Tuesday, September 23, 2008

New X-Men: "Planet X:" Part I (#146-148)

In “Planet X,” the series we’ve been reading for the past thirty issues is hijacked by an insane Magneto, and taken down to hell for the big action climax to top off the run. It’s a story that got a wildly mixed response when it was first coming out, and you can feel the controversy as you read. With some Morrison works, you get the sense that he’s moved on by the time he reaches the end of a long run on a book. This story had probably been in his head so long that he stopped worrying about specifics when it came time to put it on the page. It’s hypercompressed in the same way the Final Crisis is, skipping over some of the major beats, and frequently relying on the reader to fill in the gaps.

As such, it reads best not so much as a literal story, but as a psychogenic fugue, the chronicle of a drug addled insane man’s schizophrenic break with reality. The core of the storyline, the scene that makes it work for me, is when Xorn speaks to Magneto, the persona he created, the light he could have been, tearing down the realty of what he is. There’s a lot in here that doesn’t make sense, but so much of it is brilliant, I still love the storyline. It’s a lot like “Riot at Xavier’s” in that sense, on a narrative plausibility level, it doesn’t make much sense, but emotionally and conceptually, it’s brilliant.

The first issue was famous for breaking the internet in half with the Xorn/Magneto revelation. Even before that happens, we’re approaching the end, scenes spiraling faster and faster. Jean goes into space in one page, Xorn’s pitch the special class happens off panel, and by the end of the issue, the X-Men are all separated and out of commission.

This all sets up the revelation that Magneto was Xorn all along. I love this moment, though it can be tough to square this version of Magneto with the character from Claremont’s run. Before unmasking, he says that Charles had his chance and hasn’t been able to do much with it. This ties back to what happened during the riot, Magneto saw Quentin as a kindred spirit, and he was shut down by Xavier’s establishment. Back then, the Cuckoos said it was about in vs. out, and Magneto’s always been out. He has a martyr complex, and needs oppression to survive. When he talks about flipping the map, what he’s really talking about is the need to change the paradigm of the world so that the oppressed are now the ones with power, and the establishment is broken. Esme, the quintessential insider, is waiting for this to happen, waiting to be the queen of a new world, but Magneto never does it.

Morrison’s Magneto has a lot in common with his depiction of Lex Luthor. As a comment on the cyclical nature of superhero comics, he has them perpetually failing to ever upend the status quo. Perhaps they know deep down that their way isn’t the best way, and doom themselves to failure. That’s the idea posed later on, as the Special Class waits for Magneto to actually do something. In the context of this scene, Magneto is looking at Xavier’s failure to assert mutant dominance. Xavier has moved beyond Magneto’s us vs. them paradigm, and Magneto sees that as abandoning the war.

In issue #127, we saw Magneto through Xorn describe the tragedy of a mutant destroyed by human action. There, it was a sad story, Xorn lamenting that if he could save everyone, he would. That’s the core of Magneto’s motivation in this arc, through his Kick addled insanity, he thinks that he’s going to make the world safe for mutants. In his world, on “Planet X,” that mutant child would survive because he wouldn’t be subject to the human idea of normality. What Magneto fails to acknowledge is that the best way to move beyond the human idea of normal is to live like the world is the way it should be. Xavier’s idea in the mid section of the run is to create a school that’s so great, humans have no choice but to acknowledge his way works.

Magneto is a violent revolutionary, and this arc, like “Riot,” is largely about the way that violent revolutions are almost inevitably doomed to failure. Both Magneto and Quentin were motivated by rage, hopped up on kick, they used their powers to disrupt the status quo, without offering a plausible alternative for a new world. In issue #147, Magneto destroys Manhattan and plunges the entire world into chaos. The revolution happens and it’s successful, but he soon finds that even mutants aren’t ready to have their lives so disrupted in search of Magneto’s dream.

We first see the city at sunset, beautiful with the strange metal coils lacing through it. This is the last time it won’t look like a nightmare. Magneto has big plans for the city, he wants to build a mutant utopia, with the aid of his new Brotherhood, the Special Class. The question arises, why would he use the Special Class as his army? And, what was his pitch to them as Xorn that brought them all on board? I’m guessing he told them basically what he says here, that he’s going to flip the entire world, so that they can be the rulers and it’ll be a new mutant utopia. Spoken by Xorn, the zen master, that’s an appealing thought. So far, they haven’t gotten a real idea of what Magneto’s limitations are, and that’s why I can see Beak going along with things. He’s naïve about it, happy that someone would consider him worthwhile.

