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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

~How To Fix X-Men

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How To Fix X-Men

"Ultimate Marvel Comics", 18/11/2008
What it should have done from the start was rethink the whole concept of the X-Men, because I think the problem stems from the originals. In the sixties, they were just another bunch of superheroes. Since then, the cast has gotten larger by the hundreds, and writers have used them as a metaphor for all sorts of oppressed minorities, but still I don't think the X-Men have found focus. They started out as superheroes like any others, so no matter how much you add on top that's what they'll still be. Their stories will still be about fighting this guy or that guy, about cleverly using this power against that power. I think there's a real problem with all the regular X-Men books, where even excellent writers write stories which only long-time fans could care about.

"continue extrapolate repurpose", 24/5/2009
It recently occurred to me that all my ideas are following the same formula. First I establish my take in accepted continuity, using as many past elements as I can. Then I try to imagine how that would naturally play out, connecting all the pieces together and going farther with them than their creators intended. And then I flip the whole thing around, so that it's actually not the same kind of story at all as the ones it's following.

Please note: This is a superhero-related post. If you are not interested in superheroes, don't read it.

The X-Men comics might make sense if they were in their own little world. But they're set in the Marvel Universe, where the Fantastic Four and the Avengers are seen as heroes (even though they're no different from the mutants), and it just doesn't work.

Sure, there have been plenty of good X-Men stories over the years. There are good X-Men stories running right now! But these stories are standard superhero stories that would work equally well if you didn't distinguish mutants from all the other superheroes. I mean, what I'm reading in X-Men these days is two time-travel stories, a crossover with The Avengers where they all punch each other for PR reasons, a gory action story where they fight a bunch of literally-resurrected villains from their past, and a story about the son of Wolverine where he tries to humiliate his teammates. These are stories that could be told with or without the existence of mutants.

If I were to decide to call a superhero character a mutant, that would mean two things and only two things.
  1. I don't have to come up with an origin story beyond "He's a mutant!".
  2. I don't need to give people an excuse for hating him beyond "He's a mutant!".
So the whole mutant concept, as it exists, is really weak. You can see from the recap that I've been thinking about this for a while.

What differentiates the X-Men comics from the other Marvel comics is not so much the racism, I think, as it is the huge cast. There are literally hundreds of random and interchangeable X-Men characters, each one with a convoluted soap-opera connection to all the rest. So X-Men fans expect X-Men comics to be overloaded with characters. Marvel's editor-in-chief, Joe Quesada, felt that the X-Men cast had gotten much too big, so a few years ago he had a comic written where almost all the mutants lost their powers. (In the story, this event was called "M-Day".) But that didn't really change anything. Even the depowered mutants are being kept around, and all the popular ones have already reacquired their powers through other means like magic crystals or advanced technology. (If being a mutant is no different than being any other kind of superhero, then why should it matter at all that they're not mutants anymore?)

The problem isn't really that there are too many characters. The problem is that there's nothing interesting to do with them that you couldn't do in The Avengers or Spider-Man or even The Punisher. So when I wrote that Ultimate Marvel post, I thought the only way X-Men comics could work would be if you rebooted the whole thing.

Well, I've changed my mind. I think I see exactly where X-Men comics ought to go, where all the potential I'm looking for is there but none of what's there (and enjoyed by X-Men fans) is undone. Believe it or not, it's actually really simple to get there from here.

Let me describe where "here" is exactly, because all the pieces are already in place. On M-Day, a mentally-ill mutant called the Scarlet Witch (whose powers are inexplicable magic) said "No more mutants.", and changed the world. After M-Day, most former mutants don't have powers anymore, and more importantly no new mutants can ever be born. Or so everyone thought, at least. The scientist called Beast went all over the world looking for a way to undo what the Scarlet Witch had done, and every road he went down was a dead end. But then, for no apparent reason, a new mutant girl was born in Alaska. She was kidnapped from the hospital, the entire area was burned down, and a battle broke out to get the baby back. The X-Men wanted to protect her, the Christian radicals wanted to kill her (They called her the anti-Christ.), and the evil mutants.. come to think of it, I don't even remember what they wanted. Anyway. In the end a time-traveling soldier called Cable took her and jumped into the future so that no one could find them. (He sees her as some sort of savior for mutants.) Another time-traveling soldier named Bishop jumped into the future after them, and he's been chasing them ever since. He believes that her existence directly leads to the terrible future he comes from where mutants are put in concentration camps, though he's doesn't seem to really understand how she can do all that. Cable named the girl Hope, she's grown up ten years, and they're still running for their lives. Her powers haven't manifested yet. Meanwhile, in the present (I always wanted to say that.), the mutants have all moved to San Francisco where they're sort of fitting in for once. ("Sort of" because they're already getting kicked out.) Beast assembled a team of scientists called the X Club (named after this) to see if they could solve the mutant-gene problem, and so far they've had no luck.

I didn't make any of this up, it's all from the last few years of comics.*
(Specifically: House of M, the Endangered Species back-ups, the Messiah Complex crossover, Cable, and Uncanny X-Men)
But it's a great set-up for what needs to happen.

