The X-Men & Me: Reflections on a Metaphor
[Forewarning: This is purely a personal account and view of my own relationship to Marvel’s Mutantdom. It is not by any means intended to be an end-all-be-all perspective or an all-encompassing thing nor a ‘Here’s Why It Bad’ or any kind of harsh judgement. Take it purely for what it is, which is as a reflection on a concept as it relates to personal interest.]
I’ve never been a big fan of The X-Men.
Well, actually, that’s not true.
I grew up with X-Men: Evolution, which was my introduction to the very concept of Marvel’s Mutants. I loved it. I immediately latched onto Scott Summers, and loved the conceit of these strange super-school kids. Being super young, I didn’t really ‘get’ what this was about, beyond the fact that it was aesthetically interesting. This guy shot out lasers! Nightcrawler could teleport about and was blue! Storm had the coolest costume! And despite not ‘understanding’ it much, I had fun with it. I had an emotional connection.
What followed was a mini-obsession for a hot second with The FoX-Men films, those first three, which I had the DVDs for. Again, I didn’t really ‘get’ what was going on in them at that very young age, except that I thought this stuff was cool-looking. Although I was confused by Cyclops and how he was handled/presented even then, in relation to Wolverine, as Evolution informed my perspective.
Simultaneously, I was also a huge fan of the classic 80’s Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, which aired via re-runs, and starred Iceman and Firestar, both of whom I loved.
But that’s about where it ends, as that second would pass and I’d put the mutants behind me, forever associating them with a very specific crystallized moment of youth. That was the moment and time they held importance. They were valuable then, but I’m also not the person they held that value to.
I’d try an episode I saw airing of Wolverine and The X-Men, and know immediately that there was no going back. Something had changed. What clicked easily for a kid with no expectations just did not anymore in the same way. But even at this point, I wasn’t really thinking about what The X-Men were or represented. They were still, by and large, a colorful crew of super-powered figures to this 11-12 year old kid.
It certainly didn’t help that I wasn’t inducted into the tribe of The Superhero Comics Readership in my youth. I imagine I may have been if they were more readily available to me, but the best I could find was one really old issue of Marvel Knights Daredevil, written by Chuck Dixon (oof, I know), drawn by Ed Barreto, and edited by Joe Quesada. So that one aside, I just never read superhero comics until I hit the age of 16 and could grab trades. Which, I do reckon is quite late, as far as these things go. Manga got a hold of me way early instead, as I have Beyblade manga volumes going back to the age of 8.
I read manga voraciously, devouring volume after volume, chapter by chapter, from absolute trash romance comics to low-key slice of life comics to bombastic action epics, you name it. The superhero was never necessary to me as anything beyond an object on my TV and Film screen. The superhero was merch, and maybe a game, but hardly a comic to me then. So I never read X-Men, the books never got their hooks in me. I wasn’t a kid who read New X-Men, New Mutants, Excalibur, Uncanny, Astonishing, X-Factor, X-Statix, or what have you. I had more takes on Kimi No Todoke and Skip Beat! than I did The X-Men.
And that’s not necessarily a barrier to getting into it, or anything, much later in life. Plenty do. Hell, I have friends in my age group who only got into X-Men around House Of X/Powers Of X, having never really read much X-Men or been into it a ton.
So this was all on my mind as I thought about HoXPoX recently, and found that I was still unmoved. It’s good work! It’s competently put together, carefully crafted with great detail, produced with, clearly, a lot of love and care. I liked it, it was certainly a big improvement to most X-Men comics I’d read before, and one that had actual ambitions in ways I find most of these tend not to. It was a swing, for X-Stuff at least. And I respect that. But all I could muster was a ‘Fine’, as my fingers tapped away in anticipation, waiting for the new volume of Black Monday Murders, the Decorum HC, and the inevitable Frontier release from Jonathan Hickman.
But also, this disinterest or, perhaps more rightly, unmoving apathy towards X-Men is not one I can, or ever will, lay on HoXPoX, or its succeeding line which is running at the moment. It’s much more deep-seated.
I recall reading New X-Men, by the person perhaps most primed to sell me on anything, the person whose work first sold me on the idea of superhero comics as being worth diving into, Grant Morrison. I read their work, and while it had some terrific re-designs (those jackets!!), some incredibly cool ideas and concepts, I still came away feeling…empty. I appreciated what Grant and their collaborators were attempting, and while I thought it was poorer Morrison work, I could see it was also clearly important work for the mutantdom in their history, in the long run.
