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Imperial Headroom

  New X-Men: Imperial


Grant Morrison (writer); Frank Quitely, Igor Kordey, Ethan Van Sciver (artists)

Marvel, 2002

Rating: 4.0



Posted: August 4, 2002

By The Gentleman (exclusive to Shaking Through)

In his early issues at the helm of Marvel's most lucrative franchise -- the uneven E is for Extinction -- Grant Morrison exhibited what might best be described as teething pains. While no one doubted that the visionary behind The Invisibles, as well as DC's successful revamp of JLA, was up to the task of refining (and redefining) comicdom's most perfect metaphors for alienation, it was obvious that simply repeating the broadly grandiose, larger-than-life sturm und drang revisionism of JLA wouldn't work here. Different heroes, after all, only naturally require a deftly title-specific approach; one couldn't simply expect to blow the X-Men up to the JLA's mythically Godhead status and reap the same rewards. Not that Morrison took that particular approach, more's the relief, but the full extent of his "take" on these characters hadn't yet solidified. While E is for Extinction did a good job of setting up an intriguing premise, Morrison, it seemed, hadn't quite wrapped his head around the full promise of his ideas.

The same can't be said of Imperial, which collects issues #118-#126 of Morrison's work on the title. Just as his later work on JLA evolved significantly from his first, faltering issues, so does Imperial begin to chart his very real progress with New X-Men. That it bears only a superficial resemblance to what has gone before -- for the X-Men and for Morrison's past works -- only underscores the fact that he's begun to find his voice on the title.

Brief obligatory setup: In E is for Extinction, the X-Men came face-to-face with Cassandra Nova, the equal and opposite number to their mentor, Professor Charles Xavier. As it happens, Xavier first encountered her in the womb, where he was forced to defend himself against her, the malevolent yang to his peaceful yin. Not quite a separated-at-birth twin (it's a bit complicated, but trust me on this), Cassandra Nova -- in some ways more an idea than a personality -- bided her time before setting out to replay their initial, in utero conflict, this time with the X-Men and all of mutantkind as unwitting pawns.

As Imperial opens, then, Nova has successfully transplanted her mind into Xavier's body, which is currently among the stars aboard a battleship of the Shi'ar, a star-spanning empire whose ruler, Empress Lilandra, just happens to be Xavier's girlfriend (again, don't ask). Xavier's essence, meanwhile, sits trapped in Nova's body, which she's thoughtfully booby-trapped with a number of degenerative physical maladies. Jean Gray, who in Morrison's hands comes into her own as one of the most powerful telepath/telekinetics on the planet, affects a "psychic rescue" of Xavier's psyche, in a masterfully executed (and almost entirely silent) sequence that sparkles with the energy of the best Japanese anime and manga. Eventually, of course, Nova returns, but only after she's set loose the Imperial Guard -- the Shi'ar's lethal superpowered strike force to eradicate all of mutantkind -- and (in perhaps the collection's keenest twist) infecting the X-Men with parasitic, white blood cell-attacking nano-Sentinels, cellular versions of the giant purple mutant-hunting robots (long a staple of the various X-Men series).

Elsewhere, Morrison introduces a new wrinkle into the ages-old conflict between humans and mutants: A "transspecies" movement, in which certain humans see mutants as a bridge to mankind's glorious future, rather than its extinction. These "U-Men" avail themselves of mutant parts as a way of kick-starting evolution, and set upon the Xavier Institute with the intent of turning into a giant organ-harvesting farm. Again, Jean Gray reveals herself as one of the Marvel Universe's premier bad-asses; in a wickedly inventive scene, she uses her telekinesis to move the food in her attackers' stomachs up their digestive tracts, causing vomiting, and simultaneously in the other direction, resulting in the loosening of bowels.

But Gray isn't the only character to come into her own under Morrison's increasingly confident care. The inclusion of former Hellfire Club member (and sworn X-Men enemy) Emma Frost, the White Queen, in the Institute's teaching staff proves a stroke of genius; her hilarious high-bred arrogance and devilish sexual aggression lend humor and soap-operatic complication to the proceedings, particularly in the matter of the troubled marriage of Jean Gray and Scott Summers (a.k.a. Cyclops), who also makes a welcome return as the team's able, confident field leader in spite of his inner demons. And the newly-evolved Beast trades his usual buffoonery for some poignant introspection and self-doubt, as well as some intriguing character development. As he tells former paramour Trish Tilby, during the Imperial Guard's siege of the Institute: "We had some fun together, didn't we? I have some great photographs. I played Chopin by moonlight, and you danced naked and fell in the shrubbery. But...the truth is I'm not interested in a relationship with a human being right now. In fact, I think I may be gay." That these lines are delivered by a large, blue-furred biped who bears a striking resemblance to his namesake from the Disney animated film Beauty and the Beast is a visual treat that has to be seen to be fully appreciated.

Speaking of visuals, it's only fair to acknowledge that the best ideas would fall flat without talented artists to give them expression, and despite a revolving-door lineup of pencilers, Imperial succeeds admirably on that front and even manages a certain visual cohesion. While the gifted Frank Quitely (The Authority) gets top billing among the artists here, "second banana" Igor Kordey turns in some fine work as well. All of which come to vibrant flower courtesy of the coloring talents of Hi-Fi Design.

Thusly collected in paperback form, and read in close proximity, these nine issues whiz by with a thematic coherence lacking in a month-by-month single-issue reading. More to the point, however, they show Grant Morrison once again assertively applying his talent for subverting traditional superhero conventions, without the high-falutin' seriousness of much post-modernism. With Imperial, Morrison breaks the concepts behind the X-Men down to their roots, from which he grows intriguing and thoroughly entertaining new branches.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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