Book Review: X-Men: Evolution #5-9

[This is the second part of my two-part review of the X-Men: Evolution comic book series. To read my review of issues #1-4, click here.]

WRITERS: Devin Grayson with Faerber

ART & COLORS: UDON with Long Vo, Charles Park & Saka of Studio XD; Art, Issue #9: J.J. Kirby; Colors, Issue #9: Chris Walker

LETTERS: Randy Gentile

COVER ART: Kia Asamiya

EDITORS: Brian Smith, C.B. Cebulski, Ralph Macchio, Jeff Youngquist, Cory Sedlmeier, Jennifer Grünwald

BOOK DESIGNER: Jeof Vita

“You have certified teachers here? I mean, besides yourself?”

“Technically, you’ll be my first. However—I have roped my more senior residents into various tutoring positions.”

(Hank McCoy/Beast and Professor Charles Xavier, X-Men: Evolution #7)[1]

Issue #5 “Untouchable” focuses on Rogue and her considering leaving the X-Men to join the Brotherhood. Rogue is one of my favorite characters, but I don’t think this story did her justice. This story arc is one that required more time and space to develop properly; one would expect it to take up several issues, but the creators tried to fit it all into twenty-one pages. Because of that, everything happens very suddenly. Rogue leaves the X-Men very suddenly, as the result of a rather contrived plot on the part of Mystique and the Brotherhood; conversations between Mystique (disguised as the other X-Men) and Rogue, in addition to some actual arguments Rogue already had with her friends, lead to Rogue running away. One gets the feeling a conversation between Rogue and the other X-Men could have prevented the whole situation, as they wouldn’t have remembered having the conversations in which Mystique was impersonating them. Indeed, Rogue even suspects in the beginning that her friends are acting oddly, not as they usually do. (As a side note, the frustration Rogue feels when Logan is teaching the teen X-Men how to do CPR felt forced; the explanation given is that Rogue is frustrated that she can’t learn it due to her powers, but it’s not actually necessary to touch someone’s skin to perform CPR. Contrary to popular media depictions, mouth-to-mouth is not the only way to provide air to the unconscious person.) Rogue’s return to the X-Men is also very sudden, happening mere moments after setting foot in the Brotherhood headquarters, due to a rather amateurish slip-up on Mystique’s part. The saving grace of this issue is the friendship: the interactions between Rogue and Kurt and the panel of Rogue looking at a picture of her friends. If the creators wanted to continue their theme of having each of these beginning issues focus on a particular character, they could have either told this story in a different way or focused on a different part of Rogue’s story that could be better-told in a single issue.

Issue #6 “Just Like You” shows us Evan Daniels/Spyke (Ororo’s nephew), who has a new friend named Calvin Rankin/Mimic. As Cal’s pseudonym would indicate, he is able to mimic the powers of those around him. During the course of the issue, we find out that Cal is not actually a mutant, but got his powers due to scientific experiments his father was conducting. This felt a bit like a “villain of the month” issue.[2] There’s an interesting scenario in which the X-Men have to work together when faced with someone who has all their powers but can’t control them. There’s also a moment when Scott is distracted during the fight due to his concern for Jean and gets told off by Logan. I get the impression this was meant to set up some drama in which Scott and Jean break up for a rather contrived reason and then get back together. Cal ends up leaving the Xavier Institute, without waiting to see if the X-Men will accept him as a new member, despite him not being a mutant. We get a nice moment at the end when Evan realizes who his real friends are, because they accept him as he is (not only if he is just like them). It would have been nice to get to know Evan a little better here. This issue and previous one seem to be the point when the series started moving away from just the origin stories and character introductions, bringing in rivals who the X-Men have to fight against.

