The X-Men In The ’00s, Part One: Epic And Tragic Times

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The X-Men are all about change, but that doesn’t mean that some changes aren’t bigger than the others. The ’90s were a time of seismic changes for the comic industry, not all of them good, and the X-Men weathered these changes as the stars of the biggest comics of the decade. The beginning of the 21st century would see Marvel have a massive change as well, as writer/artist Joe Quesada took over the company as editor-in-chief. Quesada wanted to fix Marvel and started at the top.



The year 2000 featured the return of X-Men legend Chris Claremont, but that wasn’t what Quesada had in the cards for the main X-Men books. Instead, Quesada would reach past Marvel’s usual stable of creators and bring in a writer who had come to Marvel in the years 2000 after leaving DC – Grant Morrison. From 2001 to 2004, Morrison would helm the X-Men. However, not everything was going well in the halls of the X-office during those three years, because there was another writer, one who would give readers stories that were among the worst of all time.


A New Hope

An image of the cover the Wizard X-Men Spectacular, with X-Men art by Ian Churchill and Frank Quitely

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Chris Claremont’s 2000 run on Uncanny X-Men and X-Men wasn’t lighting the world on fire as everyone thought it would and with old editor-in-chief Bob Harras leaving the company, things were about to shake up. Quesada wanted the X-Men and Spider-Man to go back to selling massive amounts again. Quesada’s first baby at Marvel was the Ultimate Universe, where Ultimate X-Men was an early hit, written by Mark Millar with art by Adam Kubert. That book hit in December of 2000 and was a big seller immediately. However, Quesada wasn’t done, as the new EIC announced his next big changes to Marvel – new creative teams for The Amazing Spider-Man, Uncanny X-Men, and X-Men. Television writer/producer J. Michael Straczynski would team with John Romita Jr. for Amazing, which would lead to the best Spider-Man run of the 21st century. Quesada would then reveal that Claremont was leaving the flagship X-books – and getting his own book to continue his plots called X-Treme X-Men with artist Salvador Larocca – and inject them with new blood: Joe Casey on Uncanny X-Men and Grant Morrison on the retitled New X-Men.

Casey was a rising star in the comic industry, but the true blockbuster part of the announcement was Grant Morrison. Morrison had a name for themselves in DC, working on series like Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and JLA, creating stories that broke new ground and revitalized DC franchises in need of new directions. Morrison also worked at Vertigo and created their magnum opus of ideas for the 1990s: The Invisibles. That series would eventually lead to the problem that would see Morrison leave DC.

Wolverine and Jean Grey passionately kissing

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Morrison went to Marvel, working on Marvel Boy with artist J.G. Jones and Fantastic Four: 1234 with artist Jae Lee. However, those were just miniseries. New X-Men was their first and would be their only ongoing Marvel series. Morrison had a legion of fans who followed them everywhere, so the announcement that they were going to the X-Men books set the nascent comic internet on fire.

Morrison and Casey gave interviews together and began hyping their run, most notably in a Wizard X-Men Special, which announced their initial ideas and the artists they’d be working with – Casey with Ian Churchill on Uncanny and Morrison with their longtime collaborator Frank Quitely on New. When asked about the tangled continuity of the X-Men and how their books would work together, Casey and Morrison introduced the idea of “super-consistency,” which basically meant that they wouldn’t contradict each other. It was a phrase that wasn’t well described and wasn’t heard of again. The stage was set for their runs to begin. New X-Men #114 was Morrison’s first issue, with Casey taking over Uncanny with issue #394.

The Best Of Times

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There isn’t much to say about Joe Casey’s time on Uncanny, except that readers just weren’t into it. Generation X member Chamber was brought on the team and made a focus, but otherwise, the book didn’t do what Marvel thought it would. Calling it good is a bit of a stretch. It was never terrible, but it didn’t reach the heights of its sister title. Casey would only write Uncanny from issue 394 to issue 409. It’s a run that has been completely forgotten by time. However, New X-Men was firing on all cylinders during this period.

Morrison is an expert at superhero comics, and what makes their work so great is the way they can take ideas that are fundamental to a character or team and look at them in a new way. This made the name “New X-Men” perfect for their book. On the surface, Morrison didn’t re-invent the wheel for the X-Men, focusing on the school and dipping into familiar X-Men ideas – Sentinels, the Shi’ar, mutants as weapons of the government, the Phoenix, and the like. However, Morrison found ways to make all of these ideas new. It all started with a series of huge revelations from their first story, E Is For Extinction. Morrison introduced a new X-Men villain – Cassandra Nova – who looked a lot like Charles Xavier, was extremely powerful, and wanted to destroy the mutant race. Nova became the big threat of Morrison’s run, with a terrible secret – she was the psychic twin of Xavier whom Charles had thought he killed in the womb. Nova would make a huge impact immediately, destroying the mutant nation of Genosha and killing Magneto in the run’s second issue.

