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New X-Men Omnibus by Grant Morrison (Review/Retrospective)

Every once in a while a creator lands a run on a mainstream comic which suits them to a ‘t’. There’s Alan Moore’s tenure on Swamp Thing and Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil, for example. Sure, both writers did great work with other characters on a stand-alone basis (notably Superman and Batman respectively), but these were generally individual arcs rather than directing three or four years of the characters’ stories. Having read New X-Men, I can confirm that Grant Morrison has found his own such series.

Is there beauty in the beast?

I am admittedly cagey about his on-going run on Batman. His new-age mysticism is a tough fit with a character who is arguably most recognisable as a noir-themed hero. Batman is a versatile character – and has been many things to many people over seventy years – but Morrison’s style didn’t seem a perfect complement to the iconic crusader. On the other hand, the X-Men are a perfect complement to Morrison’s new age sensibilities.

The mutant saga has always been friendly to writers with ideas just a little bit ‘out there’ and a liberal blend of science fiction and fantasy – having its roots planted solidly in the hokey pseudo-science of the Silver Age. It’s a comic book about evolution, but it’s populated with aliens and time travel and monsters, as much as it is with civil rights metaphors and mutant terrorists. This is the kind of wackiness with which Morrison is more than comfortable, and it’s the backdrop against which he can frame a pretty epic story.

I was blown away by it…

I remarked in my review of Mark Millar’s run on Ultimate X-Men that the X-Men franchise has one particularly obvious flaw, stemming from the nature of its content contrasted against the format in which it is published. The story these books tell is fundamentally one of evolution: mutants are portrayed as the next rung on the evolutionary ladder. Unfortunately, the franchise is a long-running comic book in a shared universe. That means that the status quo must inevitably remain static. For the past fifty years the series has been running on a treadmill, meaning that its potential must remain unfulfilled.

The reader cannot really invest in what is happening, because we know that fifty – or even one hundred – years from now they will still be fighting for equal rights. It’s hard not to feel the same disillusionment expressed by Quentin in the Kid Omega arc, speaking about “this future that never arrives”.

Pretty much all of Morrison’s ideas Xorn out…

In the last decade or so, the tendency at Marvel has been intensely conservative; comics like the X-Men have gone from freewheeling, overdriven pop to cautious dodgy retro. What was dynamic become static – dead characters always return, nothing that happens really matters ultimately. The stage is never cleared for new creations to develop and grow.

- Grant Morrison’s pitch to Marvel

Morrison shrewdly decides to raise a middle-finger to the status quo. Mutants will become the dominant lifeform on the planet in four generations, he informs us early in his run. The fantastic racism against mutants is no longer as overt as it was during the Claremont era – as the minorities the X-Men represent have found the discrimination against them become less overt in recent decades – replaced with the more subtle prejudice that is pervasive even today. Mutant-kind has become a fringe culture, a movement adopted by those with liberal sensibilities – much as hip-hop and rap have found their own supporters in middle-class suburbia. Charles Xavier announces the true purpose of his school to the public after years of hiding. He even plans to integrate the school, to accept human students. “It’s the future already”, indeed.

Great ideas on paper…

Of course, all of these gutsy moves would be undone after Morrison departed the title, as if proof of how terrified of change the world of comic books can be. Mutants were firmly rendered a minority again during the Decimation event and the (realistically) thinly veiled hatred and fear Morrison suggested hidden behind a liberal facade soon gave way to the all-caps RACISM which the comic had grown accustomed to in times past. Even the central revelation of Morrison’s run (which we’ll explore below) was clumsily undone and rewritten by his successors, as if to pretend that this run had never happened.

That doesn’t diminish anything that Morrison has written here. In fact, the collection stands magnificently on its own two feet. There’s a rumour that Morrison was offered the writing duties on Ultimate X-Men, but chose this book instead – arguably this a far more definitive take on the mutants than anything to emerge as part of the Ultimate line.

Soon to be an ex-man?

Central to Morrison’s conception the X-Men is the notion of life beyond mankind – beyond humanity. He postulates the idea of Cassandra Nova, a consciousness able to survive the murder of her corporeal form in the womb to become something transcendental. The idea of bacterial consciousness – and of an infectious idea – is core to his work here. Even technology, the Sentinels themselves of all things, evolve beyond their generic humanoid shapes into so much more. The world is spinning faster and faster. Who is to say that mutants are the only evolutionary leap manifesting themselves?

