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Jan 9

X-Men: Grand Design #1-2

Posted on Tuesday, January 9, 2018 by Paul in x-axis

Grand Design is one of the stranger X-related ideas in quite some time.  Planned for six outsize issues, it’s Ed Piskor re-telling the first three hundred or so issues of (UncannyX-Men.  These first two issues cover the Silver Age.

Now, three hundred issues in around three hundred pages is going to be seriously compressed.  But Piskor’s best known work, Hip Hop Family Tree, is essentially documentarian, and there’s a similar vibe to this.  Yes, there’s a framing sequence to set up Uatu as the narrator, but that largely serves to explain why the focus remains on the big picture rather than the small details.  More to the point, though, roughly three hundred issues basically means the end of the Claremont run, and if there’s one thing that Claremont was very good at, it was creating a sense of a grand saga.

So the point of this exercise – beyond simple tribute – seems to be to shift the emphasis away from the details of individual stories and to tell the story of the big, dominant themes which run through that era.  Of course, Claremont didn’t actually come onto the book since 1975, when most of the cast was replaced, but it was still an era of superhero comics based on the notion of a grand continuing uber-story, and which treated its history in that way.  This didn’t die with Claremont – it persisted for most of the nineties – but it petered out by the time of the Grant Morrison run.  It’s not something that’s easily re-created now, given the stop-start nature of X-Men history over the last 15 years or so, and the sheer unwieldy bulk of a continuity stretching back to 1963 (and being spammed with new content month after month).

Part of the appeal here is the style, with aged-looking pages and a balance between an indie feel and a more conventional Marvel style.  There’s a great attention to detail in the panels, which helps to fill out what could otherwise have been very clipped and narrative-heavy scenes, and give more depth to the characters.  And there are some good little comedy beats in there as well.

But for someone who’s already pretty well immersed in X-Men continuity, what’s more interesting is the extent to which Piskor is not doing a straightforward summary of the series at all.  That’s not just because of the incorporation of a large number of continuity implants – the first issue doesn’t even reach X-Men #1 because it’s so busy incorporating a whole load of flashback material (including the late-sixties back-up strips about how the team was formed).  Rather, Piskor is changing a lot of the details, in a way which might not be altogether obvious to readers taking the catalogue of end notes at face value.

This is not to say that anything big has changed.  Quite the opposite – the point seems to be that nothing big has changed, but that a lot of the small details have been hammered into line so as to better serve precisely the same big picture, or just to get rid of stuff that was no good. In short, it’s a summary of the X-Men as it would have been if the creators had known where they were going all along, and had steered clear of some of their dodgier ideas.  But at the same time, little or nothing is truly new, simply revised.

At this point there’s a risk of degenerating into a catalogue of minutiae, but let’s take a few examples of how Piskor is, on the whole, tying things together rather more neatly than the original, with a few subtle changes.

In Lee and Kirby’s version, Xavier loses the use of his legs in battle with Lucifer, and the fact that nobody ever uses Lucifer despite his theoretical “arch-enemy” potential tells you all you need to know about what a mediocre bad guy he was.  Piskor – much more sensibly – just cuts that out entirely, and simply has Xavier injured in the same cave-in where Cain Marko becomes the Juggernaut.  That requires Xavier’s trip to Egypt to meet Amahl Farouk and a young Storm to take place before his military service (Claremont had it after), and means that Xavier is now in a wheelchair by the time he meets Gabrielle Haller (in the original, he wasn’t).  It’s an obviously better sequence.

The Phoenix Force storyline starts as soon as Jean Grey’s powers emerge, as the Phoenix instantly turns round to head for Earth and all the alien races take notice.  That allows it to become a developing subplot which slowly builds from the earliest possible moment.  It also provides an explanation for the Shi’ar reconnaissance vessel which kidnaps Scott’s parents – oh, and Katherine Summers is just killed instead of being captured and killed later, which simplifies matters and also gets rid of a slightly dodgy overtone of sexual violence.  And it provides a better reason for the alien Mutant-Master to take an interest in Earth during the Factor Three arc, instead of his original “nuke everything and rule the wasteland” plan.  And it explains why the Stranger wanted to come to Earth.  And… you get the idea.  If it involves aliens or anything vaguely cosmic, it’s now probably to do with people trying to find out what’s up with Phoenix.

