X-Roulette: Uncanny X-Men #420

In which Angel is attacked by a group of werewolves who have mortally wounded Husk. Isolated from the rest of the X-Men, he has to try and save her and escape from the pack – and decides to ponder the concept of evolution in the process, despite clearly having no idea what the concept actually is. Oh dear.

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Religion flows through Chuck Austen’s run as writer like wine from the body of Christ, which is to say, it doesn’t because his grasp of religion is as tenuous as his grasp on storytelling throughout this storyline. This storyline we’re concluding today, “Dominant Species”, is set on establishing ‘packs’ of mutant characters, who are all spiritual forces destined to one day have to fight one another since the dawning of time. There are angels, there are demons, there are wolves, and there are Guthries, and all are equally spiritual entities… or something. It’s never convincingly explained for the reader.

It’s a strange approach in general though, because it seems to steer away from some of the more important ideas in the X-Men’s history. For one thing, the issue starts by suggesting the idea that certain mutants aren’t here because the X-Gene developed within them and activated powers, but because they’re part of some higher and greater power. Angel, who is treated to some spectacularly weak messianic imagery throughout the issue, discovers that he has a secondary mutation: his blood has healing properties. It heals him, and it heals anyone he drips it on, and the whole thing seems to be attempting to evoke Christ.

Throughout the issue he then wonders about the idea of dominance, and if certain people are meant to inherit the earth. He’s recently found out that Psylocke’s been killed, and now Paige is in mortal danger too he’s started questioning the point of a world where bad things happen to good people. If this sort of thing happens, he concludes, then “there is no God” – at which point we get a full splash page of the character in full winged spread, which I guess is meant to suggest that Angel is his own lord and master here. He makes his own messianic destiny, primarily in this issue by hitting werewolves with a tree branch.

Angel is opposed by Maximus Lobo, a werewolf dude who has been running part of Warren’s company recently alongside with his wolf minions. It turns out – and this is completely glossed over! – that Maximus apparently ate Warren’s dad, which is how he inherited the company to begin with. As Angel is here suggested to have been born with spiritual power and as part of a higher power’s design, so Maximus is here meant to be established as another primal force in the universe. There’s a suggestion Wolverine is actually part of this clan somehow, and future storylines will then go on to stat that Nightcrawler is part of the demonic side of this power dynamic. It’s all very quickly written out once the run ends, but for the now it’s a strangely religious counterpoint to Grant Morrison’s evolution-exploring run on New X-Men.

The X-Men have always been a random collection of people, especially since Claremont came in as writer and changed course from the white kids that made up the original team. Their individual traits were ways of showing diversity of thought and background, and the similarities which drive everyone. In this storyline, though, those traits are separated further as every character starts to be elevated into some primal and supernatural power. This has been explored in the past with Storm suggested to be an elemental presence, but here we’re being told that the X-Men are, in no uncertain terms, more important and interesting than anyone else. They have a divine purpose, even if it isn’t a purpose they follow through with. So what’s the point?

It’s so difficult to understand what that purpose is really meant to be, because Austen’s writing tangles itself up near-constantly. Towards the end of the issue he gives Angel another narrative monologue where he starts by wondering what makes a species dominant… before forgetting to wrap up that train of thought and instead heading off in a different direction altogether. He wanders into the idea of science versus spirituality, before again losing the thread and finishing by concluding that free will is strong enough to let people walk off the path that nature originally forces on them.

It’s an incoherent mess of a thought process, and the inability of the story to stick to a point is what makes the narrative so confusing. You may have noticed that I’ve started making some kind of point about spirituality or human nature of divinity in comics at several points above only to then drift off-topic, and it’s because Austen gives readers nothing to really latch onto. We see half an idea which is flung furiously into our arms before Austen then grabs another idea and forcefully tries to establish that as well. A million things are thrown at us, none of which have particular substance or believable depth.

Angel is simultaneously dealing with a pack of werewolves who were predestined to fight him, exploring his own emotional reaction to the death of Psylocke and mortal wounding of Husk, and randomly tearing off on trains of thought relating to slightly connected but largely irrelevant tangents. We can’t get a grasp of what is the core of the character because the creative team seem to have no idea themselves. We have the idea that Angel put up a defensive wall round his emotions which Psylocke could never get past, and that he needs to drop them if he wants his new relationship with Paige to develop further. His fight with Lobo doesn’t have any connections to that emotional arc, though, and is mainly presented here so artist Kia Asamiya can draw a succession of absolutely awful and incoherent fight sequences.

Nothing relates to anything else, which in honesty is a better thematic idea than anything that’s actually presented in the issue. At the end Warren even starts heading off on the idea of karma, which hasn’t been seen anywhere else in the issue. In the rush to try and present some kind of epic spiritual side to the X-Men’s traditional grounding in evolutionary or scientific terms, Austen seems to have lost control of what he thinks faith or determinism actually are. As such, he simply offers several half-concepts in the hope that one will explain what’s going on in the story. Instead, all we get are a bunch of questions about evolution which it’s clear the creative team aren’t ready to handle.

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Much like Asamiya’s artwork, this is a jumbled mess in the presentation, with everything being random chaos. Perhaps that’s the point after all: the idea of a chaotic, random and impossible universe is certainly a far more interesting one than the idea that everybody is grandiose and connected in ways which ultimately don’t matter.

Uncanny X-Men #420 “Dominant Species: Conclusion”
Written by Chuck Austin
Pencilled by Kia Asamiya
Coloured by JD Smith
Lettered by Paul Tutrone

Number #420 was chosen at random by Charlotte Finn.

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