Writers: Jim Krueger, Alex Ross
Artist: John Paul Leon
Itís frustratingly difficult to name Marvelís greatest stories. People might offer ďChris Claremont on X-MenĒ or ďJohn Byrne on Fantastic FourĒ or ďWalt Simonson on ThorĒ, but there usually point to extended runs and not necessarily specific stories. Even the Dark Phoenix Saga is difficult to separate from the context of the subplots and transitions of the series at the time. For the best of the best, people often cite Frank Millerís Daredevil run, specifically Born Again or the Elektra Saga, but hardly in the same breath as when they mention Batman: Year One or The Dark Knight Returns. DC holds all the cards when it comes to definitive tales, also including Watchmen, Kingdom Come, Crisis on Infinite Earths and more. Marvel can boast Marvels, but that isnít even a superhero story.
Earth X is as close to the quintessential Marvel story as the publisher has come.
Let me get this out of the way: I love this book. I loved it when it first came out in single issues, and I loved it every year when I reread it, and I love it still in trade form. It doesnít have as much subtext as your typical Alan Moore story, yet I still take something new from it on each subsequent rereading. This time, this being the end of 2006, Iím shocked at the similarities in the storytelling techniques between this and DCís 52. Whereas juggling a large cast of characters and subplots was a bit daunting when the book first debuted, and the tendency to give each character a very short scene per issue resulted in the feeling of decompression, the approach seems so fluid now. Thatís not to say that Earth X benefits from contrast to 52, but that 52ís popularization of the technique only highlights how well Earth X did it seven years ago.
Itís the story of the Marvel Universe twenty years in the future. X-51, the Machine Man, is taken to the moon by the Watcher to become a witness to what may be the end of the earth. Mankind is no more, replaced entirely by mutantkind, and heroes have become obsolete. Tony Stark serves President Osbornís America. Cyclops is the last X-Man loyal to Xavierís dream. Namor is a mad king both mentally and physically haunted by his decisions of the past.
But the real stars of the story are Steve Rogers, Reed Richards, Peter Parker and X-51. Jaded by the very attributes that once defined their personalities as heroes, they fight a battle of wills to reassert their beliefs in a world where special powers and heroes no longer go hand in hand. Each character gets some stellar lines and, through their individual quests, help define what made the Marvel Universe such a special place to begin with. Instead of lingering in doom and gloom, the dystopia only serves to illustrate how wondrous a world these characters populate.
Readers might find the amount of exposition daunting upon their first attempt. Much of the story is framed by a dialogue between X-51 and the Watcher as they debate philosophy and discuss the pseudo-science of Marvel history and biology. It may sound bland in summary, but Kruegerís carefully paced exploration of each idea, tying in the history of all these characters and weaving a larger tapestry out of the cloth Lee and Kirby originally wove, becomes absolutely enthralling once all the various threads are in motion.
Earth X is also one of the most visually beautiful epics in comics, but itís a different kind of beauty that takes a little getting used to. Leon doesnít seem to be the kind of artist qualified for superhero stories with his thick and heavy shadows. Yet the style is well suited for a dystopian setting. His splash pages, be they of action or glorious entrance, are bold and majestic. Thereís also a realism to the art that makes great use of Alex Rossís designs without the staleness sometimes resulting from Rossís sequential painted images. A lot is also owed to the simple but stark colors that really flesh out the darkened lines. And the Ross images are pretty astounding too.
There are problems, though. As strong as the book is, the harder one thinks about the discrepancies, the more apparent they become. As a random example, if Skrulls mutated in the same way that humans eventually mutated, and the Skrulls were clearly further along in this mutation in humans and thus perhaps tinkered with first, why would the Celestials ever have had to experiment with the Deviants and Eternals on Earth? Though this sounds really particular, since the narrative focuses extensively on fictitious Marvel science over the course of its 60-plus-year history, itís only natural that a few pieces wonít fit perfectly.
I donít feel this review really does justice in describing why this story is a must-read. Earth X may be apocalyptic in nature, and yet itís all-too personal when it comes to the dialogue and beliefs of each character: the Thingís last thoughts before separating from his family, Daredevilís realization in the final chapter, the revelation Reed receives about Sue . . . theyíre not just great moments, theyíre also genuinely poignant.
This is the Marvel Universe working in tandem as never before. Every crucial character gets a moment to shine and then some, given spot-on characterization that showcases exactly why theyíve each and all become so beloved over the years. If youíve ever wondered which self-contained story could qualify as Marvelís Watchmen, this is as close as it comes.
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