GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

X-Men - Page 6

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X-Men: Phoenix - Endsong 2006 (SC TPB) 128 pgs.

cover by landWritten by Greg Pak. Pencils by Greg Land. Inks by Matt Ryan.
Colours: Justin Ponsor. Letters: Clem Robins. Editor: Mike Marts.

Reprinting: the five issue mini-series (2005)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Re-reviewed: July 2016

I'm not sure how to regard Phoenix - Endsong. When I first read n' reviewed it years ago, I gave it a mostly good review, even suggesting it (along with Whedon/Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men) had temporarily renewed my interest in the X-Men franchise. Endsong wasn't "great" but I regarded it as good enough. But even as the years passed, I found myself retaining little residual memory of it -- and not really remembering it as anything noteworthy (or feeling any impulse to re-read it). So recently I dug it out again, prior to re-posting my review here (the original review had been for another site) -- and I'll admit, I was less impressed.

So am I just unduly negative now (which I fully admit is true)? I'm a few years older, finding fewer and fewer good (let alone great) reads, and more jaded. Or was I being unduly kind initially, keen to see the glass as half full even though it was really half empty?

So just in deference to my earlier self -- and an illustration how the same story can be read different ways even by the same person -- I'll leave up my initial review, but then add a modern post-script re-assessment.

A reconstituted Phoenix force makes a bee line for earth to reunite with Jean Grey. Unfortunately, Jean is dead (again!). Since the Phoenix has almost god-like powers, it simply resurrects her, recreating the Jean/Phoenix hybrid, and goes looking for boyfriend, Cyclops -- except Cyclops is now in love with Emma Frost. Meanwhile there's another telekinetic, Quentin Quire, also back from the dead, who wants to use the Phoenix to resurrect his dead love (death seeming to be easier to cure than a hangnail) and a Shi'ar starship, determined to destroy the Phoenix.

The Phoenix was first encountered by the X-Men years back, when it served as the basis for one of the true classics in comics -- The Dark Phoenix Saga. Admittedly, the Phoenix stuff can get a bit muddled -- how much is Jean-Jean, and how much is Jean-the-Phoenix? And I had no idea who Quentin Quire was (though you can certainly pick up on the gist as things unfold). Anyway...

This TPB of the mini-series has, inevitably, scenes that echo the original saga, without bettering them. For a story dealing with such a big concept -- a force that can destroy worlds! -- writer Greg Pak unfolds it on an intimate stage. There's a twist or two and enough balls in the air to maintain reasonable interest, but it seems a little simple for 130 pages, and suffers from a few plot holes.

Where it scores is in the characters.

When it comes to the emotional quagmire that is the Cyclops-Emma-Jean-Wolverine entanglement, Pak seems into the characters, treating them as complex, believable figures. Even in scenes where the characters analyze themselves Pak pulls off a naturalism, while also maintaining a certain lightness and wit that keeps it from being turgid or pretentious. And his take on the roots of the Cyclops-Emma relationship is intriguing.

The result is a story that, despite the running about, is fundamentally a human drama, where you remember the emotional scenes even more than the action scenes.

Of the other X-Men (The Beast, Angel, Storm, Nightcrawler and Kitty Pryde), only Kitty is fleshed out, character-wise. Pak writes fine scenes for Cyclops, Emma, Wolverine, but if someone doesn't have a "character scene" where they can verbalize their emotions, Pak has no fall back -- no scenes of Angel flying overhead, paragraphs of internal angst ballooning from his head.

I went into this expecting Greg Land's art to blow me away, having seen his photorealist style on CrossGen's Sojourn comic. But here the faces and figures can seem a little stiff and his characters like good-looking, but bland models -- as if you were watching an X-Men movie cast with mainly good-looking but bland actors. Say... (Actually, his Wolverine does look a little like Hugh Jackman). Still, the art seemed to improve, though that may reflect my growing to appreciate it more than any change in the work.

