Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Whole Damn Thing--NEW X-MEN: PART 3

Concluding our trilogy tonight, we first get the FTC business out of the way: Yes, I bought this book with my own money too. Just like the last two. Leave me alone.

I said last time that if we follow a trilogy structure for New X-Men, this this volume would comprise the unmaking of everything Morrison set up in the last 2 volumes, and it's certainly that. However, it's not a complete "smash it to the floor and dump the pieces" unmaking, as it certainly leaves the door open to go forward with it, but it nevertheless feels like the summing up of a thesis. Perhaps more than one. We'll hopefully see as we go.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The volume begins with "Assault on Weapon Plus," which may have been the most poorly-received arc in the whole run at the time. Part of it may have been the fact that Chris Bachalo draws it in what can only be assumed are, at times, the throes of delirium. Part of it was apparently because it featured Fantomex and people just hated Fantomex. But the main reason was that it was perceived at the time, to be an attempt to put the plot on hold while Morrison indulged in some of his patented Mad Ideas.

Thing is, it doesn't. "Weapon Plus" actually carries on the plot thread involving Cyclops' estrangement from the X-Men and and his rather dispiriting conclusions about the ultimate success of their mission. So it is rather necessary for the flow of the story--of course, it doesn't hurt that it sets up something in the next arc as well.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. "Weapon Plus" begins, as all things must, with a night of extreme drinking. Cyclops, morose and annoyed after Phoenix and Emma have a set-to regarding Cyclops' telepathic "affair" with Emma Frost. Cyclops decides to go to the Hellfire Club, proves himself a killjoy when offered a table dance, and then gets into a drinking contest with Wolverine, who showed up at the Club to meet Fantomex, who apparently has finally decided to pay off his longstanding allusions to knowing something about Wolverine's past (Wolverine is Weapon Ten, Fantomex is Weapon Thirteen) and since Cyclops is there (though falling down drunk) he gets taken along.

Their journey takes them into a quintessentially Morrison concept. Weapon Plus creates its super soldiers in an artificial reality called The World, wherein, people are injected with nanotechnology and put in an accelerated time bubble to forcibly evolve it millions of years in a controlled environment. Unfortunately, just before they arrived, Ultimaton (Weapon Fifteen) suffers a silicon chip inside his head being switched to overload and breaks through The World and finds his way to Weapon Plus' space station headquarters where we learn that not only has Weapon Plus been in operation for ages (Captain America and Nuke being earlier Weapons, a retcon that's been pretty much ignored since) but Weapon Plus' latest plan was to create a generation of "Super Sentinels," consisting of Fantomex, Ultimaton, and Huntsman (Weapon Twelve--remember him?) who would be introduced to the public as a hip new superteam meant to be a convenient public cover for mutant genocide.

Oh yes, and Weapon Plus has a mole inside the Xavier school and the person behind Weapon Plus is apparently named "Sublime." Yes, the guy who fell out the window quite a few issues back. How this is possible isn't quite explained here, because it's actually setting up the grand finale of the run (along with some other bits and bobs that we've unknowingly been following along as the issues have gone by) but it indicates that there's Something Sinister Moving Behind The Scenes, and that's enough for now.

The real meat of things is Cyclops' sad realisation that no matter what he or the X-Men do he'll be hunted and hated forever and conspiracies like this are inevitable. And tragically, though he goes racing back to Earth in time for the start of the next arc, the developments that comprise the climax of New X-Men won't exactly dissuade him from his pessimism.

"Planet X" is the climax of New X-Men as a run and as a continuing story. There's another story to go after this, but for all intents and purposes, this is where everything comes to a head. I will be spoiling the hell out of this, and while I will make a game effort to convey as much of how awesome this story is, I will probably leave out some stuff because there is a lot happening in this story.

Hey, remember Xorn? That weird guy with all the laid-back Zen ideas and the star for a head? The one who seemed rather curious and rather sketchily thought out and never really made an impact? Well, he's Magneto. Yep, in a shocking swerve not seen since the days when the Thunderbolts turned out to be the Masters of Evil, Magneto infiltrated and slowly destroyed the X-men from within. Who's been dealing Kick to everyone? Who was Weapon Plus' informant? Who created a bullet capable of shattering Emma Frost? And who's re-crippled Professor X, destroyed the school, and turned Manhattan into his own personal fiefdom?

Things go amazingly well for Magneto initially. He manages to separate and nearly kill the X-Men, strand the Beast and Emma Frost and trap Phoenix and Wolverine on an asteroid heading towards the sun, and it looks very much at the end of the first issue of the arc that holy crap, Magneto might well win this time.

