GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

X-Men (Solo) Reviews

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"Mutants -- feared and hated by the world they have sworn to protect. These are the strangest heroes of all!"






Colossus: God's Country 1994 (SC TPB) 64 pages

cover by Leonardi & RussellWritten by Ann Nocenti. Pencils by Rick Leonardi. Inks by P. Craig Russell.

Colours: various. Letters: Ken Lopez. Editor: Terry Kavanagh

Reprinting the Colossus story serialized in Marvel Comics Presents #10-17 (1989)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

God's Country -- I'm assuming -- was the first solo story featuring the Russian-born X-Man, Colossus (not that there have been too many solo stories since). Originally serialized in 8 page chapters in the anthology comic, Marvel Comics Presents, it was then collected in a single volume.

And it's an odd little affair.

Actually, I should mention that, though I'd seen it on the shelf for a while, I hadn't had too much interest in it, save for two points. One, I had enjoyed Cyclops: Retribution -- which, likewise, was a collection of a serialized Marvel Comics Presents story, the "tell it in short chapters" format making for an appealing narrative rhythm. The other reason was because it was written by Ann Nocenti.

Nocenti is one of those writers that seems almost unique to comics of people whose stuff can seem quite awkward and heavy handed -- viewed one way -- and can blaze with a startling genius viewed another. Think Stan Lee. Jack Kirby. Don McGregor. And others. Nocenti -- at least at times -- weaves tales that are rooted in a socio-political reality that a lot of comics writers shy away from, where conversations wander off on tangents that have little to do with the super hero action, while on the other hand writing idiosyncratic dialogue and seeming rather disconnected from reality, as though more a parable or fable. But there can be something quite...bracing about her better work. And God's Country is no exception.

The premise is that Colossus is on a sabbatical from the X-Men and wandering through rural America when he, and a small town family, witness a murder carried out by genetically enhanced, super covert, government operatives. Before long, Colossus and the family are holed up in the family farmhouse, besieged by killer agents. It's a simple enough premise, viewed by the surface action. But beneath the surface, these waters run deep...very deep. Occasionally murkily so. Because what also ensues is long off kilter debates about freedom and responsibility, family and country, truth and deceit. Colossus, though not a staunch communist per se, nonetheless hasn't fully rejected his Soviet upbringing, while the father is an American heartland conservative -- yet the two find themselves allied against the threat posed by these rogue government operatives. The characters aren't simply drawn in black and white, but troubled and multi-faceted -- the wife, we learn, has a history of emotional breakdowns.

Nocenti doesn't just hit you over the head with her themes, but slaps you in the face and kicks you in the groin with them. But though heavy handed, it succeeds more than it doesn't because you believe in Nocenti's sincerity. Even if you aren't always sure what her point is. The story definitely has a liberal slant, and would no doubt be on Fox News' list of the hundred books that must be burned, yet there are so many philosophical asides, you wonder if even Nocenti is sure of what she's saying. When Colossus balks at going to the police because it means giving up "the right to defend yourself" you wonder, um, is Nocenti really advocating unchecked vigilantism?

But maybe what works about Nocenti's stuff is as heavy handed and didactic as it is, she still lets the characters be people. They utter dialogue that seem more like polemics than casual banter, but they themselves don't always fit into neat little pigeon holes. Neither wholly good, nor wholly bad, but capable of being both. It's this human factor that means you're not always sure where the story is going to take us. There are other comics writers who write stories less combatively political than Nocenti...yet nonetheless reduce their characters to simply ciphers for an idea. And though, on one hand, any super hero could've been used in this scenario, nonetheless it feels like it was tailor made for Colossus, that his actions and reactions, his self-doubts and concerns, are different than if this had been a Wolverine tale, or a Nightcrawler tale.

The story itself veers from action, to suspense, to surreal parable, to satire and whimsy -- sometimes multiple things at once. While the family is laid siege, we frequently cut to a gaggle of neighbours watching from the sidelines, in scenes that are both satirical and searing.

