GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

X-Men - First Class

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Uncanny X-Men - First Class: Hated and Feared 2009 (SC TPB), 144 pgs.

coverWritten by Scott Gray, with Jeff Parker, Roger Langridge. Pencils by Roger Cruz, with David Williams, others. Inks by various.
Colours: various. Letters: Nate Piekos. Editor: Nathan Cosby.

Reprinting: Uncanny X-Men: First Class - Giant-Size #1, Uncanny X-Men: First Class #1-4 (2009) - with covers

Additional notes: published closer to manga-size dimensions than the usual TPB.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed Nov. 2011

X-Men: First Class was a retro series telling all new tales of the original X-Men as a sort of All Ages series (ie: less grim and gritty than a lot of modern super hero comics) and with a lot of comedy -- yet still being adventures, with emotional undercurrents. And if playing a bit fast and loose with continuity, it was nonetheless meant to be quasi-canonical (as opposed to an alternative continuity, the way other All Ages series have been). This then led to applying the formula to other versions of the X-Men...including this series.

Uncanny X-Men: First Class is set during the early days of the next phase of the team -- the roster introduced in the mid-1970s, created by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum and continued by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. Although, unlike the X-Men: First Class, written by Jeff Parker, here chief writer Scott Gray plays it a bit more straight -- there is some skewing toward slapstick (a scene where Wolverine is punched almost into orbit), but mainly this is meant to be drama.

Actually, the series kicked off with Giant Size Uncanny X-Men: First Class in which the humour is more pronounced and in which a framing story involving the team wraps around various 5 page solo flashbacks to the newer members (Nightcrawler, Storm, Wolverine and Banshee). It's okay, but the short anthology format is often problematic in comics.

The regular series starts out well. Having grown up (more or less) with this era, I really dug Gray's evocation of the characters and themes -- and a time before the X-Men franchise had mushroomed into a zillion spin-off titles and an insanely muddled continuity. These are adventure stories, but the action is often subordinate to the character drama -- which can be a good thing. In other words, it's the 1970s X-Men...with 2000-plus sophistication.

The opening two-parter focuses on Nightcrawler and Colossus -- though the others have their parts. At a meeting with the Inhumans (Marvel's other misfit team), Nightcrawler and Colossus are invited to visit the Inhumans' city, where Nightcrawler finds it a most tempting environment -- a city where everyone looks freakish and he is no longer shunned or hated. The themes are obvious enough, but well handled. Nightcrawler is the obvious character to use, but the pairing with Colossus is a nice touch -- and there are some nice, subtle scenes of a pensive Peter clearly recognizing what's going through Kurt's head...even before Kurt does. Of course, things don't go smoothly, leading to an X-Men/Inhumans smackdown. Hero vs. hero battles are a staple of comics -- often contrived and presented with all the relevance of a WWF match, usually kicking off a team up (as the heroes fight over a misunderstanding, then join together). Yet here, Gray goes the opposite route, building to the fight, not starting with it. The story is actually more drama than action, so when the fight comes, it arises (more or less) logically and plausibly out of what has transpired. It isn't a contrivance, but where the story is taking us.

At the same time, though even I referred to modern "sophistication", the fact is, a lot of modern comics act like they're more sophisticated than comics of old...but aren't necessarily. After all is said and done, it's a pretty simple, straight forward premise: the outcast X-Man seeing something attractive in a city of outcasts. The theme is as much the story as any plot -- and neither are that complex or twisty for a two-parter. Even the use of the Inhumans is a mixed bag. On one hand, guest stars have their appeal, the Inhumans are the logical choice for the premise, and make more novel guest stars than, say, Spider-Man. On the other hand -- they aren't uncommon guest stars, so it's not like this opening story is really that fresh.

