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X-Statix Omnibus by Peter Milligan & Mike Allred (Review/Retrospective)

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.

There’s been a lot written about how fiendishly clever Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s X-Statix was when it was published by Marvel in the early part of the last decade. Spanning two titles (beginning in X-Force and then spinning into its own title in X-Statix), it offered a forty-issue re-examination of the core X-Men thesis. Published at approximately the same time, it actually serves as something of a spiritual companion to Grant Morrison’s equally controversial, challenging and provocative New X-Men run. Both series dared to consider that Chris Claremont’s once revolutionary idea, casting mutants as a feared minority because they were inherently “different” might need revision in the early years of the twenty-first century. Both series have been attacked by critics for not conforming to the model that Claremont designed for the franchise three decades earlier. However, I’m going to be controversial, and I’m going to state that both Morrison and Milligan were more faithful spiritual successors to Claremont than any X-Men writers since the nineties.

Nobody’s Doop…

Note: You can read my review of Milligan and Allred’s initial X-Force run, collected in the hardcover “Famous, Mutant & Mortal” here. This is a review of the recently-published omnibus, which collects all their work on the characters, so I won’t go into too much depth on that initial run.

Okay, that’s a controversial assumption, right there. It’s also worth conceding that Chris Claremont himself actually devoted time to reversing some of the more radical changes that Morrison made in New X-Men – specifically his revision of Magneto. I understand that, but it doesn’t mean that Morrison or Milligan are “out of touch” with what Claremont originally did. After all, it is the prerogative of any ageing writer or rock star or celebrity to give up challenging the establishment and then begin to work within it, having redefined it. After all, Johnny Rotten now sells low-fat butter substitutes and Ozzie Osborn is a reality television star.

I’m just sick of reading people claim that New X-Men or X-Statix represent radical departures from what Claremont did, and that they “stray” from what made the X-Men franchise so successful. This criticism is predicated on the assumption that it’s an individual idea (or a set of ideas) that gave the books an edge and helped them carve out a niche in a crowded superhero market. I’d disagree. I don’t think it’s a particular scenario or plot point that set them apart.

Stark naked…

I’d suggest it’s a philosophical position or an authorial approach that made Claremont’s approach so successful and resonant, and I think he individual plot points or set-ups were just illustrations of that philosophy in action. I don’t think the X-Men were successful because they were a minority under constant attack from the majority, but because Claremont found an approach that reflected the outside world in comic book form. I think that Morrison and Milligan did the exact same thing, and their approaches mirror Claremont very closely. Perhaps more closely than any major writer on the franchise since Claremont left.

Claremont once re-wrote the book on what you could and couldn’t do in a Marvel comic book, and offered a fairly fundamental paradigm shift. Although it took the market a while to realise it, Uncanny X-Men under Claremont was the future of comics. It was new, and it was different – and that was important. It was over a decade after the arrival of The Fantastic Four or The Amazing Spider-Man. Comic books had reached a new generation – ones with different outlooks and tastes and perspectives, and different attitudes to authority. Claremont offered a snapshot of American culture through the seventies and eighties, one reflecting the world around it. It wasn’t static, but dynamic. It evolved and changed. The government wasn’t to be trusted. Being counter-cultural was cool. Anti-heroes were the future.

Dead cool…

Why am I spending so much time discussing Claremont at the start of a retrospective or review of Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s X-Statix? Because I want to contextualise it. I don’t believe that X-Statix was something entirely strange to mainstream superhero comics, and neither was New X-Men. Instead, it was a spiritual successor to those revolutionary shifts Claremont masterminded in Uncanny X-Men. I think that the only difference was that comics had crystalised, and there was no more room in the fans’ perception for change, and so X-Statix and New X-Men ended up looking like the odd superhero comics out.

