It can be no easy task for a writer to have to “end” a long-running series, especially when a new issue #1 relaunch is already scheduled. Even by Marvel’s standards, this “ending” is hard to swallow, presenting something of a challenge. How do you wrap something up when everyone reading knows it’s continuing as normal in all but number?
Wisely, Gillen uses the opportunity to reflect on the past while setting up the future, rather than pretending that this is the absolute end. Although the themes of the story are backwards-looking, starting (rather ingeniously) with a remix of “Uncanny X-Men”‘s first ever page and charting the course of the surviving class-members, the narrative frame is quite openly a lead-in to the relaunch’s first storyline, which features the return of a classic X-villain. Indeed, it rather skims over the events of “Schism” by comparison.
As noted, the book spends much of its time with the three remaining members of the X-Men (we can assume Angel is taken off the board at the end of the current “Uncanny X-Force” storyline, then…) and it’s here that Gillen’s material works best. It’s difficult to write a comic where characters say one thing but clearly mean another, and here we see Cyclops and Iceman repeatedly speaking and acting at odds with their feelings. One of Gillen’s strongest skills as a writer is his careful attention to subtext, and that seems at its best in an issue as reflective as this.
Despite that, a question mark hangs over the matter of what the returning X-villain (who shall remain nameless for fear of spoilers) is doing in this issue, and why they’ve been picked to frame the story given that they had nothing to do with the team’s creation or its dissolution. The scenes they feature in are all appropriately creepy, not least due to Land’s visuals, but their actions are perhaps a little too metatextual (even if they do often raise a smile). The body-switch which takes place halfway through, however, is just confusing, not least because there appears to be no perceivable difference between the new and old incarnations. Perhaps we’ll learn more specifics in the next arc — but that’s not the way a “final” issue should behave, is it?
Regarding Land, it seems pointless to repeat the same criticisms of his artwork (and in any case, his collaborations with Gillen have been significantly better than the majority of the artist’s output) but there is one moment where his presence has a clear negative impact: A double-page splash of X-memories, old and new, should have been a tribute to the complexity and intricacies of the past. Instead, it’s reduced to showcasing the worst of Land’s cut & paste excesses.
The scene appears to be there in order to evoke reader nostalgia as Cyclops and Iceman (and by extension the X-Men philosophy) parts ways, but it’s incredibly hard to look at the image without seeing a compositional nightmare first and a set of remembrances second. There’s no flow, no center, no clear structure to it. Perhaps the plan was always for a chaotic feel to the page, but even then, the results are far too distracting to call it a success.
Regardless of whether you accept the premise of this being Uncanny X-Men’s “final” issue, there is, at least, the sense of an era ending here. The characters are grave and pensive, even if the story they’re wrapped in is a little more knowing about their situation. It’s not so much a victory lap as it is a limp back home with aching thighs and the knowledge that you’ve got to go out for another run tomorrow. But that’s all right. “Schism” has left the X-Men in uncertain straits, and while this doesn’t clear the board, it does, at least, convincingly reset the pieces.