18 Mar 2008

From The Vaults: X-MAN #63-75

While we spend a great deal of time engrossed in the current crop of comic books, let us not forget those fantastic tales from the past that still sit in amongst our collections but are always worth revisiting...


X-MAN #63-75

by Matt C


Back in 2000, Warren Ellis was garnering enormous critical acclaim for his influential work on the likes of The Authority, Planetary and Transmetropolitan. Marvel, as usual, saw the potential in bagging a hot writer for some more mainstream books and hired him to act as “plotmaster” on three flagging X-books: X-Force, Generation-X and X-Man. Placing them all under the brand name Counter X, Ellis set about reinventing (in some cases, quite drastically) the characters and titles. The whole enterprise wasn’t entirely successful, lasting just over a year before both X-Man and Generation X were cancelled and X-Force was refitted with a completely new cast of characters by Peter Milligan.

At the time I wasn’t buying any of these books, but news of Ellis taking over was all I needed to add them to my monthly list. It came just after a period when I’d been getting heavily into the writer’s revolutionary work on Stormwatch and The Authority, so seeing what he’d do within the confines of the X-Universe was an enticing prospect. I remember enjoying all three books a great deal and was particularly disappointed by the sales-led cancellations. They may not have been pushing the boundaries of the medium in a wider sense, but they were intelligent reads which, at the time for Marvel’s mutant books, was kind of unusual. Having a bit of a tidy-up of my collection recently I pulled out the issues of X-Man – the title that went through the most radical revamp - to see if they stood the test of time.

Before Ellis took over I think I’d only read one of the early issues of X-Man and, while I couldn’t tell you a single thing that happened within the pages, I don’t remember bring that unimpressed. Although the Age Of Apocalypse storyline (where X-Man aka Nate Grey first appeared) had been one the most effective of the major X-book crossovers during that period, I didn’t really have any desire to keep track of the character’s adventures.

Picking up X-Man #63 it was like being introduced to entirely different individual, and to a certain extent, he was. From his beginnings as a man struggling to find his place in a strange new reality, Ellis completely transformed Nate into a “mutant shaman” protecting his “tribe” from various threats.

Into this mix Ellis, along with co-writer Steven Grant (who took over full-scripting duties with #67), threw in a wonderful sci-fi concept: playing on a reliable comic book staple, that being the existence of multiple alternate realities and Earths (with the Marvel Universe famously being focused on Earth 616), the writer came up with the notion of “stacked realities”, each one piled on top of another. Dubbing it “The Spiral”, the idea was the further you get to the top, the closer you get to the “Beautiful City”, basically a full-blown utopia. Head down the Spiral – way down – and you come across “Broken Earths”, versions of our world where life has only just managed to get a foothold in environs that were practically unliveable. I always loved this idea and – to the best of my knowledge – nobody picked it up again after X-Man came to its conclusion (although I’d love to be proven wrong!).

The plots – to boil them down to their essentials – involved denizens from higher up the Spiral interfering with the duplicates of Earth beneath them. As is always the way, those on high tend to look down on those below in more ways than one. Rereading it, I was reminded of earlier issues of DC’s current weekly, Countdown, with a group of self-appointed guardians tracking down and destroying anyone who has the ability to contaminate their universe.

Ariel Olivetti’s art on this book is quite different from the smooth painted visuals seen in the current Cable series, a much looser style quite different from what the X-books were used to back then, more akin to something you’d expect to see in a Vertigo series. It wasn’t always attractive to look at (and that’s not a criticism) but it fit perfectly with the gritty tone Ellis was going for.

All the Counter X books are worth seeking out (and I’m sure they can be picked up in bargain bins for next to nothing) but I’d steer you towards X-Man before the others. Not Ellis’s greatest work by any means, but most definitely an interesting experiment in trying something new in the X-Universe. And who knows, maybe some of those ideas will resurface in the writer’s forthcoming run on Astonishing X-Men.

1 comment:

Matt T said...

Good article mate. I really wasn't into the whole Nate Grey/Cable malarkey when it first came out, as I didn't see the need for two characters who were essentially the same person. Where Cable's restrictions on his powers made him interesting, it looks like the opposite of near god-like abilities did the same for Nate. Here's to hoping if Marvel can bring back Captain Marvel in some hideously convoluted continuity mess then they can do the same to X-Man.