Welcome to The Fiction House blog’s first exclusive installment of This is Why…
For those just joining, the series works like this—I take a completed creative run of a comic, and methodically/obsessively identify just why it should be regarded by all clear-thinking individuals as a “new classic” that everyone should have in their own personal libraries. It might be an entire issue, a cool moment or exceptional image, or maybe even just a single line of dialogue, but together these elements comprise a work that embodies the very best the medium is capable of, and provides fuel for all those that aspire to one day join the creative ranks. Only works that perpetuate this vibe have been discussed here, and to kick things off on this blog, I’ll be examining two distinct runs that use the same universe of characters to accomplish slightly different, yet highly essential results. These are Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, and Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men.
I’ve always considered these two creative runs different sides of the same coin, and after discussing them individually, I’ll likely work up an epilogue that effectively compares and contrasts them. But in short, I think they are the two perspectives of the X-Men from the last decade that will remain the most enduring going forward, and have attempted to contribute the most to the overall franchise. Obviously, it all starts with Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, back when Marvel was propelling themselves out of bankruptcy with a newfound level of aggressive storytelling, and a willingness to break new ground in who actually produced their comics and why. We’ll be at this for quite a while (there’s a lot to discuss) so let’s get things started with the absolute supernova of a storyline that was E Is For Extinction…
The Statement (Issues 114-116)
Every once in a while, a creator will arrive on a well-established title and change the game on it instantly. Without being too disrespectful to the people that manned the store before they did, there is an immediate seismic shift in how and why the book is going to work from now on, and you can’t help but wonder, “Why wasn’t it always like this? What took so long for this to happen?” And if it’s that serious, if it’s that exciting, you don’t have to hang around for three or four issues before feeling it either—it’s right there in front of everyone’s face. Somebody else is now in control of this book, and while they’re in town, it will remain one of your favorite titles to read and discover each and every month. That’s what New X-Men #114 was to me, and by extension, this entire initial storyline from Grant and Quitely. Everything was supposed to be different after this…how could it not be?
#114 has one of my favorite comic pages ever, and it’s the very first of the issue, with Cyclops casually blowing a hole into the head of a downed Sentinel, while Wolverine viciously attacks in the background for no reason. There was just an attitude and posture about the visual, and an obvious level of symbolism of course, that effectively sets the tone for the status quo shattering E Is For Extinction. Gone are the days of skyscraper sized mutant killing machines, replaced with smaller, highly adaptable things made from scraps of rusted metal and lawnmower engines. Gone are the brightly colored spandex costumes, replaced with black leather, high impact Kevlar, and emergency ruby quartz contact lenses. Professor X stays strapped, in case someone is able to take over his incredibly powerful mind. Scott and Logan actually get along, finally putting the Jean rivalry behind them like a couple of fully functioning adults. Cerebro gets a big sister, and Charles has one too, one that’s completely terrifying and utterly incapable of remorse after murdering over sixteen million mutants. So yeah, Genosha is gone too, along with so many other symbols of the franchise’s storied past. And that’s entirely the point.
Welcome to the New X-Men, with the super cool logo that reads the same even upside down…hope you survive the experience.
In Plain Sight (Annual 2001)
Besides this annual featuring some great art from Leinel Yu, and being presented in the “widescreen” format, which always takes me back to that X-Force/Spider-Man crossover from way back, three important story threads got started here. The international man of mystery Xorn makes his first appearance, as does John Sublime of the U-Men movement, but the most important development here is Emma Frost making her first run at Scott Summers. What does or doesn’t happen at the end of this issue isn’t clearly settled for about two-dozen issues, but this is where the snowball begins to roll down the extra steep hill, and with this very strange sentence, “So tell me, Scott…what’s all this I hear about your vow of celibacy?”
Recognizing that the familiar Scott and Jean relationship has grown creatively stagnant, Morrison made another bold change here, one that remains a critical element of the X-books to this day, and continued his “rehabilitation of Scott Summers.” Using the character’s recent possession by Apocalypse as an emotional trigger, Morrison devoted a lot of time over his run solidifying Cyclops’ standing within the X-Men, doing his best to create additional layers for a sometimes misused character. I’ve always contended that the really smart writers understand just how important and “cool” Scott Summers really is, and it’s clear Morrison is one of those guys. Expect this to come up again as we move forward, but I think the fact that Scott and Emma are still together almost ten years later says it all.
Cassandra Nova (In Charles’ Brain) vs. Henry McCoy (Issue 117)
As if poor Hank’s night wasn’t already bad enough, he makes the terrible discovery that Nova and Xavier share a strange genetic connection, and then comes under sudden and brutal attack. Watching Hank fight back as Cassandra worms her way into his mind and batters him with his greatest fear is just as uncomfortable and horrible as Morrison probably intended, and seeing him battered into a coma by one of his prized students is even worse. Cool reveal though, which originally had me rushing back to #116 looking for clues I missed regarding the switch, and it’s all right there with a couple well concealed strings of dialogue. But obviously, with Cassandra now waiting on a ride from Lilandra and the Shi’ar Empire, everything is about to become much worse for the
Dark Angel (Issues 118-120)
Every creator does it as soon as they get onto the X-Men—introduce a few new mutants into the mix that are often a clear reflection of their motivations for doing the book in the first place. Which makes one of Morrison’s obvious, as one of the first things he did was filling the Xavier Institute with young mutants whose mutations had taken them down a slightly less glossy and physically perfect path. When you think about it, it never made much sense that every new mutant seemed to emerge from puberty with washboard abs, perfect teeth, and Barbie doll measurements, but for several years of the book, that seemed the visual standard. Which can often be applied across comics, but for a book whose central premise was mutation and discriminated sub-cultures, it was great to see some true diversity at Xavier’s school. Guys and girls of all colors, shapes, and sizes were now the norm, and a distinct character like Angel Salvadore was able to carve out a substantial spotlight.
