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Kieron Gillen’s Run on Uncanny X-Men – Fear Itself (Review/Retrospective)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

Kieron Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men run stands as one of the most underrated gems at Marvel over the past decade or so. As with his work on Thor, Gillen’s work on the title is sandwiched between two more high-profile writers. On Thor, Gillen took over from J. Michael Straczynski and handed over to Matt Fraction, while he worked on Uncanny X-Men between the runs of Matt Fraction and Brian Michael Bendis. It’s easy to see how his work on the book might slip under the radar.

Even the run itself feels somewhat disjointed. It isn’t as simple as tracing the first issue he wrote to the last issue he wrote. Gillen was the last writer to work on the first volume of Uncanny X-Men, and the launch of the comic’s second volume bisected his run. He finished up on the second volume of Uncanny X-Men in the midst of the gigantic Avengers vs. X-Men crossover, with Avengers vs. X-Men: Consequences serving as something of a coda to his work on the merry mutants.

All fired up...

All fired up…

Looking at Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men run from outside, it looks like a line trying to connect various events and moments. It almost reads like a checklist of problems that a writer working on a mainstream superhero comic could face from the publisher. However, one of Gillen’s main strengths is his adaptability. Gillen has a unique ability to bend his story to fit whatever is required from the book in question.

He is a flexible writer, more than able to respond to the demands of the publisher – and even incorporate them into his stories. As a case in point, the Uncanny X-Men tie-in to Fear Itself really should be a disjointed mess. Fear Itself was a sprawling event that featured all sorts of tie-ins and spin-offs and crossovers, intersecting with various other stories in all sorts of strange ways. It’s to the credit of Gillen that the whole four-issue tie-in fits perfectly with his work on Uncanny X-Men.

Punching above his weight...

Punching above his weight…

To be fair, that’s something that is often overlooked when talking about Fear Itself. The event itself may have been relatively straightforward and simplistic; the tie-ins may have been sprawling and unnecessary. However, the stronger writers at Marvel all used the story as a springboard to stories that they wanted to tell. It allowed Ed Brubaker to launch both a new Captain America series starring Steve Rogers and The Winter Soldier starring Bucky. It allowed Matt Fraction to move his story in The Mighty Thor along. It allowed Kieron Gillen a chance to launch Journey Into Mystery.

While Fear Itself may have felt like an unscheduled introduction to a lot of the Marvel Universe, the best comics often used it as a catalyst for change and development. Unsurprisingly, Kieron Gillen does something very similar with the tie-in issues of Uncanny X-Men. On the surface, the Uncanny X-Men issue must be the most superficial of tie-ins. After all, the damage and destruction of Fear Itself is primarily focused on Washington and New York. So a story about the mutants in San Francisco dealing with “the Worthy” must be superfluous, right?

Shocking...

Shocking…

Quite the contrary. The relocation of the X-Men to the west coast seems to have been something of a boon to the franchise – allowing the X-Men to occupy a narrative space that is worlds apart from that inhabited by the Avengers or other Marvel heroes. As such, Gillen is fry to write one minor side of this epic event without having to worry about crossovers or synchronised sequences.

The conflict between “the Great Juggernaut” is exclusive to Uncanny X-Men, and quite separate from any of the other skirmishes unfolding contemporaneously. These four issues can be read as either part of the sprawling Fear Itself event or as part of Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men run. The story is no less comprehensible approach from one side or the other. That’s a rare skill in moder comic books, and something for which Gillen deserves a great deal of praise.

Bridging two worlds...

Bridging two worlds…

Gillen uses the events of Fear Itself as a catalyst to underscore several of the recurring themes of his Uncanny X-Men run, and as an excuse to move certain character arcs forward. Most obviously, there’s the transformation of Colossus into the new Juggernaut, but also all manner of more subtle character threads. There’s some light foreshadowing of Hope’s role in Avengers vs. X-Men and the stress of the event seems to serve as something that brings Emma Frost and Namor together, behind the back of Scott Summers.

These are all developments that fit quite clearly within Gillen’s plan for Uncanny X-Men. They don’t appear to have been dictated by the event, but are instead Gillen taking advantage of the opportunity of the event to move his story ideas forward. Even in the midst of all of these world-ending problems, it’s clear that the comic is focused on the characters and dynamics at the heart of Uncanny X-Men. Scott Summers’ relationship with San Francisco, Piotr’s relationship with his sister, Kitty’s relationship to Piotr, Emma’s relationship to Namor.

Fight for your right...

Fight for your right…

At the heart of Gillen’s tie-in to Fear Itself is the question of identity – which is arguably a main recurring theme of the event itself, with both Captain America and Thor changing identity in the aftermath of Fear Itself. What are various characters capable of? How far would they go, if they were pushed? Can Emma commit to monogamous relationship with Scott? Can Piotr accept that the sister he loved is gone? Would Scott sacrifice an entire city of innocent people in order to save mutantkind?

Gillen very cleverly brings the idea back to the antagonist of the tie-in. The Juggernaut is a character best known for the boast that nothing can stop him. Gillen takes that simple (and effective) statement of character and twists it slightly. This isn’t a story about an external force – it’s a question about whether various characters can stop themselves. “He cannot stop me,” Colossus reflects as he grapples with the Juggernaut, empowered by the demon Cyttorak. “How could he? I can’t even stop myself.”

