Thursday, August 14, 2008

New X-Men: 'Germ Free Generation' (118-121)

‘Germ Free Generation’ is easily the low point of Morrison’s run on X-Men, a story that might have worked under Quitely, but is totally decimated by some of the worst art ever put to print by a major publisher. It’s like watching a David Chase script directed by a four year old, some of the original concept shines through, but most of the time you’re distracted by the total ineptness on display.

The arc starts off with a scene in which a comic book loving future member of the U-Men discusses the Third Species. The X-Men have been used a metaphor for a variety of things, racial minorities, gays, etc, but considering the book’s audience, isn’t it possible they’re just a metaphor for social outcasts. Much like Peter Parker or Buffy Summers, they’re the people who are rejected by normal society, but really have so much special about them. And now, “uncool is the new cool.” In a world where comic books rule the box office, where does that leave the audience? Are these things really cool, have we ‘won’?

In New X-Men, Grant creates a clear divide between the ultra-stylish and cool core X-Men, and the stumbling outcast students. He’s recognizing that it’s a bit implausible for someone as powerful and beautiful as Jean or Emma to feel like an outcast all the time, to be ‘hated and feared.’ I like the evolutionary step of giving them a certain level of social confidence, and leaving the teen angst stuff to the kids.

And, Grant makes the logical leap that people would want to be like, and be, mutants. Who wouldn’t want special powers? We’re in a world now where the goal isn’t to be the same as your neighbor, it’s to be better than your neighbor. Parents want their kids in the best schools, they push them to be the best athletes, why not give them powers that no one else would have? That’s why I love the concept of the U-Men, though I think the execution of it here is a bit muddled. Morrison does a better job of conveying society’s embrace of mutantkind later in the run when he talks about mutant fashion and music taking over society. The old guard might still hate and fear them, but the kids want to be like them. That’s frequently the way it is with minorities in the world today. In this world, mutants are taking over the world both literally, with the impending demise of humanity, and on a psychological level. As Jean says, “Is everyone talking about us?”

Jean ponders whether Emma shutting down the protestors’ minds was wrong. In a world run by mutants, there’s got to be a new standard of morality. If what she did helped the kids, was it worth violating the minds of individual people? A lot of Morrison’s run is concerned with the limits of what the X-Men can do. In the annual, Wolverine expresses surprise that “we do this kind of thing now,” that they’re taking the fight to people. But, at the same time Scott insists that they are a rescue organization, not an army. In the early 90s, it was a big deal when Cable came along and insisted that he was going to take the fight to the bad guys, not just sit around and wait to be attacked. The same thing happened earlier this year with the new X-Force book, but invariably those characters slink back to the old patterns because an aggressive force just doesn’t make for good stories. The X-Men have been dependent on being persecuted in their stories because writers weren’t ready to really change the paradigm. Here, Morrison is pondering if the paradigm can be changed, are they playing by human rules, or mutant ones?

The scenes with Angel illustrate the divide in mutant perception. The educated elite want to take on mutant characteristics, but people in more backwater areas still fear the unknown of mutants. In this world, mutant tolerance seems to be a kind of “not in my backyard” kind of thing. People are cool with mutants, as long as it’s not their son or daughter. That’s another place where the series really resonates with the minority experience today. People may be tolerant of gay people, but are they going to be cool when their son or daughter comes out? Not necessarily. Yet, at the same time, heterosexual people are actively appropriating gay styles and culture. Are the U-Men the metrosexuals of this world?

My disappointment with the U-Men storyline comes when Jon Sublime is changed from a social pioneer to a rather standard villain. His motivation is interesting, but the execution is all old school supervillain, and that’s not particularly engaging.

Plus, the second issue of the storyline introduces us to Igor Kordey’s godawful art. Before the reread, I thought, how bad could his art really have been? It probably just looked bad next to Quitely. But, that was not the case. I honestly don’t know how Marvel thought it acceptable to put out a book with art this bad. Was the monthly schedule so important? If you ever complain about delays on a book, just flip to this issue and you’ll understand why even the six month delays for Seven Soldiers #1 or Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman are worth it. Looking at those books today, I don’t remember the wait, I remember the book itself.

This is different, X-Men needs to come out every month, and we’d waited for Quitely, the run probably would still be going. As Whedon/Cassaday showed, for an X-book to make a real impact, it’s got to come out every month. The possibility of real change is an essential part of the X-Men. Eventually, Marvel conceded that Quitely couldn’t do the book on any sort of regular schedule and came up with the successful solution of splitting up the arcs by artist, but for the next two arcs, we’re in shaky territory.

