Friday, 6 November 2015

Essential X-Men volume 10

Essential X-Men volume 10 consists of Uncanny X-Men #265 to #272 & Annual #14 plus New Mutants #95 to #97 and the lead story from Annual #6, X-Factor #60 to #62 and the lead story from Annual #5, and the lead story from Fantastic Four Annual #23. Bonus material includes Cameron Hodge's entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. All the Uncanny X-Men material is written by Chris Claremont, all the New Mutants and X-Factor material by Louise Simonson and the Fantastic Four annual by Walter Simonson. The Uncanny X-Men issues are mainly drawn by Jim Lee with individual ones by Bill Jaaska and Mike Collins and the annual by Arthur Adams and Mark Heike. The New Mutants issues are drawn by Rob Liefeld and Guang Yap with the annual by Terry Shoemaker & Chris Wozniak, the X-Factor issues and annual by Jon Bogdanove, and the Fantastic Four annual by Jackson Guice. With so many series and creators there's invariably a separate labels post.

Even more than any other Essential volume this one is absolutely dominated by crossovers to the point that there are just five issues plus an annual back up story that haven't been reproduced elsewhere in the Essentials. It's a sign of how the mutant titles were becoming ever more a self-contained franchise with routine crossovers between them that only rarely gave any other series a look in. Otherwise the franchise effect would keep on growing throughout the 1990s, reaching its climax just a few years later when part of the big corporate changes dubbed "Marvelution" saw the line divided into separate groups with their own editorial oversight and limited interaction between them, leaving them as their own introverted world constantly crossing over with one another and not much else. It's here that that road really began.

Of course the crossovers were not totally self-contained at first, with all the 1990 mutant annuals crossing over with the Fantastic Four annual to tell the story of "Days of Future Present", a sequel to the classic X-Men tale. But whereas the earlier tale was the epitome of the mutants' struggle for acceptance and freedom with a horrific fate shown if they failed, this story ignores most of those themes and instead just focuses on individuals as an adult Franklin Richards arrives from the alternate future and journeys through the sites of his happy childhood memories, using his reality altering powers to "correct" things as he goes. From a modern perspective there's something chilling about the way Franklin looks at the New York skyline and decides that X-Factor's ship does not belong so casually makes it vanish, before contemplating a revised scene that includes the World Trade Center twin towers. Franklin's actions attract the involvement of multiple teams and also that of Ahab the mutant hunter from his own timeline who enslaved Rachel. Although Forge and Banshee are soon caught up in the story, the regular X-Men of this period only get involved when the conclusion comes in their own annual and it's here that the story winds up trying to do too much. There's a lot revolving around Rachel Summers, who has been noticeably absent from the title for some years, as she has her first encounter with back from the dead mother Jean Grey, finally confirms to Cyclops that she is his daughter from the future, and meets with Franklin, her partner from her own time. But the story also casually starts the process of reuniting the scattered X-Men as Storm turns up at the ruins of the mansion, revealing to the wider world that she's been alive all this time. One problem this collected edition does at least smooth out is the publication order, with the annual originally coming out a few issues too early for developments relating to Storm but here it has been placed in a more reasonable position and so correcting the narrative flow. This does, however, mean that it's easy to overlook the fact that this was the first actual published appearance of the newest of the X-Men, Gambit, with his debut now a more logical issue #266. The Uncanny X-Men annual also includes a back-up in which Franklin and Rachel briefly encounter Wolverine, Psylocke and Jubilee in Madripoor where Logan of all people turns into the conscience of the X-Men, very briefly summarising their history and core values as he expounds on the teachings of Professor Xavier. Normally such a story would be a simple piece of forgettable annual fluff but here it ties in well to the main events without rushing the rest of the X-Men's reunion. But overall "Days of Future Present" is way too long for the actual amount of action and development that it contains. Too much of the story involves the repetitiveness of the adult Franklin arriving somewhere and altering it with the various heroes then clashing with Ahab. Comparisons with "Days of Future Past" are automatic and this storyline simply can't hold a candle to it.