A runaway from an obviously broken home, Angel emerges from a self-generated cocoon with a bug’s wings, and the ability to puke acid at people that deserve it. Which naturally includes the U-Men that woke her up in the first place, intent on dissecting her and grafting all of her weird, creepy mutant powers onto themselves. Fortunately, Logan is on the scene, and as history has shown, he’s pretty good with impressionable mutant teenagers. But Angel is certainly no Kitty Pryde, and her character only becomes more and more relevant going forward, as she’ll later become Emma’s newest pet project, have very interesting children with Beak, another great addition, and rally the students when the Shi’ar comes knocking. The Cuckoos will ask her, “You look like you’ve experienced more violence than the rest of us put together. Do you have any idea how to fight super heroes?”
Her response? “Yeah. Dirty, I bet.”
Think Angel most recently showed up in the latest New Warriors revival, but I liked her a little better here, before she was ultimately de-powered, losing some of the more bizarre and interesting aspects of her mutant ability, and thereby her personality, in the process.
Shall Not Pass (Issue 120)
With U-Men marching onto her lawn, and a school filled with children to protect, Jean Grey-Summers kicks much ass and makes it look easy. With some minor help from the kids, Jean defends the school’s borders with a dazzling display of telekinetic prowess, triggering a manifestation of the Phoenix, which will lead to a larger conversation at a later date. But Grant made a habit of taking all of the X-Men’s powers and pushing them to (and even beyond) their conceivable limits, and no one benefited from this approach more than Jean, who just does one impossible thing after the other. The cool thing though is that “impossible” is what superhero comics are all about…at least the good ones anyway. Again though, we’ll come back to Jean specifically quite a bit.
Silence: Psychic Rescue In Process (Issue 121)
Quitely makes a triumphant return to the book’s interiors with this gem of an issue, that was one of the strongest efforts of the entire ‘Nuff Said promotion. Honestly though, if you were telling a story powered by dream logic and abstract imagery, who else would you want on the art? From that first spiraling splash page of Jean diving into Charles’ mind, to that final horrific battle between Charles and Cassandra in their mother’s womb, Morrison and Quitely again prove an undeniable creative combo. The little storytelling details are what always stood out to me, including but not limited to things like Emma taking a drink before her and Jean get started, the shifting facial expressions on the evil doors, Jean’s hair turning into a Phoenix, and the guys just waiting patiently until the psychic experts finish their work. Spend any amount of time examining these pages, and there’s a host of other cool things that’ll jump out at you. Great effort all around, and how cool was it to find out Charles was the one who tired to murder his own twin?
Star Student (Issues 125-126)
The X-Men are completely screwed by the end of this arc. All of them are infected with tiny, microscopic Sentinels that are killing them from the inside out. They’re staring down the barrel of an alien empire convinced they’re infected with a dangerous galactic pathogen, and therefore need to be exterminated for their own good. They’re also hosting dozens of innocent reporters, who have come to the mansion to hear Xavier’s ultimate vision of peaceful coexistence before his brain dies. Cyclops and Xorn have been captured and are trapped in deep space. And Cassandra Nova is behind it all, coming back for her body, and really just to make sure the job gets done right. So yeah, the good guys are in big trouble here, backed into a corner, and stage set for a thrilling counter-offensive.
The chief architect of that is once again Jean Grey-Summers, who unquestionably deserves MVP status when the smoke clears. The new headmistress keeps it together when everything around her is falling apart, but her most astounding display is evacuating the mind of Charles Xavier into her own when Nova’s bobby trapped body can no longer hold his consciousness. With her brain splitting open, body filled with Sentinels, and blood pouring out of her nose and eyes, Jean’s amplified abilities climb to even more impossible heights with this desperate maneuver. And for an encore, she then uses Cerebra to split shards of Charles’ consciousness among all the living mutants in the world, laying a clever trap for Nova, and an even cleverer way for Charles to ultimately regain his body. Now that’s some real superhero type stuff.
Honorable mention goes to her husband, who returned back to the mansion with Xorn just in the nick of time, and who never had any doubts the X-Men would find a way to win against incredible odds. Still, that wife of his is something else, right?
Think this is a great place to stop for a few days, and stay tuned for the next installment of the series, coming real soon. Just like before, feel free (and welcome) to contribute your own thoughts and personal highlights of the series on the message board. Thanks for dropping by, and for a slightly more concise perspective on what Grant Morrison ultimately did to and for the X-Men, please check out a recent posting by David Brothers on the 4th Letter. Unlike Newsarama, where I intentionally stayed off the boards most of the time, any and all questions and comments can and will be discussed.