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Sep 27

X-Men Blue #33-36: “Surviving the Experience”

Posted on Thursday, September 27, 2018 by Paul in x-axis

If X-Men Gold had the problem of doing a final issue when nothing was really ending, X-Men Blue has a slightly different problem: the time-travelling teens’ tenure in 2018 is tantalisingly close to termination!  They look set to return to the sixties!  A simpler, more alliterative and exclamatory time!  There’s a real ending here!

Or rather, there’s a real ending, but it’s over in Extermination, which isn’t even written by Cullen Bunn.  Nor does it particularly lend itself to any kind of plot set-up.  So instead X-Men Blue spends its last issues tying up some loose ends and character arcs, and trying to provide a sense of closure to the run.

This matters, because the ending for these characters is a challenging one to pull off.  If these really are the original X-Men, and they really are going to wipe the slate clean and go back to let the timeline resume its flow, then they remember none of this – and so what was the point of it, really?  Part of the project here is to try and answer that question.

But first!  Even though these four issues are billed as a single storyline, “Surviving the Experience”, in reality it’s a pair of two-issue stories.  Issues #33-34 are a time travel story, showing what happened to Magneto when he briefly escaped into the future during the “Mothervine” arc, still reeling from having killed some of the Mothervine mutants when he was backed into a corner.  It’s a near future, and it’s a dystopia, because aren’t they all?  (I can’t help feeling that there’s a gap in the market in 2018 for optimistic visions of the future, which are in short supply, but something tells me the X-Men won’t be filling that void any time soon.)

Marcus To does a suitably bleak wrecked city in issue #33, which at least feels like people used to live there, and his clunky cyberpunk Reavers are pretty good as well.  It’s nicely paced, with a low-key first half of Magneto wandering the city before he finally switches on and takes the Reavers apart in a couple of panels.  The twist is that Magneto assumes this is a world that somehow resulted from what he did to the Mothervine mutants, but in fact the survivors greet him as a hero.  Since Magneto is in one of his self-loathing moods at the time, he’s not best pleased by the idea that a bunch of people idolise him for his radical revolutionary stuff; it seems the world was wrecked by the battles he fought in defence of mutants, even if he was on the right side, it brings us back to the idea that Magneto’s tactics are ultimately destructive, and deep down, he knows it.

That’s a repeated theme in Cullen Bunn’s take on Magneto – he knows where this is going to lead, but he can’t control or resist his anger enough to refrain.  But at the same time, it’s not immediately clear what he did wrong here other than simply show up to fight the Reavers at all – and indeed that’s the line which the survivors take, making him a rather bleak symbol of relative optimism for them.  Still, it turns out that he did go on something of a tirade after “Mothervine”, causing a ton of destruction supposedly in the name of defending mutants, even if some of those mutants do remember him fondly.  The original X-Men – who are, after all, the stars of the book – never went home in this timeline, and have a crack at killing Magneto in case that makes a difference to the timeline.

In fact, Magneto does indeed avert the timeline on his return to the present, by nipping this version of the Reavers in the bud (with excessive force).  Cullen Bunn’s lengthy run on Magneto, dating back to the Magneto solo series, ends with him taking out an entirely genuine threat to mutants, but also retreating into his Silver Age villain mode, holed up on a new Asteroid M and slipping back into his old ways.  On one level it’s basically the reset button to get him back to Trad Magneto for future stories, but it makes sense in other ways too.  Magneto’s tragic flaw, in Bunn’s stories, is his inability to transcend his dark side; so it works to end on him succumbing again.  What’s more, it means that even if he’s separated from the X-Men in this story, in his own way, Magneto is going back to the Silver Age too, and his own simpler time.

That takes us to the final two issues, and the X-Men themselves.  In issue 35, young Jean has a final lunch with her older self – quite well done by To, who has to draw two very similar-looking characters in extended conversation, and keeps them distinct and reasonably interesting.  Older Jean reveals that she can now remember her time-travel stint, thanks to yadda yadda Phoenix something yadda.  On a plot level, that helps to nail down the idea that these really are the genuine X-Men, and always were, but also closes the door on any suggestion that they could stay.  (It also creates a plot hole for Extermination, since surely older Jean should know what’s coming… but okay.)  At the same time, it opens the door for some of this stuff to matter in the future, partly because the older X-Men might remember it after all, but also because we’re reminded that the older X-Men might at least have been affected by their visitors from the past.  Iceman certainly was, after all.

There’s also an attempt in here to make this a “growing up” parable, in which Jean and the other X-Men have to embrace growing up, even though change will make them into different people who they don’t recognise.  That doesn’t really work, because what they’re doing is a step backwards in terms of their personal development, not a progression forward – but you get the idea.

Hank, Bobby and Warren also get the chance to talk with their older selves one last time, and Bobby faces the obvious point that if he’s going back in time, he won’t be openly gay any more.  This feels like it needed an awful lot more weight, and there just isn’t space to do it here without having it dominate the story.  It’s a good scene as far as it goes, but Bobby’s feelings on the topic feel underdone, even if the basic idea – that he accepts the necessity of it, because Time – is fair enough.  Scott, of course, doesn’t have anyone to talk to, because he knows he’s going home to die.  Good old Scott.

