Sunday, September 13, 2009


The conventional wisdom says that the X-Books went completely off the rails when Chris Claremont left. That any forward momentum in the story department had been sacrificed on the altar of the hot artists of the 90's who, ironically, almost immediately packed up and went to form Image, and proceeded to make lots of money doing terribly little.

The X-Books, meanwhile, in the hands on Fabian Nicieza and Scott Lobdell (mostly) went in a more conservative and workmanlike direction. I've often wondered if the mostly status quo early to middle 90's for the books wasn't a reaction against what happened with the Image boys--perhaps handing over unchallenged power and profit to rising young stars who immediately bolted for greener pastures made them a bit gun-shy about creating new stars that might presumably follow in the Image founder's footsteps, and so Nicieza and Lobdell were seen as safe hands, handed the keys, and warned not to give away the farm or anything and off they went.

Not that this was a creatively flat period for the books--after all this was the time of Age of Apocalypse--but generally one could pick up an X-Book in those days and know what you were getting--able plotting that mostly kept all the big plots ticking over and character who were drawn to look like they were constantly in pain (Andy Kubert on X-Men) and characters who were drawn by whatever fill-in artist they could grab on short notice (Uncanny X-Men) For people who liked that sort of thing, they would find that it was the sort of thing that they liked.

Of course, as Lobdell's tenure was winding down, they were pushing against the grain somewhat. Onslaught was initially an attempt to bring some darker shadings to the previously saintly (more or less) character if Professor X before it was hijacked by Marvel editorial into something entirely else. Operation: Zero Tolerance was, initially and attempt to bring a little bit of jeopardy into the X-Men's world by stripping away some of the accumulated trappings like Shi'ar technology and fancy planes and shake up the team by introducing new characters. It never really came to much, but Lobdell did try to kick things into a new place on the way out the door.

But no one much worried. The replacement writers, Joe Kelly and Steve Seagle, had a tremendous amount of buzz from works elsewhere, and there was a real sense of anticipation to see what they'd do with a franchise that seemed resolved to play it safe whenever possible. Of course, that was more or less nipped in the bud by editorial and replaced with a bizarre, borderline incomprehensible storyline featuring Cerebro gaining sentience (this kind of thing happens a lot with X-Men tech) and creating his own team of X-Men who . . .look, it's really not terribly important. Suffice it to say, from 1998-2000 things will be, at best, a little confused for the books.

It's not all bad, of course, Magneto gets to take over Genosha (having long outlived its purpose as a rather obvious Apartheid metaphor, something had to be done with it) which leads to a great moment where the X-Men have an existential crisis, as having only a mansion to offer as a mutant sanctuary when the opposition has a whole damn country to offer mutants. But by and large, it's mostly just lurching from one thing to another. Paul O'Brien has a certain affection for the ascension of Alan Davis to writer of both titles, but I myself wonder if it wasn't just because things finally seemed to be on some sort of track and it wasn't just spinning wheels anymore.

Anyway, this all leads, more of less to The Shattering, a crossover that leads into another crossover (The Twelve) and is less a coherent story in its own right and a weird bit of sausage--half of it is occupied with the fallout of plotlines before (wherein the X-Men visited a planet full of Skrulls) and the rest turns on stuff that hasn't happened yet (Apocalypse is slowly gathering his forces in the background until about halfway through) Read as a whole, it doesn't make a terrible amount of sense, mostly because it's a deck clearing exercise. It would hardly be remembered at all (none of it's all that neccessary to understand The Twelve, which was a mess all its own, of course) That something like this would be published means almost certainly, other "barely there" crossovers like Dream's End (the 2000 crossover. A little footnote here--"Dream's End" was also the original name for this crossover, but it's now been renamed "The Shattering" because 1) this is all very confusing enough as it is and 2) "The Shattering" was on the cover of the first issue and hey presto, they had a title for this trade after all) and Eve of Destruction should be collected any day now. Lord, think of the poor trees.

Anyways, the Shattering features a lot of running hither and yon and some rather terrible artwork from Adam Kubert, who, it appears, was experimenting with drawing people as crosshatched gelatinous blobs, Alan Davis whose work is very reliably clean and pleasing to the eye, Brandon Peterson, who, it can be said, does the best with what he's got, as really it seems everyone is doing here.

