Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Whole Damn Thing--NEW X-MEN: PART 1

Here we go.

From time to time, I will look at the totality (sometimes even the focused totality) of an entire run of issues of a comic or episodes of a TV series in detail. To make the FTC happy, I will say here and now that the three New X-Men Ultimate Collection books were bought with my own money, because only important people get comps copies of anything, and seeing as how I run a blog read by (at most) three people, that's not me. If ever it is, standards have fallen dramatically.

When last we talked about the X-Men, things were not going so well. The Shattering book gave way to The Twelve, a crossover based solely on an offhand reference to something in a little-regarded issue of X-Factor twenty-some years ago, which went about as well as you'd imagine (hint: Apocalypse was in it, and really, he's only tolerable as the end boss for X-Men vs. Street Fighter. So yes, it was bad.) Things had meandered along to a place where the old methods that had seen the franchise through the 90's hobbled along, but it was clear that as the century turned, the approach was running out of gas. The tendency, to paraphrase Grant Morrison, was that X-men continutiy had grown inward and festered, like a toenail sometimes does.

A change was needed. And who better than Chris Claremont? Marvel went through a period from 98-2000 of returning more to its roots (for better or for worse, depending on the case) and one could see Claremont's reinstatement on the book, 9 years after he was removed. There was a huge amount of anticipation and buildup for this and to this day, I'm certain that Claremont went into it rather determined that this would not retread the old cliches (that he himself had established) and he would blaze some new ground.

It lasted 9 disastrous months. Claremont's new ideas weren't that much different from his older ones and the one new idea he intended to build around (the X-Men fight a third species) just wasn't tenable at all. So, in the ashes of this failed relaunch, the decks were cleared and things were relaunched once again, this time with Grant Morrison at the helm.

Natural enough choice really--Morrison's JLA work had really started the ball rolling on the "making retro now-tro" trend and after a successful run on the book, his star was in ascendancy. On whatever he worked for, there was a tendency for real idea-driven stuff wherein a lot happened, things felt anarchic on first read-through, but were (as discovered on further re-readings) very intricate and interlocking plots. Things that seemed rather dashed off in issue one, for instance, become critical later on.

Morrison had a story to tell with the X-men that built on what had come before without being utterly beholden to it (good thing too, as with a successful movie franchise now, there was the possibility--however unlikely--that non-comics readers might discover the comics and perhaps presenting a daunting tangle of continuity isn't the best way to deal with that) There is a central theme to New X-Men that forms the spine of every issue to come, and it's this:

Evolution. Biological evolution, societal evolution, evolution of ideas, and in the background, the evolution of superhero comics (if I can be that hyperbolic) Things change in this book, and change pretty rapidly--the remit and character of the X-Men as a team (moved from generic superheroes to a kind of search and rescue team operating outside of the school) change dramatically, the mutant population explodes and is reduced by 16 million somewhat simultaneously, and oh yes, the human genome has four generations left before it dies out.

And that's just the first three issues. "E For Extinction," the opening story arc sets the tone and the pace for what's to come. Cassandra Nova activates a nest of Sentinels and exterminates nearly every mutant on the island of Genosha (which had, in the course of years, moved from a allegory for South African apartheid to, basically, a mutant Israel) Nova follows this up by assaulting the X-mansion, kicking every X-Man's ass, and nearly gets killed before she can use the X-men's technology to wipe out every mutant on the planet in a stroke.

A lot happens in these three issues, not just in the foreground, but in the background. Beast learns that the human genome is headed for extinction. Cyclop and Phoenix, the longtime cornerstones of the team, are drifting apart. Emma Frost joins the team as resident shit-stirrer with the nifty extra ability to turn into a diamond (which takes the colourist a little time to work out how best to convey--those first few times they just slap the "chrome" filter in Photoshop over Emma Frost and it looks just about as awful as anything you ever try to use that filter on) the school opens its doors once again and Xavier outs himself as a mutant, although there is a sense that all is not what it seems there.

And all the pieces are in place to make for an interesting character drama--Cyclops is isolated and withdrawn after everything he survived in previous arcs (longtime readers decried that Morrison dumped a lot of hanging plots when he took over, but really, that's just not true. He just didn't slave the entire story to it, is all); Phoenix is moving into more of an administrative role with the X-Men and experiencing power creep; Beast struggles with his secondary mutation, which wreaks havoc on his love live and drives him more inward, with potentially destructive results; Emma Frost seems to hang around just to mess with everyone; Professor X moves towards becoming more or less an emeritus figure, and Wolverine, curiously, seems to be cast more in the role of the balancing figure between the various extremes--ironic, since when he first hit the scene, he was the shit-disturber.

But we've got one more member to ad, and so we pick up with the 2001 Annual, or as I like to call it That Damn Sideways Book . You see, Marvel in those days had tendencies towards gimmicks that may have seemed terribly clever at first, but ended up being more of a hassle to the people who actually have to go out and make them (more on that in a bit) This time, the idea was to print them in landscape format for a "widescreen" effect ("widescreen" was a oft-touted buzzword in comics in the early 00's. It doesn't really mean anything concrete, but then, neither did "extreme" when you get down to it) it looks really stupid.

Fortunately, the story is rather good and runs counter to the often-espoused maxim that annuals are just junk stories that mean very little in the larger picture. We also have two characters introduced in this story:

The first, John Sublime, seems to be little more than a generic guru-type as this point. Sublime has daft notions about how human beings can upgrade themselves to a perfect Third Species (Morrison succeeds conceptually with the notion here) by grafting mutant organs onto themselves. Adherents to his cause call themselves the U-Men, and they'll be more of an annoyance than an out-and-out danger to Our Heroes throughout the run, but for now it's more important that Sublime has a connection the Chinese, who, in addition to feeding the U-men a steady stream of Chinese mutant organs, are keeping a dangerous, powerful mutant chained in a prison of iron.

