Sunday, March 27, 2011
Uncanny X-men #534 - Matt Fraction's Swan Song
Well here it is. The end of an era. It's not an era you'll find in any history book, even the ones from Texas that claim Jesus Christ blessed America with a magic fart and FDR was Facebook friends with Hitler. For the past several years, Matt Fraction has been at the helm of Uncanny X-men. Under his run, Uncanny became THE central X-men book again. It's the first time Uncanny X-men had such a role in over a decade. Before it was Grant Morrison, Joss Whedon, or some other big name writer who stole Uncanny's thunder. Well Matt Fraction took that thunder back like a Nigerian salesman and ran with it. He took Uncanny past the landmark #500 issue, moved the X-men to San Francisco, set up Utopia, and wrote them through Second Coming. That's a lot for a writer who had to pick up after an event like Messiah Complex.
However, Matt Fraction's run hasn't been without it's hiccups. He's done a lot to set the status quo for Uncanny, but that status quo can sometimes make your eyes roll so much that you can see the back of your skull. Fraction has been great with telling big stories such as Utopia. Where he's faltered is his characterization of certain X-men. He's made no secret that he loves Cyclops and Emma Frost. That's all well and good, but for the duration of his run his bias towards these characters has been so blatant that it's turned off even those who are fans of them. He treats these characters as if they were made of glass that was hand-molded by Michelangelo himself, never putting them in a position to do any wrong or face any hardships. It's made the Cyclops/Emma relationship pretty much unbearable. People used to whine about the Cyclops/Jean relationship for being bland. At least that relationship had depth. Matt Fraction's Cyclops/Emma has been a migraine inducing deconstruction of their characters that takes all the proclivities that Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon developed and gives it the Old Yeller treatment.
Then there's his portrayal of other characters like Pixie, Dazzler, and pretty much any mutant under the age of 18. He doesn't give any character an individual voice. If they all look a certain way, they pretty much sound the same way. You could put Pixie's dialog in place of Dazzler's and it would be exactly the same. You could do the same with Storm and Colossus. It's hard to really get a feel for these characters when they're about as underdeveloped as the nation of Botswana.
But I digress. Matt Fraction has done a lot of good things as well. He's told some great stories and taken the X-men to a new and exciting environment. So I am left with some sadness that he's leaving, but he's going onto bigger and better things like Fear Itself. I'm guessing that involves a pay raise and access to Marvel's secret vault that contains life-like blow-up dolls of She-Hulk, Emma Frost, and Miss Marvel. His final issue is Uncanny X-men #534, the last issue of the Quarantine arc. It starts off with the plot that I've been banging my head against the wall more than any other since Second Coming. I'm pretty sure I've brained my damage since then.
It starts off with Emma running from Sebastian Shaw. I'm left with a Baywatch type image here given Emma's surgical enhancements. Given that Emma wears heels everywhere, I'm pretty sure she's incapable of outrunning a guy she forcibly imprisoned. So it comes as no surprise when Shaw smacks her around a bit more, taking a page right out of Chris Brown's bitch-slapping handbook. Then he takes it a step further. He makes Emma Frost give the ultimate head. No, that's not a blow-job reference (not entirely). He actually rips off Emma Frost's head.
If Matt Fraction weren't writing this, it would be a powerful moment. But seeing as how he won't let Emma Frost get so much as a split nail, it's pretty predictable as to what happens next. The whole ripping Emma's head off...a complete illusion. Yeah, Emma managed to hack Shaw's mind...again. As if she couldn't have done this before when he was locked up in the brig? Why go through the trouble of getting Kitty Pryde and Fantomex involved in the first place? It makes about as much sense as a vacation in North Korea and is so predictable you could have skipped over this entire sub-plot and not missed a damn thing.
The Emma plot was going to turn out blander than water flavored ice cream. That shouldn't surprise anyone. The real lure of this book is the one involving the Sublime Corporation and the HX-N1 virus that has left the X-men weaker than a shaved kitten. In the last issue Cyclops's balls descended just a little bit more and he ordered that the X-men stand and fight, despite being sicker than a vegetarian at Ted Nugant's house. He's advised against it, but Cyclops being Cyclops doesn't listen. They get a shot of kick-ass drugs to give them just the strength they need. I don't know what sort of drugs could put the X-men back in fighting condition, but I want some! The guy at the corner of 8th and 14th never has anything that good.
