Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Mythology of Obama/McCain

It bothers me when people invariably hold up so called ‘realistic’ works of art as more important and relevant than science fiction or other ‘genre’ works. For one, ‘realism’ is just as much a construction as ‘subjectivity’ or sci-fi. The Wire is only realistic because that style of writing and acting hews to today’s definition of realism in art. Yesterday’s ‘realism,’ think a 50s Brando performance, can look mannered today, in the way that I’m sure one day The Wire will feel just as mannered.

The Wire tells us a lot about the world we live in, but it’s not all in the ‘realistic’ depiction of events, it’s largely the editing and story construction, which juxtaposes various sectors of society against each other, that reveals the hidden connections and chain of events that hurt people. A work like The Corner can be emotionally devastating, but without seeing the whole picture, the work doesn’t reveal as much about the world.

All of this is a way of saying that sometimes it takes a constructed situation to reveal what’s really going on in the world. It’s hard to make movies directly commenting on the political reality of the world we live in, things change so fast, talking about specific events can seem instantly dated. I think part of that is also a lack of courage on the part of filmmakers. Every Iraq War film tries to take on this ‘objective’ point of view, to be apolitical, which I think is irresponsible. Nobody wants to watch a two hour essay on why the Iraq War is bad, but at the same time, it is bad, and I think there’s plenty of great material about the specific failures of the Iraq War.

For me, the only great war movie ever made is Apocalypse Now. It’s the only film that puts you in the subjective experience of war. Watching the film, you see how people could kill, because they’re in such a totally insane world. The entire film is subjective, a psychological journey as much as a physical one. It’s not necessarily a political film, but the folly of Vietnam is present in every frame. It captured the psychedelic insanity of that war, and I think we need a film that could do the same for Iraq, and the disastrous buildup to the war.

The only work I’ve seen that really got to the core of what Iraq is about is the New Caprica arc on Battlestar Galactica. It’s a work that isn’t explicitly about Iraq, and that lets it cast our heroes as the Iraqis, and portrays the Americans as a vast impersonal invasion force. It’s intensely relevant, but also riveting filmmaking. The whole war in Iraq story is pretty unbelievable, a war for imaginary weapons that was won five years ago but wages on with no end in sight. A war that costs billions of dollars, but no one really cares about. It’s a war that everyone wants to be over, but no one will end. It’s a war that can perhaps best be expressed in mythic terms, we’re in a world that is at the midst of a vast ideological struggle between a progressive force and a regressive, violent force. It’s a war that is eternal, and has taken many forms. It’s the war of The Invisibles, it’s the war of The Fourth World, it’s the war of Star Wars. It’s not a war at all, it’s a rescue mission.

All of this is a buildup to discussing the recent John McCain ad, in which he claims that Barack Obama is “the one.” He quite literally evokes Joseph Campbell’s Heroic mythology to position Obama as the savior come to deliver us from an age of darkness. And, watching the ad, it vexed me. Couldn’t this be an Obama ad, a beloved savior here to make the world better. It’s not until I got to the Moses section of the ad that I realized the whole thing is meant as satire, a sarcastic rebuke of Obama’s rhetoric from a profoundly cynical man. I complained in the past that the Democrats were all Daily Show liberals, happier to joke about Bush’s ineptitude and language slips than to offer an alternative to his policy. But, it seems things have flipped, Obama is the one offering a vision of a better America while McCain is the guy heckling him offstage.

It really bothers me that McCain would choose this tactic because I think it can undermine virtually everything positive that Obama represents. I don’t think Obama is that different from other politicians when it comes to policy, he’s made a few too many compromises for my taste, he’s better than most, but I’d like to see him go further. Still, a while ago I realized that specific policy might be not be as important as the overall impression a candidate makes.

Obama’s presentation, the invocation of a new era can be more important than any policy. Bush’s genius was to create a political world in which his ideas were right, and anyone who disagreed with him was un-American. It became difficult to present new ideas because he could claim that anyone who disagreed with him was with the terrorists, or was disgracing the memory of 9/11, or something like that. The Democrats had to play the Republican game, claim that they were stronger than the Republicans on security. That’s why we went to war in Iraq, because politicians were afraid to oppose it, fearing being called weak when it came time to run for higher office. The poetic justice of John Kerry or Hillary Clinton’s votes on the war is that they voted for political reasons, and that vote wound up destroying their campaigns. It’s fitting that they should find that fate, having chosen politics over principle.

So, Obama is giving us a new hope, a vision of a better world. What is McCain offering? “Experience?” Yes, McCain has experience, experience of failing. His implicit message is vote for Obama and be attacked by a terrorist. But, he already betrayed our so called ‘war on terror’ by supporting the war in Iraq. He chose to vote to go to war on a lie, so he either got duped by Bush’s pitch, or he for some reason chose to invade a country that was no threat to us. If he was sold by Bush’s pitch, that means he can be easily swayed by lies, and is likely to put America in danger again. If he really thought it was smart to invade Iraq for no particular reason, then he’s a rash extremist, prone to violence. Or, perhaps he really does think it’s America’s duty to spread democracy to the rest of the world, by any means necessary.

