Monday, May 3, 2010

Underrated/Overlooked: X-Men 2099

For a line of comics more often than not dismissed as a footnote or even derided as a punchline for 90’s publishing excess, Marvel’s 2099 imprint ended up producing some pretty impressive material. Yes, there was a decent amount of junk as well, but Peter David’s Spider-Man 2099 is held in high esteem by a fair number of people who would know (including this very blog’s Kiel Phegley) while Warren Ellis’ short run on Doom 2099 was not only one of his earliest American successes, but also hailed widely as being cutting edge and ahead of its time. I can even recall Ghost Rider 2099 gaining a decent cult following on the strength of its out-there “literal ghost in the machine” concept and the trippy art of Chris Bachalo and Mark Buckingham.

However, when I was growing up, the first two years of X-Men 2099 stood out to me not only as an impressive offering for a hit-or-miss corner of the Marvel Universe, but also as one of the most consistently entertaining monthly comics on the market.

As opposed to the conventional “it’s all your favorite heroes—but with grey hair and jetpacks!” caveat of many other super hero venues set in the future, 2099 offered a pretty unique landscape ripe for the creators to mess around in with its dystopian land of excess ruled by mega corporations where Thor had become a religious icon and people escaped their every day lives in virtual reality paradises (at a point before all that became the plot of dozens of movies and TV shows). And to the point, the 2099 characters and books that always seemed to do better and become more popular were the ones that borrowed a name or look from a contemporary concept but then veered sharply in another direction.

Miguel O’Hara, 2099’s Spider-Man, was a darkly sardonic adult very much entrenched in the coroporate lifestyle, in contrast to the perpetually put-upon, constantly wise-cracking and forever in his mid-20’s Peter Parker. Even though Doom of 2099 was ostensibly meant to be the same guy he was in the present day, the lack (until near the end) of a Fantastic Four and the changed world stage adapted the character into a far more enigmatic and Machiavellian figure who hemmed between good and evil rather than cackling and building death rays. On the flipside, Punisher 2099 was basically a carbon copy of Frank Castle but with laser guns, so it didn’t much surprise me that he never really caught on.

The X-Men of 2099 most definitely occupied a different space than the traditional Children of the Atom which accounted for a lot of their appeal. Though some lip service was periodically paid to the whole Charles Xavier “humans and mutants leaving in harmony” routine, for the most part, that wasn’t the end goal for these X-Men. They were a disenfranchised minority more concerned with finding somewhere they could be safe rather than trying to “protect a world that hates and fears them.” They weren’t super heroes in the traditional sense, just a group of people with powers who didn’t even really wear costumes—people just dress that way in 2099—looking for a place they could crash without being Indeed the characters’ goals shifted fairly often as they moved along on the fractured road trip that was the first 25 issues of the book, with there being a vague larger mission statement of tracking down a fabled mutant safe haven, but for the most part they just got into trouble for a variety of reasons and fought bad guys not so much because it was the right thing to do but because they didn’t want to die.

Another thing I dug about X-Men 2099 is that it very much had an ongoing soap opera feel to it, but you could tell writer John Francis Moore had a pretty tight roadmap in his head and was not to going to leave plotlines dangling for too long even when he was juggling quite a few at once and sending characters all over the place (literally). Those first 25 issues really do read a lot like the first season of an episodic sci fi drama on TV—I’d liken it to Buffy or the other Joss Whedon shows in many ways—in the sense that you got lots of little arcs focused on various cool ideas, characters or concepts, but it was all very much part of a big picture building to a climactic showdown. About halfway through the run, Moore splits up the entire team and sends small packs on various journeys, moving the “camera” around every issue, all the while skillfully amping up towards their reunion after a year apart to confront the threat that had been ominously looming in the background while they went about their business. As far as lessons on pacing and scope in a monthly ongoing comic book, aspiring writers could do worse than look to John Francis Moore on X-Men 2099.

Moore came up with a pretty compelling cast of characters who stood on their own rather than being future versions of Cyclops and Storm. I’ll admit that when I first picked up the comic as an 11-year-old I was pretty disappointed that Wolverine with laser claws wasn’t on the team, but in hindsight, it was one of the best choices Moore could have and did make.

X-Men 2099’s “Professor X,” Xi’an Chi Xan, was a former gang member and assassin who one day decided he had a greater purpose in life, namely serving as the prophet to the mutant race and gathering his people together so he could find them a promised land. At first, Xi’an seemed like an extremely bland character—by the way his powers were that he had one hand that could destroy things and another that could heal them—but this changed in a hurry after the first couple arcs when he began hallucinating his former bad boy self telling him how his new existence was futile and he needed to hand him back the reins or he’d get killed. It was actually Onslaught a few years before Onslaught in a way, and eventually Xi’an does end up in a situation where he needs to let his dark side take the wheel, and it completely shifts the entire series’ dynamic for the next year-plus.

