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Sep 1

X-Men: Grand Design – Second Genesis

Posted on Saturday, September 1, 2018 by Paul in x-axis

Ed Piskor’s re-telling of Uncanny X-Men returns for a further two issues, covering the material from the 1975 relaunch through to Storm losing her powers in 1984 or so.  This is a curious project: a basically straight retelling of the X-Men’s history, and with an indy sensibility about it.  As the Grand Design sub-title would imply, Piskor’s focus is on the big picture, and the over-reaching story.

This task should get somewhat easier now that Piskor has reached the Claremont run, which really was a single continuous narrative from 1975 through to Claremont’s departure in 1991.  What remains to be seen, and will stay that way until the final issue, is how Piskor will get around the problem that Claremont’s run doesn’t actually end on a note of resolution that ties up the saga.  But since Grand Design is more than willing to tinker with history, to revise and streamline, in order to get things to fit more neatly into a big picture, presumably he won’t feel too bound by that.

Still, it’s those final issues that will really determine what it is we’re looking at here, and whether it can transcend being merely an exercise in editing.  For the moment, the main interest lies in the choices that Piskor makes in changing the source material to better fit a grand scheme, and in the technique which he brings to the re-telling itself.

It’s tempting to ask what a book of this nature would be like if it was done in the regular X-Men style.  But the reality is that you couldn’t do it in the regular style because the very nature of the project requires such an insane degree of compression.  The only regular X-Men issue to attempt anything similar was issue #138, the funeral of Jean Grey, which largely consists of Cyclops recapping the whole series up to that point.  But that’s an outlier.  The premise of Grand Design dictates that individual stories are reduced to their bare essentials, or merely alluded to.  There’s little room for individual characters to breathe.

So much of the skill in Grand Design lies in Piskor’s ability to use the art to gesture at broader character points, and give a sense of what the wider story was like, in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a prose recap.  Plus, there’s the sense of significance given by the moments when the series does zoom in on a scene of particular importance and show it in detail – Jean’s rebirth as Phoenix, for example.  And key themes are seeded throughout the book so that they can be seen developing – a lot of issue #2 is devoted to reminding us of Rogue’s character arc from villain to X-Man, for example.   It’s an incredibly dense book, though coming at it from the perspective of someone who knows most of these stories backwards, it’s difficult to judge what somebody would make of it if they were coming to it new.

Even though Grand Design isn’t imitating the style of earlier X-Men comics, it’s still presented on mock-aged paper.  That allows a clever colouring technique: some key elements, such as the energy aura around Phoenix, but also a particularly agitated speech balloon from Storm, are shown as pure white, with even the paper texture removed.  Since the book’s baseline has been set at “paper-coloured”, the result is something that feels whiter than white.  It’s very simple and hugely effective – particularly on digital copies, I suspect.

What about the changes?  Piskor changed quite a lot in the first two issues, but not so as to alter the thrust of the series.  Rather, he simplified, streamlined, and made the changes that you suspect the original writers would have made, if they’d known where the book was heading.  Obviously, this is more of an issue with the Silver Age than it is with Chris Claremont, who really was writing a multi-year ongoing saga; the Silver Age fits into that vision of the X-Men not so much because it was intended to at the time of its creation, but because Claremont incorporated it as part of the backstory of his vision.

So these two issues, dealing with Claremont’s run, don’t have quite the same pressures to re-write.  Still, there are plenty of false starts and dropped ideas even in those issues.  And Piskor makes some changes of his own, one of which is particularly surprising.

The ill-advised leprechauns are sensibly removed from the Cassidy Keep storyline.  The first M’Kraan Crystal storyline now has Phoenix re-creating the universe over “seven billion years”.  Proteus never makes it off Muir Island because Phoenix just zaps him (presented as an early sign of ruthlessness brought about by Mastermind’s tinkering) – this is a smart move to sideline a character who would otherwise distract from Phoenix’s status as a character vastly more powerful than everyone else.  Lady Deathstrike shows up during the Hellfire Club sequence during the Dark Phoenix Saga, to lay the groundwork for Cole, Reese and Macon showing up in the next volume as members of the Reavers.  Wolverine is noticeably more violent than he was in the original series, though probably no more violent than he would have been if the Comics Code hadn’t been an issue.

Issue #2 goes beyond tinkering.  Arcade is omitted, even from stories that he actually appeared in, presumably on the grounds that he’s absurdly out of tone with the rest of the series – which is fine as a diversion in the ongoing title, but a nuisance for the project here.  Scott’s rebound girlfriend Lee Forrester is deleted, and the gap is filled by debuting Madelyne Pryor a little early.  Madelyne, in turn, becomes much more obviously sinister from the word go, and Scott’s decision to marry a woman who looks exactly like his dead girlfriend is presented explicitly as a sign of seriously poor judgment and denial (which of course fits with how she eventually turns out).

But most striking is what happens to “Days of Future Past”.  It gains an additional element in the form of Rogue’s debut and her encounter with Carol Danvers.  That actually took place in an Avengers annual, but it plainly belongs as part of the X-Men story.  And there’s room for it, because “Days of Future Past” loses its time travel elements.  Entirely.  The X-Men never actually show up to stop the assassination; instead, the Brotherhood successfully kill a different senator, leaving Kelly as his heir apparent.  Now that is not a choice that I saw coming.  This is a signature X-Men story, and changing it is a big deal.

Then again, Rachel Summers is on the cover of the next issue, so it can’t be gone entirely.  Perhaps the thinking is that all the dystopian future stuff is better covered in relation to Rachel when she shows up, and that makes the time travel elements of DOFP simply redundant in the bigger picture.  If so, I can see the point.  (Before someone asks: in the original series, Rachel showed up just before the cut-off point for issue #2.  But only just, so shunting it to the start of the next issue works fine.)

