Uncanny X-Men #521-522
Writer - Matt Fraction
Pencilers - Greg Land, Whilce Portacio, Phil Jimenez
Inkers - Jay Leisten, Ed Tadeo, Andy Lanning
Publisher - Marvel Comics
I’ve been reading a fair amount of superhero comics lately, in their serialized monthly form. I’d gotten out of the habit, buying mostly hardcovers and trades of creators I knew and liked, plus the occasional book I’d heard good things about. I haven’t convinced myself that isn’t the most sensible approach, but what my goal has been more sense than sensibility these days; i.e., I want to make sense of what’s going on in the Marvel and DC universes, storywise and talentwise.
I’ve read a bit of Matt Fraction, and liked some and didn’t like some. I’ve yet to read his acclaimed run of Invincible Iron Man but was curious about Uncanny X-Men, both because I used to read a lot of X-books and because for whatever reason I hadn’t heard much praise for his Uncanny. I won’t pretend that this two issue sampling is a comprehensive or even entirely fair appraisal. It’s just what I had available. It does make me stop and think: I cared most about this book over 300 issues ago.
Let’s talk about art first. While there are a couple confusing storytelling moments, Greg Land’s art was my favorite of the three pencilers here. He really favors large breasts on the females, but other than that the characters are well-proportioned, and the layouts are clean and clear if maybe a bit too television influenced. I like his Magneto, don’t like his Cyclops, who looks too cocky, especially in the second issue where Fraction has Emma Frost telling Magneto that Cyclops has to work so hard for the authority that comes naturally to Magneto. Colorist Justin Ponsor favors lots of pinks and purples in the lighting, which works great with any scenes featuring Magneto or Psylocke. I was a little confused by the use of the little dots of light forming circles, whether they were visible or part of Magneto’s shielding or what.
Whilce Portacio is a sturdy enough artist. Never a favorite but nothing wrong with what he does here. He just seems to favor certain textures and that can get a big distracting. Do Cyclops’ gauntlets have to be that shiny? Is Angel rocking feathers again, or are they pieces of metal? It’s hard to tell.
As far as covers go, I liked both the regular “lotus position Magneto” cover for #521, and the variant with Deadpool added is amusing, but the main cover for #522 with a grinning Kitty Pryde riding a much smaller version of the giant “bullet” from one of the storylines, a la Dr. Strangelove, is tonally wrong, inaccurate, and one of the most overused sources of parody there is.
Phil Jimenez does a fine job on a bonus story in #522, a vignette set in a world on the verge of doom from the aforementioned hurtling bullet, actually housing Kitty Pryde, who through sheer force of will she keeps in an unyielding phase condition so as to cause no harm, at least not to anyone else.
It’s nice that Fraction’s given the opportunity to flesh out this plotline with a bit more emotion, but it also points out the difficulties in writing a monthly superhero book, namely the turnover in artists. A quick bit of research tells me Land switches off story arc duties with Terry Dodson, and yet #522 concludes this story and no Land. Things happen, but it’s always a shame to have to conclude a story with a different artist. Even if that artist is better, there’s a loss in consistency.
The other stories here involve Magneto, up on Mt. Tamalpais in a kind of exertion of mutant energy that comes off more like a spirit quest. Fraction gets in a little bit of characterization about Magneto memorizing the metallic taste of the being inside the bullet, but…doesn’t he know what Kitty tastes like by now (I’m not trying to make a joke—am I missing something?)? Cyclops and Emma mainly wait around for Magneto to do something, Cyclops really intent on saving this mass murderer for reasons unclear to me as a lapsed reader. Meanwhile, Grant Morrison creation Fantomex leads Psylocke, Colossus and Wolverine against the Predators, a rather dull group who have managed to recreate some of the X-Men’s best powers but having no actual personalities of their own. In a Mark David Chapman conundrum, they first seem to be admirers, but then just want to replace the X-Men. Why their leader calls the X-Men mutant monsters is unclear—isn’t it more monstrous to change yourself into a monster than just to be born one?
The action stuff with the Predators wasn’t too fun, partly because one seemed to be invisible and only a second reading told me those weren’t dismembered limbs flying through the air. And the resolution to the Magneto/Kitty Bullet story was also sort of confusing—I guess he plucked her out and delivered her safely to the ground, but I’m not sure where the ship went, nor why if she’s stuck in phase mode she has to be locked in some sort of containment chamber. Who could she hurt? What chamber would work to keep her from falling through it in her sleep? There was also a thin plot snippet about Namor’s underwater kingdom getting visitors, and I gather that “Marvel’s first mutant” is at least a part-time citizen of this Nation X island in the Pacific, but that’s all I got. I don’t want to be a stick in the mud about how every comic is someone’s first, but there were enough pages devoted to this storyline that it shouldn’t have been that hard to figure out. Heck, there’s a summary on the first page of every issue and it doesn’t even mention it.
I was fine with Fraction’s plotting for the most part—the phase bullet thing was kind of a neat idea, and I’m all for more time with Fantomex. Where I was disappointed was in the dialogue. Sure, there’s some funny stuff here—the little exchange of “Animal, Vegetable or Mineral” with Wolverine considering beer a vegetable is a treat. But often it seemed that flippancy was the default mode when Fraction didn’t know what to do. Cyclops calling Magneto “the old man” felt wrong, and undermined the world-on-his-shoulders take on Cyclops Fraction invests in at the conclusion of the story. It’s one thing to want to take a character in a different direction, but it’s another to want to take them there some of the time but then take them back to familiar territory when it’s more suitable. Likewise, Fraction plays a bit with whether Fantomex is really French or a fraud, but Fantomex’s “Yeah, about that…” bit of non-Francophone sarcasm feels less like a giveaway and more just Fraction writing with himself playing the part.