If you’re like most casual comic readers of a certain age, you used to love X-Men. But then, in the late 90s, things changed, and you just stopped caring. Maybe it was the endless crossovers, or the lackluster art direction, or the addition of “incredibly” “interesting” “characters” such as Marrow and Maggot that drove you away. If this is the case, I have some great news: Maggot is dead! Also, the X-Books have been awesome again for a while now.
If you’ve decided to get back into reading X-Men, however, you have some catching up to do. Things have changed. How much have they changed? Well, Emma Frost is one of their leaders, Apocalypse is a student at the school, the X-Men’s greatest enemy is The Scarlet Witch, and the Danger Room is now a sentient robot who hangs around with a hundred year old Nazi hunter.
See? I told you things had changed. Now let’s take a spoiler-free tour through the stories you should be reading to get caught up on just what the hell’s been going on since the days when “good at guns” was a valid mutant power.
The Grant Morrison Run
After a decade of repetitive crossovers (“It’s Cable vs. Stryfe vs. Apocalypse vs. Sinister vs. Ghbrhghrbgh!”) and poorly thought out story lines (“Wolverine’s claws are now made out of collectible chromium hologram covers!”), Marvel decided to completely separate the X-Men books and give them each their own flavor. The flavor for Uncanny X-Men was shit pie, with extra poop. The flavor for New X-Men (the new name for the previously adjective-less X-Men series), however, was mature and badass.
Writer Grant Morrison was given mostly carte blanche to do whatever he liked with the series, which was a gamble that paid off. While the conclusion of Morrison’s run doesn’t hold up to its spectacular beginnings, not much could. The run starts with a bang, and introduces large changes to the X-Men universe that are still in place over a decade later.
Questions Answered: Why is Emma Frost sparkly, and not getting her ass kicked by the other X-Men? What the hell happened to Beast? What’s Cyclops’ penis up to these days?
The Joss Whedon Run
After Morrison left New X-Men to do weird things to Batman, Marvel needed a follow up writer. How do you top Grant Morrison? Joss Whedon. Yes, that Joss Whedon, who takes the plot strands left by Morrison and follows them to interesting places of his own.
While some initially feared that a television writer would struggle adapting to the comic book medium, Whedon showed that not only did he have the ability to write for comics, he knew comics. Filled with knowing references to the previous forty years of X-Men history, Astonishing X-Men is a parade of nonstop goosebump moments for longtime fans.
Questions Answered: Who is Agent Brand? Whatever happened with that Legacy Virus storyline? What’s up with the lady robot? Is it okay for an adult man to have a crush on Kitty Pryde?
House of M
While Morrison and Whedon were making their marks on the X-Men books, writer Brian Michael Bendis had been gathering power and cackling like a madman. Bendis had writen the Avengers Disassembled story line, in which The Avengers disbanded due to The Scarlet Witch going completely insane after remembering that she had kids from boning a robot man, only it turned out the kids were magic and then she forgot about them.
Got that? Good. Moving on.
The Avengers re-assembled, of course, but it left two important questions. First, exactly how many Avengers related books could Bendis write each month? And second, what’s to be done with The Scarlet Witch? In House of M, Bendis answered the second question, having both the Avengers and X-Men characters come together to decide what they should all do about the crazy woman with the power to warp reality. In the end, a decision is made that drove almost every X-Men story for the next decade.
Questions Answered: Why is everyone so mad at The Scarlet Witch? What happened to mutants? How vague can these questions get without giving away spoilers?
After House of M, the X-Men books spent several years dealing with the immediate aftermath of its events, and introducing yet another Summers brother, who then went away and hasn’t been seen since.
None of those stories had the lasting impact of Messiah Complex, which is what happens when Marvel goes almost a decade without a big 90s-style crossover epic. Unlike most of its predecessors, however, this crossover feels earned, as it involves a major event in the lives of every mutant on the planet, and just what that event means.
Questions Answered: Who or what is a Hope? What’s up with Bishop? Is X-Force still a thing? Does Marc Silvestri still draw everyone with Asian looking eyes?
While there was no single focus for the X Books in the years following Messiah Complex, there was plenty of change. Writer Matt Fraction took over Uncanny X-Men as the team left the friendly confines of Xavier’s mansion, setting up a new home in northern California.
Along with the change comes the return of classic characters, and the (re)introduction of new ones, including a century old Nazi hunter who shoots needles at people and a Frenchman whose nervous system is a flying saucer. Both of these characters still make more sense than anything Scott Lobdell has ever done.
Questions Answered: What the hell is Namor doing in an X-Men book? What’s this about a Utopia? Why isn’t everyone beating the hell out of Magneto? Is Greg Land just straight-up tracing his art out of porn magazines now?
The unresolved ending of Messiah Complex is finally addressed in its sort-of-sequel, Second Coming. This story line involves an event that Cyclops has been preparing for since the end of Messiah Complex, and it turns out that the X-Men’s enemies have been preparing for it as well.
What follows is epic warfare between almost every mutant on the planet and the combined forces of some of their greatest villains. The stakes are high, hard decisions are made, and consequences are felt.
If you don’t speak ‘cover blurb,’ that means shit goes down and people die.
Questions Answered: What’s Cable been up to? Where’s Nightcrawler? Whatever happened to every X-Men villain from the 90s?
It had been brewing for a while. After years of being the X-Men’s boring dad, Cyclops had been developing his own personality ever since Grant Morrison’s run. For the first time in the character’s history, people actually began to have opinions about Scott Summers.
Whether you agreed or disagreed with him, Scott had been making hard choices as the leader of the X-Men. In Schism, we see the consequences of the decisions Scott had been making over the past decade, and we see what happens when you develop a new mutant power that is “acting like a dick to everyone all of the time ever.”
Questions Answered: What’s up with the school? Who or what is a Quentin Quire? Whatever happened to the Hellfire Club? Why the hell is Wolverine “the reasonable one” now?
Avengers vs. X-Men
The past decade of Avengers and X-Men story lines came to a head in the bluntly named Avengers vs X-Men. It begins exactly as you would expect, with Avengers punching X-Men and X-Men punching Avengers, before one character’s decision causes an unexpected reaction that messes up damn near everything.
Action heavy, and obviously timed to capitalize on the Avengers film, Avengers vs X-Men sometimes suffers from too broad a scope (and shows that John Romita Jr’s art has not aged well), but pays off in the consequence department.
Questions Answered: Whatever happened to the Phoenix? Why are some people angry with Cyclops? Is it possible to say “Retreat to the magic kung-fu dimension!” with a straight face?
So that’s it? Should I go read the new stuff now?
Well, that depends. This was a review of the major story lines affecting the X-Men over the past thirteen years. Of course, we skipped an awful lot of good stuff, and I didn’t even mention stories that only had consequences for one or two characters.
For example, if you love Colossus, you should read Fear Itself. If you’re into Illyana, you should read X-Infernus. If you’re all about Archangel, you should read Uncanny X-Force. And if you’re really into Adam X The X-Treme, you should close this browser window and go look directly into the sun for a while.