“THE RISING OF THE UNCANNY X-MEN”
AN INTERVIEW WITH MATT FRACTION
Never in a million years did I ever believe that I would return to reading “Uncanny X-Men” after surrendering on the title with the original departure of Chris Claremont and, then, Jim Lee, so many moons ago. For many of my generation, “Uncanny” was the title that was “the” one mandatory pull each month; any true comics aficionado of the Eighties and into the early Nineties read that book. After 1992, the title never quite regained its classic beat despite a number of notable creators, including Claremont himself, trying their best to recapture that mutant magic, its awesome peril and, yes, the correct tempo of heightened drama. The notion of dropping this title was something that was once inconceivable to me – I even bought it out of habit even when I couldn’t tolerate reading it – and once I finally stopped in the mid-’90s, I would still sporadically check it out with the intention that I would one day return to the book that once held my full devotion.
Last year, with writer Matt Fraction’s arrival on “Uncanny X-Men” #500, that day arrived for me – and “Uncanny” is phenomenal all over again. In just his first five issues plus an annual, he’s reinvigorated the X-Men team (in an “Avengers”-dominated Marvel era, no less) and made this title fun and inviting again. The characterizations are flawless, especially for a book featuring such a large cast pulled from X-Men lore. Aided and abetted by popular artists Terry Dodson and Greg Land, “Uncanny” also resumes its art legacy of being rendered by top-tier artistic talent. I can’t recommend this book enough, and if you’re an old “Uncanny X-Men” fan that’s not reading this book… now is a pretty good time to come back home.
Pop!: When did you start reading “X-Men?”
Matt Fraction: My first issue of “X-Men” was #207. The first one I regularly started to buy was #210.
Do you know what appealed to you about that particular comic book?
Yeah, they looked cool. They had the coolest powers. They were giant freaks. They seemed to be wracked by all kinds of suffering, both supervillain-ous and soap opera-y. I mean, it’s the perfect comic book.
Did you come into this knowing somewhat from your friends what happened with these characters?
I knew about Wolverine, which is a pretty easy sell to a fifth grader. And #210 was the start of the “Mutant Massacre,” so I knew there was about to be a big storyline, and that was exciting, and I knew a lot of people read “X-Men.” It seemed like, well, if you’re going to read it, now’s the time to do it. That was drawn up, inexorable excitement that comes along with the launch of a crossover.
When they approached you with writing the book, did you start rereading some of your favorite issues?
I didn’t want to be too slavish about it, so I wasn’t particularly… Well, a little bit, yeah, yeah, definitely. I did more like an aggressive browsing rather than an actual rereading.
But part of you must have went, “I don’t want to hit the same potholes that some of the other writers hit before. I want to give readers what they want.”
Actually I kind of think that’s the worst thing you can do. The stuff I loved most, Morrison’s run aside, was stuff from so long ago, you know? Almost 25 years, at this point-
Still there are a lot of guys living in the past in this industry.
Yeah, yeah. But I don’t think it translates. I love reading Jack Kirby comics, but I’m not worried that I’m going to start writing and sounding like Jack Kirby just because I read him all the time. It’s just impossible to have those genes. It doesn’t transfer like that; it was so of its era, I wasn’t worried. I was more worried about it not holding up to me as a reader and having my heart broken. I was easily impressed as an eight-year-old or nine-year-old. It was more of wanting to be gentle with the past rather than being worried that I’d be a prisoner to it.
But this is a different era, too. Not so long ago, “X-Men” was “the book” at Marvel. Now it’s more of an Avengers-focused universe. Is it different writing the X-Men in this sort of realm?
Yeah, sure, sure. It’s nice kind of being in a corner.
Do you feel you can do your plots without having to go through certain editors and stuff?
I don’t mind doing that. It’s not quite the hassle that it looks. And we’re about to run dead-on into the rest of the Marvel U, so working this stuff out, running it through the logistics of editorial doesn’t bother me. That’s not much of a hassle. I actually like my editors. You can do a lot worse than Nick Lowe and Axel Alonso.
I think so far it’s helped your characters, though. They’re in their own sort of world.
Yeah, yeah. Really, the editorial staff is so terrific. I mean, Axel (Alonso) has such a concrete vision for what he wanted to see the books become, and Nick (Lowe) is such a great editor, so that stuff has been a dream. What Axel wanted, coming in as head of the X-line, was that these books be clearly defined, to have a clear vision, and to be good books. There’s never been any pressure or anything like that. So it’s been terrific. Like I said, I like having somewhere to go. I’m not the name draw that Ed (Brubaker) is, and rather than the book have me come on and then sink the number one book, it’s nice to sort of have somewhere to go – other than just down.
