X-Men: Road to Schism

PrintE-mail Written by P.M. Buchan Sunday, 14 August 2011

Adventures on Alternative Earths - by P.M Buchan

As Marvel’s merry band of mutants launch into Schism, the event that Superboy-punches the Uncanny X-Men into the history books to be relaunched as two new titles helmed by Kieron Gillen and Jason Aaron, now seems like an appropriate moment to look back at the myriad X-titles that have led us here. Last month I waxed lyrical about my love for the Age of Apocalypse and disdain for Onslaught in 1996, after which the X-Men began a slippery slide towards obscurity that wasn’t turned around until Grant Morrison began his run on New X-Men in 2001. New X-Men was dazzling and groundbreaking, but subsequent missteps by Chris Claremont and Peter Milligan threatened to derail everything that Grant Morrison accomplished. It wasn’t until Ed Brubaker and Mike Carey took the lead that X-Men and Uncanny X-Men really climbed back to their former brilliance, and continued to grow until the Messiah Complex event in 2007 marked what was until that point the best X-Men crossover of all time. Come with me on a journey through the world of the X-Men from Messiah CompleX to the present day as we celebrate Matt Fraction’s innovations in Uncanny X-Men, lament the fact that Craig Kyle and Chris Yost are no longer writing a monthly X-book and wonder what the future will hold for the most convoluted and fun band of fictional characters in history!

Matt Fraction began his tenure on Uncanny X-Men following on from Ed Brubaker’s Divided We Stand story-arc, an understated affair dealing with the fallout from the massive Messiah CompleX. At this point the X-Men had been rebuilding their credibility gradually since Brian Michael Bendis’ big event comic House of M, a competent but uninspiring series in which the Scarlet Witch remade reality in a hollow echo of the Age of Apocalypse. This ended when that reality crumbled and the Scarlet Witch decreed that there would be “no more mutants”. 198 mutants anomalously remained on M-Day when the rest of the mutant population was depowered, but we politely ignore that because without this artifice there would have been no more X-Men. After House of M the X-Men embarked on a journey to discover where all of the mutant population had gone and why there were no new mutant births, which came to a head in Messiah CompleX when Hope Summers was born and a globe-trotting battle began to either kill or save this mutant. Ultimately Cable escaped with the child into a future timeline and Professor Xavier’s Westchester mansion was destroyed. When Matt Fraction entered as a writer on Uncanny X-Men he relocated the X-Men to San Francisco in his debut arc Manifest Destiny. Relocating the X-Men might sound like a purely cosmetic change, but by placing them at the heart of a liberal community that will embrace them for their differences Fraction began to move beyond the long-standing ‘”hated and feared” remit that has held the X-Men apart from the larger Marvel Universe. From his first issue Fraction established a confident authorial voice that has defined Uncanny ever since, utilising caption boxes to introduce each character in a brilliant move that makes every issue accessible and is done with such wit that Fraction’s descriptions never fail to make me smile. The conflict in his first arc began weakly with revived Sentinels but ended strongly with a modern interpretation of the Hellfire Club. For me this dichotomy between the weak and the strong characterised Fraction’s run on Uncanny, blending innovative concepts and inspired characterisation with plots that didn’t always live up to their potential.

Fraction’s second story arc Lovelorn looked at the ramifications for Colossus of Kitty Pryde’s sacrifice in Astonishing X-Men as written by Joss Whedon. Matt Fraction publicly stated that he wanted Uncanny to once again become the flagship X-title around which all the satellite titles revolved and across his run he shows a commitment to achieving this even when it is detrimental to his own memorability as a writer. The best part of Lovelorn is that it introduces one of Fraction’s greatest additions to the X-Men, the Science Club, a team of misanthropic geniuses that set themselves the task of reawakening the dormant mutant gene to stave off mutant extinction. Fraction’s third arc Sisterhood resurrected Psylocke in a story dominated by female characters, which both played to artist Greg Land’s strengths and also Fraction’s statements that the X-Men had no excuse to not to feature both genders equally.

