Buckets of Bloodlessness: How “Uncanny X-Men” Misses Its Grand Guignol

Imagine Robert Rodriguez levels of filmmaking, but as a puppet show. Not early RR, where he demonstrated his gift for direction by shooting el Mariachi on a shoestring budget. Not the middling RR of The Faculty or Spy Kids or Desperado, where safe bets where made. But radical RR, the Robert Rodriguez we fans always knew was in there. The Robert Rodriguez of Death Proof and Planet Terror, of Machete. The Robert Rodriguez we saw flashes of in From Dusk Till Dawn, the Robert Rodriguez who Made It Through. Imagine that Robert Rodriguez rendered some five generations prior, by puppets, on a stage in Paris. That is the Grand Guignol.

The Grand Guignol puppet theater was torture and mayhem and blood by the bucketload in the service of a new kind of entertainment. Its charisma and the ease with which it could be accepted into Parisian popculture really hinged upon the visceral nature of the performance. To this end, it was probably best that the short performances were acted out by puppets–human players, even given the obviousness of the stagecraft, might just have proved too much. But Grand Guignol was the Grindhouse of its day. It was the Schlock, the low-end production values, and, for just the briefest, brightest flash, it was art from the existential realized in vivid gratuitousness.

If anything at all, the newly rebooted Uncanny X-Men tantalizes by teetering on the cusp of this kind of storytelling. The commercial reality of today’s comics industry, and by far the worst kind of tragedy, is that writer Kieron Gillen simply cannot transition from “regular mainstream” super-team comicbook to this kind of Grand Guignol X-Men you can sense writhing beneath the surface of his writing. If anything, this tension between what Uncanny X-Men needs to be to ensure mass-based appeal, and what you can sense it could easily be, makes for a seductively interesting read. Or maybe it did until “Tabula Rasa”, the series’ newest storyarc that kicked off in January.

Uncanny X-Men picks up on the “Team Cyclops” half of the X-Men post the “Schism” event. It was during that period that the tensions between Cyclops and Wolverine irrevocably broke through whatever compromises the two had established over the years. This time the argument wasn’t about Jean Grey or about the best way to deal with Magneto (himself now an X-Man) or whichever mutant is now threat-du-jour. This time the argument went around the very core of Xavier’s Dream of mutants and humans living in together in peace and mutual respect.

Kieron’s writing is at its clearest early on in “Everything is Sinister”, the first storyarc of Uncanny, at the point when Cyclops addresses his “Extinction Team” for the first time. There’s a punctiliousness, a necessity and a formality to Cyclops’ tone that overtakes the mood in the briefing room. And just for that moment it seems as if Kieron is making an artistic statement about the increasingly militaristic nature of Cyclops’ thinking.

Context is necessary here. Following from “Schism” and on into “ReGenesis”, the X-Men effectively split down the middle, into “Team Cyclops” and “Team Wolverine”. Their final disagreement, those titans of the X-Men, was about Xavier’s Dream and the role of young mutants. They should be schooled, they should be equipped for being able to enter into human society was Wolverine’s position. He and others returned to upstate New York to establish the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning.

Based on Utopia, an artificial island floating off San Francisco, Cyclops saw nothing but the speciesist hatred against mutants and cut through the apparent contradictions of Xavier’s dream. If Xavier really believed in peace and tolerance and human-mutant cooperation, why were the X-Men ever trained for combat situations? It’s an ostensible contradiction that is never fully answered during last year’s X-Men: First Class. Sure enough the events precipitated by Sebastian Shaw (played with gusto by Kevin Bacon) led to the need for a paramilitary squad. But why continue training the X-Men subsequent to the events of the film? Didn’t the very existence of the X-Men in some ways ethically compromise, if not completely invalidate Xavier’s dream of mutual tolerance?

Hence Cyclops’ increasingly hawkish outlook. He’ll establish his Extinction Team, to directly interdict any potentially extinction-level threats to the planet. He’ll protect human and mutant alike. But his Extinction Team will also be the final arbiter of threats to mutant life, dignity and security; be those threats human, organization, or government. Cyclops’ plan, as Kieron writes so tersely, in what seems to be a judgment of sorts (perhaps only a comment) on Cyclops’ barbaric lack of appreciation for the subtleties of the situation, is to have the Extinction Team be a final authority that will instill fear in case the aspirational vision of the team is not fully welcomed.

And it’s at this point that it all becomes too much. It’s exactly at this point that you need to drop the book. That you need to not turn the page, and leave now of your own free will. Before you grow spellbound by the siren song. This is exactly as bad as you can allow a book to get. Overt and grotesque power-mongering veiled thinly as superheroics is where the line needs to be drawn.

