I’th’ commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things. For no kind of traffic
Would I admit, no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women too—but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty —
— Shakespeare, The Tempest 2.1.148-57
What form of life is required for a just and compassionate society? Ever since Plato’s Republic, the question of designing such a society has always involved an analysis or theory of the human soul. We are gregarious and loving beings, but we are also envious and selfish ones too. It seems that any blueprint for a perfect society has to take into account our species-specific contradictions. It is small wonder then that starting with the rise of ostensible civilized societies, no one has gotten the formula just right. Instead, civilizations and societies rise and fall, and it is left to historians to divine the reasons for their demise, and to philosophers and artists to envision the new and this time, so they hope, perfect society. In this essay, I will explore how one such creative visionary, Grant Morrison, in his New X-Men series ambitiously tackles major interrelated ethical and political questions concerning freedom and justice in the context of various characters’ different and competing attempts to engineer utopia. The historical moment of New X-Men‘s publication (May 2001-March 2004) coincided with the so-called Age of Terror, rooted in the events and aftermath of 9/11. I argue that post-Invisibles and post-9/11, Morrison’s thinking on what makes a just society takes an emphatically ethical turn. The millenarian utopianism that pervaded his work in the previous century all but fades away: gone are the radical politics and global scope of the Invisibles as New X-Men ultimately rejects the grand authoritarian idealisms of both the political Left and Right. Indeed, the work presents a critique of a range of utopian projects, including those of Cassandra Nova, Magneto, Sublime, and finally even Charles Xavier; in this way, it is implied that the best society cannot be made according to any one man’s ideal or be imposed by fiat without common consent. At the same time, Morrison remains a dissident who values above all individual liberty, and so his focus turns to interpersonal relationships, which he suggests are the fundamental building blocks of any better society. In other words, in the end, the geopolitical project of utopia is subsumed into the ethics of the interpersonal encounter.
What is Utopia?
Grant Morrison has always been fascinated by the idea of utopia. Marc Singer notes how his 1980s work Zenith “is as critical of left-wing utopianism as it is of right-wing utopias,” and that the whole series makes a case “that the self-centered pop star and the cutthroat Tory politician are less dangerous than the utopian dreamer of any ideology” (48). In a similar way, in his most significant work of the 1990s, The Invisibles, Morrison implies that the happy society is denied to the world because of a great war raging between those utopians who prize control and order and those who value freedom and play. In the final issue, “Glitterdammerung!,” the world is remade by virtue of an uncanny external agency, Barbelith, which operates in tandem with the miracle boy, Dane/Jack Frost. Barbelith functions rather like the Monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Contemplating it, relating to it, an alien or divine object, spurs evolutionary leaps. Barbelith, too, is the catalyst of a radical transformation of human life and society, which Morrison terms the entry into the “Supercontext” (The Invisibles: The Invisible Kingdom 271). Barbelith is also a symbol in the mystical and aesthetic senses: illegible, mysterious and attention arresting. As Umberto Eco writes, “The symbol says that there is something that it could say, but this something cannot be definitely spelled out once and for all; otherwise, the symbol would stop saying it” (Semiotics 161). Symbols, moreover, stand for themselves and are repositories of desire, and so it is as repository of ultimate desire that Barbelith may be read serially as the Grail; the Philosopher’s Stone; and even Christ, the hypostatic union of the finite and the infinite, the frail and the perfect, in human nature and potential. Singer, again, observes well how The Invisibles implies that “utopian projects are doomed to fail unless people first address their own desires for domination, submission, destruction, and the other impulses that undermine social progress” (129). What, however, is the origin of this seductive game of envisioning utopia or designing the perfect society?
In fact, the historical roots of utopian thinking go back to fifth and fourth-century BC Greece, and, in particular, to classical, democratic Athens. It was there, above all, that the peculiar inclination of the Athenian citizen to question the nature of the individual person, the relation of his passions and desires to his reason, coalesced into a flowering discussion concerning the nature of the best state that would successfully balance the claims of freedom and fairness. In Book II of Republic, Plato’s mouthpiece Socrates says, “Society originates then … so far as I can see, because the individual is not self-sufficient, but has many needs which he can’t supply himself” (369b; 117). In the same way, in Book I of his Politics, Aristotle emphasizes the view that man is essentially social: “The man who is incapable of working in common, or who in his self-sufficiency has no need of others, is no part of the community, like a beast, or a god” (Homer 57-58). While Athenian democracy lionized the individual, its day-to-day politics were grounded in cooperation, collaboration, compromise, and consensus.