But this (along with Astonishing X-Men: Gifted) has started to re-galvanize my interest in the whole X-Men franchise. Phoenix Endsong is barely a flicker to the Dark Phoenix Saga's flame. But as a more understated effort, wrapped around intelligent handling of some characters, where the tone is bittersweet but oddly uplifting, it's a likeable read.

Though the impact on continuity is limited. Not to give too much away, but Jean doesn't return permanently -- not yet, anyway. I'm sure in a year or two...

ADDENDUM (after a re-reading a few years later):

Let's star with the art by Greg Land -- I'll admit I didn't much care for it. And this despite having liked some other work by Land. After all, who can't feel their libido stirred by Land's glamorous, fashion-model character designs and an almost photo-realism at times? But the flip side is that's what it can come across as: a lot of heavily photo-referenced glamour shots that look stiff, the characters posed awkwardly, the backgrounds often Spartan and ill-defined. And sometimes even storytelling is a bit muddled. And though I said there's a photo-realism, equally there's a flatness to the figures, like a cardboard cutouts of the characters posed in a scene.

And maybe I'm just getting older and grumpier (or my brain is less flexible) but I just find it frustrating trying to read a story like this where I often don't really know enough of the backstory -- and the creators don't bother filling it in (because they're just assuming only hardcore fans are the readers). A central character/villain is a mutant named Quentin Quire -- of whom I had no knowledge. And he's obsessed with resurrecting a dead member of the telepathic siblings dubbed the Cuckoos. But not only are we not told how she died, we aren't told what Quentin's relationship was to her -- so that when you get to the denouement of that plot thread you can only shrug and turn the page, not really understanding its significance.

In my initial review I harp on the characterization -- suggesting it's the story's strength more than the plot. But though I can understand what my earlier review was getting at, it didn't really work as well this time through. But maybe that just relates to my point about being older, grumpier and maybe finding it harder to "lose" myself in the fiction (or maybe I was contrasting it with the better, wittier, dialogue Joss Whedon used in his Astonishing X-Men series).

And part of the problem with stories like this is that even though it wants to build to an emotional, in some ways low-key, character-based climax -- it both can seem a bit hokey and sappy (as opposed to truly depicting human emotions and relationships) and is so caught up in all the abstract fantasy and metaphysics (of resurrected spirits and Phoenix forces) it feels removed from the Human reality it strives to evoke.


X-Men: Phoenix Rising 1999 (SC TPB) 96 pages

Written by Bob Layton, John Byrne, Roger Stern. Pencils by Jackson Guice, John Byrne, John Buscema. Inks by Tom Palmer, Terry Austin, various.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: The Avengers (1st series) #263, The Fantastic Four (1st series) #286, X-Factor (1st series) #1 (1986)

Rating: * * *  (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1 (and a bit)

This collects a cross title story that both returned Jean Grey to Marvel continuity (after having been killed off a few years before) as well as inaugurating an X-Men spin-off comic, X-Factor. Though X-Factor evolved into a significantly different title, the initial premise featured here was to reunite the original X-Men in their own title: Cyclops, Beast, Angel, Ice Man, and, of course, Jean Grey a.k.a. Marvel Girl.

The significance of the story has been dulled somewhat by time. With Jean Grey alive and well a decade and a half later (well, okay, I guess she died again after I first posted this review), her "death" and resurrection seems a minor footnote in her history, and with X-Factor no longer comprised of the original X-Men, this origin tale will have little resonance for later fans. For X-Men completists, though, the story bridges some of the gap between the classic Dark Phoenix Saga and modern stories. And for nostalgists, this provides a nice window on its time period, with a Stern/Buscema Avengers, and John Byrne's work on the Fantastic Four.

As a stand alone, read it for the story story, Phoenix Rising is O.K. Not bad, not a must read, either.

