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 Chris Fluit on February 8, 2012 at 7:52pm

We're not too far apart in our estimation of this series, I can see that,

True. 

I would say that there is more beauty and joy and wonder in most of Morrison's work than in the Marvel Comics I was comparing 2000AD to in 1985, or than in the Marvel Comics you were comparing New X-Men to back in '01.

I would agree with that as well.  That was part of my problem with the runs in Uncanny that were happening at the same time.  Joe Casey and Chuck Austen seemed to be imitating Morrison but they missed the occasional spark of joy that Morrison remembered to include (that wasn't all they missed, but it was one). 

On the aesthetics of gloom and misery, I think its possible to focus almost* entirely on the worst aspects of life and still produce great art.

One of my favorite aesthetic combinations is to play the songs "Sick of Myself" and "Happy with Myself" back to back.  It is possible to focus on one over the other.  However, a longer work such as a novel or comic book run should have a combination- if not an outright balance- of both. 

Comment by Figserello on February 8, 2012 at 6:32pm
We're not too far apart in our estimation of this series, I can see that, but I'd still quibble over the word 'perfect'. No Morrison fan would use that term to describe these comics as a whole run. (Maybe some of us would describe the Quitely issues thus? I might...)

I would say that there is more beauty and joy and wonder in most of Morrison's work than in the Marvel Comics I was comparing 2000AD to in 1985, or than in the Marvel Comics you were comparing New X-Men to back in '01.

I really meant the false reassurance that there's nothing wrong with the world that a few men in tights punching bad men in tights can't fix. That's the underlying message of most superhero comics. 
 
On the aesthetics of gloom and misery, I think its possible to focus almost* entirely on the worst aspects of life and still produce great art. Teenagers bedrooms are full of examples of it. The balance doesn't need to be there. Likewise, some art can be almost* entirely playful, fun and life-affirming, and still great art.
 
Which is just to say, that I'd never use the gloominess or negativity of something as a reason to fault it as art, although it's a viable reason why someone mightn't like it on a personal level.

Morrison's X-Men however, is ultimately in the superhero mode. Although in Whedon-esque fashion, it goes deeper into the genuine sadness of life than most (rather beautifully, in my view - the Beast's despair being one example), it seems to be life-affirming, optimistic and positive on the whole.

BTW Don't forget that I left some of the blame for Kordey's poor art at the writer's door, which is not something you see argued too often.
 
* The 'almost' is important though, I'd have to stress.  The Filth is perfect in my view because of just the tiny statements of hope and postivity that eventually break through.
 
 
Comment by Chris Fluit on February 8, 2012 at 10:39am

As you state, these comics carry the reader along in a rush, and it’s easy to jump from comic to comic.  Apparently, Morrison used the soap opera as the template for these comics, and thus there are several storylines interweaving, diverging and parting in the first half of the run.  When one thing appears to be settled, something else that’s been bubbling under blows up to keep us 'watching'.  It’s nothing if not page-turning.



Imperial is a fine sci-fi thriller.

I agree with you agreeing with you.  Imperial is a very good read.

Comment by Chris Fluit on February 8, 2012 at 10:37am

Some of us might hold up The Filth or We3 or All-Star Superman as ‘perfect’, however, but they are all finite works, not tied to an ongoing continuity, done hand-in-glove with committed artists.   It’s hard to imagine them being much better than they turned out, and every line and word in them seems to have a place in their overall design.

I would hold up All-Star Superman as a near-perfect work.  I can't imagine it being any better than it was.

Comment by Chris Fluit on February 8, 2012 at 10:36am

Rereading your post above again, I’d have to qualify one thing.  I’d say very few Morrison fans would hold up New X-Men as ‘perfect’. 

I stick by my statement.  No offense intended, but you've done a little bit of that in this thread.  When someone pointed out what they considered a flaw, such as the U-Men, you quickly defended it as both an individual concept and as part of the larger tapestry.  It's as if the quality of the entire work makes it immune to criticism of any particular piece.  In addition, in your previous paragraph, you're quick to shift the blame for imperfections to any one other than Morrison- the editors, the artists, even the fans.  If Morrison can receive credit for the things that were done well (and there are many), than he also shoulder some of the blame for the things that didn't work out.

