by Doug Smith
It's finally here - the landmark 500th issue of Uncanny X-Men! Featuring new artists (Greg Land and Terry Dodson), a new co-writer (Matt Fraction), and a new status quo for Marvel's merry mutants. Anniversary issues always bring high expectations - did Uncanny X-Men #500 live up to them?
WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
UNCANNY X-MEN #500
Writers: Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction
Artists: Greg Land and Terry Dodson
Inkers: Jay Leisten and Rachel Dodson
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Ed Brubaker is joined by his Immortal Iron Fist co-writer, Matt Fraction, and the results are immediate and obvious. I could be completely wrong, but it feels to me like Fraction is doing the heavy lifting on this issue. For one thing, there are a lot of things packed into this issue: a large cast of characters, several new story elements, a big action sequence in the middle of the book, and a fair amount of sociopolitical commentary. It reminds me much more of Fraction's very dense work on Casanova than it does Brubaker's more deliberate pacing on Captain America or Daredevil; Bru likes to give things plenty of room to breathe, whereas Fraction seems to prefer to move at a breathless pace. Then again, it could just be the fact that this issue is being used to set up a new status quo and put several storylines in motion; there's a lot going on here, and perhaps it's a bit too much. Most of the "A-list" X-Men make appearances here. There's the cast from Astonishing X-Men (Cyclops, Emma Frost, Wolverine, Beast, and Colossus), along with Storm, Angel, Nightcrawler, and Cannonball. While everybody gets a moment to shine, for most of the characters they only get a moment. Cannonball and Nightcrawler, in particular, disappear after their brief appearances in action. Cyclops and Emma get the majority of the screen time; I hope future issues will give their teammates a bit more exposure.
There are a lot of elements here that feel like pure Fraction. We have Kingo Sunen (not a new character, by the way), a Japanese auteur planning his first American movie (with an unlikely star, an ex-mutant named "Freddie Dukes" who is a weight-loss guru and a big deal in Japan - once I realized who Freddie Dukes was, I had to laugh and nod in approval), and the controversy-courting artist Guy DeMondue, whose Sentinel-based art display provides the platform for the main action in this issue. Those are the kind of pop-culture references I associate with Fraction. If it sounds like I'm being dismissive of Brubaker's contributions, I'm really not, but this book just feels very different than the rest of Bru's run. Being a big fan of Fraction's writing, it was a very welcome and refreshing addition. In many ways, Fraction reminds me of Grant Morrison - there are tons of crazy ideas popping up on the pages of his books, with a strong sci-fi flavor. Sometimes, the ideas don't always gel, but when they do, it can be magical.
The much-hyped new direction for the team, however, doesn't really feel that new. Other than a change of locale to San Francisco, the new X-headquarters seems to be offering the same thing that the Xavier Institute did in Morrison's run: a public safe haven for any and all mutants. The open-arms welcome that the X-Men get from the city of San Fran and it's mayor, complete with human protestors arguing for the mutants, also reminds me of the "mutants are the new cool" themes from New X-Men.
I had been wondering if the X-Men would run across the Dreaming Celestial now that they're in the Bay Area. Well, they do, and...what's that, you say? What's the Dreaming Celestial? Well, if you didn't read the Eternals miniseries from Neil Gaiman and John Romita, Jr. or the brand-new ongoing Eternals series, you'll probably be a little lost. Unfortunately, Fraction and Brubaker don't provide any explanation here. The Celestial just...is. Given that the Eternals and the Celestials are new additions to the world of the X-Men, some explanation would have been nice. I know that expository dialogue is taboo, and I'm not calling for a return to the wordiness of Claremont, but a few well-scripted narrative panels would have been a blessing here. Given that the Celestial first appears in one small panel (breaking Kirby Rule #33: the Celestials must never appear small!), a big splash page of the Celestial in all of its glory, with a few expository panels, would have worked. It also would have been a good idea to have a few word balloons explaining just who the High Evolutionary is, and why in the hell he's hanging out with the Big Bad Villain of this issue, tinkering around with the Dreaming Celestial. Yes, the High Evolutionary did appear briefly in the "Endangered Species" story, but for the most part he, like the Celestials, isn't a part of the X-Men mythos, and his inclusion here seems odd, especially given the rather casual reaction to the X-Men upon seeing him. Even a simple "The High Evolutionary? What's HE doing here?" would have helped. But I'm nit-picking just a bit, as I did like this issue more than I have the past several.
While I was happy with the writing on this issue, I was less thrilled with the artwork. Neither Greg Land nor Terry Dodson is a personal favorite of mine (although I certainly don't hate either's work). The biggest problem I have is that their styles simply don't mesh well. Land uses a photo-realistic style where Dodson favors a more traditional penciling approach, with a dash of cartoony style. If the two are planning to alternate story arcs in the future (I believe they are), it won't be a problem, but here it makes for a jarring stylistic transition; the fact that the two share individual chapters, instead of alternating, only compounds the problem.
While I'm fairly neutral to Terry Dodson's work, I find Greg Land much more frustrating. I say "frustrating" because I remember him as an outstanding penciller in his DC days, and his current Photoshopping approach simply doesn't work for me. If you look at the image to the right, notice the very awkward placement of Emma's hand in the top panel; is that hand growing from somewhere off-panel? Because it sure doesn't seem like it could be attached to her body. There are several other shots throughout the book with strange poses and oddly cobbled-together images, and a rather surprisingly bloated-looking Scott Summers on page 31.
Land also seems to be obsessed with having his characters smiling. A lot. As in, "dosed with Joker Gas" smiling. See the image to the left for an example. Yes, those people are at a party in that scene; but it's also representative of a very standard "go-to" expression that Land uses far too often. I just find it really unnatural and distracting. There's also a scene where the X-Men react to the news of DeMondue's exhibit with outrage; Brubaker and Fraction nail Emma's dialogue in this scene but Land does them a disservice with the wrong choice of facial expression, opting for anger instead of what reads like bored disdain. Land does handle his action sequences very well though; the battle between the Big Bad Villain and the X-Men is very well handled and makes me long for a simpler style from Land. Most of the time, Land's work is very pretty to look at, but that doesn't mean it works as a means of storytelling, which is the primary purpose of comic book art.
Oh, and the Big Bad Villain? Yeah, it's Magneto, making a return to the pages of Uncanny X-Men with a big splash. I loved the way he made the scene during the party; it felt like the Magneto I grew up with in the 1970s. Throughout the battle, it did feel like something was a little bit off...I was actually expecting him to be revealed as an imposter (especially since he was depowered on M-Day). Well, there was a reason for it...something wasn't quite right with Magneto. His alliance with the High Evolutionary, and their plans involving the Dreaming Celestial, are shrouded in mystery and should make for a great storyline going forward.
So what's the final verdict? Well, despite some minor complaints with the writing and some more serious misgivings about the artwork, I found quite a bit to like in this issue. Fraction's sly wit and potential for great ideas, coupled with Brubaker's rock-solid story sensibilities (the two struck gold on the aforementioned Iron Fist series), give me great faith that this book is in good hands on the writing side. There were a lot of seeds planted here which should pay off in the months to come. Heck, I didn't even mention the new Hellfire Cult until now! Since I read comics more for the writing than for the artwork, I can certainly live with both Land and Dodson, even if neither would be my first choice. So, while I'm hoping that my grades on this series will eventually improve, I'm giving this issue...
by Doug Smith