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‘Uncanny X-Men’ #1: Saving the World Through Fear [Review]

For the first time in a while, I’m actually really excited about the X-Men. Don’t get me wrong; I love the franchise as much as anyone else who grew up in the ’90s, but a lot of the time it seems like a victim of its own popularity, weighed down by an immense cast of characters and the sprawling stories that come from a truly massive number of interconnected titles meant to showcase all of them. Even creators that I usually like often seem shackled by having to maneuver through such a gigantic, all-consuming network of mutant melodrama.

But with the realignment of the X-Men titles in the aftermath of the Schism crossover (which I loved), things seem a little different, and this week’s release of Uncanny X-Men #1 by Kieron Gillen, Carlos Pacheco, Cam Smith and Frank D’Armata somehow uses that context to pull off a trick I don’t think I’ve ever seen in super-hero comics.Unlike its sister title, Wolverine and the X-Men, the new Uncanny doesn’t have an exciting high concept like “angry loner killing machine grows a heart and reopens a school with a suspiciously high mortality rate for its students.” Really, all it’s got going for it is the fact that finally, at long last, Marvel has gotten around giving a new #1 to the last long-running title that they hadn’t restarted yet.

So if you’re reading both titles, the X-Men book about a school for teenage mutants opening in Westchester — the one with Wolverine in it — feels totally new. Meanwhile, right from the start Uncanny feels like the book that’s sticking with a business-as-usual approach for the X-Men, and that in itself is pretty interesting given the changes that have come for the team in recent years. The massive reduction in the mutant population, the team’s relocation to San Francisco, Magneto and the Sub-Mariner joining the roster, Cyclops rejecting Professor X as a leader, and so on. There are a dozen elements that this title is dealing with that are huge shifts in how the X-Men traditionally work, but because of the way Regenesis is structured — and because these were the things that were already being dealt with in Uncanny before it got hit with the reboot — they just feel like the established order of things.

I’ll be honest with you, my first thought when I read this is that it was a terrible first issue. At first glance, it’s just downright complicated. According to the handy chart in the back (which I have to admit I love), the half of the X-Men that Uncanny walked away from Schism with amount to forty characters, are divided into seven smaller teams, each with their own roster and purpose within the organization. And to Gillen’s credit, he checks in with each sub-team over the course of the issue, even while the main focus remains on his “smaller” core unit of nine main characters plus a villain.

Oh, and also there’s a ten-story space god created by Jack Kirby just standing around somewhere in there too.

It’s completely overwhelming, especially when you throw in the fact that most of those characters have their own stuff going on that they’re bringing in from other books or previous storylines. I, for instance, wasn’t caught up at all before Schism, so I had no idea what’s up with Colossus these days and why he looks like Destro from G.I.Joe.

When they started talking about his “other self,” I half expected him to go put on a black jacket with a high collar and start shooting blue laser beams at America’s daring, highly trained special missions force.

But while it’s not explained in that scene — the focus is on Cyclops and his new plan, which I’ll come back to in a second — it does come up later in the issue, and it’s established right there on the page that Colossus now has the Juggernaut’s powers, but can barely control himself when he’s got them. And it was right about then that it became abundantly clear that at least part of that feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff going on in this book was on purpose.

The X-Men are a huge franchise with a ridiculously complicated web of relationships and events. There’s no getting around it, and there’s really no way to take a stripped-down approach when you’re doing the flagship title that sits at the center of that web. You might be able to in other titles — that’s more or less why Astonishing X-Men was created, after all — but if Uncanny is going to hold that spot at the center, then it has to deal with everything around it.

So that’s exactly what Gillen does with his script: He goes right into this world where the sheer madness of a guy made of metal getting crazy magic powers that turn him into an even tougher guy made of metal is “business as usual,” a world where a constant series of increasingly ludicrous changes is just the way things are, and puts the focus onto someone who’s been trying since he was a teenager to figure out a way to control it all. That alone is what twists this into being a great first issue — it actually introduces the X-Men as they are, with the important stuff playing out on the page while the rest of the noisy clamor of the franchise happens in the background.

And then Gillen and Pacheco do this:

They turn the Dreaming Celestial’s head into a flying rocketship shaped like Mr. Sinister’s head that shoots laser beams out of its forehead.

When I first saw this in the preview we ran here at CA, what really sold me on it was how hilariously over the top it was to give the X-Men a villain that basically amounted to the final boss of a Super Nintendo game, and every piece of this issue with Mr. Sinister in it is exactly that bizarre. From the moment he swaggers onto the panel in his crazy Jack the Ripper costume to the head-shaped rocketship, he completely steals the show.

But the thing is, that’s not what this issue is really about. Neither is all the overwhelming X-Continuity that’s going down. What it’s really about is what happens in one tight, quick scene in slipped in there where people are talking, and it focuses directly on Cyclops.

The scene where Cyclops introduces his plan for the team isn’t just a convenient way for the creators to establish the status quo, although it certainly is that as well. It’s everything about this direction for the X-Men, all of the risks, rewards, threats and potential, boiled down into one conversation, with everything riding on the decisions of one character. The survival of their entire race, the desire to establish the X-Men as super-heroes on par with the Avengers so that no more children get hunted down by giant purple robots, that’s what the goals are here.

And the risks?

Everything the X-Men have been working for for their entire existence, bet against the idea that Cyclops doesn’t make the one tiny mistake in how he presents himself that ruins it all.

This isn’t a comic book about the X-Men fighting Mr. Sinister’s giant floating robot head — that’s just the flash-bang distraction that a stage magician sets off so that you’re not looking at what’s really happening. This is a comic about whether it’s possible for the X-Men to protect a world that hates them by making that world fear them more than they ever have. And based on everything that’s happened in that complex web of X-Men events that this book is so thoroughly overwhelmed by, he’s completely justified in it.

It’s that twist to what’s going on that I find so appealing about this comic, and how it’s done with so little fanfare as a fresh start. While every other comic is shouting to the heavens that it changes everything forever while making minor, Uncanny X-Men #1 tells you that everything’s the same as it always was — Emma Frost even says that Cyclops has been fighting Mr. Sinister “forever” — while it makes those tiny changes that send everything spinning off into triumph and tragedy.

And that’s a good trick.

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