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Ed Brubaker’s X-Men – Deadly Genesis (Review/Retrospective)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

In 2006, Ed Brubaker was one of the hottest younger writers working at Marvel Comics. He was writing a celebrated run on Captain America. He was about to take over Daredevil following a monumental run by Brian Michael Bendis. He was also going to launch The Immortal Iron Fist with collaborator Matt Fraction. It was a year that cemented Ed Brubaker as one of the primary voices writing at Marvel Comics. In the midst of all that, Brubaker also took over the X-Men franchise.

In the early years of the decade, Marvel had tasked Brian Michael Bendis to reinvent the Avengers franchise, which he had done with Avengers Disassembled and an extended stint on New Avengers. Bendis had done this by tearing down a lot of the elements of The Avengers taken for granted and demonstrating that nothing was safe. The Avengers Mansion was destroyed, Hawkeye and Vision were killed, Wolverine and Spider-Man were recruited. The approach was iconoclastic, but it worked.

Sentinels of liberty...

Sentinels of liberty…

It’s not too hard to see Ed Brubaker’s stint on the X-Men franchise as a not-entirely-successful attempt to emulated Bendis’ reinvention of The Avengers. There was a clear attempt to focus on aspects of the mythology that were outside the comfort zone, and to attack and undermine some of the most sacred areas of the mythology. After all, Brubaker began his run on Uncanny X-Men with The Rise and Fall of the Shiar Empire, a twelve-issue space opera that took the focus of the book off the wake of House of M.

Logically, then, Deadly Genesis serves as the equivalent of Bendis’ Avengers Disassembled. It’s the story that exists as the lead-in to Brubaker’s run, outside the monthly series. It sets the agenda for a lot of what is to follow, shifting the premise and changing the rules. However, Brubaker’s work suffers because he doesn’t have the same freedom that Bendis had with New Avengers. He can’t just clear the board and start anew. Deadly Genesis find him heaping a bold new status quo on top of a bold new status quo.

Burning it all down...

Burning it all down…

When Brian Michael Bendis took over The Avengers, he was given free reign. He could do what he wanted, and set his own tone and agenda for the years ahead. He responded by essentially destroying The Avengers as they had existed for decades and building a newer and more institution on those foundations. New Avengers was completely different from what came before. That’s what made it such a fascinating book.

Taking the model of Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men, Bendis reinvented the heroes as a dysfunctional organisation dealing with real problems in an uncertain world. The team no longer had their prestigious Avengers’ Mansion. Indeed, they spent most of the time on the run. It’s telling that Bendis was much more comfortable writing these down-on-their-luck heroes that he was writing the group in the wake of Siege, where the Avengers were once more a global and respected institution.

Heavy lies the head that wears Cerebro...

Heavy lies the head that wears Cerebro…

From the outset, Ed Brubaker had a lot less freedom writing X-Men. Whereas Bendis had the freedom to tear down any part of the mythos he didn’t need, Brubaker arrived to discover the Marvel had already started the demolition. In response to perceived over-abundance of mutants in the Marvel Universe, the company’s editorial wing stepped in. Much like Spider-Man’s marriage, the X-Men would be “fixed” through a magical piece of retroactive continuity that would set the status quo back to one everybody loved.

With The Amazing Spider-Man, the dire One More Day at least paved the way for a re-energised comic book. Brand New Day remains a highlight of Spider-Man’s publication history – featuring some of the best writers and artists in the business telling good old-fashioned web-swinging adventures. The method may have been far from ideal – and still sticks in the craw of many Marvel comic book fans – but the end result was satisfying on its own terms. If only the “fix” for the X-Men had been so smooth.

Oh, brother!

Oh, brother!

Far from coming up with simple solutions like “asking writers to stop inventing new mutants”, Marvel decided that the resolution to the over-abundance of mutants would be to magically de-power them. This being mainstream comic books, a high-profile event book – House of M – was written to serve that end. At the end of House of M – with the Scarlet Witch promising “no more mutants” – the reader is informed that there are only about two hundred mutants left alive on the planet. Which certainly means Marvel didn’t have to worry about over-population.

However, this also meant that the mutant population wasn’t really a minority any longer. It wasn’t a sub-culture or an evolutionary leap forward. This meant that mutants were effectively an endangered species. It also meant, from an editorial perspective, that virtually every X-Men story from House of M until the problem was eventually resolved in Avengers vs. X-Men would have to be about that pending extinction in one form or another. This is a pretty harrowing direction to set for a whole line of books, and it’s one that Ed Brubaker inherited.

