by KC Carlson
One of my more unusual New Year’s resolutions that I intend to keep: I’ve resolved to catch up reading Marvel’s X-Men family of books, after falling a little behind. How far behind? I haven’t regularly read the X-books for over 20 years!
Oh, I’ve read some stuff — events like House of M and (I think) Messiah Complex — and I’ve followed some creators — anything that Alan Davis has done, a long run of Peter David’s X-Factor, and a few miniseries here and there. But mostly, I skipped things like Utopia, which seems way too complex with all its pre- and post- mini-events like Divided We Stand, Manifest Destiny, and Nation X. The one that scares me most that I’ve never read is Onslaught. At this point, it would take me hours in the comics room to find all the pieces of it among the 25 different boxes they’re in and require moving several dozen more boxes to get to all those. That’s what reprint collections are for — ease of reading.
Part of me thinks I haven’t missed too much at all, as I do a lot of reading of the Official Marvel Handbooks and the interwebs for info, keeping me “culturally aware” of what has happened over the years. I know generally what happened in Onslaught (and the far-reaching aftermath), but none of the fine details. And there’s still mutant stuff that I’m very fuzzy on — like what’s Rachel Summers’ story? (And just how many kids did Cyclops father, anyway? No wonder he’s so grumpy all the time…) I’ve lost track of Psylocke’s convoluted backstory, and couldn’t tell you much about the Weapon X program other than Logan’s involvement. (Oh, and it goes back to Captain America’s origin — but I think I got that from the movie…) And, what the hell is a Pixie?
SO, WHA’ HAPPENED?
How did I get so far behind? Several factors. I think I’ve said before that when I started working for DC Comics in the late 1980s (and for most of the next decade), my brain decided that it didn’t want to be on an “all-comics, all the time” regimen, so I developed other downtime hobbies. Working in New York, working occasionally crazy hours, and not actually living in NYC (meaning: commuting) didn’t always leave a lot of free time.
But I was already behind on my X-reading by then. I got tired of reading them, and I know exactly the point where it happened — it was when Rob Liefeld got involved in New Mutants, eventually taking over creative control of the series, and then ending it, spinning off the mega-popular X-Force. I never cared for his artwork, and I hated most of the new characters — mostly hugely muscled guys who could beat the crap out of you but decided to use guns and weapons instead. I thought that movies (and novels) always did mercenary types better than other media. Turns out there were millions of comic book fans that disagreed. X-Force was a huge hit right from the start. I yawned.
So I stopped reading that book — but like the “hypmotised” Marvel Zombie I was, I kept buying… ahem… “collecting” it. Little did I know that before long the other X-books would succumb to the latest comics trend of the time — more action-oriented and frequently violent storytelling. After years of Chris Claremont’s (and Weezie Simonson’s) intensely character-driven storytelling, it was a tough transition for me. My interest in the other X-titles dissipated, especially Uncanny X-Men and the whimsical Excalibur (my favorite X-book at the time), after both Claremont and Alan Davis drifted away from the title.
All the hoopla surrounding the new X-Men #1 didn’t faze me much — although I really liked Jim Lee’s artwork, I didn’t always like what he was drawing. When Claremont was seemingly shoved aside for younger and untested plotter-artists (like both Liefeld and Lee), I lost interest completely. (As it turned out, those guys, and others, didn’t stay long — leaving Marvel to form Image Comics — the “heart and soul” of the so-called “Dark Age of Comics”. Comics haven’t been the same since.)
Claremont was still around, however, writing the less-important X-Treme X-Men (which I did read, and mostly enjoyed), which, despite its title, was old-school mutant storytelling. It featured a lot of the older characters not cool enough for the main X-books of the era, which were focusing on newer and more bombastic characters. In hindsight, that era of X-Men appears to be incredibly representative of where the industry was moving — endlessly long storylines, many with “Event” status (eventually creating “event burnout syndrome”), and stories with big action, but very little heart or characterization. Further, apparent conflicts with management (X-editor Bob Harras’s name pops up frequently in discussions) caused changes in (or forced several creators off) X-assignments, frequently in mid-story.
[Aside: I’m thinking my description of the above era’s X-stories could easily be applied to many of the New 52 DC comics, all of which list Bob Harras as their Editor-in-Chief. Coincidence? That may also help to explain why I’ve already lost interest in many of the New DC offerings.]
HOW I KEPT UP
While I was working at DC Comics, I just didn’t have the time to read everything any more — and DC reading took obvious priority. I did manage to keep up with a weekly Saturday morning ritual, however. At the time, due to a reciprocal agreement (now no longer in place because of costs and probably bad blood), DC employees got comp copies of both DC’s and Marvel’s complete publishing lines (as did Marvel employees). I would haul the bundles of comics home in my knapsack. There were so many books that it usually took me 3 or 4 days to carry everything home. This was the early 90s, and Marvel was sometimes publishing up to 200 titles a month! And DC was also publishing, well… more than they should have been.
