SPIDER-MANDATE: The Lowe-down on "Secret Wars," Tie-Ins and Stacey Lee
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.
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