The Two Year Horror – A Milligan/Larroca X-Men Run
by Travis Hedge Coke
“Something is wrong in the House of Xavier.”
“‘A reservation for mutants.’”
The two year run on X-Men collected under the writer’s name as X-Men by Peter Milligan was designed and mostly-drawn by Salvador Larroca, took the X-Men to Antarctica, Jerusalem, outer space, Los Angeles, fictional nations in Africa, fictional towns in Costa Rica, into each others’ heads and into each others’ arms. The run is often described as an interesting patch between significant runs, as a placeholder, which largely means the comics do not guide the franchise and the big fights are secondary to what they do to characters. The run is, I think, better described as a superhero Dark Shadows. Horror soap opera.
There are scenes and arcs within the run which are, for me, the most frightening an X-Men comic has ever been. There are moments and lives which are the most melodramatically emotional. I do not necessarily believe the art and the writing are always working hand in glove or right hand/left hand, but that makes it better. In many ways, as much as the characters can be uncomfortable with their lives, their identities, their very skins, the comics are not wholly comfortable in their own shape and tenor.
It all circles back to blood and bone, fears and passions.
Each of the twin softcover By Peter Milligan collections feature a second writer. In Volume One, Dangerous Liaisons, as part of a crossover with Black Panther, and in Volume Two, Blood of Apocalypse, as a prologue that was never designed as (and only awkwardly functions as) a prologue to that collection’s final arc, the titular Blood of Apocalypse. Whatever form is taken, it seems, that form is affected by the forms outside and those which cut through.
I do not know the mechanics of production, of initiative or editorial diktat. I cannot pretend to. But, I know what I get off the pages, from the panels, sourced from these sad, weird lives and bright, glorious moments.
Fear is What Keeps Us
Horror is a genre the X-Men are sometimes suggested towards. That the physicality of mutations, the prevalence of bodily betrayal and “monstrous” forms suits horror. Larroca, Milligan, et al give a horror comic, but if it is body horror, it is in the sense that the Soska Sisters’ American Mary is body horror or Takashi Miike’s Audition. The sense in which we acknowledge our bodies do not belong to us. We are coopted, mutilated, corralled, controlled, violated, dictated, regulated and at the mercy of external control from the moment we have skin.
Whether it be the evils of aging, of government, of jealousy, failing as a lover, failing as a sibling, a leader, a student, teacher, neighbor, friend, soldier, superhero, philosopher, entertainer, parent or messiah, the threat is not really too internal, but so so much external.
One thing to get old, yet entirely another to be seen by others as old.
Wolverine is, for the first time really in a team comic, treated as old as he is. He does not much like this, and some of what it means to be so old, so some people, is their projection, not something verified in text or reality. Wolverine is, old or not, the best at what he does, which in this comic, is being Wolverine.
Wolverine ages in experience more than body, yet with his memory gaps, his age is counter to his experiential age.
Emma Frost is less transitively aged out, yet she has no mutation to spare her aging physically, and while the years of her life vacillate story to story, her skin and elasticity are at the whim of years, paranoia, and surgery.
Havok, younger brother to Emma’s domestic partner, is forever going to be the younger brother. He has a societal immaturity inbuilt even if he grows past the relative immaturity internal to himself.
And, Mystique? Older, probably, than anyone in the story except dusty old Apocalypse and his manservant. Old enough she could have been Sherlock Holmes if circumstances had aligned.
Dusty Apocalypse, bathed and bleeding for new recruits, new followers? Feeling desperate to feel desperately young again?
In Golgotha, despite its enormous size, the X-Men – self-absorbed and incestuously dynamic – bring a psychic fungal alien back with them to their own and do not even notice. When they do notice, they immediately forget.
As X-Men repeat their teenaged romance triangles and mothers refuse to let their adult children have too much autonomy, it becomes clear that time does not march but bolts. In one of the most terrifying scenes in X-Men comics ever, Emma Frost considers performing a face lift at her desk, using a pair of office scissors. Iceman attacks a proselytizing Baptist, because for Iceman, life has been a lesson that when a stranger reaches out, they are reaching to fire some weird energy blast from their hand.
The Two Year Horror is the scare of realizing you might be old, and if you are not old, you will be. Everyone is jockeying for position on the lowest level of a massive human pyramid. Some are also jockeying for their students, their lover, their children. They are not that self-absorbed. But, they do so by allowing students to get away with things that could damage them, by invading the school under a false identity to try to marry their daughter to a stranger, or by engaging in sex therapy they are clearly not ready for and just hurting everyone.
