Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

19 May 2009

X-Men: Messiah CompleX

Collects: X-Men: Messiah CompleX, Uncanny X-Men #492-4, X-Men # 205-7, New X-Men v. 2 #44-6, and X-Factor #25-7 (2007-8)

Released: October 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 352 pages / color / $29.99 / ISBN: 9780785123200

What is this?: A massive X-Men crossover in which the X-Men, Marauders, Cable, Bishop, and the Purifiers all fight over the first mutant baby born since M-Day.

The culprits: An accomplished crossover crew, including writers Ed Brubaker, Mike Carey, Peter David, Chris Yost, and Craig Kyle and pencilers Billy Tan, Chris Bachalo, Humberto Ramos, and Scot Eaton

I haven’t read much of the X-Men titles since the “House of M” event — haven’t read anything other than X-Factor and Astonishing X-Men, really, since Grant Morrison left New X-Men. (Also: X-Men: Deadly Genesis, which left me less than eager to read anything else with Ed Brubaker’s fingerprints on it.) But my local library’s getting in all sorts of titles, and this gives me a chance to read X-Men: Messiah CompleX and feel like a Usenet dino.

X-Men was better in the old days! Well, I’ve got that out of my system now.

X-Men: Messiah CompleX cover For those of us who have been away, Messiah CompleX (man, do I hate that terminal capital “X”) is not a jumping on point. It sets up plots for the foreseeable future, yes, but it’s an exercise in clearing out the old. If you’re coming in with no knowledge of the X-Men — or if your knowledge is out of date — you’re going to be a little confused. Who are these New X-Men, and what can they do? Why are they so angry? Why do they die so easily? And why was Cable thought dead? Why does Bishop have a superplane? What happened to Cyclops’s father? There really aren’t any footnotes, although some of the information is given in context (eventually) and some of it doesn’t matter. Still, the New X-Men seem bolted onto the crossover awkwardly, and they aren’t very well explained, despite playing an important part in the crossover.

If you’re looking for action, Messiah CompleX has it. A new mutant baby is born —the first since the Scarlet Witch decreed “No more mutants” — and all the groups concerned with mutants want the baby: the X-Men to protect it, Mr. Sinister’s Marauders to control it, the Purifiers to kill it, the intensely stupid “Predator X” to eat it, and Cable to take it to the future. This gives rise to an intense level of action: the fighting is nearly non-stop, with numerous casualties. By the end, there’s a very real possibility the reader will be numb to the carnage; the number of mutants who are dead, dying, or deactivated is astonishing, given the restricted number of mutants at today’s Marvel.

The coordination of the crossover is a cut above what I’m used to; perhaps Marvel learned something about how to make the edges more seamless during the past decade. Writers Ed Brubaker, Peter David, and Mike Carey and New X-Men co-writers Craig Kyle and Chris Yost do an admirable job writing a story in which the chapters and characterizations don’t contradict each other. This is partly because the big revelations from the ancillary titles, X-Factor and New X-Men, largely happen in those titles. Still, everyone seems to do at least a passable job with the other writers’ characters, and that’s a real accomplishment.

I never thought I’d see the day when Chris Bachalo and Humberto Ramos would be penciling half a major X-Men crossover. Both are good artists but decidedly non-standard; I don’t think either is particularly “hot,” the kind of sought-after artist who makes the lists on Wizard. I’m not sure whether this represents a changing aesthetic on the X-titles or if it’s attributable to the X-titles’ loss of prestige over the years.27 As I said, both are decent artists, with Bachalo keeping his more eccentric tics under control this time around. I can’t tell whether Xavier disappearing at the end is an art mistake by Bachalo or a plot point, though. Ramos … Ramos is an artist who divides fans, and with good reason. I think his exaggerated figures are better suited for a more lighthearted title — I think he was a good fit for Paul Jenkins’s Spider-Man work a few years ago — but Messiah CompleX is not lighthearted at all. I believe Ramos can do serious stuff, but there are times his characters look more comically panicked than stressed, and his tough guys (and gals) will never look as tough as a more realistic artist’s.

The other half of the art is from Scot Eaton, who draws Forge as Robert Downey, Jr., and Billy Tan. The contrast between the two halves is extreme. Tan and Eaton draw a shiny, glossy world where everyone is pretty and even the dirt is attractive, and Bachalo and Ramos create a misshapen setting where even the bondage models are strangely offputting. All of them do a good job — well, except perhaps Marc Silvestri, who’s even more pretty and streamlined than Tan or Eaton in the Messiah CompleX one shot and manages to draw Wolverine with a hint of androgyny — but the differences are startling. Personally, for this crossover, I think I prefer Bachalo and Ramos’s side of the divide, since this is a gritty, not pretty, story. This flies in the face of my usual preference for attractive, clean art, but I realize that’s not appropriate for every comic book.

The blurb on the back cover quotes IGN as saying Messiah CompleX is “easily the best X-Men crossover in a decade.” Assuming the quote is in context — and Marvel has a bit of history of using out-of-context quotes — they’re not exactly setting the bar very high, are they? They’re competing against “Endangered Species,” which ran as backups in the books in 2007; “Eve of Destruction,” which led to the Morrison / Casey reign on the X-Titles; “Dream’s End,” the swan song to Chris Claremont redux; the Apocalypse crossovers of 1999; and various late ‘90s forgettables such as “Hunt for Xavier” and “Magneto War” and various two-parters. “Operation: Zero Tolerance” sneaks in as well; “O:ZT” is one of the few major crossovers during that span, and it’s one of the prime reasons the X-titles shied away from the megacrossovers. None of them will ever be held up against “Mutant Massacre” or “Fall of the Mutants” as a high point of the X-Men. Hell, I wouldn’t say any of them were any better than “X-Cutioner’s Song” of ’92-3, although I admit I haven’t read “Endangered Species.”

As a volume, Messiah CompleX is mediocre — it misses the sweet spot between ultraviolence and story development by a decent margin. It does, however, deliver violent action until you can’t stand it no more. As a statement, a manifesto, it’s much better. It puts a violent, definite end to the past and says the future will be different, something at odds with the directionless wandering of the last few years or the warmed-over Claremont that marked the ‘90s. Whether that future will be better (or even readable) remains to be seen.

Rating: X-Men symbol X-Men symbol X-Men symbol (3 of 5)

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Blogger Marc said...

Speaking of Dream's End, I actually really liked that story, although it's been years since I read it. I remember being confused a few months later when Magneto was supposedly killed by the Sentinel attack on Genosha, since I thought he had been killed in Dream's End. :P

As for Messiah Complex (I refuse to capitalize that final X!), I haven't read it yet but I have most of the single issues and am looking forward to doing so at some point. I'd rather read some of the things leading up to it first, even though judging by your review it doesn't seem like that's really necessary.

5:58 PM  
Blogger Raoul said...

You're right -- it's not necessary. Depending on what issues you have, though, it may help. I missed having a familiarity with Young / New X-Men; I knew nothing about those characters, so I really didn't care what was happening. Most of the other stuff I was confused about had to do with "Rise and Fall of the Shi'ar Empire," but I'm more than willing to let anything in that storyline go.

11:43 PM  

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