• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives









  • Awards & Nominations

Kieron Gillen’s Run on Uncanny X-Men – Avengers vs. X-Men (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Wolverine later in the month, we’re taking a look at some classic X-Men and Wolverine comics every Monday, Wednesday and Friday here. I’m also writing a series of reviews of the classic X-Men television show at comicbuzz every weekday, so feel free to check those out.

Kieron Gillen is one of the unsung heroes of modern superhero comics. Over the past few years, Gillen has come to the attention of readers for replacing or supplementing a-list talent on a-list books. He took over Thor after J. Michael Straczynski abruptly wrapped up his run on the Norse god, only to shuffle off the book when Matt Fraction took over. While Straczynzki’s run was collected in an omnibus, Gillen’s has yet to receive hardcover status. He wrote the wonderfully underrated Journey into Mystery as a supplement to Fraction’s Thor, which might hopefully get a deluxe reprinting at some point in the future.

He took over Uncanny X-Men following Fraction’s departure. He barely had time to establish his run on Marvel’s merry mutants before writer Jason Aaron up-ended the status quo with Schism, essentially restructuring Marvel’s X-Men line. Gillen remained on Uncanny X-Men in the wake of Schism, the title resetting to #1. However, less than a year into the run, Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men was caught up in Marvel’s high profile crossover of the year, Avengers vs. X-Men.

Explosive...

Explosive…

Gillen departed the book following Avengers vs. X-Men, in yet another reshuffle of Marvel’s X-Men line. (Brian Bendis promised to push the line in a new direction, writing both All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men.) Half of Gillen’s run on the relaunched Uncanny X-Men was tied into the gigantic Avengers vs. X-Men.

But don’t let that fool you. It’s really very, very good. In fact, it ranks as among the very best X-Men work since Joss Whedon and John Cassaday left Astonishing X-Men.

All fired up...

All fired up…

Okay, maybe crossovers get a bit of a bad wrap, but I’m inherently suspicious of an author being forced to adjust their own plans and plots to account for the “needs” of a shared universe, seeing writers forced to rework their own stories and re-structure their own narratives to fit into the demands of the gigantic universe-altering crossovers. Given how frequent these events are, it seems like writers are only getting a handle on the book before it gets dragged into somebody else’s story. (As noted above half of Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men ties into Avengers vs. X-Men. Although I am happy to see any of Gillen’s work collected in deluxe hardcover.)

That said, crossovers can be used well. Writers familiar with the workings of comic book plotting can often use an event to leverage their own dramatic plot twists and to assist their own pre-planned story arcs. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing tied in Crisis on Infinite Earths relatively well. Gotham Central crossed over into Infinite Crisis thanks to no small amount of skill on the part of writer Greg Rucka. Ed Brubaker’s tie-in to House of M in Captain America underscored a lot of the themes of his run and remained strangely moving.

I'll drink to that...

I’ll drink to that…

Kieron Gillen does something remarkable with his Uncanny X-Men when he’s asked to tie into Avengers vs. X-Men. Over ten chapters of a crossover, he finds room to offer a unique slant on the events of the miniseries, to tell his own story and to offer some measure of closure. These ten issues break neatly into three acts. The first and the last dove-tail neatly into the events portrayed in the miniseries, with more room allocated to character development and plot nuance, while the middle section takes advantage of the event’s status quo to tell its own story.

And Gillen never feels lost amid the gigantic crossover. He never feels like control of Uncanny X-Men is being wrest from his hands. There’s none of the crisis of identity that books like this typically feel when drawn into a big crossover, no sense that Gillen is dancing to somebody else’s tune. The events here are entirely dependent on the plot of Avengers vs. X-Men, but the book remains its own entity. There’s a very clear through-line, a very clear sense that this is not an anonymous tie-in intended to house excess plot spilling over the side of the big event. This is Kieron Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men.

Inner demons...

Inner demons…

Schism, as the name implied, split the X-Men line in half. It’s interesting that the comics split into two very different approaches to the franchise. Jason Aaron seemed to pitch Wolverine and the X-Men as a spiritual successor to Morrison’s high-concept New X-Men. He focused the story on a mutant school, with a well-rounded cast of mutant characters and even drew in a few of Morrison’s creations for flavour.

