Thursday, January 5, 2012

2011 – The Year in X: Part Six

By Paul Steven Brown

Here they are: my personal picks for the top three X-Men series of 2011...

#3 X-23 (#5 –18): This is another surprise. Upon reflection, X-23 was my third favorite X-Book of the year. It’s a real shame that it’s getting cancelled during the first quarter of 2012 and that X-23 is being shuffled off to the Avengers Academy. Still…

Writer Marjorie Liu’s introduction of Gambit as Laura’s co-star was a brilliant move. First, it satisfied starved Remy LeBeau fans, but more importantly it forced the usually closed off X-23 to talk to someone in almost every issue. I’ve always seen Laura as a teenage girl with Asperger’s syndrome, albeit with super powers. This is not a very accessible trait for a character starring in a solo title. But, Liu used this as a reason for Gambit to try to draw X-23 out of her shell.

When the book became less defined by Laura’s internal monologue and focused more about her interactions with other people in her life, it really took off. Whether it was through her debates with mentor figures Gambit and Wolverine, or her new friendship with the extroverted Jubilee, we were given a chance to see X-23 grow and discover who she was beyond a killing machine grown in a laboratory.

Liu went even further and had X-23 team up with the heroes formerly known as the Fantastic Four: the Future Foundation. This was a very unlikely combination, but it was really great to see this character given a chance to interact with folks that did not have the X-Gene. As a result, we were also treated to a more cosmic adventure for the young mutant which allowed Liu the opportunity to tie into a bit source material that I never thought would be readdressed: the Captain Universe/X-23 one-shot from 2006.

This was followed up with fun little adventure that had Laura take on a very different challenge: babysitting Franklin and Valeria Richards. Having such an extraordinary girl partake in such a traditionally teenage activity was plenty fun, especially when the Richards kids can’t help but stir up a little trouble. Also, this arc provided some closure for the on again/off again relationship between X-23 and Hellion.

Throughout the year, X-23 had some really awesome art. The bulk of the work was provided by Sana Takeda. Takeda’s soft manga style seemed like an attempt by Marvel to attract young female readers, but at the end of the day, the woman can flat draw. She has a deft hand at selling emotional moments, pulls off the comedic beats, and manages to supply the right amount of violence suitable for a comic starring a character with adamantium claws.

However, the real artistic highlight of the year for X-23 was the gorgeous four issues drawn by Phil Noto. I raved about his work earlier in the year on Wolverine and Jubilee, but he managed to top that with the story co-starring the FF in X-23. Bravo, Mr. Noto. You gave us eight solid issues of incredible mutant goodness in 2011.

It’s sad to see this title go after such a strong year. Personally, I would rather see X-23 shuttled over to Generation Hope in an attempt to revitalize that book rather than Avengers Academy. At least Marjorie Liu will continue to write Gambit when she takes over Astonishing X-Men in early 2012. She has more than proven with X-23 that she’s ready to take on a book with a higher profile.

#2 X-Factor (#213 – 229, #224.1): If any book benefited from Marvel’s increased double shipping in a single month, it was writer Peter David’s X-Factor. This allowed the prolific writer a much needed extra page count needed to fully feature his large cast. Also, it helped move some of the weaker stories move along a bit quicker than a regular monthly schedule would provide.

This was the year that X-Factor dove head first into the mystic. For most of the year the team of mutant private investigators ran into demons, hellspawns, and ghosts. While magic is not something that I naturally associate with X-Men books (outside of Illyana Rasputin), David managed to tie it back to respective actions and decisions made by Rahne and Layla recently.

What continued to work for X-Factor was the fact that Peter David had a defined cast of characters that were solely his to play with. He does have to share a character like Cyclops or Emma Frost with three other writers. For many, this is a pack of B and C-List characters, but the writer manages to provide A-List entertainment with them. He’s also made them people that I care about. We’re talking about Shatterstar for crying out loud! He was one of the poster children for all the things that were wrong and cliché about ‘90s superhero comics. However, Peter David stripped the sword-swinging warrior to his core, removed the headgear and shoulder pads, and just had fun with him.

David was also allowed to retake ownership of Wolfsbane after she was wasted on Craig Kyle and Chris Yost’s X-Force for two years. Rahne was handed back to him emotionally scarred and impregnated by a Norse wolf prince. Instead of ignoring the recent past, David built upon it. While a Rahne running from cat and wolf demons with the help of the Werewolf by Night for several issues was not my favorite arc in X-Factor during the year, it gave David the chance to capitalize on circumstances that Rahne had been thrown into after her experiences associated with X-Force.

