How Grant Morrison’s New X-Men called out (and then broke free of) superhero comics’ storytelling limits

The first issue of New X-Men hit shelves this month 20 years ago (if you go by cover dates, at least), kicking off an acclaimed 41-issue run by superstar scribe Grant Morrison. At the time, the X-books were floundering creatively, something Morrison – working alongside artists Frank Quitely, Leinil Francis Yu, Igor Kordey, Ethan Van Sciver, Phil Jimenez, Chris Bachalo, and Marc Silvestri – is credited with turning this around.

New X-Men wasn’t without controversy, though, and by the time Morrison wrapped things up in early 2004 with final story arc “Here Comes Tomorrow” more than a few fans’ feathers had been ruffled. To them, Morrison had added too many concepts, retooled too many characters, and messed around with the status quo too much, which is ironic, considering New X-Men represents Morrison taking aim at serialised superhero comics’ exhaustingly cyclical nature.

Sure, the X-Men aren’t quite the same at the end of Morrison’s run, but even so, Morrison very deliberately puts all the major pieces right back where they found them before departing the title. It’s a bold move that nevertheless runs the risk of coming across as offputtingly cynical – until you realise that spotlighting mainstream ongoing superhero comics’ limits was ultimately Morrison’s way of breaking free of them.

A “greatest hits” book that calls out cyclical storytelling

Of course, you’d be forgiven for thinking that New X-Men is every bit the full-blown franchise revamp it’s often touted as being.

Morrison launches the first story arc, “E is for Extinction”, with a literal bang, when the island nation of Genosha (home to a sizeable chunk of Earth’s mutant population) is obliterated by terrifying new baddie, Cassandra Nova. It’s easy to take this as Morrison making an “out with the old”-style mission statement, and as the break-out characters, redesigned outfits, and radical revisions pile up, in a sense, it is.

Heck, Morrison even messes about with the characterisation of franchise archvillain Magneto. In New X-Men, this traditionally sympathetic figure is outed as (in Morrison’s words) “an old bastard with daft, old ideas based on violence and coercion” who’s peddling a philosophy that no longer connects with mutant society at large. This proved to be easily the most divisive of Morrison’s changes (although in the context of New X-Men’s story, it works), but few would disagree it was at least different.

And that’s just it: everything about New X-Men feels so fresh, so unlike what came before it, that it’s hard to fathom branding it anything less than a major shift in the status quo. Look closer, however, and you’ll see that the run is built less on change, and more on the illusion of change.

“It’s impossible to radically change the [X-Men] franchise… when characters become lucrative corporate franchises, the pressure is on the company to never, ever change what makes them tick.”

Grant Morrison talks about the restrictions of mainstream superhero comics with CBR

Sure, not everything Morrison does in New X-Men is easy for future writers to unpick, but none of it is impossible to erase, reframe or even straight-up ignore. Take secondary mutations: the idea that Marvel’s mutants have the potential to evolve further and develop new powers is technically a gamechanger, yet by its very nature, is something that subsequent X-authors can take or leave.

The same goes for all the retcons made to Weapon X and Phoenix Force lore, or even Beast’s sexuality; no matter how much it seems to shift the status quo, it can all be backtracked. Heck, even Morrison slightly rolled back their controversial portrayal of Magneto before their run was over – leaving the door open for the others to reinstate the villain’s more traditional characterisation, as needed.

Then there’s the underlying narrative roadmap that New X-Men is built on, which – for all the new characters and concepts Morrison introduces – was intentionally designed as an “X-Men’s Greatest Hits” round-up of all the most popular (and over-utilised) elements of the canon. There are jaunts to the Savage Land, Sentinel robot airstrikes, clandestine Weapon X missions, titanic clashes with Magento, dystopian futures, and the ominous threat of the otherworldly Phoenix and the inevitable death of its earthly host, Jean Grey – all the aspects of X-Men continuity that defined the franchise’s late 70s and early 80s Chris Claremont/John Byrne heyday.