New X-Men isn’t ‘perfect’ but from what I’ve read so far, and holding it up as its own thing, removed from continuity, the good ideas and entertainment value in it far outweighs any imperfections.  Even where it might go wrong, it’s done in the spirit of experimentation and a genuine attempt to make the franchise relevant and healthy again.

I agree.  The positive qualities of New X-Men far outweigh the imperfections.  Although I have problems with a few things here or there, I've had a lot more to say about what Morrison did right. 

Comment by Chris Fluit on February 8, 2012 at 10:27am

The individualistic, "dirty", very unidealised art, the morally de-centred universe 2000AD portrayed, and the graphic depiction of the unfairness of life, all kind of shocked and dismayed me, coming as I was from Marvel's simple stories of clean-cut good guys generally triumphing over evil. In the long run, I realised 2000AD gave a truer picture of what goes on in this world. People are born hugely disadvantaged, and the world then goes about demonising and persecuting them further while the status quo goes on advantaging those at the top of the heap.  To present the world as too clean-cut and morally simple is essentially to lie.  It seems to me that there's more 'truth', mixed in with the 'video nasty' elements, in the pages of Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog (with its mainly pathetic mutants) or Judge Dredd, than in a Spider-Man or Captain America comic.  But it took a while for that to sink in with me.



I agree that stories that only depict clean-cut good guys always triumphing over evil is not realistic.  But I think that many writers and artists over-compensate in that regard.  Yes, this world contains persecution and other nasty things like sickness and death and stillborn children.  I get to deal with that stuff on a regular basis.  However, this world also contains beauty and wonder and joy.  Artistic work, including comic books, that ignore the positive, joyous things of life are no truer to the world than the other. 

Mind you, I'm not singling Morrison out in this regard.  I think that his best work contains a sense of wonder as well as misery.  It was certainly present in his work on JLA, All-Star Superman and 52.  From what I hear, it may have been present in Seven Soldiers of Victory as well.  I even see a spark of it in New X-Men.  Xorn has a quiet appreciation of life.  Beak can be positively giddy.  That variety and honesty of reaction is part of what makes Morrison's work so strong.

Comment by Chris Fluit on February 8, 2012 at 10:15am
Incidently, I hope I'm not coming across as too adversarial in my replies.  In the spirit of discussion, I'm just using your points to get into the run and what it might be doing, rather than monologuing to myself.  It's really interesting to see how this run looked from the point of view of a longtime X-fan who has had time to reconsider the work since it first came out. 


I can't speak for anyone else but, to me, you haven't come across as adversarial in this thread.  You've disagreed with people and defended your viewpoint but that's to be expected and encouraged. 
Comment by Figserello on February 8, 2012 at 7:47am

Anyway, just to wrap up this first Blog post: There are good annotations of issues 114 to 119 here, written by this guy.  Did you know that the Stepford Cuckoos were an underhand tribute to the Spice Girls?  Or that the word SEX appears repeatedly in the artwork to issue 118?  (No, I didn’t spot them myself either!)  Well, those and other juicy factoids are to be found over there.



Imperial is a fine sci-fi thriller.  What's really strange about it is all the stuff another writer would have included, but Morrison left out.  Like how Cassandra/Charles subverted Lilandra's entire empire, and what must have transpired between the X-Men's most high profile intergalactic-lovers to drive her mad.  Claremont would have had a field day with that sado-sexual cruelty!  It’s an example of the narrative connective tissue being removed, but arguably to better effect than in Final Crisis.

No fanboys were harmed in the making of New X-Men: Imperial.  :-)

Incidently, I’m sure that Morrison is drawing some kind of parallels between Cassandra and Lillandra.  (I’ve just noticed that their names even rhyme!)  We have that lovely scene between Jean and the Beast where she explains that they will beat Cassandra because they are a team and friends, whereas Cassandra is trapped in her lonely universe of one.  Then we see that the Shi-Ar Empire turns out to be so easily subverted because Lillandra is an autocrat who is completely responsible for governing her galactic empire alone.  There is no network there to compensate for Lillandra’s incapacitation when she falls to Cassandra, and her underlings can’t even contemplate that she might be leading them to their doom.  It’s a lesson in how unruly networks of individuals working together are much more adaptive and effective than simpler systems.  Which ties into the greater themes of evolution and adaptive systems.

