X-Men has been thoroughly dethroned as the top franchise in comics, replaced in sales and popularity among superheroes by Green Lantern, the Avengers and Batman. Sales are down, interest is down and the X-Men line is just kind of dismissed by bloggers and podcasters as a property coasting on past successes more than one that innovates, entertains and is a commercial success.
No one who’s read this blog or my book or spoken to me about it at a con or online will mistake me for anything other than a big fan of the X-Men. That doesn’t mean I don’t recognize a ton of crappy X-Men comics have been published over the life of the title. But I do think the X-Men stands apart from pretty much every other superhero out there because its concept is capable of delivering a great deal more emotional depth. X-Men is, at heart, a science fiction concept that features many conventions of the superhero genre. You could do X-Men without code names, costumes, secret identities and crime-fighting elements that define most superheroes. But by making the X-Men mutants — granted powers by accident of birth — and turning them into a race or even a class of potentially dangerous people pitted against normal humans, X-Men has a greater potential to become something deeper and more significant than the superpowered cops commonly found in Avengers or Green Lantern.
The X-Men’s current decline easily began the moment Grant Morrison left New X-Men, ending the last great run of innovation the title has seen. That was 2004, and was followed in 2005 by Marvel placing renewed emphasis on the Avengers, beginning its ascension to the top of the charts starting with Avengers: Disassembled and The New Avengers. I think there were a lot of reasons for this shift, but the most interesting was that also was about the time that Marvel began planning to make its own movies. With the X-Men movies rights and profits locked up at Fox indefinitely, it simply makes sense for Marvel to put all its efforts into building up the Avengers into the most recognizable and profitable brand.
I dropped all Avengers books shortly after the recent relaunch because I think writer Brian Michael Bendis’ style has grown increasingly stale and lazy. How long can you quote movies from the 1980s in a pastiche of David Mamet and Kevin Smith before people stop calling it brilliant? How many issues can you write where superheroes sit around eating and drinking coffee and chatting about nothing while all the action happens off-panel? Bendis is on track to find out.
The X-Men books these days are not horrible, but they’re not great either. What they lack more than anything is the kind of wild energy and the constant sense of elevating danger that marked the best days of the series. The former is a problem that afflicts most comics these days, while the latter stems from the need for the X-Men metaphor to evolve and reflect the nature of being an outsider.
So how to fix that? I have some ideas:
Stop writing comics like they’re movies or TV shows and starting writing them like they’re comic books again.
This is a problem that affects most mainstream comics these days. It’s not uncommon for dialog scenes in superhero comics to run two or three pages, with four or five panels per page. This works for Tommy Schlamme on The West Wing, but in comics, it is extremely boring. Flipping through the current arc of The Uncanny X-Men, “Quarantine,” there’s a LOT of talking. The first issue, #530, starts with two pages of Emma talking to Kitty, followed by a page of almost-naked Emma talking to Scott, followed by three pages of Anole talking about getting sick, a page of Northstar and Dazzler having dinner, two pages of The Collective talking and one of them tearing up a convenience store, followed by a super-exciting two-page press conference, and on and on. Boring.
Similarly, a couple of issues later we get a big fight between Emma and Sebastian Shaw, while Northstar et al. are fighting the Collective in San Francisco. Despite most of that issue, #532, featuring some kind of action, these sequences still lack energy and fail to generate any kind of excitement. I think a lot of it comes from Land’s heavy reliance on photo reference. In theory, photos should make good starting points for comic panels, but in practice the artists who rely on photo reference produce work that looks stiff, or even frozen. Good comic art has a natural look and the storytelling flows from panel to panel and page to page. I don’t think you’ll ever get that flow cobbling together panels based on pictures from Sports Illustrated, TV Guide and the Victoria’s Secret catalog.
In movies and TV, time is valuable. In comics, it’s space. And wasting so much space and so many pages on endless dialog and stilted action simply runs counter to the strengths of comics as a medium. Add in the stretching out of storylines over four or six issues, which often ship late, and the number of people who wait for collected editions to read and it’s almost impossible to avoid material that feels stilted, thin and stretched beyond its limits. At a time when communication is speeding up and people are abandoning short forms of communication like email and blog posts for even shorter and quicker hits offered by Twitter and Facebook, this is an even worse approach. I don’t know why comics aren’t more focused on making each issue, each episode as jam-packed full of cool stuff as they possible can rather than boring everyone to death with decompressed, to-be-continued and irrelevant material.
Next: be subversive. I think good comics are a lot like good rock ‘n’ roll (or any good art): it must challenge the reader in some way. In comics’ case, that usually means being subversive in some ways. X-Men was always good at that, featuring characters who are always on the outside of society looking in. It’s a great premise for criticizing just about any aspect of society. And looking at the state of the world today, there is no shortage of things to criticize. However, X-Men in the post-Morrison years has been astonishingly conservative, sticking to an interpretation of the mutants and their relationship with society that fails to evolve and remains exceedingly safe.
Perhaps that’s to be expected. Both DC and Marvel’s books have felt increasingly like the products of a corporation in recent years, shedding the personalities that the artists and writers used to bring to them. It often feels like I’m not reading a comic anymore, but a marketing plan or press kit takeaway.
The antidote to this has to be taking some chances with X-Men stories, going beyond what’s been established in the past 48 years of comic books and take a few digs at society. The good news is there is no shortage of conflict in the world right now — economic, political, religious, racial — X-Men could easily tap into. The bad news is that Marvel is a big corporation and can’t be expected to court the kind of controversy subversive comics would bring.
So if anyone were to ask me what could be done to fix the X-Men comics, here’s what I would do.
- Shorter, punchier storylines. Throw lots of strange ideas in there and see what sticks.
- Get the X-Men off Utopia. Putting all these characters on a fake island where all they have to do is talk to each other has turned out to be deadly dull. This is a book that needs to connect with the real world, and they can’t do that on Utopia.
- Return a sense of dread to the book. Claremont did this extremely well, by making mutants powerful enough that it was credible for normal humans to hate and fear them. He also had an ear for the kinds of arguments used in the media at the time to discuss divisive issues and shrewdly injected imagery from the Holocaust to great effect.
- Tap into real world issues. The Holocaust imagery evoked a universal and undeniable sense of fear and horror in to the X-Men that stood in for a number of different interpretations of the mutant metaphor. It could be about race, it could be about religion, it could be about just being an outsider or it could be about being gay. For too long — ever since Claremont left in 1991 — X-Men has relied a little too much on the homosexual interpretation. A lot of this became more obvious for many folks after Bryan Singer’s movies. But gay rights have come a long way in the last 20 years, and no longer carries the kind of stigma it did in the 1980s and even in the 1990s. With the shrill political, cultural and religious environment found in the United States, there’s lots of ways to move beyond the Holocaust imagery and find new threats for the mutants based on real-life stuff that’s extremely compelling.
- Put the X-Men in direct conflict with humanity. The idea of an all-out war between humans and mutants has been inherent in the concept from the start. It’s been 48 years since X-Men #1 — isn’t it time we saw this at long last? There’s enough X-books, and I could see this as a great new status quo for the X-Men for the next several years.
I’d love to hear what other fans have to say — fire away in the comments if you’re so inclined.