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

20 July 2012

X-Men Forever, v. 2: The Secret History of the Sentinels

Collects: X-Men Forever #6-10 (2009)

Released: March 2010 (Marvel)

Format: 120 pages / color / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785136804

What is this?: Before they bury Wolverine, the X-Men dig deeper into the conspiracy against them and find Sentinels.

The culprits: Writer Chris Claremont and artists Paul Smith and Steve Scott

Whatever goodwill I had for X-Men Forever led me to buy X-Men Forever, v. 2: The Secret History of the Sentinels. After the newness of the concept of writer Chris Claremont’s elaborate What If? series (featuring the X-Men) wore off, what would be left?

The answer — as if you needed to be told — is writer Chris Claremont.

Claremont’s distinctive dialogue and cadences overwhelm everything else in Secret History. If this were a decade ago, when Claremont was returning the X-titles and this might do any good, an intervention would be in order, with his colleagues and editors showing him how his verbal tics and word balloons were hurting those around him. Given that an intervention is out of the question, Claremont needs someone to do something similar to what former Marvel editor Christopher Priest said his assistant, Maddie / Adam Blaustein, did with Peter David — winnow down his excesses while leaving the essential, appealing essence of the writer. Isn’t that what an editor is for? Perhaps not. In any event, it’s not worth the effort now; Claremont is who he is, his work is what it is, and almost everyone knows how he or she feels about that.

X-Men Forever, v. 2: The Secret History of the Sentinels coverFor those of you playing Claremont cliché bingo, using Secret History, I will serve as caller: Baseball. Vintage plane fetishism. X-Men cleaning up the wreckage of one of their fights. Obtrusive military slang. Danger Room malfunction. Bad accent (Gambit only, oddly, even though Nightcrawler and Cannonball are in this book). “Best at what I do” (non-Wolverine division). If you did not win, best of luck next time; I’m sure the “mind control” square on your card is certain to be covered next time.

The story involves the return of the Sentinels, as you would guess form the title. With Nick Fury part of the book’s cast, Claremont makes the dramatic choice to tie the Trask family, who created the Sentinels, to the Nazis. This seems unnecessary but ultimately harmless, but Claremont links a couple of other characters to World War II and the Fury’s old commando group: SHIELD agents Daisy Dugan and Tommy Juniper, the latter explicitly the great-nephew of Howler casualty Junior Juniper. If this were a SHIELD book, these generational links would be a great idea. But this isn’t a SHIELD book; it’s an X-Men book. And the X-Men are firmly tied to the beginning of Marvel’s ten-year (or twelve-year or fifteen-year) timeline. Delving into their past tends to lead into Xavier, Juggernaut, or Magneto stories, areas that have long since been overmined.

On the other hand, the X-Men do have one character with whom the theme of family does work: Cyclops, who ironically started as an orphan. The book’s most affecting scene is its final one, two pages of Cyclops flying to Alaska to visit his grandparents, father, and son in Alaska. Scott reuniting with his son, Nathan, and their interaction feels real and is touching because of that.

That last issue is the best in Secret History. In #10, the X-Men hold a funeral for Wolverine, who died all the way back in #1. It’s not a perfect issue, God knows — unrestrained by action, Claremont's word balloons overrun everything, like a sort of verbal kudzu. But given that the action in the rest of the book is nothing to remember, something different is welcome. The issue gives everyone a chance to take stock and reflect. The New Mutants, Excalibur, Fantastic Four, and an abbreviated Avengers team show up, as do various X-Men hangers-on and ex-X-Men. It feels like an important event without being too clichéd or overwrought; the funeral itself takes only two pages, with Cyclops giving the eulogy.

The rest of the volume is forgettable, at best. Issue #6 is an embarrassment of X-clichés, with the X-Men playing baseball among wreckage in the Danger Room, which as a matter of course malfunctions. The next three issues feature a battle against a Trask and her Sentinels, ending with a particularly anticlimactic fight that Jean Grey ends by throwing a tantrum.

The subplots are ignorable. Claremont tries to interest readers in a conspiracy vs. the X-Men, but it’s not working. “Continuum” is a dull name, there’s no hint of what exactly the group’s agenda or grief with the X-Men is, and revealing one of the conspiracy's heads is the newly introduced mother of another newly introduced character is underwhelming. The flashbacks — Logan teaming up with Fury’s Howling Commandos in World War II and Bolivar Trask showing his family his Sentinel works — are old hat and dull. The only interesting subplot involves the child Storm, who is trying to figure out what she is and where she should go; this actually gives Gambit a bit of relevance, since he serves as Storm’s hedonistic counsel against the moralistic X-Men. Forge and lil’ Storm’s reactions toward each other at Wolverine’s funeral is a nice touch.

The art is fine. Paul Smith draws #6 and #10, and he’s exactly the type of artist you’d expect Marvel to assign to Claremont’s nostalgia title. Smith worked with Claremont on Uncanny X-Men #165-70 and 172-5, including most of the issues from the classic X-Men: From the Ashes storyline. Smith’s art has changed over 30 years, of course, and at times it looks like it’s taken on some characteristics of fellow Claremont collaborator Rick Leonardi’s work. On the other hand, Steve Scott isn’t a classic Marvel artist, and the bulk of his work for the company comes on the Marvel Adventures line. He’s a good choice for that, as his line is clean and his characters are bright and attractive, easy to tell apart. It’s not a distinctive style, though, which might have been what Marvel was aiming for; if you’re reading Claremont in the 21st century, do you really want something to distract you from Claremont’s plot and words? No, you do not; Claremont’s the feature here.

Secret History isn’t bad; its sin is larger. This book is just not that interesting, and the greatest emotion it arouses in me is occasional annoyance. Some will feel the warm flush of nostalgia when they read Secret History, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m well insulated against that warmth, however, and I think most readers are as well.

Rating: X-Men symbol Half X-Men symbol (1.5 of 5)

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Blogger Arion said...

I only read New Mutants Forever by Claremont, but it didn't impress me at all. I'm still a huge fan of classic Claremont and his 80s works.


4:39 PM  

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