Hey, it’s the God of All Comics, so I couldn’t possibly think this run is excellent and important, right?
X-Men by Grant “It was always a ‘ten,’ I swear!” Morrison (writer), Frank Quitely (penciler, issues #114-116, 121-122, 126, 135-138), Ethan van Sciver (penciler, issues #117-118, 123, 133), Igor Kordey (artist, issues #119-120, 124-125, 128-130), Tom Derenick (penciler, issue #123), John Paul Leon (penciler, issues #127, 131), Phil Jimenez (penciler, issues #132, 139-141, 146-150), Keron Grant (penciler, issue #134), Chris Bachalo (penciler, issues #142-145), Marc Silvestri (penciler, issues #151-154), Leinil Francis Yu (penciler, X-Men Annual 2001), Tim Townsend (inker, issues #114-115, 122-123, 126, 135, 142-145, 153), Mark Morales (inker, issues #115-116), Dan Green (inker, issue #116), Prentiss Rollins (inker, issues #117-118), Scott Hanna (inker, issues #118, 123), Sandu Florea (inker, issues #118, 122-123), Rich Perrotta (inker, issue #122), Danny Miki (inker, issue #123), Bill Sienkiewicz (inker, issues #127, 131), Andy Lanning (inker, issues #132, 139-141, 146-150), Norm Rapmund (inker, issues #133-134), Al Vey (inker, issue #145), Aaron Sowd (inker, issue #145), Simon Coleby (inker, issue #150), Matt Banning (inker, issue #151, 153), Joe Weems (inker, issues #151-154), Billy Tan (inker, issues #151-152), Eric Basaldua (inker, issue #151), Gerry Alanguilan (inker, X-Men Annual 2001), Brian Haberlin (colorist, issues #114, 126), Hi-Fi Design (colorist, issues #115-125, 127, X-Men Annual 2001), Dave McCaig (colorist, issues #128-130, 139), Chris Chuckry (colorist, issues #130-138, 140-150), Steve Firchow (colorist, issues #151-154), John Starr (colorist, issues #152, 154), Matt Milla (colorist, issue #152), Frank D’Armata (colorist, issue #153), Beth Sotelo (colorist, issue #154), Brian Buccellato (colorist, issue #154), Richard Starkings, Saida Temofonte, Wes Abbott, Albert Deschesne, and Comicraft (letterer, issues #114-138, X-Men Annual 2001), Chris Eliopoulos (letterer, issues #139-142, 150, 152), and Rus Wooton (letterer, issues #143-149, 151, 153-154).
Published by Marvel, 42 issues (#114-154 and X-Men Annual 2001, which comes after issue #116 despite being released a week before it), cover dated July 2001 – May 2004.
SPOILERS aplenty, fret you not! And, as always, you can click on the pictures to bigify them!
Grant Morrison’s only long-form work for Marvel is this run on X-Men, and it brings up a lot of interesting thoughts about Morrison and Marvel at the turn of the millennium and going forward. This run is another title from Marvel’s brief “Bill Jemas Golden Age,” when Jemas was publisher and Joe Quesada was editor-in-chief, an example of which we saw last time with Milligan and Allred’s X-Force, which came out a few months earlier than this did. Jemas was a controversial figure at Marvel, but he did allow his creators a lot of freedom, and Morrison took that and ran with it. Jemas was gone by the time this run ended, and perhaps that’s why Morrison went back to DC. Marvel never seemed like a good fit for them, anyway, as they tend to work better with icons, and DC is stocked with icons. That makes this run, which is the best X-Men run since Claremont left in 1991, even more vexing. Morrison was given, it appears, free rein on the book, and they took advantage of that early on, but as the run went along, it became more conventional, and it ended with pretty much all the toys back in the box. On the one hand, this is fine – these are not Morrison’s creations, so they shouldn’t mess with them too much, but on the other hand, there’s so much that’s tantalizingly different about this run that its conventionality is a bit upsetting. As it turns out, the only thing Morrison did on this run that stuck is splitting up Scott and Jean and hooking Scott up with Emma, something I’ll get to. That doesn’t make the run bad, as even Morrison’s Magneto story is more interesting in many ways than most Magneto stories, but it does make it feel like a lost opportunity. I don’t know if Morrison decided on their own to put the toys back where they found them or if post-Jemas Marvel execs steered them that way (by the time issue #154 came out, Quesada was still E-I-C, but Dan Buckley was publisher, and Buckley oversaw the dismantling of the “Jemas Golden Age,” for better or for worse). As good as this run is, there’s enough here to make us think that it could have been a lot better.
