Filing Cabinet of the Damned

Friday, December 02, 2005

Behind the Times and Proud of It: Grooving to New X-Men

Rare are the trends that I catch when they’re raging. Rarer still are the trends I anticipate. No, I’m one of those guys who follows in the wake.

Therefore, I’m about to heavily praise my new discovery, a major comic published in 2001.

I don’t sweat the waves of fashion, yo. Nor do I fear to write long articles. Proof of both follows.


The New X-Men: About Damn Time

The X-Men began with a simple idea: a handful of people are just plain born with superpowers. No aliens, radioactive spiders, time travel, or mythological gods involved. They’re just mutations from normal humanity. Neat, simple, easy. The characters were in a school to train them to use their powers and they fought villains. That’s not a bad idea.

Early in their history another idea was added: mutants were a persecuted minority, and that the X-Men were “hated and feared by the very people they protected.” They fought both evil mutants and those who would destroy all mutants everywhere. It added a hint of weight and a unique bent for an otherwise forgettable concept.

Even with this different approach, it didn’t resonate. Sales were low and the book died after a few years.

The team returned in the mid-seventies when Marvel decided to create an “international” team for international distribution. They stocked the team with mutants from around the world and relaunched.

Right after relaunch, the book gained the writer Chris Claremont. And holy crap, did it work.

Claremont (with great assistance from some damn fine artists, including Dave Cockrum and John Byrne) brought to the book a combination of soap opera, character, and style that hadn’t been seen before.

The books were beautifully adolescent. Nobody before or since translated the operatic emotions of the teenage years into the superhero idiom half as well: “I’m so brilliant and beautiful and tormented and alone and a freak and nobody gets me and I love everybody but I hate everybody and there’s never been anybody like me ever ever ever except my friends at school.” Claremont had a true gift for combining bombast, self-pity, and big action.

By the early eighties, The Uncanny X-Men became the biggest title Marvel had. Exciting, involving, emotional, more than a little nuts. And for a while, all was well.

But, of course, it couldn’t stay that way.

Claremont wrote the book from 1976 to 1991, a remarkable length of time in the comic business. Over those years, his strengths and weaknesses both magnified. As a result, the soap opera elements grew more complicated, subplots proliferated beyond belief, and weird motifs returned over and over.

Claremont’s departure from the book didn’t help as much as it could have. Because then came the spinoffs. Character proliferation increased to lunatic levels. And still more convoluted stories.

Oh, my, the convoluted stories. Egad.

Take, for example, the villain with the amusingly-spelled name of Stryfe, a major player in the mid-nineties. (Love that pointy armor! Dude was a walking tetanus threat.)

Who is he? This'll take a while.

    --Stryfe is a clone of another character with a funny name, the hero Cable.
    --Both Stryfe and Cable are from the distant future.

    --The parents of Cable, and by extension, Stryfe, are X-Man Scott Summers (“Cyclops”) and his wife, Madelyne. The boy was named Nathan Summers.

    --Madelyne was later revealed to be the clone of Jean Grey, Scott’s longtime girlfriend, who happened to be dead for a while. When Jean came back to life, Scott left Madelyne and went back to Jean. (Yes, he’s a cad. Also, Madelyne later became a villain known as “The Goblin Queen” and got up to various evil deeds. But never mind that.)

    --Madelyne was created by a villain (“Mister Sinister”—one of my favorite silly names) to breed Jean with Scott and create a son. Said son was supposed to be super-powerful. With Jean dead (at the time), he had to resort to cloning to make the plan happen.

    --Mister Sinister was second banana to another villain, Apocalypse. Sinister planned to use the massively-powered boy to kill his boss.

    --Apocalypse protected himself from his underling by infecting the newborn Nathan with a “techno-organic virus” that would kill him. The X-Men defeat both villains and get the infected boy back.

    --An old woman calling herself Askani appeared out of nowhere and said she could save the boy. She came from the far future, where medicine had advanced enough to beat the techno-organic virus.

    --Askani was actually Rachel Summers, Scott and Jean’s daughter from a future timeline that had already been prevented. (How she exists is a bit of a mystery to me.) So she was kinda-sorta Cable’s sister. Sorta. Don’t think too hard about this.

    --Upon their arrival in the future, Askani died. Her followers took the baby and cloned him, knowing that the clone would be free of the virus. However, the original boy lived. So they had two young Summers boys, one infected and one not.

    --The villain Apocalypse, ruler of the world in this distant future, kidnaps the clone Nathan, thinking it the real one, and names him Stryfe, after a badass dude he fought a long time ago. He raised the boy to his teen years. Apocalypse’s plan was to then transfer his “essence” into the boy, who indeed had tremendous power. (An ancient man seeks to “place his essence” in a teenage boy to become young again? Ahem. Cough, cough. Anyway…)

    --Before the villain could do the deed, a trio of folks attacked and dissipated the villain’s “essence,” saving the boy. Who was this trio? (Oh, you’ll love this.) It was the original boy, now known as Cable, and a pair known as “Slym and Redd.” Slym and Redd were Scott Summers and Jean Grey, who somehow had their minds implanted in different bodies in the far future so they could raise their son. (Oy.)

