Examining New X-Men Pt 9-1
by Travis Hedge Coke
At over one thousand pages, the breadth of New X-Men can inspire us to look for grand unifying schema, a system or dynamic within which everything can be ordered and appraised. The urge to perceiving systems, and to letting elements fall in our understanding into patterns governed by received wisdom or formal education is difficult to resist.
Luckily, we have known since at least pataphysics, that even a wrong approach, followed through rigorously, can lead us to some valuable understandings and some very wrong conclusions.
We would never have discovered the Stepford Cuckoos names make an acrostic for SPICE, if someone didn’t start putting Sophie and Esme and the others into order to check.
When I published my unofficial NXM soundtrack, most of the songs were selected for direct reference, and two or three simply were not, including one that did not exist when New X-Men was serializing.
To quote Monster Magnet, “If you’re selling me hallucinations, give me cobras and fire.” We know where our interests lie, our tendencies, our attentions. Confirmation bias is not inescapable, but avenues have to be considered, however briefly, before they are disregarded, and it is always imperative to bear in mind that while we, as audience, have the interests we return to, so do the authors of the comics we are reading.
A popular game, around the end of New X-Men’s original serialization, which sees periodic revival, is slotting the series’ villains, the series’ heroes, the children, the major arcs, or the Weapon Plus generations onto the sociological model called Spiral Dynamics. More accurately – because there are multiple official, or as official – models of Spiral Dynamics.
Developed by Don Edward Beck and Christopher Cowan, based on Clare W Graves’ emergent cyclical theory, Spiral Dynamics has been taken in economic directions, spiritual, and Integral theory directions by different parties. All major versions of Spiral Dynamics are racist and ableist, with popular versions ascribing autism to the lowest rung of human existence and an over-reliance on white Western European social developments as a calendar or map for human and global development.
At its essence, Spiral Dynamics is a set of fuzzy social and socializing conditions which, instead of being steps on a ladder ascending in one direction, are seen as somewhat overlapping conditions on a spiral progression. A sequence of eight or nine vMEMES, color-coded conditions of human operation and exchange, which include a beige animalistic survival-oriented methodology with little environmental impact and a life of subsistence, green socialist liberation from greed and dogma, and purple religiosity and recognition of holy places and spiritual strata. The vMEMES are ranked in accordance with what is ultimately an ableist, atheistic, capitalist-socialist colonial-mindedness. The specter of Richard Dawkins looms fucking scarily.
Post-New X-Men comics have altered the Weapon Plus generations, but it is worth bearing in mind that within New X-Men, those generations are only given to us, and to our X-Men, by unreliable – and even more – deliberately deceitful sources. Staying with the information in New X-Men, some people have felt that Daredevil villain, Nuke, labeled Generation VII, fits as the vMEME, beige, but Nuke’s entire deal is that he is an extremely motivated killing machine addicted to a balance of stimulants and depressants. He is neither survival nor subsistence oriented, and is exceptionally politically-minded though not politically savvy. Nuke does not exhibit any lack of awareness of self, or a lack of concern for himself as a distinct being. At best, positioning him as reflective of beige just sounds good.
A case can be made for Cassandra Nova as red, remorseless and ferocious, reactionary, with a very have/have-not approach to global and local politic. Magneto as blue, in light of his belief that he is bringing order and righteousness to a rotten world. That, in his tragedy, Magneto is seeking to establish control in order to right wrongs.
But, a case can also be made for Weapon XII, aka Huntsman of the Super-Sentinels, to be blue. For, Fantomex and EVA to be orange, seeking independence, the “good life,” utilizing science and planning, the strategizers. Or, that Fantomex and EVA are separate, inasmuch as EVA refers to herself as a Generation N development, N being the fourteenth letter, making her – and her bonding drives and abilities – a parallel to the Generation XIV Stepford Cuckoos, both as green, which is refreshing harmony, pooling resources, and the appreciation of community and togetherness, as well as the exploration of the essential being of self and others.
The gulf between Sublime, the primary villain of New X-Men, and the X-Men is the breadth of life on Earth, from first to last. The X-Men and Xavier school appear to represent three generations, with Charles Xavier as the eldest, the adult X-Men between, and the children attended the school.
As that primordial villain, Sublime, is eternally in what we would recognize as an adolescence, the X-Man, Wolverine, is both chronologically older than Xavier, and – due to his unique amnesia – possibly less experientially adult than many of the students. The student, Ernst, is chronologically as old as Xavier, in many ways his twin sister, given an altered, mechanical, childlike body, her mind and memory reduced to facilitate reeducation.
It is as impossible, in the comic, to be sure if the younger generations will be better than the elder, the same as it is impossible in real life. Patterns seem to reiterate. Variations can be more fashion than behavior. Maturity, itself, is more fairly appraised by individual than age group.
It is tempting to see the younger mutant teams as analogous to the five person X-Men team at the core of the comic. They are almost surely structured to inspire that, and to inspire cross-comparison between themselves.
The X-Men, guided by Xavier: Emma Frost, Cyclops, Beast, Jean Grey, and Wolverine.
Xorn/Magneto’s Special Class: Angel, Beak, Ernst, Dummy, No Girl, and Basilisk.
Quentin Quire’s New X-Men, aka the Omega Skulls Gang, composed of Radian, Redneck, Tattoo, Glob Herman and Quire, all feeling abandoned and without a proper mentor.
