Monday, August 29, 2011

X-Men: Schism Takes the Low Road to Mediocrity

In Marvel and DC’s near-constant onslaught of mega-events to drive sales, the X-Men titles that popularized the gimmick have fallen victim to one of the most underwhelming and skeevy events in its history with the arrival of X-Men: Schism.

I have a lot to say about this one after reading the first three of five issues in the series, so consider yourself forewarned. I also think I need to explain why something like this is worth writing about in detail when it really would be easier to just roll my eyes, say “it stinks!” and move on to something worthwhile.

Comics are the only reason where I’ll bother being critical like this because the comics is so dominated by superheroes and franchises from Marvel and DC that the failure or success of any one such franchise has a much greater ripple effect than it would in any other medium. When something like X-Men (or Batman or Spider-Man, etc. — take your pick), which has so long been a dominant creative and commercial force does just about anything, you just can’t ignore it the same way critics can pass over, say, Sucker Punch, Glee or a new album from David Archuleta.

So here we have X-Men: Schism, a five-issue miniseries that sets the stage for the next relaunch of the entire line this fall. It’s written by Jason Aaron, with each issue drawn by a different artist. Carlos Pacheco and Cam Smith draw issue one, Frank Cho is on issue two and Daniel Acuña does it all on issue three. Alan Davis is slated for issue four, with Adam Kubert apparently on issue five. There also are no fewer than four editors credited on the book, which makes the errors in execution even more questionable. Plus, these books aren’t cheap, with the first costing $4.99 for 32 pages of story, and issues two and three cost $3.99 for 22 pages of story each.



If you’ve missed the premise for this series, it’s about a dispute between Cyclops and Wolverine that forces them to go their separate ways with each taking a number of fellow X-Men to form two distinct factions. This will lead to several relaunched titles, including a new Uncanny X-Men #1.

So this series should be attempting to get fans excited for what’s promised to be a “new” era for X-Men comics. Unfortunately, “new” is the last thing that Marvel appears interested in delivering when it comes to the X-Men, and Schism is guilty of rehashing some very old and worn concepts at the very core of the story. None of this is new for Marvel, but the company has had some success in recent years by executing its rehashed material in an engaging way, and it’s the failure to execute well on pretty much any level in the first three issues of X-Men: Schism that truly sinks them.

So Marvel’s big idea for setting up the future of the X-Men starts by reviving two ancient concepts: The Sentinels, which first appeared in X-Men #14 (Nov. 1965), and the relatively youthful Hellfire Club, who first showed their faces in X-Men #129 (Jan. 1980). Both have been used in literally dozens of X-Men comic-book stories in the intervening years — some of them good, some not so good. To make an impact with either of those ideas requires a fresh new take on them and some exciting execution, neither of which is present in X-Men: Schism.

First, these are not some new, scary, super-advanced Sentinels that pose a serious threat to the mutants of the world. They are, instead, old Sentinels that have been in storage for decades and, in most cases, don’t even work. The only twist is the idea that every nation in the world has a secret stash of Sentinels on hand in case they have a “mutant problem.” The few working Sentinels are handily dispatched by the X-Men, with little dramatic payoff.

The real crux of the story so far is the new Hellfire Club, which is composed of a quartet of super-smart, rich, evil children. Yup, children. They’re lead by 12-year-old Kade Kilgore, who murders his father and claims his place running a legitimate arms-manufacturing company.

Any time the villain turns out to be a super-smart child, whether it’s in an episode of Star Trek or The Twilight Zone, or a comics character like Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass or Anarky from late-1980s issues of Detective Comics or even the X-Terminators that spun out of X-Factor in the late 1980s, it’s a device that’s rarely good for anything more than adding shock value. But the more realism you want in your comics — and with Marvel and DC both wanting every comic to be movie worthy, trying to appear realistic is paramount on every title they publish — the less you can take the idea of “evil” children seriously.

So Kilgore, the new Black King of the Hellfire Club, starts out as a cliche of fiction that is completely devoid of believability even on the level most superhero comics require. He murders, he plots, he doesn’t care about anything other than himself — and the reader has almost no reason to care or believe that he is anything other than a stereotypical character.

Still, it’s possible that even with two weak concepts that Marvel could still turn this into something interesting with some clever execution. And how far short this series falls on any such standard is the most disappointing element. It’s one thing to not come up with a brilliant premise for every single comics crossover, but a company like Marvel has the resources and the talent to avoid the kind of sloppiness found here.

This is "Switzerland," and most definitely not the U.N. General Assembly in New York. No.

Swiss security guards prove
global stereotype! Film at 11!
X-Men: Schism #1 begins with four pages that poke fun at the idea Wolverine appears in so many comics that he’s exhausted. Cyclops, however, needs Wolverine to accompany him to an "international ams control conference in Switzerland."