With the Lillandra sub-plot, we're just thrown in right at the apocalyptic climax of that strand of the story.  It does mean that readers get more sci-fi spectacle and bang for their buck than if Morrison spent 2-3 issues building it up.  Morrison knows that wrecked spaceships falling out of the sky, and convulsing intergalactic Empires are the lifeblood of good sci-fi superhero comics.  It also means the focus never leaves the school and the main cast.  Again we have the impression of a writer with so much to say, but aware that a few dozen monthly comics is hardly enough room to say it in.  Beats the waiting-for-the-trade snoozefests that we have been oversupplied with since.



Morrison is as witty as he's ever been in these issues too.  There are many lines that just sum up a character or situation and raise a laugh at the same time.

"Goodbye Lillandra.  You were terrible in bed!" is one example.  The sheer blackness of it.

Comment by Figserello on February 7, 2012 at 7:53pm

Rereading your post above again, I’d have to qualify one thing.  I’d say very few Morrison fans would hold up New X-Men as ‘perfect’.  Morrison is too interested in getting across the rough, untidy, unsettled nature of life for ‘perfection’ to be his goal.  Further, a 3 year run is a long time for a writer as interested in novelty, growth and innovation as Morrison, to sustain a single tone and unified subject matter as he forges ahead into territory that is genuinely new in the franchise.  Not to mention navigating the outside pressures of fandom and editorial reaction and the comings and goings of various artists.

 

Some of us might hold up The Filth or We3 or All-Star Superman as ‘perfect’, however, but they are all finite works, not tied to an ongoing continuity, done hand-in-glove with committed artists.   It’s hard to imagine them being much better than they turned out, and every line and word in them seems to have a place in their overall design.

 

New X-Men isn’t ‘perfect’ but from what I’ve read so far, and holding it up as its own thing, removed from continuity, the good ideas and entertainment value in it far outweighs any imperfections.  Even where it might go wrong, it’s done in the spirit of experimentation and a genuine attempt to make the franchise relevant and healthy again.

Comment by Figserello on February 7, 2012 at 7:50pm

Incidently, I hope I'm not coming across as too adversarial in my replies.  In the spirit of discussion, I'm just using your points to get into the run and what it might be doing, rather than monologuing to myself.  It's really interesting to see how this run looked from the point of view of a longtime X-fan who has had time to reconsider the work since it first came out. 



 

On that score, it's occurred to me that the way you describe your reaction to the early issues sounds exactly like how I reacted to the stories in 2000AD when I transitioned from reading Marvel comics to The Galaxy's Greatest Comic. This was shortly after the Phoenix first bought the big one.

 

The individualistic, "dirty", very unidealised art, the morally de-centred universe 2000AD portrayed, and the graphic depiction of the unfairness of life, all kind of shocked and dismayed me, coming as I was from Marvel's simple stories of clean-cut good guys generally triumphing over evil. In the long run, I realised 2000AD gave a truer picture of what goes on in this world. People are born hugely disadvantaged, and the world then goes about demonising and persecuting them further while the status quo goes on advantaging those at the top of the heap.  To present the world as too clean-cut and morally simple is essentially to lie.  It seems to me that there's more 'truth', mixed in with the 'video nasty' elements, in the pages of Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog (with its mainly pathetic mutants) or Judge Dredd, than in a Spider-Man or Captain America comic.  But it took a while for that to sink in with me.



 

For 2000AD fans like myself, much of what appears like a huge leap in sensibility that the British Invasion brought to US comics (a jarring leap, in many cases, as you describe) is only the next step up from what had been going on in 2000AD in the Eighties.



 

Which is all to say your Eastern European industrial/dirty/grungy art is part of the message the creators are trying to get across.

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