Review: X-Men: Schism
Comic book stories are, at times, confusing, especially if you haven’t been keeping up recently. I started X-Men: Schism #1 and immediately knew that I had not been keeping up much at all with the X-Men Universe. But soon, that didn’t matter. The story briefly summed up the current state of affairs, and then quickly shifted to the central characters and their own concerns. The center of this story is the relationship between Cyclops and Wolverine, and (in case you didn’t guess it based on the title of the story arc) their inevitable split. This conflict has been so continuous in X-Men stories that it’s just about become a joke by now – but Jason Aaron is not joking around. He totally sold me on these two as partners turned ideological opponents. And if you can re-make the over-used trope turned corny joke and cause readers to take it seriously, then good job: you may have just re-invented the franchise.
I have been holding off on passing judgment until the arc was completed, but now that Schism #5 came out yesterday, the time has come. The story opens on Utopia, the new home of the X-Men and the few hundred mutants left in the world after the House of M storyline. Cyclops asks Wolverine to join him on a trip to an arms conference in Switzerland and we see that the old arguments between the two have not been forgotten – far from it. But they have become more like old scar tissue shared between two people who have seen way too much together to truly be enemies. It’s pretty incredible what Aaron pulls off, here. Of course, the conference is attacked by a rogue mutant, and the world blames the X-Men and decides to power up all their old Sentinels again. This is where the conflict kicks into high gear, and Aaron changes up what you might expect in terms of enemies and what-happens-next, enough to definitely keep you engaged.
Speaking of enemies, it turns out the people behind this whole mess are The Hellfire Club. Classic X-Men villains, right? Except no – this is a decidedly anti-mutant Hellfire Club. Not only that, it’s a Hellfire Club run by children. Like, actual little kids. Kade Kilgore, the new Black King, is the son of an absurdly wealthy arms dealer, and he’s 12. His three lieutenants are about the same age, so we get a lot of creepy pre-teens gleefully committing mass murder. It would be a cliché, but it’s too creepy and hilarious and disturbing all at the same time for you to notice. Kade earns his chess-related title by masterfully manipulating all the different elements of the story to achieve his goals, and it’s quite clear that we have a new brand of Hellfire by the end of the story – one I definitely want to see come back.
I should probably mention, briefly, that this arc depicts Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Editors Note: the president of Iran for those unaware) fairly extensively, and in a more than slightly embarrassing light. Take note, Mr. Miller: this is how you write propaganda. Make your target look like an ass by taking his behavior to a not-so-extreme extreme, have his plans backfire, and then have the heroes save his ass anyway and embarrass him in the process. Because that’s what heroes do.
As for the art, I have a few things to say. First, there is great work in each issue. Great for new and different reasons each time, because there’s a new artistic team for each of the five issues. And that is also my biggest problem with this series. Were this an anthology, telling different stories about the same characters with a different style and tone for each story, that would be great. But this is one continuous story. And the jarring effect of that transition, issue to issue, does not do good things for the work. Pacheco’s panels in the first issue do some great wide-screen shots, especially of everyone’s favorite giant purple robots flying and posing over world heritage sites, and D’armata’s coloring has some real neat light-and-shadow work. In issue #2, Frank Cho combines the wide-screen with some affecting transitions to close-ups. He also emphasizes Wolverine’s squatness and Cyclops’ lankiness to highlight the contrast between the two, as tensions begin to rise. Then we switch to Daniel Acuña, whose painterly style, while quite neat, contrasts so greatly with the previous issues that for a moment I thought I was reading the wrong comic. Then we switch BACK to a more traditional comic style, with Alan Davis on lines and Jason Keith on colors. Alan Davis brings on the action, and has a really phenomenal rare shot of Cyclops’ eyes through the visor that makes the tension of the moment that much stronger due to the surprise of the material depicted, and Jason Keith basically uses Cyclops’ blasts to cast a really creepy red glare over the epic fight between him and Wolverine. We get Adam Kubert for the final issue, with Keith for color again, and somehow all that red glare is gone, even though this is the same fight and nothing has changed. Plus, at this point, if you have any memory of the lanky Cyclops Cho gave us in #2, you’ll be wondering where the hell Davis and Kubert’s fairly muscular version of the X-Men leader came from – my guess is he derived from a narrative need to have Scott be able to take Wolverine one-on-one. Although I will say that I think I liked Kubert’s art best of the series. His narrative technique in that fight scene is nuts.
Disjointed art aside, this arc does some truly incredible things for the characters, and the universe. Aaron takes up the old boy-scout vs. rebel conflict and turns it on its side. He manages to find motivations in each of the characters to depict them in roles you might not expect. Scott is definitely not the goodie-two-shoes you might have come to expect, and Logan has some really touching scenes that don’t even belie the snikt-bub rampages, but rather actually give them emotional grounding. (By the way, I just found out this week that snikt-bub is a commonly used critical term used to discuss the more one-dimensional depictions of Wolverine, and that is now officially my new favorite thing ever.) And yes, everyone’s favorite dead red head does come up – as, of course, she must – but Aaron handles it so briefly and deftly that I was blown away by the impact such a few lines could have on me.
The recurring motif of this arc (and yeah, the arc has a recurring motif, so props to Jason Aaron) is the picture of the smiling original X-Men team surrounding Charles Xavier. Numerous characters (most significantly Cyclops and Wolverine) are visibly affected by this picture, and their reactions, verbal or otherwise, tell a lot about them. These reactions also tell a lot about who the X-Men are, or who people – both characters and readers – see them as being. Are they a lethal group of superhumans dedicated to policing the world, or are they a group of mutants dedicated to defining and defending mutanthood? Are they monsters, or not? These are serious questions, and the split between the group that will now result in two series dedicated to one half each, Wolverine and the X-Men and Uncanny X-Men, is designed explicitly to show what each of these answers means. With Jason Aaron continuing to helm Wolverine and and Kieron Gillen on Uncanny, I will definitely be sticking around to see the consequences of the split. Congratulations, Marvel: you just got yourself a new reader, and you didn’t even have to re-boot your whole universe to do it. Just try to keep the same artists around for a while, this time.