For most of the Marvel Universe's super teams being a hero means fighting against present and immediate threats, all in an effort to preserve a status quo. That's not the case, however, for Marvel's mutant outcasts, the X-Men. Rather than attempting to keep things as they stand, they're fighting for a better future, hoping that by working to protect a world that fears and hates them, they'll eventually change people's minds and create a world where mutants and humans can coexist peacefully. Come December, a new voice will help chronicle mutantkind's quest for a better tomorrow as newly exclusive Marvel writer Kieron Gillen begins co-writing "Uncanny X-Men" with the series' current scribe Matt Fraction.
To date, much of Gillen's time with Marvel has been spent chronicling the events in and around the legendary city of Asgard with books like "Thor," "Siege: Loki" and a special "Siege" tie-in issue of "New Mutants." The writer has also been exploring the X-universe as well, having worked on the series "S.W.O.R.D.," which featured the Beast, and is the writer of the upcoming mutant centric series "Generation Hope" along with his recently announced "Uncanny" co-writing gig.
"The central conceit of the book is that they're protecting a world that hates and fears them. There's a core idea of alienation, but still feeling the need to do good anyway. That's a powerful and useful way for thinking about life," Gillen told CBR News. "So the concept is great, but the kind of things that make it appealing also make it so difficult to write. It's a book with a cast of hundreds. I'll sit down and write an issue of 'Thor' and I only really have to focus on Thor. With the X-Men, you've got this enormous cast and all of them have some form of relationship with one another. There's an incredibly intricate back history there. The challenge of tackling all of that makes this book very appealing to me. I never want to make things too easy for myself."
Gillen believes that "Uncanny X-Men" is a book that's fundamentally about the future, thus the stories he's interested in telling will mostly look forward instead of back into the past. "'Thor' is a fantasy book. That's a genre that's mostly small-C conservative. In fantasy there's this idea that long ago there was a better time than now," the writer remarked. "Thor gains its energy by mashing that 'ideal' world view against the real world. The X-Men has always been a book about the future. There's the idea that what it means to be human can change, but it will be difficult. Those are just really interesting ideas. What that means and the different ways of looking at it is what drew me to this book.
"You look at the plots we can have. I was working on the background for 'Generation Hope' during 'Second Coming.' Reading that, as both a writer and a reader, it seemed like a monument to the X-Men stories that revolve around man trying to kill mutants. You had a team-up of all these people who wanted to wipe out mutants. That's a type of X-Men story that has been done a lot, and now that we've done something as big as 'Second Coming,' the next step has to be, 'What if we don't tell a story about someone who wants to wipe out mutants?'" Gillen continued. "Let's examine some other possible interests people might have in mutants. People don't necessarily just try to stamp out the future. The 'new' isn't just hated and feared, and it can be hurt in ways besides simply taking a torch to it."
Gillen is also interested in telling X-Tales that primarily revolve around Earth and mutantkind's place on it. "It's not that I don't like the space stories, but a cosmic story set in and around Earth strikes me as a truer X-Men tale. With the Phoenix and Dark Phoenix stories, the ascension to that cosmic godhood starts grounded in its terrestrial elements. That moment of ascension is key," the writer explained. "Also, in a more general sense it's a social book, in that it's a book about the new in the context of society. The stories use the mutant condition as a way to examine a particular idea or philosophy. So you look at the world in terms of plot, by means of contrast. One of the important facets of mutants in the Marvel Universe is this idea of being an alien in the society that you're from. Mutants are less strange when you take them away from Earth because they're not experiencing that same form of prejudice. In space, everyone's strange, everyone's an alien."
Over the last several years, the focus of the X-Men has changed from fighting prejudice to survival. After the Scarlet Witch's mutant powers reworked reality and turned mutants into an endangered species, the X-Men had their hands full trying to protect what remained of mutantkind from forces that wanted to snuff them out forever. With the dawning of the "Heroic Age" and the appearance of five newly created mutants, Gillen feels that the role of the X-Men is somewhere in between superheroics and militarized mutant protection.
"I think they're both, because Cyclops isn't relaxing. The fact that new mutants appeared didn't necessarily solve everything. 'Second Coming' was about them stopping this large group that wanted to wipe out mutants. That was a big, enormous win for them, but Cyclops can't relax. He's haunted. On the other hand though he also realized that they've got to go out and reengage the world again," Gillen stated. "That's one of the interesting sets ups in 'Uncanny.' They had found hope in the form of a mutant messiah named Hope, but now they have to figure out what that means. There's still time to do that, though. They're still engaging with the world. That's one of the reasons why I love them being in San Francisco. I think it really, really works."
Another reason Gillen enjoys the current direction of "Uncanny X-Men" is the book's large and incredibly flawed cast of characters. "None of them are the pure, unvarnished hero. If you compare Cyclops to Captain America, both are perfect soldiers, but self doubt and a perfectionist attitude area big part of Cyclops's character," the writer said. "Those kinds of personality quirks are what interest me, because I haven't known many heroes, but I've known a lot of flawed human beings [Laughs]. So I'm quite comfortable writing those types of characters."