One of the things I liked about your first story arc, it gave me a fresh start. For me, I hadn’t read the book for a long time, and it felt like I could start anew. And, also, “The X-Men,” for years, was also the book where you had the best artists that Marvel could offer. That was the book that all these artists strived for throughout the Nineties, and even somewhat into the early 2000s. And it was cool to see you’ve got Terry Dodson and Greg Land – your editors were obviously trying to bring some of that back. And that’s what enticed me. I didn’t want to see the same thing I’ve seen for the last 15 years.
You definitely don’t have to worry about that.
Was that part of the appeal to you? That you had two good artists backing you up, as well.
Oh, yeah, yeah, absolutely. And they’re just as different as different can be. It’s terrific working with both those guys.
Do you have a different approach for each of the guys?
It’s sort of like, you had that issue where the White Queen’s in Cyclops’ head, and you see all these females (in it).
Yeah, of course, that was absolutely written for Terry (Dodson). I wouldn’t have written that for Greg (Land). That was absolutely written for Terry.
Were you allowed to pick the team you wanted? Because you’re pretty focused on the core X-Men guys we all know.
Well, I actually sort of didn’t want a team. I wanted to have all the X-Men – ever. That was my genius move. You’ll notice that the book will have characters go away and more people come in and there’s a constant ebb and flow to the cast. The prime movers remain the prime movers, but there’s not much of a team structure.
Is this a team, or is this a school?
It’s “a people.” A race.
Every mutant’s welcome to join the X-Men?
Well, they’re welcome to join them in San Francisco. That’s the thing that, strategically, depending on who they’re dealing with, you’re going to need a different set of skills to solve all these different kinds of problems. I just like being able to say, “Oh, we can have so-and-so show, and we have so-and-so show up,” and not be trapped by not being able to write a Nightcrawler scene because he’s on the blue team, and I’m writing the gold team or whatever. I wanted to try something a little bit different, where we could just sort of celebrate the whole of the cast, how great they are, (and) how much fun they are.
What’s the difference you see in the X-Men from the Avengers and other Marvel superheroes?
Well, people, depending on which Avengers, in theory, people aren’t going to throw bottles and bricks at the Avengers when they walk down the street. The X-Men are hated and despised by a world they’re sworn to protect, and that is super-cool to me. I love that. That’s their ultimate tragedy.
But you wanted to drive a little past that, as well, by taking them to San Francisco.
Yeah, I wanted to find a place where, for the first time, they weren’t quite so overtly and openly spat at. Logically, staying in Westchester… it didn’t make sense to me. Look, you’re on a slippery slope when you’re arguing story logic when there’s a character who shoots force beams out of his eyes. I understand that. And there’s a Russian who can transmute to metal. But why would you live in, first, a house shaped like a giant X, so everybody knows where to aim their missiles? Why would they live in a place where their friends and these children have been killed time, and time, and time again? How many riots and raids on the mansion? How much blood of children needs to be hosed off the front door every year before somebody finally says, “Why don’t we get the fuck out of this awful house?” Go somewhere that you’ll be welcome.
Isn’t it a little defeating to have these guys in Genosha? Is that what mutantkind wanted, just to be separated from the rest of humanity?
Genosha, too, was that weird, like, “Planet of the Apes” riff with the slave race or whatever, and it’s such an abstract anyway-. Where WAS Genosha? Point to me on a map where it was. I’ll show you a map of the world, I challenge anyone to find-.
But you know what the idea was. The idea was to separate them. This was their own world, their own island.
Okay, that didn’t work. Strict isolation doesn’t work. You need them close to real people. I’m sorry, close to humans. I didn’t mean to offend any mutants, there.
At the end of the day, they are humans?
Yeah, right, exactly. And you need them close enough-. You can’t have them just off in a pocket. It’s not a metaphor that works in the abstract. They need proximity to the rest of the world.
From the beginning of the book, “X-Men” has always touched on the subject of race.
Well, sure. It’s about protecting people who hate you, just because it’s right to protect people even if they hate you. “I may not agree with what you say, but I defend your right to say it. You might not like me, but, hey, that giant robot’s going to blow up that building, so I’m going to stop that robot rather than to not do it because you don’t like me.” Transcending bigotry.
It’s why everyone can relate to the X-Men. Everybody’s felt hated before.
Were there certain characters you were looking forward to writing?
Oh, sure, sure. Really, all of them. In fact, more to the point, there are a couple of characters I don’t feel like I’ve got a way into, so I kind of avoid writing them a little bit. No, it’s more a case of that I wanted to write all of them. Which is another reason why I wanted to have such a big, sprawling cast, why I wanted to take this approach to the cast was there’s so many people that I wanted to write.
