Friday, 10 March 2017

Comic Review: Counter-X - X-Man #63-75


While Generation X and X-Force were formerly hot titles that had fallen into disrepair the third Counter-X book, X-Man, was simply never popular. Nate Grey started out as a rough analogue of Cable from the gigantic Age of Apocalypse event and was chosen to be carried over (alongside a few less prominent characters such as the Dark Beast, Holocaust and the Sugarman) when the universe went back to normal. He was one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe at the time - having the same rough abilities as Cable but without the hassle. The problem was he also had teenage angst by the bucket load and it soon became clear no-one was particularly interested in reading the adventures of a over-powered moping MTV reject in a generically-titled book (thankfully he was rarely referred to as X-Man in or out of the strip). An attempt was made to save his flagging profile by putting him front and centre for the Onslaught event but it didn't work and the title was mainly written by the uninspired Terry Kavanagh, whose main attempt to find direction was to rope in a never-ending list of guest stars to try and attract readers - Rogue, Spider-Man (subject of a painfully desperate besties situation in the hopes of getting people to care), Excalibur (with Ellis writing the reciprocal issue of that title, making his feelings about Nate clear...), Havok, Bishop, Stryfe, the Fantastic 4... Nate could barely move without someone more important turning up in his comic.

Various directions were tried as well, from mutant prophet to X-Men ancillary to cosmic hero, none of it working. Like Generation X and X-Force by the end of the nineties Nate wasn't even really getting invited to crossovers either; he got pulled into The Twelve saga through simple genetics as much as anything and didn't show well. Thankfully for Warren Ellis and co-writer Steven Grant, a relative heavyweight at the time with considerable experience, notably deserving a bit of credit for putting The Punisher from occasional guest character to a viable solo property, this just meant they had something of a free rein to do whatever they wanted to the character. 

The resulting 15 issues have only a passing place in the Marvel Universe, let alone the other X-Men titles. Nate is first seen as the self-appointed shaman of the mutant tribes, an outsider with bigger matters than the Xavier/Magneto power struggles to deal with. He is presented as incredibly powerful but more mature and thus less irritating, making him a persuasive narrator for this strange new offshoot, focusing on the Spiral - a stack of parallel Earths as a dazzling visual. The first arc, as per the other Revolution/Counter-X titles presented six months after the preceding issue with very little information (there's a brief prelude featuring the death of an alternate Forge; each arc of the revised X-Man would start with a quick teaser for the next arc four issues down the line) sees Nate cross paths with a group calling themselves the Gauntlet, who have similarly opted out of the mutant struggle. Instead they use their abilities for their own gain in the world of business. This in itself is presented as a perfectly valid use of powers; the problem is one of their ventures has stirred up a counter-attack from a parallel Earth, a broken one which barely supports life - what is there has to constantly mutate to survive. These are pretty big concepts for a book which once trumpted a three-corner fight between Nate, Cable and Exodus. The plot unfolds nicely, with the Gauntlet's spiky attitude revealed to be the result of them being the bad guys, having stolen children from the broken Earth to sell on the black market for their advanced organs. At which point Nate coolly summarily executes the lot of them in a chilling but warranted action. 

The second arc fills in the gaps; the sales gimmick of pairing Nate up with Madeline Pryor (whipped up by the character) before Ellis and Grant arrived is exploited ruthlessly in a dazzling storyline where it turns out the copy created by Nate has been replaced by a cruel Queen of a parallel Earth, scouting for an undamaged Nate Grey to use as a weapon against rebels. Nate goes through a considerable humbling before meeting that Earth's Nate, more worldly and a shaman to his tribe but less powerful. The pair merge during the course of the story, which is marked again by its' cool, detached air and once more by the crisp, unsettling quasi-painted art of the brilliant Ariel Olivetti, which meshes beautifully with the otherworldly feel of the title. There are things cribbed from other areas of the X-titles - the parallel Forge, Madeline - but they're treated in such an alien fashion that the result feels incredibly fresh.

The third act sees Grant solo but - unlike the other Counter-X books - no drop in quality. It concerns the efforts of a being from the top of the Spiral (i.e. the most evolved Earth) named Qabri attempting to purge Earths touched by world walkers in order to preserve the sanctity of his world and its' Brilliant City. The key seems to lay in three figures - eyeless nun Sister Perpetua, adventurer Nicola Zeitgeist and warrior Hassan. Once again there's an outsider's approach that reaps benefits; when Qabiri attacks a parallel Earth its' defended by a version of Wildstorm's Authority rather than the Avengers and when Earth-616 is threatened (confidently renamed Earth-611 in-story in reference to the five worlds Qabiri destroys higher up the spiral on his way) it's Nate there to stop him, no sign or mention of the X-Men or anyone else. Again it leads to a vivid outsider piece of work which has more in common with Grant Morrison's uncluttered independent view of his work that would come to the X-Men soon after than anything that's gone before.

The final issue continues the tearing up of the Marvel rulebook, with a nightmarish take on Superman's arrival in Smallville instead heralding an alien called the Harvester arriving on Earth. Once again the scope of the story in terms of its' repercussions for the Marvel Earth is huge but the focus isn't, with just Nate alone going in to stop a being who has interwoven itself with everything on the planet before planning to strip it of life. The curiously benevolent amoral (in terms of a complete absence of the things) Harvester makes a fine foil for the aloof but caring Nate, who sacrifices himself at the end - a fantastic way to go out that should have salted the Earth nicely. In fairness it did take Marvel about a decade to destroy it.

If X-Man has a fault it's merely one of timing. A couple of years down the line with Marvel less reticent to cancel and relaunch titles, some distance backed by trades to keep the buzz high and with self-contained stories that took little notice of what other titles were doing it might have thrived. As it is it's largely a secret, buried at the fag end of a hated title. It shouldn't be, it's better; read it if you don't believe me.

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