The Influence of Grant Morrison’s New X-men

In the late nineties Marvel comics was in a dire financial situation. It isn’t an exaggeration to say many writers were well aware that these could be the last Marvel […]

In the late nineties Marvel comics was in a dire financial situation. It isn’t an exaggeration to say many writers were well aware that these could be the last Marvel comics ever written. It was not a good time for Marvel itself, but it was a time for Marvel to bring in an era-defining number of writers. Brian Michael Bendis came over and began the Ultimate Spider-man book, which he still he still writes today, as well as his later work of New Avengers. Mark Millar was brought on to work on things like Wolverine: Enemy of The State and Civil War could be said to have been definitive title for the creative state of Marvel in the 00’s. Garth Ennis began the Punisher story Welcome Back Frank which ended up launching the Punisher: Max series, both of which are considered the high points of the character.

Amid this creative restructuring was Grant Morrison and his forty-issue run on New X-men. Morrison’s take on the X-men is a significantly darker one, choosing to reverse the idea of a sprawling soap opera with a racism analogue in the background. Instead of being superheroes the X-men were decked out in black leather and struggling with the urban and personal issues mutant-kind faced. It’s also perhaps the darkest the X-men have ever been. The second issue ends with an act of mass genocide on the mutant country of Genosha. It’s also worth noting that this genocide is headed off by giant fist-shaped jet crashing into a skyscraper Magneto is in mere months before the horrific events of September 11, 2001. (Morrison even notes the eerie timing in his book Supergods)

Such a dark take puts the idea of the mutants as a race to the forefront and shakes up the very foundations of X-men by eliminating a long-standing fixture along with one of the most popular supervillains in all of comics. Don’t worry, he gets better. This scene sets the stage for Morrison’s entire run on the X-men. What can mutants do and what is the mutant experience like? The emphasis on this book is on the mutant aspect. Mutants are not just an analogue for prejudice in Morrison’s book, they are their own culture and species in their own right with all that is entailed by that.

It’s a pretty bold choice to focus on that and one that I think would not have passed through editorial at a more stable point. However if you look at the previous work that made Morrison famous, such as The Invisibles and Animal Man it’s easy to see that the people at Marvel hired on the superstar writer with the exact intent of him pumping that sort of manic insanity into the franchise. Of course one has to ask if what works for Animal Man works for the X-men. Could X-men take such a dark turn where the high concepts became so insular? Would readers want to stay around for such a dark comic when they just wanted to see Wolverine slice up ninjas?

For the most part, the answer these questions is yes. Grant Morrison’s run of New X-men was certainly controversial but it’s gone on to be one of the most highly regarded runs on the series, second only after Chris Claremont’s. Speaking personally, this was a comic series that began just as my interest in comics was beginning to truly blossom. However, the combination of the crash of the market and my location meant that the nearest comic shop to my house was sixty miles away. As a result I could only get occasional issues and only was able to read the entirety of the story recently. At that point, however, I did get my hands on New X-men #127 with art by Jean Paul Leon. It ended up not being as read as other X-men comics I had at that age, mostly due to the lack of Wolverine stabbing people. However, even at that age I found something quietly poignant about this issue.

It’s a pretty simple issue considering the wild ideas that Morrison pounds through the story. It features the new character Xorn encountering a mutant in the middle of painful metamorphosis that has turned him into a lumbering beast. His mother, not understanding what is happening to him, enters a suicide pact with him. The child takes to the streets in an attempt to get medicine for both his mother and himself, only to be gunned down by frightened cops. Xorn leaves, lamenting the tragedy wrought by ignorance, leaving us with a page of him in the rain that simply says ‘And Life Goes On’.

It’s some rough, heartbreaking stuff in a comic that’s known for its action. It serves as a wake-up call for what it’s like to be a mutant if you’re not one of the cool mutants with metal bones or that can blast people by just looking at them. It’s a level of focus on mutants as a society that hadn’t been seen yet. It’s this very focus on your atypical mutants Grant Morrison offers that makes the New- X-men truly great.

Along these lines is the strengthened emphasis on the Xavier institute as a school. While this was an aspect of the X-men from the very beginning, Morrison emphasized the educational aspect to a point where it actually started to feel like a genuine school rather than simply being the place superpowered teens hang out between adventures. We’re given a full roster of new kids from the awkard-looking and nervous bird-mutant Beak to the angry psychic riot-inciter Quentin Quire who went on to be a fan favorite in Jason Aaron’s Wolverine & The X-men. Morrison wasn’t just dedicated to creating new characters, he was dedicated to using those characters to expand the world around X-men. With each character we received a new insight into the world, as well as the facets behind the ideas X-men. Beak’s odd-looking bird features were an exaggeration of the awkwardness of puberty. Quentin Quire’s gang of thugs going out to beat normal humans an expression of the fear and anger the oppressed have against those that have power and privilege over them This story takes every idea revolving around the X-men and strips away any of the sidestepping around the core elements.

