Thursday, September 15, 2011

Odyssey X, Week 8: Uncanny X-Force #14 and a Mid-Point Reflection

(For those joining late, please see the introductory post on Odyssey X, where I explain my attempt to read every X-Men title during X-Men: Schism. Or stay here and read my mid-point reflections on the project after my review of Uncanny X-Force!)

Uncanny X-Force #14
Rick Remender
Artist: Jerome Opena
Cover Price: $3.99

So much for a monthly schedule! (For those not keeping track, Uncanny X-Force just came out last week.) After nearly two months of Odyssey X, this is the only week thus far where only one x-title has been released, and it happens to be the best series of the entire line. Remender continues to weave an entertaining action heavy book while still keeping the focus on characterization. After returning from the AoA timeline one member short, the X-Force team find they have been deceived into helping the enemy they were seeking to destroy. As we learn more about the nefarious plans of Archangel, it is obvious that this incarnation of Apocalypse is very different from the foe of X-Men past. The last issue saw Mark Brooks  sharing the art responsibilities with Scot Eaton, and as suspected, this led to a change of artists for Uncanny X-Force. There are some truly striking panels, including one that may be an homage to the classic John Byrne cover for Uncanny X-Men #142 (they each feature a gnarly depiction of Wolverine being incinerated). As much as I love Opena's artwork, I am becoming more aware of the frequency with which Marvel switches artists on titles, often mid-story. Here's hoping the new guy sticks around long enough to finish a story arc.

Verdict: The best X-Men title being released, and one that I'd recommend to anyone looking for a good X-Men title.

Week 8 Summary
Potential Cost: $3.99
0 Books Purchased, 1 Book shelved

Since this is such an unusually small week for the x-books, this may be my only chance to reflect on the project thus far until X-Men Schism ends. I don't like to be "down" on books, but there are quite a few recurring issues that make me realize why I probably won't be a faithful x-reader after Schism.

Erratic Release Schedules

This week saw one X-Men title released. The previous week saw five. Some books come out monthly. Some books come out every other week. Whether they want their customers to buy one title or every title, the key is in consistency. There is no rhyme or reason to these release schedules, and I can't imagine how this must effect the books when there is an in-line crossover. Here's a breakdown of the very loose schedules:

Generation Hope: Monthly!
Uncanny X-Men: Monthly!
Astonishing X-Men: Monthly!
X-23: Monthly!
X-Men: Monthly!

New Mutants: Twice in One Month
X-men Schism: Twice in One Month
X-Factor: Twice in One Month

X-Men Legacy: Every other week for three issues, then a two week break.
Uncanny X-Force: No discernible schedule. Monthly one month, then released 3 times in 4 weeks. Retailers must LOVE ordering this title!

Roughly 5 out of 10 titles are on a regular monthly schedule. 3 are twice-monthly, while 2 are testing the patience of readers and retailers alike. Believe it or not there are readers that stop by a store once a month. So when a book comes out more or less than expected, issues get missed. Next time you stop by your local comic shop, look at the shelf for Uncanny X-Force. This is a series that has sold out consistently for many issues, now all of a sudden there are stacks. Why? Casual readers don't know it has come out yet. And when they do come in for their monthly visit, they're going to look for one issue, not three. Having a regular consistent monthly schedule also helps regular weekly readers, too. When you budget for 12 ongoing titles, and one of them comes out twice or three times in a month, that's a big difference in price. Most readers would rather have quality over quantity. Which makes me wonder.....

Editors, and do they have any?

Where is the ringleader for this show? Is it anyone's job to look at the scheduled releases and think "Maybe we should hold off on that 5th release?" On top of that, you have weeks where the content is very similar, making it even harder for readers to decide what to buy. Last week, not one but two X-Men books had the Future Foundation as guest stars, and they were on the covers of both issues. Perhaps a little foresight would have allowed these stories to be told at different times, or at least released in different weeks. Sure think the writers would appreciate this, sounds like the job for an editor! This is far from the only duplicate; like having a character "dying" in one issue, and appearing in a separate series the same week. If the X-books function as one organism, then the left hand doesn't know what they right hand is doing. I know Marvel frequently hosts retreats for writers to meet and discuss the plans for the overall universe, so why don't they do it for the x-books? Otherwise they will keep repeating the same mistakes. And speaking of multiplicity....

