Monday, August 25, 2008

New X-Men 127: "Of Living and Dying"

A lot of people claim that Morrison’s X-Men went downhill after its first year, or even just after its first storyline. ‘E For Extinction’ is certainly the most thematically on point arc in a run that jumps all over the place both narratively and in terms of visual presentation. It’s hard to believe that this John Paul Leon issue is part of the same run as the Quitely issue that preceded it. But, part of what I love so much about the book is its many focuses. It’s a tour of the new world that Xavier and his team are building, and that part of the mission statement really becomes clear in the second year. I find the book gets more and more interesting as it goes on, in the same way that a good TV show does. Saying ‘E For Extinction’ is the best arc is like saying “College” is the best episode of The Sopranos. It might be the best thing to show to someone new to work, it might be a great story on its own, but it lacks the complexity of what follows. The characters and world keep growing as the run progresses, and that’s why the later issues are generally more interesting to read than the early stuff.

As with most works with a twist ending, the first reading and the second reading of New X-Men are very different experiences. Reading this issue for the first time, I thought it was a wonderful story about a zen hero in a world that couldn’t appreciate him. Reading it again, you’re left wondering what is ‘real’ and what’s not. If Magneto was Xorn the whole time, is the whole story he told a construct. What really happened here?

Essential to my understanding of the Magneto/Xorn storyline is the notion of Xorn as a very real persona. Magneto was playing this role, but in order to succeed, he had to become totally immersed, to repress most elements of his actual personality. In that sense, Xorn was real. He became Xorn and experienced the world through his eyes. Essentially, he put on the Xorn fiction suit, and like Mister Six became Brian Malcolm, he was totally immersed in this alternate personality.

One major component of Morrison’s run is a meta commentary on the nature of comics and the X-Men franchise. Magneto is the archetypal X-Men foe, and no matter how much he reforms, he will eventually become that villain again, just as the book will eventually return to the same tired stories it was telling before Morrison came along. So, Magneto’s transformation into Xorn parallels what Chris Claremont did with the character in his original run, rehabilitating him, putting him in charge of the school, only to eventually be forced to return him to his evil roots at the end of the run. Marvel wants the character to be that way for its licensing deals, for its movies, and as such things will tend back towards that mythic X-Men status quo we saw in the film. In that sense, the Xorn storyline parallels the book itself, for now it will transform into a peace loving zen version of what came before, but eventually that new reality will be torn down and returned to what it was before.

This is all a long way of saying that I don’t think the knowledge that the Xorn personality is a construct in any way invalidates the beauty of this storyline. Magneto is trying out a different approach, rather than using violence, he’s confronting humans with their own lack of social evolution. He is being better than them rather than bragging about how he’s better than them.

It’s interesting to think of the scene with Xorn and Xavier as another take on the endless philosophical debates between Magneto and Charles. A large part of the Xorn character is Magneto trying out Charles’s way of thinking for once, that’s why he listens to his ideas and doesn’t try to oppose them. Notably, Xavier says that “Sometimes the idea of the monster is more real than the monster itself,” in the same way that Xorn, a conceptual person, becomes more loved than Magneto himself. Xavier also says “I often think of what you suffered at the hands of those frightened cruel men. I’m very glad you didn’t give into despair.” That’s the opposite of the path that Magneto took, Xorn is someone who sees the love in everyone, and doesn’t seek revenge. So, Xorn isn’t just a scheme to infiltrate Xavier’s, it’s also about trying out Charles’s path.

I absolutely adore Leon’s art in this story. The coloring makes the colors pop right off the page, particularly the glowing blue ‘star’ within Xorn’s helmet. The shot of Charles in Cerebra, silhouetted, is another visual highlight. When I read it this time, I would sometimes lose track of the story and instead spend time just getting lost in the color and texture of the panels.

One of the great things about this story is how Morrison once again explores the downsides of mutation in a realistic way. Not everyone’s going to have an action friendly power, some would just have weird, inexplicable mutations, like this kid. How does humanity deal with a branch of itself that’s so alien? That’s a question in Beast and Beak’s storylines, and it’s the big thing here. Humanity isn’t equipped to conceive of this kid as ‘human,’ and that’s why he’s killed. It’s hard to blame them, only Xorn knows what he could become.

A lingering question about Magneto as Xorn is whether he totally believes what he’s doing, or is instead presenting more of a parody of what he sees as Charles’s perspective. The line “there’s no word for monster in any mutant dictionary” is pushing it, so New Agey, could he really believe that? We’ve certainly seen some monsters in the mutant world in this book? It’s probably the kind of thing he imagines Xavier saying. So, Xorn is Magneto playing Charles, while Charles himself is taking on a more pro-active Magneto like postion. It’s the flip of moral polarity, which is then reversed again in Planet X, when we see Magneto present an upside down map of the world.

The issue wraps up with some pretty prose about Xorn using ink on leaves to write down his thoughts, and him sitting down to have some food with an old ancestor. Is that scene entirely invented? Not necessarily, Magneto constructed this elaborate backstory, perhaps he’s having some fun working with it.

Either way, this issue is a wonderful short story, a great and innovative use of the X-Men concept. It’s also one of our most thorough glimpses at Xorn, and full of interesting clues and questions about his masquerade. A lot of people criticized Morrison for not giving a full background on how Magneto played Xorn, on the distinctions between the two of them. I’d like to know how he thought it went down, but as it is now, it becomes a shifting Rorshach picture. You can never be sure where one ends and the other begins, or if Xorn ever really ‘was.’ It’s up to you to piece things together, and I enjoy doing the work to figure it out.

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