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Jun 15

Age of X-Man: The Marvelous X-Men

Posted on Saturday, June 15, 2019 by Paul in x-axis

As “Age of X-Man” draws to a close, we now know that the X-books have pretty much been marking time while waiting for Jonathan Hickman.  But “Age of X-Man” has been an unusually ambitious and intriguing way of doing that.  While the remnants of the regular cast plough on over in Uncanny X-Men, most of the characters are shunted over to an alternate universe for an inversion of “Age of Apocalypse”: Nate Grey has created his own world, and it’s meant to be a paradise.  Unfortunately, Nate is unable to tell hang-ups and insights apart, and so his idea of what would really push a nice world over the line into utopia is to get rid of families and love in favour of a mix of single living and communal groups.  On his account, this is a wonderful philosophical insight – we are all ultimately alone in our heads, and we’ll be happier if we embrace that fact – but… well.

This is a genuinely interesting and unexpected angle for a story which, up to that point, looked like a straight re-tread.  But with six minis out there, it also raises the question of whether there really are six different slants to be had on this concept.  Prisoner XX-Tremists and X-Tracts have the clearest stories to tell, being either about the state apparatus or those who refuse to accept Nate’s ideas.  NextGenAmazing Nightcrawler and Marvelous X-Men – about initially unsuspecting characters just kind of getting on with life in a world they regard as rather pleasing – have more of a challenge.

As it turns out, Marvelous X-Men serves partly as the plot lynchpin for the whole thing: if you don’t want to buy all the various minis, then this is the book which comes closest to covering all the key points on its own.  It’s also the book with Nate himself in it, which should make it central – but since Nate is largely hiding in plain sight, that aspect isn’t so dominant as you might expect.

Consistent with his good intentions, Nate’s idea of a utopia doesn’t entail making himself a ruler figure; he’s happy to hang around in the background while quietly trying to keep the show on the road.  Since this world isn’t as well thought out as it might have been, that involves him in some ongoing tinkering.  And although he’s altered everyone’s memories, he isn’t trying to control everyone directly – quite aside from the practicalities, the whole point of this exercise is supposedly to give the X-Men a utopia, so making them puppets would defeat the point.  So instead of trying to actually erase fundamental psychological urges – which, of course, Nate doesn’t believe to be all that fundamental in the first place – Nate sets up a society where his views are the accepted norm, and relies mainly on the social pressure to conform.  After all, this is clearly a paradise, so this “no love, no families” thing that has taken off in the last generation or so must all be part of the turn to utopia, right?

This is more of an X-Men story than you might first think.  Traditionally the X-Men were very much a family – the whole trope was that you dropped out of normal society to find the “real” family that accepted you.  The X-Men might officially have been running a school, but there were only a handful of them at a time, and even the New Mutants (when they showed up in the X-Men’s book at all) were basically extended family.  In the last 15-20 years, though, this aspect of the X-Men has withered, with the X-Men now running some sort of entire kibbutzish mutant community, too small to really qualify as a nation, but way too large to have any sense of family.  “Age of X-Man”, then, is a story setting out to reconnect with an aspect of the series that has lost prominence.

But what does that actually mean in terms of Zac Thompson and Lonnie Nadler’s story in this series?  The X-Men are Jean Grey, Colossus, Storm, Magneto, X-23, Nightcrawler, Nature Girl (the only one too young to “remember” the revolution), and Nate himself.  This being a utopia, there are no bad guys on hand for them to fight – social malcontents are the responsibility of the sex cops over in X-Tremists – and so the X-Men’s role is simply to do a bit of disaster relief and serve as inspirational figures for the community, most of whom, of course, are just aspects of Nate’s imagination.  Everyone’s costume is reassuringly classic, with a stress on individual identity, something artist Marco Failla sells rather nicely.  Nate looks like a religious hermit, Jean is back in a version of her Silver Age costume, Magneto is a genial grandfather.  Quite why Nate selected these characters to be his X-Men isn’t made clear, but presumably he sees them as a reassuringly classic and inspirational version of the X-Men, with X-23 filling in for the unavailable Wolverine, and Nature Girl in the ingenue role.  (Kitty and Jubilee are both available to Nate, but they’ve both aged out of that role, and so he assigns them to other books.  We’ll come back to that in future reviews.)

Nate’s role in all this is to nudge people back onto the straight and narrow when they seem to be remembering the real world – something which it’s suggested happens rather a lot.  And as a focus for everyone, he’s got Apocalypse as an ostensible antagonist – except that given the world Nate has created, Apocalypse’s role leads him into being a peace-and-love preacher who holds public rallies where he indulges in scandalous gestures like showing perfectly routine affection to his son.  Naturally, the X-Men view all this not as villainy but as a sign of mental illness, but at the same time En Sabah Nur serves as something else to destabilise Nate’s already-rickety world.  So we get En Sabah Nur’s group, and Department X (the X-Tremists), all as seen from the X-Men’s initially gullible and rather confused perspective.

Still, the story struggles a bit to find a dramatic arc beyond characters having flashes of memory of the real world, feeling troubled by Apocalypse, and generally wavering as their normal identities start to reassert themselves.  Some are more inclined to hold on to Nate’s paradise than others, despite all recognising themselves as not quite living up its standards of decent behaviour – Magneto likes the place because it’s delivered a mutant paradise, though he’s troubled by memories of his own real past.  Nightcrawler embraces the fact that everyone else seems to be so happy; his own arc from his solo book doesn’t really dovetail in here at all, which is a weakness.  Jean rejects her memories as black propaganda somehow emanating from the X-Tracts.

So while there are plenty of points of interest, the plot is rather too linear: it’s just Nate’s perfect world slowly unravelling as matters progress, more through its own inherent instability than through anything that the X-Men themselves contribute.  They’re left as somewhat passive dreamers in their own book, and that’s a problem.  But there are plenty of good points of detail here, and the art strikes just the right picket-fence tone.  If you’re willing to treat this as a spine for the event, rather than looking for a self-contained story, then it works pretty well.

Bring on the comments

  1. Michael says:

    Looking at the big picture, Nate’s entire set-up makes almost no sense whatsoever. It’s a self-sabotaging system which requires constant micromanagement and which doesn’t hold up under the slightest bit of pressure or examination. Especially given the revelation that he purposefully set up Apocalypse as the mutant love messiah as some sort of ongoing test. Given that Nate also created Unveil, the X-Tract member who acts as a way for people to clear their heads, this means that even from the very start, he built in the seeds of his own downfall.

    Meanwhile, Department X fills the dual purpose of rounding up malcontents and brainwiping them -and- causing natural disasters so the X-Men have something to do, suggesting that Nate is furiously trying to keep his system under control while distracting the supposed heroes.

    And at every turn, people are either engaging in forbidden acts of love, or having subconscious impulses, which further leads to a constant breakdown of the system across the board.

    Meanwhile, Legion is acting so weird over in Prisoner X that we might as well assume the Shadow King or some other dark persona is in control again…

    So… bets on Nate being influenced by Legion or something else?

    Also, which of the characters created solely for this world do you think we’ll see again in the real world? Because the X-Men always bring home souvenirs from their alternate timeline/world adventures…

  2. Ben says:

    Yeah most of this has been surprisingly alright, but I totally agree the X-Men don’t really do much to further the plot.

    Michael, I agree with you that it’s a bit loosely put together in detail. But I think based on the last issue Nate knows this is all just a temporary thing, he’s just trying to show the X-Men a positive vision of the future to work towards. Before this world collapses and he dies.

    I think Legion is going to be revealed to have a lot to do with it.

  3. Chris V says:

    I don’t know. I can’t see the X-Men deciding it is worth fighting towards a “world without love”.

    If that was the intent, then they should have had X-Man create some sort of truly idyllic world.
    Something that Nate realized couldn’t be sustained, but could actually show the X-Men the possibility of a better future.
    Then, the message could be one about the fragile nature of utopia.

  4. Evilgus says:

    It’s been a pretty poor crossover to my mind. The central conceit is weak, with slow pacing, unmmemorable scripting, and poor art. Treading water and it’s a shame that the entertaining XMen Red was derailed for this.

    I can’t think of a standout “moment” of memorable drama.

  5. Jerry Ray says:

    Agree with Evilgus. Admittedly, I’m a few issues behind, but this whole event has been a big fat zero and I can’t see that turning around when I catch up. No excitement, no stakes, no drama, utterly forgettable. And it’s stretched out over, what, 32 issues? Like $130 worth of comics for nothing.

  6. Michael says:

    Of the series involved, I’d have to say I’ve enjoyed Nightcrawler, Gen Next, and X-Tremists the most, because they’ve really seemed to have fun exploring the characters and what this sort of premise would entail and signify.

    Prisoner X has felt like a huge muddle drawn-out for the sake of killing time, Marvelous X-Men was so-so, and X-Tracts just never really seemed to find a cohesive story.

    Hopefully, writers will be able to take any decent elements from this and move on once Hickman’s handled the relaunch.

  7. Suzene says:

    On the whole, I’ve been having a good time with AoXM. We’ve had literal years of writers essentially telling us that there’s no room for character-focused arcs in the main books because plot or events had to be served first, and so, unless one of your fave characters was one of the few to land a solo, it’s largely been a god-awful, frustrating time. (And yes, there was X-Men: Gold, but that was a devil’s bargain if ever there was one.) So while nearly half a year of AU character exploration could be rightfully called hefty overcorrection, I’ve still been enjoying the change of pace.

    That said, Marvelous X-Men is near the bottom of my list so far as the AoXM minis go. Part of it is that, with the final issue, it’s looking more and more like Nadler and Thompson weren’t very concerned with dovetailing their book with the endings of the other minis, which is an annoyance. The other is that we’ve spent most of our time watching Nate Grey pull the same trick over and over or else getting a close look inside of his head and… this take on Nate just ain’t that interesting and neither are these X-Men. Yeah, maybe it’s suiting that the team’s reaction to realizing they’ve been manipulated seems a bit rote, given that they’ve supposedly gone through these motions dozens of times before, but that didn’t make it more exciting to read. Also, I’m docking additional points for the Claremont-esque accents. Come on, guys. It’s 2019.

    Like Paul said, it’s the backbone of the event more than a story in and of itself, but still I wish they’d done a bit more to spice up the central conflict.

  8. Karl_H says:

    There were so many X-characters yanked into this story at the last minute that I can’t remember from issue to issue which ones in Nate’s world are “real”, and that makes it hard to connect to most of them. Laura spends an entire page in issue 4 struggling with her feelings about violence, but wait — isn’t she just a Nate doppleganger since real Laura is over in X-23? Were all of the Mastermind Studios team present when Nate grabbed everyone, or are some of them dopplegangers? And what is the deal with Moneta?

  9. Luke says:

    Suzene – the accents are so glaring that I think it’s part of Nate’s world. Every book has a character like that.

    I wasn’t interested in this at all from the solicits, then the Alpha issue was great and I really enjoyed the first issue of all the minis. And then… nothing seems to have happened, slowly.
    Marvelous has been the worst, as it seems to have told the same repeating story for four issues, and nothing seems to really be building, with Omega seeming to have a lot of work to do to tie things up.

  10. Luke says:

    Back again.
    I think my biggest frustration is that the reader’s have known from the start what’s up, so there’s no real mystery, so the books have degenerated into us watching the characters be gullible for five straight issues, but the story seems to think it’s a mystery.

  11. Mikey says:

    Agreed with Luke. A similar event – Mike Carey’s Age of X – kept the mystery going throughout.

  12. Luis Dantas says:

    The way I see it, this event was a showcase of sorts, a glimpse of a certain take on the X-Men, their vocation and their perspective.

    I don’t think it was ever meant to be a mystery tale.

    I kind of liked the way it was structured as well. Felt just right in its roughly parallel storytelling with the proper amount of interconnectedness.

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