Issue #7 “Beat of Burden” is when Hank McCoy, previously a teacher at Bayville High School (a job he cannot continue to his mutant transformation), joins the X-Men. We see him take over the gym class, where Logan is being really tough on the students. McCoy instead has them play baseball, and they have much more fun. It works very well to show the kind of teacher McCoy is, and even Logan starts to have a good time. Jean, who plays sports at school, gets to demonstrate her athletic skills. During the game, we also get to see some of the younger students who have just joined the X-Men. There are passages that are meant to set up Scott becoming the new field leader of the X-Men, which will be relevant in the next issue, and this point is why the baseball game is so drawn out (so Scott can demonstrate his skills as a team leader). I found this bit rather confusing and unnecessary, as I thought he was already the field leader. (He was the first student and had shown his leadership skills previously.) At the end of the issue, McCoy receives a mysterious email that was probably intended to set up a future story that was never published.

Issue #8 “Angel Underground” begins with Jean seeing a vision of an angel, who turns out to be Warren Worthington III/Angel, who has been kidnapped and is being held captive. The X-Men must go into the sewers to rescue Warren from the Morlocks (a group of mutants who live underground, separate from the society that despises them). Storm’s claustrophobia make it difficult for her to tolerate being underground, but she is able to overcome it and fight anyway. We see the various members of the team working together, with the teens making responsible decisions even when the adult who’s with them is having a difficult time. The X-Men invite the Morlocks to join them, but the Morlocks refuse. Of course, they end up rescuing Warren and bring him back to the Xavier Institute. He decides not to join the X-Men at this time, though he does seem interested in seeing Jean again.

Issue #9 “House Party” shows our teenage X-Men throwing a party while Professor Xavier and the other adults are away. The immediately jarring thing in this issue was the artwork, which was drawn by a different artist. After reading eight issues (and watching fifty-two episodes) in which the characters are drawn a certain way, reading this single issue was odd. The difference wasn’t slight either, not a case of a different hand drawing the characters in a similar style, but completely changed. I spent some time trying to figure out who some of the characters were. The concept had the potential to be a fun family-and-friendship story and a nice send-off to the series, but the plot was rather generic without much character development or moments that would leave an impact on the reader.

Overall, for what it is, the X-Men: Evolution comic series has some decent portions and had some potential to go somewhere interesting, if it’d had the chance. I don’t know when the writers and artists knew that their run was over; at some point, they must have been told. The earlier issues are meant to introduce or provide some backstory for some of the characters, and they had some good moments. Starting with issue #5, the series tries to condense too many story arcs and plots into single issues and ended up not doing them justice. The series may have benefited from focusing on one story arc developed over several issues with more interactions between the X-Men to develop their friendships, which were easily some of the better parts of the stories.

The X-Men: Evolution comic book series is probably only going to be of interest to either a die-had completionist or someone like me who remembers the television series. There isn’t much of a story outside of the introductions to the characters, and there are some problems with the writing and plot. It’s not a necessary read, but there are enough funny moments that the nostalgia factor made it a nice trip down memory lane on a quiet afternoon (Issue #2 even managed to inspire a short fan fiction that I wrote recently.)[3] If you’re a fan of the show and happen to come across a used copy somewhere, maybe pick it up for a look through, but it’s not something to seek out.

[Originally Written: 10 July 2014]

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References

[1] Grayson, Devin; Udon Studios; et al. #7: “Beast of Burden”. 2002. X-Men: Evolution. Marvel, 2003.

[2] “Monster of the Week”. TV Tropes entry. Retrieved on 10 July 2014 from http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MonsterOfTheWeek.

[3] Geek Squared 1307. “Certified Do-Gooder”. Posted on 5 June 2014 at FanFiction.Net. Retrieved on 10 July 2014 from https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10417052/1/Certified-Do-Gooder.

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Book Review: X-Men: Evolution #1-4

WRITER: Devin Grayson

ARTWORK & COLORS: UDON with Long Vo, Charles Park & Saka of Studio XD

LETTERS: Randy Gentile

EDITORS: Ralph Macchio, Brian Smith, Joe Quesada, Jeff Youngquist, Jennifer Grünwald

PUBLISHER: Dan Buckley

BOOK DESIGN: Patrick McGrath

“You have no idea what it means to me to be a part of something like this.”

“Maybe I do, kid … maybe I do.”

(Scott Summers/Cyclops and Logan/Wolverine, X-Men: Evolution #2)[1]

“At first when I got to the Institute, I liked being at school better, because that’s where I felt smart and competent … and at the Institute, I’m always kind of intimidated by how amazing and cool everyone is. But I’ve decided I like having people around me to look up to. I think it makes me a better person, and there’s so much to learn.”

