So our attention has been turned to the past around here lately, and I thought it was high time we returned to the present this week. It’s kind of ironic, then, that the book that’s impressed me the most recently is also one that looks to the past…
X-Men: Grand Design #1 & 2
by Ed Piskor
The premise of this book is simple: it’s a history of the X-Men, told as if every X-Men story ever told, every ret-con and change and weird bolted-on insertion into their history, was planned from the outset. It’s such a natural idea that I’m amazed no one ever thought of it before. I mean, sure, we’ve seen “Year One” takes, and at least one “Lost Years” series that filled in what happened while the book was in reprints in-between the last adventure of the original team and the first adventure of the New X-Men in the mid-70s. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone tackle this kind of comprehensive, all-inclusive approach before. At least not outside of Wikipedia.
Of course, as anyone who’s ever gone down the rabbit hole of on-line super hero histories can tell you, there are dangers inherent to this approach. Ret-cons leave you with weird, clashing tones. Ideas from different decades that don’t sit easily next to each other, or that just plain don’t make sense when they’re laid out in a row. Worse, you inevitably hit stuff that’s just not good. That’s a REALLY bad problem with X-Men. Because… Well, look. That book’s had some great creative peaks in its history (Claremont/Byrne and the Grant Morrison run are my personal favorites). But it was originally (let’s face it) one of the lesser lights of Sixties Marvel. Occasionally charming, but generally low on quality. And then to complicate matters, it got hit with a veritable maelstrom of awfulness in the post-Watchmen years, when the ret-con was king. So when you’re talking history, that era tends to drag the good stuff down with it.
But Ed Piskor embraces all that, gleefully weaving it all together and insisting with a completely straight face that not only does it all work, but that it was ALL PLANNED THAT WAY FROM THE OUTSET. It’s an audacious stance, and one that must take balls the size of grapefruits. But he pulls it off. And he does it by keeping that straight face.
His artwork helps a lot. Piskor has more in common with Robert Crumb than Jack Kirby, and that more grounded approach makes you look at the material differently than you would if he worked in a more traditional super hero style. To put it bluntly, ALL the character designs, good and bad, look just slightly ridiculous in Piskor’s hands. That’s not as obvious in the early pages, when he’s dealing with the various characters’ lives pre-X-Men, and most of them are still wearing street clothes. But once you get to, say, the Conquistador…
…it’s hard to tell if you’re looking at a character designed by Jack Kirby, or Rob Liefield. And that’s kind of fun.
I don’t think Piskor’s really making fun of his source material, though. His love of this stuff seems pretty obvious to me, considering the wide range of sources he’s drawing on (more on that in a minute). But I also think he knows that it’s all a bit silly. So he’s having fun with it. But that aesthetic still helps smooth out the rough spots left by design choices made decades apart, with little or no thought given to making it all work together. And that’s pretty great.
The other thing that makes Grand Design work better than the X-Men’s Wikipedia page is Piskor’s choice of narrator. He’s telling the story from the perspective of the Watcher, who’s recording the X-Men’s story for posterity. But the Watcher is concerned as much with the emotional resonance of the stories as he is the bare facts of them, and his presentation of it all gives the book a certain lyrical quality beyond the “history book” aspect of it. I hesitate to compare it to a Ken Burns documentary (Civil War, it ain’t), but that gets us in the right ballpark, I think.
It also helps that he’s doing such a good job with the source material, weaving together bit and pieces from all over to tell the story in a compelling manner. It didn’t occur to me until I sat down to write this, in fact, but almost everything in the first issue of Grand Design comes from flashbacks and ret-cons. Magneto’s youth spent dodging the Nazis? The young Professor Xavier’s various romantic entanglements and battles with the Shadow King? The stories of the original X-Men’s childhoods? Wolverine’s World War II adventures with Captain America? All stuff filled in later, and from wildly different parts of the run. There’s story here taken from back-up strips that ran in the mid-Sixties, stuff from the short stories written to pad out the Classic X-Men reprint book in the Eighties, details dropped in various stories from the Seventies and Nineties… Hell, he even devotes three or four whole pages to that Jean Grey solo story from Bizarre Adventures!
That’s the one that really convinced me what a big fan Piskor really is. It’s pretty obscure stuff, a throw-away story about Jean and her sister being kidnapped by Attuma (!). But in that story, there’s a flashback recounting the first awakening of Jean’s psychic powers when she witnesses a playmate’s accidental death. So it’s nothing but a background moment in one of the most ridiculous stories of Chris Claremont’s X-Men tenure. But Piskor makes it (quite rightly) a key moment in Jean’s life. Here, it becomes the incident that brings Jean to Xavier’s attention. But…
(An aside: How hysterical is it that Piskor has the Watcher (a dude with a giant bald head), refer to Jean as “the little red-headed girl”? Charlie Brown goes cosmic! But I digress.)