In that case, isn’t it a noble calling, something to be proud of? Of course, that’s not really it. McCain has no backbone, no beliefs beyond perpetuating the military industrial complex. And that’s why he’s become the guy in the back of the movie theater throwing wisecracks at a serious film that people are listening to. His goal seems to be to so thoroughly shred Obama that by the end he doesn’t win, he makes Obama lose. He is the Archons from The Invisibles, trying to preserve the status quo through fear, not wanting things to be any different, any better than they are now. He is literally fearmongering, making people think that any change in their lives is invariably going to be for the worst, that we’re perilously clinging to the way things are.

If Obama really is “the one” as McCain says, isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t a good thing to be loved by the rest of the world, isn’t it a good thing to want to change the world? Isn’t this what the country’s ‘forefathers,’ so beloved by Republicans, intended. America is an experiment, it should evolve and change with the times. That’s what Obama is trying to do, and that’s why the cruel heckles of McCain are perhaps the greatest endorsement of Obama. The movie trailer practically writes itself: “In a nation’s darkest hour, one man will rise to save them all.” Obama, incarnates a twenty-first century vision of progress, a blend of races and ideas, he has transcended all manner of obstacles to come this close to the presidency. To elect him will send a message to the world that we’re ready to make the world better.

Distilled to its essence, this story is a myth as old as time. He is a messiah figure, a contemporary incarnation of a classic archetype, caught up in an eternal struggle. To simply depict the reality of events doesn’t tell the whole story, we need to look at it in the context of the eternal human mythology, which McCain has conveniently done for us. Cast in that light, who’s going to vote for Darth Vader instead of Luke Skywalker? Who's hoping the sentinels will destroy the X-Men? Who wants the past to stop the future coming?

All Points West: Friday

I haven’t been to too many concerts lately. Working the night shift means I can’t go to any shows during the week, but with some time off coming, I took yesterday off and went out to All Points West, the latest attempt to start a New York area music festival. The lineup yesterday was full of bands I liked, and on the whole, it was a great experience.

I started things off with The New Pornographers. I’ve seen them four times now, and only once did they totally impress me. Not coincidentally, that was the Summerstage two years ago where they headlined. The other times I’ve seen them, they were either opening for someone else or at a free show. It’s a huge difference when the whole crowd is there to see a band. Most people didn’t seem to know their songs, and the energy level just wasn’t as high as it was when they headlined.

But, it’s always good to see them, and they played most of my favorite songs. “Bleeding Heart Show” and “A Testament to Youth in Verse” are always fantastic live. Nothing they do can top the wordless chorale moments on those two songs. However, without Neko Case, their stage presence is pretty low energy. They sprinkle in lengthy self deprecating banter between songs that drains the show of momentum. I’m no fan of the stereotypical “Hello Cleveland!” classic rock style audience pandering, but at the same time, I think the endlessly rambling “I don’t know what I’m doing” style banter has gotten old too. We paid to be there, you guys have played a bunch of shows, I think you can string together something better than saying the camera looks like that thing from Wall-E and trailing off ashamed.

Compared to the other bands I saw, the NPs seemed to be actively trying to crush any momentum their set had. They need to get the drummer out in front, he’s the only one who seems to be really enjoying himself. But, the music was still good, particularly a great cover of ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” to close out the set.

I next headed over to the ‘Bullet’ stage to see CSS, who thankfully had a fifteen minute delay on their start, so I could catch all of it. I loved their first album, but have been totally underwhelmed by my few listens to their new one. But, hearing the newer songs live, they played pretty well. They’re not as distinctive as the first album’s, but they keep the energy up live. LoveFoxx was a manic presence on stage, but got outclassed by the restrained cool of her bandmates. Still, her craziness is a huge part of the band’s success, and she killed it throughout.

Next up, I caught the last few songs of Underworld. I’ve listened to some of their stuff, and generally like it. ‘Born Slippy’ is the obvious classic, and I walked over right as it was starting. Their set was a bit odd, one guy on a mixer, and the vocalist dancing around with various video effects behind him. It’s definitely the kind of set that would play better in a club setting, where you’re expecting one guy with a DJ, rather than a festival setting like this, with a full band. It was still fun to see, but a bit underwhelming.

Of course, the real attraction was Radiohead. They came out with an amazing stage setup. Surrounded by hanging lights, and backed by a video screen that featured a multitude of angles on the band, processed through color filters. The video screen visuals were so good, you could record them and make a great music video without any editing. It was one of the best light shows I’ve seen from a live band.