At the same time the battle against Lobe's investors has been unfolding. The X-men who aren't puking their guts up are the ones taking the brunt end of a bunch of super-powered rich fucks who already think money makes their shit smell like roses. It should be a chaotic fight, but most of it is dominated by shots of Dazzler and Pixie acting like school girls at a Hello Kitty convention. For what should be a tough battle, they take it about as seriously as people take Glenn Beck. It only gets serious when the rest of the X-men crash the party...literally.
The X-men arrive and despite being sick they're packing some serious heat. It's at this point we're reminded that no matter how rick and snooty you are, it takes time to learn how to kick ass. These investors think that just because they have Wolverine's claws that they're as tough as Wolverine. Just because they can heal doesn't mean they're any less a pussy when they get knifed in their gut. The rest of the X-men demonstrate this as well. That and Cyclops packs a flamethrower. If given the choice, I would rather be wounded by an optic blast than burnt to a crisp by napalm. But that's just me. Maybe there are those with a fire fetish out there who feel different. If so, my therapist would love to meet you!
Lobe being the crafty douche-bag he is utilizes a fail-safe. It makes you wonder if he was just jerking off while he watched his investors make asses of themselves. That fail-safe involves an extra surprise in the HX-N1 virus he infected the X-men with. He basically takes it form slowly killing to wishing you were dead. It's his way of ending the fight so the investors are still healthy enough to fork over their hard-earned money. However, he overlooks one glaring problem and it starts seeping from his nose. For once, it's not the result of excessive cocaine snorting.
What happened is Lobe turns out to be a lot dumber than he let on. The HX-N1 virus infects mutants and not humans. So what do you think happens when his little drug gives normal people mutant powers? Suddenly, monkey pox doesn't just infect monkies anymore. Now that the X-men came and crashed the party, they brought the virus with them. As a result, it infected Lobe and his rich douche-bag buddies. So now they're all keeling over and coughing up meals that they ate three days ago.
It's a graphic scene, but one that really kills any intrigue readers might have had for Lobe. The man was so smart and cunning throughout this arc. Then it turns out he's so fucking stupid that he doesn't stop to think that his virus could infect those who have his X-men in a bottle? Even Magneto at his worst was never that dumb! For all the genius that went into making this shit, it's a pretty weak way to fuck up. The X-men didn't outsmart them. They didn't craft a virus of their own. Lobe was just stupid as fuck. It really does kill the whole intrigue that was such a great sticking point for this arc.
So as expected, Lobe orders that the virus be purged. Cyclops gives a lecture to the investors on how much it sucks to be an X-men. They buy it and go back to their mansions to sulk in a pile of money, strippers, and caviar. If that weren't degrading enough, Cyclops goes onto do the least heroic thing he's ever done. He threatens to sue Lobe. That's heroism for you, using lawyers instead of powers. Since Warren is rich that means Lobe will probably be sued for $500 billion dollars and forced to wear an Emma Frost costume at every gay pride parade for the rest of his life. It's a victory for the X-men, but it feels as dirty as taking money from a tobacco lobbyist.
While the X-men clean up shop with Lobe, Emma Frost cleans up her little deal with Shaw. Again, there's nothing all that surprising going on. She doesn't kill Shaw and her secrets continue to stay under wraps. She just wipes his mind so he doesn't know who he is. Then somehow it's revealed that they crashed in the most landlocked area of the planet, therefor Namor will never find out that she lied to him after he boned her. Wait...didn't they crash land because Fantomex dropped him out of their aircraft? Did they just HAPPEN to be in the right area? How many WTFs does that constitute and how many supercomputers are necessary to compute it.
