Paging John from Sore Eyes

Paging John from Sore Eyes
Okay, I just DEVOURED the first volume of The Amazing X-Men, and it was fantastic and all… but since I’ve never read any other X-Men EVER, I’d say about 50% of it went right over my head. Can anybody fill me in on the immediate backstory? Assume I know nothing beyond the two movies (because I don’t). I figured out Kitty Pryde, but who’s Emma Frost? Where’s the Professor? What’s the previous virus they’re talking about? What happened when Manhattan was attacked? Is Magneto dead? Who are S.H.I.E.L.D.? I’m definitely going to read it again – and a lot slower – but I could sure use some help. If this is all too much, perhaps there’s a wiki or other useful introduction someone could point me to?

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  1. The Marvel Directory is usually a good starting point if you’re looking for character back-stories, but it’s not entirely up to date. The Wikipedia entry on the X-Men is more up to date, but not necessarily as in-depth as the best entries in the directory. The story follows on from where Grant Morrison’s three year run on “New X-Men” left the characters back in mid-2004. Morrison’s run on the title was excellent, but not the same sort of fun as Whedon’s. Whedon is basically giving us a reprise of the classic super-heroic soap opera X-Men stories of the late 1970s and 1980s, whereas Morrison used his run to try to steer the franchise in a different direction: one which Marvel promptly ignored, by and large, once Morrison moved on. (There’s still a title called “New X-Men” today, but it features a different cast of characters and should not be confused with Morrison’s masterclass.)

    By the way, I’m assuming that you’re referring to “Astonishing X-Men”, i.e. the Joss Whedon-John Cassaday take on the X-Men that came out in a collected edition recently. Perhaps it’s sold under a different title down under? Whedon’s first run on the title came to 12 issues, and they’ve been published both as a single volume (with more to come when the second run of the title commences later in 2006) and in two volumes, each containing one major story arc: the first entitled ‘Gifted,’ the second ‘Dangerous.’ If you’ve yet to come across the scene where the X-Men team up with the Fantastic Four then you’ve got the first half of the Whedon run only. (I have to say that the first story arc was superior to the second, which was still good fun but didn’t require six issues.) I’ll refrain from mentioning anything below which might spoil the ‘Dangerous’ story arc for you.

    First, the good news: you don’t need to know anything about the two films, because they’re using the characters and some of the classic storylines but not related to the current comic book continuity. Indeed, some characters (Kitty, Piotr) are very different in their feature film versions. (She’s a decade younger in the first two films and doesn’t get a single line. He’s American in the film, gets about three lines and one good action scene.)

    Emma Frost is a powerful telepath formerly known as The White Queen: she was introduced as one of the inner cabal running the Hellfire Club, a group dominated by mutants who had umpteen battles with the X-Men over the years. She was the headmistress of a rival academy to Xavier’s, and frequently found herself competing with Xavier for pupils (including Kitty Pryde when she first appeared in the comic.) Despite her past as a villain, Emma genuinely loves teaching mutant kids. It’s just that she’s not quite on the same page as Xavier when it comes to the prospects of peaceful mutant-human coexistence: she’s not against it, she just doesn’t think it’s terribly plausible. Oh yes, and she can be gloriously bitchy. She and Scott “Cyclops” Summers have been a couple since Jean Grey’s latest death at Magneto’s hand towards the end of Grant Morrison’s run on “New X-Men.” This relationship initially caused some suspicion on the part of the X-Men who remembered Jean fondly, but Emma has worked with the X-Men for long enough now that she’s basically accepted as part of the core team and even takes on a leadership role when necessary: by the start of Whedon’s run she’s taken on the role of headmistress of the Xavier Academy.

    Professor Xavier left the academy at the end of Grant Morrison’s run to try and rebuild Genosha, an island city state which served as a haven for mutants. Magneto was president of Genosha and Emma Frost was working there as a teacher. (Genosha was destroyed by a gigantic Sentinel – a mutant-killing giant robot – early in Morrison’s run.)