But nevertheless, the one person who maybe could’ve sold me on this X-Business just never did, despite Diabolik-pastiches, JLA-as-Cops throwaway ideas, and weird, trippy, and cool telepathic issues done with great formal awareness and boldness.
I looked at all this and wondered “Why is that?” Truth be told, I’ve never particularly been in love with The Marvel Universe. Perhaps that had something to do with it? But still, I loved plenty of things in The Marvel Universe, including Black Panthers, Doctor Stranges, Marvel Boys, and more. And what I didn’t, I could clearly articulate as to why. I could express precisely why I couldn’t click or connect with a thing, at least in the ways it had been done previously (I’m open to anything done differently, as ever). But with X-Men? As I read issue after issue of this enterprise, and was surrounded by legions of pals and peers who were all so in-love with this, I was always confused.
I could never quite pin down why it wasn’t working for me. I could not properly explain it to anyone who asked ‘What isn’t working for you? What isn’t clicking?’ I just didn’t know! I didn’t understand it.
But this month, a light-bulb went off in my head, and suddenly, I did.
The Moment Of Understanding
I was seeing a lot of discussion on the new HiX-Men era, as tends to be the case. And, much like it’s been said since the start, and even I’ve said it many times prior, I saw it said that this Hickman era was the true, proper successor to the work Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely did. And certainly, even Grant Morrison has acknowledged that tie, saying, from their understanding, Hickman (who was invited to and a panelist at MorrisonCon) was finally picking up on and running with notions they and Quitely had talked about and come up with while doing the book.
But a part of my brain was unconvinced in that particular moment, as I was seeing that Morrison Successor sentiment expressed. ‘Hah, I think not.’ it said. And I was struck by that. I wondered why I had that thought and response, which I’d never had before.
I began to think about the very idea of succeeding Morrison’s New X-Men, and what that is, what that meant, at least to me, and finally got some clarity.
Certainly, Hickman’s era is indisputably the successor to Morrison’s era. It checks all the requirements. It’s got Big Ideas. It does the most Morrison Thing you could possibly do: You take something and make it completely your own, like you own it. To be Morrison is to be akin to any great creative, whether it be Moore or Kirby, as in, you do something totally new and different. And that’s precisely what Jonathan Hickman did. He did something new, while taking ideas from what had come before (note ‘Chimeras,’ a throwaway idea in Morrison/Silvestri’s Here Comes Tomorrow, becoming a crucial element) and he pushed everything forward from where it had been. And even better, he built a very commercially successful line with queer voices getting a lot of say, supporting them, having their back, and using his reputation to build a healthier, better Marvel and superhero space in which he had curation power.
That’s a tremendous success. I have nothing but incredible respect and admiration for that, and that’s a hell of a feat.
But still, I realized, for all its beauty and practical majesty in uplifting queer voices, which matters infinitely more than any fictional anything, creatively speaking it was not the successor to Morrison that I thought was needed, or arguably most interesting. Or at least, it wasn’t the one that I was interested in. And that’s totally, completely fine, because like I said, this isn’t about levying any kind of harsh judgement, it’s about unpacking a personal account. That the era has already done what it has, accomplished what it has, is worth celebrating. Its success is deserved and completely understandable. But I also wanna talk about why X-Men, which includes this era, still doesn’t quite resonate for me.
The mutants of Marvel have long been positioned as a metaphor for the marginalized. The Mutant Metaphor they call it, as it can acquire any lens from Queer perspectives to Racial ones. The mutants are a metaphor for the oppressed, a people under the heel of a horrific world and its systemic cruelties.
On paper, in very broad terms, marginalization, oppression, whether it be through a queer lens or a racial one (or, ideally, both!) in the context of superhero fiction is fascinating to me. It’s a subject matter I am deeply into and intrigued by. I’m primed to love it. But everytime I do actually read an X-Men book, I never do. It’s never what I hope for or want from them, which, fair enough, is on me. But still: What do I want?
The understanding of why something doesn’t work for you means, by sheer implication, understanding how it might, how it does, a clarification and a greater sense of one’s own interests. A while ago, a peer and a pal very kindly said that they’d be interested in seeing me write X-Men. I was horrified at the very prospect, for I had never even thought of such a thing, and still do not want to in the slightest. I told them they absolutely did not want to see me do The X-Men, especially given I have no love for them, and that it is best that people who cared for them did them. But they insisted that it is precisely because I do not care for them, and would be forced to find a way to do so, and resolve the issue in some capacity, that my perspective might be interesting.