The dream that Xavier had for mutantkind needed to be modernized?
Yeah, yeah. There’s less than 200 mutants left. Scott’s creating, in a way… These people are becoming a military to protect their very species from absolute extinction. There are no more mutants coming around, and there are very few of them left, and they’re still hated, and they’re still despised, and they’re still hunted. That there are so few of them has brought out the wolves. They’re being murdered. Their foes smell extinction in the air and are whipping into a frenzy. But just like we saw in “Endangered Species,” you don’t pay attention, you cross the street, you get hit by a bus, suddenly the mutant population is down by half a percentage point. It’s a wildly different world, and Xavier’s dream doesn’t fit the climate of these times anymore. So Xavier’s dream has given way to what is ultimately Scott’s vision to protect mutantkind.
Scott Summers is not exactly as tight-assed as he used to be about stuff.
Not at all, not at all. Xavier knew this was coming. Scott’s been raised to be a general of an army his entire life, whether he likes it or not. This was like a contingency plan. If the time came when Scott needed to lead an army, he’d be trained for it. And he has been trained for it his entire life.
Is it your hope that many older readers come back and give you a chance to show people what you can do?
I’d like it if all the readers from the Nineties came back, back when “X-Men” sold 300,000 copies without breaking a sweat. They’re absolutely the best powers, the coolest looks, the coolest costumes, the coolest powers. They’re just the coolest superhero team in the world.
Did you ever give up on the book when you were a reader?
Oh, sure, sure. Like a bad habit. Yeah, absolutely.
When was that?
Well, you know, you get broke. You get a girlfriend. The writing sucks. The art’s lousy. You drift away. Comics aren’t marriages. Just because you like an issue of “Batman” doesn’t mean you have to read “Batman” for the entire rest of your life. No, I came in and out continually.
But “X-Men” is different because it’s a soap opera and very character-driven. You want to see what happens next to Cyclops and Wolverine.
After a while, yeah. It’s never been hard to catch up though. I was always, to some degree, aware of what was happening, no doubt. No matter what I was reading, no matter where I was. It’s such a big book, it’s just impossible not to be made aware of what’s going on somewhat.
What were you doing in the time you were preparing to write the book?
Enh, planning it. Taking notes, thinking. Getting caught up. Here, it was “New X-Men,” and before that it was “New X-Men: Academy X,” and then it was “Young X-Men.” “Legacy” was terrific, but if you hadn’t been reading “X-Men” your entire life, it’s so easy to be lost. So one of the big things we really wanted to do was get caught up, get really familiarized with what I’d missed and remind myself about what I forgot, and really try to make it accessible.
Axel’s fond of calling it “Mutant Central.” It’s sort of the mutant mothership for the universe right now. So I wanted to make sure that when my dad read it, for an example, because he reads stuff that I write and I don’t think he’s read an “X-Men” comic in his life, he wouldn’t be lost. So that’s where the captions came from. How do you make it clear to a brand new reader who these people are in as little real estate as possible? So that’s where that stuff came from, just a desire to, how do you make this book accessible to anyone who hasn’t been reading it for thirty years. What was your question again?
Wow, you had fourteen months to prepare for this.
I had longer than that, yeah. I found out… like, right before the winter retreat in 2005? A long time. I was talking to Ed, figuring it out. Working up notes and scheming. It was kind of just preparation for a while. I had a lot of stuff that I had agreed to write that I needed to get off my plate, so part of it I was just writing my ass off and getting ready to dive in.
I wasn’t actually sure that it was happening for a long time. I always believed it was going to go away. It wasn’t really until #500 came out – until I physically saw it and held it in my own hands – that I was convinced that I was the writer on the “X-Men.”
Oh, you thought they might have snuck somebody else in there?
Well, like I said, I’m not Brubaker, and I was always worried that, like, Mark Millar would decide, “Oh, you know what? I would like to write ‘X-Men.'” And they’d be, like, “Oh, sorry Matt, here’s ‘Darkhold’ for you.” I’m always going to have that voice of insecurity.
What sort of feedback are you getting? Are you finding the “X-Men” have an emotional and devoted group of fans?
I don’t know. I avoid it from the Internet. I don’t go looking on the Internet. That way lays madness. So I don’t know how it’s been responded to. I know my editors are happy, and the artists are happy, and that’s job one. And when I’ve been at shows and I’ve met people, it’s been, meeting fans face-to-face has been super-gratifying and THEY seem happy. Boy, X-Men fans are something else, and when you do right by them, it’s just impossible not to feel kind of good about it. When I’ve met people at shows or signings and they’ve been happy, it’s just terrific, and really gratifying. So that’s my anecdotal feedback: people that want to meet me seem to like me.