X-Over And Over Again - Part 1: Mutant Massacre

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“Worlds will live, worlds will die!”

“After this, everything changes!”

“The Internet will break into thirds!”

The hype that accompanies impending line- or company-wide crossovers is simply the cost of reading and enjoying superhero comics from Marvel and DC in this day and age, and the X-Men franchise is just as susceptible to the practice as any major property. 

Often isolated in their own private corner of Earth-616, Xavier’s students and their assorted allies, antagonists and prevaricators were put through the ringer almost yearly between 1986 and 1997.  Editors at Marvel orchestrated epic, multi-part storylines, usually timed to publish during the summer.  The action would ping-pong back and forth between Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, New Mutants, X-Factor, Excalibur, X-Force and Generation X, depending on which were active at the time. 

Eventually, the comic-buying public became numb to the Marvel PR machine as the mutants were faced with the annual world-shaking but hitherto unknown threat  (Onslaught, the Phalanx, Bastion), only to be assisted by new additions to the roster (Maggott, Cecilia Reyes, Joseph) that were sure to vanish into character limbo after the dust settled.  By the time 1997’s Operation: Zero Tolerance rolled around, it was clear that readers had grown tired of manufactured mega-events in the X-verse, and the concept was largely retired…until now. 

Last week began X-Men: Messiah CompleX, the first major X-centric crossover in a decade.  Spinning out of the Marvel-wide events of 2005’s House Of M and Decimation, the arc of Messiah CompleX will pass through an eponymous one-shot and then ricochet between Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, X-Men and New X-Men through January, thirteen chapters in all.  As always, it is promised to leave the X-Men “forever changed”, a pledge that sounds even creakier in this era of a resurrected Bucky.

In the two decades since their inception, X-overs have run the gamut from stunning to soporific and innovative to inept.  While it is impossible to judge at this early juncture where Messiah CompleX will fall on that spectrum, examination of some of the earlier stories of this type might deliver some insight into how they can succeed or go astray.  What better place to start, then, but with the very first?

1986's Mutant Massacre drew together the plots and casts of Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor and New Mutants in a fashion that was unique for its time, in order to tell a mutant-centric story too large in scope for any one book.  All of the characters involved were acquainted with each other due to their association with the Xavier Institute, but it had been a long while since the original five X-Men, starring in X-Factor at the time, had interacted with their successors in any meaningful manner.  That began to change, however, under the guidance of Uncanny scribe Chris Claremont, as the fledgling X-Men franchise started cohering into its own mini-universe within the larger Marvel realm.  

The plot-arc begins as the Morlock mutant community living beneath New York City is decimated by the Marauders, a band of mercenaries under the guidance of mysterious new villain Mister Sinister.  The X-Men and X-Factor both respond to this threat, engaging the villains in separate battles and saving dozens of Morlocks in the process.  The Marauders escape, after inflicting grievous casualties on both teams and destroying the fabric of the Morlock society.

That, in broad strokes, is the essence of Mutant Massacre.  Note that the salient events can be summarized in a clear, straightforward manner, and in only three sentences.  Now, admittedly, the same is probably possible for some of the subsequent X-overs, but most were burdened with subplots piled atop one another like so much firewood, hordes of unmemorable new characters and continuity-killing miscommunications between creators.     

The strength of Mutant Massacre, then, is the same thing that storylines such as Fatal Attractions or Operation: Zero Tolerance lacked: clarity.  X-verse continuity became unbelievably complicated as the line expanded, introducing new mutants and plot elements with abandon.  The X-overs only compounded these issues: winding on interminably, introducing dangling plot points that would go unaddressed for years, and presenting a challenge to comprehension that even the attentive reader was hard-pressed to overcome. 

Mutant Massacre, by dint of its originality, managed to avoid these pitfalls.  While it might not have had the grandeur of its world-spanning, casts-of-hundreds successors, it was presented with a sophistication and sense of importance never previously afforded to the X-Men. More to the point, the writers and artists took their premise, and executed it, without shipping delays or eight tie-ins that were required to understand every subtle nuance of the action. 

Likewise, the consequences of the storyline, both long- and short-term, did not come off as forced or products of editorial fiat:   

• The Marauders and Mister Sinister were established as major reoccurring foes (although both would suffer from eventual overexposure);
• Nightcrawler, Shadowcat and Colossus suffered serious injuries that would come back to haunt them rather than vanish by the following month;
• Angel was impaled and left for dead, sowing the seeds for the only interesting character arc he ever had;
• The Morlocks were scattered into smaller gangs that were forced to fight for survival;
• And lastly, Wolverine discovered that Jean Grey had returned from the dead (again).

Every one of these results flowed naturally from established character traits and narrative conceits, while simultaneously not coming off as predictable or telegraphed.  Clarity does not require simplicity or a lack of sophistication; it requires strong storytelling and a defined purpose or endpoint - a place for characters, relationships and events to end up that will mean something to readers.  With its concrete impact on the wildly popular X-characters and ramifications that would reverberate in the months and years thereafter, Mutant Massacre delivered everything that readers could have wanted from an "event" storyline.

The original X-over has not, of course, remained unsullied in the years since its publication, suffering its share of retcons and getting swept under the rug when it suits a writer's purpose (for the victims of wholesale slaughter, there seem to be an awful lot of Morlocks still hanging around).  Mister Sinister's motives, spun out of a storyline published a decade later, have long since been revealed, as has the complicity of former X-Man and current Marauder Gambit in infiltrating the Morlocks' lair. 

The Massacre has taken its position in the Byzantine annals of X-Men history, hooked in and tied down by four decades of increasingly convoluted background detail.  Nevertheless, the original story stands as the model that all subsequent X-overs should have followed.  Unfortunately, more often than not, these events strayed from the path laid out by Claremont and his colleagues. 

Next week, we’ll look at how things began to go wrong the very next year, during the Fall Of The Mutants.

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