New X-Men came at an interesting time in American comics history. Marvel was being reinvigorated under Joe Quesada, radically upping its storytelling and hiring critically acclaimed creators. One was Grant Morrison, who had rocketed to the very top of the comics mainstream with JLA. Morrison had long been a critical darling, but he hadn’t done much work for Marvel. Now he was given the flagship X-Men title, at a time when the X-Men were regular top-sellers but often looked down upon by both critics and the Vertigo demographic. Joining Morrison on New X-Men was artist Frank Quitely, who had just left DC / WildStorm’s revolutionary The Authority, written by Mark Millar. Quitely had a very different style from what was popular at the time; his taking over the flagship X-title was every bit as radical as Morrison writing it.
Perhaps it’s too much to say that the flagship X-Men book was transformed into an art comic. But just a couple months before Morrison’s New X-Men debuted (with #114, July 2001), Peter Milligan and Mike Allred had transformed X-Force completely (with #116, May 2001), turning it into a poppy take on super-heroes totally at odds with what was selling and with the title’s history. At the very least, New X-Men was on the cusp of a revolution at Marvel, one that seemed suddenly willing to experiment and intent on aggressively embracing quality. Marvel seemed willing to risk alienating its core fans, even on its most popular titles — X-Men fans worried publicly about what Morrison and Quitely would do — in order to do new things and expand its readership. The result, with New X-Men, was a title that no X-fan could afford to miss but that made many Vertigo readers buy X-Men, quite possibly for the first time.
New X-Men didn’t revolutionize comics. But it was probably the first time you could share the X-Men with your friends who read The Sandman. And have those friends smile when you did.
To signal the radical shift, X-Men was renamed New X-Men — at a time when this wasn’t nearly so common as today. This was the same title launched by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee in 1991, during the speculator boom. Its new name reflected the severity of the title’s transformation — and led to “new” becoming a popular prefix for Marvel titles for years.
Change was in the air, and not only at Marvel. The super-hero genre was being transformed, as the success of JLA continued to ripple through the industry, augmented by the particular widescreen violence of The Authority. And it’s worth pointing out that all of these works were characterized by their intelligence. Arguably, even the revisionist heyday of the 1980s hadn’t seen such a sudden, industry-wide embrace of making comics not only better in certain ways (such as printing) but making them smarter. We could argue about how many true classics came out of this period, but if you threw a rock in a comics store, odds were that it would hit a really interesting and different book — and maybe bounce onto another.
At the same time, the super-hero takeover of Hollywood was still in its exciting infancy. Brian Singer’s X-Men had just debuted in 2000, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man wouldn’t debut until 2002. Hard as it may be to imagine now, but a year before New X-Men, the dominant thinking was that Marvel was cursed at the box office (outside of 1998′s Blade). Fans would have to wait for a Superman or Batman revival. When New X-Men began, no one could predict that super-heroes would one day dominate the box office. But that trend had begun, and more films were clearly on the way — including at least one X-sequel. This made the New X-Men gig more prestigious, but it also contributed to the general excitement of this era in comics.
Morrison, who had argued for the importance of costumes and stylishness (especially in his The Invisibles), embraced the X-Men’s new cinematic prestige. With Quitely, New X-Men featured title pages reminiscent of elaborate movie titles. The X-Men were now clad in slick costumes featuring plenty of leather. In the first issue Beast discussed the fact that he was on a diet. Just because he was huge, blue, and furry didn’t mean he didn’t care about his body or look good. Morrison filled his New X-Men scripts with cool ideas, but the product he and Quitely produced was also a beautiful one, something you wouldn’t feel embarrassed to be caught reading. And that was important. This aesthetic carried through to the covers, with most of the indicia running in a thin strip at left (reminiscent of early Vertigo, although probably a bit more ambitious), and the comic’s logo designed so that it appeared the same if rotated 180 degrees.
During Morrison’s first storyline, “E is for Extinction,” the new villain Cassandra Nova used a giant Sentinel to wipe out Genosha, the island run by Magneto which had gathered a large mutant population. Memorably, Morrison’s second issue (#115, Aug 2001) ended with genocide, as the mutant population of Genosha plummeted from 16.5 million to a handful of survivors.
