Okay, here’s where things get a little tricky. Following on from last week’s post, I’m going to very quickly cover ‘Decimation’, in order to bring us chronologically to the X-Men arcs I want to discuss in detail. First things first though, I haven’t read ‘Decimation’, or its predecessor, ‘House of M’. As I intimated last time, when Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run was wrapping up, I heard all these mutterings from Marvel about Joss Whedon’s follow up, ‘Astonishing X-Men’, putting the team back in spandex.
While I’m a huge Whedon fan, and have been since ‘Buffy’, I felt this was a retrograde move. It seemed to me that Marvel was ashamed and embarrassed by Morrison’s run on the book, even though it was a bestseller, and contained more ingenuity in its time than any other single run of any ‘X’ book, in my opinion. It was a long time before I checked out ‘Astonishing’, which turned to be great in its own right. However, the way the X-universe was moving didn’t interest me, and with hindsight I’m glad I stayed away.
As it turns out, ‘Astonishing’ was designed to be almost a standalone title, separate from the rest of the goings on in the X-Universe. One reason for this was apparently Whedon’s dislike of crossovers and what he thought was a “hectic and unfollowable X-Men continuity”. Oh how I sympathise. From here on in, these posts are going to get complex for that very reason. I’ll state now that I wish Marvel would follow the templates of Morrison and Whedon’s tenures for their entire X-Universe, and you’ll hear more about that as we go on. For now though, let’s put ‘Astonishing’ aside, and concentrate on what was really the direct follow-on from ‘Planet X’, the penultimate Morrison arc.
Over in the ‘Avengers’ world (what? I thought this was all about the X-Men, you say? A-ha. Here’s where it gets ridiculous…) they went through something called ‘Disassembled’, a play on the “Avengers Assemble!” catchphrase. During this run they were attacked physically and emotionally until they eventually split, losing members in the process. It is revealed that the reality-warping former Avenger Wanda Maximoff, Scarlet Witch, has gone insane, and is using her powers to wreak revenge on the Avengers, who she blames for killing her children (who were never really children anyway, but mental constructs, or something…). Anyway, at the end, Magneto (her father), takes her away to be cared for by him and Professor X, so he can make up for his mistakes in raising her.
This all then moves to the ‘House of M’ miniseries, and crossover, and so begins a policy by Marvel so vast and unimaginably stupid that the effects are still being felt today. Marvel engaged in a cold, calculated attempt to wring as much money from its customers as possible, by turning the Marvel Universe into one gigantic, fluid and formless crossover, that is still in play even now.
Wanda uses her considerable power to recreate reality, changing the world into one where mutants rule over humans, and Magneto and his family (the House of the title) run over them. Only Wolverine can remember the previous reality, so he sets about convincing the superheroes and mutants of this world that reality is wrong. Eventually they try to put it right, with the heroes battling the House of M, and the truth coming out. When Magneto nearly kills his own son, Wanda’s brother Quicksilver, she goes loop-de-loop again, this time saying “No more mutants…”
The world is remade back to the original Marvel Universe, although the vast majority of mutants have been depowered. So begins the brutal, seemingly interminable saga of the mutants as ultimate victims, which I’ll also discuss in a future post. For now, know that Brian Michael Bendis, architect of this fiasco, said it would “shake the world and break the internet open,” a sentiment that I think sums up why this was done. The shock waves were carefully designed to create controversy and to split opinion, and the whole scenario set up an ongoing Marvel-wide crossover that included Planet Hulk , Civil War, The Initiative , Endangered Species,World War Hulk, Messiah Complex, Divided We Stand , Secret Invasion, Manifest Destiny , Dark Reign, Messiah War , Utopia , Nation X and Necrosha , continuing beyond these to the X-arcs I want to talk about.