Peter David wasn’t the only person to leave a remarkable stamp on X-Factor in 2011. The bulk of the art was provided by newcomer, Emanuela Lupacchino. While her style was very expressive and not very noir (as had been the tradition since the book relaunched in 2006), it was no less enjoyable to view. Lupacchino did a great job with the comedy and was no slouch in the action department. The always wonderful Leonard Kirk came in for four super solid issues of his own. I can only hope that he’ll return to the book and continue alternate arcs with Lupacchino.

In addition, David Yardin continued to provide spectacular covers each issue. His cover art just got better and more stunning as the year progressed. Highlights included the spooky Rahne plus baby image of #224, they dying Madrox of #228, and the hilarious “one of these characters will die!” cover of #229. He’s provided forty consecutive covers. Here’s hoping for forty more!

X-Factor is just a consistently entertaining superhero comic book. While it is connected to the other X-Books by it very nature and Peter David is fully aware of history tied to his cast, it stands completely on its own merits. This continues to be one of my all-time favorite runs by a writer on an X-Book.

#1 Uncanny X-Force (#5 – 19, #5.1): Here’s what I wrote about Uncanny X-Force at the end of 2010: “So far, Uncanny X-Force is pretty solid read. If it maintains this level of fun and action, it will easily eclipse its predecessor.”

Boy, has it!

No other superhero comic book provided me with as many surprises, heart-aching moments, or thrilling heroics, than Uncanny X-Force.

The year started strong with the shocking ending of the opening arc in which Fantomex guns down the infant version of Apocalypse. This was succeeded by the later reveal that Fantomex was growing a clone of Kidpocalypse, unbeknownst to the rest of X-Force. Then we got Fantomex riding to the rescue with a gaggle of Age of Apocalypse X-Men in tow. Plus, there was that fantastic final page of Fantomex and Psylocke waiting their final confrontation with Archangel. Or how about the fact that Fantomex was raising Kidpocalypse in a virtual childhood that mirrored Clark Kents?

Yes, Fantomex was amazing this year. I never really liked the character until writer Rick Remender realized his full potential. Sure, he continues to be snarky and cooler-than-you, but Remender has add a great need amount of emotional depth and complexity to Fantomex. His advances towards Psylocke may seem simply cavalier at first, but we have grown to understand that the French mutant really does care about her. He also has grown to care about his team.

Most of this development transpired over one of most ambitious self-contained stories to take place in an X-Book in a very long time: The Dark Angel Saga. The title alone conjures up the reminder of what is arguably the greatest X-Men story of all-time: The Dark Phoenix Saga. Those are mighty big shoes to fill, but Remender stepped up to the plate and delivered in a big way.

What helped this nine-part (if you count the prologue issue… which you should) story, other than it being simply jaw-droppingly exciting, was the structuring. Remender set things up simple in the prologue, gave us an adventure in the AoA for three issues, caught up with the villains of the piece for about an issue and a half, and then drove it all home for a rollercoaster ride of issues that wrapped up the story. The narrative ebbed and flowed and never felt overly long, despite being nine issues.

Remender has also managed to make me care about characters like Psylocke, Deadpool, and Deathlok in ways I thought were impossible. The telepathic good-bye between Betsy and Warren was practically tear-inducing as anything I’ve ever read in a superhero comic book. Deadpool remains comic relief, but toned down when compared to his solo books. Plus, the writer has instilled the merc with the mouth with a strange level of sincerity when interacting with his fellow teammates. With Deathlok, Remender has built upon the model of the character established by Jason Aaron in Wolverine: Weapon X, with great effect.

Then there’s Archangel. With Apocalypse’s corruption finally taking hold of Warren Worthington III, the winged mutant was transformed into a complex and tragic villain. While his personality evolved into an evil mastermind bent on reshaping the world in his twisted image, there was an undercurrent of emotion, especially in his dealings with Genocide and Psylocke. Frankly, I would have been perfectly happy if this had been a permanent change for the character.

Artistically, Uncanny X-Force delivered in a big way. While Matt Brooks provided some great work during the AoA issues, it was series regular artist Jerome Opena that really stole the show. For a book with so much violence and action, Opena’s art is wonderfully graceful and delicately penciled. Also, colorist Dean White was a perfect addition to the art team, providing his own level of depth, dimension and texture.

Like X-Factor, Uncanny X-Force stood solely on its own merits. Yes, it was tied to the greater X-Men universe, but it was very self-contained and could be read within its own bubble. With luck, Rick Remender will be able to deliver more excitement and emotion in the coming year.

There you have it, the Year in X for 2011. Overall, I think that this was a step up from its predecessor. The books at the top of this list continued to define themselves and remain distinct. If this consistency can be translated across the bulk of the line, the X-Men books could become the strongest it has ever has been.

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