Then, Magneto screws it up. Like Quentin Quire before him, Magneto is a failed revolutionary because he doesn't have a specific answer to the question "now what?" He might have at one time, but Magneto spends most of the time out of his gourd on Kick in this arc and his easily wounded vanity and frequent confusion makes him an almost pathetic figure--again, hearkening back to the Riot, it's clear there is no plan apart from "knock everything over." Apart from his natural charisma, which fails him frequently (he can't even keep his new Brotherhood, culled from the dregs of the Xavier students from falling apart) he's completely unable to hold the attention of a fickle public, too puzzled as to how authentic Magneto is (he's come back from the dead so many times, they doubt it's really him) and it becomes painfully obvious his Brotherhood was far happier as the Xorn he pretended to be rather than the Magneto he truly is.

Worse still, whether by instigation from outside forces or his own fracturing mental state, Xorn taunts Magneto subconsciously, claiming to be truer to the more laudable elements of his character as fiction than he is himself. This makes Magneto no less crazy, and more willing than ever to cross a line or two. As we as readers had gotten use to Magneto as, at best, something of a "tweener," it was a bit of a shock to see him portrayed this way.

And yes, we're going to talk about That Scene--Magneto overseeing a mob of humans being led into crematoriums for mass extermination. Comic fans then and now were up in arms about that--surely Magneto, survivor of the Holocaust, would never do something that was so blatantly Nazi-esque.

But the point of "Planet X" is that Magneto is a fraud, even moreso than Xorn was. His phenomenal power is supplied by a steady diet of drugs. He has no agenda beyond destroying the established order and making sure the crowds feed his narcissism, and when the crows get unruly, the notion is "well, let's kill some humans and get their minds off their discontent."

"No one likes what you're doing . . .it's boring and old fashioned," says one of Magneto's cohorts says, and that accusation is a comment on both Magneto's scheme and the type of story Morrison is working in, here. How many times have we seen these high body-count megalomaniacs raising hell in the name a higher purpose in stories just like this and because we're so deeply involved in the blood and thunder of it we never much thought about it all? "Planet X" functions on a meta level as a commentary on these repetitive, wasteful kind of stories.

Magneto's poorly-thought out master plan unravels in short order. Wolverine, hoping to spare Phoenix the gruesome fate of solar immolation, kills her, and (naturally--it's in her damn name) causes her to resurrect at her full potential. She rounds up the other X-Men in short order and in even shorter order, Magneto's on the ropes, having alienated his new Brotherhood, he's set upon by Fantomex, who frees Professor X, and Cyclops, who, still carrying his mad-on from the "Weapon Plus" story, sets upon Magneto, and said mad-on builds to a crescendo.

Because even with his disillusionment about his mission and his marriage to Phoenix, Cyclops had come to see Xorn as a friend, and a good person he could believe in. Robbed of that, he is Very Pissed Off indeed, and in what I consider to be Cyclops' Crowning Moment of Awesome, blasts Magneto's helmet off his face point-blank.

Magneto gets kicked around a little more, but the damage has been done, and the X-Men's Big Bad becomes a small, pathetic, nearly laughable figure right before our eyes. Phoenix sneers that Magneto's takeover of Manhattan has been nothing more than a temper tantrum on a grand scale. The crowd completely turns on him and refuses to believe this pathetic raving loony (or in Morrison's words, "a mad old terrorist twat") is the pop icon whose image and message was gaining traction. Morrison says it best through Professor X, and it's worth quoting in full here:

"Magneto had become a legend in death, an inspiration for change. Now look at you--Just another foolish and self important old man, with outdated thoughts in his head. You have nothing this new generation of mutants wants . . .except for you face on a T-shirt. They have ideas of their own now. Perhaps it's time we put away the old dreams, the old manifestos . . .and just listened for awhile. You way will never work, Erik. This can't go on . . . I think we've all had enough."

And with that, you probably never needed to being back Magneto again, or if you did, you'd have to do it another way, because in a page's worth of dialogue, Morrison completely deconstructs everything longtime X-men readers had assumed was the rules of the game, and even though he may not have provided answers, the floor was open for some new questions.

It's tempting to read Magneto's response in the story as a prefiguring of the backlash against this story and New X-Men in general, as Magneto kills Phoenix, refusing to be dismissed so easily and is then killed by Wolverine (again--he'd been "offed" by Wolverine in the story previous to Morrison's run, which ended up being a nice weird bit of symmetry) There's a sad bit in the wake of this where Cyclops calls out for Xorn to heal Phoenix, but, as Morrison himself said, Xorn never existed--that was the cruel irony of him.