I don’t know how I feel about that, though I absolutely continue to have zero interest in writing Big Two stuff, but a part of my brain did go ‘Okay, what WOULD I do? Do I have any sense of that?’ And truly, I didn’t. My mind was blank.
Until I cracked my problem this month, as I realized why I could not connect to this mutant metaphor as it had been done, and thus, in so doing, also how I maybe potentially could connect to it.
A People Beyond The Pain
Say you’re a mutant in the Marvel Universe. What do you know of your people? Beyond the fact that there are various groups of paramilitary forces going about, with the most prominent being dubbed ‘The X-Men?’
What are the mutants in the context of the Marvel Universe, beyond their oppression, beyond all the headlines, propaganda, news and facts about their deaths, torture, and pain?
What is Mutant History in the Marvel Universe? Because that’s the thing about the marginalized, yeah? History matters. We scour history, we try to better understand it, to better understand our place, who we were, who we still are, despite the pain, the trauma, the tragedy, the terror inflicted upon us by our oppressors.
Now, this is tricky, as in many cases history is warped, covered up, lost, and re-written. As certain narratives are pushed, others erased, and the victors get to determine what lasts. This is particularly true of, say, Queer History, as so much was lost, as generations were taken from us, and so much of how we view our pasts has been actively shaped by perspectives that would prefer queer people didn’t exist. But amidst all of that, truth does exist.
And when I look at The Marvel Universe, and its mutants, I never get a sense of its mutant history. There is, to me, never really a sense of a people, beyond vague sweeping gestures that are plot points and devices for trite superhero action stories full of bombast, or typical soap opera stuff. Apocalypse and his clan exist, and then we mostly jump to Namor in the early 20th century, and then we cut to Magneto and Charles Xavier. And amongst all of these players, what we have is a waging war of soap opera action. You have all these warriors, fighters or leaders and trainers of warriors and trainers, all caught up in superheroic tales of suspense. All of which is fine, I suppose, but I look at that, and I see no real interest in what I’m describing above. The Mutant History, which when I say that, I mean not as dull plot points such as ‘Namor submerged this place in 1930’s, thus making everyone hate mutants!!’ or some such thing.
No, no. I mean it differently.
The only value of metaphor is what it conveys. And often what the Mutant Metaphor is conveying is a tale and vision of the oppressed that is…almost entirely and actively about their oppression, pain, tragedy, and torture. It feels reflective of a history wherein the property was written, by and large, mostly Straight Cis White Men. A people defined by their death count in genocides, a people centered around a bunch of ‘Great Men’, from Magneto, Xavier, Apocalypse, to many more, who occupy the role of a ‘root’ as far as history goes and plays. It is Minority/Marginalization as largely an aesthetic component and almost a marketing gimmick to me, when I see this Corporate IP.
When your very history is defined by and known by and boiled down to your very oppression. When your past, or your idea of the past, is defined by that and little else.
To not know one’s own past, one’s own history, to have it presented in the warped fashion it usually is, that is very real, and potent, and is a reality for many. But that’s just it. That’s reality, that’s the reality perpetuated by the systems of the oppressors, who will actively snuff out, exclude, or re-write history to suit their ends and means. They write the narrative most convenient to them.
But when you’re creating art, when you’re doing art that is so clearly in the realm of the symbolic, which CLEARLY is also alternate history in some capacity, you can know the history of mutants, you can make it, and you can explore it, for you control the narrative here. You can give texture to a people. You can give them their humanity. You can grant it back to them.
But that isn’t really what I see in X-Books.
Perhaps that’s partly why I never fully bought into The Marvel Universe. For all the ‘World Outside Your Window’ spiels, this supposed reality rarely ever felt properly fleshed out and considered as textured alternate history? It by and large tends to lack even the most basic 101 history work that your average Fantasy or Sci-Fi novelist must do and put in for their original works, because they have nothing else to fallback on. They’re building this world and these characters, and it has to be convincing.
But comics, particularly American Corporate Superhero Comics of the Direct Market, don’t have these problems, as they are by and large catered to a niche, insular audience that just wants more of a thing they like, driven by familiarity and iconography. You’ll always sell the X-Books or Bat-books or what have you, there’s a guarantee there, and a conservatism there, and thus a ‘We don’t need to.’ It’s a space that allows for coasting and laziness or just plain lack of consideration.
What did the mutants accomplish in the history of The Marvel Universe? What is mutant history like, beyond these militaristic Great Men, that so much of it seems to hinge on?
