21st CENTURY MUTANT CHIC: GRANT MORRISON’S X-MEN
As I mentioned last week, I’ve been dipping back into some old stuff recently, although perhaps “dipping into” should be replaced by “devouring.” I think what I was unconsciously doing was taking a fresh look at some of the major superhero comics of the past decade, pre-planning for the inevitable “Best of the Decade” list that I’m sure I’ll do at the end of this year. Actually, since I’ve had time to give it some thought this weekend, and since I’ve reflected on what kinds of things might be included on that list, I plan on doing a two-part, Top Twenty Comics of the Decade list to appear during the last week of 2009 and the first week of 2010. Something to bridge the divide into the future.
As part of my master plan, or whatever it is (and it’s completely subject to the whims of fate and/or my attention span), I’d like to take a close look at some of the highlights of the 00’s over the next handful of weeks before the end of the year.
And what better place to start than with Grant Morrison? What better way to kick this off than with the first major superhero event of decade? Morrison on “X-Men”? Yeah. That’s the stuff.
Before we get into a look at the best and worst of Morrison’s run, I’d like to point out that while I don’t think this is Morrison’s best work, I do think that it’s Morrison’s best Marvel work (“Marvel Boy” comes very close, but it ends with an unfulfilled promise for more, and it’s too short, ultimately not meaty enough to compete with four years of X-stories), and I think it’s the best sustained run on the X-Men franchise since the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne days. And it certainly holds up better than those classic tales upon rereading.
So, yeah, I could safely say that Morrison’s “New X-Men” is the best X-Men run of all time, even if it begins stronger than it ends.
THE MORRISON MANIFESTO
The Omnibus edition of Morrison’s “New X-Men” contains his pitch for the series — literally titled “THE MANIFESTO” — in which he not only justifies what he wants to do for the series, but why it needs to be done. Morrison’s one of the few comic book writers who puts plenty of “here’s how we make this series matter again — here’s how we attract new readers” logic into his pitches. If you’ve ever seen the Superman 2000 pitch,” you can see his hand in trying to make a franchise more appealing to the readers. Though the rejection of that pitch ultimately drove Morrison (and others) to Marvel.
But in his X-Manifesto, Morrison lays out the problems with the franchise back at the turn of the new century: “comics like the ‘X-Men,'” he writes, “have gone from freewheeling, overdriven pop to cautious, dodgy retro. What was dynamic becomes static — dead characters always return, nothing that happens really matters ultimately. The stage is never cleared for new creations to develop and grow. The comic has turned inwards and gone septic like a toenail.”
Such criticisms could apply to more than just the X-franchise, certainly, but Morrison had some specific methods for recapturing the “freewheeling, overdriven pop” sensibilities and attracting the hordes of fans who were so eager to line up for the “X-Men” movies, but so reluctant to read about the characters in the “old-fashioned, overdense” style of the comics.
One step Morrison proposes is to use the 40 years of X-continuity as “background window dressing and as a treasure trove of material” rather than something inherent in every story. Ditch the idea of continuity, but reintroduce the good stuff from the past in ways that make sense. That’s what Morrison describes in the Manifesto.
Thematically, “‘X-Men’ is not a story about superheroes,” writes Morrison, “but a story about the ongoing revolutionary struggle between good/new and bad/old. The X-Men are every rebel teenager wanting to change the world and make it better. Humanity is every adult, clinging to the past, trying to destroy the future even as he places all his hopes there.”
Bringing back the “kick-ass anything can happen feel” and abandoning the spandex costumes in favor of biker-style uniforms is just a way to get a larger audience reading about those themes. It worked. It attracted new readers. I know it brought me back to the franchise after many years of sampling an issue here and there and finding all of them completely worthless.
Just because Marvel ignored or outright reversed everything Morrison did to change the series for the better doesn’t make his “New X-Men” run any less important. It just makes Marvel look foolish for refusing to see the potential in moving forward instead of backwards.
But let’s get on to actually talking about the comic!
E IS FOR AWESOME, MOSTLY
The Morrison run begins with a bang, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that Frank Quitely is aboard for the opening arc. Quitely is the ultimate Morrison collaborator, and Morrison is never as good as when he has Quitely providing the art. Is that even debatable at this point? Whether it’s “Flex Mentallo,” “All-Star Superman,” “We3,” “Batman and Robin,” or “New X-Men,” Quitely brings Morrison’s game to a new level.
And that’s easy to see when you look at the non-Quitely illustrated issues of “New X-Men,” even if some of them are pretty darn good. Not in Quitely’s league, though. Not even close.
But the opening arc, “E is for Extinction” is all Quitely and in 2001 it was a shot in the arm for Marvel’s limp mutant soap opera. With the introduction of Cassandra Nova and her little holographic tour of the past with the nephew of Bolivar Trask, we learn everything we need to know about Morrison’s approach to the series. It’s about young vs. old, it’s about what’s coming next, and the fear of the future, just as he outlined in his Manifesto.
