In my last column I talked about fandom complaints, particularly in response to comics and movies that the fans in question would not even try due to their initial opinions and preconceived notions regarding the works’ quality. This week I’ll be talking about one comic book run that largely abandoned conventions and stood out as one of, in my opinion, the greatest comic book runs of the twenty-first century so far. In my personal opinion, the run in question is a strong candidate for the best superhero storyline in the history of comic books, although I don’t necessarily want to end up overselling it. Tastes vary, and while the run in question was hugely popular, it also had its fair share of readers who did not care for it much.
The run I’m talking about is Grant Morrison’s three-year stint on New X-Men. Running from issues #114-154 (plus New X-Men Annual 2001), the storyline was written by Morrison and featured artwork by a number of artists, including Frank Quitely, Chris Bachalo, and Leinil Francis Yu. For me personally, this run on New X-Men is a shining example of how to tell a storyline with decades-old characters that still manages to be inventive, fresh, and unlike anything seen before it.
I would argue that the run’s strength comes largely from something necessary to just about any reboot or new take a beloved franchise: an understanding of what about the fundamental concept works, and an effort to stay faithful to that while updating specific details to fit the desired tone and message of the new version. The X-Men, Marvel Comics’ mutant super-team, have long been hugely popular characters. They have been the stars of movies, cartoons, comics, video games, and just about any other form of media there is. But where some other incarnations of the team deviate from or spend little time on particular aspects of the X-Men mythos, Grant Morrison and co.’s New X-Men run dived in and elevated the core concepts behind the X-Men to a height they’ve seldom achieved.
For example, one long-running aspect of the X-Men is the fact that they usually reside at a school, oft titled Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. The term gifted youngers has often meant teenage mutants, such as the original X-Men team back in the 1960s, who were young adults learning how to control their mutant abilities under the tutelage of Professor Charles Xavier, or Professor X. As time went on and the team went through different periods, however, the school often seemed to take a backseat to the crime-fighting action and escapades of the series’ mutant leads. There have been exceptions to this, such as series starring younger generations of mutants training under Xavier or others, much like the original X-Men did. With that said, however, the school has perhaps more often than not felt more like a set piece than a fully developed setting.
This is not the case in Morrison and co.’s New X-Men. The core X-Men team of the series (Cyclops, Jean Grey, Beast, Wolverine, Emma Frost) are all shown teaching classes of younger mutants. Some of them, such as Emma Frost and Beast, form touching teacher-student relationships as they help younger mutants come to terms with themselves. This results in great inter-generational bonds the likes of which can get lost when a series focuses solely on one age group of characters.
Another way that New X-Men’s focus upon the Xavier Institute itself strengthens the core elements of the X-Men mythos is its focus upon the students themselves. The students in new X-Men have names, personalities, and backstories. They are not simply unnamed teenagers with generic appearances penciled into panels, never to stand out on their own. This gives the school a feeling of being full of life, of community. It also opens the door for Morrison and co. to play with the concept of mutant culture. While the X-Men and mutantkind’s struggles for acceptance by non-powered humans have long mirrored various minority groups’ experiences with discrimination, it has not been often that X-Men comics really toyed with the concept of a mutant subculture or expanded upon what that might look like. The younger characters in New X-Men occupy a very particular space, not just separate from humans, but from other generationally-different mutants as well.
As I’ve touched on a bit so far, the character work in New X-Men is one of its greatest strengths. Most of the main cast members are decades-old characters with familiar histories and personalities. Morrison and co. stay true to these histories, but do not allow them to confine their cast to repetitions of the same old, same old. Cyclops, the oft confident longtime leader of the X-Men, is depicted at a turning point mentally and emotionally. His romantic relationship with fellow X-Man Jean Grey, the longest running X-romance, finds itself crumbling as the question is raised of if the two characters are still in love, or if the space between them has grown too large. Jean Grey, to Morrison and co.’s credit, is allowed to prosper as her own character and her event arcs do not feel solely tied to her relationship with Cyclops.
Then there’s Beast, a mutant with the mind of a genius and a body that is large, blue, and catlike. Beast is unique amongst the series’ main characters as the only one of them who cannot “pass” for human. One particularly heartbreaking incident in the series comes when a (human) woman whom he has long had a romantic connection with ends their relationship due to concerns over how other people will view her because of it. Wolverine, the ever badass and mysterious man with claws, is also handled very well in New X-Men. I’ve always found the character a tad bit overrated, but Morrison and co. actually made me care about him with their depiction of a character, rather than a walking, grunting angry caricature.
That leaves Emma Frost. Upon a Google Image search of the character, one could be forgiven for feeling a bit horrified. Her designs are frequently among the most blatantly sexualized in comic books, and I feel no desire to defend them. With that said, Morrison’s writing of her is superb, and she stands out as one of my favorite characters in the entire one. With a personality to match her last name, Emma Frost is a delightfully bitchy supervillain-turned-heroine whose affectionate side comes out most often in the presence of her students. A telepath herself, she mentors five young psychics known as the Stepford Cuckoos. Their complicated relationship between mentor and mentees is one of the highlights of the run. While Frost’s design leaves much to be desired, I think investigation of her character can at least leave one with mixed feelings where they at least appreciate aspects of her that aren’t her costume.
I’ve gone on this long talking about what I think New X-Men does right, and I could continue to do so for at least twice as long as I already have. But, rather than that, I’ll take the time to acknowledge its flaws. While New X-Men may be my comic book series of all time, it is so much more because of its writing than its art. The artists change frequently based upon the specific story arc in question, and some of the artists’ works are much more charming than others. Frank Quitely’s work in particular stands out as outstanding and full of character.
My other main qualm with the run is its ending. This is not to say that the ending is bad, per se. I don’t think there’s an issue in all of New X-Men that is truly bad (I would note that #127 is one of my favorite single issues of any comic book ever, for that matter). However, the ending arc did not maintain the same height of quality as those coming before it, in my opinion. My opinion is just one, however, and I would not want to discourage anyone from reading New X-Men just because its ending may or may not be as strong as it could have been.
That about wraps up my analysis of New X-Men. The entire series has been reprinted in the form of hardcover collections, as well as paperback editions that can generally be found more at cheaper prices. It is my recommendation that anyone who has ever been interested in the X-Men but never read any of their comic books check out Grant Morrison and co.’s contribution to the franchise. If you’re an X-Men fan or superhero fan who has never read this particular series, check it out. You may not like it—some don’t—but you also may like it, and if you’re like me, you may even love it for what it is: a creative evolution of decades-old characters into a timeless rendition of what makes them tick.
Eric Cline is a gay poet, 2016 Best of the Net nominee, and the founding editor-in-chief of Calamus Journal. His debut chapbook, “his strange boy eve”, was published by Yellow Chair Press in September 2016. He tweets @ericclinepoet.