Examining New X-Men Pt. 11
by Travis Hedge Coke
From 2001 to 2004 Grant Morrison (The Invisibles, Batman and Robin) and team of pencilers, inkers, letterers, editors and colorists, including Phil Jimenez, Mike Marts, and Frank Quitely made a comic called New X-Men.
Revitalizing the X-Men as a politically savvy, fashion-forward superhero soap opera, New X-Men was published by Marvel Comics as the flagship of a line wide revival.
Editor’s note: today’s instalment deals with some heavy issues like rape, suicide and genocide. Read carefully
New X-Men remodeled the House of X. A new coat of paint, some doors were replaced. A new floor here. New TV set in the rec room. It was also the first time in a long time that the X-Men comics really hung out that open for business sign where folks could see it.
I want to be kind to innovators and stewards of X-past or present who complained of Morrison coming in too strong, of not caring, leaving too fast, but a satellite X-Men ongoing that ran alongside New X-Men was the team in their gaudiest costumes being actual deputized police. An ongoing by an old hand which was canceled as New X-Men debuted was smart, fun, and one hundred percent hung a no noobs sign on the door and put posters over all the windows.
Other concurrent runs involved extreme slut-shaming by sex-happy wealthy male characters, an openly homophobic Wolverine run, a modern day retelling of the X-Men’s origins, and X-Force by Peter Milligan and Mike and Laura Allred. Only X-Force made a sincerer effort the genuinely reach out to untapped audiences on a broad scale, and it was harder for some parents to allow in the hands of their kids.
2001 to 2005, I was in a serious and chronic depression, having dropped out of art school after three years, extraordinarily in debt. The school’s routinely disappointing responses overwhelmed me. Their response to my (and other students) being drugged, to my (and other students) being raped, and to my being beat the hell up with an SUV by two or more other students of the same Institute, when, in a Blockbuster parking lot, those students used that SUV to strike me over and over.
While a student, I watched rich kids spend their whole days to wheedle other students into performing in porno videos, mocking and haranguing minority students, disabled students, and in one instance, for a class project, getting a plywood mural a chain of stores was clearing out, pretending to be teachers to invite by phone the painter of the mural to attend a gallery showing on campus to be lauded, with the intent that if he showed up at the correct time, he would see a room of unawares students who had been armed with box cutters, spray paint cans, and other tools, and hold at that particular moment, to begin destroying the mural while the ringleaders announce loudly that this is what we do to kitsch and pap.
Just prior to the debut of New X-Men in 2001, comics legend Sergio Aragones saved me from suicide during the visit to his studio, in a very deft, perceptive manner.
Before that day, we had never met.
During the run of New X-Men, I lived with my grandparents or friends. I worked a series of temporary jobs at booksellers, warehouses, installing custom windows and refinishing decks, local television, video rental, and after school K-12 tutoring. I did layouts and cover design for two anthologies. Published sparsely. Wrote, edited, and was occasionally camera or tech crew for small productions like b and military air shows.
Like so many others, I was shoved around by police during protests. I and two others were beaten by police one night, ostensibly on a possible terrorist threat that was called in.
The world was hard and frightening.
The two things that helped me to survive that era, a stretch of time slightly longer than the run of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, were compassion and a place to lie down.
I had an incredibly limited sense of self worth. One friend of a friend, for a brief while my boss, would invite us to crash at his house, but for me, only the floor and no blanket. I would cover myself with my coat and put a sleeve between hand and face for a pillow. At the time this did not seem unreasonable.
Another friend offered the porch, ostensibly because after I had no way to leave it had gotten so late and my friend’s boyfriend decided if I stayed in the house I might try something with someone.
It gets worse. I was capable of making better decisions, I simply thought I was not worth bothering.
If I could make it to my grandparents I could always stay there. They let my friends stay there if they needed to. When a young friend of mine lost his father, and his mother could not bear to see him in the home knowing that her husband was dead, he tried to live out of a tent, and my grandparents took him in and gave him a fold-out couch and meals and took care of him until he could patch things up with his mom.
My grandparents were a haven to many. A kindness.
If I went to a party or a club, I assumed whoever I went with would leave me the moment anything got interesting, so I would let myself get picked up or seek out the first decent-seeming, interesting person I saw, and try my luck.
Even if you had to go sleep on the beach or climb on a rooftop, sleep up above an apartment building, it was nicer to do with someone else. And, if things went very poorly, I told myself I didn’t deserve much more.
When I read New X-Men now, that is what I am reading. Not only the experiences that are on the pages, the ideas and characters, but my life and my mind at the time that I first read the comics, from when I was younger and they were new.
Every run of X-Men prior to Grant Morrison’s could be summed up in a famous Chris Claremont phrase, “Welcome to the X-Men, hope you survive the experience.”