Of course, at the end of the day, it’s still an X-men comic by Grant Morrison and that means that stuff is going to get weird. Morrison takes the X-men and explores the possibilities behind the idea. Some of them are quite simple and elegant. I actually love the idea of having Wolverine’s Weapon X  mean Weapon Ten in a series of supersoldier programs, with Captain America being Weapon One. It’s one of those ideas so elegant and streamlined that you wonder in hindsight why no one did it before. Some of the ideas become a bit more out-there,  most notably Fantomex, who was criticized as Morrison’s own Mary Sue. I’ll admit, it’s hard to deny the level of similarities to Morrison’s admitted author surrogate King Mob from the pages of  The Invisibles. Fantomex feels like a cross between him and Danger Diabolik so it’s really hard to deny those complaints. Hell, even the fact that he’s Weapon Thirteen feels like an automatic ‘look how much cooler this guy is than Wolverine’ card. Thirteen is more than ten and it’s an unlucky number! Fortunately for Fantomex he provides the impetus for a lot of the best stories in the run such as Assault On Weapon Plus which brings the ideas around Weapon Plus to a head, along with phenomenal art by Chris Bachalo.

Of course it’s impossible to talk about the run of Grant Morrison without discussing the climax of this story. Just a warning for those of you who haven’t read it there are spoilers ahead.

The reveal that Xorn -a new character that Morrison created- turned out to be Magneto in disguise was a genuinely surprising twist that had people reacting in the divisive manner that has come to typify the reactions that Grant Morrison comics get. Some loved it as a compelling twist that was a natural result of the story seeds he had placed. Others decried it as it a shock value twist that came out of nowhere. This of course paled in comparison to what Magneto does once he reveals himself. This Magneto isn’t the conflicted supervillain with an admirable goal and questionable methods we usually see. No this Magneto is a straight-up monster, executing humans for the act of being human and with the plan that would throw the planet into chaos killing both mutant and human alike. Many fans of Magneto were appalled at the evil this character was wreaking.

To an extent I understand the anger of Magneto’s fans here. There’s a lot to find admirable and sympathetic in Magneto as a character and his goals are understandable. We all love the X-men and think mutants are cool and think they shouldn’t be feared and hated. It’s also easy to see Magneto’s seeking of outright conflict as something more ‘realistic’ than Charles Xavier’s work for mutual coexistence. He’s a character much like Harley Quinn in Batman where a combination of sympathetic circumstances and nuanced writing makes a character beloved.

However, if you read a Joker story and wistfully sigh over Harley Quinn and Joker’s relationship you’re missing something vital. Similarly if you look at the man who named his team The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and buy ‘Magento was Right’ memorabilia with any intent other than geek kitsch you’re deeply misunderstanding the character. It may be a comic book, but you’re still a human and his end game involves you being in a mass grave. Morrison realized this and portrayed the logical conclusion of Magneto. Magneto is a supervillain, and an insane one. The ending even highlights the misunderstanding many readers have of the character. Xavier points out the value he had as a martyr and symbol in death as opposed to the insane tyrant he was revealing himself to be. Morrison’s dark X-men tale ends with the violent revolutionary shown not as a glorious leader, but a sad, broken man with an obsession that broke him.

It’s a powerful ending to Morrison’s run with the significant issue that it isn’t actually the ending. The arc hobbles along for four more issues with a dull story with equally unimpressive art by Marc Silvestri. There are a lot of ideas that make sense in theory. Ending your tenure on a book entitled New X-men with a story set in the future makes a lot sense, as well as a peek into ideas of where these characters you’re leaving with other writers could go. Sadly the story is boring and many of these characters became ignored for mainstays like Wolverine and Shadowcat. Fortunately, some characters like Fantomex and Quentin Quire found their place many years later in the pages of Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-force and Jason Aaron’s Wolverine And The X-men.

It took a long time however. Upon Morrison’s departure from Marvel the company seemed to take a special focus on undoing all of his work. The X-men moved away from the black leather to return to their typical superhero uniforms. Mere weeks after Magneto’s apparent death from getting his head sliced off he appears at his own funeral and gives an explanation for being alive that is a stretch even for the likes of the X-men. (Xorn was evidently a real person) It’s pretty easy to see why they wanted to undo the stories. The departure created a rift in readers and many fans wanted a return to a more familiar superhero soap opera. In particular writers Chuck Austen -who could have an article all on his own- and Joss Whedon moved the series back to the stories that made X-men popular with varying results. Even the much maligned House of M seemed to want to reverse Morrison’s emphasis on the mutants as their own race with their own culture by having the Scarlet Witch reduce the mutant population to 198. For many this point is considered a dark time for the X-men, especially since it lead to the worst X-men story ever written: Chuck Austen’s The Draco.

In hindsight, Morrison’s run has become beloved. Many cite it as being up there with Chris Claremont’s work, though it is nowhere near as long. The new look at X-men has ground into the ideas of what everyone thinks the X-men are. Brian Singer’s films adopted the Xavier institute as a school and it’s an idea that is emphasized in the still ongoing Wolverine & The X-men series. Try as they did, the ideas in Morrison’s X-men were unkillable and they stayed for all the attempts to undo them.