Ethan: One evening in college, I was getting ready to turn in a paper that was due the next day. It was all written & polished, so I was just going to skim it one last time and make sure there weren’t any glaring issues. As the file loaded, Word showed a popup window, which I dismissed without reading in the same way you click “I agree” at the bottom of Terms & Conditions. Computers are always showing popup messages, right? They’re usually redundant, whatever. The first page of my paper rendered as a solid mass of gibberish: letters, numbers, and symbols smashed together without spaces… as did the rest of it. 15 pages of junk characters. Alarmed, I closed the file without saving & re-opened it; it turns out that the popup window was warning me that the file was corrupted. As I sat there, in the fading light of the last day before I had to turn this thing in, I thought about what it would take to reproduce the paper from scratch: all the quotes, analysis, and dozens of footnotes containing the specific page references. All of which didn’t exist anywhere else, neither as a hard copy nor digital. While I knew I could pull it together again given some time, in that moment I was overwhelmed with trying to figure out how I was going to make the situation work. While writing a paper isn’t quite the same thing as fighting a giant, fireball-headed master of a hell-dimension, the characters in Brian Michael Bendis’s Uncanny X-Men 6 are definitely up the creek without a paddle (OR MLA-formatted citations).
Cyclops, Emma, Magneto, and the newbies are still where we left them at the end of the last issue: Magick (in the grip of her Darkchylde persona) has teleported everyone into Limbo. Dormammu, The Dread One, Eater of Souls, Lord of Chaos, has hijacked her abilities to get everyone together for a little chat. Seems he didn’t like the way their last conversation ended, so now he’s going to kill all of her teammates and force her to watch them die. The team reacts predictably: the kids freak out, Cyclops and Magneto ask Dormammu what he wants; Magick screams and tries to cut Dormammu’s head off. None of these strategies work. Dormammu immobilizes Magick and gets ready to get roasting. Emma is the first to figure out that the situation is way out of control, so she orders the Stepford Sisters to psychically boost morale and turn the team into a pack of berzerkers. Meanwhile, in San Diego, S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Hill is trying to dig her way out of a different hole. The huge fluctuations in the mutant population and Cyclops’s revolutionary messages are enough to give her a solid headache, but now she has the remains of a few mutant-hunting Sentinels on her hands with no idea of who sent them. Her response to the mess is to hire a mutant as a consultant to help sort everything out. At the close of the issue, we see that the mutant S.H.I.E.L.D. has chosen for this task is Dazzler.
In Limbo, Bendis and artist Frazer Irving set up the situation with a panoramic shot of the team, and the descriptors for the veterans are telling:
Given the way Magick mopped the floor with Dormammu last time, the reader might not have been too worried that we’re back on his doorstep. The emphasis Bendis and Irving place on the fact that the chaperone’s powers are all broken helps clue us in that things are going to be a little different this time. Scott’s able to slow Dormammu down with a Phoenix-tweaked optic blast, but as Magneto notes, he can’t muster that kind of force more than once in a fight. So when Dormammu bounces back without a scratch, things are clearly not going well.
The reaction of the junior members of the team is pretty understandable: oh my god, where are we, what is that thing, what are we going to do, I want to leave. I want to be mad at them for their immediate willingness to bail, but I really can’t blame them. As Emma points out, the new mutants are exactly that: new. They’re not experts at using their powers, or even terribly familiar with them. They’ve only even known about their powers for the space of a few days (less for poor Goldball). They’re not trained soldiers, heck, they’ve only seen the Danger Room once. And they’re definitely not experienced heroes. Cyclops, Magneto and Emma are long past being fazed by rotten odds, and enormous, talking balls of flame are par for the course. To them, getting thrown into a crazy fight is so old hat it’s like breathing. Or maybe it’s like coming in to work in the morning, settling into an office chair, pulling up your Outlook inbox and beginning to flip through emails for the day. In any case, they know how to go through the motions to stay on their feet, while the new members of the team aren’t even aware that there IS a standard course of action for a time like this.
Maybe the vets know how to survive the first few moments of a fight, but even they seem pretty out of their depth at this point. It’s not even that they’re dealing with a force of nature like Dormammu so much as that they’re doing so without their usual skill set. As Magneto pointed out in an earlier issue, now that their powers are broken, they have to start from scratch to relearn how to use them, just like when they first discovered that they were different from other people. For Scott, that means training up to be able to control the amplitude of his blasts so that he can pace himself through a fight. For Magneto, it means that he needs to forget what it’s like to rip steel buildings into pieces like tissue paper, and go back to the basics of metallic manipulation. I loved this panel for what it says about how he’s trying to start over and start small:
Drew: Well, here’s my X-men naiveté creeping in — I have no clue who Dazzler is. My only hope is that she can live up to her name; I am nothing if not difficult to dazzle. While it doesn’t really sound like S.H.I.E.L.D.’s problems can be solved by dazzling, I guess I should also admit that I don’t really have a great handle on what “dazzling” is, either. It’s something to do with putting rhinestones on your hoo ha, yes?
Anyway, you have to hand it to Bendis for coming up with a clever shortcut to get these kids in fighting shape. Circumstances forced a fight, and the telepaths on the team just happen to be some of the most well-trained. I wonder if this is a crutch the team will come to rely on — which would really leave them up a creek if the Stepford Sisters are ever absent/incapacitated — or if the team’s elders will insist on training the old fashioned way, in spite of the easy access to berzerker rage. I suppose it’s also possible the girls could somehow put the training/confidence in the team’s brains permanently, but since that’s easily the most boring option, I really hope that’s not the solution.
Of course, how bad is the problem, really? We already saw him be not beaten by Magik, the character whose powerset I least understand, which means he’s…very powerful? Bendis helpfully provides one of the worst frames of reference in literary history.
Oh, good, “something worse than a demon.” Now I have a vague idea of where to put him on my fantasy creature chart, but I have absolutely no idea what that actually means. Are demons hard to defeat in battle? Does being worse make him harder, or does “worse” include his fighting skills? I always have difficulty investing in the action when the power levels feel so arbitrary. Can a time bubble stop him? What about a goldball to the groin? Without any of that information, I just have to accept that this will stop whenever Bendis says it does, which again leaves me entirely uninvested in the outcome.
I do have to say, though, Irving is a beautiful match for this issue. I fell in love with his distinctive work from The Return of Bruce Wayne, and he seems to have a special knack for the kind of fire lit scenes that fill this issue. His sense of pacing here is impeccable. The full cast scenes are chatty as ever, which means relatively smaller panels with plenty of dialogue, which all worked together to make this double page reveal one of the most effective in recent memory.
It was by no means a bad issue, but it wasn’t quite able to get me to commit fully to the conflict at hand. There was also a four-page bit about a new mutant who can control Smart cars with his mind. It was cute, but I’m not sure why it was dropped into the opening of this issue. I suppose it could bring the whole “who is sending these Sentinels?” thing to a head, but without that payoff, it mostly feels like four pages that might have been better spent with our heroes, detailing exactly what they’re up against. As the issue closes, it looks like they’re being overrun, but again, I’m not really sure I know what that means.
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