What if you were a mutant painter in the 17th century? What kind of strange paintings, which only other mutants can see, did you make? What if there were safe, guarded telepathic networks and preserved history only telepathic mutants could access? What were past mutant communities like? What kind of languages did they create or make to communicate, and particularly to do so safely? What kind of food or cuisine did mutants come up with? What is the Marvel universe mutant equivalent of Polari? What myths did mutants conjure up for themselves, going back ages? What are the historic mutant conceptions of cosmology and cosmogony? What all did they agree on, and disagree on? What was mutant music of the past like, perhaps sung on certain frequencies only other mutants could catch? What is their art, their dance, their culture, the very backbone of any people?
What are the things, the very basic things, the fundamental acknowledgements that say ‘Here were people. They lived?’ These are the things people come up with when they live. When they love. When they aren’t tortured, hate crimed, murdered, genocided, and more.
And yet, that latter is what so much of what that mutant metaphor seems to be a tool for. A people defined by their oppression, not by their humanity. A people defined by their death and torture, not by their art, their cuisine, their music, their dance, their myths, their religions, their culture.
It strikes me as a fundamental inability and failure of imagination, by and large. It strikes me as an interest in writing about obscure X-continuity over properly considered meaning given metaphors in play. And none of what I am saying, I don’t think, is revelatory and revolutionary. It’s all pretty basic. This is the kind of fundamental worldbuilding any self-proclaimed ambitious genre writer would attempt. I consider it basic 101 stuff.
But as I look at this Krakoan era, I see a nation formed, and yet it is one where nobody even went “Wait, we don’t even have a flag!”.
It is an era of worldbuilding wherein Trinary is used to make a joke about Apocalypse’s mutant name being hard to pronounce, while not a single person in that X-Office ever sat down and went ‘Wait, she doesn’t even have a name. Shit,’ despite using her in books.
If you’re wincing, well, yeah, that’s about how I feel. Obviously, a lot of what I am saying is fundamentally driven and coming from, first and foremost, a Racial lens on the metaphor in question, to be sure, above all else. But I think it is useful to think about.
It’s why the whole notion of ‘Oh we have a language now.’ in the form of Krakoan, which basically amounts to a cheap YA novel cypher code nicked from ancient Legion Of Super-Heroes comics, feels laughable to me. I just go “You mean to tell me these are a people who’ve been around for ages, and yet this is THE FIRST TIME they have ever created a language among them?” It feels ridiculous, and I find it ludicrous. Really? Is this truly the best we can do when approaching world-building, particularly language, with supposed ambitions? Is this really the extent of our imagination?
There’s an indivorcible sense of White imagination here for me, in that X-Men is often positioned as a representation of The Other, and here the notion of ‘We made a language’ is played as a revolutionary Big Idea, but I can’t help but find its framing and approach (given the nature of that ‘language’ here) quite silly. There’s a sense of ‘Look at The Other, they have a language and will finally develop culture now!’, and that as wild, previously unconceived, progress without any sense of that people beyond this point and moment in history.
It’s more concerned with comic book continuity than real meaning and considered world-building.
Certainly, the Krakoa era is a marked improvement over most X-men things, as it completely eliminates Death all together, and frees a people from being defined by it. It attempts to take them into a more strange sci-fi realm, with a governmental structure and a ruling body in The Quiet Council, there’s even maps of their islands and settlements, and there’s even a ritualistic system around resurrections, and even plans of mutant religion. There is finally some room to dig into Mutant Culture and what that might mean and entail, and now mutants are defined by not their murder, but by their life-changing super-medicine that goes out all around the world, by their strange organic architecture of portals that lead to their magnificent isle.
It is progress and forward momentum, as even the whole ‘superhero/supervillain’ binary has been set aside, as mutants are now one people. The threat is now A.I. for an age of Roko’s Basilisk, the humanity that summons it, and the post-humanity that might summon, all tied up with ideas of ascension and The Collective via The Phalanx. Even the additions and expansions with Apocalypse’s clan are a solid way to add to the past of the mutants. The latter, especially, as a way to give some sense of ‘prior’ mutanthood beyond just Apocalypse himself, with The Second Generation Of Mutants, what that entailed, and to give a sort of ‘mythos’ to Mutantkind, the kind of legendary tales you’d orally pass down to children, that’s a marked improvement compared to where mutants were prior.
But ‘better’ as it is, we’re still nowhere near close, I don’t think. We can still go much, much further. We can yet do better. I can absolutely see the value, and acknowledge the potency, of the above and how these comics might appeal to folks, especially as X-Fans or superhero readership. But it all still strikes me as still too basic, relative to where we could be. Much like the Krakoan itself, I find it lacking. Even the expansions via Arakko still largely center on The Warriors, and all we get is given via an action-focused framing. There’s limits here, given this is all retroactive continuity in a big blockbuster crossover event comic. But also past that, there’s a shallowness I can’t help but shake.
