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Review time! with X-Men: Season One

Kelly beat me to the punch with a review of this, but that’s why we have different perspectives, right?

Marvel’s return to “original” graphic novels (as original as retelling the origins of their major superheroes can be) kicked off with this book, which has been followed by some others as well (I own the Daredevil one, but not the others). It’s an odd duck, to be sure. Dennis Hopeless writes this, Jamie McKelvie draws it (“with” Mike Norton, but I’m not sure what he did – maybe some backgrounds?), Matthew Wilson colors it, and Clayton Cowles letters it. Marvel threw a $24.99 price tag on it, which is strange – it’s 100 pages long, so about as long as a 5-issue mini-series, and I guess the nice hard cover is worth $4? I don’t really think too much about price when I buy comics that I want, and I love McKelvie’s art, so of course I was going to buy this, but I wonder if Marvel could have priced this in the 18-20 dollar range and it would have sold better. Beats me. Maybe it’s selling just fine.

First of all, this is a gorgeous comic, which is not surprising given that it’s McKelvie and Wilson, who are a good team. McKelvie continues to get better with action scenes, which have been a weakness of his in the past, but not as much in this book. He’s getting more fluid in the action, which helps make it more convincing. This isn’t a super-action-packed book, but there’s some fighting, so the fact that McKelvie is getting better at it is very nice. His forté, obviously, remains his character work, and he’s very good here. While the characters don’t really look like teenagers (drawing teenagers convincingly has to be one of the hardest things to do in comics), McKelvie does a very nice job with the way they interact with each other, and their body language and facial expressions are very nice. McKelvie can do more with eyebrows than almost any comic book artist I’ve ever seen, and even when his characters aren’t talking, we know exactly what they’re thinking. Wilson does his usual very good job with the colors, and when Scott and Jean get trapped inside a structure made of metal plates (courtesy of Magneto), Wilson and McKelvie do a wonderful job shading the two of them as they talk and Jean gets Scott out of the funk he’s (always, it seems) in. As always, McKelvie dresses his characters very well – they ware clothes that young people would actually wear, and he matches their clothes to their personalities: Jean is a bit bohemian, Warren is a clothes horse, Hank wears lots of hooded sweatshirts, both because he’s a jock and because he doesn’t care, and Bobby is a bit of a slob. In a very funny in-joke, Scott never appears out of costume, even when he’s hanging around the mansion. McKelvie once again proves that he’s a superb artist, and while he’s probably too slow to do an ongoing, if Marvel wants to do more of these graphic novels, they should think about letting McKelvie draw some.

The story is, unfortunately, somewhat bland. Part of the problem is that it’s so very familiar, and it’s difficult to see who the audience for this is. Why would long-time comic book readers want to get this unless they really love McKelvie’s art (which is, of course, why I bought it)? If it’s to introduce new readers to the X-Men based on the movies, that’s fine, but I’m not sure that it works. First of all, Hopeless ends it on a cliffhanger (sort of), which is bold and unconventional but I’m not sure was the smartest move. He’s trying to establish the characters, so when he gets to the climax, which is Jean’s conversation with Scott as they’re trapped in Magneto’s structure, there’s no point to show what happens after that, and I get that. But I’m not sure he does that good a job establishing the characters. Jean is the star of the book, certainly, and she’s very well written – Hopeless does a nice job making her more mature than the boys without being too obvious about it, while making sure she is still wracked with the insecurities many teens experience. The boys fare less well, as they seem to veer between cliché (Warren) to just dull (Scott). I must be honest – I have never liked the original X-Men, as they have always seemed a pretty dull lot, and 40 years of writers trying to make them interesting hasn’t worked with me, and Hopeless fails here (in my humble opinion). The boys (and even Xavier and Magneto) seem to be starring in a silly teen drama, while Jean has shown up from a complex adult romance. She’s completely out of place.

It gets back to who the audience for this book is. If you’re a new reader and Marvel is trying to introduce you to these characters, maybe it works, but I’m not sure. Because of the weight of history, readers who know how these stories turn out keep getting echoes of future stories, echoes I’m not sure new readers would get. Everything is freighted with these implications, from Xavier and Magneto’s pissing contest, which carries no emotional impact because we don’t know enough of the history of the two men, to Scott and Jean’s romance, which we read through the lens of the Phoenix and Scott’s infidelity and Jean’s current dead status (it doesn’t help that Marvel reprints Gillen and Pacheco’s Uncanny X-Men #1 in the back of the book, where Scott is with Emma and Magneto is a good guy). This is too subtle for new readers, because Hopeless relies too much on our perceptions of the characters going in. Meanwhile, for long-time readers, it’s yet another iteration of the first adventures of the team. Again, if you’re a huge fan of McKelvie’s art, maybe that’s enough, but if you’re not, it’s not worth it. Marvel wouldn’t dare let Hopeless deviate from the template too much, so the book has to end with Jean in love with Scott. It constricts the storytelling possibilities of this comic, and Hopeless, right now, isn’t good enough to overcome that. He hits the notes, he does a good job with Jean, but he doesn’t manage to make this story all that new.

