Confessions of a New X-Men Reader

Grant Morrison made me care about the X-Men for the first time.

Oh, I’d read the X-Men.  I liked the ideas behind “Days of Future Past” and “The Dark Phoenix Saga.”  I just didn’t care.

And it didn’t help that X-fans weren’t the most appealing group one could consider joining.  If comics fans are stereotyped as obsessive continuity quizmasters living in their own world — not unlike trekkies or people who dress up in wizard costumes to see Lord of the Rings on opening day — X-fans were the worst.  No one, it seemed, could penetrate an X-Men comic:  most were unfathomable fare, full of characters and references and 100 or so ongoing threads of story featuring every character, none of which really sounded interesting.  But every week at the comics shop, here were these people.  The ones who looked like you were an alien if you talked about Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman or Cages or Palestine — or, say, anything outside of comics that wasn’t on TV and similarly embarrassing to admit watching — but would launch in a 30-minute rant at the mention of an X-character.  And these weirdos bought every X-title, ones I couldn’t imagine anyone justifying as having a premise for a separate book, let alone anyone understanding in relation to a dozen other titles.  But there these people were, at the counter, with a pull list of 30 or so titles, none of which I read, complaining about some X-book but utterly on Mars when I suggest — I don’t know — dropping this hated book.

Because there could be no thought of it.  Despite such a person never having read, say, Watchmen.

Which brings me to Grant Morrison.

I picked up his New X-Men not for the characters nor even, truthfully, for his name. Warren Ellis had done several X-books just previously and I hadn’t budged. A writer could be great elsewhere, but on X-Men, they were subsumed into the lucrative business of supplying yet more product for this incestuous microcosm.  Genius got processed on X-books like American cheese — it all came out tasteless and inedible, leaving me to fathom why people would read it.

It took nothing less than a world-class writer and artist to get me to budge enough to try X-Men.  I liked Frank Quitely from The Authority and remembered him from Flex Mentallo before that, which he had done with Morrison.  And the newly retitled New X-Men, with its new smart logo and with Morrison talking it up, got just enough of that doing-something-radical-with-super-heroes shimmer from The Authority that I broke down and bought it.

Morrison was talking about doing the X-Men right.  He wanted the comics to be as sleek and sexy as the movie — which I’d surprisingly liked, though not loved.  He was taking the team out of spandex and into leather.  Giving the book movie-like title sequences.  And injecting a low-to-middle dose of radical ideas, much as he’d done on JLA.

And then he wiped out Genosha.

The destruction of Genosha, from New X-Men

Morrison memorably wipes out Genosha.

I followed “E is for Extinction,” liked it well but didn’t like that fill-in artists followed.  So I stopped reading with the storyline’s conclusion.  Every jumping-on point is also one of jumping-off.  But I’d pick up the trades — to my surprise, really, on the day they came out, so eager was I to get my fix of entertainment, even if less than artistic masterpiece.

And the fill-in art did chafe — Kordey worse than Van Scriver.  And, while I liked Cassandra Nova fine, her replacing Charles Xavier didn’t thrill me.  Still, the alien landing amidst cows and relaying his message for Earth was a nice touch.  I liked Weapon XIII and that Wolverine wasn’t Weapon X the letter but Weapon X the roman numeral, though the issues were uneven.  Still, Jean Grey not stopping Weapon XIII’s escape due to perceptible but unmanifested sexual attraction was another nice touch (especially given events to come in the comic).  I liked the introduction of a veiled Arab woman, though the execution disappointed.  However uneven, the trades were still coming home with me on the day of release.

The Genosha issue with Phil Jimenez art and a beautiful cover and the promise of dealing thematically with 9/11 got me to buy a single issue for the first time since “E is for Extinction.”  And “Ambient Magnetic Fields” was good, solid if not perfect.

I didn’t read “Riot at Xavier’s” until the trade, but it struck me well.  It wasn’t a masterpiece, but its ideas clearly were masterful.  Here were students at Xavier’s misbehaving — challenging their teacher as he had taught them to.  Here were people saying that Xavier had failed — that he’d had all this time to achieve human-mutant harmony and things were no better.  Here was Magneto, lionized in his death as he naturally would be, exposing that Xavier the angel needed Magneto as demon to define himself — to rally the troops like we did against the big bad Soviets, an observation of the mutual necessity of opposites that remains undiminished by the fact that both the Soviets and Magneto were indeed big and bad.  And there was the mutant designer drug “kick” to boot.