For the Greeks, the polis or city-state was the ideal, actual and only conceivable community (Kitto 64-79). Athens, Corinth, and Thebes are examples of Greek poleis, but there were hundreds of them in Greek-speaking territories, all sharing a common form of life grounded in the same language, religion, arts, and technology of civilization. The polis was the centre of a common life. Each one was said to be founded by mythical and legendary heroes: Athens by Theseus, Corinth by Sisyphus, Thebes by Cadmus, and so on. The hero was superhuman: braver, stronger and nobler than his descendents. Moreover, the hero was of mixed blood, often begat by, or a descendent of, a god or goddess on a human, and so the hero was, in a sense, homo superior (which, some readers will recall, is the self-denominated term of identity used by separatist mutants in the X-Men comics). Hence, Achilles is the son of the sea goddess Thetis and human father, Peleas; and Aeneas, founder of Rome, is the son of the goddess Venus and human Anchises. After the mixed origin of divine and superhuman founders of the poleis, then comes the reality of individual relations.
Plato was the first philosopher to explore, in detail, the construction of an ideal community that, in its constitution and order, would perfectly reflect or participate in ideal Justice. In the ancient world, the subtitle of the work that we know as Republic is Peri Dike, or On Justice. This dialogue aims at describing the ideal state, one that is designed to maximize justice for both the individual and the collective. Book IX of Republic, however, concludes with the question as to whether an ideal society could be realized in the world. Socrates, referring to the Theory of the Forms, says, “Perhaps it is laid up as a pattern in heaven, where he who wishes can see it and found it in his own heart. But it doesn’t matter whether it exists or ever will exist; in it alone, and in no other society, could he take part in public affairs” (592b; 420). Whatever about the words he placed in Socrates’ mouth here, Plato, we know, like many other ancient Greek sages and sophists endeavored to realize the ideal state in history. However, his several utopian projects in Sicily, detailed in his so-called “Seventh Letter,” ended in failure, and indeed, on the last occasion, falling foul of the Syracusan tyrant, Dionysius, he got away only with difficulty (Hare 113-15; Annas: 18-19). Such disappointments may have led him in old age when he came to write his last work, Laws (c. 347 BC), to attempt to devise a workable utopia, which he names Magnesia, that would take full account of human depravity, which in turn led him to conceive of many more limitations on freedom than countenanced even in Republic, itself censured in the twentieth century by Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) as a totalitarian, dystopian vision. It is in Laws (626a) that Plato says that the fundamental condition of human relations is a war of all against all. Such a state of affairs requires a firm hand to control unruly subjects. Consider, for instance, the Council of Night, detailed in Book XII (960b-968e; 517-29), by which the government of the state is effected by a council of superior minds. The rest must trust the superiority of the government. For Plato, at the end of his life, human beings require clear limits and obligations, enforced by threats and punishments, in order to live well together. Such is the sour outcome of his disappointed dream of utopia.
While Plato’s designs for the perfect society have been primary drivers of utopian thinking, he did not coin the word itself. Thomas More, Renaissance humanist, Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII, and ultimately in 1535, a political martyr for his resistance to his king’s autocratic aim to become both the temporal and spiritual head of England, coined it in his 1516 Latin Libellus vere aureus, nec minus salutaris quam festivus, de optimo rei publicae statu, deque nova insula Utopia (A Truly Golden Little Book, No Less Beneficial Than Entertaining, of the Best State of a Republic, and of the New Island of Utopia). The word “utopia,” when the initial u is understood as eu, puns homophonously on the senses “non-place” and “good” or “excellent place.” Utopia is divided in two: the first part focuses on England and Europe, and anatomizes their social and political failings. The traveler’s narrative that fills the second half of the book is delivered by Raphael Hythloday whose name means “dispenser of nonsense.” In Book II, Hythloday says that “the structure of the commonwealth [of Utopia] is primarily designed to relieve all the citizens from as much bodily labor as possible, so that they can devote their time to the freedom and cultivation of the mind. For that, they think, constitutes the happy life” (66). In More’s hands, utopia is a strategy for stimulating our thinking on how we can improve our own societies. Much of the book is taken up with direct and indirect criticisms of European and, in particular, English society. Indeed, the book concludes with Hythloday’s coruscating and excoriating denunciation of European pride, greed, injustice and political corruption (130-34).