Beast watching Emma Forst in her diamond form as she comes out of a tunnel carrying the slain Negasonic Teenage Warhead

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Next, Morrison introduced the concept of secondary mutations. For some reason, many mutants were developing new facets of their powers. Beast was the most obvious example, as he became a blue catman instead of a blue apeman, but there would be another – Emma Frost. Emma Frost was the former White Queen of the Hellfire Club and was co-headmaster of the Massachusetts Academy with Banshee, teaching Generation X. Frost would begin New X-Men on Genosha and survived the attack that destroyed the island by transforming into a diamond form. Famously, the reason she had this secondary mutation was because Morrison wanted to use Colossus, but the Russian mutant was killed before their run began, so they chose Emma and changed her powers. However, the real game-changer for New X-Men and the catalyst for everything else was a discovery by Beast – the extinction sequence in humanity. Humans were going to die off in four generations and mutants would finally inherit the Earth.

A mutant boom began, as more mutants than ever manifested. Suddenly, mutants became a larger group than ever, and Morrison introduced the idea that they were forming their own culture. Mutants were becoming an ethnic group, and the X-Men were their protectors and teachers. Morrison’s X-Men were no longer superheroes. They fought evil, sure, but they only battled threats to mutants. Morrison’s X-Men were teachers and rescuers first and foremost. Many issues had members of the team finding new mutants. Characters like Beak, Angel, Dusk, the Stepford Cuckoos, Glob Herman, Quentin Quire, and more were all introduced by Morrison and the school became more important than ever to the X-Men mythos. Morrison’s X-Men ideas were revolutionary and informed the future of the X-Men.

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That’s where Morrison’s New X-Men really succeeded. Morrison used a lot of classic X-Men ideas but used them in new ways, which was important. A problem with the X-Men up until Morrison’s run is that it was business as usual. Claremont’s seventeen-year-long first run would shake things up every few years, but the X-Men were still basically the same – a team of mutant superheroes defending a world that hated and feared them. The ’90s X-Men stayed this course, and while there were highlights – like the Steve Seagle/Joe Kelly run – it was still basically the same comic it had been since 1974. Morrison’s New X-Men wasn’t. Taking the X-Men out of the world of superheroes was a huge change that made perfect sense since the X-Men defending humanity that constantly tried to kill them was always a bad idea. Focusing on the school was another change and played into the X-Men’s central conceit better than ever before. If there was any problem with Morrison’s run, it was the art in the first few years. Frank Quitely was not a fast artist, so Marvel hired Ethan Van Sciver as a fill-in artist. Van Sciver was actually even slower than Quitely, so Marvel brought on writer/artist Igor Kordey, who was doing Cable at the time. Kordey was very fast, but Marvel ended up dropping issues of New X-Men with deadlines that numbered in days on him. Kordey’s art on the book was hated by fans, who had no idea about the behind-the-scenes problems with the book. Quitely and Van Sciver would both leave the book, to be replaced by Phil Jimenez, Chris Bachalo, and Marc Silvestri.

Morrison’s biggest change, and the only one that stuck, would involve Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Emma Frost. Cyclops had just returned to the team after being bonded with Apocalypse. Morrison made sure to show the tension between him and Jean – they had a conversation in the first issue about their changed relationship. Emma Frost came in as an agent of chaos, growing closer to Cyclops and offering to help him “save” his marriage. Instead, they began a psychic affair, with Cyclops feeling freer to be himself with Emma than he did with Jean. Morrison focused so much on building Cyclops during their run, taking the stick-in-the-mud X-Men leader and giving the character more facets, something that would be built on as the 2000s went on. However, all good things must come to an end.

Death Of The New

New X-Men: Planet X comic featuring Magneto constructing Xorn's helmet.

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Morrison wrote in their book SuperGods that their tenure on the X-Men ended because of editorial clashes and left it at that. Everyone involved has been rather mum about the reasoning and who was behind the problems. Still, Morrison would describe getting into shouting matches with Marvel editorial about what they wanted to do in New X-Men. Marvel has always been very editorially driven, and the Quesada years were no different. Quesada had a very heavy hand with the books under his aegis, especially the big books. It’s impossible to know that Quesada is at fault for Morrison leaving the X-Men and Marvel, but Morrison is known for famously having a no editorial interference clause in their contracts. That would have caused a lot of behind-the-scenes drama at ’00s Marvel.

Morrison ended their X-Men run with a huge bang. The writer revealed that Magneto had pretended to be new member of the team named Xorn and destroyed them from within, attacking New York City and preparing to slaughter humanity. Morrison wanted to show that Magneto was still a monster underneath all the nobility and tragedy that had defined the character in prior years. Morrison wanted to show that deep down, Magneto was just a terrorist, a person who wanted the death of humanity. It was a controversial choice, one that is still debated to this day, but Marvel wouldn’t allow that to become canon. Upon leaving New X-Men, everything Morrison had set up on the X-Men was done away with. Only the relationship between Cyclops and Emma Frost and Jean Grey’s death stayed unchanged. Many Morrison fans speculate that Marvel destroyed their X-Men legacy in a fit of anger over their return to DC. Strangely enough, it wouldn’t be until after Quesada stopped being editor-in-chief that writers like Jason Aaron and Rick Remender would begin to use Morrison’s X-Men ideas in their work, heaping fuel on the fire that Quesada was the reason Morrison left the X-books.

