Thursday, August 14, 2008

New X-Men: 'Germ Free Generation' (118-121)

‘Germ Free Generation’ is easily the low point of Morrison’s run on X-Men, a story that might have worked under Quitely, but is totally decimated by some of the worst art ever put to print by a major publisher. It’s like watching a David Chase script directed by a four year old, some of the original concept shines through, but most of the time you’re distracted by the total ineptness on display.

The arc starts off with a scene in which a comic book loving future member of the U-Men discusses the Third Species. The X-Men have been used a metaphor for a variety of things, racial minorities, gays, etc, but considering the book’s audience, isn’t it possible they’re just a metaphor for social outcasts. Much like Peter Parker or Buffy Summers, they’re the people who are rejected by normal society, but really have so much special about them. And now, “uncool is the new cool.” In a world where comic books rule the box office, where does that leave the audience? Are these things really cool, have we ‘won’?

In New X-Men, Grant creates a clear divide between the ultra-stylish and cool core X-Men, and the stumbling outcast students. He’s recognizing that it’s a bit implausible for someone as powerful and beautiful as Jean or Emma to feel like an outcast all the time, to be ‘hated and feared.’ I like the evolutionary step of giving them a certain level of social confidence, and leaving the teen angst stuff to the kids.

And, Grant makes the logical leap that people would want to be like, and be, mutants. Who wouldn’t want special powers? We’re in a world now where the goal isn’t to be the same as your neighbor, it’s to be better than your neighbor. Parents want their kids in the best schools, they push them to be the best athletes, why not give them powers that no one else would have? That’s why I love the concept of the U-Men, though I think the execution of it here is a bit muddled. Morrison does a better job of conveying society’s embrace of mutantkind later in the run when he talks about mutant fashion and music taking over society. The old guard might still hate and fear them, but the kids want to be like them. That’s frequently the way it is with minorities in the world today. In this world, mutants are taking over the world both literally, with the impending demise of humanity, and on a psychological level. As Jean says, “Is everyone talking about us?”

Jean ponders whether Emma shutting down the protestors’ minds was wrong. In a world run by mutants, there’s got to be a new standard of morality. If what she did helped the kids, was it worth violating the minds of individual people? A lot of Morrison’s run is concerned with the limits of what the X-Men can do. In the annual, Wolverine expresses surprise that “we do this kind of thing now,” that they’re taking the fight to people. But, at the same time Scott insists that they are a rescue organization, not an army. In the early 90s, it was a big deal when Cable came along and insisted that he was going to take the fight to the bad guys, not just sit around and wait to be attacked. The same thing happened earlier this year with the new X-Force book, but invariably those characters slink back to the old patterns because an aggressive force just doesn’t make for good stories. The X-Men have been dependent on being persecuted in their stories because writers weren’t ready to really change the paradigm. Here, Morrison is pondering if the paradigm can be changed, are they playing by human rules, or mutant ones?

The scenes with Angel illustrate the divide in mutant perception. The educated elite want to take on mutant characteristics, but people in more backwater areas still fear the unknown of mutants. In this world, mutant tolerance seems to be a kind of “not in my backyard” kind of thing. People are cool with mutants, as long as it’s not their son or daughter. That’s another place where the series really resonates with the minority experience today. People may be tolerant of gay people, but are they going to be cool when their son or daughter comes out? Not necessarily. Yet, at the same time, heterosexual people are actively appropriating gay styles and culture. Are the U-Men the metrosexuals of this world?

My disappointment with the U-Men storyline comes when Jon Sublime is changed from a social pioneer to a rather standard villain. His motivation is interesting, but the execution is all old school supervillain, and that’s not particularly engaging.

Plus, the second issue of the storyline introduces us to Igor Kordey’s godawful art. Before the reread, I thought, how bad could his art really have been? It probably just looked bad next to Quitely. But, that was not the case. I honestly don’t know how Marvel thought it acceptable to put out a book with art this bad. Was the monthly schedule so important? If you ever complain about delays on a book, just flip to this issue and you’ll understand why even the six month delays for Seven Soldiers #1 or Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman are worth it. Looking at those books today, I don’t remember the wait, I remember the book itself.

This is different, X-Men needs to come out every month, and we’d waited for Quitely, the run probably would still be going. As Whedon/Cassaday showed, for an X-book to make a real impact, it’s got to come out every month. The possibility of real change is an essential part of the X-Men. Eventually, Marvel conceded that Quitely couldn’t do the book on any sort of regular schedule and came up with the successful solution of splitting up the arcs by artist, but for the next two arcs, we’re in shaky territory.

