REVIEW: Uncanny X-Men #504-500

Writer(s): Matt Fraction (& Ed Brubaker)

Artist(s): Terry Dodson (& Greg Land)

Publisher: Marvel Comics

#504 marks the first solo writing duties for Matt Fraction on Uncanny X-Men, having worked in tandem with Immortal Iron Fist collaborator Ed Brubaker since #500. It also sees the first full issue drawn by Terry Dodson, who is sharing the art duties with Greg Land between arcs. Given that Ed Brubaker’s run has received some mixed reviews (my personal opinion – some definite ups and downs, with ‘The Extremists’ storyline the highlight), perhaps this is a good time to take an early look at how the ‘Uncanny Matt Fraction’ era is panning out.

While I don’t wish to put too fine a point on Fraction’s influence, given that this does seem like a truly collaborative effort with Brubaker – at least in terms of plotting; the plan is for each writer to pen alternate arcs – the most striking element of the post-500 era is not the move to San Francisco, the survival of the species, or Cyclops’ evolving role within this, although these all do play a central part.

No, it is the focus on Uncanny as the X-Men soap-opera that really seems to be defining where the book is lining up to stand under this creative team. This focus on family and relationships pervades the entire book, influencing the tone and style as much as the plotlines – which have seen the integration of Pixie into the X-family, the ongoing relationship between Scott and Emma as Cyclops comes to terms with the decisions he has to make, and now the mourning of Colossus as he attempts to come to terms with the loss of his girlfriend.

Now, this soap opera element is nothing new when it comes to the X-Men – indeed, the real golden age of these mutants under the direction of the legendary Chris Claremont was always hailed as a great success in fostering exactly this sort of atmosphere. But times have changed drastically in the comics industry since those days, and I haven’t read a comic book that his expressed itself in this way for quite some time.

Not only have storytelling techniques and fashions changed since Claremont’s day; there were also not a plethora of other X-books on the market to ‘compete’ with back then. And here I think is where the real pay-off for this re-visioning of Uncanny really comes into play. Admittedly in simplistic terms, if you want a rather more dark and violent action adventure, read X-Force. If you want the most creatively challenging (and I mean challenging in the most positive terms!) version of the X-Men, read Astonishing. But if you want to know how this all affects the wider family of mutants, and how they integrate with the wider world, then Uncanny is the central hub for every X-Men fan. And as far as I am concerned, that’s exactly the way it should be.

Ok, so far, so good. The book seems to be heading in exactly the right direction, driven by a clear mission and mandate. What I love most about what Fraction brings to the table is a contemporary twist on the traditional, which nicely mirrors not only the modern era but also the San Franciscan setting (which by the way is also a masterstroke) – take for example the tongue-in-cheek captions to introduce each of the X-Men to ‘enlighten’ new readers.

However, if the over-arching elements are all bang in place, then the actual execution of the individual arcs have just lacked something, though perhaps this is just a new creative team finding its feet. The previous storyline introduced some exciting new developments while delivering on a nice balance of action and character interaction and exposition, but the conclusion wasn’t quite as fulfilling as I had expected. Having said that, this may be intentional, providing a segue from the past into the potential future adventures of mutant-kind.

The latest issue attempts to deal with two of the as-yet answered questions that have emerged from the current status quo, namely: how has Scott managed to keep secrets like the black-ops squad X-Force from his telepathic girlfriend, and how has the ‘death’ of Kitty Pryde affected her lover, Pater Rasputin, a.k.a. Colossus? In this sense, Fraction’s story is essential to the X-Men dynamic, and it is pleasing to see these issues being dealt with centrally and sensitively. However, Fraction’s take on Scott’s mind and its defences as being filled with various incarnations of X-women just seems a little odd, and as such the impact of these important scenes is unfortunately somewhat reduced. In many ways, it comes across as an excuse for Terry Dodson to showcase his supposed skill at depicting powerful female comic book characters.

Which brings us to the art. Previous penciller Greg Land is a divisive artist, who produces some stunning and visceral action sequences while at the same time going overboard on the photo referencing to the extent that many of his characters beam maniacally like porn stars, or permanent extras from the Mojoverse. But putting this to one side, on the whole I’ve actually enjoyed Land’s work on this title.

Terry Dodson is a very different artist, with a more ‘cartoony’ feel than Land’s airbrushed, photo-like quality, and this shift in style is a little jarring. One way round the problem is to craft stories that play to the strengths of each particular artist, which seems to have been achieved successfully so far, but long term this could prove quite restrictive. Don’t get me wrong, Dodson is a very capable artist, and the great thing about any artistic medium is its subjectivity, but I’m afraid it’s just not really my thing.

As long as Fraction and Brubaker stay on top of their game though, then I’ll keep on buying, and at least both sets of artists appear to be developing a strong grip on the characters they are portraying, within their own particular styles.

All in all, I am confident that Fraction and Brubaker are crafting the go-to book for anything X-Men; Uncanny is now beginning to earn this right on its own merits, not simply as the longest-running flagship title, but because it is capturing the heart and soul of Marvel’s mutant hero population.

Issue 504 Rating: 7/10

Uncanny X-Men Rating: 8.5/10