Most of the set was drawn from In Rainbows. I had mixed feelings about the album going into the show, and coming out of it. I definitely liked it, “Reckoner” and “All I Need” are standout tracks, but it’s definitely a lower tier Radiohead album. My ranking of their albums as a whole would be:

Ok Computer
The Bends
Hail to the Thief
Kid A
In Rainbows
Pablo Honey

The issue I had with In Rainbows was that most of the songs had a similar feel, in the same way that Amensiac did, but Computer or Thief didn’t. They used similar instrumentation on most of the tracks, and there weren’t as many of the emotional shifts that songs like ‘Lucky’ or ‘Paranoid Android’ had. Ironically, it’s like In Rainbows was all painted in one color, whereas their best work used a spectrum.

However, as the show got going, they played a bunch of tracks off Rainbows, and I was wondering why I didn’t love it. “15 Step” was a great opener to the show, and “All I Need” was fantastic live. Other than an amazing “Lucky,” most of the early going stuck to songs from Rainbows. That was fine, I figured they would start with newer stuff, then segue into older songs. It’s not that I only wanted to hear the older stuff, I just wanted a mix.

As it went on, I was loving the show, the light effects were amazing, and the song selection was pretty solid. However, towards the end of the opening set, the momentum started to slip. Closing on “How to Disappear Completely” meant a loss of energy after they left. The crowd reaction was pretty small, I’m guessing people assumed there would be an encore so they didn’t feel the need to get too loud. Still, going out on a more uptempo song would have probably left things with more emotion. It’s not that the softer songs can’t work at all live, it’s just at one point they strung three or four low tempo songs together in a row, and that cut a lot of momentum. When they came back with ‘House of Cards,’ I was like, didn’t they play this one already? They hadn’t, but it’s when Rainbows fatigue set in for me.

Still, I’ve got to stress how amazing the visual presentation was, and the performance. The slower songs still sounded great, it’s just a question of scarcity. When I’ve only got a few Radiohead songs to see, it was frustrating to have a bunch of songs I don’t particularly care for. I’d have to liked to see more off Hail to the Thief, and a couple more tracks off Computer or Bends. I don’t want to be one of those people just asking for the old stuff, I’m sure it’s more exciting to play a song you wrote a year ago than to play one written twelve years ago for the thousandth time, but by the end, I was reminded why I had issues with Rainbows in the first place.

But, this was still one of the best shows I’ve been to in a long time. The stage presence was amazing, and they had the crowd rapt throughout. I’d definitely like to see them when they pass through New York again.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Final Crisis #3: 'Know Evil'

Final Crisis #3, like the two previous issues, features some really great stuff and some material that doesn’t work. The series’ greatest strength is its atmosphere, this oppressive feel of death hanging over the whole thing, that keeps building as we move along. But, on an emotional, character level, the series remains frustratingly fractured. Largely due to the limited space, and month long wait between issues, it feels like we never get enough time with the characters, and that makes it hard to emotionally engage with what’s going on.

The strongest parts of the book are the ones taken from the areas of the DCU that Grant has built over the past ten years, particularly the scenes with Frankenstein and Mister Miracle. The opening is one of the issue’s high points, as we at last get the return of Frankenstein, last seen one billion years in the future in Seven Soldiers. How did he get back to the present? It doesn’t really matter, perhaps SHADE went into the future to retrieve him. And, why are they trying to capture Renee Montoya? SHADE head Taleb says that he’s got a future in mind for her, but their approach seems malevolent.

Either way, Renee takes some names in this sequence, smoothly departing from that trippy pop art room and shedding her skin behind her. Apparently, the bodies of those inhabited by the Evil Gods are left drained of all life. That does not bode well for Turpin.

One of the things I like about the series that’s also frustrating on the monthly read is how oblique the narrative is. Much like Seven Soldiers, it’s up to the reader to tie events together and construct the metanarrative out of the various snippets we get. I read Seven Soldiers after all but Issue #1 had come out, so it was easy to ingest huge amounts of the series and process it as I went. Reading this series monthly, the pieces come slowly, each issue makes things from the past click into place, but it won’t be until the last issue is out that everything becomes clear. Here, the stuff with the fallen Monitor explains what was up with Kamandi and Anthro’s meeting in issue one, and clarifies Metron’s role. He is seeding his sigil throughout time, setting up a covert resistance that will likely help the heroes defeat the Evil Gods.

Almost every scene in the book has additional layers, a surface and a subtext that fills us in something going on elsewhere. The scene with Father Time clarifies what Turpin saw last issue, while also setting up the scene with Wonder Woman later in this issue. A ‘Local Warlord,’ likely DeSaad took over Command D operations and is now using Bludhaven as the center of his experimentation.

Next up is the scene with the Flashes and a trip back through time. I think bringing Barry Allen back is pretty much pointless. He looks exactly the same as Wally West when in costume, so I wouldn’t have even known what was going on without the internet. But, the scene itself is cool, watching them try to catch where the bullet was fired. Orion’s death seems to be the catalyst for the dark gods’ reign on Earth. I’m guessing that at some point later in the series, one of the Flashes will catch the bullet and revive Orion, leading to the eventual defeat of Darkseid.

