Monday, December 6, 2010

The important X-Men stories

As Kiel mentioned in Linko!, I had the privilege and pleasure of speaking with Kieron Gillen over on earlier this week about his upcoming tenure as writer of Uncanny X-Men among other things.

I’ve met Kieron a couple times now and spoken to him a few more; he’s a swell dude as well as a talented writer, and what’s more, a sharp fellow with some keen insights into comics that go beyond your average fanboy. In particular, both when we talked at New York Comic Con and during our interview, Kieron expounded on the importance of the X-Men being relevant not just as a top-line comic book, but as a reflection of societal trends, from race relations and prejudice to fanaticism and the obsession with celebrity.

It got me thinking how many things the X-Men franchise has been over the years; it’s been both a tremendous commercial success that has at times represented the excess of the comics industry, but also a franchise that holds up a mirror to the real world and tells important stories about those who have been outcast or disenfranchised, with mutants serving as stand-ins for racial minorities, homosexuals, etc., and it’s often been both things at once.

However, not every good X-Men story is necessarily an important one as far as that second half of the equation is concerned. In other words, an X-Men story does not necessarily need to have a deeper social meaning in order to be of high quality, but there’s no denying many of the best ones do.

But while the Dark Phoenix Saga is considered one of the best X-Men stories of all-time and has tremendous emotional resonance, the tale of a space deity taking over Cyclops’ girlfriend and becoming a star-eating menace before making the ultimate sacrifice doesn’t really carry with it a profound commentary on the issues of the day. Similarly, I love stuff like X-Cutioner’s Song or Messiah Complex, but those are really just fun action epics with lots of super-powered heroes and villains running around fighting, not allegories of any type.

That X-Men can do both types of stories well is a big reason it has had such sustained success.

Talking to Kieron did get me thinking about which X-Men tales really did speak to the social issues of their time, so I took a look back and came up with a few standouts I think speak to the power of both the franchise and the medium (I’m certainly not saying this is it as far as what should make this list, but that’s what the comments section is for).

X-Men started out really as just another teen super hero book, with the slight caveat that all members of the team came about their powers naturally, as did most of their foes. Having not read all the early issues, I’m not sure exactly when the ideas of mutants representing minorities or Professor X and Magneto being the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X of the piece came about, but I’d say the original Sentinel trilogy from X-Men v1 #14-16 is a safe enough bet. Here you got the introduction of Bolivar Trask, the first in a long line of human bigots who would menace the X-Men over the years, as well as the Sentinels, the ominous killer robots who would come to symbolize the “final solution” to the mutant “problem.”

Of course Giant-Size X-Men #1 is most noteworthy for the first appearances of Storm, Nightcrawler and Colossus, the introduction of Wolverine into the X-Men, and the formation of what would become the team’s most popular incarnation, but it’s also quite remarkable when you break down what Len Wein and Dave Cockrum were doing. The all-new, all-different X-Men were the first comic book group I’m aware of where the cast boasted a lone Caucasian American male (Cyclops) surrounded by a virtual United Nations of heroes, including an African female and representatives from Russia, Germany, Japan, Ireland and Canada as well as a Native American. While the Legion of Super-Heroes may have had a crew made up of representatives from various fictional planets (where most people were still white), the X-Men struck a huge blow for diversity in comics in 1975.

The fifth volume in the Marvel Graphic Novel series features Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson’s markedly mature and edgy take on the lethal and terrifying combination of zealotry and racial prejudice. The very first sequence has two mutant children executed by the religiously-motivated Purifiers and found by a vengeance-swearing Magneto. Reverend William Stryker’s persecution of mutants and insistence that they are an abomination and blight on humanity definitely strikes a harsh but all-too-real chord when you think about all the wars and horror that have come about because of those who insist on twisting faith to their own sick ends. However, while the story is full of cringe-inducing moments, it is also uplifting in its way, with many humans refusing to indulge Stryker’s bigotry, their acceptance of Nightcrawler as a true hero, and Cyclops’ affirmation of Professor Xavier’s dream for peaceful coexistence between all races; even with the religious aspect stripped out, the framework of this story still made for a powerful and awesome movie with X2: X-Men United.

In the midst of this massive 90’s crossover, a momentous event occurred; I’m not talking about the return of Magneto or the temporary loss of Wolverine’s adamantium, but rather the defection of Colossus. After several years enduring numerous tragedies that left his entire family dead, the popular and peaceful X-Man lost faith in Xavier’s dream and opted to give Magneto’s more aggressive approach a try as a member of the Acolytes. It was the first time a noteworthy X-Men stalwart had openly decried the doctrine they followed, but reflected the very real world circumstances that often see civil rights activists embrace a harsher outlook out of frustration.

Paralleling the AIDS epidemic, in the 90’s the writers of the X-Men titles concocted the Legacy Virus, a brutal disease that struck randomly at mutants and decimated several characters without regard for their being good or evil, beloved or obscure. Just as many heterosexuals decried AIDS (or GRID) as being a “homosexual disease” in its early stages when it seemed to afflict only that population, humanity in the Marvel Universe lashed out even more fiercely against mutants out of fear the Legacy Virus would spread to their ranks, which it eventually did when longtime supporting character Moira MacTaggert became afflicted. The story of the Legacy Virus stretched over several years and ended only when Colossus, back in the X-Men fold, seemingly sacrificed his life to activate the cure in a particularly poignant tale.

When Grant Morrison came on New X-Men in 2001, a clear line in the sand was drawn between what had become a storytelling structure even a diehard like me can admit was somewhat bloated by the end of the 90’s and a return to the relevant, hard-hitting stuff that first gained the franchise notoriety. I hated New X-Men at the time it was coming out, but have since been able to go back and really appreciate it both as a fan and somebody who appreciates the craft. Morrison’s very first storyline with Frank Quitely tossed in the game changer that the human race was going extinct and would be replaced by mutants entirely within a few generations. This very much drove home the point that mutants were the “other,” regarded by normal humanity with both fear and awe, now heightened by the idea they truly were the next step in evolution and possible their replacements; this certainly echoes the new century anxiety of white America that immigrants will take our jobs and neighborhoods, among other hot button topics. The remainder of Morrison’s run would continue to address ideas about how “normal” folks view those separate from them, exploring not only fear, but envy and reverence.

A lot happened in Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s opening salvo on Astonishing X-Men, from the introduction of Ord to the return of Colossus (man, that guy is in every big story), but perhaps lost among the loud stuff was Kavita Rao’s discovery a “cure” for mutants that would make them into normal humans. The agonizing of some Xavier Institute students and Beast in particular made for some of the story’s most heartfelt moment and certainly paralleled the struggle I’m sure many people young and old who may be in a racial or sexual minority feel at wondering what it would be like not to be different weighed against staying true to who they know themselves to be; a tricky but important debate that Whedon handled admirably.



Great list. I guess it doesn't count because it's not an X-Men story but Marvels 2 always gets me right in the gut.

Ben Morse said...

Totally thought about it!

hondobrode said...

I haven't followed X-Men since Grant and am glad I've only missed 2 of these stories.

Anonymous said...

Gifted? I can think of 10 X-Men stories which are better than that. said...

The guy is totally just, and there is no skepticism.