But we come to praise, not to bury, Morrison’s X-Men (well, for now …)! Despite its flaws, it’s still a shining beacon of post-Claremontian X-Men comics, one that soared above what came before and hasn’t really been matched since. Morrison took the basic concepts and characters of the franchise and gave them their signature weird twist, and they created a world of strange wonders, which many writers don’t seem to get about a superhero universe – it would be stranger than ours, simply because of the existence of superheroes. Morrison has always understood that, and it’s why their comics are so much more interesting than so many other writers’. Morrison has always thought cogently about what the existence of super-beings would mean in the world, and with the X-Men, that means “secondary mutations,” with Henry McCoy becoming more feline and Emma Frost developing a diamond-hard skin sheath that protects her from telepathic attack. You might not like these ideas, but that doesn’t mean it’s not neat that Morrison thinks of what might happen in a world where the “X-gene” gives people fabulous powers. Morrison has always been fascinated by the idea of change, and they never rest on theirs or anyone else’s laurels. They’re always looking to see how they can push comics forward, and for much of this run, that’s what they do.
This is evident in the first story, “E is for Extinction,” in which Morrison introduces Cassandra Nova, a bizarre telepathic, parasitic, bodiless being who may or may not have been Charles Xavier’s twin (later retcons muddy the waters in that regard). Cassandra is able to create bodies, which is why she looks like an older woman throughout the run. She enlists the help of a Trask – Donald Trask, an Albuquerque dentist – to bypass the Sentinels’ programming (they won’t hurt a Trask) and unleashes “wild Sentinels” created from an abandoned, experimental Master Mold in Ecuador (one that creates Sentinels with artificial intelligence by scavenging the scrap around it, hence the “wildness” of the robots), and those Sentinels head to Genosha and destroy it. This is the big bang at the beginning of Morrison’s run – Genosha is wiped out, and Magneto – recovering from the “Eve of Destruction” arc that came just before Morrison jumped on board (despite the weirdness of the run, Morrison is very good at making sure it fits into continuity) – is killed. This is a superb beginning, because it introduces some new villains based on classic concepts while wiping out a rather stale one in Magneto. Naturally, it didn’t last. But right from the beginning, we see that Morrison isn’t fooling around.
Comics have always been about “dynamic statis” – the illusion of change – and mutants, of course, are all about “change,” and Morrison takes that to heart. By clearing the decks a bit with Magneto’s death, they can introduce both Cassandra Nova and John Sublime, the two big new villains of the run, and allow Professor Xavier to “come out” to the world by announcing that he’s a mutant. The idea of mutants as a persecuted minority in the Marvel Universe isn’t the best metaphor, but it’s always been analogous with the experience of black people in the real world, with Charles Xavier as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Magneto as Malcolm X. As imperfect as this analogy is, that’s what it’s been, but Morrison switches it up to make it about sexuality, which is a clever and interesting change. It was apparently an open secret in comics back in these days and it’s now common knowledge because Morrison announced it, but they’re non-binary, and their run on X-Men can be seen as exploring that idea through mutants. The Beast thinks he might be gay, but later on he claims he was just trying to get attention, and while that’s a bit annoying, the idea of a character moving outward from a base sexuality in order to find a stability in the way they feel is fascinating, and Hank’s “secondary” mutation of becoming more feline fits that theme as well (I’ll get into this a bit more below). Similarly, Xavier announcing his “mutantcy” opens up new vistas in the human-mutant relations aspect of the X-Men Universe, as being a mutant becomes something “cool” and opens the door for John Sublime, whose group of humans wants to graft mutant organs onto themselves to become a better version of themselves.
