Monday, September 08, 2008

New X-Men: "Riot at Xaviers" (#134-138)

“Riot at Xavier’s” is the most thematically essential storyline since “E for Extinction,” the first time that the new order Xavier has created has to stand up to a real challenge. Cassandra Nova posed a great threat, but was ultimately just another villain to be defeated, Quentin Quire is a twisted hybrid of Xavier and Magneto, a testament to what can happen when an incredibly powerful teenager decides to rebel against every authority figure around him. There’s definitely some pacing and development issues with the arc, but on the whole it’s a fantastic storyline.

The arc begins with further exploration of the idea of mutant as the new cool minority. The death of Jumbo Carnation makes clear the interesting dichotomy people have when relating to minority groups. People who are racist in their everyday life will still look up to black athletes or musicians. Here, Jumbo makes clothes like “tentacle stockings and wing gloves” that let everyone look like the craziest mutants out there. Jumbo is a cool countercultural guy, but when he steps out of the safe space of mutant town, he’s just an over the top mutant, ‘flaunting’ his mutation. Notably, his outfit is inspired by superhero clothes, logically in the Marvel U, high fashion, particularly mutant high fashion, would be drawing on the style of its most famous citizens, superheroes.

The most interesting thing about this arc from the perspective of Morrison’s canon as a whole is the fact that Quire is in many ways the archetypal Morrison hero, the rebellious kid trumping authority and seeking another, better way. Quire describes the “insane pop art masterpiece” Daily Bugle photo, which could be Morrison himself describing a 60s comic. Quire experiments with drugs, challenges the status quo and in the end, ascends to another, higher plane. Sounds like he’s one of the Invisibles, right? That’s where things get complicated because Quire’s behavior is essentially condemned over the course of the arc, his riot leads to little change, and in the end, we’re let to believe that everything he did was just to try and win the affection of Sophie, the archetypal insider cool girl.

When they’re battling Quire at the end of the arc, the Cuckoos tell him that it’s never about authority vs. rebels or right vs. wrong, it’s always been about “in” vs. “out.” Typically, Morrison heroes have been the outsiders, like the Doom Patrol, but here, the X-Men themselves are in, the Cuckoos are in, while Quentin’s group and the Special Class struggle to be like these people who are ostensibly our heroes. To use the archetypal high school metaphor, this is a series about the cool kids, and this arc is about the cool kids telling the outsiders to stay in their place.

I think there’s a lot of deliberate moral ambiguity in both this arc, and the run’s view of the X-Men as a whole. Xavier is trying to do the right thing, but without Magneto to check him, he’s become a bit high on his own power, and isn’t ready to confront the threat from within that Quentin poses. In Morrison’s cosmology, it is the conflict between two opposing forces that moves us towards a higher plane of existence. Cassandra Nova and Quentin both serve as agents that challenge the status quo, and force Xavier to refine his vision of a new world, in the same way that Magneto used to.

Investigating the death of Jumbo, we hear Beast talk about why he came out as gay, despite not actually being gay. In a lot of ways, it sounds like what Quentin Quire does later in the arc. He is deliberately challenging the status quo, where Scott worried earlier in the run about scaring the Republicans, Henry is confronting them with a self identity that’s as far from “normal” as possible. Unlike the other core X-Men in the run, Henry is not an insider, he’s dealing with the fact that he’s mutating further and further from humanity, and though he puts on a bold front for the kids, in private moments, we can see how scared he is. So, like Quentin, he deliberately pushes things further and becomes the very thing the human world fears most.

This conversation also features the interesting line, “After Genosha, the old troublemakers don’t seem to bother, do they?” Morrison used the Genosha event as a device to build a new world for the X-Men. It gave the X-Men an excuse to remake their own organization and a reason for why the villains of the past aren’t there anymore. Generally speaking, X-Men stories where they fight someone who’s wholly evil don’t work so well. During Claremont’s run, we saw many ostensible villains, Magneto, Emma Frost, Mystique and others shift towards the good side of things, or at least reach an understanding with the X-Men. The stories centered around defeating pure villains, like Cameron Hodge in X-Tinction Agenda, were generally less successful. Ultimately, the series is about the core characters and their relationships, with the threat of human prejudice out there in the distance. The characters aren’t interesting because of who they’re fighting, they’re interesting because of what they’re feeling.

The scene where Quentin Quire “strips” Slick of his charisma powers and reveals the real him is really interesting. Quentin says that “It’s all fake and illusion. That’s what cool is. That’s what charisma is. That’s what everything is.” But, surely if everything we see is an illusion, if reality itself is an illusion, then illusion is actually reality. Slick’s cool may not have been anything more than an illusion, but people believed in it and that’s all that matters.