    The virus was the Legacy Virus, which threatened to kill off all mutants. In typical comic book science style, a cure was developed but there was a small problem: the only way for it to spread quickly was for a mutant to sacrifice him or herself. Colossus (aka Piotr Rasputin, aka ‘Peter’) had lost a sister to the virus, and sacrificed himself to ensure that no more mutants died. Except that it turns out that he survived the experience…

    Manhattan was attacked by Magneto towards the end of Grant Morrison’s run. Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants started to pay back the ordinary humans, herding them into working parties and generally heading down the road towards setting up concentration camps. The X-Men intervened, with Jean Grey being killed during the confrontation and Wolverine going into a berserker rage and beheading Magneto. Except that it wasn’t actually Magneto who died in Manhattan. I won’t bore you with the horrible, horrible retcon used by later writers to bring back Magneto within months – just take it from me that he was a double pretending to be Magneto. At the start of Whedon’s run on the title, Magneto himself was with Charles Xavier on Genosha, mourning the loss of millions of mutants and hoping to build upon the ashes.

    S.H.I.E.L.D., led by Nick Fury (the guy with the eye patch), is essentially a counter-terrorist agency with lots of cool technology, hordes of foot-soldiers and close links to various super-humans.

  2. One more thing: if the title you picked up is called “Astonishing X-Men Saga” then it’s a truncated “highlights package” of Whedon’s first dozen issues, not the full run.

  3. I’m clueless on a lot of the backstory, but I’ve been reading the Whedon-written X-Men, too, Kris. I love them–lots of great Buffy-esque lines!

  4. Oh good grief. I typed it wrong. Yes, it’s volume 1 of Joss’s “Astonishing” X-Men. Now I’m going to go back and read that comment…

  5. Hmm. One question the Marvel database doesn’t cover: what is Emma Frost doing when she turns all diamond-looking? They don’t address that in the description of her powers…

  6. Emma’s “organic diamond” form is a fairly recent addition to the character’s repertoire, so I’m not surprised it isn’t in the Directory yet.

    A few years ago – during the early part of Grant Morrison’s run on “New X-Men,” though not just in that particular title – various mutants were found to have undergone a “secondary mutation.” Often it was triggered by some severe physical trauma: in Emma’s case, she and her pupils were buried in the rubble of the school they were in when Genosha was attacked. When Jean Grey and Hank McCoy dug Emma out she emerged in her organic diamond form with the corpse of one of her pupils in her arms and no idea what had happened to her.

    Emma is close to invulnerable to physical damage when in diamond form, but when she’s in that form she can’t use her telepathic powers. (I say “close to invulnerable” because a sharp enough
    blow can damage her: at one point she was shattered into very small pieces, but Hank and Jean gathered all the bits together and put Emma back together again.)

  7. Okay, I re-read the book late last night and a lot more of it makes sense now. (I assume that the giant robots Emma uses to scare the students are these Sentinel thingies?)

    It’s all the stuff about alternate timelines that’s really kept me from getting into comic books. It’s hard to know where to begin and whether or not a specific book I pick up fits into the “canon.” Which of the X-Men books would you recommend I read after I finish the 2nd Whedon? We seem to have a pretty good selection at Kinokuniya here in Sydney.

    (I also picked up the second volumes of LoEG and Sandman…)

  8. And OH! The bit about the Magneto retcon… That’s what Cyclops is referring to in his conversation with Fury when he says something about him being in a disguise, right?

    So if I’m understanding this correctly, Morrison came in and took the classic characters in a whole new direction, paring them down and making some of them different ages, etc. And Whedon is continuing this timeline, but in a different sort of tone. Is that right? Maybe I should go back and read the Morrison next then…

  9. The Morrison run is good, but if you’ve never experienced the “Classic” X-Men stories (Dark Phoenix, Days of Future Past), I’d go back to the well and try those. (After all, they’re what Whedon is jacking a lot of the time in his television arcs. :p )

    The X-Men try to explain the various timelines and dead/not-dead permutations in this cartoon.

