Friday, September 26, 2008

New X-Men: "Planet X": Part II (#148-150)

One of the interesting things about the arc is the way it positions Magneto’s revolution within the political climate of a post 9/11, Bush governed world. Magneto realizes that he needs a few soundbites rather than big speeches, The fickle nature of the populace is central to the arc, they don’t want real change, they just want to hold on to their comfortable lives. In that respect, it’s easy to sympathize with Magneto. In stories, a desire to maintain the status quo generally isn’t an admirable trait. People who just want to live their lives aren’t the ones we care about in a story where the stakes are global. Particularly because they remain largely off screen, the fickle populace acts essentially as a drain on the revolution. Magneto’s ideas fail because people don’t care enough to engage with them.

Or at least that’s how he views it. What Morrison would probably argue is that the kind of revolution Magneto poses was always flawed because it’s very much an Invisibles Volume I “Us vs. Them” showdown. It’s fingers fighting for control of the hand, that kind of thinking will never lead to real growth or change. Even if Magneto’s plan succeeded, he makes it clear that he’s going to keep humans around as a servant underclass, taking the jobs that mutants don’t want.

Perhaps the toughest scene to reconcile with previous presentations of Magneto is the opening of #149, where Magneto and the gang oversee the movement of humans into a crematorium. On one level, you can reduce any narrative inconsistencies to Magneto was on kick and insane, there anything goes. However, it’s more interesting to consider what Morrison does present, to not necessarily try to justify it with previous stories and instead accept it on the terms of what he’s presented in New X-Men. What Magneto is doing is presenting the extreme other side of what Xavier does, the kind of confrontational viewpoint that Quentin Quire also advocated. He’s powerful enough to destroy all existing social order, and pave the way for a world dominated by mutants, but his revolution gets tripped up every step of the way because it’s not practical for the real world. As Xavier makes clear at the end of the arc, what he stands for makes more sense as a t-shirt than as a real world practice.

That said, on a base level, much of the arc is about the basic insanity of Magneto’s viewpoints and the spiral into a nightmare world of a man with way too much power, and little relevance in today’s world. Magneto is George Bush, he is the American military-industrial complex, frustratingly one note in a world that’s infinitely more complex. I love the absurdity of Magneto smacking Beak to win the argument about whether a carrot can feel pain, and if it’s a fruit or vegetable.

After killing Basilisk because of a fart joke, Magneto has a falling out with Esme. She says “Are you waiting for them to stop you,” which functions on a number of levels. On the one hand, it’s a meta comment about the nature of superhero comics. Villains will always push things to the brink, but never pull the final trigger, always leaving the door open for the heroes to come in and save the day. Esme felt empowered by a Magneto who offered the chance to upend the status quo and become the ruler of a new mutant empire. As part of a hive mind, she’d be particularly interested in asserting her singular identity. Under Magneto’s wing, she drops the prim and proper Emma Frost inspired clothes she wore with the other Cuckoos for an Omega Gang inspired vamp outfit. She’s playing at the being the bad girl, wielding a whip just to add to the image.

But, she’s growing frustrated with Magneto. She’s from a younger, instant gratification generation, the kind of people who don’t have time for Magneto’s Shakespearean speeches. If he’s going to flip the world, just do it already. She doesn’t understand what the hold up is. Of course, she does recognize the self destructive streak in Magneto, he has everything he wants, and still he’s obsessed with showing up Charles and proving that his way is the right way.

This all leads up to the central scene of the arc, in which Magneto is confronted by Xorn, who appears to have gained his own consciousness as an entity separate from Magneto. It’s reinforced throughout the arc, the fact that people prefer Xorn to Magneto, and now Xorn shines through as Magneto’s conscience. You could argue that this Xorn is Xavier speaking to Magneto, but I prefer to think it’s the Xorn fiction suit reclaiming agency and saving the world. People who criticize the Xorn/Magneto twist harp on the narrative implausibiltities of it all, ignoring the rich allegorical layer. Xorn is the best in Magneto, the kick addled old man we see here is the worst. He says “I am your inner star, Erik. I will never let you be.” What’s doomed Magneto’s schemes in the past is his conscience, he’s never been able to be fully evil, to wipe out humans, because he has an innate decency. On some level, he is Xorn, and as reconfigured in this story, it’s that part of him that continually makes him lose when he battles the X-Men.

