Accountability: Warren Ellis and the Counter-X
Travis Hedge Coke
X-Man was so fluff, the lead was sleeping with a genetic duplicate of his mother and it wasn't even something they had to deal with. Generation X had gone from a children's comic for nostalgic adults to a children's comic steadfastly never marketed to children. X-Force was a toothless introspection reminiscent of the era when MTV stopped regularly showing music videos in favor of showing us beach parties and people in living rooms.
Marvel commissioned Warren Ellis to redirect and curate the three titles — X-Man, X-Force, and Generation X — into something, if nothing else, punchier.
Spring on us in media res, the opening storylines encouraged questions and speculation. A sense that characters had responsibilities was hammered down. Accountability, which had been largely absent of a-comics for years, was a hammer, too, but the hammer on a gun, drawn back and ready to slam and launch a bullet. Ethics were pragmatically unmuddied.
The X-Man's girlfriend wasn't an alternate reality clone of his mother so it didn't really count, but was an alternate and entirely valid form of his mother, and they had to deal with it. X-Force were still young and violent, but the violence has consequences and communicated back and forth not as tete a tete, but as part of an architecture of society and politics. A title wherein an entire people were once wiped out with hardly even a single tear and no followthrough, giving way to a world where every bomb and soldier affected the score, every battle reorganized the frontlines and the home efforts.
Ultimately this failed to garner any new audience, and possibly lost the old. But, X-Force became, as a spy comic, unpredictable. X-Man suddenly had stories about something, and a backbone of ethics. Generation X even gained a bit of bite, tackling politics from smooth perspective, or at least trying to talk to that perspective using mutants who tear off their skin and murdered young men.
They stand, today, as intriguing, sometimes clumsy but always articulate commercial failures that have aged into something even more readable than they were as published. Each title had an agenda and it's own flavor, each story had a point, the heroes had actual superheroing to do. That last may seem de rigeur, but in 2000, an X-Men comic, as these were, could get by quite fine without its superheroes being superheroes. Counter-X, broadly, stopped calling them superheroes, and put them in less traditionalist kit, from the black leathers of X-Force to the barefoot and barechested linen suit worn by Nate Grey, the protagonist of X-Man, who they started calling Earth's shaman.
Here is an open secret: So many superheroes are called Doctor such and such because doctors are superheroes and superheroes are doctors. Medics. Engineers. Academics. Journalists. Learned fixers.
Calling a superhero a shaman or a superhero team a tactical first strike squad, it's all ways to get out of the expectation traps and let the characters be superheroes, so superheroing.
Rather than hero and villain, we had damage and repair, we had crime and investigation, agent and reagent. And, the protagonists could be withdrawn or reagent given the circumstances.
The first storyline in this new X-Man culminated in Nate Grey saying this world must become a better place. The first pages of the new X-Force featured The mentor and new boss of the team blowing up government buildings. Superheroes, the moment they had the name, conjured too many foiled bank heists by themed lackeys or novelty mutation ray assaults on the superhero out of villainous jealousy. Reality or not, the term brought with it that sense of an unimportant scale in those years.
But, locking up kids for having ideas, the quiet detainment and torture of undesirables, harvesting babies and drugging the populace to sleep, that all felt like it needed tackling. Superheroes couldn't. But students could. A medicine man could. A revolutionary cell, pre-9/11 but post-Y2K, had a vibrancy of initiative.
While much of Marvel was near-term in nostalgia and the comics actually titles X-Men were engaged in the worst and most inexplicably unfriendly of runs by Chris Claremont (who would again shine on Uncanny X-Men half a decade later, with Alan Davis), and too much was just moving set pieces around familiar territory, these three titles seemed to be setting up a wonderful new playground, full of earthy politics, business ventures, heady cosmologies and vigorous cosmogonies.
A spiral of realities degrading or sublimed in gradations of human comfort. Warring clans of cold war intelligence and manipulators of the human stuff. Police and politicians and corporate invaders and butchers. Doctors healing the world from the edge of society. Retired assassins teaching violent youth lessons in agenda by dying. Children saving children.
Was there a significant regressing of ideas earlier fleshed and bones in Ellis' WildStorm comics? Was Nate being a fish out of water or X-Force exploding things really do new? Immaterial in the face of the feeling that it was fresh and different.
Maybe it was because both the stories and the characters had purpose? This wasn't about cute quirks or stapling a cool jacket into a mundane character, but seemed genuinely about agency and exploration.
At least, it did to me.
Emma Frost, that sometime White Queen of the Hellfire Club, returned to her white leather domme roots, and Banshee to his grizzled policeman ethos, but other comics would receive the credit. Every step forward for Counter-X was a step too far or a step to be instantly forgotten and attributed to the next, or next after that iteration.
X-Force was quickly and more radically reinvented as a post-irony commercial enterprise that pitted itself against what an audience who wasn't reading the comic assumed it had been for years. It couldn't have done so well, if people had been more aware of what the Edginton/Portacio/Ellis/Lucas run was like. Nobody gave a damn for a Nate Grey who cares about us, any more than they had for the previous version. And, Gen X was built on those coddling pseudo-nostalgia school stories; taking that a way, at all, was like putting real boarding school assaults into Harry Potter. You can child it up more, but you can't de-nostalgia without doing your total readership a disservice.
A year and a half that was and went away. A year and a half of forced vibrancy and commerce in ideas. If Marvel hadn't canned the whole barrelful, 9/11 would have run a stake through its vampire heart and cut off its weird werewolf head. But, we are left with the comics, and with what they have: the world, the systems, and hope.