Overexposed characters

Reading comics is funny sometimes. You get used to ignoring things like "If Superman is in Justice League, how can he be in Metropolis in Action, on New Krypton in Superman, and Smallville as a guest on Superboy?" When you have a well loved character, it is not unusual to see them show up in multiple books each week. Emma Frost is not one of those characters. Neither are Cyclops, Gambit, Dani Moonstar, Magneto, Kittypryde, or Hope Summers. Each of these characters show up on multiple teams, meanwhile the entire X-Factor gang remains solidly within the confines of their title. Storm consistently remains writer's favorite background character (she is hardly well written in Astonishing, though she does at least have a few lines). Wolverine and Deadpool are the running jokes for overexposed characters in the Marvel U, but in terms of the x-books they aren't the only ones. Having consistent, unique teams will make these books more recognizable. Which leads us to....

Lack of a clear vision for each title

When you have a line of very similar books, it's tough to attract readers to any one title. If the description "Cyclops and his team of X-Men fight to save the world that hates them" fits more than one book, then you have a marketing problem on your hands. X-Factor, Uncanny X-Force, and X-23 are the only books with unique premises. The others have the potential to be unique, but their dopplegangers will need to be eliminated. Generation Hope and New Mutants are essentially the same title, but with different characters. X-Men and Uncanny X-Men both have Cyclops and company fighting very similar battles, often with the same characters.  X-Men Legacy is consistently referred to as "Rogue's book" - and that's not good considering it's supposed to be an ensemble. Astonishing has such an identity crisis, it switches between two creative teams / stories every other issue!  Does anyone else see a trend here? The books with the best quality are also the ones that are the most easily distinguishable. Uncanny X-Force = Black Ops. X-Factor = Mutant Gumshoes. X-23 = Recovering Hitman. Uncanny X-Men = Ummm, well, the girls consistently look the same? OH, the story is Cyclops and the X-Men fight stuff. Marvel is basically betting on readers shelling out money for multiple versions of the same product. Speaking of moneys....

Overall Cost (It's a lot!)

$95.73 for 8 weeks of comics OR $11.96 per week on average OR $47.86 per month

That is about half my comic book reading budget. And this doesn't even include the Wolverine and Deadpool titles! This line, as it stands, isn't worth half what it costs. And last but not least, one of the reasons none of these books are getting my money:

Frequent creative changes

This. REALLY bothers me. Of the 10 titles I have read over an 8 week period, only 3 of those books have retained the same creative teams. I haven't been a big Marvel reader in several years, but from what many self described Marvel Zombies tell me, this is becoming commonplace at the House of Ideas. I really want to go all angry-fangirl here for a second. Comics are a VISUAL MEDIUM. To change artists mid-story is possibly one of the most insulting things editorial can do to its regular readers. To not even allow for a story arc to finish is to imply that we won't notice! Do you ever hear fans say, "Man I really loved that Old Man Logan book. EXCEPT that issue that McNiven didn't draw." No, that would never happen. The book was terribly late for several issues, but it was worth the wait. Ask any retailer and they won't complain either. The book sold like gangbusters, even if you had to wait 2 or 3 months between issues. You can't create memorable stories if the artists keep changing (unless it is intentional - see the Alias story arc "The Secret Origins of Jessica Jones"). I would much rather wait for the current artist to finish the story than have someone else take over just to get the book to come out in two weeks. Writers are not immune to quick replacements either, but for a publisher that continues to promote the rock star status of their "architects" It might be worth reminding them that their stories only come to life with the other half of the creative team. They desperately need to restore the respect for artists and readers alike by giving them the proper time to finish telling those stories; if they want to release a twice-monthly title, bring someone in that can keep up that ungodly schedule. But don't bring in an artist that fans will come to know and love, then replace them on a whim. This is coming from a seasoned reader as well; new readers are far more fickle, and one of the biggest complaints you hear from someone that has never read a comic book is that "the inside doesn't look like the cover." It's hard enough to get them to accept this fact, then to turn around and expect them to get used to artist changes between issues is a hoop new readers are less likely to jump through.