“All I want to do is protect [Polaris]. From everything,” Iceman tells Wolverine, who pages later, is called by Boy, “A tired superannuated mutant running around with the kids, hoping some of their youth might rub off on him.
Wolverine, later that night, unable to sleep (and his psychology dialed to eleven thanks to Golgotha), looks at himself in the mirror and punches what he sees until the mirror falls apart.
Is Pulse pasted into the story over the character of Fantomex? Like Fantomex, he is a thief but a thief doing it for the lark of it, and he dresses a lot like Fantomex. His earliest visualizations, with his face in shadow, evoke Fantomex in body language and way of speaking.
Mystique wants Pulse to supplant Gambit as her daughter’s romantic focus, but he may as much be something she made up entirely, as far as he is presented. He remains elliptical to the X-Men story and universe.
Mystique comes to the school as Foxx, using her shape-changing abilities, to appear as another elliptical form and character, a teenager, utilizing another mutant’s abilities to be sexually exciting to as wide a range of people as possible, for the express purposes of seducing her daughter’s boyfriend, Gambit, and with that wedge driven, to arrange a marriage for her daughter, Rogue, to a suitor she has chosen, a thief called, Pulse.
In the Foxx arc, Bizarre Love Triangle, Mystique/Foxx makes sexually abusive overtures to Gambit (including hypnosis), Gambit speaks sexually of teenaged students in inappropriate ways, and Onyxx – a teenaged student – uses the excuse that he cannot understand Mystique was only pretending to be Foxx, to violently attempt to gain sexual favor from Mystique.
Mystique, confronted with a rapey teenager, slaps him in the face with an entire ceramic toilet.
Foxx and Pulse are almost posthypnotic suggestions, while Onyxx fades into other characters of a similar type by the end of the run.
An arc asking the characters and audience what the value and limits of forgiveness and toleration are, barely addresses Onyxx’s attack on Mystique for what it is, though her response leaves no confusion as to how Mystique feels about it, and Onyxx signs a statement of culpability before Beast, resident medical professional, will administer anesthetic.
While the X-Men movies and other comics runs were, generally, trying to avoid allegory with racism in favor of geek politics or a queer metaphor, the Two Year Horror acknowledges, as X-Statix at the same time, that racial disparity and systemic racism were in no way a thing of the past. Titling the X-Men’s adventure in Africa, The Wild Kingdom, and framing it around a wildlife documentary that has almost no hold in the plot mechanics, highlights how pervasive and robust systemic racism is in the anglophone and colonial worlds.
Milligan’s Wild Kingdom co-writer, Reginald Hudlin, engages this racism, himself, titling one issue, House of Paine, a reference to The Island of Dr Moreau. The arc conflates colonization, slavery, child soldiers, and mutants with animal abuse, genetic manipulation, unreconstructed communism, harems, and westernization. It does this not ignorantly or naively, but with deliberateness and awareness of resonance which Joss Whedon, Laura Martin, and John Cassaday’s concurrent Astonishing X-Men lacks when it reinvents the Danger Room as a self-aware alien who has been knowingly enslaved for years by the founder of the X-Men.
Communism. Pan-Africanism. Orientalism. Slavery. War. A global military-industrial exertion. Class conflict. Racism. Misogyny. These are things of now, not only past eras we can turn into nostalgia. Wakanda versus Texas. Africa versus the inflated sense of itself of the English colonial machine, of which the United States, like Australia or Canada is only a part, though they frequently try to forget.
The riots in Los Angeles combine elements of the 1965 Watts riots, the 1992 LA riots over police abuse, and the Manson Family murders, which were, supposedly, in part meant to foster a war of race-based violence. A mutant with heat vision, Boy leads mutants on a venture of murder and terrorism after the Golgotha fungus causes a wave of agitation and delusion across the LA area, venting his frustration with his lower class work life, his bigoted liberal bosses and their friends, and indulging newfound power in persuading the angry to be angry.
Boy’s subplot in Golgotha, like Mystique’s marriage plans for her daughter, Apocalypse’s boosterism, and the callbacks to Neal Adams/Roy Thomas X-Men, is rooted in past politics. The barely addressed guest-starring non-mutant superheroes in the big battle with Apocalypse seems a throwback to the 1960s or 1990s, published in a time when such inter-family appearances were far less en vogue.
