So this graphic novel is actually four different stories with a unifying theme, that being the fighting of the Phalanx and the formation of Generation X.
So calling the four-issue “Generation Next” storyline that ran through Uncanny X-Men and X-Men an X-Men story is a bit of a misnomer, as it doesn’t really feature the X-Men at all. It features Banshee and Jubilee, sure, but they aren’t here as X-Men: they’re here as members of Generation X.
Welcome to the X-Men’s first instance of a Backdoor Pilot! For those unfamiliar with this bit of TV-lingo, a backdoor pilot is when new characters show up in a series for the express interest of drumming up interest in a new series. A good recent example of this would be Barry Allen’s 2-part guest-stint in Arrow preparing for his own series, The Flash.
Not that any of this has to do with the quality of the story! There are “good” Backdoor Pilots and “bad” Backdoor Pilots, just as there are good and bad examples of narratives.
This falls squarely on the side of the good, for anyone out there who is interested in a binary good-bad rating. It’s excellent actually. The closest thing I could compare it to would be “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Come to think of it, Generation Next plays out much more like a horror movie than a standard adventure / science-fiction setup. This shift in tone is a stroke of genius, and fits very well with the cast of mostly young, untrained teens. It’s the kind of setup that makes the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street movies so recognizable and enduring. It also has a similar opening: starting in normalcy. But rather than “normal” being a school or home setting, it’s the X-Mansion.
To that effect the story begins with Banshee in the bowels of the X-Mansion discussing business with Storm. There’s a bit of mis-characterization in Storm’s dialog here, as she makes a comment about being “naughty.”
Banshee then continues through the mansion and sees Psylocke coming out of the Professor’s ready room, a place where only he is allowed. Within the ready room he finds Bishop and Gambit, fixing Cerebro. He is then summarily told off by Archangel for answering a simple phone-call from Muir Island.
It’s about here that we get the impression that these are not mis-characterizations, but that there’s something more sinister going on. This is tremendous, tremendous storytelling on Lobdell’s part. To plant a slip so slyly like Storm’s “naughty” comment as out-of-place but not be SO out of place that it screams out at you, requires a mastery of storytelling, dialog, and individual character voices.
This is also incredible mystery plotting: we, the reader, figure out that something is up at virtually the same instant that Banshee does: a very difficult thing to do. And there are no cheats, no withholding or presenting of information in a ham-fisted manner. Just good, solid, suspenseful storytelling.
And Banshee’s suspicions prove to be correct: the X-Men have been replaced by the Phalanx — a race of Techno-Organic aliens that have been an auxiliary part of the X-Franchise for some time, building to this point.
In fact, ALL of the X-Men have been taken. The only residents who haven’t are the young student Jubilation Lee, the prisoner Sabretooth, and the patient the White Queen. Together the quartet escape the mansion and realize that the Phalanx’s next targets are the mutants from Xavier’s secret files that have not been tapped yet: the Next Generation of mutants, and set out to save them.
The dynamic is delightfully tense. Sabretooth is possibly the X-Men’s fiercest enemy, and the White Queen until this story was one of the leaders of the Hellfire Club, one of the X-Men’s most persistent foes.
Despite their best efforts, Husk, Skin, M, Blink, and John are kidnapped. They only manage to ‘save’ Synch.
I’m going to sidebar here to talk about theme. One thing that the X-Franchise and the Horror genre have always had in common are a theme of the “Other” or “Othering.” It goes all the way back to the name: they’re UNCANNY. They exist outside the normal.
What Generation Next does is take that “Other” role to the next extreme by moving it away from the now-familiar X-Men and onto the Phalanx, giving them a movie-monster Body-Snatcher vibe.
This “Other” motif is especially important in the scenes with the captured young mutants: one of them is visibly different than the others. But he’s not ugly, he’s too pretty. He actually evokes a Superman-like look, sporting the “S” curl and speaking very positively. Just the face that he’s different makes me, the reader, distrustful of him, though I cannot pinpoint why. Again, we discover as M does, that he is a Phalanx.
In the end, due to the actions of Banshee’s team and a heroic sacrifice on the part of Blink, the young mutants are saved. But surprisingly, the X-Men are not yet found.
