Examining New X-Men Pt. 15
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.
There is a misapprehension in comics criticism that deconstruction equals what Alan Moore calls his “bad mood.”
The 1980s were particularly rough on Moore, who lived in a queer household with young children during a time when queerness was under extreme threat from the government and the AIDS crisis was unquestionably being manufactured ad a tool for genocide. This begat the Moore-led charity book, Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia (AARGH), the tone and satire of Watchmen, the grey desolation and questionable revolutions of V for Vendetta, and the general atmosphere of his output for many years.
Comics like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns are labeled, “revisionist,” in this arterial analysis, categorized by Julian Darius as, “[Looking] at the super-hero genre with some embarrassment, regarding it as unrealistic and illogical. Instead of morally simplistic tales of noble heroes fighting evil villains, with few if any civilian casualties.”
I’m not sure how embarrassed Klaus Janson, Frank Miller, or Lynn Varley were when making their Dark Knight. I think that is a stretch to refer to Dark Knight as more, or consciously more “realistic,” particularly with how much emphasis the authors put on it being a cartoon, and cartooned. Cart before horse and the cart is a chinchilla.
Darius is degrees and respected, and he is influential, so let us stick with it, and pan for gold.
“Revisionism… sought to limit it’s canvas in terms of genre… Detective stories, horror, monster comics, and (gasp!) romance were all theoretically part of the same universe.”
Watchmen is a detective story and political satire with men in funny masks. How is that limiting genre. The most effective parts of the plot are frequently unabashedly driven by romance and almost genre-perfect romance tics.
Let us continue.
Darius defends his assertion with an excerpt from a book introduction by Moore, in which Moore talks of needing to maintain appropriate tone in an individual story. This is a fair approach, then, or fair backformation of logic, if you follow his logic, which I do not.
I will spare you the rest of the Darius rumination, because he goes on to suggest the 90s made Punisher and Wolverine dark and “psychotic,” presumably as opposed to their staid, rational appearances in the 1970s when they were a hair trigger murderer and a hair trigger murderer.
Reconstructionism, which is very much Darius’ baby, is defined in opposition to revisionism, as coming to flower with Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek’s Marvels, which he argued rejects realism (as a naturalistic comic, I am, again, a little befuddled by this assertion, but this may be on me).
Reconstruction, “sought to return the charm and fun to super-hero comics.”
And, there is a misapprehension that Grant Morrison’s career has been a series of allusions to or criticisms of Alan Moore and his works. That the serious ensemble psychosexual drama of the most successful X-Men is an echo of or meeker precursor to a mid-80s comic by Moore and two by Frank Miller with their respective collaborators.
As X-Men is enmeshed in a serial multi-comic universe by many creators, X-Men is less afforded the securities of auteur theory. As a multi-limbed commercial beast, that is, maybe, fair, but pare down the limbs to the sturdier branches, the Claremont, the Cockrum, the Silvestri, Simonson, Morrison, and those branches are sturdy as oaks and powerful as the tentacles of a mythic sea monster.
X-Men is a bit omniphageous, consuming pop media, social changes, grafting the Captain Britain universe or borrowed villains to the animal X as easily as it contains a non-litigable Alien or Diabolik. Too, then, the X has absorbed and holds these more authorial runs. It fosters them, benefits from them, and it subsumes them.
Analysis is by nature corrupting, and that is not the fault of another critic, myself, or any star writer, artist, or trademark. It is not magnificence that returns us to the same wells, or nostalgia, or a lack of options. The elephant in the room is rarely an actual elephant.
As New X-Men progresses, narratively, a preplanned arc of Magneto’s deception, of cruelty brought out into public, of inflexibility leading to death, real world frustrations, both world, business, and personal would gift those prearranged conclusions a ferocious vitality and lurid viciousness beyond merely the plotted arc.
Planet X, the penultimate arc of Morrison’s New X-Men, is mean. Brutalist. Brutist. It is unfair.