It should be clear to the reader by now that all utopias are thought experiments, what ifs, which implicitly acknowledge that something is awry in the present world. The dream is that something more can be done than to merely identify or describe the problem. Marx, another utopian thinker, declared that philosophers had only interpreted the world in various ways, but the point is to change it. Every utopia holds out the prospect that the world can be changed for the better, and that is always a question of liberation and justice. Utopias, thus, are always of two kinds: those that emphasize liberty, such as the Land of Cockaigne or Big Rock Candy Mountain, and those that prize justice, such as are described in Plato’s Republic and More’s Utopia. The tragedy of life is that history tells us that the principles of liberty and justice are open to various interpretations, and worse, inevitably come into conflict with each other. Each liberation is fleeting, for the dictates of justice, as interpreted by the law, inevitably constrain every freedom. As Eco writes, “we would not always want to live in those societies recommended to us by utopias, because they often resemble dictatorships that impose a kind of happiness on their citizens at the cost of their freedom” (Legendary Lands 310).
Utopianism is a dream of a future time in which present desires, whether for freedom or for justice, will be fulfilled. The desires, however, are supposed to be those of a society rather than just one individual. The utopian thinker analyses the present and identifies its deficiencies. He views the present as a problem to be solved. He takes in the state of current social existence and imagines a social transformation. To be uncharitable, the utopian dreamer, well meaning or no, is driven by a horror of chaos and a mania for order. In effect, he is an autocrat in waiting. Only three years before More published Utopia, Niccolò Machiavelli completed his great vision of dystopia, The Prince, which, however, was not to be published until after his death in 1527. In it, Machiavelli extolled the man of virtú or aggression, like Moses, Cyrus and Theseus, who would win and maintain a state by the strength of his will and/or violence. To achieve such an end, Machiavelli argues that it is necessary for a prince “who wishes to maintain his position to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge or not to use it according to necessity” (52). Such an incendiary work of political philosophy that described so frankly a theory of Realpolitik outraged the great and the good of the sixteenth century, and was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books in 1559, and banned and suppressed in, for instance, England until 1640. In time, though, Machiavelli won out, for his vision of unapologetic autocracy essentially debunked the rhetoric of all previous leaders who pleaded specious concern for the common good and the people. In The Prince, Machiavelli exposes the government of princes as at bottom what Thrasymachus in Book I of Republic claimed it was, might making right.
Why Is Utopia Impossible?
Why do we desire and dream of the perfect society yet always destroy it or even ourselves in the attempt to build it? In old age, Sigmund Freud gave an answer in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) as to why we crave order yet wish to destroy it too. For Freud, we are sick by nature. The id, what lies beneath and from which our egos emerge, is a broiling mess of contradictory urges, appetites and desires, the two most contradictory of which are the desires for individual happiness and human fellowship. Our apparent psychological well-being is only ever a frail compromise, a tenuous negotiation between desire and law; all civilization, therefore, comes at an irremediable psychological cost. Freud writes that in the process of civilization, “the aim of happiness is still present, but it is pushed into the background; it is almost as though the creation of a great human community would be most successful if there were no need for concern with individual happiness” (99). Furthermore, he notes, “the problem is how to remove the greatest obstacle to civilization, the constitutional propensity of human beings to mutual aggression” (102). He posits the operation of a cultural superego that is the origin of ethics and moral law, all designed to curb aggression and cultivate fellowship. However, he argues that moral laws, such as “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” are overly idealized and, thus, impossible to obey fully:
Even in people who are called normal, control of the id cannot be increased beyond certain limits. To demand more is to provoke the individual to rebellion or neurosis, or to make him unhappy … Civilization neglects all this; it reminds us only that the harder it is to comply with a precept, the more merit there is in compliance. Yet in today’s civilization, whoever adheres to such a precept puts himself at a disadvantage in relation to all who flout it. How potent an obstacle to civilization aggression must be if the defense against it can cause as much unhappiness as the aggression itself! (103)
When we constrain ourselves by laws, our aggression, the urge to destroy, is turned on ourselves and, by dint of that, on our loved ones, and so we gnaw away at the very foundations of the fellowship or society our laws have made. Perhaps, then, ultimately it is the fate of all civilized societies to ultimately collapse. Thanatos or the death drive will have its due, and then the cycle or dialectic starts up again. As will become apparent below, Freud’s theory illuminates Morrison’s handling of the dialectic between the overly idealized moral principles of Xavier and the aggression and will-to-power of Magneto.