The parallels to the Holocaust, given Magneto’s origins (included in the 2000 film), were clear. As was the dynamic of whether mutants — called homo superior — would replace regular humans, a question New X-Men had emphasized almost from its first pages. But we can also see this move, within the Marvel universe, as a response to the problem of that universe having too many mutant characters, to the point where they didn’t feel special anymore. It’s the same problem Marvel addressed again a few years later, with the 2005 crossover House of M‘s (in)famous “no more mutants” line, which erased most mutants’ powers — except that New X-Men‘s version (while certainly still dramatic) didn’t rely upon a magic-like effect and allowed for the continuation of cool ideas like District X, a mutant neighborhood in New York City. The Genosha genocide wasn’t simply an important event in the X-Men comics, but another example of Marvel’s willingness to take chances.
The giant Sentinel’s attack begins in a telepathy class taught by Emma Frost. Everyone turns to look at something through the window. A psychic mutant says, “You think everything’s just a joke, but I had the same nightmare fifty times last night[,] and I’m having it again right now. / Everybody’s going to die.” And then the classroom is obliterated, as debris slices through people.
Genosha’s got skyscrapers, including one where Magneto lives. An enormous robotic fist with the damaged wings of a jet plane — not unlike those of a passenger jet — smashes into him, tearing through the skyscraper.
The giant Sentinel rains death over an area of Genosha that looks like Times Square, sending skyscrapers crashing to the ground and a cloud of debris rippling between the buildings.
It was a memorable action sequence.
And then came 9/11.
As hard as it is now to convey the excitement of 2001 in comics, it’s also hard to convey just how much of a shock 9/11 was (especially in the U.S.). The shockwaves of the event rippled through everything, including the narrative arts, in which violence and terrorism (especially in urban settings) was (and is) routinely used to create engaging and entertaining conflicts. Movies were delayed or changed. The World Trade Center had to be digitally removed from some footage, so as not to upset people. A trailer and a poster for the upcoming Spider-Man movie that featured the World Trade Center had to be pulled. Across all media, fictional representation of damage to skyscrapers — like those in “E for Extinction” — were essentially verboten as offensive.
In comics, prominent creators took to the internet, discussing even the use of violence itself. One of the most revolutionary and successful titles of the period, The Authority, suffered disproportionately. DC produced a trade paperback, Marvel produced a couple one-shots, and independent publishers produced their own trade paperback, all benefiting 9/11 charities. J. Michael Straczynski’s run on Amazing Spider-Man, also part of Quesada’s reinvention of Marvel, quickly produced a special 9/11 issue (Vol. 2 #36, Dec 2001). It’s now most remembered (unfairly, in my opinion) for showing Doctor Doom crying, despite that he’d attempted similar mass-murdering attacks plenty of times. Published so soon after the event, it’s no surprise that these stories mostly succeed at capturing the shock and sadness of the event, and you can sometimes still feel this on the page today.
But for my money, the best comic-book story responding to 9/11, at least published reasonably close to the event itself, came in New X-Men #132 (Nov 2002), about a year after 9/11. The added time seems to have helped. For one thing, “Ambient Magnetic Fields” (illustrated by Phil Jimenez and Andy Lanning) approaches 9/11 metaphorically. 9/11 itself isn’t mentioned, nor does anyone stand crying in front of something that visually echoes the iconic jumble of wreckage left at the World Trade Center. Instead, the issue uses the mass violence at Genosha, almost 20 issues earlier, as a stand-in for 9/11.
That’s not quite fair, though. It would be equally fair to say that the profound pain surrounding 9/11 allowed Morrison a window into exploring more fully what had happened at Genosha. Like the best fictional analogues for real-world events, the analogy can work both ways.