Libra’s evil plan continues to unfold in a secret lair that brings to mind Slaughter Swamp from Seven Soldiers. Libra has become so dangerous even Lex Luthor opposes him. Why does Lex do this? Last issue, I speculated that it was the inherent opposition of Luthor to the natural order of the universe. Libra is trying to flip the morality of the world, and in a world where evil rules, Luthor will fight for good. Also, he’s too smart to want to surrender his mind to the anti-life equation.

Mike’s words, “Anti-life justifies my hatred” are particularly haunting. In Kirby’s Fourth World books, he made note of the easy lure of anti-life. It’s easier to think about nothing and surrender yourself to the comfortable certainty of anti-life. It’s the same kind of thing Kirby saw when fighting fascist governments in Germany and Italy. People accepted the rule of these governments, they bought in to anti-life.

The series dips for me when it leaves Morrison’s corner of the DCU and goes to characters like the various Green Lanterns, or even, in this case, Superman. I don’t know that much about the Green Lanterns, so that whole side of the plot just kind of sits on the page for me. The scene with Superman is alright, but doesn’t really hit me on an emotional level. I like the frantic pacing most of the time, but those moments really need to be expanded to make an emotional impact.

In some ways, I think this story would have been served better by being expanded, or put out as a weekly series. He’s going for a 52 style overview of the DCU, but with only seven issues, there’s no time to delve deeply into the characters’ emotional lives. Admittedly, it’s more of a big spectacle story, like his work on JLA, but it’d be nice to spend some more time on each storyline.

The highlight of the issue is undoubtedly Shilo Norman and Sonny Sumo’s adventure in Japan. I love the blend of street level action and high concept. Shilo recounts his escape from the grave, and ties things back to the prophecy he saw in his own Seven Soldiers series, which is starting to come true here. There, the New Gods were all hidden in homeless and dejected people, perhaps the same is true here? I loved the Mister Miracle series, and I’m glad that this series has turned into its sequel.

And, things pick up another notch with the arrival of Super Young Team. To be honest, I think this series might be better if it was played all Seven Soldiers style, taking the big players off the board, and sticking to lower level characters, like this bunch, The Question and Frankenstein. The reason I love 52 and Seven Soldiers is that the characters there aren’t so tied into years of continuity, or the expectations that being Superman or Wonder Woman bring. They can explore new corners of the DCU and really grow and change. When I read the parts with the Flashes or the Green Lanterns, I always feel like I’m missing something, not so here. Either way, it’s pure pop fun when Most Excellent Superbat takes Shilo and Sonny up into the sky, Super Young Team style. Don’t worry, they’ve done this sort of thing before.

The issue ends with a series of harrowing scenes. Mary Marvel, now dressed as a punked out dominatrix attacks Wonder Woman in a nasty, bloody fight scene. Her explanation for the change is interesting, “I just couldn’t stand being wholesome and plan and boring one second longer.” I’m not sure on that much of the character’s background, but she seems to be going through a period of typical teen rebellion. She doesn’t want to listen to her parents anymore, and, since she’s got super powers, her rebellion is very dangerous.

The anti-life equation hits the net, and plunges the world into apparent darkness. The Flashes trip to the future and find Wonder Woman at the head of a group of Darkseid’s female furies. She has been horribly distorted, like Mary Marvel before her. On these seedy urban streets, she seeks to destroy all that is good.

So, this issue has some brilliant scenes, but the overall shape of the work remains hard to see. Read on a month to month basis, it’s an intriguing atmospheric story, but I think we’ll need to wait for the release of the entire series to really understand what Final Crisis is.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Real World

For the past few years, I haven’t read many ‘regular books.’ I’ve read many comics, seen many movies, but for a variety of reasons, haven’t read many prose books. However, with a twenty minute subway ride to work each day, I’ve got more time to read, and have read a bunch of books lately. Over the past couple of days, I read Natsuo Kirino’s Real World, a really powerful suburban noir about a group of teenage girls who get involved with a boy who murders his mother.

The book’s power lies in its use of subjectivity. Each chapter is written in first person, from one of five characters. Notably, it’s not a Rashomon style multiple perspectives on the same events kind of thing, the narrative progresses forward as it passes from character to character, but our perspective on the people involved changes through our immersion in the various subjectivities. The murder plot is the book’s hook, but what was most interesting for me was the examination of social dynamics, between friends and between men and women. In seeing the dichotomy between what people think of themselves and how their friends perceive them, the personas we put on to function in society become clear.

Pretty much every character starts their chapter by describing how her friends can never really understand what’s going on with them, that the friends are all about surface and are unable to have meaningful discussions. There’s always going to be two layers of social interaction, the show we put on to pass the time, joking around and talking about surface things. But, underneath that, there’s another layer, the real sharing of emotions and ideas. This is something that doesn’t happen that often, because it can be painful and dangerous. The more of yourself you put out there, the more people can pounce on your weaknesses. No one is without their secret shame, and if people know what if it is that bothers you the most about yourself, they can use it to hurt you.