The overwhelming Whiteness of the line by and large (Vita Ayala, the one BIPOC voice writing a book on the line at the moment, continues to do some of the best work on said line, and I remain tremendously excited for Victor LaValle’s work in the line) is one I suspect I need not get into much, for its problems are evident. In the end, I’d love to see something as aesthetically distinct, stylish and layered in its conception of numerous cultures and their development across generations, in a sci-fi worldbuilding context, as N. K Jemisin and Jamal Campbell’s Far Sector. And I haven’t quite seen such a thing in the line, which is why I’m disappointed.
But really, why are we taking this Big Idea, this grand metaphor for the marginalized and the oppressed, and an entire people built around such a notion, and why are we not exploring who they actually were? Who were these people before their oppression? What did the mutants accomplish and invent in the fabric and history of The Marvel Universe? Why are we not doing wild, fascinating alternate history worldbuilding here with great texture? It feels like perhaps the one big key lesson to take from Watchmen, and yet so few do. The worldbuilding often done in Big Two Superhero comics is strangely poor, by and large, I find, at least for my taste. Why are we swimming in pure vagueness, and not digging into specifics? If you want your fictional race to feel real, and the world they live in to feel real, you’re gonna have to put in the work. You’re gonna have to get in the dirt and dig up the details to imbue it with life and create something special.
You can almost see the kind of work I’m describing, a tapestry that traces and encompasses the existence, the lives, the very acknowledgement of their presence, their lives, their very identities, their varied set of ideas and beliefs, which are not monolithic, all captured in a psychochronography. Little stories that weave together a much larger story. A large outline and shape formed by tracing around it. A people in the shadows, lit up by all that they have accomplished and imagined and done for centuries. A people of wonder, beauty, and life, above all else. Divorced from power-sets, plot points, master-plans of ruling the world/saving the world and all that, just people…who lived, and the varied ways in which they did so.
The typical conclusion in response to this notion, the idea that mutants are The Children Of The Atom, who only arrive and emerge collectively in notable numbers, is understandable. Wherein that notion fails for me however is I have yet to truly read any X-men work of meaningful, potent science fiction that framed them as deeply tied to that post-Atomic landscape, and contextualized them as fundamentally rooted in that context and moment. The mutants have not read to me as bound to that Children Of The Atom conceit in the actual works I’ve read, and it feels more like a neat tagline and a reading that orbits them without being drilled down as Essential. I’d love to read a proper sci-fi text with the mutants that really made that truly central to The X-Men! But as is, in practice, that notion just feels to me as another way to avoid doing work like the above, or telling stories like the above.
But by and large, I suspect I am just less interested in The X-Men as a vehicle for the kinds of stories that are currently being told. I don’t really care about what Mister Sinister is plotting or what have you. I don’t care about Murder Baymax A.I’s imminent arrival, none of which I say as a dismissal or as absolute judgement on the work, but just as a personal feeling.
What I AM interested in however is the tales and lives of a people. A people beyond their oppression, and not just framed in THE NOW of the Krakoan era. No, I want to understand and get a sense of the mutant past.
I want to know what came of mutant imagination, of mutant lives lived, or what they envisioned and did, across the ages. I want to see these individual tales, like that of a teleporting Diner that only mutants can access, where amazing, original mutant cuisine dating back centuries is served. I want to see mutant texts of the 1500s and the people who wrote them. I want to see the paintings that muants made, which they could escape into, to build whole worlds and communities in. I want to know the people beyond their pain. I want all the pop and imaginative wonder and high concept shit, but I want it to serve the humanity and lives of a people. I want the metaphor to mean something beyond the militarists who engage in violence. I want to see Mutant Chefs, Mutant Historians, Mutants who aren’t Important.
That’s the kind of imaginative stuff that I want, and think should be there in X-Books, to interest me, and not as some off-kilter side book, but as a central thing.
Now, you might wonder why all that matters to me, or is of interest to me, and it’s simply this: When you have a conceit framed around The Other, and you expect BIPOC like me to accept the premise that they are akin to me, I think of one thing:
What does it mean to be a mutant in the Marvel universe?
