When you've made a career of providing fresh new takes on superheroes and balance that with complex- some might say confusing- mature readers series about the facets of life, it would seem that for Grant Morrison, there wouldn't be much too do.
Enter "New X-Men." It's not just every writer who can change the name of one of the industry's flagship series.
With the acclaimed writer at the helm, the Marvel Comics series has gone from being an adventure series about mutants with special powers to an exploration of what it means to be special, what it means to fight for what you believe in and like all Morrison stories, what it means to live. On the eve of his final issues of "New X-Men"- Morrison leaves with #154- the scribe spoke to CBR News about the series and what he plans to do after, dispelling a major rumor.
Morrison's take on the X-Men has been what attracted many- and in some cases, shocked long-time fans- and he explains, simply, how he views the core characters of the series.
"Professor x - the headmaster," explains Morrison. "A man with big ideas which aren't always understood by people who ain't as smart as himself.
"Cyclops - repressed, utterly noble, brutally hard on himself
"Jean Grey - tries so hard to be good she sometimes forgets to be human.
"Emma Frost - sexy, devious, villain-turned-hero, the ultimate self-made woman,
"Beast - brilliant, witty, bipolar scientist.
"Logan - dirty zen brawler with heart of gold and a hint of desperate vulnerability."
Each story arc in "New X-Men" acted as vehicles for exploration and even development of these fictional icons and the comparison to the classic Chris Claremont run on "Uncanny X-Men" (he's credited as the man responsible for making X-Men the multi-media juggernaut it is today) may be apt when you look at Morrison's inspirations. "I didn't read much of what came immediately before me apart from some Chris Claremont and Scott Lobdell issues. Chris is the guiding spirit of the X-Men as far as I'm concerned so I tried to be faithful to his essence throughout. Hopefully, whatever dark hoops I've made them jump through, I always try to strengthen the bonds of trust and love and hope, which bind these characters. That's the essential message of the book as far as I see it."
Besides delving into the many perspectives on life, Morrison also seems to create a "cool" character in each of his superhero series- fans saw Batman embrace his abilities and attitude wholeheartedly, which went over well with many "JLA" fans- and in "New X-Men," former foe Emma Frost is the coolest (no pun intended) mutant around. "She's smart, super-sexy and she tends to get the best lines," admits Morrison. "She's also vulnerable and human in a way which the others are not. Emma makes mistakes and acts on impulse all the time, as well as being obviously beautiful, cool and smart, so she often seems more rounded and sympathetic than some of the others who are essentially 'more heroic' and less inclined to gossip, bitchiness and enthusiasm."
"New X-Men" has also been highlighted by a lot of big "revelations," one of the biggest in the recent "New X-Men #146," and while some writers might feverishly wait to see what fans think of these latest twists, Morrison once again defies convention. "I don't pay much attention to the reactions so I probably miss a lot of stuff. The 'revelations' are just corners or angles which haven't been examined before."
This X-Men series may be "new" in a lot of ways, but it also stays true to a common theme of the past: Xavier's goal to find acceptance in the world. Some might say it's about time the Marvel Comics universe got over their problem and to that, Morrison says, comic fans need only look at how much they are "hated and feared." "The theme never goes stale, especially if you read comics. If you're a comics fan, the world will always hate and fear you and the X-Men will always be there to stand at your side. I don't think the world of the X-Men is much like the real world at all, but it represents or stands in for the real world and for me it's more fun to explore things through symbols and metaphor. The world of the X-Men is nothing like our world - it's a science fiction fantasy land, but the emotions of the characters are universal. Their pains and joys and mistakes can be shared by any human being.
"Each of the stories has a different feel which keeps it all fresh for me. 'Riot at Xavier's' was every school story I could think of mashed into one 'comicsclash' in the '2 many DJs' style. 'Murder At The Mansion' was a kind of mutant Columbo murder mystery. 'Assault On Weapon Plus' was a boy's action story with Wolverine and Scott running around blowing things up and being funny. 'Planet X' is my dissolution of the classic X-Men dialectic, and the final arc is a big, biblical future apocalypse epic. Each of these arcs should work like a different drug, each targeting different pats of the brain. I'm hoping readers will go back and read the whole thing at once to see how all the little clues and nuances fit together. I'm very proud of my X-Men graphic mega-novel."