He's walking on air...

He’s walking on air…

These questions are scattered throughout the tie-in, as characters wonder whether or not they can stop – and whether or not they could stop and still be themselves. When Emma offers Namor the assistance of the X-Men to secure Atlantis, he responds, “The day I come begging to the X-Men is the day I cease to be Namor.” Kitty and Piotr argue about Illyana. “I can’t abandon her,” Piotr insists. “I know!” Kitty replies. “You wouldn’t be you if you did.”

The comic reflects on the question of how actions define identity. Colossus is unable to give up on his sister because that is who he is. However, Kitty argues that Illyana cannot be herself, because she never would have made those choices. “But how can you be so sure she’s your sister?” Kitty demands. “I loved her too, but your sister would never have done what she did.” There’s something quite pessimistic about this, the idea that we cannot be but what we are. “Don’t destroy the man I love,” Kitty begs, even though the traits that made Piotr the man she loved are what led him to make that choice to become the avatar of Cyttarok.

Bringing it down to Earth...

Bringing it down to Earth…

As appealing as it might be to imagine that character is as constant and immutable (and unstoppable) as the Juggernaut, it’s a fantasy. Situations and decisions put people under pressure, forcing them to make decisions that seem to go against their character – or, at least, what others perceive as their character. There’s a deep and underlying philosophical question about whether these stresses really change character or simply reveal it. Whatever the answer, they do change the way that a person is perceived – both by those around them and, occasionally, by the person themselves.

Gillen seems to suggest that these pressures simply reveal personality – that what people are capable of in their darkest and most desperate moments reflects who they really are rather than changing a pre-existing personality. The herald of “the Great Juggernaut” takes offence to Emma Frost’s attempt to mind-control civilians to safety. “If you remove anyone’s free will, it negates their very selves!” he warns her. “They may as well be dead!”

Face-to-face...

Face-to-face…

It is worth noting that the opening page establishes that the herald himself is not just a channel for some other-worldly hatred and anger. He is introduced dismissively referring to “the gene freaks from San Francisco”, suggesting that his own prejudice and hatred has merely been amplified by this experience. It would appear that the situation doesn’t make that sort of attitude magically appear out of nowhere, it simply brings those feeling bubbling to the surface.

Even our heroes are not immune. Cyclops attempts to reassure the Mayor of San Francisco that the mutants mean well. “I’m not Magneto,” he promises. “Even Magneto isn’t Magneto.” He even brings her coffee for their breakfast briefing. At the same time, Gillen hints at the idea that Scott Summers might be willing to abandon an entire city of innocent people if the situation made it pragmatic.

The demons you know...

The demons you know…

While never explicitly confirmed, it seems like Cyclops is weighing his options. When the city of San Francisco considers handing the mutants offer to the Juggernaut, Cyclops responds by immediately suspending his efforts to save the city. He withdraws his X-Men from the front lines and meets the Juggernaut on the bridge into town. “So — you abandon San Francisco?” the herald asks him. “It would make sense, wouldn’t it?” Cyclops responds.

Luckily, fate intervenes. One of Cyclops’ earlier plans comes to fruition at just the right moment, allowing the X-Men an easy opportunity to defeat Juggernaut and save the city. In fact, given that Colossus is empowered by an avatar of destruction, it seems unlikely that Cyclops could stop him even if wanted to. The comic never confirms one way of the other whether Cyclops would abandon San Francisco, but it does hint pretty heavily at the possibility.

The boy with the dragon tattoo...

The boy with the dragon tattoo…

The fact that the comic ends with Cyclops threatening to murder the Mayor of San Francisco for a decision that she merely considered is not reassuring. The fact that Cyclops informs her that he was never tempted by the Juggernaut’s offer is hardly compelling. Gillen’s version of Cyclops is a deeply fascinating character – a complex and multi-faceted man with the weight of the world pressing down around his shoulders. While decidedly morally ambiguous, he isn’t quite the borderline religious zealot as portrayed in the work of other writers. His actions and motivations are chilling and unsettling, but also comprehensible.

The Fear Itself tie-in issues are illustrated by Gillen’s frequent collaborator Greg Land. Land works very quickly and efficiently – he doesn’t ten to miss deadlines and he rarely needs fill-in artists. His art is clear and photo-realistic, even it’s not necessarily kinetic and organic – it does look quite staged and posed, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to superhero comics. I can see why the company is so fond of Land, and why he works so prolifically.

Brid of prey...

Bird of prey…

However, there is something quite unsettling about the way that Land draws female characters, heavily sexualising them and drawing them like glamour models. This approach works for characters like Emma Frost, but it feels a little strange when it’s applied to every female character in the script. It feels weird that the Mayor of San Francisco reacts to being transported into Emma Frost’s brain with a suggestive and sexualised pose. It’s strange that Land can draw quite a few different types of male characters, but seems to have difficulty with different female body types.

Still, that problem aside, the Fear Itself tie-in is a spectacular demonstration of what makes Kieron Gillen’s X-Men work so fascinating and so enduring. The writer is one of the best working in the industry today, and his work on these characters ranks among the best of the last decade or so.

3 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Jessie Spencer's Blogspot.

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