Of course, the Quentin arc is largely about teenage rebellion, about the desire to confront authority and rail against anything that’s positive. It’s tough to say anything definitive about this arc because our moral allegiance is everywhere. Is the arc a lengthy satire of upper class rebellion, the absurd idea that Quentin should do all this simply because he finds out he’s adopted. If children are starving in China, isn’t it a bit ridiculous to get so worked up just because you’re adopted? I don’t think so. For Quentin, this is an apocalyptic event, it throws his entire self image into question, if he’s not the person he thought he was, it means he’s no longer bound by the limits he had placed on himself. He had reluctantly accepted the role of “loser,” of “outsider.” He could never be like Slick, but liberated from that old self by the news, he is able to become a different person.

A scene like Quentin on the street, looking at Jumbo’s body is hard to assess. Quentin says “The drugs can’t hurt me…can they?” We know that they will, there’s not many stories where people get addicted to drugs and all goes well. But, at the same time, don’t real people, particularly teenagers, feel like they’re invulnerable. Nobody who drives drunk thinks they’re going to get in a crash, they’re not like those other drunk drivers, they know what they’re doing. Objectively, it may seem stupid to drive drunk, but in the moment, people make stupid choices, and that’s why I think the scene works in spite of being clichéd. The conflict between cliché and real behavior is a major issue as the arc proceeds, Quentin’s story is the archetypal teenage rebellion writ large, and as such, the beats of the story feel predictable at times, and some scenes out right don’t work because they feel like something out of a 50s teen rebel scare film. It’s “Kick Madness.”

As way of pointing out the many tiers of personal troubles, Morrison spends a bunch of time in this arc with Xorn and the Special Class. Everyone feels like their lives are shitty sometimes, like things could never get any worse. Later in the arc, Emma and Scott feel terrible despite being powerful, beautiful people. Quentin would kill to be Scott Summers, just as someone like Beak would kill to be like Quentin. The Special Class is the lowest group in the social hierarchy. I really like the goofy dynamic these characters have with each other, and Xorn’s seeming total obliviousness to the way that everyone is mocking him.

The frequent discussion of “No-Girl,” the student who’s entirely conceptual once again brings up the issue of another conceptual character here, Xorn himself. Despite being nothing more than an invented persona, the class bonds with Xorn and his embrace of “the beauty and memory of this great world” is probably a stark contrast to the dismissive treatment they received from the rest of the world. Perhaps Magneto is steaming inside the helmet as they stick that “Jack-ass” sign on him, but for all the class knows, Xorn is a bright shining star who just wants to team them a better way.

In class, Quentin confronts Xavier with exactly the sort of rhetoric that both he, and Grant, have been spouting for years, “Butterflies from caterpillars and all that old stuff.” Quentin claims he’s seeing things from a higher perspective, no longer interested in working with the humans that he views as mass murderers. In Morrison’s philosophy, the goal of evolution is to remove oppositions and bring people together. Xavier’s way is close to what we see Jack propose at the end of The Invisibles. And, Quentin looks quite a bit like the student we saw Jack speaking to at the end of 3.2.

Quentin is trying to move things in the reverse direction. New X-Men has started out with the end of The Invisibles, “post-war” status quo. Now, Quentin is saying that things are so dangerous it’s not possible to try and work with humans, they need to isolate themselves. It’s a kind of war on terror sentiment, the idea that Genosha was such a crushing blow, it’s naïve to try to use peace to solve the problem. And speaking of The Invisibles, the guy that Quentin and his gang beat up on the street is the spitting image of Jack as drawn by Quitely in 3.1.

This issue foregrounds the power enhancing drug Kick. Kick is a perfect metaphor for mutant aggression because it literally enhances mutant powers, makes Quire and his gang feel less and less like humans, more like something amazing and different. I particularly love Emma saying how she tried it, “in the interest of science,” and “felt angelic and violently insane for five hours.” In previous Morrison works, we saw drugs in a generally positive way, a window into another world, a new mode of perception. Tripping on a mesa opening Jack and Buddy Baker to new worlds, but doing Kick only seems to drive Quentin towards violence.

What’s the difference? One could view it in the us vs. them, me vs. you dichotomy that’s so critical to Morrison’s philosophy. What kick does is enhance the individual’s power here on Earth, whereas the drugs in The Invisibles took people out of their own heads and connected them to a higher plane, moved them closer to the supercontext. Quentin has selfish motives, as do most of the other kick users during Morrison’s run.

