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X-Men: The End – Book Three: Men and X-Men (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.

Chris Claremont struggles with endings. As a writer, Claremont works very well within the structure of a continuing narrative. His stories tend to resolve in such a way that story threads dangle, allowing him to pick up those threads for more stories. Claremont is very good at telling an on-going story, at keeping the wheels spinning and moving. One story leads to another, and that story leads to another. As The Dark Phoenix Saga wraps up Jean Grey’s arc, it introduces Kitty Pryde.

This isn’t really a problem on mainstream comic books. After all, Claremont wrote Uncanny X-Men for seventeen years, and it was structured as an on-going and evolving story. There are obvious “cut-off” points for certain sections of his run – The Dark Phoenix Saga and Inferno come to mind – but they never feel like they resolve everything. There are always just enough plot points carried over for the book to keep moving, to the point where saying “this run ends here” would involve chopping off significant story points.

.. in the name of love...

.. in the name of love…

Claremont’s difficulty with endings is reflected with the closure of his run on the titles in the early nineties. He left Uncanny X-Men with a minimum of ceremony. The book was handed from Chris Claremont to Fabian Nicieza in the middle of The Muir Island Saga. Claremont’s big goodbye to the title was the opening three-issue arc on adjectiveless X-Men, a story that found itself functioning as both a beginning and an end. In those three issue, it seemed like the only character arc Claremont resolved was that of Magneto.

So, it isn’t a surprise that Men and X-Men is a glorious mess. It is essentially one giant and protracted fight sequence between the X-Men and Shi’ar, drawing in cameos from across the breadth of X-Men history. The fact that this should be the last story told featuring these characters feels a little arbitrary, with quite a lot of Men and X-Men feeling like Claremont is running through a laundry list of things he needs to resolve before the curtain drops.

Flight of the Phoenix...

Flight of the Phoenix…

At the same time, there is something quite charming about Men and X-Men, as Claremont seems to suggest that this final gigantic superhero battle actually means very little in the grand scheme of things. Various plot points and threats resolve in whimpers rather than bangs, while Claremont suggests that this is an elaborate six-issue misdirection. We are not looking at what we should be looking at.

It’s the smaller moments that feel earned, even if the larger story around them is a complete mess.

One last stab at fixing everything...

One last stab at fixing everything…

In Men and X-Men, it becomes quite clear that Kitty Pryde is the focal character of The End. It is very hard to pick one central character for Claremont’s entire Uncanny X-Men run, but Kitty would rank somewhere on that list – perhaps behind Storm or Wolverine. It becomes clearer and clearer that Kitty Pryde is the narrator behind the opening oral history of the X-Men that prefixes each issue, even if her decision to talk about herself in the third person seems like nothing more than misdirection.

While the X-Men face off against the Shi’ar in space, Kitty is engaged in altogether more intimate struggle. Kitty is running for election in Chicago, hoping to become the mayor. It’s a huge step forwards for mutant rights and recognition. It is, in many ways, the heart of the story. The coda to Men and X-Men features Kitty in the Oval Office, the first mutant President of the United States. How far we have come.

A matter of Pryde...

A matter of Pryde…

This plot development feels quite astute and timely, given that Men and X-Men was published in August 2006. At around the same time, the rumours that had been flying that Illonios senator Barack Obama might make a bid for the White House since 2004 reached fever pitch. In September 2006, he began courting Iowa voters in preparation for the primaries. Time magazine ran a cover in October of 2006 asking whether Obama would be the next the President.

Obama would become the first African-American President of the United States, and so Claremont’s choice to close out The End with a mutant President of the United States feels like a perfectly timed piece of closure to Claremont’s vision of the X-Men. One gets a sense that Men and X-Men would be a much stronger story had it focused more heavily and obviously on Kitty, rather than forcing her into the background before revealing her to be the primary focus of the story.

Sinister plays his cards right...

Sinister plays his cards right…

Unfortunately, the big showdown between the Shi’ar and the X-Men feels too familiar. While there are some nice ideas here, there is very little to distinguish the conflict in Men and X-Men from various conflicts between the X-Men and the Shi’ar across their publication history. Indeed, it feels like a direct retread of the Imperial arc from Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run, which has been a major influence on Claremont’s writing in The End.

