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Matt Fraction’s Run on Uncanny X-Men – Nation X (Review/Retrospective)

I am doing a weekly look at Marvel’s complicated crossover chronology, following various key crossovers to see if they might give me a better idea of what I’m missing by avoiding mainstream comic book continuity. While – with The Avengers due for release in 2012 – I am focusing on the stories told featuring those characters over the past five years, I also have time for the X-Men. While this isn’t strictly speaking a crossover, it is a series of issues which connect Utopia to Second Coming, so I figured it was worth a look.

Utopia ended with a heck of a plot twist. Cyclops decided that his merry band of mutants have had enough of being looked down upon in New York and , more recently, San Francisco, so he decides to build himself an island from the remains of Magneto’s “Asteroid M” just off the San Francisco Bay. Announcing the new nation of “Utopia”, he declares the island a haven for mutants. Nation X provides a hardcover collection of the issues from Matt Fraction’s Uncanny X-Men which bridge the gap between Utopia and Second Coming, as well as the four-issue Nation X anthology miniseries. And, while it’s a decidedly uneven reading experience, I have to admit that some of Fraction’s portrayal of the mutant team is a little bit interesting – even if most is slightly boring and deeply convoluted.

Magneto has a magnetic personality...

Note: This collection opens with Dark Reign tie-in X-Men: The List written by Matt Fraction and following an attempted assassination attempt on Namor by Norman Osborn. Accordingly, I think I should open this review with a link to Abhay’s quite excellent article on the issue, which – among some more serious points – suggests that Namor is starring in his own private version of You Don’t Mess With The Zohan. Seriously, check it out.

I’m going to be honest. I am a little bit uncomfortable with the idea of “Utopia”. It isn’t the fact that the idea of a nation of mutants has been used before – with disastrous consequences, as per the opening of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run, which Fraction gleefully steals borrows from here – nor is it the fact that as an idea, it is, to quote Namor, “dubiously planned”. It’s the fact that the move essentially turns the X-Men into a bunch of segregationists. Sure, they don’t claim superiority to humans or engage in any conscious displays of racism (although Cyclops does nothing to discourage the fear that regular humans have of mutants, believing it makes the island more secure).

We all have our crosses to bare...

Fraction himself doesn’t tackle this idea directly – in fact, he seems to dance around it. However, several of the anthology stories are smart enough to pick up on the subtext. One story features depowered (and now “only human”) former X-Men member Jubilee, writing to Wolverine (who used to treat her as a sidekick), constantly wondering if the island is “mutants only?” Ultimately she’s afraid to set foot on the island herself, even to visit an old friend. Indeed, when Cyclops carries out business with humans, he goes to San Francisco rather than inviting humans to the island.

“This is not the dream we’d always fought for,” Nightcrawler confesses to Wolverine on a cross-country trip, “In fact, it’s a lot like the one we fought against.” Wolverine offers a somewhat ambiguous response to this suggestion, “World’s a different place than when we started, Elf.” I thought that the whole point of having a principle was that it shouldn’t be compromised, even when sticking to it is difficult. Just because the minorities that the X-Men used to stand in for have seen huge leaps in their rights and freedoms (arguably leaving the X-Men behind, who have never been allowed to make similar leaps), it’s worth wondering whether – if the X-Men still stood in for various ethnic groups like African-Americans – the same glib excuse could be used.

Betty looks radiant...

A short story in the Nation X anthology features Magneto, who has joined the X-Men claiming to be seeking forgiveness, venturing into the heart of Asteroid M, his former hideout. The younger citizens of the island are apparently terrified of a “ghost” inside the caves, and Magneto finds an old recording of himself (prepared in case of his possible demise) playing on loop. “There is no future in integration,” the younger version of himself warns the modern-day Magneto, before the master of magnetism turns it off. When asked how he vanquished the “ghost” haunting the caves, Magneto glibly replies, “By giving it what it wanted.” Utopia is Magneto’s dream, endorsed by the good guys. Although he may claim to Scott that he has made his peace with the inevitable extinction of mutantkind, Magneto is living on his own little paradise – the island represents ultimate vindication for the character. At one point, Emma confesses to the catatonic Magneto that Scott secretly envies him.

Which is, to be honest, a very disturbing thought.

In fairness, Magneto makes an interesting symbol for the story. In effect, it seems like Fraction is pitching this story as an almost biblical saga. There are quite a few conscious parallels with Israel set up in the text, with the mutants compared with Jewish survivors. Doctor Nemesis, for example, a resident on the island, describes himself as “the man who that spent most of his adult life hunting Nazi super clones through South America”, recalling the hunt for Nazis who escaped justice at the end of the war. Cyclops tells the mayor of San Francisco that he wants to be able to assure his people that “they won’t get put into camps any time soon.” We’re shown the image of Magneto isolating himself by climbing a mountain.

