A decade later, Grant Morrison’s tenure on New X-Men remains one of the most hotly disputed eras for Marvel’s band of mutants.  There are runs that pretty much everyone agrees are great: Claremont and the combination of Cockrum, Byrne, Smith or Romita, or more recently, Whedon and Cassaday.  And there are runs that are widely considered to be inferior: Claremont’s return which preceded Morrison and the Chuck Austen issues which coincided with it.  Yet Morrison’s run is still vigorously debated.  Some fans and critics cite it as a seminal work, holding it up as an example of ingenuity and excellence.  Other fans deride it, pointing out its flaws and complaining about the treatment of certain characters.  The debate was in evidence again recently when Comic Book Resources wrote about 100 great comics of the last ten years (no link, sorry). 

I feel like I’m in a unique position to comment on the controversy as I’ve been in both camps.  I had problems with Morrison’s New X-Men when it was first published and dropped it soon after it started.  Years later, I was able to buy the second half of his run in a trade paperback sale.  With perspective and the passage of time, I found that I appreciated his approach a lot more.  I recently read Morrison’s run for a third time.  It is not as perfect as his supporters would claim.  But it is much better than his detractors would have you believe.  

 

E is for Extinction

(Issues 114-117: E is for Extinction, Danger Rooms)

 

Grant Morrison certainly earned the moniker “New” for his tenure on the X-Men.  Everything seemed new: new costumes, new characters, and most importantly, new ideas.  Morrison completely the changed the world of the X-Men and that’s why his work is so divisive, even today. 

The new ideas are, of course, the center of the storm.  Everybody won’t like the same ideas and they won’t like them all equally.  I thought that the concept of secondary mutation was brilliant.  It gave Morrison and other writers the opportunity to increase the power and effectiveness of some of the weaker characters.  And though it took some artists time to get used to the new look, I’ve grown fond of Beast’s feline form.  On the other hand, I detested the idea that Cassandra Nova was Xavier’s twin whom he killed in the womb.  Xavier’s moral authority has been undercut a lot over the years but this absolutely decimated it: Xavier was a murderer before he was born.  It was probably supposed to be clever, but it came across as creepy. 

Grant Morrison is an experimenter, like musicians Tom Waits or Lou Reed.  Some of those experiments are going to turn out beautifully.  Waits and Reed wrote some great songs and Morrison wrote some brilliant comics.  But experiments sometimes misfire.  As much as I like Tom Waits, I skip past more of his songs than any of my other favorite musicians.  I think this is where Morrison’s fans miss the mark.  Yes, he has lots of ideas and that’s a good thing.  But that doesn’t mean that every idea is a good one.  

Two of Morrison’s best ideas were expanding the world of mutants and going public.  Marvel’s mutants had long been a metaphor for persecuted minorities, whether African-Americans, Jews or homosexuals.  But the metaphor was sometimes strained.  After all, there were only a few dozen mutants in the Marvel world, no more a hundred or two.  By expanding the population of mutants, Morrison and other writers were able to build on that central metaphor.  Joe Casey could conceive of international mutant offices like X-Corp.  Chris Claremont could come up with separate mutant enclaves in Montana and California.  And in New X-Men, Morrison’s public demonstrations made more sense with more mutants. 

I also really liked that the X-Men finally went public.  I had been waiting a long time for that step.  It made perfect sense, considering Xavier’s dream of equality and amity.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t as pleased with the execution.  I didn’t like that the announcement was made by Cassandra Nova possessing Xavier’s body.  It was such a strong statement- it was such a momentous step forward- that it shouldn’t have been part of some villain’s machinations.  

I also had a problem with what I can only describe as the ugliness of New X-Men.  Morrison introduced mutants who had deformities but no corresponding abilities, like Ugly Jon who had two faces but no extra powers.  And, as previously mentioned, he initiated developments that were creepy or gross like fetal murder.  Frank Quitely and Igor Kordey introduced an Eastern European industrial style that was a sharp contrast with the sleek style of the Spanish and Brazilian artists who had worked on the X-Men in the previous decade.  Quitely’s first cover on New X-Men 114 depicts characters who are disproportionate and dumpy.  I have since grown to appreciate Quitely’s art thanks to his work on Sandman: Endless Nights and other projects but at the time- and even a little bit now- the ugliness of the art was a real turn-off. 