    --For reasons I don’t know, Redd, Slym, and Cable don’t take the clone with them. (I’m sure they tried, I just don’t know the details.) The boy is instead raised by the villain’s crony and becomes a major villain in his own right.

    --After reaching maturity, Stryfe time-traveled back to our present, where he formed a terrorist organization, almost killed Apocalypse (thereby giving himself his name, courtesy of a time paradox), fought his clone, unleashed a “mutant plague,” and…

Oh, never mind.

Now here’s the scary part: Stryfe was neither a minor character nor unique in his convoluted and insane backstory. Moreover, the story was given in reverse order and doled out teeny bit by teeny bit, to allow for more and more Shocking! Revelations! So that list above is worlds clearer than the actual comics.

Then there were alternate versions of the alternate versions, such as the later character X-Man, who was also Nathan, son of Scott and Jean, but not the same one as Cable or Stryfe.

It makes my head hurt.

The whole damn X-enterprise became tired, confused, and hostile to anyone who didn’t have a thorough knowledge of twenty years of X-Men and all of their spinoffs.

Ye gods.

I avoided the X-books completely. There was potential in the premise, but the whole line was bloated, self-righteous, tedious, and way too confusing.

This begs the question of how it got so bad.

Because it sold well. Claremont’s approach does wonders for reader retention. Elaborate mysteries, long-running subplots, zillions of inter-related characters, and other such techniques keep the suckers coming back month after month.

But over time, even the mighty X-engine wore out. It became too twisted, overextended, and confusing even for its die-hard fans. And then Marvel was stuck with a sinking group of comics with more backstory and twisted logic in it than fifty years of “One Life to Live.”

In 2001, Marvel decided to make a clean break with the past and brought on Big Name Writer Grant Morrison. Morrison, known for his arty and deeply weird comics, was considered a shocking choice. He was given the main X-book to write, which was retitled New X-Men.

I didn’t read Morrison’s run when it came out. All I knew was that X-fans either adored it or thought it was gawdawful. It ended in 2003 and apparently all of the changes Morrison wrought have since been undone. In short, New X-Men was a hiccup in the giant and bloated history of the X-franchises.

I ignored it until recently. But Morrison’s latest work, the Seven Soldiers of Victory miniseries, has been a lot of fun, and I had a gift certificate to Borders burning a hole in my pocket. On a whim, I picked up volumes one and two of the collected New X-Men, and was impressed enough to later buy volume three. (Volumes four through seven will have to wait a bit. Stupid finances.)

The books were excellent. For once, the X-Men made sense. And Morrison got a few things right that the X-writers of the past did not.

Ah, but what, you ask?

First, a quote from the man himself:

"In the last decade or so, the tendency at Marvel has been intensely conservative; comics like the X-MEN have gone from freewheeling, overdriven pop to cautious, dodgy retro. What was dynamic becomes static - dead characters always return, nothing that happens really matters ultimately. The stage is never cleared for new creations to develop and grow. The comic has turned inwards and gone septic like a toenail. The only people reading are fanboys who don't count. The X-MEN, for all it was Marvel's bestseller, had become a watchword for undiluted geekery before the movie gave us another electroshock jolt. And in the last decade, sales fell from millions to hundreds of thousands."

Yeah, it’s all true.

So what’d he do that was so cool?

Laying off the continuity soap opera.
From my memories of the X-Men, it was always a big freakin’ mess of continuity. Characters and storylines dragged on forever and/or didn’t make any goddamn sense.

To understand the New X-Men stories, all you need to know going in is (1) there are “mutants” born in the world, and (2) the rest of the world isn’t happy about this. I had a passing familiarity with the main characters, and it proved to be more than enough.

Keeping the cast small-ish.
Morrison initially focused on five X-Men, a manageable number. Previous X-teams were often large and had fluid rosters. New X-Men kept the focus tight and clear. It did wonders for clarity.

A buttload of peripheral players came along, but they were introduced slowly, it wasn’t too hard to keep them straight, and they weren’t the focus of the stories. Lesser-powered mutants, brought to the school as students, were kept as subplots.

Making some mutations just plain nasty.
The first story of the run begins with two X-Men returning home with another mutant they’ve just rescued from killer robots. His mutant power? He has three faces on one head. That’s it. Other mutants with disfiguring changes turned up shortly thereafter.

I like that. Rather than play the tired game of “Mutation=Easy Way to Get a Superpower,” Morrison turned mutations into something strange and scary. It added richness and a sense of realism. Given how nature works, it feels right that a whopping percentage of mutants would not be demigods but just really strange freaks.

