Wednesday, 2 March 2016

X-Men: E is for Extinction

Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely & others
X-Men: E is for Extinction (2002)

I've a feeling this may have been the one which got me back into reading comic books, and more significantly into actually buying comic books. As the nineties broke for half-time, the number of monthly titles I could be bothered to pick up had dwindled to just a few Vertigo efforts which I'd been following with ever-decreasing levels of enthusiasm. Then came Preacher in which Garth Ennis bravely experimented with references to that time we drank a million pints of Guiness and ended up in this really amazing Irish pub with this bloke playing one of those Irish tambourine things and we were all singing Pogues songs and we were sooo pissed and it was like really wild so it was and we were sooo hungover it was untrue as a substitute for narrative, and Morrison's Unreadables which was shit; and my comics habit began to feel like I'd found myself cornered by the world's most boring wanker at some party I hadn't really wanted to go to in the first place. Thusly did I pack it in.

Almost a decade later, probably not too many months before I committed to obsessively penning reviews of everything I read, I found this collection misplaced in some corner of the book store which patently wasn't comics and picked it up out of simple curiosity.

'So this is still going,' I scoffed to myself, feeling older and wiser before noticing that it was written by Grant Morrison. I'd had no idea he'd become quite so mainstream whilst I'd been looking in the other direction. X-Men was a superhero title which had once pissed over most of the competition, historically speaking, and the thought of it having been written by the author of the wonderful Zenith and Doom Patrol intrigued the shit out of me. I skimmed through the collection there in the shop, making sure it wasn't just an incoherent sequence of references to Aleister Crowley. It wasn't, and there seemed to be much to suggest that I'd be able to follow the story despite not having bothered with an X-Men comic since about 1992.

I loved the X-Men at least since junior school when the classic Lee and Kirby material had been reprinted in black and white in the back pages of something or other; and then again in about 1985 when shopping at the Maidstone branch of Safeway with Charlie Adlard, I noticed a comic bearing the same title with an individual I didn't recognise on the cover.

'Who the hell is that?' I wondered out loud.

'That's Wolverine,' Charlie told me, revealing a previously unsuspected interest in comic books.

'What does he do?'

'He has these metal claws,' Charlie explained, and so I bought the thing and became immediately addicted. This was the Chris Claremont run on X-Men. As a writer, Claremont had certain weaknesses - not least a propensity for way too many thought bubbles crammed with proto-emo corn - but he was always a fucking great storyteller. Over the next couple of years I became obsessed, faithfully following the ever-expanding catalogue of mutant titles until the whole edifice eventually began to collapse under the weight of its own overextended marketing. Suddenly Claremont was no longer involved, and Rob Liefeld was, and the formerly wonderful New Mutants had been cancelled, and it all seemed like a massive waste of everyone's time. It really felt as though Marvel were taking the piss, and so I took my wallet elsewhere.

Amazingly, Morrison's X-Men turned out to be every bit as good as I had hoped. He'd reigned in his own more self-indulgent tendencies and really tapped into the essence of what made the book so great back in its heyday, back when Chris Claremont had been pulling the sort of wacky twists which just shouldn't have worked and making it seem effortless - turning the bad guy into a hero, resurrecting the dead and so on: all the stuff which has become commonplace and prosaic in the tiresomely mannered storytelling of modern film and television and other media aspiring to be film and television. Morrison seemed like a natural for this book, pulling off all sorts of convoluted continuity derived intrigues without the off-putting fan-wankery so often associated with the form. It's soap opera with explosions, and is at least as much science-fiction as it was ever about leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Superheroes tend to entail a certain degree of wish fulfilment of the kind which appeals to outsider types, and the success of X-Men was always rooted in this idea, perhaps more so than has generally been true of the genre as a whole. You might wish for Superman or one of those others to sweep down, fix your broken glasses and retrieve your dinner money from Gripper Stebson, but you knew full well that you could never be like him, you weirdo. The X-Men, on the other hand, were similarly outcast and - once over the initial hump of expectations associated with a 1960s mainstream comic book - it wasn't even about fighting crime. X-Men was always about survival, about getting from A to B without having your head kicked in. Even if the readers weren't actually strange mutants with peculiar powers, they may as well have been so far as our Gripper Stebsons were concerned. Accordingly Morrison's X-Men is an appeal for tolerance and an indictment of the censorious and religious right as representative of everything which is wrong with society; and the message is somehow written in block capitals without so much as a whiff of preachy, which is some feat.

Even with the massive chins of Frank Quitely, this is a raw and unalloyed joy to read. It's at least as solid as anything Chris Claremont ever wrote and is amongst Morrison's very best - right up there with Zenith and Doom Patrol if you ask me.

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