Sunday, 11 October 2009

Dear Marvel: Either They Mutate, Or You Do

Right. This has gotten silly, and it has to stop.

I am on record as something of an M-Day apologist. For the uninitiated, and in as few words as possible, four years ago (in real time, which would theoretically make it around eight months ago comics time, but several sources, mainly Messiah War, contradict this) an insane Scarlet Witch used her reality-warping powers to attempt to remove all mutants from the world (and, as it later transpired, across multiple alternate dimensions). She was not entirely successful, but the mutant race dwindled almost immediately from the hundreds of thousands to just hundreds full stop.

When I say I am a quasi-apologist for this set-up, I mean only that conventional wisdom has it that this was a very bad idea in concept. I disagree. I think it's actually a very good concept, it's just been totally bungled in practice.

There are three incredibly obvious advantages to the idea. Firstly, it changes the metaphor. Ever since Claremont the X-Men have, at least nominally, been a metaphor for the Civil Rights movement. Sure, it's often been stretched to breaking point, but it's still always there in the background.

Reducing the mutant population to a comparative handful allows the metaphor to be recast, without it being entirely altered. Mutants are no longer analogous to black people or homosexuals, but to Native Americans. A previously formidable force now in its last days. No longer are mutant rights (and the accompanying terrorist attacks, lynchings, riots and so on) an urgent problem that the government must face, they're now something that can simply be swept under the carpet until the mutant population dwindles into non-existence. The decision to house the 198 (the number of mutants listed by the US government that retained their powers) at the Xavier Institute reinforces the parallel; at this point the school essentially becomes a reservation.

Of course, while there are many fascinating and melancholy stories one could tell about the slow fade of the Native American tribes from the pages of history, I grant that such tales are unlikely to sit well within a monthly comic book. The key difference though lies in the sheer number of organisations created exclusively to combat the mutant "threat" that suddenly find themselves a) on the verge of victory, and b) with only one remaining target to deal with [1]. So it's not as though there's a lack of potential for action (as made clear by the Purifiers strike against the Institute that left no fewer than 45 former mutant children dead). Just off the top of my head, you could utilise the Purifiers, the Sapien League, the U-Men, even remnants from the Friends Of Humanity, all without even having to reach for an evil mutant at all.

True, there would only be so many times that you could pit ordinary humans (however bat-shit insane) against the X-Men in a straight-out fight, but that feeds into my second point. A definite potential advantage of the M-Day board-sweep is that it could have forced writers to tell their stories with a smaller cast of characters to rely on. This could well be difficult for scribes used to being able to throw new super-powered characters into the mix whenever they want, but the necessity of relying on a much smaller group of heroes and villains would force greater character development and interaction. One of the most common (and accurate) criticisms of the '90s X-Books was that important/beloved characters would fall through the cracks, sometimes for years, without explanation, because too much emphasis was always being placed on the latest new threat or taciturn loner hero. Consider Battlestar Galactica, which managed perfectly well for at least for two and a half seasons with what it started off with, adding new characters only sparingly (to the point where episodes in which new characters suddenly appeared were roundly criticised for being lazy). Again, I recognise what works for dour space-opera television won't necessarily wash for superhero comic books, but the opportunity to weave the surviving mutants into a coherent narrative should not be quickly dismissed.

Speaking of characters, the third benefit of M-Day is the possibility to generate very strong drama amongst the mutant population, both for those still powered (survivor's guilt, suddenly feeling alone and without back-up) and, most especially, for those which are not. This is the other side of the coin from the repeated "secondary mutation" storylines, or the more general messing around of characters like Psylocke. What happens when lifetime of extreme change (or at least potential extreme change) suddenly becomes the same forever, and when what made you special is arbitrarily removed?

That's how I would have tackled the X-Men after M-Day, anyway. A combination of siege mentality and political maneuvering by what remains of the mutant population (divided into clear factions with a purpose for being, rather than just the Acolytes and the Hellfire Club sulking about their loss of status) in the face of a world that either wants them to die out or to be killed as quickly as possible, with the focus on the preciousness of each mutant life remaining, the trials of those left powerless, and the reveal of each still-powered mutant a rare and important event.

