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X-Men: X-Tinction Agenda (Hardcover) (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-Tinction Agenda makes for a potentially fascinating X-Men crossover, tying together Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor and New Mutants to tell a single cohesive story. It’s not a new approach – it was pioneered by The Mutant Massacre and Inferno – but it is perhaps the definitive approach to X-Men related crossovers (it’s still in use today for stories like Second Coming). It’s fascinating, because it sees the creative teams pick up on something that Claremont had introduced over thirty issues earlier, as if recognising a gem of an idea really deserved further development. That said, despite some decent writing and art, X-Tinction Agenda can’t help but feel like it wastes its potential, hitting on an absolutely fascinating premise and deftly tying the three on-going monthly comic books together, but ending up as little more than an explosive knock-down brawl.

The Wolv pack…

The hardcover collection opens with a four-issue arc that Claremont wrote for Uncanny X-Men, feeding into Inferno, which fed into the stretch of issues collected in the first omnibus of Jim Lee and Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men work. The four issues are vintage Claremont storylines, with some fairly straightforward allegory used to play into his familiar themes of power and domination. As I seem to discuss every time I mention the name Chris Claremont, the writer worked so well with the X-Men because he could hone in on those iconic and fundamental fears, rendering them in a truly effective way as part of an on-going science-fantasy narrative.

There were some very strange ideas during Claremont’s run. While the first omnibus collection of his run demonstrates this, skipping around in chronology also tends to make it stand-out. Ideas that were insane even within the context that Claremont wrote them, seem extremely surreal when one is forced to jump around the series’ internal chronology. Between the four-issue prelude and the main crossover, Storm has somehow been de-aged into a child, and Psylocke is now an Asian swimsuit model – both very strange developments, and ones that Claremont’s expository captions (perhaps wisely) never discuss in great detail. There’s a tendency to look at such plotting through nostalgic eyes, sighing, “Ah, comic books!” However, it is just very, very weird. And not in a good way. These are the ideas that formed the backbone of Claremont’s run, and we wonder why they tend to get ignored (for the most part) in discussions about him.

Psylocke’s a big shot…

They get ignored because Claremont had a great eye for the core appeal of the X-Men. While there are elements of prejudice and racism in the earlier portrayals, I think that Claremont’s run on the title really hit it home – with the obvious analogies to the civil rights movements in America, and the emergence of a more nuance portrayal of Magneto’s terrorist philosophy. Indeed, in reading The Mutant Massacre, the actual plotting of the story – the fact that the yet-to-appear Mr. Sinister wanted the Morlocks dead for some purpose or other – is often overlooked for the raw and visceral impact of the story itself, the idea that an entire community was wiped out purely because it was different. It’s powerful stuff, and Claremont uses big ideas like that so well that we’ll forgive the occasionally kinky or clunky subplot.

So X-Tinction Agenda is a story with a great idea at its heart, with the X-Men discovering an island where mutants are treated as second-class citizens. Even without the cultural context of the eighties, this would still seem like an obvious apartheid metaphor. However, given the horrors of the regime, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with an “obvious”metaphor. Indeed, I’m surprised that more wasn’t made of Claremont’s decision to move the X-Men from their liberal upper-state New York headquarters to Australia, a country still coming to terms with its treatment of the native Aboriginals. I can’t help but feel disappointed that Claremont never really took advantage of his new setting to contextualise his metaphors – after all, the X-Men aren’t just about the American experience of racism and prejudice.

Team-up time?

Of course, South Africa isn’t the only influence on Claremont’s Genosha. In the fleeting glimpses we catch of it, we see the eagle standard adorned, designed to remind us of the Third Reich (albeit more purple than red). We’re assured that the capital, Hammer Bay, is “the most dynamically modern city on earth” – a reputation built on the exploitation of the lower classes. It’s implied that the rest of the world is (initially, at least) unaware of the slavery and torture used to maintain this utopia, perhaps recalling the propaganda coup that Hitler staged with the Berlin Olympics. “We have a way of life on Genosha,” one official claims, “that’s the envy of the world. It must be protected.”