Let’s compare Milligan and Allred’s X-Statix to Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men. Claremont found a wonderful hook for his stories by juxtaposing them against the Civil Rights movement in America. He contextualised the idea of being born a mutant to the experiences of the minorities at the time. This was a period where it looked like America was still on the verge of an explosion of race-related violence, and there were still considerable institutional barriers to members of ethnic minorities in areas like employment or education. Sure, the race issue was a hot-button topic in the sixties, but Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men arrived at a time when it was still topical. Even into the eighties and nineties you had incidents like Bernie Goetz and Rodney King.

A beast of a man…

However, at some point along the way, it seems like the counter-culture movement won. Instead of an oppressive government seeking to enforce conformity, it became popular culture celebrating diversity. All of a sudden, ethnic cultures became “cool.” Rap music was no longer the voice of a disenfranchised minority, but it became socially acceptable for white suburban kids to sing along. It became hip to have an Asian tattoo, with a Chinese figure that you didn’t understand at the middle of the design. Suddenly, the sociological practice of “passing” wasn’t just a one way street, with white people coopting various aspects of multiple (and occasionally conflicting) ethnic identities.

Milligan and Allred’s X-Statix (and Morrison’s New X-Men) acknowledge this shifting reality. They realised that the real-world situation that gave the X-Men franchise its sense of relevance has changed, and that the comics needed to change to reflect that. Myles even remarks in-story on this change, explaining, “Mutants once feared are now revered.” Or, as Dr. Finlay claims, “Mutant is the new common. Different is the new normal.”

Women are from Venus…

That’s not to say that racism is completely gone, or that all issues concerning the relationships between minorities and the majority have resolved themselves. While those rejecting the notion that black people are entitled to equal pay or that mixed marriage is an abomination or that gays will burn in hell are increasingly a fringe minority, there are other disturbing ideas hiding behind the promise of a broad equality. It’s to the credit of X-Statix that it addresses such complex issues for such complex times. Indeed, all of the cast are aware that they are only being tolerated to a point, and that they are exploiting their own “differentness” for their success, aware that the public could turn on them in a moment.

When two of the band leave to found their own touring stage show, using their mutant abilities to impress hillbillies as part of “the Tyke Alicar and Dead Girl Road Show”, the Orphan points out how volatile the situation is. “This is no better than a Coney Island freak show,” he insists. “There’s a difference,” Tyke assures him. “This time we’re in control.” It’s a tightrope that the team have to walk, and they’re aware of how their exploiting the same aspects of themselves that could lead the masses to brutally reject them.

What a Sensative fellow…

Milligan isn’t afraid to handle the nuanced issue of race relations. Tyke Alacar, “the Anarchist”, has a wonderfully complicated character background, one that probes the notion of ethnic identity. The idea that he was raised by white parents and that his fixation of bodily hygiene is an unconscious rejection of his own skintone is a challenging one, and one that speaks to Tyke as a real character rather than a shallow collection of tropes and clichés. He even addresses the idea of the more subtle and engrained institutional prejudice that still exists, beneath the liberal and tolerant facade. It’s no coincidence, for example, that Tyke’s role in X-Statix is downplayed in the feature film adaptation, a commentary on Hollywood’s seeming insecurity with non-white leads for big-budget films. Or that most of the prisoners coopted for the illegal government experiments happen to be black. It’s not because of any conscious recruitment policy, but reflecting a wider and more nuanced social injustice.

However, Milligan’s X-Statix is more closely tied to Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men than in its insightful social relevance. Beneath the wonderful artwork by Mike Allred, giving the book a snazzy pop art feel, you can see Milligan subtly applying the same narrative tropes that Claremont used. Of course, the younger writer uses them with a stronger sense of irony, but they add a sense of familiarity to the story. It’s not a dull and boring “been here and done that”sort of atmosphere that you can get with a lot of superhero stories, it’s more a sense that Milligan’s story fits a lot better with Claremont’s than most give either credit for.