The annual crossover isn't the only issue when the wider Marvel universe gets a look in. Issue #268, which also supplies the cover to the volume, sees a special adventure in Madripoor as Wolverine, Psylocke and Jubilee team up with the Black Widow to battle Fenris, the children of Baron Strucker, and the Hand ninjas with a flashback to another adventure there nearly fifty years earlier when Logan teamed up with a young Captain America and saved a very young Black Widow from Strucker and the Hand. It's a story that's big on memorable imagery and pays tribute to the pulp heroes of the era, right down to Logan dressing like Indiana Jones, but it's also a rather light weight story that raises more questions than it answers. Captain America's career during the Second World War has been subject to rewritings, retcons and a partial wiping of the slate so it's not too hard a stretch to imagine him on an early mission in the Far East though making him yet another previously unmentioned significant ally from Wolverine's past opens up questions about why this has never come up during more recent team-ups. But the Black Widow is suddenly given needless layers of her past. An early 1970s story had established her as an infant survivor of Stalingrad but that was at a time when the war was recent enough to credibly be part of her childhood. Twenty years later it was less credible for her to have been a wartime child yet not only was this aspect of the character reinforced instead of being ignored but it's even questioned in story as Jubilee thinks that it's impossible for Natasha to be that old. The story feels like it was written both to meet the desires of the artist and to salute Captain America's forthcoming fiftieth anniversary celebrations but it winds up as an inconsequential tale at a point when the series really needs to be moving forward and catching up with all the remaining X-Men and bring them back together.

The other early issues make some progress on this, with a three part epic bringing Storm's story up to date as she flees agents of the Shadow King, encounters Gambit for the first time and has a final showdown with Nanny. The explanation for how Storm survived a seeming death that left a body behind feels a little too convenient a retcon even though this was almost certainly the plan from the outset. However it's a surprise that Ororo isn't restored to her adult form when she regains her memories and full use of her powers and instead spends subsequent issues trying to be a leader to the remnants of the X-Men and various spin-off teams yet frequently being doubted because of her reduced physical age. At the same time we get the addition of Gambit who quickly becomes an archetype for 1990s comic heroes by being a mysterious man in a long coat. His Louisiana French accent remains strong in his dialogue throughout but his motivations for joining the X-Men, in so far as staying with Storm constitutes joining, are more for survival now that the Shadow King will be after him as well than any great attachment to Xavier's dream.

More convoluted is the solitary issue devoted to Rogue as she finally reappears, coming back to the Outback town where she faces the Reavers before fleeing to the Savage Land. But the main focus is on her relationship with the personality of Ms. Marvel. The Siege Perilous has recreated Rogue and Ms. Marvel as separate beings and it's not terribly clear that the latter is a different entity from the actual Ms. Marvel, now Binary. (Just to add to the confusion the Fantastic Four annual is from the period when their membership included the "She-Thing" Sharon Venture - aka another Ms. Marvel!) The two battle it out with an interlude as Rogue escapes to the Savage Land and Ms. Marvel to Muir Island where she's possessed by the Shadow King, before a final showdown that reveals the two cannot exist separately and one must die for the other to survive. It's a somewhat rushed resolution to Rogue's longstanding guilt as the legacy of her worst action is literally removed from her.

The narrative flow of the X-Men being scattered and slowly brought back together is rather disrupted by the "X-Tinction Agenda" crossover. Despite being the first mutant crossover with a clear order to the point that each chapter is numbered, this a sprawling mess with key events almost glossed over or taking place off panel and endless repetitive action in which the art is often taking precedence over the narrative. Over the course of the story most of the X-Men are not only brought together but also resume contact with both the New Mutants and X-Factor, thus ending both the long running deception of being dead and the more recent non-team era. However what should be major developments are treated in such a matter of fact that it's easy to miss them. It's also not entirely clear how Wolverine, Psylocke and Jubilee knew to make their way to Genosha. Nor is it explained just why Havok, who finally reappears many issues after going through the Siege Perilous, has been recreated in a supposed paradise of being an officer in a repressive force under a totalitarian regime. The story is driven by the kidnapping of Storm and several New Mutants and their being taken to Genosha with the rest of the New Mutants and X-Factor launching a rescue mission. As a sequel to a prominent X-Men storyline and with the main villain being Cameron Hodge, who has previously battled both X-Factor and the New Mutants, the story tries to feel like a natural intersection of all three titles but suffers from having come too soon for the X-Men. Storm's altered form is dealt with and Havok opts to leave the team to stay in Genosha and help with the new order so there is at least some development beyond the botched reunification but overall it's a demonstration of how messy crossovers would stomp into titles at awkward moments, a trend that would only grow throughout the 1990s.

As a whole this volume shows a series struggling to advance its own narrative and direction amidst a weight of wider crossovers that swamp out the page count. Contemporary readers "had" to spend even more just to get a complete story and here the Uncanny X-Men issues aren't able to do much in the time available to them, leaving some incoherent messes in both the solo and crossover issues. The title has not been served well by the protracted separate non-team approach and this volume is still stuck in the quagmire with the seeming resolution to the era almost muted. This is a series where the narrative is sinking into a mess amidst the stylised artwork.

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