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An X-Men Retrospective: Part 4

"Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction. And every time this team goes into the field, we remind the world that we do."

In the penultimate instalment of my journey through X-Men history I'll be championing the brief, brilliant and criminally overlooked tenure of Kieron Gillen, before navigating the many highs and lows of Brian Michael Bendis' divisive run.

REGENESIS (2011-2012)
Uncanny X-Men (Volume 2) #1-20

Kieron Gillen replaced Matt Fraction on Uncanny X-Men just before Marvel ended the series in 2011 after 544 issues. The title was then relaunched following the Schism miniseries that saw the X-Men split into two factions after Cyclops and Wolverine had one hell of a lovers' tiff. Wolverine took half the team and returned to Westchester to reopen the old school as the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning. The other half remained in Utopia with Cyclops and were reformed into his Extinction Team, a sort of mutants Avengers that would protect the world while also reminding it that mutants are powerful and not to be messed with. Wolverine's faction starred in Jason Aaron's Wolverine and the X-Men while Cyclops' team starred in Uncanny X-Men, which was still written by Gillen.

If I had to pick the most underrated and overlooked run in X-Men history it would probably be Gillen's. I think most people skip this run because it was rather brief (just under two years), had almost half of it heavily tied into a big event series (Avengers Vs X-Men) that a lot of people weren't too happy with, and was sandwiched between divisive runs by two more high profile writers. Fans are more likely to debate and argue about what went wrong with the Fraction and Bendis runs than discuss everything that went right with Gillen's. Which really is a shame, because this is the strongest X-Men run of the last decade, and that's even with all the crap Greg Land art.
The most lasting impact of Gillen's run was his complete reinvention of Mr Sinister, who was more or less the central villain of this run. Sinister had been one of the X-Men's most well known villains for over 20 years, but they'd always been somewhat lacking when it came to the personality department. Claremont's original plan for the character was that he (and Gambit) was a literally puppet for another villain who was stuck looking like an 11-year-old boy. He was meant to be a child's idea of what a scary villain would be. Claremont left before this could be revealed and subsequent writers just left Sinister as a silly looking one-note villain. Gillen fixed all that by turning them into an utter ham who dressed like a Victorian gentleman and enjoyed being catty with his many clones.

The splitting of the X-Men proved to be very beneficial to Gillen. The post-House of M era suffered from the mutants now all living under the same roof. During Matt Fraction's run there'd be scenes with 20-30 characters in them. Sending half of them back to Westchester removed all the extraneous characters and left Gillen with all the really interesting ones like Magik, Emma Frost, Magneto, Namor, and Cyclops. Yes, Cyclops. I know this particular period of X-Men history is very controversial with fans because of the darker turn his character took, but I honestly think it is the strongest character arc from this era, even if it does eventually stumble into an anti-climax during Bendis' run.
One of the really impressive things about Gillen's run is how skilfully he was able to fit things around something like Avengers Vs X-Men. AvX is one of those overhyped event series where every hero suddenly turns into an arsehole so they can all start fighting. Ever since Civil War I've tended to stay clear of such things. Often events like this are intrusive and completely upset the flow of the story the writer is trying to tell. Gillen manages to avoid all that, masterfully weaving in and out of the main AvX plot to continue and conclude the character arcs he'd started when he first took over.

You don't have to read AvX to enjoy or understand this run. I certainly didn't. I just skimmed through the wiki page, but even if I hadn't I still don't think I would've had any problems understanding or enjoying this run. After finishing his work on Uncanny X-Men, Gillen also wrote AvX: Consequences, a five issue miniseries that dealt with the immediate aftermath of that event and served as epilogue for his run by showing what happened to all the main characters and setting the stage for what came next.
Marvel NOW! (2012-2015)
Uncanny X-Men (Volume 3) #1-35, #600
All New X-Men #1-41

While they were planning Avengers Vs X-Men, all the Marvel writers got together and decided it would be fun to shake up the entire line by swapping titles. Kieron Gillen replaced Matt Fraction on Iron Man. Fraction replaced Jonathan Hickman on Fantastic Four. Hickman replaced Brian Michael Bendis on Avengers and New Avengers. And Bendis replaced Gillen on Uncanny X-Men. Bendis was pretty much the writer at Marvel during the 2000s, responsible for successful runs on Daredevil, Ultimate Spider-Man and The Avengers as well as creating beloved characters like Jessica Jones and Miles Morales. But by the early 2010s, and after writing far too many disappointing event series, his star had certainly begun to dim.

