Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Review # 83: "Wolverine and the X-Men by Jason Aaron Vol. 7 (The Hellfire Saga)"

"The Hellfire Saga" is so good it gives Jason Aaron a serious claim as one of the greatest X-Men writers of all time. It's one of those stories where everything comes together so well that it makes all that preceded it much better. Quite an achievement considering - despite sidetracks from the Avengers vs. X-Men event - it took about 30 issues of build to get there.

After leading several attacks on the Jean Grey Institute and threatening death to Wolverine and his students, pint-sized Hellfire Club leader Kade Kilgore has put his ultimate plan in motion: opening a competing school. The Hellfire Academy is a warped reflection of the new X-Mansion, with a faculty that includes the likes of Mystique, Sauron, Wendigo, an off-her-nut Husk and most of the rogues gallery that Aaron had used so far. The most notable: Xanto Starblood (an evil alien scientist obsessed with abducting Broo,) The Philistine (who we learn - in unnerving fashion - is a servant of the Siege Perilous,) and Dog Logan. More on him in a bit.

It's in this environment that Quentin Quire and Idie Okonkwo mature into full-fledged heroes. We quickly learn Idie has been playing the Hellfire Club - after it appeared they were manipulating her the whole time - in an effort to find out who shot the still-feral Broo in the head. When she defects, Kid Omega follows unaware of Idie's true intentions. As they try to work away from the inside, Wolverine and his faculty are able to discern the Hellfire Academy's location. What follows is one of the best extended action sequences in recent X-Men history, almost at the level of "The Dark Angel Saga." It's an incredibly satisfying fight with several incredibly satisfying conclusions.

That's the main meat of the story, though the subplots give it seasoning.

Let's start with Dog Logan's presence. I wasn't very pleased with the Dog-centred Volume 6 when I thought he was put in a role that Sabretooth could have filled much better. It appeared Aaron was developing new students Shark-Girl, Eye Boy and Sprite for their roles in "The Hellfire Saga." Instead, it's all too apparent now that he was actually setting up Dog. His involvement as chaos erupts at the enemy school becomes fairly crucial and reveals complexity to the character that I had not seen before, particularly two big moments with Quire and the aforementioned Victor Creed. Meanwhile, the new students are restricted to only a handful of panels involving Lockheed. While they are admittedly hilarious - thanks to Kitty Pride's "pet dragon" - I am a big fan of keeping this group on the outskirts. They are not nearly as interesting as the likes of Quire, Idie and Broo and it will take a herculean effort to change my mind. Though, Aaron is certainly capable of that.

For example: he made me care about Toad, the simpering wimp that no one has really given a crap about from the moment he debuted 50 years ago. (No, Ray "Darth Maul" Park's portrayal of him in the first X-Men movie doesn't count. There was no spin-off from that in the comics.) This is also Toad's coming-of-age moment as a hero as he tries everything he can to get the gone-crazy Husk out of the Hellfire Academy's staff room. Seeing the experienced villain get handed a janitor mop and have the door slammed in his face multiple times is simple-yet-effective sympathy and you can't help but root for the guy.

Meanwhile, Nick Bradshaw's art during this story is outstanding and his return to regular work on the series is most welcome. I would argue that along with the characters, Bradshaw's drawing has matured as well. When he began there was a slightly kiddy feel to his material (the promotional poster outlining all the X-Men series post-Schism is an excellent example.) Here, though, I'd say his work on the older X-Men - which I used to think was a weak point of his drawing - is as good as any art on any X-title anywhere. His drawing of the once again ape-like Beast is terrific and Logan looks properly old and grizzled. Finally, Bradshaw's work on the final page is breathtaking, hinting at the return of yet another X-Man from the land of the dead. It brought a big smile to my face.

This kind of intricate storytelling where several arcs split off and then merge back together is Claremont-esque. For the writer of an X-Men book, I think that's as good of a compliment I can offer Jason Aaron. Keep it up, I may call other authors Aaron-esque.

Rating: 9.5/10

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