Grant Morrison’s flawed vision of the X-Men as “pacifists”

May 10, 2002

By Avi Green

Back in May, 2001, Marvel opted to imitate many of the details from the movie based on their X-Men franchise, such as the leather made costumes and the movie’s version of the Danger Room, their training chamber, and to have the Scottish born comics writer Grant Morrison write the books.

Morrison’s idea of how to write them was to strip the X-Men of their image as superheros and turn them into what he described as “pacifists”: they’re not interested in violence, and supposedly, there’s not much action anymore.

Well, this is exactly where he’s pushed all the wrong buttons. For example:

* Pacifism is a very misleading term that’s meant to discredit patriotism. It means, believe it or not, someone who doesn’t want to fight to defend his country.

* The X-Men never try to cause trouble or harm to innocent people. Rather, it is their job to try and defend said people from evil. It is their enemies, rather, who cause harm to innocent people.

And if the X-Men don’t fight evil wherever it may dwell, well then, how is evil in the world supposed to be fought? Sure, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers are very powerful teams, but even they can’t deal with everything that goes on in this or any other world themselves. And there are more than enough times when both of the aforementioned teams have blasted off into space or into another time or dimension and thus have been unable to deal with such situations themselves, leaving the X-Men to deal with the situation by themselves.

One of the biggest problems with the X-Men is that they stopped being literally interesting when they stopped being superheros. Well, not entirely. Of course they did pull off plenty of superhero stunts in the years gone by. But now, ever since Morrison came on board, and, come to think of it, Joe Casey too, they’ve become even less so than ever. The change to movie-like costumes is also another letdown. It robs the X-Men of their appeal, and it’s but one of the reasons why the books are now so colorless.

And the storylines, such as they are, are most certainly not much to speak of. Let’s take a look at what I know from what’s been going on lately.

The First [Abortive] Story arc

They said there was going to be a huge “culling of many mutants” in the new storyline beginning with “E is for Extinction”. Turns out that only a whole bunch of nameless mutants on the Lebanon/Cuba-like island of Genosha, a population consisting of more than 16 million mutants, was slaughtered, while as for such non-entities as Maggot and the sadly underdeveloped Cecilia Reyes, well, they just dropped out of sight, and are now currently in limbo. (And to make matters worse, even Gambit hasn’t been done in.) And who is the culprit responsible for this heinous crime against mutancy? The “twin sister” of Charles Francis Xavier, Cassandra Nova Xavier is her name, who’s holding a grudge against her “brother” for allegedly trying to throttle her while in their mother’s womb together sometime before birth (don’t ask). It’s a pretty grisly affair, and not a good one at that. The biggest problem with Morrison’s writing is that he’s overly obsessed with gore and revolting imagery. No sooner have things begun then we are presented with some of the most excessive imagery ever seen to date in a book that’s being marketed as supposedly suitable for children. And worst of all, Morrison has pulled something that many entertainers have done before: he’s marketing this as a would be statement against violence that’s really just an excuse to wallow in what he supposedly claims to be against.

The scene in the 115th issue in which Cyclops puts a character named Ugly John to death, supposedly as a mercy killing, was very forced; just a weak excuse to show Cyke killing someone without remorse, unease, or reluctancy. Suffice it to say that it was also done more like a prop-like scene too.

The scene in which the entire Genosha is leveled by the upgraded Sentinels also strains credibility. Look, for example, at Doctor Doom’s own dictatorship in Latveria in the past years that he’s been nemesis to the Fantastic Four. He’s proven that he can defend his rulership with a force shield and keep out all opposing forces up to a point. Here, on the other hand, there is nothing to oppose Nova’s attack with the Sentinels. No SAM sites, no laser defence pattern, no force shield, and no mutants fighting against the invading robots. In short, what Morrison’s doing is taking a situation that should really be hard and making it so easy it’s absurd. And really bad is that none of the dead Genoshans seem to matter in the least to Morrison now. In the past months since this took place, they’ve been almost completely forgotten.