I’ll get back to the sexual nature of this run, but for now, the idea of mutants becoming mainstream – a big change in the Marvel Universe – is what fuels the run, at least early on, and Morrison runs with that as the characters explore the possibilities of a mutant-positive (or at least less negative) world. The U-Men, John Sublime’s acolytes who want to implant mutant organs to give themselves powers, are the dark side of that, but Morrison doesn’t dwell on them too long, at least not until the final arc. They get back to the idea of the X-Mansion as a school (which remains a fine idea), and so we get new students, many of whom are not “pretty” like the X-Men and therefore have a more difficult time fitting into “polite society.” We also get Mutant Town, a neighborhood in New York where mutants live freely and openly. It’s very much like a Jewish ghetto, which is obviously deliberate, but Morrison also makes clear it’s a place where mutants don’t have to hide, so it’s not completely a negative situation. As the run continues, Morrison turns Magneto into a cultural icon, which is a clever enough idea, and when Magneto comes back from the dead (sigh), the notion of the reality not conforming to the icon is a major part of the penultimate story of the run. Change comes from different places, and Magneto, as an old white dude, doesn’t quite understand that the young mutants might worship him because of what he meant to mutants in the past, but they don’t necessarily want him around to run their lives. Another old white dude, Charles Xavier, gets to spell it out for Erik in issue #150: “Magneto had become a legend in death, an inspiration for change. Now look at you — just another foolish and self-important old man, with outdated thoughts in his head. You have nothing this new generation of mutants wants … except for your face on a T-shirt.” Morrison understands, more than other X-Men writers, that mutants equal change, and keeping the status quo leads to stale stories (it’s not surprising that “Planet X,” the big Magneto story, is probably the worst of the run). They couldn’t tear the whole thing down, of course, because Marvel wouldn’t let them, but turning Magneto into a dead icon, à la Che Guevara, and then bringing him back to disappoint those who made him an icon is inspired. The kids see Magneto for what he is, and he can’t handle it. The kids might be assholes too, and they might be making the same mistakes Magneto made (Quentin Quire is just a new-school Magneto, eventually), but they have to make them themselves, and they have to be allowed to make them. When Magneto shows them that he’s as flawed as they are, they tear him down. Why listen to someone who’s no better than you are? With regard to the idea of mutability, Morrison does well with the next generation of mutants in general. They’re skeptical of authority, whether it’s Magneto or Xavier, but they can be fiercely loyal. They have their own ideas about how to do things, but usually, it’s just the same old stuff in slightly different packaging. They believe they alone can change the world, but they rarely see a bigger picture. They think they’re smarter than the oldsters, and they can be, but they also underestimate older people simply because they’re old, as Quentin does when he tries to take over Xavier’s school. Teenagers want to be agents of change, which Morrison points out is not a bad thing, but throughout this relatively conservative run, they examine the consequences of change far more than most writers of mainstream comics do. Quentin wants to change things, basically, to impress a girl. Is that positive change? Morrison does an interesting job trying to work through when change is not only necessary, but imperative, and whether or not it can come about non-violently. Ultimately, the book is about how to change things without destroying what came before – those who do not learn how to do that fail. Despite its conservatism, the run bubbles with hope for the future.
Part of the theme of change comes through sexual change and sexual identity, which Morrison, as a non-binary person, understands all too well. Morrison has always been interested in the way superheroes express their sexuality, not necessarily in the most graphic way, but they understand that it’s part of a person’s identity, so they tend to explore it a bit more than most writers (and definitely in a more mature way than most writers). It begins very early on, in issue #114, on page 7, when Henry McCoy, going through a “secondary mutation,” tells Jean Grey he feels “like a Hindu sex god.” It’s a throwaway line, but Henry is one of the characters who goes through a lot during the run, and it’s not hard to see Morrison working through their own quest for a sexual/gender identity in the Beast, who has become more “feline” in this run. Dogs are traditionally “masculine,” while cats are traditionally “feminine,” and Hank’s change from a more canine “beast” and all its symbolism of aggressive masculinity to a more feminine cat-like mutant is an interesting shift. Cassandra Nova, in Charles Xavier’s body, mocks