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Brave New Worlds?

  New X-Men Vol. 3: New Worlds

 

Grant Morrison (writer)

Igor Kordey, Ethan Van Sciver,

John Paul Leon,

Phil Jiminez (artists)

Marvel, 2002

Rating: 3.7

    Ultimate X-Men Vol. 3: World Tour

 

Mark Millar, Chuck Austen (writers)

Adam Kubert, Chris Bachalo, Esad Ribic (artists)

Marvel, 2002

Rating: 3.0

Posted: January 7, 2003

By The Gentleman (exclusive to Shaking Through)

It's instructive to note the similarities of approach in the men who've been entrusted with the care, feeding, evolution and commercial well-being of Marvel Comics' most popular and lucrative franchise. Yes, there are other X-Men writers besides Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, most notably Chuck Austen on Uncanny X-Men. But its Millar and Morrison, past collaborators with complementary sensibilities, who share the driver's seat on Marvel's mutant bandwagon. Simply by virtue of his marquee value, Morrison's work on New X-Men is a genuine comics event. And while Millar's little chunk of X-Men real estate -- Ultimate X-Men -- doesn't even take place in the regular X-Men "continuity," it's nonetheless vitally important in extending the X-Men brand to new readers who know and care nothing of the mutants' incredibly convoluted backstory.

So what do these two highly acclaimed, outside-the-box comics writers share in terms of their stewardship of the X-Men? That's pretty easy to determine: Both creators are well known for exploding and warping conventional comic storytelling methods as a way of getting to the core of their properties. Unfortunately, in both New Worlds and World Tour, each the third to volume to collect their creators' work with the characters, the vitality of the ideas is undercut by a variety of factors, including a rotating roster of artists and a curious lack of visceral action thrills. It may be an odd complaint to level against a couple of writers known for a higher level of conceptualization and intellectual engagement, but with these volumes, Morrison and Millar prove perhaps a bit too concerned with ideas. For all their clever manipulations of superhero convention, these are still superhero comics, and thus a certain amount of larger-than-life spectacle is expected.

Paradoxically, although his volume fares poorly in comparison to Morrison's, it's Millar who currently proves to hold the stronger grasp of the mechanics of creating a smart, involving and action-oriented comic. Millar's re-imagining of the concept of Professor Charles Xavier's school/training camp for mutants, and the larger tableau it inhabits, continues to yield fresh rewards. In the opening "It Doesn't Have To Be This Way," readers receive glimpses of practical real-world applications of the "school" concept of the team, as Xavier assigns his students "homework" that involves helping less-fortunate types and using their mutant abilities in intelligent, problem-solving ways. And in "Resignation," the true bookend to the "World Tour" storyline, Xavier struggles with the idea of closing down his school after a battle with his son, the reality-warping mutant Proteus, results in cataclysmic levels of death and destruction, causing Xavier to question his worth as both a father and a molder of young minds. His peaceful conversation with Magneto, whose darker impulses and memories Xavier has suppressed, proves a well-written and effective epiphany: Xavier finds new hope for his ideas, his vision, after learning that this Magneto, clueless as to his own past as a mutant super-villain, is starting to come around to Xavier's way of thinking of his own free will.

There are some complaints to be made about Millar's handling of Wolverine, who mostly serves as window dressing throughout, and the team's battle with Proteus, which comes across as tired and didactic as the worst, most indulgent and cookie-cutter X-Men stories of eras past. This confrontation with Proteus, the real meat and potatoes of the "World Tour" storyline, is undermined further by the guest-penciling work of fan-favorite artist Chris Bachalo. While an acquired taste, Bachalo has proven an effective and dramatic storyteller in the past, but his hurried approach here bogs down the proceedings to an interminable level. The combination of wordy, strained storytelling and garish, unpleasant and hard-to-follow artwork drags the book down a fair number of notches.

Still, if World Tour had ended after "Resignation," it would receive a slightly higher grade, in part on the strength of scenes like the one in which former Russian mobster Colossus rescues a downed Russian submarine. But the addition of a grating two-part tale focusing on the Ultimate universe version of Gambit costs the collection dearly. Writer Chuck Austen's belabored reliance on the Hollywood idea of Cajun dialect, spelled out phonetically, is embarrassing, and footnotes attempting to shed light on Gambit's "Cajun" references doubly so. The workmanlike, rushed-seeming artwork of Esad Ribic, muddied by J.D. Smith's colors, only adds to the frustration level. Had this pointless exercise been excised, and Bachalo either not pitched in or contributed sturdier work, World Tour would be a still-flawed, but much-improved and far more engaging, read.

Similarly, where New Worlds falters is in its plodding, cerebral approach. As with World Tour, there is a central action sequence, involving a train wreck in the English Channel tunnel and some revelations about the Weapon Plus program that gave Wolverine his adamantium skeleton. Morrison does his best to affect a tension-filled, chaotic tone as a dangerous mutant whose "bacterial consciousness" creates an overwhelming horde the X-Men must avoid physical contact with. But the result is more abstract than spine-chilling, lacking the lysergic punch of Morrison's Doom Patrol or JLA. (Igor Kordey's amorphous pencils, which recall Steve Pugh, don't help matters any, nor do a willfully murky color palette.)

New Worlds is a more challenging and less satisfying read than Morrison's previous New X-Men work, lacking any real sense of conflict or drama. He does provide some intriguing moments involving X'orn, a "mutant sun" in an iron mask, and a witch hunt in the streets of Mutant Town, a section of New York settled by mutants -- an intriguing and frustratingly underplayed development in itself. The introduction of Fantomex, a ninja-like mutant killer who demands sanctuary at the French outpost of Xavier's "X-Corporation," is somewhat engaging, as are a psychic flirtation between Cyclops and Emma Frost, and a simmering plot thread involving Jean Grey and the Phoenix. A revolving-door artist lineup adds to the volume's nagging lack of cohesion, although Ethan Van Sciver and Wonder Woman and Invisibles artist Phil Jiminez contribute strong work. Van Sciver's Jean Grey is particularly impressive, and Jiminez's work on "Ambient Magnetic Fields," in which Xavier visits the devastated remains of the mutant nation of Genosha, is so vibrant as to ease the pain of the absence of Frank Quitely.

While New Worlds proves more diffuse a read than World Tour, it ultimately receives higher marks for Morrison's well-thought-out expansion of the X-mythology and the generally higher caliber of its rotating artists roster. Tour, while it offers its share of fresh takes on the X-Men concept, lacks the fertile backstory from which Morrison gets to pick and choose, and the artwork of Bachalo and Ribic docks it by at least half a letter grade. As the second X-Men feature film approaches, with all of its attendant media spotlight, here's hoping for more consistency, of theme and tension as well as artwork, in future installments.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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