Tuesday, June 15, 2010

One More Word About the Letter X

In response to your carefully considered responses to my last post regarding the X-Men franchise, I've come to realize that the X-Men we're talking about are really two different - separate if not entirely mutually exclusive - things. Many of you wrote eloquently and persuasively about the underlying metaphor behind the franchise, and how many creators - Grant Morrison in particularly - had managed to tell many interesting stories that involved foregrounding the minority metaphor and dealing with the ramifications of mutants as a significantly large and legitimate subspecies of humanity. Now, I would argue that while Morrison told a few good stories within his own framework, most of his series actually consisted of set-up for ideas that were picked up by later writers and artists. A lot has been said in the last few years about how many of Morrison's ideas were immediately abandoned or reversed once he left the company, but enough were kept that his impact on the series is still immense. It's important to remember that before Morrison Cyclops was hardly the central figure in the X-mythos up to that time - and after Morrison, the books have been all about Cylcops, his responsibilities and his personality. Morrison's decision to kill Jean Grey - a rare death that appears to be sticking, for the time being - was also useful in terms of moving the franchise past decades worth of congested continuity. All good, all different.

But I think that a solid case can be made that one of two things happened in the first part of the last decade: either Morrison misread the franchise or the writers responsible for carrying on in Morrison's wake misunderstood Morrison's run. I tend to think it's a little bit of both. I do think Morrison is still a very smart writer even if his execution these past few years has steadily deteriorated. He put a lot of thought into reimagining the X-Mythos for the new millennium and, at their best, his stories sing with a full complement both of new ideas and new wrinkles on old ideas. The problem is that, at least in part, these ideas took the franchise away from it's true core, which is that it was always just slightly less about creating a metaphor for minority representation than it was for crafting a metaphor for being a teenager. Morrison dismantled a large part of the edifice that Claremont and his various successors had spent decades building, and you can certainly argue that in the short term many good stories resulted, but in the long term it's become increasingly difficult to argue that the franchise hasn't floundered.

Let's approach the question from another angle: what was, historically, the most important factor in the X-Men's popularity? You get the buzzer if you answered anything but soap opera. Everybody loves to mock the 90s but the X-Men sold a lot of comic books during the decade - especially the early part of the decade - and many of the fans who loved the books loved them because they wanted to see if Rogue and Gambit would ever get together or would remain forever "star-crossed." If you go back and reread any representative chunk of the X-Books from the period roughly 1992-1996, you see that very little ever happened in any of the books, except that things kept threatening to happen and in between the flashes of events characters had passionate little affairs and episodes of heartbreak. Secondary and tertiary characters would only be considered viable if they could be spliced into the ongoing soap opera shenanigans. Many more romantic subplots fizzled than burned - remember Bishop and Storm as a couple? What about Cable and Storm? - but the constant churn of even unsuccessful romance was fuel for the franchise's engines.

This is what being a teenager is all about, broadly: you think you're part of a persecuted minority because you can't have what you want and you're constantly being shut down; but in actuality the perception of constant persecution creates an intensity of sensation that, combined with the unceasing surge of hormonal activity that occurs from puberty through young adulthood, makes the teenage years the most acutely felt period of one's life, for good or ill. The X-Men books were all about this, whether it was the hysterical sexual drama of Rogue's inability to be touched or the absurd masculine play-acting of surrogate father figures like Cable or Wolverine. Even the endlessly asinine machinations of all the shadowy supervillains who manipulated our heroes from afar can be seen as a metaphor for the frustrating half-cognizance of adolescence, filled as it is with the paranoid conviction that everyone around you knows more than you do and is plotting against you.

Marvel makes a big deal about how Spider-Man's marriage prematurely aged the character, and how the idea of a hypothetical divorce or widowerhood would even further distance him from his ideal demographic. Any but the most hopeless partisans have to acknowledge that there is some truth to this. But I would posit that they have unwittingly done the same thing with the X-Men. Morrison and later Whedon established the idea of a core group of X-Men - long tacitly acknowledged as Cyclops, Wolverine, the Beast, Jean Grey, and maybe a couple others (Colossus, when he returned, and Emma Frost as well) - responsible as leaders and from that point forward the crux of most of the drama. Now, obviously, anyone who read the books knew which characters were more popular than others, but for the first time the books themselves seemed to acknowledge that most of the rest of the franchise was window dressing arranged around a hard core of half-a-dozen marquee names. (A similar thing happened at DC around the same time, when heroes in the books themselves began to talk about whether or not they were "A" list or "B" list - see Ted Kord's internal monologue in the COuntdown to Infinite Crisis special for a good example of this.) Many of the less popular or less interesting characters were farmed out to secondary and tertiary books like X-Treme X-Men.

So suddenly the books are about a small group of older characters responsible for steering the fate of a large population of mutants. Whoa whoa whoa! Sounds pretty heady to me - where are all the younger characters, the readers' perspective characters, the budding romances and raging hormones? Still there, but shuffled off to manifestly less important books. Even the central interpersonal conflict of Morrison's run was older persons' romance: Cyclops cheating on his wife with another woman, and his wife in turn falling (temporarily, as it turned out) into the arms of an old flame. Nice drama, sure, but isn't the reason Spider-Man signed a deal with the devil to make sure his appeal remained eternally young? Cyclops is hardly Spider-Man and the character serves a different purpose. But the X-Men as a franchise is all about youth and dynamism, and suddenly all the stories were really not very youthful at all, not even in that really exaggerated hyper-serious way that 90s X-Men stories usually were. And as much as many fans liked the last decade's worth of stories, the books have fallen deeper into creative stasis - M-Day was an attempt to break the post-Morrison logjam (because, really, only a handful of writers working for Marvel at the time had either the interest or aptitude necessary to properly follow up on Morrison's ideas), but it failed because the result was to focus the books even more sharply on the minority metaphor, almost completely abjuring the conception of the franchise as a focal point for inchoate teenage angst.

Now you've got an unworkable status quo based on a rotating cast of dozens of characters who float in and out according to the needs of the plot, most of whom serve merely as colorful backdrop to the main action of the core team. Are there even any real interpersonal subplots in any of the books anymore? I mean, ones that get any substantial panel time? These types of character interactions aren't and should never be a distraction, they're the whole point of books like X-Men. What happened to all those readers who hung anxiously on every issue of the Gambit / Rogue romance? Maybe they're reading some of the tertiary books that occasionally touch on those types of issues, but the message has been loud and clear for some time that those aren't the types of stories that the X-Men franchise tells anymore.

If you were to ask me what I would do to fix the books if I had carte blanch to reshape the franchise as I saw fit, I would start by getting rid of almost all the supporting cast. Cut the cast down to maybe 7-8 main characters. Get them off the static environment of an isolated island or even a mansion, put them on the Blackbird and send them around the world fighting villains and questing for various MacGuffins. Make sure there's lots of sexual tension and plenty of characters who want to fuck each other but, for whatever reason, can't. it may not look a lot like the X-Men of the past decade and change, but it might just look a bit more like the same franchise that dominated the industry for over two decades, stretching from the tail end of Jimmy Carter right through the first part of George W. Bush. Basically, the X-Men need their own "Brand New Day."

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