Examining New X-Men Pt 2
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.
We Remember the Lies
New X-Men is preoccupied with lies. Building on a tradition of using secrets to motivate characters and plots, Grant Morrison emphasized uncertainty and hypocrisy on personal levels, subconscious levels, and political, educational, historical and societal levels, while exercising a comfort in visual communication and contextual sense, they had been developing over the course of their last year writing for DC Comics, home to most of their professional work over the decade preceding New X-Men.
Not all the lies are malicious. There are untruths we tell in good hopes, or out of fear, from discomfort. One of the New X-Men characters, born Martha Johansson, is maliciously lied to by adults, but it is the other youths in her class at Xavier’s school, who give her a superhero identity lacking the body she had taken away from her. A disembodied brain in a jar, her classmates and she develop No Girl and her cartoon adventuresome world. No Girl is technically a lie, in the sense that she is pretend, her engagement, like flirting, are a projection, an obfuscation of a truth, but truths that would be hard for Johansson or others without the lie.
Elements such as the truth behind Xorn, the prenatal experiences Charles Xavier, the identity and origins of EVA, Fantomex, the monster in the Chunnel, and Wolverine’s discoveries about his past are dependent not only on what we are told in decorative sentences, but visual details in the context of how they are told and why.
Xorn and Magneto
The truth about Xorn takes over thirty issues of New X-Men to present itself. Ostensibly a Chinese mutant with a sun for a brain, imprisoned for over fifty years, the X-Men encounter Xorn attempting to free him as his supposed jailers prepare to sell him to a corporate self help organization.
Xorn, we are told, can heal the injured and sick, he can open a black hole that could end the Earth, his mind is naturally shielded from telepaths. There is seemingly no end to his amazing gifts, and it is routinely lampshaded that there is no functional explanation for how he genetically has a sun for a head, how that son is kept in by an iron mask, how he is able to eat or drink if you can’t take his mask off and has a sun for a head, and, to further stress the absurdity, where urinated or defecated trapped in an iron box with nothing inside for over half a century.
Part of the trouble with being a superhero fan, is being expected to accept all manner of absurdity. It becomes second nature.
Part of the trouble of being a superhero is that they are faced with all manner of absurdity everyday.
While characters who are not the X-Men are able to question the details of Xorn as we are given them, the X-Men have no choice but to take him on his word and to embrace him.
A mere two issues before we meet Xorn, we confirm that Magneto, with his incredible power over magnetism, is missing and presumed dead, after a confrontation with two massive metal machines.
Over the course of this lengthy arc, Xorn uses his healing gifts and unseen sun for a brain to shut off robots, make a dead bird glow and fly, repair a spinal injury, fail to revive dead people, intimately perceive electromagnetic waves, pair a cement mixer from its metal moorings, start a fire, block all telepathic investigation of his thoughts, and do something to a horse that then dies.
Xorn writes a diary that he presents to Xavier, in which he offers optimism and platitudes. He says in this diary that if he could save everyone he would. He talks of family, hometowns, youth and hope.
He is assigned teaching duties despite all evidence suggesting he has no education, not merely no formal education but having spent all of his life in prison, in solitary confinement.
This is more optimism. He will learn from his students as they are educated by him.
He takes them camping and he kills some people who attacked them, telling the only witness, one of his student, that this is a secret between them.
He opens his mask, which we had been told would have disastrous effects, to show his face to a student who is dying, in an attempt to heal him. The student, who all but worshipped Magneto, dies laughing.
Shortly after this student death, we and the X-Men learn that Xorn has been, all along, Magneto, speaking by magnetically vibrating the air, shielding his thoughts with a helmet that blocks telepathy, and just lying to everyone.
The prison the X-Men freed him from was built by him and his followers. The diary he presented to Charles Xavier was fraudulent and some first-rate trolling. And, he has converted the class of troubled students he was assigned to teach, into his new child soldiers.