The last two issues suffer a bit from the decompression popular at Marvel at the time. Particularly because I have no desire to get lost in these images, they’re quick reads. There’s some interesting groundwork laid for later in the run, with Jean’s increased power, and the omnipresent flu at the Mansion, but generally speaking it’s not too interesting. The best moment is definitely Emma’s anger when she finds out her nose has been broken. It’s not bad, but it’s just not the exciting pop epic that Morrison’s X-Men should be.

Luckily, things pick up in the next issue when Quitely returns for the ‘Nuff Said issue. ‘Nuff Said month was a pretty stupid gimmick, designed to show off the potential of the comics medium to tell visual stories. What it did in practice was create a bunch of issues that took two minutes to read and distracted from the major plots of their series. However, Morrison manages to make the gimmick work for him, thanks largely to Quitely’s unparalleled visual storytelling abilities. No one in the medium can use images like Frank can, and this is a perfect, bizarre tale for him to illustrate.

Most comics don’t really tell the story with their visuals. The big splash pages are there to draw your attention, but it’s the text that carries the bulk of the information. Typically, it’s reading the words that take more of your time than reading the visuals, but this comic feels just as dense and substantial as one filled with text. I had to take my time to really ‘read’ the images and see what was going on. And, because there are no words, you’re paying more attention to body language and facial expression to understand what the characters are thinking. Every comic should have this dimension, but only Quitely and a few others really push the medium to the max in that way.

The first astonishing layout in the issue is the trip down Charles’ mind, a circlular series of panels that seems to drain into itself. It’s dizzying to read and sets you up for the strangeness to come. I love the coloring in Xavier’s mind, the heavy greens and pinks that engulf Jean as she builds a bridge to the tower.

The issue really takes off when Jean journeys into Xavier’s past, to witness his conception. I’ve always been fascinated with womb imagery. There’s something so otherworldly about millions of little organisms swimming towards the egg, and building a person out of it. One of my favorite Quitely images, and comics images in general, of all time is the battle with the two fetuses in the womb. It’s so surreal and alien, a really disconcerting thing to see.

The issue progresses with the destruction of the tower, another dazzling visual. The substance of the issue is the revelation about Cassandra Nova, but it’s all about the execution. Quitely builds this whole world and lets the characters play around in it for a while. It’s a boldly avant garde piece of storytelling, in an X-Men book of all places. Doing work like this helped make him an even better artist, and set up the future triumph of We3.

And, story wise, it does tell us a lot about what’s up with Nova. But, more on her and her grand scheme in the next batch of reviews.

Evangelion: The Rewatch

I just finished rewatching Evangelion, the TV series. Watching those final few episodes again was, as before, a humbling experience. Nothing else I’ve seen so precisely sketches the realm of the mind, mashing up internal trauma with operatic robot action. The last six episodes of the series are arguably as strong a run as in any series ever.

But, how do the early days play knowing where it’s all going? The short answer is it all makes a lot more sense, and is generally easier to take. Watching the show the first time, I was baffled by a lot of logic questions. Why was it that they needed kids to pilot the Evas? Why did the Eva pilots go to school? Eventually, the show answered those questions, however, at the time there was no way of knowing if they ever would. So, it’s easier to skim over some of the more illogical things in the series. Even the goofy stuff that really bothered me on the first watching works fine now. It’s nice to see the characters at a time when they all haven’t been utterly torn apart.

But, there’s a clear divide between the first and second half of the series. Everything between the Rei poem is an entertaining, but fairly straightforward story. The Rei poem in ‘Weaving a Story’ is where everything changes. It’s the first of the hypnotic visual poem scenes that explore a characters’ psychological makeup, and become a signature as the show progresses.

Rather than comparing film to books, I think it’s most useful to compare it to music. Those are the only two arts where time is a dimension, where it’s up to the creator to control the pace at which the viewer experiences the art. Beyond that, I think they’re the most structurally similar. In music, I generally listen to songs with lyrics, but it’s rarely the content of the lyrics that interests me, it’s the sound of the music. As such, it’s usually the instrumental breakdown or guitar solo that’s my favorite part of a song. The lyrics exist to let us get to know the song, but it’s that moment where the music transcends the lyrics and exists on its own that’s most satisfying.

In film, it’s the same way. The narrative is the equivalent of the lyrics, if you have a film without a narrative, just like a song without lyrics, it’s hard to emotionally latch on to it. Abstract movies have merit, but it’s hard to ‘hook’ the viewer without any kind of throughline. Just like lyrics give you a quick way to remember the melody of a song, the narrative gives us the emotional inlet to characters, and a linear way to experience the various images. However, the narrative should actually exist to provide a spotlight for filmic experimentation that enhances our emotional experience. In the case of Evangelion, the narrative is frequently set aside for those improvisatory psychological subjectivity moments.

