Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The X-books in 2008, part 4

We've done the X-Men and we've done Wolverine, so we can finish up with the stragglers - the assorted spin-offs that stagger around the fringes of the X-universe with their arms outstretched, hoping for a hug.

The C-titles were overhauled in the aftermath of "Messiah Complex", with Cable & Deadpool cancelled and replaced by two new solo titles, and New X-Men making way for Young X-Men and X-Force. Whether the line is healthy enough to support this sort of expansion is debatable, but to be fair, there's been a degree of success here. Most of the new titles are outselling their predecessors; but most of them are also losing readers at quite some pace. The big question is whether they're still finding their level, or whether they're going to spiral off into infinity.

02/08 X-Force #1 - 116,467
03/08 X-Force #2 - 88,650 (-23.9%)
04/08 X-Force #3 - 85,750 ( -3.3%)
05/08 X-Force #4 - 84,792 ( -1.1%)
06/08 ---
07/08 X-Force #5 - 76,978 ( -9.2%)
08/08 X-Force #6 - 69,010 (-10.4%)
09/08 X-Force #7 - 64,911 ( -5.9%)
10/08 X-Force #8 - 59,745 ( -8.0%)
11/08 X-Force #9 - 57,241 ( -4.2%)
6 mnth (-32.5%)
Because you demanded it, apparently, X-Force has been dusted off. This property has now been around, on and off, since 1991. Throw in Cable and Deadpool and it's surprising how much lasting impact Rob Liefeld had on Marvel, at least in terms of his ideas still being in circulation.

The idea this time is that X-Force are the X-Men's black ops team, a weird concept that ties into a strange storyline of Cyclops acting "darker" and keeping secrets from Emma Frost. This storyline hasn't been altogether successful, because the change in Scott's personality never seemed remotely natural or organic. When people started speculating that he must be the X-Men's token Skrull, that should have been a warning sign that things weren't quite clicking. It's improved somewhat in recent months - Fraction seems to have a better handle on it than most - but boy, you can see the editorial strings on this one.

As a side-effect, we have X-Force, a book in which grim characters are grim and shoot grim bullets and tear things apart and there's blood and stuff and it's supposed to be awesome but just seems senseless and irritating. Well, in the first arc, at least. It picked up somewhat after issue #7, but it's still a series I could happily live without.

09/08 Deadpool #1 - 75,058
09/08 Deadpool #2 - 65,400 (-12.9%)
10/08 Deadpool #3 - 61,833 ( -5.5%)
11/08 Deadpool #4 - 49,577 (-19.8%)
I don't regard Daniel Way and Paco Medina's Deadpool as an X-book, and to be honest, aside from buying the first issue to review, I haven't been reading it. But it's only fair to note that it seems to have got off to a flying start. True, the first three issues were Secret Invasion tie-ins, but issue #4 stands alone. It's way ahead of Captain Britain & MI-13, which also launched during the crossover, and there have been some favourable reviews. Way's take on the character, as shown in the Wolverine: Origins trailer arc, didn't interest me at all. But this may well have worked.

03/08 Cable #1 - 68,073
04/08 Cable #2 - 59,877 (-12.0%)
05/08 Cable #3 - 54,760 ( -8.5%)
06/08 Cable #4 - 49,996 ( -8.7%)
07/08 Cable #5 - 46,429 ( -7.1%)
08/08 Cable #6 - 45,050 ( -3.0%)
09/08 ---
10/08 Cable #7 - 43,358 ( -3.8%)
11/08 Cable #8 - 37,315 (-13.9%)
6 mnth (-31.9%)
Issues #6-7 had variant covers, so the decline is actually smoother than the numbers make it look. Nonetheless, it's clearly there.

The big idea with Cable is to pack him off into the future with the new mutant baby, so that he can raise her in the same way that Scott and Jean raised him. It's not a bad idea: it's a full-circle dramatic parallel for Cable, and it gets the kid into circulation as a character instead of just a prop. (Of course, you could have just had a teenager discover her mutant powers as per usual, which would have been a good post-M-Day story too... but that wouldn't work, because the kid is meant to be the reincarnation of Jean Grey and she hasn't been dead long enough.)

