Backstory – I’ve been an X-Men fan since I picked up the Claremont and Lee issue 1 of ‘X-Men’ from my local newsagent (yes, you read that correctly) in 1991. I was 12, it was the year I started secondary school, and it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen in my life. I’d been reading comics since I was still crawling, one of the reasons I’ve been drawing that long too, I think, but ‘X-Men #1’ was different.
There’s a splash page, pages 4&5 I think, introducing the ‘new’ X-Men, which was in fact a mash up of the original team who had since become X-Factor, and the Uncanny X-men, all grown up. They’re on some kind of Danger Room exercise to “tap” the Professor (no sniggering), and we see them all in action at this point through a screen, with Scott Summers, or Cyclops, who is instead standing majestically to the side, leading the exercise from the Mansion, and effectively ‘protecting’ the Professor, and facing him, Ororo Munroe, Storm, who the word “majestically” was basically created for. These are the leaders of the Blue and Gold teams, as becomes clear later.
Here’s a link to a “redux” of that splash page, re-coloured to make it all fancy and modern and shit:
Owned by Marvel (just in case I get owned by Marvel…)
In this one splash page, my life changed. Jim Lee’s art is astounding, a clear indication as to why he’s one of the few “Big Nineties Artists” who isn’t regularly derided and who is still putting out fantastic work to this day. There’s a large ‘V’ shape at work here in the main panel (the whole splash is actually two panels, with a vertical sliver off to the left acting as our establishing shot and allowing Chris Claremont to wax poetic), composed of Scott and Ororo themselves. As we move further away from the picture plane, that ‘V’ shrinks to a ‘v’ made up of the Science and Tech division, the backstage crew if you will, Forge (real name unknown), Sean Cassidy (Banshee) and Hank McCoy (Beast).
Rogue (Anna Marie, as it turns out, although this is rarely used), Piotr Rasputin (Collosus), Bobby Drake (Iceman) and Warren Worthington (Archangel) are all being viewed on the massive screen, in a dynamic “in-flight” pose as they undertake their mission.
It’s a belter of an introduction – we can see all their roles and places in the ‘X’ hierarchy in one image. Not only that, but we learn all we need to know about the team in general right away thanks to Claremont’s captions. They’re special people, with powers they’ve had since birth, and they have chosen to make the most of these powers that, we also learn, set them apart from the rest of humanity. “Feared and hated by a world they’ve sworn to protect”, in other words.
This is how origin stories should be done. But the creators realise these characters have such a long and well-loved history that there’s no need for backstory, and they put us straight into the action, action that is an illusion of danger because they’re in training. In a school. They’re a super-powered paramilitary force run by a Professor. That’s all we need to know.
I was totally hooked.
Unfortunately, I was also immediately swept along on a wave that was to become a historical “crisis” within the comics industry. To cut a long story short, I started buying other current X-titles, including X-Force and X-Factor. Soon after that, there followed “events”, as they would come to be known, but what were at that time known as “crossovers”. The first big one I got involved in was X-Cutioner’s Song, a clunky title and an even clunkier metaphor that was used and abused during the story itself. It started really well, great atmosphere, Prof X is shot and it looks like cable, time travelling uber-mutant who may or not be Scott’s son Nathan who was sent into the future to cure him of the techno-virus he’d been infected with by X-Factor’s nemesis, Apocalypse. Phew. Yeah, it sounds inane and too complex and cumbersome to be enjoyable, but I actually don’t have a problem with these universe wide, time travelling stories, as long as they’re handled will. Unfortunately, ‘Song’ wasn’t, really. I stuck with it all, completely emotionally invested in the characters, and the finale, where Stryfe is revealed ultimately as the clone of Nathan, and where Nathan “destroys” them both to save the world or something, was actually pretty moving. But I always had the feeling that I was missing vital bits of information, that certain writers voices weren’t singing the same notes or pitch as the others (ha! d’you see that?) and that the crossover was forcing titles and characters with different tones into the same story. It never felt quite right.
As you can no doubt see, much of this story centred around cable and Stryfe, two characters who had unfortunately been designed by Rob Liefeld. This meant that Cable carried gigantic guns and was covered head to toe in pockets, while Stryfe was, well, he was
I kept with the X-Men though, through Fatal Attractions, a great arc with some dodgy handling (see a theme emerging?) where Xavier and Magneto battled to the point of destruction. Xavier wiped Erik’s mind in an act of devastation that left him brain damaged, just after Erik leeches all the adamantium from Wolverine’s bones. No, I don’t know how magnetism works on adamantium either, but it was a great device at the time, bringing low three of the biggest characters in the books and destabilising everything. It also felt like an arc that seriously tied up what was started in Claremont and Lee’s run. Time for a change then, and (completely ignoring the Phalank Covenant), the coda to this was Legionquest. What followed was amazing…
I eventually bought about half of the excellent ‘Age of Apocalypse’ crossover, a bold event that left many fans reeling at the time. A hideous accident during the preceding ‘Legionquest’ had Professor X killed by his son, an act that caused the M’Kraan, the nexus of all realities, to wash over ‘our’ reality, freezing it forever… This was actually a neat way of putting current continuity on hold while we explored an alternate universe that took over the entire ‘X’ line of comics for a year. It was a bold move, and one which worked. In this alternate reality, with no Charles Xavier to stem the tide, Apocalypse has had his way and all but taken over the world.
