An X-Men Retrospective: Part 3

“No more mutants.”

In the third part of my X-Men retrospective I'll be looking at the works of Grant Morrison, the second second coming of Chris Claremont, the astonishing work of a writer we now know to be less than astonishing, the fallout from House of M, as well as the ups and downs of the team's big move to the West Coast.
NEW X-MEN (2001-2004)
Uncanny X-Men #394-443
New X-Men #114-156


Because of all the poor stories, as well as most the places I usually bought comics closing down, I'd given up reading X-Men altogether by the time the millennium came around. New X-Men is what pulled me back in and served as my gateway drug into the wonderfully weird world of Grant Morrison.

Recognising how tired and bloated the franchise had become, Marvel brought in Morrison and artist Frank Quitely to take over X-Men (which was renamed New X-Men) and give it a shot of adrenaline mixed with some LSD and whisky. Morrison was exactly what the franchise needed at the time, someone who wanted to pushed it forward instead of chasing after the glory days of Claremont. Marvel knew getting Morrison was a major coup for them and for the most part just left them alone to do whatever the hell they wanted, with all the other X-Books just following their lead. The annual crossovers, which had dominated the franchise since the 80s, were even put on hold so they wouldn't get in the way of Morrison's stories.

Taking inspiration from the recent film, Morrison and Quitely got rid of the team's superhero costumes, replacing them with yellow and black uniforms, and turned Xavier's into an actual school with a full body of students and the X-Men serving as teachers. They also kept the cast to a sensible six (seven if you count Xorn) and resisted the urge to bring in as many classic characters and enemies as possible. Morrison's X-Men was all about the evolution of mutants and introduced the concept of secondary mutations allowing characters to gain new powers and appearances. But they were also fascinated by how mutants would evolve as a culture with their own fashion and music. This was really X-Men as a sci-fi drama, full of big ideas and crazy concepts, rather than a superhero soap opera.
Quitely was the perfect partner to visualize Morrison's wild imagination. His amazing artwork gave the series a very distinctive look that really helped it stand out from all other X-Books that had come before it. Jean and Emma's wordless journey through Xavier's imprisoned mind in #121 is an absolute masterpiece. Unfortunately, he couldn't always keep up with the title's monthly schedule which resulted in a lot of weak filler art. He eventually left and for the last few years a rotating team of big name artists like Chris Bachalo, Phil Jimenez, and Marc Silvestri were brought in for each story arc.

New X-Men was a big success, both critically and commercially, but like most of Morrison's work it wasn't to everyone's taste. Some of their decisions were very unpopular (like Cyclops cheating on Jean) and even Marvel's editors weren't always happy with what they were doing. There were many disagreements over their handling of Magneto in the penultimate arc, but since Morrison was due to leave Marvel once they'd finished up their run, the editors allowed them to complete New X-Men the way they wanted. However, once they were gone Marvel took a bulldozer to everything they'd built and spent the next decade practically ignoring this era completely.

At the same time Morrison was writing one of the best X-Men comics of all time, Chuck Austen was busy on Uncanny X-Men writing the absolute worst X-Men comic of all time. The late 90s were a golden age compared to what Austen produced during the three (THREE!!!) years he worked on X-Men. It was just abysmal and I'm ashamed to admit I read far more of it than I really should've.
RELOAD AND DECIMATON (2004-2011)
Uncanny X-Men #444-544
X-Men #157-176
Astonishing X-Men #1-24, Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men #1

The entire line underwent a rather nostalgic relaunch called ReLoad which saw the X-Men get back into the superhero game complete with the old spandex costumes (which Wolverine really wasn't happy about). Claremont was put back on Uncanny X-Men and reunited him with his old Excalibur collaborator Alan Davis. Claremont's third and (so far) final X-Men run was still not as good as his first, but better received than his second. Austen took over from Morrison on New X-Men which reverted to just being X-Men. He didn't last that long there before he was replaced by Peter Milligan, but it was long enough for him to retcon the end of Morrison's run so Marvel could keep using the character of Xorn only to then change their minds and drop the character altogether.

