Ah, for the days when the Bizarre Boys ruled the X-Men. Back in 2001 Grant Morrison’s New X-Men and Peter Milligan’s X-Force set a new paradigm for Marvel Comics’ top franchise, all but ending their reliance on inscrutable continuity and interminable angst.
New X-Men kept the skeleton of the vintage Claremont comics, the presentation of mutants as a minority class and the maintenance of long-running, twist-laden plotlines, an art all but lost in this age of writing for the trade paperback. But Morrison welded that framework to a contemporary portrayal of minority subculture, scientific anxiety, revolutionary iconography, collapsing relationships and ethnic cleansing that belatedly brought the hottest heroes of the 1970s into the present. Yet for all Morrison’s loudly advertised innovation, Milligan’s X-Force was the more radical book, perversely repurposing one of the most superfluous mutant titles—one originally created for hack supreme Rob Liefeld—into a savage satire on mass media, popular culture, and the stuffy, self-important X-Men franchise itself.
It couldn’t last. X-Force suffered a painful decline: first from an ill-advised name change (reportedly so Marvel wouldn’t have to pay Liefeld for the rights) that caused them to hemorrhage readers, then from corporate interference that gutted a major storyline which might have revitalized the book. Meanwhile, Morrison departed New X-Men just as an editorial change at Marvel resulted in a new dictate to turn back the clock on almost everything he and Milligan had accomplished. Dirk Deppey chronicled the transformation in these essays for his new and improved Comics Journal last year. He also surveyed the aftermath, a task that would daunt any reviewer this side of Paul O’Brien. In the cruelest twist of fate, the New Old Marvel hired Rob Liefeld to do X-Force.
Fortunately even counter-revolutions peter out after a while. Now Peter Milligan is back on X-Men, the comic that used to be Morrison’s, but it just isn’t the same. The subversive spirit of X-Force survives only in occasional flashes of wit, buried under heavy strata of the same old X-Men business as usual. (Two characters choose codenames spelled with multiple Xs and Milligan doesn’t crack wise once.) The comic doesn’t suffer for lack of skill; after a meandering and disappointing opening arc, Milligan’s run has shaped up nicely as a clever character study. His most recent storyline, “Bizarre Love Triangle” (of course), probes under the skin of a longstanding X-Men relationship and reaches the only reasonable conclusion that it can’t last. All in all it’s a smarter than average bit of X-Men soap opera.
The problem is that it’s only a bit of X-Men soap opera. For four issues the X-Men do nothing but sit around the mansion and… what was the term?... angst over their relationships. There isn’t a single mutant rescue, Sentinel attack, shadowy conspiracy or plot for world domination in sight—not even so much as a bank robbery to foil. Milligan’s relationship dynamics aren’t nearly as melodramatic (or overwritten) as they were in Claremont’s heyday, but if you can tell a four-issue story that doesn’t feature one single act of superheroics then I’m not certain you need to be telling that story with superheroes anymore. Well, except that the love triangle absolutely depends on uncontrollable contact power-absorption and shapeshifting.
This is the dilemma that Milligan’s X-Men and, by extension, most DC and Marvel superhero comics find themselves in these days. They’re built upon the tropes and history of long-established superhero universes yet they are with increasing frequency telling stories in which superheroes are all but irrelevant. Instead they mine out the implications of their universes’ bizarre premises, exotic characters, and baroque histories.
There’s a word for this kind of story: fanfic. And while “Bizarre Love Triangle” is pretty good fanfic (although it very nearly qualifies as slash), I’d rather see the talented Milligan produce new material, not just play around in the bones of the old.
Which is a strange but not inaccurate charge to level at Milligan’s book. Unlike so many other contemporary superhero comics, it’s not obsessed with nostalgia and it doesn’t attempt to revisit or recreate its own past. (In writing these reviews I resorted to the word “pastiche” so many times I had to start looking for other terms.) But it’s just as dependent on that past, and while it works little changes in the temporary status quo it never pushes against the fundamental, tried-and-true premises of the superhero soap opera book. Perfectly well-executed if you like that sort of thing, but nothing we haven’t seen before—and from the Bizarre Boys, of all people, we expect something different.