The other main protagonist of the series was Timothy Fitzgerald, who is referred to by any article you’ll ever read about X-Men 2099 as Skullfire, though I’m not entirely sure he ever even used that name in the first 25 issues. An electrically-powered mutant who joins up with Xi’an’s crew in the first issue, Tim starts out as a wide-eyed innocent, then after being tortured by the psychic vampire La Lunatica in issue #4, suddenly becomes a devil-may-care wildman. Luna returns to the book down the line and actually ends up an X-Man, with her and Tim’s violently passionate Sid & Nancy romance proving another standout point of the series.

The rest of the X-Men were a little more straight and narrow than Xi’an and Tim, but none ever had a problem carrying their own arc for at least an issue or two. Meanstreak was a speedster with an awesome name and a genius-level intellect he only showed off when he felt like it. Krystalin was the relatively serene daughter from a family of militant Black Panthers who could weave objects out of crystal. Cerebra—who, like Tim, more often went by her real name of Shakti—was Xi’an’s second-in-command with an assortment of psychic powers who was the only one committed to keeping the team together when everybody else was going off on their own. You also had Metalhead—a musically-inclined Colossus knockoff who became far more interesting when he got disfigured by a bad guy then left the team to join their tenuous allies the Freak Show—Bloodhawk—the “designed-to-be-an-action-figure” red reptillian with big ol’ wings and claws who only helped out once in awhile—plus various other support characters, like Xi’an’s old Lawless gang buddies, including the traitorious Junkpile.

X-Men 2099 also had some pretty cool villains (and some pretty crappy ones as well). The big bad of that “first season” was Brimstone Love, an immensely powerful and gigantic devil-looking fellow who ran the Theater of Pain, a performance group that supplied its rich clientele with entertainment powered by the suffering of others and the group that first employed La Lunatica. There was also Master Zhao, a would-be successor to Xavier who was believed dead but instead had just gone insane due to power-enahcning drugs and built his own twisted versions of the original X-Men. Figures like The Driver, a mysterious shepherd who was supposedly responsible for bringing mutants to the fabled “Avalon” but instead downloaded them onto a giant computer in a misguided effort to “save” them occupied a grey area, as did Meanstreak’s old buddy Halloween Jack, a former Spider-Man 2099 supporting character who was granted the powers of Loki and used them to become a green monster and try to take over Las Vegas.

Really the best testament I can give to X-Men 2099 is how vividly I remember all the characters and concepts enough to write about them well over a decade later, and knowing that I’m barely scratching the surface of the expanded cast and barely summarizing any storylines for y’all. It really is incredible what a packed mythology Moore and artist Ron Lim—who never missed an issue—built in just over two years, and even more impressive how each new addition felt fully-realized and occupied a unique space despite the incredible pace and volume at which they were being unleashed.

I jumped off X-Men 2099 shortly after issue #25 both because I was getting out of comics and because it really did feel like I had received a full and rewarding story, beginning to end, so it was a natural place to stop. I’m kind of disappointed the 2099 concept imploded not long after, but at least I get to feel like I was along for the whole ride.

If I had to sum up X-Men 2099 in two words they would be “ambitious” and “consistent”—not too shabby for a book that from its title alone would probably conjure up “tacky” and “excessive” instead sight unseen. I recommend in this case you don’t judge a book by its cover—or its name.


Anonymous said...

I teach 14 and 15 year olds, which puts them well out of having read any of the 2099 books when they were originally on the shelves. However, a friendly reader of my journal comic donated a copy of Spider-Man 2099 to my classroom library a few weeks ago and it's quickly become one of my classroom's most read and requested books, to the point where I went out and picked up X-Men 2099 Vol. 1 for the library as a companion book.

Talking with one of my students, he pointed out that one of the reasons he likes the 2099 books is that they remind him of Batman Beyond, which was still airing in the afternoons when he was a kid. This same student also said something like (and I'm paraphrasing here) "When I read a current Spider-Man book, even if I don't NEED to know what happened earlier in the comics, I know that stuff happened before. Nothing happened before in X-Men 2099 and I can start from scratch."

Ben Morse said...

Very cool!

slice two said...

i loved this series. i have every issue plus all the specials. it was def. a favorite of mine when it first came out.

Anonymous said...

Great article. And I am in complete agreement with everything you said. Tim and Xi'an were the definite standouts and the first 25 issues was one complete story. I really wish they would revisit this property. Especially with Spider-man 2099 showing success with his new series.