 

Imperial

(Issues 118-126: Germ Free Generation, ‘Nuff Said, Imperial)

 

A couple of years ago, I wrote a list of the 100 greatest characters of the past decade.  As I was compiling the list, I noticed that Grant Morrison had created more great new X-Men than any other writer.  That stands to reason.  He introduced a lot of them during his time on the title.  But it’s not only about quantity.  Morrison came up with the most unusual, most offbeat, most interesting and most distinctive new characters. 

They weren’t all introduced during thus particular stretch.  Beak debuted in issue 117, just after E is for Extinction.  Glob Herman walks through a background in that same issue.  Dust and Quentin Quire won’t show up until issues 133 and 134.  Yet Germ Free Generation was the key moment in introducing the next generation of mutants.  Angel Salvadore appears in issue 118 as a prospective student that Wolverine is sent to track down.  The Cuckoos are there, as well.  Meanwhile, Xorn was introduced in the 2001 Annual and crossed over to the regular title with issue 122.  These are some of the most-loved, most-depicted and most-intriguing characters of the past ten years.

The other strength of Imperial is that it demonstrated Grant Morrison was telling big stories with big stakes.  Readers often want to know that something important is going to happen, that the story is worth reading.  That was certainly true with Morrison’s New X-Men.  We’d already seen that with E is for Extinction when Cassandra Nova’s new sentinels destroyed Genosha and a million mutants.  The high stakes were confirmed by Imperial.  There was the possibility of an interplanetary war as one of the most powerful empires in the galaxy had been infiltrated by one of the most evil minds in existence.  These were stories with tension.  These were stories that mattered.  Even now, years later, I read through these issues quickly because I can’t wait to get to the next one.  

 

And that’s a good place to stop.  Come on back next week for Part II, concerning New Worlds and Riot at Xavier’s.  Then check out Part III, with Assault on Weapon Plus and Planet X.

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Comment by Rob Staeger (Grodd Mod) on January 28, 2012 at 12:19am

This is another run I'll need to reread. These are very nearly the only X-Men books I've read since I was in college, but I really enjoyed 'em. Quitely's art was an acquired taste for me, too, though I always loved his Beak.

Comment by the_original_b_dog on January 28, 2012 at 1:06pm

I have been rereading this run recently, too.

Forgive me, I'm not as well read on X-Men continuity before and after Morrison's run as you may be, but I don't understand this statement.

After all, there were only a few dozen mutants in the Marvel world, no more a hundred or two.  By expanding the population of mutants, Morrison and other writers were able to build on that central metaphor. 

I thought Morrison's first arc was about drastically reducing the number of mutants in the Marvel universe by killing virtually everyone on Genosha, not increasing them. I thought he was reducing their numbers and, in ways, increasing their strangeness to set them apart from humanity.

I completely agree with this:

Grant Morrison is an experimenter, like musicians Tom Waits or Lou Reed.  Some of those experiments are going to turn out beautifully.  Waits and Reed wrote some great songs and Morrison wrote some brilliant comics.  But experiments sometimes misfire.

One "experiment" I never got were the U-Men. Their premise makes no sense. That they could recruit so many people -- yet alone one person -- without the police crashing down on their heads makes no sense. That they thought they could train laymen in surgical procedures makes no sense. Another "experiment" I never got was the 2001 annual. I tried a couple of times to comprehend the story, but I eventually gave up, and now I skip it whenever I reread this run. And Cassandra Nova's origin. Yeah, that, too.

The biggest and most legitimate gripe against Morrison is he doesn't always write his stories with an artist in mind. Because of that, the collaborative strengths of comics are lost in some of his work. That is really evident in New X-Men, especially once Marvel began assigning the book to anyone who could help get it back on schedule. It really shows through in some of the Imperial issues, even though I think I agree with you in that it was a brilliant storyline.

I remember the original thread about this in one of the earlier boards (Morrison manifesto), and I'm looking forward to Part 2!

