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Ed Brubaker’s Run on Uncanny X-Men – The Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire (Review/Retrospective)

I’m currently wading my way through Marvel’s somewhat complicated continuity, with a major focus on The Avengers, what with the film due out in 2012 and all that. Anyway, this isn’t really a “big” crossover in its own right, but it factors into a big event I’ll be looking at later on today. Consider this an appendix.

Ed Brubaker’s run on Uncanny X-Men isn’t as widely praised as his work on Daredevil or Captain America – in fact, while Marvel couldn’t wait to churn out omnibus releases of his work on those two titles, his Uncanny X-Men run, like Matt Fraction’s run which followed, has been haphazardly collected. Part of me suspects that this might be down to factors outside Brubaker’s control – Joss Whedon was monopolising the most popular X-Men for Astonishing X-Men when Brubaker kicked off his run – but part of it comes down to the simple fact that Brubaker simply isn’t a great writer of team books. That said, writing a year-long space epic featuring none of the more iconic characters as his introductory arc probably didn’t help much.

Brotherly love…

It’s telling that The Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire, the first arc Brubaker wrote on Uncanny X-Men, has more relevance to the big space epics that Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning were setting up (particularly War of Kings) than to the X-Men events that would follow (Messiah Complex). It doesn’t really feel like an X-Men story, despite being told in the series’ flagship title.

Part of this might be down to the fact that it is a space epic. Of course the Shi’ar were created by Chris Claremont in his iconic run on the title and also featured in Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run among many other things, but it always felt strange that a cosmic saga became so intertwined with Marvel’s mutants – it just seemed like Claremont really wanted to write a space story, and so slotted one into the book he was writing regularly. It just seems like an awkward fit – aliens would seem to fall more within the remit of the Fantastic Four or the Avengers rather than with a bunch of outcasts struggling for human rights. When Robert Kirkman wrote his (mostly disappointing) run on Ultimate X-Men, he rewrote the Shi’ar to be a human cult rather than an alien race in order to get them to fit better within the mythos.

Chrome domes…

Of course, this reading could be seen as an overly narrow view of the X-Men. Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men asked us to forget the whole “mutants” thing in favour of straight-up superheroics, and maybe that’s what Brubaker is attempting here. After all, the “mutants as oppressed minority” can really only be heard so many times before it becomes a little tired, variety being the spice of life and all that. However, “intergalactic civil war” is a very specific type of “straight-up superheroics”, and just seems awkward.

There are some good ideas here. I particularly like that Brubaker focuses on Professor X, perhaps a character who has been somewhat sidelined in recent years. Brubaker’s Deadly Genesis miniseries (which forms a sort of prequel to this) added some pretty serious shading to the headmaster’s character, revealing that he had ordered a secret team to their deaths years before – and then mindwiped his X-Men. As a telepath and a role model, Xavier always struck me as a somewhat interesting character – he can do almost anything, peer into the mind of anyone and change the way they see the world or what they do, so how does a decent man fight the temptation that offers?

Blade of glory…

Surely Professor X could use his powers to slowly and steadily wipe bigotry from the human race? Convince and influence various key people to accept the emerging race? Of course, doing so is an intrusion and an abuse of the trust he is trying to build, but surely the temptation must be there – he could use his powers to become a proactive force for good, but that would ultimately violate the high standards that he holds himself to, no matter how much it could help him or countless others. Brubaker’s Professor X is a version of the character who struggles with this weight. When revealing his secret knowledge of the Shi’ar, he confesses that the knowledge came from “by breaking a promise of my own”, handing secret technology from his lover to the authorities to be reverse engineered.

Between his oppression of the sentient Danger Room in Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men and his wiping of his own team’s memories in Deadly Genesis, Brubaker shows us Professor X looking for redemption. He is pursuing his lost student Vulcan across the gulf of space because the boy is, to quote him, “my responsibility.” Corsair is amazed that Xavier would risk it, “He knew it meant death if he was captured.” However, one senses that Charles is attempted to fix several mistakes he feels are his own fault – even the damage he did to his lover’s empire in Morrison’s New X-Men run.

The Professor’s feeling a little blue…

And yet Brubaker knows that Xavier is living in the past. Morrison wrote his Shi’ar story to serve as an epilogue to the race and their involvement in the franchise. In many ways, Xavier’s return to them represents a regression. Recent years have shown the character unable to keep up with the changes in the world – with various writer portraying him as out-of-touch or out-of-his-depth (see Fraction’s Nation X, for example). “They may have been mostly machine,” Xavier explains to Warpath, who has just gutted a bunch of sentries, “but the X-Men do not kill.” Just a few months later, a black-ops mutant team would launch in X-Factor, designed to do just that. Sadly, it seems Xavier is almost a relic.

However, for all his skill handling Xavier, Brubaker doesn’t seem to know what to do with all the characters. In fairness, I had a hard enough time catching up with Shi’ar politics during Grant Morrison’s fairly shallow exploration of them, but it seems almost impossible to keep up to speed with what is going on unless you are knee-deep in X-Men continuity. References to previous adventures come thick-and-fast, and characters show up in large bunches with little or no introductions. You might argue that it’s designed to appeal to “long-term fans”, but it just ends up feeling rather insular.

Vulcan has a lot of energy…

It doesn’t help that Brubaker’s villain for the arc is extremely shallow. He’s basically “a fifteen year old” manchild wanting to exact petty vengeance on those who hurt him. He reminds me of Geoff Johns’ Superboy-Prime, the egomaniacal alternate Superman with buckets of teen angst – but Vulcan doesn’t come with the healthy doses of irony. There’s no real sense of character. After twelve issues, aside from his convoluted family history, the only things I know about the character are the fact that he is fan of Julius Ceasar and he has temper tantrums.

A lot of this feels like set-up, and – to be honest – it is. The outcome plays heavily into War of Kings, the big cosmic crossover. However, it really should feel like an entertaining story told for its own sake. The Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire never truly succeeds on its own terms – its cast is too large to make us care about anyone in particular, and the cosmic aspect is so jarring that it’s hard to get used to the idea of the X-Men in it. Perhaps there’s a reason Brubaker’s run has been so haphazradly collected.

You might be interested in our other reviews of Ed Brubaker’s X-Men:

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5 Responses

  1. Brubaker’s run on UXM was pretty lackluster. That Shi’ar storyline was useless and featured the incredibly annoying Vulcan. A character who is essentially invulnerable is not interesting, only frustrating. Personally, I can’t forgive Brubaker for the useless retcon that is Deadly Genesis.

    • I didn’t hate it; but it was pretty bland. Which is remarkable, given Brubaker’s track record. I’m actually quite interested to read Fraction’s work. I’m a big fan of Gillen’s (admittedly truncated) run.

  2. UGH god I hate the Shi(t)ar!!!

    • I’ve found myself warming to The Rise and fall of the Shi’ar Empire on re-read, if I treat it as a Cosmic Story rather than an X-Men story, if that makes sense.

  3. I was disappointed in Brubaker’s X-Men run. His retcon of the 70’s X-Men origin was awful and Vulcan is an awful character.
    I have never had a problem with X-Men in space, but a year long storyline with no satisfying conclusion is asking too much.

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