Saturday, October 04, 2008

New X-Men: Wrapping It Up

In his New X-Men pitch, Grant Morrison wrote about wanting to make the X-books accessible to new readers, while still respecting the continuity of the past, to make them post-human, sexy and stylish. His conception of the X-Men isn’t so much a superhero team as it is a model for evolution, both biologically, but also culturally. Not all these concepts pay off in every arc, nobody’s sexy in Kordey’s world, and the time spent with the Shiar has little to do with the way that mutants are building their own culture. But, taken as a whole, he fulfills most of his goals, and, most importantly, he makes it feel like these events matter, that the characters are real people who feel the weight of what they’ve been through, and will grow and change as a result of the events they’ve experienced.

That, more than anything else, is what makes this such a special run, it’s what makes his run feel definitive, while other writers’ feel like fanfic. The beauty of Claremont’s original run is that you could feel the characters evolving as he wrote them. Jean became one of the book’s most compelling characters, then died. Scott, the longest running X-man, left the team and got married. He’d still come back from time to time, but you got the sense that his life went on offscreen, and there was no doubt that Claremont would come up with new characters who were just as compelling. Think of the transition from the Mutant Massacre to Fall of the Mutants. Kitty and Kurt, two of Claremont’s finest characters, left the team, but Dazzler, Psylocke and Longshot ably replaced them. I don’t think those characters were as strong as Kitty or Kurt, but I liked the fact that the universe expanded, and characters moved off stage when their stories were done.

By the time of “X-Tinction Agenda,” everybody’s tending back towards normal, the corporate sanctioned team of X-Men was in place, with Jean and Scott at the head, the Professor overseeing everything from his wheelchair and Wolverine as the bad boy on the side. Morrison said that he read all the X-Men TPBs that were in print before starting work on the title, and most of what is in print from Claremont is the crossovers and the Dark Phoenix era stuff. He doesn’t seem to love Paul Smith era Claremont, or later Claremont in the way that I do, and it makes sense that most of the mythology he’d draw on would be from the Dark Phoenix era. You can fit the whole Scott/Maddy Pryor thing into Morrison’s conception of the character, but in some ways, it works better without him ever having been through that darker experience.

Anyway, writers after Claremont struggled to make an impact on the title. There’s very few new characters introduced after 1991 who made any sort of an impact in the X-Men world, and very little character evolution. You could easily jump from 1991’s X-Men #3 to New X-Men #114 without any trouble following what’s going on. I’ve read some mid 90s X-Men books, and generally speaking, you don’t get the sense that the characters are ever going to have meaningful change happen to them. Most of the writers who did try to change things were held back by Marvel, and even Claremont himself failed miserably to tell good stories.

Luckily, Morrison had the combination of his skill as a writer and the corporate leeway to tell the kind of stories he wanted to, to do a kind of self contained run on the title that could radically change things and leave up to the next writer to figure out what’s next. I’ve read a little bit of Joss Whedon’s X-Men, a full read is forthcoming, but I don’t really need any more after the end of “Here Comes Tomorrow.” That feels like a fine place for the X-Men narrative to end, in the same way that X-Men #3 did. Obviously their lives will go on and the stories will continue, but I don’t need anymore. Part of the reason I liked the early parts of Mike Carey’s X-Men is that he’s dealing with a totally different corner of the X-Men universe than Grant did, and I can appreciate that book on its own terms rather than as a continuation of New X-Men. But, still, that book doesn’t come close to what Morrison did.

I would agree with people who say that Morrison’s run is uneven. Reading the beginning, I was thinking that it wasn’t as good as I remember it. “E For Extinction” is very cool, but it feels largely conceptual. X-Men books should be messy and emotionally overwrought, not the perfectly sculpted cool of that first arc. “E For Extinction” is pretty close to flawless, it’s certainly the arc I’d give to someone who’d never read X-Men, but much like Claremont’s run, the deeper we go into the world and the characters, the more fascinating they become. The first year on the title is hit and miss for me, with the Quitely issues working great, and the Kordey fill ins really draining momentum. “Imperial” is the nadir of the run, from both a writing and artistic perspective, salvaged primarily by a fantastic last issue.

The second year expands the world and changes the focus from fighting for survival to building a new society. I love the three issue Fantomex arc, that to me is the epitome of sexy post human X-Men, while still working on a character and emotional level. The two Jean Paul Leon issues are also fantastic. The “Riot” storyline played a bit weaker than I remembered it. It’s still great in a lot of ways but could have been paced a little better. And, having seen the way Quitely art looks in All Star Superman, it’s clear how poorly it was finished here. The second year is where the dream comes to fruition, and subsequently starts to become undone. People will always rebel against even the most perfect world. The year culminates with another flawed, but at times brilliant storyline, “Murder at the Mansion.” That storyline doesn’t work so well conceptually, but on a character level, the Emma Frost stuff is as good as anything in the run.

The third year is where everything seems to fall apart. After the fun detour to “Assault on Weapon Plus,” Magneto takes control of the book and spins it upside down to “Planet X.” I wrote more about this storyline, and “Here Comes Tomorrow” than I did about the entire rest of the run. I think that’s a testament to just how huge both stories are, and how good a job they do of synthesizing all the themes that have come before. “Planet X” has its flaws, but there’s so much to think about, so much emotional engagement that I consider it easily one of the best stories in the run, and an important story in X-Men history. “E For Extinction” makes a lot more sense, but it doesn’t hit me in the way that “Planet X” does.

“Planet X” reminds me of the Doctor Who season finale from this year. It’s the kind of story I always wanted to read when I first found out about X-Men, and it feels almost unhealthy to get something that hits so many things that I want. Like those Doctor Who episodes, it’s frequently nonsensical, but I don’t care, I’d rather have the insane brilliance of the story than almost anything else.

And, reading it again, “Here Comes Tomorrow” was a revelation, an echo of “Planet X” that somehow manages to synthesize all the central concepts from the run into one fantastic final story. Morrison goes out on a high note, his motley crue of future X-Men torn apart, only to be saved by Phoenix.

New X-Men has a special pull for me, since it’s a combination of my favorite corporate comics property and my favorite comics writer. I can really enjoy Morrison’s work on JLA or Final Crisis, but I don’t have that childhood connection to these characters. I’m frequently at a loss when faced with a mass army of characters moving in and out of the work without identification, and if you’re not familiar with X-Men, I’m sure seeing Jamie Madrox or Bishop suddenly appear is pretty confusing. But, I know all those people, I’ve read hundreds of issues of X-books and I know the mythology he’s referring to. I’m as big a fan of the Claremont run as anyone, and this is the only run on the book I think is comparable to what Claremont accomplished.