The X-Men were the most popular franchise in comics for more than 20 years. For a generation of readers who grew up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the X-Men were comics, the axis around which the entire industry rotated.
In 2015, this is most decidedly no longer true. That they no longer occupy this central position is not necessarily a catastrophe. As time passes, the popularity of certain characters waxes and wanes according to circumstances. Anyone with sufficient patience understands that it’s all cyclical. The dire straits in which the X-Men currently find themselves, however, rather than simply being the result of one or two or 10 bad stories, is more the logical outcome of many years of consistent mismanagement and what appears to be a constitutional inability on Marvel’s part to remember what made these books so popular for so long. It would be an exaggeration to say that the books now are universally panned, or even, universally bad. The books still sell, albeit in reduced numbers. But these equivocations can’t conceal that somewhere over the course of the last few years the line lost its focus.
Marvel’s current post-Secret Wars relaunch, under the “All-New, All-Different” banner, presents a crucial opportunity for the franchise to once again find its way. There’s no good reason why a robust X-Men line shouldn’t be at or near the top of the sales charts. But in order to understand how to capitalize on this crucial opportunity, it’s vital to outline the dimensions of the crisis.
In 2001, Grant Morrison began a highly publicized three-year stint at Marvel. He was given a free hand to revamp what was still the company’s marquee franchise, in danger of losing its position due to years of increasingly insular storytelling and poorly received events. Morrison was brought in to shake the cobwebs loose, not necessarily for the sole purpose of appealing to fans of 2000’s X-Men film, but definitely with the intention of creating an attractive package to appeal to new and lapsed readers alike.
The problem is that Morrison did his job a little too well. Reconceiving the X-Men for the 21st century, he essentially mainstreamed the mutants. Instead of a tiny minority, hated and feared for their alien abilities, mutants suddenly became a sizable demographic, and their booming population created multiple opportunities for new stories and new types of stories. Although many long-term fans bristled at Morrison’s liberties, he succeeded in revitalizing the books at a time of great uncertainty.
Some have asserted that upon Morrison’s return to DC in 2004, Marvel overturned his run overnight. Many elements stayed and remain part of the franchise to this day, however, such as the Xavier school becoming a public haven for mutants, and the end of Cyclops and Jean Grey’s interminably perfect marriage. But within just a few months Magneto was back from the dead (with the carnage from the end of Morrison’s run revealed as the work of an imposter), and within two years Morrison’s efforts to change the nature of the mutant metaphor at the franchise’s core were undone by the House Of M crossover.
In 2005 Marvel canceled The Avengers. Although the book had been a Marvel mainstay for more than 40 years, it lagged in sales and could never shake its perception as the company’s B-team behind the X-Men. Marvel rebooted the book as New Avengers under the guidance of then-rising superstar Brian Michael Bendis. New Avengers was an instant sales juggernaut, partly because it featured the first Avengers team to include Spider-Man and Wolverine. Coming on the heels of his breakthrough Ultimate Spider-Man, the success of New Avengers cemented Bendis’ status as the company’s golden boy, a status he enjoys to this day.
House Of M was billed as a crossover between the New Avengers and the X-Men, but in practice the crossover can be seen as the point where the Avengers formally eclipsed the X-Men as Marvel’s premiere team. House Of M also rang the death knell for Morrison’s influence on the X-books. After an extended sequence on an alternate Earth where mutants had succeeded in becoming the dominant species, the heroes restored the world to its former shape only to find that the number of mutants had been drastically reduced, from millions across the globe to 198. What’s more, the mutant gene had been deactivated, meaning there could be no more mutants—ever. The subtext, if unintentional, was fairly clear: The X-Men, going forward, were fighting at reduced capacity. The momentum had shifted definitively to the Avengers franchise.
The aftermath of House Of M essentially sidelined the X-Men for the next seven years. The desire to walk back Morrison’s ambitious changes resulted in a drastic overcompensation, so that the X-books were saddled with an untenably grim status quo, with mutants no longer either a persecuted minority or a sizable demographic, but a drastically dwindling endangered species. While the Avengers led the company through the popular Civil War and Secret Invasion crossovers, the X-Men books remained deathlessly dour, stuck in their own corner of the Marvel Universe and interacting only sporadically with the rest of the line.