The two year run is preoccupied with occupations and traditions as set pieces. Biblical set pieces. A fake Old West town for shooting movies and television. Apocalypse holding tent revival meetings. The move from a traditional line art and color-fills to the more articulate washes by Larroca give a sense of feldspathic theatricality to Blood of Apocalypse. The Caleb Deschanel The Right Stuff sepias and crumpled-planes look of the early issues, wherein color sometimes is punctuated by reflective embossments like a plastic cling wrap over figures, grows like lichen over stone, heightening the horror of appearance in the initial storylines and the weight of onion-skin testament in the last.
Larroca and Milligan are spackling onto the X-Men, occasionally drilling an inspection hole into the wall.
The first few years of the original X-Men comics are a conflation of fomented American racial dynamics and the Cold War. Post-World War Two precepts butting against the middle of the Vietnam War, in a nation owing its existence to conquest, genocide, and picking fights. The X-Men, in their original form and years, were the United States. If the classical X-Men period is between the 1960s and 1990s, this 2004-5 comic is reflecting the two poles at once, and how their past and reflections are still contemporary concerns.
Lynch mobs, such as pursue Foxx as she seeks refuge at Xavier’s, appear as a relic, an outdated political weapon one might see in black and white photos (long after color photography had been established) or in faded, grainy footage in period piece movies made today, except that, of course, we know lynch mobs exist and operate today. Too often with a sense of impunity and a significant judicial permission.
Slavery, persecution, and predatory churches are nether new nor gone.
Bling, a student at Xavier’s, telling Foxx that she makes her heart flutter, is the closest we had come, at that point, in any comic set in the Marvel Universe that I can find, acknowledging a lesbian superhero is a lesbian in a direct way. In the 1960s, this coding would have been completely sublimated and at the most, the hopeful intimation of an artist or writer. For the 1990s, the best we could find in an X-Men comic is a woman with her hair freshly dyed or who had “roommates.”
Why is the Milligan/Larroca run so preoccupied with colonialism, outposts, and occupations? A British writer, a Spanish artist, on an American comic about a fictitious minority demographic. It might be more weird than many X-Men runs since the original Jack Kirby and Stan Lee comics are not so clearly about the colonized and who is doing the colonization. Communes and paramilitary camps, local populations and invading foreigners.
The earliest X-Men stories work on an engine of American Charles Xavier’s school of American teenagers, finding strangers and impressing upon them to join their militarized education program, and Magneto and his Brotherhood hiring humans to march in pseudo-Nazi uniforms and help them invade the United States, peaceful South American and Antarctic nations, to procure nuclear weapons, politically-useful tracts of land, or Indigenous subjects to experiment on.
The Milligan/Larroca run, forty years into the serialized mishmash saga of the X-Men, begins and ends with colonialism that goes back to biblical times. (And, specifically, biblical.) The opening arc, Golgotha, concerns a psychoactive fungus from outer space connected to the supposed place of the supposed execution of the supposed Jesus of Nazareth. Golgotha begins, not in Israel or Palestine, but with a peace-seeking braintrust commune in Antarctica, which ironically, in the X-Men’s world is not an unoccupied land, with places like the Savage Land, home to various Indigenous nations, human and otherwise.
The second arc, Wild Kingdom, co-written with Reginald Hudlin and partly drawn by David Yardin, has the X-Men investigating mutant animals in Niganda (a fictional nation in their Africa), coming into conflict with the sovereign of another African nation, Wakanda, which has the honor of being the only long-standing African nation to never be conquered or colonized. Meanwhile, a white eugenicist is enslaving people in Niganda, strip-mining mutants of their genetic anomalies and independence, and Stalinist-traditionalist apes are falling out of love with their politic as their human ally decides to create an ape-based government, “built around a strong leader with an unshakeable belief in dialectical materialism.”
When the X-Men return to the United States, they find their school and home are occupied by an armed military under the purview of the Office of National Emergency, a kind of fictionalized cross between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security, several of them piloting towering humanoid mecha designed, explicitly, for the genocide of mutants.
All this before Apocalypse, an ancient mutant who was born a slave, comes to the Xavier school grounds to violently test chosen apostle-warriors, and to preach his good old world religiosity and his miracle blood to America.
The X-Men world still has a problem, in 2022, simply confirming queerness, with “Wolverine and Cyclops’ apartments share doors with Jean Grey’s!” being touted by fans as queer rep, poly rep, and no it’s not, nor are those the same thing.
X-Men has traditionally had a problem convincing even fans that bigotry – in order to be bigotry – has to not make sense. Bigotry has to not make sense. Arguments that if you point out its flaws, bigotry will stop, has never stopped bigotry (because it’s bigotry).
Bounded by sociopolitical spacetime, the X-Men become their purest when they are disenfranchised.
