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.
We then shift focus to a time just after the threat on the Phalanx has ended, 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 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.
The series actually wastes no time becoming epic, as Gateway, a leftover character from the X-Men’s Australian days and — coincidentally — the man who originally teleported Jubilee into the X-Men’s lives, teleports into their new school with a dangerous, razor-fingered Edward-Scissorhands clone named “Penance,” who is revealed to he the captive of Emplate. We spend the next two chapters in an intense, horror-movie like scenario in which the untested children of Generation X are put to the test trying to hunt Penance through the forest around their campus. It’s actually a truly harrowing sequence, made even more so by Chris Bachelo’s amazingly atmospheric work as the artist. There’s a very tense moment where Husk is gutted by Penance and Jubilee, desperate not to lose another teammate like they lost Blink, rips away her skin (that’s her mutant power) to save her.
The last issue of this graphic novel is a Christmas-themed issue wherein Generation X attempts to save a young mutant from picketing and violent persecution, only to realize at the end: he’s not even a mutant, just an ugly kid. I feel like this fights right in with the “X-Men as avatars for homosexuals” theme started by Lobdell in Fatal Attractions, as many young men were being bullied or even killed at the time for being gay when they weren’t even gay. Not that that should matter in an assault case. It just highlights the ridiculousness of the situation. It’d be like lynching Jim Gaffigan for being African-American: the fact that he’s not of that race shouldn’t have anything to do with the appalling nature of the crime, so much as it’s soothing to think of people that racist as also being that stupid.
The book ends, much like X-Force: The Phalanx Covenant, with the end of the world, a result of the then-ongoing storyline Legion Quest that led into the Age of Apocalypse. But rather then deal with this with great severity, we get a one-page announcement by Jubilee basically shrugging her shoulders and assuming everything will be back to status-quo in the next book, which of course it was. A perfect end, to a pitch perfect start to this series.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“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.”