It never rains...

It never rains…

The problem is that it doesn’t seem like Ed Brubaker really wanted to tell that story. He didn’t necessarily want to deal with the fall-out of House of M. After all, he doesn’t really deal with the issue of mutant extinction until after Deadly Genesis and his year-long epic The Rise and Fall of the Shiar Empire. The idea that mutant kind is facing extinction is never really addressed in the context of Ed Brubaker’s Uncanny X-Men, which is the de facto flagship of the entire X-Men line.

So Deadly Genesis comes with a heck of a lot of baggage even before Ed Brubaker has started dealing with any of the stuff that actively wants to to engage with. The events of House of M linger in the background of Deadly Genesis, but they never quite make it to the fore. Brubaker is setting the agenda for his Uncanny X-Men run, and it’s hard not to get the sense that he doesn’t want to talk about the one thing that House of M has made sure he has to talk about.

They're not going to see eye-to-eye on this...

They’re not going to see eye-to-eye on this…

Instead, Deadly Genesis is packed with a whole bunch of separate (and interesting) ideas. Much like Avengers Disassembled, Brubaker devotes a significant portion of Deadly Genesis to undermining a lot of what the X-Men franchise takes for granted. While Bendis blew up the Avengers Mansion, Brubaker blows up the romantic ideal of Professor Charles Xavier. (Joss Whedon offers an assist during his Astonishing X-Men run.)

Deadly Genesis is packed with nostalgia. Several of the characters find themselves reflecting on the past. Some are even haunted by ghosts of that past. Kurt Wagner finds himself staring at a framed picture of the All-New X-Men, before jumping back into a scene reminiscent of his introduction from Giant-Sized X-Men #1. The book features the death of Banshee, one of the original generation Claremont/Wein X-Men characters, who spends the miniseries “chasing ghosts.”

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

The comic features a flashback to the confrontation with Krakoa, and even offers a secret history of what unfolded in the lost space between when the X-Men comic started printing reprints and when Len Wein, Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum starter producing new material. There’s something deliciously self-aware about this, with Brubaker slotting an entirely new X-Men team into that gap, trying to fill the narrative void that exists between Roy Thomas and Len Wein/Chris Claremont.

At the same time, Deadly Genesis doesn’t indulge in nostalgia. Indeed, it’s a flat-out criticism of the past. In many respects, it applies a critical perspective to the original character of Charles Xavier. It almost feels like Ed Brubaker is incorporating the cynical attitude adopted by Mark Millar’s Ultimate X-Men into mainstream continuity – asking the reader to reassess their opinion of a manipulative old man who would happily turn teenagers into his private paramilitary.

Things are heating up...

Things are heating up…

“No, I mean how can you put these children at risk?” Moira demands of Xavier. “I’ve known you so long, Charles, and I’ve never understood how you can put kids in harm’s way over an’ over like you do.”  When Xavier talks about the necessity of his actions, Moira responds, “You sound like Erik now.” It’s hardly an unreasonable observation – Xavier believes in mutant superiority just as much as Magneto does, he just wants humanity to fade out quietly and peacefully. He treats his students as little more than ideological pawns in that game.

Brubaker obviously pushes Xavier further than any earlier writer, but the most interesting thing about Deadly Genesis is that none of it feels too radically out of character. Xavier is perfectly capable of using his mental powers to his advantage, and he has constantly put teenagers in incredibly risky situations. The only reason he appears heroic is that none of his teenage wards have died while in his care – something that appears to be down to luck rather than skill. (Certainly, older X-Men have a higher mortality rate.)

Mourning ex-X-Men...

Mourning ex-X-Men…

So Deadly Genesis presents us with a dark alternate history where Xavier’s efforts didn’t just get the original X-Men trapped by Krakoa, they got a whole team of teenage replacements killed during an abortive rescue attempt. It is certainly something that was always possible, only prevented by the editorial restrictions of sixties comics and Stan Lee’s creative decisions. In a way, despite its reliance on some pretty convenient retroactive continuity, Deadly Genesis feels like a surprisingly honest piece of work.

