Wednesday, September 17, 2008

New X-Men: "Murder at the Mansion" (#140-141)

After the amazing prelude issue, “Murder at the Mansion” proper begins in issue #140. This storyline is kind of a mixed bag for me, there’s some great character bits along the way, but the main murder mystery is a dud. We never find out the reason the murder happened, and the murder victim is back alive in the end. The story works best if you view Emma’s death as a metaphorical representation of Jean’s range, and the story as the process of her recognizing that Emma may actually have valid feelings for Scott. But, what the hell does Bishop have to do with all that!?

I mentioned in an earlier review that I don’t mind the random cameos in this run because I’m familiar with pretty much all the X-Men characters. I know who Bishop is, but at the same time, I think it’s kind of a mistake to bring him in. Part of it was probably about crossing over with Claremont’s X-Treme X-Men, which was in a kind of war of influence with Morrison’s X-Men at the time. This was his homage/shot at Claremont, and while it probably worked during the monthly publication, Bishop’s appearance seems to come out of nowhere here. That’s one of the major problems with writing for the monthly vs. writing for the trade today. Back in the 80s during the original Claremont run, he had total control over the entire line and could make crossovers seamless, now the X-Men are so fractured, trying to connect to what’s going on in the overall world makes the collected story feel incomplete.

If I was to get the chance to run the X-line, what I’d do is turn it into a weekly series, kind of like Spider-Man now, and have it be a huge, sprawling epic with many different individual subplots. Basically, instead of having ‘spinoff’ books, you’d have one mothership, with all the characters filtering in and out from week to week. I liked reading the books during the ‘Messiah Complex’ crossover, when there was something new out every week, but with a few exceptions, I don’t like getting only 22 pages of story ever month. That’s why I’d rather pick up the X-books in trade, if I buy them at all now. Mike Carey’s stuff had its moments, but nothing now feels as important as Morrison’s run on the title did.

There’s a lot of wheel spinning as they investigate the murder, some good scenes in there, but nothing particularly important. Things don’t get great again until near the end of issue #141 when Jean embodies the Phoenix Force and looks at Emma’s consciousness. In #139, Jean used the Phoenix Force was a way to indulge her human jealousies, her personal anger. Here, she seems to have transcended humanity entirely, exactly what Emma said she was doing. Jean at this point has become something so much more than human, she recognizes that maybe she doesn’t need Scott anymore, and can’t be with him like he needs her to be. Jean has learned to harness the Phoenix force and using it, she can make things better. I love the way Jiminez draws her here, his Jean is the definitive Jean for me, at least of Morrison’s run.

The critical moment is when Jean realizes that Emma really does love Scott, and that Scott needs her. They can give each other something more than she can give him, and here, she empowers Emma to pursue Scott. This scene is echoed in “Here Comes Tomorrow,” where she once again gives Scott the go-ahead to be with Emma and move on after she’s transcended to another plane.

In practical narrative terms, Jean dies at the end of the run, but in reality, she becomes something more. Her ‘death’ is merely the end of her human existence and a passage into the white hot room, or the supercontext. Like Quentin Quire, she burns too hot for this world and has to become part of something new.

Things end with a lot of ambiguity, Esme walks away and teases a secret foe with in, setting up the forthcoming Xorn/Magneto revelation. This isn’t the high point of the run, but I’ve got such affection for the characters, and Jiminez’s art, that it works. Even throwaway moments, like the Special Class’s “Professor Sex in the toilet with the lawnmower” gag work, and keep the story fun in spite of some fundamental problems.

True Blood: "The First Taste" (1x02)

True Blood’s second episode does a successful job of expanding the universe a bit, and clarifying some of the elements that remained rather ambiguous after the first. The second episode is typically the toughest for a series, after pouring all kinds of time and money into the first episode, the second one comes along and you’ll frequently see shows stumble as they figure out what to do. With both Six Feet Under and The Sopranos, the second episode is arguably the weakest of the entire series. Here, I get the sense that Ball knew the show would be picked up for the whole thirteen when he made the pilot, so there’s not that lurch of trying to get a bunch of ongoing plots into motion after a semi-standalone first episode. This is an unabashedly serial show, jumping from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and the best elements of this episode all flow directly out of the first.