It begins with the Avengers investigating an underwater disturbance in New York's Jamaica Bay. As written by Stern, and nicely illustrated by John Buscema (with Palmer on inks) it's an enjoyable tale, with the character interplay (mainly Wasp, Black Knight, Sub-Mariner, Captain Marvel II, Hercules and Captain America) taking priority over action; but there's enough mood and suspense generated by the Avengers' investigation to make it a page turner. There's a sedate approach taken that is oddly appealing, which I also noticed in another run of Stern/Buscema stories in Avengers Under Siege.

The Fantastic Four story (at a time when She-Hulk had temporarily replaced the Thing) picks up where the Avengers leave off. Jean Grey is resurrected and we are given the obligatory re-imagining of key X-Men history, explaining how everything we knew about her transformation into Phoenix and eventual death wasn't what we believed. This is the most significant, mythos-wise, of these issues. But it's also, perhaps, the weakest. I wasn't as big a fan of John Byrne's tenure on The Fantastic Four as many others are, so that plays into my ambivalence. I didn't entirely warm to his take on the characters, or his plotting in general. Here, the story isn't an adventure, per se, yet neither does he fill up time with on going character stuff (as Stern did in his Avengers issue) -- in fact, She-Hulk and the Human Torch appear only briefly. That makes for a piece that, though O.K., is a bit...dry. Even the dramatically powerful emotional stuff Jean Grey must deal with is muted because this is, after all, and FF story, so it's told more from their perspective than from her's.

Surprisingly, the strongest tale is the double-length X-Factor issue. I say surprisingly because I had read it when it was first published years ago (unlike the other two issues which I got recently)...and I had never bothered re-reading it in the ensuing years. I really didn't like it. That was partly because I was incensed at the decision to bring back Jean Grey. After all, the Dark Phoenix saga was such a milestone in comics history, how could they so cavalierly cheapen and negate it by bringing back Jean Grey -- particularly in the manner they did? As time went by, and Jean's return was a fact, I mellowed somewhat, and realized the question could also be turned around and asked, what right did Chris Claremont (and artist Byrne) have to kill her off in the first place? If they had the right to kill off a character others had created, didn't someone else have a right to bring her back? As well, at the time I wasn't impressed with Guice's workmanlike art, or other things. And maybe the fact that I just wasn't that familiar with the original X-Men meant the comic's basic appeal -- a reuniting of the old team -- was lost on me.

Whatever the reasons, re-read now, a decade and some later, I enjoyed it. Of the three issues reprinted here, it's the one that most becomes a story, showing how the original X-Men decide to form a new group, and their first adventure, while Cyclops struggles with his mixed feeling over his one-time love Jean Grey's return -- now that he's married and with a son. Like the other issues, this isn't chock full of action (though there is action) but it works well as a story, with nicely realized personalities. I enjoyed Guice's art now, appreciating the unsplashy, just-tell-the-story style in contrast to the garish cartooniness that is common today. Maybe it helps that I'm more familiar with the original team, and have developed an affection for them in the years between readings (thanks to TPB reprints).

What writer Bob Layton captures is the essence of the old team, and what distinguished them from most super hero groups: a sense that they're a family. The characters aren't as colourful as some, they don't bicker or butt heads so much, but there's an easy, believeable comaraderie, here given extra depth by the fact that these are older, seasoned people. In fact, Layton maybe does a better job than John Byrne did when, years later, he tackled the original team in the X-Men: The Hidden Years series.

Of course, as noted, the X-Factor here bears little relationship to later incarnations. Most of the original X-Men drifted back to the parent comic over the years. And the ethically problematic concept -- the team exploiting mutant hating prejudice by pretending to be an anti-mutant organization -- was dropped early, apparently.

There's nothing here that makes Phoenix Rising a must read (just as a story, that is), but it's enjoyable enough, particularly when it indulges in its soap opera-y/character stuff. Heck, the X-Factor issue kind of makes me wish that comic was cheaper in the back issues bins, because I wouldn't mind sampling a few more issues. And for X-fans assembling a TPB collection, this acts as a necessary bridge netween various creative eras of the merry mutants.