The various anti-mutant villains – Cameron Hodge, the Trasks, Stephen Lang, Robert Kelly, Donald Pierce – are linked together by making them members of the Right.  This is one of the points where I wonder if it’s going a bit too far to tie everything together; thematically, isn’t it better if the anti-mutant sentiment is coming from multiple sources rather than one?  Still, there are some nice tweaks to Angel’s back story to take account of the retcon from 80s X-Factor that he had Cameron Hodge as a confidant during his first run as a superhero.

Magneto’s attack on Cape Citadel in X-Men #1 is conflated with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants’ attack on Santo Marco in X-Men #4.  This is a very good move because it goes some way towards answering the question of what Magneto was actually trying to achieve in issue #1; it neuters the question of why he didn’t bring the Brotherhood with him; and it makes it possible to have the Brotherhood being recruited alongside the X-Men, which works much better.

The X-Men’s random fight with Count Nefaria at the start of the Roy Thomas run now seems to be presented as Nefaria laying the groundwork for a plan involving NORAD – in other words, trying to give some big-picture context to the X-Men’s other random fight with Count Nefaria at the start of the Chris Claremont run, an inconsequential story which could easily have been glossed over if it hadn’t been used to kill off Thunderbird.

Ted Roberts, a short-run late-sixties supporting character who was a competing love interest for Jean Grey, is now Mastermind starting the Dark Phoenix saga ten years early.  This is a lovely way of acknowledging a dead end plot which went on for a year, and actually tying it to something bigger.

The whole team know that Xavier fakes his death, and not just Jean.  Of course, in the original, they just killed Xavier and then brought him back in a retcon, which made it impossible to claim that the whole team knew all along.  But that was stupid, and the only reason to do it that way was to try and square off earlier issues.  Piskor could have just cut the entire thing, but then he’d lose the bit where the team “graduate” by carrying on as heroes without their mentor around, and that wouldn’t be in the spirit of the series.

You get the idea.  Now, granted, once we get into the series proper, there is a bit of “and then they fought X, and then they fought Y”.  I guess that’s necessary if you want to make the point that, honest, there was other stuff in here too.  But what Piskor’s done here is a rather subtler exercise in editing the material than it might first appear, and the vast majority of his changes are clear improvements.  There are good reasons why the original comics weren’t done this way – principally, the original creators were neither perfect nor psychic – but it’s a streamlined re-telling that’s faithful to the big picture while still being built almost exclusively from the original elements.

What you lose, of course, is much of the character dynamics and soap opera which were typical of the X-Men’s heyday – though, to be fair, not so much in the Silver Age.  But then we’re bringing out one particular aspect of the X-Men’s history here.  The nagging question here is whether this all amounts to anything more than an interesting editorial parlour game with nice art.  Ultimately, that will turn on whether Piskor really can bring this chunk of X-Men history together as a truly satisfying whole.  That may be easier said and done, because the X-Men didn’t stop in 1991, and the Claremont era ends with him leaving mid-story and the reset button being whacked next month.  We won’t know for a while yet whether Piskor can find a resolution in his source material, but it’s the point that I’m most curious about.

Bring on the comments

  1. Moo says:

    Sorry, that was bad wording on my part. I was thinking hate crime, just one that wasn’t specifically linked to a real-world event.

  2. Chris V says:

    Right now, the Holocaust back-story is still plausible for Magneto, with the deaging story from Defenders.
    They just need to ret-con Professor X’s back-story.
    It’s fine if Xavier is quite a bit younger than Magneto when they first meet.
    They can ret-con it so that Xavier was born in the 1950s, and met Magneto in Israel during the 1970s.

    Sure, make it that Magneto was an old man when he first appeared in X-Men #1. They can tie the “ranting loony” Silver Age Magneto characterization in to it by saying he was a senile old man.
    Then, he gets deaged during that Defenders story, and Marvel can make it work, for now.

    Eventually, it will reach the point where Magneto would be dead before Xavier would have had a chance to meet him….so, yeah, it becomes a problem down the road.

    I do believe that it would hurt the characterization of Magneto to remove the Holocaust back-story from him.
    Wait for Magneto: Black, where it’s ret-conned so that Magneto is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide….(rolls eyes)

    If only Marvel had a White Event moment that led to the birth of superheroes in the Marvel Universe.
    Marvel could just explain that time changed after the White Event, but the characters don’t notice before they’re living in that reality.
    Time moves differently because of those events. 73 years have passed since the end of World War II, but the characters inhabiting the Marvel Universe don’t seem to be aging at the same rate. So, Magneto might have been born before World War II, but due to time moving so strangely now, he’s only aged, say, forty-three (or so) years in that period.
    It’s just normal to the characters living in that reality, but the readers know it’s because the “White Event” changed everything.