Dead wrong…

For one thing, both authors threw out the rulebook on what you could expect from a superhero title, especially a team book. Claremont’s book famously killed the character of Thunderbird in the first few issues and then killed Jean Grey, who would return quite a few years later. His cast had a revolving door, and you were never sure who would stay or who would go in any given issue. Milligan and Allred foster the same wonderful uncertainty, readily killing off characters with little or no warning. They sacrifice both big characters and small characters; new and old. At one point, in one arc, two characters die seemingly random deaths in a story that doesn’t involve them in any significant way.

Claremont and Milligan also share a wonderful knack for developing and defining characters, something that doesn’t happen too much these days in mainstream comics. After all, most characters have been around for generations, so there’s little need to really give them too much depth. However, Claremont managed to craft an ensemble of unforgettable relatively new characters in his “All New, All Different!” Uncanny X-Men– an initial line-up that included Wolverine, Storm and Nightcrawler. Even if he didn’t actually create them, he gave each character a distinctive voice.

It’s hammer time…

Milligan does the same here with his X-Statix cast, defining and developing most of his ensemble with their own personalities and charms and quirks. Tyke Alicar, the Orphan and Edie seem to jump off the page, but even Phat, Myles and Dead Girl have their own distinctive voices. Over the course of the forty-issue run, you get a sense that you know each of them, in their own way. Even if none of Milligan’s ensemble (save maybe Doop) hung around the Marvel Universe after the series wrapped up, they’re still among my favourite creations of the past decade or so.

It is worth remarking that Claremont and Milligan use the same tools in bringing the characters to life: they tend to generate lots of angst and character conflict. That’s not really a novel or distinctive approach, but Claremont was one of the first Marvel writers to really push that sort of angst and melodramatic moodiness, and Milligan seems to affectionately reference Claremont by turning it up to even higher degrees. The hook where one of three characters is told that they will die (and spend the next few issues fretting about it) could have been lifted from a Claremont story, and Milligan even subtly hints at those love triangles Claremont used to be fond of (Orphan-Venus-Tyke), even leaving it dangling as a bit of an homage to Claremont’s somewhat “loose”plotting style. Indeed, it seems that Dead Girl never finds her killer, much like Claremont never allowed Wolverine to uncover his dark and secret past.

Dead Girl pulls herself together…

That’s not to suggest that Milligan and Allred’s X-Statix isn’t a completely different beast – it is a very unique sort of comic. Indeed, it couldn’t be more tonal distinct from Claremont’s work, playing everything as spoof instead of Claremont’s heightened melodrama. However, I think that there are enough similarities in the approach to merit discussion, and to clearly identify Milligan and Allred’s X-Statix as a good-natured spiritual successor to Uncanny X-Men. It is, pretty much, at its core, an “All New, All Different” X-Men comic for the twenty-first century. And it’s absolutely brilliant, in its own way.

Reading back over these stories, it’s amazing how deftly Milligan touches on any number of big important ideas, and how he manages to say quite a bit without ever seeming to moralise or to force his point-of-view down the audience’s throats. We get commentary on gender roles, racial issues, sexuality, politics, fame, fortune and even social justice. Much of X-Statix seems fearless in the way that it tackles these controversial issues, which makes it somewhat refreshing.

X-Statix has the most unlikely fans…

Of course, this makes it all the more notable when Milligan pulls his punches – or when editorial forces him to pull his punches. At this point in history, the “Princess Diana” scandal is infamous – perhaps the largest controversy that either of the two major companies have generated in quite some time. The idea was that an arc of X-Statix – cleverly titled Di Another Day – would resurrect Lady Diana Spencer and see her join this bunch of fame-hungry mutants. However, the UK press got wind of the idea and reaction was not favourable, at all.

It’s funny how X-Statix could make various jokes at the expense of American political figures (including George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfield), but a British figure was so immediately out-of-bounds. Despite the fact that the issues had been written and the covers drafted (and released), the book was hastily rewritten to feature fictional pop princess Henrietta Hunter. However, the omnibus collection doesn’t contain any back-up material covering the scandal. I know it was probably a sore point, but given the mainstream media coverage (including Milligan writing an article for The Guardian), it might have been nice to see something included – either the original scripts or the previously-released cover art or something.

