Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review # 17: "X-Men: Fatal Attractions"

The X-Men of the Bob Harras/Scott Lobdell/Fabien Nicieza era can be best summed up in two words: "violent arguments." And I'm not talking about two people sitting across from the table furiously unleashing verbal barrages or each other. I'm talking about what 90s post-Chris Claremont X-Men comics had instead of fights. For every punch thrown, every claw snikt'd and every eye beam zakt'd there would be sentences upon sentences of philosophical posturing. While it's true that often there's too much conversation going on during superhero battles, under Harras' watch as editor (or "dictator" as implied by Claremont who quit over creative disputes,) the X-Men and their villains took it to another level.

There is a hell of a lot of rhetoric to wax with "Fatal Attractions," the 30th anniversary celebration of the franchise. Spread out over six issues it is arguably the definitive X-Men crossover of the decade and without question the climax of the rivalry between Charles Xavier and Magneto. However, instead of having all six X-titles telling the story over the course of one month, it was split up over six. As a hallmark of the speculators boom, each issue had a splash (comic lingo for "two page") cover and an imbedded hologram. Earlier collections only featured those six issues of X-Factor, X-Force, Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, Wolverine and Excalibur respectively. This omnibus expands on that greatly, showing the setup for much of what would happen in those pages.

The result is a product that is definitely of its time. Comic collectors in the 90s were crazy to get their hands on any issue that featured the debut of a new character or anything that would be classified as a "landmark moment." This set has those in spades. Several new personalities appear during the course of the collection including would-be heavyweight Exodus, Upstart (literal team name) Siena Blaze, the vigilante X-Cutioner and several members of Magneto's Acolytes. These characters were so memorable and endearing that I'm quite certain many of you have no freaking clue who any of them are (except maybe Exodus who was in a video game or two.)

When this collectors item crap is happening it has a negative effect on the narrative, forcing plot and already-existing characters to take a backseat to someone else. In a few cases, it's even at the expense of characters who have only been around for a couple of years tops. Shinobi Shaw, Trevor Fitzroy and Fabian Cortez - all introduced by Claremont and/or Jim Lee - had some legs in their early-goings, but it seems like they're getting cut off at the knees in favour of a flavour of the week. The one who gets the worst of it is Cortez. A cocky, lying, manipulative weasel, I'm not sure if there's been an X-Men villain who I love to hate more. Oh, but Marvel has to drive up sales, so here's Exodus: a ridiculously overpowered, early 90's mullet-sporting, winged, high school locker pin-up in the making. Cortez is practically shoved out the door for this joke, who we're supposed to buy as an adequate potential replacement for Mag-freaking-neto.

With all that out of the way, I should probably say now that - surprise! - "Fatal Attractions" does NOT suck. Far from it. Despite my gripes with the Harras/Lobdell/Nicieza trio, they have always shown a knack for producing great moments and dramatic tension. They're also masters at conversation. Scott Lobdell's best work typically is when the action level is nil and the characters are just talking without no fighting. Perhaps his masterstroke in this department is the issue that deals with the death of Colossus' sister Illyana. It's deep, it's touching and it develops Colossus, Jubilee, Jean Grey, Professor X and Kitty Pryde greatly. There's also an overarching epic feel without completely degenerating into stunts. When Magneto returns, it's big and it makes sense. When he confronts Xavier during Illyana's funeral, it's big and it makes sense. When an X-Man defects to his cause, it's big and it makes sense.

Things come to a head the iconic X-Men 25, which Nicieza gets writing credit for. After being painted a shade of grey for so long, Magneto is pushed back onto the edge of villainy by detonating a worldwide EMP, an act that would kill thousands. He was provoked by world governments only for crafting the off-world mutant sanctuary "Avalon," but it's still a clear overreaction. Xavier decides that it's time to shut Magneto down for good, forming a small-yet-powerful strike team. You've got Charles himself with a special mobile bodysuit, psychic heavyweight Jean Grey, Magneto's son Quicksilver, Rogue (who ol' Erik clearly has feelings for,) and - presumably since Charles wanted to drive up sales - Wolverine and Gambit.

This leads to two of the greatest moments in the history of the series and they happen within pages of each other. The team dispatches the Acolytes from Avalon and confronts Magneto head-on. During the skirmish, Erik has excellent "violent arguments" with Quicksilver and Rogue while Jean and Charles try to get him to question his own actions through a psychic assault. The plan falls apart, however, when Magneto is slashed in the chest by Wolverine. Jean is distracted by the brutal act, and Erik seizes the opportunity by doing what so many people had feared for so long: ripping the adamantium fused to Logan's skeleton right out of his body. This was the must-see moment from this comic - maybe ALL comics - in the 1990s. Xavier, not wanting to be left out, gets so pissed off that he wipes Magneto's brain clean, with Erik lamenting that he never thought Charles would resort to that as his eyes go white.

Now is that freaking awesome, or what? While many - myself included - would argue that "Age of Apocalypse" ended up being a better story, there was no better moment in an X-book than those two in ten years. It took Joss freaking Whedon to do it, too. It's a damn shame that Harras, Lobdell and Nicieza couldn't work with that kind of consistency because this is A-grade stuff with an A-grade build.

So, you get that epic and you get a lot of Uncanny X-Men issues written by Lobdell setting it up. However, it's the work of two authors I haven't mentioned yet who try their best to steal the show.

The first is Larry Hama, who pens the follow-up to X-Men 25 in the pages of Wolverine as Logan tries to fight off death and learns new things about himself, both mental and physical. Hama does more for the character relationship between Wolverine and Jubilee than anyone else ever did in a lot more time. Logan's exit is damn near heartbreaking.

The other author is someone you will see quite a bit of on this blog eventually - Peter David. Since X-Factor's story requires a lot of context, you get several preceding issues, the first half or so at the end of David's run. This includes the exceptional "X-Aminations" where Hulk's psychiatrist buddy Doc Samson is hired to perform mental evaluations for each member of the team. They are all fascinating, Quicksilver's in particular. Pietro's self-assessment nails the character so well that it will stay with you for years.

Despite my gripes, this really is a strong collection. It has its weak points, but it gathers momentum and can be quite affecting at times.

Rating: 7.5/10

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