(Kitty Pride/Shadowcat, X-Men Evolution #4)[2]

I grew up watching X-Men: Evolution; it’s to that show and to the X-Men films that I owe my love of this superhero team. The series aired from 4 November 2000 to 25 October 2003 and lasted for four seasons (consisting of a total of fifty-two episodes), and it was a regular part of my Saturday mornings. Less well known is the comic book series based on the show, which was released in 2002; there were only ever nine issues released. I read the first four issues (which are collected into one book) years ago and decided to find and read the last five recently out of nostalgia. This review contains my thoughts on issues #1-4. The next will contain my thoughts on issues #5-9 and overall impression.

Issue #1 “Lines in the Sand” introduces us to the characters Professor Charles Xavier, Ororo Munroe/Storm, Logan/Wolverine, Magneto, and Mystique. Ororo is Professor Xavier’s first recruit, after he sees her using her powers to help someone. Logan is approached by both Professor X and Magneto and decides to go with Xavier and Ororo. Professor X, Ororo, and Logan build the school and look for their first student. It’s a nice introduction, and we immediately see some of the disagreements between Professor X and Magneto that have become a staple of the X-Men stories. We get some sweet moments from Ororo and Logan that make us immediately like them. Everything happened a little too quickly, perhaps because the creators were in a rush to get the school open and start adding students.

Issue #2 “Seeing Clearly” is when we meet Scott Summers, the first teenage student at the Xavier Institute. He’s at a hospital in Alaska, after accidentally blowing the roof off the orphanage where he lives. Professor Xavier shows up, pays the cost of the damage, gives Scott his signature ruby quartz visor that helps him control his powers, and takes him to the Institute to become one of the X-Men. This issue is really sweet, as we see the ever-optimistic Scott having hope for a better future despite being targeted for suspicion and fear, as well as being grateful for the chance to live at the Institute and have a future. There’s a nice moment when Logan, who had previously been skeptical about Scott’s ability to be an X-Men (calling him “that ridiculously polite pollyanna who won’t last a week”), realizes he was wrong after the two of them stop a crime together. These two characters, often depicted as rivals and reluctant allies with very different personalities and values, are shown to have something in common, as being part of the X-Men means a lot to both of them.

Issues #3 “Hearing Things” introduces us to Jean Grey, who is having trouble controlling her telepathic and telekinetic powers. The X-Men welcome her to join them and Professor Xavier starts tutoring her on how to control her abilities. There’s an odd moment when Logan think that Jean is beautiful (perhaps a reference to him liking her in other X-Men stories) but it’s thankfully not brought up again. We see Jean go to her first day at Bayville High School, where Scott (who clearly has a crush on her) is showing her around. She starts reading everyone’s thoughts unintentionally and runs home. There’s a nice conversation between Jean and Ororo, with them talking about their experiences with their powers, and then a funny scene with Jean and Scott flirting while the professor is in the same room. Later, Jean and Scott go on a field trip and have to save everyone when Todd causes the school bus to crash. In the processes, Jean has to try to control her powers to figure out what’s going on. The field trip was a bit of an odd choice, I thought; the same effect (Jean having an experience in which she had to control her powers) could have been done in a different way, in a different scenario. Overall, it was an alright introduction to Jean, showing her getting used to her powers and making new friends who understand her.

Issue #4 “Am I Blue” starts with the six teenage main characters (Scott, Jean, Rogue, Kitty, Kurt, and Evan) already living at the Institute and focuses on Kurt’s acceptance of his mutation. It was nice to see the characters together. There’s a training session in the Danger Room that was attempting to incorporate some serious and funny elements, but it came across as trying a little too hard. Later conversations between Kurt and Kitty were sweet and got the same points across much better. The ending shows Kurt handing in a school assignment and is rather amusing. Accepting oneself as a mutant is one of the staples of the X-Men stories, and Kurt is an appropriate choice for that plot. There is also a random but hilarious yoga session (taught by Ororo and Logan) towards the end of the issue.

