Sean T. Collins has written about comics and popular culture professionally since 2001 and on this very blog since 2003. He has written for Maxim, The Comics Journal, Stuff, Wizard, A&F Quarterly, Comic Book Resources, Giant, ToyFare, The Onion, The Comics Reporter and more. His comics have been published by Top Shelf, Partyka, and Family Style. He blogs here and at Robot 6.
Originally written on July 19, 2004 for publication in The Comics Journal
Grant Morrison is the X-Men franchise’s angel of mercy. In the two decades since Chris Claremont transformed a third-tier Stan’n’Jack creation into the most popular concept in North American comic books, no greater act of love has been committed on behalf of mutantkind than the truly mighty act of deadwood clearance that was Morrison’s much-heralded run on New X-Men. Culminating in the issues collected in the trade paperbacks Planet X and Here Comes Tomorrow, Morrison’s labor of love meant killing not just characters but concepts, entire ways of writing both the X-Men and superhero comics in general. The posturing villains, the alternate futures, the constant battles, the tortured soap operatics, even the costumes (easily the ugliest in all of superherodom, by the way)--for this potentially fascinating heroic-fantasy concept to be fascinating once again, Morrison says, we’ve got to wipe out everything they’ve come to be known for and start over. And it worked. Naturally, the House of Ideas undid nearly all of it within a month of Morrison’s departure.
Morrison refers to his four-year run on the title as one giant graphic novel; Planet X and Here Comes Tomorrow are the concluding chapters, and as such tie together nearly every loose end of theme and plot left dangling during his incredibly dense tenure. The big reveal that sets this final act in motion is the discovery that Xorn, the Chinese X-Man and healer with a star for a brain (!), is in actuality Magneto, the X-Men’s nemesis, presumed dead in an anti-mutant genocide that kicked off Morrison’s run. In the guise of the gentle Xorn, Magneto has exerted his influence over the Xavier Institute’s “special class” of ugly, poorly adjusted mutant teenagers, while simultaneously sowing the seeds of discontent and death among the X-Men themselves in the form of everything from extramarital affairs to widespread drug abuse. We’ve seen Magneto come back from the dead before, but we know we’re in uncharted territory when his first post-unmasking act is to quite literally destroy Manhattan. (This was sign number one that Marvel would be hitting the big red reset button once Morrison defected to DC. Where’s Spider-Man going to fight Doctor Octopus--Hoboken?)
Despite giving the preening bad guy his brightest moment in the sun, Morrison’s aim with Planet X is to savagely mock the character to the point where the last vestiges of appeal in his violent brand of sci-fi identity politics are erased. Magneto, who throughout the series had become a beloved martyr figure, his image appearing on the t-shirts and bedroom walls of disaffected mutant youths everywhere, quickly finds that he lacks the vision thing. His new “subjects” have seen him die and return so many times they don’t believe it’s actually him now. The special class, unwitting members of the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, either prefer Xorn outright or just think it’s kinda queer for their fearless leader to have dressed up in costume for months. In one hilarious sequence, the self-styled Master of Magnetism launches into a rousing speech so grandiosely Shakespearean that one can hear the mellifluous voice of Sir Ian McKellen proclaiming it in the next X-movie, only to be told by his henchman Toad that the masses can’t even hear him, seeing as they’re milling about in the street and he’s inside the upper floors of the Chrysler Building. Throughout this volume Morrison displays a genuine comedic gift, particularly in contrast to superhero writers whose idea of a gag is to have Ant Man crawl up his wife’s vagina. Morrison has said in interviews that his brutally satirical treatment of Magneto was a condemnatory reaction against the so-called nobility of a character who is nothing more than a murdering terrorist. It’s a welcome point of view even here in the real world, where we’ve so often been beseeched to “understand” the inexcusable, and where ostensible humanists serve as apologists for benighted fundamentalist slaughter.
Phil Jimenez, a solid if not thrilling artist of the George Pèrez school whose talent (besides drawing a fierce Jean Grey) lies in evoking superhero classicisms well enough to be able to subvert them too, draws Magneto throughout as an eight-foot-tall, floating, purple Darth Vader, but transforms his right-hand man Toad into the type of hip London scumbag who sells E outside of Sophisticats. Before long, the increasingly impotent potentate is addicted to Kick, the mutant club drug/performance enhancer. Bereft of new ideas, he begins dredging up idiotic schemes from X-books past, like reversing the world’s magnetic poles, a move as sure to kill mutants as it is to kill everyone else. By the time this pathetic old asshole finally gets his comeuppance (at the claws of Wolverine, naturally), his long-time rival Professor X has dismissed Magneto’s ossified, coercive philosophies utterly: “…the worst thing you ever did,” he tells the would-be dictator, “is come back.” Or as the stylish living weapon Fantomex puts it to the villain, “Is everything you say a cliché?” Adamantium claws may cut off your head, but having your self-created legend deflated really hurts.