It is a testament to Morrison and to Phil Jimenez that in the depths of churning cruelty, they elucidate so many positive and encouraging notes, but a few of those notes, even, are not as golden as they seem, gilt at most.
When Fantomex accuses Magneto of only dealing in cliches, we cheer, particularly when Magneto responds with more cliches. In truth, Fantomex is a compilation of cliches, the battle is a miasma of cliches, Magneto’s plans for Manhattan are so cliche teenagers can see it. The maneuvers that bring low the villain are, themselves, replays of earlier actions, from the crucifixion motif and Beast with his syringes to Cyclops rage and the death of Jean Grey.
Planet X condemns not just Magneto or supervillainry. The heroes, the agendas, the faults of all the characters and schools of approach and the patterns of the comics and the tendencies of the readers are on trial.
The industry, production end and receiving, we are illuminated, considered, and condemned.
Before Magneto is even revealed as the now and forever villain one last, harsh time, it is we who have the chance to doubt Dust, who has done nothing to make us suspicious. It does not matter if we do suspect her, that she is offered as the red herring is condemnation enough.
The petty, artificial conflicts we disdain are what keep us hooked.
In a run that teeters on an aesthetic of depression, anxiousness, and post-trauma flinches, Planet X is the rubber band snap, the locked gears crunching to a broken halt. It’s where the wheels fall of and burn.
At least, this is what it feels like.
Planet X feels like a derailing. Many readers and many who have not read it, will tell of how it details, how it went wrong or got it wrong. “Magneto cannot be Xorn.” “Jean Grey cannot die like that.” “Magneto would not murder people.” “Cyclops would never get so angry.” “Wolverine would never be suicidal.”
The conflict, within readers, is not a conflict against continuity, but against surety and memory. So many comics of the same era leaned heavily into surety, into truisms. The Authority. The Ultimates. The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Frank Tieri writing a homophobic Wolverine in response to Garth Ennis writing Punisher running over Wolverine with a steamroller. The Daredevil where Kevin Smith and artists ignored a couple decades of character work to punish a fictional woman for a lapse during desperation and then killing her off in homage to another famous death.
Planet X was tight on internal logic, on continuity, but it was not how anyone wanted to remember, it was not how anyone wanted it to be. It is tragedy and tragedy is like clockworks of unfairness. The gears are perfectly sized and arranged, but what they do is cruelty.
No amount of evidence, reassurance, diagramming or mapping will suffice to convince the unconvinced that the plot mechanics and character arcs make causal sense or follow case histories in reasonable ways or that an emotional response is being had or is also valid.
It is too much for it to be true, and so, for them, it is not true. Like Ernst eager for Xorn to make a reappearance, some audience cannot surrender the chance of a revival, a chance for the best of all world’s even if that best is impossible.
It is a brink for the characters and for us, too.
We bring in our biases, our self-confirmations.
I was so excited to learn for Darragh Greene and Kate Roddy’s collection of essays on Grant Morrison, while I was writing this chapter, something that had been on the periphery for me for a couple years, but always just there, past touching distance. I had told myself, not until Examining New X-Men was complete, so that nothing would derail my analysis, but then I thought, who am I? I’m the expert of nothing.
So, I read an essay of Greene’s that someone had linked to, on utopias, Morrison, and Quentin Quire. Quire is described glowingly, as, “[the] most apt pupil… filled with an innocent enthusiasm that recalls that of a young Scott Summers.” I was and am disgusted. Quire is introduced to us as a sexist, jealous, fascism-and-slavery-enamored jerk. He then goes on a reign of juvenile terror, manipulating minds, coercing people, leading assaults and riots that leave children dead or in the hospital. That is only over the course of five issues. His enthusiasm is fascist and cruel. “[M]ost apt pupil,” only in that he is a relatively quick-thinking cisgendered white male telepath whose horrifying thoughts other telepaths cannot perceive.
Quentin Quire calls another student a slur relating to intellectual disability and his riot and street beatings are spurred by the incel-logic of bad boys being more attractive. Quentin Quire is Milo Yiannopoulos with a whip.
Inside a tornado, it feels chaotic and weird and not good, even if you are in the so-called calm, the sustained vacuum. Vacuum can hurt. Emptiness can hurt.
The whirl yanks us back to uncomfortable and sucking territories regardless of our espoused preference or genre savvy. Everything molds and corrodes at its own pace, but everything is always corroding. Age is always showing.
By the end of Quentin’s arc, Riot at Xavier’s, Quentin is murdered by Magneto, in Magneto’s guise as a good and compassionate healer.
By Planet X, a year later, Magneto was simply too old. Beyond Planet X there is no grand villain or petty genocidal conqueror. This is the last gesture of that virulence. It is easy to say we were already sick of him, of this cartoon baddie, but immediately before Morrison’s New X-Men began, this is who Magneto was then, with his speeches and violence.
Planet X nails the coffin shut on Villain Magneto. Even if, in his very next appearances under other writers and artists, Magneto cannot take credit for the acts of Planet X (later, he will), and cannot explain why he is alive (maybe his reality-warping sometimes daughter, the Scarlet Witch, did it?), he, other characters, and we are all glad for the change. Even the grumblers were on levels glad.
Hot media are media rich in sensory-data, rich in details and specificity and declarations to the audience. The technique, in commercial movies, of saying anything important a minimum of three times generates hot media.
Cool media require audience’s to critically interact to receive data-richness, otherwise the media effectively washes past them. The laugh track encourages cool media.
Magneto is a hot character who tends to cool. Claremont cooled him with moral relativism, in the 1980s. An edgy turn that did not actually challenge us politically as much as present an easily acceptable idea that it was challenging to someone else. The hyper-villainy prior to Magneto’s revision as a complex, thoughtful supervillain was, itself, on a trajectory to cool.
The movies, beginning just before New X-Men, have cool Magneto with the gentle voice and charming presentation, even as he kidnaps, murders, brutalizes… even children.
Magneto always heats back up. The agendas, the information packed into Magneto, the history and politics and personal furies rage into a vortex of themselves if they are not actively tempered by cooling techniques.
In New X-Men, Magneto’s hot and cool are separated into guises. Xorn is cool Magneto. Easily and passively embraced Magneto. Slightly out of it, eager old man with a star for a head who would like to heal everyone. The guise called Magneto, cannot even be argued as his truer or true self. It is another projection, this one deliberately hot, complex and rapidly firing. Magneto the drug addict, the conqueror, the anger, the liar.
Morrison, unlike Moore, has an ability and eagerness to make sweet comics, to borrow from musicology. Unlike Claremont, Morrison can run their comics very hot, also in the music sense.
Sweet: You can hum it, you can bop to it, you can sway and sigh and it can also simply wash through you as you shop for groceries.
Hot: Active, polyrhythmic, critically engaging and only to be danced to by professionals and those willing to risk loss of a hip.
Claremont comics are sweet, they are danceable, hummable, familiar and cozy. The power of his classic X-Men era is in that warmth and friendliness.
Moore’s comics rub contentiously and actively encourage analysis and disagreement. Moore could not even pastiche the brightest and kindest of Superman without it being an homage to the most misogynistic and misanthropic era of published Superman, tossing in two different dog rape jokes.
Claremont will forever be inextricable from the X-Men. Not the first or even second writer on the title or characters, not the force behind the revival that led to their juggernaut marketing status, Claremont is the juggernaut. Claremont talks of the characters as family and he makes us feel them as family.
In overly contentious work, we sometimes stop identifying levels to toxicity.
In too familial, as with real family, we sometimes make too many excuses for the unhealthy or corrupting relative.
Is it fair to New X-Men, it’s authors and stewards, to dwell on these comparisons?
We are all allowed to have our moods. We are, by nature as humans, permitted a range of misfires and biased calls. To refute something misapprehended. To love something missrecollected.
Analytically, anxiety of influence is largely a nonsense concept like the jungian monomyth, but it is fun to talk about, it is fun to speculate with. Critics enjoy Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence theory and Carl Jung’s hero’s journey, because they let speculation go freestylin’. Teachers like them because they seem to answer entire fields of study with a small package that has a neat bow.
