Though this issue is credited to Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, my understanding is that Fraction's writing this story arc based on an overall plotline he concocted with Brubaker. Fraction's said as much in interviews, and these past few issues feel more like his work than they do Brubaker's. "Uncanny X-Men" has been revitalized since Fraction's arrival, imbued with an energy that was missing during Brubaker's solo stint.
Here, we get the a bit of a conclusion to the Empath-on-the-rampage plot, but the issue ends with more questions than answers. What's the deal with the Hellfire Cult? Surely Empath didn't concoct this group on his own, right? And what's with the kinky sex stuff? Was that really Emma Frost or was it Madelyne Pryor? And Madelyne Pryor is back?!? Really?
I'm sure the answers to these questions all tie together, and as the story unfolds in future issues we'll find out more about the deeper mysteries on display here. But if this issue were nothing but a series of foreshadowed bits and unanswered questions it wouldn't be worth reading. Especially with Greg Land's art. I actually don't have too much of a problem with Land's work, although his use of collage often causes strange anatomical impossibilities and awkward panel compositions. There's less of that kind of thing here than in the past couple of issues though, and with the hyper-sexuality of some of the scenes, Fraction seems to be writing to Land's strengths.
Yet it's certainly not the art that makes this issue worth reading, no. It's the clarity of the characterizations and the swift pace that make this story work. Fraction gives us a nice scene with Cannoball, Karma, and Mirage at a San Francisco bar which serves two purposes: it reminds us how stupid Sam Guthrie can be at times, and how much these young men and women have been through as New Mutants. After that, the whole issue basically alternates between an exploration of the Hellfire Cult's sub-basement and the chase scene with Empath. What Fraction does particularly well is to hinge the story on the character of Pixie. Pixie, a Kitty Pryde-type who offers a fresh perspective on complex X-insanity, becomes the unlikely hero here, coming to the rescue on her Vespa scooter. If this brief story arc has been about anything beyond setting up future stories, it's been about introducing the reader to Pixie and showing why she's such an important part of the team. She's a Joss Whedon dream character, a sweetheart who can kick some ass. And she's a great addition to "Uncanny X-Men."
The final scene in issue #503 embodies the new direction of this series, with a performance by Dazzler and Scott Summers and Emma Frost in the audience. "The serpent is coming," sings Dazzler, over and over again. It's a bit heavy-handed, but it lets us know that this new San Francisco "Garden on Eden" will not be free from temptation and sin. Madelyne Pryor will make sure of that.
The bottom line is that "Uncanny X-Men" hasn't been this good in years, and as an antidote to the Skrull-heavy Marvel mainstream, it's worth your time.