Again, it's a story that demonstrates a clear bias by Matt Fraction. He won't do ANYTHING to hurt Emma Frost. This could have been a major turning point for her. What would happen to her relationship with Cyclops and Namor if they found out she was keeping secrets again? All this after she and Cyclops agreed that keeping secrets was a bad thing in wake of Utopia? Then there's the excuse she gave at the beginning of the arc when she told Cyclops that she was taking Kitty "shopping." Does he still believe that shit? She's basically getting off completely unscathed. Nothing changes. Her relationships and status is unaffected. It's almost as if this was just a way to keep her away from Utopia so Greg Land didn't have to draw her sick. Emma Frost has become one of the blandest characters in Uncanny under Fraction and she's in desperate need of more depth beyond her looks. Even a woman with breasts like hers can only do so much before her story loses impact.
There's not much else to do from here. Storm, Pixie, Dazzler, and Northstar finish off Lobe's plan by destroying his stockpile of the drug. Wait, do they really have to destroy it? Is it possible that they could find some use for a drug that gives people mutant powers? Wolverine's healing powers alone could rid the world of AIDS and cancer. Surely humanity will bow before the X-men and serve them the head of every anti-mutant zealot for that. Then there's the Angel drug that allows people to fly. It would basically do a way with traffic jams FOREVER. Seriously, why destroy this shit? Why not take Lobe's ill-gotten work and use it for better purposes? I guess they're just not feeling very heroic lately. It's a bullshit loose end that Matt Fraction usually doesn't leave.
All may not be lost. In the final panel one of Lobe's new X-men slipped away. Back when Cyclops was rounding up the investors, those Original Five knock-offs were among those captured. Well one of them got away. It was the female Angel. Again, how does a girl who looks about as competent as your average high school girl outsmart the X-men? Usually girls at this age can barely work a coffee machine at Starbucks. Yet she somehow slipped out and managed to take some of Lobe's miracle drug as well? Again, it's a loose end that Matt Fraction doesn't usually leave. This being his last issue, it's pretty disappointing.
So there you have it. Matt Fraction is finished with Uncanny X-men (for now). What can you say about his legacy in the X-books? He's definitely changed the landscape for the X-men. He took them out of New York and put them on the West Coast. It could have been a gimmick, but he made it work. At the same time his writing (or lack thereof in some areas) has scrambled the X-men a bit. Some would say certain characters have regressed. Others would say they're now in a position to do more. I would say it's a mix and this final issue leaves his run with a somewhat unbalanced legacy.
I won't mince words. This was NOT a good issue to be Matt Fraction's last. The Quarantine arc had great potential. Half of it was wasted by the Emma Frost story and even though the story surrounding the Sublime Corporation was pretty novel, it fizzled in the end like a North Korean firecracker. This arc had too few surprises and too many loose ends. Once again, Emma Frost gets away with everything and comes out completely untainted. Once again, Cyclops is made to look overly competent at the expense of the other characters around him. And once again, the dialog with characters like Pixie and Dazzler are rendered childish and bland. It's the kind of arc you can skip over and not miss a thing. Nothing really changed here. There was no twist or aftermath. It's like finishing a story with an incomplete sentence. The meaning is there, but limited. Usually Matt Fraction is very good about not leaving loose ends. It's disappointing that he would leave one with so many on his final issue.
Uncanny X-men #534 wasn't terrible, but it wasn't very good. Matt Fraction deserves better for his final issue. I can only assume he's out of breath for hyping Fear Itself. He still did something novel with the Sublime corporation. If he wanted to send a message about the evils of Big Pharma, that message was received loud and clear. They're assholes. We get it and this issue shows just how big an asshole they can be when you put mutants into the mix. Guess I'm not buying stock in Pfizer. Even so, this issue was really sub-par. He could get away with it when the other X-books were somewhat secondary in scope. That's rapidly changing with books like Uncanny X-Force and X-men Legacy. So with everything that was and wasn't done with this issue and the Quarantine arc as a whole, I give Uncanny X-men #534 a 2.5 out of 5.
For all the flaws in his run, Matt Fraction still did something that places him in the upper decks of X-men writers. He made Uncanny X-men awesome again. In many ways, that's his greatest legacy and it's one to be proud of. Say what you will about his writing. Matt Fraction made the most of it and left Kieron Gillen with plenty to work with. So setting aside all my boob jokes and dry political references, I say this to Matt Fraction. Thank you for making Uncanny X-men a meaningful book again. Good luck on your future projects! Good luck on Fear Itself! And if you ever need to get piss faced drunk in Baltimore, look me up! Nuff said.