If the X-Men are stand-ins for the concepts of evolution and dynamism and change, then Morrison realises what their opposite must be – what their conceptual nemesis must be. Homogeny stands at odds with them throughout this run, the threat of sameness. Be it the attempts by John Sublime to move homo sapiens on par to homo superior through immoral organ trading or the capacity of Weapon XII to turn his enemies into himself simply by touching them, the greatest threats to the X-Men come in the form of threats to their inherent diversity. Not to mention the fact that the real mastermind behind Morrison’s run has (according to Here Comes Tomorrow) been deliberately maintaining the status quo. Morrison frames the adventures of the team in conceptual terms, and it suits the material perfectly. There’s a decidedly post-modern bent to his work here, but it’s one that suits the characters and the book perfectly.

Morrison’s writing remains sharp…

… we take a look at some of the ways that mutant culture influences human culture – in the way that black culture in the US or Asian culture here in the UK has provided ‘street’ input for white kids.  I’d like to see mutant kids making their own weird music which in turn influences hip human kids.

- Grant Morrison’s pitch to Marvel

Of course, it’s hard to be post-modern without being modern first. In his first issue, Morrison gets rid of the ridiculous uniforms the characters typically wear (“Suddenly I don’t have to look like an idiot in broad daylight,” Wolverine remarks). He explores the mutants-as-oppressed-minorities metaphor, suggesting a world where “mutant music, mutant styles, mutant ideas are becoming more and more fashionable” and the casual racism is hidden “behind the mask of liberal respectability, with its safe opinions”.

Some of Morrison’s insights are sharply observed, for example his suggestion of DNA-tests for athletes at the Olympics to determine whether or not they are mutants or the suggestion that it’s time “mutants reclaimed some of the offensive imagery produced by … the mass media”. Granted, some of Morrison’s touches are a little on the nose – the coverage of drug ‘kick’, for example, comes across a little too ‘just say no to drugs, kids’ (and has some unfortunate overtones of certain race-related conspiracy theories), but these are the exception rather than the rule.

Is Wolverine Weapon X or an ex-Weapon?

Even when it comes to the characters themselves, Morrison has some smart ideas. Does Scott’s “weird affair” with Emma constitute infidelity, even though there was no physical indiscretion to speak of? What does intimacy even mean when talking of telepaths? I was quite fond of Morrison’s character work throughout the collection – especially his work with straight-laced Scott Summers and Beast, managing to deliver on the potential of their characters. His work with the pathos of Hank McCoy – the genius intellect trapped inside the body of a carnal beast – deserves particular note.

We get new looks at old ideas. In particular, there’s the interesting deconstruction of Jean and Scott’s marriage, one of the oldest superheroic unions and one that seems to be consistently subjected to horrible tragedy after horrible tragedy. Though Scott may attempt to blame some extraordinary phenomenon, here it has simply grown stale and tired – arguably succumbing to the same inertia which has attacked the comic book itself over the years. This is a marriage on the rocks not due to some brainwashing or alien attack, but simply from the strain of married life.

Cyke!

A smaller shoutout is owed to Morrison’s use of the Weapon X program, a key part of Wolverine’s mysterious pastTM. At once an example of Morrison’s ability to reimagine core pieces of the mythology (“Weapon X wasn’t a letter. It was a Roman numeral. X = Ten.”) and yet integrate his work with the broader universe (Captain America was Weapon I, for example). In fact, the idea is so smart that it somehow worked its way into the rather dumb X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

It’s fun to see Morrison using his imagination in crafting new mutations, beyond the ‘looks like a freak’ or ‘does something cool’ powers that we’ve seen year after year. Xorn, the mutant with a star inside his head, is a great creation as are the Stepford Cuckoos, a five-pronged hive mind, and ‘conceptual’ mutant No-Girl. Morrison’s concept of “secondary mutation” demonstrates that even the concept of mutation itself can evolve and sees the core powers of the central cast getting a bit of development. Jean Grey coming to terms with her Pheonix gifts would seem to be an endnote to one of the series’ most longrunning arcs, while we also get a diamond-skinned Emma Frost and a more feline Beast. There’s the definite feel of progress behind the bulk of his writing here.

This run only helped cement Morrison’s status…

That said, Morrison also pays homage to the traditional tropes of the X-Men series. He somewhat foreshadows the retcons that future writers would bring to bear on his run in his second-to-last arc, Planet X, which extensively revises key aspects of his own run to that point (that these revisions were planned well in advance and intermittently foreshadowed doesn’t necessarily justify them). For all the progress and evolution, the genocide hinted at in Planet X calls to mind the classic black-and-white rhetoric of racial hatred from the series’ early days. His final arc, Here Comes Tomorrow, fittingly offers us the kind of dystopian potential future which only X-Men can truly realise, complete with vintage Sentinels.

Now onto that big reveal – which, to be honest, probably isn’t a surprise twist to anyone anymore. Anyway, you’ve been warned, if you want to read this unspoiled.

