New X-Men #114-116
Writer: Grant Morrison
Penciller: Frank Quitely
Inker: Tim Townsend (114-115), Mark Morales (115-116), Dan Green (116)
Colorist: Brian Haberlin (114-115), Hi-Fi (115-116)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
In 2001, the X-Men were both everywhere and nowhere. Bryan Singer’s X-Men film had been released the previous year and was a commercial and critical success. It showed that superhero films could tackle serious real world themes, like bigotry and genocide, while still having great action and visual effects. But the X-Men comics franchise was in shambles after a glut of crossovers and character deaths. Enter Grant Morrison, who had recently revitalized DC’s Justice League franchise in his run on JLA and had just wrapped up his magnum opus Invisibles. Morrison streamlined the X-Men’s team membership to five members (Cyclops, Wolverine, Jean Grey, Beast, Emma Frost) along with Professor X and decided to explore the themes of evolution and extinction beginning with a brutal two page spread of Homo Sapiens slaughtering Neanderthals juxtaposed with Cyclops and Wolverine taking out a Sentinel. He also introduced some new concepts to the X-Men, such as secondary mutations and the E-gene. In his opening arc of New X-Men, “E is for Extinction”, Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely balance action, characterization, and universal themes while also establishing a bold new direction for the X-Men.
“E is for Extinction” contains an almost perfect balance of character interactions and big picture concepts. The benefit of having a smaller cast is that Morrison has plenty of time to give each X-Man a unique voice. From Emma Frost’s condescending sarcasm to Beast and Jean Grey’s back and forth banter, Morrison develops the X-Men’s personalities in the midst of crazy events, like the destruction of Genosha. He also makes them evolve both literally and figuratively. For example, in the attack on Genosha, Emma Frost gains the ability to change into diamond form. She also experiences an “epiphany” and helps the X-Men defeat Cassandra Nova before deciding to stay on and teach and protect the next generation of mutants at the Xavier Institute. However, the biggest evolution and ideological shift belongs to Professor X. At first, he carries a gun to use on himself so that his mind won’t be used for evil. By the end of “E is for Extinction”, he has used the gun to kill Cassandra Nova and prevent her from killing any more mutants. Artist Frank Quitely contributes to Morrison’s characterization with his expressive figure work. Professor X slumped in a chair after hearing about Magneto’s death in Genosha is a moment of pure tragedy. He is also responsible for designing the X-Men’s new leather uniforms along with Beast’s feline and Emma Frost’s diamond form.
Grant Morrison uses the foundation of his small X-Men cast and primary villain Cassandra Nova to look at some interesting ideas. The aforementioned two page spread of the Homo Sapiens slaughtering the Neanderthals sets up the entire story arc. The obvious message is that mutants are going to render humans obsolete, probably through violence. But this scene is later revealed to be an elaborate virtual reality hologram created by Cassandra Nova so that she can persuade Donald Trask to give her access to his DNA and control a special new kind of Sentinels. The ambiguity increases when Beast finds out that Nova is a forerunner of a future species that is superior to mutants. Suddenly, the threat of extinction applies to both humans and mutants. This idea could act as a type of metacommentary on superhero comics. Superhero teams and their members will continue to evolve in an endless cycle of death and rebirth. This theme of rebirth recurs later in New X-Men when the Phoenix force returns to Jean Grey, and Magneto comes back from the dead. Morrison’s focus on evolution in “E is for Extinction” is multi-layered and can be examined at a character and story level as well as in the context of superhero and X-Men comics as a whole.
But “E is for Extinction” isn’t all big ideas and moral dilemmas. At its core, it is a widescreen superhero comic even though the X-Men don’t have costumes or go on any official “missions”. Frank Quitely’s bold art gives New X-Men a cinematic feel. He starts each issue with a full page splash and with the help of colorists Brian Haberlin and Hi-Fi makes sure the X-Men’s battles against the wild Sentinels and Cassandra Nova are dynamic, but not garish. Quitely also contributes to the darker tone of the story with some grotesque images, like Beast holding a mutant skeleton in Genosha and using small, cluttered panels to show Nova invading Professor X’s mind. Quitely’s smooth line work makes New X-Men visually appealing and accessible while still dealing with the X-Men’s personal issues. His and Morrison’s Cyclops can go from being a self-confident leader who obliterates a Sentinel fleet with one optic blast to one who is afraid he will be possessed by Apocalypse again and hurt his wife Jean Grey.
Grant Morrison’s New X-Men is “E is for Extinction” is both intimate and epic. One scene could involve Professor X and Beast discussing the X-Men’s new vision while the next could be Cyclops and Wolverine fighting for their lives against an army of self-building Sentinels. However, these scenes have a deeper purpose that just moving the plot forwards or looking at character relationships. The self-building Sentinels can be compared with the X-Men’s new secondary mutations because they both help them adapt to their new world and surroundings. This underlying theme of adaptation and evolution in the face of extinction is the thesis statement of Morrison’s New X-Men run and is introduced in a big way in “E is for Extinction”. Morrison uses this story and the death of 16 million mutants in Genosha to establish a new status quo of the X-Men as survivors instead of superheroes. He manages to create a story that is understandable to fans of the X-Men film while also having thought provoking ideas beneath the surface. “E is for Extinction” marks a huge shift in the X-Men status quo while still being filled to the brim with action, cool sci-fi concepts, character conflict, and even a dash of witty humor.