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X-Men: Messiah Complex (Review/Retrospective)

This is the seventh in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s core continuity (and in particular their “Avengers” franchise) over the past five or so years, as they’ve been attempting to position the property at the heart of their fictional universe. With The Avengers planned for a cinematic release in 2012, I thought I’d bring myself up to speed by taking a look at Marvel’s tangled web of continuity.

It has been commonly accepted that the “golden days” of X-Men crossovers are behind us. Of course, “golden days” is a subjective term – for every Age of Apocalypse, there was an Onslaught Saga – but there’s no way to argue that the mutants didn’t dominate Marvel’s output in the nineties. One would have thought that with Bryan Singer’s X-Men helping give birth to the superhero genre, this past decade might have been an even better one for the franchise, but it was not to be. In fact, The Avengers seem to have replaced the X-Men as the engine driving Marvel’s storytelling universe. Some might suggest that it is so blatant that it looks intentional (prompting a movie-related “conspiracy theory”), although Marvel have casually denied it – with vice president Tom Brevoort stating “these things tend to go in waves”. However, Messiah Complex is the first of a series of crossovers with the X-Men titles following House of Mwhich would chart the franchise’s gradual return to the status quo.

Cyclops has warmed to Ms. Frost…

I am admittedly quite skeptical of the suggestion that Marvel has been consciously sidelining the once popular franchise, given runs on Uncanny X-Men (officially the “flagship X-Men title) by fan favourites (and Eisner-winners) Ed Brubaker (Captain America) and Matt Fraction (The Invincible Iron Man) are inconsistently collected and all of Brian Michael Bendis’ New and Mighty Avengers runs have been collected in deluxe hardcover. It seems like there’s a conscious effort to downplay the franchise. Indeed, IGN’s early review of the opening issue of Messiah Complex couldn’t help but remark that this was the first crossover built around the characters in quite some time:

The merry mutants used to be Marvel’s biggest money makers, justifying the release of countless spinoff titles and endless convoluted crossover epics. While there are still plenty of X-Men spinoffs to be had today, the throne has been usurped by the Avengers , be they new, mighty, or taking part in some sort of initiative. While the X-Men will always resonate with a more mainstream audience, the kind that knows them mostly from the old ’90s cartoon and the movies, comics readers need something to make them fall in love with Cyclops, Beast, and the rest of the gang all over again. Marvel’s hope is that this something will be Messiah Complex, the first major X-Men crossover in roughly 10 years. Needless to say, expectations are high.

Making a splash…

In fact, one can trace the moment that the X-Men were replaced by The Avengers as Marvel’s top franchise down to one key event – House of M, an alternate universe story which famously ended with all but 198 of Marvel’s mutants wiped out. It has been stated before that the problem with House of M‘s impact on the X-Men titles has been to take what could have been offered by Joe Quesada as a silent editorial prerogative (“stop introducing so many mutants in the books!”) and botch the execution so badly that it essentially turned the X-Men into one-trick ponies, and simultaneously betrayed the franchise’s well-loved central metaphor:

Most thematically-linked X-Men villains were historically split between two camps: human bigots who believed that mutants were less than human and therefore deserved to be segregated or exterminated, and mutant chauvinists who believed that mutants were more than human and therefore deserved to rule or exterminate mainstream humanity. The X-Men we situated precisely in the middle of these conflicts: mutants were neither worse nor better than humanity, they were humanity.

But that’s not how it is anymore: Cyclops 2010 talks just like Magneto 1980, or Apocalypse 1995. Mutants are a species separate from humanity, they must protect themselves from humanity, they must act to ensure their own survival at all costs. The moment the X-Men started talking like this, they obliterated the moral argument at the heart of the franchise. Reading this latest X-crossover – the supposed climax of all these post-M-Day plot threads – it becomes progressively more clear that not only are the X-Men themselves backed into a corner, but the people who write the books are as well: they need to realize that they’ve turned the characters from staunch integrationists into de facto separatists.

I honestly believe that there were better ways to deal with the suggested “over population” of mutants than wiping out all but 198 of them. The most obvious suggestion would have been to put an editorial moratorium on introducing new characters or restricting access to existing ones. After all, the problem wasn’t that there were too many mutants, just that there were too many being featured in Marvel books. Hell, one might argue that it would have been far more interesting to let the franchise evolve from the “under siege” mentality of the sixties and seventies into an exploration of discrimination in the modern world.

There’s snow where else to go…

The X-Men had always been about diversity and integration, the idea that life is worth more than simply surviving – it’s about learning to live together. However, House of M and subsequent developments fundamentally altered the objective of the team. It wasn’t about figuring how to live in peace, it was all about survival. That’s a drastic development, and one which pushed the book firmly beyond the realm of social commentary that it had so long been associated.

I know that there have been various attempts to keep the idea of mutants as a minority metaphor alive – for example, comparing them to a dwindling Native American population, or Matt Fraction’s attempt to move them to San Francisco as an obvious allusion to various sexual minorities – but the key theme of the books fundamentally altered. It wasn’t a civil rights story anymore, but the same sort of conventional science-fantasy survival and extinction adventure narrative that was frequently played out in fiction. The stakes weren’t anything brave and daring like hoping to build a sustainable future as a culture, but something as bland as “racing to find a cure” or “racing to the last hope” or “racing to stay alive” or what ever the next face-paced thrill could be.

