The Agony and the X-stasy


If you’ve been an X-Men comics fan in the last ten years, you’ve had to deal with some pretty crappy premises. Illogical… Ill-conceived… The good thing is: If you dove beneath the high-concepts, most of the actual storylines were pretty good. Let’s take a look at the ways X-Men writers shook up the status quo and created new drama for our favorite mutants.

In 2005, the powers-that-be at Marvel editorial decided that the world was filled with too many mutants. Mutant ghosts, reality-star mutants, sentient mutant viruses. There were probably less mutants in the world than there were Inuits, but Marvel editorial decided that being a mutant wasn’t ‘special’ any more. So the decision came down to cull the herd. The editors decided to do this with a magical event call ‘M-Day.’ On that day, 99% of the mutant population suddenly lose their powers.

‘Wow!’ you might say. “Which of my favorite X-Men lost their powers?” To which, my answer would be ‘Iceman and Magneto.”

That’s right. 99% of all mutants lose their powers, but only about 2% of the popular ones. And no  narrative explanation is ever offered as to why the more marketable mutants got to keep their power.

250px-X-Men_EndageredDecimation/Endangered Species
So, all the mutants you’ve never heard of lose their powers. And all the popular mutants lose their damn minds. Foremost on this list of crazies was Cyclops. You would think someone who has furious blasts of destruction coming out of his eyes AT ALL TIMES, would realize that losing one’s mutant powers might not be the worst thing in the world. But no.

Granted, a lot of the remaining powered mutants are ‘concentrated’ in ‘camps,’ by the U.S. government, supposedly for their own protection. Also, a bus-full of depowered mutants are bombed by a gang of anti-mutant terrorists.

But the crux of this era is focused on the idea of unborn mutant babies. Cyclops is fixated on the idea that no more babies will be born with dangerous, disfiguring mutations. He declares that mutants are now an endangered species, and that the X-Men need to hunker together and rectify this situation. Yes, after 40 years of Professor Xavier espousing the belief that mutants are just ordinary people who just happen to have extraordinary powers, Xavier’s star pupil now decides that mutants are a separate ‘species’ that has to protect and advance themselves BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY. OK, I get that the mutant ‘family’ might be more vulnerable than its ever been, and that they have to protect themselves. But why are they so concerned about making sure that future generations have mutants in them? The worst thing about this is that nearly every other mutant buys into it. It’s especially weird that Beast, the X-Mens’ most annoyingly sanctimonious member, buys into it too.

153_x_men__second_coming_1g_02Messiah Complex & X-Nation & Second Coming
Cyclops starts forming death-squads to take out anti-mutant terrorists. I don’t remember any scenes where the X-Men start taking prisoners and waterboarding them, but there are definite correlations between this era of X-Men comics and the era of the Bush Doctrine. I can’t decide if the writers intentionally created these parallels. ‘You’re either with us, or you’re against us.’ This is what Cyclops tells the rest of the ’superpowers’ of the Marvel Universe. Namely SHIELD and the Avengers. Probably not the greatest idea.

Also not a great idea? Taking all the people you want to protect and publicly sequestering them onto one small landmass that could be obliterated by a nuclear bomb or biological weapon. Also not the best PR decision? This new base used to be Magneto’s headquarters when he was in his world-domination phase.

Oh yeah, and then there’s this baby who’s born with mystically ill-defined mutant powers. Cable, a mutant from an ill-defined future, makes an ill-defined prophecy that this mutant will be the Messiah for mutant kind. Does anything ever come of this? I guess sorta. Like many long-running MacGuffin plots in the X-Men saga (‘The Twelve,’ ‘The X-Traitor,’ ‘The X-Ternals’), the Messiah  storyline slowly collapses under its own inertia of mysteriousness. The less spoken about Hope, the better. And yes, the baby-Messiah’s name is Hope. Cheese.

For generations, Professor X has called his X-Men students. He calls himself ‘Professor,’ after all! But at the same time he gives his students quasi-military uniforms to wear, he puts them through dangerous training exercises, and he occasionally sends them out to fight in life-or-death battles. So the X-Men are students, but they are also soldiers. Even the youngest among them. This dichotomy has been established for 40 years of comics. People have questioned it, but they’ve never really done anything about it. (Because, let’s be honest, reading 40 years of comics of kids in math class would be pretty boring.) That all changes once Cyclops becomes the mutant’s primary leader. Cyclops (who has always been prone to bouts of assholey-ness) goes 100% military and 0% mentor. Wolverine decides he doesn’t like this, and he splits, taking about half the world’s mutants with him. While Cyclops is holed up in his fortified island base, Wolverine and his friends start a new School for Gifted Youngsters.

I guess on its face, this premise makes sense. For decades, Cyclops and Wolverine have been the polar-opposite pivots of the X-Men family. And it’s cool to see Cyclops go from stick-up-his-butt do-gooder to rigid dictator. And Wolverine goes from roguish warrior to world-weary father-figure. But something about the execution, or the timing of the execution, didn’t entirely work for me. Maybe it’s that Wolverine doesn’t seem to acknowledge the fact that 13- or 14-year-olds have been fighting in X-Men comics for years. He himself gave Kitty Pryde some training to be a ninja. It also doesn’t help that Wolverine was one of Cyclops’ most X-Treme (crack open the Mountain Dew!) killers, just a year before this.

