The Decimation – success or failure?

Nobody can deny it: the Decimation was a plot-twist that utterly transformed the X-Men universe.  But, now that enough time has passed, I think it’s time to take a step back and ask a single simple question: did it work?

I wonder who those Australian mutants were…


Why the Decimation?

Well, first of all we have to understand what the point of the Decimation was.  Marvel EiC Joe Quesada had concluded that the X-Men comics had lost their way, and that there were simply too many characters.  The consequence of the Decimation was an attempt to give stories greater impact, to heighten the risk and meaning of stories, and to return the mutant plotline to the 1960’s status quo – where mutants were unusual and unexpected, not hidden around every corner.  Quesada went so far as to describe it all as “putting the genie back in the bottle”.

How did it work?

The Scarlet Witch – in a moment from which the character will never truly recover in the eyes of X-fans – launched a curse.  “No more mutants,” three words that deactivated the X-gene in 95% of the world’s mutants, and prevented any new mutants coming on to the scene.  Over the years, Marvel gradually unknotted this, culminating in the Phoenix Force’s coming to Earth to restart evolution in the AvX plotline.

The Phoenix on a planet-shattering rampage!

Problems with the premise

It sounds radical, and yet in functional terms it just wasn’t.  Although Marvel claimed there were only 198 mutants left, they seemed to have precious little idea who they were.  In fact, later writers retconned that figure as faulty government information, with the ‘actual number’ at somewhere around 300.  If you have a narrower, and more defined, field, then you have the advantage that you can really focus in on your characters.  And yet, even during this era, characters drifted in and out of Comic Book Limbo.  Just ask about the New X-Men, some of whom we discuss in our New Breed of X-Men series.

How many of these guys have basically been forgotten?

And then you have the problem that these depowerings didn’t stick.  In the Endangered Species storyline, Beast discovers that there’s no way to reverse the Decimation.  In spite of that, various mutants have been repowered – from Chamber to Polaris to Magneto to Xavier.  Again, whereas the goal of the Decimation was to narrow the field, each repowering accomplishes the opposite.  (It’s worth noting that no X-Men seem interested in working out how Apocalypse’s technology reinitiated the X-gene so successfully, a fact that seems rather weird.)

And if the idea was to reduce the mutant population, you’d have expected to see Marvel writers stop creating new mutants.  In the same conference calls discussing the impact of the Decimation, Ed Brubaker was talking about Deadly Genesis, which would introduce Vulcan and Darwin.  Sure, it became harder to create new mutants like Ink and Greymalkin, but that difficulty doesn’t seem to have stopped anybody.  Considering the Decimation was essentially a method of reducing the cast, the writers didn’t waste any time in adding to it again.

I’ll say this, Vulcan’s being in the picture really mixed things up on a galactic scale. That being said, if you’re trying to SHRINK your cast, don’t INCREASE it–!

Did it up the ante?

Undoubtedly, but – crucially – not as much as it should have done.  Let me first point out what the Scarlet Witch had done.  “No more mutants,” she said, and essentially evolution stopped.  If the mutant race is humanity’s evolutionary future, then Wanda removed that future.  She didn’t just doom the mutant race to extinction, she doomed the human race too.  Far from be a mutant-only problem, the Decimation should have sent shockwaves across the scientific community.  You should have seen Hank collaborating endlessly with the world’s best and brightest, not needing to put together the X-Club eventually.  Everything should have been on the line.

One of the few comments to hint at the scale things should have been at.

What the Decimation did accomplish, though, was to transform the X-line.  Themes of segregation were followed by fundamental changes that were pretty cool.  Cyclops, for example, was forced to embrace the practical and brutal cause of survival – see Part 1 and Part 2 of my Age of Summers.  The darkness surrounding the mutant race seemed palpable; we saw ex-mutants slaughtered by the dozen, and every single mutant death had dramatic impact.  So here, at least, the concept accomplished some (and I do say some) of its potential.

The Mutant Messiah arc

The resolution of this arc, involving the Mutant Messiah, is another problem.  Messiah CompleX set up the ‘Messiah Child’ arc perfectly, and was a superbly written plotline.  Messiah War, the second in the broad series of events based around Hope Summers, was OK; a trifle underwhelming in terms of impacts, but acceptable as an X-Force and Cable crossover.  Even Second Coming was decent, with some superb moments and some excellent writing.  Unfortunately, when it came to actually doing the deed and ending the ongoing ‘extinction’ plotline, Marvel dropped the ball.

Marvel got sidetracked with event mechanics and sales figures – crossing over the Avengers and the X-Men in such a way as to achieve maximum sales from two fanbases, but failing to realise that they missed what should have been their central focus.

Three words that changed the Marvel Universe.
Three words that changed the Marvel Universe.