Overall, in the first four issues, we mostly meet some of the characters for the first time with fun moments. There are moments of unintentional hilarity in some of the passages that are trying too hard, but also some genuinely sweet moments that make the characters interesting.

[To read the second part of my two-part review of the X-Men: Evolution comic book series, click here.]

[Originally Written: 10 July 2014]

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References

[1] Grayson, Devin; Udon Studios; et al. #2: “Seeing Clearly”. 2002. In: X-Men: Evolution, Vol. 1. Marvel, 2003.

[2] Grayson, Devin; Udon Studios; et al. #4: “Am I Blue”. 2002. In: X-Men: Evolution, Vol. 2. Marvel, 2003.

Hope on New Year’s Eve

I once had a tradition of writing yearly New Year’s Eve posts; I titled the five that I wrote after the books Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. I skipped the past few years, but it’s a tradition that seems worth revisiting. I’ve been thinking a lot about the long arc of history and hope for the future, especially how to balance the knowledge of humanity’s horrors and goodness. There is no utopia, but there is also no complete defeat. There is still hope.

I recently watched Rogue One, the latest installment of the Star Wars film series, and it hit me viscerally. We know that this film takes place before Episode IV, telling the story of the team that obtained the plans of the Galactic Empire’s Death Star for the Rebel Alliance. The characters are some of the previously unknown and unnamed people who made the mission to destroy the Death Star and (later) the defeat of the Galactic Empire possible. They are fictional version of people who are rarely in history books but whose work made the big events possible.

None of us will see the better future that hope for, but I’ve never felt that quite as acutely as I have this year. I’ve had the privilege in my life of receiving the benefits of the hard work of people long dead; I’ve seen victories and changes that I’m certain will go in the history books of the future. But I’ve also lived in a time of great horrors and I have known that there is still much work to be done. Progress isn’t inevitable and it can be reversed. It can be fought for, but (despite what I would like to be true) maybe it can never permanently be won. Even as Rogue One helps the Rebels win one battle, Episode VII tells the story of the next generation fighting against the First Order.

After a year of fearing the future and remembering the horrors of the past, as we see the resurgence of attitudes we hoped had been buried or relegated to the margins of society, this film seemed all too relevant. We had hoped we could look to a future where we could build upon the victories of the past. We face instead the need to hold the line and prevent, at best, the loss of decades of work while also working for something better in a future that we ourselves will never see.

I try not to think too despairingly about mortality and the briefness of a human life in comparison to the long history of humanity and the much longer history of the universe. We are here, and we matter, no matter how short the timeframe. We try do what we can while we are here on this little planet in our little corner of the universe. Focus more on this life and what we can do now, and maybe someone else’s life will be affected for the better, maybe our descendants will see a better future

There are people who came before us who worked hard to give us a life better than what they had and the hope that a better future. Our job is to keep that hope alive for the next generation.

Happy New Year.

In Praise of “Far Beyond the Stars”

“You can pulp a story, but you cannot destroy an idea. Don’t you understand? That’s ancient knowledge. You cannot destroy an idea.” (Benny Russell)

“You are the dreamer, and the dream.” (Preacher)

“For all we know, at this very moment, somewhere far beyond all those distant stars, Benny Russell is dreaming of us.” (Benjamin Sisko)

In the Star Trek canon, there are (thus far) over seven hundred episodes and twelve films. It’s difficult to choose a favorite, but there is one episode that I think encapsulates what I think Trek is all about. That episode is “Far Beyond the Stars” from season six of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.[1] I just rewatched it a few days ago, and my high opinion of it was reinforced further. Let me tell you how much I love this episode and why.

