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X-Men: Schism (Review)

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.

X-Men: Schism is a game-changer. It’s an attempt to realign Marvel’s X-Men line, a series of books that have faltered in recent years. After all, events like Messiah Complex and Second Coming couldn’t propel the line back to prominence, so Schism feels like a manifesto. Collecting the main series written by Jason Aaron, and the X-Men: Regenesis one-shot written by Kieron Gillen, it represents the most recent attempt to bring the some sense of life and purpose back to the X-Men books, which have been increasingly overshadowed by Marvel’s Avengers publishing line. And, to be frank, I can’t help but think that Schism works pretty well as an attempt to brush away the recent past and carve out a new and exciting future.

The hand of fate…

We don’t want to dwell too much on the past, but it seems increasingly obvious that House of M was a mistake by Marvel’s editorial. Reacting to Grant Morrison’s superb New X-Men run, the event introduced the phrase “no more mutants!” into the comic book lexicon, reducing the population of the X-Men books down to 200 super-powered characters. The logic was that it was becoming too common to encounter mutants, and that the abundance of mutants were serving to dilute the franchise. Of course, rather than simply suggesting an editorial mandate banning the creation of new characters (and the use of old ones), Joe Quesada decided to structure a big event around it.

And so, all of a sudden, there were a lot fewer mutants. Ironically, this had the opposite of the desired effect. Instead of stream-lining the publishing line, it convoluted it. Every story became tied into an attempt by the mutants to survive as a species. All the mutants huddled together on an island, so it became near impossible for books to maintain tight casts – instead the same characters were popping up randomly everywhere. As a result, the books become a lot more insular, and the storyline became a lot more confined. A lot of joy was also lost from the book as it seemed that the book was less about cool superheroes and more about a race fighting to survive against genuinely impossible odds.

No Idie what to do next…

Marvel brought in big-name writers to take over the franchise, but failed to replicate the success that Grant Morrison had on New X-Men and Joss Whedon had on Astonishing X-Men. I suspect that’s why the post-Schism status quo consciously harks back to both books. It wasn’t that Marvel wasn’t trying to make the mutants work, despite what Rob Liefeld might have suggested about intellectual property rights. They appoint big-name writers like Ed Brubaker (who had done great work with Captain America) and Matt Fraction (who has also done a fantastic job with The Invincible Iron Man), but nobody seemed able to get it. And I say that as somebody who didn’t love Fraction’s run, but disliked it less than most.

So Jason Aaron’s Schism feels like a conscious challenge to the status quo as it had become, with the X-Men all sheltered on a tiny piece of rock in the San Francisco Bay. Fraction had struggled to find a groove for the team, a metaphor to match the potency of Chris Claremont’s Civil Rights analogues. First, he suggests that mutants were akin to the gay rights movement – no reproductive capacity, and living in San Francisco, with a notably religious element to those persecuting them. When that didn’t quite develop as planned, Fraction gently broached a more potent metaphor. He suggested that the mutant island-state of Utopia was a stand-in for Israel, which had served as a home to the Jews after the Second World War.

Cyclops and the all-seeing eye…

Here’s what’s fascinating about how Aaron handles the status quo that he inherited from Fraction: he makes it work. Fraction’s core idea was interesting, but he never developed it properly. After all, Israel is surrounded by nations who want to wipe it off the face of the planet, while Utopia sits in the sea by the most tolerant city on the planet. There was also a sense that Fraction didn’t want to push the metaphor too far. Cyclops maintains a solid relationship with his neighbours and is never actively belligerent to the international community despite his isolationist stance. He might commission assassination squads on the side, but always covertly.

Aaron, on the other hand, dares to push that particular metaphor as far as it will go, carrying the Fraction’s “Nation X” to its logical conclusion. “This is what it means to have the whole world hate and fear you,” Cyclops states after the nations of the world start arming Sentinels in response to the mutant presence. We’re warned that “gene-sensitive landmines” and “Soviet-made versions of early Mark I or Mark II Grade Sentinels” are being deployed to deal with “genetic infidels.”In case we didn’t get the metaphor, Aaron even writes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad into the book.

Iran, Iran so far away…

Cyclops steps up his game as a leader of this small nation-state, addressing the United Nations in no uncertain terms. Like Israel, he responds to threats to his nation’s sovereignty with deadly force. When he sends a team to a Mutant History Museum, it’s not a peace delegation, but a “show of force.” He lies to Steve Rogers to preserve his own authority, and doesn’t recognise international law when it comes to dealing with mutant prisoners. It’s fascinating that Utopia feels more under siege here than it did during Fraction’s run on the title. It’s to Aaron’s credit that he takes a strong enough line to make the metaphor work.