The next two issues offer one off plots -- and further continue the trend of almost "solo" adventures. The Nightcrawler/Colossus story at least still involved the whole team. But with the next story, Banshee (and Moira MacTaggert) are the leads, with the others only in a minor opening sequence. In the fourth issue, Storm is featured, with Jean Grey (and guest stars Misty Knight and Colleen Wing) along...but the rest of the team only appear on a couple of pages. They're both decent enough tales. The Banshee one is a mix of drama and adventure, as Banshee finds himself seeming haunted by the ghost of his dead wife, stirring some emotional turmoil -- though maybe it fails to be as moody/spooky as the premise might warrant. The Storm/Jean one is a more straightforward adventure. But the solo focus may be problematic. After all, if part of the point of the series is to play the "nostalgic" card, then surely the reader wants a chance to see the classic team in all its ensemble glory...not what could be construed as just an expanded version of the X-Men Vignettes. As well, though it maybe offers a chance to give more scope to the characters in solo stories than they received allotted just a few panels in a team adventure...it could be argued there's a reason they were members of a team...as opposed to stars of their own series.

A factor of these "First Class" series is, of course, the chance to play with old toys. At the same time, there is a danger it means there can be a lack of freshness. So we kick off the series with the Inhumans, and visiting the Inhumans' hidden city (my long boxes are full of such stories). While the Storm story features villainess Nightshade -- I'm not sure she's around that much these days, but she cropped up in various comics back then. On one hand, that's the point: the nostalgia (particularly if Nightshade is basically a villain from a by-gone era)...on the other hand it means Gray isn't exactly trying to surprise us with new ideas (the story even drags S.H.I.E.L.D. into the mix).

Of course, part of the point is to tell stories that never got told back in the day. For instance, though Chris Claremont did make Jean Grey roommates with private eye Misty Knight, he never found an appropriate spot in the comics at the time to expand upon it. So by giving us a story where Jean and Misty, along with Storm and Colleen, have a "girls night out" it can certainly seem like a story that Claremont meant to write...but never did.

All the stories are perfectly decent page turners, with some action and adventure, but not at the sacrifice of character or human drama. A sub-plot teased through these issues (and meant to drag us into the next series of stories) clearly promises an adventure involving the full team is coming up next (though it does mean the TPB ends with a plot thread dangling).

The art is manly handled by Roger Cruz, who drew the X-Men: First Class series. His clean, straight lined style is appealing and though it was well-suited to the more humorous tone of that earlier series, he also seems to tweak it a bit to suit the more serious flavour here -- though still able to veer toward caricature for the silly bits. The Storm issue is drawn by David Williams. In some ways he has a more lush, rounded style than Cruz that's quite effective...but in other ways also leans toward simple, even cartoony. The result is that some panels I liked more than Cruz, but I probably liked Cruz more overall. The Giant Size is illustrated by a variety of artists.

Uncanny X-Men: First Class only ran 8 issues (plus the Giant Size) -- I don't know if that was a mark of poor sales, or whether that was intended from the start. After all, an on going retro series would be hard to maintain, as it would be tricky to figure out how it works around the existing comics published years ago.

Ultimately, this is a likeable enough chance to re-visit a classic incarnation of the team, and with a slightly kinder, gentler tone than a lot of modern comics...without losing its gravatus, emotional or suspense-wise. All Ages it may be...but it's definitely skewing toward older readers, just not in a way that would put off youngsters. Yet it didn't quite win me over as thoroughly as did X-Men: First Class. As a chance to visit the old gang, the opening two-parter hits that mark better than the rest, with a nice use of the whole team (even if focused on Nightcrawler and Colossus), some emotional undercurrents that rung true, plus some fantasy and action.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$14.99 USA


Uncanny X-Men - First Class: Knights of Hykon 2010 (SC TPB), 96 pgs.

coverWritten by Scott Gray. Illustrated by Scott Koblish, Nelson DeCastro, Fernando Blanco.
Colours: Val Staples. Letters: Nate Piekos.

Reprinting: Uncanny X-Men: First Class #5-8 (2009)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed July 2016

The "First Class" idea is part of the trend prevalent in the last couple of decades of nostalgic, "retro" comics. Presumably a reflection of how much (and how quickly) characters and series can change these days what with editors desperate for the next sales-boosting dramatic shake-up. So series like this are a chance for creators (and older fans) to revisit the version of the characters with which they grew up.

The X-Men already had a "First Class" run, telling retro tales set back during the original incarnation of the team (reviewed here). While this -- "Uncanny X-Men: First Class" -- is set during the even more dynamic revival of the team from the late 1970s/early 1980s: Cyclops, Storm, Banshee, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Phoenix and Professor X. This series ran eight issues (plus a Giant-Size) -- though whether it was intended as a limited series, or suffered lagging sales, I'm not sure. All the "First Class" series (including a Wolverine: First Class which was set during the X-Men era immediately following this) ran for a limited run, but this was certainly the shortest.