As I mentioned before, a critical component of the arc is the fact that nearly everyone he encounters actually preferred Xorn to Magneto. Ernst keeps asking what happened to Xorn, and it’s got to hurt Magneto to find out that people preferred this fake him to the real person. He claims that he was biding his time, setting things in motion while he was hiding as Xorn, but the question arises, why did he have to do that in the first place? Couldn’t he have just killed the X-Men with the nano-sentinels in their blood? Would it really have been so hard to find mutants to back his cause? Why go to these elaborate lengths to infiltrate Xavier’s Academy?

That question gets to the core of the arc, the schizophrenic nature of Magneto’s personality. He’s always been written in a way that fluctuates from hero to villain. Claremont’s run takes him from the over the top villain of the Lee/Kirby era to a nuanced character who Xavier trusts enough to leave in charge of the school. By the end of the run, Magneto has been forced back into the role of villain by editorial, though Claremont actually writes him as a guy who just wants to be left alone, but keeps getting dragged back into action. In X-Men #1-3, he’s a guy who’s struggling with a legacy of violence, who’s seen more as a symbol of revolution than as the actual person he is. That portrayal squares nicely with what we see here. So much of this arc is a meta comment on the way that comics franchises inevitably spiral back towards the status quo. Magneto has to be evil because that’s the platonic idea of X-Men that’s sold to the media. Because of that edict, Magneto is on this perpetual slide between reform and villainy, depending on how the writers and editorial see him at any moment.

The Xorn/Magneto dichotomy is a way to magnify his changing motivations and nature. Xorn is Magneto at the best he could be, using his powers in ways that aren’t destructive at all, but instead heal people. It’s notable that Magneto chooses to create a character who is utterly non-violent, much more so than even Xavier himself. He likely chose that persona because it’s the best way to remain under the radar. If he was more aggressive, people would suspect Xorn, but even when he kills Quentin Quire, they assume that Xorn is on a higher level and doing what needs to be done. As Xorn, Magneto is well liked, he’s accepted and treated well. It’s partially a performance, but on some level, I think Magneto gets so lost in the role, he believes it. Xorn is the person he could be if he gave up the old grudges and decided to live a better life.

But, in the end, the old Magneto shows through and he gives up the Xorn ruse, and tells the world, “Brother mutants. The great day has come.” He has “liberated” them, but it turns out they’re not so eager to be liberated. I think this story was written before the War in Iraq, but it feels very much like a comment on the hubris and inevitable failure that comes from deciding you need to “free” a people without any plan for what to do afterwards. Magneto defeats humanity and upends the governmental system in one day, but what then? The jokes about how distorted his voice is coming out of the speakers are great because they bring this grand scene down to a practical reality. No one has any clue what’s going on, and Magneto just monologues to salve his ego.

Throughout the story, Toad functions as a Shakespearean fool, constantly tearing down the illusions Magneto builds up about himself. I particularly like what he says “you’ve been declared dead so often…I just don’t think they know it’s really you.” That’s a critical concept in the final issue, where it turns out that the real Magneto is less ‘real,’ has less power than the fake Xorn. Most of the comedy in this issue comes from the fact that Magneto can’t live up to the legend built up around him in a world with “short attention spans and high expectations.” Revolution has become another commodity, and just like the real Che wouldn’t do it for people who wear his shirt, the real Magneto is a disappointment to people who saw him as an all purpose symbol of what mutankind can be.

This speech is also a comment on the fickle comics audience, who “want you the way you used to be. Or preferably better.” It’s the classic “the same, but different” demand for franchise stories. Either way, I really like this stuff because it ties into the theme of identity as a construct that’s been present throughout the entire run. The idea of Magneto is more powerful than the real person. Magneto is a symbol of mutantkind standing up for itself, fighting for a better world, but the actual Magneto is just a violent terrorist, ranting to a world that can’t hear him.

On the streets, the special class gets the first real idea of what Magneto’s plans are. Esme boasts that she’s “pushing the humans along my mind—the whip’s just for show.” She buys into Magneto’s dream, she wants to be like Emma, the White Queen ruling the world. Beak and the rest of the gang have their illusion about what they’re doing broken, this isn’t about creating a mutant utopia, it’s about punishing humanity for what they did to Magneto. It’s still about those old grudges, about us vs. them. Magneto’s revolution was one born out of rage, and after that initial rage is gone, all that’s left is violence, chaos and the promise that once they get through the ‘birth pangs,’ everything’s going to be so much better. It’s the way that most violent revolutions inevitably fail, if all you have is a hatred for the group in power, what happens when the group in power falls?