For when you are framed as The Other, for when you are talked about in certain ways, and as are your people, when you see the rhetoric and bigotry and ideologies that look down upon your own, which are such clear products of a colonialist and imperialist mindset, the one thing you truly have? The one thing that keeps you going and strong, your one self-defense against all that inflicted pain, horror, hurt, and trauma? Your own sense of self, and that of your own people. Your understanding of your own people, your own culture, your own history, your arts, your beliefs, your stories, your cuisine, your food and rituals, your dance and music, the acknowledgements of your people’s existence and what all they did and imagined, before an oppressor came knocking to subjugate and rewrite their narratives. And also, even more importantly, how all that *endured*, how that survived, how that made it, and lived on, even if morphed, and fiercely kept going in the face of the oppressor and their monstrosity. How it changed and evolved, and how a people did, despite the horror cast upon on them. Their strength and dignity, not just their death.
It is life that preserves life, that grants grace, that frees you from your own shackles of self-loathing and hatred, and liberates you to truly live in a world that doesn’t cater to you or your people. That’s why it matters, at least to me. Without that, I find it hard to just blindly lose myself with any sort of pulp ideas or genre aesthetics and elements (SPACE! VAMPIRES!) that you put on it, or the bombastic fun (COSMIC CONFLICT!) you lay on top of it. Because here’s the thing: Those things are not unique to The X-Men. Plenty of other things do a lot of this stuff just as well, and I can get all those fun genre thrills from numerous other works just as well, without the baggage of all this, without a premise that inherently triggers your very nature and essence of identity, and presents its very narrow and specific, limited vision of it, historically speaking. To truly connect to them, the proper premise needs engagement in a meaningful capacity, at least on my end.
It’s why I ask for the kinds of works I do, and imagine something else.
But I also realize, as I say all this, it’ll never happen. They’ll never go for such things. It would all be deemed utterly unviable commercially.
People want Cyclops shooting lasers from The Punch Dimension and Wolverine going SNIKT and Nightcrawler going BAMF!, they don’t care about or particularly want The Psychochronography Of Mutantkind.
I know that. But it’s also why I sigh.
Re-Understanding New X-Men
Once I understood the above, and what I wanted (and yes, I realize that I’m basically giving away Free Ideas in this piece left and right, but who cares, I can always have more of ‘em, and I ain’t about to ever write X-Men) then a stark realization hit me.
I better understood Grant Morrison’s tenure on New X-Men in ways I previously had not, and gained a renewed appreciation for it. Mind you, I don’t think it’s better work than it previously was all of a sudden, as all the parts that are poor about it to me are still just as poor, and all the good bits just as good. But it did give me a perspective on it I previously never had. To illustrate what I mean properly though, we’ll return to the mutant metaphor.
I immediately realized this:
Perhaps the sheer burden of The Mutant Metaphor, The Metaphor For The Marginalized, owned and operated for perpetuity as Corpotate IP by a gigantic media corporation, written largely by Straight Cis White Folks, is too much. It is a weight that is perhaps too much to carry for such an enterprise, wherein the primary concerns are about Continuity and what have you, over anything else.
The burden of a thing like the metaphor, which can break so easily, which demands and asks so much, inherently, of its creators, in a space that isn’t designed for innovation for IP maintenance above all, is perhaps too much. You can’t exactly expect better. It’s a space much more about getting the product out, pushing it out regularly, and being in The Grind of putting out a regular thing month-in month-out, for which most people don’t make too much. It’s a ton of work and hassle that never pays half as well as Prose/TV/Film. Most of these people are doing multiple books at once just to stay afloat and make rent, living paycheck-to-check, whilst having to wrestle with editorial edicts and Behind-The-Scenes politics. Practically speaking, the realities of the situation don’t exactly benefit or help make the most incentivized environment for truly transgressive work unchecked.
The vision of What X-Men Could Be that I described above is much more viable as an Indie book of its own, using the backdrop and setting of a superhero backdrop to write about the culture of a people suppressed and oppressed, and how yet they still live, and have lived, for ages now, in beautiful, moving ways. It’s why I don’t think you’d get a comic like, say Tate Brombal, Gabriel Walta, Aditya Bidikar, and Jodie Bellaire’s BARBALIEN at the Big Two. It’s very much something Brombal and his collaborators could only truly do in the way they did with it as a creator-owned thing which Lemire just gave them a thumbs-up on.
