Thursday, August 21, 2008

New X-Men: 'Imperial' (122-126)

‘Imperial’ is a storyline that has a few significant problems, most notably the heavy emphasis on the Shiar, and the rushed, sloppy art of Igor Kordey. But, it’s also got some really great moments, particularly the final issue, which closes out the year long Cassandra Nova story and sets the stage for exciting new developments.

What I love so much about Grant’s X-Men is the groundedness of the whole thing. He’s talked about superhero comics as a model for human evolution, an idea that was never as spot on as it was with NXM. Works like Seven Soldiers or JLA are largely about exploring what it would be like to live in the DC Universe. This doesn’t mean they’re not emotionally or conceptually relevant, it’s just that there’s a distance between their world and our world. Think of Animal Man, it’s a brilliant book, but are any of us likely to find out that we live in a fictional universe?

Perhaps, but I think it’s more likely we’d find out we’re in a world where evolution has created a new human species, and the culture is changing as a result. What NXM is about is dealing with that new world, trying to find out how the social structures of traditional humanity can weather change. There’s that discussion of mutant vs. human justice at the end of this story, a key summation of the series’ themes. Everything is evolving, how can we deal with it?

Particularly in the grounded universe of New X-Men, the sci-fi elements of the Shiar stand out as rather implausible. I don’t think they’ve ever really worked as a part of the X-Men mythos, obviously the Phoenix stories are great, but it’s the character work that makes those a success, not the space craziness of the Shiar. Grant writes good cosmic action at the start of #122, and Quitely draws it well, but it feels incongruous in the universe he’s created.

So, it’s nice to literally zoom down to Earth for Emma’s discussion about redesigning their curriculum to move away from the human paradigm and create something new. The series debuted less than a year after The Invisibles ended, and a lot of the concepts of The Invisibles turn up here. You could easily imagine Jack teaching a class like this after his appearance in 3.2. At this point, it’s not a question of human vs. mutant, humans will soon be extinct, and it’s up to mutants to build whatever kind of new world they want to build. Xavier’s is the lab in which they will experiment and create that world. As Emma says, “The whole world is watching us now. We must be nothing less than fabulous.”

The scene with Scott and Jean reinforces the changing paradigm. Scott is afraid of disrupting the status quo, he doesn’t want to risk the wrath of mainstream society by changing the way Xavier’s runs. He’s essentially worried that the X-Men are turning into Magneto, valuing mutant culture above all and leaving humans to die. The fact that humanity will become extinct has changed the paradigm of the entire series, now it’s the humans who are scared, the mutants who hold the power. There’s two killer lines in this scene which sum up so much of what is great about Morrison’s run on the book. One is Jean saying “We can’t afford to be ashamed any more. We can’t strap down our wings or hide our strange eyes and brilliant minds.”

The other is “We have more important things to do than worry about whether our glowing eyes frighten the Republicans!” That’s a quote that I wish more Democratic politicians would take to heart. The best way to advance humanity isn’t to worry about those who are scared of change, it’s to create a new world all around them, until they’re forced to catch up. That’s essentially the argument Scott and Jean are having, should they build a new world now, or should they give humanity time to catch up. Much like The Invisibles in Volume III, Jean is already living in that new world, she’s done with the us vs. them rhetoric, done with the war. It’s time to live like they’ve already won.

From there, it’s a bunch of background on Cassanda, setting up the threat that she poses to the school. One of the reasons I generally prefer the later pieces of Morrison’s run to the first year is that I’m not a huge fan of Cassandra as a villain. I think she’s great in the opening arc, but after that, she just does the cackling evil routine for a while, until the X-Men defeat her. Particularly when she’s up with the Shiar, it’s just the same beats over and over again for a few issues. It’s not until she gets back to Earth in the last issue that we get some interesting stuff again.

Closing out the first issue is the wonderful moment where Smasher relays his message about the fate of humanity…to a bunch of cows. It’s a great gag, and a nice play on the way aliens might view the world we live in. For all they now, cows are just as important as humans.

The next issue brings Emma and the Stepford Cuckoos to the fore for their most prominent role in the series to date. Her interactions with them are always a highlight of the series, and her dialogue is infinitely quotable. The whole plot with Esme and the alien Stuff foreshadows what we’ll see later in the series, when the Cuckoos break apart and get involved with Magneto and his new Brotherhood of Evil. But, on a basic level, I like the story because it spins the way first love feels through the cosmic story Morrison is telling. The obvious predecessor is the Angelus transformation in Buffy season two.

Jean’s speech to the media is a highlight of the arc, a summation of the school’s new mission, and a vision of an evolved humanity that’s just as relevant for our world as it is for the Marvel Universe. The book is all about the conflict between old and new ideas, in this case, that’s represented through the divide between mutant and human, but it could just as easily be the divide between progressives and conservatives. It’s about building a new world rather than being pulled back down to Earth by fear. Morrison draws on one of his favorite concepts, comparing mutants and humans to branches on the same tree, fingers on the same hand. That’s the core of his Invisibles cosmology, the notion that division is an illusion, we’re all part of the same organism. That’s why it’s absurd to fight against each other. I like that he’s able to place these concepts so prominently in one of the most popular comic books out there, he’s seeding the ideas so people will be prepared when they pick up The Invisibles. Ultimately, Jean’s speech is a wonderful, positive vision of a better future.