Magneto celebrates using Xavier’s “pacifist insititue” to train his soldiers, unaware that the Special Class does not buy into his doctrine. Magneto clings to these old ideas, he’s become a self absorbed old man, totally out of touch with the present day world.

Issue #148 features one of my favorite sequences in the entire run, Wolverine and Jean on the satellite, plunging into the sun together. I haven’t talked about Jiminez’s art on this arc yet, but I think he does a fantastic job. He has a huge amount of stuff to render, and I don’t think anyone else could make it the convincing big budget ending that he pulls off. And, as I’ve said before, Jiminez draws the best looking people in comics. In the “Morrison Manifesto,” Grant talks about wanting to make the X-Men sexy, to have a comic that the women who loved Hugh Jackman in the movie could pick up and get into. The sequence with Wolverine and Jean Grey getting progressively sweatier does that, two great looking people just sitting around, waiting to die. It’s some of the best Jiminez art on the run.

Jean says that the Phoenix isn’t like a god, it’s a force that “burns away what doesn’t work.” The Phoenix is evolution itself, the same engine that motivated Cassandra Nova, the challenge to the status quo that produces change. As the pages pass, we can see Wolverine and Jean getting progressively more run down, and as they move closer to death, more open with each other. I particularly love the moment where Wolverine tells her that they chose to make him a killer because of who he was, that Jean would hate the real him. But, it’s not the past that matter, it’s the present. She’s seen the good in him, she loves the man he’s become. “How could I ever hate you?”

This leads to the absolutely epic finale of the issue, where Logan stabs Jean to liberate the Phoenix force and save the universe. The way I see it, Jean essentially dies here, when she returns in issue #150, she’s a construct of the Phoenix, there for one last mission before being flung into the White Hot Room and the craziness of “Here Comes Tomorrow.” Jean is dying, and Logan senses that the only way to unleash the Phoenix Force, to unleash her full potential, is to kill her here. It pains him to do so because it confirms that all he’s good for is killing. But, by this point he seems to have come to terms with that part of himself. If he’s a killer, he can at least kill for the right reasons, and here, his killing gives life.

This leads to the startling series of panels where Wolverine and Jean walk into a sun. I know I’ve complained about X-Men in space stuff before, but this is brilliant, an undeniable high point of the run. It works because it’s so epic, the emotion of the scene is transposed into this astonishing rush of sunlight that tears them all to pieces. The pages themselves seem to be crackling with heat energy, the two figures gradually turning to fire, then nothingness. It feels like watching a sci-fi movie as a kid, when things are so much more epic. But, it’s grounded in adult emotion, it’s one of my favorite Morrison moments.


Troy said...

Hey Patrick -- it struck me that Morrison's apotheosis (redux) of Jean occurs as she is carried into the sun. The apotheosis of Superman occurs when he becomes digital information consciousness and enters the heart of the sun. And if I remember right (though my brain is shakey on the details), don't astronauts encounter the sun-like barbelith in 2012, heralding the emergence of the super-context and apotheosis of humanity?

I am hoping you will tackle All-Star Superman after you finish Here Comes Tomorrow.

Always enjoy your work!

Patrick said...

I've been wanting to write up All Star Superman #12, it was an amazing issue, with a lot to discuss, but I've been caught up in a bunch of things, and wanted to write up these X-Men reviews while they're still fresh. But, I'll get to it eventually. I'm hoping one day to have writeups of every Morrison work on here.

Anyway, Morrison and the sun is an ongoing theme, I remember the moment I really fell in love with his work was in the first issue of 'Entropy in the UK,' when Gideon Stargrave sees Barbelith and a caption reads "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun." The astronauts encounter Barbelith behind the moon, and it is the intersection of humanity with Barbelith that seems to instigate the birth of a new age.

The Superman moment fits right with what Morrison's been doing all his career, but the amazing thing about that book for me is the way that, despite being full of classic Morrison concepts, it doesn't seem like anyone is actually writing it. It feels like just tapping into the rich archetypal essence of Superman himself. And, considering the way Superman builds our world in #10, perhaps that is what's happening.