The Xavier Institute: Hidden Gems
by Tony Thornley
To say the X-Men line is anything less than prolific is simply wrong. Since the 1980s, the franchise has been one of the largest and most popular in comics. The interesting trade off is that there are underappreciated gems in all those issues and runs. Sometimes it’s a writer whose run was cut short. Sometimes it’s unexpected early art by a modern superstar. Sometimes it’s just a damn good story no one talks about. I love those gems though, and wanted to spotlight a recent one this week.
Jason Latour had an unenviable task when he was announced as the writer of Wolverine & the X-Men in 2014. Jason Aaron had just wrapped a much-beloved years-long run on the title. It was a run that frankly redefined the title character and brought a sense of fun to the title team that hadn’t been seen before or since. Concurrently, Brian Michael Bendis’ flagship All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men series were still running.
It was a tough time to be the new kid on the block. But Latour jumped in with Mahmud Asrar and Israel Silva on art and colors on issue #1-5 and Pepe Larraz, David Messina, Massimiliano Veltri and Marc Deering stepping in to help on issue #6. The first arc also included some great lettering work by Clayton Cowles.
If Aaron’s run is remembered for anything, it’s the fantastic character work he did on the younger generation of mutants. Latour took that a step further, taking the reins from his longtime friend and collaborator, and turned the kids into the X-Men. It’s a great little twist.
Basically, the series starts at the beginning of summer vacation. Multiple kids have graduated, and the staff has dispersed on vacations and work-study. This leaves Wolverine and Storm at the school, running summer programs. They’re not alone though- several students have graduated, becoming members of the faculty (and by default, the team).
Enter the Phoenix Corporation, an ancient Phoenix-worshiping secret society morphed into a multinational corporation. The Phoenix Corporation wants power, and they see Quentin Quire, newly promoted X-Man and generally less of an ass, as the way to get it. Meanwhile, one of the Corporation’s members, an Askani named Faithful John, uses the confusion surrounding Quire to try to assassinate Evan Sabbahnur, the young clone of Apocalypse.
In just a few issues, Latour takes this book and makes it his own. Where Aaron played with the concepts of legacy, Latour plays with the concept of destiny. Multiple characters have apocalyptic (literally) visions of the future. Some embrace the destiny they see. Others fight against it.
At the core of it all is Quentin Quire. If you told me any new X-character of the past decade plus has made a mark more than Quire, you’d be wrong. Quentin started as an antagonist in Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, then was almost literally shoved into Limbo for about a decade (seriously, if Magik had been a member of the team of the time, he would have been in Limbo). Aaron pulled him back to the fore, dusted him off, and turned him into the most nuanced protagonist/anti-hero to join the X-Men since a certain hairy, clawed Canuck.
Latour takes Quentin to the next step. He sees his destiny. He rejects it. Then he leaves the X-Men to find his own way. In the course of six issues, he’s taken on a journey that adds even more nuance to the character.
Other kids get some great moments to step up. Oya proves that she basically deserves to be the next Storm. Armor overcomes some immaturity to realize what her role really is. Eye Boy makes the first steps towards the X-Man he’s destined to become.
Meanwhile, Logan and Ororo are the team’s rocks. They don’t serve a mentor role here. They’re more idols, or aspirational goals for the kids. They’re also COMPLETE AND TOTAL badasses.
The weak point in the story are the antagonists. The Phoenix Corporation’s goals are muddy. Are they only in it for the power? Are they trying to resurrect the Phoenix? Faithful John is just a machine trying to kill Evan, with little to no nuance. However, they’re really secondary to the character growth we get to see, a threat to overcome and learn from.
Another highlight is by far the art. This is some of Asrar’s early Marvel work, and it’s his first marquee launch on a title. He makes each character his own.
The best two characters are, by FAR, Oya and Storm. Each woman is a powerful presence on the page. Every time they show up, they dominate the page. The X-Men has a great legacy of strong women, and Asrar embraces that here.
Ororo carries herself with a regal confidence outside of the fight scenes. In combat though, she’s pure power. Each of her great fight scenes are filled with lightning, not just the crackle that immediately surrounds her in many interpretations.
Oya meanwhile is very similar. She’s clearly still a young woman, finding her own path, but she’s not a shrinking violet. She’s confident in herself and her abilities and carries herself such. I love it.
The take on Logan here is completely different, and Latour and Asrar jointly deserve so much credit for that. At the time, in Logan’s solo series (written by Paul Cornell), he’d had his healing factor slowed and nearly stopped. This series starts about a year before his infamous death. He’s written as a broken-down, tired warrior. That does not mean he’s about to quit by any means though.
Asrar meanwhile takes that broken man and puts it on the page just brutally. You can feel Logan’s limp. He’s in pain, his face drawn in a perpetual snarl. It’s heartbreaking to see this heroic figure broken and nearly beaten. Then, at the end of the arc, with the threat gone, he melts with relief and grief. It’s palpable and so very real.
Latour’s run ended with #11 of the second volume of Wolverine and the X-Men, and the series ended later with a fill in event tie-in issue. In this first arc though, Latour and Asrar made a thesis statement for a series that I think would have gone down as a classic. Unfortunately everything else going on in the Marvel Universe at the time led to an early end for this series.
Would I love to see Latour return to the X-Men? Absolutely. This short run proved that he could tell fun, character-driven action stories with a large cast. It’s a hidden gem that an X-Men fan should absolutely check out. If for no other reason than the page below…
Did I forget to mention Doop is a big part of this run? Because he is.
Wolverine and the X-Men (2014) Vol 1: Tomorrow Never Learns is available digitally and in back issue bins everywhere.