Wednesday, December 7, 2011

"New X-Men" Volume 1 by Grant Morrison et al

Grant Morrison's controversial X-Men run begins with this volume, which I was recently afforded as a birthday present by m'colleague Kruger (thanks dude). It's not just a controversial comic, of course. Morrison's a controversial writer. He's divisive, and some people utterly despise his work as much as others revere it. I'm lucky enough to be in the middle ground. I think Morrison has delusions of grandeur to which he's not entirely entitled but at the same time I do find some of his work pretty enjoyable. Batman R.I.P., for instance, was a fairly innovative and intriguing Batman comic but a lot of it was Morrison running off the hype that Batman was going to die, which he actually didn't. He did at the end of Morrison's Final Crisis a short time later - actually no, he was just temporarily displaced in time. What I'm saying is that I think Morrison takes a bit of an inconsistent approach. He used his Animal Man run to bemoan the increased grittiness and "realism" of modern comics in the 80s, where people were confusing "realism" with violence and trauma, but at the same time he likes to inject a lot of his own works with intense violence, drug abuse, sexual deviancy, all this sort of exploitative stuff which wavers on the titillation scale between soap opera and snuff film. He likes to criticise Alan Moore for bringing darkness to comics but a lot of that he did himself.
Morrison, for instance, is the one who removed the X-Men from their amusing spandex costumes and derring-do and equipped them with black leather uniforms and stories of psychological abuse and grotesque violence, which is what we get in this X-Men run. He writes a good story, I'll give him that, but I think a lot of the stuff he purports to hate in modern comics he's either guilty of or had a hand in creating. He certainly doesn't approach it with the juvenile stupidity of Mark Millar or Frank Miller (these days) and his stories do approach unpleasantness from a more realistic angle than the degradation and perversity of something like The Dark Knight Strikes Again but I'm not convinced that he practices what he preaches.
Regardless, let's talk about X-Men. We're reduced to a small team in this series from the teeming numbers of mutants which were common in previous titles with a pretty textbook assemblage of Professor X, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Wolverine and Beast. They're joined by Emma Frost not too far into the story, and later by a mysterious figure called Xorn. But I'll get to that. Main antagonist du jour is psychic nutjob Cassandra Nova, who is apparently some kind of pre-natal psychic nemesis of Professor X given bodily form by his unusual mutant situation. She happens to be a genocidal maniac obsessed with destroying mutants for reasons which aren't readily apparent until we discover this "nemesis" aspect of her. She exists to try to destroy Charles' world.
With this in mind she swiftly sends a couple of big bastard mutant-hunting robot Sentinels to Genosha where Magneto is leading an isolationist mutant paradise. The Sentinels kill everybody with Emma as the only survivor. The X-Men seem to be in a pretty tight spot, so they go to Hong Kong for some reason I didn't quite understand and a bunch of human whackos start trying to harvest mutant organs and genetic material to make themselves into a "third species", calling themselves the "U-Men". It's interesting but don't expect anything too fun. It's heavy and contextual and trying to jump down the throats of as many discrimination, genetic engineering and human rights issues as possible. Oh, and Beast is a cat.
Beast's difficulties surrounding his physical changes are far from pleasant and it's a pretty confronting examination of the nature of extreme visual biological difference which is rather challenging if you're prepared to eschew the fun factor from your comics. It'd be tough being Beast; all the X-Men have to face problems, like Jean's Phoenix possession or Xavier's paraplegia but Beast is really out-there different and you can understand why he'd have more obvious social difficulties than the others, driven home when his date cancels on him. It can reach the point where he seems like a bit of a whipping boy but you can feel like he makes enough discoveries and has sufficient heroic moments that Morrison isn't just wailing on him.
One thing I will criticise is Frank Quitely's pencils, which occur in numerous issues. His characters are as ugly as hell and while it works for old guys like Xavier and ugly bastards like Wolverine, Cyclops often looks deformed with huge womanly lips and Jean and Emma, when they're not completely identical apart from hair colour, can end up looking like they're in their fifties. Some of the other artwork, however, such as that by the ever-reliable Ethan van Sciver, is very good. Much like Morrison's writing, the artwork is hit-and-miss.
Another criticism I'll make is that the plot is often difficult to follow. When action or a rapid progression of events take place often the comic jumps all over the place through settings and characters and the artwork doesn't help in making it any simpler to form some sense from what's going on. Insert bizarre alien characters like Empress Lilandra and it rapidly loses cohesion. The capture of Cyclops and Xorn, and their ensuing escape, the chaos Cassandra Nova causes in Lilandra's empire and the attacks the U-Men make on the school are all frantic set-pieces which often leave us to draw far too many of our own conclusions not in a thematic sense but rather in regards to what the hell is going on in the plot. I'm not saying it's incoherent but I think it could have been paced a little better. All these things give me the impression that Morrison's in the habit of having more ideas than he can actually get down on paper, and that maybe he prioritises his arguments over good storytelling at times.
None of this should be seen as a dismissal. The characterisation is good all 'round, and although I think writing out Professor X for so much of the plot weakened it a little, and that the "swapping minds with tbe bad guy" plot which caused this was awkwardly trite for such a self-proclaimed innovator as Morrison, it's a good read. If you're really after an unusual take on a very traditional super hero comic then New X-Men's definitely worth a look. Just don't expect a pleasant journey. Morrison, for all his protestations of Silver Age-adoration, is not interested in comics being fun. He wants them to be serious, and gruesome, and confonting. I can't blame him for that, because it's an interesting experiment, but in some ways I think he's missing the point. Perhaps he wants to challenge our preconceptions and entitlements about these characters but at the same time you can only do that so much before the inherently imaginary nature of, for instance, the X-Men makes any attempts at this kind of "gritty realism" seem increasingly absurd. At least he's given us the option, I suppose. Just don't necessarily expect to come away from it with a smile on your face. It's food for thought but it sure as hell doesn't taste good and that's part of the deal.
Oh, and I believe I was going to get back to Xorn. Well, I like him, and I'm led to believe that I may end up wishing that I didn't. We'll get to that once I've read the rest of Morrison's run...

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