Here Comes Tomorrow is to dystopian-future X-stories what Planet X was to Magneto stories: the final word. Readers of blockbuster superhero titles like Paul Jenkins’s Wolverine: Origin or Jeph Loeb’s Batman: Hush can tell you that while throwing a shock reveal into your story is easy, doing it in a way that’s supported at all by what’s come before, that’s both difficult to figure out before the reveal and impossible to miss afterwards, that enriches your understanding and enjoyment of what you’ve already read, and that generally doesn’t make you want to punch yourself in the face is apparently beyond the ken of most mainstream writers. Not so with Morrison, who after his surprise resurrection of Magneto in Planet X reveals a puppet master behind not just the once-again-dead magnetic supervillain but nearly every bad thing that went down in Morrison’s run and beyond. The “intelligent bacterial colony” known as Sublime was the very first form of life on Earth, and has labored for three billion years to stay at the top of the evolutionary ladder. The inherently powerful and fabulous mutants are the only true threat to Sublime’s self-confidence; he therefore worked behind the scenes in various guises to make sure that mutants were too busy getting killed by both humans and each other to realize their true potential for greatness. Here Comes Tomorrow takes place 150 years in the future, a time in which Sublime is preparing his final assault on the lifeforms of Earth by resurrecting the omnipotent and destructive Phoenix (aka Jean Grey), who was killed by Magneto in a final act of defiance just before his own execution.
If your eyes are already glossing over from simply reading a description of the hoary X-concepts being trotted out here, hang in there. (And ignore the fact that this arc marks the return to Marvel of early-90s superstar artist and Image co-founder Marc Silvestri. I’ve never been wild about the hyperrendered style of Silvestri, Jim Lee, and the like, but nor am I morally offended by it, as are some observers of the scene. There are a few storytelling lapses here--it would have been nice if the oft-mentioned White Hot Room in which the Phoenix resides was actually, y’know, white--but they’re mainly out of Silvestri’s hands. For what it’s worth, I think his style works rather beautifully here, cranking up the intentional superheroic/supervillainous clichés to eleven and giving this crazed, patchwork future a rough-hewn glamour and muscular sex appeal. His Wolverine, for instance, is both a man who is believably ready to die and a man with an unbelievable ass.)
What truly separates Morrison’s story from every other all-powerful-villain-in-a-future-we-may-be-too-late-to-prevent tale you’ve come across is not just his proficiency in generating stunning sci-fi concepts (the Termids, the Crawlers, the Feeders, the Phoenix Corps (!)) or instantly riveting characters (the Proud People (complete with Magic Car and Mer-Max the talking whale), Tom Skylark and Rover, Appollyon the Destroyer), though indeed introducing all of these in a four-issue arc whose world we’ll likely never see again is equivalent to throwing a gauntlet in the face of other writers of imaginative comic-book fiction. (See Morrison’s Seaguy for a similar act of “I’ll see you and raise.”) No, the strength of this book, and of Morrison’s entire tenure with the characters, is his belief that love trumps the horror of the world, and his ability to convey this in a way that’s emotionally direct without being trite or mawkish. It’s Dr. Hank “Beast” McCoy’s heartbreak over his own lies that gives Sublime an entrée, and Scott “Cyclops” Summers’ refusal to let go of a failed love with Jean Grey that ensures Sublime’s success; in the end, it’s connections that are just as personal--between ugly Ernst and disembodied Martha, between the identical triplet Stepford Cuckoos, between human Tom Skylark, his Sentinel parent Rover, and his robotic lover EVA, between the near-immortal Wolverine and his beloved Jean Grey--that set Sublime up for the fall. And it’s Jean Grey’s love for Cyclops, great enough for her to rewrite history and let him admit his own love for her one-time rival Emma Frost, that fixes “the hole at the heart of creation” and undoes Sublime’s machinations once and for all.
Morrison rode into New X-Men at the crest of a wave that saw Marvel taking bold risks with its core characters and ushering in a new writer-driven era of good, and even great, superhero comics; he rode out as persona non grata, his celestially vast ideas out of joint with a newly conservative company aiming mainly either to mimic the methods of blockbuster action cinema or mine fanboy nostalgia. He intended his forty-issue X-Men novel to be a gift to the franchise, but the gift has gone mainly unopened: Most of his new supporting cast has been shuffled offstage, the profoundly fresh relationship between Cyclops and Emma Frost seems poised for the chopping block, and eternal X-scribe Chris Claremont resurrected Magneto almost before Morrison had a chance to leave the building, pegging the villain’s whole Manhattan meltdown on the work of an impostor. (Would that we could place blame for the past twenty years of X-Men comics on a similar entity.) But we the readers are left with one of the most humanistic, richest, funnest, greatest superhero comics ever written. That’s gift enough.