Taken as a story in which 9/11 provides a window through which to see Genosha, “Ambient Magnetic Fields” recalls “Best Man Fall,” the classic story (by Morrison and artist Steve Parkhouse) from The Invisibles #12 (Sept 1995). There, the story pauses to explore (in full-issue length) the life of a soldier whom the comic’s “heroes” had earlier casually killed. It’s like taking 20 minutes of Star Wars to explore a formerly faceless Stormtrooper killed by the Rebels. “Best Man Fall” is one of the most radical and humanitarian — and important — stories popular culture has ever produced. It inoculates you against the dehumanization that allows you to celebrate as goons and thugs — or anyone you’ve been taught to see as a “bad guy” — are tortured or mowed down without the slightest hint of moral complication (which might risk making you think). Even in the most necessary acts of violence, any celebration of victory should be tempered by an acknowledgement that those being harmed — whether mentally ill, taking a paycheck, actually “evil,” or simply on the other side — is a person too. “Best Man Fall” excavates a past action sequence and shows that its violence had real effects, both physical and emotional.
“Ambient Magnetic Fields” might not be as ambitious as “Best Man Fall.” The story doesn’t implicate the heroes in the tragedy. But it’s similar in that it goes back to an earlier action scene and excavates its terrible implications, its emotional legacy. And there’s no denying that, in doing so, the story acts as a painful, beautiful parable for 9/11.
Both stories can also be taken as a sort of artistic apology, as a dramatization of a creator wrestling with issues about how violence is depicted. From “Best Man Fall,” it’s clear that Morrison’s aware of the morally troubled nature of the very conventional trope of having an action hero “dispatch” (to use a dehumanizing euphemism) a villain’s thugs. Throughout the series, King Mob — whom Morrison has acknowledged as a kind of fictional alter ego — struggled with the issue of violence, falling out of love with the idea that it made him cool or powerful, or that it really solved much of anything. You can read the entirety of The Invisibles as a meditation on violence, as a deconstruction of the “us vs. them” dichotomy. Like many of that series’ themes, it found reflection in the concurrent JLA… and in New X-Men.
In the wake of 9/11, Morrison raised the fact that he’d already dramatized the limits of violence. But as a writer of stories that prominently featured violent action, violence inevitably continued to appear in his work. Of course, this speaks more to the limitations of the genre than to any inconsistency on Morrison’s part. You certainly can’t devote a full issue to everyone who’s killed, and repeating this device would obviously lessen its impact. Morrison is indisputably aware of the dangers of depicting violence as entertainment, and he’s been quite articulate on the subject. But just as indisputably, widescreen mass violence is part of the appeal of the Genosha destruction sequence.
You can read “Best Man Fall” as an apology for so casually killing people, in order to add drama or make the hero look tough. And given the obvious parallels between the Genosha attack and 9/11, you can read “Ambient Magnetic Fields” as an apology for turning genocide into an entertaining cliffhanger.
A sense of unfathomable sadness permeates “Ambient Magnetic Fields.” The story opens with a full-page shot of the ruins of Genosha, as a character says, “I remember when all this was fields and spires and monorails.” Later, Storms speaks of “charred bones and ashes of children.” The story manages to convey the sort of reverence and hushed silence you might feel inside you at a concentration camp, or on the Normandy beaches, or on a Civil War battlefield. The sense that something terrible happened here — a tragedy too large for a single human brain to comprehend, in its fullness.
That the story is somehow able to convey this owes a great deal to the artwork of Jimenez and Lanning. One of the faults of Morrison’s New X-Men is its frequent artistic changes, and many complained that some didn’t measure up to the others. No one could say this about Jimenez and Lanning. Everything looks beautiful, yet this somehow only enhances the plaintive feel of the devastation. The pages’ black backgrounds reinforce the sense of mourning. The juxtaposition of utopian X-Men technology and debris is particularly effective, as when characters stare out of futuristic windows on what might as well be a ruined planet.
“Ambient Magnetic Fields” might not implicate the heroes like “Best Man Fall.” But the same sense of compassion for one’s enemies is here too. As the story starts, there’s a discussion that’s essentially about whether Magneto should be mourned as one of the dead. Quicksilver doesn’t disagree about his father’s character, but he points out that Magneto was still his dad. This reminds us that, while we can oppose someone like Magneto and even advocate deadly force to do so, we shouldn’t forget that our villains have families. They’re people too.
It’s hard not to notice that the same could be said about bin Laden. Or about the hijackers. The discussion about whether Magneto should be mourned too recalls discussions about whether the hijackers should be counted among the dead of 9/11, a debate often revisited when shooters or bombers die during their own attacks. Can our compassion extend so far? Or does our rage prevent it?
While on Genosha, the X-Men discover a handful of survivors, including Toad, who are busy adding a face to the remains of the giant Sentinel, transforming it into a memorial for Magneto. Here, we can see the idea that no one “owns” the meaning of a tragic event, which might be a collective experience but inevitably means different things to different people. The X-Men, at a remove, can see the destruction of Genosha as a tragedy while also detesting the government of Genosha. For those who belonged to that government, the tragedy takes on a national or partisan meaning, and the X-Men are meddling where they don’t belong.
Here, we may also see the cultural issues that inevitably became such an issue, in the wake of 9/11. Which aspects of Afghan culture were foreign but incidental — things we could afford to be cultural relativists about — and which were things that we couldn’t tolerate — or had to be universalists about? The issue mentions that Magneto had become a cult figure, appearing on T-shirts, and that conspiracy theories are circulating that Magneto survived. (Because this is a corporate super-hero comic, we later discover Magneto did survive, but at this point that’s still an evidence-free conspiracy theory.) This recalls the spread of bin Laden T-shirts, in certain places, as well as the many conspiracy theories about 9/11. To this, as well as to the veneration of Magneto, the X-Men take a tolerant stance. It might be ridiculous to them, but they can’t force others to see things their way. That would be very un-X-Men-like.
Quicksilver, despite opposing his father, joins the locals in constructing the memorial. “These are strange times,” a character comments, “where the super-hero and the super-terrorist work together to make art.”
The memorial is also shown on Frank Quitely’s cover to the issue. With a passing glance, one might think it’s simply a close-up of Magneto, although his face appears to be made of stone. A second later, one realizes that what one’s looking at is actually massive and under construction by mutants. Magneto’s stony look suggests his uncompromising character, as well as the inexpressible nature of loss.
Having read the issue, we know that his giant helmet is actually the remains of one of the giant Sentinel’s faces. Wreckage is appropriated and transformed. In an odd way, Magneto’s beat the Sentinel, even in death. An instrument of mass murder is turned into something that means something to people, and whether you approve of that specific meaning or not, it feels like something positive — a way of doing something, when we feel so profoundly impotent.
The main plot of “Ambient Magnetic Fields” centers around the apparent presence of ghosts in Genosha. This echoes how many, in places of mass death, report a haunted feeling. It also echoes notions of how the soul might be tied up with an organism’s aura or its magnetic field. Of course, this is especially resonant given that Genosha was ruled by Magneto, who had magnetic powers.
The X-Men believe these magnetic phenomena are related to Polaris, who also has magnetic powers (and who long believed Magneto to be her father). When they find her, word balloons without tails surround her. We soon learn that these are the magnetic patterns of millions of Genosha residents, in their final moments. She’s straining under the weight of them all — another representation of the enormity of grief.
It’s a threat to her. To have her, the X-Men have to “purge” her of these voices. Storm calls it “an exorcism,” and there’s depth to the word. It’s not healthy to live, haunted by such grief or so many ghosts. The weight of Genosha, like the weight so many felt after 9/11, isn’t healthy to carry.
Polaris is at Ground Zero, where the X-Men find a black box in the debris. We can guess it’s from the plane that crashed into Magneto’s skyscraper. But of course, it also recalls the planes that hit the World Trade Center.
There’s something so resonant about this being the answer, about the mystery being solved by a flight’s black box, dug up from the pulverized remains of buildings and people and their many lives. It might not make all that much intellectual sense, but it’s instinctively right.