This story Di-ed a death…

I can understand why Marvel might have been a bit sensitive about the whole thing, but it’s not as if Milligan is exactly subtle about the controversy within the book itself. Even reading the story without any background knowledge, it’s clear that Henrietta is clearly Diana. “I found myself in a long, dark tunnel,” Henrietta observes of her death. As a mutant, Henrietta tries to define her own powers. “Powers?” she asks. “Well… I suppose I have the power of… empathy.”

Indeed, even the villains of the piece are clearly meant to be stand-ins for the House of Windsor? “Before I was murdered,” she explains, “some high ranking members of Europa’s establishment tried to stop me doing my good work.” Hell, the two very British, very upper-crust representatives of the bad guys even offer to bribe X-Statix’s manager Spike Freeman with “a hefty slice of British taxpayers’ money.” Her work even included landmine charities and Henrietta is never afraid to name drop her “dear friend Elton.” It seems that all Milligan and Allred did was change her hair a bit.

Myles is rather test(tube)y today…

In the single arc following the much-less-snazzily-renamed Back from the Dead, Milligan goes out of his way to make sure that nobody could finish the book without getting a clear idea of what he originally intended. “Didn’t her name used to be…?” Tony Stark asks at one point, when Henrietta comes up in conversation. Even Venis Dee Milo makes a casual remark about “that pop star who looked like Lady Diana with a wig.” Marvel editorial might have buckled to external pressure, but Milligan is still having his fun.

I can’t help but wonder if the Di Another Day fiasco helped put a nail in the coffin of X-Statix, at least in theory. It seemed to prove that Milligan had reached a boundary that he couldn’t cross with the book, giving a sense that he and Allred had carried the title about as far as they could outside the norms of a superhero title. Indeed, the story arc that followed (pitting X-Statix against the Avengers) seemed a bit “softer” than a lot of what had come before, savagely mocking comic book story-telling techniques rather than anything outside in the “real world.”

Best Marvel team-up ever…

Of course, the real nail in the coffin was probably sales. X-Statix never sold especially well, which is a shame – it’s one of the smartest and boldest and best-written mainstream comic books of the past decade. It’s cool and hip to criticise Marvel for being over conservative with their comic books, and striking down interesting titles without promotion or giving them room to develop, but I think that they deserve credit for their approach in the early part of the last decade. They kept X-Statix going long after it passed the cancellation threshold, and long past the point where it could gather a strong following. In an era where it seems possible for miniseries to be cancelled early, I think that shows a lot of commitment to the series.

After all, despite how cold and cynical Marvel became in recent years, the early part of the last decade was rich with experimentation. Bendis deconstructing Daredevil. Mark Millar re-writing The Avengers as The Ultimates. Morrison throwing out the rulebook with New X-Men. Bendis creating a modern Spider-Man in Ultimate Spider-Man. It’s this era that brough me into comic books, and X-Statixis another jewel in the crown. It’s fair to criticise the artistic closed shop that Marvel has become, but I think that Joe Quesada deserves recognition for those bold original ideas he pushed in the early part of the new millennium.

Spell-binding…

Of course, Milligan didn’t just use the comic to explore social issues, but he also offered a fascinating commentary on the nature of comic books themselves, full of self-deprecating wit. Early on in the story, Milligan allows the team to meet Arnie, the all-powerful fan-boy, described in-story as “an ironic comment on the average X-Statix fan.” Arnie has the power to bend the comic-book-world to his very will, and the team find themselves “forced to live up to Arnie’s expectations.”