him in issue #117 by saying he’s “devolving”: “Remember when you looked almost human in the mirror? Then it started. The fall from man to ape, from ape to feline.” Yes, she is stressing a fall down the evolutionary ladder, but the words – “ape” and “feline” – are coded a bit with gender signifiers, and while Cassandra (who, as a woman – or at least female – in a man’s body, is going through some gender identity issues herself) is specifically mocking Henry’s intelligence and ability, the mockery of his gender shift – such as it is – is there, too. Later in the issue, Henry is beaten – another interesting shift, as he’s the “beast” who now can’t defend himself against Beak (influenced by Cassandra) wielding a bat – but just prior to that, he tells Cassandra he won’t rip her face off with his teeth because he believes “in art … and music and literature and … and reason!” Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with that, but artistic pursuits are often coded as “feminine,” especially in a hyper-masculine world of superheroes. Henry pays the price for not being a he-man, because Beak beats him pretty badly. In issue #122, he admits to Jean that he’s scared of Cassandra, which is not something a manly superhero does. She tells him they’ll beat her because she has no concept of cooperation. While being on a team is a superhero staple, the notion of cooperation is more a “feminine” ideal, with manly men supposed to go it alone, so that’s another small indication about Henry’s gender fluidity. Henry gets to talk to Trish Tilby in issue #125, which is the first time he’s seen her since she dumped him in issue #117 (via voice mail). In that message, she broke up with him because of the accusations of “bestiality” leveled at her, but she apologizes in #125, partly because Henry has risen to the occasion when the Shi’ar Imperial Guard attacks the X-Men. Morrison has Henry shut her down (as politely as possible) by having him say, “The truth is I’m not interested in a relationship with a human being right now. In fact, I think I may be gay.” He’s not joking, per se, but Emma does call him out on it in issue #131 while she’s reading a magazine with Henry on the cover by the title “I’m as Gay as It Gets.” He tells her, “I’m doing this to challenge preconceived notions about language, gender and species.” This might be the mission statement of Morrison’s entire career. With hindsight, it’s easy to see Henry as a Morrison-surrogate, a person working through their gender and sexual identity and trying to change the way people see those things, but Morrison has been doing this kind of thing for much of their career, so it’s not totally necessary to limit ourselves to seeing Morrison in Henry McCoy. Morrison does it here more than in some other comics they’ve written because of how mutants lend themselves to this kind of examination. Henry doesn’t consider himself human, so why should he consider his gender in human terms? Why should he consider his sexuality in human terms?
Henry might be the most obvious example, but it’s not the only one, as this run of X-Men is steeped in sex and gender dynamics, often in unconventional ways. It begins with Morrison ditching the superhero costumes for bondage leather (while superhero costumes are “pervert suits” in more ways than one, Morrison did away with the subtext and put it more on display), with Wolverine often leaving the jacket open and going shirtless just because he wanted all the ladies to see the goods (and it works – in the Annual he and Domino bang off-panel). They bring Emma Frost onto the team, and she’s wearing that ridiculous outfit that works only in a superhero universe. Morrison gives Emma a secondary mutation of diamond skin, because just calling her the “ice queen” wouldn’t be obvious enough. Esme, the nominal leader of the “Stepford Cuckoos,” Emma’s star pupils at Xavier’s school, falls hard for a student who turns out to be one of the Shi’ar Imperial Guard in disguise, and then later, it’s heavily implied that she’s having sex with Magneto (perhaps Marvel and Morrison decided to rein that in a bit, given that Esme is a student in high school when she leaves to join Magneto’s new Brotherhood, but it’s still heavily implied). Beak and Angel end up having a brood of children together, with Angel “giving birth” to several large eggs, which eventually hatch into flying, beaked babies. Fantomex and E.V.A. have a strangely sexual relationship, even though E.V.A. is just Fantomex’s nervous system. This relationship transfers to Morrison’s final arc, “Here Comes Tomorrow,” in which Tom Skylark meets a newly sexy E.V.A. (she’s drawn by Marc Silvestri, so of course she’s sexy!) and begins to have feelings for her. Morrison is examining extra-human relationships, and those won’t always play out the way we expect. In a world in which actual sex is often proscribed even if the people in it are unbelievably sexy, Morrison’s allusions to and short stories about mutants actually having sexual relationships is a breath of fresh air. Except for, of course, the most famous one, which feels like a misstep.