Gillen is particularly fascinated by the personality quirks of characters like Emma Frost (the White Queen), Cyclops and Namor. "I often joked that the character of Emily Aster in 'Phonogram' was my White Queen audition tape. That type of person is my type of person. While I like Emma's confidence, I also find Cyclops' self doubting nature to also be appealing," the writer revealed. "I like Namor for the same reason I like Doctor Doom. They're similar in that they're very arrogant and regal men. I can do that. Cyclops probably plays to my many insecurities, but Namor is appealing because of my complete, stupid arrogance [Laughs].
"There's also a lot of characters whose visuals I enjoy. I always thought Colossus was an incredible visual. I thought Havok was an incredible visual and I thought Rachel Summers was, too," Gillen continued. "I always really liked Rachel."
Comic book heroes are often defined by the villains they face and Gillen has big plans for several members of the X-Men's rogues gallery. "With the X-Men villains, I'd love to build them up a bit more. I just want to make them credible threats again. You look at the past seven years of Marvel and there's been this kind of internal dissent. With heroes, you've got this suspense of you don't know who's going to win in a fight between characters like Iron Man and Captain America. Villains who have been defeated time and time again really aren't that much of a threat," Gillen remarked. "For lack of a better phrase, I've been looking for ways to get the X-Men villains to 'man up.' [Laughs] I've got plans for characters that I want to use and ways to make them threatening that are insidious and sure, while still embracing the fundamental precepts of the superhero genre. I think the recent developments with the Spider-Man villains are a good example of how to do that and how to do that very well."
For their first arc Gillen and Fraction are bringing back a different kind of villain, the sentient bacteria known as Sublime. Created by Grant Morrison during his acclaimed "New X-Men" run, Sublime first gained sentience when life arose on Earth. It could infect and possess people to work its will and developed an antipathy towards mutants because many of them were immune to its infection.
"Sublime has a way of seeing the world. The interesting thing about it is that it inspires people. It got into people, and not just virally. Sublime really hasn't changed. Its core idea of what mutants are and what they're for does not alter just because they're dying out," Gillen explained. "I can't really say any more than that. Sublime has a philosophy and a lot of what we're doing in this first arc is people applying that philosophy to the current state of mutantkind."
Gillen and Fraction's initial arc is about the exploitation of talent and corporate procreation. It spins out of developments from the recent "Nation X" arc and focuses on the original X-Men. "The original five X-Men are very important to this story," Gillen remarked. "We also spotlight some characters you may not expect. Dazzler is in it a lot. I've got an enormous crush on her. She was my first Marvel-Universe work, after all."
While you don't have to read Gillen's "Generation Hope" to understand "Uncanny X-Men," Gillen plans on rewarding fans of both books with scenes that will tie them together in fun and interesting ways.
"If you read my 'Siege' crossover where I did the 'Loki' one-shot, the issue of 'New Mutants' and those issues of 'Thor,' they all came out in the same month. No matter which one you read, you got a complete story, but if you did read them all you went, 'Oh yeah - I get it.' So if you're reading both books, you'll get a bit of extra value. Both books will have their own delineated characters arcs inside their respective titles. I think this is an interesting opportunity to do that well and I don't want to bring a sledgehammer to it. You can write them as shared world books and do lots of stuff that rewards people who read both without making it a case of you must buy both books."
Since "Generation Hope" spins out of the current "Five Lights" arc in "Uncanny X-Men," Gillen and Fraction had many discussions about how the two stories would intersect and it was those discussions that laid the ground work for Gillen's co-writing gig. "'Five Lights' is basically the origin story of four of these new mutants. The origin story of the fifth mutant and what happened to him or her is the opening arc of 'Generation Hope.' So we sort of co-plotted that part of the arc. I didn't have anything else to do with what happened in those issues, but we did talk about where these new mutant characters come from, what they get up to and how they respond to becoming a mutant. That was kind of a test run for what we're doing with 'Uncanny.' There was a moment before scripting the 'Five Lights' and 'Generation Hope' where we we discussing which mutant I wanted my first 'Generation Hope' arc to revolve around. It was almost like we worked out which order the other four characters would be revealed in. Because abstractly, any one of those five characters could have been the first 'Generation Hope' arc. So when the question came up afterwords of us co-writing 'Uncanny,' that relationship was already there."
The Fraction-Gillen collaboration is still new and the duo is currently experimenting to find their preferred method of working together. "The way our issues break down is not as simple as one of us plots and the other scripts. Matt had a strong idea of where we're going, and when I came in, I asked if we could do certain things. So there are some changes in the way ideas are executed. With our first issue I did a lot of the scripting and then Matt went back over and had a pass at it. We're still working out how we'll do our next issues. The only rule in comics creation is that what ever works, works," Gillen said. "This is a medium which bastardizes, breeds, inbreeds and just generally breeds. So there really isn't one correct way to do comics. You've got to invent methods for every job. In lot of ways it feels like being part of the X-Men. You're dealing with the future by using whatever tools you can create.
"This is an enormously difficult book and I'm looking forward to wrestling with it," Gillen concluded. "It's a book with a big history to it and I'm in the company of someone like Matt - so I'll have someone to blame it on if it all goes wrong [Laughs]."