It’s a gigantic multi-issue knock-down brawl that features in incredibly vast selection of characters and stakes that are almost impossible to comprehend. It is just too sprawling and messy to have the necessary impact, and what impact it has is muted by the fact that we have seen all of this before. To be fair to Claremont, that may be the entire point of the multi-issue fight sequence, but it doesn’t make it any more exciting.

Cassandra Nova gets something of a head start...

Cassandra Nova gets something of a head start…

These sequences are a veritable cliché storm. Claremont brings back Morrison’s villainess, Cassandra Nova. It doesn’t help that Claremont uses Cassandra Nova in pretty much the same way that Joss Whedon did in his contemporaneous Astonishing X-Men run, missing the hints made by Grant Morrison that Xavier had subsequently been working to rehabilitate Cassandra inside the form of young mutant student Ernst.

Claremont basks in the clichés associated with the character, assuring readers that she is Xavier’s “evil twin.” He boasts, “no better way to say it.” At the same time, he also reveals that Cyclops has known that Madelyne Pryor has been posing as Dust since Dreamers and Demons, despite never confronting the fact. Asking why she has been saving his life, she explains, “No one gets to kill you but me. That’s my right!”

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

Claremont seems to run through a laundry-list of left-over plot points in the space afforded to him. This means that very few of the points get room to breath. As the story reaches the end, these resolutions come quicker and faster, with no chance to explore them. Jean Grey and Madelyne Pryor are combined into one complete person, and they seem to reconcile with Scott Summers – which ironically puts Scott in the same position of abandoning his children with Emma as he did with Madelyne.

Men and X-Men reinforces the idea of Professor Xavier as a mutant version of Martin Luthor King, even getting a somewhat convoluted twist on the classic “I have a dream” speech. “And ultimately, the character of a person, and the deeds that flow from it, must matter more than the colour of their skin,” he reminds his students. “Or the structure of their genome. That is my dream.” It’s a bit heavy-handed, but it gets the point across.

Battlefield: Shi'ar...

Battlefield: Shi’ar…

At the same time, Men and X-Men suggests that Xavier is not quite a saint – that he has feet of clay, and that his decisions are open to interrogation. Kitty’s narration ponders, “Take away the mutant thing, move his operation to Somalia, call him a warlord — how do we judge him then?” After all, Xavier did spend many years training children to act as his own paramilitary force. It makes sense that he would be a somewhat controversial figure. After all, many historical icons have similarly issues.

At the same time, Claremont’s affection for Magneto shines through. Men and X-Men features many of the characters ascending to a higher plane of existence, but Magneto does it first. Much is made of Magneto’s power. Magneto is able to open and stabilise a wormhole across space, and even withstand the destruction of his corporeal body. It is very much awe-inspiring, and there’s a sense that Claremont is trying to emphasise just how far he has evolved the Master of Magnetism.

Good luck, Chuck...

Good luck, Chuck…

(That said, it appears that scars still linger in the wake of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run. Morrison controversially turned Magneto into a mass-murderer in one of his more controversial story decisions. While he provided a convenient narrative “out” for future writers, that didn’t stop Marvel from turning it into a gigantic mess. Here, Magneto insists, “I am no monster, Gladiator, I do not slay indiscriminately, and especially not innocents.”)

It is also worth noting that – in true Claremont style – it is the female characters who make the most significant contributions to the plot. The sinister plot is hatched by Cassandra Nova and the Brood Queen, with the machinations of Sinister and the Slavers brushed aside quite easily. It is the Phoenix who guides the X-Men to higher plane of existence. It is Madelyne and Psylocke who have the most success against Cassandra Nova.

Ah, the perfect time for a family reunion!

Ah, the perfect time for a family reunion!