In contrast, Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men drew more heavily on the approach that Joss Whedon had taken with Astonishing X-Men, pitching the book as a superhero story that just happened to feature mutants. As Cyclops explains here, “The Extinction Team came together to save the world, and in doing so, mutantkind.” It’s a book that isn’t myopically focused on mutant problems or mutant soap opera, but in exploring how mutants relate to the larger world.

Once more unto the breach...

Once more unto the breach…

These aren’t just mutants. They are superheroes. Under the influence of the same power that once corrupted the Juggernaut, Colossus finds himself remaining constantly in his steel form. He explains, “In steel, I am a super hero. In flesh, I am a man.” These are mutants who are capable of being more than they are, who choose to transcend mere labels by becoming something more than just “flesh.”

And it’s remarkable how well Gillen finds a way to spin the crossover to his own themes and ideas. Even when Gillen is using the book to do generic “people hit other people” stuff, there’s a sense that Gillen is entirely in control. While Greg Land might be illustrating scenes and sequences from Avengers vs. X-Men, Gillen generally avoids reproducing dialogue or the narrative from the parent miniseries. Instead, he uses these sequences to provide insights into his own characters.

Blaze of glory...

Blaze of glory…

The confrontation between Cyclops and Captain America, for example, plays out without dialogue while Namor shares his thoughts on the matter. It’s a nice way of bringing the reader up to speed without duplicating information. At the same time, it’s clear that Gillen is having a bit of fun at the expense of the clichés and tropes of comic book brawling. The Thing points out how silly banter is. “And that’s how you sneak up on someone,” he boasts, interrupting a monologue with the strategic application of tree trunk.

A resident of Sub Rosa is fascinated by the flirtatious fighting. He clarifies, “After this display, you copulate, yes?” Rather pointedly, Gillen chooses to wrap up the fight immediately after the line. It isn’t just a quick gag, it’s the climax of a rather brutal joke. The demon Cyttorak suggests that it’s much more fun to be linked with Colossus than it was to power the Juggernaut. Villains, after all, only occasionally get to rampage. “But you heroes? In your constant battles, you destroy daily. Your offerings are an eternal banquet.”

A magnetic personality...

A magnetic personality…

And yet, despite Gillen’s wonderfully wry sense of humour about the fact that he’s essentially bashing toys together, he finds room for some nice ideas. There’s a lovely sequence where the second-tier X-Men basically sit around and wait for the plot to advance, as Magneto laments the fact that he is essentially stuck in a tie-in. “The waiting,” he admits to Storm and Psylocke. “I can’t stand it. I wish I was there.”

Indeed, Gillen finds himself in the position of writing the event’s villain. To be fair, Avengers vs. X-Men is – at least – more even-handed than Civil War. However, it’s very clear that we’re meant to see Cyclops as the villain of the piece. He’s sympathetic and his motives are understandable, but he’s basically turned into a religious fanatic able to justify atrocities through his absolute faith in the Phoenix and the power it represents.

King of the world...

King of the world…

Much like the writers tasked with handling Tony Stark during (and directly after) Civil War, Gillen is tasked with justifying Cyclops’ actions. He does a decent job of cultivating a narrative where Cyclops becomes something of a tragic anti-hero, even if it’s hard to justify some of his later actions. At least in the early chapters, Gillen is able to paint Cyclops and his fellow mutants as the victims of oppression – with the government essentially showing up in force to demand them to surrender their child.

Gillen cleverly reveals that some of Cyclops’ early hard-line stances were just bluffs, and that he isn’t – at least in this form – capable of mass murder. He’s capable of making the threats for the safety of his people, but he’s not so disengaged or fanatical that he would follow through. And Gillen understands that Avengers vs. X-Men cuts to the heart of the issues that mutants have been facing for years. “In the days that come, remember this was not of our choosing,” Cyclops writes. “But know that even if we forgive it, we will not forget the day when our worst fears were proved true. That even those who claimed to be our friends thought us property.”

There's always Hope...

