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.

Monday, July 09, 2007

John From Cincinnati: 'His Visit: Day Four' (1x05)

Reading some reviews, the consensus on this episode of JFC is that it’s the show’s weakest, and I’d agree with that. After carefully building a vast cast and community, we spend almost all this episode with the Yosts themselves, and despite being at the center of the series, the Yosts are pretty much uniformly the least interesting characters on the show. So, it was a bit of a step down from the greatness of the past few weeks, but there’s still enough strong stuff here to make it a worthwhile episode.

What really worked was the stuff with John and Cass, particularly the scene out on the pier. John remains enigmatic, in a really interesting way. At times he drifts into classic idiot savant, Forrest Gump kind of territory, but there’s always something edgy or odd enough to pull him back from that. When they’re walking on the pier, we see everything through an odd, grainy filter. It’s detachment from contemporary reality echoes the credits, which mix a variety of type periods together. The credits are also echoed during John’s interaction with the masked wrestler.

What really interests me about this segment is the way John is juxtaposed with a variety of religious figures. We’ve only seen him working one on one with a different character each week, out in the world, his power seems to extend over all the people in the crowd. He becomes an odd center of attention, and I’m curious to see more of him out there. It’s notable that John tells Cass that the magic behind the levitation is on the tape, but all that she filmed during the day is him.

The other really strong part of this episode was Vietnam Joe’s attempt to deal with what happened to him last week. At first, he’s skeptical, but gradually he realizes that maybe he did heal this guy, and this opens up to a myriad of interesting possibilities. He’s the first person who actually seems to be happy with John’s intervention in his life. Kai never wanted to “see God” again, Butchie was baffled by his lack of dopesickness, and Bill continues to be suspicious. However, Joe has come around and embraced what John can do. Is this the path that other characters will follow over the course of the season? That would be a logical narrative progression, but I’m guessing that things won’t be that easy.

While the stuff with the family was solid, it lacked the magic of earlier episodes. What interests me most about the show is the supernatural stuff, and the way these occurrences are responsible for building up a circle of people connected around the Yosts. Those people are very interesting, and totally unlike anything I’ve seen on other TV shows. The Yosts’ drama is a bit more traditional, particularly the soapy turns that this episode takes. That’s not to say it can’t be good, it still is, but it’s not as uniquely fascinating as the other elements of the show. Part of what hurts them is John’s distance from the family, he helped to shake things up, now they revert to the more obvious fighting of the pilot.

What’s most affecting to me in this storyline is Kai’s sadness. She thinks she finally has what she’s been wanting for so long, and the return of Shaun’s mother complicates everything. Butchie is caught in the middle, unable to act, leaving Kai alone to be mocked by her CD player. The song that was so special to her last episode is now a joke on her. It may be hitting classic TV soap territory, but the story still worked well.

I also liked the relationship between Linc and Tina. They’re both on the periphery of the family, working on a different wavelength than the other characters in the show, and as a result they’re natural allies. Tina sees Shaun as her gateway out of the world of porn, and Linc sees her as a natural ally in his battle for Shaun.

But, Cissy remains a frequently annoying character, and the drama over Shaun just felt too conventional. I felt like I’d seen this all before, and I couldn’t say that about anything else that’s been on the show. It added some layers to the characters, but I really missed the motel trio and Dr. Smith. It’s a testament to Milch that he’s created such a deep cast, I want to see them all. At least throw me some more Freddie and Bill.

So, this wasn’t the best episode of the show, but it’s still interesting and the stuff with John at the fair was as strong as anything they’ve done. I’m eager to see more of him and Cass, and am still really looking forward to next week’s episode.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Lost Girls: Volume I

I’m as big a fan of Alan Moore’s work as anyone. He’s done more than any writer to change peoples’ perceptions of what is possible within comics, and paved the way for the Vertigo revolution that gave us Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis, and from them, we got the newer generation of prominent writers, like Brian Bendis and Brian K. Vaughan. Alan has always seemed to have a somewhat contentious relationship with the medium and its readership. He’s been in a feud with nearly every major publisher and has “retired” from comics countless times. But, he keeps coming back to do great stuff, so it’s easy to overlook his sometimes frustrating behavior.

Moore has been pretty quiet since the end of ABC comics a while back, but he did release one major new work, Lost Girls. I bought the book shortly after it came out, but didn’t get around to reading it until now. After reading the first of three volumes, I’m not particularly impressed. It seems to indulge all of Moore’s worst tendencies, and is generally devoid of any real characters or emotional engagement. The goal was to make a legitimately erotic book, but it comes off as a really pretentious piece of pornography. If pizza delivery existed in the 1920s, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the pizza guy get into the action in one of the later volumes.

Alan Moore very rarely uses entirely original characters, instead he draws on archetypes and reinvents them to suit his own thematic purposes. The one major exception to this is likely Big Numbers, but I haven’t read it, so I can’t say for sure. Watchmen, Promethea, Supreme, From Hell, all these works draw on archetypes that are part of our cultural mythology and forces us to look at them from new perspectives. The most obvious reinvention of existing characters was League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which reimagined a variety of literary characters into an 18th century superhero team. This book does essentially the same thing, taking three characters from classic childrens’ stories and bringing them together for a variety of sexual escapades.

I guess my central problem with this setup is that it’s too obvious in making the subtext. Yes, you could read all these stories as sexual allegories, but as we see each of the characters retell their stories as discussions of their first sexual experiences instead of the fantasy based stories we’ve come to know, it seems to miss the point. You could read those stories in that way, but in making the subtext text, I think Moore takes some of the magic away from what happened there. For someone who’s so interested in saluting the power of story in Promethea, it’s odd to reduce the whole of Oz, Wonderland and Neverland to a sexual experience. Now, it’s possible he’ll better reconcile the dual nature of the experience in the later volumes, but right now, he seems to be puncturing the mythology rather than contributing to it. And ultimately that feels a bit juvenile. The tornado in Oz works well, but having Peter Pan be some guy who comes into the room and starts an orgy is just goofy.

Now, this wouldn’t be a problem if the book worked better on its own terms. With League, Moore took existing characters, but made them his own. Here, the characters are fairly shallow. They each have some basic characteristics, but there’s not much complexity or emotional engagement.

The central reason for this is the book’s structure. Moore is notorious for creating restrictions on himself, like the use of the nine panel grid on Watchmen. Here, each chapter is eight pages, which makes the book feel like more a series of short stories than a fully realized continuous work. All the breaks take you out of the reality and prevent you from engaging with the characters on a long term basis. And that’s even with the fact that I’m reading the chapters consecutively.

And, within each chapter we’ve got a sex scene. While the sex scenes are pretty sexy, with great art by Melinda Gebbies, they don’t do anything more than regular porn because we don’t have real attachment to the characters. If they had developed the characters first, then moved into sex scenes, it would have a more wholly satisfying work. I’m thinking of something like The Dreamers, which works because you learn to care about these people, then they move into their sexual enchantment.

I think of porn as analogous to comedy or horror. In each of these genres, you’ve got a central to goal, to either arouse the audience, make them laugh or scare them. But, that’s not enough to make a good work. In the best kind of works like this, you should not only satisfy that basic desire, you should also make something that works on a story level, and I don’t think this book does that. Or at least it doesn’t in the first book, we’ll see what volumes 2 and 3 have to offer.