It is free and restrained from all the baggage that comes with having to operate/navigate within the f***ed up and tiresome framework and politics that makes up Big Two comics. It’s a space wherein you best come in with Big Name White Folks to vouch for you/support you, if you’re someone who is marginalized. Otherwise it can be incredibly hard. Obviously that applies generally to the industry as well, beyond just those two companies, as even Barbalien requires Lemire, not Brombal alone, who pitched the story that ended up being made. But nevertheless, the Big Two systems aren’t the most conducive to open, free creation and expression for most, especially as many don’t get the privilege your Big Guns do. The ideal is to do certain things beyond that ecosystem.
But that just leaves the question: What to do with The X-Men then? And the moment I understood the burdens and expectations to be put on this Disney IP were perhaps a bit useless, I got why Morrison did what they did.
Grant Morrison very clearly shifted The Mutant Metaphor from a Racial or Queer one to that of The Mutants as The Children. They made it a generational epic, one of Humanity as The Parents and Mutants as The Children. And it became about generational divides, conflicts, as Morrison got really obsessed with The X-Men as a School. The costumes were moved away from superhero fare to yellow-black jackets which evoked letterman jackets and also made them seem akin to a Rescue Force, like cool firefighters or a movement, rather than Capital S Superheroes or a Militaristic team like The Authority or whatever.
Morrison made mutants who just looked odd, who went beyond The Beautiful Celebrity cast that the mutants could easily step into, and came up with your ‘everyday’ standard mutants who had some rubbish powers, too.
They even came up with ideas like Jumbo Carnation Mutant Fashion Designer, and the idea of Mutant Culture, playing with the ideas of culture/subculture, and how they interact. But also, for all that it did have those tiny bits, like Jumbo, who represents the most worthwhile and inspired notion by Morrison, it’s also a run wherein Jumbo exists solely to be hatecrimed, which really illustrates the problems of the whole work for me.
It’s intensely flawed, to be sure. The run’s baked in with a bunch of misogynistic elements, there’s the racist stuff, and the fucked up utilization/contextualization of Magneto with certain iconography and invocations. But through all that, as I return to it, I must also grant that it had bits that were genuinely inspired.
Realizing that perhaps this average superhero title wasn’t super well equipped to bear the burden it had been, they shifted its meaning to something completely different in their tenure, owning it. In that light, John Sublime, The Ancient Bacterial Entity that divides and is built around Evolution, makes a ton of sense. It’s a run about why we love and hate the generations before and after us. It’s a run about the new.
Now, obviously, when viewed from, say, a racial lens, when refitted into the more classical lens of the X-Men and their metaphor, some of the choices, like Sublime, can play as super f***ed in ways not likely intended, as the idea of someone like him taken from a generational conflict tale about parents/children into that of racial bigotry…is pretty poor. It plays as a ‘Racism is caused by this one creature, as opposed to being a systemic thing that is learned and maintained,’ not unlike Tom Taylor’s whole ‘We beat Racism’ undertones in X-Men: Red.
Stuff like the above is partly why New X-Men, while now considered a celebrated classic, will always retain controversy. Whether you accept its premise of the metaphor being shifted becomes a vital component in considering if this thing will do anything for you. Though obviously that isn’t the only determining factor, as I was willing to accept the shift, and even I came away thinking it was at best OK Morrison comics.
Ultimately, X-Men is at this point a Marvel IP, owned now by The Walt Disney Company, published in the notoriously regressive Direct Market space, one wherein C.B Cebulski is still Top Dog. Do I expect they will ever see the kind of weird, almost indie-esque psychochronography of mutantdom, especially not written by White folks, ideally, as viable? No, never.
But nevertheless, it’s probably my one answer to ‘What would I do?’ and ‘What is the one thing that may make me care?.’
X-Men, to me, is at its least interesting as a superhero title, and it doesn’t work as one, I don’t think. And that may sound like a vague sentence, given ‘superhero’ can be anything from Morrison’s Doom Patrol, Robinson’s Starman, Milligan’s Shade the Changing Man, and Moore’s Swamp Thing to the current DC YA books. It’s a broad umbrella term that’s less a definition and more a set of assigned expectations/conventions, and a sort of visual iconography we associate with things. But I hope you get what I mean when I say that first line. X-Men as hewing anywhere close to the typical, conventional ‘superhero’ book put out is a massive mistake, I think.
And certainly, Jonathan Hickman seems to agree and realize that. But I wish the actual work was…more than it is, in my eyes.
The promise of The Krakoa era, all that stuff you assumed, expected, or made up in your head and mind, all those notions you came up with on the fly, those are all likely more fulfilling than the actual end result itself, from my point of view.