Morrison might play with these familiar storytelling toys more interestingly than others (and throw in a few shiny new toys alongside them), but they’re ultimately the same toys in the same storytelling sandbox – and fan expectations and corporate edicts mean that’s never really going to change. The genius of New X-Men run is that it leans into this inescapable truth, to the extent that Morrison very purposefully has the main story end with Wolverine dispatching Magneto, the same way the previous X-Men run by Scott Lobdell ended. It’s all a cycle – a never-ending loop of the same battles of good versus evil playing out essentially the same way – and from a creative standpoint, that’s both frustrating and depressing.

Compromise, bribery, and outdoing the status quo

Now, this sentiment (accurate or not) could come across as mere bitterness of Morrison’s part, and to a degree, it is. The scribe has since confessed to being in a bad place mentally and emotionally while writing New X-Men’s penultimate arc, “Planet X” – and that world-weariness expressed itself as a thinly-veiled attack on the limits of the genre. But Morrison is too good a writer (and too much of an optimist) just to sit around complaining, and they also take a shot at subverting the very storytelling restrictions they’re railing against by bringing lasting change to X-Men continuity.

Morrison doesn’t aim small, either, setting their sights on one of the franchise’s most “untouchable” components: the Scott Summers/Jean Grey relationship. This romance has been a fundamental part of X-canon since it began way back in 1963, and Morrison completely dismantles it, bumping off Jean and pushing Cyclops into the arms of his new teammate (and former enemy) Emma Frost. It’s a massive shift in the status quo and one that, broadly speaking, remains in place 17 years later – and that’s largely down to Morrison’s skill.

For starters, this shake-up is rooted in compromise. Morrison gives fans the thrill of faux-change throughout their New X-Men run and then, just when fans start to panic, they offer to put everything back the way it was… so long as fans let them keep the Scott/Emma pairing. Morrison even bakes this contract into the story itself, presenting us with two possible scenarios – one where the X-Men flounder and fail because Scott is heartbroken over Jean, and one where he finds the courage to lead the team with Emma by his side – knowing that fans will embrace the option that keeps the storytelling cycle going. Morrison is basically bribing readers into accepting Scott/Emma, using the same status quo he’s been fighting against as their incentive. And you know what? It works.

“If you want it to grow a new future to replace the one you just cut away… you have to water it with your heart’s blood.”

Quentin Quire explains Jean Grey’s choice in New X-Men #154

But New X-Men breaks free of comics’ cyclical nature off the back of more than just compromise and bribery. No, for a change to the status quo to really take hold, it’s got to be good – so good that notoriously change-averse comics fans prefer it to what they already have. It’s a tall order, but true to form, Morrison proves up to the challenge, building up Scott, Jean, and Emma to the point where they’re easily the most interesting they’ve been in years.

Somewhat surprisingly, though, it’s Morrison’s transformation of Jean that winds up being the most important. Sure, adding new dimensions to Scott’s strait-laced personality and carving out a believable redemptive arc for Emma were key to selling the change – both at the time and post-New X-Men. Yet both these developments fall flat if we can’t accept Jean as being equally capable of letting go of Scott.

Indeed, the entire narrative and emotional payoff of New X-Men hinges on Jean’s ability to accept that her relationship with Scott has run its course, and to make him see it, too. What’s best for Scott (and, conveniently, the Marvel timeline itself) is for him to build a new life with Emma.

That’s why, in a moment of unimaginable self-sacrifice, a newly-resurrected Jean saves the day by telepathically nudging Scott – a man she still loves, for all their ups and downs – to move on from her (effectively giving the couple her blessing), before returning to the grave she’d barely escaped from. This sense of closure and acceptance isn’t just for Jean’s benefit, either; it’s for readers, too – in the end, we accept the Scott/Emma pairing as the new status quo because Jean herself accepts it.

And with that, Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run elevates itself from a pointed critique of superhero comics’ cyclical limitations to a stunning example of how to break from of them.

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