  3. Chris V says:

    Oh, and the further forwards the Marvel Universe moves from the “White Event” moment, the more time is distorted.
    So, 100 years from the moment of the “White Event”, characters will age even more slowly.
    Magneto might only age (say) five more years in the next seventy-five years due to this, for example.

    That would be the best fix, as then Marvel wouldn’t need to worry about changing any back-stories.

  4. Moo says:

    Sigh. Nah, I don’t feel like explaining yet again how the de-aging of Magneto after the Silver Age has already kicked off solves absolutely nothing.

    And your White Event idea is ridiculous as it should mean everyone on earth would have the lifespan of Yoda. This doesn’t simplify anything.

  5. Chris V says:

    Well, it’s a meta-commentary on the way that comic books actually work. The characters long outlive their creators and fans, for generations and generations, as companies keep publishing the characters year after year.
    Grant Morrison would be perfect for a project to explain “Marvel time”.

    I’m not sure why it doesn’t simplify things, as it does away with the need for constant ret-cons.
    It would cause some scary issues with over-population, sure, but readers can buy a lot of unbelievable aspects to comic book universes already.

    The only other solution is to just keep updating characters after so many years, and pretending like nothing happened (if Marvel refuses to relaunch their universe periodically, ala DC).
    Marvel really got lucky that 9/11/01 happened in America, as otherwise, it would have been a lot harder to update Tony Stark and Frank Castle.

    It still doesn’t explain how Iron Man was fighting Communist super-soldiers throughout the Silver Age either…
    I mean, the fortuity of the “war on terror” helped with some characters, but there’s no plausible updated fill-in for the “Cold War”.
    I guess we just have to accept that Russian operative the Titanium Man was fighting America’s Iron Man, and it didn’t lead to major international incidents. Otherwise, most of Iron Man’s history has to be ret-conned out of continuity as well.

    So, just random continuity changes that characters aren’t supposed to notice is the better option?
    Pepper Potts:”Wait, Tony…weren’t you injured in Vietnam? Oh, that’s right. You’re far too young for that. I guess you were always injured in Afghanistan. OK.”

  6. Moo says:

    I would genuinely prefer Marvel continue ignoring the current timeline problems than go with what you’re suggesting.

    The Marvel Universe has to be *somewhat* relatable. What you’re proposing eliminates relatability entirely. An earth-like world of humanish-looking aliens who live for a thousand years or more. Besides the obvious problem with overpopulation and consumption of resources globally, the individual human experience would be completely divorced of anything we could relate to. Living fifteen times longer would completely change the way they would plan and shape their lives.

    So, no. Readers certainly wouldn’t “buy” that. And as far as fixes go, this is like using a tow truck to pull out a hangnail.

  7. Nu-D says:

    It fixes everything because characters age out, and new ones tied to more modern times become prominent. The “sliding timeline” becomes irrelevant.

  8. Moo says:

    No, expanding human lifespans in the MU to ridiculous lengths is a dirt stupid idea. I seriously can’t believe this conversation is actually happening.

  9. Voord 99 says:

    Nu-D: It fixes everything because characters age out, and new ones tied to more modern times become prominent. The “sliding timeline” becomes irrelevant.

    I think, unfortunately, that commercial considerations are against it, especially with the “iconic” solo characters like Spider-Man.

    Not saying that’s a good thing, necessarily, but I think there are not enough readers who want to read the ongoing story of a universe versus having an affection for particular characters.

    And, to be fair, saying that you can’t use a compelling character because of realism may in some cases be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If characters can be retconned into an updated version and kept around, why not? Provided, that is, that they’re still worthwhile characters with which something can be said.

  10. Moo says:

    I’m still laughing. Hey, instead of doing some continuity fixes, let’s just present Marvel’s earth as a place where the average family reunion might consist of up to forty generations worth of relatives. Gonna need a lot of cake.

  11. Jerry Ray says:

    Like I said way upthread, all of the energy put toward in-universe fixes to problems like this is stupid fan-wank stuff – you’re just arguing over which convoluted patch is worse. They’re all dumb, which is why it’s better to just tell new stories than constantly shining a light on the inconsistencies and rewriting history and retconning to incorporate increasingly convoluted new character histories.