Throughout the stories in "New X-Men," readers have seen the strength of teamwork and personal responsibility to others stressed, with characters failing when they don't embrace those. "The X-Men are more about finding value in a support network and in the power of the above mentioned virtues," explains Morrison. "Individuality leads to nothing but trouble in X-Men."
Now some of you reading this interview will say (yes CBR News knows who you are) that Grant Morrison is obsessed with sex. That too much of his work has sexual themes and overtones. Guess what? Morrison doesn't care if you think that. "I probably am quite obsessed with sex, along with just about every living thing ever except the unicellular organisms of the ponds and our primeval past. I love sex in just about every way. It's one of my more endearingly human traits and, if I'm to be perfectly honest, I think about sex all the time in one way or another. 'Sex Is The Air And The Atmosphere…' as Nick Currie so eloquently observed. But...all I can say is X-Men has always been a comic about relationships between good looking guys and gals so obviously it will tend to feel 'sexy'..the X-Men have always been sexy and especially so since Chris Claremont injected intense doses of raw muck into the book! What do we all think the Dark Phoenix saga was about - chess?"
So how did this sex obsession comment come up in the context of "New X-Men?" It's not the Jean-Scott-Emma love triangle that seems to make readers flare up, it's the fact that Morrison had Beast "admit" he was gay. "I was trying to talk about the fact that being gay is just a label. Like 'being' black. or 'being' British. Or 'being' a fan of Madonna. I saw Henry McCoy as an incredibly clever, witty, cultured, well-traveled, experienced, well-read character so I brought out those parts of his personality which seemed to me to fit the profiles of the smartest and most worldly people I know - his sense of humor is dark and oblique. He's obviously quite clearly bipolar and swings between manic excitement and ghastly self-doubt. He has no dark secrets, however, and nothing to hide."
The aforementioned title- from "X-Men" to "New X-Men"- represents the kind of stories Morrison wanted to tell, but not just fresh, "new" tales of everyone's favorite mutants- he wanted you to read about those "freaks," too. "I like to create new characters so yes, there are a few upcoming issues where the X-Men barely appear, but I don't think anyone will notice. I asked for the name of the book to be changed from 'X-Men' to 'New X-Men' during my run for a few reasons, apart from the fact that it made for such a cool flip-over logo. One thing I wanted to do was combine the concepts of the 'X-Men' book with the old 'New Mutants' idea of the Xavier school as a place where teenagers learn to become super-heroes. 'X-Men' + 'New Mutants' = 'New X-Men'.
"Some fans are always responding negatively to something or other, but nothing would get done if we paid attention to all the different and wildly varying opinions of the vocal minority, so I tend not to bother."
As is the case with Grant Morrison, there's a complex reasoning behind his decisions, and he says that the introduction of the uglier mutants was necessary to three dimensionalize the X-world. "[They're] for people who look so bad everyone hates them and for people who look so good everyone hates them ."
Always ready to blaze his own trail, Morrison's also been rejecting the classic super-villain formula in "New X-Men"- his antagonists act out of base emotions and seem to have more Machivellian plans. "The ideas of villains - in the sense of people who get up in the morning with the intention of being cruel to everyone and everything they meet - seemed irrelevant, but I've created a whole bunch of characters like Cassandra Nova, John Sublime and the U-Men, the super-sentinels of the Weapon Plus programme, several new Shi'ar super-guardians, Quentin Quire... all of whom have fit the profile of 'villain' in a given story. Instead of villains plotting in expensive secret lairs, I prefer the idea of situations giving rise to conflict; the fun lies in seeing when people's natural desires bring them into opposition with others.
"I just decided to focus on characters as people rather than heroes or villains so there ended up being no real reason to mine the annals…"
But one character he hasn't focused on a lot is Wolverine, arguably the most popular X-character, and he says the reason some fans might feel the character is underused is because they're so used to seeing him dominate a story. "My approach to Logan was to write him as a Zen master crossed with an alley cat. I figured he'd enjoy brawling, drinking and screwing when he was feeling in a rough-and-tumble mood...and then he'd crawl back to Xavier's to spend months purifying himself in daily meditation and qi-gong. I saw him as being very old and very worldly but still somehow insecure without a memory...a wise old tomcat basically."
