Monday, November 22, 2010

Choking on X

It used to be a joke: what do you do with a large amount of X-Men? This question, usually asked at the end of some era-defining mass crossover, had an easy enough answer once upon a time. Shift a bunch over to some side comics that nobody really cares about (and invariably end up more interesting), while holding on to the core characters and a few surprise choices for a new team direction.

Back in the day, when the franchise was still in the iron grip of Chris Claremont, things were a lot easier to follow. There was the main X-Men title, the younger team and next generation in New Mutants, the originals off doing their own thing in X-Factor and the very occasional mini-series.

Some of these minis, like the Claremont/Miller Wolverine comics or the swashbuckling and very silly Nightcrawler series from Dave Cockrum, were vastly entertaining, while others, such as the lamentable Kitty Pryde/Wolverine or confused Magik series made up the numbers in a vaguely non-offensive way.

In a time where Young X-Men can last for more than 50 issues in various incarnations for no discernible reason whatsoever, it's almost difficult to believe that there may have once been an age when Marvel was cagily reluctant about releasing a new comic with an X in the title, or even adding new team members to the X-roster.

The criminally under-rated Louise Simonson was the only other writer allowed to play in Claremont's sandbox, and the titles were all the better for it. Even with a tight creative grip, there was little crossover between titles, allowing them to form their own identity.

By the mid-eighties, the New Mutants and X-Factor were radically different comics with their own concerns and themes. There were connections between the characters and titles, but the closest they would ever come to each other would be when they were a hallway away from each other during the Morlocks massacre. Even 1987's Fall of the Mutants was almost an anti-crossover, with each of the three primary x-books taking completely different paths, with only the most tenuous of thematic connections.

And then, sometime around the time the Image artists all buggered off, they stopped keeping the groups separate, and everybody was suddenly an X-Man. They managed to keep things separated into blue and gold groups for a while, and have made vague attempts to establish a core cast of X-people in the years since, but even after wiping out 99% of the world’s mutants, the size of the X-Men team is bigger than ever.

It’s a valid direction and a logical move for people that feeds on a diet of fear and loathing to band together as much as possible. But doesn’t really work, because in a team comic book it’s hard to care about anybody when there are eleventy-billion characters.

There are still exceptions, with a welcome focus on Cyclops in recent years, even if, like Batman and Mr Fantastic, a lot of writers still get really confused about the difference between “hyper-competent” and ultra-arsehole” when they’re writing the continuing adventures of Scott Summers. Wolverine is still terribly overexposed, and Rogue has also got a lot of attention, even if it’s the same old can’t-touch-this vibe played out for the thousandth time.

It’s only in the last third of the X-Men’s history that its cast has got so bloated and unwieldy. While things were relatively stable for the first few decades, an explosion in titles also saw an incredible increase in the number of characters.

Here come the numbers: According to a fairly recent Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, there were 29 members of the X-Men in the first 30 years (and that’s counting Lockheed), but in the 17 years since then, there have been another 44 members, with four more retroactively shoe-horned into past continuity.

That’s not counting 36 sub-team members and 70 other named students at the Xavier institute, 22 members of X-Statix, various X-Forces and X-Factors and Dark X-Men (which managed the impressive feat of looking silly and dated within days of their first appearance), X-Babies and X-Arses.

These days, they all appear to be living together and everybody is an X-Man, including that rubbish teleporter from Fallen Angels. Most just show up with a painfully ironic info box explaining who they are, do some funky powers shit and piss off again with a quick quip.

It’s hard enough to get to the point of a character in these brief appearances and harder for anybody to care, unless they have a major crush on somebody like Madison Jeffries. They stop looking like real people and are just pieces moving around a giant plot chessboard, shuffled around to suit the purposes of the story

It’s hard to fill a character with any kind of notable traits when they’re sharing space with dozens of others characters, and adding more titles to the mix just increases the noise.

There are groups like the Legion of Super Heroes that have a huge cast built into their core concept, but this has still resulted in a team that was as bland as cardboard for most of their history, with only a few skilled creators capable of juggling the large cast and still giving individual members an actual personality.

I used to be an X-fiend, and there were a ton of reasons that killed my enthusiasm for all things X, but this basic breakdown of storytelling that comes with the burden of a bloated cast was one of the main ones. If you stop caring about characters as people, you stop caring about the comic.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Excellent article - I feel the same way. I stopped reading comics in general during Onslaught, but recently got reacquainted with addiction. I tried to get back into the X-Titles during Messiah Complex and was completely lost. Like you said, I don't care about any of those characters. Give me America's Best and Comico back issues over any X-title any day of the week.