When you pick up a superhero comic, even if there’s a #1 on the cover, you’re likely tapping into a history that stretches back for decades. The Marvel universe has been in unbroken publication since 1961, and in the DC universe since 1939. It’s an endless flow of stories that accumulate, are tinkered with and eventually solidify into a generally-agreed set of events which we call ‘continuity.’
And today sees the release of a comic that aims to tackle tangled continuity head on. Ed Piskor's X-Men: Grand Design promises to condense 280 issues — nearly 40 years — of X-books into a single six-issue series. That’s an exciting prospect for a reader worried about getting lost in the mire of decades of stories, but it’s surely an indomitable task for any creator.
An uncanny continuity
To date, there have been 54 years of comics about Marvel’s merry mutants, expanding well beyond from the original five X-Men to a cast of thousands, many of whom are secretly related or clones or alternate-universe versions of one another. Throw in alien worlds and a big helping of time travel, and it’s easy to see why someone might hesitate to pick up their first X-Men comic.
“As soon as you make it feel like a reader needs to have read previous comics to get the one in their hands, you've lost them,” says Al Ewing, writer of Iron Man: Fatal: Frontier, Loki: Agent of Asgard and innumerable Avengers titles.
Even for writers who aren’t trying to sum it all up, that depth of backstory can complicate the process of telling new stories with these characters and worlds.
Just ask Kieron Gillen, who in 2011 guided a relaunch of the main X-Men title, writing the third #1 issue in its 50-year history: “When a story is told across 60-odd years, made by hundreds of hands, the task [of making continuity work] becomes impossible. I don't just mean ‘they can't be bothered.’ I mean, literally impossible.”
“To read Marvel comics you have to simultaneously accept that the Fantastic Four watched the moon landings and that they've only been superheroes for a little more than a decade,” Gillen says. “In its traditional sense, continuity is broken.”
So forget tradition
X-Men: Grand Design might act as a useful primer for new readers, but it aims to be more than a mere recap. It’s an attempt to fit all of this complex and often contradictory history of the X-Men into a roughly coherent narrative.
With 280 issues to cover over the course of this the series, it might come as a surprise that Grand Design’s first issue ends at the point where 1961’s The X-Men #1 begins. Piskor is attempting to make sense of the history of mutants before the X-Men arrive on the scene, including all the events that have been retroactively inserted into that period by later comics.
The book opens with a story not about Cyclops, Jean Grey or even Professor X, but about Namor the Sub-Mariner — a character who actually pre-dates the Marvel Comics universe. (He debuted in 1939 and, alongside the Human Torch, was revived decades later by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.) Namor is the ruler of Atlantis, but was also implied to be the world’s first mutant in an early X-Men comic, nearly thirty years after his creation.
Piskor uses an old story about Namor drowning New York beneath a tidal wave to explain why mutants specifically are hated and feared — in a world filled with super-humans who just happened to get their powers from a spider bite rather than mutation. Not only that, he weaves in other familiar faces. In this telling, the flooded New York was saved by a piece of technology invented by Sharon and Brian Xavier — note the surname — which was then acquired by one Howard Stark, giving the Xaviers enough money to buy a mansion in Westchester.
Over the course of a dozen panels, Grand Design ties together the parents of Professor X and Iron Man and provides an origin story for mutant prejudice and the X-Mansion. It’s an incredibly dextrous bit of storytelling, one that should make perfect sense to a new reader — but the sheer skill involved is only clear if you have a decent grasp on the history that’s being played with.
A Design for Life
It's not the first time Piskor has retold a history of this or greater magnitude — it's just the first time he's done it with a fictional history. Piskor is best known for Hip Hop Family Tree, a comic series which takes a similar whistle-stop-tour approach to a very different topic: The real-world origins of hip hop culture and music.
Like Grand Design, Hip Hop Family Tree juggles a huge cast that runs from Grandmaster Flash to Debbie Harry. It’s similarly ambitious in the time period covered: the first volume alone covers hip hop’s origins in the mid-1970s Bronx through to its first step into the mainstream in 1981.
For a rap nerd like myself, this was always going to be an appealing prospect, but Piskor makes it shine by telling the story in the language of comics contemporary to the history he’s retelling. On the decks, Grandmaster Flash’s hands move as inhumanly fast as his superheroic DC Comics namesake. On the cover of Volume 2, an incredibly cosmic Afrika Bambataa shouts “I possess the perfect beat!” As events get closer to the present day, Piskor’s evolves to reflect the era — something that he also brings to the history of the Marvel universe.
At first glance, Grand Design looks like a comic from the time, but look closer and bits of modern design start to stand out — like the memorable retelling of a heist in a single diagrammatic panel. His character designs change with time too, so that over the course of a few page turns, Iceman evolves from his original snowman look to chiselled ice muscles.
To me, our X-Men
This is the other side of continuity — it opens up storytelling opportunities that simply don’t exist in standalone stories. Think about how Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is all the more satisfying because you can feel it clunk into place next to the original Star Wars films.
“In my case ... I like to give tiny nods to old continuity which are invisible to people who don't know the old story, but satisfy those who do,” says Kieron Gillen.
X-Men: Grand Design pulls off this trick at least once on every two-page spread. Piskor isn’t slavishly loyal to the details of these older stories, but he stays true to their feel, and knows which details to pick. There’s maybe a little more creative license than with non-fiction works like Hip Hop Family Tree, but it’s a similar process: cherry-picking moments that add up to give the sense of a single story.