(A most astonishing thing about the 115th issue in all this affair is how it precedes the shocking spectacle of seeing the WTC being bombed by showing a sentinel crashing into a tower in which Magneto is sitting, wheelchair bound. (And he’s garunteed to survive!) Today, after the tragedy of 9-11 as well as many of Israel’s own, this panel is just too lurid to bear. Sure, there’s plenty of scenes of destruction that I can bear, but this is just too much. And to think we thought that the scene of the Lexcorp twin towers smoking while repairing in the post Our Worlds at War Superman issue that came out last September was tasteless…)

I stopped reading this by the 117th issue. By the time I’d seen Nova, who, in a mind-switching scene that strained a considerable amount of logic, brainwashing Beast into goring to death a student at the Xavier academy called Beak, I knew that I’d had enough. It was little more than a tasteless exercise in style over substance, an attempt to be “arty” and “hip”, and overall, it was, quite simply, unfaithful to past Marvel history and continuity, which Marvel these days, alas, no longer seems to care for.

In the months that have followed since then, all I hear about it just sadness galore. Worst of all, a lot of what I hear about it that goes on in the books is heavy-handed shock value tactics accompanied by some of Morrison’s very own heavy-handed publicity that’s meant to get on everyone’s nerves. But before we get to that, let’s take a look at the characterization of Nova.

One-dimensional Villainess

Cassandra Nova Xavier, as she’s called, is supposed to be Charles Xavier’s twin sister (yeah, I know, it does sound funny by now, doesn’t it?), whose motivations for violence are all because her brother supposedly tried to give her the lynching technique while they were in the womb together (again, don’t ask), and he may not even be aware of it. (Or is he?) From what information I can gather from some of my esteemed colleagues at places such as Hero Realm, it’s as grisly as it sounds, and not in a good way either.

While it may be understandable that she’d have a grudge against Charles for an act of violence he supposedly committed many years before, what’s not understandable is as to why she’d be taking out her anger on other mutants and people in the world who had no connection whatsoever to that big time shocker during childbirth.

And if you’ve ever read the 12th issue of the classic X-Men tales from the Lee/Kirby days, you’ll know that thanks to this legendary issue, there is no room left for a twin sister. Which, as a result, makes Morrison’s work even more illogical than ever.

It is also hard to understand why, if Xavier realized that Nova was planning to slaughter more than 16 million mutants on Genosha, that he wouldn’t have tried to warn any of the X-Men or even the citizens of Genosha themselves about it. Nor is it understandable as to why, if he could tell his disciples about his brother Juggernaut and why he was holding a grudge against him, that he would withhold all information about his twin sister all these years. And why all of a sudden would he be carrying a gun, supposedly to keep his mind from being taken over by Nova? (And besides, if she could, then surely she could do it even before he could shoot himself?) And if Nova was already so powerful, then why should she need to take over his mind at all? In fact, couldn’t Xavier have been able to do the same the other way around? It just doesn’t make any sense.

Nor, for that matter, does the idea of her switching minds with Charles make any sense. Right, she just heads for the telepathic helmet and puts in on, and within seconds, she and her brother have switched minds! It makes no sense, given that Beast, who’s own “second mutation” also contradicts his origins considerably, did not design the helmet for any such purposes. Even more strangely, nobody, not even Jean Grey nor Emma Frost, notices! Actually, it’s not so strange. That’s the way Morrison wants it; quite simply, it’s a case of writer’s favoritism.

And then, just as we were being told at the end of E is for Extinction that Nova was the first of a new species of very advanced mutants, here we’re being asked to accept that she was living emotional energy with no body of her own, which she built from Charles’ own cells. If you think that contradicts Morrison’s earlier stance, it does. From this, is sounds as if Nova was never really his twin sister, and that she just extracted some cells from him to create a body with. While we can probably give a sigh of relief that there’s probably no relation between the two after all, it still doesn’t excuse the remarkable wave of illogicality that’s been plaguing this series ever since Morrison came on board.

The Danger of Subliminal Messages

Another thing that disturbs me now is that, as I’ve discovered in the past months, Morrison, believe it or not, may have also slipped in some hidden tones of racism: Emma Frost/White Queen tells the students at the X-Men’s school in NXM 122 that they intend to abandon the “human” education system for a mutant system (!) that’s supposedly more open. This, to say the least, smacks of racism and imperialism. I know that Emma herself is half-nuts, but that is still no excuse for writing her expressing such a viewpoint, mainly because she says it on behalf of Xavier and Jean! And while Scott argues with Jean about this later, it’s more out of concern for the X-Men’s public relations than their ethical ones. To quote the excellent Steve Sellers from Hero Realm, “By portraying the X-Men in this fashion, Morrison erodes the themes of racial tolerance that have defined this book since the first issue.” Yes, he does.