Issue #36 really does go full tilt on tying up the stray plot threads.  Mojo TV is taken down in two pages.  Scott says goodbye to Corsair and the Starjammers, who make a big point of stressing that Corsair’s second chance to connect with his son in the Cyclops series really mattered a hell of a lot to him.  The remaining supporting cast from Madripoor hook up with the Raksha.  The new Mothervine mutants arrive at the Xavier Institute.  Scott and Jean are back together.  The Poison version of Jimmy shows up to take out a bad guy.  And that’s pretty much it, leaving the X-Men mentally ready to go home, and only the plot mechanics to go – something which can be kicked off to another time.

Considering the inherent limitations of trying to end the series without actually sending the X-Men home, this is a good final arc.  It plays to the strengths of the series, and it really does manage to attach a bit of weight and closure to something that could easily have come across as hammering the cosmic reset button.  It’s a strange call to keep Magneto and the X-Men separated in these issues, especially as the book ends with them heading off on one last mission to fight Magneto’s new team (something that isn’t a lead-in to Extermination).  That’s a relationship that feels like it never quite came to fruition.  But as a season finale for Cullen Bunn’s X-Men work, this satisfies.

Bring on the comments

  1. Luis Dantas says:

    @Joseph S above mentions a relationship between Xavier and Ilyana and implies that Xavier somehow wronged her.

    What would that refer to? I am drawing a blank.

    Ilyana, in any case, is a very difficult character, both in and out of story. There is just not a whole lot of viable stories available with such a contrived and self-limiting character concept. Much of the mess that was Inferno seems to have been a desperate attempt to resolve her character arc _somehow_.

  2. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    Regarding an alternate universe where ten X-Men are semi-successful, weren’t deconstructed, are still heroic and some of them starter families – didn’t Claremont do that, almost to the letter, in X-Men the End? And later GeNext it that Was the name od the book.

    616 X-Men never interacted with that future (those futures) but as X-Men go that Was one of the best they got.

  3. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    Bloody autocorrect…

  4. FUBAR007 says:

    Chris V: So, the idea that there should be some utopian future (or present) where Professor X’s dream begins to work is faulty, due to the premise set up by Lee and Kirby originally.

    Imagination fail.

    What I’m positing is an alternate timeline where that middle ground you say is missing isn’t missing. That’s the bloody point.

    Professor X is a jerk. Scott is a philanderer. Hank acts psychotic with some of his actions. The X-Men are their own worst enemies, it seems.

    What if Professor X wasn’t a jerk? What if Scott wasn’t a philanderer? What if Hank didn’t act psychotic? What if the X-Men weren’t their own worst enemies?

    It both baffles and fascinates me that you seem to find this concept so incomprehensible.

  5. FUBAR007 says:

    Krzysiek Ceran: Regarding an alternate universe where ten X-Men are semi-successful, weren’t deconstructed, are still heroic and some of them starter families – didn’t Claremont do that, almost to the letter, in X-Men the End?

    Sort of. They weren’t as deconstructed. It’s more that the post-Morrison, pre-M-Day status quo persisted 15ish years into the future.

  6. Chris V says:

    FUBAR-Yes, but you want it both ways. You say that when myself or Moo critique the concept of the X-Men, that we are ignoring the fact that X-Men is a superhero comic book.
    Yet, when we show how the X-Men, created as a superhero comic, lacks an authentic vision of Xavier’s dream, and why things have turned out the way they did, you want the opposite.

    So, basically, yes, either X-Men discards the trappings of the superhero genre and becomes a realistic portrayal of how a minority fights for their place in a majoritarian society.

    Or, the book sticks with the superhero trappings.
    Then, if writers didn’t try to make the characters more interesting (“Professor X really isn’t a nice guy.”), we end up with the book stuck in perpetual Silver Age territory. A bunch of boring characters, fighting evil mutants, keeping their heads down and their noses clean, while society goes on about its merry way.

  7. Chris V says:

    My point being that “Cyclops is a jerk” doesn’t have any merit on mutant/human relations.
    The writers have, basically, left behind any concept of Xavier’s dream, because it’s hard to shoe-horn it in to an action/adventure superhero title, where superheroes fighting super-villains is what most readers are expecting.

    If Cyclops wasn’t a jerk, yeah, things would still be no further along in mutant/human equality.

    See? The Silver Age versions of the X-Men coming to the present and deciding that the present-day world is dystopian, it has nothing to do with Xavier’s dream.
    Cyclops is upset because of what he became.
    Jean Grey is upset because Phoenix is dead.
    Hank is upset because the Beast started acting psychotic.
    None of this has any bearing on Xavier’s dream.
    Phoenix did not die because of the Homo Sapiens hatred of mutants. She died involved in cosmic sci-fi plots and superheroic acts.
    Whether Phoenix died or doesn’t die has no bearing on Xavier’s dream of “mutant/human coexistence”.

    So, my answer is….What if Professor X wasn’t a jerk? What if Cyclops didn’t do this or that?
    Basically, no change. The X-Men would still be a superhero team. They’d still fight super-powered individuals. Humans would still hate and fear mutants.

  8. FUBAR007 says:

    Chris V,

    We’re talking past each other.

    There are three points of argument here that are getting conflated.

    First is your (and Moo’s) point that superheroing is an unrealistic way to further minority rights. To which I say: WELL, DUH.

    The reason I keep retorting with points about suspension of disbelief and the inherent premises of the superhero genre is that, as I see it, they’re a base condition for these types of stories. The idea that extralegal vigilantism is a viable and acceptable means of doing good is inherent to the physics and metaphysics of the fictional universes in which these kinds of stories occur. Hence, I don’t hold the stories to realistic standards. I accept the conceptual paradox you cite as part of the price of admission. To you and Moo, the contradiction precludes certain types of stories from being told or at least making sense. I see no such barrier because, to me, the contradiction is just part of the contextual wallpaper like superhuman abilities and spandex costumes. Realism isn’t a relevant metric.

    Second is this idea that, due to this contradiction in the X-Men premise, the X-Men can’t have done any better than they have and, consequently, no better timelines and no better outcomes are possible or imaginable. To which I say: bullshit.

    When I refer to exposing the X-Men to better, more successful versions of themselves, what I have in mind is an alternate timeline that looks something like this: the X-Men have achieved social and legal legitimacy, having reached and institutionalized a mutually acceptable arrangement with the authorities to both police the mutant population and defend it against violent threats. Similarly, the Xavier Institute has gone global with centers around the world that identify mutants, train them in the use of their powers, and offer them social services. A few go on to be X-Men; most don’t. Overall mutant-human relations are, while not perfect, much improved over what they are in the 616 timeline. Tolerance of mutants and respect for their rights is the social and legal norm; anti-mutant racism is a fringe extremist phenomenon.

    Meanwhile, on a personal level, the X-Men are healthier, more well-adjusted people than they are in 616. Rather than being a PTSD serial monogamist, Cyclops, for example, has been happily married to Jean Grey for years and the two have some number of children. Both work in senior roles at the Institute: Scott is a competent, perceptive commanding leader of the global X-Men, and perhaps Jean is a senior counselor, deputy X-Men leader, or public relations professional. Similarly, rather than being a lying, manipulative shitheel, Xavier is a generally benevolent, idealistic figure with honest intentions who has worked at least partially successfully through multiple lines of effort to improve the lot of mutants and mutant-human relations in general. Hank, meanwhile, is a respected scientist and public intellectual and perhaps also a reserve X-Man. And so on with Storm, Bobby, and the others.

    And that’s just one possible iteration. Better versions of the X-Men and better outcomes for their lives aren’t unimaginable. I just did it, and there are plenty of writers in the comics industry with far more fertile imaginations than mine.

    Does the alternate world I just described constitute ditching the superhero trappings? I don’t think so. Not necessarily, at least. But, then, I define “superhero” fairly broadly. Your mileage may vary. Would this alternate world necessarily mean reverting to “boring,” “perpetual Silver Age” territory? I don’ t think so. The points of conflict and sources of drama would certainly differ, perhaps leading to a more procedural than soap operatic mode. That wouldn’t bother me. But, again, your mileage may vary.

    Third is your point that the X-Men being better people on a personal level would not, in and of itself, improve mutant-human relations. To which I say: you’re right. But, contesting that isn’t something I’ve been trying to do.

    When I refer to better X-Men in a better world, I’m not intending to imply their individual statuses are significantly determinative of the overall state of the world in which they live. I’m simply describing a world where mutant-human relations are better, AND the X-Men have done better in life as individuals.

    Finally, if this argument has really just been a long, roundabout way of saying you prefer the X-Men status quo as it is and the characters the way they are, that you enjoy dysfunction and deconstruction, and that, accordingly, you have no interest in seeing higher functioning X-Men in a higher functioning world much less the mainstream X-Men forced to contend with such a world, fine. Personal taste is personal taste. But, we could’ve avoided this lengthy back-and-forth if, like Moo, you’d just said so up front.

    I’m sick of deconstruction and dysfunction in superhero comics. In my opinion, they represent a stale and aesthetically exhausted approach to storytelling and characterization within the genre. It’s gotten old, boring, and tiresome. I like the idea of forcing the mainstream X-Men to confront better versions of themselves because of 1) the novelty of the obvious contrasts, 2) the metatextual critique of the last two decades of fatalistic deconstruction, and 3) in-universe and on a personal level, the individual characters being forced to face the people they could’ve been and perhaps could still be more like.

  9. Taibak says:

    Sounds like there’s a Peter David series hiding in that premise. Take a small group of mutants(led by someone less dysfunctional than Madrox) and put them in a situation where they have to interact with the general public. It doesn’t sound too far off from his X-Factor run, but it might work.

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