One of the first Marvel comics in the wave called, writing for the trade, New X-Men is smartly divvied into explicit multi-issue arcs sometimes buffered by single issue stories, taking advantage of the burgeoning trade paperback market, the flowering of collected editions of comics in mainstream bookstores, and the rise of online orders from booming internet booksellers like Amazon.
These bracketed stories, arcs that continue ongoing plots in the background but wrap up their central concerns in an issue or three, feel mature and rewarding in a way that earlier models no longer did. It was good for story and good for marketing.
Except, some of these arcs are clearly structured differently than they are marketed.
Kid ? is marketed as a standalone story, separate from the Riot at Xaviers arc it precedes and in line with the three other single issue stories that came before it. Like that single issue stories, Kid ? has an artist who only drew that issue, Keron Grant, like the single issue stories, each of which had a specific art team.
Kid ?, though, flows directly into the multi-issue Riot at Xaviers, sharing the same villains, the same setting, the same thematic concerns, and the same arc for focal character, Quentin Quire. Kid ? is collected along with Riot in every reprint edition, because it is definitely a prologue to that story.
Grant Morrison’s reputation as a cultural magpie is well secure, and New X-Men follows that line perfectly. Allusions to films, comics, paintings and painters abound. Specific songs, painters, and movies are called out directly (Cassandra Nova’s favorite painter, an esoteric comics author, becomes her superhero/community name), and in allusion (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie lends most of its title to an issue with similar subject matter), by extension (it is equally valid to extent Magneto’s alias, Xorn, to its etymological roots, but also painter Anders Zorn and composer John Zorn). The artists working with Morrison only add to this garden of delights.
Far from being an assignment list of necessary works to familiarize yourself with or a catalogue concocted to impress, the preexisting works and artists inform as influences or as connective tissue for the audience if they are already familiar.
That Cassandra is Ernst is drawn out over many comics, before being confirmed shortly before her death, when she tells her oldest friend and ally that she can call her, Ernst, still, because he is her favorite painter. Knowing Max Ernst’s work, however, can give readers perspective not only into Cassandra’s character, and her perspective, but also enliven some of the visual and contextual angles of the New X-Men comics, as comics. Max Ernst, famed painter, sculptor, and poet, also made daring comics, like the 1934 five-volume, Une semaine de bonté, made up from collaged illustrations from Victorian Era books and magazines.
Une semaine de bonté, with its portrayals of daily life commonalities invigorated by a woman having wings or a man with a skull for a face or a bird’s head, the presence of dominating insectile creatures, brings to mind, in context, the biological mutations and explosive drawing room drama of the X-Men themselves and of modern X-Men comics.
A reader may believe Xorn to be a common or even plausible Chinese name, and never consider that its roots as a word lie in German, and in anger. That John Zorn is known both for his resuscitation of what he sees as Jewish roots of jazz and his frustration with commercial expectations and being pigeonholed. The Swedish limited palette impressionist, Anders Zorn, and his blurred edges and unconventional compositions. But, if the reader has a handhold with any of those things, they can climb higher and deeper into the Magneto presented.
To have the Oscar-nominated theme from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or its Oscar-winning performance by Dame Maggie Smith in mind while reading the fallout from Quentin Quire’s riot during the Xavier Institute open day, can push one over a cliff and deep into the emotions and drama of the comic.
Beast singing from Orfeo, or the Cuckoos making him believe he took them to a performance, does not alter the narrative of New X-Men, but it does deepen and broaden how much death and rebirth abound and sound in New X-Men.
From the privileging of fashion as an art form to the creation of songs within the comics and utilizing songs to promote irony and optimism, Monster Magnet and the Monkees, the Jackson Five and maybe the Rolling Stones, New X-Men pushes forward a train car of optimism through tunnels and along track that is often brutal, worrisome, and fraught with death. Knowing the words and meaning of the song, (Look Out) Here Comes Tomorrow, as with Negasonic Teenage Warhead, helps reaffirm New X-Men as being as anti-suicide as Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison’s Flex Mentallo, or their followup to New X-Men, All-Star Superman, without being necessarily as on the nose about it.
In Brimstone & Whiskey (New X-Men #142), supervillain, billionaire industrialist who runs a chain of gentlemen’s clubs, Sebastian Shaw, intimates that he has telepathic powers, while threatening an unruly patron. A mistake by Morrison and editorial, Shaw is, in the scene, surrounded by psychically-gifted strippers in his employ, so as readers we can shift his threat to being a threat call on them to use their powers.
Or, there remains another potential reading right at the surface. Through all of New X-Men we see a smugness to psychic mutants, a conviction, subtle or broad, to their ability to understand everyone better, to see the bigger picture, to be the movers and shakers and, in a sense, the real future of mutancy.
Time and again, telepaths are thrown off their game by thought-proofed helmets, by electromagnetic trickery spurring neural activity, mutations which make characters invisible to mind readers, to humans being concentratedly horny, and to their own hubris, but the hubris remains.
Shaw is a man whose entire history has been parlaying inherited wealth and the labor of women into increased personal fortune. Some criticism has been levied at Morrison (and the artist, Chris Bachalo, et al) for emphasizing the gentlemen’s club aspect of the Hellfire Club over the backroom business deals and captains of industry in classy fetishwear of previous uses. Having worked as a ringer in such a club, I feel comfortable with this as shorthand for all of it. It’s always business in a strip club. In the words of El Kabong, don’t you forget it!
Shaw dehumanizing his employees by treating their superpowers as his own is in line with a man who held Emma Frost to him through shame and implied debt for a decade’s worth of comics appearances.