In centering sexual complication and the pervasiveness of violent bigotry, the Two Year Horror of Larroca and Milligan does more to pare down their x-book to these central tenets than any x-run by presumably cishet authors. Which, oddly, makes it even more liminal to the x-brand. Celebrity superheroes like Wolverine and Storm were now de-celebrity-ed, inverted from the Milligan/Allred X-Statix, in which characters new to us were celebrity and had celebrity protection (for what that is worth, as, sadly, many in X-Statix found out).
In the rarest of instances, in this run, the X-Men are school teachers who try to be superheroes. Their lives are their residential school, their workdays and social lives and students and the grounds, but they go out trying to superhero and, inevitably, a non-mutant government or non-mutant press will purely edit them out.
Warring texture and shadow create an artificial sensibility to the visuals of the run, both immersive and always distancing. The strange gloss of an X-Men life.
The visual of Foxx (Mystique in disguise as a parody sexy young student) is jarring in the oddness of her body and face, out of proportion, her smile sometimes too wide, her limbs seeming always off, her sharp little teeth coming and going. She makes mockery of the “sexy young student” trope and the leering adult who always manufactures them, for X-Men comics and otherwise.
Weaponized eroticization is marketed hyper-sexualization.
Daap – another liminal – is not quite mutant, not quite alien. A kind of larger-sized knockoff of Doop from Milligan’s X-Statix, Daap is as sexually alluring as Doop or more, to those affected, and like Foxx, it does not make an immediate or commercial sense, it does not make sense with what we know of the world or the world has told us to expect. It just is.
Somewhere, somewhen, boys would write to this run’s editors suggesting they be introduced into the comic as Daap or Foxx’s leman.
The quarantine to self-diagnose during Golgotha is almost a blip, but even if forced on the authors of the run, the arc titled, House Arrest, continues to accrue resonance as Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the American prison industry, become so common an interference in daily life and any illusion of safety and value, that even Star Trek programs must reckon with them. The occupation, coming hot on the heels of the X-Men and communist and capitalist supervillains failing to save or conquer Africa, is seemingly pointless, destined to futility, bemusing and frustrating and far too like failing to hit the fly you continue to swat at.
What does it mean when a mutant school, a superhero sanctuary, has government police in genocide-tanks keeping everyone on lockdown? When the heroes are expected to tolerate, to abide the constant specter of giant piloted police robots on campus?
When there are bigoted, genocidal armed survivalists in the woods at the edge of the school, hunting mutants and former mutants?
When there are archeologists in Egypt pep-talking themselves because they are a product of the English public school system, “the system that bred Nelson. Wellington. Churchill.”
Skin in the Game
The risk of death, the risk of dismemberment, and the risk of mild embarrassment weigh frequently the same for all of us. Given a choice between risking traffic and looking dopey waiting for a crosswalk and permission, many times, we will take our chance against the cars and trucks. The X-Men life is that, if bigger. Risking traffic plus spaceships.
“The biggest thing is to get a handle on all the characters. To get under their skin. Once you’ve done this you can play around with them a little, and push them.” – Peter Milligan told Toy News International
Iceman (Bobby Drake) ritualizes per formatively masculinity as this run picks up that baton from many previous and future runs until he is at last revealed to indeed by gay. As this run reflects the Neal Adams/Roy Thomas years more than any other in x-history, Iceman competes for Havok (Alex Summers) through Polaris (Lorna Dane) and Havoc pursues an anchored state through Polaris, competing with Iceman. Theirs is a homosocial romance and a homosexual tete a tete. Bringing up football and performing big dog gestures is chest-thumping to a degree they thump chests together, tit a tit.
Polaris – who once had a licensed therapist dismiss her abuse trauma and mental health with jokes that she, fitting her magnetic superpowers, seems to attract and repel men – appears to utilize impulsiveness to cope with depression and uncertainty.
In the opening arc, Golgotha, the Golgotha fungi generate paranoia, heightened emotions, and even visual and audial hallucinations in the X-Men, enhancing Gambit and Rogue’s already painful lack of physical intimacy, but it is Iceman who takes it upon himself to push himself between them in the form of telling Gambit that Rogue is denying him touch. Is he offering to replace hers with his own?
Rogue and Gambit thrive on their inability to physically make love or to even comfortably embrace. In one sense, skin to skin contact is undesirable, as Rogue’s mutant abilities include draining vitality, memory, and superpowers from anyone who touches her skin, but skin to skin contact is an overrated aspect of physical intimacy and they must know it. Almost every adult has been felt up through their clothes, or felt someone’s body through theirs. As superheroes, the X-Men largely spend their days adorned in what have been nicknamed, “body condoms,” anyway.
