The 5 Worst X-Men Runs (by Great Writers)
The X-Men family of comic series have varied greatly in quality over the years. They’ve gone from some of the most entertaining and poignant stories in the medium to unreadable dreck and back again. Like most readers in my generation, I cut my teeth on X-Men comics and that undoubtedly shaped my tastes regarding all types of fantasy. And naturally, many of the best and brightest authors in the industry are eager to take a shot at writing these characters, and while some of these new takes on Marvel’s Merry Mutants have redefined the characters for a new generation, other visions fell so very, very flat. And the remarkable aspect, of this creative quagmire is that some of the most spectacular failures in the history of X-Men comics have been at the hands of otherwise phenomenal writers.
There are a great many runs of the series that are either forgettable or contemptible, but nonetheless unsurprising. For instance, Scott Lobdell’s long tenure as writer of both core X-Men series in the 1990s. These issues, despite being published at the height of the X-Men’s popularity, are largely forgotten. And that was no accident. Any stories in his run that aren’t shunned are remembered only for their art. But no one is doing a spit-take over a shitty Scott Lobdell story. Lobdell is a master of ruination, he’s currently hard at work in his efforts to make Superman an irrelevant footnote over at DC and seems to be doing a wonderful job of it. Similarly, Chuck Austen’s runs on X-Men and Uncanny X-Men are often cited as the worst in the history of these series, but it’s not as if we had any reason to suspect they wouldn’t be. Everything else he had done up to that point had been unimpressive, so the clusterfuck he left behind at the Xavier Institute only stands to reason.
And that’s my point. When bad writers write bad stories, it doesn’t come as a shock. However, when otherwise acclaimed writers step up to the plate to work on the X-Men, they very often fail as well. These books are, in that sense, sort of akin to the Sword in the Stone. These capable knights, so to speak, approach this task with confidence and great expectations, and then shamble away in defeat a few months later. Today, I give a few of those enormous letdowns.
The early 2000s were a surprisingly worthwhile time to be reading X-Men comics. Sure, you had the Chuck Austen business going down in Uncanny but New X-Men was kicking ass under Grant Morrison’s direction. And I know this is gonna sound crazy, but X-Force was fucking awesome. Peter Milligan and Mike Allred had transformed the shoulderpad-heavy, pouch-laden Liefeldian superhero team into a cleverly satirical group of media darlings who fought harder for their Q Scores than they did for mutant equality. The series evolved into X-Statix, which culminated in the death of the entire team. And that wasn’t really a surprise, characters were constantly being killed off in Milligan’s X-Books, and they didn’t just come back a few months later… this was revolutionary storytelling in the comics world.
So, when Peter Milligan was announced as the writer on X-Men (after Austen had suitably destroyed what Morrison had built) hopes were very high. This guy was not your average comic writer, he actually had something to say. Jesus, if he had just saved a few X-Statix stories and published them in the X-Men title he wouldn’t have even had to try. Unfortunately, though, Milligan had run out of things to say about the X-Men. The one thing that reader could be guaranteed was an unusual story.
But there are no guarantees, and instead what was published were a few very bland story arcs which differed only slightly from the Chuck Austen issues. While for the sake of continuity, Milligan’s move to preserve the team used in Austen’s run was admirable, I don’t think anyone reading the book would have objected to a total slash and burn of what had been happening. Not even the return of Apocalypse (and Doop!) saved these issues in the eyes of the readership.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. He’s Stan Lee, and all, but the X-Men were the weak links of the early Marvel days, possibly second to Daredevil. When someone is interested in getting into, say, Spider-Man comics and they ask for recommendations on where to start, people in the know will suggest they start at the very beginning. Aside from just being the introduction of every relevant character in the mythos, the Spider-Man stories are actually a lot of fun. The X-Men stories, though? Not as much. Granted, they do introduce the key players for the stories we all know and love. The original five X-Men might actually be my favorite team, they have the kind of balance that is hard to achieve when you cherrypick existing characters. And some of the X-Men’s finest villains, particularly Magneto, come from this era. One could make a very, very strong argument that Magneto is the greatest antagonist in the history of comics. But none of the characterization that made him so rich comes from this era. It wasn’t until Claremont poised him as the Malcolm X to Xavier’s Martin Luther King that the complexity of his relationship with Xavier came out. The Magneto of Stan Lee’s run was a second rate Doctor Doom, a megalomaniacal madman with no discernible heart. And he, like many other Stan Lee-written characters, also manifested new powers whenever it was convenient.
Certainly, one could claim that Jack Kirby is responsible for these less-than-stellar X-Men tales. However, if Stan Lee wants to claim that he wrote all of the classic Marvel stories, these shitty X-Men comics are part and parcel.
After turning a lot of heads in the independent comics world, Matt Fraction was brought up to the big leagues by Marvel, and he proceeded to knock everyone’s dicks in the dirt with phenomenal runs on Immortal Iron Fist and Invincible Iron Man. And today he’s even more of a success with Hawkeye at Marvel and Sex Criminals at Image both wowing buyers and critics alike. But there was a dark, dark time when he was handed the keys to the Marvel Mutant Mobile, and proceeded to drive it right into the Pacific Ocean. The ideas implemented during Fraction’s time on Uncanny X-Men were not horrible ones, but the execution left a lot to be desired. I rather liked the concept of Utopia and he hit gold with the X-Club, in fact the standalone time travel issue featuring that group was a great issue, but his metatextual style of storytelling fell flat with the readership by and large.