During the tattooing scene, the characters in the text once again subvert the epic nature of Quentin’s rebellion. Quire sees himself as the next Magneto, someone who’s going to tear up Xavier’s idea of right and wrong and remake the world in his own image. But the tattoo parlor guy sees them as “suburban neo-nazis. Fratboys on dope!” He’s trying so hard to rebel, but nothing he does is enough to really change things. As Wolverine says earlier, every generation is the same. They have to go through the process of rebellion, experience the extremes of an argument before coming to terms with the more balanced position that Xavier holds. Xavier wants everyone to believe the way he does, but they haven’t been through the struggles he has. It’s easy for adults to tell kids what’s right and wrong, but it’s not until you experience something for yourself that you really understand.

The problem with Wolverine’s advice is that Quentin’s rebellion has turned violent, he killed people, and that’s crossing a line. Without the influence of kick, he might have just crewed with things at the school, but the kick emboldens him to more extreme tactics. As we see during the U-Men assault, the Omega Gang has become out right cruel in a way that even Magneto wasn’t. I think this is where the story slips up, Quire goes so far over the top with his violence that it becomes a bit hard to believe. There’s a major disconnect between the Quentin we saw in the first issue and the person we see here, and there’s not quite enough development on his emotional arc. I suppose you can write off the change to Kick, but that’s sloppy storytelling.

The U-Men assault on the special class leads us to the best page of art in the arc, the haunting scene of Xorn destroying the truck while Angel looks on. Xorn says that the entire scenario has been designed to teach the children their own worth. But, Xorn himself seems to have betrayed his non-violent exterior. This arc really makes clear the dual motivations of Xorn, and he’s never more creepy looking than when steam is pouring out of his helmet, fire behind him.

As I said, this page is amazing, but the art in general is a bit disappointing for Quitely. I don’t think it’s so much his fault as the post processing. In the same way that Phil Jiminez’s stuff looked weird, all the people have a strange reddish shine to their faces. In the panels were lighting is weird looking, like Beak in the flashlight or the special class standing in the glow of the helicopter, it looks great, like typical Quitely, but in other scenes, it just doesn’t look right. I’m glad that Quitely got a better finishing process for his recent work, Marvel really botched things here. And, they also apparently forced ugly looking goatee Wolverine on Quitely, a design that’s far from the cool guy we saw back in “E For Extinction.”

This brings us to the riot proper. If there’s one major missed opportunity here, I think it’s the chance to show the human reaction to what Quentin Quire has done. If the Xavier Academy is supposed to be the bridge between the mutant and human world, this open day would be its shining moment, when they show humans that it’s possible to peacefully co-exist. So, Quentin Quire’s riot would be the ultimate blow to that hope. Humans aren’t going to give them another chance after a disaster like this. Unfortunately, after this storyline, Morrison never really goes back to that idea. The story moves out of the more reality based world it’s been in so far and back into an over the top comic book world. It makes for some great stories, but I think there are missed opportunities in exploring the effects of what Quentin did. As it is, the death of Sophie is the major emotional moment, where it should be the death of the dream that gets to us.

Emma Frost and the Cuckoos make plans to stop Quentin. As the insiders, apparently the most popular, beautiful girls at school, it’s in their interest to protect the status quo. They’re the ones who would shine when humans come to the school, and they don’t want to see things disrupted by Quentin’s “gang of bad haircuts.” As the series developed, the Cuckoos became the most interesting of the student characters, a hive mind that’s gradually breaking apart. Here, we see Esme questioning Miss Frost about the deaths of her previous students, drawing the ire of her fellow Cuckoos.

It’s strange that Morrison should choose to place our emotional alignment more with the Cuckoos than with Quire. Shouldn’t we be drawn to the revolutionary figure, not the entrenched establishment? Again, I’m not sure how much we are supposed to sympathize with Quentin. The end of the arc makes it seem like he had some good points and got led astray by Kick, which he did, but as the arc plays out, he seems like a sadistic destroyer. The reasons for that are the over the top drug stuff and the actual murders he commits earlier in the arc, they pull our sympathy away from the Omega Gang.

Of course, calling that a failure is assuming that the goal of the arc was to make Quentin sympathetic, when perhaps the entire arc is designed to show the failure of violent revolution, particularly when it’s predicated on such flimsy motives. Quentin latches on to the violence in Genosha, but the implication in the story is that this all happens because he’s distraught about finding out he’s adopted, and that he’s hoping to do something that will make Sophie attracted to him. It’s the dichotomy between that motivation and what happens that makes the storyline stretch credibility at times. We just don’t have enough time to watch things get out of control.

Anyway, the ending moments are well done, when Xavier diminishes Quentin, claiming “the revolution lasted minutes.” I’m not sure that’s the best way to win the affection of your students, but it does show a Xavier pushed a bit over the edge. He wants to punish Quentin in this moment, and thus becomes the malevolent authority figure he never wanted to be.