It’s hard to understand precisely what’s meant by the resolution. As near as I can tell, Magneto, in the final moments before his death, used his powers to preserve magnetic imprints of everyone’s final moments — as well as recording a final message onto the black box of the plane hurtling towards him.
But it doesn’t matter, because the results are so poetic, so beautiful, so resonant, so moving. Sometimes, as Ezra Pound claimed about his poetry, it’s the sound of the words that count — or the comics equivalent, as words blend into images, producing an emotional resonance that transcends the mere explanation of facts and story.
We’ve heard the disembodied voices surrounding Polaris making observations about what’s outside — the final thoughts of people unaware of their imminent death. There are also a few ominous thoughts: “The floor just fell.”
As we near the end, as they near theirs, we get these final disembodied voices:
…I can feel the walls shaking.
I think this is the end.
I love you.
If you’ve ever had reason to think you were dying, as I have, there’s a good chance this means something to you. Last thoughts of love, asserted desperately in the seconds that remain, because they’re all that seem to matter.
Over this, Polaris, weeping, reaches out to the monument to Magneto, her own the father, and the disembodied voice of the dead becomes her own.
“I love you,” she says, reduced to simply “Love you” in the next balloon.
And then we hear the voice of Magneto. His final recording. His final thoughts.
It’s a strange thing to die. I was Magneto, the master of magnetic forces. Now I will be a voice in the darkness, echoing forever. Once, I was a mortal man. Now I am becoming memory, immortal. They must have thought they could silence us forever. Instead we have become magnetic. Unstoppable.
The use of the past tense — “I was Magneto” — is brilliant here. As is the idea that, in preserving these voices magnetically on tape, they have become themselves a part of the force Magneto once controlled. It’s immortality — the only immortality Magneto or this world can offer: to live on in memory.
And then there’s “They must have thought they could silence us forever.” It’s so defiant. But it’s spoken by a man we know to be dead, who may have triumphantly figured out how to record a final message, but who was silenced, at least of new words. Who’s gone. And already gone, before these triumphal words are heard.
In the end, the dead Magneto’s voice contemplates how this signal, this recording, is being transmitted and will make it out into space, traveling forever.
“Beyond this life,” Magneto adds. “And far, far… beyond this death,” he concludes.
Over this, the panels pull back, illustrating the signal traveling away from this terrible place, visually reinforcing Magneto’s words.
It’s a father’s final recording to his children, so beautiful, yet filled with the faults — the defiant ego — that defined that father’s life, for better and for worse.
Even in making this message, Magneto’s arranged to haunt the world forever. It’s part of his moment. It’s another way of steering the world to his will, even in death. It’s a way of making himself a legend, to be venerated and discussed, and even to die or to kill for. Magneto’s final message is painfully beautiful. But it’s also the height of ego. And a curse.
But as impressive and moving as Magneto’s final message is, there’s no special immortality being offered here. That’s a big part of what makes it so impossibly sad. Because anyone can record a message. If we want to get technical, signals don’t preserve infinitely as they echo out in space. A recording, however defiant, isn’t life after death. Magneto’s equivocating with the word “immortal,” practicing casuistry that would make Donne proud.
Because those ambient magnetic fields weren’t souls after all. They weren’t ghosts. Even though the Marvel Universe has an abundance of magic, and even gods walking around in public, such that it’s impossible to imagine no resident not having a very bizarre set of religious convictions, as faith is stripped of any need for faith, there’s no soul on offer in “Ambient Magnetic Fields,” despite the story’s title.
For a while, in the story, we think that title refers to ghosts. But there are no ghosts. There’s just death. And the meaning we may take, in our memorials and in the records left of the dead.
How offensive it would have been, especially in a 9/11-influenced story, to suggest otherwise. To negate the realities of death by pretending the dead aren’t really dead somehow. Because even if there is an afterlife, it’s another word trick to claim this is “life,” if words like “life” and “death” are to mean anything. After all, it’s the sense of finality to death, the irreversibility of it, the impossibility of ever speaking to the dead again, that is so central to our grieving. “Ambient Magnetic Fields” might take place in a super-hero universe, in which dead isn’t dead in any number of ways, but it knows not to make this mistake — and it’s only through this that it’s able to honor the dead and help the mourning.
