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Drawing on a Wider Canvas: Artistic Wrestlings with Idea of the X-Men

Splash: Screenshot from Bryan Singer's X2: X-Men United. Interior: New X-Men: Here Comes Tomorrow and Giant-Sized Astonishing X-Men.

It's been said that the power in the X-Men is that of social commentary, that the X-Men stand in for any oppressed minority. But could the X-Men really have made it to 50 years on the strength of nothing more than a thinly-veiled analogy?

It's hard to believe it's already been a decade, X2: X-Men United still shines in the memory like the double-disc DVD boxed set shines on the shelf. And even now, 10 years on, X2 stands as a kind of achievement. In one movie, it said just about everything that could be said about the Uncanny X-Men. Not only did it pay homage to the vivid X-Men of the comicbooks (most would acknowledge the most psychologically vivid as being the books written and drawn by Chris Claremont and Joh Byrne), but it also managed to offer a unique and arresting vision of the X-Men and their collective struggle.

It's important to recognize the former statement as two separate ideas, ideas that were often in competition with each other throughout the publication history of the X-Men. On the one hand, staying true to the genre originally authored by Stan Lee as writer and Jack Kirby as artist had always been important. But in equal measure, establishing a unique authorial voice and treatment of the X-Men, of their Quest for peace and understanding, and the broader cultural landscape of "The Mutant Issue," would become important.

As the X-Men grew in popularity over the years, it would become an attractive project to high-powered star creators who would be eager imprint the X-Men with their own unique visions. Although working in the cinematic medium, Singer's aspirations prove to be similar in scope. And in wanting to offer a unique artistic rendering of the X-Men and their setting, Singer wrestles with exactly the same problematic that most high-powered creators grapple with--how much time must be conceded to the original Lee-Kirby high concept of de-marginalizing minorities, and how much storytelling time can be a turning of the focus to other genre elements?

Singer's X2 comes at a critical moment in the last 15 years of X-publication history. It marks the start of a transitional phase when two creative models were being weighed up. The question naturally being, which model would prove more sustainable in the long term; the curation-by-superstar-creators model or the curation-by-strong-editorial-lead model? The two models are as much cultural statements about their respective eras. The superstar-creator model was strongly manifested in the '80s most notably by the pairing of writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne. The editorial-curation model seemed to indelibly linked with the '90s that saw an X-plosion of new X-Men titles and unique creative visions. Almost by necessity, the '90s X-panorama would need to be coordinated at a higher-than-authorial level.

The difference between these two models becomes poignantly apparent with the difference in creative model between Grant Morrison's New X-Men and Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men, both contemporaneous with Singer's X2.

Although on the surface, both New X-Men and Astonishing X-Men look like superstar-curated projects, the two X-books are markedly different. Beginning in the summer of 2001, the opening storyarc of Morrison's New X-Men proves eerily prescient of the events of the September of that year. But almost from that moment on, New X-Men segues away from social commentary and into an all-out scifi epic.

Morrison quickly establishes a strong authorial voice. His X-Men are like few others that came before, and possibly as unique among X-Men still to come. Morrison's endgame in New X-Men: Here Comes Tomorrow is to pit the Phoenix, a galactic organism that ushers in planetary-wide extinction event as part of life-cycle, against a hyper-intelligent bacteria colony that could be the oldest living mutant on the planet. This bacteria colony, the Beast, is a unique addition of Morrison's to X-lore, and offers a crucial insight into Morrison's unique take on the X-Men. What if the inherent drama of the X-Men has nothing at all to do with the epimythic structures of social commentary, Morrison seems to say? What if the inherent drama lies in the X-Men being a more human perspective on a ceaseless evolutionary battle, between planetary-based and cosmic-based lifeforms?

It's of little surprise then and deep consequence that Morrison chooses to do away with traditional X-menaces like Magneto or the Hellfire Club or Sentinels. Instead he opts for such non traditional villains as Charles Xavier's unborn sister who exists in the world purely as thought that can control all biological forms, microbial "wild" sentinels that no longer register and police mutants but now attack them in the same way viruses would humans, and human posers who yearn so badly to be mutant that they would harvest mutant organs for implanting.

Morrison's New X-Men wraps at about the same time as Whedon's Astonishing X-Men kicks off. But the two projects are vastly different in scope. For one, Morrison's New X-Men was one of only two keystone X-titles at the dawn of the twenty-first century (the other being Joe Casey's Uncanny X-Men), while Astonishing X-Men seems to be very much a play-space specifically crafted for Joss Whedon. For another, Whedon's ambitions in writing the X-Men seem distinct from either Singer's with X-Men and X2 or from Morrison's with New X-Men. Or even from the legendary Chris Claremont's ambitions with the characters. Rather than simply carve out a role for the X-Men as players on a geopolitical stage, but with a definitive mutant-rights agenda, Whedon returns to the Lee-Kirby epimythic structure--the idea that the X-Men can offer thinly-veiled social commentary as clear as Professor X being an analog for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Magneto being the more assertive Malcolm X.

In the pages of just four slim volumes, Gifted, Dangerous, Torn and Unstoppable, Whedon, working with artist (and future Dollhouse collaborator) John Cassaday, offers a social commentary of sorts on the contemporaneous Bush Administration. In its overarching theme of the biogenetic "cure" for mutation, Gifted ponders much of President Bush's first term in office. The offer of a cure, the sophisticated scaling of political infrastructure and the under-the-table deals with (literally) alien superpowers in Gifted do much to evoke a reminiscence of post-PATRIOT Act America.

But Gifted really is only Whedon's starting point. Throughout the chronicling of Professor Xavier's ethical compromise in Dangerous, the staring-down of the team's psychological insecurities in Torn and the X-Men's prophecy-based regime change in a galaxy far, far away, Whedon seems to offer an in-fiction meditation on early twenty-first century America, from our getting mired in Iraq to post-Katrina New Orleans to the ongoing question of War On Terror detainees.

Despite returning to the X-Men's social commentary roots, Whedon's X-Men is distinct from Morrison's in one other crucial way--it doesn't occupy the same dominant space in the constellation of X-titles at the time of its publication (roughly 2004 through 2008). Earlier, with New X-Men, Morrison's book was one of only two linchpin X-books to appear monthly, it was at least half (some would argue more than half), of publishing house Marvel's official statement as to the goings-on of their mutant superheroes, the Children of the Atom.

Whedon's Astonishing X-Men however struck a different chord. It was completely segregated from Marvel mainstream continuity, even from X-continuity to an extent. It was insular and could be read from cover to cover, without a deeper understanding or even awareness what was going on in the broader Marvel universe at the time. And of course, at the time of Astonishing, big things were happening to the X-Men; the events of Messiah Complex would segue into Utopia and on into Second Coming and eventually into Schism, just as, in the larger Marvel Universe, Civil War would segue into Secret Invasion and on into Dark Reign.

But the two versions of X-Men, New X-Men and Astonishing X-Men, represent a grappling with two very different artistic and editorial models. And inherently, both creative visions make the argument for compelling storytelling and a sophisticated crafting of the emotional depths of the characters being equally responsible for the success of a perpetual fiction that has lasted 50 years.

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