Friday, July 10, 2009

X-Men: Manifest Destiny and The Immortal Iron Fist: The Last Iron Fist Story

Matt Fraction is a comics writer who I’d heard about for a while, and always seemed like the kind of writer I’d be into should I read his stuff. I read the first volume of Casanova a while back, and enjoyed a lot of it, but also found it a bit convoluted, full of great ideas, but without the emotional grounding to make them meaningful. The reason I’d argue Morrison is the greatest comics writer, and I’d go so far as straight up greatest writer around, is that even as he’s spitting out a ton of crazy ideas on each page, he still emphasizes the character’s emotion. A classic case is Robin’s return from the supercontext in the last issue of The Invisibles, the first time through, I didn’t know what was happening, but he made me feel what was happening.

In comics, there’s a lot of lower tier writers who can spin ideas and do the crazy pop Kirby inspired Silver Age madness, think Ellis, Joe Casey or Fraction, but few of them manage to capture very real emotion amidst the craziness. That was my problem with Casanova, I really liked it, but it was too surface cool to really dig in deep emotionally.
After reading the first volume of his Iron Fist run, and the first volume of his X-Men, I’ve got similar feelings, I liked them both, but didn’t quite love them.

Of course, I should add that both these books were co-written with Ed Brubaker. Brubaker’s a guy who is frequently hailed, but I’ve never read anything by him that I loved. The first volume of Gotham Central played exactly as it was pitched, Homicide or Law and Order in the DCU. And, if I don’t watch Law and Order for free on TV, why would I want to pay $10 to read the equivalent of one episode. The first volume of his Catwoman was alright, but I didn’t think much of his X-Men run. Deadly Genesis was yet another attempt to write “The Anatomy Lesson,” playing off past history rather than doing anything interesting and new. As a long time X-Men fan, it’s probably the worst X-Men comic I’ve ever read, just misconceived on every level. The lengthy journey to Shiar space in his run proper wasn’t much better. I hate writers who use the “long lost brother” as a shortcut to build character rather than just making a character who’s interesting on his own terms.

As someone who approaches works from an auteurist perspective, that makes it difficult, particularly when I’m going in with the bias that I want to like Fraction’s stuff and I dislike Brubaker’s stuff. At least in the X-Men, Fraction took over as the sole writer after this batch of issues, so I’m guessing most of the direction was his, Iron Fist I’m not so sure.

I’m getting more acclimated to the DCU, but I’m still not totally sure about all the characters and worlds there. However, I’ve read the vast majority of important X-Men stories ever written, so I can easily jump into that universe. In these issues, we see the X-Men starting up a new status quo in San Francisco, one that follows thematically off a lot of what Grant was doing in his run. In discussing his run, Grant talked about how writing X-Men is like doing jazz riffs on the original Claremont run. These issues remind me the most of the Paul Smith era, where the team had a lot of downtime, and there was a heavy emphasis on personal relationships, mixed with a bit of the Romita era struggle between mutants and humans.

Smith was my favorite era on the book, and transporting that feel to the present day with Grant’s mutants as metaphor for gay people/evolutionary force outracing the ‘cavemen’ works well. This feels very hopeful and progressive in the same way as the early days of New X-Men, before the characters got trapped in their own soap opera. Thematically, this is a more logical followup to Grant’s run than Whedon’s Astonishing run, which had its moments, but felt more like it was looking back. This run feels a bit like Volume III of The Invisibles, in the sense that the X-Men have won the war, they’ve evolved and they’re just waiting for the world to catch up.

I think some moments work better than others, but in general I like the forward thinking celebrity take on the team, and the street level day after tomorrow style reality based approach to the concept. I like how everyone seems so relaxed, and is actually enjoying themselves for once.

I’m also intrigued by the return of Maddy Pryor. I loved the character, and don’t like to see her turned into a villain, but perhaps she’ll function more as a manifestation of Scott’s guilt about both abandoning Maddy, and leaving Jean for Emma.

But, the book isn’t quite perfect. The biggest issue from a narrative point of view is the disconnect between the mutant de-powering and the story Fraction is trying to tell. If there’s only 198 mutants left in the world, why would a group like the Hellfire Cult still exist? Grant’s X-Men hinged on the revelation that humanity would become extinct a few years into the future, so it made sense to build a mutant society. Here, it’s the opposite, and the structure would make so much more sense if mutants really were coming into prominence, not barely surviving.

I suppose the point is that finding a mutant baby gave them hope for the future, but I think with 198 left in the entire world, things would be a bit more dire. This is not to mention the absurdity of so many mutants losing their powers, but none of the major characters getting depowered.

The other issue is the much criticized, and in most cases deservedly so, art of Greg Land. I don’t hate Land’s art at all times, but I find his weird traced air brushed style falls into uncanny valley territory, so close to real that it seems more fake than, say, the randomly placed Terry Dodson pages in #500. And, his much commented on tracing of porn faces definitely shows up in his drawings of Emma Frost. He’s not totally awful, I think the scene in the club with Dazzler at the end works pretty well, but I’d have much rather seen someone like Phil Jiminez on the book, who could bring the pop sexy aesthetic Fraction is going for, without going into creepy un-sexy like Land.

But, I definitely liked it, I think it’s a more compelling new direction for the book than we’ve seen from Brubaker or Carey, and definitely calls back to the Morrison era, which I love. I’ll be picking up the next trade next time I’m at a comic store.