Stepping down from my soap box, I will continue on with Odyssey X in hopes that some of these bad habits will change after Schism. If not I'll speak with my money and give it to publishers that release consistent, high quality comic books.

Odyssey X, Week 7: X-Men #16, Astonishing X-men #41, New Mutants #30, Uncanny X-Force #13, X-Men Legacy #254

(For those joining late, please see the introductory post on Odyssey X, where I explain my attempt to read every X-Men title during X-Men: Schism. Still a bit behind, but catching up!)

X-Men #16
Writer: Victor Gischler
Artist: Jorge Molina
Cover Price: $3.99

Dinosaurs, Doom, and Dimensions, oh my! This book is turning into "X-Men and the Marvel U Adventures"; without the occasional killing, this might make a decent kids title. This new story arc features the Future Foundation as the two teams, well, "team up" to rescue Cyclops' ex girlfriend who is stranded in a dinosaur infested dimension. The distress beacon leads to a big reveal that felt more like a big WTF for me (I had no clue who the character was, so he's probably a beloved Starjammer or AoA regular). Though he is far from being the only one to miss the mark in portraying Emma Frost (see X-Men: First Class), Gischler continuously writes Frost as borderline offensively shallow. I don't mean this in that the character is shallow (which she is) but that he uses tired cliches to substitute characterization. This issue spotlights a tacky "girls hate when guys talk about their exes" moment. We even get a "you go girl" moment with Sue. Molina's artwork is new to the title, and though he is no worse than the last, it is far from an improvement. Many characters appear to be anatomically challenged; Ben Grimm, Emma, and Sue are all portrayed differently between panels (poor Ben's head fluctuates in scale quite a bit). Again, perhaps with a little tweaking this book could be an appealing all ages title; as of now it is just an unjustified and redundant x-title. With the exception of Doom (because Doom is clearly very fun to write), most of these characters are being written (and drawn) better in other books.

Verdict: I don't know how this book got to 16 issues.

Astonishing X-Men #41
Writer: Daniel Way
Artist: Nick Bradshaw
Cover Price: $3.99

Holy cow was this a good issue! No joke, I actually teared up a little bit at the end. Astonishing X-Men is a series that unlike the rest of the x-books, appears to be on a monthly schedule. On top of that, the series has been switching between two different story lines and creative teams. For the love of God, I have no idea why, because this one was incomparably better than the other. While the last issue saw a team of X-Men fighting Brood aliens in space (with some unattractive artwork to boot), Daniel Way's "Monsters" story was simple, emotionally engaging, and had all of the charm of a classic Kirby and Lee silver age Fantastic Four comic. Keep in mind as well, this is an assessment made by someone that enjoyed the conclusion even as a latecomer. The prologue brought me where I needed to be to understand the story, but Way and Bradshaw ensured that I became immediately engaged. Most of the book features Wolverine and Emma in the clutches of a third rate villain that is threatening to blow up an island inhabited by monsters (with the X-Men on it). This scheme is all in an attempt to blackmail his former employers, oil company Roxxon, who want to exploit the resources of Monster Island. Again, I cannot stress the charm of this issue's set up. The villain, Mentallo, actually "monologues", revealing his weaknesses and hubris to his hostages. The rest of the X-Men eventually show up (and by the rest I mean simply Cyclops and Armor), but their timely arrival allows for some added tension, comedy, and finally a touching reunion between Armor and her recently widowed father. There is no unnecessary dialogue, no unnecessary characters, and each and every character, even the monsters, are fully realized. This is a creative team that knows how to make books like it's every reader's first comic. Perhaps that quality needs more time, hence the alternating stories in Astonishing. No matter what the reason, Marvel editor's are missing out on the perfect opportunity to put out a well-rounded X-Men book with mass appeal.

