Grant Morrison’s Manifesto for the X-Men Is a Fascinating Read

Grant Morrison’s Manifesto for the X-Men Is a Fascinating Read

The X-Men find themselves, perhaps almost always, on the precipice of great change. But right now they really do feel like they’re on the edge of something new again. In the comics, after years rejuvenated by the Krakoan Age, they’re ready to rise from the ashes of tragedy once more. On the big screen, we’re ready to bid farewell to the Fox X-Men era in Deadpool & Wolverine this summer. And on TV, mutantkind rides high with X-Men ‘97‘s re-imagining of an animated classic.

If anything, there are so many parallels in 2024 to the turn of the 21st century, when Grant Morrison was preparing to take on writing a new generation of X-Men comics with what would eventually become New X-Men in the summer of 2001. Alongside Frank Quitely and other artists, New X-Men boldly redefined what the X-Men’s stories were about for the modern age, emboldened further by the cultural moment the X-Men found themselves in. While the ‘90s were very good to the X-Men in terms of comics sales for the most part—and of course you had ancillary support in wider culture from the explosions of things like X-Men: The Animated Series and the iconic Jim Lee trading cards—mutantkind hit the mainstream even harder with the release of the first X-Men movie in 2000.

The herald of a new age of superhero moviemaking, X-Men was, in Morrison’s eyes, equally a shot in the arm and warning alike of what had to change in the comics, so they could try and match the audience the movie had enraptured all over again. “Let’s aim for the big audiences. Let’s push books we can be proud of on every level. Books that kids will dig for their sheer gee-whizz, kinetic strut, which college kids will buy for the rebel irony and adults will love for the distraction, just like the movies and the TV shows—just like when Stan [Lee] was doin’ it!!!” Morrison wrote in their pitch bible for New X-Men—which has floated around online for a few years now, but becomes especially potent reading in the crossroads Marvel’s mutants find themselves in in 2024, as a comics reset looms and a future in Marvel’s vaunted cinematic universe looms. “I believe we have a rare opportunity to bust some self-imposed barriers and run screaming through the streets if we just cut loose a little and do work aimed at the mainstream, media-literate audience of kids, teenagers, and adults with disposable income.”

In this part pitch bible—including some early descriptions of story arcs and characters that would go on to appear in the book, like “Charlie X,” an early identity for Cassandra Nova—part manifesto, Morrison charismatically weaves an argument for a truly 21st century vision of the X-Men, galvanized by the embrace of the franchise’s core concepts and characters in the movie. “To make the X-Men feel fresh once more, we need to take a closer, harsher look at what’s not working in this book and the comics field in general,” they write in part. “The recent X-Men stuff has been written in an old-fashioned, over-dense style for one, and we need to update, streamline, and demystify the storytelling techniques considerably to appeal to modern sensibilities.”

Image: Frank Quitely, Tim Townsend, Hi-Fi, and Saida/Marvel Comics

It’s full of Morrison’s thoughts on what they thought worked and was worth revisiting in X-Menpointing to Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s legendary run on Giant Sized and eventually Uncanny X-Men in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as a touchstone (“they had the freedom to create new material, reconceptualize the old stuff which still worked and ignoring the outmoded elements which had sapped the original series of its vitality”)—and what had to be left behind in the ‘90s. “In the last decade or so, the tendency at Marvel has been intensely conservative; comics like X-Men have gone from freewheeling, overdriven pop to cautious, dodgy retro,” Morrison argued. “…The comic has turned inwards and gone septic like a toenail… X-Men, for all it was still Marvel’s bestseller, had become a watchword for undiluted geekery before the movie gave us another electroshock jolt.”

To Morrison, the movie represented so much of what they wanted to bring to New X-Men’s cultural and aesthetic presence. Beyond a feeling of contemporary cool that had defined the Claremont era of the franchise, mutant stories that still reflected these heroes less inwardly as superheroes, but people of the modern world, it was also important to them that X-Men felt less like a superhero comic, and more like a sci-fi epic, something that resonates in New X-Men’s eventual approach to things like the Sentinels or its grasp on the Shi’ar Empire, but also how it divided mutant culture as something distinct from humanity, on both a societal and evolutionary level. Above all though? Morrison adored the ideas behind those movie suits.

“The movie had it almost right: I think we should go for hardcore bike style exo-rubber uniforms, maybe military pants and wrestling style boots… the look’s brutalist and military and I think the X-Men should reflect that to stay on the cutting edge of cool,” Morrison writes, before adding that not everything the movie did design wise quite worked for them. “I’d like to see some yellow in paneling or detailing on the costumes—if only to avoid the dull black leather look of every film superhero—but it should be pop art dayglo yellow, the kind cyclists and bikers wear to be seen… X-Men is a soap opera about super-people in the same way that Dallas was a soap about oil people. The oil only provided window-dressing and an excuse to look great.”

In hindsight, Morrison’s bold bet paid off. While not every aspect of their run on New X-Men escaped controversy, the book endures as one of the definitive 21st century X-Men texts, an influence that is still felt in the comics today—and elsewhere, in things like Deadpool & Wolverine’s use of Cassandra Nova, or X-Men ‘97‘s examination of the Genoshan genocide. As the X-Men once again find themselves thrust towards the potential of a mainstream embrace arguably not seen since the early aughts, Morrison’s words resonate—and perhaps make for a fine set of watchwords as we see where Marvel Studios and Marvel Comics alike take mutantkind’s evolution next.

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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