Arnie is a wonderfully bitter commentary on the sort of possessive and entitled fan-boy-ish attitude that many readers have to their characters, and one that comic books seem to encourage more than any other medium. Hell, at times, it seems like each reader expects the very industry to bend to their whims and suggestion – internet message boards are a very scary place. Milligan and Allred knew how intense that sort of fan hatred could be. After all, they’d hijacked Rob Liefeld’s X-Force to tell their post-modern superhero fare, and it seemed that a lot of readers weren’t impressed that Milligan and Allred would dareto try something bold or imaginative.

The team’s been dooped…

“I mean,” Arnie asks, reacting to a change, “how do those people expect us fans to react?” Arnie, in particular, is a character who wants to hold the team to account for letting his favourite character die. He can’t move on. He doesn’t want anything new, he just wants the same old stuff, over and over again. X-Statix isn’t for everyone, of course, but I think Milligan was astounded by how aggressive some fans responded to it. I’ve remarked before that I entirely agree with Milligan. It’s fans like that who are strangling the superhero genre, refusing to let new ideas emerge and thrive. If Chris Claremont relaunched Uncanny X-Men today, internet fanboys would tear him to shreds, refusing to give the book a chance because it’s not what they’d expect from their superheroes.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Milligan devotes the final arc in X-Statix to this notion of the static comic book ideal, pitting his very new and modern fame-hungry superheroes against the tried-and-tested Avengers, the superhero team on the verge of becoming Marvel’s core franchise. Milligan allows the Avengers to voice the superhero establishment, seeing X-Statix as an attack on the standard superhero ideal, with Cap observing, “They are symbols of a less forgiving, more ironic time. They take nothing seriously. Even their costumes.” Hell, Steve Rogers doesn’t even have time for their post-modern ironic nicknames. “‘The Anarchist’. I ask you… what kind of a name for a superhero is that?”

That’s gonna be Thor in the morning!

Of course, Milligan has a bit of fun with the conventions of superhero crossovers, essentially painting the typical editorial mandated “let’s fight!” sequence as a bunch of increasingly pathetic vignettes, in which both teams are painted as deceitful, vain, petty and vindictive. It culminates with the hilarious sight of Mr. Sensitive and Iron Man throwing grass at one another, perhaps illustrating how incredibly stupid and juvenile these sorts of hero-versus-hero confrontations tend to be.

There’s something refreshing in the vitriol that Milligan seems to have for the standard tropes of superhero storytelling, after using his final big arc to mock those typical action-packed crossovers. In fact, Milligan seems to be ahead of his time, almost foreshadowing Marvel’s now-infamous promise of a major superhero death every quarter as a means of boosting sales. When one member of the team passes away, a guy running a franchised “X-Cafe”, selling authentic merchandise, confesses to reporters that it’s “busy, like it always is when there’s news of death. But I’m worried this is only short term.” Increasingly, it seems like Spike Freeman is actually running Marvel itself.

Spaced out…

In fairness, though, Milligan is shrewd enough to acknowledge his own weaknesses as well. There’s not a sense that he’s up on his soapbox, because the title is brilliantly irreverent of everything, including its own writing. In the final chapter of Back from the Dead, where Henrietta’s record label releases a single that apparently kills all those who listen to it, Milligan isn’t shy about the fact that he “borrowed” the idea from Ringu. “It’s just like out of that movie,” one record executive remarks. “The Japanese one that Hollywood remade?” another asks.

Indeed, like Grant Morrison, Milligan seems to enjoy peppering his writing with self-aware hints. “So this is the dangerous thought,” Myles suggests at one point, “our thoughts… actions… self-discoveries are not the products of free will but are in some way manipulated to keep the team interesting: alive.”He seems to come very close to working out that he and his fellow cast members are characters in a fictional narrative trying to keep the reader engaged.