The brilliance of the series is that it’s able to use those psychological sequences, the ‘guitar solos,’ to tell us so much about the characters. Anno uses film in a way I haven’t really seen it used before, drawing on European art films, but going further. He uses the science fiction conceits of the narrative as a way to plunge us into the characters’ heads, and leave us there. Think of the amazing sequence in ‘Don’t Be,’ where Asuka is mentally assaulted by the angel. It’s a tour de force example of cutting to tell a story, but it’s the climax of her character arc.

The best moments in cinema are those where the emotional peak and the stylistic peak occur at the same time. Think of Magnolia’s “Wise Up” sequence, a directorial triumph that would be totally satisfying on its own, but also serves as the climax for the film’s second act. People often say that “style” can get in the way of the emotional content of the film, that’s the classical Hollywood aesthetic, doing everything you can to convince the audience that these events are just happening with no outside influence on their presentation.

In the case of Evangelion, the conceit of the characters’ psychological self exploration provides the opportunity for sequences that tear right through the fourth wall. Particularly in the last two episodes, you’re always aware that you’re watching something constructed, in some cases, barely even constructed, just the storyboards or unfinished drawings. But, that awareness only seems to enhance the experience of the narrative. The last episodes are about taking us on a psychological trip, and the breakdown of the diegetic reality is a major part of that.

There’s potential for a near endless intellectual analysis of those last few episodes, on a psychological level, a filmmaking level, a cultural level. I love the series for all those things, but what makes it so special for me is that it really hits me on an emotional level. I mentioned it when talking about the series earlier, but the psychological dilemmas faced by the characters remind me a lot of myself, in a way that very few film protagonists do. The reason for that is the focus on internal life as the source of problems.

The last episode is largely about the inevitable unhappiness that comes when our perceptions of our own lives bump up against the social ideal, and we find ourselves lacking. It is only when we measure our lives against what we should have that we feel bad about what we do have. All of the characters are trying to live lies, simultaneously deluding themselves to believe that they need other people to be happy, and that they are unhappy because of other people. I relate to Shinji the most, but it’s Asuka who just breaks me in the later episodes of the series. She’s so distraught after Episode 22, a single line, like her wondering why they sent out Shinji to save Rei, but not her, is devastating. Her perception of herself clashes against reality and she is destroyed.

Watching the show again, I tried to better follow the whole Angels/Adam/Seele/Lilith side of things. I was doing pretty well until ‘Rei III,’ when Ritsuko goes down into the chamber of Reis and tells Misato and Shinji what was up with her. My interpretation of things at this point is that in 2000, Misato’s father created a form of life, which produced the second impact. That creation was the crucified white creature they call Adam, who was in actuality Lilith. Was there a real Adam? I don’t know, but there is a difference between the Lilith creature and Adam.

It was from Lilith that they created the Evas, hence the human soul in the Evas. Each Eva seems to have been imbued with the soul of a woman, in the case of Unit 01, it’s Yui Ikari. So, that Eva is a fusion of Lilith and Shinji’s mother. But, so is Rei. She was built by Gendo Ikari to help bring about the fusion of human and higher level being, the transcendence of human loneliness on the road to godhood. There’s that mysterious shot where his hand has an eye growing in it. He is trying to become like Rei and Kaworu.

And yet, isn’t Kaworu different from Rei? He serves Seele, who have this master plan involving the angels. They want to use the angels to bring about the third impact. They decided it was inevitable, and fear that Ikari has his own agenda. They are loyal to the actual Adam DNA, not the human tainted substitute that is Ikari’s Lilith. In the end though, Kaworu realizes that life and death mean the same thing, and he chooses death.

Or something, I’ll perhaps have a more definitive view after watching End of Evangelion again. Either way, it doesn’t particularly matter. The whole convoluted mythology underlining everything is really just an excuse to get the characters to points of psychological crisis. The biggest takeaway from the Seele investigation of Rei’s ‘death’ isn’t any sort of mythology thing, it’s what it does to Ritsuko, the way her sacrifice echoes what Gendo Ikari did to her mother. Her pain is what’s interesting, but that betrayal converges with the narrative in the Rei clones revelation. So, the mythology and personal stories perfectly intersect, each enhancing the other. That’s the beauty of the series, and seen as a whole, it’s astonishing how perfectly all the character traits that are set up as fun quirks, or minor troubles become magnified with the passing of time and eventually become devastating tools of self destruction. More after End of Eva.