For your part, you can’t help but recall that magical dinner-table scene from “The Club”, the opening issue of Jonathan Hickman’s FF. Reed had just suggested terraforming the Moon, had just been supported by everyone else at the dinner table when Nathaniel, Reed’s own father, bluntly stated his opposition. Nathaniel’s defense rang out as both light, and cutting; “What, we don’t do dissenting opinions here? Reed just says something and everyone automatically agrees? That’s ridiculous”.

And just here, in this briefing room with Cyclops and his bordering-on-fascist-plan of scare-em-till-they-love-us, you’re earnestly waiting for someone to cry foul in the same way Nathaniel did. Only Storm makes the attempt, but Kieron undercuts that moment with misplaced frivolity from Emma Frost, and a scene that lingers too long. And that’s when you realize you should simply leave.

Except you don’t. And you’re rewarded if you don’t. Within a handful of panels, Mr. Sinister, the shadowy X-Villain of longstanding, fully reveals the plan that we caught the faintest glimpse of in the issue’s overture. And this is when the magic of the book can really be found.

There are some obvious shortfalls, of course. Sinister’s self-aggrandizing register sometimes slips into Cyclops’ or Namor’s or Emma’s. Kieron isn’t as controlled with his characterization, at least in terms of dialogue, as he ought to be. Emma scans as ersatz snobby, bordering on Euro-trash bimbo-esque, Colossus, Namor and Magneto read as one-dimensional. This second shortfall is less about characterization than it is about the narrative developing scenarios that would shed light on the characterization.

But these really are minor points in the face of the unbridled mastery with which Kieron grasps Mr. Sinister. I’m hard-pressed to recall a time when Sinister was written with such leering, unchecked arrogance, and simultaneously with such frailty. In the recent Bob Dylan, by Greil Marcus, Greil writes in “Save the Last Waltz for Me”, “Neil Young, as usual, arrives as a refugee from the Dust Bowl, but the way he’s shot roughly intensifies his persona: hunching his body over his guitar, as if he can’t hide his face with his shoulders, Young looks like a child molester, a bad dream–and then he opens his mouth and sings ‘Helpless’ in the voice of a little boy who’s scared of the man we’re watching”. And you get that same sense with Kieron’s scripting of Sinister. That unbeknownst to Sinister his caught in a trap, and it’s a trap even we can’t completely know, but we’re beginning to feel the edges of.

And even more magnificent than Sinister, and the revelation of his origin story as Victorian scientist Nathaniel Essex who self-mutated, and (for the first time?) his distinction from the other “mutant messiah” Apocalypse, and his characterization as a mutant supremacist who wants to reassert the “orderliness” of the Victorian Age, is the nature of the threat he poses to the X-Men. This isn’t your traditional X-Men story. This isn’t the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants showing up to rob a bank. Or X-Corp uncovering abuse of Chinese mutants at the hands of the Red Army. Or Simon Trask countervailing his species-hatred as a peaceful protest. No. If Sinister is gleeful, it is for one reason. He’s welcoming Cyclops, and the X-Men, whose ranks are now bolstered by presumably reformed villains Magneto and Namor, into supervillain-hood.

And it’s not just Sinister’s taunting that conveys this idea. His plan for evolving himself into a species, for setting up a Victorian Age World’s Fair where each of the hundreds of Sinisters has a particular social role and social standing engineered into his genes, is a dark reflection of Cyclops’ own plan for the Extinction Team. “Next time we talk, you’ll be more hated than I’ve ever been”, Sinister gloats just before making his escape. This isn’t prophetic, Kieron’s crafting of this escape-scene is one of the best I’ve ever read. This is simply years of experience allowing Sinister to see down the line.

And this is really where we are left, with Cyclops’ X-Men walking a finer line than ever before. Sinister’s speciating himself, and the following issue’s Phalanx Warrior decimating a small border-town, not only tilt you to yearning for a more bloody, Robert Rodriguez grindhouse style of taking down “villains”, but also underscore the very real need to derail this particular creative evolution. Uncanny X-Men simply cannot be Warren Ellis-era Authority. And yet, Kieron’s Uncanny X-Men seems to be at its very best when it brushes up seductively close to being that kind of no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners team.

And here we’re left then, with an X-Men probationally balanced between creative impulse and commercial interest. An X-Men of the kind we haven’t seen in the longest time, an X-Men ready to do perfect, uncompromising violence, but never actually seems to do that violence.

Until that is, we hit “Tabula Rasa”. The newest storyarc is laced with arguably greater promise than either “Everything is Sinister” or the self-contained issue that connects the previous arc to the current. And yet, just two issues in, and already the cracks are beginning to show.