When Magneto speaks to Charles, he makes it sound like this entire assault on Manhattan is an attempt to prove that his way can work. As Xorn, he saw Xavier changing the world, making it a better place for mutants, and transcending the human/mutant conflict in a way that Magneto never could. Magneto wants to prove that he does have relevance, but in reality, Xavier took the best of Magneto’s ideas and applied it to X-Corps. Ernst sums it up when she says “Nobody likes what you’re doing, Magneto. It’s boring and old-fashioned. It’s all coming to an end and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.”

It all builds to issue #150. Claremont’s #150 was a major turning point in the redemption of Magneto, when he almost killed Kitty Pryde, he hit bottom and started down the path that would eventually lead to his rehabilitation around #200. Morrison’s #150 is a strange climax, an emotionally charged spiral towards insanity for all involved. Let me first note that Jiminez’s cover for this issue is one of my favorite comics covers ever, a singularly epic image, that’s nicely echoed by the beautiful image of the Phoenix that opens the issue.

Jiminez kills it again with the outré image of Wolverine reforming himself as he and Jean cross space to confront Magneto. Jean says “I had to die to come back, Logan. But I don’t know how long they’ll let me stay,” reinforcing the idea that it’s not really Magneto’s energy charge that kills her at the end of the issue, she’s always dead, this is just her fading ember doing one last cleansing duty in the universe.

The issue is structured as a series of assaults on Magneto, each destroying a little piece of him. Beak shows up and doesn’t even fight him, he just shouts “Xavier school is the best school,” a cutting refutation of the revolution Magneto is trying to create. It’s all about showing up Charles ideologically, and he can’t do that here. A more showy assault is Fantomex’s dive from E.V.A into the building, guns blazing, bullets screaming. I love Fantomex, and I’m glad that Grant brought him back here to spin through the air and spout catchy one liners like “You and whose knees?” I think Fantomex would have been a great fit in Seven Soldiers, he’s the kind of guy who, if written right, could headline a mindblowing ongoing series.

Again, it’s not so much the bullets that bother Magneto as it is Fantomex asking “Is everything you say a cliché?” Magneto in this storyline has old ideas, and with each passing moment, the X-Men prove him more and more irrelevant. Scott does this too when he tells Magneto how much he loved Xorn. Magneto constructed Xorn out of a piece of himself, a piece that he now claims to hate, but deep down knows may be better. But, he’s stuck in the old paradigm, he’s got to be the bad guy. He won’t evolve.

Next up, Esme turns on her mentor and assaults his mind. She talks about being inspired by Magneto as an idea, then getting gradually disappointed as she comes to know the real man, another pointed comment on how Magneto is more powerful as a symbol than as a person. He sends her earrings through her brain, killing her. The scene where Emma holds her dying body is particularly interesting. Emma talks about how proud she is, even as Esme rails against her. Esme is in a period of rebellion, she has to reject her parental figures to claim her own self identity, even as she follows much the same path that Emma did, latching on to a powerful man and trying to use her sexuality to make her way. When she speaks to Magneto, she even notes that he doesn’t look at the way she dresses, she wanted to be everything for him, but he was just an old man. Emma knows that rebellion, it’s the same rebellion she had. In the end, Emma has more in common with Esme than with the Cuckoos who blindly follow her.