If I had a nickel for every complaint I’ve heard about the snarky little text boxes, I could eventually buy a comic book. You know, ’cause they’re like four bucks now and eighty complaints is really a lot of complaints, when you think about it. It’s a shame, too, because it’s this sort of wacky touch that makes books like Sex Criminals and Hawkeye so popular, and yet it was almost universally reviled in the pages of Uncanny X-Men. I suppose you can’t blame readers for wanting to take their book about a school full of perpetual teenagers who routinely travel to space and alternate dimensions extremely seriously. I mean, a giant blue kitty cat doctor is one thing, but a little bubble referencing the fact that he’s a giant blue kitty cat doctor?
Fraction’s reputation as an X-Men writer also seems to have suffered from his collaboration with Greg Land. While Greg Land has long been a hack who traces over freeze frames of porno movies, the comics world finally seemed to get sick of his bullshit around the time that he started working on Uncanny X-Men. The recycled stock images of inexplicably smiling women and disjointed bodybuilders are not effective means of telling a story and what good is a comic if it’s painful to look upon?
All the same, while I find the most common complaints about Fraction’s turn on this book to be a bit petty, I do consider it to have been an enormous letdown. I think that Fraction has better X-Men stories in him, and I hope that he gets to tell them before he’s through with work-for-hire.
And while Fraction’s tenure on Uncanny X-Men left a lot to be desired, it was The Catcher in the Rye compared to that of his Iron Fist collaborator and erstwhile assailant Ed Brubaker. Perhaps best known for his collaborations with Sean Phillips and Steve Epting, Ed Brubaker has made a name for himself as comics’ king of moody noir. While he has proven himself capable of handling a cape and tights book on numerous occasions, he has shined his brightest on books about spies, crooks, and cops. With that in mind, the high adventure exploits of the X-Men were definitely a bit out of his wheelhouse, but to Brubaker’s credit he didn’t try and bring the X-Men into his world, so to speak. Right off the bat, he had the team whisked off into a space opera in the Sh’iar Empire. And, very ambitiously, he set out to resolve a dangling thread from a long past era of X-Books; the mystery of the third Summers brother.
However, X-Men fans are not very forgiving of retcons. A lot of comics can get away with such things, one need look no further than Brubaker’s own Captain America run and the Winter Soldier storyline for an example of this. Bucky Barnes’ return was embraced, it’s the subject of a major motion picture this Spring and it looks downright fucking awesome. But X-Men fans apparently don’t truck with no retcons, and Brubaker’s tale of a lost team of mutant heroes not only upset the fan base, it also brought about the trend of Xavier and Cyclops acting as Machiavellian manipulators in the X-Books.. and we all know how that ended.
When Warren Ellis is good, he is one of the top writers in the industry. When Warren Ellis is bad, I’m almost embarrassed to enjoy even his good writing. I’ve long been an outspoken fan of Planetary. It is very likely my favorite comic series, and I’m evangelical about its glory. So when Warren Ellis took over as the writer of Astonishing X-Men, I felt like a fool. I felt like a kid who wore a Michael Jackson t-shirt to school in the sexual abuse allegations era. I had been mouthing off about how fantastic this book would be ever since it had been announced. Sure, Joss Whedon is great for Joss Whedon fans. And he clearly loved the Chris Claremont era of X-Men, but who didn’t? Whedon took a few generic storylines and shoehorned them into the X-Men universe. But he is not on trial here. Whatever one thinks of Whedon’s stories, the point here is that I was sure Warren Ellis would put them to shame. Warren Ellis has the best handle on science fiction of perhaps any writer in the comic book industry, and it’s because he understands the science as well as the fiction. He doesn’t just toss in a science-y word or give someone glasses to try and sell the concepts behind his sci-fi, he does the leg work. And that’s not where this story falls apart. I think his run on this book failed so hard because he lacked a very important feature. He did not, to all appearances, give a shit about the characters he was writing. I would argue that a love for the bizarre personalities and relationships of the X-Men is a good part, perhaps even the better part, of writing a good X-Men story and if Warren Ellis has any such love, it was not evidenced in these pages.
Perhaps I’m being too naive, though. Planetary was able to soar to the heights that it did in great part because Ellis owned those characters. I certainly do not doubt that Warren Ellis is capable of writing a good X-Men story, I just don’t think these were those stories. While I’m not necessarily saying that Marvel editorial wouldn’t allow Ellis to do with the X-Men as he pleased, there was really not much incentive for him to do so. It’s not secret that doing work-for-hire writing is often a way for comic writers to pay the bills while they work on labors of love in the creator-owned world. And I don’t blame anyone who acts this way, very often these fantastic writers incidentally write great stories because it’s all they know how to do. In fact, one need look no further than Ellis’ Thunderbolts for an example of this. When a creator is allowed to have fun in the sandbox of an existing universe, the results are almost always preferable to the high-profile gigs they can’t afford to turn down.
That being said, if anyone would like to come forward and clear the names of these writers, I’d welcome them to do so. If these unimpressive stories can be legitimately blamed on Marvel editorial, I’d be happy to absolve these men. And it’s not as if a few clunkers have tarnished the legacies of the creators, they’ve persevered and in some cases written their best stuff after the X-Men. I just find it very interesting that the X-Men are such a riddle to so many writers.
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