“Tabula Rasa” sees the Uncanny X-Men led by the nose into a situation they cannot be properly prepared for. The problem that the X-Men wrestle with, the artificial world of Tabula Rasa, has its origins in the events of “The Dark Angel Saga” that played out over the late summer in the pages of Uncanny X-Force. It’s an artificial ecosystem sealed off from the rest of the world somewhere in Montana, that had a hyper-accelerated evolutionary cycles, courtesy of Archangel who’d been possessed by Apocalypse’s drive to remake the earth as a mutant-only habitat. Psylocke leads the X-Men into Tabula Rasa as an act of atonement–she herself was responsible for its creation insofar as she failed to stop Archangel for enacting Apocalypse’s plan.

But rather than re-evoke this inner tension of the Uncanny X-Men between being heroic and being locked into a spiral of inevitable supervillain-hood, Kieron offers readers a set of skirmishes where the X-Men are little more than duped by the 21st-century version of the Savage Land. Namor and Hope fight a school of monster-fish. Storm and Cyclops quip about days gone by and friendships lost, Piotr and Illyana brood about Colossus’ immortal soul amidst a veritable Eden of crystals. Even Magneto reads as smarmy rather than menacing.

And yet, all the pieces are in place for “Tabula Rasa” to equal or perhaps even exceed the splendid panorama of “Everything is Sinister”. There’s Betsy Braddock, Psylocke, driven by her need for atonement. Not only for being compassionate at the precise moment that aggressive action would have allowed her to prevent the Tabula Rasa and save thousands of lives in Montana. But because, even while she executes her duties as head of Utopia’s security, she secretly co-opts onto Wolverine’s terminal sanction squad, X-Force. “I’ll be on as many teams as it takes”, she says to Cyclops, but not admitting to her role in X-Force, “Logan made it look so easy”. Cyclops’ response “The best there is at what he does, and all that” reads as skittish rather than measured. And the interaction reads like a missed opportunity.

There’s Magneto, the only member of the Extinction Team who actually knows of Betsy’s double-dealing, but rather than confront her directly or manipulate her into doing something for him, finds himself gloating in a vein not dissimilar to Sinister from just a few issues earlier. There’s Colossus, Piotr Rasputin, and his sister Magik (Illyana), who find themselves in the midst of a new Eden while struggling with Piotr’s literal deal with the Devil to absorb the mutant energies of the Juggernaut and prevent the destruction of the Earth. Will Piotr be able to find that wonder that will allow to properly be Piotr again? Yes, within a panel. And whatever tension could be built is automatically undercut.

Really what you want, what you’re dying for is not the buckets of blood from Grand Guignol. But that tilt, that teetering on the edge of that Kieron crafted so elegantly and so finely in the first four issues of the series. You want that Robert Rodriguez moment. Not from fully-formed RR, because you know the commercial concerns will never allow for that truly magnificent vision to emerge in one of the company’s mainstay titles. But that sublime tension of middling Robert, with From Dusk Till Dawn and The Faculty and Once Upon a Time in Mexico when that struggle between commercial interests and creativity unleashed writhes so palpably beneath the surface.

For the other side of the family, for “Team Wolverine” writer Jason Aaron has crafted one of the most compelling visions currently playing out in mainstream superhero comics. The Jean Grey Institute for Higher Learning is a school, it’s meant to prepare its students for a larger world. And yet, there is a need for “Headmaster Logan” to continue to run an off-the-books kill-squad to continually protect the ideal of the school. Hidden from sight, Jason Aaron reminds us of those on the frontlines who pay a very steep psychic price, and the reason they agree to pay it.

It’s hard to read Wolverine & and the X-Men and not recall one of the most vivid moments in television storytelling from the last year. Person of Interest’s climactic closing to episode four’s “Heal Thyself”, where Jim Caviezel’s character teeters on the cusp of ending the life of a serial-rapist about to turn serial-killer. “Which will I regret more”, Caviezel intones, existentialist pain painted in broad strokes across a soulful gaze. “Which will I regret more, letting you live or ending you now? Maybe there are no ‘good people’ or ‘bad people’. Maybe there’s only good decisions. Help me make a good decision”. The intimacy and the emotional rawness is cut exactly there with a sudden fade-to-black.

And you really want that kind of moment for Uncanny X-Men. Because you could sense it building in those first issues, and just building is not nearly enough. And because by this time you’re already rooting for Kieron Gillen. Because you can sense, just sense, that in five years, in two years, in six months, he’s going to be the kind of writer you can point as having discovered for yourself, long before Ghost Rider or Daredevil or Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. or whatever will be the Big It for Kieron we all know is just out of view on the horizon. And because it really has been the longest time since you remember having “discovered” a great talent in comics, long before anyone else realized the untapped potential within. And because desperately, this kind of breakout, needs to be true for comics once again.