On Saturday mornings, armed with stacks and stacks of comics, I would diligently page through — but not actually read — each one, looking to see if there was important stuff I needed to know. I’d usually pull out a few to actually read before Monday morning. I remember this being a particularly bizarre task — especially with various combinations of pro wrestling, American Gladiators, GLOW, or Rollergames (a jazzed-up version of Roller Derby with a figure-eight track — with a ramp/jump and an alligator pit to resolve ties! Really! I’m not making this up!) playing in the background. (Gotta love local NYC indy TV channels.) That’s how I kept up on comic events of the 90s — without actually reading everything.
CULTURAL MUTANT AWARENESS
I didn’t read many mutant titles for quite a while. I did try reading Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men, but I got frustrated with the frequent delays early on and just never got back into it. I intended to read the run when it was complete, but by then, I didn’t find the time because of real world commitments. Eventually, in 2005, I was led back into the world of mutants with House of M, as I was currently keeping up with the Avengers titles at the time. I couldn’t say I actually liked it (lots of characters I liked were not being treated very well), but I did recognize it as another turning point in comics storytelling.
I thought about starting to read all the mutant books again, but the effects of the Decimation of mutant society asked more questions than it answered (at least for me). I was reading about characters dying whom I had never heard about before — not the best jumping-on point, thematically! It also didn’t help that there were numerous new titles and minis coming out of Decimation, and accounts of various character statuses (unchanged, de-powered, or dead) weren’t consistent across the books — plus it was depressing as hell, while also pushing the X-franchise into a “checklist” mentality. (Who were the 198 mutants who still had their powers?)
Interestingly enough, the “checklist” thing would have been great for a younger me — I loved making lists of comic book things (old-school Legion of Super-Heroes fan) — but by that age (in 2005), figuring all that out was just too much work — especially with the books being coy (or downright confusing) about some characters’ status.
Over the years since, I’ve tried frequently to get back into the mutant books. I jumped in again briefly during the whole Dark Reign/Dark X-Men/Utopia era, got quickly confused, and stopped. Tried once again post-Siege/Heroic Age, but found that the X-Books were seemingly telling the same stories from a year ago, when I stopped reading then. I was very confused by the lack of forward motion.
WHAT GOT YOU READING MUTANTS AGAIN?
Schism got me really interested in mutant affairs again. (Skip Prelude to Schism — four issues of waiting around for something to happen.) I liked Schism because it moved fast; it was published every two weeks. Because of the schedule, it had to have different artists for each individual issue — but all five of them (Carlos Pacheco, Frank Cho, Daniel Acuna, Alan Davis, and Adam Kubert) were strong choices (and a couple you couldn’t trust with a monthly book anyway). It all tied together with a strong story by Jason Aaron. Reading this was my first real exposure to him, as I’m not a solo Wolverine fan (love him as a team player, not so much on his own). I loved that Schism was filled with conflict, not all of it physical. And the remaking of the Hellfire Club as bratty little kids was brilliant — both whimsical and horrifying at the same time. It sold me enough to look forward to the new Wolverine and the X-Men title by Aaron and Chris Bachalo, whose style I love and admire — and that new series has been so much fun so far, that I recently announced it as my current favorite superhero comic.
I’m also very bemused in seeing that the “tag-team A-list creators structure” was also going to be used on the upcoming Avengers vs. X-Men Event — although this time with writers as well as artists.
I was also looking forward to the new Uncanny X-Men title by Keiron Gillen and Carlos Pacheco. I was impressed with Gillen’s Fear Itself storyline in Uncanny (the battle with Juggernaut), with its equal parts humor and action. I hope that will be evident in the new series, but it’s already stumbled a bit with me, for two reasons. The first is my fault: I don’t know/care much about Mr. Sinister — and probably won’t until I find out more about him. To have him feature in such a long opening storyline, it would have been helpful to have him better introduced.
The second is Marvel’s frustrating tendency to make their ongoing series more than monthly, putting out issues with increased frequency to increase sales. Pacheco isn’t the most rapid artist to start with, and there’s already been one issue with an artist fill-in and another with additional pencilling help, likely due to this speed-up. I did love the Mutant Organizational Chart in the back of issue #1 — very handy and cutely humorous — for dummies like me!
I’ve been enjoying the Generation Hope series, which I’ve been reading since it began, despite knowing not so much about Hope’s back story. Similarly, I started reading the current New Mutants series (ah, nostalgia) since it re-started — although I quickly got put off by all the various tie-ins to books that I wasn’t reading, so I stopped. But I restarted with the first Regenesis issue, and I was happy to discover the series was being written by DnA (Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning), whom I still think of as young talents, despite them now being respected as old pros these days. And my local comic shop owner has been berating me weekly about not reading Uncanny X-Force, which I intend to get caught up on as soon as I acquire the four hard-to-find back issues I need (or get the first trade).
