TOP 10 MARVEL BOOKS OF 2012 – NUMBER EIGHT – X-TREME X-MEN

#8 – X-TREME X-MEN #1-5

by Greg Pak and Paco Diaz & Stephen Segovia

As any fan of the X-side of the Marvel Universe is well aware, X-titles appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. This year alone we saw the end of UNCANNY X-MEN and NEW MUTANTS, as well as the launch of GAMBIT, ALL-NEW X-MEN and a couple new volumes of pre-existing titles. But the one that stood out most to me barely even broke the top 100 on its debut issue, spun out of the pre-Northstar focused ASTONISHING X-MEN, and stars an alternate-reality Wolverine who was, not only, the former General Governer of Canada, but also has gold-laced bones made from the Gods, and, it must be added, is the lover of his dimension’s Hercules. If you’re not sold on a politically conscious Golden gay Wolverine, I’m not sure if I can help you fall for this series. And we haven’t even mentioned Dazzler yet.

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Dazzler is one of my favourite Marvel characters. I know, I know. But if you missed the fantastic Tom DeFalco series of the ‘80’s, (as well a great end-of-series run featuring art by Paul Chadwick, yes, that Paul Chadwick) the basic pitch is that she’s a superhero pop star, a mutant born with the powers of light manipulation (basically she can turn music into…magic beams) but one aspect of her story made me fall for her. The idea that she’s a struggling, head-in-the-clouds creative type, somebody who has big dreams but continually fails to accomplish them always appealed to me. She’s attempted careers at modelling, dancing, and acting. But her commitment to helping people with her mutant powers always sort of…got in the way. Now, I know upon a first read this doesn’t sound like anything too original (see this guy), but I think Dazzler is different. I’ve always felt what I relate to about Spider-man is the idea that he doesn’t really want to be a hero, he didn’t exactly choose to be a hero, but it’s something he feels he has to, and is proud to, even if he occasionally resents the problems it creates in his personal life. Dazzler is sort of a different side to that, and to me correlates to what most aspiring-creative-types go through. We all resent our day jobs but, y’know, someone’s got to keep the lights on. And I thought it was a fun twist on the superhero genre to have a character who’s an artist with, basically, the day job of a superhero.

I could say a lot more about Dazzler (especially a story in which she sacrifices her dream career in an attempt to create wide-spread acceptance of mutants) but I’ll spare you that. X-TREME X-MEN begins with the once semi-famous Dazzler as a street busker, working with her partner/lover, Johnny Ito. After being called to Utopia by a pre-event freak-out Cyclops, she uses her sound powers to help open a dimensional rift in spacetime, and out come spilling a severed head of Charles Xavier floating in a jar, a pre-teen version of Nightcrawler (henceforth referred to as Kidcrawler), the aforementioned James Howlett, and Emmemline Summers-Frost, leader of the new Albion X-Society. The head of Xavier reveals he and his rag-tag group of mutants have assembled to take down ten evil versions of Professor X scattered across the multiverse. Dazzler agrees to join them, due to her loyalty to the concept of X-men. From the first issue, we’re promised fun, high concept exciting X-adventures, the likes of which we’ve rarely seen, and it goes from this to become a very character focused series, with each arc taking a sincere examination into these eccentric heroes.

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The first story focuses on the nature of revolution, of how imagery and simplified trends can unify a group, as well as using alternate universes to raise questions about some of the presumptions we take in reading stories set in the main MU. The first universe they stumble upon a sort of post-modern Ancient Rome, ruled upon by dictatorial versions of Thor, Storm, Namor, Sabretooth and Archangel. Using their control over nature, they rule mercilessly over a cramped city of humans going through it’s ninth year of drought, appropriately titled Utopia. It’s a great dark-mirror look at 616, where mutants were (at the time) being, let’s say, overshadowed by those loveable rascals the Avengers while they were at near decimation levels. It turns out this universes Xavier and Magneto (going by Magnus, here) have long lost their powers, and are the heroes of this worlds starved and desperate humans, planning a revolution against the tyrannical Gods. Dazzler and the gang choose to go off with them to fight the evil Gods, while X-head (chuckhead? profhead?) and Emmaline, renaming herself God-Of-All-Things, seemingly betray the X-treme team while deciding to stay with Storm, Namor and the others. While Dazzler, Kidcrawler and James are given a tour of Utopia by protector-of-the-people Hercules, there’s a fantastic scene that really hits home the themes presented in this story, namely, beware of false idols, where Hercules shows Dazzler some townspeople calmly chatting around a fire on the eve of revolution. “The people of Utopia…they’re brilliant, beautiful dreamers. But Xavier has protected them for years. They haven’t fought this kind of battle before.” These words can really apply to any superhero universe, and it threatens the values a lot of us who read these books may hold. It also outlines the dangers of, not only a complacent society, but of one that puts all of its resources into one man/idea.

As team X-treme, along with Hercules, Magnus and Xavier charge the fortress of the weather Gods, Dazzler is convinced X-head is the real evil Xavier of this world, and is ready to take him down for betraying the people of Utopia. But as the war begins, decapitated-Charles reveals he only stayed behind to attempt to use the gods against revolutionary-Xavier, who has, in fact, been mind-controlling the Roman warlords the entire time. After a climactic battle in which Xavier lay defeated and near-death, Magnus holds him in his arms. “You don’t remember”, Xavier answers as Magnus asks him why he’s done what he’s done for so many years, “Back when the Gods were so perfect and beneficent…humans were nothing but sheep. [Now, look]…capable of taking on the Gods themselves. Only when we fought them…could we become the best we could be.”

