Thursday, June 12, 2008

I've Been on an X-Men Kick Lately

which I think was inspired by the Grant Morrison kick I'd been on before, after meeting him in New York. I recently got the urge to read through the entirety of his New X-Men series... especially since I hadn't read a few of those arcs since they first came out... and then I realized that, since Whedon's Astonishing X-Men (essentially New X-Men's sequel) had just ended, now would be a good time to re-evaluate that, too. And then I thought, well shucks, I really like Mike Carey's X-Men too, and I've always grouped him in with the avant-garde writers of the last few X-years (based primarily on the strength of his Lucifer series which, yes, I really do like more than its parent Sandman). So it was that the past two weeks has seen me tackle three distinct, high-profile artistic runs of X-Men comics, and I thought I'd pass my impressions on to you. So...

Grant Morrison's New X-Men

July 2001. Looking to shake up their most popular team creatively and sales-wise, Marvel hires on superstar Scotsman Grant Morrison to begin an era of avant-garde X-books that appeal to more than just the usual fan of spandex-laden brawls.

Grant Morrison is my favorite writer. This much is probably clear if you read about my experiences in New York, scoped out the graphic that adorns the top of my blog, or just know me. So it is that I have an automatic positive bias when it comes to this guy's work. Some may say I tend to overvalue it.

And it's true, I do really like Morrison's take on the X-Men. Morrison is known for his crazy, mind-blowing concepts, and those are not in short supply here. This guy stretches the X-Men in ways that most would not imagine they could or should be stretched--going public, losing the costumes, becoming a real school, etc. And, to me, the Marvel Universe was better for it.

That said... I do not love Morrison's X-Men. At least not all of it. I don't think it is his strongest work, nor do I think it's the strongest take on the X-Men we've ever seen. Certainly a couple of the story arcs in here can lock horns for title of best X-stories ever... my personal vote would be for Riot at Xavier's, which takes the concept of the X-Mansion as a school to the highest level it's ever attained. And Morrison does a lot of stuff that's fantastic and, in retrospect, seems like it needed to be done, such as putting Emma Frost on the team, further devolving/evolving Beast (thus deepening an already fantastic character), and creating Cassandra Nova, who is surely one of the most badass X-villains of all.

But there are some problems here, too. Chief among them, I think, is that after the high-point that is Riot at Xavier's, momentum begins to falter. Murder at the Mansion is an okay story, but I really don't like Assault on Weapon Plus, and I feel that a diversion into a Logan-centric story really hurts the overall thrust of Morrison's work on the title. Planet X has some cool stuff in it but I find it a little garbled, and Here Comes Tomorrow... I don't know. I really don't like what Morrison was going for there, creating the "ultimate Bad" for the X-Men to face in Sublime. I guess it just didn't resonate with me. This may sound like a weird (or weirdly obvious) thing to say about Morrison, but it seemed like too much of a reach.

To sum up, I think pretty much every story up to and including Riot at Xavier's is perfect, and every story after that is a little on the weak side. Instead of building to an amazing end, I feel like Morrison's run climaxed early. And while it was still a great read, I don't think, as a whole, it is the definitive run in X-Men history.

Rating (out of five stars): * * * *

Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men

May 2004. Morrison ends his high-selling yet controversial run on one of Marvel's flagship books. Marvel needs to find a follow-up writer who will continue to bring the non-superhero appeal of Morrison, but at the same time salvage their super-hero team from some of those crazy ideas introduced in the past few years. Enter, of Buffy fame, Joss Whedon.

Before I dove into my X-project, my initial expectation was that I'd like Morrison's run a little more than I did, and Whedon's a fair deal less. I remember not being incredibly into Whedon's stuff past the first story arc, and as the series went on I definitely lost interest, probably due mostly to chronic lateness (it was not uncommon to go four months without a new issue, and the stories were very decompressed as it was). But reading them all in a couple sittings, I found myself really getting into most of Whedon's work. Basically... I think Astonishing X-Men starts and ends with two of the best stories in X-history. And then there's two stories in the middle.

Whedon's first arc, Gifted, is amazing. It focuses on the notion of a cure for mutancy, and it's easily the best iteration of a cure storyline that's ever been done. Similarly, Whedon's final arc, Unstoppable, just feels so excellent... for a crazy outer space story, it's incredibly human, and the climax is, I will say, very moving.

Whedon's other two stories, Dangerous and Torn, I am less impressed with. The villain of Dangerous (literally the Danger Room come to life) is a little silly, for one. Torn, on the other hand, has a great plot through-and-through (picking up on some major Morrison threads, in fact), but both of these stories share the major flaw of being paced very poorly. In each case there is far too much build-up and not nearly enough time for the action to resolve; this was especially infuriating at the end of Torn, when after six issues of waiting for something HUGE to happen we get about two and a half pages of semi-resolution before BAM! and the X-Men are whisked off into space.

But, as I said above, it is emotion where Whedon excels. His characters are so human that after reading an issue or two you feel like they're friends of yours. It is this emotion that carries on through the fairly lackluster second and third arcs and sets us up for the big, gut-wrenching finale of Unstoppable.