Of Morrison’s work on New X-Men, Patrick Meaney writes that it is “The Invisibles set in the Marvel Universe, focused on cutting-edge people guiding society into a new, better world” (283). Morrison himself confirms the astuteness of Meaney’s reading when he writes, “New X-Men began life in my notebooks as a direct follow-on from the joyful utopianism of The Invisibles,” but he adds significantly, “and the more militant futurism of Marvel Boy” (Supergods 355). Moreover, in the October 2000-dated manifesto for his projected run on Marvel’s X-Men comic, Morrison boiled the book’s theme down to its essence: “The X-MEN is not a story about superheroes but a story about the ongoing evolutionary struggle between good/new and bad/old. The X-MEN are every rebel teenager wanting to change the world and make it better. Humanity is every adult, clinging to the past, trying to destroy the future even as he places all his hopes there” (2008: “Morrison Manifesto,” 2).1 As has been shown, whether it be in Plato’s Republic or More’s Utopia, the utopian thinker analyses the present and identifies its deficiencies. He assesses the state of current social existence, viewing the present as a problem to be solved, and imagines a social transformation. The young person, above all, is idealistic, romantic and rebellious, eager to sweep away all that is wrong in the world. Revolution, then, when it comes, is a sudden and terrible rupture in history. Such rupture can be found mirrored in the striking transition from X-Men #113 to New X-Men #114, which is Morrison’s first issue of what would become a forty-issue, four-year run on Marvel Comics’ best-selling comic about an outcast, minority race of super-powered mutants who, because of their miraculous powers, are feared and hated as dangerous misfits and monsters by the majority, non-super-powered human populace. Even the addition of the adjective ‘new’ to the title implies that all that has come before is old. In New X-Men #114 itself, the X-Men, in one stroke, are transformed from passive responders—think “firefighters” and “survivalists”—to agents of social revolution and political transformation, the bold and busy architects of a future utopia.
Terry Eagleton claims that all radical politics is “other-worldly,” not “up there” but “beyond here” (2009: 264). Many of the chief characters over the course of New X-Men regard the present world as broken, and so they dream of other, better worlds to come. For example, in the opening storyline, “E is for Extinction,” Cyclops, Xavier’s original model pupil and current leader of the X-Men, says, “I know there’s something more than just this world” (New X-Men #115: 18); John Sublime, who harvests mutant organs in order to surgically enhance normal humans with superhuman powers, asserts: “My book [The 3rd Species] is about empowering the different, celebrating the strange, and about taking that step into a new world …” (118: 20); Xorn, a mutant with a star for a brain and rescued by the X-Men from a secret Chinese prison, avers, “I could have built heaven on earth, if only they’d let me. I could have laid the foundation stones of paradise here on earth” (New X-Men Annual 2001: 39); and finally, the Beast, a possessed and corrupted form of the X-Man Dr Henry McCoy, affirms: “Paradise advances, one step at a time” (152: 18). There is, thus, a series of competing visions of utopia, paradise, heaven on earth, etc., woven into a seductive yet ultimately disturbing pattern over the course of the whole storyline. Writing on the nature of utopianism, Eco notes: “[O]ften the object of a desire, when desire is transformed into hope, becomes more real than reality itself. Out of a hope in a possible future, many people are prepared to make enormous sacrifices and maybe even die, led on by prophets, visionaries, charismatic preachers and spellbinders who fire the minds of their followers with the vision of a future heaven on Earth (or elsewhere)” (Legendary Lands 309-10). John Sublime, the Beast, Magneto, and Xavier all occupy these latter positions; Cyclops, on the other hand, stands in for the thoughtful and ultimately disillusioned disciple in thrall to the vision of heaven on earth who must learn the dangers of such dreams.