With that, we have to discuss the missteps in this arc, which isn’t perfect, after all. As I noted above, “E Is for Extinction” is excellent. In the Annual, we meet Xorn, Morrison’s “man in the iron mask,” who has a sun where his brain used to be. Scott talks him down from destroying the world, and he joins the X-Men. That he’s later revealed to be Magneto doesn’t change the fact that as Xorn, he gives the X-Men an interesting perspective as the run goes on. The Annual also brings in John Sublime, who wants to graft mutant organs onto humans and become a “third species.” Sublime is the “big bad” of the run, and Morrison makes him – it, I suppose – as ridiculous as superhero comics allows: it’s a super-intelligent bacterium that pre-dates humans and can possess them, and it’s trying to destroy humanity to take its planet back. Sublime, as a human, is still a very good villain, and even as a bacterial threat, it’s pretty keen. Morrison re-establishes the idea of a school for mutants and populates it with fascinating characters, and the fact that the teenagers act like teenagers a lot is nicely done, because someone like Quentin Quire can rise up and actually have the power to live out his fantasies, which most teens cannot do. Morrison gives us the best version of the Shi’ar Imperial Guard since Claremont, which is nice. And while the fact that Wolverine is Weapon “Ten,” not Weapon “X,” is the slightest bit annoying, the Weapon Plus program is a good idea. These are the plot points that make this run so excellent, along with the various subtextual (and, to be fair, textual) things I wrote about above. But the BIG! PLOTS! fall a bit short. Killing Magneto was brilliant, and the fact that Xorn is Magneto doesn’t make as much sense as Morrison thinks it does. There are moments in the Annual during which there is no reason for Magneto to keep up the pretense of “Xorn,” yet he does so anyway. Why? How did Magneto get from Genosha and a giant Sentinel smashing directly into him during his convalescence to China? It makes no sense, and it weakens the run quite a lot, unfortunately. It’s saved a bit by the fact that, as I noted above, Magneto isn’t necessarily respected by the younger generation, plus he’s a drug addict now (the mutant drug “Kick” increases his power, an idea that Morrison swiped from Claremont and Lee, who introduced Fabian Cortez, whose mutant power is to increase others’ and who uses it on Magneto, who becomes somewhat addicted to it), so “Planet X,” as an arc, isn’t as annoying as it could have been. Then, Morrison zips into the future for “Here Comes Tomorrow,” which seems to exist because Silvestri wanted to draw cool sci-fi shit and Morrison obliged him. It’s certainly not a terrible arc, but to finish your run with a bunch of mostly new characters (and Wolverine, because of course) seems odd. It doesn’t really work, although Morrison does use the Phoenix force in an interesting and new way.
The biggest misstep in the run, however, is the destruction of Scott and Jean’s marriage. As I have long contended, Claremont turned Scott into a dick during his run, although it seems to have been largely editorially mandated. Jean died, and instead of moving on, Scott marries a woman who looks exactly like her (she knows it, too, which should have been a red flag for her). He has a child with Madelyne, but ditches her without an explanation to rejoin his resurrected girlfriend, leaving her with a baby to raise on her own. The only way they could redeem Scott in any way is to have Madelyne turn so evil that readers wouldn’t think about how right she was, and then she dies. Scott is free to marry Jean, which was a step along the way toward making him less of a dick. The writers do have him become infatuated with Psylocke, because Scott apparently can’t keep it in his pants. By the time Morrison started the run, Scott had been a dick for about half his fictional life, and while he certainly wasn’t irredeemable, things weren’t great. Morrison was dealing with the aftermath of Scott’s “merging” with Apocalypse, which happened not too long before their run began, and in the first issue, Wolverine references this, but it sounds as if Scott was deliberately separating himself from the X-Men instead of having no clue who he was (amnesia is so very common in comics). Logan implies that his absence hurt his relationship with Jean, which Scott derides, but the seeds have been sown. In the Annual, the first thing Emma says is to Scott: “What’s all this I hear about your vow of celibacy?” Scott basically tells her to mind her own business (and