So in other words, the X-Men, according to Grant Morrison, are really closet racists against the world’s non-mutant civilization. It’s a very disturbing departure from the themes of tolerance that this book’s been in favor of for close to four decades already. Know what's really scary about all this? That it's almost 100% likely to fly over many people's heads. That sound you hear is the late, great Jack Kirby spinning in his grave.

Jean Grey fans may also want to take note of the following: in NXM 120-122, Jean inexplicably becomes the Phoenix, as mentioned in my year in review wrapup for 2001. And then, even more disturbingly, when Scott debates with her, he warns her that she could "lose control" again. It's a most extroadinarily peculiar way of screwing up whatever's left of the X-Men's continuity, and by far the single worst thing that Morrison's pulled during his tenure on this book. It's worse than you think, since, believe it or not, it turns Jean Grey into something akin to OJ Simpson, and turns someone whom we'd all like to be able to love and identify with into someone we can't. If you can find the research done by Hero Realm's Alex Hamby in this archive for his Got Character? column, it can give you more of an idea as to how badly Morrison's ruined things. (See columns 2 and 3.)

Drawn-out story arcs

Another thing about Morrison’s writing that makes this book so ludicrous is that he’s made his stories longer than needed, extending them interminably all for the sake of some pretty forced ideas, such as in issues 118-120, titled “Germ-FreeGeneration” , and featuring a villian called John Sublime and his army of U-Men, humanoid criminals who’re mutant wannabes. As told by a couple of sources, including, surprisingly enough, Australia’s X-Fan, it’s the kind of thing that could’ve been told within just two issues, but Morrison would rather drag it out for a couple more. And even the “shocking origin” of Cassandra Nova is delayed for at least another issue, until 126, so that he can toss in a very forced sideshow in which Beast/Hank McCoy’s girlfriend Trish Trilby dumps him with appalling nastiness, and he responds by coming up with a very contrived joke (?) that he’s gay.

“By portraying the X-Men in this fashion, Morrison erodes the themes of racial tolerance that have defined this book since the first issue.” - Steve Sellers, Hero Realm, February 12, 2002

While I can’t comment on it up front, it nevertheless sounds to me as if that scene was all too obviously done for little more than yet some more needless shock value. And what if Morrison really is trying to “out” Hank McCoy as being gay? It would make no sense of course, given that Hank has always been firmly written as being heterosexual and quite a ladies man too, and to ostensibly rewrite him as gay would only serve to disgrace the whole clean cut image of the X-Men overall. And as for the overextended story arcs, if you really want to see it being done well, read Kurt Busiek’s recent Avengers storyline, in which the Earth’s Mightiest Heros go up against Kang the Conqueror. It may be long, but the characterization there is much better and not contemptuous of the readers and the fanbase.

To summarize this overall

As of this writing, I don’t know what’s going to be of the X-Men as a whole. The books are in a very dire state artistically, with the two main books, Wolverine and X-TremeX-Men leading the way in artistic and entertainment bankruptcy. It’s terrible that one of the most unique concepts is being slowly done in by writers and editors who have no respect for the characters, their characterization, and the overall artistic quality of the concept, but that’s what’s really ruining it as of now, and how to fight it is as much your guess as it is mine. A great concept being ruined by it’s own company, and yet it inexplicably continues to sell well still keeping up it’s place in the top 10 comics titles on the sales charts.

As some people I’ve spoken with agree, the continued success in sales is certainly inexplicable. Which is why, if you ask me, if you don’t like how Marvel is handling this or that concept, then don’t buy the book in question, because only that way will they get the message. Some might argue that it’d be running the risk of putting the books in danger of cancellation, but when it comes to the flagship titles, believe me, Marvel doesn’t really want to give up on those, and really can’t afford to do so either, and so, only if we can resist buying the books whose writers turn us off will we be able to convey the message to them that we don’t appreciate the way they’re handling things. That’s it.

Recommended links:
Comic Book Resources' The Hot Seat

Sequential Tart  

Avi Green, who feels that fun is another thing lacking in the X-Men all these years that the X-books are sorely in need of, can be reached at avigreen2002@yahoo.com

Copyright 2002 Avi Green. All rights reserved.

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