I've come across artist Rick Leonardi before, but often have been less than enamoured of his rough and somewhat cartoony style. I don't know whether this is just from an earlier stage in his evolution, or whether P. Craig Russell's elegant finishes embellish upon Leonardi's pencils, but I really enjoyed the art here. Stylish and dynamic, yet clear, with a cartoony flare that, nonetheless, doesn't rob the characters or their emotions of their humanity. It's robust and attractive.

Perhaps what's most invigorating about this is the fact that Nocenti does seem to be trying to grapple with relevant ideas and themes. Despite the use of super heroes and super beings, she's not hiding too far behind allegory, where we have to infer how and in what way -- or even if -- the fantasy echoes real life. This isn't like Alan Moore or Grant Morrison with their continual deconstruction of the comic book template as if somehow there's nothing more profound than analyzing what it means to be a comic book character. Nocenti, in her strange, surreal way, is writing about real people and real life, about pornography versus free expression, about people who listened to too much of "Reagan's bulldinky", Vietnam vets who have to fight for benefit checks, socialism versus free enterprise, global warming and, yes, the merits of universal health care years before Barack Obama put it on the agenda. All this while also being a briskly paced action-thriller.

Obviously, one could argue there's a reason why mass entertainment shouldn't be too explicitly political. In this case, the ideological undercurrents are so blatant, it's doubtful many conservative readers would be able to enjoy it just for the action (though, ironically, the premise of heartland America being besieged by sinister government forces would equally appeal to right wing readers). At the same time, when too many -- even in comics -- pooh pooh the comics medium for its inability to tackle adult and heavy themes, here we have Nocenti, in a mainstream, Comics Code approved super hero magazine, demonstrating that such limitations have nothing to due with the medium...only the will of the creators themselves.

An action-thriller. A fable. A character drama. A socio-political debate. The different facets don't always gel seamlessly together...which is kind of what keeps it interesting.

Original cover price: $8.05 CDN./ $5.95 USA. 


Cyclops: Retribution 1994 (SC TPB) 64 pages

cover by Ron LimWritten by Bob Harras. Pencils by Ron Lim. Inks by Jeff Albrecht, Carol Riem, Bruce Patterson.
Colours: Andy Yanchus. Letters: Augustin Mas. Editor: Terry Kavanagh.

Reprinting: the Cyclops story serialized in Marvel Comics Presents #17-24 (1989-1990)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

X-Man Cyclops is summoned to Moira MacTaggert's research lab on Muir Island by Moira's lover (and ex-X-Man) Sean Cassidy because Moria's been acting oddly. Arriving at night, instantly Cyclops is attacked by mysterious forces. But he can find no evidence of the fight the next morning. Strange things are afoot, and soon a foe is revealed whose goal is to unleash a genetically bred virus to wipe out all mutants.

Having just read the highbrow, The Sandman: The Doll's House, a reader can always wonder whether they can go back to simple super hero adventures, or whether it will just seem trite and childish. But the long and the short of it is, Retribution was quite enjoyable.

Originally serialized in eight page instalments in the anthology comic, Marvel Comics Presents, the story is a tightly-paced thriller. I'm not sure I've read much by Harras before (I guy who briefly ascended to the position of editor-in-chief at Marvel, or something like that) but this is a well told tale, beginning with the spooky opening few chapters, establishing that strange things are occurring, then moving into the more traditional X-Men terrain of battling robots and trapped in secret bases. Actually, I would've liked to see the opening stretched out a bit more, since there was an effective generation of tension and suspense precisely because the reader didn't know what was going on (I skimmed over the back cover description). But even once the who and what is established, the story remains interesting, with a few twists and turns, and even some character development, particularly a nicely detailed evolution of a supporting character's shifting ideology which gives the story some added weight and emotional dimension.