The best scene in the episode, on all levels was undeniably Sookie feeding on Bill while out in the swamp. I love the way the swamp feels so artificial, the moody lighting and carefully placed trees give it a very theatrical feel, like the characters have wandered onto a stage and are now playing out a drama in the most consciously stylish way possible. I enjoy works that embrace the stylistic potential of departing from a strictly “realistic” space. I’m sure people will be complaining about the fake looking sets, but that swamp environment felt so much more distinct and dreamlike than a real swamp would.

The Sookie/Bill relationship is interesting because it feels quite consciously drawn from the archetypal beautiful girl and brooding vampire archetype, we’ve seen this before, we know that the story will inexorably push them together, the characters can sense this magnetic pull, but remain unaware of its exact nature. Either way, Anna Paquin as Sookie remains the sun shining at the heart of the galaxy that is this show, eclipsing everyone else on screen with her great performance. She’s a really likable presence, and her sunshine persona contrasts with his darkness.

There’s a major contrast between the very physical relationships that the other characters have and the more chaste flirtation that Bill and Sookie share. The juxtaposition of Jason having sex in an extremely graphic scene with Sookie and Bill just holding hands in the swamp works well to demonstrate which one is about real affection. That’s not to say there’s no physical connection between Sookie and Bill, the blood drinking scene would say otherwise.

So, after two episodes, I’m definitely on board. I don’t know that it’ll ever become as great show as Six Feet Under, but there’s a lot of intriguing stuff here, Anna Paquin is fantastic and the tone and atmosphere really work. It’s trashy TV for smart people.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

New X-Men: #139

Let me start off by praising Phil Jiminez’s fantastic art on this issue. The weird coloring/inking issues from his previos New X-Men story have been generally resolved and his art looks a lot more like the fantastic stuff he drew for The Invisibles. Jiminez’s art isn’t as distinct as the work of someone like Quitely or JH Williams, he doesn’t have any tells that make it easy to instantly identify his art. He just draws very clear pages, with innovative layouts and absolutely beautiful characters. Nobody draws prettier people than Phil Jiminez. So, his work often ends up looking like a great big budget movie, with glamorous actors and stylish costumes and environments. Just look at the cover to #139, you feel like you’re backstage at a photoshoot with two supermodels.

#139 picks up where “Riot at Xavier’s” left off, with a big showdown between Jean and Emma. A large part of this arc is about Jean realizing that Emma really does love Scott and that she might be better for him than Jean herself is. She is moving towards a more cosmic perspective, and by the end of the arc, she’s ready to give up her possessiveness towards Scott and let him be with Emma. However, here she has not come to that conclusion yet, and she’s quite angry at what’s going on.

It seems odd that Scott would try to justify his actions by claiming that what he and Emma were doing isn’t real, that “it’s just thoughts” when he’s dealing with telepaths for whom thoughts are just as real as physical reality. Scott is just repeating the justification he had for his own actions. He knows what he’s doing was wrong, if he didn’t think that, he wouldn’t have protested so much when Emma got involved with him. But, he’s still clinging to that reasoning because it makes it okay for him to do what he did. Scott is someone who doesn’t think he does bad things, everyone else places him in this “boy scout” role, and consequently, he can’t imagine himself as the kind of guy who has an affair.

Marvel did all they could to protect that image of Scott because it’s a large part of their branding. Wolverine is the bad boy, Scott is the safe guy who’s always going to do right by you. “Inferno,” much as I love the story itself, is largely designed to alleviate Scott of his guilt for abandoning his wife and child to get back to his high school sweetheart. Mind you, this is after Scott married a woman he probably never really loved simply because he looked like Jean. This was a pretty twisted character, and some of those early X-Factor issues do a good job of dealing with the repercussions of what he did. But, the X-Office gradually bought him back to the stable rock he has been for a while. Morrison’s innovation is to play with the corporate sanctioned image of Scott as the image others have of him in the world of the story, the image that’s impossible for him to live up to. In Morrison’s run, it’s not Wolverine running wild, he’s trying to keep Scott on the straight and narrow, but Scott is bored by trying to live up to this image the world has of him, and that’s why he escapes into Emma’s head, where he can be as bad as he wants to be.

