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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Some Thoughts on X-Men, Both New and Astonishing

In my continuing quest to read old comics that I probably should have read years ago, I recently wrapped up my reading of Grant Morrison’s early-2000s run on New X-Men. This was preceded by my run-though of Joss Whedon’s stretch on Astonishing X-Men, which originally immediately followed Morrison’s work*, and the combined effect left me wanting to talk about them.

*Yeah, I kind of read them backwards, but it wasn’t really that much of a problem.

I don’t want to straight-up compare them and say which one is better, as they’re both fantastic works in their own right, and I love them in very different ways (I’ll try and explain that in a bit). Some comparison between them is inevitable, though.  In any case, the most succinct way I would compare them is: I like the scope of Morrison’s ideas more, but I think Whedon better reached the potential of his ideas.

The best starting place I can think of in this comparison is in characters the two introduced. Actually, both writers introduced numerous of characters; let’s narrow the scope to just the heroes (this discussion will have spoilers for a decade-plus-old set of comics, so fair warning):

Thing I liked: The New Students/Team Members
One of Morrison’s ideas for their run was expanding Xavier’s School. The population of mutants was growing, and so the team could no longer afford to focus on just the students in the X-Men. Morrison added entire classes worth of young students, learning to deal with their gifts and maybe one day graduate to the main team. New introductions like Beak, Angel, Ernst, and Kid Omega made a huge impression, and many of them have stuck around.

These new students had a strong unifying design theme to them; namely, this was a batch that showed the downside of mutation. Traditionally, the mutants of the X-Men have been outcasts, but they’ve had the powers of superheroes and looked like movie stars while doing it. Even “ugly” mutants, characters who no longer looked human like Nightcrawler or Beast, looked very visually appealing and had quite the power set to compliment their appearances. Morrison and their artists eschewed that, with characters that were neither but connected with you despite that. You can’t help but admire Beak as he fights the clear prejudice of even his classmates, or sympathize with Martha’s anger at the world given her condition. Even the ones you don’t connect with, you can understand.

There are some interesting additions to the main team, as well. Fantomex is a cool, if somewhat goofy, anti-hero type and parody of that type at the same time. It renders him a little empty under that surface coolness, but he doesn’t need much more than that given his place in the cast. There’s also Xorn (but more on that in a bit).

But for as interesting as Morrison’s group was, none of them individually was as much fun to follow as Whedon’s introduction, Armor. Whedon, while he only made one addition to the main team, made it count, with a mouthy, young recruit thrust into service on an alien world as Wolverine’s mentee. On a full scale, it’s hard to compare a bunch of good new characters with one really good one. I might side with Armor, though, just because of how excited I was about the character.

Thing I liked: Most of the villains
In each case, I would argue that there’s one weak villain in the greater story. Whedon’s take had a solid, if rather unremarkable at times, cast of foes for the X-Men. Ord started things off as a decent puppet-master, scheming behind doctor Kavita Rao and her mutant cure. Abigail Brand, as the antagonistic head of S.W.O.R.D., is even better as a detestable Machiavellian shadowy-agency head who comes around as a reluctant ally, with the hilarious twist in her story making her that much better. After a story loaded with backstabbing, having her “secret” be a repressed attraction to Beast was a genuinely funny moment, and at that moment, I realized that I really wanted to see how that relationship would go. And he brings back Cassandra Nova from beyond the grave in an interesting way.

The standout, though is of course Danger, who has since been added to the main team. After the Danger Room serving as an obstacle for years, taking the next step and making it a killer A.I. seems like the type of thing that should have been done years ago. Danger proves a worthy foe, which make an exciting read. And rather than peter out, Whedon does a good job of folding the out-schemed foe into the larger story once it is clear she can no longer carry a threat to the team herself.

For as solid as Whedon’s rogues gallery was, Morrison’s is a step ahead. Every villain was perfect, a distillation of ideas to clash with the X-Men while representing Morrison’s thoughts. I think it’s a testament to their unique vision that I feel like I could write my own version of each of their ideas for a villain and have almost no overlap with his end results.

The whole thing starts off with Cassandra Nova, and it’s a credit to New X-Men that she’s maybe the weakest villain of the bunch (with one exception, more on that in a bit). Starting off the whole thing by mobilizing human hatred into massive-scale mutant genocide as a revenge plot against Charles Xavier is one hell of a story to kick off the thing, but manages to set the tone for the work while shaking up the status quo and demonstrating the new results Morrison is aiming for.

From there, we get a string of high-concept villains that I wish would become X-Men regulars (although most of them end their stints here highly incapacitated). John Sublime and the U-Men are an interesting look at human trafficking as well as the changing nature of mutant-human relations. I almost wish they had stayed as straight-forward “humans who want mutant powers at any cost”, but a new-age mutant-based cult is still an interesting take. Quentin Quire and the Omega Gang is a perfect take on the idea of Xavier’s students rejecting his teaching and rebelling against him, and feels very real and natural (not to mention the introduction of the mutant drug Kick; it all feels like a perfect merging of real world issues and the X-Men world). And I almost wish the Weapon Plus program had managed their mutant-fighting team; the idea of humans taking on mutants in publicity, creating their own “superhero” team to fight their evolutionary rivals while keeping a good public image, is a fascinating commentary on superheroes as a whole.