The X Club should identify exactly what it is that made the Scarlet Witch's magic work, but to undo it they need massive amounts of some exotic kind of energy that they have no access to. They're ready to give up entirely, when -lo and behold!- Cable and Hope come back from the future. Hope's power turns out to be exactly what they needed. Apparently the Scarlet Witch made a deliberate exception to her "no mutants" rule for the one mutant who could undo what she'd done. I know that sounds weird, but she's done exactly that once before (with a girl named Layla Miller), so it's not a stretch to say she'd do it again. Psychologically speaking, the explanation for what the Scarlet Witch is doing is that she isn't really in control of her own powers, and on some level she doubts herself. That doubt in her subconscious causes her to create what will stop her. But enough psychoanalysis. Bottom line: everyone was right. The X Club was right that magic can be undone through science, Cable was right that Hope's very important for all mutants, Bishop was right that killing her would prevent his future.

The mutant gene is reactivated, but it's not the same as it was before. (This is where all the fun starts.)

The new mutants can't control their powers. There are different degrees of instability: Some new mutants can usually keep their powers controlled just with medication and mental exercises, and only lose control while sleeping. And on the other end of the mutant spectrum, there are those who are using their powers every moment of every day and can't do anything about it. Most of them are not particularly dangerous to the public, either because their powers' effects are temporary or benign, or because their powers don't effect anyone but themselves. But some of them actually are dangerous, like the little telepath who rewires the brains of everyone he ever meets. The onset of mutant powers is a lot more unpredictable than it used to be: rather than being tied to puberty, it can happen at any point from one year old to sixty years old, and with no apparent cause.

A new trend begins all over the world, where socially-conscious people (usually former mutants depowered on M-Day, but also normal people) start support groups for mutant kids. And to make them feel better about their situation, they're not called "mutant support groups". No, they're called "X-Men"! The old generation of mutants is taken as a role model, because even though it's not really the same mutant gene they can still be seen as mutants who got to be just like all the other superheroes. (In this way, the flaw with the old premise becomes a strength in the new one!) "Look at Cyclops, little Timmy! He's a mutant just like you, and he goes on adventures with all the other superheroes! Some day, you can be an X-Man just like him!" The word "mutant" starts to be seen as derogatory: if you want to be politically correct, you've got to call them "X-Men".

Imagine this scene: A little mutant girl is walking through the mall with her mother. Everything and everyone she gets close to changes color (She can control the color it changes to, but right now it's all subconscious.), and when she walks away it all goes back to normal. Everyone is staring at her in disbelief, until one guy gets up and starts yelling: "Get the hell out of here! We're trying to have a good time here!" And the mother yells back: "You can't talk to my daughter like that! She's an X-Woman!"

So what happens to all the existing X-Men characters? Well, they become really interesting. The majority of the public is lumping them in with all these new mutants, so even though they've been acting like superheroes for decades suddenly they're seen as ticking time bombs. People now have reason to be scared of mutants, and they're not thinking about the subtleties of whether you got your powers before or after M-Day. That's racism that works, dramatically.

So you'd have the original people calling themselves "X-Men", who have to be role models for mutants who aren't really like them, as their every move is under scrutiny by the new mutant-haters who would like to vilify them.

And then you'd have the "Brotherhood of Mutants", taking pride in the "mutant" name, who try to distance themselves from the new strain of mutant by attacking the dangerous ones. ("Maybe if we're seen fighting them and protecting people from them, people will understand we're not like them.")

And you'd have superhero teams which no one knows are mutants, who live in constant fear of their secret coming out. In rare cases, the old X-gene can slowly turn into the new X-gene -if that started happening to a member of one of these teams, then it would start getting really complicated.

All the solo characters (like Wolverine) would go on doing the same thing they've always been doing; the new species doesn't really affect them. But now they'd have people who were previously nice to them suddenly distrustful and scared, and no matter how hard the old mutants try to gain these people's trust back, there will always be some doubt and hostility there from now on.

That's the entire X-Men line reinvigorated right there, and that's just with the characters who aren't the new kind of mutant! On top of that, there are all the new stories that could be told with new characters, where the premise is a lot more interesting than it used to be. It's much more interesting to see someone who could lose control at any moment, than to see someone who is in perfect control but is feared anyway.

This most likely isn't going to happen. I'm guessing the stories of Hope and the X Club will go in less interesting, more convoluted directions. (Like Hope turning out to be the reincarnation of Jean Gray or some nonsense like that.) And I expect that the effects of M-Day will be totally reversed as soon as Joe Quesada is replaced as editor-in-chief, and we'll be back to the status quo from way back when. That's how these things usually go.



It occurs to me that Xavier and Magneto, the main good guy and bad guy of the X-Men, are both non-mutants now. Xavier got telepathy from the M'Kraan crystals on an alien planet, and Magneto got his powers from a supervillain called the High Evolutionary. It just goes to show how little the mutant gene has to do with what X-Men's become. Also, Cloak and Dagger are now calling themselves X-Men even though they were never mutants. And I'm not too clear on the whole story, but Wolverine, the most popular mutant character, has so much backstory involving secret army projects and wolf packs (yes, wolf packs) that if he weren't a mutant it wouldn't make much difference.

You might wonder why I chose to disconnect the onset of powers from puberty, losing the symbolism there. There are two very good reasons: Because of the way the new mutant gene is being introduced mid-story, it wouldn't make sense to have many adult or even teenaged mutants popping up for a few years, so there need to be viable young-mutant stories. Secondly, a lot of mutant hatred would be driven by the knowledge that the hater could wake up one day and find out that he himself is a mutant.


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