    Fun factoid: David Hasselhoff played Nick Fury in the S.H.I.E.L.D TV movie.

  10. Executive summary: Morrison’s run is well worth a look, and I second Kevin’s recommendation of the Phoenix/Dark Phoenix sagas.

    Yes, the giant purple robots who Emma simulated breaking through the roof during the school assembly are ‘classic’ Sentinels: giant human-shaped flying mutant-hunting robots. They were developed as part of a covert government-funded anti-mutant programme way back in the 1960s when the original X-Men made their debut, and in one form or another they’ve shown up every couple of years since when the US government (or some rogue agent with access to Sentinel technology) gets paranoid about the Mutant Menace.

    Nick Fury’s comment was a double reference. On the one hand, there was a period during the 1980s when Xavier was away and Magneto was acting head of the academy and (more to the point) leader of the X-Men team. This has made it difficult for the general public to differentiate between the X-Men acting as good guys and the X-Men working with Magneto once Magneto broke with Xavier’s way and returned to being the nutty mutant terrorist he started out as. More directly, Fury was indeed referring to the events following Magneto’s brief (incognito) stay in Xavier’s Academy during Morrison’s run: the team encountered a new mutant called Xorn who became a teacher at the academy only to reveal later, when he’d won the confidence of pretty much all the X-Men, that he was in fact Magneto in disguise, working from within to weaken the X-Men. All this happened within the gates of the academy: all the outside world saw was infamous mutant terrorist Magneto turning up in Manhattan and laying waste to large chunks of New York. Again.

    What makes the X-Men difficult to get into isn’t so much the alternate timelines as it is the number of different writers working in parallel with different combinations of X-Men on their teams, plus a whole bunch of solo titles following individual characters. Most writers who’ve had a longish run on the title have tweaked the characters in some respects – not necessarily changing their powers, more like simply ignoring or downplaying the bits of the character’s history that don’t much interest them.

    I’m possibly not the best person to advise you as to what to read next, because I’ve worked my way through the X-Men stories in a fairly haphazard way. Not long after watching the first film I started picking up the trade paperbacks of Morrison’s run (I think there were two out by that stage, representing a year’s worth of his work), then – being something of a classicist about these things – I started picking up the “Essential X-Men” trade paperbacks, which are cheap-and-cheerful black and white reprints of Chris Claremont’s run on the comic from 1975 onwards. After Morrison’s run ended I picked up Whedon’s run, and more recently I enjoyed Peter David’s “Madrox” mini-series (and the first two monthly issues of the same writer’s new “X-Factor” series, which also deals with the adventures of Jamie Madrox, a C-list mutant turned private investigator), but I haven’t followed the other post-Morrison runs on the various titles.

    I think Morrison’s run on the title (starting with the stories collected as “E is for Extinction” and “Imperial”) was excellent, but you’ll get the most from it if you’re familiar with some of the characters’ histories: in particular the story of Jean Grey’s becoming Phoenix and then the Dark Phoenix. Morrison’s take on the character slightly tweaks Jean’s history since the Dark Phoenix saga, but the main point you need to grasp is that Jean started out as an ordinary telepath but ended up bonding with a cosmic entity known as the “Phoenix” which increased her powers to world-buggering levels and ensured that when she dies (which she’s done a couple of times by the start of Morrison’s run) she always comes back to life, albeit after a bit of a rest. The one drawback of Morrison’s run is that the art is a bit variable because the series changed artists from time to time, but that’s very much a matter of personal taste. (I happen to worship the work of Frank Quitely, the artist who worked on the first part of Morrison’s run, so it bothered me quite a bit that he couldn’t stick around for the whole run. However, there are plenty of people who like the work of the other artists.)

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