“E for Extinction” opens 30,000 years in the past with a massacre of homo sapiens neanderthalensis by what Cassandra Nova, a new character who is later revealed to be Xavier’s evil twin sister, speaking in the present calls a “smarter, faster, more aggressive species: homo sapiens sapiens” (114: 2). She has located a cousin of Bolivar Trask, the inventor of the mutant-hunting Sentinel robots, to whom she speaks, “As the world’s foremost evolutionary biologist, Mr. Trask, I can assure you that history is repeating itself as we speak … The human race will be just as extinct as neanderthal man within four generations. Unless we fight back … Unless we exterminate the mutant germ line once and for all. Humanely, of course” (Ibid.). From the beginning, then, Morrison broaches the theme of the obsolescence of the human race, which itself stands in for the older generation. Indeed, as Roz Kaveney writes, he made this, the question of extinction, the central issue of his narrative (167). Moreover, Cassandra Nova—the first of a series of utopian visionaries—anticipates and seeks to expedite the arrival of a post-human world. In her view, evolution is a history of aggression and competition, the younger generation angrily denouncing the older’s failure to deliver utopia. This, indeed, is Plato’s war of all against all, and Freud’s conception of mutual aggression, the fundamentally destructive state of human relations, in which cooperation and compromise are rare if not impossible to realize. Having obtained Trask’s DNA code, Cassandra Nova programs a phalanx of wild Sentinel robots to destroy Magneto’s island state of Genosha and exterminate sixteen million mutant lives.
In such a warring world, life, as Thomas Hobbes phrased it, is nasty, brutish and short. In this context, Wolverine says to the rescued mutant, Ugly John, ironically as it turns out, “You lived one more day, Ugly John. Cheer up; that’s as good as it gets” (114: 11). Such mere survival, surely, is not enough for happiness. What place is there for morality and ethics in such a brutal world? Cassandra Nova says, “In a world without values or morality, good and evil are just choices on the menu of the mighty …” (115: 14) and later in the same issue, “Do you want to know the real message of evolution? All life winds up as manure” (115: 15). This is materialist, biological reductionism at its most nihilistic.
The X-Men, however, espouse a very different view of the world, informed by Xavier’s dream of a tolerant and pluralist society, in which mutants might no longer be feared and hated on account of their differences, their uncanny appearance and powers. At the end of this first story, Xavier affirms his dream of peaceful co-existence and fellowship:
A new generation of mutants is emerging, that much is certain. They will be called freaks. Genetic monstrosities. They will be mocked, spat upon and accused … of stealing human jobs, eating human food, taking human partners … but they are emerging in the inner cities, in the suburbs, in the deserts and in the jungles. And when they emerge, they will need teachers, people who can help them overcome their anger and show them how to use their strange gifts responsibly. They will need us. (114: 14)
There is tension, however, between Xavier’s determination to preserve and protect life, which is allied to disciplined training, and the instinct for self-preservation that is the essence of natural selection: those who adapt to survive, live. In New X-Men #116, Cassandra Nova breaches the defences of the X-Mansion and attacks the X-Men. In a telling exchange in the midst of the attack, Xavier shouts, “Stay calm! Remember your formations and …,” but Cyclops cuts across him, commanding, “No formations: everybody on instinct!” (116: 12) Xavier himself responds by doing something unexpected: when he gets the opportunity, he shoots Cassandra Nova, apparently killing her. The issue concludes with his resolution: “I won’t allow any more mutants to die. Things must change now” (116: 21). Scott’s countermanding of his teacher’s order insinuates the outmodedness of Xavier’s stiff approach in the face of a deadly new threat to mutants’ continued existence. Earlier in the same issue, Jean Grey had said to Emma Frost, the only survivor of Cassandra Nova’s genocide of the mutant population of Magneto’s island utopia of Genosha, “Killing our enemies was Magneto’s way. He’s dead, Emma. You were there. His philosophies died with him” (116: 9). The essence of liberty is always founded on the preservation of life, and sometimes that requires the occlusion of the demands of justice. Indeed, it may be that the old dialectic between Xavier’s left-wing pacifism and Magneto’s right-wing militancy has failed to produce a better world for either mutant or human.
Overall, this first storyline establishes several thematic strands and parameters for the subsequent narrative: Aggression and domination versus trust and integration; mutation is natural, and nature is red in tooth and claw. The splendid isolation of a mutant island utopia, as envisaged by Magneto and his partisans, is shown to be spectacularly an unfeasible option, but the solution to the “mutant problem,” nevertheless, must be, it still seems, global. On the problem of constructing the conditions for general human flourishing, Eagleton writes, “If human beings are self-realising creatures, then they need to be at liberty to fulfill their needs and express their powers. But if they are also social animals, living alongside other self-expressive beings, they need to prevent an endless, destructive clash of these powers” (Why Marx Was Right 86). How can humans and mutants co-exist peacefully if the old answers—toleration, on the one hand, and separatism, on the other—have failed to work?