That’s the logic of most of the characters here. They won’t threaten the status quo of their friend circle by bringing in real emotions, they just keep it on the surface. We see this in a variety of ways, everyone’s got a secret life. Yuzan’s is the most overt. She’s a closeted lesbian, and doesn’t want her friends to know, even though two of them already do. It’s an open secret between them, but the decision to not address it lets them get on with their day to day lives. To bring the issue to the surface would complicate the friendship in a way that they’re not really ready for.

Interestingly, we never actually see the four girls together. We get to know them by what’s in their heads, and can piece together the dynamics of their interaction through that. We start with Toshi, who’s the most ‘normal’ of the characters. She doesn’t really have a secret life, she doesn’t have any of the traumas that the other characters suffer through, she’s dealing with getting into college and feels jealous when two of her friends hang out without her. Her secret life is the most mundane, a false name, Ninna Hori, that she puts on when she wants to remain anonymous. Her perspective opens and closes the book, a bookend of normalcy around the crazier events within. Her small transgression, not telling the police that she saw Worm on the day his mother was murdered, is what leads to the traumatic events to come.

For all of them, Worm becomes a way of flirting with something out of the ordinary, a respite from the pressures of everyday life. For Toshi, lying to the police is enough of a thrill. For Yuzan, it’s giving him a bike and a cellphone, helping him escape the law. But, Kirarin fancies herself the most mature of the group, and the chance to get to know a murderer proves irresistible for her. Kirarin feels very real, a girl who likes the power that she has over men, and wants to exercise that power, even as she maintains the image of the cute, popular girl at school. She reminds me a bit of Laura Palmer in Fire Walk With Me, living a double life of normalcy and sophistication, all the while drawn to danger.

She makes a huge deal of being the only one of her friends to have a gay friend, and she also thinks she’s the only one of her friends with another alternate circle of friends, in this case, a group of girls with whom she talks about only shopping and boys. She compartmentalizes her life, talking about relationships with one group of people and other things with her ‘normal’ friends. We see that with a lot of characters in the book, the constant keeping of secrets to protect a social image that their friends have created.

It’s something that rings true to me, in high school, we talked endlessly about things that didn’t matter, and never discussed anything really important. I had close friends, but it wasn’t until the end of high school that we really broke the surface and talked about more important, emotional things. I remember having these ‘discussions,’ as we called them, it was something that would just happen organically, a segue from the surface to deeper emotion, making internal dialogue external. In Waking Life, one of the character says that the sharing of ideas between two people is a religious experience, and I’d agree with that. Some of the most amazing moments of my life have been conversations where everything just clicked and ideas and emotions moved between me and someone else. But, our restrictive images of ourselves make that hard to do. We have to conform to this role that society has put us in, to not do something ‘out of character.’

In Kirarin’s case, she chooses to do something dangerous and ‘out of character’ without consulting her school friends, speaking only to her gay friend, the friend who is a social transgression for her. In her mind, his exoticism is topped only by the exoticism of meeting a murderer. Kirarin is the kind of person who uses others for her own benefit, who loves to control men, as a way of getting back at Wataru, a boy she opened herself up to, who subsequently betrayed her. She fantasizes about using Worm as a way of getting back at Wataru, only to find herself in way over her head as things go too far.

When interacting with Kirarin, Worm alternates between militant dominance and total weakness. Kirarin is such a strong presence, she would normally have total control over a guy like Worm. He is a meek guy who hasn’t had much luck with women, a loner. But, the fact that he’s a murderer gives him an edge, a power that he otherwise lacks. In his changing behavior we see the spectrum of control in relationships between men and women. Weaker men are always controlled by women, they are the ones who go where their women want them to, and do what is asked of them. They’re the guys who can’t just go out and pick somebody up, who on some level feel lucky to be with anyone. They are essentially harmless, and lack the capacity for violence. But, men with the capacity of violence change the power equation. The threat of violence gives powerful men the implicit last word. Women can try to make them do anything, but they don’t have the last word. Here, Worm switches between roles, embracing the persona of a military commander, but slipping out of that back to weakness.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the way each character comes fully alive during the chapters they narrate. You feel like this whole thing is about whoever’s speaking, and aren’t sure how things will proceed when they recede from the main stage. Late in the book, we spend time with Terauchi, and get a fully drawn picture of this girl’s life from childhood to high school. A few months ago, I watched Love and Pop, Hideaki Anno’s film about a group of four high school girls who kind of prostitute themselves to make money. It reminds me a lot of this book, and gave me a better understanding of the kind of culture these girls are in. Terauchi talks about being felt up everyday on the train, constantly harassed by older men. This gets her down, it makes everyday a struggle, and that’s why she chooses to kill herself at the end of the book.

