As a young child growing up in the early 1990s, there was nothing cooler than the X-Men. Under the stewardship of Jim Lee
, the X-Men were cool, dynamic and sexy. But then, as the decade wore on and the Jim Lee era faded into memory, the X-Men lost their way. No longer on the cutting edge of comics, and loosing young fans like myself who were growing up, the focus of the creative teams became one of a distinct conservativism. It seemed that the priority for Marvel was to keep their top franchise in continued stasis, in an attempt to prolong the glorious Jim Lee/Chris Claremont eras of the past and, most importantly, to retain their hardcore fan base who are resilient to change.
By the early 2000s, this creative direction could no longer sustain itself. Marvel were barely dragging their heels out of bankruptcy and, compared to a decade earlier, superhero comics sales were miserable. The X-Men franchise, in particular, was a pathetic little imitation of what it once was, but this was very much a reflection of Marvel Comics as a whole. So, out of desperation, the editorial bigwigs did the only thing they could in a last-ditch effort to save their company... They opened the doors up to great creators, took a step back, and said "create". This relatively brief period of creative freedom, and distinct lack of editorial interference, produced some of the best works of Marvel's history (such as: Brian Bendis' Daredevil
, J. Michael Straczynski's The Amazing Spider-Man
and Mark Millar's The Ultimates
), propelling Marvel into a new era. But nothing quite personifies this new direction (which the aforementioned fan boys, in their hatred of change, disparagingly referred to as "NuMarvel") quite as astutely as Grant Morrison's `New X-Men'.
I won't go into the details of where Morrison planned to take the series, as it's covered thoroughly in the rather enlightening "Morrison Manifesto" reprinted at the back of this omnibus. But I will say this, Morrison is a writer who really "gets" the X-Men and, as he did with `Doom Patrol' years earlier, this radical revitalisation actually takes the X-Men back to their roots, bringing out what they're all about in a way which is relevant to a contemporary world. And this idea of where the X-Men, and mutants in general, fit in a "contemporary world" is a theme that is played it amazingly well in this book.
One of the first things that Morrison does in here is to return the series to its Stan Lee/Jack Kirby roots as a book about "the world's strangest teenagers". He does this by making the Xavier Institute a school again, and putting the emphasis on the teenage students who inhabit it. But he doesn't suddenly come and make an in story pronouncement that "Xavier's is a school again!". Rather, he brings the concept back in as if it was never gone in the first place, but just sidelined by all the writers since Stan. Many of this runs' fans complain that everything Morrison did has since been retconned. While it's true that the tone of the series was reversed to become a "superhero" book again after he left, this argument couldn't be further from the truth, and the fact that the "school" angle has remained intact is testament to that. I could sit here and list all the other changes to the status quo made by Morrison that have remained, or had a significant impact on future X-Men stories, and you'd quickly see that this run has had the biggest effect on the franchise second only to Chris Claremont's epic run.
Though one retcon, in particular, which had many fans up in arms (including me, at the time), mostly for the haphazard way it was introduced a mere two or three months after Morrison left, has heightened the incorrect assumption that this run has been marginalised by Marvel. Upon re-reading this run for the first time in years, with the benefit of hindsight and a bit more of a deeper understanding of the characters, I no longer feel angry about this particular retcon (and, if you've read this run, you know what I'm talking about). It's true that Marvel could have put a little more thought into explaining, in the story, what exactly happened (at the time of writing, I believe that it still hasn't fully been explained), but the retcon itself, in my opinion at least, makes more sense than what Morrison did, which, frankly... was completely absurd.
And this brings me to the drawbacks of this otherwise incredible book. While it starts off as a great sci-fi action story which develops, in the middle, into a very human drama, it ends as an anti-climactic over-the-top action fest, and a typically-Morrison confusing one at that. This could maybe be blamed on the fact that Morrison left Marvel rather abruptly and didn't have time to finish it how he wanted to, but we'll never know. All that I know is that I found the last three story arcs to be underwhelming. The other problem is that the artwork is inconsistent. When it's good, it's very good, but when it's bad it's very bad indeed.
But would I recommend this book as a starting point for someone who's never read an X-Men comic before, a demographic which `New X-Men' was originally intended to cater towards? Yes and no. The problem is that X-Men continuity is a convoluted mess, so it's actually very difficult to recommend anything as a clean starting point. The spiritual successor to this run, Joss Whedon's great Astonishing X-Men
, actually makes a far better attempt of being accessible to new readers than Morrison's does but, ideally, you'd want to read that after this. But, as much as I still love the stories, it's hard to recommend anything by Stan Lee
or Chris Claremont
to a total newcomer unless that reader appreciates old comics (the writing and art styles have dated a lot). So I guess if you don't mind being confused at times, then you probably can start with this, but the experience will be far richer to people who are already familiar with the characters.
To conclude, I can't give this `New X-Men' Omnibus a full five stars because, as a cohesive whole, it just doesn't stand up quite high enough. That said, this is still, without a doubt, the best X-Men since Chris Claremont was at his prime. Whether you read this as the integral part of X-Men lore that it is, or as a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end, you shouldn't be disappointed. One of Grant Morrison's best.