If Hope Summers and her Five Lights were so important, then everything in AvX should have revolved around her.  The whole series should have centred upon Hope’s choices and character development, but at times that seemed little more than a sub-theme.  As a result, the Mutant Messiah – who should, by now, be a fan-favourite with huge potential ahead of her – is a character who many X-Men fans resent (seeing her as a sort of second-rate Jean Grey) and want to see the back of.  See the New Breed of X-Men article on Hope for more on that.

Going forwards

The final question has to be: have the lessons been learned?  Well, frankly, no.  I can say that with absolute certainty.  The genie is back out of the bottle, and in spite of comments that writers will be more cautious and gradual about reintroducing mutants, I see no evidence of that.

The worst offender is Rick Remender, in the pages of Uncanny Avengers.  He’s had the Apocalypse Twins take the mutant race offworld, and he seems to genuinely believe that there are already enough mutants around to be able to populate a planet.  The problem is, you need a sizable population in order to keep the gene pool stable.  Unless the mutant race has exploded a lot more dramatically than Marvel have been trying to make out, again the scales are different – the Apocalypse Twins’ plan would wipe out the mutant race as well as the human.  This seems to be so overlooked that I can only assume, instead, that there’s been explosive mutant growth.

And if Marvel were so worried about controlling these kinds of themes, they wouldn’t have started their Inhuman adventures of late.

Conclusion

The Decimation drove a brilliant period of writing, but, I’m afraid, was fundamentally flawed as a concept, and the writing simply didn’t live up to its potential.  Nor, for that matter, have Marvel learned their lessons.

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Tom, I like your rundown of the history of the last 8 or so years, but would argue that it was more successful than you see. The major thing that the Decimation accomplished was that it took the overall leadership of the X-Men away from Charles Xavier, and put it in the hands of Scott Summers (and, to an extent, Wolverine, although his leadership is more of a plot counterpoint to Scott Summers than anything else). Essentially, it allowed the original and second generation X-Men to grow up. There was only so long that Bobby, Kitty, Colossus, etc could remain under the leadership of their teacher, before they started teaching/leading themselves.

    Now I agree that it was certainly flawed in aspects, but on the macro level, I loved the grand story arc. In one fell swoop, Magneto went from the ultimate mutant villain to a victim of the new mutant villain, his daughter (and you’re right, she’ll never recover her reputation). In my opinion the worst thing about the whole mess was what it did to Wolverine.

    The lasting impact of JoeQ’s legacy is his making grand statements of intent, and not following through. Similar to his intention to keep books with their original numbering scheme’s rather than restart at number 1 every three to four years.

    Interesting piece.

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    1. VERY interesting response – I’d not considered that aspect! I think the main problem I have with the ‘handing on of the torch’ idea (which is brilliant) is that I don’t think that was intentional.

      Xavier acted as a focus in Carey’s X-Men: Legacy run for quite some time, and Fraction picked him up as a character for an issue before realising he didn’t really ‘get’ the character. You then get constant comments from the writers saying they just didn’t quite know what to do with Xavier.

      So I think you’re right, that was a successful side of the Decimation – but accidentally so, y’know? 🙂

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  2. I partially agree about it being somewhat accidental. The broad brushstrokes were planned out way in advance. I read in Bendis’ blog that, due to his long term exclusive contract with Marvel, he was laying the framework work AvX and after when he was writing House of M.

    They definitely had to fill in the gaps with other writers doing their thing, but the pathway to All-New was there. Whether I’m right about the power transition theory is another matter.

    Love the discussion.

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    1. Really? That’s a rather cool catch, then – I know the ‘Yesterday’s X-Men’ idea was dropped into Bendis’ comics (iirc the New Avengers relaunch that had Kang in it). I’ll have to track down Bendis’ blog, didn’t know he did one lol!

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      1. When I say his blog, I was referring to his Tubmlr. But in the spirit of your article, I have definitely been wondering just how much was actually planned out, and what grew organically from the broad storyline as it evolved.

        I agree that there were too many mutants re-powered which made the whole facial impact of Decimation seem lessened.

        I’ll have to take your word for it re: New Avengers. I don’t read any Avengers books. With a few rare exceptions, I read only X-Men books so that I can keep my monthly costs down, and save space in my basement. And to keep my wife from killing me!

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      2. Hahahah I know the feeling :p

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  3. I think it was a success at first. it had all sorts of potential. I viewed it as Marvel’s way of finally throwing that last pile of dirt on Morrison’s run. But then Marvel starts to undo this. Like you pointed out, the depowering wasn’t permanent for some and there seemed to be all sorts of ways to reverse it. In fact, most writers seem to forget that Polaris and Magneto both have artificial powers at this point. And then even before AvX came around and the mutant potential was reintroduced, they started throwing more and more mutants into Wolverine and the X-Men, completely undoing everything Decimation did without any reasonable explanation.

    ironically, one of the complaints I always heard about Decimation (how it was gramatically incorrect) is actually not right. To decimate can also mean to “kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of”. So at least they had the name right!

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    1. That’s interesting! In-universe, the only one who ever commented on that iirc was Transonic, and to be fair her literalist mindset would be well-suited to making that criticism 🙂

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