Tuesday, May 08, 2007

X-men Primer

The New X-Men: Hardcover
The New X-Men Volume 4: Riot at Xavier's
written by Grant Morrison
art by various artists

This is one of the books that if I’d have been in the comic buying public without pause like most other comic book bloggers would have been read (and re-read) long ago. The thing is, I only recently returned. Well, it’s been a few years but there is a heck of a lot of stuff to catch up on and limited time and money to do so. So I’m going to try and create a posting for anyone relatively new or returning to comics. Basically, you should get this book if you have a basic understanding of the X-men.

You see, when I returned to comics there were a few classics I hadn’t read – Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. So I read them and they lived up to all the hype. But the thing is, it took about year of peering into the cracks of the comic blogs to discover a few other books that are assumed classics but don’t really get hyped or pointed out as fantastic works for new readers. I knew about the two classics above, there’s a lot of talk about Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run, everyone and their dog loves Fables, and you can’t go within a block of a comic book shop without someone mentioning Sandman. But there’s a few other gems out there that don’t inherently jump out at you. I was lucky to join the medium again at the height of Scott Pilgrim love, the Hellboy movie got me interested in his adventures, and well there were a few others as well that I found fantastic but I don’t want to go on forever without actually getting to the point. What the internet pointed out to me were two specific books – Kurt Busiek’s Marvels and Grant Morrison’s New X-men. It seems Marvels gets a bit less love but both these books are rather cherished.

I finally read both via the public library system and let me tell you, they are now top recommendations for anyone interested in superhero, specifically Marvel-superhero, comics.

Grant Morrison takes the X-men and strips them down to their core. Because of the movies, like Spider-man, Batman and Superman, people know the core concepts of the characters and won’t necessarily be coming to the title to be lost in decades long continuity resolutions. He cuts to the core of the ideas behind the team and just lets them loose into his mad-cap adventures. All the hallmarks of the X-men are there. Conflict with the humans, love triangles, different interpretations of the message of integration, acceptance and tolerance, melodrama and of course aliens and killer sentinels. Seriously, it can’t be an X-men comic without some garish purple robot.

It works not just because it is both a reboot, yet not a complete reboot. There are short and long character arcs as well as a smaller team that recognizes that the X-men are a part of a humungous cast of characters outside the core book. They deal with their own issues at Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters and some stuff around the world but at the same time there are a quadrillion other X-men characters (give or take a trillion) out there dealing with other aspects of the mutant human dynamic.

The adventures here are manic. They are equally horrific while solidly inventive and entertaining. These are the types of ideas that feel so natural and simple that they make you wonder why they are so new. While we have a smaller focus on a specific team of core X-men there is still the sweeping sense of scale with global conflict and interstellar warfare. While the focus is small in some aspects the scale is still grand overall, and the precision of the team allows for the grander action to develop.

For me, what made it work was the characters’ voices more than anything. It felt as if each character had their own voice instead of being the author’s current means of advancing the plot. It’s a hard skill to master but having each character be characterized by their dialogue is what really made this book turn from simple X-men comics to great work of art, for me. There aren’t any visual clues as to who is talking, like having captions with their symbols or different colours, and nothing written with phonetic accents to ensure we know exactly who is speaking at all times. It’s a fine line to walk but Morrison manages to nail it here. We’ve all read stuff that just felt like the delicate balance of characterization was beating us over the head like a rubber mallet.

The actual story is that Professor X has an evil spirit twin who has pretty much planned everything well in advance of her making her move to destroy the X-men. Plus Sentinels thrown into the mix with a bit of the Shi-ar empire. I also read the fourth trade paperback which is more or less a mash-up of American History X and A Clockwork Orange with an exceptionally gifted student being caught up in Magneto’s manifesto and, of course, drugs. Now that’s not a heck of a lot of information I know, or possibly too much, but tossed into the mix are Xavier’s special class, a new mutant with a star for a head, Emma Frost being redefined slightly into a brilliant character, some covers that tend to focus on female anatomy other than breasts – that Lilandra one is a bit more obviously suggestive than the Emma Frost one – and well about every page has an idea being thrown at you and you love it.

This is a great collection that reminds you why you liked or loved the X-men, and reminds you why the movies worked better than the comics have for a long time. You don’t need to totally restart the thing but sticking to the core ideas just makes it work for a reason.


Siskoid said...

It's hard to go wrong with Grant Morrison (though it is definitely possible - Skrull Kill Krew for example), but I don't think his X-Men are among his best work. It's got some good ideas, and stipping out the heavy continuity was something someone should have done LOOOONG before, but it doesn't even rank compared to his runs on Animal Man and Doom Patrol.

You're right that Marvel doesn't get much love when it comes to naming classics, probably because they've been far less willing to explore. They tried to start a couple of more adult-oriented lines in the 90s (I don't see why they couldn't be done using Epic) such as Razorline and Frontier, but gave up too quickly on those leaving DC free to snatch up all the "Vertigo-ish" material it could. Sadly, I have little to add in the manner of Marvel "classics". I guess Morrison's X-Men IS a classic by those standards.

If you enjoyed that, you might like Pete Milligan's X-Force/X-Statix.

joncormier said...

Yes, X-Statix is the next one isn't it. I haven't read any of it yet though....it's filed on my list I sometimes remember of stuff I'd like to read someday.

And yeah, agree if we're comparing Grant Morrison to himself, but I think as a book to bring back people who aren't going to pick up Mome and used to like the X-Men, I think this is a solid recommendation.