Tuesday, April 04, 2006

I Was A Teenage Nerd: Why'd They Die Before They Got Old?

Last week I mentioned that one of my favorite comics during my personal Golden Age was Marvel's Generation X. I also promised more details were on the way. Since I am not Brian Bendis, those details come now.

Gen X, as we cool kids called it, was Marvel's teen X-Book at the time. They do one every decade or so, from the original X-team ("The Strangest Teens of All!") to today's New X-Men: Academy X, and Gen X was their '90s version. It came out at just the right time for me to go hog-wild over it. Here were assorted freaks and geeks, either just beginning adolescence or caught full in the throes of it, struggling to decide who they wanted to be, to accept and master parts of themselves they didn't necessarily like or want. To say I, a 12-year-old introspective nerd in a small Oklahoma town with anger issues, could identify would be like saying Pagliacci was a little blue.

The team made its unofficial debut in 1994's summer X-over, Phalanx Covenant (covered last week). Here we met Angelo "Skin" Espinosa, Monet "M" St. Croix, Clarice "Blink" Ferguson, and Paige "Husk" Guthrie.* Captured by the Phalanx, the kids did the requisite "bond while escaping" thing (well, Paige and Clarice did; Monet was kind of catatonic at the time, and Angelo was just being a dick), then were rescued by Banshee, White Queen, Jubilee, a *very* reluctant Sabretooth, and Everett "Synch" Thomas. In a pitched battle with… someone, it's been 12 years, Clarice sacrificed herself to save the others (a development that was hardly as surprise, as she'd showed up in none of the promo material for the actual Gen X series), and the survivors found themselves more or less drafted into Xavier's School For Gifted Youngsters.** On opening day they (and Ms. Frost and Mr. Cassidy, between whom the sexual tension was thick enough to cut with a chainsaw) were joined by Jonothon "Chamber" Starsmore, he of the burning psionic furnace where his lower jaw and sternum should be, and the mysterious diamond-girl Penance, and there's your team.***

What I liked most about the book was how it managed not to wallow in angst. Oh, angst was there; Husk wanted to make X-Man, Chamber made googly over her but was too emo to ever make a move, Jubilee wouldn't shut up about "when I was with the X-Men," M was a bitch, Skin was a recovering cynic whose family thought he was dead… but they could talk about other things, y'know? Writer Scott Lobdell (turning in what's still the best work of his career) remembered to bring the funny, the charm, and the exciting. Example: When the team visited Banshee's ancestral castle only to become trapped in fairyland (no, really, that's what happened), there came a moment where Skin and Penance, with nothing else to do, scouted around and found a dragon sitting at the gates, wanting to be let in so he could eat everybody. And so, while the others frantically tried to assemble (or possibly disassemble; again, it's been 12 years) the magic widget of the day, Skin kept the dragon busy with his barrio wit and a few sharp pokes from Penance. And when it was all over, nobody believed them. And that was a fairly normal day. An abnormal day would be when M's marrow-sucking brother Emplate showed up and captured the team, prompting Jubilee to lead off the next issue with her Top 10 Reasons Why Emplate Sucks.

Happy as Scoot's plots made me, he couldn't have done it without the work of a young Chris Bachalo. Bachalo's understated figures and sense of the comically absurd (as evinced by the random presence of frogs) fit the book perfectly. The only real problem I had was with his original model for Skin, whose faced bore an unsettling resemblance to an octagenarian's labia. Fortunately, that was one wrinkle that got worked out quickly, and Skin's "new" face was far more expressive, and he quickly became one of my favorite members of the cast. And it should shock no one that I quickly fell in teenage lust with both Husk and Jubilee, the "cute" members of the team. (Do you have to ask what I thought of Emma Frost?)

The Lobdell/Bachalo run lasted around 28 issues (with occasional fill-ins by Tom Grummet), and they were good. What followed was not. Lobdell had ended issue 28 with a rather bizarre cliffhanger: while the team was under attack by Sentinels (as part of Operation Zero Tolerance, 1997's summer X-over), M split into two identical toddlers. Fill-in writer James Robinson deftly avoided addressing this for four issues, leaving it to oncoming writer Larry Hama. This turned out to be a very bad call.

Hama found himself with, I'll admit, the unenviable task of explaining the previously hinted connections between M, Emplate, and Penance. Lobdell, who had left Marvel under something of a cloud, had likely not bothered to share his ultimate ending with anyone, and Hama pretty much had to make it up from scratch. But still, what we got was a mess.