Comment by Figserello on January 28, 2012 at 8:52pm

Great to see this run getting a closer look.  As I said elsewhere, I only read about the first third of it when it came out - I wasn't always such a Morrison devotee! - and its only been the promise of these posts that made me finally sit down and start to read through th eseries systematically.  I'm still only two thirds in, and enjoying it immensely.

I don't have a lot of posting time these days, so I'll try to post in short bursts.

Grant Morrison certainly earned the moniker “New” for his tenure on the X-Men.  Everything seemed new: new costumes, new characters, and most importantly, new ideas.

 

 

Isn't it strange that they didn't start with a new no. 1?  They'd even changed the title.  And Morrison's new status quo was a huge change, that resulted in at least 3 new series spinning out from it.  Weird indeed.

Comment by Figserello on January 29, 2012 at 7:35am

I thought that the concept of secondary mutation was brilliant. It gave Morrison and other writers the opportunity to increase the power and effectiveness of some of the weaker characters.

They serve another hugely important purpose too. They 'make strange' once more what should be Uncanny and Astonishing for the reader, but often isn’t. Like early Superman or Fantastic Four comics, superhero comics should startle the reader and make them think about what beings with these powers would be like in our world, and make them wonder what it would be like to be them, removed from the rest of humanity as they are.

 

 

Beast is the most obvious example here.  His secondary mutation makes him tragic and despairing again like he was when he first became blue and furry.  That puts him in a more dramatic place than just someone everyone accepts in his cuddly blue form.

 

 

It's a pity that these wondrous, strange heroes and villains tend to become as humdrum as daytime soap characters in the hands of the fan-writers and archivist-fans.  I think that is one of the things that puts off new readers.  I think they expect these strange transformations to entail more ‘shock and awe’, and they may be subconsciously put off by seeing what they would think of as extraordinary being portrayed as run-of-the-mill and ordinary.

On the other hand, I detested the idea that Cassandra Nova was Xavier’s twin whom he killed in the womb. Xavier’s moral authority has been undercut a lot over the years but this absolutely decimated it: Xavier was a murderer before he was born. It was probably supposed to be clever, but it came across as creepy.

This didn’t bother me that much.  Leaving aside how much moral agency I am prepared to allow a foetus, Professor X has hardly ever been less than creepy, even when this reader was too young to realise it.  Didn’t Onslaught spring fully-formed from his brow?  (I was surprised that Onslaught was even mentioned during this run, but it would seem Grant wanted to remind us of it just as the Cassandra plotline is coming to a head.)  The Prof has dark stuff in him.  Jean learned about the ‘murder’ of the Xavier twin in the silent issue, where everything was related in images.  It could be read as Prof X’s supression of his dark half, his own Id, rather than an actual murder.  Cassandra’s description as an evil entity suddenly acting in the world actually makes more sense as Prof X’s Id given flesh.  Certainly, her psychological torturing of the Prof’s pupils is razor sharp and on-the-nose enough to be the Prof’s darker side speaking.  The Prof would know how to hurt them much better than some entity that only came into the world a few weeks before, telepathic or not.

The visual of Charlie's murder of his twin might be his wiley subconscious covering up the suppresion of his own darker side (or it might be a result of how the subconscious only deals in visuals/sense impressions rather than a coherent language).  Killing a twin so that she reappears later as an external entity is more acceptable than actually containing the evil that she represents himself.

Thematically, at least, Cassandra IS the Professor.  As Quentin Quire says later, and as much of Grant’s work, particularly of this time, illustrates “We are the enemy.”  Cassandra seems to embody this.  The fact that it is she who ‘outs’ the academy ties into this.  Maybe Prof X was tending towards this moment for years, but the fact is that he never did it.  It took a dormant facet of him to do what he’d been too cowardly, hesitant (or maybe responsible?) to do.  Much of Grant’s work of this time illustrates that sometimes a system and its enemies together make up a larger cohesive order (a more beneficial one, at that), and Cassandra is acting in that role here. 

Comment by Figserello on January 29, 2012 at 7:36am

(cont.)

 

Although she claims to be eradicating mutantkind for purely evil purposes, within the story it is the murder of the millions of Genoshans that tips the balance of public opinion in favour of the mutants, so that they begin to be accepted.  Cassandra is really acting to the same agenda as Prof X but taking steps that he would never consciously do.

