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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.