It all ends with Toshi, who is still living a pretty normal life at the end of the book. She meets Haru, a girl who used to be a Barbie and has now become a mod, shedding personalities with the seasons. But, Toshi puts on the persona of normality. She says she wears clothes that won’t stand out, and in doing so, she’s making her own kind of fashion statement. She’s implicitly saying I’m nothing special, and maybe living that kind of ‘normal’ life makes her the healthiest one in the book. She isn’t as enraptured with the idea of escape as the others, she can’t quite understand why they do what they do. She’s the closest the book has to an objective point of view. But, immersed in the other characters’ minds, we have a total understanding of why they acted like they did, we know the world they lived in and the struggles they faced.

I though this was a great book, a really striking use of subjectivity to make a story that could have been a simple thriller into an exploration of universal social dynamics, the way that people interact with each other, the way we build up our own public personas, and the secrets we keep from the world.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

New X-Men: 2001 Annual and #117

Annuals were typically pretty pointless in the days of Claremont’s original run, but not here. Grant uses the 2001 Annual as the vehicle to introduce a ‘new’ character, Xorn, the zen mutant with a star in his head. Just a note, if you haven’t read the whole run, do not read on, spoilers will be flowing.

The most immediately notable thing about the annual is the choice to have it printed sideways. Trying to make ‘widescreen’ comics literal doesn’t produce too much of an effect here, it mainly just makes it annoying to hold the book. I think there’s some potential in printing the comic like this, but there’s not too much in the story that really takes advantage of it. The art in general is lackluster, Lenil Yu cannot match up to Frank Quitely, and his cartoonier style doesn’t match well with the odd realism of Quitely’s pencils.

This issue introduces a lot of critical concepts for the rest of the run. One of the most notable is the idea of the X-Corporation, a global network of Xavier affiliated groups doing positive work mutants. I think it’s one of Morrison’s best concepts, broadening the scope of the series and giving the more obscure mutants something to do. The spinoff books seem like they’d write themselves.

We also get the introduction of John Sublime, a proponent of the ‘third species.’ Like any cool subculture, people who aren’t mutants are going to be interested in adopting mutant traits. If you lived in that world, wouldn’t you want mutant powers? It’s another example of a concept that seems to write itself, though, so far at least, it’s more interesting in theory than in narrative practice.

The issue itself has a James Bond flavor, the glamorous X-Men globetrotting and battling evil governments, not supervillains. Wolverine and Emma Frost again steal the show here. I love the moment where Logan is able to smell Domino’s interest in him, and the way they work together. Domino is a character from the darkest days of the 90s, but Morrison manages to make her work by putting her in an over the top, fun story. Her luck power is a deus ex machina, but it works if you keep the story moving along at a fun clip.

Much of what happens here is affected by the foreknowledge that Xorn is actually Magneto. How does that reconcile with the events of this issue? It makes sense if you accept that Magneto constructed the whole prison scenario as a way to infiltrate the X-Men. It strains credibility a bit, but in light of Magneto’s previous schemes, is it so unbelievable? The thing I love about Xorn as Magneto is the way it ties in with the concept of fiction suits from The Invisibles. In shedding Magneto and becoming Xorn, Magneto finds the acceptance and admiration he’s always wanted, all directed at this false persona.

On the whole, the annual is one of the weaker pieces of Morrison’s run. It sets up some important things, but doesn’t have the scope of emotional dynamism of the later parts of the run. Things pick up with the next regular issue, #117.

We begin with troubled mutant Beak, and a return to the idea of Xavier’s as an actual school. It’s another seemingly blindingly obvious idea that was never done before, to have an actual student body at Xavier’s. There’s a lot of potential stories there, it allows the X-Men to grow up, and gives them something more to deal with than just supervillains. The major X-Men characters are all so old, it felt weird to have them at a school, they had no growing left to do. New Mutants had some good moments, but a school needs more than five students, and I like the way Morrison builds a fully functioning student body over the course of his run.

At a school of mutants, there’s going to be an even bigger divide between the pretty, popular students and the ‘loser’s than in a regular school. How can a guy like Beak interact with the Stepford Cuckoos? In the subplot with Beast, we see the sad side of mutation. Trish won’t go out with him because, despite his very human mind, he just isn’t physically compatible with her anymore. It’s a real tragic development, and things only go worse for Hank when Xavier turns on him and brings all his fears to the surface, when he ‘throws up on your soul.’

The Xavier/Beast scene is one of the hardest to read, the way he turns Beak’s admiration for Henry into a physical assault is heartwrenching. A lot of writers have played with the danger that an evil Xavier presents, but this small scale psychic control is more troubling than the sort of global destruction we’ve seen before. Xavier can see into anyone’s mind, he can pull up any secrets, what can that power be if used for destructive purposes? He can make people do things they don’t want to do, and make them hate themselves for it. In Seven Soldiers, we see the guilt monster walking around the city, a manifestation of the hate people feel for themselves. Here, Xavier becomes the embodiment of self-hatred, forcing people to confront the things in themselves they’d rather keep hidden, bringing every awful feeling to the surface. That’s the most effective villain, one who plays on the weakness within, so that even if he is defeated, the emotional scars will still be there.