The centrepiece of this relaunch was Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday, which was meant to serve as a successor to Morrison's New X-Men and replace it as the flagship title. Like that series, Astonishing X-Men was pretty much its own separate thing and, thanks to lengthy delays between issues, was often out of sync with what the rest of the franchise was doing. Astonishing X-Men was probably the best X-Men comic from this period, and certainly the best illustrated, but I'm reluctant to give it my full endorsement in light of everything we've found out about Whedon recently.
The post-Morrison period is a pretty chaotic time for X-Men. Marvel's editors had no obvious long term plans for the franchise, just a few ideas for big changes (almost all of them bad) which they just dumped on the writers and expected them to figure out how to make them work. The most bothersome being House of M, an X-Men/Avengers crossover that ended with Scarlet Witch going mad (well, madder than she was at the time) and casting a spell that robbed the majority of the world's mutants of their abilities (conveniently, all the really popular characters were unaffected). The editors felt there were too many mutants and this would solve the problem. It did the exact opposite. The remaining mutants, less than two hundred, huddled together for survival, swelling the casts of the various X-Books, making them feel more cluttered than ever. This storyline would dominate the franchise for the next few years making it increasingly convoluted and difficult to follow.

After writing the miniseries X-Men: Deadly Genesis, Ed Brubaker replaced Claremont as writer on Uncanny X-Men, which gradually regained its position as the flagship title during this time. Being a big fan of his work on Captain America, Daredevil and Gotham Central, I was beyond excited when Brubaker first started writing X-Men. Unfortunately, his run ended up being a big disappointment. It wasn't terrible, just really bland and uninspired.
Brubaker's last arc saw him team up with his eventual successor, Matt Fraction. Following the devastating events of the 'Messiah Complex' crossover, the X-Men abandoned their traditional up state New York home (which had once again been destroyed) and relocated to what they thought would be the more tolerant streets of San Francisco. The City by the Bay wasn't as welcoming as they'd hoped and, after a confrontation with the Dark Avengers (don't ask), the X-Men eventually established their own little island nation just off the coast which they called Utopia.

I'd just finished reading Fraction's brilliant Hawkeye series prior to starting his X-Men run so I approached it with cautious optimism. Sadly, this ended up being another crushing disappointment. The creation of Utopia took the X-Men in an interesting new direction, but it didn't always result in good stories. Fraction never quite managed to get a handle on the series' increasingly large cast and many of the most well known characters just ended up being little more than glorified extras. Many of his more humorous touches also fell completely flat, like those jokey character captions he frequently used. To make matters worse, the main artist during this time was Greg Land. I cannot stand Land's work. It's just so posed and lifeless, full of hyper sexualised female characters traced from porno mags (seriously, he really does that). It's just atrocious, but he always met his deadlines so unfortunately Marvel kept using him.
To Be Continued...

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011 More Mark Greig

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Morrison years were fun, and I know people who are still traumatized by the Austen years.
Ugh, Greg Land..Greg Horn was better because at least he didn't trace his ladies.
It's funny to have a lovely image by Terry Dodson instead of Land at the end here.

Mark Greig said...

I had to suffer through Land's art, Anonymous, I would not inflict it on others.

Samantha M. Quinn said...

This was interesting, I know very little about this period of the X-Men. I'd heard about Wanda's infamous "No More Mutants" and the whole House of M saga. I've done some small dives into Wiki's to learn some details in an attempt to get back into the comics a few times over the last twenty or so years, but could never find the right point. And before his fall, I really wanted to pick up Astonishing X-men because of Whedon.

Anyway, on to part 4.

Mark Greig said...

Astonishing X-Men used to be the title I would recommend to new readers because, despite being one long Claremont tribute, it is one of the most accessible X-Men title that isn't too much of a commitment.