One last thing: I’m so tired of the ever-present “now” of comics. This comic is set in the present day, and Hopeless and McKelvie drain it of any cultural references in order to make it “timeless.” I mean, even if they want to update this to reflect the current time frame of the X-Men, couldn’t they have set this in, say 2000? I miss comics that act as if the culture of the time period was not something to hide. I don’t mean that this book had to actually say what year it was set in, but I miss comics in which cultural references were just thrown in casually. I would have liked this book a lot more if someone had mentioned going to a Matchbox Twenty concert or seeing Gladiator. Yes, it would have dated the book, but it wouldn’t have been quite so bland. But that’s just me.

Like a lot of mass-produced comics these days, X-Men: Season One takes very few chances, but because of the talent involved (especially on the artistic side), it’s a pleasant enough read. Marvel doesn’t want to push the envelope too much with these books, obviously, and with that in mind, the fact that Hopeless did so much with Jean, especially, is impressive. If someone asked, I’d Mildly Recommend it, but it’s certainly nothing earth-shattering.

20 Comments

I do want to read this (like you, for McKelvie’s art, if nothing else), but that is a weighty price tag. I’ll wait until it goes on sale, or hits my local library …

I like the interior art just fine, but I’m *really* digging the cover art.

There are two things I know about white people: They love Matchbox 20, and they’re terrified of curses.

Sorry to disappoint, but folks don’t come much whiter than me, and I have no use for Matchbox 20 and I don’t believe in curses.

Iceman has a Bieber-cut, which, god-willing, should date the book enormously in the coming years.

Travis Pelkie

May 21, 2012 at 11:54 pm

Funny, I’m white and I believe that Matchbox 20 IS a curse. HA!

I’d imagine that the price tag is a bit more because it is an OGN, so Marvel had to front more money. If it’d been a mini first, they’d at least recoup some costs (paying the talent, printing, advertising) from those sales.

Didn’t throwing in cultural references ruin that Brave and the Bold issue for you a few years back? :)

I get what you’re saying, and it certainly would make more sense, but whenever I see these retellings with new cultural refs (compared to, say, the early ’60s when the X-Men debuted), I cringe. It just seems off, because there are certain things that are intrinsic to the characters (and the time period they debut in — Hulk and Cold War radiation scares, f’r instance) that seem so odd when they’re updated.

Also, writers aren’t very good at realizing that the things they grew up with aren’t things that will resonate with the characters at the ages they are. For example, in Mind the Gap 1, there’s a funny bit where the main character ends up with a reference to an early to mid 90s music video. However, given the age of the characters in the book (it’s vague, but I’d say late teens, early 20s), that video would have been out when she was pretty young (5-8, maybe). It just didn’t seem to ring true that she’d have that video as a personal touchstone, y’know?

I can’t see it here, but in Kelly’s review, some of the Beast images showed him looking smaller with his feet and hands…which begs the question, what the hell is Hank’s mutation, anyway? That never quite made sense to me. He’s got big hands and feet, he’s a mutant? Huh?

Also, writers aren’t very good at realizing that the things they grew up with aren’t things that will resonate with the characters at the ages they are. For example, in Mind the Gap 1, there’s a funny bit where the main character ends up with a reference to an early to mid 90s music video. However, given the age of the characters in the book (it’s vague, but I’d say late teens, early 20s), that video would have been out when she was pretty young (5-8, maybe). It just didn’t seem to ring true that she’d have that video as a personal touchstone, y’know?

Ehh, it depends on the crowd, but you’d be surprised. My classmates in graduate school are all in their early 20s, and only one or two of them would miss a reference to the bumble bee girl from “No Rain” or even something like the Flock of Seagulls haircut. It’s not because they remember the heyday of those videos, but because they heard the song in “Vice City” and looked it up on Youtube, or because they saw it on Vh1′s “I Love The…” series. Because of cable TV and especially the internet, kids are absorbing the cultural touchstones of past eras.