 

Which is just to explain why, from a thematic point of view, I am happy with Cassandra’s quite shocking origin,  Having said all this, though, I do see how the whole fetal murder thing would be offensive to some, and no amount of ‘blether’ would negate that.

Comment by Figserello on January 30, 2012 at 2:12am
As much as I like Tom Waits, I skip past more of his songs than any of my other favorite musicians. I think this is where Morrison’s fans miss the mark. Yes, he has lots of ideas and that’s a good thing. But that doesn’t mean that every idea is a good one.

 

I'm a Tom Waits fan, but I don't skip past any of his songs when I'm listening to his stuff.  I guess once you realise that he has interesting things to say and ways to say it, then he's someone I want to listen to, even if some of that stuff is as freaky as hell. 

 

Hmmmm!  I suppose it’s like with your friends.  Not everything they say or do is the bee's knees, but because they're your friends you have an interest in whatever they get up to.  You value it in itself, and further, understand why they are doing it, which increases the tolerance for nonsense.

 

Applying it to Morrison, it's hard to separate out the good ideas and the bad ones once you start to see that they are all threads in the same tapestry.  Both the new Beast and Cassaandra Nova threads are about evolution, fear of change and trying to suppress the future. 

After all, there were only a few dozen mutants in the Marvel world, no more than a hundred or two. By expanding the population of mutants, Morrison and other writers were able to build on that central metaphor.


 

B-Dog already mentioned it, but there were seemingly 16 million mutants on Genosha when it was destroyed.

 

There's a lot to discuss in that one plot development. I guess it wasn't so much that Morrison wanted to reduce the mutant population as to get them out of the geo-political enclave that previous writers had assigned them and focus on them living amongst 'us', which was exactly the focus of Stan and Jack's X-Men.  Morrison and Casey and Milligan were interested in using the mutants to show how an 'outsider' group can influence pop culture and fashions and everyday values on the streets of normal cities.

 

They wanted to show that the conforting simplicities of 'Us and them' start to break down as factors like young peoples' constant serarch for new role models and consumerisms constant hunger for new fashions and lifestyles to co-opt and sell back to us.  Any social/political system is much more complex than just 'Us and Them', but the simplistic version tends to favour the interests of the powerful, and the status quo.

 

I have to admit that the 16 million people dying in a few panels seemed like gratuitous stake-raising to me.  16 million deaths are a lot to ask me to care about!  Then I saw that it was being played quite differently to how most Marvel comics would play it.  We didn't get the villain gloating about their plan for issues ahead of it, or one team or an individual X-man finding out about it and trying to stop it, with the clock ticking.  Instead it happened much like September 11 itself happened, just sudden unexplained death raining out of the sky, that no-one was expecting.

 

Actually, considering it came out months earlier, there was some similarity between Cassandra's attack on Genosha and the September 11 attacks, not least in how they totally changed public opinion on issues that had been bubbling underneath the surface and spurred different interests to push forward with their plans in their own self-serving ways.

 

The way that Xavier and Cassandra turned out to be so intimately related presaged how Bush and Bin Laden turned out to be practically family!  (Sort of!)  Ideologically, Bush and Bin Laden were very similar with the religion and the ultra-violence and the apocalyptic end-game scenarios.  Their agendas and worldviews were certainly very interdependant.  Which ties into what I wrote above about how Morrison keeps coming back

Comment by Figserello on January 30, 2012 at 2:22am

(cont)

 

to ourselves and our enemies being two sides of the same coin.

Comment by Figserello on January 30, 2012 at 7:10am

Frank Quitely and Igor Kordey introduced an Eastern European industrial style that was a sharp contrast with the sleek style of the Spanish and Brazilian artists who had worked on the X-Men in the previous decade.  Quitely’s first cover on New X-Men 114 depicts characters who are disproportionate and dumpy.  I have since grown to appreciate Quitely’s art thanks to his work on Sandman: Endless Nights and other projects but at the time- and even a little bit now- the ugliness of the art was a real turn-off.

 

I've seen Quitely's work and characters described as 'ugly-beautiful', which I can live with. Growing up on 2000AD his 'stylised realism' wasn't a big shock to me. The Galaxy's Greatest Comic trained us to see avoidance of both slick finishes and house-styles as good things. 



