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The Future Is Twenty Years Ago

Graeme McMillan

Spot the mistake in this sentence, which paraphrases my thought process in a recent reading of X-MEN: MESSIAH COMPLEX: “Hey, it’s a massive X-book crossover, just like back in the ’90s, but with writers I really like, like Ed Brubaker and Mike Carey! This’ll be like a trip down memory lane, but good!”

That’s right. It’s those last two words. If there’s one thing that Messiah CompleX taught me, it’s this: X-Men is the Peter Pan of comics, only replace “the boy that never grows up” with “the superhero comic that never seems to change whatsoever.”

It’s really kind of stunning to me, the way in which writers seem to have absolutely no impact on X-Men comics anymore. Brubaker and Carey (and, for that matter, Peter David, Chris Yost and Craig Kyle, who are the other writers in this collection) are strong writers who normally have individual voices, but there’s really no way you could tell that from reading this story; in a way, it’s almost a testament to each writer that the chapters written by different people all seem to have the same authorial voice, but the problem is really that said voice is this weird undead Fabian Nicieza thing, as opposed to the sum of its individual parts (Reading recent X-Men comics, it has to be said that there’s probably a case for Nicieza being the most influential writer for the franchise in the last twenty or so years – Definitely, the current crop of X-books hew closer to his writing in terms of dialogue and plot than Claremont).

Equally stunning is the fact that Messiah CompleX reads entirely like an X-book crossover from the 1990s, complete with “X”-based pun in the title (Remember The X-Cutioner’s Song? Those were the days…). Switch up the artists – or maybe just the coloring – and you could’ve traveled back 15 years and given it to an X-fan without their blinking. The themes, the atmosphere, the plot points all feel the same – Everyone hates mutants! But maybe there’s hope! But there’s a traitor in the X-Men’s midst! And time travel will be involved somewhere! And look at how much Gambit loves Rogue! – as does the cast (Complete with too many villains with convoluted, if not entirely unclear, motivation), and their relationships. For all the “NOTHING WILL BE THE SAME AGAIN” nature of stories of these scale, the problem is that everything stays the same. It’s as if Grant Morrison never happened.

And yet, if you ignore all of that – all of my disappointment in discovering that the X-Men today (well, three years ago) is pretty much identical to the X-Men of twenty years ago, and that creators I like can get lost in stories like this – and approach it on a level of simply, “does it work as a story,” then… It does? Kind of? There are dead ends, and unexplained characters and decisions throughout, but the whole thing has a momentum that carries you through nonetheless, no matter how false it is. As the first chapter in a trilogy, it works well as a set-up, especially if the writers wanted to screw with the readers’ expectations (In particular, Bishop is proven right at some point), and despite everything, makes me want to read on and find out what happens next… even though I already know that what happens next won’t be anything other than maintaining the status quo. A confused, slightly-self-loathing Okay, in that case.

9 Responses to “ The Future Is Twenty Years Ago ”

  1. How is Nicieza so influential in your mind? He didn’t even write that much X-Men. Lobdell did way more X-Men writing in that era. Most of Nicieza’s X-writing was over at X-Force, and I don’t really think the issues he did were all that influential (I’d argue that Liefeld even has had more lasting influence than Nicieza, as to of his creations have been consistently published for years, Deadpool and Cable).

  2. He means the style–what has become the X-House Style. And Nicieza co-created and developed those two characters, so you’re arguing for Nicieza. War Cable and Deadpool.

  3. No one can escape the gravitational pull of Claremont’s work! No one!
    Nicieza or Lobdell or the Image bunch could only flail around till they evolved into dense, turgid creatures trapped in place. Morrison tried to free it, by trying to bring it into orbit with John Hughes-ish 80s tropes, but the results couldn’t live without him. They could barely live with him.

  4. I find myself buying x-titles in fits and starts knowing that I can just pick it up whenever and everything will largely be in the same place as I left it.

    Reminds me of the soap operas my sister used to watch all through summer vacation. End of three months and they still haven’t figured out whose baby it is and why that one guy is still in a coma.

    And that soapy feel has CLAREMONT written in caps all over it. Nicieza was begat by Claremont who then so on and so forth, ya know?

    Morrison was out there, way out there by X-Standards, so the ret-con back didn’t really stun me but it did remind me just how much of a commercial property the x-titles are. We can’t forget how many gatefold Jim Lee covers are in musty basements across the world.

    Don’t get me wrong, it was good! I liked it for who I was THEN and maybe that’s the point I’m trying to find in this ramble. My jaded and contemporary NOW is always somebody’s awestruck and romantic THEN.

  5. “It’s as if Grant Morrison never happened.”

    You said it, brother. I dropped all x-books around the time of this whole Messiah Complex hullabaloo and haven’t seen anything worth bringing me back. I still get X-Factor though. When Peter David is left to do his own thing (aka NOT getting sucked into the latest “game changing” X-over book), he creates compelling character-driven story lines. Did you see his take on future Doom? Classic.

  6. The whole M-Day event is probably the biggest attempt to revert the books to this sort of form, though writers like Claremont and Austen also really retarded the books post-Morrison.

    Though Carey’s X-Men Legacy strikes me as really being “… a trip down memory lane, but good!” It’s probably the most I’ve enjoyed the X-books recently – yes, even including Morrison’s run. It may be the same food that I already ate, chewed and regurgitated, but it’s presented /so well/.

  7. I’ve been orbiting around some similar conclusions, to a degree, as I’ve been trying to reconcile the work Matt Fraction is doing in UNCANNY X-MEN with his previous ouvre and his current work on INV. IRON MAN. And I still a nagging question about the handoff from Fraction to Brubaker — wasn’t the original plan for them to alternate arcs, but then Fraction never let go? That could just Brubaker begging off other work, like he left DAREDEVIL so abruptly as well.

    But getting back to this, it was very coincidental how the success of the X-Men movies went to restrain the X-men books into a more linear direction. Right now can you imagine the 2010 Marvel brain-trust having the Casey X-MEN, Morrison NEW X-MEN and Milligan X-FORCE going along simultaneously?

  8. I think the trouble with X-Men is that they’re utterly pointless and always have been. The “superpowers as minority” bit doesn’t work in a shared universe with lots of well-liked superheroes, so it’s buried under a mountain of expendable characters who all have convoluted connections to each other.

    It would actually be fairly simple to fix X-Men. Hope turns out to be the key to bringing mutants back, the new mutant gene is less stable than the old one. Two plot points, that’s all it’d take. If the new mutants being born couldn’t control their powers, then they’re all potentially really dangerous, and the fear of them is reasonable and interesting. The old mutants with stable powers would all be lumped together with the new ones in the public eye, like how Asperger’s Syndrome is lumped together with autism for being “basically the same”, everyone has a different approach to dealing with these super-powered people who don’t make effective superheroes, and suddenly it’s interesting drama. Two plot points.

    I wish that were where they were actually going. It could be, but I’m sure it’s not.

  9. LOL you expect a change in X-Men.
    In superheroes comics the status quo is always rigid.
    Hal Jordan is GL and Barry Allen the Flash for christ sake.

    But as always the important thing is not the destination but how fun the voyage is.So far so good.

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