It also made the X-Men make more sense. They were among the few mutants who were powerful and non-monsterous. One of the new students of the school, known as “Beak,” was a hideous bird-man hybrid who couldn’t even fly. His sole superpower was being disturbingly ugly.

Acknowledging the logic of anti-mutant fears and giving humans some credit.
More than anything what’s kept me from the X-books was the whining. “We’re different, we’re rejected, boo hoo hoo.” Hamfisted parallels to civil rights movements and the difficulties faced by minority groups have always been a big part of X-lore.

This is crap.

In my head, I heard myself arguing with whiny X-Men every time I read one of their comics. “Assface, you can turn into steel and punch through tank armor. Your teacher can read my goddamn mind and compel me to do things. Why the crap shouldn’t I be scared to death of both of you?”

Imagine that happened in your neighborhood. What would be the reaction to such a discovery?

Would it be (a) “How fascinating! Come, let us celebrate! Would you care for a scone?” or (b) “AAAAAHH!!”

Having a passing acquaintence with the human race, I’d hazard a guess that most people would choose option “b.” Y’know what? It’s an entirely rational response.

The “mutant as persecuted minority” metaphor doesn’t really work. At a root level, law is based on force. No one person can run amok for long, since the rest of us could turn on said person and beat the hell out of him or shoot him. No matter how big, strong, or well-armed you are, you can’t beat everybody.

And that’s true for every single person in the world, no matter who they are or where they’re from. People are people are people.

In the case of many mutant superhumans, that’s not true. If a man who can turn into living steel decides he’s tired of waiting in line at the DMV and starts busting heads, who could stop him? A normal man could be bum-rushed. A superpowered man would require at least the army to stop him. That’s a scary thought.

According to the numbers given in New X-Men, roughly 0.26% of the population is mutant and that percentage is growing. (As of today the earth’s population is about 6.5 billion, and the beginning of the first volume claims there were about 17 million mutants worldwide.) That translates to roughly one out of three hundred and eighty people being a mutant. Just about every small town in America would have at least one.

Work out the math. A city of a hundred thousand, what is basically a big town, would have about two hundred and sixty mutants. The greater New York City region would have about fifty thousand.

A shocking percentage of mutants have mutations that give them super-powers. (That seems to be how it works, based on the comics.) Okay, let’s say half of the world’s mutants have mutations that would be considered “super-powers,” with the other half stuck bearing deformities or useless powers. (The percentage of genuine superpowers appears to be more like 90%, but let’s assume that comics don’t pay attention to the lesser-powered and so they seem rarer than they are.)

Right. Do a bit more math based on the numbers above. That would mean a world with eight and a half million superpowered beings, many of them with powers that could shake the world.

Psionic powers are common in the X-books, so there are may be about a half-million telepaths in the world. Let’s be conservative and say a quarter-million. That would mean that about one in twenty-six thousand people could read your goddamn mind.

And what’s the only thing protecting the human race from having their cities shattered by the most powerful mutants and their thoughts routinely violated by blithe telepaths?

The mutants’ own sense of decency and fair play.

Were this the case in the real world, I don’t think I’d be much comforted by notions like that. Historically speaking, basing actions on “hoping that the people with the power don’t abuse it” tends to be…

Well, let’s just call it a bad plan. Tends not to work, what with human nature and all.

Imagine if just a hundred random people around the world woke up tomorrow to own their own nuclear weapons, and that they could set off the bombs without injury to themselves. Would you be okay with that? What if one of them were crazy? Or just a touchy asshole? Imagine how the people’s personalities would change in response to it all. Don’t you think at least one might go and do it?

Morrison thought of this and decided to run with it. He didn’t paint the human fear of mutants as simple bigotry or a fear of "those who are different," as Claremont did. He showed it instead as a fear of massive power imbalance.

Not only does that make more sense in the context of the X-Men’s world, it provides a fresh angle to pursue the whole issue of human/mutant relations.

In a nice touch, he also made many of the mutants more than a little snotty about their “superior” status and capabilities. In volume three, Charles Xavier, the leader of the X-Men dismissively refers to human law as “chimpanzee law.” That’s rude, dismissive, arrogant, a dangerous attitude, and…a really cool character trait to give the often-dull Chuck X.

The story logic of New X-Men also explained why mutants are feared while non-mutant superhumans generally aren’t. The mutants exist in amazing numbers. They can emerge anywhere at any time. And everybody knows that they’re the “next stage in evolution.” For cryin’ out loud, they’re known as a new species, “Homo Superior.”

The mutants represent the end of the human race. To paraphrase Kruschev, they will bury us.

A handful of scientists getting powers from cosmic rays is a one-time event. Sixteen million superpowered beings appearing around the world with more born every day is a massive change in the course of human history.

