For a franchise that’s meant to be at the heart of the Marvel universe, Marvel editorial seems to spend a lot of time explaining to interviewers that the X-Men aren’t in danger of permanently disappearing. However you can see where people get that idea from reading Extraordinary X-Men #1, the mutant’s first chapter in the All-New, All-Different Marvel relaunch. After surviving Secret Wars, the only thing in store for the X-Men appears to be further threats to their existence. Sounds fun, yeah?
If you were hoping that Marvel would use the relaunch to return to a comparatively light-hearted adventure-based perspective for the series – perhaps even akin to the 90s animated series? No? – then sadly you’re out of luck because this issue is just a touch bleak. (But, hey, Rick Remender was originally going to be writing the series so let’s all count our blessings.) Instead, the series kicks off with Storm – now leader of the X-Men school and team – scrambling to deal with perilous threats to her people as the future of mutant race looks to be doomed, at best.
Extraordinary scribe Jeff Lemire does a passable job in this first issue of capturing the classic characters voices, however some feel more authentic than others in this let’s-get-the-band-together issue. Storm, in particular, is notable for having a tricky narrative voice to nail down (when in doubt, go for the dragtastic cartoon version, I say) but Lemire does an alright job with this first stab. Magik however comes across a shadow of her stoically proud self; Lemire’s attempts to fit her into the wise-cracking, pixie girl persona fall flat when you remember that Illyana is the kind of character that only really speaks when something needs said. Young women raised in hell dimensions are not typically known for their quips, after all.
Design-wise, Ramos’ reimagining of the franchise’s stalwarts ends up working well cohesively, even if some members come out of it better than others. Storm easily stands out as both the team’s most dynamic looking member and the biggest casualty of the artist’s … creative approach to proportions. (Who new wind goddesses had giraffe necks but no ankles?) Jean Grey, Magik and Nightcrawler all benefit from great redesigns as well, while the others prove a little off-key. Colossus ends up drawing the short straw here, which is ironic because he’s not about 12ft tall and veiny.
There’s a lot of exposition heavy lifting to do this in this issue and, confusingly for a #1 issue, Lemire struggles to differentiate for new readers what is genuine narrative history and what is as-yet-unrevealed story elements. What did Scott Summers do 8 months ago that made the mutant race outright villains to mankind? What is X-Haven? What are M-Pox?
Are we meant to already know the answers to these questions or not? While I can admire Marvel’s commitment to shakeup the X-Men line of books following Secret Wars (to a further extent than any other book in the relaunch; sorry, Spider-Woman) engaging with Extraordinary X-Men #1 as a jumping on point for casual or disenfranchised X-Men fans may prove difficult.
Most confusing, perhaps, is the X-Men’s current peril at the Terrigen Mists – the global gas cloud which bestows superpowers to those with the dormant Inhuman gene. Although the Terrigen mists grant Inhumans powers, it is revealed in Extraordinary X-Men that the cloud is in fact poisoning and sterilising mutants as well as contributing to a condition dubbed ‘M-Pox’ by mankind, who are more terrified of mutants that ever. Because why do anything by halves?
Marvel’s bizarre obsession with repeatedly putting the X-Men at risk of extinction seems an odd editorial choice, partly due to the fact that the franchise has long drawn directly from the social issues affecting real-world minority groups. From the team’s initial creation during the racial tension of 1960s America to storylines such as the Legacy Virus (AIDS crisis), the independence of Genosha led by Magneto (South Africa) and the potential of a controversial mutant cure (LGBT conversion therapy) – the X-Men have rarely shied away from the realities of being a cultural minority.
This established dialogue with diversity makes the return to abstract mutant annihilation all the more peculiar, to be frank. Even worse than that – it feels like a re-tread. While Storm’s opening monologue about how her people have never faced more dire circumstances should make the reader empathise with the mutant cause, instead I felt myself repeatedly interjecting ‘But what about M Day? What about Schism? Not as dire?’
Even the prevailing threat to humanity of the (ingeniously-titled) ‘M-Pox’ hollowly echoes the Legacy Virus, is there anything new about this storyline? You can only go through so many crises before you become numb and the same applies with readers – we’re at risk of apocalyptic burnout with the franchise.
If there was any ever doubt, the Secret Wars event series has reminded mainstream comic book fans that bigger threats don’t necessarily translate to a more compelling story. Even worse, the more often you place the X-Men in jeopardy – only for them to, again, triumph at some abstract terrible cost – the more readers are reminded that the mutants can survive just about anything. Perhaps that’s meant to be an affirming sentiment but instead it only serves to undermine the dramatic weight of the next extinction-level threat.
It’s time for the X-Men to tell smaller stories. Luckily, with a franchise this broad and rich in scope, that covers just about any stories below ‘we’re all going to die’. That space is where the X-Men still has ripe narrative potential because when Marvel can move beyond the abstract risk of the mutant race dying out completely – when the risk of extinction is lifted – then the X-Men will have the opportunity and obligation to face the question of what quality of life their people deserve. That’s the kind of issues facing real world minority groups in Western society today, not mass extinction from a great puff of smoke. The mutant identity is still the perfect lens through which to analyse social issues affecting minorities and we still need it desperately.
It’s the opportunity to have a mainstream audience consider cultural problems like whether the heightened risks of institutional violence and police brutality against a particular ethnic identity are still justifiable in the 21st century. It’s the chance for queer readers to face the cultural contradiction that sees them campaigning for marriage equality in progressive countries while fellow LGBT citizens in other parts of the world are brutally murdered for being who they are. It’s the time to engage with issues of class, gender, race, sexuality and identity and what it means to be a privileged person in the world today.
These are topics that the X-Men were created to deal with but struggle to key into while they’re dealing with the third extinction event facing their people in the last ten years. Perhaps once the Terrigen mists have finally lifted, Marvel editorial and Extraordinary X-Men’s creative team will be able to find the storyline that the mutant race is well overdue.
Written by Jeff Lemire
Drawn by Huberto Ramos with inks by Victor Olazaba and colors by Edgar Delgado
Lettered by VC’s Joe Carmagna
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Adam Sorice is a literate graduate turned grown-up who writes about comics when he’s not describing himself in the third person. He wrote his dissertation on Lady Gaga; he’s quite proud of this.