Avengers_vs._X-MenAvengers vs. X-Men
Okay, I have to mention Hope again. The X-men and the Avengers figure out that the Phoenix force is coming to Earth to find link up with Hope. The Phoenix is this amoral cosmic entity that possessed Cyclop’s girlfriend, Jean Grey. It made her blow up an alien planet and eventually kill herself. Despite all this, Cyclops is all for Hope and the Phoenix merging because, you know, unborn mutant babies. The Avengers are not keen on the idea because, you know, the possessing and the planet-exploding.

Cyclops turning to the Phoenix to fix the mutant genetics problem is a bit like Van Helsing deciding that he wants to Dracula to turn him so that he can treat Mina Harker’s high blood pressure. The logic doesn’t quite track. Still, Cyclops goes to war with the Avengers so that he can give this a try. The pros: It ends up working. The cons: Cyclops himself becomes possessed by the Phoenix (hmm, who could have seen that coming?). He takes over the world, and he kills Professor X. Cyclops is then defeated, and he’s viewed as one of the biggest villains on the planet.

Avengers_vs._X-Men_Vol_1_6_Textless2I think that X-Men and Avengers fans alike were frustrated by parts of this crossover, and the way the writers worked the characters into knots to wring out the most chop-busting conflict possible. Did Captain America and his team act as reasonably as they could? Probably not. Did Cyclops? Pfft, please. But it was pretty cool to see Phoenix-Cyclops re-create the world in his own image, with a really cool selection of characters as in inner circle.

One of the best things about the X-Men is that the plight of mutants (which at is, at its heart, is a metaphor of puberty and growing up to embrace differences) can be so easily portrayed as an allegory to other issues. Bullying. Racism, Religious intolerance. The struggle for civil rights. The second X-Man movie effectively compared its young heroes to gay teens coming out of the closet. In this era of ‘Cyclops the Reactionary Militant,’ several new parallels can be drawn. Already, we’ve seen similarities to Cyclops and the Bush era. Or some might compared Cyclops’ island HQ, a tiny nation beset on all sides by potential enemies, to Israel and its Mossad forces. Or maybe you’d rather compare Cyclops to a separatist militia-leader. Or he becomes the new ‘Malcolm X’ to Professor X’s MLK persona.

Or you could just say that Cyclops becomes Magneto. That’s basically the point. If you wanted to wrap up the ‘arc’ of X-Men for the last eight years: Cyclops becomes the new Magneto. Cyclops is now a militaristic, separatist anti-hero. And as this fact dawns on more and more of the X-Men, Cyclops loses more and more of his followers.

allnewxmenAll-New X-Men
Nobody hates Magneto-Cyclops more than Beast. The uber-annoyingly sanctimonious super-scientist decides to extract Cyclops’ younger self out of the past and show him to Evil-Cyclops, to show him how far he’s traveled down the super-villain path. It’s still unclear if this whole time-warp thing is more of a punishment to Older-Cyclops or to Younger-Cyclops. After all, Younger-Cyclops ends up stuck in a supposedly inevitable future, where everyone thinks he’s a jackass.In fact, all of the original X-Men (including Beast’s younger self) end up stuck in the present day—their future. Even Bill & Ted could tell you introducing your past-self to his future-self can create all kinds of time-warping paradoxes. Surely Beast considered this before he went all wobbly-wobbly timey-wimey? Not really.

Forget all us nerds screaming ‘Foul;’ the All-New X-Men premise leads to some pretty good moments. The premise is messy, and illogical, and just plain bat-sh*t crazy. But the young, original X-Men add a breath of fresh air, especially after so many years of doom and gloom.

Eventually, it’s sort of retconned that Beast suffered a nervous breakdown when he hatched his crazy paradox plan. So what happens when the younger X-Men learn everything about their future fates? Or when the younger Angel gets new cosmic wings, which the older never had? Or when the past-version of Ice-Man realizes he’s gay, while the current-version of Ice-Man apparently isn’t? Wibbly-wobbly. Fortunately for the time-space continuum (and unfortunately for those of us enjoying the stories), all of these concerns are rendered moot by the ‘Secret Wars’ mega-event, which is ripping apart the Marvel Universe and rearranging the timeline anyway.

Because of Secret Wars, this tumultuous era of Magneto-Cyclops is closing with a whimper rather than a bang. (A corporate fight over film rights might also be a factor.) In fact, the last issue of the Cyclops era, Uncanny X-Men #600, has been delayed for about six months, to be released as Secret Wars is drawing to a close.

Overall, it’s been a wild ride, at turns fascinating and frustrating. One complaint that’s often leveled against super-hero comic is that nothing ever really changes. No one can say that’s the case with the X-Men for the last ten years.

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