How does one even explain the X-Men? What started as a simple idea (that some humans are born as “mutants,” gifted with extraordinary unique superpowers as both a blessing and a curse) has generated decades of the most colorful, fantastic, convoluted stories in all of comics. The X-Men have gone to space, they’ve gone to the future, they’ve gone to other dimensions and the inner hearts of white-hot suns. They’ve battled their ancestors and their descendants and alternate-reality duplicates of themselves. To name just one example, there are currently three different versions of the Beast, all from different timelines, running around the Marvel Universe. Fox’s X-Men movies tried to make this sprawling mythology cohere by making Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine the leading man, but that didn’t do justice to the dozens of other characters that have steered the comics over the years. It would be a herculean task to make this all harmonize, and yet Ed Piskor has set out to do exactly that with his new comic X-Men: Grand Design.
Grand Design begins with the telepathic pacifist Charles Xavier and the magnetically-powered freedom fighter Magneto as young men, and then follows them as they form their teams of X-Men and Brotherhood to fight for the fate of the mutant race. Xavier believes mutants and humans should live in peace, while Magneto wants mutants to reign supreme over humans, who he blames for his suffering during the Holocaust. That’s the core concept, but many other characters and elements have been introduced into the stories over the years. Piskor’s task is to make it all work as a single story.
“What I’m doing here is a kind of remix, incorporating my own specific tastes on top of what already exists,” Piskor tells EW. “In a lot of ways, all of those X-Men comics you know and love, I am thinking of them as extremely elaborate notes that were constructed over 50 years so that I could make this comic. I have to look at it through those eyes, or else it will just be a piece of fan fiction, and I think this is more than that. Things will change to fit my narrative. To most readers, the changes will not be controversial, but there are some bad editorial decisions in the past that were corny, and not in a good way. Like, Jean Grey coming back was an editorial mandate thrust upon Chris Claremont, who already had a specific vision in play but now needed to do this other thing. He had Cyclops married to this woman Madelyne Pryor, they had a kid, and then he’s thrown this curveball of Jean coming back. He instantly has Cyclops leave his wife and kid for Jean Grey. I can’t think of a more unheroic thing to do, and it’s not even explored in an interesting way. Take that example, multiply it by a few dozen, and you have the groundwork for what I’m trying to do with Grand Design, which is to make a cohesive, fun, accessible, complete story with a beginning, middle, and ending.”
Grand Design arrives on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kirby, who co-created the original X-Men team with Stan Lee. Many other creators have made their mark on these characters over the years (from Claremont and Grant Morrison, to Dave Cockrum and Jim Lee), but they nonetheless retain the visual pop and kinetic ferocity of a Kirby comic. Piskor is taking a different approach.
“I have such reverence for Kirby. I think of him every day. But there are Marvel and DC fans who only know the superhero idiom of comic storytelling, which is to say, the Jack Kirby idiom. I’m a fan of all comics,” Piskor says. “I like manga, I like French European albums, I like a lot of newspaper comic strips. The storytelling method I use is a storytelling pastiche of all that stuff. I am trying to do the least Kirby X-Men comic ever made.”
Luckily, Piskor is used to making comics about a complex history with a sprawling cast of characters. His previous massive project, Hip-Hop Family Tree, was a four-part comic about the history of hip-hop and ended up giving him some important lessons for working with the X-Men.
“The thing that makes this a full-circle exhibition is when I embarked on Hip-Hop Family Tree, I knew it would involve an ensemble cast of hundreds of characters. I desperately needed examples of this in comic form to use as a reference point, and Chris Claremont’s X-Men takes the cake in that regard,” Piskor says. “He had so many characters to juggle and had to give them all due time, and I thought he handled them all with great panache. It’s like I got my Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours of practice in dealing with a huge convoluted history. It was an amazing education — I did Hip-Hop Family Tree for four years, it was like an undergrad program. Now I’m in grad school, and that’s the X-Men. I will be forever a student of this medium.”
X-Men: Grand Design hits stores on Dec. 20. Check out a preview below, in which the original X-Men team assembles for the very first time.