As the popular wisdom goes, Marvel Comics came into their own in the ’60s (and began to outshine their cross-town rival, DC) by injecting a topicality and social realism into its superhero titles. By telling stories about people born with genetic mutations that gave them super-powers, the X-Men stories have been invoked in discussions of civil rights movements, feminism, gay liberation, and disability rights. Mutants, treated as freaks by most “normal” people, alternated between efforts (led by Charles Xavier and his X-Men) for peaceful coexistence between mutants and humans, and attempts (by Magneto and his followers) at open war between the species (mutants are known as a separate species, homo superior). This recurring theme, of peaceful integration vs. separatism, was widely praised when X-Men began to gain popularity, and was symbolic of Marvel’s willingness to engage the touchy social issues that DC seemed unwilling to address. However, as tends to happen, conventions set in, ideas became stagnant, and stories became repetitive to the point of creative death. It was only recently that I realized that in every fight between Magneto and the X-Men, they’ve been having the same damn conversation for the last 30 years!
Enter Grant Morrison. Creator of the ground-breaking (and concept-exploding) Invisibles series, and fresh off a widely acclaimed run on DC’s JLA, Morrison promised to shake up the world of the X-Men; when he took over on the titular book, its title was symbolically changed to New X-Men.
And shake things up he did. His run begins with the revelation that the battle between humans and mutants is over; a gene in humans has activated, spelling the extinction of homo sapiens within the next 4 or 5 generations; mutants are poised to inherit the earth. Then, in a massive attack against the Magneto-run mutant haven of Genosha, 12 million mutants are killed, including the baddest mutant of them all, Magneto.
With this setup, the X-Men face the task of preparing for a world in which the old ways and enemies are gone, and they face new threats (chiefly in the form of Cassandra Nova, described as a being of pure emotional energy, and Sublime, mysterious leader of the “U-Men”). And while Charles Xavier’s ideology seems to have won, he must face dissent from within his school, in the form of radical mutant separatists who invoke Magneto on their t-shirts, and the relationship of the X-Men to a media-saturated, post-modern world.
However, Morrison’s changes reach beyond the plots to the very conventions of X-Men stories. The team uniforms have been changed from colorful spandex to black leather, adorned in several places with a characteristic “X.” The idea here is to make the X-Men a brand, just like McDonald’s golden arches or Nike’s Swoosh, to work their way into the public consciousness . (Wolverine, whose costume used to consist of yellow spandex, says “suddenly I don’t have to look like an idiot in broad daylight.”)
Group dynamics have changed as well; for decades, Wolverine (Logan) occupied the losing end of a rivalry with Cyclops (Scott Summers) for the love of Jean Grey. Here, Scott and Jean, long since married, are facing problems of a much less dramatic kind; Scott feels the spark has gone out of their relationship, and is afraid of talking to Jean about it. As a result, he ends up engaging in an affair of sorts with Emma Frost (a reformed villain now working with the X-Men). When a lonely Jean kisses Logan, he tells her, “We both know the deal. We always have. It would never work between us.” Beast, the blue-furred scientist Henry McCoy, announces that he is gay. Professor Xavier’s spine is healed, and he can walk once again.
At other times, Morrison uses familiar plots and tropes from X-Men‘s history, and expands on them. Most notably, the infamous Weapon X project — government experiments on mutants that left Wolverine with an adamantium skeleton and an irreversibly scarred psyche — is revealed to be just one in a series of secret projects: Weapon I, Weapon II, etc, with Wolverine the tenth generation (hence the Roman numeral “X”). When the group invades the “Weapon Plus” base, we see hints of the origins of other parts of the Marvel universe: Weapon I was Captain America, and the pill-popping hyper-patriotic monster Nuke is revealed to have been an intermediate generation of the project. We also meet Weapon XII (a viral organism that converts everything it touches to itself), Weapon XIII (Fantomex, an acrobatic super-soldier neurally bonded to a sentient machine vehicle), and Weapon XV, a sort of Nietzschean Super-Man, who can kill with his sight and ponders the reasons for his existence. (Weapon XIV, it is implied is the Stepford Cuckoos — Five Swedish girls who form a psychic hive-mind, and the favorite disciples of Miss Emma Frost.) While on board the Weapon Plus satellite, Wolverine also learns about his mysterious past, which we never see, but is apparently so upsetting that it causes Logan to attempt suicide.