remind her that she tried to kill them in the past, which Morrison hand-waves away by having her claim it was the drugs and alcohol that messed up her mind), but later, she shows up in Scott’s bedroom wearing a slinky black dress and carrying Champagne, wanting to hear more about his “world of chastity.” Oh dear. We don’t know what happens, but in issue #118, Jean asks Scott if he slept with Emma in Hong Kong, and he answers enigmatically, “No I didn’t. She kept me awake all night,” which shouldn’t fill anyone with confidence in his fidelity. In issue #128, Scott breaks down and asks Emma for help with his relationship. He thinks he and Jean are too comfortable, and he can’t talk to her about what’s happened to him, because he’s afraid she’ll hate him for what he’s become. Now, Scott was possessed by Apocalypse, it’s true, but Jean knows that, and Morrison hasn’t shown that he’s become someone fundamentally different thanks to that possession. And why he goes to Emma – the White Queen, mind you, and she’s not a licensed therapist (despite what she says in issue #131) – is mystifying. If anyone on the X-Men should hate Emma, it’s Scott, but he just seeks her out and begins to spill secrets, secrets he thinks he can’t tell the woman he married. Ugh. In issue #131, Logan and Scott are flying the X-plane and Logan gives Scott better advice than Emma ever could: “You two should talk more,” which Emma, listening in on Cerebra, immediately dismisses. She gives him advice (in his head, given that she’s a telepath), but Scott realizes that things are moving into weird territory, especially when she appears to him in the “Dark Phoenix” costume. As they did in Hong Kong, Morrison cuts away before we see if anything happens, but it’s still hanging in the air. As usual with Morrison, it’s left hanging for a long time – Scott and Emma aren’t in the book that much for several issues, and not together – until in issue #136, we get Scott daydreaming about making out with Emma, but it’s nothing more than that (still, it’s not just a dream, as Emma is a telepath and their “psychic forms” were actually kissing). It all comes to a head at the end of issue #138, when the Cuckoos, angry at Emma, tell Jean what’s been going on. Meanwhile, Emma again enters Scott’s mind and, dressed as Dark Phoenix, starts seducing him. In the real world, Scott points out what happened to him: “En Sabah Nur made me think like this … when I was possessed. He made everything seem boring afterwards … he made my life seem so small … my experiences so … so limited.” Emma rightly calls him out on this, saying those are just ordinary human emotions, and then she tells him to stop being such an old superhero, to which he replies, quietly, “But I’ve never been anything else … I’ve never been allowed to be anything else.” They are, of course, interrupted by Jean showing up in the psychic plane, and she is not in a good mood. She throws Scott out of Emma’s thoughts and, in issue #139, confronts Emma. It’s a good issue – Jean enters Emma’s memories and discovers how small she really is, and Scott finally allows her to see what happened in Hong Kong, which was absolutely nothing – Emma simply told him that his “dirty” thoughts about what he wanted to do with Jean were perfectly ordinary, but Scott is too embarrassed to share – Emma tells Logan, “I hate this awful place and these ugly, repressed people,” which sounds like Warren Ellis’s mantra about superhero comics – and then Scott leaves and Emma gets murdered … sort of. She gets better, but Scott is still AWOL, until Logan tracks him down in issue #142, when he recruits him to take down the Weapon Plus program. Before he does, he tells him he’s stupid:
See, all I ever wanted was what you’ve got — the nice girl, the steady life … What you want is to throw all that away and run a little wild with the sexy White Queen. And the worst thing is you think Jean wouldn’t understand? Bub, she’s been praying for you come out of yer shell for a zillion years! You don’t catch too many glimpses of the obvious through that visor, do ya?
The problem with this is that it’s really the last word on the tortured triangle. Scott leaves to fight with Logan and Fantomex, and then Logan ends up on Asteroid M with Jean, who dies and comes back as the Phoenix. Scott tells Emma he’s made a decision about them, but we never hear it, and then Jean dies – again, sigh – and we zip into the future, where Jean reconstructs the timeline so that Scott decides to hook up with Emma. “Free will” becomes a bit of an elastic concept, and Morrison leaves the X-Men behind. Exeunt.