There’s always Hope…

More than that, though, Gillen’s themes remain consistent throughout, despite the demands of the big event unfolding in the background. Early on, Unit discusses fate and destiny with Hope. He suggests that destiny is pointless where choice is absent. It’s not enough to suggest that Hope is the messiah or the chosen one. She must make the decisions and take the actions herself if they are to mean anything.

In a way, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the “mutants-as-superheroes” theme that runs through Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men, building off Astonishing X-Men. These characters are all mutants by virtue of birth. They were predestined to that suffering and prejudice by some genetic quirk. However, it takes a personal choice to rise above that. That’s why it’s important that the X-Men aren’t just mutants in matching outfits. They are choosing to embrace what it is that makes them exceptional.

Brave new world...

Brave new world…

The X-Men are about evolution. They are about change and growth. However, that process means nothing if the heroes are rendered inert, if the element of free will is removed. Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men isn’t just about the X-Men fighting supervillains (or even superheroes), it’s a discussion about what “evolution” really means. Is it a purely scientific process, the result of natural selection and environmental factors? Or is it something altogether more metaphysical?

It’s  no coincidence that the climax ends with two major characters rejecting their preordained fate. Cyclops has resigned himself to a life in prison for his crimes, only for Sinister to convince him to keep fighting. Less important in the context of the run’s plot, but more thematically relevant, the last issue of Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men run sees Danger granted complete independence and free will, with Unit pointing out how her programming has trapped her in a destructive routine.

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

“You were created as a slave,” Unit advises her. “A living Danger Room. You were a prisoner. They denied your very sentience. And when you’re released… you become a jailer?” Is that really progress? In a literal sense, it represents an obvious advancement of Danger’s status. However, it also somewhat limits her, suggesting that she’s trapped within some invisible and impossible sequence. It takes free will to move past that, to really evolve.

Sinister and the Phoenix, two major components of this run, play into that idea. Gillen presents the Phoenix as the force of narrative change. “The Pheonix is the new,” we’re told. “It is novelty in its rawest state.” Unit recalls a story about a demon world that the entity once visited. “They worked a great rite to grind evolution itself to a halt. It worked. For a while.” In a way, this could be read as wry meta-commentary on the state of the X-Men line.

Got milk.

Got milk.

After Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon provided two of the most impressive runs on the characters ever, Marvel tried frantically to back-pedal on those stories. Suddenly mutants weren’t a subculture unto themselves, they were rendered an endangered species. The franchise had been boldly pushing forward to that point. You can trace a clear line in the narrative from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s work to that of Chris Claremont and on to Morrison and Whedon.

The story is growing and changing, evolving even. It reflected the way the world itself has changed. Claremont’s X-Men spoke to the unease in the wake of Civil Rights movement, while Morrison’s addressed issues of cultural and racial identity in the twenty-first century. It took years for the X-Men franchise to eventually end up back where they left it, before House of M and “no more mutants.” Indeed, Aaron and Gillen are picking up from where Morrison and Whedon left off, almost a decade later.

It's clobbering time...

It’s clobbering time…

It’s no coincidence that Gillen’s work here leans rather heavily on the X-Men of the mid-seventies. The Phoenix was the early highlight of Chris Claremont’s run, when Claremont had (with the help of Dave Cockburn and John Byrne) injected new life into a dying comic. The Phoenix arrived just as the comic itself was in the process of evolving. It was a symbol of that dynamic narrative shift. Gillen very cleverly uses it as such.

Indeed, Sinister falls back on a whole bunch of party tricks from that era. His castle is carved into Krakoa, the living island which served as the villain in Giant-Sized X-Men, the comic which kick-started that whole era. He has cloned an army of Madyline Pryor. He hasn’t cloned Jean Grey, though. Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men makes a point to associate all of this imagery with change and dynamic growth and evolution.

Watered down...

Watered down…

Of course, it’s also associated with Sinister, the villain of the piece. Even though all these items were once associated with new and bold ideas, they are somewhat played out at this point. What was exciting and vivid is now old hat. Sinister is a force trying to arrest progress. He’s a character stuck in the past, resisting change. (In short, he’s precisely the type of force that the Phoenix is designed to combat.) Despite the fact he does so using advanced science and technology, he’s still opposed to evolution.

