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X-MEN PREQUELS

A good primer for non-fans, but uneven comics at best

By Matthew F. Saunders     June 28, 2000

To prepare for this summer's X-Men movie, Marvel Comics has released three X-Men movie prequel comics: X-Men Movie Prequel: Magneto, X-Men Movie Prequel: Rogue and X-Men Movie Prequel: Wolverine. And who can blame them? If all goes well, the movie could finally become Marvel's breakthrough big-budget film--all apologies to Blade--after years of flops, could-have-beens and disastrous small-budget attempts. The X-film certainly has everything going for it in terms of a respected director (Bryan Singer), star cast (Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellen and Halle Berry, to name a few), big-budget special effects and a sly marketing campaign that plays on the franchise's core message of genetic racism.

In publishing prequel comics set in movie continuity and marketing them in more mainstream, less traditional comics outlets such as Toys 'R' Us and Tower Records, Marvel's plan is two-fold. It's trying not just to satisfy pre-existing X-fans' desire for adaptations, but also woo new readers with the 'complete story' provided by these background-filling stories and to infuse the struggling comic book market with new blood. That places squarely on their shoulders a rather large burden. They should be not just good comics, but good enough to convince non-comics readers who may pick them up to jump onboard for the long haul.

Unfortunately, the prequels are a mixed bag. The best of the group by far is Magneto, written by Joe Pruett with pencils by Mark Texiera. Careful not to tread too far into movie territory, it offers a glimpse into Magneto's origins as a Nazi concentration camp victim, then proceeds to examine and establish his uneasy relationship with X-Men founder, Professor Charles Xavier. Magneto's motivations, and the ghosts that haunt him, are clearly portrayed, as is the ideological conflict between the two men.

From that standpoint, Magneto serves as an excellent primer for the film's central theme, which super-imposes the issues of mutation and genetic racism on the template of the 1960s black civil rights movement. The inevitable dichotomy that arises between the characters positions Magneto in the militant, aggressive Malcolm X-like role vs. Xavier's peaceful, reconciliatory Martin Luther King Jr. viewpoint. New readers unfamiliar with this traditional X-Men allegory can walk away with a basic blueprint of the movie to come, and a deeper understanding of these central characters.

On that level, this issue is successful. But to accomplish this, readers have to suffer through occasionally stilted dialogue. Pruett does his best to distill the Magneto/Xavier conflict into 48 pages, but too often their arguments sound cliched or textbook-like, rather than genuine, impassioned speeches. Readers come away with a sense of character, but also with a longing for more natural dialogue, rather than their almost spoon-fed, agenda-filled diatribes.

Rogue, by writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning and artist Alan Evans, provides a nice counterpoint to Magneto. Where Magneto establishes the film's ideological framework, Rogue brings the issue of mutant persecution into a more personal focus. Following the uncontrollable manifestation of her life and memory-absorbing powers, Rogue is condemned then hunted, first by her schoolmates and later by secret government officials bent on containing the 'mutant problem.'

In putting a face to Magneto's political stance, Rogue is successful, giving readers a more intimate taste of the issues that'll play out in the movie. But as a story unto itself, it's a bit uneven. The first half of the story presents a Rogue who's afraid and confused by what's happening to her, one who finds safety in flight from her persecutors. She's quick on her feet, but is so out of desperation and necessity. The story's second half, in which she's incarcerated with other mutants in a special government holding facility, presents a much more confident, and subsequently less consistent, character. Here, she rallies her fellow prisoners and leads a breakout, the story apparently foregoing the confused, scared girl to which we're initially introduced.

While it could be argued that she has become more confident because of her experiences, the pacing of the story does little to support what appears to be a rather rapid transformation. If this arc was stretched over several issues, it would be plausible, but we're led to believe the story's events occur over a rather short period of time. As a result, the issue is only half successful in its mission. It succeeds in putting a face on mutant persecution, but gives us an unclear picture of Rogue. When we arrive at the movie, will she be a scared and desperate young girl, or the confident, in-control escapee of a high-tech government facility? We're left unsure.

Finally, we come to Wolverine. Unlike the other prequels, Wolverine sets aside the larger mutant issues, choosing instead to focus on Wolverine the character. Admittedly, writer Jay Faerber and artist Karl Waller have their work cut out for them. Wolverine's setup is that he's an amnesiac, with no recollection of his mysterious past or origins. As this character framework needs to be maintained for the movie, there's little for Faerber to do other than introduce us to the very basics of his plight and personality.

Faerber does this by centering the story around an amnesiac girl that Wolverine comes to aid. This gives readers a context within which to view him, but ultimately the story becomes too focused on her. There's a tiny bit of emotional resonance as they bond over their shared condition, and we certainly learn that Wolverine's a loyal, honorable and persistent ally. But because the story focuses so much on the girl, we're left wanting more Wolverine.

Perhaps that's exactly what the marketers want, but compared to the more intimate portrayals of Magneto and Rogue, Wolverine fails to deliver on the same level. We learn nothing wholly unique about him that can't be found in any other 'lone wanderer'-type story, a la TV's The Fugitive, Quantum Leap or The Incredible Hulk, in which a stranger, despite being beset by his own problems, enters the life of that week's character and sets his or her wrongs to right. While Wolverine's story is certainly competent and hits all the expected beats, its lack of character intimacy makes it the least compelling of the lot. Subsequently, it's also the least helpful to non-comics readers looking to the prequels as primers for the movie.

Finally, there's the question of art. Being a visual medium, comics depend on clean, clear art and storytelling. It can have the biggest impact on whether or not someone picks up a book. In the case of Magneto, it's not Texeira's best work. It's appropriately moody, for sure, but often feels too rushed, too sketchy to fully convey the desired atmosphere or effect. On the other hand, Evans and Waller's art on Rogue and Wolverine, respectively, is much cleaner. However, both still fall in the trap of letting splashes of color substitute for background detail. There's nothing inherently wrong with this as a technique, but its impact lessens with overuse, as it does here. Overall, while the art is certainly competent in each of the books, it isn't visually stunning either, and will probably do little in-and-of itself to draw in readers, new or old.

So, are these three issues must-haves? For long-time readers, the answer's no. They offer nothing they don't already know, despite the recasting of certain events to match movie continuity. As such, they prove more a curiosity than a necessity, since years of reading X-books will be motivation enough to buy a movie ticket, and to keep reading the regular X-titles.

For new readers, to whom these issues should be most directed and relevant, the books hold some merit. Magneto, and to a lesser extent Rogue, offer insight into the X-Men's world that, in its distilled form, serves as a good primer that could help enhance some viewers' enjoyment of the film. But in their pure form, as comics, the books are too uneven to stand out as exceptional reads. And that, in the end, is the final merit upon which they should be judged. If you've got cash to spare, pick up Magneto and Rogue. Otherwise, save the hefty $5.95 cover price for popcorn at the movie.

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