Is Xavier right? Does his desire to see humans lead themselves warrant him manipulating the playing field until they saw entirely of what they were capable of? Basically, in 616 terms, is Xavier’s incredibly idealistic view of a future paradise of human/mutant kinship worth all of the pain and suffering that dream entails? I mean, obviously, I do believe this Xavier was working selfishly, so focused on his idea of the humans living independently that he let hundreds of thousands of innocent people be murdered. However, 616-Xavier has created his fair amount of pain as well, as have revolutionary icons in our real world. It’s an interesting, thought-provoking climax in that much-maligned genre of mainstream superhero funny books!

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Fantastic as some of the big, more complex ideas are, what I think Pak does better than almost anyone at Marvel is long-running character moments and hints at backstory. I love to death all of the characters in this series. There’s been a lot of apprehension from the online community about Kidcrawler, but I love the guy. The best I can explain it, he’s a blue and furry teleporting version of Julie in Michael Chabon’s TELEGRAPH AVENUE. He’s a pop culturist, an established Marvel fanboy with a kink for slave Leia cosplay, and one could easily imagine carrying a post-ironic ‘80’s TV show wallet in his back pocket. He has a massive fear of failure, which is brought to light in an arc focused solely on him later in the series, where we learn he comes from a universe where humans have been exterminated by robot rulers, which also introduces Sage back into the 616, so it had a lot going for it.

Something that I think is handled exceptionally well is the way these characters backstories are laid out in a way where we get to make justified inferences on our own. One of my favourite examples comes in the second arc, in which our heroes travel to a steampunk wild west world. James Howlett winds up getting imprisoned with the father of this universes version of himself. They have a brief yet intense discussion on fathers and sons, and we get the sense that James’ father was perhaps aware and against his son’s homosexuality. From my point of view, these are the kind of elements that make an ongoing series rewarding, and it’s juggled in a way that continues to progress the plot and never sacrifices on action/story.

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X-TREME X-MEN may never be a top-seller, and announcements that it will tie-in to other low-selling X-titles in the new year don’t bode well for it, but the first handful of issues shone as brightly as any X-title I’ve seen in the last few years. It featured unique, compelling characters in out there, comic-booky situations, while still managing to be very character driven and intimate. If you’re one of those many fans burnt out on events, THE AVENGERS, if you’ve lost all hope in the x-side of the MU, give this book a chance and you won’t regret it.

6 responses to “TOP 10 MARVEL BOOKS OF 2012 – NUMBER EIGHT – X-TREME X-MEN

  1. The failing of this title is Kidcrawler — sorry to disagree with your assessment of the character. Nightcrawler, historically, has been one of the only adult male comic characters to break out of the testoserone-fest stereotype and show that a guy can still be a hero and get by on thinking and compassion. Turning said character into a child, visually “small and weak” in comparison to other characters, just reinforces the notion that a man who doesn’t fit the pattern is less than a man, and shows a lack of understanding on Pak’s part. (It’s no different than Aaron reducing Kitty Pryde — a unique female character who breaks the “sex sells” comic stereotype — to a flat, dull school marm.)

  2. Don’t be sorry at all, especially with such an intelligent response! I must admit, you’ve eloquently nailed down what I love about Nightcrawler. I agree with you that it takes an immense amount of courage to be sensitive to the world, and no one portrayed this more succinctly than Kurt. However, I find Kidcrawler to be interesting by his own merits, not just by his association with 616 Kurt. Obviously the comparison is invited, but I never feel he’s shown as ‘small and weak’, so much as impulsive and emotional. He responds to things in the way a child does, and his launching the missile in issue 7 showed, to me, how tragic it is to not have the ability to place yourself in the future. I think that’s what the character is there to show.
    You’re completely right about Kitty. Thank goodness I have Brian Wood’s ULTIMATE COMICS X-MEN to give me a Kitty I want to read about!

    • Very true regarding Wood’s Ultimate Kitty. I was initially excited to realize she’d feature prominently on Aaron’s WatXM title, but was disappointed with his direction. I will reserve judgement on how Bendis handles her.
      As far as Kidcrawler, with comics being what they are — a medium that tells a story both with words as well as art — it’s difficult to over look the child imagery and the connotations associated with it. In part, I think the somewhat common distaste for him is due to lack of options with available Nightcrawlers out there, since the death of the original. Readers have this one, and the AoA version. I find the AoA version a fascinating dark mirror on the character, even though “compassion” has been shortened to “passion” with him (passion for revenge, passionate anger, passionate single-mindedness), but who knows how long he’ll be around after the X-Termination event.
      I’d dearly love to see Pak bring in an older Nightcrawler, to recapture at least the imagery of the original and what that represented, but maybe keep the genius thing…like an absent-minded-professor type to throw in with the group dynamics. That would be a novel take on the character.
      Pak is doing great things by pushing limits and bucking stereotypes with both Howlett and Dazzler, I can’t help but be disappointed that he chose to render Nightcrawler in such a way that only plays into commonly held social expectations of manhood or lack there-of.

    • Then you must have enjoyed the newest issue! I really adore the way Pak has characterized Dazzler, as a bit of a self-involved over-enthusiastic showboater, who nevertheless has a great leader burning inside of her. Pak and Parker are writers I can’t believe don’t sell on name alone. They guarantee quality.

      • She’s been getting gradually less frustrating. But I still find the issues where she’s more in the background are better than the ones where she’s a focal character.

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