“Switzerland,” however, must be code in the Marvel Universe for the United Nations in New York City. Unless, of course, the economy in the Marvel Universe is so bad that the U.S. is exporting overweight tough-talking security guards to the land of chocolates, accurate clocks and secret banking. Speaking of security, this “arms control conference” appears less secure than a concert at Staples Center.

You can't really see it, even in print, that there are supposed to be people at those desks. 
Cyclops and Wolverine have a long conversation that runs two whole pages and supposedly occurs as Cyclops walks toward the podium, meaning it happens in full view (and, I presume, earshot) of every delegate in the place. None of which you can see because they’re washed out in a mudslide of bad coloring.

The copy is full of little mistakes. I know there’s not 100 percent English-major agreement on this point, but the words “insure” and “ensure” are not interchangeable. Most dictionaries and style guides will tell you the former involves buying a policy and the latter means to make certain.

Then, Cyclops' speech is interrupted by a world leader who looks a lot like Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. So much so, that the panel looks lifted from this particular image:
I want you ... to take art lessons! 
This is a pretty blatant swipe, but what’s a shame it’s not even that effective. With no identification, this guy looks like some average joe who just walked into the international arms conference in Switzerland from the street. I know it’s got photo reference, but some kind of visual cue that this is a world leader (maybe a tie, or something?) would have helped. Even more embarrassing — the artists drew the world leader with six fingers. Count 'em.
This guy, who is not Iranian President Ahmadinejad, goes to 11.
Then, we get Quentin Quire. I must have missed his coming back from his death in Grant Morrison's New X-Men as well as his physical transformation from a skinny teen to a big hulking adult. (No one tell Kitty that you don’t have to be stuck at age 14 for a couple of decades.)

"You're double dead, dad!"
The rest of the issue concerns the return of various sentinels and the emergence of Kade Kilgore as the Black King of a new Hellfire Club. Kade is 12 years old and kills his father by kicking him out of a flying car — and then shooting him in mid-air. I still can’t figure out how that works.

I was very disappointed in the artwork of Carlos Pacheco. This generic kind of work is not what I think anyone who had read Avengers Forever or Pacheco’s previous late-1990s run on X-Men would expect from the artist. This is blocky, pedestrian and just plain dull, with none of Pacheco's previous style to be seen. I would not have known Pacheco drew this book without looking at the credits. And the coloring, credited to Frank D’Armata, was a real detriment to the overall look of the comic.
Kitty kicks off the "ew" factor in this series. Nobody over age 14 should want to think about that.
Rogue busts out in X-Men: Schism #2
The Kade Kilgore story, which was already strange in the first issue, gets weirder in the second with the debut of his playmates. There’s three of them, and none of them are properly introduced. But apparently, they’re paying some space aliens what at first seemed like $4 billion in cash (what they would do with American currency is beyond me) and is later clarified to be $4 billion in “untraceable intergalactic credits.” It’s never explained where the Hellfire Club or Kilgore got any amount of space money, let along 4 billion quatloos’ worth of it. And that’s probably for the best, given that answering that question in any fashion would only compound the idiocy of the whole idea.

And you thought Anakin was annoying.
Oh, and the little girl villain has a lightsaber, which she uses to chop off alien limbs left and right. Again, explaining this would do more to expose how ludicrous it is, so maybe it’s best that it’s just kind of there.

So then, Quentin Quire just shows up on Utopia and Scott protects him. This was a scene that made me long for the days when superheroes used their powers instead of just talked at each other endlessly like they were stuck in an episode of The West Wing. Would it have killed this story, which is severely lacking in action, to have had an old-fashioned blow out when characters meet?

My satellite service doesn't carry the Museum Opening Channel.  
The logic gets even stranger when Cyclops‘ reaction to all this is to pull a PR stunt and send some X-Men to the opening of a mutant museum in San Francisco. And of course, this event is being televised because in 21st century America there’s nothing TV audiences like more than to watch a museum reception live and as it happens. The only museum opening I recall making anything close to national news was the debut of the Getty Center in 1997, an event we spent weeks writing stories about at the L.A.-area newspaper I worked for at that time.

(I think the convention of using live news coverage on TV to narrate events without using captions or dialog between the characters involved is yet another instance of people simply copying Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns rather than write something original.)

But apparently, such coverage in the Marvel universe is so dependable and popular that Kilgore plans to use the high-profile event to debut the Hellfire Kids.

Perhaps Frank Cho's greatest contribution to
this issue: Rogue unzipped!
The art on the second issue is by Frank Cho, best known for his comic book and strip Liberty Meadows and extensive good girl art in other places. As with Pacheco, you’d be hard pressed to guess from the printed comic that Cho had anything to do with the art, aside from the cover and a few interior panels featuring particularly busty portrayals of Rogue and Emma Frost. The stiff facial expressions and overly talky script, combined with more dank coloring, results in an unfortunate look that barely improves on the murkiness of the first issue.

