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Ed Brubaker’s Run on Uncanny X-Men – Divided We Stand (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.

Divided We Stand actually feels like the start of something interesting for Ed Brubaker’s run on Uncanny X-Men. It’s a story arc that heralds a bold new direction for Marvel’s merry mutants in the wake of Messiah Complex, taking the team out of their comfort zone and suggesting that Uncanny X-Men will be moving a little outside its comfort zone and trying something different. It’s a story arc that sees the team reflecting on the past and considering the future.

So, naturally, it is Ed Brubaker’s last solo arc on Uncanny X-Men.

A bad trip?

A bad trip?

Ed Brubaker’s Uncanny X-Men is a mess. It is hard to know who is to blame for the problems with the run. Brubaker inherited a pretty terrible status quo in the wake of House of M, which was hardly conducive to the stories he wanted to tell. Spinning out of his Deadly Genesis miniseries, it seemed like his Uncanny X-Men was constantly bouncing between threads flowing out of that story and the demands of the mutant status quo that had been imposed by editorial.

So Brubaker’s run opened with the twelve-issue space opera The Rise and Fall of Shi’ar Empire, a story that took his characters as far away from Earth and the concerns of House of M as possible. Then he bounced back to Earth for the five-part story The Extremists, a story which suffered because it felt like a middle chapter from a longer story – touching on themes and ideas better developed over the longer term. Then Brubaker got drawn in Messiah Complex, the massive crossover event.

An Omega-level threat?

An Omega-level threat?

As such, it seems like Divided We Stand is really the first chance that Brubaker has had to set his own course with the book, allotted some breathing room and a great deal of freedom. It feels like Divided We Stand is allowing Brubaker to confront the sorts of things that had been bubbling away in his work on the X-Men since Deadly Genesis. Everything between Deadly Genesis and Divided We Stand feels like it was some kind of holding pattern for the book.

With the Xavier Mansion completely destroyed and Charles Xavier missing, Brubaker is free to have the team cut loose from their home in Westchester New York, free to focus on Scott Summers as the team leader. He can move the team away from the over-crowded surroundings of New York – where it seems you can’t throw a frisbee without hitting a superhero – and take them to the West Coast.

Celestial object...

Celestial object…

“I told you, I’m not second-guessing… I’m looking ahead,” Scott assures Emma. He ponders, “What exactly are the X-Men without Professor Xavier? What purpose do we serve?” These are big existential question for Uncanny X-Men. How far can you move the book while still keeping it feeling like an X-Men comic? Given that Chris Claremont broken up the team for a year or so in the early nineties, you can stretch it pretty far.

San Francisco is a great home for the X-Men. After all, the X-Men have long been associated with the civil rights movement. A city with a long (and proud) history of supporting equality and liberation, San Francisco feels like the perfect place for the X-Men to settle down. Indeed, the X-Men serve as a stand-in for many different minorities, but moving them to San Francisco focuses on the idea that the X-Men are effective stand-ins for the LGBT community.

Cyclops walks the dinosaur...

Cyclops walks the dinosaur…

After all, the campaign for equality, same sex marriage and trans rights have been compared to the sixties civil rights movement. “Have you tried not being a mutant?” might be the defining piece of dialogue in the entire X-Men franchise for the twenty-first century, so eloquently and effectively capturing the similarities that exist between the fictional prejudice experienced by mutants and the all-too-real prejudice experienced by members of the LGBT community.

Moving the X-Men to San Francisco is a brilliant move. Or, at least, it would have been a brilliant move before Marvel decided to commit to House of M. The problem with the move to San Francisco is that it was always going to be overshadowed by the constant threat of extinction that resulted from the decision to de-power all but two-hundred-odd mutant characters. (It’s a decision that ranks with One More Day as the best example of Marvel editorial trying to swat a flea with a sledgehammer.)

Mind over matter...

Mind over matter…

The fact that the San Francisco status quo only lasted a year before things were changed up again during the Utopia crossover indicates just what a mess the whole X-Men line had become. Moving the X-Men to San Francisco underscored the idea of mutants-as-LGBT, but moving the X-Men to their own fortified nation state quickly suggest mutants-as-Israel. Both are fascinating concepts, and could have sustained years of plots, but the speed at which Uncanny X-Men would transition between them is unsettling.

Following the departure of Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon, Uncanny X-Men seemed to suffer from a lack of internal consistency – there’s no real chance for the comic to settle itself and to find its feet. While Brian Michael Bendis had been given carte blanche to reinvent the whole Avengers franchise from the ground up, it felt like Uncanny X-Men was constant shifting direction or dancing to an editorial drumbeat.

Strange bed fellows...

Strange bed fellows…

Divided We Stand really should have been Ed Brubaker’s first arc on Uncanny X-Men, not his last solo story. Published as the comic approached its five hundredth issue, the story arc has an endearing nostalgia to it, as if reflecting on where these characters have been and where they might be going. The comic makes room for Scott and Emma’s romantic vacation in the Savage Land, or Wolverine drinking his way across Russia, indulging in storytelling and revelry, reflecting on what has changed and what has been lost.

Indeed, Divided We Stand feels like a shrewd reflection on the sort of sixties idealism that spawned the X-Men. It might not be as explicit as Brian Michael Bendis’ run on All-New X-Men, but there’s a definite sense of nostalgia to the story. This is most apparent in the way that Lady Mastermind affects San Francisco, transporting the city and its residents back to the Summer of Love. As Angel observes the “entire neighbourhood seems to be living in the 60’s again.”

Collosus is just Russian in there...

Collosus is just Russian in there…

Given all the problems that have confronted the X-Men, it would be tempting to embrace that fantasy – to journey back to what appears to be a simpler time. Eli, the old hippy fuelling Lady Mastermind’s fantasies, observes, “Everything would be like it was, like it always should have been…” There’s a tendency to get lost in the idealised past, to focus on how things used to be and to refuse to move past that. It’s particularly tempting with a book like Uncanny X-Men, where there is this incredibly iconic long run from one writer who defined what the book should be. Claremont casts a long shadow.

That sense of nostalgia permeates Divided We Stand in other ways. Cyclops and Emma take a holiday in a part of the world forgotten by time itself. Wolverine, Nightcrawler and Colossus venture back to Colossus’ home. Drinking together, remembering old times together, Wolverine even confesses that he misses the Blob. “I’m tired of skinny little weasely bad guys,” he laments, the type of regret that only an X-Men could have.

Going out with a bamf...

Going out with a bamf…

Appropriately enough, Wolverine, Nightcrawler and Colossus find themselves in trouble in Russia – at the mercy of the Red Room, the old Soviet mutant weapon programme. Facing with the loss of their mutant assets, the Red Room seeks to rebuild its old strength – unable to cope with changing realities. As the closing caption of one of the issues observes, “I swear, you’d think it was the Cold War again.”

Divided We Stand also focuses on Scott Summers, the character who must be at the centre of any long-form Uncanny X-Men narrative in the twenty-first century. A leader who has found himself filling a gap left by his disgraced idol and struggling to secure the future of a species facing extinction, Scott Summers is an absolutely fascinating character. The opening chapter of Divided We Stand focuses on Scott’s role leading the X-Men – and mutant kind – into a bold new world.

Steel yourself...

Steel yourself…

It makes sense that Brubaker should be able to write a convincing version of Cyclops. After all, Cyclops is a pretty effective mirror of Captain America, and Brubaker was in the middle of a highly-praised run on that title. Like Steve Rogers, Scott Summers was a young man who found himself a soldier serving on the front lines of a war. Like Steve Rogers, Scott Summers found himself standard-bearer for an entire community. Like Steve Rogers, Scott Summers must balance the demands of being a military leader with the expectations of a superhero.

Brubaker’s Uncanny X-Men really suffers from a lack of character focus. Given the events of Deadly Genesis, Professor Xavier and Scott Summers would have seemed like obvious choices for the book to follow. Unfortunately, Professor Xavier was taken off the board by the end of Messiah Complex, and Divided We Stand is really the first opportunity that Ed Brubaker has taken to write Cyclops. It feels like too little too late.

The death of a dream...

The death of a dream…

Of course, Divided We Stand is solid work. Brubaker works well with this cast of X-Men and hits on some pretty nice themes as Uncanny X-Men builds towards its five hundredth issue. If The Extremists could be imagined as the middle chapter of a stronger run, Divided We Stand reads like it is the start of something bolder and more ambitious – and more confident – than the rest of Ed Brubaker’s Uncanny X-Men run. Unfortunately, it isn’t the beginning of some bold new chapter. It’s the end of what should have been a more ambitious run. On

Ed Brubaker would work with Matt Fraction on a few more issues of Uncanny X-Men before departing. The duo had worked phenomenally well together on The Immortal Iron Fist, and both had some nice ideas for where to take the franchise. Fraction would benefit from building off what Brubaker had already laid down, but he still faced the same sort of problems. It wouldn’t be until Kieron Gillen took over that Uncanny X-Men would get its groove well and truly back.

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

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