This all leads to the frantic climax as Magneto struggles to prove that he is in fact Magneto. Wearing Xorn’s helmet to protect his scarred face, he finds that the people no longer believe he is who he says he is, and the X-Men are reacting against Xorn’s betrayal, not to Magneto’s attack. In the end, Magneto is beaten down, the populace he inspired from beyond the grave now rejects him and won’t even acknowledge him. I love the panel of him tearing off the Xorn mask, and screams “See you morons! I AM MAGNETO!” The Phoenix mocks him, asking “Is this the Magneto anyone knows? Is this what he looks like?” Identity is fluid, a construct. Magneto stands for certain things, he appears a certain way, beaten down, Magneto can no longer match up to the symbol who inspired people. The revolution has come to pass, and it’s failed miserably. He says that the Xorn mask is suffocating him, the identity that represents the best hope of what he can be has prevented him from achieving his goals. It is his conscience, tearing him down.

Xavier sums it all up when he says that “the worst thing you ever did was to come back, Erik.” Xavier has learned from his experiences, he wants to “put away the old dreams and manifestos,” and just listen to the new generation. That’s probably why he’s stepping down as head of the school, he got obsessed with his own new vision, and it backfired when he alienated people like Quentin Quire. There will always be forces in opposition with each other, that’s the way that change happens. What Xavier is saying is that his and Magneto’s ideological opposition did not breed positive change, it only reinforced their previous biases and locked them into ideological corners. Xavier saw the need to change and did so, Magneto can’t make that same adjustment, he has been rendered irrelevant in the face of a new group of X-Men. I particularly like that Xavier says all this while surrounded with a cast of new characters from Morrison’s run. Sure, Beast and Cyclops are there, but it’s the new faces who stand out, the universe has expanded, and the old villains don’t have the place they once had.

So, Magneto kills the Phoenix, and asks for death. It’s a strange set of beats, but the scene works for me. The entire arc has been pitched at this insane level and having Wolverine chop off his head in a single panel is as good a way to end it as any. We’ve already seen Wolverine acknowledge that is place in this world is to be a killer, in this case, it’s a mercy killing. In that sense, Wolverine is much like the Phoenix itself, he destroys things that don’t work, paving the way for people like Charles who can build things that do. A lot of the run has dealt with the fact that it takes a crisis to produce a change. Cassandra Nova provided the impetus for Xavier’s new vision of the world, and now Magneto’s insane assault on Manhattan gives Logan the excuse to kill him, and by extension prove that his ideology is a destructive dead end that doesn’t work anymore.

The story ends with Jean literally slipping away into white light as chaos continues to spin all around. After such an insane arc, it’s appropriate to go out with any sort easy denouement. The Cuckoos claim that “something’s gone wrong with the whole universe,” Scott screams for Xorn, Jean slips away and we jump 150 years into the future.

So, that’s Planet X. It’s an arc that has some issues, but it’s also thematically fascinating, hugely ambitious and beautifully drawn by Phil Jiminez. Is this the Magneto I knew and loved from Claremont’s run? Perhaps, you can make the leap, but I don’t necessarily view Morrison’s run as a direct continuation of what Claremont did. He has his own spins on the characters, drawing from their essence as defined by Claremont, but molding them into something that makes sense for his storytelling purposes. I can forgive the disparity between 80s Magneto and this Magneto because I think the story he tells gets to the core of the character in an interesting way.

I particularly love the way the arc begins by telling us that Xorn is a construct, a total fiction who’s just been playing us the whole time, and the arc ends with Xorn saving the day. Xorn makes Magneto doubt himself, he brings Magneto’s conscience back, and in the end, Xorn obscures Magneto. He makes it so that the populace doesn’t know who’s real anymore. The X-Men believe he’s Xorn, the people don’t know who he is, and by the end, it’s Magneto who’s not real. He’s just a face on a t-shirt, an abstract idea that’s tied to a man who can’t match up. And, in the end, Wolverine returns him to a pure idea state.

Next up is “Here Comes Tomorrow,” an arc I’ve only read once, and struggled with the first time. I’m eager to delve into it again and figure out exactly what is up with the most avant garde section of Morrison’s tenure.

No comments: