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GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

X-Men - Page 5

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New X-Men: E is for Extinction 2001/2011 (SC TPB) 128 pages.

Written by Grant Morrison. Pencils by Frank Quitely, Leinil Yu, Ethan Van Sciver. Inks by various.
Colours: Brian Haberlin. Letters: Richard Starkings, Saida T.

Reprinting: New X-Men #114-117, plus (possibly in only some editions) New X-Men 2001 Annual (2001)

Rating: * *   out of five

Number of readings: 1

Mildly suggested for mature readers

Reviewed: July 2016

This TPB was released as a regular-sized TPB as well, in 2011, as part of a digest/manga-sized line -- that latter included New X-Men Annual but I'm not sure if it was included in the original TPB. Which would be ironic (if it wasn't) as it's actually the strongest story here.

This marked a new creative direction for the X-Men -- or at least, new creative hands, with Grant Morrison assuming the writing chores, often aided by the art of his not infrequent collaborator, Frank Quitely.

Morrison joining the line of X-scribes can seem appropriate as Morrison made a name for himself overhauling The Doom Patrol over at DC, giving that series a serious case of the wild n' weird. And The Doom Patrol was essentially DC's version of the X-Men in the 1960s (or vice versa). So having Morrison take on the X-Men might seem inevitable.

My impression, though, is that Morrison's run received some mixed reaction -- some loved it, some felt he didn't really have an appropriate feel for the milieu or the characters. This collection kicks off with a three-issue tale and it kind of falls into familiar patterns one associates with a new writer taking over a title, eager to make his mark (though in the case of a franchise like the X-Men, he may just have been working to an editorial template handed him by his editor).

Morrison immediately introduces a mysterious, brand new villain who seems just that much more dangerous and evil than those the X-Men have fought before. He (Morrison) rather arbitrarily gives Emma Frost a new super power, the ability to turn into living diamond (either because he thought the team needed more people who could hit things, or he just really, really missed Colossus) -- the logic of which even he shrugs off by having Emma blithely say "pseudo-medical explanations are far from satisfactory." And he delivers a massive reboot to the franchise by destroying Genosha.

Genosha was a small, independent country founded as a haven for mutants (for a historical precedent, I guess think Sierra Leone or Israel). This was part of the culmination of decades of X-Men comics depicting the prejudice mutants face -- and a mythology that went from the occasional super powered mutant in the original Lee/Kirby issues to mutants having so proliferated in the comics that they form an entire ethnic group. Now I had known (from later comics) Genosha was destroyed -- so I was surprised, having randomly picked this up at the comic shop, to realize this is the story where it happened. And even more surprised to realize it's only a three issue story which seems pretty perfunctory for a story about, y'know, genocide. And that's because it really does just smack of house cleaning. Of either Morrison wanting to make a mark, or an editorial regime figuring Genosha was creating more story obstacles than story ideas.

But that's the problem -- it just feels like a minor story that exists simply to blow up Genosha. To my mind it just never really became that interesting in and of itself. Basically Cyclops and Wolverine are diverted to investigate a strange energy spike in South America (along with an Australian mutant they recently rescued from a mob) where they encounter variations of the mutant-hunting Sentinel robots, all under the sway of one Cassandra Nova, a sinister, bald-headed lady whose stated motive is simply to kill mutants. After destroying Genosha, the X-Men get her back to their H.Q. where a big fight occurs (their powers against her mind-controlling telepathy) before she is defeated -- but with questions still lingering as to who she is and her relationship to professor X.

The next issue at first seems like it's meant to be a kind of day-in-the-life change-of-pace (after the massive destruction of Genosha). By focusing more on the personalities, I'll admit I found it a little more engaging than the main story. But it turns out it's just a set-up to Cassandra Nova breaking free -- and ending on a cliff hanger...

Which gets into one those marketing dilemmas. If your intent (as the consumer) is to collect the run, fine. But if you're looking for something worth buying and reading for itself, it's only four issues and the last ends "to be continued" (well five, including the 2001 Annual -- though I'm not sure if that's in both the regular-sized TPB as well as the digest/manga size).

In some ways I actually found the Annual the strongest story here. It eschews a super hero vibe for a more James Bond/Mission: Impossible one as the X-Men are in Hong Kong, investigating a black market in mutant body parts, involving them in caper movie-type scenes of breaking into office safes and infiltrating high class soirees. It's complete unto itself, but even it can feel a bit anti-climactic once it gets to the end -- like the story is ultimately simpler than it promised. Frankly, I'm not even sure how much it made sense (like why were the bad guys meeting in Hong Kong anyway, when the deal was being settled in mainland China?)

As for Morrison's approach to the franchise, he does kind of imbue the thing with an extra ghoulishness/horror aspect (though I suppose that's true of many X-Men stories over the years, even dating back to Chris Claremont). But it means there's just an underlining...ugliness: to the characters, to the world, to what happens to people. Possibly made worse by the fact that, equally, Morrison is quick with the quips and the light-heartedness. As often happens in comics, death and destruction is treated rather cavalierly. While his handling of the lead characters -- Cyclops, Jean Grey, Wolverine, Beast, Emma and Xavier -- didn't really do much to actually make me interested in them.

Part of that may lie with the art.

The collection features some top notch artists, including Quitely on the three-part Genosha story, Ethan Van Sciver on the final tale and Leinil Yu on the Annual. They're all great artists who I've liked in other context, but they are all kind of, well, harsh artists. Their visual stylings not really prone to warmth, or a soft, organic feel. Part of the reason I may not have grooved to the characters is because Quitely tends to favour long shots, and his faces tend to be caricatured and rather expressionless. And they also contribute to the ugliness I mention. The violence is just that much more graphic (to the point of basically "mature readers"), the design of the peripheral mutants just that much more grotesque and disturbing.

Bottom line: a three part tale that feels like it's more about its impact on continuity than a story, segueing into the next issue that ends to be continued. And a decent enough annual.

Cover price: ___


X-Men: From the Ashes 1991 (SC TPB) 218 pages.

cover by Arthur AdamsWritten by Chris Claremont. Drawn by Paul Smith, with John Romita, Jr, Walt Simonson. Inks by Bob Wiacek.
Original Colours: Glynis Wein. Letters: Tom Orzechowski. Editor: Louise Jones.

Reprinting: Uncanny X-Men #168-176

Rating: * * * 1/2  out of five

Number of readings: 1

This collects a run of X-Men comics through which is threaded the sub-plot of Cyclops -- at that point on leave from the team -- meeting and falling in love with Madelyne Pryor, the spitting image of Jean Grey (at that point believed dead). But the likeness is so uncanny, and combined with other curiosities, it has Cyclops wondering/worrying whether Madelyne is the reincarnation of Jean...and more specifically, the evil Dark Phoenix. And, interestingly, though sub-plots in comics can have a tendency to amble on indefinitely, these issues do indeed comprise the complete saga, with Madelyne making her first appearance in #168, and the story arc climaxing in the double-sized #175 -- with #176 even tying up a few other loose threads (while, inevitably, also hinting at future threads).

Along the way, since the Maddy Pryor plot is a sub-plot, often amounting to only a page or two per issue, there are other, shorter adventures along the way, including some pivotal ones, such as former villainess, Rogue, joining the ream, and the introduction of Callisto and the underground mutants, the Morlocks. This also features Storm's transformation into "punk" Storm that seems a bit forced, like the concept was driving the character, not vice versa.

And the result is a solid, enjoyable collection. Not, perhaps, exceptionally brilliant as, despite my above referring to "pivotal" stories, they aren't necessarily "classics" simply as stories -- the issue where Rogue joins is basically...well, an issue where Rogue joins. The exception being the taut and excitingly suspenseful #175.

But comics can be fun precisely for the idea of brewing sub-plots -- plots that tend to be hard to collect. So the fact that the Maddy-Phoenix plot is basically complete here makes for a nice run of stories. Admittedly, such sub-plots can be problematic when collected. The story unfolds in basically just a few pages here and there, with Cyclops meeting Maddy, then proposing marriage in a breathlessly short time. But one has to remember, when first published the story was teased out in a monthly publication, where it presumably could read as a long, subtly progressing story. And the climactic chapter is a genuinely exciting, suspenseful tale. Albeit, those familiar with the players involved in the original Dark Phoenix Saga won't have much trouble guessing the solution from some obvious "clues".

It's largely drawn by Paul Smith, who has an appealingly simple, clean style that is considerably removed from the hyper-detail of John Byrne (who drew the classic Dark Phoenix Saga) but is effective in its own way. Walt Simonson pinch hits and issue, and John Romita Jr. handles the final tale -- to good effect (and I often have mixed feelings about Romita Jr). Romita Jr. would then be the regular artists for the next few years.

As mentioned, I can't say too much of this is "classic" -- save perhaps the very good #175 -- but it is enjoyable, eminently readable. And if, as is inevitable with the continuity heavy X-Men, there are plot threads that relate to prior events not collected here, at least others are begun and resolved in these pages. And there's something refreshing about it because, as much continuity as there is, it maybe isn't as hopelessly mired in tangled continuity threads as the series would become (Madelyne Pryor's backstory would get particularly twisty in the coming years).

So as a nice, unprepossessing collection of older X-Men -- a window on a long ago era -- From the Ashes is an enjoyable collection.

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in the monthly comics.

Cover price: ___


The Astonishing X-Men: Gifted
see my review here


X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills 1982 (SC GN), 64 pgs.

the original, 1982 cover by AndersonWritten by Chris Claremont. Art by Brent Anderson. Painted by Steve Oliff.
Letters: Tom Orzechowski. Editor: Louise Jones.

Rating: * * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 4

Televangelist Rev. Striker, sincerely convinced mutants are agents of the devil, is developing a way to destroy all mutants, and kidnaps Professor Xavier, Cyclops and Storm to put it into effect. The rest of the team, consisting of Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Colossus and Kitty Pryde, temporarily allied with their arch foe, Magneto, must rescue their comrades (unaware who has them or why) and stop Striker and his armed goons, the Purifiers.

Perhaps only the 3rd graphic novel ever published using mainstream comic book heroes; The Death of Captain Marvel and the New Mutants being the first two, if you don't count Lee and Kirby's 1978 Silver Surfer opus. It was originally released in over-sized tabloid format as Marvel Graphic Novel no. 5. It has since been reissued in conventional 8.5" by 11" (with a new cover), and holds up very well all these years later.

reissue coverAnderson's pencil and inks are very, very good, and Oliff's dark, painted colours superbly moody, combining to give the thing a powerful, hauntingly sombre atmosphere. Claremont's script is very strong; the story unfolds well and builds tension, not just pulling the reader toward a technical climax, but an emotional one, as well. There's plenty of action, but it's not just mindless stuff that overwhelms the plot and human drama (a criticism I could level at some of Claremont's other work, particularly from that period). Instead, the elements are well-balanced, with the climax being a moral-ideological confrontation more than a physical one. Perhaps because the comic is a self-contained one-shot, with villains created solely for this story, structurally it seems richer, allowed to unfold and build like a good novel or movie rather than feeling broken up and compartmentalized, or as if plot threads are left hanging, as it might if it was spread over three or four issues.

Highly recommended, this 64 page story does a nice job of encapsulating the essence of the X-Men, without burying the reader in references to past adventures or becoming mired in continuity points. This might even be one of those "if you don't read the X-Men (or even comic books in general) this might change your mind" sort of things. But no guarantees.

This is just on the edge of being labelled "mature readers", but ultimately I'd say not. There is some mild profanity, though, and definitely intense scenes, like an early scene of two kids being killed by the Purifiers. And the tackling of, not just bigotry, but religious fanaticism, won't win it any friends on the far right.

Original cover price (tabloid): $6.96 CDN./$5.95 USA

Cover price (standard format re-issue): __/$6.95 USA 


X-Men: Inferno 1995 (SC TPB), 312 pgs.

X-Men: Inferno - cover by Rick Leonardi / Dan GreenWritten by Chris Claremont & Louise Simonson. Illustrated by Mark Silvestri, Bret Belvins, Walt Simonson (inks Dan Green, Al Williamson, Bob Wiacek, Mike Manley, Al Milgrom, Hilary Barta).
Colours/letters: various. Editor: Bob Harras.

Reprints: Uncanny X-Men #239-243, New Mutants #71-73, X-Factor #36-39 (1988)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Re-reviewed: June, 2010

Additional notes: intro by Mark Bernardo; covers

I think this was subsequently re-released to include the four issue mini-series, X-Terminators.

When I first fell back into reading comics after a long hiatus, this TPB collection of Inferno was one of the earliest books I picked up -- and was, therefore, probably one of the earliest things I reviewed for my site. And I hadn't particularly liked it. At the same time, because I had been away from comics for a while -- including the period from which these issues originated -- I was aware that might have fuelled my confusion (though a TPB should be readable for itself alone). Heck, when I first read this, I wasn't familiar with some of the membership of the X-Men from this period, I had never read a New Mutants comic, and only had a casual familiarity with the "classic" X-Men team that then comprised X-Factor (from reprints of two or three of the very earliest Lee-Kirby issues). So time passes, my comics collections grows ridiculously large, and though I'm still not that familiar with this particular era of the X-comics, thanks to back issue bins and TPBs, I've developed a fondness for the New Mutants, and the classic, original X-Men. So for a long -- a looonnngggg -- time, I meant to get around to re-reading this, and reassessing it. Which I've finally done.

And my initial opinion hasn't really changed much. Alas.

This mammoth crossover storyline has a demon invasion of New York, the machinations of the by-now thoroughly evil Madelyne Pryor (Cyclops' estranged wife), and the strategies of the vile Mr. Sinister all coming together to make life difficult for our various bands of merry mutants. And, frankly, initially I found it an incoherent mess. After a second reading, many years later -- I just found it a muddled mess.

Reading "Inferno" you can sometimes feel like you're trying desperately to grab on to anything that seems coherent, in both writing and art, only to have it slip through your fingers once again. Even the backstory is confusing: like, why had the X-Men faked their deaths, letting even their closest friends and relatives think they were kaput?

To be honest, maybe for hard-core X-fans, intimately familiar with these issues and the surrounding events, my reaction may not be representative. However, I've read an X-comic or fifty in my time, both before and after the events depicted in Inferno, so that makes me a casual fan at least.

But the story relies heavily on events that transpired outside of what's contained in this collection (even concurrent events: the story crosses over with a mini-series called X-Terminators...but those issues weren't included in the first edition of this TPB...though I think they were added to a later re-issue). But it offers precious little within its own 300 plus pages to form a meaty read. There are endless battles with demon hordes, and pointless conflicts between the X-Men and X-Factor, but when you actually consider what happens, in terms of plot twists, story developments, characterization, etc., there's not much. Most of the twists are related to the pre-existing X-mythos: rewriting of X-Men history -- some going back years -- in light of startling new "revelations". All as an attempt, frankly, to explain and tie together past story choices, to make them seem like a planned out epic -- as opposed to just random plots that became insanely convoluted (to the point of suggesting Mr. Sinister -- a character only then recently created -- had actually being manipulating things for years). As such, like a lot of such "event" crossover epics over the years (from Marvel and DC both) this is less a story onto itself, and more the climax to a long brewing story (or stories). Despite its astonishing length -- 12 issues, three of which are double-sized, making it more like 15 issues -- it doesn't even satisfy as an epic graphic novel, in the sense of the various chapters building on each other, developing threads, adding twists. An awful lot of it feels like padding, as characters just seem to repeat the same conversations, or monologues, and just battle this horde of demons, or that horde. Although there are mini climaxes throughout (Illyana and the New Mutants defeating the demon, S'ym, the X-Men and X-Factor defeating the demon N'astirh, etc.) much of it all just runs into itself, where scenes in one issue seem pretty interchangeable with scenes in another.

And, as is often the case with cross-title sagas involving more than one writer, there can be lapses in logic here and there -- sometimes even in a single scene.