The X-Men will spend the rest of this run uncomfortable with this reality. Magneto’s former students now Brotherhood, lament The disappearance of their teacher, funny, doddering, gentle Xorn. Even, Magneto, himself, appears to wish that Xorn was real, speculating that Xorn be the part of him he sublimates to be a tyrannical iron fist.
Readers and concerned comics fans reacted with their own disbelief, anger, and confusion. Readers, like the characters, wanted to believe in Xorn, regardless of how unbelievable.
Despite the pitch document, the Morrison Manifesto, with which Grant Morrison laid out the proposal for his run, clearly stating that EXPERIMENT X or THE MAN FROM ROOM X, who would become Xorn, “is MAGNETO, guys!!! Can we have Magneto masquerading as a member of the X-MEN for a year or 8 months or whatever?” and then laying out the plot line essentially as it plays out comics, there are many today who will argue that Xorn is Xorn, and was never, and never could be Magneto.
Even under the cold light of passionless twenty-year-old retrospection, all the details laid out clearly, there are fans who refused to give up some hope.
Cassandra and Charles
Not all of these lies stretched over so many issues, but not all of these lies received as clear a renouncing.
In #114-116 (e is for extinction), when a malevolent creature looks like a distaff Charles Xavier and dresses in the pith helmet style is psychic avatars so often adopt, appears and threatens the X-Men, multiple explanations for her existence and true identity are floated.
Dr Hank Pym, the Beast, speculates that this creature, who calls herself, Cassandra Nova, is, “The first of a new unforeseen species,” hunting mutants in a, “war for the domination of the biosphere.”
The Shi’ar aliens identify her as a mummudrai, a qlippothic inversion, specifically an inversion of Xavier. The out to his in. The back to his front.
While (#121, SILENCE: PSYCHIC RESCUE IN PROGRESS) visiting Xavier’s psyche inside Nova’s brain, which she has turned into a trap for him while she occupies his body, the X-Men discover evidence, visual and emotional evidence, that she is Xavier’s twin, and that he attacked her in the womb, causing their mother to fall down a flight of stairs and miscarry her.
The X-Men run with this assumption unchecked for the rest of the story. There is no moment for reflection on the nature of these visuals an emotional complexes as part of a trap.
What they experienced, as does Xavier, include mostly developed fetuses, when it is highly unlikely there was ever a physical fetus-Cassandra Nova. Cassandra Nova was a thought, an awareness, a panic, not a biological entity.
The X-Men inside Cassandra’s brain are buffeted with Freudian symbolism: oedipal frisson; a snow globe of sperm; Charles’ physical disability turned into a messianic crucifixion; weaponized language that chokes one of the X-Men, Emma Frost, with the letters that spell both spine and penis; wells, castles; dungeons; oceans; gates; anus-mouths.
We do not assume the castle is literal. We do not assume the sense of crucifixion or the anus-mouths or snow globe in which Xavier seems to be marrying his mother are real or literal. So, why do we, and why do characters, when presented with the psychic projection of two babies fighting in the womb, and of Xavier accidentally harming his mother as far back as a fetus in her body, assume that it is legitimate?
It has a tone of veracity. It impacts them and us emotionally. It plays on sympathy.
As with the unbelievable story of Xorn, who is name is archaic German for, “Wrath,” this origin for Cassandra Nova makes the X-Men, and readers, feel bad for questioning, for suspecting, for judging.
Fantomex and EVA
When Fantomex and EVA debuted in new X-Men #128, New Worlds, readers were conflicted over his kewl nature. A long coat-wearing, smart-mouthed badass ninja thief guy, Fantomex felt derivative and something a thirteen-year-old might create after watching the MST3K of Diabolik.
Over the course of NXM, we learn that Fantomex is affecting the French accent, that EVA and Fantex are the same person, Fantomex the muscle, bone, and brains, and EVA the nervous system. We are to understand that their personality and their style are distractions.
In #144, The Flesh, Fantomex reads their running away letter, while Scott Summers, Cyclops, reads over his shoulder.