We see Erik Lensherr (Magneto), who had promised a dying Xavier that he would defend his dream, now leading the X-Men, a neat move that explored the current Magneto’s murky morality and his on-off status as a villain. X-lore now has a very complex character in Magneto, one in whom the readers know exists good and evil, and whose status as either is dependant more on his actions that any fixed morality. We also get to see alternate versions of well-loved characters – Bobby is no longer a wise-cracker for instance, but a sullen depressed warrior, who has shaken off his own psychological blocks regarding his powers, in turn changing his physiology to one more in tune with his state of mind: edgy, basically.
(What are they? Are they the good guys? The bad guys? Oh my gawd my whole world’s been turned upside down!)
I remember reading AOX: Alpha and being gobsmacked by Joe Madureira’s beautiful art, solid and chunky with just a hint of manga in there, boldly inked and coloured (which somehow never worked as well on the main titles). And the story, with a time-trapped Bishop climbing atop the bodies of the dead before running into the Astonishing X-Men, was horrifying and exciting all at once. It evoked ‘Days of Future Past’, a classic Claremont story that also explored alternate futures and timelines, but one in which mutants were hunted to death. Now, in this AOX world, humans were massacred, along with any mutant who tried to protect them. Apocalypse was enacting his “survival of the fittest” policy with encouraged genocide. It was bleak and darkly written, but bright and boldly drawn – a difficult mix to pull off, but one that worked beautifully. The rest of the story was far-ranging, and I missed many of the off-shoots, sticking only to the main story books due to pocket money not stretching that far (more on that bone of contention later…), and eventually the status quo was returned.
But for a moment there, I wasn’t sure. I wondered to myself, “If this is popular enough, might Marvel want to keep going with it?” I realised they’d already have it mapped out, but something in there made me worry – and that worry was my attachment to the original characters. I wanted to get back to them. The best thing Marvel did with AOX was make me remember why I loved them in the first place.
Then there was ‘Onslaught’: by now I was a young adult, ready to leave school, starting to get a little bit embarrassed by comics, and with plenty of other things on my mind. Marvel drove the last nail into the coffin of my dying interest in their X-Universe with ‘Onslaught’, a “saga” that would encompass not only the X-universe but the Marvel Universe as a whole, bringing in The Avengers and Spiderman and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
As it turns out, many more comics. None of which I bought.
Like I say, I left behind comics for a while, except for Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis, and the one that really, really changed my life, The Invisibles, written by a Glaswegian chappie called Grant Morrison. This book was everything I ever wanted from comics: a supersexy spy story, which was really a disguise for an occult book about chaos magic, which was really a disguise for a handbook on the future of humanity and its place in a hyper dimensional world. Which was really a disguise for… You get the idea. I started buying every volume and devoured it once, twice, three times…
I read ‘Doom Patrol’ and ‘Animal Man’, watching in awe as this guy deconstructed comics in a whole new way, injecting himself into the process, or unleashing whole art movements as enemies. His love of Dada and Surrealism in DP really floated my boat, as I’m a huge fan of Dali, Ernst, Varo etc. But Animal Man showed me ‘The Invisibles’ could work in comics too.
Then I heard he was moving to the X-Men. I quickly bought the ‘Uncanny’ and ‘X-Men’ issues immediately prior to him starting (the Eve of Destruction arc), then, full of anticipation, bought the first ‘New X-Men’.
Look at that cover! Look at the uniforms! No spandex! Beast is a cat! Is that? Yes! That’s Emma Frost on the X-Men team! What? I don’t even… Ohmygod… Even Cyclops looks badass. And who’s drawing this? Is it – Frank Quitely? The guy from Electric Soup, who drew the most beautiful issue of the Invisibles, who totally got the human time caterpillar vibe for Robin, and who made the whole book’s “Pop” punchline work so well… Yup.