For a story that is so heavily mired in themes of good and evil, of inner darkness, and spiritual corruption (and redemption) -- one doesn't really get much sense writers Chris Claremont and Louise Simonson have put much thought into such weighty themes. That is, a sense that when it all comes down, they have a vision in their mind of what is good, what is evil, and the line between the two. And given that's kind of a main theme of this mammoth saga...that's a bit of a weakness. The characters are "corrupted" by the demon intrusion, and spend endless passages bemoaning their dark sides (not to mention infighting simply because they seem, well, bitchy)...I expected self-flagellation and hair-shirts any minute. If characters go bad, surely it should be as a result of tangible events, not just nebulous concepts like demon magic, selling pieces of their souls, or because they're not a real "person". The characters are told they are bad, so they are.

In the old days, the X-Men were pretty noble people, with only Wolverine a dark, anti-hero. But Wolvy became hugely popular, so, of course, marketing demanded the rest of the characters follow suit. Even prior to the events in this storyline, we are told that (what seems like half) the X-folk have killed people. And by the end, some of the characters still carry a lingering "corruption", while others have supposedly shaken off the effects -- yet it's not really noticeable. Even the characters who have reclaimed their pure selves are, by the end, still acting with ruthless brutality, which is why I say there's a sense the writers don't really have anything philosophical to say with their underlining theme.

And the characterization is, itself, problematic. As mentioned, I've read X-comics before, and particularly after my later second reading, when I was much more familiar with many of the characters, I went into this with a better sense of who these people were. And yet, strangely...I never really cared about them, or what happened to them. Characters who I knew not at all, or knew very little, made no impression...but even characters I would've said I inherently liked, didn't particularly ingratiate themselves with me here. Part of that may be because there's a feeling the themes (of evil, corruption) and the needs of the retconning (explaining years of convoluted mythology), and stiff dialogue contrived to serve both, takes precedence over simply letting the characters be the characters -- they are ciphers rather than people we can like and care about.

And the story itself is, frankly, kind of unsavory. Admittedly, that's compounded by my feelings toward the storytelling (that it was confused and muddled). It's 300 pages of wallowing in demonic hordes, twisted visages, tainted souls, and nightmarish horror -- horror which the humour tends to exacerbate, rather than mitigate. I mean, there's a clearly whimsical, tongue-in-cheek aspect to a city where inanimate objects came to life, and demons smoke cigars -- kind of evoking old Ralph Bakshi cartoons (like Cool World, f'rinstance). But when you've got kind of jokey, satirical scenes...which then end in screaming little kids seeming eaten by monsters -- I dunno. Is that fun? Really?

The art? As someone who grew up with the crisp, clean, Byrne/Austin stylings, the art here struck me as just...messy, from all three pencillers (though it does mean there is a reasonable consistency despite the changing artists). Characters spout mid-battle clichés like "Now I can do...this!" -- and I honestly couldn't tell what "this" was. The potentially eerie concept of New York metamorphosing, of mail boxes and the like coming alive, and the characters themselves subtly changing into twisted versions of themselves, is lost because the artists aren't particularly disciplined. You often can't recognize the contrast between a normal car and a "demonized" car, or a character prior to, and after, their transformation. Yet, with that being said, I can appreciate other aspects after a second reading -- I earlier alluded to a Ralph Bakshi cartoon, and there's certainly a sense the artists pulled out all the stops in drawing their anthropomorphized city, where even buildings become organic shapes, and doorways twist into mouths. And they put some cute touches into the little bits of extraneous extras tossed into the background, aside from the main action. But it's still something where I find myself more appreciating the environment...while still not enjoying the storytelling.

In the end, maybe I'm judging X-Men: Inferno wrongly. Maybe it's intended solely for fans who missed some of the crucial issues and no one else. But as a trade paperback/Graphic Novel, the publishers have to expect some readers like myself to pick it up, expecting in its 300 pages a story, more or less, with a beginning, middle and end, a sense of character arcs and thematic threads tying the thing together, like a novel or movie. Maybe more extensive editorializing would have helped.

And though it does reasonably resolve, even seeming to defeat the villains like Mr. Sinister (though I think he returned), other more minor aspects are still left dangling (Polaris is still bad -- yet another corrupted character -- and I have no idea where Prof. X was in all this).

Original cover price: $34.95 CDN./$24.95 USA


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