In May 2001, Marvel Comics hired Scottish comics writer Grant Morrison to overhaul their flagship heroes, the X-Men. Morrison joined Marvel after a highly successful stint at DC Comics, where he coalesced the Justice League of America into the wildly successful JLA. Like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, two other British visionaries who took the comics world by storm, Morrison often matched his unparalleled creativity with the bizarre and intellectual. When asked about the origin of his creator-owned series, The Invisibles (which The Matrix apparently ripped off), Morrison replied that “much of the story was told to him by aliens when he was abducted during a trip to Kathmandu.” The funny thing about Grant Morrison, which only builds as you read more of his work, is that you actually believe him.
For Marvel to hand the reins of their best-selling title off to Morrison constituted a leap of faith of the highest order. X-Men fans have always been obsessive over the history and tradition of their characters, probably due to the near-impenetrable continuity of the mutant superheroes. With Morrison came the possibility of removing characters from their static storylines and adding complexity to their often one-note personalities. Marvel practically gave him a blank check to reinvent the superheroes: longtime X-Men scribe Chris Claremont was demoted to a secondary title upon Morrison’s arrival, and the core title book was renamed “New X-Men” upon Morrison’s request (he liked the ambigram-look of the logo).
What Morrison proceeded to do, over 41 issues and eight story arcs, is nothing short of spectacular. He began by condensing the roster of X-Men (which ballooned in the 1990s to dozens of mutants) down to five key characters: Beast, Jean Grey, Cyclops, Wolverine, and Emma Frost. And, in an opening arc still carrying into X-Men storylines today, Morrison wrote the genocide of sixteen million mutants. At that point in X-Men continuity, longtime villain Magneto had led millions of mutants to live under his rule in the African country of Genosha. A new Morrison-created villain, the mysterious Cassandra Nova, initiated the genocide by using “wild” mutant-killing sentinels. Morrison later used the devastation of this tragedy for a requiem issue that poignantly echoes 9/11. True to his countercultural style, Morrison’s follow-up issue introduced a Muslim mutant — both condemning the terrorist attack and the Islamophobia that ensued.
Morrison also began developing the X-Men’s personalities and breaking down long-established relationships and patterns. First the longtime bachelor Beast was revealed to be gay. Then fan-favorite newlyweds Jean Grey and Cyclops developed marital problems; Cyclops began a “psychic affair” (only in X-Men comics…) with the seductive Emma Frost. The X-Men’s costumes became slick, black leather — a far cry from the gaudy yellow outfits of the 1990s. Professor Xavier’s school, long a front for the X-Men to train and live at, became an actual mutant academy. Going beyond the superficial X-Men soap opera, Morrison added depth to the mutant struggle for acceptance. The murder of Jumbo Carnation, a mutant fashion designer, looked strikingly like a gay bashing. And the recurrence of “I Support Magneto” posters and T-shirts called forth the image of Che Guevara, another controversial revolutionary who was unafraid of using violence to achieve his ends.
Most importantly, Grant Morrison introduced the Chinese mutant, Xorn. This mysterious, masked character encountered the X-Men while on the brink of committing suicide. Due to his mutant abilities, a suicide would have caused the Earth to explode (suspend your disbelief with Morrison for a moment — he earns it). The X-Men take in Xorn, whom they discover is a healer and, thirty issues later, Magneto in disguise. As Xorn, Magneto coordinated from behind the scenes most of the troubles the X-Men encountered during Morrison’s run. Upon revealing himself, Magneto takes control of Manhattan and begins systematically exterminating humans. It takes Jean Grey’s sacrifice of herself (a death that has remained canon even today) to stop the X-Men’s most fearsome enemy.
Morrison closed his run with a look at a dystopian X-Men future. His departure in 2004 left the X-Men in startlingly different places than when he began. Cyclops moved on from Jean and began a relationship with Emma, a move that contributed to the widespread hostility toward Cyclops but also marked a much-needed change from his “boy scout” demeanor of years past. Furthermore, famous foe Magneto was dead, killed by Wolverine out of anger over Jean’s death.
However, the most controversial of Morrison’s innovations were soon “retconned,” meaning that Marvel removed them from canon. Xorn was not really Magneto — for reasons Marvel still can hardly explain without making fans’ heads explode. And of course, the next issue after Morrison’s departure reinstalled the X-Men’s classic yellow costumes. The lack of any true development in the X-Men saga brings forth an almost omnipresent question when discussing superhero comics: is the era for innovation truly over?
Most fans, like myself, consider Morrison’s run as it was truly intended. Xorn was Magneto. Jean and Magneto died. For 41 issues, Grant Morrison told a complete story in the way he wanted. I accept that story as the brilliant, sprawling tale it was, even if Marvel denies its place in “canon.” After all, what is canon if not a way to continue telling stories which never have a third act? Of course Magneto cannot really die, just as Superman, Captain America, the Human Torch, Batman, and every other character supposedly “killed off” never truly dies. But the necessity for static characters means visionaries like Morrison can never truly progress past the status quo for characters.
Take Spider-Man as a counterpoint. For nearly twenty years of comic continuity, the ol’ webslinger was married to his lifelong love, Mary Jane Watson. In the 2007 crossover series, “One More Day,” Marvel erased the Spidey-MJ marriage from canon. The new take involved Spider-Man’s aunt, an unborn child, and the Devil — yes, it’s as bad as it sounds. But when Marvel’s editor-in-chief at the time, Joe Quesada, came under fire for this choice, he responded that the move was necessary to ensure Spider-Man’s longevity for the next 10 to 20 years. His achingly long interview with Comic Book Resources made that point abundantly clear.
So what does this superhero stasis mean for the future of comics? Will we recycle these stories until the end of time? Nietzsche would have loved superhero comics — they’ve got the “eternal recurrence” concept down pat.
Since Morrison’s time with the X-Men, major superhero comics have been staying close to the company’s brand, eschewing creativity for line-wide marketing strategies. (Case in point: Spider-Man fought his in-film villain, the Lizard, in the comics at the same time The Amazing Spider Man was in theaters and likewise Electro when the sequel aired). Morrison has since written a slew of incredible titles for DC, including his brilliant miniseries, The Multiversity, which finishes up later this year. The risk-taking auteur creators of today are now entrusted with lower-tier titles like Hawkeye (where Matt Fraction has collected a truckload of awards) and She-Hulk (where Penn grad Charles Soule has given the poorly named character a new identity). Experimentation and out-of-the-box creativity is now mostly found in creator-owned works published by labels like Image and BOOM!.
In my next column, we’ll contrast the stasis of mainstream superhero comics with the breathtaking originality of some creator-owned work. Stay tuned!