The two franchises met again in 2012 for the massive Avengers Vs. X-Men crossover, which did precisely what the title promised, and set the two teams at each others’ throats for the better part of a year. Sales were strong, but the X-Men did not emerge victorious. The Avengers were fighting for the safety of the world while the X-Men were fighting to protect the Phoenix in the possibly quixotic hope of restoring mutantkind. The Avengers were eventually proven right when the Phoenix took control of the X-Men and almost destroyed the planet. The X-Men were shattered in the aftermath, with Professor Xavier murdered by Cyclops and half the team wanted for crimes committed under the influence of the Phoenix. At least by the end of the crossover the mutant gene was restored, so that the X-books could finally escape the holding pattern in which they’d been trapped since 2005.
In what was framed as even better news, Marvel announced that none other than Brian Michael Bendis was leaving the Avengers to take over the X-Men. Although some greeted the announcement with skepticism, this was a good sign that Marvel was taking the mutant malaise seriously. Bendis had already proven he knew how to turn around an ailing franchise. Putting him on the books after years of diminishing returns was a clear message from Marvel that they still wanted to sell lots and lots of X-Men comics.
Or at least it seemed at the time…
The recent release (after several delays) of Uncanny X-Men #600 brings Bendis’ tumultuous three-year run on the X-Men to an end. In that time he has written both nominal flagship titles—Uncanny and All-New, All-Different—spearheaded the X-Men’s 50th anniversary crossover Battle Of The Atom, and introduced a host of new characters and concepts. But he also leaves the books in a strange position, with dangling plot threads and character arcs not concluded so much as simply stopped. The new characters and concepts he introduced are mostly still waiting for a creator to pick them up and run with them.
Now that it’s over, the overall shape of Bendis’ run is fairly clear. The narrative was built around the twin nervous breakdowns of two of the oldest X-Men, Cyclops and Beast. The death of Professor X in Avengers Vs. X-Men affected them both, albeit far differently. Cyclops, still delusional over his role in the Professor’s death, became an outlaw, more or less assuming the role once held by Magneto as the leader of the mutant opposition. Beast, on the other hand, retreated to the past, traveling in time to bring the original five X-Men into the present day. This was done in hopes of undoing some of the damage wrought as a result of the X-Men having deviated so badly from Xavier’s original design.
On the face of it, these were both interesting hooks on which to hang a story. In practice, however, they remained hooks in search of a story for much of Bendis’ run. Cyclops’ idea of a “mutant revolution” was never explained as anything more than a rear-guard action fought by a small splinter group of like-minded mutants trying desperately to stay one step ahead of S.H.I.E.L.D. (One of the unintentional running jokes of Bendis’ run was the slow devolution of S.H.I.E.L.D. from a world-class law enforcement agency into a gang of borderline-racist Keystone Cops.) This lack of focus eventually became part of the storyline, with those around Cyclops slowly realizing he was just making up his plans as he went along. Meanwhile, Beast’s time-travel scheme backfired from the very beginning, with the original five becoming trapped in the present and unable to return home for mysterious reasons.
The focus on these two storylines sequestered the two main X-books from the rest of the X-Men line. Popular characters like Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Rogue, and Psylocke were largely relegated to spin-offs. This created a problem: Even though Bendis’ two books were supposed to be telling the “main” X-Men story, many of the most famous X-Men were nowhere to be seen.
Another puzzling aspect of Bendis’ run was its lack of actual villains. The main schemer behind many of the nefarious deeds during his run was revealed, almost as an afterthought, to be the Dark Beast—a revelation that carried thematic significance for Hank McCoy’s storyline, but one that proved severely anti-climactic. Anyone looking for action-packed donnybrooks with the likes of the aforementioned Magneto, Apocalypse, Mr. Sinister, or even the ding-dang Reavers was advised to look elsewhere. Bendis’ X-Men mostly spent their time fighting generic Sentinels, S.H.I.E.L.D., and each other (or each others’ future doppelgangers).
Uncanny X-Men, focusing on Cyclops’ band of “revolutionaries,” featured a handful of familiar characters such as Magik, Emma Frost, and Magneto, with a crew of new mutants drafted by Cyclops to join his revolution. Most of these new mutants received short shrift. The original X-Men in All-New, All-Different spent much of their time dealing with the knowledge of just how screwed up their future selves had become, while taking steps to ensure those events would never come to pass.