No more Mister Nice Guy…

In the wonderfully whimsical Wolverine/Doop miniseries, Professor X and Wolverine discuss the plot holes in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, seemingly as an excuse to cover some plot holes in his own work. Why didn’t Van Helsing and company wait until daylight kill Dracula? Professor X suggests, “They’d run out of story.” Indeed, the entire Wolverine/Doop miniseries is predicated on a series of highly improbable twists including various characters and locations de-fictionalising themselves within the context of the narrative. It’s light, clever, funny stuff. In that way, it’s a lot like the rest of Milligan’s X-Statix.

I will confess that there is something slightly surreal about seeing Milligan write the rest of the Marvel Universe, as opposed to just his X-Statix characters. They definitely seem a bit sillier (I did not need to know that much about Stephen Strange’s bathroom habits, for example), but it’s also just a little bit cleverer. Wolverine/Doop is an incredibly pointless miniseries, but it has a witty script and beautiful art. I loved seeing Mike Allred render Asgard, and I think Milligan actually makes great use of the home of the ancient gods, with ancient soldiers awakening to reclaim the world.

Team players?

Thor claims the world is no longer property of the gods, but Hilda disputes this. “That myth, ‘the age of science’, is coming to an end,” she suggests. “It’s our time again. A time of martyrs and jihads. Doomed heroes and massacres. Listen! They’re playing our song!” Now there is an absolutely fascinating idea for a Thor run, exploring the destructive capabilities of faith, and applying them against the forces of reason within the Marvel Universe. I reckon that would be an absolutely epic story to be told there, and one timely. It’s not to denigrate any of the solid work done by recent Thor writers, but an illustration of how Milligan manages to embed a smart idea in relatively few pages of story.

It’s a little disappointing that Doop is really the only part of Milligan and Allred’s run to reach out of X-Statix and into the wider Marvel Universe. After all, the omnibus is rounded off by two one-shot stories featuring the little green creature. There is something immensely fascinating about the way Milligan writes him, with his own language. He’s pretty compelling as “an amorphous green blob of dubious sexual and moral proclivity.” Indeed, the surreal pairing with Wolverine as “the perfect combination of brains, brawn and green stuff”is now one of my favourite comic book team-ups.

Once you go Phat…

Of course, as I mentioned above, I think that focusing on Doop does a disservice to all the quality work that Milligan does with the rest of his ensemble. After all, can you think of another series that would devote an entire issue to provide the back story of a recently-deceased character, without it feeling in any way pointless? I think that even if you strip away the ironic post-modern ultra-hip exterior, Milligan’s story is still a well-told comic book tale with nuanced and developed characters, ones who are so complex that we don’t need to see them doing good deeds or hear them thinking good thoughts to engage with them.

It’s telling that most of the cast’s better deeds actually take place off-panel, and we only hear about them after-the-fact or second-hand. “See,” Phat explains to Guy and Edie at one point, “while back, me and Myles went gambling wid Tyke. On the dice table. I lost all I had, but Tyke couldn’t stop winnin’. He broke the bank, man. Then he gave it all away to a poor ugly old hooker and tol’ her to retire.”That’s one of the most decent things that Tyke does throughout the run, and it’s not even shown. I think it speaks volumes to Milligan’s skills as a writer that he is able to so subtly humanise these fame-hungry gold-diggers, without ever seeming too soft or too easy on them.

This is the end…

I think X-Statix deserves to be counted among the truly wonderful mainstream comics produced in the past decade, and one of the most bold and daring superhero comics ever written. However, I think it does this while remaining true to the spirit of the X-Men, once the most vibrant and exciting franchise at the House of Ideas. I think Milligan, Allred and all involved can hold their heads high and remain immensely proud of what they’ve done.

Check out our reviews of Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s work on X-Force and X-Statix:

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2 Responses

  1. Wonderful review! Convinced me to buy it and relatively free of spoilers.

    It’s not perfect, but I really loved the way Grant Morrison let the X-Men evolve in the early aughts (and E is for Extinction picked up the baton for 4 months in Secret Wars recently). It’s shame that the X-Men have regressed so much recently…

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