Though earlier runs could be compassionate, understanding, even therapeutic there was almost always a sense that if you cannot cut it, you will be cut loose.
When the New Mutants felt threatened, they would run away from school. When the New Mutants felt their philosophy no longer reflected Charles Xavier’s enough for him to be proud of them, they moved out and took their show on the road.
In Firestar, child-predator Colossus, is placed as chaperone to a high school formal by other adults who know he predated on a fourteen year old. Fifteen years later, real-time, in New X-Men, kidnapper, rapist, child abuser Emma Frost is one of the school’s best and most welcoming teachers despite her snippy protests to the contrary.
The X-Men could judge one another harshly, while also tolerating abuses from privileged members. Wolverine was allowed to harass whoever the hell he wanted to. As a legal adult, future deadbeat dad Colossus was waiting for Kitty Pryde to turn an illegal age, but one that his fellow X-Men would tolerate.
The X-Men not only let an unrepentant murderer, sadist, and rapist live in their house, Sabretooth, they exclusively sent women, often young women, to bring him his meals.
The X-Men abandoned a member in the Arctic cold for naively participating in a genocide he didn’t know was coming. The judge, self-selected, presiding over the condemnation, is Magneto, who during the trial is accused of rape, and the X-Men roll with it anyway.
They welcomed warm and friendly a member (Colossus, again) who deliberately left them and then joined a genocide cult.
Racist terms were very commonly heard from all range of superheroic characters. Cyclops, Wolverine, Iceman, Kitty, the list of X-Men who would use bigoted language in anger or to enrage sometimes seems endless.
To be blunt, in the X-Men world, in that community, I would have probably killed myself. The more writers tried to make them mature and edgy, jaded and cliquish, the more compassionless and micro-nationalist the X-Men become.
Jean Grey handing a recently-disabled Beast a screwdriver, in New X-Men, and saying a few reassuring words, is an incredible reassurance to the reader.
That no student was abandoned are the Xavier Institute, no matter their attitude or their crimes, was a radical line in the sand.
Unlike most earlier examples, where characters are recruited to the X-Men or they fail to recruit, many of the characters original to New X-Men are runaways or rescued from bad situations. Angel, EVA, and Fantomex leave their family homes to avoid abuse or military recruitment. Martha Johansson either runs away from home or her running away was faked by her kidnappers, but she is nonetheless rescued from the U-Men and offered a new home.
There is also less emphasis on prioritizing cohabitating fellows over friends, allies, or outright enemies. Cassandra Nova is afforded a rehabilitation. We see mortal enemies and “rival” classes working and living side by side at the X-Corp branches.
Not explicitly socialist or anarchist, and still too white-dominated, the Xavier operation does feel more communal and socialist and anarchist than ever before or after, with current X-Men comics in 2021 presenting an isolationist nation state with “kings” and “queens” and land barons and deliberately old timey rhetoric. The smart-mouthed teenage runaway and sad sack teen with low self esteem may seem too trodden to tread again, but shortly after New X-Men, we will see the men rescuing foreign sex workers and then worrying themselves ill because like feeding a stray kitten, now they are responsible.
By comparison, affording children a full autonomous vote per person and affording non-soldier mutants respect is an incredibly forward approach, even if some of the kids feel ripped from Jerry Springer or a draft-dodging story does not connect immediately to the situation of American youth at the turn of the Twenty-First Century.
To be clear, the X-Men has always been about home, and an explicitly second home. The original X-Men were boarding school students who could not live in their family homes. Orphans. Kids in need of specialized care. Child of bigots. Or, in Beast’s case, his teacher used psionic powers to wipe the memory of their relationship from everyone Beast grew up with.
Beast was the first X-Man to run away from that home, the Xavier school. Not because of the memory alterations, which he did not know of, but because he felt questioned and unaccepted. Early Xavier’s is like high end prep school distilled into a concentrate. With only five students and one teacher, their community was tiny, cliquish, and rigid.
Later, during the 1970s Chris Claremont era, Charles Xavier will invite one of his oldest friends and colleagues, a former lover, to the school, and he will tell everyone living there that she is the new housekeeper. Not, his ex. Not a world-renown scientist. A great thinker. Future savior of the mutant nation. A housekeeper.
Which, let us be clear, is yet another classist jab from the mutant civil rights leader, Dr Charles Xavier. For any poor or middle class mutant or wayward alien to stay in his school, which is his family home, it is still that family home owned by a very rich man.
Xavier is disinviting of equals and often antagonistic to himself. He ran off his girlfriend, when forming the X-Men, an educated adult who worked in medicine. He relies on Dr Moira MacTaggert while consistently diminishing her contributions. He recruits teens, amnesiacs, under-educated youths in their early twenties. It is very rare for an educated, aware adult to come to his home or to the X-Men and then stay.