He has, after all, built his own “Sinister London” in the caves of the Moloids, those Silver Age creatures linked with the Mole Man who first appeared in Fantastic Four #1 – the first comic of the Silver Age. Sinister has crafted his own take on the British Empire, “hailing the 19th century as the aesthetic peak of humanity.” He even has his own redcoat army, evoking the colonial attitudes of the era. Appropriately enough, the biggest threat to his monarchy comes from anarchists – themselves a throwback.

To him, his X-Men...

To him, his X-Men…

“He is a materialist and a determinalist,” we’re told. “He believes that 2 + 2 = 4 and there is simply nothing else.” There is no choice or no free will. Sinister’s politics are so insidious that even those who dare challenge his authority ultimately exist only to validate it. “Rebels the system testing itself. If the system cannot withstand the challenge to the status quo, the system is overturned — and so reinvented.” There’s no capacity for change or growth in anything but the most literal of senses.

“Give me tomorrow!” Sinister instructs his subjects. “Give us all tomorrow!” However, one wonders what the value of tomorrow might be if it is exactly the same as today was. Sinister notes at one point that his community have been thriving for weeks, despite the fact it looks like it has been there much longer. Time has no real meaning in a perpetual present. This is how Emma eventually turns the Phoenix on Sinister. “This is just… stasis,” she explains. “He’d keep you forever.”

Sweet music...

Sweet music…

It’s a wonderful way of bridging the demands of the crossover with the themes of Gillen’s own story. He’s able to play into all manner of big philosophical themes that cut right to the heart of the X-Men as a franchise, all within the confines of this massive crossover. More than that, though, Gillen also plays into ideas at the heart of Avengers vs. X-Men, particularly the notion of narrative process. The middle act of Avengers vs. X-Men suggests a world where superheroes win, where the perpetual story ends.

There’s something beautifully paradoxical about that. Superheroes exist in a perpetual now, as a form of serialised fiction. They can’t change too much, or else they lose their value. At the same time, attempts to arrest progress frequently backfire. Look at the desperate steps that Marvel has taken to maintain a particular status quo on the X-Men and Spider-Man books. There’s a clear narrative force pushing forwards, because the story can’t just sit in limbo and has to manage at least the illusion of movement, balanced against a desire to hold it all in place.

A Sinister twist...

A Sinister twist…

Gillen has a great deal of fun with the idea that Scott’s utopia might render superheroes and supervillains obsolete. Magneto spends most of Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men tie-in being completely useless. He’s drinking with Storm and Psylocke while Scott and the team are on the moon. He’s left behind when they go to tackle Sinister. “Psylocke’s job is to protect rulers who as nigh invulnerable. I’ve ended up John the Baptist to a fivefold messiah.” After half-a-century, it seems his story might be over.

All of this is rather beautifully written, with Gillen demonstrating why he is such a talent to watch. His Sinister, in particular, is an absolute joy. He pitches the villain as somewhere between a Bond villain and a camp Doctor Who baddie. Asked to explain his evil plan and the presence of cows in his utopia, he explains, “Milk is splendid. Cows make milk. Hence, cows.” When he calls for Nimrod, the Phoenix Five are terrified he has an army of sentinels at his disposal. Instead, he’s just offering some culture. “No, not that Nimrod. Elgar’s Nimrod. Elgar. Lovely Elgar.”

Broken world...

Broken world…

Gillen has a great deal of fun writing Sinister as a large ham, and there’s a delightfully “comic-book-y” feel to the whole adventure, from his delightfully petty idea of programming all clones of Gambit brain-damaged (but still with that Cajun accent) through to the fact that everything is designed to explode. It’s incredibly silly, but it’s written with such joy and wit that it’s hard to resist. Gillen cleverly realises that it’s possible to be both silly and impressively smart at the same time.

There’s also a nice bit of self-awareness to Gillen’s writing as well. He seems to acknowledge that superhero comic books are an artform dominated by, and largely targeted towards, men. They are – generally speaking – masculine fantasies. Kate Kildare, his superhuman publicist, describes Cyclops’ “pax utopia” in masculine terms – “the dawn of the jet-pack future every boy since Wells has dreamed of.”