This is a review of the story as it was orignally published in various Marvel comics.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $12.95 USA. 


X-Men: Phoenix - Warsong 2007 (SC TPB) 128 pgs.

cover by Mark SilvestriWritten by Greg Pak. Pencils by Tyler Kirkham. Inks by Sal Regla.
Colours: John Starr. Letters: Troy Peteri. Editor: Andy Schmidt, Mike Marts.

Reprinting: the five issue mini-series (2006) - plus covers

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed July 22, 2009/ Re-reviewed: July 2016

I first reviewed this in 2009 -- and have slightly modified (and, I'll admit, downgraded) my review.

Greg Pak wrote the mini-series, Phoenix - Endsong, in which the Phoenix force once more returns to earth, resurrects its former, now dead, host, Jean Grey, and much action and angst ensued. And almost immediately, he followed it up with Phoenix - Warsong which both is a sequel...and bears only a passing connection to Endsong.

At the end of Endsong, the Phoenix force was seeming defeated, but with a lingering hint of danger involving its connection to the Stepford Cuckoos, the trio of identical sisters and telepaths at the Xavier Institute. This picks up immediately on that, with the Phoenix force attempting to merge with the Cuckoos. However something else is at play, as well. Apparently the true origins of the Cuckoos had never been explored, and not just the Phoenix force, but a post-hypnotic, subconscious programming is attempting to win over the girls minds. Indeed, the story might more appropriately have been called "The Secret History of the Stepford Cuckoos" as it's really about revealing their hitherto unknown background (which may be one of those comic book "retcons" as opposed to something that had truly been planned to be their origin back when they were first introduced about four or five years before).

The Cuckoos go AWOL and the X-Men, here comprised of the same team as in Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men run -- Cyclops, Emma Frost, Wolverine, Beast, Kitty Pryde and Colossus (in Endsong, Storm, Angel and Nightcrawler were also at play) -- set out in pursuit, unsure if their goal is to rescue the girls from the various forces possessing them...or to kill them before the Phoenix can fully manifest in them.

The first series, Endsong, though drawing upon a lot of recent X-Men mythos (Quentin Quire, the Stepford Cuckoos) was rooted in the original Dark Phoenix saga from decades ago, making it a bit of a nostalgic trip for older readers. Warsong is much more contemporary in its references that will (presumably) have resonance for modern readers...but not so much casual fans, particularly when the story takes the characters to "The World", a defunct factory that was used to churn out mutant killing devices by yet another mutant hating madman that the characters are supposed to be familiar with already.

I had liked Endsong, but found it uneven (liking it less after a recent re-reading). And Warsong is even more of a mixed bag. For one thing, Endsong was illustrated by Greg Land, whose art had a strking photorealism...even as it suffered because it looked a little like he cut and pasted images out of magazines, the characters often rather stiffly posed. Here, Land is replaced by Tyler Kirkham and inker Sal Regla -- under the umbrella label of "art by Top Cow Productions, Inc." Unfortunately Kirkham's art echoes Land's stiffness and awkward poses...without the compensation of the photorealism, his figures flat and 2-dimensional with more than a hint of warmed over, third-rate Jim Lee or Marc Silvestri. It just -- well, it just didn't strike me as that good. And it can even be a bit confusing in the action scenes -- though that may be problems with Pak's storytelling that Kirkham can't overcome. In one sequence the X-Men jump out of plane -- including Cyclops who, um, y'know, can't fly and isn't invulnerable, so I'm not sure what's supposed to be happening there.

