Disclosure: This post might wind up being a little different than previous ones. The reason is that there’s a high risk of this one turning into “Memoirs of an X-Men Reader.” But it should be fun regardless...
I had an idea that I didn’t want to forget about. At some point I realized that, while it is still the month of May and the year 2011, we are 10 whole years removed from the last really significant shakeup of the status quo for “Marvel’s Merry Mutants.” Well, okay, plenty has happened since, including Astonishing X-Men and several year’s worth of X-Books that I have altogether ignored, but I feel safe in saying that there hasn’t been any kind of a shift that has been as impactful as what Joe Quesada set up for the 2001 X-Revolution.
So what really happened when the X-Men and all of their related titles came out in May 2001? Well, it’s no exaggeration to say that everything about them changed drastically. Uncanny X-Men got a facelift from Joe Casey and Ian Churchill. X-Men morphed into New X-Men with Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. They found something good for Chris Claremont to do with X-Treme X-Men (do your best to ignore the cheesy title) with Salvador Larocca joining him. And X-Force....well, that book got shaken up so much it might as well have been a new title altogether, with Peter Milligan and Mike Allred turning it into something zany, violent, and unique.
I have a Wizard X-Men Special that was put out to coincide with the “New World Order” of the X-Books. It’s pretty much just a 64 page hype piece about how great the X-Men comics were about to become, which was gobbled right up by myself and many, many other fans, since the X-Men had been soooo terrible lately. Just a year previous, Chris Claremont had returned to make the X-Men comics so confusing and meaningless it wasn’t even funny. Oh yeah, and at this time when the storylines were so inaccessible, a certain big budget 20th Century Fox movie entitled “X-Men” came out. Anyone who might have caught the flick and said “Jeez, I wonder what the X-Men are like now?” would have run away screaming if he or she was brave enough to walk into a comic store to find out.
So yes, any news of change for the X-Men in early 2001 was pretty much guaranteed to be good news. And, well, when they started announcing who would be doing what and art began to be released, it was pretty obvious to anyone that the powers that be were onto something that could certainly wind up being great. Joe Quesada, after becoming Marvel’s Editor in Chief late in 2000, knew that the X-Men needed a LOT of help. He did a quick and effective job in bringing people to the table who could shake things up in the best way possible. An interview with Morrison and Casey from the Wizard Special is peppered with ideas about things like chicken sentinels, secondary mutations, “super-consistency,” etc. New things all around. New costumes that while being clearly informed by the Hollywood X-Men retained some comic book style. New villains, new ideas. New X-Men = good.
The opening salvo in the 2001 X-Men reboot was Uncanny X-Men #394. It was a done-in-one story featuring a brand new antagonist and, besides that, Wolverine and Jean Grey kissed and didn’t even feel bad about it afterwards. There were no backstories in this issue, there were no extraneous characters carrying pointless subplots, it was just a nice, quick 22 pages.
And then came New X-Men #114. Now this was the one that really broke the door off its hinges. But this kind of thing should be expected from Grant Morrison. This was a comic about evolution, about race issues in the 21st century, and about how a dream might have to adjust itself a little to fit into a new era.
X-Force #116, in many ways the ugly stepsister of the New X-Books, featured a brand new team of superheroes. Before you even get to know them, almost all of them are mowed down in a grisly battle. Usually new mutant characters stick around for far too long, but not these guys. They were put into the comic to die and die quickly.
So if that’s what it was like in the beginning of the era, how did things finally end up? For the most part it’s pretty easy to say that it didn’t live up to the hype. I think that a considerable amount of the problem had to do with inconsistencies on the art side of things. The radical directions the writing was taking should have probably been balanced by some steady hands at the drawing table, but both Churchill and Quitely couldn’t keep up on the monthly grind. So fill-in artists galore killed the momentum of the creative teams. Joe Casey didn’t wind up lasting too long and I seem to remember a lot of fans saying they just didn’t like what he was up to, which is a claim that’s hard to understand. Casey’s successor, Chuck Austen, wasn’t really on the bandwagon with the whole 2001 reboot concept, and Uncanny returned to being a silly spandexy soap opera.
We would definitely look back on Morrison’s New X-Men more favorably if it hadn’t been marred by (hate to say it) the rush job of Igor Kordey’s art. Kordey could be really good, but he was overtaxed with drawing two books a month and his issues are just murky. Morrison did a lot of good stuff and kept the book fresh until the tail end of his run, when he brought Magneto back. That just seemed really wrong, to have three years of “All New, All Different” X-Men stories and then just go back to a “Magneto’s about to take over the world again oh my god” type of story. The story that immediately preceded the 2001 reboot was one such story, so who knows, maybe Grant just wanted to take it all full circle. And the final story, Here Comes Tomorrow, was set in the future and kind of sort of made sense and seemed like a fitting conclusion to the work Morrison had set out to do but also felt like there was a lot of important story that had remained untold.
Milligan and Allred seemed to have been able to tell the story they set out to tell with X-Force, which eventually morphed into X-Statix to further set itself apart from the other X-Books. The series was funny, morbid, and challenging, and rereading it today brings back a lot of social issues that were important at the time. So yes, it might be a little dated, but it might also be a nice little social history lesson. They wrapped the book up when it was time and before they ran out of steam.
I did pick up X-Treme X-Men for a good long while, and it wasn’t because I thought Chris Claremont’s stories were up to par with his early Cockrum/Byrne collaborations. X-Treme was good in what I call the “Image Comics of 1992” kind of good: if there was nothing else to be proud of, there sure was a lot of nice stuff to look at. Salvador Larocca’s art was colored straight from the pencils, so the book stood out on the shelf. It was a beautifully produced comic book that was strange because it was so disconnected from everything else that was going on with Uncanny and New X-Men. Larocca designed everything on his own without comparing notes with Quitely and Churchill and it was just weird that two X-Men teams would look all shiny and new while the X-Treme team was still kicking around in spandex suits. But it was its own thing and apparently it sold well enough.
With the departure of Grant Morrison in 2004, everything that had started in May 2001 had finished. Joe Quesada knew he needed to pull in something big to rejuvenate the X-Men yet again, and the Joss Whedon/ John Cassaday Astonishing X-Men started up right away and brought the mutants back into a more classic spandexy mode that they’ve been stuck in ever since.
The 2001 reboot of the X-Men might be summed up as something that was a great experiment that just wasn’t built to last. Like a lot of things that Marvel was trying in the early days of Joe Quesada’s EIC tenure, the new ideas brought new life to the company, but the same old moneymaking tricks slowly but surely came back to make everything much “safer.” The 2001 X-Books were envelope pushing comics, and that doesn’t usually work for too long with a company’s hottest franchise. But now that it’s all in the past, the 2001 era of X-Books stands as a nice experiment that made a bunch of comics that still stand out today.