First issue of NXM was incredible. It was pop, it was brutal, violent, dark, beautiful, exciting and they’vejustwipedoutGenosha. It had balls. Bigger balls than I’d ever seen with Marvel. Which is a horrible visual. It also made me realise something profound about my love affair with the mutants. As I’d grown up with them, I’d realised that I didn’t keep buying the comic because it was well written, or well drawn, or because the characters were developing in ways I enjoyed or thought internally consistent. Often the opposite was true. But I’d been religiously buying these books because of the world that had been created. The sheer possibilities in the X-Universe were incredible, and when they were used well, it could be beautiful. There was no need to crossover into the wider Marvel Universe. In fact, there was no need to cross over at all. There was more than enough in each title to make do.’X-Force’ was also relaunched at the time, with Peter Milligan and Michael Alldred producing something akin to Morrison’s reimagining, but in a more caustic, and even poppier way. But Uncanny was suffering from a lack of confidence, and ‘X-Treme X-Men’, the title gifted to Chris Claremont as, like, a thank you or something, proved he was past his best. Something that was proven even further by his later work on ‘X-Men Forever’, a title that imagined he’d never left the original ‘X-Men’ title… The mind boggles.
So anyway, without having to buy loads of different titles and without having to be hugely well-versed in continuity, I was able to enjoy NXM in and of itself. It didn’t suffer from the verbosity that had been the bane of comics for the last decade, and shedding that it felt lighter, lither and more muscular. It was itself a mutant, a fantastic super hero comic gifted with special powers from the moment of its creation, aware that it was the evolution of this type of comics. It was the future.
As NXM continued, we were treated to a delightful exploration of the world in which mutants were growing to become man’s replacement. We saw mutant fashion designers, rock bands, and Jean Grey introducing the world’s press to Xavier’s “laboratory of the future”. I’m not joking, I could have wept. It was the essence of the X-men reimagined for the modern age.
Then 2001 – the Twin Towers – global crisis and uncertainty… Morrison’s talked in his own ‘Supergods’ book about how the shockwaves around the world from that event impacted on the industry and on his own writing, and with hindsight, I can see how it shows in NMX. What started off as dark and delicious became paranoid and delusional. The “Assault on Weapon X” arc was particularly troublesome, but “Planet X” finally did it. I loved this last arc, but Morrison dug his own grave at Marvel by having Magneto, out of his mind on a drug called Kick, commit genocide on Manhattan, rounding humans up and putting them in ovens. It was dark, and it was too much. Whether it was the public, or Marvel itself that couldn’t take it, we’ll never know. Magneto was under the influence of Sublime, a sentient bacteria that had been behind most of the NXM run, so you know, Magneto didn’t really do it. But is the general Marvel readership really nuanced enough to allow that? Who knows.
The final arc was a tortured, twisted ‘Days of Future Past’ style story that redefined the Phoenix Force forever, in a great way, but which was at times incomprehensible due to Salvador Larroca’s art which, while amazing on certain titles, didn’t have nearly enough finesse to deliver Morrison’s bleak tumble through the rabbit hole of the X-Men’s future at the mercy of Sublime. Also by this point, and again with hindsight, I think it’s easy to see the Morrison has had enough, and probably wanted as far away from the editorial influence of Marvel as possible.
I ditched X after this, only returning to read ‘Astonishing X-Men’ by Joss Whedon some time later on the recommendation of a friend, and I’m glad I did. It was bright and fantastic, and I really enjoyed it. But it wasn’t the world Morrison had left behind. Everything he had built had been swept away, rarely to be mentioned except as a shorthand reference to that joyous moment in X-history where it looked like the mutant future could have been a world I’d like to live in. Without U-Men, though. Or Sentinels. Or, well… You know.So, the point of all of this?I didn’t pick X-Men back up until 2009, when Matt Fraction took over, and I caught the tail-end of the Utopia arc, after hearing that certain strands were getting pulled together again. You see, while I’d been away, Marvel did the unthinkable and all but destroyed the X-Universe. Thanks to House of M, Decimation and goddamned motherfucking Wanda…
I’m going to update this blog every Friday with my thoughts on each arc since 2009 as I work my way back through them in the lead up to Avengers vs. X-Men (covering Necrosha, Nation X, Age of X etc), and while doing so, I’ll talk over my hopes for that massive crossover, and my fears, and my thoughts on where the X-Universe should go from here. But my next post will start with Decimation, and why it was the worst move Marvel ever made, and why it needs to be rectified, as soon as possible…
(Even the logo’s pish…)
EDIT: Thanks to Colin Bell from the Glasgow League of Writers (http://www.itsbloggerintime.com/
) for pointing out that Marc Silvestri did the art for Here Comes Tomorrow, not Salvador Larocca (who did Xtreme X-Men instead, which I also had issues with, art-wise. But I’ll probably leave that for my post about NECROSHA. I’ll have a lot to say about art on that one…)