And that's the finish of "Planet X." Cyclops, already disillusioned and withdrawn, has lost his wife, and someone he believed it and might have called "friend." Feeling that he has nothing left, he walks away from the Xavier school, leaving a vacuum that will have catastrophic consequences.

Those consequences play out in the final story, "Here Comes Tomorrow." If "Planet X" is the climax of New X-Men, "Tomorrow" is the grace note which restates the themes one last time in a quiet, reflective reprise. The lion's share of the action in "Tomorrow" takes place in the ruins of an Earth busily falling apart. Mutants are in ascendancy, humans virtually unheard of, and both are besieged by the cloned hordes of The Beast, who is, of course, the the Beast.

Only he's not. Desperate to keep the school together after Cyclops said, essentially "man, screw this," he gets addicted to Kick, which we discover is not a super-drug as much as it is Sublime. Sublime, rather than being a nebbishy Scientology-type or a shadowy conspiratorial type, is a sentient colony of bacteria, who's been playing a VERY long game against the mutant strain. Mutants, it seems, are resistant to Sublime's influence (hence the U-men dissecting them, in an attempt to create a more usable superpowered form and the Kick drug, which "rots the x-gene.") so the plan has been to control mutants and if that's not possible, eradicate them.

Worse still, Sublime finds and resurrects the Phoenix, which, from all accounts, should be the winning trick. It's up to the last remaining X-Men (including Fantomex's partner EVA, who spends most of this arc looking like Witchblade--what the hell, Marc Silvestri is drawing this, after all; a newly reborn--and good--Cassandra Nova, a geriatric but somehow still fit Wolverine, and a boy and his Sentinel) to save the world, or at least make sure Sublime doesn't get his way.

"Tomorrow" collects a number of elements Morrison has been playing with throughout his run--Fantomex, Sublime, Cassandra Nova, etc and stages his own Gotterdamerung (apocalyptic possible futures/alternate realities being a longtime X-Men trope) that can play as rough as it likes (because it was uncertain any of Morrison's tropes would be picked up upon his exit from the book) and also provide a sense of closure to the themes of evolution and acceptance of change that have been running through the book. It's a rougher read and the "just dropped in from 1992" artwork is a little disorienting at first, but it works well as a summation and a grand finale that despite the destruction of this future and resultant apocalypse, the story, the arc, and the entirety of the run end on a note of hope renewed and new possibilities. You could leave a book in worse states.

New X-Men was a necessary shot in the arm to the X-men franchise at the time, and even if you liked it or didn't, it certainly was the talk of comics at the time. It set the agenda for the X-Books in specific and Marvel Comics in general. It came about in a time when Marvel was willing and able to take chances this dramatic, and with the right person on the right book, open the concept up in ways that hadn't even been thought of before. More than that, it was a book with tremendous energy to it--no matter what was happening, you couldn't wait for the next issue, and in this day and age of waiting for the trade, how many comics can say that?

It was a great series of books, and the entire run (in the 8 dozen formats they've been collected in) are well worth your time. But file it away in the back of your mind that New X-Men is a non-recurrent phenomenon. Given how the culture of both the genre, the industry and the people who make the comics have changed in the almost ten years mean it's very likely we'll never see it's like again.

And really, would that shock anyone? Innovation never really happens the same way twice after all . . .


Jeremy said...

I hoped you enjoyed this run as much as I do. Its my favorite run ever, combining my favorite group of superheroes with my favorite writer. Now all the issues are that good(those poorly drawn, rushed Kordley issues stand out), but even with its flaws, its so damn good and has s many cool ideas.

Kazekage said...

I do, man. It's one of my favourite runs of any book, ever, honestly--the energy and strength of ideas in it is really amazing and it shows that even with corporate superhero comics, the red-headed stepchild of the art form, you can do interesting and thought-provoking stuff that still works as whammo blammo superhero comics.

I've kinda made my peace with Kordey's work--it feels very rushed and extremely overwrought in places, true, but it's a testament to the force of Morrison's writing that it overcomes the very ropey art.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I remember thinking that the most dissonant moment in Morrison's run was Kordey's "fault", so to speak: he had the misfortune of being assigned to issue 128, where Scott starts opening up to Emma, and that last-page rendition of the White Queen was absolutely horrifying. It was the worst possible moment to drop the artistic ball, because it's meant to be a seduction scene - the sequel to her failed attempt in Hong Kong - and she looks like the unfortunate victim of a hit-and-run liposuction.

Kazekage said...

Oh man, that last panel is nightmare fuel. In the hands of any other artist, it would have been fine, but Kordey as just not up to it. Maybe if he'd had more time he cold have gotten round it, but that thing is ghastly.