(Come to think of it, I wish they'd gone with the teenager. Plucked from obscurity, importance thrust upon them... that writes itself, doesn't it?)

I digress. This is a curious series, with a tiny cast: Cable is pursued by Bishop, and that's about it. Bishop's motivations remain thoroughly obscure, which is the book's biggest weakness. Maintaining the mystery is fair enough, but they've put Bishop in all sorts of situations where logically he should be explaining himself, and that's the problem.

The risk with this book was that, despite featuring the Littlest Mutant, readers would dismiss it as an irrelevant out-of-continuity book featuring a character who hasn't been a draw in years. The sales suggest that may be what's happening.

11/06 X-Factor #13 - 42,844
11/07 X-Factor #25 - 79,066 (+51.8%)
12/07 X-Factor #26 - 84,219 ( +6.5%)
01/08 X-Factor #27 - 81,350 ( -3.4%)
02/08 X-Factor #28 - 61,173 (-24.8%)
03/08 X-Factor #29 - 54,832 (-10.4%)
04/08 X-Factor #30 - 51,447 ( -6.2%)
05/08 X-Factor #31 - 48,231 ( -6.3%)
06/08 X-Factor #32 - 45,104 ( -6.5%)
07/08 X-Factor #33 - 53,088 (+17.7%)
08/08 X-Factor #34 - 50,416 ( -5.0%)
09/08 X-Factor #35 - 44,481 (-11.8%)
10/08 X-Factor #36 - 38,552 (-13.3%)
11/08 X-Factor #37 - 35,754 ( -7.3%)
6 mnth (-25.9%)
1 year (-54.8%)
2 year (-16.5%)
X-Factor had an odd year, holding on to its "Messiah Complex" sales for a surprisingly long time. It's now back where it was in mid-2007, before the crossovers kicked in, but it's taken a long time to get there.

Odd book, this. On the one hand, you've got Peter David writing, and he's often able to get blood from a stone. He's managed to extract some decent stories from the M-Day set-up (about the only writer who has), and his book's contribution to the "Messiah Complex" crossover - sending Madrox and Layla Miller into the future - was one of the best things about it.

On the other hand, the book has been plagued with art that could charitably be called inconsistent, and it seems to lack purpose. Bounced around from crossover to crossover, forcibly ejected from its previous setting and relocated to Detroit, vaguely echoing a noir theme that nobody seems to have told the artists about... you'd be hard pressed to say this book was about anything in particular these days. Thanks to David, it's usually worth reading anyway, but this feels like a title lost in the shuffle.

04/08 Young X-Men #1 - 71,593
05/08 Young X-Men #2 - 51,267 (-28.4%)
06/08 Young X-Men #3 - 45,227 (-11.8%)
07/08 Young X-Men #4 - 41,341 ( -8.6%)
08/08 Young X-Men #5 - 38,379 ( -7.2%)
09/08 Young X-Men #6 - 38,176 ( -0.5%)
10/08 Young X-Men #7 - 36,483 ( -4.4%)
11/08 Young X-Men #8 - 30,237 (-17.1%)
6 mnth (-41.0%)
The relaunch of New X-Men saw most of the cast jettisoned in favour of minor players, and the first six months squandered on a hopelessly confused story about Donald Pierce. In fairness to writer Marc Guggenheim, this may well be because he had to kill time waiting for "Manifest Destiny" to start - but then, if that's the case, they should have waited six months to launch the series.

Those of us who stuck with the book long enough tend to agree that it picked up considerably with issue #7, but the sales are pretty shocking. As with Cable, the September and October issues are variant covers (zombies and apes, if you're wondering), so the November drop isn't really 17%, but it's still bad. Look at it this way: Young X-Men was falling so fast that the variant covers didn't even make sales go up, they just cancelled out the drop.