Moving on to issue three, the art gets a huge boost from the arrival of Daniel Acuña, who delivers some stylish art. Since he does all the art, including colors, this issue is the first to not look like it was dragged through a mud pit. But there still are some issues with the art. A few panels have questionable perspective and anatomy — enough to pull me out of the comic and try to understand what I’m looking at. There’s also some questionable portrayals — Magneto in particular lacks the powerful build and sleek costume that have helped define the character’s look in recent comics.

Better art for X-Men: Schism #3
It’s too bad the story doesn’t improve. It starts with the Hellfire Kids disrupting the museum opening and Cyclops and Wolverine both heading off to help out. We finally get an introduction to the Hellfire Kids, who are given names and revealed to be the heirs to a family that has profited from slave trading relationships stretching from Earth’s own slave trade to the modern version of selling human slaves to aliens; a descendant of Frankenstein who’s so touchy about the family connection I can’t help but hear Gene Wilder saying, “It’s pronounced Fronk-en-steen!”; and a girl who shares with 37 cats inheritance of her deceased hotel entrepreneur mother’s estate.

Where are the X-Babies when you need them?
Cyclops uses a jetpack to get to San Francisco from Utopia. He apparently missed the memo from Batman that cool comics characters don't wear jetpacks unless they're drawn by Dave Stevens and called The Rocketeer. 

While Cyclops straps on a jetpack and imitates The Rocketeer on his way from Utopia and Wolverine fits San Francisco traffic, the Hellfire Kids start shooting weird alien weapons at the X-Men. It’s a confusing sequence. For example, we see Colossus with some kind of Alien-style face-hugger on his head, but we don’t see that it got there because the Hellfire Kids are firing these things from a gun of some kind until the next page. The Hellfire Kids take out all the X-Men at the event, which means they beat Emma, Colossus, Namor and Magneto.

This is the worst line in the series — so far. 


Only naive, innocent little Idie is left, and she causes some serious havoc, and how she responds unexpectedly becomes the crux of the whole issue. Wolverine wants her to wait for him to get there and handle the dirty work of taking out the Club and their guards; Cyclops gives her permission to do what she finds necessary. So when she torches the place and people die, it’s all on Cyclops. The issue is, however, tabled to next issue by the arrival of a big spidery Sentinel.

The next issue, which is due out Sept. 21, looks from the preview art to be (finally!) an issue with some action in it. It’s also drawn by Alan Davis, who I don’t think has ever drawn an ugly comic in his life (though I’m not sure Marvel’s colorists won’t find some way to muddy it up).

There’s lots of other very small things that cumulatively yank you out of the story and undermine the ability to take any of this seriously.

Among them:

In most states, saying this to a 12-year-old
boy would earn you prison time.
  • Kilgore’s father is beyond a caricature. Has any CEO of a weapons manufacturing firm ever bragged about their wares being half off? And even in the United States, I don’t think anyone can buy a weapon online the same way you would a book from Amazon.com.
  • There’s so many throwaway lines that are of questionable taste and offer no benefit to the story. Examples:
  • Kitty saying to Logan “Yeah, but you also showed me how to use a sword before I was old enough to wear a bra.”
  • A Hellfire Club member saying “Our previous plan was to simply exterminate the mutant race and perhaps throw an orgy every year on the anniversary.”
  • Blocked out swearing, such as this line from Kilgore: “Any of you morons #%$@ this up and I will hack your entire family tree into kindling and burn you atop the pile.”
  • A Hellfire Kid saying, “I farted.”
  • And Kilgore saying, “I haven’t had sex yet, so maybe I’m wrong ... but I can’t imagine it feeling better than this.”

This is rated T+, but still. Ugh. This is really not a good series of comics, and I don't think there's much chance for rescuing it in the final two issues. Having read this, it's no surprise that the reaction has been somewhat muted and the book failed to break the top 10 selling comics in the direct market for the month of June.

This kind of sloppy work is disheartening and indicates a rather steep drop in quality. Given the relaunch is coming up with the same creators, I can only hope that Marvel keep the reboot button handy and be ready to bring in some fresh talent and let them loose to try some new ideas.

I think you can blame the stink for this one on Marvel.

1 comment:

Leigh said...

you seriously hit the nail on the head with your blog entry. I started reading this because I wanted to know what was going to be so bad that it would split the X-men and demand a relaunch of the Uncanny X-Men.
I'm not yet convinced of any of the conflict, whether within the team or without. I can't believe that the devastation of NYC by fake-Magneto in The Morrison run wouldn't cause a let's-get-our-dusty-Sentinels-out party but when some emo kid comes to the (I thought it was the UN) and makes everyone tell the truth, it's time to Kill the Wabbit!
I'm horribly disappointed with this mini-series. I think I still would like to work on the X-Men someday, but I hope the property is not worthless by then.