Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Review # 185: "X-Men - The Shattering"

Marvel made what SHOULD have been a good decision when it put Alan Davis in charge of the X-Men in the late 90s. With his quality work on "Excalibur," strong knowledge and dazzling art, along with the company's similar hiring philosophy propelling the "Avengers" to its all-time best run under Kurt Busiek and George Perez, this move should have turned the company's flagship franchise around. Unfortunately, things don't always work out that way as Davis offered up what is arguably the most disappointing story in X-Men history. "The Shattering" is NOT that story, but it sets it up.

Fresh off returning from a spacefaring trip to the Skrull empire, the X-Men face the recurring threat of Professor X being a dick. Charles' m/o here seems to be "(Character,) you're an asshole." "I am NOT an asshole!" "Well, if you don't like me calling you an asshole, then quit!"

This splinters the entire group.

Left to their own devices, most of the team goes on road trips. In "X-Men," Rogue, Kitty and Nightcrawler wind up tricked into a confrontation with a Japanese spy organization in league with "Sunfire." This arc is actually pretty good, with some surprise involvement from Polaris, consistently incredible artwork by Davis and some story elements that do a good job at keeping you guessing. Sadly, it's not all wine and roses as Kitty uncovers the Destiny Diaries written by Mystique's late girlfriend, with heavy references to *gulp*... The Twelve. So begins the resolution of a plotline more than a decade in the making.

The other stories in this book are also heading towards "The Twelve" event, though not overtly at first. Colossus and Marrow find themselves face-to-face with the returning Mikhail Rasputin, Piotr's brother. Davis does an admirable job at giving Marrow some substance here, playing the sympathy card to full effect. That said, a scene where Marrow has a memory of her coming-of-age and we're reminded of how she used to look really hammers home how ridiculous her "prettying up" was once she became an X-Man.

And then there's "Astonishing X-Men," aka "the time that title was used that Marvel would rather you forget about completely." The X-Men franchise's continuing struggle with mediocrity rears its ugly head once again as the unremarkable Howard Mackie defies the odds by once again being called upon to helm a major story. How this guy kept finding himself in this spot, I do not know. Cyclops, Phoenix and Wolverine form a ragtag group that also includes Cable, Nate Grey and Angel as they attempt to save a group of weirdo lab children known as the Mannites from a relentless, mysterious, masked assassin who drops at the end that he's Apocalypse's new Horseman of Death.

As characters, the Mannites are so bratty and unlikable that it's nearly impossible to root for them. Also, here we have Scott, Jean, Scott's son and the offspring from another universe and the whole messed-up family angle is practically ignored. It's clear they were going for a gimmick by having these four on the same team, but - in the end - the practice is pointless. There is a small saving grace in the form of the art as Brandon Peterson makes his return and knocks it out of the park.

The final two issues in this set leave me with a lot to talk about. "Uncanny X-Men" # 375 is just plain bizarre as the aforementioned recurring threat of Professor X being a dick ends up reaching its all-time climax. Appearing to teeter on paranoid madness, Charles decides to mentally attack Phoenix and the team falls apart. It reaches a point that you will not believe what you are reading. Things escalate so quickly and so viciously that it becomes bizarrely compelling.

And then we reach the final apex before "The Twelve" in "X-Men #95," an issue that is actually so good that it makes everything that appeared before it - even "Astonishing X-Men" - worth your time. Remembered for its bigger, telegraphed twist, there's a smaller one that is so good that I bit on it a second time during a re-read. "X-Men #95" is also extremely notable for a second reason. While Alan Davis had been plotting X-Men during this time, other writers such as Terry Kavanaugh were doing the scripting. This issue strangely lists only Alan Davis, and there's a reason for that: because if various political reasons, the scripter here was kept secret. Years later, it was revealed that the man writing dialogue here.... was Chris freaking Claremont. It is here that the man who MADE the X-Men returned to writing them for the first time in eight years. If you know this going in, it's easy to pick up on his ticks. If you DON'T know this going in, well... when Kitty Pryde is suddenly an awesome badass again, it's pure Claremont.

"The Shattering" leaves the X-Men is an eyebrow-raising spot with a fair amount of excitement going forward. Unfortunately, that momentum is heading towards the toilet at rapid speed.

Bring on "The Twelve!"

Rating: 7/10

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