much responsible for the Emma Frost we know, love, and masterbate to.

While Emma may be portrayed horribly out-of-character at times under Fraction's pen, Shaw is still the same sadistic bastard he's always been. Emma dares him to tell them about their history. He accepts, putting his tongue on the proverbial pole and dishes a story about Emma's past before she was the white queen. It isn't pretty in the sense that it would make a great scene in the next Saw movie. Before she became queen, she had competitors in two women named Rebecca and Anne. She was somewhat close to them in the same way a Yankees fan is to their sister, who happens to be a Red Sox fan. One day Shaw asks her to decide who lives and who dies. Emma, being an ambitious bitch, says she doesn't care who dies. So Shaw responds with the most logical recourse. He brutally beats the two women to death with his bear hands in a way that Ike Turner would find disgusting.

It's a powerful story, one that reminds readers that Emma does not have a history as a hero. At her core she is a cold-hearted bitch. It's a side that has been so watered down by Fraction it might as well be a One More Day retcon. It's nice to see it referenced here, but it doesn't seem to add as much depth to Emma as it probably should. It shows what she did in her past. That's about it. It doesn't show how that affects her now or how it's even bothering her. It's just something she did that she doesn't do anymore because she's with the X-men. It wasn't what she did. It's that she wanted to do it in the first place. As if somehow actually doing it makes a difference. I get that Fraction and Gillen are putting Emma in an awkward position, but it's not doing much to make her less watered down. She still comes off as the tragic influence of Shaw.

At this point it gets a little more random. Before Emma can even make her point, the story takes an abrupt turn. Fantomex essentially drops Shaw out of the ship and into a rocky pit. It's a shitty move to anyone who knows anything about Shaw's powers. Dropping him off a cliff just makes him stronger. Either Fantomex was just ignorant (and Emma saw fit to not mention Shaw's powers) or he essentially channeled his inner Deadpool for a moment and did something utterly random. It ends the book on a confusing and frustrating note. This was a plot that held the potential to make Emma Frost more like her Morrison or Whedon self. Now it looks like she'll end up a weepy, whiney pussy that will go crying to Cyclops and he'll kiss her boo-boo's away. It seems to be the only story Fraction (and now Gillen) knows how to write.

The Shaw/Emma plot has taken a huge hit, but at the same time the story surrounding Sublime and the quarantine has taken a step up. So overall, the comic does not completely tank like Enron stock. There is plenty to enjoy here. The story of the X-men and their emerging competition with Sublime is becoming less a legacy knock-off and more a real plot. Sublime's new X-men are still horribly generic. They need some refinement, but it's still early and they have plenty of chances. An undermanned X-men is sure to make that even more difficult so there's plenty of reason to pick up the next issue.

However, the plot with Emma Frost remains the biggest taint on this arc. Now it isn't just Fraction who takes the blame. Kieron Gillen had to have had some influence over this book as well if his name is listed as a co-writer. Yet the way this story unfolded still felt like something of the Matt Fraction tradition. It's some gritty, sexy story that shows how Emma was never all that evil. She was just a victim of Shaw's influence. That really doesn't gel with who she is and her history in the X-men comics. It's like finding out the Big Bad Wolf in the Three Little Pigs just had an abusive father and it's not his fault to begin with. It feels like this arc can only have one ending for Emma. She's going to go running back into Cyclops's arms, no conflict will come of this, and all will be brushed aside. It's part of what has made these two characters so frustrating to read, even for longtime fans.

I can't call this book a failure. Many parts of it were good despite some plotholes. The Emma plot at the end really soiled it, but not enough to make this book completely worth panning. So I'll try to use whatever is left of my Christmas spirit and give Uncanny X-men #531 at 3 out of 5. You'll find plenty to enjoy, but if you had problems with previous issues this one won't win you over. It's not the weakest X-title on the shelves right now, but it is certainly not the strongest. If Kieron Gillen is to take on more of a role with the X-books he'll have to do a better job than this. Just because he's working with Fraction doesn't mean he has to keep making his mistakes. Nuff said!

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