The way that Genosha treats its mutant population is clearly intended to remind us of the German persecution of its own Jewish inhabitants in the lead-up to the War. The native mutants are subjected to cruel medical experiments, procreation is discouraged and heavily regulated, while the mutants themselves are branded with numbers, their names dismissed and forgotten. It’s very powerful imagery that Claremont borrows, and it never feels too heavy-handed because he rather seamlessly blends it with a scathing criticism of the apartheid regime – as if to make the case that the world vowed never to let this sort of conduct happen again, while similar racist policies were implemented in South Africa.

So much for flower power…

The “M” and “no-M” signs seem intended to remind us of the famous “whites” and “non-whites” signs from South Africa. Even the relatively vague geography of the country seems to call to mind South Africa. We’re informed that the country made its own fortune following “the discovery of iron ore and other precious metals”, much like South Africa. Indeed, the Ridgeback Range across the centre of the fictional island is perhaps intended to suggest the Soutpansberg Range in South Africa, a mountain range that borders with Zimbabwe and is near the discovered resources. One might even argue that Genosha’s exceptionally aggressive foreign policy, using mutants to attack hostile nations, is designed to remind readers over much of the speculation surrounding South Africa’s nuclear programme.

Indeed, even the later storylines involving the fictional island would use the South African metaphor, with the formerly disadvantaged class (the mutants) rising to political dominance, turning Genosha into the example of a relatively successful state. Magneto, the former terrorist, would even earn a reputation as an international peace-keeper for his government of the country as it moved away from the dark past towards a brighter future. That is, until the opening pages of New X-Men.

Archangel doesn’t have a wing or a prayer…

The way that the settlers, all distinctively white for a nation off the east coast of Africa, treat their second-class citizens with nothing but disdain, and the mutants are kept uneducated and uninformed (of course, they are all pretty much labotomised). “Teach this mute a proper lesson,” one frustrated soldier declares of a poor garbage collector. “Clean this up, boy… every scrap…” The slave responds, “Do my work good, boss. You watch, you see… make you proud.” The repeated use of “boy” to refer to the mutants and “boss” to their human masters makes it all distinctly uncomfortable.

The mutants are treated like slaves, like cattle. Claremont rather skilfully introduces the idea, with the servants first witnessed around Dr. Morneau’s estate, without any real context – it’s only later we discover how Genosha creates this underclass. There’s the oft-discussed and controversial sequence in which Rogue with welcomed to Genosha. “I’m afraid some of my officers took a few… liberties when she was being processed,” an officer confesses. “What they thought was, she evidently felt was something else.”

Psylocke gets her kicks…

Claremont, aware that he’s writing for an all-ages audience, is intentionally vague about what exactly took place, leaving it up to the reader to intimate what happened. “All they did was touch her,” Claremont later clarifies, a statement that is intentionally vague – “touch” can cover a lot. It’s clear that Rogue considered it to be a violation, and rightly so. “She couldn’t stop them. For so long, she she dreamed of being able to touch another person, without her power absorbing his/her psyche. To hold, to caress, to kiss just like any other — normal — teenage girl. In those dreams, it was the most beautiful of moments. She never imagined being handled against her will.” It doesn’t matter what exactly occurred, but one can deduce from the way Claremont writes that it was an unwelcome objectification of her – something that says a lot about the nation and how it treats its subjects.

Of course, there are the usual Claremont themes (or – as cynics might suggest – fetishes?) at play here. There’s mind-control and violation, domination and brutality, and even body transformation by a Dr. Morneau, for those with a literary interest – particularly the fear of the individual being consumed by society, treated as “para-human resources.” There are a lot of scenes of people being tied down by those in authority, and subjected to cruel and inhumane acts, the loss of individual autonomy the most grave of these acts of violence. However, they work quite well here. I think that Claremont defined Uncanny X-Men with the surreal pseudo-sexuality and the kinky supra-text he wrote into the series – it does feel a bit edgier and more “grown-up” than the vast majority of other Marvel books, but without resorting to crass violence or other stereotypes.