But it wouldn't be X-Men without Scott and Logan's relationship, which began as downright unfriendly, developing to one of mutual respect in the eyes of many fans… but Morrison contends that there's still tension between the two and they aren't exactly free of antagonism. "It's the hostility which masks a deep respect and trust. Scott, as an introvert, is completely sensitive to Logan's inner demons while still admiring and coveting Logan's easy manner and social adaptability. Logan as an extravert, is fascinated by Scott's cool glamor and constantly tries to break it down to see what makes it tick."
And Scott Summers, the one stuck between two beautiful and willing women? He has internal problems that Morrison says will be solved. Till they're solved again. "Cyclops' issues will continue for a few months… he will make a definitive decision between Jean and Emma in issue 151...
"And again in issue 154."
Now some might say, being married to Jean Grey wouldn't give you reason for infidelity, but Scott Summers isn't someone who's led the most normal life. Since when did your son come back from the future, older than you and transformed into a cyborg, with his twin trying to kill you and then releasing the mutant version of AIDS on the planet? And let's not mention the ex who began an evil queen. That aside, Morrison boils it all down to real emotions and not some "controversial" shock plotting. "Emma does everything Scott wishes jean would do. Claremont gave me the key when he said Jean is actually much kinkier than Emma, but not as demonstrative. A repressed guy like Scott needs to be brought out of his shell by an extravert. Jean is sensitive and tends to nurse Scott in ways that don't allow him to grow."
This all came to the forefront of "New X-Men" when Jean caught Emma and Scott together in the "Riot At Xavier's" storyline, one that many fans feel upped the ante for all of Morrison's stories, but that doesn't make him feel any more pressured. "I see all the stories as chapters in a bigger tale so I don't like to compare one part of the continuum to the others. It's all one thing. Some segments of the story have been more popular than others at any given time but in the end everything ties together and I'm sure that once even the 'unpopular' arcs are seen to have their place in the tapestry, they'll be looked upon with more fondness."
The Jean/Emma storyline also represented something else for Morrison's tenure on "New X-Men"- he wrapped up plotlines very quickly for an X-book. "I usually like to wrap up a plot thread within a year of it appearing. I made that promise back at the beginning in the x-manifesto. I think the X-Men needs a lot of running subplots but it doesn't satisfy the readership when they're left open and never resolved."
Love triangles, the Phoenix Force, a villain in armor… all these plot elements have been said by some to be rehashes of the Claremont/Byrne years on "Uncanny X-Men," and while Morrison isn't surprised, he has suggestions for anyone feeling that way, also addressing the idea of "continuity." "The comics audience is supposed to turn over every few years. Anyone who's still reading and can remember all this old stuff is likely to be disappointed by repetition and should probably move onto different kinds of comic books - there are only six plots in the world after all and in the X-Men there are probably only three. It's impossible to radically change the franchise - Marvel's licensors get twitchy if Wolverine's hairstyle changes slightly and forcers them to make millions of new slurpeee cups and lunch boxes. When characters become lucrative corporate franchises the pressure is on the company to never, ever change what makes them tick. Be thankful for the miracle of creativity that allows you to see even a very slightly different take on Wolverine or Cyclops or Beast.
"'Continuity' is trying not to screw too much with people's memories of things they once read.
"With Shaw [an X-villain who seemingly demonstrated telepathy] it was my mistake and I apologize. I'd prefer to get it right, but it's the sort of thing I expect my editors to catch if I mess up and if they don't then I guess we're all to blame for being lazy or preoccupied. Monthly comic books are written by mere mortals on a rapid turnover of ideas and deadlines. We all try our best to get everything to hang together, but the Marvel Universe now has forty years worth of heavy continuity - hundreds of thousands of comics dreamed up by dozens of writers and artists, some much better than others. Sometimes a mistake slips through the net, sometimes an old piece of 'crap' continuity gets quietly dumped in favor of a better idea, sometimes it's just not possible to read everything that went before.
"My advice is just to white out the offending dialogue in your comics with correcting fluid and then, using a fine-nibbed lettering pen, write in your own, more pleasing and continuity-appropriate version of the character's words. It will make your comic collection more individual, more continuity-conscious and much more creative and it will also allow you to edit and collaborate with your favorite writers."
