Thursday, July 12, 2007

X-Force: New Beginnings

I read a lot of comics, but in the past couple of years, the vast majority have been written by either Grant Morrison or Alan Moore. Reading almost exclusively from those guys’ output can make it tough to read anything else because it just feels so inferior. Last summer, when I was reading Morrison’s JLA run, I thought it was pretty good, but it wasn’t until I reached the crappy fill in issues by Mark Waid that I realized just how good it was. Last week, I read the Paul Dini Detective Comics issue with Zatanna, just to check in on how she was doing post Seven Soldiers. It wasn’t a bad issue, but it just didn’t seem worth the three dollars. I had no particular concern for what would happen and saw no need to pick up the next issue.

So, I usually have to scale down my expectations for anything non Moore/Morrison. That’s why I was thrilled when I picked up the first trade of Peter Milligan’s X-Force and found an absolutely riveting, intellectually challenging, poptastic book. I’ve heard great things about this book since it first started, and I even remember the controversy surrounding the initial announcement of the book. Back then I was more an X-Men fan than a good comics fan and I was a bit annoyed that they would replace the existing X-Force book with a totally different book. To this day, I think it was an odd choice. I don’t think any readers who weren’t on the internet would know this wasn’t your father’s X-Force, and people who did like the old book are not likely to take to this updated version.

But, the book happened and had some success, so those old debates are no longer relevant. Instead, this book stands as one of the most outrageous superhero books ever published by Marvel or DC, simultaneously tearing apart old genre principles and providing old school thrills that top what you get from more ‘standard’ books. DC and Marvel have a pendulum like relationship, with one always pushing the boundaries, while the other retreats to tired conservatism. Currently, DC, under the guidance of Morrison and others are doing more exciting comics, while Marvel is publishing six month long X-Men crossover events. But, a mere six years ago all was different. Marvel was really shaking things up, and with Morrison’s X-Men leading the way, they created a series of challenging, exciting books.

This book is the perfect companion to Morrison’s X-Men, arguably topping it in its mission of delivering a cool pop look at mutants as cultural trendsetters. The thing I love about Morrison’s X-Men is the way he created a real mutant culture. If mutants are to be a viable metaphor for the minority experience, it doesn’t make sense to have them constantly being assaulted and hunted to death. It’s nice to also explore the way that subcultures provide the raw material that fuels our culture forward. The same kids who listen to rap music may be incredibly racist in their daily lives, and they see no hypocrisy in that. Morrison’s X-Men explored that idea, and X-Force takes things even further, with its portait of a media savvy mutant team who are famous as much for being famous as they are for any actual achievement.

This is a theme that’s even more relevant today than it was back when the book came out. This is the perfect book for a world where Paris Hilton’s jail stay is the biggest news story of the summer, and not covering the story becomes its own story. We live in a celebrity obsessed culture, and these celebrities become characters in a kind of reality based soap opera. The stories are written in Us Weekly and TMZ, the reality of these peoples’ lives irrelevant to the narrative built up around them. Many of these people claim that being famous is a burden, but the benefits are undeniable, and this book explores that dichotomy.

It was on the second page that I fell in love with the book. The first page situates us in archetypal X-Men territory. The untimely onset of Zeitgeist’s powers is essentially the same story as Rogue’s power manifest. We’re introduced to another angsty X-hero, an image which persists until panel 3, page 2, where we see the real Zeitgeist, relaxing in a chair flanked by two beautiful women, in the prelude to a threesome. This is a guy who kills for a living, quite violently, as we see in the surrounding panels, and has no qualms about using his skills to get him whatever he wants.

The opening sequence recasts the entire notion of superheroes, this is a guy who’s totally selfish, with no aims for real good. He only wants to make himself more famous, and have fun until he gets back on “the catwalk.” The title page equates Zeitgeist and his team with the models he’s having sex with, they’re all posed in the glammest way possible, surrounded by the remains their battle has left behind.

I know Morrison and Milligan are friends, but I’d be curious to see how closely they worked in building their respective X-books, because this is a perfect companion to New X-Men. There, Grant dressed the characters in cool clothes and made them like models, glam ambassadors to the human world. Here, we see characters who are nothing but that cool, soulless media manipulating image. The first issue culminates with the team going to save Boyz R Us, a manufactured boy band. This team is built along those lines, a series of archetypes with the illusion of unity. But, at their core, both groups are just a construct designed to make money.

The massacre of virtually the entire team in the first issue really surprised me. I figured Zeitgeist would be saved in some way and was surprised to read the next issue and find out he was really gone. The casual deaths of Bloke and Saint Anna in a subsequent issue reinforce the fact that anyone can go. The anonymous nature of these characters makes their mortality more real. You know Superman’s coming back if he dies, but does anyone really care if Bloke is gone?

This leads to the introduction of the new team, and the series’ central character, The Orphan. The central conflict is apparently can someone genuinely be a hero in an organization as soulless as X-Force? While the others have all joined for their own personal benefit, The Orphan does want to help people. In issue 120, we see the way that his tactics have caused trouble for the Coach. The Coach brought him in to build tension within the team, but things backfired when The Orphan actually turned out to be a good leader. It’s an interesting conflict, but with Coach out of the way, I hope that the team doesn’t move too close to traditional heroism.

Coach himself is clearly a dark spin on the Professor X archetype. You can read a lot of the book as reinterpretation of the X-mythos, removing any pretense to nobility and replacing all the characters’ motivations with pure selfishness. The Coach also dies, reinforcing the fact that no one is safe. By using characters based on archetype, Milligan is able to quickly develop and dispose of people as suits the story.

My favorite character is Edie, a character I’d assume is modeled on Edie Sedgwick. Sedgwick was the ‘creation’ of Andy Warhol, whose fifteen minutes of fame media musings were a likely inspiration for the book. Both Edies have short hair, heavy eye makeup and a drug problem. This Edie has a lot in common with the Lindsay Lohans of today, what with her media circus trip to rehab. That stuff is prescient, perfectly capturing what’s going on right now.

Edie’s essential dilemma is her pull between selfishness and doing what’s right. This is something a lot of characters face, but it’s not that effective if they start out on the good side. Because Edie is such a heedless, self indulgent character, it’s genuinely effecting when she stands up for the Orphan in #120. I’d imagine her arc over the course of the series will see her reconciling her desire for power and celebrity with a legitimate desire to do the right thing.

The rest of the team hasn’t been developed that much. Tike is the only character who’s stuck around long enough to get real examination, but I imagine we’ll see more of him in later issues. Doop has been floating around, but his alien language makes it difficult to follow what he’s saying. I did like the Wolverine guest appearance, it was great to see him back in the Morrison era clothes, not the spandex he’s wearing today. I loved the Morrison run so much, it’s nice to get a new piece of the characters at that moment.

I think that makes this book so successful is the fact that it’s simultaneously a satire of superheroes and a successful superhero comic. Much like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, yo can enjoy it as a comedy of ridiculousness, with over the top characters and melodramatic motivation. Yet, it’s still emotionally affecting. The violence is visceral and Edie’s dilemma really made me feel. I love works that walk that line, it’s not easy to do, but these first five issues manage to pull off both comedy and real drama. It’s on par with what Morrison was doing over in New X-Men, I really love both books.

Those two books presented the first real evolution of the concept. Claremont’s run was brilliant, but after sixteen years, I think it was covered. Mutants as a metaphor can be about much more than just fighting, this book might very well join Claremont and Morrison’s run as one of the only necessary pieces of the X universe. I’ve got the next trade already and I’ll be starting it tonight.

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