“My name is Charlie Cluster 7… The World operators tell me I am a living gall of mirrors. I am a stealth fighter. I am Super-Soldier Generation 13. They say mutant monsters will come to steal the world and kill all my friends. But they shouldn’t have made me so smart, or I might have believed them.”
Fantomex tells Cyclops, we all find our dignity where we can, and Fantomex finds that in being Fantomex.
In an essay, writer Christie Marx, criticizes the early appearances of Fantomex in this run, because many of their lies do not hold up to scrutiny. Fantomex claims they can tell Jean Grey is sympathetic to them, and attracted to them, because of the tilt of her pelvis.
As with the French accent, the fake family, and being a mutant, much of what Fantomex and EVA presents to the world are lies to cover for an insecure runaway who was about to be conscripted into an army.
Here is where lies and all audience get complicated. We are told and shown from the very beginning, Fantomex and EVA lie all the time. They are liars.
So, why does a professional writer, decades into their career, read scene with them, and come away annoyed that’s something they said does not wash?
Why, when we see them flirt with women and men, and flirt quite egregiously, is the general reaction to assume the flirtation with women is genuine and the flirtation with men to distract them? Particularly when their initial flirtations with Grey are specifically when he needs her to be distracted?
A heteronormative lens, and for many, a training to perceive and respond against, to cope with writers and artists operating with a heteronormative lens, drives us to filter EVA and Fantomex.
Shaped as she is, as a kind of flying saucer, an anthropomorphic lens keeps us from acknowledging EVA both as a person and as part of a two-body person.
After New X-Men, we will hardly ever see EVA, and Fantomex will increasingly be treated as a hypermasculine hipster ninja man. His self-titled miniseries posits him as a sexist, loudmouthed horndog who is unironically kewl and super into – not scifi and ancient Egypt and random distracting weirdness, but – James Bond. No longer a free agent avoiding a government draft, he is on call to work for the government.
One writer, in a bizarre attempt to rassle with bisexuality, pulls off a piece of Fantomex’s brains, to make a girlfriend for the X-Man Psylocke.
No one deals with EVA and Fantomex as inherently bisexual, as inherently trans and nonbinary, or as someone whose super power is lying. All future uses will give the character the power to create illusions and hallucinations.
In the Morrison Manifesto, Grant Morrison says, “No more need be said about Logan’s origins.”
Why, then, build an entire arc, and specifically an entire issue, around the secrets of Wolverine’s hidden past?
Fantomex and EVA help bring Cyclops and Wolverine to a satellite where Wolverine can learn more about his past, denied to him by manufactured amnesia.
In a fantastic in version of the traditional Wolverine scene, Wolverine spends #145, The Devil, reading computer files follow the action and violence occur around him. Wolverine reads in these files that his designation, Weapon X, clarifies that he is the tenth generation, or part of the tenth generation of a series of super-soldier weapons to murder and curtail mutants, like himself. According to the documents, this program includes Captain America (Weapon I) and Luke Cage (Weapon VI), and the Sentinel robots who at who have often plagued the X-Men.
Stunned and suicidal at this knowledge, Wolverine sacrifices himself to allow his allies to escape. While he still lives, thanks to a rescue in the next arc, we never see Wolverine question any of the information gleaned first from a serial liar, Fantomex, and then from documents on a space station he knows is explicitly supposed to distract and demoralize him so that they can trap him there.
As with you earlier examples, we too, the audience, fill in for this ruse, because plays to our sympathies. Well it does not play to our optimism, it does angle write for our guilt. Our suspicion of guilt.
We desire the ironic tragedy that Wolverine, a killer mutant with a metal skeleton, is the same as a Sentinel, a killer robot. We desire, as an emblem of America, and the American war machine and propaganda state, that Captain America was intended for less than gleaming purposes.
The information rewards Wolverine’s self-loathing and our suspicion of powerful, righteous government agents.
None of the essential information gleaned by Wolverine will be put into question later, but follow-up comics will remove racism and other politically critical or real-world-disturbing elements.