I’m not sure if there really was a point to revealing Xorn as Magneto as Sublime (as Magneto was on kick and kick is Sublime), other than that it wouldn’t really be an iconic X-Men run if it didn’t feature the self-proclaimed master of magnetism as a big bad guy at some point. Unfortunately, rather like Millar’s Ultimate conception of the character, Morrison strips the villain of his intriguing backstory or characterisation. As a survivor of the holocaust, you think there’d be some interesting discussions on the burning of millions of humans alive – but nope. We get the indication that he might be a bit loopy from drug use, and that this explains his out of character behavior. It all seems a bit of a waste for all the setup – and, in fairness, the bonus materials make it clear that Magneto was the intended bad guy from the start. This is especially painful given that Morrison seemingly finds the character less interesting alive than dead.

In fairness, I appreciate what Morrison is trying to do with Magneto, to demonstrate how living revolutionaries are rarely as effective as those who are dead and adorning T-shirts. Alive, he’s reduced to making promises about turning the world upside down, and his rhetoric is revealed as self-serving, cynical and shallow. Dead, his voice echoes through time and space, his likeness appears on posters and statues. He’s a brand and an idea which is difficult to argue with.

Morrison sets the X-Men alight…

This is a grand idea, but one can’t ignore the fact that Morrison really doesn’t handle it too well. As interesting as Planet X is in its conception, its execution falls significantly short. Not just because it undermines an iconic character (indeed, Magneto’s unique ideology makes him one of the most fascinating villains in Marvel), but because it doesn’t do anything important or insightful enough to justify such undermining. This is arguably the weakest part of Morrison’s run, and it’s a shame that it comes so near the end.

In fairness, it is a good idea. One needs only to look to history to find any list of zealots who function better as martyrs than as political leaders in their own right. Che Guevara, his face reduced to a way of selling t-shirts to kids who have little or no understanding of his ideology, is perhaps the best example of this – his involvement in the government of Cuba was hardly something to get too excited about. It’s certainly an interesting way to look at Magneto. However, I think it does slightly undersell the character. Morrison’s desire for rich irony overrides characterisation. There’s something that is just wrong about Magneto herding regular humans into ovens, as a Holocaust survivor. I get that it’s meant to be ironic – “those who hunt monsters” and all that – but I think it undermines the character in a manner which is just too on the nose. The fact that he’s committing genocide itself is a fitting way of illustrating that he’s a monster who has become just as horrific as those who killed his family – using the exact same manner of execution is just a bit much.

Xorn always had a magnetic personality…

Of course, Morrison ties this all together giving us a seemingly overarching plot about a conscious bacterium sowing the seeds of racial hatred in the hopes of delaying the inevitable ascension of mutantkind. In his finale, Here Comes Tomorrow, Morrison ties all his own work on the title together (with Cassandra Nova evidently the only antagonist in this collection not driven by the bacterium) and suggests a reason for the perpetual hatred and fear of mutantkind in the Marvel Universe, where superpowers are so common as to be virtually unnoticed. Why not fear Iron Man or Captain America if you are going to fear those with special powers? His answer to the question may not be a perfect fit, but it’s really hard to think of a better one.

The collection comes with a fair whack of extra features – there’s no commentary in the style of The Ultimates, but there sketches, script-to-panel comparisons and promotional materials. By far the most interesting addition is Morrison’s original pitch for the series, including a rough sketch of the planned first six months of the title. Admittedly a lot changed in the transition, notably the removal of Moira MacTaggart as a supporting character and certain pacing issues, but the core ideas are all there. It seems possible that this extra, as alluded to above, was added simply to assure fans that the revelation that Magneto was Xorn was not a twist added at the last minute, but a well-thought-out part of the arc – indeed, the true identity of the new mutant is mentioned at the end of the pitch. That doesn’t invalidate most of the criticism of the twist – it was still poorly explained and only fleetingly foreshadowed – but it does demonstrate that Morrison wasn’t simply making it up as he went along.

Is the Beast feeling blue of late?

However – for my money, at any rate – the most interesting aspect of this particular bonus feature is the opening, in which Morrison outlines nine points (okay, eight points and one piece of trivia) pertinent to his run. Bits of that segment are quoted throughout this review and offer a nice view of Morrison’s insight both into the state of the franchise as a whole (he recognises that it is inherently stagnant) and his influences (including his acknowledgment of the classic Claremont run and the recent movies).

Morrison pitches the series as one that should be accessible of itself, particularly to those wishing to pick up an X-Men book after the success of Bryan Singer’s X-Men. Though I don’t think his idea can be deemed a success through measuring sales or public interest in the property, I do believe he succeeded in artistic terms – the book can stand on its own two feet to those without an interest or a knowledge of the mangled continuity. Perhaps the only vaguely confusing element to those (such as myself) not already immersed in the continuity is the arc featuring the Shi’ar Empire. Everything else is original or explained. The collection doesn’t rely on the dozens of authors who have worked in the universe before, nor does it ignore them. It strikes the ideal balance. Morrison is the X-Men writer for the 21st century.

Someone to watch over us…

The collection really works. The Omnibus itself – at over 1,000 pages – seems quite heavy, but it would dilute his work on the title to split it into smaller volumes. It reads from cover-to-cover as one gigantic and iconic story. Sure, there are a few missteps along the way, but Morrison throws enough ideas out there to keep the reader interested and engaged. He works well with the characters, but even better with the concepts. It’s hard not to view New X-Men as a perfect fit for Morrison’s sensibilities.

The artwork is, on the whole, above average. If I remember correctly (and based on the solicitation collected at the back of the book), it was originally pitched as a series that would feature Morrison and artist Frank Quitely, but it turned out quite different. There are a whole slew of artists at work on Morrison’s scripts, which is shame. Though most are perfectly competent, Quitely’s style suits the bright and colourful sci-fi aspects of the work best. The rest of the artwork is grand – with the notable exception with the excessively stylistic renderings of Bachalo and Townsend on Assault on Weapon Plus, which seem at odds with the rest of the collection.

Flight of the Pheonixes…

All in all, it’s hard not to recommend this collection if you are in anyway interested in Morrison or the world’s most popular mutant franchise. Hell, there are even traces of the run present in the relatively brainless X-Men Origins: Wolverine (most notably Emma Frost’s secondary mutation and the ‘X’ as a number rather than a letter), to demonstrate its pervasiveness. It’s hokey and mindbending – but in a good way – and, over the course of forty issues, explores whether it is ever possible for a superhero comic to evolve or even to grow up. While subsequent writers and the powers that be seem to have responded in the negative, for forty issues Grant Morrison makes you believe that it might be possible.

Maybe that’s his mutant power.

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4 Responses

  1. Great review man! Morrison was the best thing to happen to X-men because he introduced wonderful new ideas for any newcoming writer to expand on for decades. Unfortunately marvel dropped the ball and retconned just about everything, which made me not even care about X-men anymore. I blame this on the editor and childish fanboys who complained about their “childhood being raped”.

  2. Great review man! Morrison was the best thing to happen to X-men because he introduced wonderful new ideas for any newcoming writer to expand on for decades. Unfortunately marvel dropped the ball and retconned just about everything, which made me not even care about X-men anymore. I blame this on the editor and childish fanboys who complained about their “childhood being raped”.

    • This run is, for my money, the best X-Men story ever written and it’s aftermath is the perfect example of how stagnant superhero comics are.

      On the upside, it made me give up on continuity and just enjoy each story as it is. To live in the comic book “now”, because it all could be retconned tomorrow.

  3. Grant Morrison pushing ‘Just Say No’? Grant Morrison? Grant Morrison?!?!?

    But more seriously…

    One hallmark of this series was Morrison’s trashing revolutions as either teenage stupidity (quentin quire) or Stalinist nightmare (che magneto)? And as you rightly state he had to turn Magento into a 1-dimensional character to do so.

    Add in Wolverine going to Afghanistan to rescue Muslim women by dismembering Taliban ‘slavers'(!?) thus reproducing the delusional liberal argument for that war. Plus Prof X stopping wacky Islamic fundamentalist plane hijackers and you have a fairly reactionary comic from an artist who was the son of a hardcore antiwar socialist (Walter Morrison) and is generally know from his anti-establishment writings.

    Remember that Morrison’s run was published over the 4 years of Bush Jr’s first term – when questions of war and resistance (and even the legitimacy of Bush Jr’s election) were very real questions.

    There was an interesting interview with Morrison on Barbelith where he states that some anti-war comments he posted on his blog in the wake of Sept 11th (“George W. Bush by stating ‘you’re either with us or against us’ is trying to turn us all into war criminals”) sparked a small but serious backlash.

    Here’s Morrison’s wife on the backlash: “It wasn’t because of any calls from Marvel. It was actually because about fifty people wrote in some supporting, some very strongly against and threatening all sorts, ‘We won’t buy your comics again’, retailers pulling out, not selling his comics-“

    Morrison’s X-men demands to be read in the context of 9-11 if only because the prophetic #115 hit the stands a month before the Twin Towers burnt to the ground, but I think the effects go much deeper. While the DIxie Chicks were being crucified by the corporate media, Morrison was preaching the pointlessness of protest and imitating Nancy Reagan!

    I agree with all you love about the series, I do too, but there is a mean-spirited to the series that, when, combined with clumsy reveals and shallow characterizations, always leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    To me this is the beginning of the Grant Morrison who will eventually write ‘Supergods’ where he calls comic nerds “bitter virgins with adult-onset diabetes” and states that comic artists should be happy to have a job and stop fighting for creator’s rights…

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