But Xorn deserves a special mention. Kudos on introducing a popular new character only to pull the rug out from under everyone and reveal him to be Magneto working to undermine the school from within. Magneto infiltrating the X-Men is something that I’m surprised hadn’t been done before, and I’m not sure if anyone will pull it off this well again. It wasn’t without issue, though (more on that in a bit).

Thing I liked: The Existing Characters
Thing I liked: The Pacing
Thing I liked: The Art (mostly)
For the first two, both of these are such standard things, but they’re still executed well. Both make me enjoy reading about even Emma Frost, something I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced before. The relationship drama doesn’t feel stale or forced, nor does it get in the way. I’d probably give Whedon the edge in both categories, as they’re both up his alley, but neither one does poorly.

For the art, John Cassady does good work with Whedon, with a very classical style. Morrison’s artist changed frequently, and that hurt the end product a little. Some of their artists were better than others; I feel like Frank Quitely started a little inconsistent, but was getting better, but then he was forced out for a highly variable revolving door of choices. None of them is as good as Cassaday, but there are at least some interesting design choices at play.

Now that I’ve gotten most of the good out of the way:

Thing I didn’t like: Magneto (Morrison)
I’ve heard this story has gotten some flak with fans, but I will stand by it. It’s a good idea, a solid gut punch, and it very much fits in with the underlying theme Morrison is going for. That being said, their version of Magneto is…a little much, to say the least. Having the character committing mass executions of humans is really over the top given his past. If there was something indicating the switch, whether despair at the genocide in the mutant nation of Genosha, or indications of Kick causing mental instability (well, more traditionally than it did; more on that in a bit), or something else entirely. You can’t really have it be someone other than Magneto (as retcons since have done), as that removes the impact; even someone stealing Magneto’s image for his own purposes would just come across as an imposter. But you also need the extremism he brings to get the scale and point across. I think the better execution might have been Magneto trying to hold Manhattan and failing, with one of his new acolytes usurping him and getting extreme, but maybe that would be too similar to the Quentin/Kid Omega situation. Either way, I think the “Planet X” story works in spite of those issues.

Thing I didn’t like: The dropped ideological struggle (Whedon)
Another case where I like the story in spite of the issues it has. “Gifted” finds the X-Men faced with a “mutant cure”, but it sort of drops this in favor of full action. Not that it doesn’t pull this off well, but it seems to leave a lot hanging. Maybe I missed it, but it seems like, once they reveal that Dr. Rao found her cure by experimenting on robbed corpses using borrowed alien equipment, they declare her finding invalid, but this doesn’t address the core question at hand. Maybe they offered some half-hearted explanation of how her research was destroyed and no cure was ever deployed, but it does feel like a sort of undermining of the core philosophical question. Not that the end result was bad, it just felt a little like a bait and switch.

Thing I didn’t like: The end villains
In both cases, the writers tried to go out with big, sweeping storylines that tied all of their villains together. In both cases, the end stories were fun, but the villains themselves were lacking.

Let’s start with the Astonishing X-Men, because that one is easier to explain and less of a problem. Breakworld and its politics just aren’t interesting. They are some generic planet of all warriors who worship toughness that want to destroy Earth because they see it as a threat to their existence based on a prophecy. In the end, it’s a good vehicle for the heroes to act and pull some cool stuff off, but it doesn’t change just how bland the force their fighting is. It just feels like a letdown after all the other good ideas in the two series.

But that’s not quite as rough as “Here Comes Tomorrow”, the finale to New X-Men. I love a good alternate universe, dark future story like this. And it works on that level. But the villain is…something else. Sublime is revealed to have been the orchestrator of the entire series up until that point, from mind-controlling the eponymous John Sublime to create the U-Men, to mass producing the mutant drug Kick and using it to influence (or mind-control? It’s unclear) Magneto, to founding Weapon Plus to create Super Sentinels. That’s a little too convenient, but on top of all of that…Sublime is a sentiment bacteria that has been pitting humans and mutants against each other to fight to extinction. I don’t mind that it’s weird; comics are weird. I just mind because it wasn’t needed. It undercuts a lot of things that make sense on a real world level, as most of the villains worked on a real world level. Instead, all the mutant-hatred wasn’t really coming from humans who discovered they’d be outnumbered in the near future, it was because of psychic micro-organisms. I don’t doubt that this was the plan from the start, and it ties the dark future together with the rest of the plots Morrison had been juggling, but it makes for an underwhelming closer to the whole thing.

There you have it. This thing grew out of control, but I had a lot of thoughts to get down. I think, though, that this is the best sign that these runs are good. They made me enjoy reading X-Men, which has historically been my favorite series, in a way I haven’t in years. They got me thinking about it more than I have in as long, and they inspired me to reflect on them and work my ideas into my own ideas. That is maybe the greatest compliment I can pay them.

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