Tuesday, August 05, 2008

New X-Men: 2001 Annual and #117

Annuals were typically pretty pointless in the days of Claremont’s original run, but not here. Grant uses the 2001 Annual as the vehicle to introduce a ‘new’ character, Xorn, the zen mutant with a star in his head. Just a note, if you haven’t read the whole run, do not read on, spoilers will be flowing.

The most immediately notable thing about the annual is the choice to have it printed sideways. Trying to make ‘widescreen’ comics literal doesn’t produce too much of an effect here, it mainly just makes it annoying to hold the book. I think there’s some potential in printing the comic like this, but there’s not too much in the story that really takes advantage of it. The art in general is lackluster, Lenil Yu cannot match up to Frank Quitely, and his cartoonier style doesn’t match well with the odd realism of Quitely’s pencils.

This issue introduces a lot of critical concepts for the rest of the run. One of the most notable is the idea of the X-Corporation, a global network of Xavier affiliated groups doing positive work mutants. I think it’s one of Morrison’s best concepts, broadening the scope of the series and giving the more obscure mutants something to do. The spinoff books seem like they’d write themselves.

We also get the introduction of John Sublime, a proponent of the ‘third species.’ Like any cool subculture, people who aren’t mutants are going to be interested in adopting mutant traits. If you lived in that world, wouldn’t you want mutant powers? It’s another example of a concept that seems to write itself, though, so far at least, it’s more interesting in theory than in narrative practice.

The issue itself has a James Bond flavor, the glamorous X-Men globetrotting and battling evil governments, not supervillains. Wolverine and Emma Frost again steal the show here. I love the moment where Logan is able to smell Domino’s interest in him, and the way they work together. Domino is a character from the darkest days of the 90s, but Morrison manages to make her work by putting her in an over the top, fun story. Her luck power is a deus ex machina, but it works if you keep the story moving along at a fun clip.

Much of what happens here is affected by the foreknowledge that Xorn is actually Magneto. How does that reconcile with the events of this issue? It makes sense if you accept that Magneto constructed the whole prison scenario as a way to infiltrate the X-Men. It strains credibility a bit, but in light of Magneto’s previous schemes, is it so unbelievable? The thing I love about Xorn as Magneto is the way it ties in with the concept of fiction suits from The Invisibles. In shedding Magneto and becoming Xorn, Magneto finds the acceptance and admiration he’s always wanted, all directed at this false persona.

On the whole, the annual is one of the weaker pieces of Morrison’s run. It sets up some important things, but doesn’t have the scope of emotional dynamism of the later parts of the run. Things pick up with the next regular issue, #117.

We begin with troubled mutant Beak, and a return to the idea of Xavier’s as an actual school. It’s another seemingly blindingly obvious idea that was never done before, to have an actual student body at Xavier’s. There’s a lot of potential stories there, it allows the X-Men to grow up, and gives them something more to deal with than just supervillains. The major X-Men characters are all so old, it felt weird to have them at a school, they had no growing left to do. New Mutants had some good moments, but a school needs more than five students, and I like the way Morrison builds a fully functioning student body over the course of his run.

At a school of mutants, there’s going to be an even bigger divide between the pretty, popular students and the ‘loser’s than in a regular school. How can a guy like Beak interact with the Stepford Cuckoos? In the subplot with Beast, we see the sad side of mutation. Trish won’t go out with him because, despite his very human mind, he just isn’t physically compatible with her anymore. It’s a real tragic development, and things only go worse for Hank when Xavier turns on him and brings all his fears to the surface, when he ‘throws up on your soul.’

The Xavier/Beast scene is one of the hardest to read, the way he turns Beak’s admiration for Henry into a physical assault is heartwrenching. A lot of writers have played with the danger that an evil Xavier presents, but this small scale psychic control is more troubling than the sort of global destruction we’ve seen before. Xavier can see into anyone’s mind, he can pull up any secrets, what can that power be if used for destructive purposes? He can make people do things they don’t want to do, and make them hate themselves for it. In Seven Soldiers, we see the guilt monster walking around the city, a manifestation of the hate people feel for themselves. Here, Xavier becomes the embodiment of self-hatred, forcing people to confront the things in themselves they’d rather keep hidden, bringing every awful feeling to the surface. That’s the most effective villain, one who plays on the weakness within, so that even if he is defeated, the emotional scars will still be there.

Elsewhere, we get more of Zen Logan. Morrison’s take on the character is a particular highlight of the run, a truly mature Wolverine. The kiss between him and Jean is interesting because he’s the one who resists her. He may still want her, but he thinks he’s wrong for her. And yet, in this incarnation of the character, would he be so wrong? He seems much more levelheaded, and emotionally in touch than the cold, distant Scott.

The issue ends with Xavier heading off into space. I’ve never particularly liked the Shiar part of the X-Men mythology, it’s hard to reconcile with the more realistic elements of Grant’s run. But, it does take place in the Marvel universe, and I like the way they talk about mutants being the first ones to tolerate extraterrestrials. This is a really strong issue, and a nice setup for the storylines that will run through the rest of Grant’s first year on the book.

1 comment:

RAB said...

That 2001 annual contains a candidate for what may be the single best line of dialogue ever to appear in the comics medium:

"He's clenched so tight, when he farts only dogs can hear it."

Seriously...that one word balloon made me realize how much emotional impact a line in a comic book could have. It's funny and heartwrenching and tells us something about the guy it describes and about the guy who says it, all at once.