What I had liked about Endsong, by virtue of its playing with the emotional repercussions of the Jean/Phoenix thing, was that it seemed as much a character/human drama as a super hero adventure. Warsong is more focused on the actions and twists. There is emotional stuff, but it's derived from the Cuckoos and Emma Frost -- characters I was less familiar with and so had less involvement in. As well, Pak succumbs to that glibness I feel undermines a lot of modern comics -- going for the cartoony quip over the real human emotion (like Kitty sarcastically saying "ouch" when Wolverine savagely uses his claws on someone).

A big problem can be summed up when Kitty dismisses something as "completely unverifiable psi-babble" The whole story is based on nonsensensical mumbo jumbo, metaphysics and technospeak that we're just expected to swallow whole (including the seeming idea that the biological heart is truly the seat of human emotion, or a plot twist based on a character simply having "lied" when explaining an earlier bit of unverifiable technobabble). The story is constantly veering around, throwing twists and revelations, keeping it fast paced...but can also seem a bit like children playing in a school yard ("I shot you!", "No, 'cause I had a force field.", "Well I shot you with a force field blasting gun.", "Did not, 'cause I zapped your gun first...", etc.) In one scene Colossus performs a "fastball special" (wherein he throws someone across the room) using someone other than the invulnerable Wolverine -- presumably Pak thought it'd be cool but, um, how was that person supposed to survive being flung? Presumably, using playground logic, we aren't supposed to question things like that.

Heck, in a presumably unintentional acknowledgement of the illogic of comic book logic, Pak seems to bring closure to the story by suggesting the Phoenix force has been dealt with permanently...even as another character is already thinking about when it "comes back."

Of course, that might just be because I wasn't grasping all the nuances. At the end of the book are character profiles of both the Phoenix force and the Cuckoos. And in recounting the Phoenix history that has been embellished over the decades, you can still find yourself going: "huh, ah, wuzzat now?" Even when it describes stories I'd read, I could find myself going: "Oh, is that what happened?"

Along the way, Pak repeats ideas from Endsong -- including reanimating a few corpses, and complicating things by having it be the Phoenix is only part of the threat -- as well as some ideas leaking over from the Battlestar Galactica series he was writing around the same time.

Despite the rather grisly aspect of re-animated corpses, there was a gentleness, a humanity to Endsong that was appealing. But Warsong seems more reflective of the way X-Men comics have gone over the years, where it can kind of revel in unpleasantness and horror imagery, so you can also find yourself -- despite the quips and gung ho heroics -- closing the book with a bitter aftertaste on your tongue.

Comic book sagas built around tying together years of accumulated lore and half-forgotten plot threads can sometimes lead to great sagas, seeming grander than their page count. But that's only if the writer (and artist) can make you care even when you're not familiar with those past events, by focusing on the believable human emotions, and by explaining what needs to be explained, threading it into the current story. Here Pak is drawing upon past Phoneix stories (from The Dark Phoneix Saga to his own Endsong), the history of the Cuckoos (and the ol' "everything you thought you knew is wrong" revelations), this World thingamajig, a SHIELD agent named Jake Oh (who just feels extraneous), and more -- but instead of feeling like Pak was drawing upon all this to enrich his story, it just feels like someone eager to play with all the cool X-toys and that readers (like myself) are irrevelant.

For continuity fans, the revelations about the Cuckoos origins might make it a "must read", but for the rest of us, it's briskly paced, with a few cute quips here and there, but shy on rational logic or even much coherence. There is some emotion, including a poignant resolution, but most of the X-Men themselves are just there to provide action. On one hand, a story is told, so you can close the book without feeling like it was just a prologue to the next X-Men crossover epic. On the other hand, with its heavy emphasis on past continuity, it's not neatly self-contained, either.

It's a lesser follow up to Phoenix - Endsong...which itself was uneven. I thought I'd read that Pak had intended a trilogy, but I'm unaware of a third "Phoenix - ___song" mini-series. Which might mean he got swamped by other projects or, maybe, that I'm not the only one who felt the project wasn't really working.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$14.99 USA


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