The Worst Of Times

Angel Chuck Austen X-Men

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The ’00s had amazing X-Men stories, but the decade also featured the worst of all time. These came from the writer who would replace Joe Casey – Chuck Austen. Austen began his comics career as an artist, even working on Alan Moore’s Miracleman. However, he spent years in the C-list of creators, mostly working on pornography comics, until he got his chance as the writer/artist of U.S. War Machine. The series was beloved by fans and sold well, and so began the biggest time in Austen’s comic career. Austen was made writer of Uncanny X-Men, which is something of a huge promotion. Austen went from writing the miniseries of a B-list Avenger to a book that was often among the highest-selling in the industry.

Austen run on Uncanny X-Men became a historic disaster. Austen’s past as an artist meant that he worked well with the artists on the book – Ron Garney, Salvador Larocca, legendary manga artist Kia Asamiya, and several others – but the stories were terrible. Austen jumped on the bandwagon of making an X-Woman look terrible with Polaris, starting a love triangle between her, Havok, and human nurse Annie, who worked at the school. Austen was given the helm of the story that introduced Nightcrawler’s father, a demonic mutant immortal named Azazel that fans hated pretty much from the get-go. Austen also did the Nightcrawler as the Pope storyline – a story based on the Friends Of Humanity making Nightcrawler the Pope somehow and using that to destroy the mutant race somehow. Austen changed Archangel and took away his Apocalypse given metal wings and enhancements and made him into a literal angel with healing blood and a sword. Austen also put Angel into a relationship with Husk, who was just eighteen at the time.

Josh Guthrie from She Lies With Angels, sadly holding his guitar

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Austen’s time on Uncanny X-Men is considered a massive disaster, but that isn’t a critical re-evaluation of the book. Even at the time, Uncanny X-Men was widely panned by readers and critics alike. However, the sales never fell. Uncanny X-Men was still among the highest-selling comics in the industry. It didn’t matter to Marvel how much readers complained because they kept buying the books. Austen did have one plot line in Uncanny that fans liked – the relationship between Juggernaut and Sammy, a young mutant who looked like a fish. Their relationship was touching and showed Juggernaut in a light that no one had ever seen him in before. It was basically the only redeeming part of a run that was and is widely considered the most terrible X-Men run ever.

X-Men comics had always been bizarre, but Austen’s time on the book took the cake. The ideas that Austen brought to the book weren’t necessarily bad, but the problem was the execution. Austen played into the edgy aesthetic that was permeating Marvel at the turn of the century. Austen’s Uncanny is characterized by its juvenile humor and its terrible treatment of every female character in the book. The worst part is the fact that Marvel just let him keep going because sales never fell. Austen would be moved over to X-Men (the New dropped when Morrison left the book), where he would help retcon Xorn’s identity, breaking Morrison’s last big story. Marvel readers started to realize that the company didn’t actually care about their opinions on books unless sales were affected, something that Spider-Man fans would learn much to their chagrin in the years to come.

The Best Of Times And The Worst Of Times

New X-Men Germ-Free Generation featuring Beast, Emma Frost, Wolverine, Jean Grey, Professor X, and Cyclops

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The one-two punch of Uncanny X-Men and New X-Men from 2001 to 2004 has always been a bit weird. Uncanny was the worst of the two books during this period. Joe Casey’s run wasn’t as well-received as Marvel expected and Chuck Austen replacing Casey was an unmitigated disaster. Sales stayed good enough to allow Austen to stay on the book, but there’s a reason that Austen’s run is considered the worst of all time. It doesn’t read well at all, and there are choices made in the book that could only fly during the edgy ’00s. There were kernels of good ideas in Austen’s run, but the writer just couldn’t make them work, barring the Juggernaut/Sammy plot.

Meanwhile, Morrison’s run is the greatest X-Men run of the 21st century, and is widely considered second to only Chris Claremont in the pantheon of X-Men writers. Morrison’s New X-Men lived up to its title. Morrison brought their trademark revolutionary ideas to the X-Men and they fit perfectly. Morrison’s New X-Men would play a huge role in the ideas that Jonathan Hickman would use to revitalize the X-Men in 2019. While not every fan loves Morrison’s work – and some downright hate how the writer treated Magneto – there was a little something for everyone in their run. It also represents the biggest missed opportunity in Marvel history. Morrison leaving Marvel due to editorial clashes was a huge blow, as it deprived the House Of Ideas of the industry’s most vital and imaginative writer. Morrison could have had amazing runs at Marvel, but instead all fans got was New X-Men. For three years, X-Men fans had the best and worst comics they’d ever had. Looking back, it was actually something of a golden age compared to what was coming down the pipe from Marvel.

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