  12. Moo says:

    Oh, please. Friggin’ Cable is about to make his film debut. While I don’t expect the film version to be nearly as convoluted as the comic version, the fact that his backstory is a bloody nightmare certainly hasn’t made him toxic. You can sort out Magneto without too much trouble. Preferably something that doesn’t involve making everyone on the planet a Highlander.

  13. Brendan says:

    Magneto ages at a slower rate because something something magnetism. It’s as realistic a use of physics concerning Magneto’s mutation as was employed from the 60s-90s. I’m less interested in how Magneto is around as to why he’s still around. Other that movie synergy and brand recognition.

  14. Nu-D says:

    @ Voord,

    I recognize it’s a pipe dream, though I think it’s commercial viability is under appreciated. I do think if characters like Peter Parker got out of the way, fans would be just as enthusiastic and affectionate towards Miles Morales. And if you really need to do another Magneto story for the nostalgia set, you set it in between 1945 and 1991.

    Look at the expired Star Wars Extended Universe. Nobody tried to make Luke, Han and Leía the stars of every story. They starred in novels set during their lifetimes, and other characters starred in novels about other eras. Some of those characters were hugely popular among the fans. The MU could easily follow the same model.

  15. Moo says:

    Talk about comparing apples to oranges.

    The source material for the Star Wars EU came from films where the principle characters were played by living actors who age in real time. Plus, the whole thing takes place in an entirely fictional galaxy where there are no “real-life” events to hang the characters on.

    If you like Peter Parker as Spider-Man, then chances are, you’d prefer him to be presented as a relatively young man, and you probably don’t want a youthful Peter Parker Spider-Man story to be a 1970’s period piece.

    And if you’re going to have characters age in real time, then you have to replenish the well with new ones. That means either an endless succession of legacy heroes or brand new heroes.

    Good luck seeing any of the latter. I already raised the point in a previous topic that nobody creates for Marvel and DC anymore. Creators working for the Big Two today save their best ideas for themselves. It seems even Ed Piskor agrees with me…

    https://io9.gizmodo.com/x-men-grand-design-wants-to-save-marvels-mutants-from-1821423774

    Piskor:”It seems that many creators have a bunch of books that they’re working on for the paycheck but then will do [much more] with their Image book that they own. And I think people are a little more withholding on the corporate stuff, which I understand. I don’t know that I would create new characters for the Big Two.”

    So yeah, pipe dream, Nu-D. Marvel needs to keep the successful characters they already have relatively young, and current.

  16. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    Nu-D: “Look at the expired Star Wars Extended Universe. Nobody tried to make Luke, Han and Leía the stars of every story.”

    Except they retconned the old Expanded Universe after the New Jedi Order to keep them around. Out of nowhere it was said that ‘medicine advances in the Star Wars universe make 60-year old people as fit and healthy as our 40-year-olds’. There were multiple-book series featuring Han Solo in his mid-70s running aroung just like he did in the 1970s.

  17. wwk5d says:

    “Magneto ages at a slower rate because something something magnetism.”

    Works for me.

  18. Moo says:

    Ok, got it.

    Magneto is born in 1928. Magneto’s WWII history remains unchanged right up until the events of his daughter, Anya’s death. Magda also perishes here. We’ll put this at around 1952, so he’s 27.

    Three years later (age 30), Magneto has been working with a group of Nazi-hunters for several months. A mission takes them to South Korea where they uncover and assault a base established by Baron Strucker back during the Japanese occupation of Korea. The base lies within a buried temple. There is a curious artifact within the temple that the Nazi’s have been unsuccessfully trying to interact with for years that they believe holds great magical power.

    Magneto and his team storm the base. Magneto’s team is wiped out. Magneto eliminates the rest of the Nazi forces, but in so doing, his powers wreck the supports causing a cave in. He desperately seeks shelter and places himself within a capsule, inadvertently placing himself in suspended animation. (Strucker was known to have this kind of tech. He placed two superman Nazis Master Man and Warrior Woman in suspended animation at one point).

    Decades pass and time now jumps forward to twenty years before the events of X-Men #1. Charles Xavier is 30 and finishing up graduate school. His brother Cain is enlisted in the US army and is currently stationed in South Korea with the USFK. Charles, wishing to mend fences with Cain, times a visit to South Korea to coincide with Cain’s R&R. The brothers meet and take a drive in the countryside. Old arguments heat up, tempers flare, and Cain loses control of the vehicle. The car careens off the road and plummets into a valley. Both men emerge relatively unharmed. Cain however, seems inexplicably compelled to wander off asking Charles if he can hear the voice as well. Charles assumes Cain is concussed but can’t convince him to walk back to the highway with him. He follows. They discover the buried temple and manage to find an entrance.