I’m more interested in the Art Industry of Krakoa than I am of any kind of Mega-Brewing Plot. I’m asking for high concept work that asks questions like “What do the Mutant Arts look like?” for art and artforms are always defined by what we are able to do and grasp/sense, and when you introduce a superhuman component, what we’re able to do and grasp increases and changes drastically. So what comes of that? What does the Krakoan biome produce, beyond just the drugs used to hold the human world in line for the narrative/status quo to function? What kind of crops or produce do they have? What kind of dishes and cuisine do mutants conjure up from their unique produces? What is the very food of a people who are undying and have risen high? But alas, there’s little of that compared to the ongoing schemes of The Great Ones.
Certainly, notions like The Hellfire Gala, an ode to Mutant Fashion, is an absolute step in the right direction. But the actual comics that came of that/about that still feel like relatively typical superhero fare rather than anything genuinely boundary-pushing and strikingly unique. Perhaps that is the great achilles heel of this period, wherein the promise made of this era was comics that really pushed things and were bold and wild. But largely, they still do feel and read like standard X-fare than not. The ‘data pages’ as they’re called, which are meant to disrupt the standard floppy’s rhythm and make these books read like no others on the market in their usage don’t feel as purposeful in their usage as HoXPoX. The aesthetics, from the mixed-case lettering to the Muller design and data pages, all feel like they exist, and that the books do them, solely because HoXPoX did them, and they’re a means to signal consistency, a sense of pieces part of one larger whole.
But it doesn’t quite feel striking, as there’s a sense of obligation that accompanies their presence, and in practice it feels like an easy cosmetic shift, a new coat of paint, on a still fairly generic set of comics, compared to what they relatively could be, or were promised to be. It’s what I mean when I say all the things you imagined and assumed are more exciting than what you actually get.
Look at one David Aja cover of X-Corp, see the style, personality, flair and distinct aesthetics they all promise, and then flip open the interiors, and see how you get the precise opposite of that promise, as it’s all still largely standard stuff. Imagine a comic done entirely in the aesthetic those covers promise, which would be nothing like HoXPoX stylistically, with its own utterly unique lettering style, amongst other things. It’s a comic that just doesn’t exist.
These comics don’t feel like the cutting-edge things of the future, they’re largely still, like many X-books before them, at their best, decently standard superhero fare. Which, nothing necessarily wrong with that, I suppose, and all the more power to those it is working extremely well for, but I find myself…bored.
HoXPOX was promised as the blowing the doors off. But it has, for my money, become the limit and line which these books have still not been able to rise above or get past. Can I imagine or conceive of a current X-Book that abandons the aesthetics and stylistic evocations of HoXPoX, because that is just perhaps not the best way for it to tell its specific story? Personally speaking, no. It doesn’t yet feel like a space of bold innovation, but just another mode of recreation/evocation. The starting line still looms large as we still haven’t gotten an imaginative burst beyond it, which, as someone who wasn’t as in love with that starting line like most, I find to be a bummer. True innovation isn’t multiple people following in line with Hickman, seeing what he did as a height. It’s a legion coming up with their own clear aesthetics and utterly distinct looks and visions for their books, that are just as striking in their own right as HoXPoX. You want books that look at Hickman and grin in confidence, and say ‘Oh yeah? I can do something cooler, which is nothing like what you did. Watch me.’ We gotta be able to do better than books where worldbuilding for language amounts to easy English alphabet replacements.
And I realize in saying all of this, as I ask for all that I am, there’ll be some that go ‘But that’s not a story! That’s boring backstory. No one wants art history over Wolverine cutting up Sentinels!’. And to them I say: You’re allowed to have that take, and I’m more than happy to disagree with it, because all I’m saying is superhero comics could use less of Chris Claremont recreation, and more Blue Period, Tillie Walden, Zoe Thorogood, and Juni Ba. Intimate tales of lives lived, of art, of history, of culture, which aren’t just built around the done-to-death basic shit we’re all deep down tired of.
Comics that use the iconography, the visual language and backdrop of superhero fiction to tell and do radically different things, and different stories. Stuff that you could only do while being set in these big worlds, and exploit the power of that, while not being just any generic thing. Not just ‘Cyclops learnt history, and he was sad: The Issue’ (though that could be great in the right hands, execution trumps all!) but so much more than just that. I’m asking for stuff that broadens the kinds of stories we tell with these ideas and people. Stuff that gives greater texture of reality and life to these fictional characters and their people. What I want is stuff that speaks to the reality of the marginalized in potent ways through metaphor. If these folks are the superpowered stand-ins for people like me, I’d like to see some spice and flavor here that lives up to the imaginary potential that the concept is clearly begging for.