That prisoner's name is Xorn, and so far as we know, he has a star where his head should be. Upon freeing him, Cyclops appeals to his better nature and Xorn joins the X-Men. As with all major turning points, of course, nothing is ever quite what it seems.

A theme which will carry us through most of the rest of the book in macrocosm, and definitely the next storyline, "Germ Free Generation." The school is open in force now, and the threat of Sublime's U-Men come to the fore. Morrison frames these developments against the experience of two new students--the well-intentioned but absolutely useless Beak and the obnoxious street kid/professional outsider Angel. These two serve as our look at the "uglier" side of mutant abilities, wherein you don't get gnarly powers or appear on lunchboxes--they just makes you a little weird and gross-looking. These two actually become fairly important characters that function as a Greek chorus for the events that follow the story.

The U-Men attempt to harvest Angel's fly-wings and the X-Men further investigate Sublime and the U-Men. Sublime articulates that he considers mutants little more than livestock and makes the rather dubious tactical decision to break Emma Frost's nose, a decision that bites him in the ass a bit later when he falls out of a skyscraper window whilst Phoenix handily dispatches a group of U-Men who attempt to assault the school, displaying that her powers have now elevated back to Phoenix levels, which will be a cause for concern, because the last time she was this powerful, she kinda blew up a planet back in the day and all that.

Because that's not enough happening, before he can convey a rather important plot point, Beast gets taken down by Professor X, who then goes off for a vacation with the Shi'ar. Quite why he would do this seems a bit curious until at the end of "Germ Free Generation," two things become clear. One--Professor X is trapped in Cassandra Nova's body, which has been booby-trapped to rapidly deteriorate and trap his psyche within. Two--Nova--as Professor X--is coming back to Earth with an alien warship full of superpowered beings under his command, and he's going to wipe the school off the map.

Before we tie up these last loose ends, a few non-storyline word. By this time, Frank Quitely, Morrison's preferred artist on New X-Men, has fallen so far behind that a rotating crew of fill-in artists have been pressed into service so that the book has some chance of actually coming out on time. One of them--Igor Kordey--produces some pretty ghastly work (admittedly, due to deadline pressure) but otherwise, this book would probably still be finishing its third arc in 2010 had we waited. I've made my peace with it in the passing years, and it would have looked fine, except it's a bit over-inked in places, which makes everything look a bit lumpen in the final analysis.

Point two is that the whole strange business of Cassandra Nova is handled in the next issue, and it's another one of Marvel's rather dubious gimmicks. "'Nuff Said" month (which turned out being two or three months, because of late books) was this--for the entire month, every issue would be completely dialogue-free. The party line was that this would "demonstrate the power of visual storytelling," but when you get down to it, I think it was just that a lot of people had really liked that "silent issue" of G.I. Joe that came out when I was a kid.

Most of the participating books were horribly derailed by this, but it works OK here. Phoenix and Emma Frost jump into Professor X's mind and rescue him from Cassandra Nova's deteriorating body, and in the process, we learn that Nova is Professor X's twin sister, who was so evil that Professor X's killed her in the womb. Somehow she survived despite this and eventually led the Sentinel assault that destroyed Genosha.

Oh, and in the next issue she's wrecked the entire Shi'ar empire (and good riddance, really--I've never liked the X-Men's spaceborne chums) and has brought a warship to the doorstep of the X-mansion at the same time that Phoenix and the rest of the X-men are holding a press conference to reassure humans that a school full of potentially dangerous superpowered individuals isn't dangerous at the same time that an awful lot of them are coming down with the flu.

Needless to say, things don't go smoothly on any front. The Shi'ar Superguardian Elite attack the school, Cyclops and Xorn outrun a suicidal superdestroyer, the press conference ends up a bit of a wash, and it's only with some quick thinking (and a bit too much plot convolution from Morrison--I was perfectly OK with Nova being Xavier's evil bodiless twin. The rest of it wasn't really needed) the flu epidemic (really a colony of bacteria-sized micro Sentinels) is cured, Nova gets boxed, and Professor X can walk again, all thanks to Xorn's ability to heal people. Quite what "healing" has to do with "having a star for a head" is not really explained, but later on, you kind of realise that's the point.

And that's where this first trade finishes. It was an amazing story to read when it first came out, as it was completely different visually and tonally from the last few years of X-Men books, and it felt so different (even though it wasn't) that at first it may have been a little off-putting to those most conservative of conservatives, the superhero comics fan. If approached with an open mind (or the benefit of nearly a decade removed from the original publication) it can be appreciated for its daring and its storytelling efficiency--despite the trends whirling around Marvel at the time this book is not decompressed--if anything it's hyper-compressed. So much happens in these initial issues you almost wish you had a little more space to take it all in. Of course, the speed at which things progress is fairly necessary, as some of the time bombs of plot might not work so well if you had a slower pace to be able to pore over them. This books has such a tremendous sense of energy it demands to run at a fast pace and carry the reader along with it.

In any case, even for a jaded longtime X-Men fan as I was, this was some great stuff, and it's well worth revisiting.

Join us next time for part 2 of 3.


Jeremy said...

Whee, Grant Morrison X-men. I look forward to reading the rest of your posts.

Kazekage said...

Thanks, man. I hope now that w're 2/3rds of the way though, I haven't disappointed.