To the extent that this mess can be termed to have anything approaching a coherent plot, it's this--Professor X is acting all paranoid and drilling the X-Men relentlessly, causing discord with the team. There's a guy named Death walking around killing people with a sword. Phoenix and Cyclops (in one of the few good things about this run of issues) begin to see the ship sinking and make arrangements to get off only to be dragged back in, Mikhail Rasputin shows up again for confused reasons (a leitmotif that's synonymous with the character, really) Professor X disbands the X-Men and Death kills Wolverine, who turns out to be a Skrull (the other good thing about this run--like the Thunderbolts thing, this was one of the few times Marvel managed to keep a secret successfully) and another ad hoc X-Team is formed so everyone can get together in time for the Twelve to start.

Ladies and gentlemen, if that sounded confusing, at least you didn't have to read the damn thing. Welcome, well and truly, to the nadir of the X-men as a franchise, wherein the powers that be will be so desperate that that Claremont returning to fix this mess will seem like a blessing (which creates yet another nadir, by the way) and finally, two or so years later, Grant Morrison comes in and makes something interesting happen.

I'm not entirely certain why Marvel collected this, short of to cater to the market share of people like me who enjoy page after page of metaphorical car wrecks and find a peculiar fascination in watching venerable franchises stumble drunkenly down blind alleys like this. It's odd that in a time when the Heroes Return stuff was exhibiting a flowering of creativity that the X-Books sort of imploded like this, but given how much of it can be laid at the feet of editorial mandates, it's surely the end result of too many cooks making . . .well, something that can be published 12 years later and marvelled at as a living example of just how wrong-headed things were back in the day.

In short, while this thick volume is ideal for propping up wobbly tables, I wouldn't recommend reading it, unless you find self-flagellation fun, or you're a comics blogger or some other kind of highly-evolved neurotic.


M said...

Well... I'll be a damned smokin' devil poptart.

Kazekage said...

It's awesome that I'm sorta known. Sorta.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

The conventional wisdom says that the X-Books went completely off the rails when Chris Claremont left.

And I've never understood that position: after all, wasn't Claremont the one who gave us Nimrod, Inferno, Fall of the Mutants and the Siege Perilous? One might argue he derailed the books years before physically leaving...

If I squint sideways I can almost understand Marvel's thinking: they want to create a cohesive library of X-Men stories, which would include the good, the bad and My God What Have We Done - counting on the completionists to rush out and get it even if there's absolutely no reason to do so beyond having the damn thing bridge the gap between Kelly/Seagle and Lobdell's pre-Morrison return.

Personally, I don't see any point in filling the gap, especially since recent years seem to indicate you really shouldn't get too attached to any status quo in the X-books - San Francisco's only been around what, a year? And already it's written off. A cleverer writer could've used that as a metacommentary on mutation and how the future's always coming faster than we expect... but we got Matt Fraction, so instead Norman Osborn's Up To No Good.

Kazekage said...

I have a feeling the conventional wisdom just happily ignores everything after "Days of Future Past" or somesuch and as such, has a somewhat rose-tinted view of things. Nevertheless, I can remember quite distinctly just how much the comics intelligentsia felt like Claremont had been capital-W Wronged. This despite the fact that the book had been circling the drain since #207 or so and only Jim Lee coming on seemed to give him a shot in the arm to take the unusual step of actually telling engaging stories again.

Well, that's what the Essentials are for, innit? That whole era (OK, the early Joe Kelly X-Men issues ain't bad, if a little slight) If one must fill in continuity gaps, surely that's a more cohesive and far less painful way to do it.

Yeah, after the rather flatulent wrap-up to Utopia/Exodus, I feel a bit better about opining that maybe Fraction's Marvel work isn't the best measure of his talents.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Admittedly, there's something to that - Claremont started getting very experimental after DoFP, with Belasco and the Brood Saga and Kitty's Fairy Tale, with varying degrees of success. Personally, I liked that phase, but was just as relieved to see things return to "normal" with the first Madelyne Pryor story.

It may be that the intelligentsia were reacting to the circumstances around his departure rather than the actual effect it had on the book: granted that this was during the artist-centric years in comics, but I imagine a veteran writer getting forced off his signature title would've sent out shockwaves even if said title hadn't spiraled into near-lunacy.

The Essentials seem to pride themselves on a cohesive "identity", though - admittedly, it's easier to do that when you've got a writer on the same title for over a decade, but I have a hard time imagining an Essential volume trying to represent that period as cohesive in any way. Also: to misquote a song, mo' TPs, mo' money. :)

Dare I ask what happened?