The Dark Avengers crossover Utopia highlights everything that is great about Fraction as a writer, including a myriad of underused characters in interesting ways and bringing prejudice to the forefront thematically in a way that’s heavy-handed but compares favourably to Chris Claremont’s classic story God Loves, Man Kills. The best part of this arc is the introduction of a new home for the X-Men in San Francisco bay, Utopia, a mutant island built from the remains of Magneto’s Asteroid M. This is world-building stuff in the greatest tradition of the X-Men, setting the scene for stories with a sci-fi edge, setting the mutants at odds with humanity again and establishing that there should be no such thing as a status-quo for the X-Men. This was the greatest achievement of Scott Lobdell, Fabien Nicieza and Bob Harras in the 1990s, the fact that with every (good) issue of the X-Men they strove to introduce new characters, villains and complications, never reverting to the stagnancy and reliance on established characters that characterised the decade after Onslaught.

In Nation X Fraction looks at the ramifications of the move to Utopia and adds a reformed Magneto to the mix. As a whole the arc felt pedestrian but the use of Predator X as a villain, created by Craig Kyle and Chris Yost in their run on New X-Men: Childhood’s End, was almost enough to win me over. Fraction struggled to carry the weight of setting the tone for the entire X-Men franchise, but in context by this point Uncanny had once again became a must-read title for the Marvel Universe and there’s certainly nothing bad about Fraction’s storytelling comparable to stinkers like Chuck Austen or Xtreme X-Men, just a problem with pacing that makes the moments between big events seem lacklustre.

No story in X-Men history has been bigger than the next arc Second Coming, a crossover between Uncanny, New Mutants, X-Men: Legacy and X-Force. I can say without hesitation that Second Coming is the most spectacular and exciting X-Men story ever told and is possibly the best example of superhero comics ever published. As a culmination to every X-Men comic since House of M, as an introduction to all the major mutant characters, as an exercise in spectacle and action, the stakes have never been higher and the result never more satisfying to read. Second Coming is everything that any other comic crossover has ever strived to be and an absolute validation of the crossover as a storytelling technique. Naysayers might complain when their monthly titles are hijacked to service a larger story like this but when we’re talking about the X-Men it pretty much comes as a given that the longer you read about them the more your favourite characters will move out of rotation to another title and you’ll wonder where Rockslide, Anole and Hellion went. The X-Men represent a family of characters so massive that some inevitably get shuffled out of the spotlight, so crossovers become the only times that we can see all of our favourite mutants assembled together.

The Birth of Generation Hope, Fraction’s penultimate story arc, plays with the aftermath of Second Coming and once again acts more as a teaser for future stories then a great book in its own right. Luckily Fraction sets up the concept of new mutants being born across the globe in a chaotic way that necessitates Hope’s intervention to calm them before their powers go out of control. This gives direction to Kieron Gillen’s new Generation Hope comic in a way that makes the mutant race seem relevant and fresh again. It’s a credit to Fraction and Gillen that they chose archetypal characters without worrying about treading on the toes of existing mutants. So many super-powers have already been used in mainstream comics that characters are made interesting by the strengths of the writer and artist, not by the writer’s ability to invent an absurd new power that has never been seen before.

Matt Fraction ended his run on Uncanny X-Men with Quarantine, a fun but unremarkable story about the renewed Sublime Corporation’s wonder-drug that allows the rich to emulate the powers of mutants. It was the right decision for Matt Fraction to hand the title over to Kieron Gillen at this point, having shepherded the Uncanny X-Men into the heart of the Marvel Universe after a decade on the fringes. Fraction can be credited with reinvigorating the core concept of the X-Men but by selflessly trying to carry the entire line of X-comics his own plotlines often suffered. Hopefully now Kieron Gillen can make good on the promise of Utopia and take us to a place where Schism will feel like a natural progression of the plot and not just a marketing tool. In interviews so far all of the creators involved have taken great pains to state that a division of the teams between Cyclops and Wolverine has been brewing for a long time, but I'm not buying it yet. I'm always willing to suspend disbelief for a good story, but my interpretation of the two characters is that they've recently gained new respect for one another as Cyclops has stepped up the plate as a leader and Wolverine has proved himself a willing soldier. I try not to let it keep me awake at night though.