That was a long paragraph, I know, but the relationship of these three people is at the heart of the run, and while, on many levels, Morrison does a good job with it, they screw up some other things, too. Scott’s possession by Apocalypse is an important plot point that Morrison picks up on in their wonderfully and weirdly oblique way – it’s danced around for a while, and when Scott does talk about it, he does so as minimally as possible. Morrison does this a lot – where other writers would be blunter, Morrison alludes to things very well, which is much closer to “reality” than big emotive speeches that a lot of fiction writers like to write. Comic book characters get possessed all the time, of course, and after it’s over, they usually just have a few pages of weirdness before shaking it off and moving on. Scott is tormented for months by his possession, and it makes him question his entire life, which is probably what would have happened. He’s always been portrayed as a bit repressed, too, so the fact that he’s not expressing his true feelings feels real, as well. Obviously, Scott is a big ol’ metaphor, just like Henry is – in the early 2000s, Morrison couldn’t talk about their gender identity too much without judgment coming down on them, so they expressed it through their writing. Scott’s confusion over his deeper emotions, like Henry exploring his gender identity, feels a bit like Morrison placing some of their own conflicts on a character … one who, it should be noted, is very well suited for it. But Morrison falls into some traps, too, that other writers often fall into. Sex is an important part of a relationship, but it’s certainly not as important as writers make it seem, and Scott’s desires don’t necessarily mean that he’s simply going to fall out of love with Jean and become obsessed with Emma. It certainly could happen, but many writers over the years have shown how special Scott and Jean’s relationship is … even to the detriment of their character development! Writers were so devoted to Scott and Jean that they turned Scott into a huge dick, as I noted above. Jean is much better with Wolverine, after all, but nobody could let the Scott-and-Jean thing go, so for Morrison to wreck it over something relatively inconsequential feels wrong. Scott doesn’t think Jean will understand? Does he know what Jean has gone through in her life? Scott thinks Jean won’t get freaky with him? The first confirmed time they had sex (although it was implied prior to this) is when Jean flies them to the top of a mesa and they bang away. Morrison doesn’t lay enough of the ground to make the break believable, so while Scott’s feelings are something that fits in well with the theme of the run, the way it plays out is not. It feels like Morrison wanted to kill Jean once and for all and they didn’t want to leave poor Scott all alone. The first time Jean “died,” Scott left the X-Men completely and stayed away for months. This time, he’s standing at her grave with her body hardly cold and he’s already macking on Emma. It doesn’t feel plausible enough. It’s a terrific run, to be sure, but the Magneto story, followed by the jump into the future, and the disintegration of the Summers-Grey marriage makes it a frustrating one, too.
Another somewhat frustrating aspect of this run is the art. Why anyone at Marvel thought Frank Quitely could keep up a monthly schedule is beyond me, and this was before the companies realized that having two “regular” artists might be a smart idea, so Quitely’s stint on the book, while excellent, was sadly brief (he drew ten issues out of 42). Marvel got good artists, certainly, and by the end, they kind of figured out that simply getting a good artist to draw one arc was the way to go, but early on, the run ran into artistic difficulties that hampered it quite a bit. Quitely drew “Riot at Xavier’s” in issues #135-138, which were his last issues, and then Phil Jimenez drew “Murder at the Mansion,” followed by Chris Bachalo doing “Assault on Weapon Plus,” then Jimenez again for “Planet X,” and finally Marc Silvestri on “Here Comes Tomorrow.” This kind of artistic consistency was sadly lacking in the earlier issues. Quitely would have been a great artist for the entire run – it feels like only “Assault on Weapon Plus” and “Here Comes Tomorrow” would have suffered had he drawn them instead of Bachalo and Silvestri (Jimenez’s art looks great, don’t get me wrong, but Quitely drawing a shattered Emma Frost or Magneto ripping up New York’s bridges would have been superb) – but he simply couldn’t keep up the pace of a monthly book, and Marvel seemingly had no back-up plan. Quitely’s odd sensibilities wouldn’t seem to work on a superhero book, but that’s why he’s so good on a mutant book. His attractive women tend to be a bit off – they’re all legs, too thin, and often have spidery fingers – and it makes Jean and Emma, the two main women in the book, look a bit more “mutant-y,” which adds to the oddness of the scene. They’re beautiful, but in a slightly alien way. Quitely’s precise line work and angular style makes Cassandra fearsome, too, as her cheekbones could cut glass and feline eyes (there’s a lot that’s feline about Quitely’s art, not just his depiction of Beast) hide an insidious evil. His attention to detail slows him down, I’m sure, but it also makes his design work astonishing, and that’s on full display in this run. His “wild” Sentinels are terrifying, a mixture of bird and insect that swarm around their victims, ripping them apart. His “‘Nuff Said” issue, #121, in which Emma and Jean go into Professor Xavier’s mind to find out what Cassandra is, is a wonderful artistic triumph. He gives us creepy “Cassandras” lurking in dark corners, a bulbous-headed Xavier chained inside a horror-show tower, and a conception scene – in a Marvel comic, which is pretty impressive. The silent issues that Marvel did in late 2001 were, obviously, a bit gimmicky, but it did allow the artists to show off, and Quitely takes full advantage. When he draws the disembodied Cassandra possessing Xavier in issues #122 and #126, his thin lines make her a creepy, bulbous, oozing mass, while Kordey’s thicker lines in issues #124 and #125 make a bit more amorphous and far less threatening. Quitely’s precision makes Wolverine’s Escher-like flashback in issue #137 horrifying, as we see every tiny detail of “James’s” life playing out in the background, something an artist with thicker lines would have struggled to capture. And when the Cuckoos mind-blast Quentin Quire, Quitely marvelously shows his body getting ripped apart (metaphorically) in stages as the girls easily bypass his defenses. Quitely’s work on the book is superb, and it’s a shame he couldn’t do more of it.
