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Jun 29

X-Men: Grand Design – X-Tinction

Posted on Saturday, June 29, 2019 by Paul in x-axis

With the final two issues of Ed Piskor’s re-telling of the X-Men’s history – or rather, of the Chris Claremont run and the preceding material that serves as necessary background for it – we reach the crunch point.  How is he going to impose an end on a story that never had one?  And is there a point to any of this, beyond a parlour-game exercise in distilling years of stories into a single story?

Let’s start with the first question.  The answer, on some level, is a cheat – but one constructed entirely from building blocks to be found in the Claremont run.  And that’s in keeping with the way the whole series has worked.  Piskor is being faithful to the broad strokes of the original stories, but he’s also more than happy to shuffle around the elements, and cut bits out entirely, in order to better serve that big picture.  One of those changes, in the previous volume, makes rather more sense now that we see how things pan out.

For all that, Grand Design is a strange hybrid of sensibilities.  On the one hand it’s a hypercompressed indie book, on the other it’s a love letter to the X-Men.  On the one hand it’s ruthlessly editing the source material to out the big picture, on the other it’s still gesturing to stray threads from the original series that don’t especially fit in here.

So let’s see what gets changed here, in a story that picks up circa Uncanny #200, with 80 issues of the series still to go.  Storm and Forge’s subplot gets a lot of play, though Forge’s vaguely sinister tower base gets renamed “Freedom Tower”, where Claremont’s original preferred “Eagle Plaza”.  (This might be a gesture in the direction of the ironically-named Freedom Force, whose prominent role in the original issues is boiled down to a cameo where they’re still just the Brotherhood.)  Jean returns, but X-Factor – who never play into any of Claremont’s stories – simply don’t exist and get removed from all crossover stories where they originally appeared.  The New Mutants exist but get very little play (though Cable rather randomly shows up with them later on).  Excalibur don’t exist either.

The Morlock Massacre, as a turning point in the X-Men’s nihilistic depression, gets an unusual amount of detail for this book.  While Grand Design typically plays out as a recap, the Massacre is given seven pages in which to play out – the sort of pacing decision that lends it added weight against the book’s established norm.  Forge’s wartime back story gets more detail than you’d expect as well – something of a forgotten corner of X-Men history, it needs the prominence here, given its key plot function in setting up the showdown with the Adversary and the subsequent Australia era.

The Australian era, it has to be said, fits awkwardly into Piskor’s agenda, since it’s tricky to make it feel like anything other than a weird late-period detour.  This is a problem with a lot of the material he has to work with in this book; it never exactly went anywhere, and it’s hard to tie into a larger narrative, yet it’s also too big to ignore.  He has rather more success with the big crossovers, which are pared down solely to their X-Men elements in order to keep the focus on their part in the big picture.  So we have a version of Inferno lacking not only X-Factor, but even Illyana – after all, her storyline played out in New Mutants and had very little to do with the X-Men.  Consequently, it’s a version of Inferno that doesn’t actually do the Inferno – there’s no transformation of New York.  Instead, it’s a story about Madelyne allying with a demon to try and recover her son from Sinister, with Scott and Jean taking the X-Factor role of a parallel search.

The post-Siege Perilous stuff is detour central and gets boiled down to a page, opting for the simpler approach of claiming that some characters were reborn in other worlds, effectively writing them out of the book.  Psylocke’s transformation is handwaved through in a panel, and most of the attention is on Havok winding up as a Magistrate in Genosha – because as it turns out, Piskor’s version of the Claremont era ends not with the Muir Island Saga, but with X-Tinction Agenda.  This makes some sense; Claremont never completed the Muir Island Saga, and everything else that follows X-Tinction Agenda is filler.  But it’s hardly a story that’s remembered as a classic.

It works for Piskor’s story, though, when he brings out his final grand gesture.  Spoilers, I guess: Recall, in Piskor’s version of Days of Future Past there was no time travel element.  It was just a story where the bad guys failed to kill Senator Kelly, but did manage to kill another politician.  And now we know why: everything from that point on is taking place in the original timeline that leads to DoFP.  This is very clever.  The rest of the Claremont run fits quite neatly into that structure.  Everything is getting bleaker, the X-Men are falling apart, and it all builds to a quixotic showdown against a racist nation.  Which the X-Men lose, leaving the series to end with the apocalyptic descent into Days of Future Past over a few horribly grim pages, until of course the surviving X-Men manage to send Kitty back to change history and give everyone a chance to try again.

That’s as close to an ending as you’re going to find in the raw material of Claremont’s run.  It never reaches a conventional resolution, but it does set up a disastrous one and establish it as the likely end destination. Piskor simply resequences it so that it really does come at the end.

All well and good.  Grand Design is certainly a clever piece of editing, and Piskor’s art adds vital dimensions of detail to humanise scenes that would otherwise rush past.  The technique of setting the default page colour at offwhite, so that true white can be used for energy effects, remains remarkably effective.  And Piskor largely succeeds in incorporating characters from a wide range of eras and visual styles into something visually coherent – though Mr Sinister, played straight, is a bit of a challenge.

But is there ultimately a point to this, beyond demonstrating that a coherent through-line can be distilled from the X-Men stories of the 70s and 80s (and the 60s, to the extent that those later stories drew on that era for background)?  And is that something that particularly needed demonstrating – weren’t the X-Men notorious by the 1990s for having become an inaccessible long-running saga?  The appeal is somewhat akin to the Official Handbook or Marvel Index.  In as much as the story is about anything, that’s only because it faithfully reproduces the key themes of Claremont’s run.  It is, at root, an artisan Marvel Saga.

That’s not nothing, though.  There was an appeal to those books, because they did indeed convey a sense of scale, of saga, of big picture, in stories you hadn’t actually read and probably couldn’t get hold of even if you wanted to.  Even if that’s basically the level on which Grand Design works, with added nostalgia for those of us who read some of this stuff on first release, there’s plenty to appreciate in all that.  But it does feel like something destined to be remembered as a curio, both for the X-Men and for Ed Piskor.

Bring on the comments

  1. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    X-Factor doesn’t exist in Piskor’s retelling, except for one panel in the final issue where the caption reads ‘X-Factor headquarters’.

    I also wonder what was the point of mentioning Lorna’s transformation and new powerset since it doesn’t go anywhere – and if I recall correctly, it also didn’t go anywhere in the original comics. Is it a nod to that? Is it an exercise in futility? Either way it only takes a panel or two, but considering how carefully trimmed down the whole thing is… why leave it in?

  2. Thom H. says:

    Maybe this isn’t just a love letter to Claremont’s X-Men, but also a goodbye to the X-Men living in Claremont’s shadow.

    It’s probably not a coincidence that this multi-year project concludes one month before Hickman’s “reimagining” of the X-Men begins.

    I assume the history lesson serves to tee us up for the bold new direction Hickman is supposed to take us in.

  3. Luis Dantas says:

    I would welcome that, Thom.

    The X-Men deserve to become something better than an eternal tribute to fond memories of the Claremont run.

    It has been over 25 years already, and it did not even end up on a high note.

  4. Voord 99 says:

    I really hope you are right, because that attitude on the part of editorial might produce X-books that I actually want to read, but that perhaps sounds like it would have taken a little too much thought in advance for the X-office. 🙂

    On the subject of bold vs. not-bold in X-editorial, I imagine that everyone here has read or at least heard about Sina Grace’s account of his time working on Iceman.

  5. Jerry Ray says:

    If Grace’s Iceman stuff had been even halfway readable, his issues would carry a little more weight.

  6. wwk5d says:

    “but also a goodbye to the X-Men living in Claremont’s shadow.”

    They had the chance for that post-Morrison, but…

  7. Chris V says:

    Yes, you know this is a mainstream superhero comic book. The title will always be stuck in an eternal loop attempting to recapture a golden age that is considered definitive.

    Look at Daredevil. How many attempts to redo the Frank Miller run have we seen on DD now?
    The character will never move out of the shadow of Miller.
    When it does for a time, like with Waid’s run, the book will just eventually find its way back to being an homage to Miller shortly afterwards.

    Same with the X-Men.
    If Hickman does attempt to move the book away from being nothing more than a poor attempt at nostalgia, it’ll end up being ignored a few months after it ends, just like Morrison.

  8. Moo says:

    You know, I enjoyed Morrison’s run for the most part and I still consider it to be the best post-Claremont run to date, but I’m afraid I didn’t see it as quite the departure from Claremont’s approach that others seem to.

    I mean, I even recall Morrison saying in interviews leading up to his run something like “The back issues are around. We don’t have to write them anymore.” which had me really excited. But despite that sort of talk, Morrison still gave us a Phoenix story, a Magneto story, we got the Shi’ar and the Imperial Guard, and he closed it all out with… yet another dystopian future.

    Don’t get me wrong because like I said, I liked his run, and some of that stuff felt fresh just by virtue of it being written by Morrison. But he wrote some back issues there, I think.

  9. Jason says:

    Called it in the comment here a year ago:

    ‘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.’

  10. Jason says:

    “I also wonder what was the point of mentioning Lorna’s transformation and new powerset since it doesn’t go anywhere – and if I recall correctly, it also didn’t go anywhere in the original comics. Is it a nod to that? Is it an exercise in futility? Either way it only takes a panel or two, but considering how carefully trimmed down the whole thing is… why leave it in?”

    There’s a couple things like that in the series. Paul mentioned Cable showing up out of nowhere and to no particular purpose, and that’s another. Since Piskor’s editing was part of the appeal of the series, the odd bits like this that he fails to pay off are really jarring.

    Overall I was pretty disappointed in the final third. Per the comment above, I found it fairly predictable a year ago, where he was planning to go re: Days of Future Past, but I still would have been down with it if he’d added some interesting wrinkles. But ultimately everything he did in the final issue is exactly what I assumed he was going to do.

    Ah well. I did like the way he linked the Adversary and Inferno.

    Maybe the whole thing will work better for me when I read the whole series in one sitting.

  11. Jason says:

    Okay, one more brag-post and then I’ll shut up. This is my comment on the review of the first two issues, from February 2018.

    ‘Given the solicited cover for issue 6, it looks as if Piskor is going to take the story all the way into the “Days of Future Past” dystopia, possibly making that the actual end point for his version of the saga.’

    Saw it coming a year and a half ago, Piskor!

  12. Chris V says:

    Moo-Morrison’s run was a post-modern text. It did, certainly, reference and interact with the classic X-Men stories, at times, yes.

    However, writing a story with Magneto is hardly staying in the shadow of Claremont.
    Especially since, like it or not, his Magneto owed more to Stan Lee than Claremont.

    Yes, he ended his run with a dystopian story, but it was a dystopian story that was the complete inverse of Claremont’s “Days of Future Past” dystopia.

    Claremont’s run was based on the idea of mutants as a minority facing persecution from humanity, and always living in the dark shadow of looming genocide by the government.
    Morrison’s run was an evolution from Claremont, in that mutants were now truly “the next stage in human evolution”.

    Morrison created a jumping off point where writers could take the X-Men franchise in to the future, and not need to write the same stories over and over again.
    Morrison wasn’t ignoring Claremont, but in many ways, he was putting a line under that period of X-Men, and opening ways to move forward.

    Instead, the editors and writers after Morrison decided to erase or ignore almost all of Morrison’s changes.

  13. Si says:

    An old trope with a twist is still an old trope. Everything new that Morrison brought to the comic was to do with atmosphere, not plots. The atmosphere being hope for the future rather than an endless struggle against it. It was now the bad guys who were desperately struggling against the tide, but they did it by doing the same old things. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s quite clever, but it is what it is.

    The atmosphere was completely reverted as soon as his run ended, this is true. But the bits he added probably had more staying power than any writer since Claremont. I mean, Emma Frost alone. Most character introductions and/or changes don’t last a single issue past the writer moving on.

  14. Si says:

    Note that the discussions of Morrison’s run are as cyclical as the X-Men comics themselves. I’m as guilty as any.

  15. Voord 99 says:

    I think I’d also distinguish between engaging with Claremont and being in Claremont’s shadow. For want of a better way to put it, Morrison does not write as if dealing with the legacy of Claremont from a position of inferiority.

  16. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    Well, Emma Frost has been a goodie (as much as she ever was) for almost a decade before Morrison in the pages of Generation X.

    And Morrison kind of… ignored that completely?

  17. Moo says:

    As I recall in Morrison’s second issue, when Emma is found Genosha, Jean identifies her as an X-Man.

  18. Si says:

    Yeah Emma Frost was a good guy already, but she’d be lucky to be called a B lister, where Morrison made her the solid A lister we know now. He also founded her relationship with Cyclops (not even Claremont could break up the Scott-Jean pairing, and he tried). He also developed her character, albeit in ways already started in Generation X. And there’s the weird diamond thing.

  19. Thom H. says:

    I didn’t see the end of Grand Design coming at all, so I thought it was brilliant. The whole series was worth the money for the nostalgia, art, and design.

    Also, the Lorna thing resolved her possession by Malice. But I agree that it was weird to end the story with her still big like that.

    Grace wasn’t my cup of tea, either, but just because he wasn’t a good writer on Iceman doesn’t mean his claims are false.

    If I recall correctly, Morrison was trying to link Cyclops’ attraction to Emma with his childhood abduction by Diamond Jack. Hence her specific secondary mutation. I love that.

  20. FUBAR007 says:

    Thom H.: If I recall correctly, Morrison was trying to link Cyclops’ attraction to Emma with his childhood abduction by Diamond Jack. Hence her specific secondary mutation. I love that.

    Fans have speculated that’s what Morrison was doing, but, to my knowledge, Morrison himself has never commented on it.

    If he did do it intentionally, it adds a surprisingly unpalatable subtext to “Scemma” that runs counter to his overt portrayal of them as the hottest, sexiest, best couple ever.

    That reminds me: I’m curious to see how Captain Britain reacts to Kurt banging his wife once everyone gets back to 616.

  21. Thom H. says:

    I don’t see why it has to be unpalatable. A subconscious desire for danger — linked to diamonds in Scott’s mind — is all it takes to link the two. People certainly eroticize much more difficult experiences.

  22. wwk5d says:

    I always thought Emma’s secondary mutation was because Morrison couldn’t use Colossus and wanted one of his characters to have a similar type of powerset.

    Much like the Beast’s secondary mutation was because he and Quitely decided “We want the Beast to look like this now!”.

  23. Moo says:

    Thom, forgive me, but it seems as though you’re just really interested in the idea of the Jack of Diamonds/Emma link and thus you believe it. Never mind the fact that Morrison gave no indication whatsoever, either in the book or in any interview that anyone knows of that he was actually going for that.

    Yeah, Morrison likes referencing Silver Age material but he also seems to like making sure readers know when he’s referencing Silver Age material. He didn’t leave readers to speculate where the inspiration for the Omega Gang’s choice of dress came from. He had Quentin Quire point it out.

    I think if Morrison really intended for an Emma/Jack connection, he’d have, you know, actually written about it.

  24. Thom H. says:

    Moo: You’re right — I am really interested in that idea. I think I’ve given the wrong impression by stating it the way I did, though.

    I should have said: Regardless of Morrison’s intent, I think it’s really fascinating how Emma’s secondary mutation — in addition to revealing aspects of her personality — echoes a defining moment in Scott’s childhood, thereby adding a new dimension to his attraction to her.

    It’s rare that two comic book characters fit together as well as Scott and Emma — for a variety of reasons — and I got carried away by suggesting that Morrison meant to include all of those reasons in the text. He could have, but you’re right that he never mentioned this particular facet (get it?) in interviews. So he could have not.

    In any case, I think it’s really cool. Other people obviously disagree. No sweat.

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