Thanks to Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.
Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!
Artists: Mark Brooks, Paco Medina
Issues: New X-Men (2004-2008) #20-27
Though I’ve made tons of progress in the relatively short time since my comeback into comics (which began in early December), I also find myself adding new series all the time. With Marvel Unlimited giving you just about every Marvel comic at your fingertips, it’s kind of addicting to explore and browse everything.
I’m continually blown away by just how many ongoing series there are at any one time. What initially began as reading the major events and series like Uncanny X-Men and New Avengers has quickly evolved into discovering new teams and series such as X-Factor and New X-Men.
With no less than three major X-Men series going on at the time (and numerous limited series), I was definitely feeling fulfilled on my mutant quotient. But my best friend and comic connoisseur suggested New X-Men as a surprisingly great take on the younger generation of mutants that were being trained at Xavier’s Institute.
I decided to start with issue #20 for a couple reasons: 1) Good starting point taking place during the Decimation (after the catastrophic events of House of M), 2) Though I have access to all the comics, I still want to prioritize my time and have become much more cavalier about skipping story arcs or jumping ahead, and 3) New creative team of Craig Kyle and Chris Yost start with issue #20, who would lead New X-Men to nearly fifty issues before rekindling X-Force in 2008 (fun note: they continue to have success to this day and just got tapped to write Thor 3 for the big screen).
Issue #20 serves as both a good jumping-on point and an exciting event, as our teens reel from the aftermath of the Decimation. Several of the New X-Men are no longer mutants (though most of our cast still are, just like the main X-Men) and headmistress Emma Frost is understandably freaked out over the whole ordeal. The first four issue story arc, “Childhood’s End,” dissolves the previous practice teams of the series in favor of an all-out brawl between the students, with only the strongest survivors becoming a single new team: Hellion, Rockslide, Surge, Dust, Elixir, Mercury and X-23.
Woo, diversity! I don’t know if it’s more painfully noticeable because of our previous white-bread, male-centric teams but this is the second teenage superhero book I’ve read (see Runaways) with a wonderfully diverse team. Four of our seven main heroes are women and Dust is the exceedingly rare Sunni Muslim that dresses in a traditional burka (Dust: “You are familiar with my home?” X-23: “Yes, I have killed in Afghanistan”).
Like any teenage series our heroes get involved in dramatic romantic entanglements, fierce rivalries and make immature mistakes, but they learn to grow up quickly. Even amongst the drama the team still has a little fun, and I particularly enjoyed the scenes where they dress up as the adult X-Men and relive various adventures in the Danger Room (Rockslide: “Colossus again? They really need more big guys on the X-Men”).
The drama of having fellow team members that are suddenly no longer mutants and forced to leave is heartfelt, though as a newcomer to the series it didn’t have quite the same effect on me (apparently Tag/Brian was a major character in the previous comics). The arc ends as our new team waves goodbye to their now merely human friends as they leave on the school bus, before the bus suddenly explodes killing everyone inside.
New X-Men gives us the return of William Stryker, who’s been portrayed on the big screen in both X2: X-Men United and as a young man in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Throughout “Childhood’s End” we get glimpses of Stryker’s rise from suicidal to the leader of his own extremist anti-mutant religious movement. Thanks to Nimrod, the poorly named but powerful mutant-hunting sentinel from the future dropping down in front of him in a church, Stryker suddenly has access to the future and goes on a recruiting montage.
He’s also able to recruit Icarus, one of the former New X-Men who didn’t lose his powers but still feels deep regret at being a mutant. Stryker cuts off his wings and uses him as a manipulative tool to start getting rid of the New X-Men. I loved how this dark storyline played second fiddle to the main drama that was unfolding amongst our leading cast, and not until the final page (with the exploding bus) did Stryker’s horrifying plot finally emerge.
Each subsequent trade volume is called New X-Men: Childhood’s End Volume 1, 2, etc (from Issue #1 to #20 they were called New X-Men: Academy X), and for the sake of these Final Thoughts I’m covering the first two volumes, which includes the second story arc, “Crusade.” Stryker and his cult the Purifiers move into center stage after the bus attack at the end of the previous arc. He sends a sniper to kill Wallflower, another of the new X-Men that didn’t make the final team and Elixir’s on again off again girlfriend (she’s shot in the head right in his arms for extra dramatic effect).
Icarus, more a victim of Stryker’s manipulation than anything else, attempts to lure Sooraya (Dust) away from campus as Stryker has ‘seen’ that she’s the next most dangerous mutant. X-23, quickly becoming one of my favorite new characters, knocks her out and takes her place, burka and all. When Stryker’s men open fire on her she gets back up and kills them all. Did I mention she’s the cloned daughter of Wolverine, complete with healing factor and adamantium claws? She’s pretty damn awesome with severe social skill issues that reminds me quite a bit of Shaw from Person of Interest. Her backstory as a test-tube baby to little girl killing machine is revealed in the excellent X-23: Innocence Lost limited series.
“Crusade” spends much of its time exploring the toll all these terrible deaths and events have had on our budding heroes, and it’s their interplay and dialogue that really makes the series shine. The story builds up to an all-out invasion by Stryker and the Purifiers on the mansion and while other resident X-Men are shown in brief montages, the spotlight remains on our teenage heroes and how they deal with the crisis.
It’s powerful and satisfying, and even a bit gruesome as we get to see just why the Purifiers wanted to assassinate Dust beforehand – her sand form rips the flesh from their bones. The exciting battle peaks when Elixir, a sensitive young man that only wants to heal people with his power, goes a little nuts and grabs Stryker, causing him to bubble up all over with sores and pus. The gold-skinned Elixir then turns black before passing out. Even victory takes its toll, and our heroes survive the assault even further hardened against the humans that despise them.
A series about the mutant teenage X-men in training had no right to be this awesome, and I’m especially satisfied that I jumped in just as the plot took some dark turns and, well, shit got real. The art style, like Runaways, is bright and very modern-looking without going over-the-top silly and fits the youthful but serious nature of the series very well. The comics are also heavily tied into the continuity of Marvel at the time, including lots of nods and mentions to The 198, Astonishing X-Men and the Sentinel Squad, which I very much appreciated. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, which eventually culminates in the grand Messiah Complex crossover.