Elsewhere, we get more of Zen Logan. Morrison’s take on the character is a particular highlight of the run, a truly mature Wolverine. The kiss between him and Jean is interesting because he’s the one who resists her. He may still want her, but he thinks he’s wrong for her. And yet, in this incarnation of the character, would he be so wrong? He seems much more levelheaded, and emotionally in touch than the cold, distant Scott.

The issue ends with Xavier heading off into space. I’ve never particularly liked the Shiar part of the X-Men mythology, it’s hard to reconcile with the more realistic elements of Grant’s run. But, it does take place in the Marvel universe, and I like the way they talk about mutants being the first ones to tolerate extraterrestrials. This is a really strong issue, and a nice setup for the storylines that will run through the rest of Grant’s first year on the book.

Monday, August 04, 2008

X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills

Back when I did my writeups of Chris Claremont’s original X-Men run, I skipped one of the most acclaimed parts of that run, the graphic novel “God Loves, Man Kills.” Unlike some people, I don’t consider GLMK one of the best things Claremont’s written, primarily because the standalone format doesn’t really play to his strengths. However, it’s perhaps the best book to give someone who’s never read a Claremont X-Men comic, a primer for the sort of stories he told on the main book for many years, mostly devoid of the stranger, more “comic book-y” tropes that could cause problems for people who aren’t used to those elements. It’s still a superhero comic, but one that aspires to, and generally succeeds in achieving real world relevance.

I feel like at some point I should do a post on the ten greatest critical misconceptions surrounding the X-Men, one of the biggest being that everyone’s just been redoing Claremont/Byrne for the past twenty-five years. The Claremont/Byrne run lays the groundwork for much of what followed, but if one book cemented the popular perception of the X-Men as heroes fighting for a world that hates and fears them, it’s this one. Nowhere is the Professor X as Martin Luther King, Magneto as Malcolm X divide more clearly articulated, and rarely was anti-mutant sentiment so big an issue in the main book.

The second X-Men film was a loose adaptation of this book, in many ways a toothless one, since it stripped the story of its most biting, and relevant, piece of social commentary, the conflict between conservative religious figures and mutants. In a world where Evangelicals dispute the existence of evolution, how would they treat mutants? Probably not too well. I love the fact that Claremont makes such an explicit statement against religious motivated bigotry, a move that’s more relevant today than it was when the book came out. Yes, Stryker exists more in the world of superhero comics, I don’t think most preachers have death squads going around in their name, but in the context of a superhero genre work, it makes sense.

My major issue with the book is that it doesn’t have much relation to continuity or the ongoing narratives that make up Claremont’s best work. The thing I loved about reading his whole run was seeing the way that events built on each other and characters changed as a result of what they experienced. This is kind of a standalone book, so even though it has some nice character moments, you don’t get the added payoff of watching it build to something else.

But, as a standalone piece, it holds up as an edgy, and still relevant political commentary. I think the X-Men work best, on a thematic level, if they’re fighters for the future. That’s how I saw them in Grant’s run, and it’s how I see them here. They may be hated and feared, but they’re fighting for more than their survival, they’re fighting to raise tolerance and make a new and better world. In the traditional X-Men paradigm, where they’re a superhero team, the peaceful approach doesn’t make that much sense. If you’re battling people out to kill you, it’s hard to be Gandhi, and it’s hard to make that work for stories. However, this story makes clear why the X-Men approach is frequently preferable to Magneto’s. They don’t want to remake the world by force, and turn humans into an oppressed majority, they want to make a world where everyone can be accepted, and humans can accept mutants. Much like The Invisibles, they don’t want to kill the enemy, they want to save them.

But, the whole metaphor becomes a bit different when mutants have such dangerous powers. If I was writing the X-Men, I would do an arc about a teenager who discovers he’s got huge powers and doesn’t use them responsibly, he uses them to get whatever he wants, and make people do his will. I don’t think the X-Men fighting supervillains is that interesting, but how would they deal with someone who’s using their mutant powers for self gratification with no social responsibility whatsoever? Think of the cornfield episode of the Twilight Zone, how do you fight back against that?

Much as I love Claremont’s take on the concept, I do think new writers could tell interesting stories taking the X-Men out of a superhero paradigm and thinking more about what it means to be post-human. That’s what Grant was doing, and I think others should continue the exploration. This story is a step towards that, probably the most ‘real world’ of any Claremont X-Men story.

That’s not to say it’s totally removed from his traditional stuff. There’s some great material with Kitty and Magneto. I’m not sure if this is meant to be before or after 150, but the connection between them is cemented. One of the things I like about Magneto’s holocaust background is the way it gives a very clear motivation for his antagonism towards humans. He cannot be na├»ve and hope for a better world like the X-Men do because he’s of a generation that’s seen such terror. Kitty hasn’t suffered through that, and as a result, she’s able to believe in peace. And, seeing through her eyes, Magneto has the chance to redeem himself. Not every generation is going to as scarred as he is.

