With our month looking at Avengers comics officially over, we thought it might be fun to dig into that other iconic Marvel property, the X-Men. Join us for a month of X-Men related reviews and discussion.
Age of X is a weird little story. On the surface, it appears like an homage to the classic Age of Apocalypse storyline, an alternate universe yarn that swept through the X-Men titles back in the nineties. It odes, after all, portray a universe very different to the one that we recognise, and the one that we’re familiar with. However, on inspection, it seems like writer Mike Carey might have been attempting something just a bit bolder, a critical examination of the X-Men books, and how far they’ve moved since the nineties – an attempt to determine if the editorial policy that has reshaped their fictional world – is truly for the best.
Mike Carey’s X-Men: Legacy seems like an interesting book, focusing – as it does – around a relatively small core group of characters. I’ve made the point before, and I’m not alone, that the X-Men books in the wake of House of M have generally lacked an individual identity. The X-Men universe has accumulated quite a large supporting cast, and I’ve always felt that the best way to utilise these characters is to divide them up so that each of the X-Men books has their own definitive primary casts, rather than having so many books focusing on the same core points with the same core character.
Indeed, as the name implies, Carey’s book is somewhat focused on the past. Its two lead characters, the two driving the plot developments in the book (and, also, in this crossover) are two very classic members of the X-Men ensemble who have perhaps suffered from a sense of irrelevance in the modern era. There is, of course, Rogue – a character who never seemed to capitalise off being the central character in Bryan Singer’s X-Men adaptation. And then there’s Charles Xavier, a character who seems to be increasingly pointless as the narrative focus of the main X-books seems to move away from his idea of peaceful co-existence. Indeed, it’s telling that Scott Summers, the de facto leader of the team at this point, seems to respect Magneto more than the bald telepath.
So, X-Men: Legacy became a sort of a home for these otherwise forgotten characters, the ones not tied up too tightly in Matt Fraction’s Nation X plot or the Second Coming crossover. It also provides Carey with a chance to reflect on times past. After all, the X-Men have arguably been replaced by the New Avengers as Marvel’s premiere superhero team franchise, regardless of whether or not you buy into Rob Liefeld’s conspiracy theory blaming the movie rights situation for the shift. More than that, though, the X-Men have struggled looking for relevance in recent years, with Utopia proposing that they might work as an Israeli metaphor, while Schism seems a strong reversal of that position.
In fact, Age of X works best as an exploration of the modern X-Men status quo. I’ve written before that the real beauty of alternate universe stories is the way that they can allow authors to comment on their on-going stories. It doesn’t matter that they “aren’t real”, because nothing in comic book continuity is “real” anyway. Part of me was a little frustrated at the way that Carey himself had to do interviews stressing that the storyline would have “consequences” in his on-going work, because a good story should be appealing on the basis that it’s a good story, not because it “ties in.”
Indeed, it’s worth remarking how cynical some of the tie-ins to Age of X seem, given the ultimate revelation about the nature of this alternate version of the X-Men. I’m not really complaining, as any excuse to read Jim McCann is grand with me. And because the stories are decently entertaining in their own right. They seem to offer their own reflections on Marvel’s post-Civil War era, with the strange alliances and divided households. Frank Castle, the Punisher, directing the Avengers – siding with Captain America as he did in Millar’s Civil War. Sue and Reed Richards divided by the core issue, as they were in Civil War. However, it’s hard to make logical sense of them if Age of X is defined by its “real” consequences.
Anyway, Carey’s main story presents “Fortress X”, a refuge where the last of mutant-kind makes its stand against a hostile outside world intent upon annihilating the X-Men once and for all. The exact origins of the conflict – the point of divergence – is left intentionally ambiguous. We’re told that “the Phoenix snubbed surrender and razed Albany in an instant of cosmic rage”, but it’s highly likely that there were earlier differences that prompted that extreme reaction. However, the point of divergence isn’t the real point here, as Carey is aware. Indeed, the divergence itself isn’t really the point, as far as Carey is concerned.
It’s the similarities that are striking. Carey presents Age of X as a disturbing dystopia, an apocalyptic world where the X-Men will never find peace or fulfil their goals. It’s meant to be the entire world turned upside down, one filled with torture and murder and attempted genocide. However, how is it really that different from the main X-Men books at this time? After all, Utopia itself is a fortress (and has been repeatedly described as such by characters like Cyclops), and the mutants in the modern Marvel universe are fighting off extinction following the events of House of M.
The irony is that the architects behind the “no more mutants” mantra, the event that pushed the X-Men line in its present direction, insisted that they were trying to make it more accessible and relatable by pulling back from Grant Morrison’s re-working of the mythos in New X-Men. The goal was to restore the merry mutants to their classic “feared and hated” status quo, by culling their numbers. Critics would suggest that they have done the opposite – making the books increasingly insular, stifling narrative opportunities and effectively pushing the title into a spiral of depressing and defeatist cynicism. Indeed, Jason Aaron’s recent Schism seems an attempt to reverse this direction, restoring half the team to a school setting (recalling the original set-up) and half the team to a superhero setting (recalling Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men).
Mike Carey’s Age of X seems to postulate an alternate world, presenting the bleakest of outcomes for the mutants, but what it ends up with is something remarkably similar to the current status quo. As such, Carey seems to be phrasing a gentle criticism of the direction the books have taken, and foreshadowing a sharp swerve away from all the darkness and defeatist nihilism. Of course Magneto, once the greatest foe of the X-Men, is their leader here. He’s even dressed in the white robes of a saint. This is a world marching to his drum beat – this is Magneto’s fantasy brought to life, suggesting that the anti-hero’s (or anti-villain’s) pessimistic world view won out – both in the Age of X reality, and in the regular Marvel universe.