Kazekage said...

Very true, that--I think some of that got snarled up in the Image stuff (because a lot of creator-rights posturing was happening around that time) I remember Claremont being somewhat venerated because of the circumstances around his ejection off the X-books.

Then he did Soverereign Seven and everyone remembered all the rather ropey stuff he'd been doing near the end of his run.

The perception of Essential as having a coherent identity works in some respects, but some of the Essentials (like, say Iron Man, the silver age X-Men, and the early Daredevil runs) just plow through various possible directions in a rather plodding workmanlike kind of way, so really, they're probably more for the folks who want to soak in the continuity more than those who might appreciate the craft (art or writing) would naturally want something at a higher quality and a higher price point, you'd imagine.

With the demonic pop tart comment above, you mean? Oh that story's a hoot. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Admittedly, a lot of my sympathy towards him (which he has since used up) was due to that specific situation and the way it continued to affect him afterwards; I remember feeling bad for him during that convention incident a few years back when someone asked Claremont how he felt about Wolverine joining the New Avengers, and it became clear that no one had actually told Claremont about that even though he was writing Uncanny X-Men at the time.

Of course, then he killed "Exiles", so... you know. Whatever. :)

Isn't that a side-effect of the specific wedge of issues being published, though? I mean, it's one thing to make an Essential out of Silver Age X-Men, it's another to give the same treatment to, say, Peter David's first run on Hulk, which was basically an 11-year saga.

I meant Utopia, actually, but now that you mention it, I am curious about the demonic pop tart too. :)

Kazekage said...

One gets the idea that during that time Claremont become Milton from "Office Space"--constantly uprooted and jerked around and kept in the dark until he was a gibbering lunatic. We're lucky he didn't burn Marvel down.

To this day, I fail to see the point in giving him Exiles only to kill it dead. I wonder, given how X-Men Forever is going, maybe some of the bloodletting could have been averted if someone figured out that he should have had a place of his own and left to get on with it.

Well, I always looked at it like this: the Masterworks are the Criterion-level editions (I should be buying my first Masterwork soon) the Visionaries books are for people who want to see high-quality compilations of favourite creators works, and the Essentials are the bare-bones, nothing but continuity things. Of course, there's liable to be some overlap (eventually some of the stuff covered in a Visionaries--of which multi-volume editions f specific works are the norm-- is going to be covered in an Essential or Masterwork and vice versa) but they're aimed for different audiences who have different needs.

OK! SPOILERS for "Utopia": Cyclops builds Nation X off the coast of the USA out of the remains of Asteroid M (there's gotta be 9 million of those things under the sea now) and builds his own country/haven for mutants to basically get out from under the whole Osborn thing, since because Dark Reign can't end yet, things don't resolve, as much as sputter out into the dirt.

The demonic pop tart . . .well, some people in my dorm were trying to convince me that there was a demon on the campus quad, and I just wasn't having it. It was a stirring example of those times when you're Totally Done With This Bullshit. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

We should be so lucky. :) I wonder: was he marginalized because he couldn't work the old magic anymore, or did he lose his touch as a result of being marginalized?

I guess if I put my bitterness aside I can see the logic: they needed a book that had absolutely no effect on any other title, and seeing as how he'd tanked the Genosha-based Excalibur in less than twelve issues, they were probably reluctant to give him another new series. So they picked a book that sold enough to sustain a lengthy decline once he took over, the better to keep him there for a while. I doubt anyone at Marvel gave much thought to the actual creative merits of the change, as that sort of thing tends to get noticed only by readers. :)

Thanks for clarifying. :) I imagine the Essentials are best for those runs that went on for hundreds of issues, like PAD's Hulk, Claremont's X-Men or Simonson's Thor...

That's... kind of like the time Magneto took over that island way, way, way back in the '60s. And after they'd gone to so much trouble with the San Francisco set-up, the whole City of Tolerance bit...

And the pop tart means... they were baked? ;)

Kazekage said...

Well, he dropped the ball big-time in 2000, so that probably led to his professional decline, but the writing was on the wall as soon as his first job after being canned from X-Men the first time (I want to say it was the first Hunstman arc on WildC.A.T.S.) the quality started to decline sharply.

Yeah, those readers, what do they know? Paying for and supporting books the like and all that? ;) Yeah, and it may have seemed like a last-ditch effort to save Exiles as well, now that I think about it, as Exils had drifted on with solid sales but no clear direction for quite some time, hadn't it?

Pretty much. Some of the longer-term runs, of course, may still get Visionaries runs (Simonson's Thor, Byrne's FF, and David's Hulk) but with some of them, it's Essentials or nothing, really.

It is, except now the X-Men are doing it, and because Matt Fraction cannot seem to really create any sense of momentum or drama, it's utterly meaningless and seems like more farting around until someone wises up and un-does M Day already.

Nope! Pop tart as in the (infamous) toaster pastries. :) Apparently abstract representations of the dead and/or demonic crave delicious, fast, convenient breakfast food.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Of course, if you take "X-Men Forever" at face value, he apparently had a whole bucket of crazy just waiting to be dropped on our unsuspecting heads, so maybe his departure had a silver lining after all. :)

Actually, Tony Bedard had been doing an okay job of it, alternating between longer storylines like the Timebreakers or the World Tour and shorter "What If?" stories. His only real fault was that his characters tended to come out a bit flat... but that's still better than Claremont's brand of melodramatic histronics, don't you think?

I've noticed that about Fraction... events that should be sending out major shockwaves seem to just slide under the carpet until the plot requires people to react to it. The dramatic timing's completely off.

So Stan Lee was right after all! Even the undead will stop their rampaging for Hostess fruit pies! :)

Kazekage said...

Well, now he has a nice safe refuge in a protected environment, far from the madding crowd where he can ply his trade of crazy and be looked at as the last of a dying breed and great thinkers can wonder whether it's a good thing or not.

Pretty much anything's better than Claremont's particular bag of cliches at this point, I'd say. I always thought Bedard was a pretty reliable hand, but I can't say anything he's written really ever struck me as memorable. Mind you I've never read his Exiles stuff, so . . .

It's the same problem I have with his Iron Man run--Big Things are obviously happening, but there is no gut connection to it--it feels rather . . .weightless, somehow. So when I read his stuff, I find myself waiting for things to get going already.

It's scary just how much of life is informed by Hostess Fruit Pie ads, isn't it?

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

That'd be a greater comfort to me if he hadn't left such a trail of devastation in his wake... :(

To be honest, Bedard's only real failing was that he made "Exiles" a plot-centric book, moving away from the character-based storylines Judd Winick had been doing (and yes, this was probably the last time any writer was compared unfavorably to Judd Winick), so that even when Bedard had some clever ideas for storylines, the cast flattened out.

And, of course, when things do get resolved, it's often in the most abortive and anticlimactic way possible. Which makes you feel like a fool for waiting that long in the first place.

Indeed. :)

Kazekage said...

All we can do is commit ourselves to re-seeding the ground he blighted. . . :)

Well, as I understand it (and mind, my experience with Exiles is pretty much solely Paul O'Brien's reviews) one of his big complaints was the question of just how bloody long they could stretch the premise out, so I'm certain that this was a way to combat the formula getting stale, for good or ill. I'll just have to read them sometime and see, I suppose. :)

Yes. Or even after he's lobotomized himself Stark is still gleefully apologising for nothing, which rather sours the well for giving Iron Man a fresh start in the first place. I am really not getting Fraction's writing--I find it really smug and self-satisfied with its own alleged cleverness.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

We can rebuild it. We have the technology. :)

That was one of the few instances where Paul and I actually disagreed: he was evaluating the series based on the assumption of an ongoing plot, but it seemed clear to me that Winick wasn't interested in that at all - he was focusing on developing the cast, which he did surprisingly well given his later flops.

Quite. I can't help thinking a more capable writer could've taken Fraction's ideas and used them to much greater effect. Maybe he's just a decent Idea Man who can't make the leap to the next level?

Kazekage said...

We can make him stronger, faster, less mind-controlled than before. ;)

I'll have to take a look and see what I think--I really haven't ever read an issue of it, like, ever (the stars never aligned to make this a priority) but I guess I should see before I make a judgment one way or another. Winick must have done one good thing to justify his good press, surely.

I don't even think his ideas are all that inspired really. I've seen most every trick he's pulled so far before and nothing he's done with any of it has seemed novel or that interesting, really.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

And somewhere Chris Claremont has just woken up in a cold sweat, convinced that the future is going to eat him. :)

In fairness, he actually had a decent pedigree prior to "Exiles" as well - I always had a soft spot for his Barry Ween stories, and "Pedro and Me" was a lot more heartfelt than you'd expect from a "Real World" alumni. But his DC work has been so subpar for so long that he's squandered any goodwill he had.

