2001 was a very different time at Marvel Comics. Having barely escaped folding, the company had taken on new management who truly and honestly had no idea what comics were and how they worked. This sounds like a bad thing, but in reality, it may very well have revitalized the whole industry.
You see, the industry was being held back by some pretty archaic and outdated mores (like the Comics Code Authority), and the Big Two also suffered from a sort of static holding pattern. Books stayed the same even if their sales were questionable at best, and the new management didn’t quite understand why the hell people would keep producing beloved characters if that dewy-eyed respect for classics wasn’t translating to dollar signs.
Most importantly, X-Force became the strangest, most beautiful piece of pop art in recent memory. Peter Milligan and Michael and Laura Allred tossed out the old cast, skewed the intent of a superhero book to commentary on modern media, and decided that an acid-vomiting narcissist was a perfectly reasonable protagonist.
X-Cellent #1, out this week, returns us to that magical, incredibly disturbing place. Two competing teams—Mister Sensetive’s X-Statix and Zietgeist’s X-Cellent—find themselves competing for fame. . . and tearing each other apart.
2001’s odd, transitory media landscape all but begged to be skewered, but one might ask if the X-Statix message is dated in an age where reality TV is no longer the exception but the rule, where fighting crime for views pales in comparison to making videos with corpses. If anything, X-Cellent is all the timelier.
YouTube stars and aspirational Instagram accounts make performative lives and media-facing motivations the most sought-after lifestyle, and while this doesn’t lead to outright vigilante violence, it does have an alarming effect on mental health. The drive for online fame is putting people at very real risk, both mentally and physically.
Is that too heady of a concern to hold in mind before diving into a bit of comic book absurdity? Perhaps, but X-Cellent doesn’t exactly avoid the parallels. Regardless of their heroic aspirations, X-Statix is housed in a Hype House-style mansion, is forced to reshoot aspects of their real lives for more camera-friendly content, and attend exclusive red carpet events. All of these are markers of the toxic mediated existence of the sort found to be detrimental to followers’ health.
None of that bleak, horrible information shows up in the book, of course, because it is 1) a superhero comic book and 2) inherently delightful. It perfectly catches the hyperactive humor of the original X-Force and X-Statix runs. The Allreds’ singular sense of style makes the book an absolute joy to look at, and Milligan’s absurd concept of mediated revolution resolutely sticks the landing. For all its potential commentary, X-Cellent is a book that celebrates being a comic; the joy of the medium bleeds out of the writing and artwork in a way that sweeps the reader up.
Of all of the books Marvel is releasing this week–hell, this month–this is the one that most wants you to have fun.
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