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Mutatis Mutandis: Diana Talks About X-Books, 10/10

Brian Hibbs

With the recent release of X-FACTOR #24, all X-books participating in the upcoming “Messiah Complex” crossover have now wrapped up their pre-existing storylines (with the possible exception of NEW X-MEN, which began a new two-parter last month). I thought this would be a proper time to look at where the line might be headed, and where it’s been – as most of you probably know, this is hardly the first time this particular franchise has been revamped. What can we expect of the post-“Messiah Complex” status quo?

Officially, the last X-Men relaunch was May 2004’s “Reload”. Grant Morrison had left NEW X-MEN, and whether you agreed with his creative decisions or not, there’s no question that he had set the agenda for the entire line – everyone from Chuck Austen to Grandpa X himself (Claremont) were taking cues from Morrison’s series. His departure seemed to send editor Mike Marts and company into a crazed tailspin, because some pretty embarrassing fubars started emerging across the line (The Xorn Identity arguably being the most deserving of the Sarah Silverman Award for Most Egregarious Failure To Amuse).

In hindsight, I think that “Reload” is best defined by two key aspects. First, there was a serious downgrade in the talent pool: what actually happened when Morrison left was not so much a relaunch but an extended round of musical chairs. Claremont replaced Austen, Austen replaced Claremont. Obviously, their respective books were transformed accordingly – suddenly UNCANNY X-MEN was all about Psylocke, Savior of the Universe, while X-MEN degenerated into a sex-obsessed nightmare soap opera (I leave the driving of the coffin nails to a greater critic than I). Now, in fairness, we did get Joss Whedon out of the deal, and he did hit the ground running, but I think that, even in those early months of his run, ASTONISHING X-MEN was perceived less as part of a line and more as an individual entity, neither incorporating nor dictating plot elements. What this meant, ultimately, was that ASTONISHING X-MEN, UNCANNY X-MEN and X-MEN were all pretty much doing their own thing, with little correlation between the series. Now, some people saw this as a positive thing (myself included): why, we reasoned, would we want to see Joss Whedon saddled with the fallout of Claremont’s weird BDSM fetish? Or, conversely, could we trust Chuck Austen to do justice to Cassandra Nova? Probably not.

And while all this was going on in the core books, the satellite titles weren’t doing so well either: Judd Winick had jumped to DC a year earlier, but “Reload” marked the end of his pre-written scripts for EXILES. Fans of the series suffered through a six-month Chuck Austen interrim before Tony Bedard was assigned the book. Unfortunately, while Bedard had some clever plot concepts, his run never quite gelled with Winick’s character-centric approach (and EXILES has the distinction of being the very last Winick book to not just be readable but consistently good). Meanwhile, NEW MUTANTS was cancelled and relaunched as NEW X-MEN: ACADEMY X, with the same characters and the same writing team of Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir; Chris Claremont’s EXCALIBUR was pretty much like every Claremont book, pointless and stilted (I still snort at the thought of Patrick Stewart screaming “That so totally hurts!”). Ironically, for a line that centers itself on themes of change and evolution, not much was different once the dust settled.

Which leads me to the second notable aspect of “Reload”: the kitchen-sink mentality. As the core books and pre-existing satellite series were working themselves out (or not, in some cases), Marvel unleashed over half a dozen solo books (and miniseries beyond count), such as ROGUE, JUBILEE, NIGHTCRAWLER, DISTRICT X and GAMBIT. Not one of them lasted beyond twelve issues. It’s not that they were all terrible, really… they just failed to make a positive (or lasting) impression.

Judged by those standards, I suppose “Reload” can be considered a failure: Peter Milligan’s replacement of Chuck Austen only led to mediocrity of a different sort, as the former X-STATIX writer phoned it in like an American Idol fan voting for Sanjaya. None of the “new” books, save ASTONISHING X-MEN, sold respectably on the direct market; nothing particularly inspiring emerged from it; and the X-Men were still in this quasi-fugue state where nobody – readers, writers, artists, editors and even the characters themselves – had any idea what was going on.