Having spent most of his life either using crutches, a cane, or a wheelchair, Charles Xavier had, as of 1993 comics, chosen to exclusively render his family home and school so disability-inaccessible that he would have a hard time using his own place. It is so inaccessible that the only explanation for him not being fined into the ground is if he used his psychic powers to get around regulations and law.
Why would a civil rights champion who has been disabled for years, who teaches and uplifts children, choose to make his home an enemy?
Why would Xavier make his school and home inaccessible to students?
Alleviating control of the Xavier school from Charles Xavier is a step of progress just as denying Emma Frost her own school is. Despite the better intentions of either educator, their self-recrimination and tendency to see students as pragmatic young soldiers is a detriment to the homing and educating of others.
Ostensibly the patriarch and headmaster during the New X-Men run, Xavier actually presides over very little, with Jean Grey carrying a great deal and, when she is away with Xavier, traveling, Emma Frost guiding the entire ship.
Emma Frost, for all my reflex revulsion stemming from her incredibly abusive past as a supervillain, is an earnest teacher and opens schools up to many students in unique and meaningful ways.
Emma Frost is good for the homeyness and welcome of the Xavier school in ways she could not be for the Massachusetts Academy, which she owned, and even more than the School for Gifted Youngsters which Xavier owned but she co-operative with retired police Banshee.
Emma Frost is a great testament to the sometimes absurd levels of forgiveness that can come with the Xavier creed.
What we see with other schools of thought, the other organizations in New X-Men, are open arms and encouragement that are, for the most part, simply empty words to make good soldiers of the confused, the lost, the at risk or depressed.
The U-Men are a megachurch, a form of corporate supremacism, echoing the then-rising PUA marketing schemes. The incel enclaves. Gate and pre-Gate chats. What Joel Olsteen did for Lakewood Church and prosperity gospel, John Sublime did for jealous geeks and L337 shitposters.
New X-Men asks us to approach these schools and armies with deconstruction. To analyze the effects and rhetoric of creeds and practices. An operation like the U-Men is dependent on its members never actually achieving anything higher than their cravings and jealousies. The jealousies have to be fostered or the members would outgrow the church.
The new Brotherhood of Magneto, like earlier Brotherhoods put together by Magneto, comprises traumatized, scared, easily confused or bullied children and Toad. Toad, whose entire identify and sense of self comes from being bullied or denied.
But, this Magneto, as well, is overcompensating to belong. Magneto is acting to impress Sublime, who whispers inside his brain. Acting to impress younger generations, the mutants who could look up to him, who wear him on their shirt or put him on their dorm room wall. He is confused, at times, with what is expected of him, but he tries to rise to the occasion and be the monster and genius they have seen on the news and on t-shirts.
Without the admiration and reassurance of the youth, this Magneto – who has abandoned his family, his friends, his own sense of self-worth – all he has is need. The destabilized Magneto is as lost as his Brotherhood, only more culpable because they are actual children, mostly under subtle forms of psychic control, lies, and bullying, while he is an incredibly powerful adult.
At the heart of Magneto is the revelations, made decades ago, that he is a Holocaust survivor, that he lost his children, his wife, his people to brutality, to fascism and supremacy and bigotry. Even before those revelations the question as been begged since his earliest appearances: Why is Magneto hanging out with these people?
Magneto, in his earliest appearances, has culture, education, money and power. He lives with teenagers he frightens into allegiance, a bootlicking lackey, circus wrestlers and leering old pervs.
Tradition has dictated we assume his motive for all things is his loss to previous genocide and his suffering in an internment camp, but to draw those connections has always been a disservice to real life Holocaust survivors who did not become these things. It is an assuagement to the liberal bigotry that New X-Men seeks to shine a light on.
As a survivor of genocides that clearcut half the world of its human population and still presents Indigenous people as pretty much cord wood or tree stumps, I am enraged sometimes with the casualness of, “Magneto is a mass-murdering world-conquering bully because of the Holocaust.” It makes me ill to think of real life survivors of the Holocaust, of system brutality on these levels, being overwritten, even a bit, with a response like Magneto’s.
I wonder how many of us from the States remember (most, I hope) how violent and cruel our culture got, how sharp and snarky and bigoted in the early 2000s. The years of the US invasion of Afghanistan, our renewed war with Iraq, can only be said to have been good, in contrast to how terrible it must have been for people in the lands we were bombing. As always, war made us each a conspirator in murders, but some of us went vigorously whole hog for the deaths. Television got ugly. Walking down the street got ugly.