Anyway, this collects the second half of the series. The first collection featured one and two issue stories, though with a cut-away sub-plot threaded through them. So this collection begins with that sub-plot erupting front and centre as a group of mysterious aliens invade earth (and the X-Men's home) -- fighting both each other and the X-Men (in a way perhaps deliberately evocative of the "origin" adventure of the Justice League of America in which earth was simply a battleground for aliens, the heroes caught inbetween). By starting so abruptly, it can almost feel like you're coming into the story in the middle -- but you're not really (it was just a cutaway thread, building to a final page teaser in issue #4). So though it hits the ground running, it does lack a proper build up. The result can feel less like an "epic" story and more like an action scene stretched over three issues. There's certainly enough adversaries for different X-Men to get their moments in the spotlight, and there is some revelations and strategizing but, as I say, it can feel a bit like just a big action/fight sequence.

The collection (and the series) then caps off with almost a palette cleanser. A more low-key tale of Banshee (with Nightcrawler, Wolverine, and Colossus) investigating a murder in Banshee's ancestral castle home, Cassidy Keep -- a murder involving the local leprechauns.

Now part of the point of something like First Class is to mine the old lore, drawing upon characters and ideas from the old issues which might not be as common today. For example I had forgotten Cassidy Keep was home to a colony of leprechauns! While the three-part tale ties into the earlier transformation of Marvel Girl into Phoenix -- the aliens having been the one's to cause the sunspots that indirectly led to Jean Grey's metamorphosis. The problem with such nostalgic threads is it can work against the modern stories on their own. To suddenly throw in the Phoenix-origin-as-backstory is a bit awkward when these issues hadn't previously referenced it. Likewise, the leprechauns can seem a bit, um, oddly matter-of-fact...until you remember they had been previously established.

And the overall result is kind of -- okay. I guess. I mean it certainly clips along, though with a tone that never fully achieves any great dramatic gravitas (despite the Cyclops-Phoenix stuff) without being as overtly humorous and fun as the "First Class" series (or the Wolverine: First Class series). It's just light and breezy. And it never quite succeeds in really triggering any major nostalgic rush in me, writer Gray maybe not quite evoking a Chris Claremont vibe in terms of characterization or angst or what-have-you. The characters are perfectly in-character -- just not, y'know, uncannily so (pun intended).

The Koblish/DeCastro combo draws the three-part tale and like with the writing, the art is okay without being especially distinctive. It's clean and straight-forward -- occasionally leaning a bit toward cartoony. At times I did wonder if they were trying to evoke John Byrne (the X-Men artist from the time) but if so it doesn't do it enough, or as convincingly, to add to a sense of nostalgia. I actually sort of preferred Blanco's art on the one-issue tale -- at least it seems bit moodier, a bit more gothic, suiting a tale set in an old castle.

Maybe part of the problem is that I never really felt any burning sense of "why." Why this series (other than marketing)? Or why Gray wanted to be part of it? That's probably a bit harsh, but I just mean no particular story or character aspect or narrative arc really felt like that was what was driving the enterprise. This is particularly true if the series was intended as just an eight issue mini-series. After all, surely a signature of the team at the time was its various sub-plots and story arcs. So you could see doing this as a chance to evoke that formula -- teasing along various story threads, but in a finite run where they all resolve by the end. But despite the Knights of Hykon having been threaded through earlier issues, this doesn't coalesce into some 8 issue arc meant to try and capture the old series in a single stream of stories.

Though an advantage in this TPB is a greater emphasis on the whole team (the previous issues had leaned more toward solo stories).

Ultimately the whole run just feels like a collection of okay, but unexceptional tales of the "new" X-Men. And this collection, being comprised of one three-part story and one single issue story, can feel pretty limited. They'd probably have been better to collect the complete series in one volume.

As is, The Knights of Hykon is an okay but, ultimately, not that memorable action-romp and the murder mystery tale feels a bit like an agreeable "filler."

This is a review based on the original comics.

Cover price: $__ USA


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