From there, we’re on to two issues of the worst of Igor Kordey. This art is really lacking, and that hurts the story as a whole. In a lot of ways, you’ve just got to appreciate these issues for what they are, and be thankful that Quitely returned to wrap up the arc. Compounding the problem is the heavy emphasis on fighting the Imperial Guard for that old standby of a misunderstanding. Sure, there’s an attempt to show that they’ve been manipulated by Cassandra into believing all mutants are a threat, but that’s pushing credibility a bit. You’d think they’d ask the X-Men about it first.

Again the highlights of this issue are the scenes with the Stepford Cuckoos. Reunited, they now see Stuff as the “perfect boyfriend,” one who can programmed to their will. They’ve learned well from Miss Frost. The scene where they team up with Beak to rescue Emma is a highlight as well. I like the way Morrison sidelines the main heroes, and lets the kids step up as the “resistance.”

But, it’s basically all fighting and Act II battle stuff before Quitely shows up. Jean at this point is holding all of Xavier’s consciousness in her mind, and becoming increasingly schizophrenic. Conceptually, the presence of telepaths necessitates a divide between the mind and the body. Does this prove the existence of a soul? With Xavier’s mind in her, Jean at times becomes Charles. It echoes a bit of what we saw with Cliff and his robot body back in Doom Patrol, the whole dying brain thing here is just an evolution of the brain in peril concept from the classic Brain and Monsieur Mallah story. Either way, I love the way Jean looks, dripping mascara as war paint, she’s totally in charge of everything.

Typically, X-Men comics have portrayed Scott as Xavier’s deputy, the take charge leader who would be coordinating things in a situation like this. Morrison’s approach with Scott is more interesting, to portray him as the by the book guy in a world where the book doesn’t matter anymore. Jean is more easily able to evolve and change with the new paradigm, and that’s why she’s able to come up with a solution like extracting Charles’ mind from his body. Her powers are on a vastly different scale than Scott’s, and I think a large part of his distance from Jean comes from him not being able to keep up with her. He fears her becoming the Phoenix again because it could mean going evil, but it would also mean she moves beyond him. As the Phoenix, she doesn’t need him, and he can’t deal with that. Really, Scott is more in love with the Jean he first met than the Jean he knows now. This is the fear that Cassandra plays on when she confronts him on the Shiar ship.

Particularly effective during Jean’s psychic possession of Charles is her description of evaporating memories. Imbued with so much psychic power, her mind is bursting and moments slip away. Luckily, Scott and Xorn show up just in time to destroy the nanosentinels and save the day. My favorite line here is Jean saying “Scott. You’re my favorite superhero.”

I like the scene where Morrison has Wolverine deliberately switch into beserker rage mode as a calculated battle tactic. The Morrison Wolverine fits more with how Claremont portrayed him in the latter days of his run, the battle hardened wiseman on the team. He’s the reluctant leader, never wanting to take charge, but willing to do so if he needs to. Here, he’s telling Angel not to be such a hardass, but is still able to roar and charge with the best of them.

Still, it’s ultimately the very concept of the X-Men themselves that saves the day. Jean notes that Cassandra may be incredibly powerful, but she’s all alone. She splinters Charles’ mind into the consciousness of all his students, a wonderful metaphor for the way that his teachings have worked. The Xavier here is more interesting than the typical presentation because he’s largely about ideas. This Xavier is the most forward thinking man in the world, the architect of a new reality, he has infused his ideas into all of his students, and it is that network that is now able to reconstitute him into his body.

Emma tricks Cassandra back into her body, which leads to a trippy scene where Cassandra gets re-educated. Psychic analogues of Xavier and Jean will be able to rewrite Cassandra Nova’s mind. Interestingly, there’s a picture of the US electoral map on the wall, a visual representation of the red state/blue state divide. Though the colors are reversed here, it works well as a reminder of the progressive/conservative divide in the US. I think it’s a bit reductive to say that the red state/blue state thing can be easily reduced to future/past, but it’s the kind of short hand that’s sometimes necessary. There are two sets of values in American politics, and the X-Men are decidedly on the side of the future.

Imperial has some amazing moments, and some lacking ones. The Kordey issues drag things down, and the lengthy fights with the Imperial Guard end up not really going anywhere. They don’t play at all into the actual climax of the arc, which thankfully returns to the X-Men and their students, the core of the book’s mission. Morrison continues to develop the new world for the X-Men over the course of the arc, it’s filled with a lot of great ideas, and a bunch of exhilarating pop moments. It’s not the best arc in the run, but it’s a great climax for the first year’s storylines.

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