The prisoner’s gambit…

The opening four-part adventure is clever and well-written. I think it creates a rather wonderful sense of this fictional island, whiel underscoring the very disturbing activities taking place in the real world. It’s not too hard to imagine that some young people became interested in the South African situation after Claremont boldly raised the issues here. Like The Mutant Massacre, it works so well because it’s such a solid example of the core X-Men concepts and ideas, hammering that recurring issue of the damage that prejudice can cause. It’s not at all surprising that Claremont was interested enough in his material to return to Genosha for a massive multi-book crossover.

Unfortunately, X-Tinction Agenda itself sacrifices a lot of the clever concepts for straight-up crossover action set-pieces. Louise Simonson is feeling much more comfortable writing both New Mutants and X-Factor, and Claremont’s character work is never too bad, but it feels like a waste. Particularly because the opening chapters at least hint at the political subtext behind the whole thing. We’re informed that the world can no longer turn a blind eye to the country’s treatment of its mutant population, using instruments of social and political pressure to try to force change. Later on, the President confesses, “World opinion, of course, is turning against Genosha — there are rumours of blockades.” It reflects the famous economic boycotts against South African products.

their human rights record is shocking…

However, it’s just a big nine-part brawl, with a variety of artists offering all manner of “x-treme” nineties fun. We have Cyclops and Havok fighting again, we have Wolverine and Archangel trying to kill one another for a page or two, and there’s all manner of large and impressive set-pieces, while everything’s all a bit nuts. It’s all resolved with a terribly convenient deus ex machina involving an unconscious X-Man and seems to serve as a big battle against Cameron Hodges.

There are some nice moments. One can see the influence of The Dark Knight Returns in the work here, a reflection of how the X-Books were well on top of trends, even when they weren’t starting them. The stronger interludes in the book feature the media – opening the chapters to provide handy exposition, but also featuring a parody of a televised debate over a situation rapidly spinning out of control, the Genoshans just feeding their nonsense into the mainstream media. There’s even a touch of Frank Miller’s trademark political humour to be found in X-Factor, as Jon Bogdanove draws the Genoshan President with a disturbing and uncanny resemblance to both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. I think It threw up in my mouth a little.

Psylocke goes psycho…

Indeed, it’s Bogdanove who brings a lot of the surrealist charms to proceedings. My personal favourite moment features the deformed Cameron Hodges wearing a two-dimensional standee of a body around his neck. “Surely even that madman can’t think that cardboard cutout draped about his neck fools anyone,” the President muses. It’s a great little moment, if only because it’s so delightfully odd. A lot of people will talk about the work of Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld here, and both are solid (even if Liefeld is having trouble with feet), but Bogdanove is the artist who seems to be having the most fun, at least if you ask me.

One wonders if Claremont knew that he was approaching the end of his tenure as a writer of Uncanny X-Men after so many years directing the franchise from a forgotten Lee/Kirby project to the most successful franchise in comic books. There’s a very strong nostalgic sense to his chapters. Claremont’s internal continuity was always very strong, but the writer tended to keep things relatively recent, a nice approach designed to welcome new readers. Here, he reflects on the bulk of his run, going as far back as the death of Thunderbird in Giant-Sized X-Men #1 and the first “death” of Jean Grey. Even Beast finds a moment for reflection as he’s held captive, remarking, “Last time we were all in this kind of mess was when Magneto had the X-Men prisoner in Antarctica.” One gets the sense, reading it in the context of Claremont’s tenure, that the writer was beginning to feel just a bit worn out by it all.

Don’t worry, they’ve been trained for this…

Still, none of this really gives the story the depth that it deserves. It’s essentially the story of a bunch of superheroes travelling to another country and causing regime change, shattering the system of government around the ears of the population – it’s a powerful and potent topic, particular given the already heavy political subtext. It feels a shame to waste such a great idea of explosions and fist-fights, all lovingly rendered and well-enough handled. My problem isn’t that X-Tinction Agenda is relatively empty spectacle, it’s that it promised to be so much more.

X-Tinction Agenda would be Claremont’s last big X-Men crossover, and it’s a shame that it feels so empty. Still, there are some good ideas carried over from the earlier arc in Uncanny X-Men, and it still looks good today, but it’s just a little frustrating that it wasn’t anything more.

You might be interested in or reviews of some of the rest of Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run (and other assorted mutant-related work):

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