June 16, 2010
When I was last talking about Marvel's merry mutants, I mentioned how the "Utopia" crossover set up a potentially interesting new direction for the franchise. After butting heads with Norman Osborne and his Dark X-Men and Avengers, all of mutanity has found itself living just out of his reach on a re-purposed Asteroid M in the San Francisco Bay. No longer having to contend with the political situation on the mainland, Cyclops and the rest of the X-Men now have to figure out how to provide for the two-hundred-plus inhabitants of the island and fend off all of the new threats coming their way.
While I doubt it would surprise anyone to learn that Norman Osborne still has a mad-on for how Namor and Emma Frost stabbed him in the back, he's not the only problem they have to contend with. In addition to making sure that the island has enough supplies to function, the "science team" finds out that while raising an asteroid from the bottom of the sea was easy enough, generating enough power to keep it there is another matter entirely. Making matters worse is that former Marauder Scalphunter has been press-ganged by a group of mysterious super-powered individuals into delivering five Predator Xs to assault the island. Things have looked better for mutantkind -- then Magneto shows up.
In what is the volume's best plot thread, and an interesting sign of how the dynamic of mutant power has shifted in Marvel's post M-Day world, Magneto hasn't come to fight the X-Men, but to join the party. Even though Cyclops is plotting the future of his species by the seat of his pants, he's managed to do the one thing that neither the master of magnetism or Professor X has managed to do: unite all of mutantkind. Seeing this, Magneto now wants to join the party and help out any way he can. Only his decades-long habit of attacking and otherwise antagonizing the X-Men has left all of them more than a little wary of his intentions.
Refreshingly, Magneto turns out to be telling the truth and his efforts to try and win over Cyclops and co. are the most interesting parts of the book. His take-charge nature proves to be at odds with Cyclops' leadership and every attempt he makes to better life on Utopia only winds up alienating him further from the people whose trust he desires. Then he searches and finds more radical (and implausible) means to do so. Writer Matt Fraction gets a lot of good scenes from his characterization of Magneto as a sad old man, once one of the figureheads of mutant power who now finds himself without an invitation to his species last party before its extinction. It's a characterization that's at odds with how he's usually presented, but it also couldn't have been done in a pre-M-Day setting and Fraction pulls it off well.
The other main threads involve the fight against the Predator Xs on the island; Cyclops, Prof. X and Psylocke working together to get the sliver of the Void that was stuck in Emma's head after her run-in with the Sentry; and Wolverine, Colossus, and Psylocke (again) going to New York to track down the people behind the assault and running into Fantomex along the way. Two of these threads mainly serve to dish up some quality superhero fight scenes, while the other allows for some nice character-driven action as Cyclops dives into Emma's head to save her from being taken over by a "splinter of absolute evil."
Now, the context of a Marvel superhero comic is probably the only time that I could take something described as a "splinter of absolute evil" seriously, but Fraction uses the threat of a psychic takeover to have his characters try and think their way out of a conflict rather than fight their way out of it. While there is some fighting, most memorably when Cyclops realizes that the multiple Emmas in her head are actually manifestations of the Void because she would never say something as "high school" as that and then blasts them to hell. The majority of it centers around Cyclops and Emma finding ways to re-connect in their minds and ways to use their surroundings to their advantage. I don't think I'm really spoiling anything to say that the Void splinter is neutralized, but the way Fraction has Cyclops do it is both truly inspired and true to his character.
This two-issue thread also benefits immensely from art by Terry and Rachel Dodson. Not only do they have a bright, energetic style that's perfect for superhero comics, they also show a willingness to experiment with page and panel layout to capture the confusion of the mental conflict in this mini-arc. With the exception of the last issue, the rest of the issues collected here were drawn by Greg Land. Now Land gets a bad rap for his photoreferenced style and I'll willingly admit that it is very distracting in parts. The man can't seem to draw a woman who doesn't seem like she was traced from a men's magazine, and characters of both genders tend to have their mouths gaping or grinning in ways that distract you from the story at hand. That said, I do like the detail his photoreferencing brings to his art and his storytelling is clear. It's not enough to make me not wish that the Dodsons had drawn his issues as well, but it could've been worse.
The final issue in the arc is drawn by Whilce Portacio, and while I generally like his style, his characters' body language comes across as awkward at times. That hampers the emotional impact of this issue as it involves the return of Kitty Pryde from deep space. The mechanics of her return stretch even the most generous amounts of comic book logic, and I still think that she wasn't gone long enough for me to miss her. Still, I do like how her return isn't without complications and there's a very nice silent montage of panels at the end which show that despite all of the craziness that's been happening on Utopia, its inhabitants still find a way to enjoy the little things in life.
That's not the end of the volume, as the four-issue "Nation X" mini-series is also collected here. This was an anthology series in the vein of the "Dark X-Men" mini-series collected in "Utopia," and while the stories there were mostly filler, the ones here have a huge advantage in that they're able to explore this new setting with the entire X-cast at their disposal. It is, perhaps surprisingly (considering the quality of most X-anthologies), a huge improvement over its predecessor.
Most of the stories are nice little character pieces that have members of the cast touching on issues that the main story didn't have time for. We get to see Iceman cracking jokes as a way to get his mind off of how he thinks these are the end days of his species, Wolverine and Nightcralwer on a cross-country trip debating the new status quo and Cyclops' status as a leader, and Northstar inviting his new normal boyfriend to Utopia and nearly ruining the relationship as a result. Some of the stories also touch on continuity issues, but in logical ways as Magneto confronts an old "ghost" of Asteroid M, and Armor and Danger hash out their issues (violently) over how the latter killed the former's friend, Wing. They're not all winners, as Peter Milligan and Mike Allred's story about Doop acting as the island's detective is just too weird for its own good.
Still, it has Allred on art which means that it at least looks good. The same can be said for the rest of the stories as they're all visually interesting on some level. Some stories trend towards a stylized, yet still recognizably superhero comic book style, while others, see "Cannonball's" Corey Lewis, let their freak flag fly to great effect. Overall, this is one of the rare anthologies that has more hits than misses, and if all X-anthologies were this good, people wouldn't complain about how many of them we get in a year.
Overall, "Nation X" is a worthy addition to any X-fan's library. While the art on the main story is a mixed bag, Fraction's writing holds it all together while dishing up wit, action, and characterization in a way that keeps you engrossed in the action. It's not an X-book that I'd recommend to people who aren't interested in the franchise, but those of you who are following its narrative (like myself) won't be disappointed by what you find here.