In synchrony with his appointment to Uncanny X-Men writer Kieron Gillen is also writing Generation Hope and after reading the first volume The Future Is A Four Letter Word I can honestly say that there’s no writer I would rather be working on this title. The new mutants have global, varied backgrounds, their voices are believable and well-established, the comic as a whole has direction thanks to Hope’s mission to make first contact with all new mutants and because of the precedents set during Messiah CompleX and Second Coming there are incidents foreshadowing the rebirth of the Phoenix that provide a strong narrative hook leading onto future stories. Salvador Espin provides a clean, strong look to the title that is beautifully complemented by guest artist Jamie McKelvie. Gillen and McKelvie’s best-known collaboration Phonogram was a brilliant meditation on listening to music that I would recommend to everyone and their ability in that comic to capture the vibrancy of youth gave a great indication of the strengths that they bring to the X-Men, but their sense of conflict and pacing of action also fit the sensibilities of the X-Men perfectly.

One of the reasons that Generation Hope fits so well in the current line-up of X-comics is that there are no conflicting teams of inexperienced mutants. Since the launch of New Mutants it became clear that there was space for such a title on the shelves and there has almost always been an inexperienced counter-title to the X-Men. After the New Mutants became X-Force they were succeeded by Generation X, then after their demise came the New X-Men: Academy X (not to be confused with Grant Morrison’s New X-Men!). New X-Men: Academy X was noteworthy for one of the blandest, most underwhelming comics ever published by Marvel, an honour that was stripped away when creative powerhouses Craig Kyle & Chris Yost took over writing the title and renamed it Childhood’s End, killing most of the cast to reduce them to a manageable number and introducing their own creation X-23 into the mix. I’m biased, it’s true, but Kyle & Yost’s run on New X-Men was the best creative run by any team on an X-Men book, ever, better than Claremont, Cockrum and Byrne, better than anything by Lobdell or Nicieza. Kyle and Yost brought their young cast to life in a believable and engaging way that meant that as a reader I truly invested in those characters, and because the title was so turbulent I knew that from issue to issue none of the cast was ever safe from an untimely death. When New X-Men came to an end after Messiah CompleX I became enraged until reading that Kyle & Yost were to relaunch X-Force.

X-Force wasn’t a name that had great connotations for me but nonetheless I trusted Kyle & Yost to do the right thing and while it lasted X-Force became my favourite comic, carrying dangling plots from New X-Men into thoroughly adult territory that followed a team made up of stabbing, clawed, violent characters that were dropped into missions with worldwide ramifications that by rights they were ill-equipped to face. The blood and violence met all of my childhood expectations for characters like Wolverine, the art was never less than exceptional and Kyle & Yost continued to reference some of the greatest X-Men storylines as if this rich history of continuity was something to respect and acknowledge rather than shamefully ignore. Most of their best plots culminated in X-Necrosha, a story involving the resurrection of dead mutants, but sadly X-Necrosha went head-to-head with Geoff Johns’s similarly resurrection-themed Blackest Night. For me that was a great injustice because the two titles were unfairly compared solely because of their scheduling clash, where actually Kyle & Yost should compare favourably to Geoff Johns at his best. All three writers mine the continuity of their favourite comics to find fresh plots that both acknowledge what has gone before and elevate their ongoing stories into bold tapestries rather than hodgepodge quilts of mismatched plots. I feel that if X-Necrosha had not been released opposite Blackest Night it would have been rightly showered with accolades as one of the best X-Men stories ever told. However unjust I might have found this chain of events there can be no doubting that Craig Kyle and Chris Yost have had a massive impact on the world of the X-Men, and their contribution to Second Coming was every bit as impressive as I had come to expect. Their swansong to X-Force was the graphic novel Sex and Violence, an ode to violence illustrated by Gabriele Dell’Otto that showed them at the height of their abilities and truly fulfilled the promise that Wolverine’s claws always seemed capable of but so rarely delivered. I can’t tell you enough how fervently I hope that Kyle & Yost will return to helm either X-Men or Uncanny somewhere down the line.