What gets me is when the reference is completely out of character. I was reading – I think it was Daredevil – a few weeks back, and Black Cat drops the “not the droids you’re looking for” line. WTF, seriously??? It just blew me right out of the story.

Travis: Yeah, the pop culture references in The Brave and the Bold were ones that seemed really out of character and even out of sync with the time period. As I mentioned then, I can’t fit that Beyonce song into DC’s timeline with regard to the characters themselves. If you’re going to change the timeline so that the X-Men were young ten years ago (if they’re in their mid- to late-20s now), I have no problem with making early 2000s pop culture references.

I’ve never known what Hank’s mutation is. It’s just one of the many reasons (a small one, to be sure) I think the original X-people are boring.

Hank has enlarged feet and hands with increased dexterity in both. He’s also stronger, faster and more agile than a normal human.

Thanks for taking the time to review the book, Greg. Sorry we weren’t able to shatter your Earth. We’ll try and get you next time.

-Dennis

Dennis: Thanks for stopping by. I do hope the book does well for you guys.

We’ve got no complaints. There has been a lot of positive feedback and it’s selling well. So far all of the Season One books have made the New York Times Bestsellers list.

The biggest triumph for me personally was that my 13-year-old non-comics-reading niece really liked it. She’s part of the audience we were hoping to hit.

Travis Pelkie

May 22, 2012 at 5:39 pm

But…but how is that a mutation, per se? Me so confused!

Not that it’s your fault, or anything, Dennis, it’s just always been one of those things that’s “weird” about X-Men.

Not the guy with the wings, the ice guy, the telepaths, or the guy with beams shooting out his eyes. It’s the guy with slightly larger hands or feet that’s WEIRD to me. The rest, yeah, I’m fine with that :)

It just seems like, well, if that’s a mutation, then are basketball players mutants?

X-Men is a bit diificult to do a “Season 1″ for, I guess, since the original X-Men has so little to do with what the comic eventually became. It’s really more of a forerunner to New Mutants or Generation X than the main titles.

I’m obviously biased but I would argue that the X-Men comic didn’t “eventually become” anything. It’s a constantly changing and evolving story about mutant superheroes.

The original 5 have all been mainstay X characters for most of the publishing history. With the exception of Jean (who was a primary X character up until her death) they’re all still in the marquee ongoings. Angel, Bobby and Beast are in WatXM. Scott is in Uncanny.

You call the first season of a TV show illegitimate just because the cast was bigger by the time they got to season 5.

Hank can lift a car over his head, can do as much with his feet as he can with his hands, and easily jump into a third story window. That’s a lot different than LeBron being 6’8″ and being extremely athletic. (The comic book point would be that his physical capabilities are a lot higher than what would be considered “peak human”) so yeah, that’s a mutation.

I bought the book and loved it. Not really so sure what’s “dull” about Scott. he represents the stand-up guy burdened with both responsibility and insecurity. Those guys exist in the real world, and should in comics too. His character arc eventually took him away from the insecurity and into even more crushing burdens of responsibility.

Sorry, not everyone can be a 200 year old canadian that fought in every war, was a spy, a samaurai, has bedded 100s of chicks despite being short and hairy, and loves to kill people with no real repercussions. I find that type of character so incredulous and un-subtle as to be dull and not really in need of good writing to be “interesting” to the general masses.

Wow. Who knew this would be such a controversial topic?

Dave: Well, different strokes and all. You make the point that Scott’s arc “took him away from the insecurity and into even more crushing burdens of responsibility,” and that’s part of what I’m talking about. You know what happens to Scott, so you can project from this book forward. I’m trying not to do that, and I just don’t think Hopeless did a good enough job making those things interesting. If you did, great.

Dennis:
I certainly wouldn’t call them illegitimate. But I’d say there’s a way larger step between the original x-comics and the modern or even half-old ones than is the case for, say, Spider-Man. The whole school thing is gone for large swaths of the books existence, for example.

I thought the book was pretty good, btw.

Fair enough. I think your perspective probably depends on the era of X-books with which you connect most.

I’m personally a big fan of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run and can’t get enough of Jason’s current Wolverine and the X-Men. When I was a kid I loved New Mutants. Cyclops and Iceman have always been my favorite X-characters.

So to me X-Men is at it’s best when it focuses on a school where they train mutant super heroes.

I do think the book has grown in a lot of great ways over the years. The original 5 were all pretty normal looking and white. It’s great to see more diversity in the modern books. While writing XMSO I definitely envied all of the writers who got to include more than one female teammate.

A White Person Writes: What the fuck is Matchbox 20?

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