Friday, November 15, 2013

Review # 76: "X-Men by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee Omnibus Vol. 1"

Even though I've gone through all the issues included here before, there's a bit of culture shock as the last Chris Claremont X-Men work I'd read was the omnibus collecting the start of his run up until the beginning of "The Dark Phoenix Saga." We're talking about a ten year gap and a definite shift in style as the X-Men storylines are darker and a lot more cruel to the characters. This is coming in at a key moment, as - after "Inferno" wrapped up years worth of stories in a single swoop - Claremont is spinning a trademark, complex web of narratives for the last time before his exit from the franchise he defined.

The X-Men are in a weird place here as their stay on the Australian Outback inches closer to its conclusion. Still thought dead (and unable to be filmed or photographed) after the events of "Fall of the Mutants," the hodgepodge yet long-together team of Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Havok, Rogue, Psylocke, Dazzler and Longshot is coming apart at the seams. Longshot and Logan both take a leave of absence, Rogue (battling severe multiple personality issues thanks to the still-absorbed psyche of Carol Danvers) goes through the life-altering Siege Perilous in a heroic sacrifice, and Storm is seemingly killed by a confused Havok during an attack by the goofy-yet-disturbing villain Nanny.

It's the next issue where Polaris is kidnapped by Savage Land goons where Claremont places his finger on the reset button. This sets up a trip by the four remaining team members (Psylocke, Havok, Dazzler and Colossus) to Antarctica to get her back from the clutches of Zaladane who has stolen Lorna's magnetic powers. Havok is great during this arc as he tries to test his mettle as the team's tough guy (in lieu of Logan) to rescue his estranged girlfriend while Psylocke assumes a leadership role as the less-natural choice. It's unfortunate that this stage of Alex Summers' character was short-lived, because he nearly pulls it off. Havok getting ripped out of a series just as he's about to grab that brass ring seems to be a repeating pattern, I'm sad to say.

During the rescue mission, Psylocke receives a vision predicting the death of the remaining team at the hands of the cyborg Reavers (including Donald Pierce and Lady Deathstrike.) Her plan of action represents Claremont pressing the aforementioned rest button in a landmark issue.

Drawn masterfully by Marc Silvestri and Dan Green, we find Wolverine nailed to a giant "X" at the mercy of the Reavers who have reclaimed their old Australian base. A fever dream in which he hallucinates spectres of Carol Danvers and Nick Fury brings us up to speed on the events we missed. Logan is forced to watch as Psylocke psychically pushes Colossus, Dazzler and Havok through the Siege Perilous before entering herself, giving all four new lives. Wolverine is able to escape thanks to the recently-debuted Jubilee, who had been hiding at the X-Men base since the X-women made a California shopping trip.

This is where the narrative begins to leap from place to place with very little connection. Polaris, who escaped from Zaladane's clutches thanks to her newly-developed powers of strength, size and invulnerability, ends up on Muir Island just before the Reavers launch an attack. Banshee returns to his role as a hero by helping to lead a ragtag group of X-Men (including New Mutants side-characters Tom Corsi and Sharon Friedlander, Nightcrawler's ex-girlfriend Amanda Sefton, Moira MacTaggart, the Morlock Sunder and Professor X's bastard son David.) Mystique's Brotherhood-turned-Freedom Force intervenes along with Forge to save their asses, but not before the deaths of two people and a disturbing twist.

Meanwhile, Wolverine and Jubilee find themselves in southeast Asia where they come face-to-face with the Mandarin, the Hand and their new chief assassin: Psylocke, who has undergone her radical transformation from psychic Brit to superninja Asian psychic Brit. It is a memorable transformation to say the least, aided greatly by who draws it. Making his debut for the series, the most influential X-Men artist of the 90s... Jim Lee. While I love Marc Silvestri and would rank him higher on my list of X-Men artists, Lee's work here blows him (and Dan Green) completely out of the water. Yes, Lee would fall into his own trappings later. Yes, his work appeared to be more concerned about creating pin-ups within issues instead of telling stories. However, in "Acts of Vengeance" as Wolverine fights for Betsy's soul, those problems do not exist. Already on a level of his own are his character designs. Here we are more than 20 years later and Betsy is still wearing the costume introduced here. Also, Lee finally makes Jubilee work after she had looked inconsistent at best beforehand.

Unfortunately, Psylocke's story is so good that it's to the detriment of what follows. While the story that links Colossus, Forge, Banshee, Jean Grey, Beast and Morlocks together is intriguing and (at times) disturbing, it just doesn't match up. Dazzler's mediocre amnesia arc falls into the realm of bad.

What DOES hold up is the fate of Storm, who did NOT die and was merely de-aged in what is practically a "prequel that's not a prequel" for the fully-fleshed out character. Chased by both the Shadow King and Nanny, she receives aid from a brand new ally: the debuting Gambit. While Jim Lee doesn't draw his debut, it's yet another character design of his that has stood the test of time. Ol' Remy was at his best in his early years, with his mysterious nature and undeniable charisma. However, unlike Wolverine, the more you find out about him, the LESS you like him.

In the end, this omnibus is like a snapshot of what Marvel was about to become: an era of more dazzling art with a weakened narrative. But, hey, it's 90s comics. What do you expect? When I turn a page and see Jim Lee kick off his time as the X-Men's regular artist with the greatest picture of Captain America of all time, I find it difficult to complain. There was still a lot of great X-Men to come before Claremont's departure. This isn't his best stuff, but it's still damn, damn good.

Rating: 8/10

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