No More X-Men

Look, I know, I know. X-Friday was a wash-out. After I let it fall by the wayside, my mate Jules and I even talked about doing a kind of call-and-response thing where we would encourage each other to write about Nation X and onwards.
But it never happened.

I don’t know whether it was my increasing trepidation about Avengers vs X-Men or whether I just got bored with the idea of de-constructing a world that I was increasingly disassociating from, but it never happened.

Meanwhile, Avengers vs X-Men is still underway. Halfway through, it went from a really boring battle royale to a potentially interesting saga with the arrival of the Phoenix Five and Cyclops and Co establishing Pax Utopia – a paradise that is so close to my own ideas for Gonzo Cosmic that I felt rather uncomfortable reading it.

I started to get a good feeling – maybe the X-books were going in the right direction. Maybe the mutants were returning and we’d get the future promised by Morrison that I’ve been moaning about since I started this blog. Then there was the announcement about Marvel NOW and the ridiculous line-up of books they’ve got planned. All New X-Men with the really old team, Uncanny Avengers ffs… You know the drill, if it’s something that interests you. If not, why are you even reading this?!? 😛

Whatever, it fills me once again with real trepidation. Whatever folk say, I think the X-Universe is big enough to exist on its own, adjacent to and sometimes overlapping with but generally outside of the Marvel 616. And recently, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what the future of that universe might be…

Some people will have seen some recent images on my Facebook page, something called “X ≠Ω”, or “X is not Omega”.

These are drawings I’ve done of some significant ‘X’ characters as imagined being a few years older than they are now. It’s all part of this large tapestry I’ve dreamed up, a way of trying to re-imagine a future for the X-teams, one that doesn’t involve incessant crossover, but which can recreate a context that would not only involve some really interesting stuff in itself, but would also hopefully create a fertile soil for future creators to continue to write the X-books.

If you look back at my first post about the X-Men where I talk about picking up Claremont and Lee’s X-Men #1, you’ll know why I thought it was a great re-introduction. Although canon and continuity would potentially disagree, I look back and see that re-introduction of the mutants as making them all slightly older. Although there’s not much difference between the previous Uncanny run and this book, there’s a definite sense that everything’s grown up a little. I feel like that same happened in New X-Men – this was the X-guys in there 30s and 40s now, older, hairier and greyer around the temples, with more wrinkles.

Now, I know that it’s difficult in a Batman or Superman book to make your main character age significantly in continuity. It “spoils” the future for other creators and more importantly, for the fans. But the X-Men is an ensemble book, which is more about the context than any one individual team. This is proven by the main and varied main teams there’s been over the years. When the books struggled, it was often prudent to simply change the entire main team, keeping maybe one singular character like Wolvie to bridge the gap.

So while I understand that making any kind of leaps in age would make Marvel nervous, I posit that it’s something you could quite easily “get away with” with the readers – so long as those old favourites were still accessible in some form, and so long as the stories warranted it and were exciting and dangerous again, I think they’d forgive that. I would. Hence the idea.

Here it is then. (Disclaimer: much of the pre-Omega stuff is a void because while I would like to see Hope do her stuff and re-activate the mutants, I’m not sure it’s going to happen. So imagine if you will that this takes place not too long after AvX, and that the end of that saga is the one I “hope” for… It’ll be easier and less painful that way. But the story’s not dependant on it…)

Okay, the book launches with an indeterminate gap having taken place. This is not an “actual” timed chronological space – merely a very large gutter space and a significant “closure” for the reader. There will be no future “plugging the gap” storylines, nor any attempt to explain why things are now the way they are. We’re going to assume that the readership is smart enough to realise that we’ve taken some liberties, and will go with it.

I suppose it’s a little like the “five year” condensation in the DC New 52. But also not.

We’re just returning back to the X-teams after a brief sojourn, right? So there’s been no big events in between, but we have to catch up with old friends, and find out where they’re all at.

It kind of begins with Scott, as it should. After skating perilously close to become a mutant terrorist/fundamentalist religious nut, but having been proven right by the return of his race, Cyclops has decided that he no longer has the right to manage the X-Men. He has stepped down from active duty, and has taken a role as mutant ambassador at the UN. It’s a fraught relationship he has there, which makes him the same as every other representative. They’ll all got their hands dirty in one way or another, human or mutant, no matter the country. He’s there to ensure his people have their say, and also to try and help smooth over the inevitable transition from a human to a mutant way of life. He’s older now, pushing 50, and greying at the temples. World weary, but wise, he’s a perfect mix of Xavier and Magneto, distilled into something uniquely Summers.

As influential a leader as Cyclops was, his break away from the team has resulted in a rather large  amount of active members retiring. This has resulted in a lot of former X-Men taking up various roles and duties elsewhere in the world, some personal, some political etc. But in order to keep a watchful eye, they’re formed the Council of X, an advisory body of non-participatory ex-men who help the younger generation as they move up. Storm leads this body, and it doesn’t have a physical presence in the States, composed as it is from mutants who are now scattered across the US and wider.

Hope is now the incumbent headmistress at the Jean Grey school, now largely the only remaining X-Men facility still active.  She has tried hard to shake off the mantle of the Phoenix and make a place for herself that isn’t in the shadow of Marvel Girl, so she has cut and died her hair and tries resolutely to govern the school in her own manner, different from Jean, Xavier and Wolverine (who holds the title of headmaster, but is rarely seen these days…)

She is helped by a large staff team of mutants from the second and third waves of X-Men, including Kitty, Chamber, Rachel, and others. There is one active field team, led by Professor Ω, or Quentin Quire. Manifesting his own slice of the Phoenix Force, he has grown up to be a fierce young leader, still rebellious and experimental, but very gifted. Hope trusts him to do the right thing out in the field, which means that she trusts him to do his thing. She has no interest in telling him how to run his hand-picked Omega team.

Beyond that, the X-Men in their original sense is now a disaster relief and recovery squad, which also performs various acts of espionage, politicking etc as and when needed. Instead of existing as a solid team, response units are chosen from the entire roster of active volunteers, as required, based on their skill sets. Very often the work required isn’t offensive, but a mix of crowd management, trauma response and rescue/rebuilding. Hope has a very special team of mutants who help her decide who to choose – the Luck Police – Blindfold, Nate Grey and Domino. Blindfold and Nate Grey extrapolate possible scenarios, while Domino using her luck power to help pick the most likely one, and the team is chosen based on the outcome.

There are also active project teams on site at Westchester – these guys are the X-Club, which is no longer the elitist scientific cabal it once was, but is now a laboratory for exploring the future – scientifically, sociologically, politically, environmentally… Groups of mutants, teachers and students, work to build a brighter future, one where humankind peacefully integrated into mutantkind, and which is better for all forms of human.

Outside of the X-Teams, the world has changed. The re-emergence of the mutant populous has resulted in some tensions, but also an emergence of mutant popularity. There are mutant popstars, including one who rivals Dazzler’s former glory and has become the darling of the media. Rock bands, shock artists, reality stars – they’re all here, and they’re winning over the human populous.

The Hellfire Club has gone corporate – no longer engaging in its previous petty power plays, the newest owners have grown up to realise that all this fighting is costing money and hampering profits. They have instead opened the Pleasuredome, a palace of hedonistic delights, where you can go and legally experience anything you desire, as it all takes place in the mind and body chemistry.

Also, much to the chagrin of Cyclops and the Council, a new figure has emerged, a Mister Sinister type. He is interested in mutant husbandry – he purifies the gene pool by forming an elite of wealthy individuals who attend his sumptuous parties, and he introduces perfect breeding partners together. Although the X-men find his actions to be morally repugnant, he is committing no crime, and is therefore untouchable.