Verdict: Marvel needs to cut the dead weight and give this book to Way and Bradshaw for good!

New Mutants #30 (Fear Itself tie in)
Writer(s): Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning
Artist: David Lafuente
Cover Price: $2.99

Any appeal this book once held for me is now gone. Continuing with the convoluted Fear Itself tie in, we find members of the team in "Hell" where Mephisto is written like a bad stand up comedian. There are countless bad jokes from other characters as well, and only one involuntary chuckle from the whole issue. Mephisto's portrayal is at least an improvement from his recent use in Spider-Man. It's hard to imagine this character being any more ridiculous after One More Day. At least the "deal with the devil" he offers to the New Mutants stems from a clear motive (Mephisto just wants a date with one of the team members). Regardless of the quality, three issues seems quite long for a tie in; perhaps Marvel found sales for tie-ins to be better than separate minis. I guess making them indistinguishable solves that problem. For a reader that was almost convinced to start buying this book on a regular basis, they've done a fine job of discouraging me to continue reading after Schism ends.

Verdict: One more issue with Mephisto, Hel, and Hell is two too many.

Uncanny X-Force #13
Writer: Rick Remender
Artist: Mark Brooks and Scot Eaton
Cover Price: $3.99

Since Uncanny X-Force is one of the few true monthly titles in the X-Men line, it took me a few pages to realize that the art has changed since the last issue. The easy-to-follow flow of Brooks work was missing, and certain characters were not as recognizable. Perhaps Brooks fell behind and needed another artist to come in to help finish the work on time as Scot Eaton is added to the art credits; frankly, I would have rather waited an extra week or two. The degraded artwork is distracting and takes away from some of the more dramatic moments, but it is still enjoyable. Remender's writing is as witty as ever as the X-Men take their final stand against enemies of the Age of Apocalypse. We are treated to the inner monologue of Fantomex, which is more humorous than the dire thoughts of Wolverine form the previous issues; at one point, Fantomex accuses Gambit of being so trashy as to have an hidden 8-ball tattoo.  It isn't all fights and banter for X-Force though. The X-Men engage their enemies on two fronts, and both suffer casualties. Having been made weaker than before they came to the AoA, the end of the issue implies that X-Force's troubles have just begun.

Verdict: The shared artwork takes away from this titles' quality, but here's hoping it is just a temporary stopgap and not a transition to a different artist.

X-Men Legacy #254
Writer: Mike Carey
Artist: Steve Kurth
Cover Price: $3.99

With literally no pause between one confrontation to the next, the team of X-Men Legacy find themselves transported to a space station inhabited by waring alien races. Even Michael Bay writes in some downtime for his thinly portrayed characters. Alas, after battling Legion, there is little rest for the righteous as they seek to rescue Rachel Summers and the Starjammers. Little advancement is made from start to finish of this issue; the X-Men don't find themselves any closer to rescuing Rachel, but we learn about a new threat as the space station is heading towards a collision course with a nearby star. Despite the numerous threats facing Rogue and company, there is little tension and even less interest. It is hard to care about characters that face one imminent threat after another with little to no reaction. Without showing a little humanity, these mutants don't make for very engaging subjects.

Verdict: What would make me care more about these characters? If they were in a different book.

Week 7 Summary
Potential Cost: $14.96
0 Books Purchased, 5 Books Shelved

I've once again fallen behind in my reviews, and unsurprisingly it is during a week with the release of five X-Men titles. It was also a potentially costly week for dedicated fans that pick up every book with only one comic priced at $2.99. Next week's Odyssey X promises a much smaller schedule and perhaps enough time to reflect on the project as a whole thus far. There are more than a few trends amongst the x-books that will be given thought, so stick around!