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.
(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.