Bendis' Uncanny X-Men followed what was left of Cyclops' Extinction Team (basically him, Emma Frost, Magneto and Magik) as they travelled the world searching for new mutants, protecting them from human persecution, showing them how to use their gifts, and preparing them for the coming mutant revolution. This was made all the more difficult by the fact they were now all fugitives after what went down during AvX. Bendis also wrote the rather deceptively titled All-New X-Men, which saw Beast travel back in time to bring the teenage versions of the original X-Men to the present. He told them he was doing this to prevent a mutant genocide, but it was really just to spite Cyclops by showing him how far he'd fallen. Since X-Men was celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013 it's no surprise that Bendis came up with a storyline that tied heavily into the franchise's origins.
I approached both these titles expecting the very worst. A lot of people have had a lot of things to say about Bendis run and very little of it is good. I was fully prepared for a complete and utter disaster. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised by how much I actually enjoyed Bendis' X-Men. These were two really fun books that had a good handle on all the characters I cared about and set up some interesting storylines. Of the two titles, Uncanny X-Men was the one I enjoyed the most since it continued the story and characters I was invested in from Gillen's run. It featured some fantastic artwork by Chris Bachalo. I've been a fan of Bachalo's work since his Generation X days and I'm always happy to see him working on an X-Men book.

All-New X-Men started off strongly, but suffered from the fact that the O5 X-Men aren't the most compelling of characters and this storyline wasn't one with a lot of mileage. It was already running on fumes by the time they got to the 'Battle of the Atom' crossover. Instead of ending things there and sending the O5 back to their original time, Bendis kept the story going despite obviously having no clue what to do with them. For the rest of his run they just wandered from one pointless side quests to another where they'd team up with all the other characters Bendis was writing at the time like the Guardians of the Galaxy and Miles Morales.
Bendis's X-Men was at its best in individual issues and smaller story arcs. The larger story arcs, such as the mutant revolution and the original X-Men being stuck in the present, ultimately went nowhere while the mystery of why most of Cyclops' team couldn't use their powers properly was inconsistent and anti-climatic. His character work was also rather inconsistent, especially in All-New X-Men. He gets points for remembering that Kitty and Illyana were best friends and taking steps to have them rekindle their friendship, but he also loses points for pairing Kitty up with another guy named Peter. Bobby's coming out was also very poorly handled and the less said about that weird Jean/Beast romance the better.

'The Last Will and Testament of Charles Xavier' is what ultimately torpedoes this run. Bendis seemed to realise far too late that he'd let this storyline run out control and hastily tried to fix things with some lazy time travel, but by that point the damage had already been done. The last few issues of Uncanny X-Men saw Bendis speeding through character arcs and storylines in a mad dash to get everything over and done with before Jonathan Hickman destroyed the entire Marvel Universe with Secret Wars. After such a promising start, Bendis' Uncanny X-Men came to a rushed and unsatisfying conclusion with issue #600, where Cyclops reveals that his mutant revolution was nothing more than just a peaceful protest. But as disappointing as that ending was it was still at least an ending. All-New X-Men wasn't so lucky. It just ends with no resolution to anything.
To Be Continued...

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011 More Mark Greig

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ah Bobby's awkward coming out cause Jean bullied him into it. It's not a bad idea to have Iceman make that leap but it could have been done so much better.
The time traveling young X-men were badly handled sadly.
Namor on the X-men was a hoot. I still ship him and Emma.
Very nice overview again.

Samantha M. Quinn said...

Sad to hear that Bobby coming out wasn't well handled. I'd read about the OG X-men coming forward in time and was mildly curious about that storyline. I had no idea it was over already. I had also seen a X-men vs Avengers title and picked up an issue only to realize I was way to late to get into the story. It is interesting that they finally did something different with Cyclops and the fans didn't like it. Sounds like solid work to me, but again it is about nuance, and I've read that some of the things the did to make Scott darker didn't work.

On to part 5