Then there is Magneto. Of course he is not really dead — just disguised as the benevolent healer Xorn — and upon his return, he gets back to his old tricks, taking over New York and threatening to kill all humans by reversing the Earth’s magnetic poles. The X-Men save the day, through Jean Grey’s channeling the Phoenix power, a sort of omnipotent extra-dimensional force that is bonded to Jean (and almost destroyed the world once, leading to Jean’s death). It is the X-Men universe’s deus ex machine which can overcome anything — and is triggered when all seems lost (and all the X-Men are either immobilized, dead, or dying).
The series ends with a look at a possible, post-apocalyptic, dystopian future reminiscent of several old story-lines, including “Days of Future Past” and “Age of Apocalypse.” Those familiar with Grant Morrison’s previous work will not be surprised to learn that he makes the whole series one giant exercise in misdirection. All that the X-Men have faced: the Weapon Plus project, the rebellion within the school (fueled by a mutation-enhancing drug called “Kick”), Sublime’s “U-Men” (normal humans who seek to transplant mutant organs into themselves), and Magneto’s re-appearance – have been guided by the entity known as Sublime, a sentient bacteria that seeks to make itself the dominant genome in the world.
This is one of the lesser-known joys of reading Morrison’s super-hero work, here and in JLA: he will occasionally sneak in a concept — like collective or bacterial consciousness, or the fractal nature of the universe, or the illusory nature of space and time — that he puts to purer use in his creator-owned work like The Invisibles. One gets the feeling that he is inoculating the general public (a metaphor he uses often) with small doses of his concepts, to make them more likely to accept them in full form later on.
Morrison’s run on New X-Men has been almost universally praised in the comics world (and even where it has spread to the mainstream): for breaking old conventions and revitalizing the entire line. (With Morrison’s run just concluding, Marvel is set to re-launch all its “X-titles” for what they call the “post-Morrison” era.) I come to the title via Morrison’s creator-owned work like The Invisibles and The Filth, and his X-Men run was a big part of getting me to read superhero books without reservations. New X-Men is fun, fast-paced, stylish, and well-written — everything a superhero title should be — but certainly not as good as The Invisibles.
How, then, to explain the adulation heaped upon this title? This seems to happen, very once in a while, when one of the big-name mainstream titles gets a writer who can actually write. As with Morrison’s earlier run on JLA, or J. Michael Straczynski’s work on The Amazing Spiderman, people who have been reading mediocre (at best) superhero comics get an idea of what the superhero genre is capable of in the hands of a top-flight writer. (And while recent years have produced some superb writing on superhero books, this has not usually taken place on the big-name, top-ten titles for Marvel and DC.)
So if, in the end, Grant Morrison’s New X-Men is just that, an exceptionally well-written superhero book, perhaps its fans will start demanding more. Comics has benefited greatly from writers like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Morrison, as well as Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, and Warren Ellis, and newer writers like Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis are writing exciting work both in and out of the superhero genre. As part of Marvel’s X-Men re-launch, Buffy and Angel creator Joss Whedon will be starting a new title (The Astonishing X-Men), which looks to be quite interesting. Again, the X-Men face a new world, where Jean Grey is dead, Cyclops and Emma Frost are a couple, and Charles Xavier has all but retired. And perhaps the medium which so often seems hell-bent on not gaining any respect for itself is again making progress towards being considered not only a viable art form, but something genuinely cool again as well.