Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Recommended Reading: X-Men Comics for People Who Don't Like X-Men Comics

So you caught X-Men: The Last Stand this weekend, loved it (or at least loved the fact that it wasn’t much worse than the first two X-Men films) and you’re a little bummed, seeing how this is the last installment of the franchise.

But then you remember that it’s based on a comic book series, and not just any comic book series, the most popular and best-selling comic book series of all time. Why, there are literally hundreds of X-Men adventures to be had on the printed page; more than enough to satiate your current feelings of affection for the mutants of the movies, right?

Eh, not exactly. Though the X-Men have been starring in comics for some 40 plus years now, most of those comics are…oh, what’s the word?…unreadable. But don’t worry; there are still plenty of Good X-Men Comics For People Who Don’t Like X-Men Comics. Or at least about a half-dozen.


Prolific storyteller Grant Morrison came onto the flagship X-Men title in 2001, renaming it New X-Menand radically reinventing the entire concept of the book.

No longer colorful superhero adventures with occasional undercurrents of P.C. social theory, the book itself mutated into a sci-fi pop treatise on the growing pains the world feels when the present becomes the future. It was as millennial in its tone and themes as the date on its covers.

Morrison rocketed through stories much faster than any of his artists could manage, and his original partner (and the new look’s designer) Frank Quitely gave way to Igor Kordey, Phil Jimenez, Chris Bachalo and Ethan Van Sciver (All are among the best in the business, though Bachalo and Kordey’s expressionistic styles clashed rather dramatically with the more representational aesthetic of the others).

Some of Morrison’s innovations were as obvious as they were innovative: If the mutants were always being likened to oppressed ethnic groups and minorities, then why not treat them like a real ethnic group, complete with mutant language, styles, culture and a “Mutant Town” in New York City?

Morrison also showed that mutation’s not always a good thing. The contradiction of the comics has always been that while the X-Men would piss and moan about being hated and feared, the reality of the situation was that 90-percent of mutants seemed to look just like really, really good looking human beings, with the added bonus of having superpowers. So in New X-Men, we began to see more freakish mutants: A child who looked like a senior citizen, a lumbering giant that resembled a mammoth fetus, a man with several faces, et cetera.

The Professor X/Magneto dynamic, addressed in the movies as if they were the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X of mutandom, respectively, became something far different. The professor was still a moderate, but also a cunning, manipulative master of modern, post-Nixon realpolitik, and Magneto, seemingly killed in a genocidal shock-and-awe attack against his home country, became an Osama bin Laden-like terrorist ultimately targeting New York City.

As for the X-Men themselves, the team is a small one, and hardly devoted to superhero-ing. Instead, their main role was that of teachers at Xavier’s school, and they served as elder statesmen to the new generation of mutants who, science is quite clear on, are destined to inherit the earth in just a few decades. They’re not superheroes or freaks so much as sneak previews of the people of the future.

Morrison’s take on the X-Men (which has since largely been undone by various Marvel writers and editors), has been collected into seven trade paperbacks. After Morrison left, the title New X-Men was continued, but shifted to focus on the students of Xavier’s.

Wolverine Watch: While Logan traditionally wears a spandex superhero costume that’s either blue and yellow or brown and gold and features a Batman-like mask the exact same shape as his hair, in New X-Men his “uniform” tends to be people clothes, with no mask. He rarely wears a shirt.


Not quite as heady as New X-Men, but much more reader-friendly was the first act of the Ultimate X-Men title, when it was still being written by Mark Millar. Anyone who enjoyed the movies and is looking to give the comic book X-Men a try should probably start here. In fact, the whole idea behind Marvel’s “Ultimate” line was to essentially start fresh with some of their more popular franchises, the very franchises that were being made into movies when the new line was launched.

Millar’s X-Men are like Morrison’s and the movies’ in that they don’t wear stupid costumes. And, like the movies, Millar essentially got to pick and choose what works and what doesn’t from the original comic books, using all of X-Men history as a laboratory, which he can cherry pick the best ideas from and remix them into something new and relevant.

Millar and artists Andy and Adam Kubert (Who drew a majority of Millar’s scripts) turned out a book that was essentially the paper, pen and ink equivalent of a blockbuster movie with an infinite budget and running time. No set piece that Millar could think of was too complicated in size or scope, seeing as how all it would take to create it is a dude drawing it, rather than millions in special effects.

Millar and the Kuberts’ run on Ultimate X-Men has been collected into six-volumes. The title is still ongoing today and sells well, but the quality went downhill quite quickly when Millar left.

Wolverine Watch: In this version of the X-Men story, Wolverine’s not just a badass, he’s a bad guy. Much older than the rest of the mutant teenagers who make up the team—this Logan fought in World War II with Captain America, though his memories of his past were wiped clean—he’s a contract killer in the employ of Magneto. While he begins to reform a bit, he’s still a little, um, psycho, banging Cyclops’ girlfriend Jean Grey and, later, leaving Cyke for dead in the middle of a mission (so he can bang her again). He doesn’t wear any sort of costume, and has the best hair of his career. On the downside, he also has a soul patch.


While Morrison’s version of the X-Men rocketed the comic to strange new heights, it was almost inevitable that stretching the original idea so far would only mean that it would eventually snap back and head in the opposite direction again.

The X-Men would return to their superhero roots, putting back on their goofy spandex costumes, saving random strangers from danger and fighting alien invaders and giant monsters. The storytelling even took on more standard superhero conventions, like characters long thought dead returning from the grave.

Luckily, Marvel found a writer who could sell all of this as something of a positive: Joss Whedon, a patron saint of geeks with a gift for dialogue. He even managed to explain the radical regression of the team from educators to superheroes rather elegantly. The world doesn’t like or trust anything that is weird, different and especially powerful—unless that something weird and different and powerful comes in the form of a superhero. So the X-Men would carry on their mission of educating mutant and humankind, with their superhero careers being Trojan Horses full of species relation-sermons.

