Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The X-books in 2008, part 1

As previously mentioned, I'm not going to do a full scale X-Axis Year in Review for 2008. With the best will in the world, those things took forever, and I shudder at the thought of writing another one.

But the end of the year is still a good point to take stock of where the X-books stand, especially because 2008 saw the re-emergence of some sort of grand plan for the books. And since the November sales analysis hasn't been published yet, I'll include the X-books' data here for your delectation.

First, though, an overview. 2008 in the X-books fell into three phases: the "Messiah Complex" crossover at the start of the year, "Divided We Stand" in the spring, and "Manifest Destiny" in the summer.

With hindsight, this looks even stranger than it did at the time. "Messiah Complex" was a reasonably successful storyline. Granted, the new X-Force were awkwardly shoehorned into the plot. But the basic idea was sound: the first new mutant since M-Day is born, and everyone goes chasing after it. Ultimately, it set up the new Cable series, in which Cable takes the kid into the future pursued by Bishop - something which seems to be a device to accelerate the kid's aging.

The crossover did well, and for the first time in ages, the X-books seemed to have some direction. And then... they did "Divided We Stand", in which the X-Men break up for no readily apparent reason and spend several months twiddling their thumbs. This felt like a waste of momentum at the time, but looking back, it's even harder to fathom what the point was supposed to be - except, perhaps, to kill time until Uncanny X-Men #500. If the arc had any other intended purpose, I can't imagine what it might have been.

With July, we reached the anniversary issue and the start of "Manifest Destiny", in which most of the mutants relocated to San Francisco. This was a good idea on multiple: it's a city with character, the Marvel Universe has too many characters clustered around New York, it actually makes sense for the outcast mutants to set up shop in the American city best known for its tolerance of minorities and other assorted oddballs, and it ought to provide a much-needed sense of hope and a fresh start.

(Actually, California is becoming oversubscribed too: San Francisco is also the setting for Eternals, though the X-books have chosen to ignore them, and if their book hadn't been cancelled, The Order would have been just down the road. Does nobody want to fight crime in Texas? But it still makes a change from New York.)

There's only one problem: hanging over all this is the spectre of M-Day, which still hasn't been resolved, and still poses all manner of difficulties for writers. The San Francisco move ought to work in part by playing off the traditional metaphor that mutants equal minorities. But by getting rid of almost all the mutants, M-Day has left the X-books with too few mutants for that metaphor to work any more.

Now, in fairness, it's easy to see what Marvel were trying to achieve with M-Day. By the end of the Grant Morrison run, you couldn't move for mutants. They'd become commonplace - a point hammered home by District X, a police procedural about an entire district populated mainly by mutants. There was something to be said for thinning the herd, and depowering them was a better solution than genocide. But M-Day overshot the mark, crippling the books' central metaphor and leaving nothing in its place. This wouldn't have mattered if it was merely a springboard for stories where the X-Men tried to set it right, but instead the books meekly accepted their new status quo and spent the next few years moving in ever decreasing circles.

Uncanny, under Matt Fraction, has at least begun the years-overdue story where the X-Men try to reverse M-Day. In the meantime, however, it continues to undermine almost every other story that the X-books try to tell. It's one of the main reasons why "Manifest Destiny" hasn't quite worked: it's built on a metaphor that won't work until M-Day is at least partially reversed. Once we get rid of M-Day - and hopefully that's what Fraction is building to - the new San Francisco setting could be a winner. There are strong writers on the core titles; there's an interest in history combined with an attempt to do something new. The potential is there - it just needs that M-shaped millstone to be removed.

In the next post, we'll look at how the core X-Men titles have been doing in 2008.

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