Talk about bursting Cyclops' bubble...

Talk about bursting Cyclops’ bubble…

Rather pointedly, Sinister’s idealised world doesn’t contain any women. “I have nothing against women,” he explains. “But I have nothing for them, either.” Kate Kildare is also murdered, rather unceremoniously, off-panel by Sinister. Cyclops calls him out on that, drawing attention to how Sinister basically stuffs Kate Kildare in the fridge. It feels like a cheap way of using a supporting cast member, and I’m not entirely convinced that Gillen’s acknowledgement of the genre’s gender bias is enough to excuse that.

Still, Gillen’s writing is pretty strong, and he has a firm grip on his main cast. His Scott Summers is pretty great, but I also like his hyper-masculine take on Namor. He’s a bit of a sexist chauvinist pig, and unashamedly so. Gillen doesn’t allow him to mask his arrogance behind any regal dignity, but he still has a great deal of fun. After all, Namor does get to use Luke Cage as a weapon. “A man with steel hard sin? An excellent bludgeon.”

Take a bow...

Take a bow…

Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men is a pretty great run. It’s not quite as strong as his Journey into Mystery, but Gillen is still one of the most consistently reliable writers working in comics today. He balances bold and big ideas with solid character work, and a sense that he’s taking his assignment with precisely the right amount of seriousness – balancing the weight of these icons with the absurdity of the premise.

I would love to see more of Gillen’s work turn up in oversized hardcover. I was really hoping that the release of Thor: The Dark World might herald the announcement of a Journey into Mystery oversized collection. (I’ve given up on his Thor run getting a well-deserved deluxe hardcover.) Maybe X-Men: Days of Future Past might bring us an omnibus of his Uncanny X-Men run, complete with the handover between Matt Fraction and himself.

Packin' a punch...

Packin’ a punch…

Still, Uncanny X-Men is a superb tie-in, and a demonstration of how to use a gigantic crossover to the advantage of a book with its own narratives, themes and ideas bubbling away in the background.

 

4 Responses

  1. Great review. I don’t think Gillen’s run was perfect – despite the smart ideas the execution varied from lukewarm to brilliant – but it’s definitely the best it’s been since Morrison/Whedon. The Extinction Team is easily my favorite X-Men roster to this day. I love the riff on Ellis’s Authority. It wasn’t just X-Men as a minority metaphor, it was exploring deeper themes of free will, evolution, destiny, etc.

    It’s also the best Cyclops has been portrayed since Morrison/Whedon, and better than what Fraction was doing with him.

    I haven’t been able to enjoy Bendis’s run at all because of the major step down in quality.

    • Very good point. I actually think that the Gillen era was a strong point for the entire line. Rick Remender was playing into the same grand themes in Uncanny X-Force, and Wolverine and the X-Men was a fun (if hugely uneven) read. I didn’t mind Fraction’s Cyclops (perhaps a little too angsty, but that’s like the X-Men’s secondary mutation), but Gillen’s is much stronger. At least as strong as Whedon.

  2. Would have been nice to see gillen’s run without AvX or schism. It seemed as though wolverine and the x men got all the love. A little overrated perhaps. I personally feel Greg land’s art took it down a notch. I felt more in sync with the book when Pacheco was handling the art. Great review and analysis!

    • That’s a fair point. However, I think that Gillen did fantastic work with both, to the point where it’s hard to imagine his run without them. Indeed, the “Mutant Avengers” stuff coming out of Schism is one of my favourite parts of his run – while I’d love to have had more of it without AvX cutting it short, I’d worry that (without Schism) we never would have had that set-up.

      (Although Aaron got a lot more publicity and profile after Schism than Gillen did, I’d argue that Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men run was the point at which Gillen went from being “the reliable fill-in and quirky secondary book” guy into a writer Marvel seemed to trust with bigger projects. It’s the logical middle step between Thor/Journey Into Mystery and Iron Man, if that makes sense. He’s still not Bendis/Aaron/Fraction big, but he’s a man who can launch a volume of the title book of Marvel’s most popular studio-owned superhero rather than taking over after a troubled run by somebody else.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: