Ed Brubaker’s run on “Uncanny X-Men” has been disappointing thus far. Easily the weakest of his Marvel work, his “Uncanny X-Men” has failed to develop any significant characterization, and even when the ideas and plotting have been ambitious, they have never, ultimately, amounted to much.
But issue #500 feels like a fresh start.
If you missed Brubaker’s previous issues, it doesn’t seem to matter much. With “Uncanny X-Men” #500, we aren’t just getting an anniversary issue, we’re getting a new direction and a new sensibility. It’s very much like the old Chris Claremont direction, of course, because that’s the core of this franchise, but Brubaker and new collaborator Matt Fraction revitalize the team in this issue. They establish a new status quo — the X-Men in San Francisco, inviting all of the remaining mutants to come and join them — and they take the classic anti-mutant sentiment and spin it in a postmodern direction.
In this story, Brubaker and Fraction don’t give us angry mobs or racist politicians. Instead, we get conceptual artist Guy DeMonde who installs a “Celebration of Mutant Kitsch” exhibit in downtown San Francisco, complete with decommissioned Sentinel robots. One of the great panels from issue #500 shows the reaction of various X-Men to the news of the exhibit. Angel is enraged by the artist’s irresponsible use of “twenty-foot-tall death machines,” the Beast is offended, saying, “Genocidal robots no more artful than an A-bomb.” But Emma Frost’s reaction? She’s perhaps the most angry, but her anger is based on aesthetic grounds: “Banal, predictable ‘shock schlock,'” she says, “that was passe in New York ten years ago.” I’ve never seen a more perfect encapsulation of what makes Emma different from the rest of the team. It’s great.
This issue also helps clarify what was missing from Brubaker’s previous issues (other than Fraction, who is a more-than-welcome-addition to the series): a grand threat. When Magneto appears, blending in, at first, with the costumed visitors to the “Mutant Kitsch,” he not only recalls the best of the classic X-Men stories, but his threatening presence reminds us of how long this series has run without a great villain. And the lack of such a strong antagonist has softened the team over the past couple of years, leading them on adventures into space, and in the sewers, and around the world, like a bunch of directionless little rodents. The X-Men have been scurrying around the borders of the Marvel Universe for too long, this issue seems to say, and now that Magneto has returned, they have something to stand and fight against besides some kind of vague mutant loathing.
This issue ends with a gang of violent racists, hitting the streets with bats and hammers with masks and a group name that will make old X-Men fans smile. Or shudder.
I haven’t discussed the art at all, but it’s part Greg Land and part Terry Dodson and it’s exactly what you’d expect. Land’s Photoshopping leads to a few distracting moments, like on page four, when Emma Frost’s hand is pasted on at an impossibly awkward angle, but his Magneto-and-the-Sentinels vs. the X-Men scenes are astounding. And when Dodson’s work appears, although significantly different in appearance than Land’s, it keeps the narrative momentum racing along.
“Uncanny X-Men” may yet devolve into too much Claremont pastiche, but Brubaker and Fraction seem to have a handle on how to take legacy of the past and push it forward with a bit of irony and a lot of enthusiasm. If you dropped this title months ago, of if you haven’t looked at in years, issue #500 is the perfect place to start reading.
I know I’m excited about where this comic is headed.