The framing of “Far Beyond the Stars” is that most of the episode is a vision of Captain Benjamin Sisko of Deep Space Nine. Captain Sisko is the Emissary of the Prophets, and he’d had visions from the Prophets in prior episodes. At the beginning of the episode, Sisko has received news about the destruction of the USS Cortez, which was captained by a friend of his named Quentin Swofford; the Defiant searched for six hours but found no survivors from the destruction of the vessel. Sisko feels despair and doubt due to the repeated deaths and setbacks in the Dominion War; he doesn’t know if he can take it any longer and considers leaving Starfleet. He then starts seeing weird things and then finds himself in 1950s New York as Benny Russell, a science fiction writer for Incredible Tales of Scientific Wonder. The Deep Space Nine characters have counterparts in this 1950s storyline. Albert Macklin (Miles O’Brien), Kay Eaton (Kira Nerys), Julius Eaton (Julian Bashir), Herbert Rossoff (Quark) are also science fiction writers at Incredible Tales. Douglas Pabst (Odo) is the editor of the magazine, and Darlene Kursky (Jadzia Dax) is his secretary and a fan of science fiction. Roy Ritterhouse (Martok) is an illustrator at the same magazine. Cassie (Kasidy Yates) works at a diner, which she’s hoping to buy, and is Benny’s fiancée, hoping to settle down with him. Willie Hawkins (Worf) is a baseball player for the New York Giants. Jimmy (Jake Sisko) is a friend of Benny’s, and Benny is concerned that Jimmy is involved in some criminal activity. Burt Ryan (Dukat) and Kevin Mulkahey (Weyoun) are police officers who harass civilians, and especially target African-Americans. The Preacher (Joseph Sisko) speaks the word of the Prophets, and Benny encounters him several times. An unnamed news vendor (Nog) sells science fiction magazines. A major theme of the story is the discrimination faced by Benny and other African-Americans during the 1950s, with a message about the importance of equality and hope for a better future.

This episode is clearly one of the special episodes about an important issue that many television shows attempt to include every once in a while. Episodes of this type are notoriously difficult to pull off, in my view; it’s too easy to be overly simplistic or too cautious or too preachy, despite good intentions. Even in a story like Trek, in which many episodes have some sort of theme or message, when the creators consciously try to create an episode which very obviously addresses a current controversial social issue, the results are mixed. Even in a story that generally has a theme of people who are different being allies and working together, attempts to include obvious real-world equality messages can end up being unsuccessful. (There are, for instance, Trek episodes which attempt to address LGBT issues; to the frustration of many fans, myself included, the results ranged from half-heartedly decent attempts to frustrating failures that seemed sometimes to imply the opposite message of what was intended.) One of the reasons I love “Far Beyond the Stars” is because it’s a special important-issue episode that manages to do it right—in fact, not just right, but wonderfully right. It’s not just good compared to the other okay episodes of this type, but is one of the best in the canon.

“Far Beyond the Stars” is effective in showing that when a society has institutional discrimination against certain people, that discrimination can manifest in many different forms. There is horrendous violence done against people based on race, including by police officers who killed Jimmy and brutally beat Benny. There are also various forms of discrimination, and reminders that others think less of you, all throughout one’s life. A group photo of the writers of Incredible Tales is planned, but Kay Eaton (who writes under the name K.C. Hunter) and Benny Russell are not included, so that the audience doesn’t find out that Hunter is female and Russell is African-American. Benny’s story about a space station is not published because the main character is a black Captain. The baseball player Willie Hawkins, in response Cassie asking him why he continues to live in Harlem when he could afford to live in a different neighborhood, says that white people wouldn’t want an African-American living among them; where he lives right now, he’s respected, but if went to live in a predominantly-white neighborhood, his neighbors would look down on him. In this world, it’s understandable why someone would be doubtful that things will get better. As Jimmy says when Pabst doesn’t want to publish Benny’s story, “I told you you were wasting your time. A colored Captain! They only reason they’ll ever let us in space is if they need someone to shine their shoes. […] Today or a hundred years from now, it don’t make a bit of difference. As far as they’re concerned, we’ll always be niggers.” A future like the one in Benny Russell’s story seems far-fetched, but it’s one that he holds on to, even when the magazine’s publisher decides to pulp the issue rather than put out an issue that includes a story with a black Captain.