His Iron Fist was objectively a better comic. It’s a more ambitious story, and moves much faster and further than the X-Men issues do. The comic reminded me of Casanova, in its emphasis on pop moments. There’s a lot of scenes in there that are the sort of fanboy “fuck yeah” moments, hundreds of ninjas battling an Iron Fist who can use his powers to charge the bullets of his gun, and blowing up a train with women who turn into birds. This is all great stuff.

The problem is I found it hard to emotionally relate to most of what was going on. Part of it was unfamiliarity with the world, or current status quo of Iron Fist, but it was also due to the art. I think Aja’s art on the book is aesthetically astounding, these are gorgeous, moody pages, that rank among the most striking art I’ve seen in a long time. The problem is, I found it hard to emotionally relate to the characters because of all the shadows and moodiness. If you can’t see Danny’s face in the mask, and can barely see it out of the mask, how can you get a sense of who he is?

But, I definitely liked the story on the whole, and will probably check out the next volume. And I hope we get to see more of Luke Cage, Colleen and Misty Knight, their entrance in the last issue is one of the best moments in the comic.

So, is Fraction the next great comics writer? Perhaps, I’m not totally sold yet, but I’m intrigued by this work, and I’ll be checking out more to see how he develops.


malpractice said...

do stories really need to connect to you on an emotional level for them to be deemed good stories? I don't think so.

If i get an emotional reaction to something in a story, it is an added bonus it isn't something i feel it neccesarily has to do. Oddly enough it's usually Morrison's work that gets railed against by most people for not having enough of a "emotional connection" (esp. pertaining to his Bat-work and FC), odd to hear it argued in the opposite direction.

Brubaker is a great writer imo. One of my favorites right after Morrison. I wouldn't judge him to harshly on his X-Men run though, it's probably the only thing he has done that i didn't really like. He was a bad fit there. If you want to check out some great Brubaker stuff definetly read Criminal, Sleeper, Incognito, Scene Of The Crime, and his current run on Captain America.

Fraction on the other hand has kind of lost me. Loved Casanova, Iron Fist, and a lot of his other indie work but his other Marvel hasn't been all that intresting to me. I'll try and give his X-Men run another shot one of these days though.

Patrick said...

I don't think you necessarily need an emotional connection for a story to work, but I think any truly great story should engage you emotionally. That emotion might be a more abstract sort of awe or cosmic joy, as in in 2001 or some of Morrison's work, but it's there. Fraction's stories produce some pop joy from time to time, but I have trouble relating to his characters as people.

I've heard Morrison's stuff described as convoluted and hard to relate to, and I think parts of Final Crisis are, but reading something like Final Crisis #7 sees the perfect fusion of crazy ideas and very real emotional vignettes. That issue really affected me on an emotional level, as did much of Batman RIP, particularly Bruce's breakdown in #680.

But, that's not true for everyone. I think Morrison's work is so dense, that you sometimes spend the first read just trying to stay on top of what's going on, and that can hurt emotional engagement. With Seaguy, I'm generally so busy trying to parse the thematic significance of things that the emotional payoffs can be obscured.

I've got to check out some other Brubaker, particularly Captain America, which I've heard great things about. Certain writers don't seem suited to the X-Men, and he was probably one of them.

As I said, Fraction's X-Men has its moments, but it's not perfect by any means. I'm still waiting for the second Casanova trade, I've heard that second arc is even better than the first.

Jeremy said...

Brubaker is my second favorite comic writer after Morrison. Captain America is my favorite(and actually got me into comics), but I also love Daredevil, Immortal Iron Fist, and Criminal.

Daredevil and Captain America especially have a great emotional connection, IMO. The way Bucky Barnes has to deal with his past and his relationship with his former mentor and best friend, how Sharon Carter must deal with her ex-boyfriend Steve Rogers before AND after his death. The way Matt Murdock life is in a constant sense of drama and turmoil, but he still has his best friend Foggy to look after him.

I.V.P. said...

Can't help but leap to the defense of Brubaker as well. Captain America is good comics, but so far I think his best work is in the Wildstorm series Sleeper. Gruesome noir, twisted spy shenanigans and a clever, sympathetic central character running through it all. Really impressive.

I had the same problem with Casanova you did. Yeah, OK. Great art, crazy ideas. But why should I care?

Should say that for me Ellis always delivers the emotion. And he writes some of the best dialogue (bar Bendis) out there. I definitely put him in my higher tier.

Patrick said...

Sounds like I've got to check out Brubaker's Captain America, and some of the creator owned stuff.

As for Ellis, he'll occasionally do something that hits emotionally, like the short about the woman who got unfrozen in Transmetropolitan, or some of Planetary. But, he puts out so But the best of his stuff is really solid, and I'm awaiting that last Planetary issue at which point I'll finally read the most 7 issues of the series.

Patrick said...

Sounds like I've got to check out Brubaker's Captain America, and some of the creator owned stuff.

As for Ellis, he'll occasionally do something that hits emotionally, like the short about the woman who got unfrozen in Transmetropolitan, or some of Planetary. But, he puts out so But the best of his stuff is really solid, and I'm awaiting that last Planetary issue at which point I'll finally read the most 7 issues of the series.



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