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Warren Ellis’ Run on Astonishing X-Men – Ghost Box, Exogenetic and Xenogenesis (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.

Astonishing X-Men is an interesting book. It was originally launched to allow Joss Whedon and John Cassaday to work on an X-Men title that was (mostly) free from the confines of the wider Marvel Universe at their own pace. However, when – after considerable delays – it finally finished, it seemed quite tough to figure out what to do with the book. Astonishing X-Men was selling too well to cancel outright, and Marvel had the opportunity to capitalise on its popularity and acclaim.

Assigning writer Warren Ellis to the title was quite a clever decision. While Ellis might lack the broader pop culture cache of Joss Whedon, he is a known and respected comic book writer. Allowing Warren Ellis to cut loose on a title usually results in a delightfully chaotic and exciting comic book that manages to stand apart from just about any mess of continuity that might have spawned it.

Storm warning...

Storm warning…

Ellis’ output on Astonishing X-Men is practically breathtaking. Ellis has a tendency to stay on mainstream superhero comics for relatively short runs. He worked on Secret Avengers for six months, and spent a year each on Ultimate Fantastic Four and Thunderbolts. Ellis tends to step into a superhero comic, shake things up rather brilliantly, and then walk away having made quite an impression. In many cases, Ellis’ short runs serve to define characters for years afterwards; look at Norman Osborn.

However, despite this reputation for short tenures on superhero comics, Ellis produced eighteen issues with the Astonishing X-Men brand; eleven issues of the main series, two issues of the Ghost Boxes miniseries and five issues of the Xenogenesis miniseries. That’s quite an impressive body of work. It is enough for a reasonably-sized omnibus collection. It allows Ellis a lot of room to play with his ideas, and also to make quite a mark on the central characters.

Having a blast...

Having a blast…

To be fair, Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men lacks the insane spark that defined his very best twenty-first century Marvel output – concentrated insanity like Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. or Thunderbolts. After all, there’s a sense that Ellis is just a little bit tied down here. Characters like Beast or Cyclops or Emma Frost are characters that are shared across the Marvel publishing line. Warren Ellis is writing Cyclops at the same time that Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction are working on the character. He is sharing.

So there is a limit to just how reckless Ellis can be when he takes the car for a joyride. He can’t shake up the status quo too much. Brubaker and Fraction are still trying to figure out a functional status quo for the mutants on the West Coast while editorial figures out what it wants do with mutants in the wake of House of M, so Ellis doesn’t have the luxury of making everything go completely nuts. Things can never go completely off-the-wall as they might in Thunderbolts, for example.

A flying finish...

A flying finish…

And, yet, despite all that, Astonishing X-Men remains very much a Warren Ellis comic book. On many levels, it’s a text book example of Ellis’ modus operandi. The writer takes ahold of a book that is somehow tangentially associated with whatever the crazy Marvel status quo of the month might be, finds a way to tell a story that isn’t mired in continuity or crossovers, and finds a way to say something quite compelling and quite fascinating about that status quo.

After all, Warren Ellis’ run on Thunderbolts is one of the defining post-Civil War Marvel runs, without getting bogged down in the particulars of “registration” or heavy-handed soap-boxing or pointless character cameos. Despite the fact that it was completely unrelated to Brian Michael Bendis’ larger arcs in New Avengers or Mighty Avengers, it was such a solid template for exploring those big ideas that Bendis heavily drew from Thunderbolts in writing Dark Avengers.

Branching out...

Branching out…

Similarly, Ellis’ Astonish X-Men exists apart from all the minutiae associated with on-going X-Men continuity, but still exists as one of the strongest and most insightful X-Men comics published between House of M and Second Coming. Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men might be more quietly influential than his work on Thunderbolts, but it’s still a comic that has heavily influenced a lot of what followed.

As with a lot of Ellis’ work, it’s a beautiful way to get a sense of that particular moment in Marvel comics continuity, without worrying about getting lost or confused – or having to read a dozen other books or crossovers. Following the precedent set by Whedon’s run, Ellis’s Astonishing X-Men doesn’t get bogged down in the crisis crossover of the week. Astonishing X-Men avoids getting drawn into Messiah War or Utopia or X-Necrosha or Second Coming, making for a very clean and fluid reading experience.

Red eyes, take warning...

Red eyes, take warning…

However, while remaining accessible and easy-to-follow, it is worth noting that Ellis does structure his run as a continuation of Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men. Ellis keeps the team mostly the same. He drops Colossus from the roster, and recruits Storm to replace Kitty Pryde, but the characters remain mostly consistent. He even keeps Whedon’s creations around – Armour remains part of the team, while Abigail Brand features in Ghost Box and Exogenetic.