So, much in the way that “Generation Next” took it upon itself to embrace and adopt horror movie cliches, “Life Signs” does its best top subvert and undo them. I believe this was a smart, deliberate choice, to make each pat of the trilogy that makes up the Phalanx Covenant as unique and whole as possible, while staying as true to the core concept of “othering” as possible.
This chapter also doesn’t contain the actual X-Men, and instead unfocussed on the combined efforts of the current three auxiliary teams: Excalibur, X-Factor, and X-Force. Specifically, we focus on two fronts: one plot-line involving Forge, and one involving the remnants of the old New Mutants team.
Actually this is very much a spiritual successor to the old New Mutants title, as Cannonball, Rahne, and Kitty unite around Douglock, an off-shoot of the Phalanx comprised of former New Mutants members Doug Ramsey and Warlock. This is the heart of the story, as each character responds to this representation in very different ways. Kitty is for the most part happy, Rahne (being the religious type) is enthralled, and Sam is angry and suspicious.
It’s hard to call this “realistic” as reactions to a resurrection are, by nature, fanciful. But they FEEL realistic, and in-keeping with each character’s previous voice and characterization.
Douglock himself is at the center of it all and even name-drops “The Phalanx Covenant,” which is the covenant of all living things: to live, spread, and reproduce.
To that end, “Life Signs” finds its theme in the philosophy of life. You see, until this point the Phlanax has been viewed as so “Other” that it hasn’t registered as a sentient life: that’s why they call it a Techno-Organic VIRUS. But in learning to accept Douglock as a form of life they must accept ALL the Phlanax as life, and this thus forms the crux of the ethical dilemma of exterminating a life-form simply for doing what life-forms do.
This dovetails nicely with Forge’s plot-line, in which he uses his power to “see” how technology works to “see” the fabric of life through Douglock, and then his grief as he does what’s necessary as a government representative to stop it, echoing his own tragic experiences in Vietnam.
In the end Douglock saves the day and proves himself not only worthy of trust, but also as a whole, living being, separate from Doug and Warlock. At the end of the tale the Phalanx is defeated, but the X-Men are still absent.
In the final section of the Phalanx Covenant, we get a special team of X-Men teaming up to do what needs to be done as assembled by Charles Xavier, cleaning up the loose ends left by the Phalanx.
This “special ops” team consists of Wolverine and Cable, marking the first time that Wolverine has been associated with the team since his injuries during “Fatal Attractions.” It also includes, by chance, Cyclops and Jean Grey, fresh from their miniseries “The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix.”
As such these two issues have the most baggage, dealing with the consequences of many different story-lines. It is the least self-contained and the least thematic, being much more the standard action-movie far that both Logan and Cable are known for.
The biggest surprise is that the X-Men themselves are not seen / rescued until the last few pages of this epic storyline and even then only sparingly used. I didn’t realize this going into the story, and it makes The Phalanx Covenant a unique and special chapter of the X-Franchise. There’s power and unity in this realization that, even if all the X-Men fall, more WILL stand up.
We then shift focus, in the book’s final two chapters, to Jubilee’s departure from the X-Men and to the founding of the Massachusetts Academy of Xavier’s school, under the leadership of Banshee and Emma Frost. Much in the same way Captain America was the “one last thing” needed for the formation of the original Avengers, and Wolverine was the “one last thing” needed for the formation of the New Avengers, this team needed one last member to form up as well, and we get his in Johnathan Starsmore, aka Chamber, a mutant whose energy has literally blown off the lower half of his face.
Chamber is attacked on his way through Logan Airport by Emplate, a demonic-looking creature that can siphon mutant abilities and then redirect them, making him a cross between an energy vampire and Bishop. The team bands together and defeats him, with team-leader Husk almost paying the ultimate price, if not for the quick interference by Jubilee.
There’s not enough good to say about this last chapter. It brings the whole story together, especially in that moment when Jubilee offers Chamber her hand and says “Welcome to Generation X” at the end. A great, climactic beginning to what will hopefully be an epic series.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“There’s not enough good to say about this last chapter. It brings the whole story together, especially in that moment when Jubilee offers Chamber her hand and says “Welcome to Generation X” at the end. A great, climactic beginning to what will hopefully be an epic series.”