Monday, September 22, 2008

New X-Men: 'Assault on Weapon Plus' (#142-145)

“Assault on Weapon Plus” feels very different than the rest of Grant’s run on New X-Men, it's a European feeling over the top pop art experience. Drawn by someone else, this arc would probably feel like the previous Fantomex arc, drawn by Chris Bachalo, it’s a totally different experience.

The first time I read this, I wasn’t a huge fan of the Bachalo art. I didn’t get his aesthetic, and felt like it was too stylized, a major departure from the relatively realistic style we’ve seen in the series to date. However, after reading the arc a couple of times, and enjoying Bachalo’s art on Death: The High Cost of Living and Mike Carey’s X-Men, I came around. Reading a Bachalo comic is as much an aesthetic experience as a narrative one. Particularly in the last three issues, most of the pleasure of the arc comes from experiencing this intricately detailed, alien looking pages. The panel layouts are great, and create a really unique reading experience. He’s not the most clear storyteller, but for this arc, his style really works.

The best issue of the arc is the first, which chronicles Scott’s nightlong struggle to get drunk at the Hellfire Club. The entire issue is punctuated by shots of a stripper who’s using her psychic powers to look like Scott's fantasy version of Jean. She’s wearing Jean’s Black Queen outfit, but Scott punctures the mood, choosing to focus on the reality of the situation rather than the illusion. He knows that she’s acting, playing a part for him, and he is unable to go along with that. Part of that is probably that after Emma’s all convincing illusions, this doesn’t do it for him anymore.

The greatest strength of the issue is the subtle comedy stuff, the way that the bar plays on the X-Men’s history. In this post-Genosha world, they don't fight their enemies, they drink and bicker with them. Unlike the classic Claremont issue with Wolverine and Colossus go out drinking and fight Juggernaut, there’s no fights here, just a gradual spiral into wastedness. It’s a very adult, sophisticated feeling issue. I’m kind of surprised that Marvel allowed them to do an issue where the ostensible heroes of the book drink so much.

‘Decompression’ bothers me in comics, spending whole pages on pretty much nothing is tough when you’re paying so much per page. But, I love the use of the whip cracking panels as transitions here, they build the mood and give a visual rhythm to the pages that really works. It feels very cinematic, like a dissolve between scenes. And, I love the way Bachalo draws her as all legs.

Scott makes clear the essence of his character arc when he says “Every time I look at Jean I see this teenage girl I met…and I feel like a teenage boy.” He’s placed into a role he doesn’t want to play, and it’s so liberating to be with Emma and have the chance to ‘be himself.’ The notion of put on identities/fiction suits is key to a lot of Morrison work, here he spins it through the lens of the X-Men soap opera. Similar thematic ideas are present in the Magneto/Xorn mess that culminates in ‘Planet X,’ or in the arc with Cassandra and Xavier.

The core of the run is the idea that sometimes it takes an agent of evolution, like Cassandra or Emma, to help someone become what they’re really meant to be. Xavier is much better as a global representative of mutants, out in the open and unashamed, but it took the awful experience with Cassandra Nova to make him realize that. Similarly, it took Emma’s meddling to realize just how bad things had gotten with Jean, agents of chaos disrupt order, and in the end, make things better.

Scott claims that he’s totally lucid, moments before he collapses onto the floor. I love the way Bachalo draws floating green bubbles around his and Wolverine’s heads to convey the effects of alcohol. It’s a choice that has no grounds in reality, but makes perfect sense in a comic book world. I’d love to read more X-Men comics like this, that scale back on the action and just spend time exploring the world that mutants live in.

But, it’s time to move on, and the next three issues take us inside ‘The World,’ an artificial space in which time can be manipulated to accelerate evolution at will. It’s a classic Morrison concept, recalling the fantastic moments in JLA: Rock of Ages, where our heroes see a whole civilization arise and destroy itself in a matter of hours. That said, it also feels a bit like Morrison on autopilot, the core concepts of the arc could easily fit into a mid level JLA storyline. I love a lot of the panel layouts, but most of the important character and narrative stuff is confined to the first and last issue of the arc.

I do enjoy the Super Sentinel’s philosophical journey, he has spent his whole life inside this concrete dome, and doesn’t know if there’s anything beyond those walls. When he bursts out of the dome, it’s the equivalent of us leaping through the sky and breaking into a larger, totally different universe. Weapon XV crafts this mythology around himself, and imagines himself the ruler of a new universe that he has just discovered. As much as I appreciate the action stuff earlier in the issue, it’s that moment that makes the whole thing worthwhile. He asks “What is the purpose of life,” and literally wants an answer. He was programmed to obey orders, but doesn’t have any orders. What should he do?

This is a major contrast to Fantomex, who has chosen to betray against his bosses and spread chaos instead of playing the role he was supposed to. The human government behind this program wanted Fantomex to play the role of an action hero in a superhero team created to destroy mutants. This concept, like most X-Men stuff, plays better if it exists in a world without the other Marvel Universe heroes. If mutants arose in our world, it would make sense that the government would create their own superhero team to destroy them, through genetic engineering. But, in a world with the Avengers, why would they need to go to all this trouble?

Either way, I love when his supervisor says “We’d have scripted you be the kind of character people love…and you choose to go Faux French!” It’s all constructed personas, they wanted him to be one thing, he chooses to defy that and go another way.

This theme ties in with what’s going on with Wolverine. He wants to find out who he “really is,” but it turns out there’s only layers and layers of false personalities designed to control him. I hate the idea of the Wolverine: Origins miniseries they did a few years back because a large part of the character is his mystique, a mysterious past is always going to more interesting than any concrete answers about who he was. This issue seems to deliberately debunk that ‘James’ persona, pointing to it as just another way to control him. In that sense, the constructed personality is much like the personality that Scott keeps himself in, if you believe that you are a killer, you’re going to kill, if you believe that you’re a good person, you’ll do good. But, trying to live up to a self image can lead to trouble when you don’t want to be your self image any more.

Wolverine talks to Weapon XV about the purpose of life, a conversation he could be having with himself. Weapon XV is destined to be a killer, but “I could have been a painter as well” he says. Wolverine has seen his past, he realizes that he, like Weapon XV, was built to kill, so why not save the world and kill Weapon XV. The station blows up and the arc ends in that fire. It’s an abrupt ending, but I really like it. Everything’s spiraling into craziness, and then all of a sudden it’s over. Things will pick up right here with ‘Planet X,’ but this a great final moment for Bachalo to go out on.

This isn’t my favorite New X-Men arc, but it’s got a lot of great moments. I’d love to see Morrison and Bachalo work together again since they created something really unique and cool with this story. It’s one last burst of fun before the heavy darkness that’ll fall on the series in the next arc, the controversial nightmare fever dream ‘Planet X.’

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