Everything else I’m desperately behind on, but I hope to be up-to-date on the new titles as the books get thematically re-started with Regenesis “start here” bannering.
WHAT ‘OLD STUFF” ARE YOU READING? (AKA: METHODOLOGY)
I put a lot of thought into that. I didn’t want to go all the way back to the era where I stopped reading, because I wasn’t enjoying what was happening. I’m still up for reading those books, but not first thing — I didn’t want to be saddled with reading long strings of books that I might not enjoy, as that may frustrate me enough to stop — killing the reading project before it’s really begun. So I needed to find a better starting point for long-term reading.
I had two main criteria. 1) I wanted a starting place that would allow me to get quickly caught up with current-day titles and 2) I wanted a point that I was at least a bit familiar with (and that I liked) so as not to derail the project prematurely. A third, slightly lesser prerequisite was that I wanted to get caught up with stuff that would be relevant to the upcoming Avengers vs. X-Men, of which I currently have high hopes.
I started thinking in terms of event stories. I consider House of M probably the first “modern” Marvel Event story. It had much to do with changing the mutant titles forever, it still resonates in big ways today, and it’s probably going to be important to Avengers vs. X-Men in at least some ways. Plus, I wouldn’t mind a fresh re-reading of it, this time from the X-Men POV (rather than the Avengers). But I wanted to read a new-to-me series that led into the event first.
Knowing a little bit about the books in that era, I knew one of the ones that was most affected in House of M was New X-Men: Academy X. Also, I’m a sucker for teenage coming-of-age superteam books (duh, big LSH fan here), so I thought it would be the perfect book to start with. Further research told me that I should actually start with the second 12-issue series (2003) of New Mutants, which introduced several of the New X-Men characters. After reading it (I cheated — I actually started this reading resolution in December) and New X-Men: Academy X — up to the House of M tie-in issues — I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that there was a lot of material with the old New Mutants in both titles. I was very impressed with the writing of the husband-and-wife team of Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir. They combined team dynamics with just the right amount of teen angst, exacerbated by the affects of mutation. I was glad to have found the “correct” books to read to start, although I will be sad that DeFilippis and Weir will not be there when I pick back up on New X-Men after I re-read House of M.
From there I went to the 14-issue non-Excalibur Excalibur series from 2004, written by Chris Claremont, which instead of having anything to do with the team of the previous name, starred Professor Xavier, a not-dead Magneto, and a bunch of brand-new mutants who were helping out in the just-destroyed mutant nation of Genosha. I chose this to read next, as the last two issues serve as a prelude to House of M, but this Excalibur series also dealt a lot with concepts (some controversial) from Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men. Interesting, maybe not the best choice to read now — but at least it was short.
After getting nostalgic for Claremont, I immediately jumped to Uncanny X-Men #444-465 (which coincidentally featured my favorite occasional X-artist, Alan Davis, but had many artistic fill-ins due to it being published something like 16 issues a year at that point). I had read parts of this before and didn’t really understand it then, but I loved drooling over the artwork. Again, there was a lot of stuff here building on the Morrison New X-Men run, so my next choice was obvious. The Morrison stuff was so important to what happened in the X-books, pre-House of M, that I was going to have to make an unscheduled jump slightly backwards.
So, I’m currently reading Morrison’s New X-Men run (#114-154, plus the 2001 Annual). I had hoped to read the whole run with as little interruption as possible, but I only managed the first story arc before the holidays took me away from reading for a couple of weeks. I hope to get back to this soon, as it’s really too early for me to talk much about it yet. I have no idea what I’m going to read next. Perhaps I’ll just stick with post-Morrison New X-Men until it also hits House of M — and then re-read the main event.
So far, I’m having immense fun. Hopefully, I can keep going without getting behind on current comic reading. As well as life itself. I probably won’t spend too much time talking about it again, either — unless you’d like me to check in from time to time on where I am. My goal is to at least read from House of M to current day X-stories before Avengers vs. X-Men, but I realize that may not be realistic — especially since I don’t have all the mutant comics published during that time. So it’s actually a bargain box, back-issue search-and-destroy mission — as well as a reading project!
I hope you’re enjoying what you’re reading! I find that when I start getting bored with current superhero comics, going backwards to read favorite “classics” is a wonderful way to jump-start flagging interest in current storylines. Viva la comics!
KC CARLSON: Thinking that it might be cool to read ALL the Batman stories, especially now that Grant Morrison says that ALL of them “really” happened. (And now, all crammed into just 5 years of continuity!) Probably not in my budget, though… If DC were smart, they would step up their production of Batman Archives and sell them through the mail by subscription, just like they used to do with encyclopedias — or Time-Life Music CDs. Hmmm… Batman: The Disco Years! It’s got a good beat and you can throw Batarangs to it!
X-Men #1 cover from the Grand Comics Database.