Ellis also engages with the realities of the X-Men franchise in the wake of House of M, without getting bogged down in continuity. Each of his arcs are based on the idea that mutants are facing extinction. Ghost Box sees a predatory alternate world planning to stage an invasion in the wake of the decimation of Earth’s mutant population. Exogenetic sees Beast’s research into helping replenish the population exploited by a villain. Xenogenesis sees the X-Men investigating a string of supposedly mutant births in Africa.

Don't try to be a great man...

Don’t try to be a great man…

These are all stories that grow organically from the new status quo for the X-Men franchise. After all, the idea of a entire race of people undergoing a simultaneous genetic change seems like the kind of thing that would appear to Ellis as a writer. Ellis is fond of incorporating transhumanism and high-concept science-fiction into his work. All of his Astonishing X-Men stories play with these sorts of ideas – the idea that human genome can be altered and perverted and distorted.

Transhumanism is really a perfect fit for the X-Men as a franchise. After all, as Ellis wryly notes in Exogentic, the X-Men were originally branded as “children of the atom.” With the mutant population seriously depleted, it makes sense for comic book science to play with ideas of genetics and evolution. In Ghost Box, the former X-Man Forge tries to approach the problem as “an engineer”, with horrific results. In Exogenetic, Hank McCoy admits to horrific thought experiments. “You sat there every night just constructing monstrosities in your imagination to try and bring mutants back,” Cyclops observes.

Thinking inside the box...

Thinking inside the box…

Indeed, Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men is fixated on the potential horror of technological or scientific advancement. In Ghost Box, the use of advanced physics creates a world so toxic that “annexation” of other worlds is the only logical survival strategy. At the same time, Forge’s attempts to resurrect mutantkind are grotesque. In Exogenetic, the dead are used as raw materials for horrific weapons turned against their fellow mutants. In Xenogenesis, reality-warping leaves a scar on local communities.

Ideas common to Ellis’ work echo into his Astonishing X-Men run. Rather interestingly, Ellis seems intrigued by the idea of Hank McCoy as a scientist with blood on his hands. Ghost Box ends with Beast effectively responsible for the loss of countless lives on some alternate world. Ellis would revisit this version of Hank McCoy during his run on Secret Avengers, where the first issue of the run featured McCoy’s science killing lots of anonymous characters.

The man does like to Brood...

The man does like to Brood…

Similarly, the idea of the eponymous “ghost box” can’t help but evoke the box stolen by the Ghost in Ellis’ Ultimate Comics: Armour Wars. Like the ghost box, that box contains a deadly secret from another universe. While the ghost box allows another reality to spill out and “annex” the world around it, that box contains a virus that infects and destroys any technology that it might come in contact with.

This idea of a terror from another reality also evokes Ellis’s work on The Authority. In many respects, The Authority remains the benchmark against which Ellis’ later superhero work must be judged. Many of his later mainstream comics are best read as meditations on the influence that Ellis’ work on The Authority had on the superhero genre as a whole. His Astonishing X-Men run invites the comparison, with Ghost Box echoing the threat posed to the Authority in Shiftships.

All fired up...

All fired up…

At the same time, Xenogenesis acknowledges that Ellis’ “colonial and imperial terror from another world in the multi-verse” idea dates back to at least Alan Moore’s work on Captain Britain. In Xenogenesis, the effect of “Jaspers’ Warp” is explicitly compared to that of a “ghost box.” The enemy soldiers even cross the multiverse in a structure that appears quite similar to a box. It’s a nice way of acknowledging the influence of Moore’s work, particularly given how Captain Britain can be seen as part of the X-Men family.

Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men is fascinated with the multiverse and the wonders and horrors that it might hold. “Henry assured me that, once you cracked the math, looking for living space in the multiverse is far easier than looking for an Earthlike planet in outer space,” Scott Summers explains at one point, and he is probably right. His two-issue Ghost Box miniseries allows Ellis to explore a couple of those alternate worlds, and it’s interesting that the effects of the “ghost boxes” are shown to allow the past to intrude into the present.

Burning down the house...

Burning down the house…

Perhaps these represent a commentary on some of the editorial policies of Marvel comics, which engaged in a number of awkward “magic” resets to their own continuity in the early years of the twenty-first century. One More Day magically wiped away Peter Parker’s marriage to restore him to a footloose and fancy-free bachelor, while House of M washed away all of the “mutant subculture” worldbuilding done by Grant Morrison to get back to the simplistic “persecuted minority” metaphor for the X-Men. One could argue that Marvel were building their own “ghost boxes” at that point.

Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men deals with the larger implications of the so-called “M-Day.” There’s some typically coy Ellis meta-commentary as Beast reveals that Wanda’s declaration of “no more mutants” apparently “affected the entire multiversal structure.” Of course, that makes sense. It was an editorial edict from the publishing company; those tend to stretch across universal boundaries. Similarly, lifting or relaxing that edict had a similar effect. Reflecting on the birth of Hope in Messiah Complex, Beast observes, “Theoretically, entirely new parallel worlds full of mutants could have sprung into being at that point.”

Introducing the X Society!

Introducing the X Society!

Ellis’ work on these characters has arguably been massively influential. He builds off Joss Whedon’s work on Cyclops, helping to define the character as a bold and confident leader. “Scott, you’re the world’s best super hero,” Hank McCoy remarks to him, at one point. We’re repeatedly shown how shrewd Scott is as a tactician and the raw power that he wields. We are warned that Cyclops has the power of a nuclear bomb inside his head, and that he routinely takes the same beatings as Wolverine, but without the healing factor.

At the same time, Ellis draws attention to how easy it is to push that characterisation over-the-top, and how fine a line the character has to walk. Everybody is shocked and appalled when Cyclops swears at Abigail Brand. “It’s like catching a rerun of Happy Days and seeing Ron Howard picking up hookers,” Wolverine wryly observes. There is a point where the character can be pushed a little bit too far, where you bend a character so far out of their original shape that it becomes absurd.

You've got to be kidding...

You’ve got to be kidding…

During an argument in Exogenetic, Beast lets rip at these excesses. “And this ‘I am the big dog who wants to know your name and then kill you twice’ crap?” he asks. “You need to get that under control, Scott. It impresses no one and disturbs your older friends.” He insists, “You’re not this man, Scott.” The line is juxtaposed with Emma’s simple observation from later in the same story, “You’re a good man.”

All of this exists within a large context of Warren Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men. In many respects, Ellis is really answering some questions he posed back in The Authority about superheroes and moral authority. Much is made of Cyclops’ stereotypical badass attributes. Beast describes him as Leonard Cohen’s “perfect man who kills”, although he doesn’t expand the reference to make it clear that Cohen was referring to a fantasy he held as a seven-year-old.

To him, his X-Men!

To him, his X-Men!

The Authority was a comic that really blew up a lot of the expectations around superhero comics, deconstructing a lot of the assumptions taken for granted in the genre. They were heroes who killed, who engaged with political issues, who grappled with complex problems that had morally questionable solutions. It seems like mainstream superhero comics learned a lot from the work of Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch on The Authority, and not all of it was particularly good.

So Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men plays with these sorts of big issues. For example, Ghost Box sees the team pursuing a fugitive internationally, facing the reality that the legal system will not be able to bring him to justice. Indeed, the San Francisco Police Department seems to sign off on Scott Summers’ pursuit of the suspect. “They say the chances of extraditing the guy from Indonesia are slim to none,” he tells his team as they prepare to head off.

Space ship graveyard...

Space ship graveyard…

Cyclops and Storm argue about the morality of killing. “Scott, I don’t want to have killed him,” Storm remarks of one adversary. Pointing out that Storm is the Queen of Wakanda, Scott calls her out on her hypocrisy, “If Wakanda declared war on Zimbabwe tomorrow, which isn’t beyond the realms of possibility, I read the papers — you’d have to sign the declaration of war too. And that’s killing people. We grew up, Ororo. These are the jobs we got.”

Scott is quick to sanction the murder of an invader from another realm, conspiring to keep the secret from his team mates, because that’s the sort of tough decision a leader has to make. When Beast feels guilty about the mass murder at the end of Ghost Box, Scott is quick to offer rationalisations. “You did what had to be done, Henry. And listen: you didn’t fire the gun. She did.” However, what is interesting is that Ellis sets all this up in Ghost Box to subvert it in Exogenetic.

Slice o' life...

Slice o’ life…

In Exogenetic, Beast and Cyclops argue about the morality of the decisions that Scott makes. In the end, both characters resolve that they have to try better – that they have to accept that killing might be necessary in some cases, but should be treated as a last resort. Similar to the first issue of Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run, there’s a sense that these characters have to be superheroes rather than simply soldiers. Appropriately enough, Exogenetic ends with our heroes deciding to spare a vanquished foe, refusing to unilaterally execute him as revenge for the harm that he has caused.

It’s a delightful reinforcement of traditional superhero values – with Ellis essentially seeking to temper some of the influence that The Authority has had on mainstream comics. While it is nice to have anti-heros and moral dilemmas, it is also nice to have heroic heroes, and it’s perfectly acceptable to have super heroes who can occasionally do something that is unequivocally and unambiguously correct.

