For my birthday this year, my family was kind enough to take me to a couple hotspots in Hampton, Virginia. First, the relatively new Oozlefinch Craft Brewery; then longtime comic store Benders Books. Benders is one of those good old-fashioned stuff-on-top-of-stuff-on-top-of-stuff comic stores, the kind that have quite rightfully gone out of fashion in favor of clean, slick design; welcoming, clear aisles; few-if-any store cats; and an organizational system that makes sense to people who just kinda want to buy a book or something. It is a delightful throwback to the comic stores of my youth, where it seemed like any book could maybe be uncovered if you just knew which six longboxes to shift over.
Because we hit the brewery first, it seemed like a really good idea to go longbox diving for random things I vaguely remember that are not available digitally, not least because I could then write posts about them here. This is one of them.
I was originally going to start somewhere else, but then Graeme randomly posted about this series of Marvel event books over on the tumblr, so I decided to swerve to keep up.
THE BOOK: According to the cover, it’s Marvels Comics Group Codename: X-Men #1. According to the indicia, it’s Marvels Comics: X-Men #1.
THE CREATORS: Written by Mark Millar, art by Sean Phillips & Duncan Fegredo (?!?!), colors by Kevin Somers.
THE CONCEPT: In 2000, Marvel decided it might be a fun idea to publish six one-shots that were comics from within the Marvel Universe. I have no idea why they decided this, but I kinda have a suspicion that it’s in some way a dry-run for the Ultimate line, which it predates on the shelves by about half a year. (That’s for Ultimate Spider-Man. The Ultimate X-Men book, which Millar would also write, is still almost a year away.) There’s that same vibe of probing to find a way to make a concept new and old, of trying to put fierce hats on childish heads, and so on.
Anyway, this is an especially weird book because, theoretically, everyone in-universe at Marvel hates and/or fears the X-Men. (Grant Morrison’s hip-subculture take is also still in the future when this hits shelves.) So there are a few ways that the real-world creators working on it could play this. One is as a sympathetic look from the point of view of an oppressed minority–maybe something in a mock counter-culture alt-comix style. Another is to write it carefully, subtly, as a critique of prejudice under the guise of propaganda.
OR you could hand it to Mark Millar.
Millar’s take is basically X-Men cartoon meets G.I.Joe cartoon meets the recent Suicide Squad movie, only without any of the subtlety or nuance that those properties imply. Colonel America (he’s “where [Captain America]’ll be in a few years if he salutes all the right people and steers clear of loose women,” he says, in fluent Millar-ese) calls together a team of X-Men from a group of “six hundred and sixty-six death row mutants given a stay of execution.” This particular strike team is supposed to stop mutant leader Dr. Strange(?) who has stolen a Stark Solutions “eco-friendly nuclear weapon” by killing Strange and as many of his henchmen as they can, while reclaiming the bomb.
A delicate character piece ensues, in which the characters wrestle with their role as state agents in a world that hates them, while also trying to express their hopes and loves in–LOL JKJKJKJKJK they all just quip a lot and run the mission and win, the end.
There are moments that ALMOST work, if you are willing to assume any clever intentions on the part of the book’s creators. For example, Dr. Strange’s crew has decided to cook and eat Iron Man, and it’s (VERY) easy to imagine a world in which the Marvel editors have decided to demonize a real-life opponent to make it clearer that we are rooting for “the good guys”. That’s a clever, subversive take. However, Millar has returned to the “AND THEY’RE CANNIBALS, YO!!!!!!” well so many times since, without any cleverness or subversion, that I find myself assuming it’s just some clumsy late-90s ultraviolence.
It’s also kinda inexplicable why the book would postulate, as it seems to, that in-universe Marvel citizens think that Dr. Strange is a mutant. Does he not have his own book? Shouldn’t in-universe Steve Gerber have been getting stoned as hell at Strange’s sanctum for two decades at this point? But that’s endemic of a greater problem, which is that the book can’t seem to decide if it’s (in-universe) a first issue or if it’s a series that’s been running for awhile. The characters at times seem confused by their own high concept, at other times they refer to dozens of previous missions. (Including another clumsy attempt at the comic stoking the in-universe hatred of mutants–“One thing we’ve learned during all these years in Weapon X is that the bigots are right,” Deathbird tells Iceman (who is serving the new-guy providing POV role). “A human being is worth a thousand mutants. Save the world a few times and you’ll understand why.”)
- The art is fascinating, if odd. It’s strange to see Sean Phillips here, after all these years of seeing him do mainly spies and criminals with Ed Brubaker. There’s not nearly as much Fegredo in it as I would like (I’ve loved Fegredo’s work back to Vertigo’s Girl miniseries in the mid-1990s), but you can see his lines pushing through occasionally.
- The concept isn’t inherently terrible. I’d like to see it revisited now, by creators who would put a little more thought into the concept. (To be fair, Tom Brevoort or whoever wrote the “Marvels Mania” house ad/hype page seems to get the right tone–there’s a long item talking about how people are writing in to complain that Marvel is promoting “the agenda of the mutant conspiracy” but trying to do so in a “fair and unbiased manner”. But the book…um…goes a different direction.)
- It’s certainly a brisk enough 20 page read.
- The ads for the still-forthcoming X-Men movie are amusing (they blacked out the figure designs so as not to…give away the lack of costumes, maybe? Who knows), and something about the book design as a whole feels like they were anticipating where the actual comics would go soon enough.
- When [SPOILER ALERT FOR A COMIC THAT YOU SHOULDN’T BOTHER READING] Wolverine sacrifices himself in nuclear fire at the end, Colonel America grimly says “That guy might have been born a worthless, stinking mutant, but few would doubt he died like a MAN tonight,” and, hoo-boy, well, I laughed, although I’m not 100% sure it was for the reason the comic wanted me to. But still, it earned a chuckle.
- See above, extensively. All of Millar’s worst tics are on display: same-y dialog, choosing shock plot elements over anything character driven, a vague sense of scorn for the material he’s working on.
- Cyclops, apropos of ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, mutters “Just once, I’d like them to use the term ‘hetero’ superior.”
SHOULD IT BE ONLINE: Probably not, although it does come perilously close to what the guys on the We Hate Movies podcast call “a real seeing is believing situation.” It is genuinely amazing that the higher-ups at Marvel gave Millar Ultimate X-Men after (presumably) reading this thing, though.