Piskor builds much of the X-Men’s early history around the Phoenix. He’s dealing with the back stories and personal issues of all the X-Men, of course, but Phoenix is the story he’s building toward. The entity’s sudden interest in Earth also attracts the attention of several alien species, and the race to find the new host it’s chosen heats up just as the X-Men form as a team. So that becomes the Stranger’s motivation for capturing Magneto (he seems a likely candidate), and it’s the reason the Shi’ar sent that ship to Earth that kidnapped Cyclops’ dad (not because he seemed a likely candidate, but apparently because they’re just assholes).
It also becomes the entire motivation for the Mutant Master, a mysterious alien villain from the middle of the original X-Men run that I had never even heard of until I read Grand Design. In the original, he wanted to use mutants to start a war between the US and Russia, thereby wiping out the human race. But in Piskor’s version, he’s trying to gain control of the Phoenix’s next host, and use it to control the universe. A far grander scheme, and one that doesn’t place the story quite so firmly in the Cold War era. I have no idea how good or bad the original stories were, but here he comes off as simultaneously fascinating and terribly, terribly lame. He’s maybe the most ridiculous looking character in the first two issues…
…but his machinations, taking control of various mutant villains to do his bidding, are pretty cool. And when Piskor gets around to the reveal of his true form…
…that is pure freaking gold.
It’s also the Mutant Master who inspires the other major long-term plot in these first two issues: Mastermind’s attempts to gain control over Jean Grey. It starts with Mastermind’s first encounter with her, when they touch minds and he gets a glimpse of Jean’s secret saucy fantasies:
That is, of course, the fantasy he uses to control her in the Claremont / Byrne Hellfire Club story, and it’s a bit troubling to think that she concocted all that as a teenager. But it does play to something Piskor’s building throughout Grand Design: Jean Grey is absolutely terrifying. In the original stories (as is often the case with female characters in Sixties Marvel stuff), Jean is little more than useless. But Piskor concentrates on moments when she leaves villains as gibbering basket cases and takes control of her teammates to combat enemy mind control. And the end result is a portrait of an incredibly powerful young woman, seemingly fragile but actually frustrated at being held back by the men in her life. Quite literally in the case of Xavier, who psychically cuts off her telepathy, essentially lobotomizing her until she can be taught better control.
So Mastermind is really just one more controlling man in Jean’s life. And once he falls under the Mutant Master’s sway, he starts trying to get into Jean’s head. He undertakes a disastrous romance with her, in disguise as a nerdy college kid, but loses out to a football jock. So then he gets into her dreams and starts shaping them around the more violent urges he wants to awaken in her. That’s a particularly great scene. Piskor adapts an X-Men story about a villain called the Warlock into one of Mastermind’s twisty dream attacks, and (just because he can) does it in the style of Little Nemo in Slumberland.
So, yeah. This is some seriously weird shit. But it’s also pretty brilliant. Because Piskor is laying the groundwork here, 100 issues earlier, for that afore-mentioned Hellfire Club story, which is what ultimately transforms Jean into Dark Phoenix. And we’re getting to see the cracks and frustrations and pre-existing power fantasies that culminate there. For now, though, it’s mostly skeevy mental groping. Which makes the variant cover for issue two that much better.
Heh. At any rate…
I suppose one could argue that it’s easy to lay in all this build-up and foreshadowing when you’ve got the whole road laid out for you by other writers. But I think it takes a particular kind of genius to take all these unconnected stories and link them up like this. To put them all together and, with careful research and a few ret-cons of your own, turn it all into a coherent whole. Still, I can see the argument against.
And I will admit that, much as I’m fascinated by the details of what Piskor’s doing, there are times when the “history book” aspect of it all gets a bit tedious to read. I sometimes have to make myself slow down and smell the roses, especially when he’s covering stories I’m familiar with. So it’s not as absorbing as it might be.
I also wonder if the spell the book holds over me will continue once Piskor gets past what I consider the good stuff. If I remember correctly, he’s planning to cover the series all the way up to issue 300, and honestly… I only think the first two-thirds of that is worth the effort. We do get a glimpse of Mister Sinister in issue one, and that’s kind of cheesy fun. But will I still give a damn once I’m reading stories that are actually about that asshole? That, I think, will be the true test of this book’s appeal.
For now, though, X-Men: Grand Design is the best spandex book on the market. If you ever liked the X-Men at all, you should definitely check it out. Hell. Even if you didn’t, it might still be a hoot.