In a lot of ways, Scott’s position here reminds me of the way Tony Soprano and Don Draper deal with women. They each have a safe woman at home who loves them, and they care for, but don’t necessarily feel passion for. They seek that passion from a more challenging, morally ambiguous woman outside the relationship, someone who can be the ‘bad girl’ they don’t want their wives to be. Again, Morrison skillfully uses the sexual BDSM imagery of the Dark Phoenix saga within the world of the story, by making Scott jealous that Jean will dress up like that for others, but dresses sensibly around him. He claims he wants that fire, but at the same time, it scares him, he has put Jean up on such a pedestal, does he really want to wallow in the dirt with her, like he does with Emma?

Jean confronts Emma, and claims that she took advantage of Scott, while he was dealing with possession by an evil spirit. In the series to date, Scott’s possession has been used the excuse, by both Morrison and Scott himself, to explore the darker side of his persona, and that’s what Emma echoes here, claiming that Scott was only possessed by the horror of a loveless marriage. I really like thie staging of this scene, Emma’s ultrastylish apartment looking hollow in light of the emotions she’s dealing with. She sulks in her 2001: A Space Odyssey chair, while Jean rages in the background.

This issue, more than any other in the run, reminds me of Claremont at his best. The soap opera elements are played to the max, with a psychic catfight and a broken love triangle, but the soap opera stuff is made into something much grander through the use of genre elements, specifically Jean’s psychic attack on Emma. What Jean is doing is tearing down Emma’s illusions about herself, trying to make her feel as bad as possible. Where a normal soap opera would do this through dialogue, here the emotional attack is made into a literal psychic attack, and the tearing down of illusions is a literal trip through Emma’s memories to belittle and hurt her. It’s the kind of subjectivity you can only do in genre works. Much like Neon Genesis Evangelion, what is ostensibly genre action is in reality a device used to explore the characters’ inner self. Claremont would use strange devices like this from time to time to go deeper into a character, notably when he had Storm and Forge live through the entire life of an alternate world in the middle of the “Fall of the Mutants” storyline.

During the issue, we hear a number of people expressing fear that angering Jean could lead her to go all Dark Phoenix again. This gets to the core of Scott’s problem, which is that he can’t necessarily express his true self to Jean because she’s so potentially dangerous. The knowledge of what she did as Dark Phoenix hangs over all his actions, and rather than risk angering her, he hides his changing self and clings to the image of himself as the uncomplicated hero.

The trip through Emma’s past gives us a lot of insight into who she is, and the way she has built up her own self identity to deal with the pain of the past. This ties into the notion of fiction suits from The Invisibles, the idea that identity is malleable, and you can become someone else if you believe in that person enough. Everyone builds up personalities to protect their weaknesses from the world at large. Emma has left her family behind, and sculpted herself into something else. She initially thinks that Jean is looking at her physical differences, the way she was before her breast implants, but in reality, Jean is looking at the lies her family was built on, and forcing Emma to confront what happened to her brother and mother.

Emma’s primary mentor was Sebastian Shaw. He’s one of the most powerful men in the world, and Emma worked to become “exactly what Sebastian wanted, the ice queen, the dominatrix from hell.” Sebastian Shaw made the White Queen, Emma rode that identity to power, and the character we see in Morrison’s run is struggling to define herself. The X-Men still see her as the persona she put on, and she still carries around that defiant, cynical streak, but deep down, she doesn’t want to be that person anymore, she may have started out trying to use Scott, but at this point, she realizes that she really loves him.

I love Jiminez’s art throughout this entire sequence. It reminds me a bit of Sir Miles’ psychic interrogation of King Mob, with the free floating panels in space, and seamless moves through time. I love the way he draws Emma dancing, and particularly the page where Emma defies Jean and her face becomes a pop art distortion, eyes suspended around her.