However, he also makes the same valid criticisms of the idea that many other writers have suggested. There are in-story reasons why assembling ever member of a dying species in one place might be a bad idea, after all. “So simple,” Jeffries comments, watching a Sentinel approach the island. “No mutant sensors… Just one single, solitary target…” More than that, though, Aaron recognises this a major philosophical departure from the team’s traditional ideology. “We went off track, Scott,” Wolverine states, having an epiphany. “Somewhere along the way.” He yells, “This is a chunk of rock! This is not what we’re supposed to be fighting for!”

A Storm brewing…

And so, embracing the direction of his predecessors and yet being willing to criticise it, Aaron outlines his own vision. It’s interesting how much respect Aaron shows to Grant Morrison’s take, boring some of the writer’s plot points. Of course, that’s not really a surprise – he used Fantomax and Noh-Varr, two Morrison creations, in his Wolverine run – but it’s nice to see. Like Morrison’s E is for Extinction, Aaron opens his tenure with a gigantic Sentinel attacking an island full of mutants, signalling that the status quo is changing. He also reintroduces Quentin Quagmire, from Morrison’s Riot at Xavier’s.

Because – and this is the most fascinating aspect of the split in Schism – Aaron and Gillen recognise the fundamental dichotomy at play at the heart of the X-Men, and find solid archetypes to buttress each perspective. Are the X-Men a team of superheroes, as suggested in Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men? Or are they a community, as developed in Morrison’s New X-Men? The franchise is now able to explore both directions at once. It seems that Aaron will explore Morrison’s wacky high-concepts in Wolverine and the X-Men, while Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men will effectively be “the mutant Avengers.” It’s a nice best-of-both-worlds solution to the existential crisis facing the books. Then again, I suspect I might have put the end before the beginning in discussing Schism.

Sentinels at liberty…

What is most fascinating about Aaron’s Schism is the fact that he’s able to make it all make sense. This isn’t like Mark Millar’s decision to pit Captain America and Iron Man at each other’s throats in Civil War, playing out some poorly-conceived class-warfare conflict. While Aaron gives both Cyclops and Wolverine reasonable positions (in the circumstances), he keeps things remarkably civil. Even as the argument reaches its head, with Wolverine affirming that he’d stand side-by-side with Scott. “I will stand here with you ’til the last damn breath, Scott. You know that. But not with them. Send those kids outta here.”

When the inevitable brawl does break out, Aaron knows better than to suggest his leads would come to blows over an argument like this. No matter how serious the issue is to each of them, Aaron respects the characters better than to have them lash out at one another. Instead, it’s Jean Grey that causes the (fairly brutal) fisticuffs between the pair, reopening the oldest of wounds. It actually feels much more fitting than the similar fight between Captain America and Iron Man in Civil War, if only because the two seem willing to actually have the philosophical debate, until somebody says something very stupid. “She never loved you, you know.”

Suck it up…

Once again, though, I have to pause and admire Jason Aaron’s use of continuity here. I really don’t like the sort of rigid continuity that the comic book companies adopt, citing issue numbers and constantly referencing old stories in a way that leaves out the casual reader. I think all stories should be accessible to new readers. Aaron doesn’t anchor himself to specific events or back issues or story points, but instead builds a thematic continuity between his work here and on Wolverine.

It’s hard to really articulate what I mean, but Aaron structures the story so that it makes sense for Wolverine to hold his philosophical position, even if you haven’t read any Wolverine stories recently. He acknowledges, in this book, that Wolverine used to train young girls with deadly weapons – characters like Kitty Pryde or Jubilee. “Yeah,” Kitty remarks at one point, “but you also showed me how to use a sword before I was old enough to wear a bra.”

Monstrous!

However, without referencing a specific story or issue, Aaron convinces us that Wolverine has changed, and reconciles that with the character’s violence in one fell swoop. “I did all that so they wouldn’t have to!” Wolverine insists. A new or casual reader knows all they need to know about Wolverine from this story, which is something too rare these days – he accepts blood on his own hands to spare the innocent.

And yet, and this is the deft use of continuity I appreciate in Aaron’s work, Wolverine’s position makes even more sense when you consider it opens literally right after Aaron’s first arc on the relaunched Wolverine title. While those arrows and ninja stars seem like a throw-away joke to a new reader, they fit perfectly. Similarly, while we understand why he is making the decision, the decision has more weight given what just happened. Aaron is never explicit about the connection, and I think that’s for the best. “Talk to me, Logan,” Cyclops insists, in the only implicit reference to the adventure that scarred Wolverine. “Tell me what’s really bothering you.” Instead, the story reads well with or without the prior knowledge of Aaron’s Wolverine.

Children shouldn;t be seen or heard, evidently…

There’s been a lot of discussion on-line about the positions that Aaron has put Wolverine and Cyclops in. The standard argument being that Wolverine has no business founding a school, and that Cyclops is the heir to Xavier’s legacy. I think Aaron’s writing works well in the context of the individual story, but I also think he handles the history of the team superbly. I’ve been reading a lot of Claremont’s writing of late, and I was surprised at how well this interpretation fits with Claremont’s vision. After all, Claremont’s Cyclops was a negligent husband and father who ultimately had very little to do with the institution that raised him, even when his former team mates apparently died.