Whedon played down the social aspects and paired down the focus on the school, shifting the worldview from the, um, world to the characters themselves and their soap opera-esque relationships.

Whedon was paired with artist John Cassady, probably the single best artist to ever draw the X-Men. His photorealistic style even made the colorful costumes look believable, and they were designed as a mixture of practical clothing (like the leathers of the films) and the team’s traditional hero uniforms.

Whedon and Cassady’s Astonishing X-Men has been collected into to trades so far. The title is still on-going under the pair, so there will likely be two more volumes in the next few years.

Wolverine Watch: Wolverine is finally forced to not only put his shirt back on, but also to year his old yellow and blue costume, now with tiger-stripes along the ribs. His name is “Wolverine,” so obviously he should dress like a…tiger? Whedon plays Logan for laughs pretty regularly, perhaps the most memorable example where we see each of the team members’ thoughts as they fight a giant monster, and Wolvie’s single thought cloud has a single word in it: Beer.


Perhaps the most controversial X-title ever, this series spun out of long-running title X-Force at the same time Morrison was reinventing the X-Men. Suffice it to say old X-Force were less than thrilled with the direction that writer Peter Milligan (known for his weird work for DC’s Vertigo line, like Shade The Changing Man, and The Enigma) and indie superstar artist Mike Allred (creator of Madman) took the title in.

Since Professor X failed to copyright the name, a software magnate snaps it up and attaches it to his own team of media-savvy mutants. They’re basically just mercenaries, but ones who are beloved by the public. An extended X-Men parody in the form of an X-Men comic, Milligan and Allred’sX-Force used mutantkind not as an allegory not for gays or blacks or fat, unpopular highschoolers, but for sports heroes and celebrities.

They had intentionally stupid names—U-Go-Girl, Phat, El Guapo, The Vivisector—and often quite stupid powers. And very, very short shelf lives. In fact, in the first issue, of Milligan and Allred’s tenure, 90% of the team is killed off.

Allred is the probably the perfect artist for a modern Marvel comic book, since his style, sense of design and the “acting” he does with his pencil to convey his characters’ emotions is so heavily informed by classic Marvel artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s, particularly Jack Kirby. Put simply, Allred’s books often look and feel like they’re the work of a bygone Marvel era, but with modern coloring and printing quality.

Their X-Force, which was later re-named X-Statix, was more than willing to go places other X-Men comics couldn’t or shouldn’t: Like when Tike Alicar, The Anarchist, complains about how hard it is being not only black, and not only a mutant, but a black mutant—it’s like being black when you’re already black, he says.

Unfortunately, what should have been a blaze of glory to go out on was changed late in the game, and the title ended up petering out.

Milligan planned on resurrecting Princess Diana, explaining that she was a mutant who’s power was to come back from the dead, and then have her join the team. Marvel and/or Milligan nixed the idea though, out of respect for Princess Di, and so instead the story arc ended up featuring a fictional British pop singer, Henrietta, which (obviously) didn’t feel quite so biting.

Milligan and Allred’s run has been collected into three volumes of X-Force, followed by four volume of X-Statix. Several of the main characters recently appeared in X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl, a five-part miniseries which just wrapped up and should be collected into a trade paperback shortly.

Wolverine Watch: While X-Force/X-Statix tended to occur in its own corner of the Marvel Universe, there were occasionally guest stars from more popular Marvel books, and no surprise that Wolverine was the first to, as he himself says on the cover, appear to boost sales. It’s revealed that Logan and mysterious X-Staix member Doop share a secret history together, and the two even teamed up in a two-part X-Statix spin-off miniseries, Wolverine/Doop, by Darwyn Cooke.


Not technically an X-Men tale, but still a story starring the most popular X-person. Mark Millar goes into budget-less blockbuster mode again here, and makes Logan into a sort of Hong Kong hero/superhero-sploitation/Samurai hybrid hero.

After a little boy is kidnapped and killed to lure Wolverine into a trap laid for him by an alliance of terror groups, he gets brainwashed into an unbeatable assassin they then sic on the rest of the Marvel Universe.

Millar pits Wolverine against the rest of Marvel’s franchises—The Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Daredevil, Elektra—like a little boy getting to smash his favorite action figures against one another. Oh, and in addition to fighting all of Marvel’s most popular heroes, Wolverine also fights a great white shark in one issue.

Once he finally gets his mind back, he realizes to win the day and avenge the little boy’s life, he’ll need to kill some 50,000 bad guys. He does. It’s big dumb fun, but its smartly done dumb fun.

The story ran through twelve issues of Wolverine’s solo title, and has since been collected into two volumes.

Wolverine Watch: This is Wolverine at his most Wolverine-iest.


When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced a team of five mutant teenagers—Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Iceman, Beast and Angel—and their wheelchair-bound mentor in 1963, the world did not exactly catch fire. After The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, The Might Thor, The Avengers, the Amazing Spider-Man, these new X-Men were something of also-rans. They failed to catch on, and the title would eventually be cancelled. The X-Men franchise would later be reborn under writer Chris Claremont, who introduced a new line-up featuring Storm, Nightcrawler and former Hulk-villain Wolverine.

Like most of Marvel’s Essential volumes, this is worth perusing for fans of the medium (At over 500 pages of comics for the price of a single graphic novel, it’s months of bathroom reading), but it can be a pretty tough slog if it’s your first try at reading old-school superhero comics. The art, presented in black and white, is still something of a treat though.

Wolverine Watch: You know why the X-Men failed to catch on way back in the early ‘60s, don’t you? That’s right—no Wolverine on the team.

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