Jean eventually breaks through and sees what happened between Scott and Emma in Hong Kong. I’ve heard some people complain that the fact that the affair between Scott and Emma never got physical strips it of its teeth. But, I think that fact is critical to Morrison’s conception of Scott. Emma sums it up when she says “All you’re saying is that some mind monster put a lot of dirty thoughts in your head and you’re embarrassed in case your telepathic wife sees what you’re really thinking about her?” Being married to a telepath, Scott always has to be on guard, particularly one with the power and capacity for evil that Jean has. Scott represses himself so that he won’t disappoint her. It doesn’t seem plausible that he would really sleep with Emma, he knows that Jean would see it in his thoughts. But, as time goes on, he comes up with this justification that Emma will help him through his issues with Jean, and that their thought encounters are therapy.

Jean is like a lie detector, he has to believe what he’s saying all the time, and if he justifies his “affair” with Emma as therapy, he can be honest with Jean. The nature of the therapy changes as time goes on, but Scott still can justify it. He could never justify a physical affair, and frankly, that would be a lot less interesting and thematically appropriate for what Morrison is trying to do. In the end, Scott runs away rather than let Jean see more of his thoughts. The great tragedy of their relationship is that he feels he can never be fully open with her because she can see into his mind, see any thoughts he has. If he doesn’t remain guarded, something bad might slip out, and that could make her evil again, or, in emotional terms, it would mean losing her again.

I’ve been trying to sum it up for a while now, and writing that, it really clicked for me. Morrison makes it clear that Scott’s repression, visually represented through the visor he wears to protect his eye beams, is a result of being in love with a telepath who can see his inner thoughts. If he even thinks something bad or transgressive, she’ll know, and that means he’s had to remain the anchor, the boy scout, even as she soared off to the stars as Phoenix. In perhaps the iconic Scott/Jean moment, their picnic on the mesa during the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” Jean uses her power to stop Scott’s eye beams and let him really see her for the first time. Notably, it took Jean embracing her dark side to make it okay for Scott to open himself to her. She stopped being worried about being ‘good,’ she embraced her dark side, and in so doing, she allowed Scott to open himself up to her, visually represented by the removal of the visor. It’s all there in the Claremont stories, but Morrison spins it in a new, really interesting direction with the Emma storyline, a natural evolution of what Claremont did.

That’s one of Morrison’s greatest talents, the ability to make these crazy superpowers and sci-fi elements so tied into the characters’ emotions. Like Claremont before him, he ties the soap opera and the superpowers together such that rather than playing out as a genre pastiche, or as two disparate parts, they synchronize and soar together. It’s like the best Buffy storylines, where the genre elements and the emotional stories collide and become so much more meaningful because of the way they work together.

After all this craziness, perhaps the best scene in the entire issue is Wolverine’s discussion with Emma in her room. Her painting’s lying on the ground, the walls cracked, a literal representation of the way Jean tore through the self image she built up around herself. Throughout the issue, we’ve been seeing things more from Emma’s point of view than Jeans, and here, that culminates with the brutal moment where Emma cries and says she can never be with Scott because she’s “so shallow…and spiteful…and manipulative.” Few images are as sad, or beautiful, as Jiminez’s drawing of Emma with mascara running down her face.

Again, Morrison’s Wolverine is amazing, sympathizing with Emma like no one else can because he too has been on the wrong side of the Jean/Scott love triangle. Emma sees such sadness between them, but she can never live up to their ‘mythic’ love, and in spite of herself she’s fallen in love with Scott Summers. It’s such an on point scene, so emotionally raw, and beautifully rendered by Jiminez, unquestionably a high point of the run.

This is the kind of story I want to read, the kind of story I want to tell, spinning from very real emotions to crazy surrealism and subjectivity, with each element working together to build a more satisfying whole. Thinking about it, it may actually be my favorite issue of the entire run, a perfect example of what the X-Men can be. I love the world building Morrison does, the intellectual side of things, but when he puts his mind to it, he can craft such beautiful, perfect character pieces, and this is one of them.