The biggest mystery is why anyone thought this book needed a relaunch at all. New X-Men had its problems, but they were mainly to do with the grotesquely excessive body count, not the premise or the cast. It actually sold quite steadily at 37K when it wasn't participating in crossovers. Young X-Men jettisoned virtually everything about the old book, replaced it with unfamiliar characters, and launched with a dud story.

The result is cancellation with issue #12 - a truly catastrophic performance. And it's honestly hard to see what Marvel were thinking of with this one. Nothing about the book even leaps out as being a good idea in theory.

There is apparently talk of reviving New Mutants in its place, which seems like another terrible idea to me. For my money, the junior team have been revamped so often in the last few years that any other revamp - no matter how inspired - is just going to seem desperate right now. The way to go is to axe them, to relegate them to supporting character status in Uncanny, and to nurture them until they're capable of supporting their own book again.

11/03 Exiles #37 - 40,272
11/04 Exiles #54 - 34,180
11/05 Exiles #72 - 34,329
11/06 Exiles #88 - 30,928
11/07 ---
12/07 Exiles #100 - 33,416 (+20.3%)
01/08 New Exiles #1 - 47,618 (+42.5%)
02/08 New Exiles #2 - 34,454 (-27.6%)
03/08 New Exiles #3 - 30,480 (-11.5%)
04/08 New Exiles #4 - 29,231 ( -4.1%)
04/08 New Exiles #5 - 28,505 ( -2.5%)
05/08 New Exiles #6 - 27,533 ( -3.4%)
06/08 New Exiles #7 - 25,742 ( -6.5%)
07/08 New Exiles #8 - 24,436 ( -5.1%)
08/08 New Exiles #9 - 22,986 ( -5.9%)
08/08 New Exiles #10 - 23,048 ( +0.3%)
09/08 New Exiles #11 - 22,630 ( -1.8%)
10/08 New Exiles #12 - 21,682 ( -4.2%)
10/08 New Exiles #13 - 21,058 ( -2.9%)
11/08 New Exiles #14 - 20,493 ( -2.7%)
6 mnth (-25.6%)
1 year ( --- )
2 year (-33.7%)
3 year (-40.3%)
4 year (-40.0%)
5 year (-49.1%)
Finally, the relaunched New Exiles, which inexplicably sprouted an adjective at the start of the year despite changing very little of its contents. Sales have continued to decline, and the book is due to be axed with issue #18 - making a very respectable total of 118 issues.

This isn't quite Chris Claremont's last connection with the X-books - there's supposed to be a second GeNext miniseries in the pipeline. But it does look like it might be the end of the line so far as ongoing titles are concerned. New Exiles is built mainly around variations on his own creations (which was an editorial remit, not Claremont's own ideas), and at its best, it's been an innocent romp with a creator who seemed to be enjoying the chance to write some fun adventure stories in his own playground. At its worst - which unfortunately includes the current arc - it's just been a pile-up of ideas that don't cohere into a story.

Still, I can't help having some sympathy for it. It's quite endearing in its way, off to the side somewhere and just telling stories for the sake of it. Even if I don't always care for the results, I do like its spirit.

And that's the ongoing titles for 2008. In previous years I'd have gone through the minis and one-shots as well, but frankly, it's probably sufficient to say that they were a never-ending deluge and mostly forgettable. Perhaps the most notable of the bunch are Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes (for all the wrong reasons, but we touched on that before) and the various anthology titles such as Divided We Stand and Manifest Destiny (which Marvel are apparently very keen to publish, and I suspect will continue to be nailed onto every available hook in an attempt to make them viable).

All told, it's been an interesting year for the X-books. There's a plan, at least, and there's a sense of direction that was previously lacking - but at the same time, there are fundamental problems that remain to be addressed, and I honestly believe that until they get rid of M-Day, they're working with a crippled premise. Certainly no writer has yet managed to convince me otherwise.

Maybe they'll bite the bullet and reverse it in 2009. Fingers crossed.

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