Ethics, Education, and Utopia
In New X-Men #122, themes of cooperation and education are explored. In the context of discussing a project for remaking human nature, Jean Grey says to Scott Summers, “Charles was imagining a whole new world for everyone. A new way of thinking and living” (11), and later to the Beast she asserts, “Cassandra has no concept of cooperation, Hank. That’s how we’ll beat her” (18). Cooperation and education are essentials of civilization, for civilization turns on the division of labor, and then the passing on of skills and technology. In the next issue, speaking to the world’s media in the process of delivering the dying Xavier’s testament, Jean speaks for herself and says, “Xavier’s is a school. We’re here to teach our students to take care of themselves and other people” (123: 10). This marks the emergence of a distinctly ethical rather than political approach: taking care of oneself and others, indeed, is remarkably akin to the basic Christian ethos of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. As shall be shown below, Jean’s idea—emphasizing a kindly ethics in lieu of global politics—will play an important part in the crucial decision she makes in the final issue of Morrison’s run on New X-Men. For now, however, she remains a loyal functionary of Xavier’s vision. Here is his fullest statement of his school’s mission:
Here, we still believe in the future … Our telepaths can voyage into the depths of the human mind and free people from ancient, destructive behavior patterns. Humans and mutants are branches on the same evolutionary tree. Our roots are planted in the same soil. We breathe the same air and the very idea that we should fight is absurd; it’s like one finger fighting another. We’re tired of hiding and running. We’ve endured the worst the world can offer and we’ve survived. All of us, humans and mutants, have to spend the rest of our lives in the future. Let’s get together and make it a nice place to live. (123: 13-14)
This is stirring stuff (and, indeed, when delivering the final lines, the flames of the Phoenix effect can be seen behind Jean’s head). Pace Freud, Xavier’s optimistic view of human nature is that it is reformable or redeemable. His rhetoric, however, is in danger of overselling his dream of a better world of tomorrow. Indeed, in the “Riot at Xavier’s” story arc, this vulnerability is exposed, as the School envisaged by Xavier and Jean fails its most apt pupil.
Singer points out how Morrison’s new character, Quentin Quire, serves to illustrate the flaw in Xavier’s utopianism (171-73). Quire, who begins attending Xavier’s school filled with an innocent enthusiasm that recalls that of a young Scott Summers, ultimately breaks away from the School and the X-Men, and attacks Xavier’s status as visionary and mutant leader:
I think all that seems to matter to you now is being on television and telling everyone how wonderful your brave new world is. Well, I live in the brave new world and it’s not as shiny and perfect as you’d like to think. You’re always selling this future that never arrives, you preach Utopia but you never deliver on this ‘dream’ we keep hearing about. (134:19)
If one reads Xavier’s ebullient speech from #123 beside Quire’s angry riposte, one sees how Morrison has deliberately raised the reader’s expectations that Xavier can truly deliver on his dream, only to deflate it in a series of mounting failures. Morrison piles the pressure on Xavier’s credibility and, worst of all, relevance as he builds to the final repudiation.
The best efforts of Xavier and his X-Men to make good on his dream are thwarted by the covert machinations of the X-Men’s original enemy Magneto, a powerful mutant who preaches separatism or genetic apartheid, in which mutants take their rightful place as the world’s new, supreme ruling elite. Presumed to have perished in Cassandra Nova’s genocide of Genosha, he had disguised himself, rather, as the supremely gentle and pacifist mutant Xorn. In committing this subterfuge, it is as if Magneto is determined to both parody and travesty Xavier’s philosophy. At another level, his insinuation into the X-Men implies how the pursuit of every type of utopia conjures up its opposite. The dialectic of liberty and justice cannot be concluded. In New X-Men‘s penultimate story arc, “Planet X,” Magneto, who would seem to have read Machiavelli’s The Prince without irony, seeks to turn the world by force into a mutant utopia, but his daring war ends in defeat. At the end of “Planet X,” Xavier sums up the reason for Magneto’s failure:
And the worst thing you ever did was to come back, Erik. Magneto had become a legend in death, an inspiration for change. Now look at you … just another foolish and self-important old man, with outdated thoughts in his head. You have nothing this new generation of mutants wants … except for your face on a t-shirt. They have ideas of their own now. Perhaps it’s time we put away the old dreams, the old manifestos … and just listened for a while. (150: 27)
As Eco writes, “[E]ach prophet sees what his culture has taught him” (Turning Back the Clock 308), and Magneto’s culture—essentially that of the 1960s—is no longer relevant, but if this is true, then it entails the obsolescence of Xavier’s dream too. Morrison makes the message abundantly clear: Both Magneto and Xavier’s visions are outmoded, their dialectic barren of yielding any feasible synthesis. If the future is to be authentically better, then new voices must be heard. But first, Morrison considers what the future might look like in the absence of any such fresh thinking.