Emma has left the prison of the X-Men and works freelance for whoever will pay. She operated The Switchboard, a massive office tower in the heart of New York, along with the Cuckoos. On split shifts, the offices are filled day in day out by a willing, and handsomely paid, workforce, who offer up their brains. They sit at desks 9-5 or whatever, literally unplugging themselves while Frost and her girls turn them into a massive psychic battery. All the worlds secrets are open to The Switchboard, and while the authorities want her closed down, they have a hard job planning any offensive against her.

Henry McCoy has undergone another metamorphosis and hasn’t been seen for several years. Some say he hides in the basement of The Switchboard, helping Frost to keep the technology running. He sits alone in darkness, and no one knows what he has become, although some of Frost’s workers have reported hearing a massive slithering sound emerging from the dark when they go down to fix the generators.

Bobby has slowed right down… All the wisecracking and joking he used to cover up the ice at his heart has stopped, and he sits in the grounds of Westchester, completely frozen. The kids call it The Grotto, and although no one has spoken to him in a while, they are sure he stills breathes and thinks – just very slowly. It’s like he’s carefully trying to put something together, something that’s Not. Quite. Right.

Rogue has left active service and now runs a farm in the midwest, where she fosters mutant runaways and acts as a psychotherapist. She’s a hippy earth mother who’s left her fighting days behind her. Although she’s now happily single, she gets occasional visits from a certain Cajun who stops by some summers to help her plough her furrows.

Meanwhile, somewhere far from Westchester, two old men sit still, facing off against each other in an endless game of chess. Watched over by their nursemaid, Xavier and Erik are slipping into dementia, outdated and outmoded and obsolete, tired of the world they tried so hard to save only to have gained so little. New students to the Grey school are taken on a pilgrimage to their mansion, to visit with the old folks, who rarely acknowledge visitors, locked as they are in this game of chess, this one holdover from their lifelong battle. One can only wonder what’s happening in the minds of the world’s brightest man and the mutant who controls the electromagnetic spectrum, but then, one also wonders whether they’d even be able to tell us anymore.

There are many, many other examples of characters who’re a little bit older, and a little bit changed. Each of the propositions for the characters looks at who they’ve been for the last 10, 20, 30 years and extrapolates what I feel is a coherent future for them, albeit with some twists and turns along the way. The soil for the story is there, and I’ve got some ideas for individual plots. The way I see it is that doing this, you could spend 2 or 3 years at least just telling lovely individual stories that weave in and out of a couple of larger plots (and I’ve got a doozy for one of those…). We’d get this rich understanding of who the characters are, and the time shift would release us a little from the complex “ongoing” problem. Plus the new characters arcs lend themselves to plots, rather than vice versa. We would also get to allow some of the more interesting younger characters take the field and centre stage, as well as positing a new future that we can watch emerge. Let the Marvel Universe play catch up. Don’t age Cap America or Thor, there’s no need – they can still engage with an older Summers or Storm without any hitch – they’ve already done it, many many times over the decades. Cap hasn’t ages much in the time it’s taken for Jean to grow out of bobby socks, skintight jumpuits, massive hair, die, be reborn, die again, kill everyone, destroy the universe then repair it. You know? This is obvious! The X-books are far more malleable, and it doesn’t interfere with the 616 in any negative way.

So this is it. This is X≠Ω. This isn’t a new X-Men story so much as it’s a whole new instance of world building within the X-Universe. I think it’s fucking badass, and I’d really read it all. I’d also love the opportunity some day to sit down with the big mucka mucks at Marvel and explain to them why this would work. Hopefully one day I will… Comments much appreciated, especially from X fans 🙂

X-Friday: Necrosha…

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 WarThe Initiative , Endangered Species,World War HulkMessiah ComplexDivided We Stand , Secret InvasionManifest Destiny , Dark ReignMessiah 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…

X-Friday

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

Yeah.

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…
Bitch.
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…)