Well, looking at the X-Men run in particular, I like the concept of Beast's Science Team, and if you must bring Madelyne Pryor back then putting her at the head of a Sisterhood of Mutants is probably the way to go, as Pryor's practically the poster child for A Man Done Me Wrong.

Come to think of it, she could've had an interesting dynamic with Emma, because she's living proof that Scott will always go back to Jean; and if he left a wife and child for her the first time, what hope does Emma have? But instead she tried to jump into an empty grave and turned into fairy dust. Whatever, Fraction.

Kazekage said...

And whatever it is has tentacles and he finds it weirdly sexy for some reason. . .

I've never read "Pedro and Me" or "Exiles," so by and large my experience of him is his DC work, which I've generally found to be utter dross and hasn't exactly encouraged me to dig into the archives . . .but as the Ultimate Collections of Exiles might be easily grabbed, I may have a read-through sometime soon.

That's just it, though . . .they're good ideas but nothing in the execution of them results in anything remotely interesting or readable. And as unkind as this may be, it's asking quite a lot for me to pay for someone who has great ideas and fumbles the ball . . .constantly.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

On behalf of anyone still bothering to pay Marvel for the pleasure of being insulted on a monthly basis: Eww! :)

I expect you'll be pleasantly surprised: chronologically, his DC work's the most recent, but creatively he seems to have peaked before he ever got there, and it was all downhill afterwards.

No, you're absolutely right: there's a certain amount of open-mindedness and patience that's par for the course, but even with proven talent, there are (and should be) limits. Anyone can have a slump - much as I enjoy Peter David's work I have absolutely no desire to go back to "Fallen Angel" - but it's quite another thing when you're consistently failing. That sort of thing just doesn't leave much room for reconsideration.

Kazekage said...

I like that Marvel has found a way to make even their new "girls in comics" initiative feel somewhat sexist and icky. I'll say this for them--they're consistent.

I haven't had a chance to get a bookstore any time recently, but next time I'll go I'll have a look and see what I think. Nothing to lose if you're already starting from nothing with me, after all . . .

And that's what finally drivien me away from anything with Fraction's name on it. Sorry everyone who wants me to real "Immortal Iron Fist" and "Casanova," I just can't be arsed with Fraction anymore . . .

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

The sad thing is, that sort of project might've piqued my interest if I had any faith - at all - that they could pull it off without being sexist and/or condescending.

Quite true. Let me know what you think if you get a chance to read it! :)

Well, in fairness, Fraction was only a co-writer on "Iron Fist" - Brubaker did most of the heavy lifting, and believe me, you can tell. In fact, that's probably the ideal situation for Fraction: he comes up with a halfway-feasible idea, and his partner grounds him and make sure the book goes as far as it can with that concept.

Kazekage said...

Therein lies the paradox--in trying not to be sexist and condescending, that's exactly what they appeared to be. It's sort of like prefacing a racist comment with "I'm not racist, but . . ."

Haven't yet, but hopefully soon!

I have to confess here and now, Fraction has written one thing I've enjoyed. That being the following tweet: "The only thing dumber than doing a sequel to Watchmen is doing a sequel to Watchmen after the movie bombed a year ago." :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

And this is a situation where intentions count for nothing: Quesada may be completely sincere in his desire to draw in a female readership, and he might think he's creating material that will appeal to women... but the end result speaks for itself.

Which, I suppose, proves the often-made point that "Watchmen" just can't be translated into film. Snyder made a grand effort - and, to his credit, it's still better than any other failed Moore adaptation - it just wasn't enough.

Kazekage said...

All I can think of in the face of well-intentioned efforts that have precisely the opposite effect--and I have a feeling I'm opening up a can of worms by saying this, is an old Whoopi Goldberg comedy bit about how she went yo Germany once and the people there were really sympathetic about the plight of black people in America: "Please tell us what it is like to live in the ghetto and please eat the watermelon, we got it especially for you!"

Far be it from me to tell everyone "I told you so," but . . . ;)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Ohhh dear. :) Well, that does just about say it all, doesn't it?

By all means, go right ahead. You've earned it. ;)

Kazekage said...

Yes. What it says "all of" I'm, not quite sure. :)

Heh. Maybe later.