Wolverine, on the other hand, was presented by Claremont as almost Xavier’s pet project. He was the loner who found a family, and what that meant. He was initially the most cynical of X-Men, and retained that snark, but he also developed into the heart of the team. After all, Claremont only sent his X-Men through the Siege Perilous while Wolverine was incapacitated – suggesting Logan never would have allowed that to happen.

A cut above the rest?

Retaining his memories, Logan was the one tasked with putting the band back together. This almost feels like the logical conclusion of that character arc. Storm and Cyclops both gave up on Xavier’s dream, and in both cases Wolverine is the unlikely champion of it. The loner who fights to build back his family after it is demolished, even though he knows he’s not the ideal choice. There was a reason, after all, that Storm left Wolverine in charge (against his own protestations) in Fall of the Mutants, and I think this is a logical continuation of that line of thought. Still, that’s probably more than enough nerdiness from me.

While writing a new beginning for the team, it’s fascinating how Aaron returns to the familiar iconography. In particular, it’s the old-fashioned Sentinels. Not the newer or more stylish models, but the iconic ones that people outside comics recognise – the ones from the cartoon or the start of X-Men III. While Aaron makes clear to paint them as a concern of the past – they are products of an arms “race that has never ended“, stand-ins for state-controlled nuclear weapons in the era of global terrorism – I think it’s clever to use them.

Cyclops has a piercing vision…

It’s fitting that the adventure opens with Cyclops trying to close the book on them, insisting, “To that end, I would like to officially petition the nations of the world to decommission their Sentinels. To once and for all demolish the machinery of mutant genocide.” This is not about the classic and recognisable images of the past, but about creating a fascinating and compelling future. In the first few pages, Cyclops introducing himself, “My concern, ladies and gentlemen, is with the future.” And so is Aaron’s.

To that end, the writer introduces a newer and much younger Hellfire Club, a very silly gimmick. A gleefully silly gimmick indeed. If Aaron convinces us that the Sentinels represent nuclear weapons, arguably a fading concern, then do these kids represent the increasing fear of our own children? Or am I reading too much into it, and are they simply an attempt to inject some wonderfully silly and goofy fun back into mainstream comic books?

Sentinels, Assembled!

After all, the X-Men line has been increasingly nihilistic of late, despite being home to so many off-the-wall ideas at its peak. One can understand how Idie can look at a photo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s X-Men and wonder, “I don’t understand… why are they all smiling?” Aaron’s work always feels a bit more fun than most, and I can’t fault him for that. There is something gleefully ridiculous about the “supreme leader” of Iran having difficulty starting his Sentinel. Occasionally Aaron goes too far (I did not need to read a kid saying “I farted”), but I like the general idea. I sincerely hope that Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men gets a nice omnibus or oversized collection. Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men too, while you’re at it.

And, apropos of nothing, I did like the idea that Cyclops’ “show of force” is aptly described by the kids as “all the heavy hitters. And some other guy made of ice.” It seems quite witty, given that Iceman would be the only member of that team not to appear on Cyclops’ mutant powerhouse team. Also, it’s interesting to note that Kieron Gillen has continued in the tradition of writing Beast as a stand-in for all the petty internet fanboys griping and bitching about the direction of the books, seen briefly hunched over the computer, making snide phone calls and bitching about those who he claims to get on with.

A ‘Locke for Wolverine’s team?

“My dear,” he states, “I’m going to help Logan run a school. By which I mean I will will actually be running the school and Logan will merely have the better office.” I love how Beast kinda evolved from the eloquent member of the team to the arrogant and passive aggressive one. His lover replies, seemingly tired of all the moaning, “Great. Does this mean you’re going to cut down on whining about what Scott’s done to the X-Men?”

I do have a minor complaint about this collection. It was originally solicited to include a few issues of Kieron Gillen’s Generation Hope, tying into the book. I ordered when those issues were included, although I was notified of their omission before the collection shipped. Still, it seems a bit cheap. I have no objection to slim oversized hardcovers (I love Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Colours trilogy), but it seems like bad form to cut them out – especially as the price didn’t drop. I can only hope this might foreshadow a Kieron Gillen Generation Hope collection in the pipeline. I would buy that.

Aaron’s in fighting form…

Still, Schism is an interesting starting point – although that’s all it is. I suspect that the book will eventually be measured by that work that spawned out from it, but initial word of mouth is positive. I can only hope that Marvel will collect those books well so that us trade-waiters can enjoy them along with other readers. Still, Schism is a well-written event in its own right, and one bristling with potential and promise. I suspect that Jason Aaron will serve the franchise remarkably well.

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