Welcome to the Datablog. This week we speak of X-Men.
I firmly believe that if you want to see how good a writer truly is, and by good I mean flexible, you should put them on an X-Men book and stand back for the results. If the results are either (A) passable, or (B) something pretty damn cool, you've got a writer who can really write anything he/she wants, and let them go on to write whatever. If the results are poor, well, we again see the strengths of the writer. I say this because there have been few X-Men stories in the last twenty years that I've read and have actually cared about, so let's get down to what makes an X-Men story good.
One word: evolution.
Now, evolution in and of itself isn't necessary a good or bad thing; it's not the sword, it's the swordsman. Anyone could write an X-Men story that breaks the mold, but does that mean it's in a good way? Anyone could write a classic-feeling X-Men story, but does that mean we need it? We certainly don't need another Wolverine-goes-and-finds-himself-and-digs-for-the-past story. Those are things of the past; we got that with Origin and New X-Men: Assault On Weapon Plus. Going back and telling stories with Wolverine, featuring the Canadian mutant who isn't actually Canadian in his past years, could work by giving us more Wolverine at any point in the timeline. Wolverine is one of the few characters you could throw into any genre because he's been alive since the 1800s. Almost 200 years old, James Howlett has seen it all, and as Old Man Logan is demonstrating, still has more to see. But another thing is this: if you're writing Wolverine, you really should be bringing your A-game, or you're just telling another Wolverine story. Mark Millar, I think, understands Wolverine to the degree that his big idea mindset is to throw Wolverine in the path of anything and having fun with it. See Enemy of the State. And that's cool. Throwing Wolverine into the path of more ninjas isn't by definition cool anymore, because how many times have we seen that? A whole bunch. You've got to bring something cool to the mix or it's going to fall apart.
Grant Morrison, brought a whole bunch of new ideas to X-Men and let them go crazy. But he had a point, a method, and while he stretched his imagination and the way we read comics, he kept his storyline simple: what are mutants? And to further conceptualize this, Joss Whedon continued that line of thinking with Astonishing X-Men, and not only brought back Colossus, but gave us new ways to view Professor X and a truly dangerous Danger Room. If you need a better example of how to break the X-Men out of the mold, Astonishing X-Men: Dangerous is the best way to go.
Ed Brubaker captured my attention with his work on X-Men, as did Mike Carey, Kyle and Yost, Peter David, and currently Warren Ellis. Warren Ellis is mostly hit or miss with me (see Thunderbolts), and can meander from point to point, but his run on Astonishing thus far is just as entertaining and full of high-brow thought as anything in Morrison's New X-Men. Why? Because he's breaking the mold and putting the X-Men through their paces with something random, off the wall, and totally fucking cool. But cool doesn't cut the mustard on its own. I've attempted to read Claremont and Byrne's work, and in retrospect it doesn't hold up so well. I think it's known mostly for killing Jean Grey, and the Phoenix story. That's fine; that's a classic story. It's certainly not aged well from a storytelling standpoint, but it's classic. So of course we hold it up and go "GOLD STANDARD!" Anybody could write that story these days; but it's old and grey and classic, so we revere it. I say "pah!" and move on. Look at the Onslaught story by Jeph Loeb and the Age of Apocalypse story by various. AoA was something wicked at the time, and I admit I was hooked when I was thirteen, but come on: really? That was such a product of 90's thought as to be so ludicrous by today's standards. And House of M: really? Seriously? With three words, Wanda Maximoff has damned all mutantkind? Really? It just works that way? And Chuck Austen reducing Magneto's biggest threat into "It WAS Xorn, he just thought he was Magneto!"? My god. Listen, Magneto should be retired. I mean it, he should die of old age and retire. At this point, he's, what, seventy? Eighty? And is still considered a huge threat to the X-Men? His entire point is that the horrors of the Nazi occupation could ring true with mutantkind, demonstrated by his escape from Auschwitz as a young man. Magneto, at ninety some odd years old, is far too old to be any threat to anyone. But the problem is that he isn't; by comic book aging, he's spritely enough to still "MU HU HA HA" and threaten. And his powers no longer work! Magneto is an example of Marvel's inability to look at their own realism: he's ninety and he's kicking the X-Men's ass. No. He should be dead because Wolverine killed him in New X-Men: Planet X, except that that was Xorn, and Magneto was...where again? I don't know. I ignored it because it hurt my brain too much to try and figure out why he wasn't dead. Essentially, Magneto is Marvel's cash cow, and one of their coolest villains, so somehow he had to come back. Just like Sabretooth will at some point, and so will Jean Grey. Because that's what happens with the X-Men: the status quo must be.
Let's look at Joy Division in comparison to the X-Men. Ian Curtis kills himself, and the band reformats inself as New Order, and we get "Blue Monday." Evolution. Jean Grey dies and we get new stories. Except that Jean Grey comes back. Ian Curtis never came back. We get Joy Division covers all the time, but Ian Curtis never came back. You see what I'm saying? Why, out of all the mainstream comic books on the market, does X-Men continually come back to the well and drag out old characters that should have gone by the wayside years ago? Magneto, Jean Grey, Professor fucking X, all should be dead. Jean is still dead, thank god, but how long can that truly last? Consider Hope Summers, the fucking Messiah X Baby. Green eyes, red hair, just like lil' Rachel Summers, who is the current Phoenix retainer. So long as we keep Rachel and this new Hope in the books, there'll be no need for Jean. Seeing Colossus come back, that was alright, and while I wish dead were dead, Whedon wrote that scene so amazingly well that I couldn't help but smile and say "You know what, all fucking right!" Kitty Pryde, Lost In Space, that's a bitch, tho. That's one that has an out, but that's gonna be a hell of a stretch to bring her back.
Look, we don't need X-Babies or X-Traction Team. We don't need another 90's explosion of X-Books. I think that going back and redefining what the X-Men are while still moving forward would be a great idea. Messiah Complex was a great story, the first really good X-Men story I've read in a long time, and I plan on buying the trade at some point. If we had great writers doing that all the time, fuckin' A. That would really bring the X-Books back to greatness. Not "Sex and Violence" or "X-Infernus" or Chris fucking-kiss-my-ass-you-old-sod Claremont. Real, honest to god writers with a breath of fresh air in them.
Put any writer on X-Men and let them go nuts, and if it's a good story, that's the mark of a good writer. The potenial is so there, but the bar is set high.
EDIT: Thanks to ERIC RUPE for reminding me that Onslaught was created by Scott Lobdell, not Jeph Loeb. Loeb is still a bad writer, though.