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X-Men: Messiah War (Review/Retrospective)

This is the eleventh in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s shared universe (particularly their “Avengers” franchise) over the past five or so years, as they’ve been attempting to position the property at the heart of their fictional universe. With The Avengers planned for a cinematic release in 2012, I thought I’d bring myself up to speed by taking a look at Marvel’s tangled web of continuity.

Messiah Complex is billed as the “second instalment” of the X-Men “Messiah Trilogy”, following on from Messiah Complex and leading into Second Coming. The arc essentially follows Hope, the first mutant baby born in the wake of the infamous House of M crossover and the quest by various factions to exploit her – will she be a salvation of Marvel’s erstwhile bunch of mutants, or their ultimate damnation? Messiah War essential combines the two on-going X-Men books launched in the wake of Messiah Complex, with Cable following Hope and the time-travelling X-Man as they flee those who wish the child harm and X-Force following Wolverine’s bunch of “black-ops” “darker and edgier” X-Men strike force. Of course, the only way it could get more nineties was if you threw in Deadpool, Apocalypse and Stryfe… oh, wait. They did.

Has the bar been raised?

Part of me wonders if the nineties were really that bad a decade for comic books. I mean, aside from the fact that Marvel essentially went bankrupt, the medium nearly imploded and it was rife with ridiculously poorly-plotted and cynical cash-in events. Sure, it was a grim time, packed to the brim with mindless violence and tasteless sexism, with darker anti-heroes and psychopaths replacing ironic characters. However, every decade has its flaws – the Silver Age, that magical era in the fifties and sixties, was full of corny writer, hackneyed plots, strange pseudo-science and illogical plot devices, but it’s still experiencing something of a revival (thanks to works like Grant Morrison’s run on Batman or All-Star Superman or Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern). If these writers can find good material by reference to those cringeworthy old stories, sure something good can be fashioned from the era of excess. Or, as it would undoubtedly have been spelt in the X-Men comics of the time, “X-cess”.

There have of course been attempts to offer a rose-tinted retrospective on the era. Writer Robert Kirkman seems especially fond of the idea of reviving some of these concepts, with his creator-owned series Invincible enjoying combining hokey Silver Age nostalgia with the angst and gorn of the nineties, or his run on Ultimate X-Men focused on offering ultimate iterations of any number of nineties characters and storylines. However, none of these attempts have really gained any ground, and a lot of people look back with disdain on the era.

Angel takes another mutant under his wing...

However, the X-Men as a franchise seem to lend themselves to this sort of nostalgia. Although the group was initially created by Stan Lee at the tail end of the Silver Age, they never really took off until they were relaunched by Chris Claremont in the seventies (well into the Bronze Age). Even then (with an acclaimed run featuring classic arcs like Days of Future Past and The Phoenix Saga), the property only reached its zenith in the nineties, when it seemed like Marvel was churning out nothing but X-Men crossovers. Stories like The Age of Apocalypse are legend – sagas like Onslaught are infamous, even if they aren’t famous. The characters dominated Marvel’s publishing line-up, and featured the work of the big names of the time – like Rob Liefeld or Jim Lee. So there’s a certain amount of fondness there for the era, even ignoring all the terrible decisions that impacted most other mainstream books and properties.

So perhaps it is right that at least one section of this giant expanded saga featuring the characters is pitched as a nostalgic return to that period. The books Cable and X-Force, relaunched in the wake of Messiah Complex, were originally written by Rob Liefeld – Liefeld himself offers an alternative cover for some of the issues contained here. Both feature the sort of nineties anti-heroes that populated the medium at the time, the kind who have no real hesitation at taking lives. Deadpool, another character featured heavily in the crossover, was originally created by Liefeld. Although he’s taken on a life of his own since (and, boy, how!), it’s just another example of the way the story arc is clearly intended as homage.

Will Cable snap?

Befitting the theme, there is blood and guts everywhere (from an explosive fight with Apocalypse to a surreal coversation between a blood-saturated X-23 and the terrified Hope). “The Age of Stryfe” is mentioned more than once, in a clear allusion to the classic alternative universe crossover from the mid-nineties – Deadpool, ever ready and willing to cross the fourth wall, even namechecks The Age of Apocalypse.

In fairness to the writers of this event (Duane Swiercynski on Cable and Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost on X-Force), Messiah War doesn’t pretend to be a big event. It only really draws in perhaps the two smallest members of the X-Men franchise for what isn’t exactly an essential adventure. It clearly isn’t intended to read as a massive gigantic event book, but rather a relatively minor crossover firmly aimed at those who remember the nineties. Those looking for a meta-textual analysis of the state of the X-Men as a franchise might want to look elsewhere, and those who are hoping that the story might provide a glimpse into the heart of a beloved franchise will inevitably be disappointed. This isn’t a masterpiece – but it doesn’t claim to be. It’s intended as a fun riff of a whole host of classic X-Men characters and riffs based around an era that some of us were too young to live through the first time.

Wolverine takes a swing...