I’ll be ignoring the rest of the Marvel Universe because, hey, mutants are enough for me, but I need to make my position clear from here. As a fan of the X-books, as someone who believes passionately in the world and characters countless previous creators have set up, and as a comic creator myself who would give my non-drawing hand to work on the X-books some day, I think this was the worst move ever made by a comic publisher. In one dialogue balloon, a rich and interesting world was turned on its head, and not in a cool, experimental, temporary way like ‘Age of Apocalypse’, but in an almost permanent way that damaged the titles seemingly beyond repair. It’s clear that the ‘No more mutants’ thing was merely a con, since most of the mutants we knew and loved inexplicably kept their powers. The vast roster of characters therefore remained. It was merely the boundaries of their world that shrunk, tightening into a claustrophobic, oppressive jail that kept the X-Men and their kind as global victims, and preventing the books from exploring the potential that existed in a future where mutant culture grew to become the norm, the laboratory of the future we were promised.
In this story and the ones that followed, the dark paranoia and fear that saturated western media following the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 2001 found a perfect vessel: the bright and wonderful world of comics, where many and varied characters and stories became a never-ending descent into a saga of our times. This saga was one of terrorism, global jihad, siege mentality, crisis and fear, with the X-Men cast as the Marvel Universe’ version of Israel, a nation burdened by a victim mentality, but containing enough power to make its neighbours nervous. While this might be considered one day as an interesting allegory of the early 21st century, it’s also unrelentingly bleak, and it has enough power and dark momentum that even Marvel’s own attempts to shed it seem destined to fail (the transparently fake Heroic Age banner being the most obvious example of this).
More than this, though, is the increasingly obnoxious and calculated way in which these crossovers are designed to milk the readership for all it’s worth. You might remember me talking last time about the 90s boom and the X-Men crossovers? Well the crossovers were a way to ensure that the company was getting more out of its dwindling readership. As all the “new” readership left the books, for reasons still argued over to this day, Marvel tried to hook the remaining ones with series wide crossovers and glitzy covers, aiming squarely at a market called “Collectors”. Instead of accepting a status quo of less readers, or of trying to find a new way to attract readers (say, by shedding half the superhero titles and branching out into exciting genre books, or by relaxing stringent, off-putting continuity, or encouraging female readers and creators, or by becoming more inclusive, or by not aiming at 40 year old teenagers…), Marvel instead took a decision that with hindsight looks like one of the World’s Biggest Conspiracies, and a great example of the principle that capitalist corporations are inherently incapable of empathy. They decided to create EVER BIGGER CROSSOVERS that would require the readership to buy even more titles in order to keep up…
Using ‘House of M’ as an example, in order to fully understand what was happening, over the course of roughly five months you’d have to buy 66 titles, at a conservative cost of £200, or £40 a month. Bear in mind that this isn’t you collecting your usual monthly titles. This is you buying things like ‘The Pulse’, ‘Secrets of the House of M’, ‘New Thunderbolts’ or ‘Exiles’. And don’t hit me with that “You don’t have to buy them all to enjoy the story” garbage. That just solidifies the argument against the tie-in books.
Anyway, long-winded introduction aside, the effects of M-Day, as it came to be known, then resulted in the birth of Hope, the first new mutant, and the hoped-for messiah, who would restore mutant-kind. There was a Messiah Complex, then a Messiah War, and everyone was fighting over this baby, some to raise her up, others to kill her. Sent into the future with her foster father Cable, she was bouncing around time waiting for the moment when Marvel needed her to return in order to fulfil another crossover, ‘Second Coming’, which I’ll talk about in about a fortnight.
Meanwhile, for ‘fans’ like me who had abandoned the travesty of the X-Universe, hints that Hope might soon do her thing and finally manifest as the new host of the Phoenix, returning mutantkind to its former glory, brought me hook line and sinker back into the fold. In time to catch the tail end of Utopia, a sub-crossover with ‘Dark Reign’ that resulted in the X-Men raising Magneto’s former base Asteroid M from its grave at the bottom of the Pacific and christening it ‘Utopia’, a haven for all mutants, regardless of history. I could see the threads of the future starting to finally draw together here, repairing the hole in the fabric of the X-Universe, so I jumped back on, ready for the next crossover, ‘Necrosha’.
Fuck me. I don’t know why I bothered.
