Astonishing X-Men #51
US: Aug 2012
For a moment as I put down my copy of Astonishing X-Men #51 and it rests cover-side up on my desk, a stray and fleeting thought enters my mind. What would it be like to have read this issue in Georgia? Not the Southern state, but the distant country, half a world away on the shores of the Black Sea. It’s a stray through, but not an arbitrary one. Georgian national identity has for nearly 2,000 years conceived of itself as two great cultures, one coastal and adventuresome, the other Imperial (every bit the rival of Imperial Russia) and located in the interior. And wine and winemaking, has always been the river of culture that has connected these two customs that comprise the single Georgian identity.
It’s not a bad analogy my subconscious has thrown up. With Marjorie Liu writing (one of the writers beloved by PopMatters Comics), Astonishing X-Men has really become two cultures flowing together into one. There is of course Marjorie Liu herself. She’s consistently offered audiences her visionary creativity in tying socially relevant issues with genre fiction. Her Black Widow: Name of the Rose stands out, even today, as a singular achievement in this regard. In it, she wedded the complexities of feminism, with the themes of isolation and duty that pervade great espionage fictions. In writing these socially relevant genre fictions, Liu herself is carrying an X-Men tradition that dates back to the earlier 60s, when the conflict between the pacifist Professor X and the aggressive Magneto was a thinly veiled analogy for the ideological opposition between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
The second culture flowing into this culture of socially relevant genre fiction, is an historical innovation perfected as recently as 2004 by the first Astonishing writer, Joss Whedon. Explored at length in Joss Whedon: the Complete Companion essay “Tom Brokaw’s Coat”, Whedon introduced the idea of Astonishing X-Men as mapping the scope of the grand historical narrative. Just as Tom Brokaw had needed an old hunting jacket to keep warm on the evening he reported on the tearing down of the Berlin Wall (an unexpected juxtaposition of the comfortable and the grand historical), so too was Whedon’s classically characterized X-Men a witness to the sweeping events of President Bush’s second term in Office.
It’s at the intersection of these two modes of storytelling—socially relevant genre fiction and X-Men as a familiar for grand history—that Astonishing X-Men #51 really stands out. Not only do we see the wedding, in New York State, of a homosexual couple, but we see X-Man Northstar (one of the grooms) needing to stare down bigotry from his fellow team-member Warbird.
It’s a poignant issue to be sure. And a successful one. Successful in that it both dramatizes the complexity of the issue of legalizing marriage (it’s wholly defeating of the idea of America that there still exists a second class of citizens not afforded the equal access under the law, like women and African-Americans once were), and doesn’t rely on you needing to have read some 40, 50 years of printed X-Men history to enjoy this issue.
But perhaps the greatest achievement here is Liu’s superb mastery at involving readers at a deep emotional level with the wedding itself. This isn’t an off-the-cuff, spur-of-the-moment event issue, a crass commercial tie-in with LGBT month, after which the X-Men can return to life as “normal”. No, this is the normal. From the moment she took the reigns as series regular writer with issue #48, Liu has made the focus of her Astonishing X-Men the private lives of the X-Men themselves. Northstar’s wedding to Kyle is not an interruption to the evolving storylines, it is the very substance of the book. And Northstar’s and as Gambit’s love lives, as well the private lives of the other team members is meaningfully leveraged as context for the severe damage done by the psychic attacks of the Marauders and of teammate Karma who has now ostensibly gone rogue.
That act of finding the inherent drama is the high art of Marjorie Liu, and the signature of a true master storyteller. It has been decades since X-Men books have evidenced this profound connection with their past of producing socially relevant storylines. And decades more since this was effected with such skill. Astonishing X-Men #51 comes with the highest praise. It deserves to be read and reread. It deserves to be owned. But even more importantly. It deserves buying multiple copies, and being left in the places where it can be found.