Dressed like that, I hope he's not a messy eater...

More than that, Cyclops’ militant protection of the new nation against potential “invasion” (by a single rogue airplane) calls to mind the response of Israel to various threats to its sovereignty. Any infringement by a foreign power, to quote Cyclops, “will be repelled with extreme prejudice.” To his assembled X-Men, he declares, “This is our homeland now, people.”

However, I’m not entirely convinced that this is an apt comparison. For one thing, Israel is located in the Middle East, surrounded by governments that would gladly wipe them off the face of the Earth. Utopia is located a few miles off the cost of San Francisco, quite possibly the most tolerant place on the planet. The X-Men go on shopping runs to the city, and the local populace is actually upset they’ve moved so far away. If Israel received a similar reaction from their neighbours, somehow I doubt they’d have to worry about these local states making threats about “driving them into the sea” or so forth.

Wolverine gets stuck in...

It’s also worth considering that, to a large proportion of the outside world, the most controversial aspect of Israel’s politics involve the settlement of the Gaza Strip. This is the divisive and potentially explosive aspect of nation. One could argue that to construct an Israel metaphor without tackling this part of the situation is almost pointless – while the generic issue of “Israel as a safe haven for the Jewish people” might have been a topical way of approaching the country in the years following the Second World War, the debate now focuses on the relationship between Israel and Palestine.

On the other hand, the change to the status quo does allow Fraction a chance to play a bit with the audience’s expectations for the franchise. He pits the younger more aggressive Cyclops against Xavier, offering a philosophical change to the team’s core values. Xavier’s peaceful idealist dogma is gone, sacrificed to more practical demands. “You had a dream,” Cyclops warns his former mentor at one stage, “I have a plan.” It sounds a little bit “cynical for the sake of being cynical”, but at least it seems like Fraction is at least trying to move the book outside its comfort zone – which is always a move which deserves the interest and attention of his readers.

Nation X goes North by Northwest...

Perhaps the best illustration of the new ideological territory that Fraction is staking out – and also perhaps the best point of comparison between Fraction’s Uncanny X-Men and Grant Morrison’s revolutionary New X-Men which Fraction seems to have quite a spot for – is his treatment of Magneto. Magneto, as imagined (or reimagined) by Chris Claremont, was a strikingly original character for his time. A holocaust survivor with reasons to distrust humanity (and justification for his suspicions about how they would treat people “different”), he was an extremist who believed in proactive measures to protect mutants from prejudice. How evil he was would vary from author to author – he would occasionally team up with the X-Men and even became their headmaster for a while.

Magneto was frequently used as an analogue for Malcolm X, the militant black leader – an interpretation which easily found its way into Ian McKellen’s portrayal of the character in Bryan Singer’s X-Men trilogy. However, writer Grant Morrison singled out Magneto as a character who was stuck in the mud, and hadn’t evolved with the times. While his brand of militant ideology might have allowed him to work as an analogy for aggressive subversive civil rights groups in the seventies, his closest companion in the twenty-first century was a terrorist. Portraying him as a radical revolutionary just wouldn’t role with the times – his actions could no longer be excused with some sort of vaguely sympathetic backstory or motivation.

The darkness follows Scott...

“What people often forget, of course, is that Magneto, unlike the lovely Sir Ian McKellen, is a mad old terrorist twat,” Morrison has outlined his position. “No matter how he justifies his stupid, brutal behaviour, or how anyone else tries to justify it, in the end he’s just an old bastard with daft, old ideas based on violence and coercion.” To that end, the Magneto Morrison presents in New X-Men is a failure. In the last arc, the character has conquered New York and promises to literally turn the world upside down (by reversing the poles), but ultimately finds he has capacity for any sort change – he  reverts to a genocide not unlike that his own parents were the victims of, revealing that there’s nothing revolutionary about him; he’s just repeating the same old pointless cycle of violence. This Magneto is old and outdated, defeated and impotent.

In contrast, Fraction’s Magneto is triumphant and empowered – while in New X-Men he couldn’t reverse the poles even using a mutant steroid (and sentient bacteria), here he can find a bullet flying through space and bring it to Earth. Magneto arrives on the island having acknowledged that the world has changed and he must change with it. “Our time has passed, Charles,” he warns his best friend – Xavier is convinced that this is a trick or a trap, just like it always is. Later he confesses to Nightcrawler, “I’m not a young man anymore.” He’s here to champion the new order of things and to lay to rest all the old ghosts that have haunted the X-Men – the status quo which has hung around the franchise’s neck so long that it has become stale. This is Fraction observing that times have changed – even the extremist must change. Of course, as I observed above, this change is – as so much about this book – ultimately an illusion. Magneto is living in a world where his personal beliefs have been vindicated – sure, he’s ceased advocating genocide of humans, but the X-Men have acknowledged that they cannot live in peace with mankind.