After New X-Men: Childhood’s End Marvel launched a brief and entirely forgettable Young X-Men title. The problem was that Kyle & Yost had set the precedent for such compelling storytelling that few writers could have succeeded them. Marc Guggenheim was the writer for Young X-Men, bringing with him such original concepts as the teenager whose tattoos could come to life! I’m perhaps unfair in my assessment of Guggenheim but he wrote Young X-Men as if he felt like New X-Men had been creatively redundant and in need of overhaul, where actually it was the most smartly written comic about young people that I had ever read until that point. After Young X-Men tanked Marvel revived the New Mutants, their original team of mutants-in-training. New Mutants: Return of Legion was written by the always reliable Zeb Wells and brought back the characters beautifully, but more than twenty years after their creation they no longer fill the remit of teen mutants, hence Generation Hope. I’ve enjoyed the current run of the New Mutants very much, because it captures the flavour that I remembered from the first twenty issues of the original series and manages both to acknowledge the growth of the characters since them and remain true to the simple motivations that brought the team together. As a book that used to change direction every story arc it feels honest and refreshing to see the New Mutants handled consistently once again.

Another brief X-cursion (see what I did there?) following on from Messiah CompleX was the Cable series written by Duane Swierczynski, which lasted for 25 issues before leading into Second Coming and an ending of sorts for the character. I’d normally champion a 25-issue run by one writer with an overarching vision, but somehow this series following Cable and Hope Summers as they travel through the future trying to escape from a villainous Bishop never captured my imagination. The characters do change on their journey and Hope returns a warrior, but I wonder if such a thorough background story was necessary for her, or whether Cable and Hope could simply have returned in an issue of Uncanny somewhere down the line with a brief acknowledgement that during their time in the future Hope had to grow up fast. The saving grace of Cable was the crossover with X-Force called Messiah War, proving again that Craig Kyle and Chris Yost have a better understanding of Marvel’s mutant characters than any other working writers. Somehow within Messiah War they touch upon the Age of Apocalypse without sullying the memory of the original, make Stryfe appear cool even though his convoluted backstory means that he’s anything but, add pathos and menace to the narrative journey of Angel/Archangel and (this is the big one) make me care about Deadpool. Deadpool?!? I can’t believe I’m typing this, I hate Deadpool, he’s a creatively bankrupt cross between Spider-man and Wolverine, what role could he possible play? But I don’t feel that way anymore, because Craig Kyle and Chris Yost showed me the depth of potential that Deadpool has, something that Rick Remender has picked up on in his current run on Uncanny X-Force. When Remender writes Deadpool as the only character to vocally make waves about the killing of an innocent child, I look at the character in a new light and remember my vehement insistence that we should all follow creators and not characters. Perfect example!

One memorable side-story since Messiah CompleX was the C B Cebulski written X-Infernus, spiritual sequel to the massive 1980s Inferno crossover. Unlike that first sprawling mess (I’ve never regretted anything as much as buying the Inferno omnibus, what a waste of time that was) X-Infernus is tightly focussed on Magick’s return to the Marvel Universe, following up on the X-Men: Childhood’s End arc that led to Pixie losing part of her soul in Limbo, Rockslide learning that he was an elemental golem and Anole regrowing his limbs with a vengeance. Told you Childhood’s End was the best! I’d seriously recommend X-Infernus to any fans of Magick, Pixie or these other young characters. I also noticed in a Marvel children’s book that as a new recruit to Marvel C B Cebulski’s greatest ambition was to write the New Mutants. Given what a stellar job he did on X-Infernus, which leads in to New Mutants: Return of Legion, I was pretty heartbroken that Zeb Wells took over writing duties, and I bet C B Cebulski was too.