I'd like to preface this with the disclaimer that I'm not making any of it up.

A while earlier, Hama had done an issue of Wolverine in which Logan gave the kids a survival course in their training area/greenhouse, affectionately nicknamed "The Danger Grotto." Whilst there, he discovered that the Grotto was haunted by an invisible creature called a pooka. Okay, fair enough. Then, while Emplate showed up and began his revenge, Chamber and Jubilee met the pooka, who turned out to look like an anthropomorphic weasel, and he took them on a magic train ride to the center of the Earth to save their friends.

I wish I were making this up, because the plot of each issue of this arc was "Scene where Emplate is menacing. Scene on the train that has nothing to do with anything. Repeat." For six damn issues. Which *felt* like nine. And at the end, the payoff is this: Penance is really the real M, transformed by Emplate, and the fake M was their little sisters pretending to be M. Then, the sisters get turned into the new Penance, and the real M is, well M. Oh, and an annoying Mary Sue named Gaia was introduced, who had literally no reason to hang around other than she had been trapped at the center of the earth for a really long time and had nowhere else to go. (That Synch immediately started fawning over her only made me hate her more, as I was and remain a resolute Synch/Jubilee 'shipper.)

Hama's nonsense was thankfully over not long after this, and new writer Jay "Noble Causes" Faerber joined Terry "Spider-Man and Black Cat's Rack" Dodson in attempting to make the book not suck. They succeded, largely by quickly jettisoning Gaia and having the state Board of Education require the Academy to admit a gaggle of human students, which introduced more characters for the personalities to play off of and added some secret identity fun to the mix. But it still didn't quite click, maybe because I was four years older, now in high school, and had a handle on my own issues. For whatever reason, I left shortly after issue 50.

I'd like to say the team fared well in my absence, but that would be a lie. 1999's "Revolution" saw Warren Ellis revamp Gen X, X-Man, and X-Force, in all cases deciding the proper panacea was to make the books grim and gritty (how this constituted a change for X-Force, I never quite understood). That lasted less than a year, but by the time the dust was settled, Synch had been killed by anti-mutant bigots,**** most of the others had quit, and Jubilee and Skin just faded into comic limbo. Since then, Skin was crucified on the X-Men's front lawn by Chuck Austen (who couldn't even get the name on his tombstone right), Husk entered into a disturbing May-December relationship with Archangel (thanks again, Chuck), and Jubilee and Chamber both lost their powers in the Decimation (although Jono still has that gaping hole in his chest; how much does that suck?). Banshee's dead too, courtesy of X-Men: Deadly Genesis, and it looks like Emma Frost's leaf is getting turned back over courtesy of Joss Whedon (although his penchant for twists leaves me in doubt). M remains relatively unscathed, working at Jamie Madrox's X-Factor Investigations (Peter David had Rictor describe her as "Supergirl meets Veronica Lodge," and that gives me some hope). Still, when you look at the mortality/fridge-ality of the team, you can't help but think that Blink got off easy in comparison.

There was no TV movie. Ever. Any memories you may have to the contrary are a delusion.

*Paige had previously appeared in the pages of X-Force, but as her screen time was close to nil, I'm glossing over it.

**Which was relocated to Emma Frost's Massachusetts Academy. The X-Mansion itself became the "Xavier Institute For Higher Learning," which was more or less a way to still call it a school, even though none of the X-Men were actually teaching or taking any classes.

***A little later on, they were joined by Mondo, who was a puzzle of a character. Originally a gregarious fellow with Absorbing Man's powers but a better sense of how to use them, he was eventually revealed to be a construct of Black Tom Cassidy's. However, since an ostensibly "real" Mondo made an appearance in an early issue, it's unclear just what the hell the deal with any of them ever was.

****I don't usually do this, but a big "fuck you" to Brian Wood for that one; finally, a black character at Marvel who's got an A-level power and isn't \a thug charicature, and he literally falls on a grenade. Yeah, his stuff for Vertigo and Oni is good, but still, with a rusty spoon, you schmuck.


Yeoman said...

I think it was, technically, a new direction for X-force at the time. If I remember correctly this would be right after Mirage was leading the team and they were in their Road Trip era.

It was actually kinda fun and well done. Wish I remembered more of it.

I could be wrong though.

Jeff Brady said...

Damn, I quit Gen X right before the Hama nonsense. What happened to the characters is a real shame. That book was FUN, well-designed, and just cool to read.