Yet as palpable as the sense of death is in this story, the yearning for some kind of immortality comes through just as strongly. When Magneto speaks of “far, far… beyond this death,” he’s not only speaking of Genosha and his rather inconsequential, unceremonious death there. He’s also speaking of Earth, since he’s contemplating his signal expanding infinitely into space. But he’s also speaking of this life, this universe, this plane of being. There’s something so squalid here, so paltry, about all these ways of understanding the place of Magneto’s death, from which he seeks to reach beyond. But there’s something so transcendent, so defiantly human, about yearning for more — and defiantly claiming to have reached it, as Magneto does here.
Magneto’s final message may be a curse, a way of haunting the world forever, but it’s also an expression of hope. A chance for some kind of immortality, even if it’s in magnetic tape and memorials and a legend that “lives” on, in some way and if that’s not an abuse of the word. Magneto’s final statement, while defiant, is so powerless and pathetic, as we all are to death. That’s what makes it so sad. But it is, like the memorial, an expression — even a desperate expression, going to great lengths — to construct something that feels meaningful, if anything is to have “meaning,” outside of the cold realities of math.
Maybe a memorial is only a collection of atoms. But it’s what the memorial stands for, in our human brains, that we care about. That has meaning to us. It’s there that we can understand Magneto. It’s there that we can make sense of Genosha. It’s there that 9/11 has meaning, and that meaning has very little to do with a description of the events and atoms involved. And it’s only there that we can understand ourselves, because what we fear in death isn’t a loss of some atoms but a loss of ourselves, as we understand ourselves — a concept that lives only in our minds.
But to say this is to speak the language of Magneto. Of Donne. And I suspect, of Morrison.
There are many definitions of the sublime. One is the pleasing union of apparent opposites. “Ambient Magnetic Fields,” despite its faults, achieves this.
In addressing death and tragedy, we are forced to confront these opposites. On the one hand, the reality that someone is gone, which cannot be diminished, yet feels so infinite and final that it resists capture. On the other hand, the reality that death itself is a concept and that all the things which define a life or a single human being or an event are concepts too — and that it’s these we yearn for and mourn for. The balancing of these, while retaining the power of both, can feel like an impossible task. And yet “Ambient Magnetic Fields” achieves this.
Morrison’s New X-Men would continue to address 9/11, or at least the wider cultural debates surrounding it. The very next issue (#133, Dec 2002) introduced a female Muslim character, later known as Dust, in defiance of anti-Muslim sentiment. Her presentation may not have been perfect, but her inclusion was far ahead of her time — and she predates later Muslim super-heroes, who have sometimes gotten a good deal of press.
“Riot at Xavier’s,” which is probably my favorite X-Men story of all time, gets a good deal of its energy from ideological conflict. While this seems most obviously to reflect different approaches to civil rights, given the standard interpretation of the X-Men, it may also be seen as a discussion of the limits of Western tolerance and multiculturalism.
“Planet X,” published over the second half of 2003, might feature Magneto’s return, negating some of the power of “Ambient Magnetic Fields.” But it’s also about the limits of military force. Magneto can conquer Manhattan, but he can’t transform it into the utopia he envisions. It’s hard not to see an analogy here for the limits of the American adventurism, begun in the wake of 9/11.
It’s not simply that these stories were informed by the politics, social and otherwise, of the period. New X-Men also addressed these topics with a compassion and a thoughtfulness that were rare in that tense period — and probably still are now.
Morrison’s overall run on the title may have been diminished by many factors — artistic inconsistency, the X-Men’s complex continuity, the continued plethora of other X-titles, the fact that much of what he wrote was quickly undone by others, and the fact that the work was produced during some particularly turbulent years. In many ways, his New X-Men run proved to be more transitional than transformative. But they still point in the right directions — not only for how to write X-Men stories, but for how super-hero stories might compassionately and productively use difficult social and political issues as fuel for compelling stories.