Here Comes Dystopia
The sudden and stark in medias res transition from “Planet X” to “Here Comes Tomorrow” is a case of the future taking the reader by surprise. In a way, it recapitulates the jarring leap from X-Men #113 to New X-Men #114. The apocalypse of “Here Comes Tomorrow,” just like that of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s “Days of Future Past,” implies that all the efforts of Xavier and his X-Men came to nought when one considers the appalling mess that is the world of 2154. As Eagleton writes, “The true image of the future is the failure of the present” (Task of the Critic 79), and New X-Men‘s world of tomorrow is a pure nightmare. Concerning the background to the composition of this last story arc, Morrison reveals, “I wrote most of my last issues with a feeling of a desperate attempt to find hope in a world that was doomed” (DeFalco 239). Indeed, Eco writes, “negative utopias … have seemed true every time we have recognised situations in our everyday reality suggesting that the gloomy pessimism of those accounts is well founded” (Legendary Lands 310).2 One hundred and fifty years in the future, E.V.A., Fantomex’s mutated nervous system turned autonomous, says, “The Institute … we’re trying to preserve the achievements of the past before they’re all used up as fuel or compost in the race to dominate the biosphere. We figured an interspecies group of X-Men might be the only way forward in a conflict like this one. The Xavier Creed has always stressed integration” (151: 9). Xavier’s dream hangs on by the merest thread, preserved by the Institute, the final corporate development of his original School for Gifted Youngsters. The hope which informed the testament speech of #123 is now lost, and his imagined utopia is shown to be impossible. All that remains is to try and stay alive, to survive, just as was the case for Ugly John in #114.
In this bleak future, the drives of aggression and competition rule the world incarnate in the form of the Beast, formerly the X-Men’s Dr Henry McCoy, but infected and possessed now by the malevolent bacterium, Sublime. Of his apocalypse, he says:
God has abandoned his failed experiment, the Earth. Now is the time of blasphemous creation. Where man once walked, new monstrosities thrive—his ruined cities, their breeding grounds. Mankind nears extinction. The mutants are but one of many species fighting for survival in this new world. All, great and small, rich and poor, will fall to my dominion. And receive their maker’s mark […] Open your eyes my armies! Prepare to die in this Apocalypse! (151: 10-11)
This is pure nihilism and anti-life, darker even than Cassandra Nova’s vision in “E is for Extinction.” The Beast sets about engineering the cleansing of all life from the planet, seeking to return it to its original condition, untainted or stained by genetic variety.
Wolverine, the present-minded pragmatist, recognizes the terrible flaw at the heart of things:
I guess no one thought Rome could fall, either … those guys had a postal service that could deliver mail across 170 miles in one day. They had indoor plumbing, the women were free, they had art and science, and a communications network that spanned the civilized world. Within a hundred years, it was all debris and lice. Sometimes ya gotta take care of what you got. (151: 18-19)
Indeed, Wolverine plays a key role in the series. Unlike almost every other iteration of the character, Morrison does not play with or exploit his bestial potential. Instead, he transfers that theme of atavism to the aforementioned Beast. Morrison’s version of Wolverine has mastered the tension between instinct and reason. He is self-controlled, and he lives in the moment. This blends precisely the animal’s being bound to the present and the very human virtue of present-mindedness. Morrison’s Wolverine is not an adolescent; he is not—what he is often in the hands of other writers—an avatar of the male teenaged reader’s testosterone-induced rage and aggression. His ethical attitude is to seize the day, and as he says, “take care of what you got.” In a way, Morrison’s Wolverine is like Shakespeare’s Falstaff in that he fashions and carries his own utopia with him, and indeed this may be the most anyone can aspire to. Falstaff, Prince Hal’s roguish mentor in the louche environs of Eastcheap, London, is a man whose corpulence betokens his large appetite for life. He says yes to all of his desires, and never suffers from any compunctions, qualms or guilt. In Freudian terms, he is libido incarnate, a zestful force of unconstrained life, and he sees sharply through the windy rhetoric that is deployed in the service of propping up and policing specious social authority and law. With Falstaff, Shakespeare shows the world the vision of what it would be like to live a free life. Morrison’s Wolverine exemplifies this freedom, and it is he who sagely identifies the tragic flaw at the heart of the broken future: “Scott lost heart and lost his chance” (154: 8). By this he means Scott’s failure to say yes to his desires and to life in the final pages of #151, whereby he fails to become a man in his own right and join with Emma Frost in helping a new generation of pupils at Xavier’s School.