Part of the problem is, as I noted above, that Marvel seemed to be caught off guard by his lack of speed. After Quitely’s first arc, we got two issues of Ethan van Sciver, who did good work. Then Igor Kordey stepped in, and things began to go south. According to Kordey, he was working on Cable and Black Widow when Marvel inexplicably asked him to draw both #119 and #120 – almost simultaneously, it seems, and on a very tight deadline. Both of those issues are a bit rough – scratchy lines, loose inks, and not the greatest storytelling. Issue #124, which Kordey did while also working on the two other series plus Soldier X, the Cable replacement, is also not great – very loose pencils and rough inks, and Marvel printed it on glossier paper, which did Kordey’s scratchy art no favors. Issue #125 was a bit better – his lines were just a bit tighter – and his Fantomex arc – issues #128-130 – are actually pretty nice – he doesn’t ink quite as roughly, so the characters look more “put-together,” and his storytelling is a bit clearer. Kordey is a very good artist, but this was his introduction to many American readers, and it did not come off very well and soured a lot of people to the run. It’s unfortunate, because it wasn’t his fault, but he got blamed for it. That Marvel thought they could put out a monthly book with Frank Quitely and Ethan van Sciver providing the art and not get behind is a colossal miscalculation on their part, and to their credit, they seemed to have learned their lesson. The first 21 issues of the run – excluding the Annual – feature this art line-up: Quitely (3), van Sciver (2), Kordey (2), Quitely (2), van Sciver (1), Kordey (2), Quitely (1), Leon (1), Kordey (3), Leon (1), Jimenez (1), van Sciver (1), Grant (1). That’s a mess, and while Marvel might have been able to get away with it in the Silver or Bronze Age, when a strong inker could unify art styles, by the 21st century, many artists were inking their own work or working exclusively with one inker (Tim Townsend, who inked several issues of this run, was often Chris Bachalo’s preferred inker early in Bachalo’s career). So the art was very diverse, sure, but extremely inconsistent. In the final 20 issues, the art line-up was this: Quitely (4), Jimenez (3), Bachalo (4), Jimenez (5), Silvestri (4). You may like or dislike the art, but at the very least, it was consistent. As I noted, while Jimenez’s art is very nice, it would have been extremely neat to see Quitely draw “Murder at the Mansion” and “Planet X,” but Bachalo’s weird, whimsical style fit “Assault on Weapon Plus” and its bizarre “World” very well, while Silvestri’s scratchy, kinetic, almost hyper style worked very well for a big violent showdown in “Here Comes Tomorrow,” set in a decaying future. Despite my opinion, Jimenez’s art is always nice to see, and it’s also nice that Marvel figured the art mess out. It’s frustrating, because the first half of the run is a bit better on the writing side, while the second half is a bit better on the art side. That they don’t match up is another reason why, despite its greatness, this run is a bit less than it could be.
There’s a lot going on in Morrison’s X-Men, and while it doesn’t all work, so much does that it makes this a great story. They set up a template for mutants in the 21st century, and while Marvel (and Morrison) walked back some of it, some of remained and has been a foundational part of the X-books ever since. One of those things – the dissolution of Scott-Jean and the creation of Scott-Emma – still seems like a bad idea, but it was part of Morrison’s linking of mutantcy to identity and what happens when a person begins to question their sense of self. Morrison couldn’t redeem Scott – and from what I know of Cyclops since the end of this run, other writers haven’t even tried that hard – but Scott’s confusion about who he is and what he wants, as opposed to what others want for him, is a crucial part of becoming our true selves, and it’s interesting reading how Morrison gets him there even if one doesn’t agree with Scott’s conclusions. Morrison came up with two brilliant villains who tie into this theme of “change or die” that many writers have embraced, and they tried to show evolution on a far weirder scale than most X-writers had attempted. The messy early art hindered the run a bit, but Quitely’s stint on the book was terrific, and most of the art was quite good, if inconsistent early on. Marvel has released these issues in trade, but I linked below to the big ol’ Omnibus that’s coming out in June and which you can pre-order at the link. I’m very tempted to get it even though I own all the issues!
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