Friday, January 8, 2016

Twisted, Uncanny, Yet Intriguing: Uncanny X-men #1

The following is my review of Uncanny X-men #1, which was posted on PopMatters.com.


Nobody outside the O.J. Simpson crowd will admit the justice system is perfect. In every part of the world in every point in history, there have been guilty parties that have gone free and innocent parties that have been convicted. It's a harsh reflection of mankind's imperfect nature. We can only ever create imperfect justice systems. However, there comes a point where the degree of that imperfect nature crosses that not-so-fine line from simply imperfect to overtly egregious.

This nature is the shaky foundation on which the X-men comics have been built since Secret Wars. It's not enough for mutants to just be a struggling minority anymore. They have to be the kind of minority that evokes terror not seen since the Salem Witch Trials.

To do this, that shaky foundation is stuffed with a few extra pounds of dynamite and mixed with napalm. Any progress the X-men might have made with Charles Xavier, Cyclops, or the Jean Grey Institute has been discarded like a half-eaten candy bar. The entire mutant race is now at a point where demon-infested dimension is considered a safe location for a school.

The team of X-men in Extraordinary X-men and All-New X-men still cling to the classic approach that Charles Xavier championed for decades. But in Uncanny X-men #1, Magneto puts together a team of X-men that opts for a less passive approach. There's only so much peace, love, and understanding that can be inspired when mutants are associated with plagues, death, and Brett Ratner movies.

Magneto understands that egregious circumstances require disconcerting actions and Uncanny X-men #1 shows that these actions can create a uniquely compelling narrative. The themes in this series are not going to be confused with those of Extraordinary X-men and All-New X-men. They're not going to be confused with anything written by Chris Claremont or drawn by Jim Lee either. These X-men are the Oakland Raiders of mutants, renegades who keep their goals simple and aren't above playing dirty. But like the Oakland Raiders since 2002, they're not exactly a championship team.

The team of X-men that Cullen Bunn assembles in this series are hardly boy scouts. They're the kind of crowd that would be barred from every gated community in Orange County. They don't carry themselves as heroes. In fact, they come off as downright villainous and not in the way Al Davis embraced. But when they get a chance to explain themselves, there's a sense of purpose. It won't win them a Nobel Peace prize anytime soon, but it does create intrigue.

This intrigue is built around an odd yet effective twist on the fundamental themes of X-men. As a metaphor for marginalized minorities, they inspire hope among those who feel oppressed and bullied. Well Magneto and his team of less-than-reputable mutants in Uncanny X-men are skipping the part where they inspire. He's basically grabbing mutants by the collar, slapping them a few times, and telling them to gut it out through these difficult times. Mutants survived Chuck Austin and Brett Ratner. They can survive this.

It's harsh, but it's reflective of the solemn state mutants find themselves in. They're being hunted like wounded cows in Ron Swanson's back yard, they've been sterilized by the Terrigen Mists, and they're being blamed for whatever off-panel antics Cyclops has done. So it's perfectly understandable that some would try to take the easy way out. In this case, that involves paying a company obscene amounts of money to put them in stasis until they wake up in a world where mutants are only spit on and not shot at. It sounds extreme, but it also sounds like one of Google's secret projects.

Understandable or not, Magneto and his team of renegade X-men basically drag these mutants kicking and screaming out of their despair. These are not the kinds of methods that Charles Xavier would condone, but he wouldn't outright condemn them either. Even a pacifist has to be willing to slap someone across the face every now and then when they get overly dire.

While the overall narrative in Uncanny X-men #1 is intriguing, some of the finer details are lacking. Cullen Bunn's characterization is pretty spot on, but the voices of each character come off as somewhat dry. The dialog is not very conversational and at times, it sounds like the characters are reading lines from a Roger Corman movie. And while Greg Land's art makes for detailed, gritty backgrounds, it doesn't convey much emotion beyond Monet flirting with Sabretooth.

There is still a sense of a larger story in Uncanny X-men #1. The company charging mutants obscene money to sleep through this latest extinction/sterilization plot isn't a wing of Google or Koch Industries for that matter. They're conveyed as a more subtle version of the Umbrella Corporation from the Resident Evil games and unlike Sentinels, they're not the kind of enemy that the X-men can confront in an overtly heroic manner.

This story and its larger themes help make the case that Magneto's team of disreputable X-men are uniquely qualified for these challenges. They may be harsh, but one of the mutants they confront in the story actually responds to their tough love methods. It helps show that there is merit to having a team of X-men that'll do more than just beat up on killer robots. It still won't win them any friends at Amnesty International, but it will give the mutant race a fighting chance.

Like the plot of a typical episode of CSI, the big picture is there, along with the violence and car crashes. It's the finer details that are lacking. Like the other X-men comics, Uncanny X-men #1 has to build a story on a shaky foundation. So many of these finer details transpire off-panel and it's difficult to make the story feel refined. But Cullen Bunn makes the most of the hand that he's been dealt. It isn't much, but it is enough to discourage anyone from inviting him to a poker tournament.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

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