Mutants were painted as the next generation of humanity. The struggle between generations, with the mistrust and resentments, became more important under Morrison. This shift from civil rights metaphor to a generational one not only made more internal sense, it provided a fresh angle for the characters.

Not to say that the “ethnic minority” interpretation died; mutants formed subcultures and lived in mutant-dominated neighborhoods, and yes, simple prejudice against difference did exist. But for once, an undercurrent of logic ran through it.

How sweet is that?

Indulging in weird and wacky crap
I have a great fondness for weird and wacky crap, as this blog so often demonstrates.

Morrison added to the team a mutant named Xorn, who had “a star for a brain.” Yes, really.

Kept in captivity for most of his life by terrified and power-hungry members of the Chinese military, he implodes the star and has “a black hole for a brain” just before he joins the X-Men. To protect other people, he wears an iron mask. This is insane…and super-cool.

(Yes, I’ve heard about “the true identity of Xorn,” revealed at the end of Morrison’s run. He’s still super-cool. I even like the big reveal.)

Morrison also had the beautiful audacity to screw with the big icon of the X-Men, Wolverine. Wolvie was a mutant who, many years ago, was surgically modified by persons unknown to become “Weapon X” and stripped of his memory. He escaped the Weapon X project, became known as Wolverine, and went on to join the X-Men. Swell, fine.

In Volume 3 of the collected New X-Men, a fellow shows up claiming to be a later product of the same project. He refers to Wolverine as “Weapon Ten.” (The man making the claim is “Weapon XIII.”)


The X was supposed to be a ten and nobody knew it? For decades? The most popular character in the Marvel Comics stables for ages, Mister Over-the-Top-Drama with the Tormented Past, botched his own name?

That is hilarious.

(I’m sure that didn’t stick either. Hush. It’s funny.)

It’s amazing. I’ve been reading comics on-and-off since I could read, and became a collector in 1984. In all that time, I’ve never cared much for the X-Men. Except for this one spectacular hiccup.*

Morrison blew my mind with one simple idea:

The X-Men don’t have to be terrible.

Who’d have thought it?

*Okay, okay, and the Claremont/Byrne/Austin run of the late seventies-early eighties. Love that art.


  • I have a passing familiarity with the X-Men, I've read a few of their adventures, and I get the gist of what was going on. However, I've never read the Phoenix Saga, or Days of Future Past, or Onslaught, etc.

    I can say, however, that Morrison's X-Men run, while occasionally outlanding and unwieldy, was never ever boring. And furthermore, the editorial decision to push it under the rug, regardless of the inevitable end of his run, was perhaps the most misguided, wrong-headed move Marvel has made in recent memory.

    But then again, my favorite X-book ever was X-Statix, so what do I know?

    Great blog post, lots of fun to read! Cheers!

    By Blogger Jhunt, at 6:31 PM  

  • What a great post.
    I'm only a very occasional super-hero comic reader but I always read your blog as well as that of Dave Campbell's with interest. The huge and complicated back story in superhero comics is one thing that keeps me away but NewXMen certainly sounds like my cup of tea. I'll be checking them out. Thanks.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:35 PM  

  • My fave X-book is the old, old 'Nightcrawler's Inferno', where the X-Men and Dr. Strange have to go through Hell as described by Dante.

    Way cool.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:59 PM  

  • He was given the main X-book to write, which was retitled New X-Men.
    Ye gods, I don't want to be the kind of person who knows this, but it wasn't the main title. Uncanny X-Men is the main title, and (New) X-Men is the secondary title launched in 199somethingorother by Jim Lee. UXM was called X-Men when it started (with Stan and Jack), but they added the "Uncanny" at some point during the early Claremont years. So technically, UXM is X-Men v1 and (New) X-Men is X-Men v2.

    Gosh, even the titles are convoluted.

    I'm not an X-Men fan at all, but I love Morrison's run on this book. There were some problems, and I'm really not convinced by the Xorn revelation (but I'm even less convinced by Marvel's half-arsed retcon of it), but on the whole it was great stuff, and I prefer it to his JLA.

    This was a much better "Ultimate" X-Men than the comic of that title. Condensed, pure, fun.

    By Blogger thekelvingreen, at 8:49 PM  

  • This is one of my favorite Morrison books - maybe my single favorite project of his, period. Morrison made mutants interesting again, after a decade of stagnation and cannibalism. Undoing his stuff was maybe the biggest single mistake Marvel's made since the Clone Saga.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:58 PM  

  • Enjoyed the post, too. Not a comic fan. Wondered what my geeky friends were talking about in the 70s. That explains it a little better.

    By Blogger Jack Ruttan, at 3:45 PM  

  • That was, perhaps, the best dissection of X books I have read to date. A brilliant summation of Morrison's run; right to the point.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:52 PM  

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