The biggest piece of the X-Men puzzle that I’ve avoided talking about so far is Mike Carey’s run on X-Men, later renamed X-Men: Legacy. I was unimpressed by Carey’s run on Ultimate Fantastic Four, so when he was appointed as writer of X-Men it was with trepidation that I picked up the first issue. I needn’t have worried, because as the longest running writer from the current team of creators Carey has committed himself to creating consistent stories for some of the most inconsistently portrayed characters in comic-book history. Starting with Supernovas, illustrated by the always-brilliant Chris Bachalo, new villains were introduced as a matter of priority and romantic liaisons were painted over a backdrop of widescreen action and city-levelling explosions of power. This theme continued right up until the end of Messiah CompleX when (SPOILER ALERT!) Professor X died, though of course he didn’t and reappeared in the subsequent issue of X-Men, renamed X-Men: Legacy, which as the name implies focuses on the history of mutant characters, beginning with Professor X. A high-point of X-Men: Legacy was the crossover with Wolverine: Origins titled Original Sin, where Xavier’s past comes back to haunt him and his relationship with Wolverine is reassessed in light of the myriad revelations since they first met as written by Chris Claremont. Casual readers should probably avoid stories like this, but after reading the X-Men my whole life it’s rewarding to see the jigsaw pieces fitting together into an overarching story that doesn’t negate any of my favourite comics. I haven’t read Carey’s most recent storyline Age of X yet but his understanding and respect for these characters leads me to think that Mike Carey couldn’t write a bad X-story now even if he wanted to.

Running parallel to all of these series has been Astonishing X-Men, originally helmed by Joss Whedon but later by Warren Ellis and then a rotating team of creators. I’ve got nothing to say about Astonishing because frankly even I can’t afford to buy everything featuring the X-Men! Astonishing might be billed as series of stand-alone X-Men stories by top-tier creators but I read that as “doesn’t matter quite so much to current continuity”. Continuity makes the X-Men, so I can live without Astonishing until I come into some extra cash.

I’m going to close this column with the most recent addition to the X-family, the odd one out that launched with X-Men: Curse of the Mutants. Written by Victor Gischler, who was a complete unknown to me, and illustrated by Paco Medina, who I remember fondly from his days on New X-Men: Childhood’s End, I don’t understand this new title at all. I’m a die-hard X-Men obsessive and even I don’t think that the market can support X-Men: Legacy, Uncanny X-Men, Astonishing X-Men and another central X-Men title, whatever spin you choose to put on it. When Chris Claremont and Jim Lee launched X-Men #1 in the 1990s the comic market had a completely different landscape but at least two of the most exciting creators in comics had their names attached to it. Victor Gischler and Paco Medina?!? I LOVE Paco Medina but Marvel and DC haven’t been head-hunting him to illustrate their summer Event Comics yet, which means that he isn’t in a position to carry an X-Men #1 to the appropriate sales levels. The X-Men versus vampire angle that they take is a lot of fun to read, but the pitch for the series seems to be that this is where the X-Men will tackle global threats and interact with the mainstream Marvel Universe. Seriously? So what is Kieron Gillen, chopped liver? Do the Uncanny X-Men tackle mediocre threats? This book just doesn’t make sense to me, and news that Uncanny X-Men will be cancelled and relaunched as two new titles helmed by Gillen and Jason Aaron just underlines the fact that the market is oversaturated with X-Men comics and something is going to give. That’s a hellish thing for me to admit to, because I’d love to be buying all of these new series, but I already can’t afford to pick up X-23 or Daken and had to jettison spin-off titles like the Curse of the Mutants One-Shots and Namor: The First Mutant.

What a sour note to end on! I live and breathe X-Men but sooner or later I have to let my wallet do the talking. Until next time Loyal Readers, remember you can contact me on This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or follow me on Twitter @FrancisSobriety if you want to tell me what I’m missing in X-23 or berate me for missing the point of Victor Gischler’s X-Men. I could easily write a second column devoted purely to X-Men each month but for the sake of my sanity I probably shouldn’t, so look forward to a completely unrelated subject next month. This column has been fuelled by Zombina & The Skeletones, the UK’s finest horror band, so do yourself a favour and check them out if you get the chance.

 


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Comments  

 
+1 #2 P.M. Buchan 2011-08-24 20:25
I've been getting flak on Twitter for not covering Whedon's Astonishing! Seriously though, I could write THIS column every month. Read Age of X days after writing it, what a great book that was! The next volume of Legacy after that was pretty special too, love the direction that Carey is taking it. All these post-Schism titles are driving me wild!!!
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+2 #1 Ian Mat 2011-08-21 10:56
Great column as always, Bucky! Not an easy task to cover all the X titles post-Morrison.
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Other articles in Adventures on Alternative Earths - by P.M Buchan

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