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Ed Brubaker’s Run on Uncanny X-Men – The Extremists (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.

One of the things that is most striking about Ed Brubaker’s work on Uncanny X-Men is just how disjointed the whole thing is. Announcing his arrival on the franchise with the Deadly Genesis miniseries, it seemed like Brubaker was really planning on shaking things up. Like Brian Michael Bendis had done for The Avengers with Avengers Disassembled, Brubaker’s Deadly Genesis had attacked some of the foundations of the X-Men franchise.

Brubaker’s first arc on Uncanny X-Men did follow up on some of the threads from Deadly Genesis, but not the obvious ones. The Rise and Fall of the Shiar Empire was a twelve-issue story featuring a bunch of X-Men launching themselves into space to recover Gabriel Summers and become embroiled in a galactic power struggle. It was very far from what fans had come to expect from the franchise, and worlds apart from the tone of Deadly Genesis or House of M. It felt strangely disconnected from a book that should have been driving the franchise.

The writing's on the wall...

The writing’s on the wall…

His second story arc on the title, The Extremists comes towards the start of Brubaker’s second year on Uncanny X-Men, and it still feels decidedly uncertain. A five-issue story arc about terrorism and religion, The Extremists is incredibly engaged with contemporary American politics. It feels like an entirely different story from The Rise and Fall of the Shiar Empire, as if Brubaker has suddenly decided to alter the direction of his run.

The Extremists is a story that feels like an orphaned part of an X-Men epic that never quite developed, a small segment of a whole that doesn’t actually exist. It’s easy to imagine The Extremists as part of an untold post-9/11 Uncanny X-Men saga that may have spun off from Deadly Genesis and brought the comic into the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, with Brubaker’s run being pulled in multiple directions around it, it can’t help but feel a little hollow.

Cooking up a storm...

Cooking up a storm…

Much like Deadly Genesis before it, The Extremists is very firmly entrenched in post-9/11 realities. While Xavier’s betray and heavy military scrutiny rooted Deadly Genesis in twenty-first century paranoia, The Extremists wades into the issue of religious extremism and terrorism. Brubaker couches the comic in language and terminology that evokes the War on Terror and the surrounding debates about moral authority and religious beliefs.

Clad in robes and speaking of “prophecy”, Masque is explicitly coded as a religious leader teaching “the words a’ the prophet” to a bunch of angry and disaffected outsiders. Preaching “the scripture” to a people “sufferin’ under America’s rules”, Masque’s terrorism is portrayed as a form of religious activism – juxtaposed against a more peaceful form of religious expression. (“Go kneel and light candles and wait,” he orders a follower having doubts about their methods.) Masques’ final target is a church.

Going to take the face off...

Going to take the face off…

Striking against transport in New York City and delivering chilling threats over video tape, Brubaker is very consciously framing The Extremists in the context of the War on Terror. As such, The Extremists very clearly an attempt to engage with an issue that was at the front of the American popular consciousness at the time. Historically, Uncanny X-Men is a book that has thrived on metaphor and social conscience, so it makes sense to try and tell this sort of story inside the pages of the comic.

Of course, this is a pretty big issue to engage with – and Brubaker was writing less than a decade after the collapse of the World Trade Centre. While many of Marvel’s on-going title engaged with the War on Terror, they tended to work better in abstract. Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers is a meditation on authority and power and responsibility in a changing world, but one that engages with contemporary American concerns metaphorically. The Extremists occasionally feels a bit too heavy-handed and clumsy.

The once and future king...

The once and future king…

While Brubaker would offer some succinct and insightful commentary on contemporary America in the pages of Captain AmericaThe Extremists doesn’t work quite as well as it might. Perhaps it’s the way that The Extremists is rather blunt in its comparisons. The Morlocks are very clearly meant to evoke Islamic extremism, even if their religious practise and beliefs are decidedly Christian. (Right down to Masque’s robes and his choice of targets.)

A group that has existed since Chris Claremont wrote Uncanny X-Men, the Morlocks have long been coded as racially distinct. With their deformities and powers, they are mutants that cannot “pass” as regular people in the same way that Scott Summers or Jean Grey might. Adding the element of religious belief on top – particularly with emphasis on the word “prophet” – feels like it’s a little too obvious.

They haven't a prayer...

They haven’t a prayer…

As does the inevitable moral at the end of the story about how Masque is twisting the words of the prophet to suit his own ends. As with Islamic extremism (and the Christian right-wing), there’s a lot of distortion to the interpretation of scripture. “They have different ideas about what is written,” Delphi remarks of Masque. Having read the prophecies type by Qwerty, Storm insists, “It was a book of peace.” Skids goes further, accusing Masque, “You’re interpreting the words of the prophet to fit your desire for revenge!”

All of these are important points to make in any discussion about the connection between Islam and the terrorism practised by so-called adherents. However, the emphasis that Brubaker puts on these elements means that The Extemists feels almost like an after-school special. The fact that Brubaker feels the need to point all this out for the audience, and to repeat it so often, feels almost patronising – as if he doesn’t trust the idea to register with the audience the first few times that he states it.

The light at the end of the tunnel...

The light at the end of the tunnel…

There are some good ideas here. These are discussions that need to be had. These are big issues affecting the modern world, and using Uncanny X-Men to engage with these ideas is fitting – after all, the book has always had a lot to say about issues of race and cultural identity in America. The problem is that it all feels rather clumsy. There’s no wider context for The Extremists. These ideas are introduced as needed, and dealt with in the space available.

If The Extremists were integrated into a larger run – if the story’s big ideas weren’t confined to these five issues – it might be less of a problem. Brubaker might have had time to develop the ideas organically and spread the discussion a little more evenly over his run. If this were building off earlier issues of Brubaker’s Uncanny X-Men metaphorically engaging with the War on Terror and setting up the ideas in play here, perhaps The Extremists would not feel the need to offer so much exposition so bluntly.

Grave danger...

Grave danger…

There’s a sense that Brubaker’s Uncanny X-Men run is a little disjointed – it’s being pulled in many directions all at once. It’s very hard to fashion Deadly Genesis, The Rise and Fall of the Shiar Empire, The Extremists, Messiah Complex and Divided We Stand into one cohesive narrative. It’s hard to sum up Brubaker’s Uncanny X-Men run in the same way you might with Grant Morrison’s New X-Men or Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men.

Indeed, the Magneto subplot that plays out in the background of The Extremists feels like it might hold promise for the future, that it might tease out some long-form arc that will play out over the rest of the year. Instead, it’s shoved aside in favour of a gigantic X-Men crossover. By the time Messiah Complex is finished, Brubaker is on the final stretch of his run. Magneto’s eventual return to the fold in Manifest Destiny feels more like a whimper than a bang, and certainly not the sort of cataclysmic event foreshadowed here.

Facing up to reality...

Facing up to reality…

To be fair, Brubaker seems to be trying to write a good Uncanny X-Men story. As with Deadly Genesis and The Rise and Fall of the Shiar Empire, he is building off aspects of Chris Claremont’s X-Men mythology that tend to be overlooked. As great as it is to pit the merry mutants against the government and prejudice and other mutants, Claremont built an entire world that his successors could explore. So Brubaker plays with the gaps in that first All-New X-Men story for Deadly Genesis, explores the Shiar Empire in The Rise and Fall of the Shiar Empire, and looks at the world through the eyes of the Morlocks in The Extremists.

Indeed, The Extremists is arguably a variant on the classic X-Men “bad future” story that Chris Claremont and John Byrne codified with Days of Future Past. It’s the story about a possible terrible future that our heroes must strive to avoid – albeit without any actual glimpse of what that future might entail. Reflecting on the prophecies of Qwerty, Storm reflects, “Whoever wrote these ramblings… however insane they appear… I believe they were predicting the future. And from what fragments exist here, it’s not a future I want to see come to pass…”

Mad prophet...

Mad prophet…

Despite all this contemporary resonance and engagement with modern issues, Charles Xavier remains Ed Brubaker’s most fascinating character. In The Extremists, Xavier is completely separate from the main storyline, which feels like something of a mistake. His subplot plays out in the background, as he tries to find Magneto and deals with his own re-awakened telepathy. Given that Xavier’s betrayal was at the heart of Deadly Genesis, it feels like Brubaker’s Uncanny X-Men should flow from that: either following the X-Men in the wake of Xavier’s departure, or Xavier’s attempts at redemption.

Oddly enough, reading The Extremists, it’s not clear that Brubaker really has an arc thought out for Charles Xavier. This isn’t going to be about redeeming the arrogant and reckless man who turned a bunch of idealistic children into his private militia. While this isn’t necessary by any means, it seems a little weird in the context of Brubaker’s Uncanny X-Men run. Brubaker has effectively undermined the character of Charles Xavier and pushed him to the centre of his narrative. The logical character arc would be one of redemption. It would arguably make a solid backbone to Brubaker’s extended run.

All the world is a graveyard...

All the world is a graveyard…

Instead, Charles Xavier hasn’t changed too much. Deadly Genesis has not humbled him. Living as a mere human and having his secrets exposed to the world have not taught him humility. As soon as he gets his powers back, Charles begins abusing them. Excitedly reporting to Cerebro to hunt for Magneto, he tells Nightcrawler that he picked up a straw though from Valerie Cooper that clued him into Magneto’s survival.

“Valerie Cooper let this thought out around you?” Nightcrawler asks. “No,” Xavier responds. “She thought Eric’s name, for just a split second… I had to dig for the rest.” Later on, he explains his plan to hunt for Magneto the “old-fashioned way”, telling Nightcrawler, “I secretly probe the minds of everyone in the general vicinity.” At the end of The Extremists, he forces Masque to fix the faces from the early terrorist attack. Implying that the decision was less than consensual, Xavier remarks, “That took a bit more than nudging, but he’ll do it.”

A ticking time bomb...

A ticking time bomb…

Brubaker presents Xavier as a character who has stubbornly refused to learn the lessons of the past. He has not taken anything on board from his recent experiences. To be fair, this is a perfectly logical approach to the character. Xavier’s response to the loss of one team of volunteer mutant fights was to send another in their place. (And, according to Deadly Genesis, yet another.) Xavier has not changed at all in decades of publication, and who has never quite admitted his mistakes and attempted to adjust his conduct.

Still, while it’s a perfectly rational (and understandable) character choice for Brubaker, it is not really the most satisfying storytelling decision. Brubaker’s Uncanny X-Men run lacks a strong central character from start to finish, and so lacks a strong central character arc. Xavier almost occupies the position of central character by default, but the lack of a strong character arc – or even any real exploration beyond what we learned in Deadly Genesis – undermines that.

Underground movement...

Underground movement…

Ed Brubaker’s Uncanny X-Men run feels like a wasted opportunity, and perhaps The Extremists is the most obvious example of that. It’s a solid enough premise that feels somewhat half-baked, full of ideas that might fit more easily in the context of a longer run, but which come across as heavy-handed when compressed to fit within the space afforded.

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

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