In "Riot at Xavier's," Morrison challenges everything

In "Riot at Xavier's," Morrison challenges everything.

I got it.  Liberals are taught to be contrarian but end up agreeing with themselves.  People’s revolutions often lead to tyranny.  Non-conformists wind up wearing the same clothes.  And those facts don’t diminish the need for real contrarians, movements against oppression, and non-conformists.  I got it.

Xavier was presiding over a sinking dream, and he resigned.

After that, I was reading the single issues again, rationalized by the fact that I was buying them for my friend’s kid who I’d got into reading comics.  But we’d both read them.

“Murder at the Mansion” left me fairly cold — I loved the Cyclops / Emma Frost relationship, and Morrison had succeeded in humanizing the normally toadyish Scott Summers. But, outside from Beast putting Emma’s pieces back together and Jean Grey — the other woman — reanimating them, the storyline didn’t offer much.

Jean Grey confronts Cyclops and Emma Frost

One of Morrison's goals was to make the X-Men sexy and hip again... leading to a rather unorthodox psychic love triangle.

Nor did “Assault on Weapon Plus,” though it had its moments: Cyclops drinking in a decidedly sexual sequence, Wolverine reading his files in a moment reminiscent of “Project Zarathustra” in Miracleman, and the notion that Captain America was Weapon I.  Still, Wolverine’s epiphany had none of the dramatic effect of Miracleman’s — or Swmp Thing’s for that matter — short of Wolverine blowing himself up.  I didn’t care, but there were enough ideas to keep me going.

Magneto reveals himself. From Grant Morrison's New X-Men.

Magneto reveals himself.

“Planet X” was a mixed bag. Fans reacted well to Xorn really being Magneto.  I thought it forced.  Xorn was his own character, as Magneto himself pointed out, and an interesting one at that.  I didn’t buy the egotistical Master of Magnetism hiding as lowly Xorn.  And, what was worse, I thought it a betrayal of Morrison’s central tenant of the series:  not to do as everyone before him had done.  Morrison had promised that Magneto’s death — while never shown, a dramatic error I felt — was real and that deaths would mean something. Joe Quesada had made that into policy across the Marvel universe.

Didn’t every major X-Men writer have to bring Magneto back for yet another final bout?  A lot of what Morrison did wasn’t new at all, but we’ll get to that later.

Still, if you’re going to bring back Magneto, Morrison did so with style. The destruction of New York, the putting of humans in camps, the pulling up of the bridges, the mass execution of humans — all of it was appropriately dramatic. As was the X-Men lessened and on the outside, their leader naked and imprisoned in a vat, many of the newer students siding with Magneto.

The fact that none of the other Marvel titles, most of which still take place in New York, let alone the other X-books, didn’t reflect these events somewhat lessened the drama, however. This should have been a crossover event:  where were you, Marvel universe character, when Magneto took over New York. Seeing the tie-ins for and the hoopla over “Avengers Disassembled” — which is a story of virtually undeniably lesser magnitude and craft — only makes me wish “Planet X” had gotten that treatment instead.

Still, the story had its touches beyond all the melodrama.  There was Magneto, prone to old school speeches, unable to address a crowd used to soundbytes and multimedia. There was Magneto wrestling with the good side of himself as Xavier had wrestled with his inner tyrant.  And there were Wolverine and Jean, alone together as they hurtled into the sun, old friends who had loved and chosen otherwise, nor resigned to death.  And there was Wolverine running her through, an act of compassion and love in their final moments of life, only to have the fiery Phoenix reborn against the sun itself.

The conclusion felt rushed and left me fairly flat.  Magneto died again, and though his suicidal pathos was nice, his head getting sliced off by Wolverine meant less than if he had died on Genosha.  Phoenix died again, though the reason why seemed strained and I hardly cared.

And then we jumped forward to the future.  We should have stayed in the present and seen New York City rebuild.  We should have seen Cyclops and Emma Frost go on without Xavier — as Morrison would have done it, not as the costumed escapade Joss Whedon gave us, whatever else that story’s merits.  We needed to pull back and breathe, to take in the damage to the city and to these characters lives.