It would be wrong to assert that nothing good came out of these stories. Of the new mutants introduced by Bendis, the time-traveling Eva Bell proved the most interesting. She was obviously Bendis’ favorite, too, since she received by far the most development, leaving her peers as more or less generic walk-ons speaking in Bendis’ signature witty banter. The time-tossed Jean Grey made for the most interesting deviation from her older self. Being able to see her possible future play out vividly in peoples’ memories made her far more committed to changing her future—but also, ironically, made her far more dangerous, and increasingly willing to use her powers in potentially abusive ways. A plotline featuring Grey’s outing of kid Iceman—followed by the subsequent outing of adult Iceman—provoked controversy, not necessarily from fans angry over Bobby Drake’s sexuality (the circumstantial evidence for him as a deeply closeted gay man was surprisingly strong), but over Grey’s heavy-handed use of her powers to violate her teammates’ privacy.
But these interesting character beats couldn’t cover up the fact that very little was actually accomplished over the course of Bendis’ run. The original five X-Men were not returned to their place in the past, and remain in the present. That this was not intended as a storyline with a set conclusion surprised many readers expecting some manner of resolution. Cyclops’ “mutant revolution,” meanwhile, was revealed to be simply a spur-of-the-moment peaceful gathering of all living mutants on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This didn’t work for a number of reasons, but mostly because Cyclops had spent the previous three years running from the government and rejecting the exact same kind of conciliatory gestures symbolized by the act of organizing a civil rights march in Washington, D.C. A strange note on which to go out, surely.
In theory, Marvel’s post-Secret Wars relaunch offers a clean slate for the X-books, a way to shake off the doldrums after three years of lost time. However, conspiracy-minded fans who believe that Marvel’s mutants have been intentionally sidelined have found fuel for their theories in the fact that the “All-New, All-Different” line includes a drastically reduced number of X-books. The idea of a fresh start is further complicated by the books’ awful new status quo.
However, conspiracy theories remain just that: theories. The fact that Marvel keeps trying to push the Inhumans, supposedly as a replacement for mutants in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and in response to Fox’s maintenance of the X-Men movie rights, has little bearing on the disposition of X-Men comic books. The reason why there are so few X-Men titles in the relaunch has more to do with the fact that X-Men spin-offs have been selling poorly for years. If the X-Men were still selling in 1990s numbers, Marvel would most assuredly still be producing them in 1990s numbers—but they’re not, so Marvel isn’t. Pruning the line was probably overdue.
More worrying is the post-Secret Wars status quo. Instead of having been magically reduced to 198 by editorial fiat, the mutants now face the threat of death and sterilization as a result of the Terrigan gas cloud released during the Infinity crossover—almost three years ago!—which has since proven deadly to mutants. If Marvel set out to troll X-fans, they couldn’t have picked a better method than by creating a story wherein Inhumans and mutants were literally set against one another in a battle to the death. Early reaction against the development appears to be overwhelmingly negative. Whatever people were hoping to get from a revamped X-Men line, they most emphatically did not want a return to the post-2005 status quo of massively depressed mutants fighting a losing battle against extinction.
There’s no reason why the X-Men can’t be awesome again. The building blocks are still there, left mostly undisturbed by Bendis: dynamite characters with exciting powers, gruesome villains, and endless potential for soap-opera shenanigans between impossibly sexy men, women, and beasts. What fans most definitely do not want to see is Marvel’s Merry Mutants fighting an evil cloud that makes them sterile, and they especially do not like the perception (whether real or imagined) that the X-Men are being put to pasture in favor of the Inhumans.
After three years of running in place with Bendis, the X-Men could use a shot in the arm. Even though the dreadful new status quo threatens to cripple the new launch right out of the gate, there is some hope in the first issue of new flagship Extraordinary X-Men. Anyone walking into stores looking for an X-Men book will see Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Iceman, Jean Grey, and Wolverine (well, a Wolverine), all in one place. Retailers and readers alike should rejoice at the advent of an X-Men book that actually features the X-Men people want to read about, for once.