But, the real payoff is the amazing moment where the Cuckoos, functioning as a five in one legion entity, tear Quentin apart, ripping through his exterior down to his nervous system. It’s a crazy panel, like only Quitely could do. The moment also features the line I was talking about earlier, the idea that it’s all about “in versus out.” Quentin tried to get in, and wound up destroying the person he hoped to make love him. Again, this would play better if Sophie was the first person Quentin hurt, not one among many.

The next issue opens with another Xorn/Magneto hint. Pouring the cement mixer onto Herman, we see the metal ladder bending behind him. Magnetism was in use there. It’s interesting that Magneto should be so central in quelling a revolution that’s largely about carrying on his ideals. The best scene in the arc is Quentin Quire’s transcendence beyond this physical plane, which is full of both Xorn/Magneto stuff, foreshadowing for “Planet X” and “Here Comes Tomorrow,” and some core Morrison philosophy. The scene also benefits from the werid lighting, which makes Quitely look like Quitely again.

Quentin says that he hears everyone thinking the “same stupid thought” in different languages. This recalls the talking head in “Arcadia,” as he moves toward transcendence, the divisions of our world fade and Quentin becomes more connected to the universal oneness. Here, we get the first moment where Quentin and Xavier really connect. As telepaths, they’re much closer to supercontext perception than the rest of us. When Quentin talks about people jabbering in little boxes, he’s really talking about us, locked in our own heads and unaware of anything outside ourselves. Xavier speaks of “A hand scared of its fingers. The loneliness and loss felt in a world without telepathy.” Being a telepath for Xavier isn’t a curse, it’s a blessing, a way to know that everyone feels the same things and isn’t as alone as they think they are.

Xorn enters to heal Quentin, but winds up euthanizing him. He tells Quentin that “There is something in you that is like me,” tying back to the idea of Quentin as Magneto’s successor. There’s a strange aura over the whole scene, for a moment, we’re out of the world of the X-Men and closer to the world of The Invisibles or The Filth.

The other major development in the issue is the rift between Emma and the Cuckoos. Emma at first speaks with her usual attitude, praising the “glory and panache” with which Sophie gave her life. She’s not ready to be opposed by the Cuckoos, who once again confront her with the many children Emma has led to their death. The Cuckoos tear Emma’s ego apart, puncturing the self image she’s built, and bringing everything she hates about herself to the surface, prefacing what Jean will do in the next issue.

This leads Emma back to Scott, and the safe place they made in issue #131. She wants to explore all those “difficult feelings without guilt,” escape to a world where she doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of her decisions and can indulge in psychic role play. She puts on the costume of Dark Phoenix, but in being with Scott, she’s also wearing the suit of Jean. As Emma Frost, she’s got a lot of actions in her past to be ashamed of. But, if she can make straight arrow Scott Summers love her, then she can’t be all bad. Scott’s central issue is that he wants Jean to be bad for him, to unleash her feelings like she used to, but with him, she’s always boring and good. Emma’s issue is that she has seen how dangerous and nasty Jean can be, but people still idolize Jean and always question her own motives. So, in wearing the Phoenix costume, and even mimicking Jean’s hair, she can make herself more like the woman she simultaneously hates and wants to be.

She mentions a number of times being left mentally broken the last time she fought Jean, she has clearly not forgiven her for what happened. Being with Scott may have started as revenge for that, but it turned into something else by this point. He is her refuge from a world Emma is losing control of, together in her thoughts they can both indulge their desires.

I love when she tells Scott to “stop being such an old superhero,” and he seems baffled, saying “I’ve never been allowed to be anything else.” Recall back in issue #126 when Jean said that Scott was her favorite superhero, he’s trying to keep up that image for her. With Emma, he can let his guard down and be whatever he wants. At the same time, he can play with his darker fantasies about Jean. Emma mocks the hyperbolic prose surrounding Dark Phoenix, claming that “I’m going to explode with passion and fry the stars, darling.” There’s definitely a sexual component to Jean’s power in the Phoenix Saga, unleashed as it is by an elaborate role playing BDSM ritual. Emma plays on that here, giving Scott the fire without any real danger. In this space, he can have it all.

Except, oh wait, his wife has found her way in. The safe space is not so safe, and Scott finds his darkest desires exposed to the person he had hidden them from for so long. But, more on that next time.

So, “Riot at Xavier’s” is simultaneously a fantastic arc and a troubled one that never quite matches its potential. There’s two ways of viewing a work, all too often people view a work for what it’s not, grading a work based more on its flaws than what works in it. I’ve seen films I considered essentially flawless that I still didn’t love. This arc is full of problems, but it’s also got some of the best stuff in Morrison’s run to date. I am aware of the negative, but I choose to focus on the positive.

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