The episode also subtly prompts viewers to consider our own biases. Throughout the story, the justification given for the discriminatory decisions at the magazine is the audience. This is the same justification often given today for being exclusionary when deciding which stories are worth publishing and filming. As fans, the episode encourages us to look at ourselves and what we choose to read. The question is brought up of who is ultimately responsible for these discriminatory actions, both in the story and in our own world. People never want to blame themselves; the editor blames the publishers and the readers, the publisher blames the readers, and the readers claim they’re not actually discriminating while they keep receiving and reading content that caters to their biases. There is a seemingly never-ending cycle of discrimination, as the way things are becomes a justification for continuing to do what we have always done. Things can only improve if someone stands up and says something, if writers and readers want a better future. Just as Benny Russell keeps up hope, so does Benjamin Sisko on Deep Space Nine, deciding that he’s going to stay and finish the job he started. In response to his decision, his father Joseph Sisko says to him (referencing 2 Timothy 4:7), “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith.”

In addition to the more serious themes, there were also some humorous and fun scenes; I enjoyed scenes and dialogue that make references to Star Trek and other science fiction. The fictional science fiction writers in the 1950s read Benny Russell’s story and comment on their counterparts in the twenty-fourth century; Kay Eaton likes Major Kira Nerys, because she thinks science fiction could use more strong female characters, while Darlene Kursky finds the idea of Jadzia Dax having a “worm in her belly” (the Trill symbiont) interesting but disgusting. Julius Eaton comments in one scene, “We’re writers, not Vikings” (a reference to the “I’m a doctor, not a …” catch phrase of Trek physicians). Some of the fictional science fiction writers have reminded viewers of famous writers, and there are also overt references to various famous writers of the time period when the writers at Incredible Tales are discussing the latest issue of Galaxy. The fact that Kay Eaton writes under the name K.C. Hunter is a reference to female writers, including C.L. Moore, who wrote under initials to hide their identity; in fact, there have been female writers of Star Trek who’ve done the same thing, including D.C. Fontana, who wrote for The Original Series. These scenes provide some amusement, while also adding to the commentary on the episode’s own series and genre.

Another reason why I think this episode was well done was that it is connected with the rest of the story, rather than seeming out of place in the way that some special important-issue episodes sometimes do. Because the 1950s portions of the episode are a vision of Captain Sisko, we see how the vision affects him and inspires him. Rather than being a random episode interrupting the larger narratives of the series, the episode is built into Sisko’s story arc, connected with several other episodes with visions or historical references, in addition to showing him dealing with the loss of his friend and the despair of fighting in the Dominion War with repeated setbacks. The vision of Benny Russell influences his decision and inspires him, just as the story of Deep Space Nine is Benny Russell’s vision of a better future and gives him hope.

Finally, of course, there are the fans watching the show and our acute awareness of what we are seeing. We are watching the story of an African-American science fiction writer who is told that his story can’t be published because the Captain is black, but that story is part of a television series with a black Captain. Things in our world have improved, but at the same time, we are closer to the 1950s United States than the twenty-fourth century of Deep Space Nine. This episode is one of the ones that address real-world problems of inequality in a show that often promotes diversity and inclusion in metaphors. This is also an excellent example of how having a diverse cast of characters can reinforce the messages of equality that is found in the metaphors. Because Deep Space Nine has a diverse cast of characters, the real-world diversity and metaphorical diversity reinforce each other for a good message. In this episode in particular, that is shown very well through the story. We look at our recent past and a fictional far away future, seeing a past world in which a story about aliens and robots can be accepted but a story about a black Captain is unacceptable, in contrast with a future in which Earth is united and part of the United Federation of Planets, with humans working together with people from hundreds of planets. And we despair just a little, because we recognize in our own society the problems of the past. But there is also hope. “Far Beyond the Stars” represents what Star Trek is at its best, what it aspires to be. Like Benny Russell, we hope for a better future—not just one with starships that let us visit other planets and meet people from other planets, but one in which things are better for more human beings.

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Acknowledgements

With thanks to Foz Meadows (@fozmeadows) and Kate Elliott (@KateElliottSFF), with whom I participated in a fun Twitter conversation about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine back in October 2013.

[Originally written: 2 March 2014]

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References

[1] The Memory Alpha wiki entry about “Far Beyond the Stars” can be found at http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Far_Beyond_the_Stars_(episode).