In a way, this is a clear attempt to give Cable his own story. As far as cliché characters go, Cable wasn’t one created with a huge amount of depth. He appeared in the nineties to usher in a new era of more violent X-Men comics and it seemed that the character’s mutant power was to carry guns that were physically impossible. He’s essentially a relic – a man literally out of time in the modern day and age. Of course, it’s a bit obvious to showcase that by have the character repeatedly and further dislodged from his own timestream (as Swiercynski does in the opening Wastleland Blues collected here), but it’s effective none the less. It’s interesting to see how Marvel has somewhat rehabilitated the character in recent years – he has undoubtedly developed and become more complex. In fact, one might argue that the so-called “Messiah Trilogy” represents a clear and definitive arc for the character – and, as such, Messiah War is a story focused around his character.

In a way, it is almost Cable’s “Christmas Carol” as the character is visited by various other key figures and groups he has interacted with. Including the other great Liefeld creation Deadpool, who famously featured with the character in an on-going Cable & Deadpool series. “Our fates seem intertwined,” Cable muses on Wade Wilson, “God help me.” Deadpool’s appearance here is a blatant publicity grab (as is Wolverine’s – both characters are strangely popular), but it’s still fitting to reunite the pair. It helps that Deadpool adds much needed humour to a story that could far too easily end up taking itself too seriously. I’ve never really been exposed to the character before, so it was fun to watch him break the fourth wall (explaining his acronyms, signed “xoxo”; or calling out Wolverine – who points out “you were never an X-Man” – as a “continuity stickler!”).

Deadpool always had a sharp wit...

The crossover reunites Cable with his (literally) evil twin Stryfe, who is memorably summed up as “a heavily armored psychotic mutant with daddy issues and something to prove.” (In fairness, Bishop adds he was “the perfect partner”, making their alliance sound like a fish-out-of-water cop show.) Stryfe is hardly the most fascinating of characters, but he deserved to appear within what is shaping up to be a definitive character arc for Cable. Similarly, the story features both Bishop and Apocalypse. The former is the other famous time-travelling X-Men from the nineties, while the other was one of Cable’s most pressing adversaries from the period. It’s hard not to read their inclusion as a nod towards the character, an almost nostalgic attempt to tell a modern, yet strangely classic, “Cable story”.

Bishop himself gets something resembling complex motivation for his actions. It’s to the credit of the writers that Bishop never feels like a one-dimensional extremist – in fact his logic almost makes sense. “They’re not real,” he remarks of the inhabitants of this alternate future, “Nothing in this future is…” When you are going to rewrite history, it doesn’t really matter what you do beforehand – it’s going to be reset. Due to the relative brevity of the crossover (which is, admittedly, a relief), the book is brimming with extra and special features. The Times and Life of Lucas Bishop offer some nice insight into the character (it’s just a same that the artwork is absolutely terrible – it’s the worst emulation of a nineties art style I have ever seen).

Bishop gets a chance to glow...

It’s also fitting that the crossover draws in X-Force – even if it involves a frankly strange time-travel gimmick. Aside from being a collection of blood-thirsty action heroes, the original iteration of the team was led by Cable, which makes this also a nice reunion for the character. There really isn’t space within the story to attempt to introduce the readers to the members of the team (I am familiar with Angel and Wolverine, but I picked up the rest as I went along), and – to be fair – the writers never really try. It’s still strange when what is obviously an element from the on-going X-Force series pops up near the end of the crossover (in the distant future) – as it comes out of nowhere for most readers. This isn’t exactly an a-list team – Stryfe dismisses the as the “weakest X-Men” – but perhaps that’s a good thing. They don’t intrude too much on the event.

The art itself is generally quite great. I like the styles of the two artists – Clayton Crain on X-Force and Ariel Olivetti on Cable. That said, I did find Crain’s artwork was sometimes too dark – not in a sense of being grim or gothic, but making it difficult for the reader to distinguish what exactly was unfolding on the panel in front of them. Still, I like the watercolours and the consciously murky design. It gives the crossover a somewhat unique look as compared to many of the other comic book events that I have checked out.

Deadpool is a dead shot...

Messiah War isn’t a great crossover, but it does well not to take itself too seriously. The plot itself seems to have been written to showcase many of the key characters that Cable has interacted with over the years, but without much thought for how it all fits together as a whole – indeed, the climax feels a bit disappointing (not unlike The Squire of Gothos from the original Star Trek, which ended with a naughty alien’s parents arriving to give their child a good spanking and send our heroes on their way). Still, it’s fun and it never insists upon itself. It’s entertaining to spot the countless homages and hooks borrowed from all manner of sources – for example, “The Bowels of the Citidal” calls to mind the confrontation between Luke and Vader in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

It’s not perfect (or even excellent), but it is a charming little crossover that almost convinces you that maybe the nineties weren’t so bad after all. Given the many pratfalls the medium suffered during that decade, that’s quite the accomplishment.

Next week I’m back with a look at Bendis’ gigantic and much-alluded-to super-crossover Secret Invasion. And then we’re going into outer space for War of Kings as we near the end of this gigantic crossover odyssey. We’re almost there…

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