It might not have worked, naturally, but I think it would have had a better shot at working than what we ultimately received. What actually happened was that the writers tried to have their cake and eat it. M-Day led to an awful lot of moping around; mainly from Beast (which was at least interesting and led to Endangered Species, which is horribly underrated) and from Cyclops, (which wasn't interesting in any way at all) along with endless references to M-Day, but nothing really changed. Of all the X-Men, only Polaris lost her powers and dealt with it "on-screen" [2], and since at that point she was just a hideous, lunatic mess of a character, her crisis never came close to offering any dramatic power. New mutant characters continue to be introduced, with almost no appreciable slackening of speed, which both undermines the alleged dire straits of the mutant population and irritates long-time fans through the implication that while well-loved and well-established characters have been neutered, [3] brand new faceless mooks can still show up at any time (UXM #515 brought this home with the arrival of five brand new mutants, not one of which I have any reason to give a crap about). This also meant that the golden opportunity to attempt to allow a smaller group of characters to interact more regularly was lost, in favour of the typical mutant-of-the-week approach to X-Men stories that were precisely what M-Day was designed to prevent.

So, yeah, a great opportunity almost entirely wasted in practice. I say almost entirely because there have been a few good uses of the concept. Having the O*N*E Sentinels become the defenders of mutant-kind was a lovely touch (though again almost nothing interesting was done with them). Beast (one of my favourite X-Men) has gotten plenty of mileage out of the crisis, first with Endangered Species, and now with his Super Secret Science Genius Club, which alternates between time-travelling fact-finding missions and duels in barbed, erudite sarcasm. Messiah Complex and its sequel Messiah War could both have been done without M-Day, Hope's rarity could quite easily be replaced with just making her much, much more powerful, but it genuinely adds an extra layer for the story to be about "the first new mutant birth", rather than just the latest in an endless line of "most powerfullest mutant ever ever" tales.

So it hasn't been a total failure. At this point, though, I don't see what more can come from it. It was only in UXM #500 that the X-Men set up camp in San Francisco, hoping for a new beginning for what remains of the mutant race by setting up its own self-sufficient community, only for their new peace to be shattered by an attack by Magneto. Fifteen issues later, and the X-Men have set up camp on Utopia, an artificial island a few miles from San Francisco, hoping for a new beginning for what remains of the mutant race by setting up its own self-sufficient community, only for their new peace to be shattered by an attack by Magneto. If that isn't proof that the franchise is in trouble, I'm not sure what is. Xavier's mansion was always blown up every few years or so, so in once sense this is nothing new, but ever since M-Day it appears that nothing more is happening than regular "new beginnings" that go wrong, and have to be tried again somewhere else. There is some suggestion that the time the X-Men spend on Utopia might focus on the perils and necessities of nation building, but so far all I've seen is an attack by Magneto, again, [4] and an attack by Emplate, another mutant suddenly revealed to have retained his powers for the sake of a new crisis to throw at the X-Men. Nothing that couldn't have been done before M-Day with a great deal less angst (and I say that as a big fan of angst).

So I'm calling it. M-Day could have worked, but didn't, and at this point clearly didn't to the point where the writers are rehashing the same storylines and fucking them up in the exact same ways as before. We need something new, House of Ideas. Get to it.

[1] I don't really know enough about the time period in question, but I wonder if in the immediate aftermath of the creation of the Native American reservations their inhabitants suffered revenge attacks from US citizens?

[2] Ice Man was supposed to lose his powers too, but Marvel chickened out, which kind of underlines my point about the problems being in execution. If you decide you want to completely change the world in which your stories are being set, then doing it half-heartedly is almost certainly the worst possible approach to take. If you can't commit to the new status quo, why will anyone else?

[3] Of course, looking through the list of de-powered mutants makes it clear that very few major or even former major characters have lost their powers, and that most of those that did have had them reinstated through other means, which just makes Marvel's lack of interest in following through with the idea all the more obvious.

[4] OK, in fairness he simply arrived as the cliff-hanger to issue #515, so it's possible an attack is not forthcoming. The parallels between this issue and #500 are still disappointing, though. Whilst we're on the subject, it's worth mentioning that Magneto was another major player who lost his powers after M-Day and who has now had them returned by technological means. The post M-Day status quo might have been flawed from almost the very beginning, but at this point it's almost a parody of itself, and something needs to be done. Perhaps the mooted third part of the Messiah trilogy may address the problem.

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