Tears of a mutant...

Tears of a mutant…

Ellis’ five-part miniseries released after the initial run, Xenogenesis, reinforces this idea. In it, the X-Men are faced with the prospect of having to sacrifice a bunch of children in order to save the larger community – aware that these children will probably grow up to be ticking time bombs. The logic of the situation should be clear – sacrifice the children to save more lives. However, Cyclops and his team refuse to make that compromise.

Exogenetic initially seems like it might be constructed as a blistering critique of the X-Men franchise. The team confront a bitter old man whose mother was at Hiroshima. He is a mutant, just one who suffers from radiation poisoning rather than super-powers. “Where is my costume?” he demands. “Where are my superpowers? Where are my adoring crowds and beautiful girlfriends?” He continues, “You call yourselves outcasts and outsiders, but look at you. You look like movie stars. Your clothing reeks of boastful sexuality, the fashion wear of action heroes.”

A burning curiousity...

A burning curiousity…

Kaga becomes a voice for legitimate criticism of the X-Men franchise, dismissing the team as “perfect men and women who pose and strut and punch people uglier than yourselves.” This is a valid criticism of the franchise, particularly in the early Stan Lee and Jack Kirby comics. When the heroes are stunned by his anger and rage, he responds, “What were you expecting? A master plan? A scheme to turn off the sun? This is the real world.”

Much like the alternate realities intruding into the narrative through the ghost boxes, it would seem that the real world intruding into a superhero comic is also something hostile and aggressive. And so Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men ends as something of a vindication of comic book logic. From outside the narrative, Kaga’s criticisms are insightful and astute. They are valid observations about the X-Men as a comic book franchise. However, inside the narrative, they are less convincing. For all that Kaga might talk about “the real world”, he’s a crazy man with a hangar full of giant genetic mutant freaks.

Their problem has just been halved...

Their problem has just been halved…

Cyclops dismisses Kaga’s criticisms rather blithely. “Yeah, but seriously: there are people who hate us because we’re not outcast enough?” he wonders, which is a bit of a wry retort, but one that works in the context of the narrative. “There will always be X-Men,” Armour asserts, which feels like something of a vindication of the franchise. Much like Ellis’ work on Nextwave or Thunderbolts, it feels like the writer is celebrating and basking the tropes make superhero comics so unique, accepting them even as he acknowledges the reasonable criticisms that can be applied.

As with a lot of Ellis’ work on mainstream superhero comics, the character voices do occasionally feel a bit weird. Hank McCoy and Emma Frost sound note-perfect, with Ellis channelling each of them quite well. One highpoint comes when McCoy and Frost share a brief reference to Damian Hirst, an artist who would be on their radar, even if outside the American mainstream. “I can quite guarantee that Scott has ever even heard of Damien Hirst,” Frost observes.

He's got some neck...

He’s got some neck…

At the same time, there are some moments were Ellis’ voice feels a little off. “I never knew that guilt-free shopping and constant lovemaking could get so boring,” Storm remarks, which seems like a line that might have flowed better from Emma. Cyclops uses “man” a little too frequently. At one point, Wolverine remarks, “You’re a nutbag, Cyke.” To be fair, this is something quite common to Ellis’ work on mainstream superhero characters. His version of various characters sound unique, internally consistent if a little surreal out of context.

(And it’s worth noting that his character work is – broadly speaking – great. He is one of the best writers to work on Scott Summers between House of M and Second Coming. His take on the character arguably informed the work of Kieron Gillen and Brian Bendis just as much as Matt Fraction’s take did. Similarly, Ellis really hammers home on the conflicts within the character of Hank McCoy – the honesty, the charm, the bad judgement and the occasional smug sense of superiority. He arguably balanced Cyclops and Beast better than any other writer after House of M.)

The goggles are an inspired touch...

The goggles are an inspired touch…

Ellis’ run continues to be quietly influential. It might be quite as defining as Morrison’s New X-Men or Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, but it did make some impression. Even outside of the way that his character work on Cyclops and Beast has influenced their development, Greg Pak would borrow the concept of the “ghost box” for his own Astonishing X-Men run, while Jonathan Hickman would incorporate the concept of “Tian” into his Ultimate Comics: Ultimates run.

Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men is a delightful run, and a testament to just how well Ellis can work on a mainstream title with major characters. It’s also an example of how well an X-Men title can run with a minimum of editorial interference, and without being drawn into perpetual crossovers and tie-ins. Warren Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men is one of the most underrated X-Men books of the twenty-first century.

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