Posted on Monday, April 3, 2017
by Paul in x-axis
It’s the dawn of a new era again! No, not the last new era. The next new era. The colour coded one. You know, like in 1991.
Not that a relaunch is a bad idea. The last couple of years have once again sent us down the rabbit hole of mutants facing the threat of extinction, which has been done to death. Whether you look at it commercially or creatively, that direction was well worth abandoning. X-Men Prime is essentially a lead-in issue for the relaunch titles X-Men Gold, X-Men Blue and Weapon X. But first and foremost, it exists to send a clear message that this is going to be a back-to-basics affair. For readers exasperated by weird and unpromising deviations like relocating the school to Limbo, this issue aims to reassure with a selection of familiar tropes.
Though it’s credited to Marc Guggenheim, Greg Pak and Cullen Bunn – the writers of Gold, Blue and Weapon X respectively – this seems to be mainly an issue #0 of Gold, with set-up material for Blue and Weapon X inserted as subplots. The main story and framing sequence, presumably written mainly by Guggenheim, and drawn by Ken Lashley, picks up with Kitty Pryde back living in Chicago and taking up dancing again, partly so that the book can kick off with something appropriately familiar, but also because Kitty is a character usefully untouched by the recent direction. True, that’s because she was packed off into space for an equally unlikely run in the cast of Guardians of the Galaxy, but for the purposes of this story it lets her serve as the spirit of a bygone era that the X-Men would like to recapture.
Storm shows up to say that she’s quitting as leader after leading the X-Men into a pointless crossover, and she wants Kitty to come back and take up the reins…
…at which point we cut the Weapon X bit, which has nothing much to do with the rest of the issue. It’s just a freestanding scene that’s been shoved into the book on the basis that if you cut to it boldly enough, it’ll look like a subplot. And on a first reading, that’s precisely how it reads, so fair enough, I guess. This bit is (presumably) by Greg Pak and Ibraim Roberson, and it’s a sequence in which the new Weapon X spokesman, Carla, recruits Lady Deathstrike very much against her will. Carla is nicely done, as a vaguely creepy, condescending manager type in weirdly formal clothes; in plot terms she’s a stock one-step-ahead villain, so credit to Roberson for giving her an edge beyond that.
As a writer, Pak has earned the benefit of the doubt, but this isn’t immediately compelling. We seem to be back to characters kidnapped and pressed into service of evil government types, which I’ve never found especially interesting in the past. Lady Deathstrike is treated as a character who might be motivated by just getting the chance to kill mutants, but is that really her deal? And the idea that “no one will miss” a group of targets that includes Logan… well, I don’t get it. Pak deserves the chance to make it work over the length of an issue rather than a cut scene, but I’m not sold yet.
So much for that. What follows is Kitty wandering around the Mansion – which is still in Limbo – to check in on the X-Men and students who are still living here. In terms of the timeline, this doesn’t fit very neatly with the final issue of Extraordinary X-Men, where the X-Men seemed to have already taken a clear decision to pack up and go home. That’s a little bit aggravating. But other than having her swing by the time travelling X-Men, which is necessary to set up X-Men Blue, this is mainly a chance for Kitty to renew her neglected relationships with Colossus and Magik and reflect on how the X-Men may have become a bit directionless but they still feel like home. (Describing the inherited status quo as “unsettled” and “rudderless”, even in the specific context of the X-Men wondering what to do with themselves now that the Terrigen problem is over, feels like another tacit acknowledgement that the previous direction didn’t work.)
Oh yes, X-Men Blue. The junior team’s scene is somewhat shoehorned in – Kitty does have a previous connection with the group from Brian Bendis’s run on All-New X-Men, but it’s pretty clear that left to his own devices Cullen Bunn would prefer not to be doing this scene, because he has a big reveal that he wants to save for issue #1. So what we get is a sequence which establishes that Jean is back with the team, that she is now the leader, and that they’re leading the X-Men for some vague and unspecified purpose which Jean is championing and everyone else is sceptically playing along with. Beyond that, everyone has to talk around the plot, and there’s some stuff trying to re-establish a romantic triangle with Scott and Warren, which is old territory.
It’s an extended teaser and there’s not much point trying to read too much into it. The scene is awkwardly integrated into the main story, because the idea is that the younger X-Men have actually left and what seems to be them doing a Danger Room exercise – and come to think of it, when did we last do a scene with the Danger Room? – is actually a message on loop. Except that a few pages earlier there were thought balloons. You can rationalise this as an unsignalled flashback which is then integrated into the main timeframe but it reads a bit strangely.
Anyway, the upshot of all this is that Kitty accepts the offer to lead the X-Men, persuades Storm to stick around, and relocates the mansion from Limbo to… Central Park?
Lashley’s Kitty is rather severe, but the idea of putting her in charge is potentially quite a smart move. Guggenheim is trying to send the signal here that this is going to be a back to basics X-Men title, but without being a slavish retread of what went before. Kitty hasn’t been in this role before, and showing her as the student who graduated to leader allows the story to present itself as more of a faithful progression of the traditional X-Men era. As for moving the school to the middle of New York, well, that’s new – and probably to be welcomed if it gives the team more of a chance to interact with the real world.
There are a range of reasons for Marvel to be pursuing this direction. They’re coming off a hugely misconceived storyline that gives rise to a need to reassure the audience; they’ve also seen a similar approach doing well for DC. And frankly, after years of misery, we could use a more optimistic take on the X-Men that lays off the extinction and gloom, and plays up the idea that the mutants could also be the future – a side of the concept that’s lain dormant pretty much since Grant Morrison left.
A straightforward retread of the classic X-Men set-up wouldn’t work, and not just because it would be repetition or pale imitation. The Claremont era largely saw the X-Men hiding out in their mansion, with a cast the size of an extended family. They had a dream of a world where mutants and humans lived together but no real positive plan of action to bring it about. They tried to improve the public profile of mutants by doing some good deeds and dealing with mutant terrorists, but for the most part, the X-Men’s plan to deliver Xavier’s dream in the 70s and 80s was to carve out a safe haven and wait for better days to come.
But that’s not how people do it in 2017. In the modern age, the mutants should be demanding the right to take their place in the world, not hiding away from it. This is simply a matter of keeping the metaphor up to date and fit for purpose. There are decent stories to be done with that approach, and they’re better done by placing the X-Men and their school more firmly in the real world. Whether any of the upcoming stories are actually going in that direction, or whether the X-Men are simply going to be plugged into the Avengers’ role of being superheroes with a nice house in Manhattan, is another question. Plonking a bloody great mansion in the middle of Central Park does seem pretty confrontational, though. Time will tell whether we’re going to run with that or just pretend it isn’t a problem.
On its own terms this is an okay story, but then it’s got to integrate two largely unrelated set-ups for other books, one of which seems like it doesn’t want to be there either. In terms of what it signals for a direction of the books… well, even if it’s just trad X-Men, that’s still got to be a step in the right direction compared with the Terrigen fiasco, hasn’t it?