The X-Men aren’t all there…

I suppose it was inevitable that the X-Men would do an “extinction” plot at some point in their history – a race against time to save the entire species from dying out (although you could argue that the Legacy Virus storyline – concerning a deadly contagion within the mutant population – qualifies). Given the fact that the series centres on what are frequently identified as a separate species, it seemed logical that they would face their own extinction at one point or another – simply because it’s such a common plot device and one which is frequently trotted out in stories concerning genetics. So, I suppose, if we were always going see a story about the mutant race fighting for survival (rather than for their basic rights), this arc – spanning from Messiah Complex to Second Coming is quite an entertaining one. It’s just disappointing the event doesn’t speak to anything which made the X-Men such a popular franchise in the first place – but then how many of the “classic” crossovers spoke to the nature of the franchise?

Perhaps what’s remarkable about the three “series” of crossovers – the Avengers, the X-Men and Cosmic Marvel – is that each of the three branches have their own particular style of storytelling. Events like Civil War and Secret Invasion are built around a core miniseries, with tie-ins populating just about every other comic book on the stands. Annihilation and Annihilation: Conquest were told in a series of simultaneous four-issue miniseries leading into on core miniseries. The X-Men books, by contrast, tell one single story across every book in the line. So Messiah Complex isn’t told in a separate miniseries – for the three months, every issue of Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, New X-Men and X-Men was a continuation of the saga. Although each of the titles maintained their creative teams across the event, they all flow into one another – so Peter David wrote Chapters #4, #7 and #11; and Ed Brubaker drafted Chapters #2, #6 and #10.

The X-Men franchise has become a wreck of late…

The plot of the crossover picks up after the massive loss of mutant life in the wake of House of M. Once relatively plentiful (so much so that New X-Men was following the social evolution of the species), mutants suddenly found themselves all but wiped out – less than 200 of the genetically-evolved individuals remained. As the crossover opens, Professor Xavier detects something abnormal in Alaska – it appears that a new mutant has been born, the first since the disaster known as “M-Day”. Appropriately named “Hope”, the baby becomes the centre of a power struggle between a wide variety of factions, all seeking to use the child to steer the future of the mutant race – or end it, forever.

At thirteen chapters, Messiah Complex is perhaps a bit long for its own good – and, despite an overall feeling of consistency, one can definitely feel the shift from writer to writer between chapters. Still, it’s one hell of a line-up behind the book. Though Brubaker never quite found his feet on Uncanny X-Men in the same way that he made his mark of Captain America or, I’d argue, Daredevil, he’s still a damn fine writer and it’s great to see him teamed up with Peter David – a writer how has never enjoyed “superstar” status even among comic book nerds, despite a long and surprisingly consistent career.

Um… should a guy name “Cyclops” be flying a plane? Isn’t depth perception important?

Despite the fact that the X-Men find themselves in a (relatively) new status quo, Messiah Complex is a surprisingly nostalgic adventure. There’s the return of Professor X, some time-travel to a dystopian future, and loads and loads of characters. One of the most frequent criticisms of modern X-Men books (perhaps ironically, given the editorial edict discussed above) is the fact that they really do feature sprawling casts. Evidence suggests that the two “big name” writers on the franchise – Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker – work better with smaller casts, but they just keep adding names to the line-up.

Within the context of the story, this is justified by the fairly logical notion that mutants should stick together now that there’s less than two-hundred of them. Outside the story, it seems almost like a point of rebellion by the writers. Ultimately, it serves as an illustration of just how crazy a magical genocide was in making the books less continuity-heavy, more accessible and more relevent – Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, arguably the book which prompted this editorial mandate, featured a core cast of maybe six characters (with varying recurring faces over a forty-issue run), while the numbers of X-Men featured here number in the dozens. The problem isn’t that there are too many mutants in your fictional universe, it’s that your writers are overusing them. “200” adds a nice soundbyte to the whole affair, but it ultimately doesn’t stop large bunches of continuity-heavy characters being thrown together and still seeming like a large and alienating group. But I digress. I think I’m rambling again.

Nightcrawler won’t be crawling anywhere anytime soon…

Messiah Complex is a fairly nice little event, but I concede that might be down to the fact that I am predisposed towards Charles Xavier and his School for the Gifted. I grew up watching the cartoon, and I’m a sucker for nostalgia. There are worse ways you could tell a story like this, if you absolutely had to. It hits all of the right buttons and features all of my favourite characters. I get the sense that if more of Ed Brubaker’s run on Uncanny X-Men had been collected in a friendly format (I’m reading these crossovers in the lovely oversized hardcovers), it might have been a little bit easier to follow, but that’s a minor complaint.

When all is said and done, though, it still seems like nostalgia for the nineties isn’t necessarily the best direction for the franchise. It was the nineties which led to the “reboot” which got us here now, and yet the writers are unashamed fans of the period – Mister Sinister even makes an appearance amid all this carnage. It feels strange and almost counter-intuitive to adopt that model of nineties crossovers to tell a story crafted as a way of distancing the franchise from the era. Then again, I suppose we all know how this is ultimately going to play out (hint: Marvel won’t kill the X-Men franchise), so there’s a definite sense of running on the spot to proceedings.

It’s an X-over…

Messiah Complex is a grand crossover. It’s relatively simple as these events go – despite the fact that it’s tied to god knows how much going on in how many comics, the story and motivations are very straight-forward and accessible. It’s just hard to distance the story from the meta-narrative surrounding it, which is a weird self-contradictory mess. When a deus ex machina ending to one big crossover puts a bunch of characters in a hopeless situation, it’s very hard not to expect another deus ex machina to set things right. And we’ll be exactly where we started.

The best we can hope for is an entertaining story along the way, and Messiah Complex is that at any rate.

You might be interested in our other reviews of Ed Brubaker’s X-Men:

 

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