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The Grant Illusion?

 

New X-Men: E is for Extinction

Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

Marvel, 2001

Rating: 3.6

 

Posted: November 25, 2001

By The Gentleman

The very idea of turning Grant Morrison -- the lysergic mastermind known and acclaimed for his redefining work on such DC titles as Doom Patrol and JLA -- loose on Marvel Comics' premier franchise carries with it the sweet aroma of poetry. Not for nothing has Morrison risen in the last decade to a prominence that arguably eclipses even that of Alan Moore: More than any other creator working in the comics mainstream today, Morrison has made his reputation by loudly subverting the staid conventions of the superhero genre.

Whereas Moore, and the many clones that followed in his wake, broke conventional comics archetypes down to their basic components and explored the reality within, Morrison has taken the opposite approach. Taking his cue from Moore's groundbreaking Swamp Thing work, he's consistently re-examined the premises behind some of comics' most recognizable properties, and taken them to their most surreal and yet strangely logical extremes.

So the notion of Morrison tackling the X-Men makes a certain kind of sense. Who better to throw out all that's made this bloated constellation of titles such a migraine-inducing mishmash of badly drawn melodrama and convoluted, Esher-esque continuity? In a way, it's the ultimate confrontation -- the ultra-conservative corporate culture of Marvel (embodied by the gargantuan mess its conservative ways seem to have made of the X-Men franchise) vs. the medium's most inventive and countercultural mainstream creator. Who will win?

So far, the result seems a draw. Judging by E Is For Extinction, which collects Morrison's first four issues (New X-Men #s 114-117), the two titans (creator vs. conservative continuity) have so far battled each other to a standstill. There are flashes of Morrison's trademark brilliance poking through the pages, but the sheer weight of his daunting task is showing.

To be sure, there's much to admire in these four issues. For those unfamiliar with the series' main themes, Morrison succinctly sketches out the battle lines: mankind vs. mutantkind in a short and sharply written vignette wherein the villain of the piece, a gnarled bald woman with a seemingly limitless array of powers, shows a fearful dentist named Trask a holographic reenactment of Homo Sapiens slaughtering Neanderthal Man to take its place in the world order. Elsewhere, he lets drop the intriguing premise of an extinction gene in mankind's makeup, which promises to render the human race moot within four generations, just as a new strain of mutantkind is emerging.

Readers also get to witness Morrison's take on the real-world applications of the mutants' fantastic powers, as Wolverine's vaunted regenerative powers set to work healing burning, bullet-pocked flesh. Shortly afterward, psychic manifestations of the X-Men lounge on mental couches as they engage in a sort of virtual-reality telepathic conference with their mentor, Charles Xavier.

There are numerous other little touches sprinkled throughout, from a move toward less garish costumes to glimpses of the school being run like an actual school, filled with real mutant students (both certainly the influence of the successful X-Men film). And Morrison alludes to the long-simmering tension between Logan (Wolverine) and Jean Grey in a wonderfully understated scene: Jean, fretting over the icy distance in her marriage with Cyclops, turns to Logan for comfort, only for him to tell her they both know the two of them would never work together -- a welcome change from the pining, lovestruck Logan of old.

But these bits of off-the-cuff razzle-dazzle seems to have been invested with more thought and care than the actual plot, which involves our nameless villain -- the female twin of Xavier, separated at birth? -- taking control of a hidden enclave of super-adaptable mutant-hunting Sentinel robots (thanks in part to the hapless Trask, a descendant of the Sentinels' creator). The sight of skittery, spidery Sentinels cobbled together out of spare parts is visually creepy, but underdeveloped. Soon she's set the Sentinels loose on the mutant island -- nation of Genosha, unleashing wanton murder and destruction that's all the more chilling in the wake of September 11.

Soon, Cyclops and Wolverine have captured the woman -- nicknamed "Charlie X" in Morrison's notes at the end of the book -- and brought her to their headquarters at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. Once there, she attempts to take control of Xavier himself, who forces her out of his mind at gunpoint (another nice touch). But she's not so easily swayed, and soon she's made the switch without anyone the wiser -- save the Beast (looking very cool in a new, unexplained feline form), who's beaten into a coma for his troubles. The four-issue arc ends on an ominous note, as Charlie X, inside Xavier's body, boards a Shi'ar starship for some alleged R&R, gloating at the prospect of such a powerful craft at her disposal.

All of which is certainly engaging, but too much is introduced in this small arc, and as a consequence some plot points don't get the exploration they deserve. Xavier/X drops a bombshell by "outing" Xavier and the school to the public, which results in angry protestors gathering outside the mansion. Surely there'd be more dramatic repercussions than these? Also, Xavier guns down X in cold blood, and none of the X-Men question this drastic reversal of Xavier's pacifist approach. (Granted, it's actually X in Xavier's body, gunning down Xavier in X's, but nevertheless.)

Still, Rome wasn't built in a day, and if Morrison so far relies more on flash than on story, it's no different from his preliminary work on DC's JLA. One suspects his master plan will unfold slowly, a point his "Morrison Manifesto" -- a copy of his initial, intriguing notes for the arc -- backs up. Still, it's a bit disappointing that this much-anticipated first glimpse at Morrison's X-Men is less substantive -- and even, yes, slightly less flashy -- than his previous works would suggest. But there's still sufficient evidence in these pages to hint that his combination of the cerebral and showy spectacle will still yield some much-needed and enjoyable changes in Marvel's once-proud, flagship superteam.

Related Links:

New X-Men: Imperial

Uncanny X-Men: Poptopia

X-Treme X-Men

 
More Morrison
Morrison made his name with his lysergic re-imagining of DC's vaunted Doom Patrol, and Crawling From The Wreckage wisely collects his first issues with the series. But it's his against-all-odds revamping of the venerated Justice League that has made Morrison a household name. His entire run is collected in paperback form: American Dreams, Rock Of Ages and World War III are arguably the best.
Even More Morrison
Marvel Boy, featuring an original character devised for the Marvel Knights line, is worth seeking. Likewise, fans of the X-Files, S&M and general absurdity would be rewarded with Morrison's The Invisibles. Although it's not a great read, Morrison's Batman: Arkham Asylum is gorgeously painted by the always-superlative Dave McKean.
Quitely Please
Lest you think I've forgotten the talented Mr. Quitely, The Authority is the book that put him on the map, and The Authority: Under New Management is a joy to read. JLA completists will also appreciate JLA: Earth Two, also featuring Morrison.

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