 

I just love that Quitely designed clothes for the X-Men that a style-conscious paramilitary superhero group wouldn't actually mind being seen dead in. I love that the clothes sit on their wearers like real clothes do, instead of looking like naked people with painted on outfits. I get excited seeing superheroes look just that bit more 'realistic'. (I once read Dark Knight Returns from cover to cover after taking it down for a quick look, just because I noticed that Batman's boots on the cover had wrinkles on them like normal boots do!)



 

I see on wiki that Quitely designs his own hats and clothes!  If only more of Quitely's peers were as attentive to matters sartorial!  David Brothers once bemoaned how, thanks to artists who don’t give a lot of attention to sharp style, so many super heroes look like they get their dull clothes from the bargain basement.  He’s got a point!



 

In any case, Quitely is currently in the very top echelon of superhero artists, bringing a fresh eye and stylish approach to the subgenre.
 


 

I also had a problem with what I can only describe as the ugliness of New X-Men.  Morrison introduced mutants who had deformities but no corresponding abilities, like Ugly Jon who had two faces but no extra powers.

 

Speaking of 2000AD, the Strontium Dog series there had made sad deformed freaks seem quite a natural result of genetic mutation. (Which it would be - for every viable mutation there must be 1,000s of pointless dead ends.  Yay for comicbook 'realism' again.)  Ugly Jon and Beak are the creative descendents of feared Search and Destroy agent Midden-face McNulty.



 

In the Marvel U, particularly in the Children of the Atom mini, there is a strong connection between the advent of atomic/nuclear power and the appearance of these genetic freaks. This new power source isn't all bright and shiny and 'Flash Gordon - forward into the future'.  Depicting that is both a socially responsible thing to do and also an updating of the old comics, because we are a bit wiser about nuclear power today than we were back in the early 1960s.



 

Morrison's writing often tries to put us in the shoes of society's shunned and marginalised, so a series where the main cast are supposedly shunned and feared for being different is a perfect opportunity to for him to 'go there' once more. Sensitively telling the stories of ugly rejects is a beautifully humane and compassionate avenue to take the X-Men down.  Who knows how many people Grant's work has nudged towards compassion for the unfortunate over the years?

 

 

Comment by Chris Fluit on January 30, 2012 at 1:39pm

I thought Morrison's first arc was about drastically reducing the number of mutants in the Marvel universe by killing virtually everyone on Genosha, not increasing them. I thought he was reducing their numbers and, in ways, increasing their strangeness to set them apart from humanity.

Good catch, b dog.  You are right that there were already millions of mutants living on Genosha before the start of Grant Morrison's run.  I goofed on that one. 

However, I disagree that Morrison's run was about reducing the number of mutants in the world, despite the destruction of an entire nation of mutants.  Morrison greatly expanded mutant presence in the world.  He examined the experiences of mutants in China and Afghanistan through the eyes of Xorn and Dust.  He depicted large gatherings of mutants in mutant neighborhoods and ghettos (laying the groundwork for District X) and in mass public protests.  Mutants were more prevalent in Morrison's world, not less.

I think that Figserello comes closest when he remarks that Morrison was getting mutants out of a geo-political enclave.  The mutant issue isn't about one nation against another.  It's the central concern of whether or not a specific "them" is a part of "us."  That concern is enhanced by a large population of "them," whether Hispanics, homosexuals, Muslims or mutants. 

Comment by Chris Fluit on January 30, 2012 at 1:41pm

The biggest and most legitimate gripe against Morrison is he doesn't always write his stories with an artist in mind. Because of that, the collaborative strengths of comics are lost in some of his work. That is really evident in New X-Men, especially once Marvel began assigning the book to anyone who could help get it back on schedule. It really shows through in some of the Imperial issues, even though I think I agree with you in that it was a brilliant storyline.

I think this was a bigger issue earlier in the run when, as you say, they were jumping from one artist to another.  Later on, they started assigning artists to specific arcs- Phil Jimenez for Murder at the Mansion, Chris Bachalo for Assault on Weapon Plus, Marc Silvestri for Here Comes Tomorrow. 

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