But while “Reload” may have been the latest official revamp, the line underwent another creative shakeup last year, ostensibly a delayed response to HOUSE OF M: Ed Brubaker replaced Chris Claremont on UNCANNY X-MEN, booting the latter to the fringes of the franchise, where he can play out his domination fantasies to his heart’s content. Mike Carey took over X-MEN, bringing a decidedly unorthodox approach to the construction of his team and the characterization of said team members (the “villains as X-Men” angle has been used before, but I don’t think it was ever as interesting as Carey’s roster). At first, the three core books were still doing their own thing: Brubaker had a year-long space epic, Carey introduced some new and bizarre villains, and Whedon… well, Whedon’s run is really just an echo at this stage, as it was meant to have been wrapped up a long time ago.

But once the new writers got settled in, something started to emerge: a larger storyline, spanning multiple books. Not the old-school style, where certain panels would have footnotes referring you to issues of different series for the rest of the tale, but… well, what we’ve had over the last six months or so are individual stories in each book that broadly deal with the same theme – the fallout from the Decimation. Granted, it’s something that really should’ve been handled a while ago; part of the inconsistency in the previous configuration was that, since every writer did his own thing and nobody seemed to care about Wanda’s magical hijinks, the whole Decimation thing was mostly just name-checked, except for Peter David’s X-FACTOR (the only book to directly deal with Decimation-related themes). But now there’s a tangible, visible connection between four books – X-FACTOR, UNCANNY X-MEN, X-MEN, and the well-meaning but painfully-miswritten NEW X-MEN – not just in terms of plot but in their shared depictions of the mutant world. Certain characters from one book make guest appearances in another not just to promote connectivity but also to further their own plotlines. I’d argue that this is the most cohesive the core books have been since the Nicieza/Lobdell run in the early ’90s (which was really one book split into two monthly series).

In a sense, “Messiah Complex” is emerging almost as a sort of corrective for “Reload”: we have an event that’s genuinely story-oriented, in that it deals with the realistic fallout of an unrealistic event (personally, I’m finding the reprecussions far more interesting than HOUSE OF M itself, but that’s a matter of preference). For once, this doesn’t feel like some editorial mandate hammering round pegs into square holes. Structurally, there’s a lot of parallelism between the books – fear of the future, the vulnerability of diminished mutants, etc. But more importantly, the participants in the crossover are proven talents, writers who’ve been responsible for some pretty engaging comics in recent years. It’s a simple formula for success; kind of makes you wonder how nobody’s figured that out with all the Civil Wars and Crises and such.

Part of why I’m feeling so optimistic about this relaunch also has to do with credibility. I’m at the point where I sort of tune out Quesada’s blatherings about how everything Marvel puts out is rilly rilly kewl, but Ed Brubaker killed Captain America (sales stunt or not, it was a ballsy move that he hasn’t yet squandered or undermined), and Mike Carey made the Devil sympathetic, and if they tell me “Messiah Complex” is first and foremost a good story, I believe them. Moreover, if they tell me “Messiah Complex” is going to really change things, I’m somewhat interested to see what happens next, all the moreso given the tidbits that have leaked out – EXILES is cancelled, NEW EXCALIBUR goes to Paul Cornell, Warren Ellis takes over ASTONISHING X-MEN… the emphasis, this time around, seems to be on finding suitable writers for the respective books (something tells me Cornell’s Britishisms are going to be the tiniest bit more authentic than Claremont’s). I can’t stress enough how pleased I am at this development: it shows that the administration has indeed learned from past mistakes, and that can only be good for us as readers.

To reel this diatribe back to the relevant comic, X-FACTOR #24 and the Isolationist storyline is actually a perfect example of these positive aspects of “Messiah Complex”: on the one hand, it does build on David’s previous X-Factor plots (we now know that Josef Huber was foreshadowed months ago, the mysterious “Uber” mentioned by Detective Jamie), but on the other hand, the implications of the Decimation are never far from anyone’s mind, and in fact, the Isolationist’s plan emerges as a direct result of HOUSE OF M (albeit a delayed one). David has always been very good at threading crossover plotlines through his own work as seamlessly as possible, and that emerges here as well. The characters are dealing with their own issues, but also with the knowledge that their world – the mutant world – is at an end.

The one downside, perhaps, is that – like all the pre-“Messiah Complex” storylines – there’s little closure at the arc’s end, since it’s all set-up for the big crossover (Carey’s “Blinded By The Light” is especially guilty of this, as nothing gets resolved at the end of X-MEN #203). But I’m going to hazard a prediction that “Messiah Complex” will be The Crossover That Got It Right; quite possibly the first successful, well-written multi-series epic since “Age of Apocalypse”.

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