[This post is part of a series looking at Grant Morrison's New X-Men run issue by issue; to read the previous posts just click the labels tab at the bottom of this post.]
Annnnnnd... were back. Emma and Jean enter a bizarre psychic dream world to rescue Xavier's trapped consciousness. One of the comments that sparked this series of posts was from Stephen Frug pointing out that I am not always clear if it is the writing or the art that made New X-Men a failure -- for whatever reason, Morrison's writing just seems better with better artists: Quitely returns in this issue and suddenly Morrison seems to be a much better writer than he was in "Germ Free Generation."
Everyone looks like fashion models again, and the aims of the manifesto come rushing back. The Beak and Angel are not around to mess with the aesthetic integrity of this issue. A childish and scatological sense of humor visible in the last three issues has been replaced with a sense of humor more fun and more weird: Emma suddenly has a flask even though her costume is essentially a second skin which has NO POCKETS it could have emerged from. That's funny. So is the image at the end of Cyclops and Wolverine sitting bored in the hallway, Wolverine reading a book and Scott listening music. The X-women are more powerful and more important and these guys have nothing to do but sit and wait.
The dream-like images in this issue -- crafted by both Quitely and Morrison as we can see in the script that was online at the time -- are haunting, amazing, and simple (no hidden codes here, just an uncanny, weirdly-lit beauty): Jean, for example, has hair in the shape of flame which at one point becomes the Phoenix symbol. Morrison references both Dali and Blake in the script, but they are not necessary or even helpful: they are guides for Quitely rather than keys for the reader. These images and this world are Morrison and Quitely at their best.
The world they build conceals their most audacious image -- in the dream-like and psychically loaded context it seems almost normal, but slow down and realize what you are looking at: Jean Grey, beautiful and powerful and dressed in her fantastically designed sexy black leather uniform is covered in sperm. Sure, she is tiny and this is her psychic view of the moment of conception from inside the womb, the birth of Xavier and Nova. But still. The infamous "camel toe" cover was edgy but this is way beyond that. I have a hunch this is the most audacious panel in any X-Men comic book, and Morrison makes it work. His genius in a mainstream comic book -- his ability to get away with anything -- is nowhere more evident that here. Morrison and Quitely have come to shake things up, and -- boy howdy -- they do. Making Xavier the aggressor against his unborn sister is the main plot point, but this is the image that says with me.
(Just so we are all clear on the plot: the unborn Xavier tries to kill his unborn sister physically, but she strikes back with a mutant ability, causing their mother to fall down the stairs; we will follow how this plot unfolds in future issues, but Nova dies in this fall and survives as disembodied psychic energy, building a body later from the remains of her physical self.)
New X-Men 121 is part of a Marvel stunt to challenge creators to tell a story without dialogue. Clearly Morrison and Quitely are up to the task, but, in a move I am at a loss to understand, they fudge the rules when they don't need to, providing instant message style "emoticons" that age badly, and words written in goo. This is a minor flaw -- I think the issue would be better without them, but they don't screw up what these guys are up to, especially because they do not act as any kind of a crutch. The story stands perfectly without them, and they do not intrude too much.
Casandra Nova's body is in a shell that is clearly a forerunner to the WE3 armor, and Jean casually assembling structures from bricks as she strides confidently toward her goal is almost straight out of Dark City. The key context we need to judge this issue, however, is Joss Whedon. At the time Whedon did not seem like a threatening influence -- he was a TV guy after all. But in light of the fact that he is the guy who inherits Morrison's story in Astonishing X-Men, the famous episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer "Hush," cannot be avoided. In Whedon's "Hush" creatures come and steal everyone's voices, and a large portion of the episode is devoid of dialogue. "Hush" (2001) was probably the inspiration for all of Marvel's "Nuff said" silent comics (2002), but Morrision points more directly to Whedon: though it is, perhaps, an obvious line of dialogue, both "Hush" and New X-Men 121 break silence with the same words: in both, characters say "We need to talk..." and then the story ends. Morrison and Quitely stand on their own merrits, but anyone who thinks the Morrison-Whedon relationship is one way (Whedon using Morrison's characters in Astonishing) needs to look at Morrison's VERY Whedonesque Vimanarama (written during Whedon's tenure with Morrison characters) and this issue of New X-Men. It is subtle, but these guys have been squaring off for years.