In the end, this isn’t my favorite X-Men story, but it’d be a great intro for someone looking to get into Claremont. It distills a lot of central X-Men into one convenient package, and is a compelling enough story in its own right. In the future, I’m hoping to review some of the Claremont miniseries from the era of his X-Men run, as well as continue looking at Grant’s work on the book. So, stay tuned for more X-Men.

Mad Men: 'Flight 1' (2x02)

This week’s Mad Men was full of bubbling under the surface emotion, characters unable to deal with the troubles facing them, and unwilling to talk to their families about the problems afflicting them. Notably, pretty much no one on the show ever says what they’re really feeling to someone else, they’re all in the ‘business of persuasion,’ and part of that business is projecting an image of success. To open up to someone emotionally is to expose a potential weakness, and that’s not going to fly in office politics or family life.

I’m not alone in comparing the show to The Sopranos, and I think it’s interesting, in light of an episode like this, to consider the role of violence in The Sopranos as a cathartic element. Tony can go through all kinds of personal problems, and we see that come out in him physically attacking someone. Think of the whole ‘Pie-o-My’ drama leading up to Tony beating Ralphie to death. The Sopranos featured the same gnawing under the surface dissatisfaction, but gave us those occasional outbursts of violent release. Here, outside of the generic environment of the gangster show, there is no easy emotional outlet. It’s closer to real life in that sense, most of the time you don’t do violent things, you suffer in silence, and only in moments of extreme stress do we see characters let down their emotional guard.

The series’ signature moment so far is in the first season finale. After Don’s brilliant, emotional pitch for the Kodak Carousel, we’re led to believe he’s finally come to appreciate his family. Looking at those photos, he understands how much Betty and the kids mean to him and goes home to tell them that. Only, they’re all gone, and the season ends with him sitting there alone. That is the emotional climax of the season, a man sitting alone in an empty house, but in the context of the world Weiner has built, it really works.

This episode is all unspoken issues for the characters. The most striking scene was Don sitting in the Japanese restaurant alone, reflecting on what the Mohawk rep told him. Don likes to believe that his pitches are more than just sales talk, that they have some real meaning. But, the Mohawk rep sees him as just a smooth talking guy, doing whatever it takes to make a sale. He assumes that Don is feeding him a line when he says that it’s not his fault, we know he’s not, but this guy just sees Don as part of the game. And, Don sits there wondering if he’s so wrong. He makes these impassioned pitches, but Sterling Cooper just uses him for its own ends.

That corporate parasitism is made clear in the scene with Pete and the American Airlines rep. Pete is asked to use the death of his father to get the contract, and he doesn’t want to do it. But, abandoned by Don, he goes along with it, and moves one step further ahead in the company. The whole death of the father storyline is notable for what it doesn’t do. We’re teased with Pete’s impending cry, but never actually get it. Instead, he goes through a curious lack of mourning, and winds up using the death to move one step ahead in the company.

When I looked back at the first season, I felt like the whole “Mystery of Dick Whitman” plot was a bit out of place. Did the series need these overarching questions to drive it? Wasn’t the day to day narrative enough? And, it seemed kind of implausible that Don could so successfully take on this other identity. But, watching this episode, it becomes clearer why that plot exists. Much of the series is about characters putting on personas, everyone’s trying to be someone different, trying to keep their secrets away from the surface. They’re trying to buy into the American dream, and gradually finding out that dream is just something cooked up advertising.

We see that theme with Joan, who doesn’t want anyone to know her actual age. She puts on this front of total confidence, but is quite troubled by Paul’s new girlfriend. She likes to think that no man can ever get over her, and isn’t sure how to deal with him. Having her birthday known to the office makes it harder to keep up the illusion she’s trying to project.

The episode’s strangest scenes were Peggy’s trip back home. She tries to always project this image of herself as a successful career woman, who can control men and get what she wants. But, when she goes back home, she finds not only her working class roots, but also her child, a physical record of her own self delusion and lack of control. There’s still a lot to be revealed about what exactly happened to her, but she apparently had some kind of mental breakdown, and had to undergo mandatory psychological intervention. The reveal of the kid was really well done, as was the final scene with her holding a screaming child in the church, a visual summation of what’s up with her. She’s trying to maintain this front of cool, but her past mistakes won’t stay quiet.

On top of this, we get the funny scenes with Don and Betty’s kids. While the bartending scenes are the obvious gaffes, what stands out even more is the enormous distance both Betty and Don have from their children. The kids are just props in their perfect American life, you never get the sense that they actually love them. Notably, Don is the one taking point with the kids now, Betty is clearly still holding the power after almost discovering his affair last year. They both are apparently agreeing not to talk about it, using the other couple as a surrogate way to discuss their own situation.

The first episode back was solid, but this one had me fully back in the swing of the show, full of complexities and unspoken subtext. It’s a brilliantly layered episode, and sets up for some even more interesting developments down the line.