Morrison just jumps into all of that in his opening issue — giving Beast a new look, a secondary mutation that makes a stale character seem fresh, and providing clear characterization for everyone else on the team — and then gives us a few memorable moments (Professor X pointing gun at his own head, the Master Mold gone native) upon which to hang some great visuals.
If there’s a formula to Morrison’s “New X-Men,” or even a formula to how he structures much of his superhero work, it goes something like this: keep the dialogue terse, the subtext heavy; move the story forward, not backwards; provide at least two moments that you’ve never seen before in a comic; and don’t be afraid to introduce new characters. It may not be a formula so much as a way to write exciting, engaging comics, but it’s what Morrison does when he’s at his best in this series.
And he does that often in “New X-Men,” while also balancing some long-term plotting that pays off to varying degrees throughout his run.
Besides the opening arc, which destroys nearly all the mutants on earth in a much more potent and emotionally meaningful way than a shout of “No More Mutants!” from a character who should know better, the reintroduction of the Shi’ar and the “Superguardians” provides a cosmic scope for Morrison’s stories of evolution, and the “Riot at Xavier’s” brings the thematic core of the series to the forefront, with Quentin Quire playing the role of nu-revolutionary.
Of course, nothing is as it seems and Morrison’s run on “New X-Men” ends with the reveal of not one secret villain but two.
The Magneto-as-Xorn subplot has since been retconned (to what, I don’t even know, but I know that Morrison’s Magneto didn’t fit the needs of Marvel post-2004, even though the Magneto-as-Xorn stuff was the most interesting story Magneto was involved in since the 1980s), but his reveal as the secret manipulator of events within the mansion, and his role as corrupt teacher of the “special class,” still provides a shocking climax to Morrison’s run.
Those who say that Magneto-as-Xorn doesn’t make sense have to do some work to prove that to me. It makes complete sense in the context of Morrison’s run. Even though it might force you to recognize the subjectivity of the truth that you think you’ve witnessed in previous issues. It works within the story, and the maniacal, pathetically ineffective Magneto represents the old, the out-moded, the static archaism of the past. As Xavier puts it, “Magneto had become a legend in death, an inspiration for change. Now look at you — just another foolish and self-important old man, with outmoded thought in his head. You have nothing this new generation of mutants wants…except your face on a t-shirt.”
But it turns out that Magneto wasn’t the true evil behind all the trouble at Xavier’s. It was Sublime, the man behind almost everything from the beginning of Morrison’s run. Sublime the genetic manipulator, Sublime the would-be-creator, Sublime the would-be-god who becomes the explicit antagonist of Morrison’s final four issues. The final four issues that catapult the story 150 years into the future and tell of the final days of the X-Men, yet also offer the possibility for more stories to come.
I don’t think the final story works particularly well.
The themes are there, the ultimate villain is revealed, but whether it’s Marc Silverstri’s too-stiffly-posed Barbie doll characters or the narrative distance between the future setting and the world of Charles Xavier, something doesn’t work in the finale. It feels too cold, too much of an epilogue when a climax and conclusion was needed. When the Magneto story, “Planet X,” turned out to be a false climax, Morrison’s run needed something bigger, more grandiose, to round out the finale. “Here Comes Tomorrow” just isn’t it. It’s not enough for what it needs to be.
And that’s part of the problem with other moments in Morrison’s run. (Mostly the bits with Frank Quitely nowhere to be seen.) The Beak and Angel relationship only partially works. Too much happens off panel to make their connection as powerful as it needs to be, and it doesn’t help that Angel looks completely different depending on the artist. Sometimes she’s a frumpy, but sassy, street urchin type. Other times she looks like a Sears catalogue model. And as much as I love the introduction of Fantomex and the Weapon Plus program, the “Assault on Weapon Plus” arc feels completely out of place in the larger scheme of Morrison’s run. It was one of my favorite arcs when I read it upon initial release, but in the context of the Omnibus it feels like too brief, too cosmic, of a diversion in the middle of something else brewing on Earth.
The murder mystery with Emma Frost turned out to be completely inconsequential (with Emma popping right back up in the following arc as if nothing had happened to her), even if it did foreshadow that something was rotten in the state of Westchester County.
But for all of those complaints, Morrison’s “New X-Men” still ranks as the single best X-Men run ever. Its highlights are high indeed, and even the inconsistencies and the sagging plotlines make for interesting diversions. Or they would make for such if the main thrust of the series — and the Quitely-drawn issues — weren’t so damned amazing. There’s nothing I hate in Morrison’s “New X-Men,” there’s just some stuff that doesn’t live up to the standard set by the best of the issues.
So how does Morrison’s “New X-Men” rank among the Best Comics of the Decade? Does it even make the list? You’ll have to wait another month to find out. (But what do you think?)
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” (which explores “Zenith” in great detail) and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon