Tuesday, August 31, 2004


As I've said before, I have little interest in contemporary superhero comics either as art or entertainment, though I do take a certain interest in them as a cultural and economic phenomenon. Still, when I see people whose opinions I respect praising a superhero comic, I'm curious to see if there's anything to it. So when I saw the first of Marvel's hardcover collections of Morrison's New X-Men at my local library, I checked it out.

As it turned out, the comic per se didn't interest me at all. (Incidentally, while I was flipping through the volume just now, a page fell out: caveat emptor.) What did interest me was the "Morrison Manifesto" reprinted in the back of the book, a memo addressed to the editor setting out Morrison's proposed approach to the X-Men. In the Manifesto, Morrison emphasizes "mak[ing] the book COOL again": "We need to get X-MEN and Marvel Comics in the news again, in the cool magazines and on TV. We need to recapture the college and the hipster audience" (p. 1 of the Manifesto). Clearly this didn't happen. Morrison said "We have to stop talking to the shrinking fan audience," (1) but it was the fan audience which raved about the series, while the rest of the world couldn't have cared less. Undoubtedly, factors beyond Morrison's control had a good deal to do with this. No doubt Dirk Deppey will have something to say about this in the forthcoming second part of his TCJ essay on NuMarvel (which you can read the first part of here). But given that the trades of Morrison's New X-Men did much worse in bookstores than those of Mark Millar's Ultimate X-Men (not to mention manga) it's reasonable to suspect that Morrison's approach was somehow part of the reason for the failure (for sales figures, see the appendix below). What follows are my prejudiced, uninformed speculations on what may have gone wrong. Feel free to ignore them if you like: I freely admit that I have no special insight into what makes stuff popular or "cool" (though the fact that, like the audience Morrison was aiming for, I have only the most generalized knowledge of the X-Men may be an advantage here).

Morrison says in his Manifesto: "The X-MEN is not a story about superheroes but a story about the ongoing evolutionary struggle between good/new and bad/old. The X-MEN are every rebel teenager wanting to change the world and make it better. Humanity is every adult, clinging to the past, trying to destroy the future even as he places all his hopes there" (2), to which the editor, Mark Powers, appended the comment "exactly." And this indeed might have been a way to make the X-Men "relevant." But in fact, the X-Men in this volume come off as middle-aged: if not in physical appearance or "Marvel time," in the way they talk and in weight of the backstory they're dragging around; while the new young characters Morrison has created are uniformly unappealing. Not to mention the character whose name means "new" (though chronologically she's Xavier's age), who is a horrific genocidal monster who at the end of the volume gets a well-deserved lobotomy. Somehow, between conception and execution, Morrison's proposed celebration of teen rebellion turned into a justification of middle-aged discretion: not necessarily a bad thing, but not the sort of thing that usually gets acclaimed as "cool."

Speaking of unappealing new characters, there's Morrison's treatment of Xavier's school. If we take "mutants" to represent blacks, or gays, or just minorities in general, then the idea behind the school--that the solution to prejudice is to "educate" the minority so its behavior won't arouse fear in the majority--was already anachronistic in Claremont's time, and is now borderline offensive, as I'm sure others have pointed out before me. But if we take seriously the school's public designation as a school for gifted youngsters, then it makes more psychological (if not practical) sense. Every teenager who feels like a misfit thinks, or would like to think, that the reason they don't fit in is that they have special gifts. Xavier's school provides the fantasy of a place where these gifts will be recognized, and at the same time they'll learn to control their rage at being excluded.

And Morrison, whether consciously or unconsciously, throws this away. Who would fantasize about being Beak, or a girl whose "gift" is vomiting acid? For that matter, who would want to spend any time with either of them, if they could avoid it? And then there are the "U-Men," and the school shooter who aspires to be a U-Man. To any teen who still fantasizes about being a mutant, Morrison's portrayal of the U-Men sends the clear message (again, whether intended or not) "No, you really are just a geek, and you deserve to be ostracized." Perhaps I'm being unfair to Morrison, but the overall perspective in this volume seems to be that of a middle-aged man observing the young from outside, and reacting with fear and repulsion, or pity at best. (To be sure, the rest of his run, which I haven't read, might send a different message; but it's the early issues which would be crucial in attracting the general public.)

The Manifesto talks about the need to make the book accessible to new readers, something virtually everybody recognizes by now. Here, too, I think Morrison failed, perhaps because he saw the problem only as making sure new readers could follow the story, not as giving them a reason to care about it. Take the backstory I mentioned: the aspect of the backstory that gets the most play is the troubled state of Scott and Jean's relationship, and Scott's attraction to Emma. But there's no reason for someone who's never read an X-Men book before to care about this at all; not unless Morrison gives them a reason to care. And he doesn't. Again, the Manifesto says that the Shi'ar Empire will be "re-introduced ... in such a way that it will seem as though we're seeing these concepts for the first time." (2) To someone who is familiar with how the Shi'ar Empire has been portrayed in the past (which I'm not), Morrison's portrayal of it here may well seem "as though we're seeing [it] for the first time." But for someone who really is seeing the Shi'ar Empire for the first time here, it seems like just a generic interstellar empire. (I admit I didn't read these parts of the book closely, but the fact that I didn't feel any urge to do so sort of supports my point.)

To sum up, the people whom this volume would be most likely to appeal to are middle-aged -- well, I won't use the f-word to avoid alienating people unnecessarily, so let's just say people who know intimately, and love, superhero comics. There's nothing wrong in itself with writing comics aimed at this audience; but it's not the audience Morrison targeted in his manifesto. And this audience can't help a superhero comic break out into the general public, or make it "cool."


These figures are Bookscan sales of adult graphic novels for the week ending Dec. 31, 2003. They cover bookstores only, and not all bookstores; but from what I gather, they do cover the chains pretty well, which are probably where Marvel has most of its bookstore sales. I've listed all the X-Men collections (Morrison's New X-Men are in italics), and a few other titles for purposes of comparison. The order of the figures in each entry is: rank in sales for the week ending Dec. 31 (an asterisk indicates the book was tied with another title), sales for the week, year-to-date sales, date of publication. Thanks to Brian Hibbs for posting these figures.

1. Blueprint for Disaster [Get Fuzzy], 10249, 68772, 10/3
11. .hack//Legend of the Twilight, v. 1, 2978, 35889, 9/03
53. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, v. 1, 1167, 38714, 10/02
109*. Watchmen, 743, 14336, 3/95
154*. Wolverine: Origin, 581, 25601, 12/02
191. Ultimate X-Men v. 6, 496, 7359, 8/03
199. American Splendor, 481, 9084, 7/03
262. Ultimate X-Men, v. 1, 372, 17026, 7/01
319*. Ultimate X-Men, v. 2, 290, 15024, 10/02
332. Ultimate X-Men (hardcover), v. 1, 275, 4353, 8/02
336. Manga X-Men Evolution, v. 1, 270, 557, 12/03
362*. Ultimate X-Men, v. 5, 255, 16708, 5/03
388*. Uncanny X-Men, v. 3, 233, 2292, 10/03
411*. Ultimate X-Men, v. 4, 218, 13882, 2/03
413. New X-Men, v. 5, 216, 1428, 12/03
425*. Ultimate X-Men, v. 3, 207, 13360, 11/02
470*. X-treme X-Men, v. 5, 181, 1221, 12/03
473*. Essential X-Men, 179, 6586, 96/11
480*. New X-Men, v. 1, 174, 6562, 11/01
506*. New X-Men, v. 3, 160, 6941, 12/02
519*. Uncanny X-Men, v. 1, 152, 7255, 1/03
545*. New X-Men, v. 2, 138, 6611, 6/02
553*. Essential X-Men, v. 2, 134, 4634, 10/98
561*. New X-Men, v. 4, 132, 4485, 7/03
564*. X-Men Evolution, v. 2, 131, 1278, 9/03
570*. Essential Uncanny X-Men, v. 1, 128, 4967, 9/02
574*. X-treme X-Men, v. 1, 124, 4974, 3/02
643*. X-treme X-Men, v. 2, 97, 5159, 2/03
672*. Ultimate X-Men, v. 2 (hardcover), 89, 2256, 5/03
680*. X-Men Legends, v. 1, 86, 2526, 4/02
691*. Uncanny X-Men, v. 2, 83, 3288, 7/03
702*. New X-Men (hardcover), 30, 3336, 11/02
722*. Essential X-Men, v. 3, 74, 3170, 7/98

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