In the miasma of a botched world, wrought partly by Scott’s melancholy failure, Jean Grey, the Phoenix, surveys history as one long event and decides to cancel the future, by hitting the reset button, so to speak, through a compassionate act of self-abnegating generosity. As Phoenix, she says, “I … had to amputate the whole future” (154: 19). Alien Phoenix, who may or may not be an adult and mature Quentin Quire, replies to her: ‘”If you want it to grow a new future to replace the one you just cut away … you have to water it with your heart’s blood” (154: 21). So Jean gives up Scott Summers to Emma Frost. Concerning Phoenix’s self-sacrifice, one notes what Eagleton writes, “This is what the revolutionary subject is called upon to do—to turn its own dissolution and unmaking into an active remaking of society, with absolutely no guarantees beyond the fact that the future is unlikely to be much more intolerable than the present. It has to make something creative out of its ‘death'” (Task of the Critic 286). This, then, is how you change the world.
The final two pages of New X-Men #154 replay the final four pages of #151, but this time the scene ends on a note of affirmation as Scott accepts Emma’s proposal to join together. Their union represents a synthesis of Xavier and Magneto’s different utopian hopes: Scott’s faith in Xavier’s dream is foundational, and Emma’s emphasis on self-fashioning is liberal. Scott’s hope for integration is pluralist while Emma’s fear of ghettoization is sectarian. Scott is monocular and narrowly focused whereas Emma is panocular by virtue of her telepathy. There is a complex interplay of ideology between them that promises, perhaps, balance and a fruitful settlement. Indeed, Scott’s thoughtful idealism and faithful attachment to Xavier’s dream is counterpointed by Emma’s emotionally intelligent pragmatism. On the question of changing the world, Morrison’s New X-Men invites its reader to see that such a project will be founded on trust, cooperation, and integration. Scott and Emma’s transformative union signifies a move beyond the superannuated utopian manifestos of Xavier and Magneto. No synthesis was possible between the old prophets of tomorrow. New and better futures Morrison implies, start small with compassion, and are constructed from living out with people you know the virtues of hope, faith and self-dispossessing love.
In every utopia, the point of negotiation is always between the demands of liberty and those of justice. Moreover, Eagleton contends that the ambivalent function of all utopias is “to provide us with a frail image of a freedom we might otherwise fail to commemorate, but in doing so to confiscate some of the energies which we might have invested in its actual realization” (Illusions 18). This criticism could be applied to Xavier who dreams of a free and just future, but who is too passive and not hands-on enough in actually building it. At first, Morrison injects some energy into the Xavier’s utopian program, but ultimately, he removes him from the picture the better for his students to surpass their overly authoritative master and his uncompromising idealism. Over the course of his run on New X-Men, Morrison scales back Xavier’s global politics to the small-scale level of the ethical and personal. The formula for a better tomorrow is to do away with dictation and, instead, listen to each other and take care of each other. The determination to consult with the next generation of mutants, rather than to impose upon them a grand and structured vision of their future, is Morrison’s solution to building a better, nicer world. In effect, his New X-Men implies that if we want to make such a world, we must first make ourselves better, and that requires continual self-development and an ethics that is kindly and sensitive to the liberty of others. In essence, this heavily modified vision of utopia re-places it firmly in the future as a goal or aspiration to be striven for and constructed incrementally, rather than all at once and by coercion. In the end, Morrison’s New X-Men implies that the project of utopia is always still to be carried through, and so, after planning tomorrow, we must always return to change the present.
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