To not do so is to miss the real story.  It is to tell the tale of 9/11 and end with the skyscrapers collapsing.  Morrison was smarter than his choice in this case, but there would be no real dénouement, no fifth act, no story that filled the need tfor New York and the X-Men that “Ambient Magnetic Fields” did for Genosha and its residents.

“Here Come Tomorrow” — Morrison’s last four issues — were hyped like there was no tomorrow.  Marc Silvestri would illustrate.  Forget that he was no Phil Jimenez — an absolute master.  Forget that Silvestri’s work is out of proportion and confusing and doesn’t flow.  Because, you know, the X-fans do love those thousands of lines going nowhere and communicating nothing.

So while sales went up, I skipped it.  I read it when the third and final hardcover came out and was glad I did.  Ostensibly an homage to “Days of Future Past,” it actually had little in common with that very readable tale.  “Here Comes Tomorrow” reminded me of X-Men before Morrison:  confusingly written, filled with insular references, irrelevant except for fanatics — and poorly illustrated to boot.

Its sole saving grace was Cyclops and Emma Frost over Jean Grey’s grave, with Emma asking him to carry on the school together now that Xavier and Jean are gone, and him refusing — only to, with the timeline changed, say yes instead and kiss her.  It was a nice final image, even if preceded by some 87 or so rather dubious pages.

Looking back, Morrison hadn’t been that original at all.  His stories even had characters, in postmodern fashion, poke fun at the regurgitated plotlines.  Magneto dies, returns in a climactic final battle, then dies again.  A teenage soap opera inside the school.  Cyclops and Wolverine in a love triangle with Jean Grey, now with Emma Frost thrown in the mix.  Xavier tested, departed.  Cyclops running off.  All of it hardly new.

It was the way Morrison did it that was new, and the way he did it was with intelligence.

Grant Morrison

Grant Morrison, hip fashion writer god.

Oh, not Watchmen intelligence.  Not The Authority’s intelligence.  Not Planetary’s.  Nor his own Flex Mentallo’s.  But with intelligence nonetheless.

Not to mention a good bit of panache — which had always been Morrison’s point anyway.  It was the movie-like title sequences.  The smooth, Matrix-like talk replacing the Charles Bronson posing of old.  Sure, Morrison was posing too.  But he was good at it, and he brought the franchise’s posing up to date.

What Morrison has done for the franchise cannot fully be estimated, perhaps, until a decade or two has elapsed.  But he gave it intelligence and panache.  And he made many sophisticates — perhaps comics snobs to most X-fans, who notoriously felt very uncomfortable with Morrison’s run throughout, many openly complaining that he was strange or used ideas — not embarrassed to read the X-Men for the first time since the title’s heyday in the early 1980s under Claremont (work that, while strongly influential, has not aged particularly well).

Of course, those classic Claremont years were ones in which the X-Men were not yet burdened by the accretion of continuity and spin-off titles.  It is for this reason that Morrison’s run does not really stand on its own in the way, say, his JLA one does.  While complete, his run was one of the many ongoing in the frighteningly large X-Men franchise. One has the sense that there are these other teams of characters out there but they never seem to properly interact. And his run is still filled with references to the past — less confusing, perhaps, but nonetheless present and distracting. Nothing is as awkward in this regard than when Bishop walks on during “Murder at the Mansion,” combining the two:  who he is and where he’s been goes unexplained, though we can piece together just enough to understand the tale, however lesser our emotional investment.

But this is, perhaps, all not his fault.  He probably should have written Ultimate X-Men or some other continuity-free version of the characters, unburdened by a dozen other titles and the weight of so many years.  Certainly, Morrison’s work is better than Mark Millar’s on that title, which ran simultaneously and carried similar themes:  Millar may have a more proactive Xavier, but his own Phoenix and Magneto storylines pale by comparison to Morrison’s, despite being freed from the X-Men’s convoluted continuity.

What Morrison did was give us a monument not unlike that to Magneto in Genosha — large but fractured, iconic but incomplete.  He charged the title with more powerful images and ideas than it had possessed for some time.  If he gave us great ideas and images more than great stories, we fault him for it at risk of missing the importance of what he has done.  And it is, in its way, awesome.

He has made me care about — not love but nonetheless actually care about — the X-Men.

And if I’m out there…

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In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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