    Inside, they work through the ruins and come across the artifact the Nazis had been trying to interact with. Cain touches it which causes yet another cave-in that seemingly kills Cain. Charles believing Cain has been crushed tries to escape but has his spine crushed by falling rock. Elsewhere in the temple, Magneto’s suspended animation chamber has been disrupted and cracked open by the second cave-in caused by Cain. Magneto emerges in a confused state. He hears the painful cries of Xavier and eventually finds him. Assuming Xavier is a Nazi he’d missed earlier, he is just about to slay Xavier when Charles seizes his mind and has Magneto carry him out of the still-collapsing temple.

    Outside, Xavier releases Magneto and, blah blah blah. Magneto is shocked to discover that decades have passed. Xavier, after recuperating in a hospital, invites Magneto to return to the US with him. They become friends for a time and then later have a falling out which eventually brings us to X-MEN #1.

    As for Pietro and Wanda, it depends on what Marvel wants to do with them. If they want to go back to having them be Magneto’s kids, they just have to have Magneto get involved with a different woman at some point after he wakes up in the new world.

  19. Chris V says:

    Except, people keep arguing that Magneto isn’t solely the problem. Which is true.
    You have to continually ret-con all the other characters whose lives involved a young Magneto….Professor X, Gabrielle Heller, Pietro, Wanda, etc.
    Then, there’s the issue of World War II, and characters who fought in WWII.

    Personally, I would rather just ignore it. Comic readers are expected to accept a lot of things, why blink an eye at the fact that Magneto and Professor X were born before World War II, but they’re still middle-aged men in 2018. Just ignore the issues with the time-line, rather than trying to redo continuity over and over again.

    I worry about the fact that people actually seem to think that removing the Holocaust from Magneto’s back-story can still continue to keep that character viable. It does not.
    A “hate crime” would work just as well?
    “Some criminals killed my family and did it because I am a mutant. Now, I will wipe out all humanity and show the world that mutants are the superior species!”.
    No, that’s asinine.
    It would work if Magneto were solely a psychotic villain, but the X-Men actually accepted this man in to their ranks.
    I would side with humanity at that point, and worry that the X-Men were a threat to humans.
    “Hey, they let this guy join their ranks who decided it would be perfectly acceptable to commit genocide because some criminals killed his family. Yeah…maybe the X-Men are a threat and should be looked in to.”

    It’s the fact of what the Holocaust represents that makes Magneto a sympathetic character.
    He didn’t experience a “hate crime” in his youth. He saw the darkest side of humanity. He witnessed and suffered from the systemic attempt to wipe out entire races of humanity.
    When you see that Magneto faced that past and vows that it will never happen again, and then you have a story like “Days of Future Past” which shows that Magneto is right to fear that future, it makes Magneto much less of a psychotic, raving lunatic who hates Homo Sapiens.

  20. Chris V says:

    If fans want to totally redo Marvel’s history for all these characters, they should just be pressing for Marvel to do their own version of Crisis.
    Wipe out the old continuity and start over again.
    It would be a lot simpler than trying to salvage the old continuity by wanting to see all these heavy continuity implants used to explain why certain characters aren’t their proper age.

  21. Moo says:

    Did you read my post above? I’ve got the Holocaust in Magneto’s backstory. I have him emerging from suspended animation at the same physical age as Xavier (30 years old) in the year 20 B.X. (twenty years before X-Men #1) an unspecified year that can slide along the timescale.

    Pietro and Wanda can still be Magneto’s kids, but through a woman other than Magda whom he meets at some point after coming out of suspended animation. As for Legion, it depends on how old Marvel wants him to be. This only means that his mother, Gabrielle can no longer be a Holocaust survivor, which isn’t all that crucial anyway. And Marvel just needs to dispense with the bit of continuity where Pietro and Wanda think they’re the children of Golden Age superheroes (Miss America and the Whizzer) which is easy enough.

  22. Moo says:

    And, I Grand Designed it! I’ve got Cain’s transformation, Xavier’s paralysis, and Magneto’s reemergence in the modern world tied to the same events! Eat that, Piskor!

  23. Voord 99 says:

    Yes, but now you need to tie it into Weapon X and Mister Sinister. This is the X-Men. 🙂

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