The Holocaust does not make Hitlers.
“Magneto is Malcolm X, then,” may come the next explanation. What explanation is that, though?
What, in any version, in anyone’s portrayal of Magneto from comics to film to cartoons or toys, the 1960s to the 2000s to now, what of Magneto is Malcolm X except that we are so ready to demonize Malcolm with a comparison to a cartoon evil?
There is a Mitch Hedberg joke, that if you are lost you should build a house. “Now I live here! I have severely improved my predicament!”
When I reread a comic, or when I think back on a comic, there is a strong chance I am lost and building a house.
Amanda Lear sang the truest song I have heard about reading comics, and it opens:
“When I’m alone at night,
Alone in my room,
When I switch out the light,
Then my friends walk in,
And the party begins.”
“Welcome home,” she sings to Dick Tracy, Vampirella, Doctor Strange and Modesty Blaise.
Even the challenging comics we return to more than once are comfort comics, same as any movie we have seen three times becomes a kind of comfort even if it is never a favorite. Television broadcasters and pop radio stations have long known that with repeat exposure almost anything can be made to have wealth, breadth, and familiarity.
Grant Morrison has positioned their New X-Men to address at all times, liberal hypocrisy, liberal bigotry.
Xavier is right, is a liberal bigotry. So, is, Magneto is right. The subconscious privileging of the Stepford Cuckoos or Quentin Quire over Beak or Angel.
Are the X-Men of New X-Men more welcoming or protective than those of X-Treme X-Men? Uncanny X-Men from 2003 or 1965? Or, is it where I was, how I was, when I first encountered one or the other?
We take horrible jobs when we are young, because we are brought up in corruption. Youth tends to corruption, new tends to rust and disrepair, because dust and wrecks existed already.
While New X-Men serialized, one of my brightest friends, who would be the first with wet eyes or to yelp, Oh no! at a small crisis, found herself well-paid to talk other young women into job interview-styled pornography, having done a video herself, in which she was mostly proud with how scared she could make herself look. Friends would do necro porn, because it was easy to play dead and not have to respond back. I had a job with a gentlemen’s club as a ringer, beginning the day with a stack of cash and flirting with friends to make customers competitive. That did not last long, as I felt bad for the doctors, trust funders, and landlords who clearly hated all of us and saw us all as props.
The flaws and failings of 1960s comics are redressed and paraded in the 70s, in the 00s. The 1980s comics have their morals and moral oversights, and those haunt every decade since. Marvel can, quietly, acknowledge how disturbing and pedophilic Charles Xavier could be, but not Colossus, because there is less nostalgia for Xavier raping a student or lusting after another only in his thoughts. There is nostalgia for Colossus and Kitty Pryde. There was nearly a wedding, though, naturally, that was always plotted to be derailed in favor of a different, healthier pairing.
What we see with other creeds, the other operations in New X-Men, are open arms and encouragement that are, for the most part, simply parroted to make good soldiers of the confused, the lost, the at risk or depressed. And, that includes earlier forms of the Xavier schools.
The Brotherhood, the U-Men, these were the PUA lectures young men we knew were attending. They were my friend, since passed of cancer, who hated herself for walking in others and persuading them that this was all some fun and the video would be seen by like twenty people, who even looks at this stuff?
I could not look at my friends in the club, posing and cooing sexy without tittering or blushing. Sometimes we would forgo real words in our play acts, all for the benefit of real paying visitors, and talk baby talk or no sounds at all, a bizarre silent film under tinted lights. The customers never appeared to notice, just as they wouldn’t notice that not every stain on the upholstery was grease from the chicken wings and that nothing especially exciting happened behind the closed curtain for a private show.
In order to progress into something healthy, the unhealthy elders need to step aside or to become students. Charles Xavier has as much to learn from his students and former students, as much to learn from his adult contemporaries like Dr MacTaggert or Amelia Voight, as he has to teach anyone. The fascist bros, the aging frat kings, the nerds who ran comics shops like the one my girlfriend worked for, who called the closet with the mattress and mini-fridge, “the rape room,” or the bookstore boss, twice my age, who invited me to a New Year’s Eve party, in my pre-cellphone days, which turned out to only be the two of us, a selection of booze, and his intentions.
In New X-Men, Sebastian Shaw is the boss of a strip club that sells suspicious champagne. In 2021, still held in disdain, still vile and all business, that strip club has been turned into a pharmaceuticals magnate who, hand in hand with the heroes, runs drugs illegally into countries who do not want them, and the Hellfire Club – a strip club, a rape club, a club that financed and profited on murder, kidnapping, and genocide – is holding galas to make the Met Gala look simple and plain.
At the end of New X-Men, the Xavier school is massive, gigantic, and a crater.