Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Review # 58: "X-Men - Messiah Complex"

After what seemed like an endless wave in the 90s, massive crossovers had fallen out of favour at Marvel. They'd become bloated, overly contrived and generally a pain in the ass for collectors. They just plain needed to go away for a while. So they did. The X-Men franchise, which had been the centrepoint for most company crossovers, abandoned the concept for close to a decade. Series like Grant Morrison's "New X-Men," "X-Force/X-Statix," Joss Whedon's "Astonishing X-Men" and Peter David's "X-Factor" stuck to their own stories, and the line enjoyed a creative renaissance.

But with all of mutantkind facing a crisis in the wake of M-Day, a return to the way things were was inevitable. Sure enough, after Marvel's major 2007 story "Civil War" wrapped up with the X-Men generally staying out of things, "Messiah Complex" hit the shelves. It was more conservative than previous X-Overs, encompassing only four series total - "Uncanny X-Men," "X-Men," "New X-Men" and "X-Factor." The result exceeded expectations, once again allowing Marvel to dip into the X-Over pool, which they haven't screwed up yet.

At its heart, "Messiah Complex" is about a mad chase. A mutant baby has been born, the first since Scarlet Witch uttered "No more mutants" at the conclusion of "House of M." Manifesting its powers at birth, the girl instantly attracts a lot of attention from the X-Men, Mr. Sinister's Marauders and the mutant-hating Purifiers. Cooperstown, Alaska has been destroyed by the time the X-Men arrive, and they split off on two fronts to find the other groups involved and - they hope - the baby. Also in on the chase: a mutant-hunting Predator X. The story follows several lines: in "Uncanny" and "X-Men," Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler and other members of the A-squad hunt the Marauders. In "New X-Men," the young X-Men attempt to infiltrate the Purifiers (against Scott's wishes.) As insurance - in "X-Factor" - Cyclops sends two of Jamie Madrox's dupes into the future (with Layla Miller tagging along) to measure the result of their actions in the present. After all, mutantkind's entire existence is at risk.

While major revelations on those fronts are held to each of those titles, there's little in the way of true separation. You see all four threads touched on in all issues. It keeps the narrative tight, and flowing. And that's a good thing too because a LOT is going on and the plot changes direction at the turn of a dime. First, the X-Men find out that NEITHER the Marauders nor the Purifiers have the baby: CABLE of all people does. Next, they discover the Purifiers are in league with Lady Deathstrike. While they're still evaluating the situation, human-piloted government-stationed Sentinels who are "protecting" - or practically imprisoning - the people at the Xavier Institute are overwhelmed by nanobots and attempt to destroy all who live there. The action is relentless, the sense of urgency permeating every page.

It's that urgency that leads to Cyclops forming a new Wolverine-led X-Force which attempts to find Cable and the baby. This is a prime example of how well-executed this series is. The team - Wolverine, Warpath, Hepzibah, X-23, Wolfsbane and Caliban - comes out of nowhere, but is filled with interesting story dynamics right from the get-go. If the team needs to kill Cable, could Warpath - who looks at Nathan as a father-figure - do the deed? Will he overprotect Hepzibah? Who is going to be smelling blood more - Logan or Laura - when they meet up with Deathstrike? The answer is damn cool and one hell of a fight scene.

Speaking of fights, this has action out the wazoo. The first battle with the Marauders is great. The second ups the ante, spread out over two spectacular issues. The battles, however, sit in the back seat as the true drama unfolds. There is a traitor among the X-Men and - given his previous accusations of dishonesty among others - it's a beautifully ironic twist. Deception is present on the evil side as well, with a first-class conflict erupting out of nowhere. So many bases are covered during the course of "Messiah Complex" that it's ridiculous.

However, it is not without flaws. I have issues with some of the writing as I continue to find that Ed Brubaker just does not quite find the right voice for all the characters. I will admit, though, it has improved since "Deadly Genesis." The other writers - Peter David, Christopher Yost, Craig Kyle and Mike Carey - knock their subjects out of the park, David especially. He also manages to sneak in a few important plot elements and conflicts to support his own ongoing series that I've been gushing over on this very blog.

Wait, wasn't I supposed to be talking about flaws? OK, here's one: the art, which suffers from inconsistency. I LOVE that Marc Silvestri is back, even if it's only for the opening one-shot. One of the defining X-Men artists, he doesn't lose a single step as the team surveys the damage in Cooperstown. The realistic styles of Billy Tan on "Uncanny" and Scot Eaton on "X-Factor" also fit the story very well. However, the rapid shifts to Humberto Ramos on "New X-Men" are jarring, as I find his cartoony style just does not mesh. Yet - even with his drawing - it doesn't sour my favourite one-on-one battle. I could also go after Chris Bachalo for his cartoony style, but... hell, I think his work on "X-Men" during this run may be his best ever. That goes double for the final page which is so well done. Make sure to read it a couple of times to pick up what has happened.

There you have it: I just spent two paragraphs talking about flaws that were GLOWING with praise. I loved this the first time I read it and love it even more now. Mad props to every member of the creative team for pulling off what was - in my opinion - the BEST X-Over in 20 years.

Rating: 9.5/10

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