Xavier is portrayed as a manipulative and cynical old man. The comic suggests that Xavier’s recruits are typically teenagers because old and more learned mutants would respond with cynicism. “Is this your pitch?” Emma Frost demands, turning down his invitation to join the team. “You try to manipulate me into joining whatever crazy mutant cause you’re from?” In contrast, teenagers like Gabriel jump at the opportunity to impress Xavier and become branded X-Men.

Lighting up the sky...

Lighting up the sky…

Moira McTaggart is sceptical of Charles’ pitch to her children. When Gabriel responds enthusiastically, she states, “Now, Gabriel… we haven’t even discussed –“ Gabriel cuts across her, “It doesn’t need to be discussed, Dr. McTaggert… he’s asking us to become X-Men.” Those kids are ready and willing to line up and play soldier for Xavier. It’s quite telling that the replacement team dies not because of the island, but because of improper training.

(It’s also interesting that Brubaker roots the loss of the first team in Xavier’s own reckless. Explaining the situation to Moira, he confesses, “They were on a mission, I didn’t think it’d be dangerous… or any more dangerous than usual… But I should’ve monitored more closely… I was working on the Danger Room and suddenly I just–“ As much as Xavier likes to play the self-pitying old-man – referring to himself as “this old fool” – it’s clear that he is no way responsible enough to raise children.)

Field of fire...

Field of fire…

Deadly Genesis revels in its depiction of Xavier as an arch manipulator. It’s revealed that he knew all about Scott Summers’ family and never told his prized pupil. Indeed, he only told Gabriel about his brother before they embarked on the rescue mission. “But he only told me right before he sent us to that island. He wanted me to know what was at risk… what I might lose.” It’s interesting that Xavier’s ability to reasonably and peacefully resolve a situation is greatly reduced once his powers are gone. Trying to calm everybody down, Gabriel snaps, “It doesn’t work without the mental powers, Xavier… so give it up.”

Deadly Genesis is very much about exorcising the ghost of Charles Xavier – a figure crucial to the history of the X-Men, but who is no longer really a comfortable fit. In this era of questioning authority and concerns about surveillance culture, it is very hard to accept an old man with the ability to control minds who trains his own teenage militia. Quite fittingly, Deadly Genesis ends with Scott Summers effectively banishing Xavier from the Mansion. “I run the institute now, not you… You’re not even a mutant anymore, Charles… you don’t belong here.”

Smoke and mirrors...

Smoke and mirrors…

(That said, it does seem a little strange that Scott chooses Xavier’s humanity as an excuse to exile him. After all, wasn’t the dream of the X-Men successful integration with humanity. In the larger context of the X-Men comics after House of M, it seems like the first step towards the militant segregationist attitude that Scott would pursue. It’s a small step from kicking out an old friend because of his genetic make-up to founding an independent mutant state in the harbour of San Francisco. It is just strange that Deadly Genesis doesn’t seem to grasp how ironic this is.)

As one might expect in a story sceptical about all-powerful authority figures, Ed Brubaker frames Deadly Genesis as a post-9/11 tale. Much is made of how the mutants are now living under the watch of sentinels, robots created to hunt and kill them. Terrorism hangs over the story – two aircraft are destroyed in a collision, and the Patriot Act is cited by name. “So we’re to be treated as terrorists now, is that it?” Emma ponders. “We’ve got no rights?” The Mansion itself is subject to a government raid. Wolverine advises Beast, “You got about two minutes to hide anything you don’t want the feds to–“

Happy family reunion...

Happy family reunion…

Despite this sense that Brubaker is playing with a lot of the assumptions that X-Men fans take for granted, it is interesting that so much of his work focuses on particular tangents of Chris Claremont’s work on Uncanny X-Men. He doesn’t trod the most familiar ground, but a lot of Brubaker’s X-Men work builds off threads seeded by Claremont. He spends twelve issues with the Shiar and five more with the Morlocks. Even the character of Vulcan is rooted in some continuity left hanging over from Claremont’s work – the infamous third Summers brother, long rumoured to be Gambit.

Deadly Genesis represents and interesting and flawed start to an interesting and flawed run. In many respects, Ed Brubaker feels like he simply got the wrong assignment at the wrong time, and his Uncanny X-Men work seems trapped between the iconoclastic story that he wants to tell and the larger editorial needs that the book has to satisfy. Those conflicts are apparent even here, in the six-issue miniseries leading into his Uncanny X-Men run.

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

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2 Responses

  1. tnx a lot
    it was helpful

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