The last two issues suffer a bit from the decompression popular at Marvel at the time. Particularly because I have no desire to get lost in these images, they’re quick reads. There’s some interesting groundwork laid for later in the run, with Jean’s increased power, and the omnipresent flu at the Mansion, but generally speaking it’s not too interesting. The best moment is definitely Emma’s anger when she finds out her nose has been broken. It’s not bad, but it’s just not the exciting pop epic that Morrison’s X-Men should be.

Luckily, things pick up in the next issue when Quitely returns for the ‘Nuff Said issue. ‘Nuff Said month was a pretty stupid gimmick, designed to show off the potential of the comics medium to tell visual stories. What it did in practice was create a bunch of issues that took two minutes to read and distracted from the major plots of their series. However, Morrison manages to make the gimmick work for him, thanks largely to Quitely’s unparalleled visual storytelling abilities. No one in the medium can use images like Frank can, and this is a perfect, bizarre tale for him to illustrate.

Most comics don’t really tell the story with their visuals. The big splash pages are there to draw your attention, but it’s the text that carries the bulk of the information. Typically, it’s reading the words that take more of your time than reading the visuals, but this comic feels just as dense and substantial as one filled with text. I had to take my time to really ‘read’ the images and see what was going on. And, because there are no words, you’re paying more attention to body language and facial expression to understand what the characters are thinking. Every comic should have this dimension, but only Quitely and a few others really push the medium to the max in that way.

The first astonishing layout in the issue is the trip down Charles’ mind, a circlular series of panels that seems to drain into itself. It’s dizzying to read and sets you up for the strangeness to come. I love the coloring in Xavier’s mind, the heavy greens and pinks that engulf Jean as she builds a bridge to the tower.

The issue really takes off when Jean journeys into Xavier’s past, to witness his conception. I’ve always been fascinated with womb imagery. There’s something so otherworldly about millions of little organisms swimming towards the egg, and building a person out of it. One of my favorite Quitely images, and comics images in general, of all time is the battle with the two fetuses in the womb. It’s so surreal and alien, a really disconcerting thing to see.

The issue progresses with the destruction of the tower, another dazzling visual. The substance of the issue is the revelation about Cassandra Nova, but it’s all about the execution. Quitely builds this whole world and lets the characters play around in it for a while. It’s a boldly avant garde piece of storytelling, in an X-Men book of all places. Doing work like this helped make him an even better artist, and set up the future triumph of We3.

And, story wise, it does tell us a lot about what’s up with Nova. But, more on her and her grand scheme in the next batch of reviews.


Gil said...

I do love your comics posts. You radiate such enthusiasm for it all, so much optimism... it makes such a pleasant change from all the cynical 40something bloggers who look for all the world like they don't actually like comics after all.

I want to defend Igor Kordey... he was put in a terrible situation, having to fill in on New X-Men, since he was also doing the art for another book (I think it was Cable) every month. It's kinda like how people criticized Howard Porter on JLA; you have to remember that he was being asked to draw literally anything and everything by Morrison, with tons of characters, many of them new, with adventures on an epic scale, and on a rigorous monthly schedule. On that basis, his art was actually pretty good. I realize the argument is always "But what about the collection? What about the long term?"... but that's not Porter's or Kordey's decision. And as opposed to Cassaday, Quitely, or Lee, not every artist can afford to repeatedly blow deadlines (or perhaps it would be fairer to say, to be granted infinite leeway when deadlines are discussed).

I think Kordey's art on New X-Men was 'interestingly grubby', even discounting the time pressure he was under. We're used to seeing Cyclops looking prim and neat; I thought it made a fun change to see him looking like this.

~ Gil

Patrick said...

Kordey did get a pretty bad situation, and that rushed, temporary work now has to live on forever in the collected edition. I actually think Kordey was a great fit for the Fantomex storyline he did later on, it's a combination of the rushed art and his juxtaposition with Quitely that makes it look so bad.

There's certainly an interesting issue to consider when talking about Quitely versus other 'regular' artists. I'm sure a lot of other artists would be much better if they had the luxury of several months an issue that Quitely does. Quitely's been lucky to get this job as Grant Morrison's personal artist of choice, where he can take on projects like ASS or We3 that give him a lot of leeway.

The fault is really Marvel's, and the way they mismanaged things so poorly that they needed Kordey to do that rush job to keep the book coming out.

Patrick said...

And, it really bothers me too that so much of comics blogging is just saying how awful the new books coming out are. If you don't like something, don't read it. There's so many comics out there, surely you'll be able to find something you actually like.

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