They provide a shape to storms and they are an easy way to boil down influence and similarities without having to admit that there are thousands of influences on anything and anyone, not a grand master or master narrative. The Iliad does not fit the monomyth, Homer does not easily reflect the anxiety of influence, but any large budget film or television episode covering The Iliad or its author will.
It’s easy to invoke Alan Moore, when discussing Grant Morrison, because Moore’s star broke first, and he’s well-known and fun to talk about. It is more fair to suggest they are both influenced by many of the same precursors, in comics and outside comics, and that largely, they do not really have that much in common, except as much as they both have in common with Mark Waid or Colleen Doran. I could possibly make a pretty good case for Doran and Morrison having even more in common that is worth talking about.
None of these comics makers are the eye of the storm. Even when they are the star of the day, they are simply another cow, door, or witch on a bicycle thrown around in the twister.
I have my urge to name certain comics authors, to address certain critics, I have what I agree with, what I reject. And, too, if those authors or critics know me or my work at all, they likely have their takes on that. It would be a strange thing for you, reading Examining New X-Men, to have agreed, uncritically and readily, with absolutely everything I have suggested or how I discuss things.
I have to, myself, check more than once if my criticism of Darius or Magneto is a criticism of them or my memory of something they said or did. A step we must all repeatedly take and that we all, myself included, cannot take conclusively every time.
My intentional omission of a key contributor from much of the conversation, my tendency to privilege the writer over the editors or publishers, my inclination to not treat the entire Marvel publishing line or the X-Men-centered branch as a singular narrative or setting, these are things you are more than welcome to disagree with, just to start, and possibly should. The grain of truth in the anxiety of influence no doubt leads to what I omit, what I leap past, what I walk around in my writing, as much as where I latch onto, what I reach for.
Storms in storms. Gears against gears. Rust against rust. Snapping gates. Clacking locks blowing in inexorable winds.
For New X-Men, Grant Morrison coined the term, “super-consistency,” to supplant “continuity,” and “canonicity.” Everything would be introduced anew, each time, with a sense of history but not a sense of being beholden to every bolt and scratch on the fifty year old submarine called X-Men comics.
Morrison crests perpetually in a sweet and hot flavor, and New X-Men tries to serve sweet and hot audiences, hot and cold audience expectations. The commerciality and the artistic pretenses are one and the same. The destrudo to lift a car off a child and the destrudo knocking it all down.
As Morrison puts it, in Supergods, “Claremont’s Magneto was a tragic, essentially noble survivor of the death camps, a man who had witnessed more than his fair share of sorrow and hardship and knew how to make hard choices. He had depth and dignity, so I turned him into a demented drug addict, unable to connect with a younger generation of mutants who wanted only his face on their Magneto Was Right t-shirts.”
That is more truism than truth, but, even at our most careful, truisms are how we remember and how we share those memories. Chris Claremont wrote Magneto as handsome and heartfelt and old and a murderer and kidnapper and torturer and demagogue. Whether a Claremontian narrative was shaped with the intent of defending his tortures or murders never hinged alone on Claremont or his direct collaborators, but the entire cut of X-Men history and the individual reader, and the individual reader’s cache of X-Men knowledge or supposition.
I spent a year thinking Gambit, a mutant who causes all the kinetic energy in an object to be released explosively, could turn into metal like Colossus, because when I was a child, I read a comic where someone said Gambit was, “all brass.”
Always falling apart is not the end of X-Men, New X-Men, comics, criticism, readership, Magneto or Charles Xavier or any single author, artist, writer, editor, concept or publication. Misinformation, loss and lack of information, only makes more information. A story becomes stories becomes possibility becomes memory becomes future.
90% of everything is not “crap.” But, it is hard to tell that from inside a cyclone in the eardrum piercing dull of the storm we are too close with.
Examining New X-Men Pt. 15: Dinosaur Vacuum
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