The freedom to do what he's wanted is one of the reasons Morrison loved working at Marvel and has nothing but kind words for everyone involved. "The guys at Marvel have been very supportive. My editor Mike Marts is one of the most professional and charming in the business and I was able to do everything I wanted to do with the book. I really can't complain."
So, what's Morrison's favorite X-Men era? Come on True Believer, it's the same as yours! "My favorite period is the Caremont/Byrne run from the early 80s," reveals Morrison. "Chris was a wealth of new characters and fresh situations. His work was sexy, modern and intelligent. Byrne's work captured that spirit perfectly and for a while the pair of them could do no wrong. I didn't read X-Men much at all after 1982, although I quite liked Jim Lee's 'greatest hits' version because it looked nice, but by that time the whole style of the X-Men had become so weird and inbred that it was hard to get involved in the stories."
One can't talk to Grant Morrison these days without asking about why he left Marvel for DC Comics, the company he left for Marvel, and he answers, though it's obvious this is a question he doesn't want to answer again. "When I came to the end of 'New X-Men, I realized that what I most wanted to do was make up some new characters and try out some original books for the emerging bookstore market. Basically, after a long-run on a top five title with critical eyes my every move, with the weight of forty years history on my back, I felt like escaping back into obscurity for a while.
"My plan is to sit in the dark here until I stop shaking and then re-emerge with a sackful of mad new material.
"As I've said before, Marvel aren't really in a position to publish the kind of left-field work I feel drawn to doing, nor are they set up to offer the creator ownership deals which Vertigo has been known for a decade. I could hardly expect Joe and Bill to re-engineer Marvel's entire publishing structure to suit my artistic whims and it soon became clear that small press publishers, for all their enthusiasm and energy, didn't have the kind of budgets that could attract 'a-list' talent I wanted to collaborate with, so quite simply there was nobody around to publish the stuff I wanted to do except for Karen Berger at Vertigo, god bless her and all who sail in her ship. as part of my creator deal, I agreed to write some DC characters I'd been dying to get my hands on for a while and at that point I realized my dance card was bulging.
"I have so much work lined up for the next two years (several Vertigo books, three big DCU projects, the 'Sleepless Knights' script for 'Dreamworks' which is undergoing revision at the moment, a book on magic and a couple of high-profile games projects) that it made sense to accept all the perks of DC's offer of an exclusive. I already know exactly what I'm writing for the next two years and it's either for DC or for sources outside comics so I decided to accept the warm, bosomy security of my old alma mater. The marvel years were exciting and creative but quite turbulent and stressful in a lot of different ways. I feel the need to drift along without worries for a while."
Of course, now one has to ask- is Morrison going to be tackling Superman? Which DC heroes will he deal with? What are those Vertigo projects? Morrison answered some of these questions and left fans guessing on others. " I have three new 'creator' projects already underway and due for release early 2004 - 'creator' meaning that the artist and writer own the damn thing and it's a totally new story, not some old superhero reheat of what your dad was reading while the thought of you boiled in his testes - 'Vimanarama!' with Philip Bond. 'We3' with Frank Quitely and 'Seaguy' with Cameron Stewart will all be out next year. These books all written and I'm already prepping loads more new stuff for next year.
"I'm deep into a massive DC universe project (something completely new, and not the defunct 'hypercrisis' notion) which involves at least seven new series so far. I've written 28 plots in a week of activity and it's been the biggest damburst of creativity I've ever known. Apart from that I can't say anything more about this except that it's probably the last thing anyone will expect.
"I have two other major DCU projects also in the works and well underway. As I say, I've been experiencing an outrageous explosion of fresh ideas since I completed X-Men. I'm so excited about this stuff I wish I could tell you more, but as usual everything will be announced nearer the time.
"After X-Men I'll probably never be heard of again..."
Some fans are asking- is there an X-Men after "New X-Men?" Morrison's said that his final issue on the series can be seen as the end of the X-Men, explains how, and whets the appetites of fans for issue #154 with more comments. "How? In the sense that they all die fighting for freedom, it ends my 40-issue storyline fairly conclusively. The last story is my exploration of the phoenix force and the duties required of those who bear it. Some old familiar locations will be revisited in a strange new way…
"Why? Because it seemed right."