State of the X-Books

Or, given that the man who will be responsible for much of the changes in the books in the coming year, maybe that should be "countries of the X-Books." Another shake-up is coming for the beleaguered, and yet still best selling, X-Men franchise titles. It's been one of the hot topics of comics news online, and one of the big areas of conversation on Usenet and Marvel themed mailing lists and message boards. Because the X-Men are something that many fans have a love-hate relationship with.

There are a lot of people who got into comics, or at least Marvel comics, through the X-Men or one of their related titles. One of my first Marvel super-hero comics was Uncanny X-Men #195, and my wife first got into comics heavily reading the Age of Apocalypse crossover. Any number of fans read X-Men and their related titles and not much else. You can't blame them, either. Reading all the X-titles is a major commitment of funds and time. Especially if you try to pick up all the limited series that they put out. Which I wouldn't recommend, in general. No one needs to be exposed to that kind of half thought-out drivel on a regular basis.

At any rate, the X-books have suffered their fair share of upheaval in their time. They were at their height when Claremont was writing, long before there were any spin-offs other than the New Mutants or X-Factor. Ever since then, there have been varying degrees of quality. Sometimes good, sometimes even great, usually a mix of mediocre and awful. Today, we have a lot of spin-offs that never should have existed (X-Man comes to mind) and some that are just painful because they've gone on too long (again, X-Man comes to mind).

Add to this that the latest saviors of the X-Men titles were Steve Seagle and Joe Kelly, two very good writers who were driven off by a writing structure that basically required them to play clean-up to editorial plots. Those plots got worse and worse after they actually left, and while they've recovered a little recently with the help of Alan Davis, they're still not at the level they once reached. The spin-off books are mostly in a bad state as well, aside from a few bright spots like Faerber's Generation X or the tangentially related solo books like Nicieza's Gambit.

So it is that we've reached a time of change. Claremont is making his grand return to the books, and in a move that legitimately surprised a set of fandom that nobody thought could be surprised anymore, Warren Ellis is being brought in to streamline the spin-off books. With him he brings outside talent who either have never worked on an X-Book or certainly haven't for a long time.

Claremont has not been impressive of late. Heroes Reborn: Doomsday was good, but just about everything else he's written is horrendously over-dialogued and features awful characterization. The question is, are those weaknesses in his writing in general, or is it just that he can only write the X-Men so well? My guess is that his writing style has not aged well, and his return to X-Men is going to disappoint a lot of people. My hope is that I'm wrong, and he'll give us the X-Men of a quality level we haven't seen since...well, since he last wrote the titles.

Meanwhile, Warren Ellis has taken on the Herculean task of revamping the ass end of the X-Books line. X-Man is a pox, a bad character who should never have gone beyond his limited shelf-life on Age of Apocalypse. Ironically, he's also the one I'm most interested in, with Ellis throwing phrases around like "21rst century techno-shaman" and attaching Steven Grant and Ariel Olivetti to the project. Understand, if most any other writer were to throw out an obvious catchphrase like the one above, I'd laugh and expect the same old thing. But Ellis has shown the ability to deliver on his mad promises, such as "widescreen comics" with Authority or any number of promises he's made (and then delivered on) with Transmetropolitan. Grant has been hit or miss with me, doing fantastic stuff like Damned or Challengers of the Unknown or the first Punisher mini-series and then turning around and doing other, less impressive stuff like Dark Horse's Out for Blood or Chaos's Stone Cold Steve Austin (which, to be fair, was much better than it should have been, given what he had to work with.) And Olivetti is the same, blowing me away on JLA: Paradise Lost and blowing chunks on Kingdom #1. I'm cautiously optimistic about this one, because despite hating the concept, it's a nice combination of talent to try and take a basically ill-defined concept and make it their own.

X-Force was, for a while, the best X-Book, but after Pollina left, the artwork took a nose dive, and strangely, the writing went with it. It's gone from being an interesting blend of twenty-something angst, super-heroics and nostalgia for New Mutants fans to just another mindless action/convoluted unbelievable plot book. Whilce Portacio on art should be interesting, although I have to wonder who they'll get for the second issue (this is the same curiosity I had when Travis Charest was announced as regular penciller on Wildcats... some artists just cannot work on deadlines... although I'd be happy to be proven wrong by Portacio). And Ian Edginton, while not someone I'd follow blindly on to something, has turned in some stories I liked. I was particularly pleased by his contributions to Seeker 3000, a Marvel mini-series that I think three other people read besides me. Basically, I like these characters and I'm curious, but I think it stands the most chance of needing a "re-tooling" before Ellis is done.

Generation X is another matter. I had zero interest in this book until Jay Faerber came on and changed my mind. He made a book that had degenerated into sludge, the worst kind of tripe (yes, worse than X-Man) and made it a fun book about young teen mutants. Sure, it wasn't perfect, but as Faerber got more and more writing experience, the book kept improving, and the fact that it was yanked from him is the greatest travesty in all of this. In fact, it's the only travesty, because the rest of these creative changes are undeniably for the better.

Is Generation X? To my mind, no. We don't know who the artist is yet (and I wouldn't want to be the Marvel guy who released this info before that was known, because I'm fairly sure Ellis wanted to hold off until everything was in place), and Brian Wood, while undeniably talented, is not someone whose work I have much enjoyed so far. He's an interesting choice, an indy self-publisher whose work is the farthest thing from super-heroes, and he's the last person I would have expected to even be interested in writing them, so I'm willing to grant the benefit of the doubt on this one. But as it is now, this one stands the most likely chance of going on my own personal "don't pay attention to it" list again.

At any rate, any time there are shake-ups, there tends to be a lot of fan bitching and moaning. (And I thought I'd get in on that. Wait, no, that's not my point.) But the X-Books have been stagnant for a long time. It was time to shake them up, and this nice blend of tradition (bringing Claremont back), pioneering (bringing in Ellis) and if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it (leaving Gambit alone) is a bold move.

Now we just have to wait until March to see if it works. Personally, as a recovering X-fan, I'm hoping it does. I'd like to be loving all these books again.

Randy W. Lander

Previous ColumnNext ColumnBack to Home