Crossing through ‘X-Force’, ‘X-Men:Legacy’ and ‘New Mutants’, Necrosha was a kind of ‘mini-crossover’, one that coincided with the other ‘mini-crossover’ Nation X. From here on, the X-titles would dip in and out of cross-title crossovers so that anyone who was collecting from 2009 would find it very, very difficult to organise their collection into any cohesive form. I know. I just tried it.
‘Necrosha’ followed Selene, the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club, on her quest to become a goddess, using the techno-organic virus gained from the prime sentinel Bastion. Using this in combination with her own powers, she began to raise former mutants from the dead, as this would somehow give her enough power to become a goddess. Remember the name Bastion for the future, and know that this is an example of a continuity-heavy staggered storyline such as I discussed earlier. For now, all we need concern ourselves with is the fact that all over the world, including the annihilated country of Genosha, mutants are rising from the dead, and are simultaneously carrying out the will of Selene and also managing to tear open old wounds and provoke rivalries.
When it first appeared, the ‘Blackest Night’ storyline was getting into gear over in the DC universe. So here we had the two mainstreams engaged in crossover storylines where dead heroes reappear. For ‘Necrosha’, this meant a fairly decompressed storyline where not a huge amount happens. The X-Force title concentrated on the main storyline itself, while New Mutants dealt with the reappearance of their former team mate Doug, and Legacy was following the return of Magneto (not from the dead, but from depowered exile) and the return of Proteus (from the dead, or something). Things that were happening in Legacy were somehow slowly moving the whole X-Agenda forward, and this title was the most enjoyable, as we got to see Rogue and Magneto flirt and dance around one another, while Rogue herself started to show real signs of leadership. The art work by Clay Mann is nice and clear, and it’s well coloured by Brian Reber in a way that tells the story. The story itself, while dealing with dead mutants, isn’t overly referential, and flows well in the hands of Mike Carey, who seems to be enjoying the characters and the world they inhabit.
‘New Mutants’ does what it always has done for me; the team stands around a lot, being angsty, and discussing how they won’t live up to the previous generation. They fight with each other over various different things, and sometimes the “real” X-men pop up to give wider context. The crossover into Necrosha is pointless, and serves only to bring Doug and Warlock back into the fold, which I’m happy to excuse, as one thing writer Zeb Wells does is handle Doug’s ability really well. He can translate any language, including body language and emotional vibes, which is fantastic as we see Doug interpret the other characters’ dialogue with each other through captions that show what they really mean. This is a great example of something that is all too often ignored in the X-books: the plot becomes about the powers, in a way, rather than the powers serving the requirements of the plot.
Anyway, the real meat of the crossover happens in X-Force, where Doug’s ability to translate would come in very handy. This is an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. It’s incomprehensible to most but the most ardent fan, as it name drops dead mutants left right and centre, and requires not only knowledge of, but memory of events that happened 5, 10, sometimes 15 years ago. The writing is sloppy, and the plot really loose, so that it’s hard to know exactly what’s happening, and even harder to care.
Worst of all though is the art. Clayton Crain has developed a style of digital painting that I can only describe as ‘painting in grey’. He goes against the grain of every rule of comic book storytelling; it’s muddy, unclear, lacks definition, and everything, everywhere seems to take place in this weird nether-space, where it’s always night time, and the backgrounds are indistinguishable. In a storyline where so many mutants are coming back from the dead, it would be nice to see what each of them look like. Maybe that would have made this story more bearable, where we could have had a nice stroll down memory lane. In fact, done properly, this could have been a fitting epitaph to an older period of the X-Men, bringing the past back to life for a while, then putting it to bed forever before the Second Coming.
Instead, it is a pointless cash-in exercise, designed only to force readers of Legacy to buy X-Force and New Mutants in fear of missing something important. Neither they, nor I, need have bothered.
Luckily the modern X-Men isn’t entirely a disaster. Although slightly out of sync in terms of chronology, I’ve decided to put the ‘Nation X’ crossover next as, firstly, it’s not really a crossover so much as a sub-branding exercise, and secondly, it’s a more positive example of where the X-Universe might be headed. I’ll be looking at that in detail next week and, you’ll be glad to hear, without preamble… 🙂
And yes, I know I didn’t manage to cover ‘Decimation’ quickly… Not at all…