Sunday, 28 October 2012

New X-Men

The X-Men are generally thought of as a large team. The modern comic book landscape has encouraged this view, with Marvel cashing in on their popular franchise by running half a dozen or more books bearing the X name at any one time (almost all of which feature Wolverine, in a surprisingly varied number of outfits). Some titles are naturally better than others, thanks to the diverse range of authors and artists working on the books and the characters they are permitted to use.

In 2001 Marvel brought lauded writer Grant Morrison on board to revamp their X books. While other titles were still produced during Morrison’s run it was clear that his New X-Men was the “main” one. The one where all the stuff that truly mattered would happen.

Morrison made sweeping changes to the group and the title. He pared the membership of the team right back, presenting us with a six person outfit consisting of Cyclops, Beast, Emma Frost, Jean Grey, Professor Xavier, and, of course, Wolverine. They were joined by debuting peripheral characters Beak, Angel Salvadore, and the Stepford Cuckoos. The first several stories Morrison told concentrated on the existing stars. The newcomers became more prominent over time, allowing readers to get to know them at a natural, unforced pace.

The X-Men were kitted out in new black and yellow outfits, which helped to make them look more like a team and less like a disparate bunch of camp cosplayers, and the book gained itself a snazzy new name and logo. The word New hadn’t been appropriate for an X-Men title for quite a while, and it arguably wasn’t relevant here. Marvel used the name anyway.

Morrison controversially altered the look of Beast, taking him from ape-like to cat-like. Many disliked the change but as Morrison pointed out Hank McCoy had started out as a regular(ish) looking guy with oversized hands and feet. The move to a cat was presented as a progression of the character’s X-gene and formed the basis for Morrison’s final story.

Emma Frost gained a secondary power. In addition to telepathy it was revealed she could turn her body into a diamond-like substance. Useful for a superhero, no?

The book also gave us the first appearances of Fantomex and the ultimately controversial Xorn character. Fantomex has always struck me as a far too powerful character and one created designed to be cool rather than layered or interesting. Most people disagree and cite him as one of Morrison’s greatest achievements while writing New X-Men.

Xorn is another kettle of fish entirely. With him Morrison did manage to create a layered and interesting character, one that fans and critics alike loved. He was vulnerable and different to the rest of the cast. The identity of Xorn is a major event during the run so I shan’t spoil it here, but suffice it to say that when you find out who has been under the mask all along you’ll find yourself checking previous issues. The plan, plot and character reasoning make no sense.

Morrison returned a sense of unpredictability to the X-Men that had been missing for a while. The team had spent much of the 90s being broody in dull, unimaginative stories or retreads of past glories. From early on it’s clear Morrison wants to do things with the team that haven’t been done before, putting them into new situations and surroundings while staying true to their history and maintaining the traits that made them originally appealing.

Chris Claremont was famed for including analogies of racism, gender inequality and various other types of persecution in his X-Men titles. Morrison very much tries to follow suit. For the most part he succeeds.

But in amongst all these changes, new characters, and expanded worlds are there good stories? At the beginning of the run, yes.  Morrison produces some fairly imaginative storylines. An early story sees Professor X seemingly turning evil, for example. That’s a simple idea but one that had never been done before (certainly not in this fashion at any rate).

There’s a problem with the title though. The artists are nowhere near consistent enough. When Frank Quitely is on pencil duty the book is a joy and a triumph. He understands how to put Morrison’s thoughts onto the page better than anybody else. Unfortunately he’s around less and less as Morrison’s creative run goes on, and almost all of the fill-in artists are dreadful. Busy panels, sloppy inking and inconsistent character designs make the book painful on the eye as early as halfway through the first volume (of three).

The series ends on a high with Morrison’s own attempt at a Days of Future Past type plot. It brings together elements, some major, some minor, spanning Morrison’s run. The basic gist is that Beast has gone bad and waged war on the rest of the X-Men, determined to retrieve and revive the Phoenix to rule the world (or something equally nefarious). At points it comes across as an over-the-top apocalypse movie form the 80s but it works well and allows the Morrison era of the book to end on a high. Perhaps Morrison should try an 80s apocalypse movie-style film script at some point?

If you can look past haphazard artwork there’s a lot to enjoy about New X-Men. Sadly that’s far easier said than done.
Critical information:
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Various

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