This is certainly an interesting read if you know the original material and want to see an attempt to reshape it with the benefit of hindsight.  How it will play to people who aren’t familiar with the source, and whether there’s ultimately more to it than simply a skilful exercise in editing and narration, remains very difficult to judge.

Bring on the comments

  1. Chris V says:

    I was somewhat surprised by how much attention Piskor gives to Carol Danvers in this second issue. Especially considering how minor a part of X-lore she is, and that she’s a character not even considered part of the X-Men canon.
    Piskor seemed to be based his premise of a “grand design” around Jean Grey/Phoenix. However, Phoenix is currently “dead” in the stories Piskor is re-telling.
    So, the focus shifts to Carol Danvers and Storm*.

    *Storm makes a great deal of sense, considering how much Claremont was interested in turning Ororo in to the stand-out character from his run (in my opinion, anyway).

  2. Nu-D says:

    “This is certainly an interesting read if you know the original material…”

    Like Paul, I’m one of those readers that knows this material backwards and forwards. Further, Uncanny 138 was a very early X-Men read for me (as a Classic XxMen reprint), and certainly cemented my interest in the franchise as a new reader.

    Nonetheless, I’m finding the style on this series boring as hell. Without the narrative frame of Scott reflecting on his history with the X-Men, this abbreviated summary doesn’t offer the same kind of character insight Claremont gave us at Jean’s funeral. I appreciate the effort to streamline continuity, but for this to be readable it needs to be expanded into real stories with actual character moments, rather than an illustrated Wikipedia page.

  3. Voord (9 says:

    Just chiming in to agree with Nu-D’s comment above, and add:

    Also, context. Context, context, context. UXM #138 was written for a readership of whom the large majority would not know much of the huge backstory that it laid out. It spoke to the superhero reader’s geeky desire to learn all about the invented universe, to know the whole story.

    X-M: GD is being written at a time when the stories that it reworks are readily available in its original version, or summarized online. The only point of this sort of thing nowadays is to comment in some way on the original, and what I’ve read of this just doesn’t do that. Not even “does not comment in an interesting way.” I can’t decipher any comment at all.

    It’s superbly done as a comic, but it’s like watching a great chef carefully choose the exact mix of herbs and spices that he or she is using to sauté gravel. At the end of the day, you’re still not going to want to eat it.

  4. wwk5d says:

    It’s as boring as it pointless. I’m not sure what point many of the continuity changes serve, as most of them really add nothing to the narrative overall.

  5. Martin Smith says:

    Yeah, I agree on the broad pointlessness of the series. Hip-Hop Family Tree works because it’s giving a refined, cohesive narrative of real events, in a different medium. A comic just summarising other comics (which can still be read easily)… *shrug*

    Piskor would have been better off doing a series about the history of Marvel comics itself, except Comic Book History of Comics got there first.

  6. Jerry Ray says:

    138 was my first X-Men comic (bought it off the spinner rack when I was 9), and I was hooked for life. Love that comic.

    This book feels more like Marvel Saga. “This thing happened, then this thing happened…”


  7. Chris V says:

    I believe that the major draw to the comic is solely meant to be Piskor’s art. “These are the stories you remember and you love, now here is Piskor drawing vignettes from each one!”.

    The continuity changes are the oddest aspects to the book. It seems like they are supposed to seem more momentous than they could ever be considered.
    I can only assume that they are Piskor’s decision, and don’t reflect on Marvel editorial policy.
    You know, little fan-boy things, that when you were reading the comics as a kid, you would say, “I wish this happened like this instead.”, and now Piskor is putting in those little changes at his own volition.

  8. Jason says:

    As I recall, the solicited cover for the final issue shows the mutant graveyard from the DoFP dystopic future, so when Piskor omitted that future from his summary of the post-Dark Phoenix stories, I assumed that he’s going for a “chronological” sort of approach, where the final issue will move forward chronologically into that era. It’s possible he plans to omit time travel entirely from his version, or possibly will end the series with Rachel making the decision to go back in time to the start of the series, turning the entire mini into a loop. Clearly at some point the DoFP-topia will come into play, as Piskor talks about “mutant-kind” being doomed by Mystique’s actions when the senator is taken out.

    Given the way Piskor is telescoping various elements of the run (screenwriter-style) and that he’s already introduced Genosha – and, furthermore, that Phase 3 of Grand Design will be titled “X-Tinction” – I’m guessing he plans to merge Genosha’s mutant camps with the DoFP camps.

    Nothing that he ended the most recent issue with “LifeDeath” from issue 186, I was bemused by Piskor’s mathematical precision in how he’s approaching a summary of X-Men from the start up to Claremont’s last issue in 1991. To wit:

    With this middle third, he’s summarized Uncanny issues 94-186. Exactly 93 issues. This means the first two issues covered issues 1-93, the exact same amount (though that’s an easier job, as issues 67-93 were reprint filler). If he maintains this pace, the final issues will cover precisely 93 issues as well, i.e., issues 187-279.

    Issue 279 was indeed Claremont’s final issue of Uncanny. Clever, Piskor.

    I’m curious to see how he’ll handle Magneto’s turn into one of the good guys, as two crucial elements to that development were Magneto meeting Lee Forrester (who’s been excised entirely), and Magneto’s teaming up with the X-Men during “Secret Wars” (also omitted).

    Really looking forward to volume 3 of this trilogy.

  9. Thom H. says:

    Yeah, I have to admit that I’m a big fan, too.

    It never occurred to me that the final third of the miniseries would deviate from established continuity any more than than the first two thirds. But wrapping everything up with a conclusive ending seems like the only thing to do with this book.

    I’m looking forward to seeing how Piskor does that, considering he can’t just leave an ellipsis at the end of the last issue.

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