And Whedon's got another asset... the art of John Cassaday, whose incredibly realistic style compliments Whedon's emotional command fantastically (look at the way he draws those faces!). The art of Morrison's run was quite varied. Sometimes it was good (Igor Kordey did a fine job, and it's where I was first introduced to Ethan Van Sciver, one of my favorite artists in the medium) and sometimes it was so-so (I like Frank Quietly, but not on X-Men), but it was never consistent. Cassaday's pencils are just as much a part of Astonishing as Whedon's art, and the end result is that much better for it.

In the end Whedon's run, like Morrison's, falls short of perfection. I already mentioned the pacing problems in the middle stories. I also think that Gifted could have been the defining X-Men story were it not for one nagging problem--this arc is saturated in testosterone, which results in Wolverine brawling both Cyclops and Beast on school grounds with very little provocation. I was really hoping something would pop up in this story or the one following to explain this (maybe something to do with psychic backlash from a distraught Emma messing with the X-Men's minds?) but this was not the case. And, maybe it's a silly complaint, but those two scenes really did bother me... they seemed very out-of-character and out of place in an otherwise perfect story.

But despite it's problems, Whedon's work on X-Men certainly is magnificent, and simply because Whedon is more reader-friendly than Morrison, I think his run is a little closer to being the definite X-Men legacy.

Rating: * * * *

Mike Carey's X-Men (pre-Messiah Complex)

I'm not gonna give this run a fancy-pants introduction, because I am probably one of the only people in the world who would consider Mike Carey an avant-garde X-writer. Like I said, that's based solely on the fact that he wrote one of the coolest comic sagas I've ever read in Lucifer. But putting him on X-Men was not, to Marvel, like signing up Grant Morrison or Joss Whedon. And it certainly wasn't to fill Whedon's shoes, because all of these books came out concurrently with Whedon's (albeit on a monthly schedule). No, it shall be Warren Ellis who Marvel deems worthy of being the next "artsy" X-Men writer, and because I absolutely loathe Warren Ellis, I shall not stick around to find out how he compares to his priors.

And it may be that my placement of Carey among Morrison and Whedon is flawed. In fact, I'm pretty sure it is. This is despite the fact that obviously Carey is a big fan of the two, Morrison in particular--he does a lot with Morrisonian concepts and his style seems to me to kind of mimic that whole "crazy-in-media-res" thing Morrison has going on. Reading these issues the first time around, I was totally sure that Carey belonged in the Morrison/Whedon pantheon. But reading them again, in succession...

Well, there's a couple problems.

And now I'm going to backpedal like I'm running for office. I don't think the problems are, necessarily, Carey's fault.

Problem one, to me, is this: unlike Whedon and Morrison, he's been saddled with B, C, and D-list characters (this may be kind of circular reasoning, because I think Morrison and Whedon helped define the A-list, but still). I saw Carey give a talk at a bookstore once and he said that, like Morrison and Whedon, he got to pick his team. The problem is that he didn't get first pick--in fact I rather think he was last on the picking order, after Whedon himself and then Ed Brubaker, who for some reason is a superstar writer. So it is that Carey's X-Men are: Rogue, Iceman, Cannonball, Cable, Sabretooth, Mystique, Lady Mastermind, and Omega Sentinel. Morrison picking Emma for his team was inspired... Carey picking three point five bad guys not so much. Sure, he had a good reason for it (he explained as much at this talk), but still. Dude, you have precisely two major X-characters on your team, Iceman and Rogue, and their status is kind of questionable. The rest... blah. It's really hard to care about Cannonball when Beast, Emma, Kitty, Wolverine, Cyclops, and Colossus are in the next book over.

Problem two: Carey has been saddled with B, C, and D-quality artists. Sorry guys, but I do like Humberto Ramos or Chris Bachalo, whom Marvel has assigned to nearly all of Carey's issues. I find their art formless and overcrowded. The only issues of Carey's run I enjoyed looking at were the two not illustrated by these guys. In fact, the one pencilled by Mike Choi was beautiful. Coincidentally (or maybe not) it was also my favorite issue in Carey's run. Go figure.

So I think that Carey kind of got the shit end of the stick here. Weak characters and weak artists don't really help his book to compete with Joss Whedon and John Cassaday. Yet even for all that, there is some quality stuff here. Carey takes those two key characters he got and does amazing things with them--Iceman has never been so powerful, and there's no good explanation for that except that no one thought about his powers as much as Carey. Ditto Rogue, except the result of taking her powers to their logical conclusion is a little less happy for her. Carey created an excellent villain in Pan, a "Typhoid Mary in reverse" who infects himself with people's "diseases" (and/or powers) when he comes into contact with them. And, even though I ragged on Cannonball above, him and Iceman do make a really cool team, which Carey exploits to the fullest. In fact he gives his all into these characters and does some really great things with most of them. I just feel like, at the end of the day, doing great things with Lady Mastermind and Omega Sentinel as drawn by Ramos/Bachalo is not so compelling as I would have hoped.

Now, compared to any average X-book (like one by Chuck Austen, Peter Milligan, or Chris Claremont in the last 20 years) Carey's stuff is fantastic, yeah. But I am forced to conclude that, for reasons probably beyond his power, he is not the "spiritual successor" to Whedon/Morrison I hoped he'd be. Maybe his current work on X-Men Legacy will change that. Until then, I will happily re-read my Lucifer trades and be thrilled that such an awesome writer has made it to the mainstream, because even if his stuff isn't fantastic... dude, he's Mike Carey. He's the man.

Rating: * *

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