I tried. I really did. I sat for hours, amongst piles of thesis notes and whilst procrastinating on the Xbox, trying to decide which of these two seminal, classic runs on X-Men I liked most. Do I take the gritty, leather-jacket sexfest of Morrison’s dark and subversive New X-Men, or the slightly-poppy-with-bleak-undertones psychological-bonanza that is Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men?
In the end, they’re apples and oranges. Some of you may pick one or the other as a personal favourite, but I can’t. They stand equal to each other for different reasons, and have ingrained themselves as nostalgic favourites of mine that I re-read fairly often. The fact that I gave away my paperbacks of the latter and shelled out an extra hundred for the complete omnibus edition – a practice I’ll repeat when the New X-Men counterpart is re-released later this year – should speak a bit towards how awesome this stuff is. Like, seriously, this is X-Men as it should always be. This whole Schism and Avengers vs. X-Men BS really needs to fuck off and bring these two stellar authors back for another go.
So technically if you’re reading these for the first time, start with Morrison. Not only does it do a good job at independently establishing the X-verse and introducing new readers to the salient characters before bringing in the new ones, it also has Emma Frost wearing the most cosplay fetishy outfit I’ve seen since 2003’s stripper look for Huntress. Dang, dat shit is tight, yo.
The Morrison arc – spanning fifty-ish issues – starts up with neophyte villain Cassandra Nova coming onto the scene and casually nuking Genosha, the mutant equivalent of Madagascar with sixteen billion inhabitants! (if you forget the number, don’t worry – they mention it about as frequently as Peter Parker rabbits on about power and responsibility) Stricken by the loss of so many future child soldiers, Professor X starts an investigation as to the who, what and why related to Genosha’s downfall. His primary roster consists of:
– Henry “Beast” McCoy; who’s responsible for being part of one of only five comic books in my entire reading history that has made me openly weep (for those interested, it’s Issue 117. You’ll know when)
– Scott “Cyclops” Summers; in one of his early, non-angst-riddled appearances (barring the bits where he ruminates over his recent possession by Apocalypse) where he kicks supreme amounts of ass
– Jean Grey-Summers/Summers-Grey/Phoenix/Dark Phoenix/Super Firebird Jesus; partial Team Mum and having to deal with Scott’s possession problems while also fending off the advances of…
– Emma “Carat-calves” Frost; one of the only survivors of the Genosha massacre and wearing the aforementioned cosplay outfit that looks like what might happen if one had an addiction to white duct tape.
– Wolverine; resident mutant poster boy and fourth member of the love square involving Scott, Jean and Emma. And, y’know, he’s got claws and shit.
The story follows this ragtag bunch of misfits and their associates as they deal with an uprising at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, a body-swapping alien-demon thing, a Zen mutant with a black hole in his head and a bunch of scientists with genetically-engineered mutant abominations that make the zombies from The Walking Dead look like supermodels.
Now, if you’ve never read any of Morrison’s run, keep two things in mind:
1. STAY THE HELL AWAY FROM SPOILERS. Most contemporary comics readers will know the colossal twist (and the plentiful amount of smaller ones) either through reading it or through word of mouth, but if you can help it, avoid all spoilers, wikis and any form of communication relating to them. I had the twist spoiled by an asshole member of the /co/ board on 4chan, but if you can make it to about the halfway point of Volume 3 without having it spoiled then you’re doing it right.
2. Be prepared for some weird. As I’ve described here, and here, and here, and also here, Morrison stories tend to make for very weird, counter-cultural reading. That said, his X-Men run is one of the most cohesive works I’ve read; it certainly doesn’t match Batman RIP or Final Crisis in terms of incomprehensibility at times, and yet it’s still a damn good read.
The story touches on various, pre-established areas of the X-series’ mythos while making parts its own, and it rarely loses focus or becomes tiresome for a story that spans the better part of three years of storytelling that came with its fair share of executive meddling. The unfortunate thing about reviewing it is that I can’t really tell much more than I already have, as the story relies heavily on its arc-based structure and any plot points brought up from further on may end up as spoilers for earlier bits. Plus, I found a lot of the story’s appeal to be the unexpected nature of a lot of the narrative’s twists and the inclusion of otherwise unexpected characters. I’ll end this bit by saying it is most definitely worth a look, and even though a large chunk of Morrison’s innovations to the title got retconned in later tales it still stands up on its own as a seminal X-Men classic.
While Morrison ended up changing the dynamic of pretty much the entirety of the X-family, geek god Joss Whedon chose by comparison to focus on changing the dynamic of a core group of several mutants we all know and love (as well as a couple we don’t) by providing a story that was exciting, shocking, saddening and very, very funny. So, in other words, classic Whedon.
The two runs are actually meant to be read in succession, being partly connected by overarching plot threads, and the fact that Whedon’s run takes place slightly outside the main flow of time in the X-Men books makes it a bit more accessible for those who don’t like heavy crossovers and losing the sense of narrative flow because they don’t have the additional six or seven ancillary titles (something that the current X-Men writers could well take on board). The story concerns the surviving members of the New X-Men team, alongside Kitty “Shadowcat” Pryde – a girl who you do not want going near your change rooms if you value your privacy – and Pietr “Colossus” Rasputin – a titan of steel recently returned from the dead who would be a spoiler if it wasn’t for his appearance on the title’s cover.
The plot is a bit leaner than Morrison’s epic, but is nonetheless incredibly engaging; the four big arcs Whedon deals with are all interconnected and also have their own standalone qualities, and all of the characters present feel necessary. The narrative begins with a so-called miracle cure to the mutant gene and spirals away from there (I’ll not go into too much detail to avoid more spoilers) and apart from one or two bits here and there it’s got a steady, consistent pace and some excellently trademark Whedon dialogue. It does feel quite a bit like Buffy meets the X-Men, but it doesn’t get tedious.
The only complaint I have, which doesn’t necessarily relate to the books themselves, is that the game-changing alterations they make to the X-verse have either been largely ignored or (most egregiously in Morrison’s case) retconned/re-altered back to status quo. Both stories’ endings were quite satisfying, and it makes me sad to know that in present-day X-adventures neither of them have seemed to have lasting impact the way Chris Claremont or Matt Fraction have. Sure, there are tiny slivers of Morrison and Whedon in contemporary X-DNA but on the whole their stellar, excellent runs have been largely neglected by Marvel’s X-bigwigs.
If I put X onto anything else in this review I may have to kill the alphabet.
Don’t let me dishearten you, though – the books are still very much worth reading, and if one decides to do what most people did with the latter two Matrix movies and treat the original as its own self-contained story then you’ve got a beginning, a middle and an end, and either separate or together the two arcs work crazy well not just as comic books but as English literature in general. I don’t know if the two authors ever met, but they were certainly on a similar wavelength if these stories are to believed.
It brings to mind an odd thought – what if Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon wrote the next X-Men movie together? Something tells me the universe would explode in awesome if –