Harras also plays around with the usual X-Men staple of anti-mutant prejudice, but keeps it from seeming too much like rote. He tackles the bigotry in a way that seems sincere and thoughtful.

Because of the eight page chapter format (not that the break between the chapters is clearly identified in this collection), the story remains focused and breathlessly-paced, while still cramming enough into it that the end result actually feels as though it's longer than just 64 pages. Although billed as a Cyclops story, other characters share (some of) the action, including Moira MacTaggert, Calisto, and Sean Cassidy (a.k.a. Banshee) -- though the latter not as much as his presence on the cover would imply.

Ron Lim's art nicely serves the tale. Although there are some extraordinary artists working today, and comics employ multi-tone computer colouring and other novel effects, there's something rather appealing about this older, more straight forward art style. It's not that Lim's handling of faces or figures is particularly exceptional -- it's not. But it's good, telling the story with confidence and clarity, allowing the focus to be on the contents (the plot, the characters, the action) rather than the presentation.

I picked this up on a whim (and because I've always liked Cyclops in the main X-Men comics), but not expecting too much, and found it a nice, rewarding thriller instead.

Original cover price: $8.05 CDN./ $5.95 USA. 


Giant-Size Gambit 1998 (SC TPB) 96 pages

cover by Lee WeeksWritten by Fabian Nicieza, Scott Lobdell. Pencils by Andy Kubert, Ron Garney, Bryan Hitch, Joe Madureira. Inks by Matt Ryan, Cam Smith, Tim Townsend.
Colors/letters: various. Editor: Bob Harras

Reprinting: X-Men #33, 41, Uncanny X-Men #323, 326 (1994-1995) - with covers

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

Number of readings: 1

O.K., this isn't really a TPB -- though I picked it up in the discount TPB bin. It does have a square spine -- but also a few ads, and Marvel's usual bullpen bulletin. Still, the point of my site is to provide information and opinions for those thinking of picking something up. So why not?

Giant-Size Gambit -- the title is a throwback to the 1970s when Marvel used to release Giant-Size issues of regular titles, sometimes featuring original stories, sometimes reprints. Here, the cover proclaims it's "classic" tales of the X-Man Gambit. I picked this up, not really because I cared one way or the other about Gambit, but because I figured it would be a convenient grab bag of X-Men stories.

The first story (X-Men #33) starts things off well. Though bracketed by on-going sub-plots, it's an out-of-continuity flashback tale of Gambit's pre-X-Men criminal past, when he butted heads with psychotic Canadian super-villain, Sabretooth, in Paris. It's both self-contained, focused on Gambit, and provides background to the character.

After that, things get dodgy. The next story features the team battling a time-travelling villain called Legion and is billed as chapter four of a four chapter story...but like a lot of comics sagas, that turns out to be a bit of a lie. In fact, the issue ends on the ultimate cliffhanger: the X-Men, and the universe, die! Obviously, they got better, but it means you end up with a story with no beginning and a not very satisfying ending. Stranger still, Gambit only appears in a couple of panels.

The next selection is likewise curious: it builds to an unresolved cliffhanger, and Gambit only has a small part. But one begins to sense a pattern. In the previous story, in their small appearance, Gambit and Rogue kiss. In this issue, Rogue's gone off for a road trip, clearly wigged out by their kiss and the insight it gave her into Gambit's hidden past (Rogue can absorb a person's memories with touch). So you figure, ah hah, the editor's are piecing together a subplot involving Gambit's dark secret by selecting these issues.

So then comes the final issue (Uncanny X-Men #326). It's a bit better than the last two, in that, being more of a talky, character issue, it doesn't end on a cliffhanger -- but neither does it resolve much about Gambit's mysterious secret. It relates to the events depicted in the first story in this collection...but that can't be his secret, because Rogue learned about that before she kissed him! There's some good stuff with other X-Men -- as mentioned, I bought this as much for an X-Men collection as a Gambit collection -- though relating to an on-going story involving something called the Legacy Virus. Surprisingly, I liked the art by Joe Madueira more than I expected. An artist with a slightly cartoony, Manga-inspired style, I'm not usually a big fan of that. But it was clear and moody and told the scenes well. I guess, as I get older, I'm not a big fan of art that seems too busy or cluttered, a problem with some of the other artists herein.