It is Kitty who becomes President of the United States. It is female X-Men who stop the madness of that far-too-unwieldy final fight to expose the true villain. Storm is able to bring order to chaos with a single word. “STOP!” she commands. “That’s Storm’s voice!” one character shouts. “And Dazzler’s light show!” another responds. It’s very hard to argue that The End isn’t very much a Chris Claremont story, one that revels in his own stylistic approach to these characters and their world.

However, the only real pay-off for this gigantic fight sequence comes a little bit too late, as the resurrected Jean Grey reflects on the role of the X-Men in this new universe. “You’re a miracle,” Scott remarks. “Not me,” Jean corrects him. “Not us. Them. Nathan… and Rachel. Our kids are what matter.” In many respects, that seems to be the point that Claremont is trying to make with The End, that these characters have to be allowed to move on and to get some sense of closure for the story to be resolved.

Taking a beating in the polls...

Taking a beating in the polls…

Of course, this makes some of the storytelling choices in The End seem a little awkward. If children are what matter, then why is Cyclops abandoning his children with Emma? Particularly when Madelyne Pryor is rightfully justified in feeling betrayed by his decision to abandon their child? Similarly, if The End stresses the importance of the “next generation” of X-Men characters, then Claremonts rather brutal cull of the X-Force characters in Demons and Dreamers seems particularly mean-spirited. Those were characters pushed to the fore after Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run. In many respects, they were the future.

It doesn’t help that Men and X-Men shuffles Aliyah to the background. Aliyah was the first character introduced in Dreamers and Demons, and seemed like she is meant to be the focal point of the series. She is, after all, the rightful heir to the Shi’ar throne and an example of the “next generation” lauded by Jean Grey. However, she barely registers in Men and X-Men, as the story focuses on familiar characters going through familiar plot motions.

Attack ships on fire...

Attack ships on fire…

Still, it does allow Men and X-Men to focus on the character of Kitty Pryde, who is very much the first “next generation” X-Men character. She was a young teenager introduced early in Claremont’s run at a time where the “All-New” characters had finally established themselves as a functioning team. As such, it makes Kitty a shrewd choice to carry the torch forward for the X-Men as a group, representing the future for these characters, as so many of the iconic characters shuffle themselves out of the way.

Kitty’s closing speech seems like a nice statement of Claremont’s attitude to the franchise. It’s a speech that advocates change and growth and development, something that Claremont really tried to do during his extended Uncanny X-Men run. It also reads as a none-too-subtle criticism of editorial conservatism towards the franchise, as Kitty argues that the X-Men franchise does need to branch out in new directions, and does need to try new things.

A beast of a doctor...

A beast of a doctor…

“Within the walls of this school, within the armour of our uniforms as X-Men, our role was clear,” Kitty states. “We thought we were safe. We were comfortable. Growth isn’t comfortable or safe.” It’s a speech that seems to encourage risk-taking and thinking outside the box. In many respects, it’s a defence of Grant Morrison’s approach to New X-Men, which was being undermined and reversed even as The End was in publication. After all, Marvel had recent published House of M as a disastrous and miscalculated attempt to “reset” the X-Men franchise back to default parameters, free of all those crazy Morrison-ian ideas about culture.

Of course, it’s worth noting that Claremont’s difficulty with endings extends to The End itself. The writer would actually work on a short GeNEXT series set in the aftermath of The End, thus undercutting any sense of finality that The End might otherwise have. It’s a testament to how the adventure always continues, and how Claremont’s endings are seldom absolutely final. (It is very hard to imagine, for example, a sequel to Garth Ennis’ Punisher: The End one-shot, or Peter David’s Hulk: The End.)

neXt-Men...

neXt-Men…

The End is a trilogy of miniseries that demonstrates Claremont’s style – for better or for worse. It’s a demonstration of how fully-formed the writer’s vision of the characters must be, and proof that his vision of the X-Men is probably still the definitive take on many of these characters. At the same time, it demonstrates that Claremont is not a writer who works well with endings, and that final resolution is not his strong suit as an author.

In short, it demonstrates why Claremont was really the perfect author for seventeen years of X-Men comics, but why even an eighteen-issue epilogue struggles to satisfactorily wrap everything up.

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