More than that, though, Carey uses the opportunity to mount constructive logical criticism of the whole idea of Utopia as a hub for a race under siege, and even some subtle criticisms of the franchise as a whole. Explaining how he deduced that the world is fake, Magneto makes several points that could apply to the “real” X-Men books as well. I’ve always admired writers who are able to incorporate criticism of the superhero genre, without rendering the book completely unworkable. This “alternate” story provides Carey the opportunity to poke around the gigantic X-Men tapestry, and play with some of the weaker threads.
There’s a rather telling criticism of the X-Men’s role within the wider Marvel Universe, as Magneto wonders how “Fortress X” has managed to maintain a stalemate. “There are heroes in the outside world — heroes greater than us — who once acted for the human coalition, and then came to oppose it,” Magneto suggests. “Whatever side they stood on should be assured of victory. Therefore, our current stalemate makes no sense.” This criticism could equally apply to the main Marvel universe. After all, doesn’t it seem strange that Steve Rogers never took up the cause of mutant rights? Or that Tony Stark never applied financial and political pressure to protect the victims of widespread human rights abuses?
Of course, the superheroes couldn’t intervene too much without getting drawn into the X-Men tent, and readers don’t want to read X-Men: Captain America or X-Men: Iron Man. It’s easy to see why these issues don’t spill over into other titles from a publishing perspective – people want to read about heroes having cool adventures, and don’t want one set of books dominating the line. However, this becomes problematic when attempting to deal with it within the shared fictional universe. Arguably, the entire X-Men status quo is predicated on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes never doing anything to help (as if separated by a giant bubble, as seen literally here and in Second Coming). It’s the a logical problem only explained by the fact it’s a fictional universe.
However, Magneto’s logic also points out some flaws with the current set-up for Marvel’s merry mutants. He remarks that, even without the intervention of the superheroes, the forces seeking to attack them must be pretty stupid not to wipe out a single fortress containing the bulk of mutants still living. After all, if your species is dying out, it seems to invite attempted genocide by localising them all in one place. One would imagine wiping out “Fortress X” (or Utopia), would be easy enough if somebody set their mind to it. “But I think that persisting with the same failed tactics for three years is idiotic,” Magneto observes. “Are all our enemies idiots, then? And, if they are, how have they brought us so close to defeat?”
Later on in the story, a character confronts the cause of this massive shift in the fabric of reality. His accusations seem like they could have been made directly to the writers and editors who pushed the franchise in a particular direction, accusing them of unfairly restricting the story-telling opportunities or narrative potential of this rich and diverse cast. “You took away the whole world, and left us… this. A few square miles of rubble, a tower and a war that never ends. Did you really think that would be enough?” It just seems like the X-Men universe, once so incredibly vast as Chris Claremont (and then Grant Morrison and Peter Milligan) kept adding to it, bit by bit, became so incredibly tiny. It’s no wonder that Carey suggests you might be able to fit it in a box.
This is the most interesting aspect of Age of X, and it makes me more interested in reading the rest of Mike Carey’s work on X-Men legacy. The X-Men line is subject to increasingly random collection practices, at least in oversized hardcovers. While the entirety of Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers run is available in oversized hardcover (along with his Mighty Avengers and Dark Avengers work), Matt Fraction and Ed Brubakers’ runs on Uncanny X-Men are somewhat haphazardly collected. All of Kyle and Yost’s X-Force is available in the format, but Warren Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men is not. I would actually be a more frequent follower of the line if it were consistently collected.
Outside of its clever and insightful commentary on the present status quo, Carey’s Age of X does feel a bit uneven. It works well in centring its cast. Too often, giant crossovers suffer from trying to fit in too many players. While I did have some difficulty identifying individual characters at certain points, Carey cleverly keeps most of the focus on Rogue. Here he gives her the codename “Legacy”, as if to confirm that X-Men: Legacy is de facto her book. It also gives the title a measure of consistency when shifting from artist to artist.
That said, however, it does feel like the supporting cast aren’t developed too well. Carey gives us interesting alternate versions of Magneto and Wolverine, for example (even while making sure that Wolverine can’t hijack the crossover), but he never develops some of the more interesting denizens of “Fortress X”, including the darker alternate version of Cyclops or the cast of New Mutants. I know it’s unfair to compare it to Age of Apocalypse, which is perhaps the definitive “alternate universe” story in mainstream comics (and published in an omnibus several times thicker), but Age of X feels a bit shallow. Which, I suppose, is kind of the point – given the revelation – but it does leave the reader just a little unsatisfied.
Carey is ably supported by a solid team of artists, though I will observe that Steve Kurth draws Magneto’s chin very weird. I don’t normally single out particular attributes as drawn by particular artists, but there are points where Magneto almost looks like a bullfrog. It’s just strange, because Kurth’s work is generally solid for the rest of the crossover, and it just looks a little… odd, for lack of a better word.
Age of X is a fine story. It’s not brilliant or perfect, or a wonderful snapshot of the X-Men as a franchise. However, it is well served by some clever insights on the current X-Men status quo and a witty style that seems to acknowledge that this isn’t “the event that changes everything.” Sometimes it’s nice to read a well-written story exploring the state of a current comic book franchise, and while Age of X won’t go down as a classic, it should give the reader something to chew over.
Filed under: Comics Tagged: | Age of X, Carey, comic books, cyclops, fortress x, Jim McCann, magneto, marvel, marvel comics, meta-fiction, Mike Carey, no more mutants, review, Rogue, utopia, x-men, X-Men: Legacy