Is the Void a noid?

Of course, Fraction wants to emphasise that the past is behind us – this is truly a new age. Professor Xavier, perhaps the most iconic member of the franchise (perhaps except Wolverine), is sidelined. Cyclops consciously benches his old mentor, who advocates for a return to their old approaches. It’s Professor Xavier who has the “humiliating” outburst against Magneto, claiming the master of magnetism is constructing some sort of trap. When Erik suggests that this simply isn’t their time, the former headmaster declares, “It’s always ours, Magneto.” In fact, even Magneto shuns his best friend, “Quite frankly, I don’t want to speak to you at all, Charles.” Professor X is yesterday’s news, best left behind or forgotten about – he is, for all his rhetoric, stuck in the mud. He’s just as easily a stand-in for the types of fans alienated by Fraction’s attempts to shake up the series, stubbornly believing that they know what works and what worked thirty years ago can still work now.

The other obvious fan stand-in is Beast, who spends most of the collection moping around the island, reminding whoever will listen that, “I was tortured.” He’s a character who can’t get past the fact that things have changed – he refuses to accept any good can come from Magneto. Ultimately, he’s a character that really needs to leave. It’s better for him and it’s better for the X-Men – there’s no point in having him standing around moping. Fraction has a point, if a fan can’t get with his Uncanny X-Men, there’s no point buying it just to whine about it.

Wolverine goes all "Batman" on us...

I appreciate what Fraction is doing. He is attempting something novel. However, the problem is that he can’t decide whether he wants to embrace the future, or be nostalgic for the past. Amid this rapidly changing status quo, he uses hackneyed devices like caption boxes that introduce characters or that contain references from the editor to past issues and collections. This run of issues is centred around undoing the wonderfully effective end to Josh Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men rather than actually attempting anything new – when Grant Morrison wanted to write Colossus as one of his New X-Men, but found he’d been killed off, he left him dead because he realised how clichéd bringing him back would be.

On his arrival, Magneto offers his goofy telepath-proof helmet to Cyclops as a token of his trust – but it’s also a symbol of the character’s history as an over-the-top supervillain. Rather than destroying the helmet, symbolising that this is truly a new age, Fraction is clearly nostalgic. Magneto is seen wandering around with it on a few pages later – pretty much the same as it ever was.

Is this thing's mutation being really, really unsociable?

Perhaps the best illustration of the divide with Fraction’s writing – and why it is so deeply frustrating – is the way he handles Cyclops. On one hand, he’s a character who has assumed a leadership role that he’s not certain he can handle, but is doing is best in horrible circumstances – making the best choices he can as he morally compromises himself for the safety of his people. That’s a nice portrayal – it demonstrates the type of growth that Joss Whedon gave the character during his run on Astonishing X-Men. On the other hand, Fraction’s Cyclops is a gushing, emotionally immature fanboy. When the island is under siege, he declares that the X-Men will win because “we’ve got freakin’ Magneto and the King of Atlantis on our side.” Yes, he said “freakin'” when referring to a wanted international terrorist. It makes him hard to take seriously as a responsible adult juggling the weight of responsibility for an entire species.

Fraction can be infuriating as a writer. He’s clearly smart and he has some good ideas. He’s willing to push the series a little outside its comfort zone. However, his work on Uncanny X-Men feels a little… lazy. It’s as if he’s only half-heartedly interested in telling great stories, and the rest of him is enjoying bashing toy figurines together. He seems to have a bit of bother handling such a large ensemble cast, which helps to make his issues seem relatively insubstantial, as you get snippets of each little plot in tiny bite-sized chunks. It doesn’t help that he’s rather heavily leaning on Grant Morrison’s New X-Men – using John Sublime and Fantomex – while claiming to be doing something new.

"You wouldn't believe howdifficult it is to do this in spandex..."

The artwork is grand. I know Greg Land is “controversial” to say the least, but I don’t have a big problem with his work. I have to admit that the work by Terry Dodson is growing on me. I like his cartoonish drawings – they lend the series a nice pulpy feel, particularly with the strong curves. By the way, of the Nation X anthology, it’s great to see Michael Allred drawing mutants again. It has been too long since Milligan’s X-Factor.

It’s a nice collection and one I enjoyed more than I thought I would – it’s obvious that I have a lot to say, I suppose. Still, there’s a lot of room for improvement here – if Fraction could decide whether he’s looking forward or back, that would be great.

One Response

  1. Neat summary. I agree for the most part.

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