Rogue and Gambit failed the psychic simulation of a physical sexual relationship. On some level, they may have failed it to avoid having one. A physical sexual relationship or the psychic simulation thereof, even if Rogue’s mother, Mystique, had not engineered the failure.
If someone else will not engineer our failures, maybe we will, in stead.
There is a kind of flywheel of pain everyone puts to work in the run. Mystique martyrs herself as the bad mother in order to give her daughter a happiness her daughter does not desire. Havok pretends to put up with being second to his brother, to put up with the rival for his romantic partner, to put up with her no longe being his romantic partner.
When Onyxx attacks Mystique on the pretense of being robbed by her, of being used by her or simply confused as to her attraction to him Onyxx knows better. It is his justification to matter. To stay involved in something that does not involve him.
The Leper Queen – a murderous, masked burn victim who most likely killed her own young daughter for being a mutant – tells a perverted version of her own hardships to people she is not close with only so that she can then justify killing them.
In several arcs, the unknowable, untenable badness, the blame-thing – be it Golgotha or Daap – comes from outer space. They all come from outside. Mystique and Apocalypse are past eras still alive in the present. Boy is an entire social and financial class away from the X-Men or their usual opposition. The Sentinel pilots keeping the school under house arrest do not, themselves, know why they are event here; bad implants from an editorial decision they, as characters, will never comprehend.
NASA provides the X-Men a shuttle and access to outer space, a week’s time to clear translunar space of monster fungi that might have spawned Christianity with telepathic damage. NASA blanks out the news record of the X-Men saving the world from Golgotha or the collaboration between the US government’s spacefaring wing and the X-Men.
Scapegoats are good. Scapegoats mean never having to say you are sorry. Apocalypse can blame his age, the immensity of his power and goals, he can blame is assistant, Ozymandias, or the inexplicable, alien Celestials, who empowered him for a purpose they some day expect him to fulfill.
Lorna can lean on her mental illness without her mental illness being feigned. Sunfire can blame his attitude on his disability. Iceman can, and does, pretend to be depowered, when millions of mutants suddenly find themselves no-longer mutants.
The X-Men live in a world inherited from, “Nelson. Wellington. Churchill.”
A genocidal memoirist, biographer, historian and fiction writer who was also twice Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill’s policies of conquest, starvation, negotiation, politicking and war are reflected throughout the world in which they and the one in which we have to subsist within.
As I write, the Nelson Society are still fighting ardently to preserve the good name of Horatio Nelson from the ideas that he was a white supremacist, pro-slavery, participated significantly in the slave trade, may have been a bit racist, and possibly that he ever spit on the boards of a boat while he walked. This is in their interest, and they have a wealth of points they can draw attention to and perhaps only coincidentally drawing that attention away from other points.
The Duke of Wellington, the Iron Duke, Arthur Wellesley, only met Nelson once, but they ran in the same circles if you take the broad view of those who are not in charge of entire wings of a global empire’s armed forces. Like Nelson, much concern today, is around both their existence as extensions of British militancy and conquest, and the international slave trade.
The X-Men are built up out of slavery, and importantly, the architected slave trade. The immensity and complexity of imperial dispossession, murder, torture, cultural loss, the dissolution of families and peoples. These British traditions, in concert with Spanish traditions, collude into what has become the United States of America, a British colony which has conquered Spanish colonies, Indigenous lands, and still wages a war to win more property.
The apes of the Red Ghost, confused by his nostalgia for Soviet Russia and how interlocked it is, woven into his hate, as it is, for the same, are only knocked around pawns in political games set into motion before their births.
Apocalypse, for all his ancientness and power, is in many ways pursuing a route back to his life as a slave under human bosses and cosmic gods. His turn as revivalist preacher is perhaps evidence that he has been infected by part of a mutant soul, when he temporarily possessed the X-Man, Cyclops, but maybe he just got old and febrile and needs the hope.
Ozymandias, servant to Apocalypse, is definitely old and in need of hope. The old ways have stopped working and with that pause, he has to acknowledge that they never really worked.
The end of Salvador Larroca and Peter Milligan’s X-Men is sets of mutants banding together, too traumatized, too injured and disenfranchised for the bigger world, in the hopes of healing one another and learning how to survive. One of those is the Xavier school. It is not a happy, nor a conclusive ending.
It is the kind of ending we get.
The Two Year Horror – A Milligan/Larroca X-Men Run
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