This collection seems almost as much about Sabretooth as it is Gambit (the former appearing in three stories, during a time when Prof. X was trying to rehabilitate him), but ultimately it's a strange assemblage. The first story is a good read, and easy to follow. The final story is enjoyable for its low-key character focus. But the middle two issues are plucked from the middle of longer stories and incomplete. This isn't even a snapshot of different creative periods of the X-Men, since the stories were selected from only a two year period.

So as a grab bag of X-tales, it is that. As a satisfying collection of stories, it's more uneven.

Original cover price: $5.99 CDN./ $3.99 USA 


Magneto Ascendant 1999 (SC TPB) 96 pages

coverWritten by Stan Lee, Chris Claremont, Bill Mantlo. Pencils by Jack Kirby, Werner Roth, Dave Cockrum, Rick Leonardi. Inks by various.
Colors/letters: various.

Reprinting: X-Men #11, 18 Uncanny X-Men #104, Vision & the Scarlet Witch (vol. 1) #4 (1964-1981)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: various

Like Giant-Size Gambit (reviewed above), this probably doesn't really qualify as a TPB -- but what the heck. Magneto Ascendant reprints four stories focusing on the X- Men's arch foe, Magneto, Master of Magnetism, from different stages in the character's career.

The first, by X-Men creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, has the original X- Men battling Magneto when he was still allied with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, allowing fans to see this earlier roster of that nefarious group (including soon to be heroes, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver). Actually, this story chronicles the dissolution of the Brotherhood, as well as involving the Collector (one of those perennial "cosmic" beings Marvel employs). It's a decent enough romp.

The next story is still by Lee, this time teamed with Werner Roth, who has an appealingly realist, understated style. This story is probably the best of the bunch. Although technically the second part of a two part tale, it's easy enough to pick up the story, and is a surprisingly effective nail-biter, as the Iceman -- the team's youngest and, therefore, seeming most vulnerable member -- must confront Magneto alone in the X-Men's own home, while the X-Men themselves must struggle to escape Magneto's death trap...a balloon that is whisking them up toward the stratosphere.

Jumping ahead of few years, the next story has what was then the "new" X- Men with Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Banshee (though the team's gone through many revisions since then) tackling Magneto. Despite being written by legendary X-scribe Chris Claremont, and drawn by "new" X-Men co-creator Dave Cockrum, it's a largely undistinguished affair (which could be true of Claremont when he got into his "big fight scene" mode). Not terrible, but undistinguished. Still, there's the usual team dynamics and inter-personal conflicts, even if the plot is a bit thin.

The final story is from a Vision and the Scarlet Witch mini-series in which Magneto and siblings Silver Witch and Quicksilver finally learn of their connection to each other. There's some action, of course, but it's a more moody, character-based story, reflecting the more emotionally complex (and morally ambiguous) direction in which Magneto was taken in the 1980s.

Although there's a nice shifting of art styles and tones in the stories, reflecting the wide gap between them (covering about twenty years), I'm not sure this really acts as a good showcase of the evolution and development of Magneto. Basically, he remains the same bombastic, one-dimensional, world conquerer throughout the first three stories, only the final story reflecting the later development and shading of his character. Nothing is shown of the retroactively developed backstory -- that Magneto was once Xavier's friend, and only the last story mentions that he was a survivor of Auschwitz, all of which adds complexity to a guy who started out as just a one-note adversary. And if you aren't going to reprint that material -- what's the point? Other than the final story, it's just a collection of dust ups between Magneto and the X-Men.

Still, it's enjoyable on that level.

Cover price: __


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