It amazes me sometimes that major corporations can make choices that seem so obviously misguided, yet they pass through the many layers of approval needed to get a project greenlit. Here's a couple of things that have baffled me recently.
The first would be the just announced X-Men: First Class project. Of all the comics properties, X-Men is my favorite, but I've been generally unmoved by the four films to date. I'd argue that X-Men's serial nature makes it ill suited to film, which requires more structured stories. The X-Men stories that people remember, like Dark Phoenix or Days of Future Past, all draw on a lot of continuity and character development, unlike things like The Killing Joke or The Dark Knight Returns. The major difference between X-Men and other comics properties is the fact that the X-Men characters for all of Claremont's run were actual human characters, unlike most DC or Marvel heroes, which are archetypes.
Cyclops, Storm, Wolverine and many others all grew and changed over the course of the run, and you can't capture that in a film. But, at least the first two X-Men films had a coherent internal mythology and did a decent job of capturing the characters and their dynamic. Last Stand didn't work creatively, but I don't think it ruined public perception of the franchise. So, I'm really baffled why Fox chose to stop making new X-Men movies and start doing prequels. Wolverine makes sense since he was the series' breakout character, but why do a movie about Professor X and Magneto? We all know how it will end, and I just can't imagine a really good movie possibly being made out of that premise. It's something that's interesting in the context of an ongoing narrative, but not in and of itself.
Audiences have consistently shown a reluctance towards prequels, outside of ones that are total reboots. So, why do that instead of just moving forward with 'present day' stories for the franchise? There was a great setup for a Young X-Men movie coming out of The Last Stand, focusing on Rogue, Iceman and Kitty Pryde. I'd have loved to see that, and it seems like the perfect way to target teens and do a soft reboot to alleviate the bad taste of Last Stand. I'm sure First Class will do okay, but I think doing something based loosely off New Mutants, with some of the existing characters in teaching roles and a cast of younger mutants based on the teen characters from the comics would be a much bigger hit with fans and general audiences. I'm as big an X-Men fan as it gets and I have no desire whatsoever to see First Class.
Another recent baffler is the comic book Ultimate New Ultimates. The Ultimates used to be arguably Marvel's premiere franchise, a best seller that was talked up all over the net, even its nonpresence, during the length delays, were a prime talking point. But, since the end of Millar's The Ultimates 2, the branding of the franchise has been absolutely baffling. First, Marvel did the apparently abysmal Ultimates 3 with a different creative team.
After this failure, it might have been smart to bring back the original writer, which they did. But, for some reason, Marvel chose not to go with a simple title that would explain what the book is about. Instead, they made Millar's book Ultimate Comics Avengers, and have another book called Ultimate Comics New Ultimates. As someone who loved The Ultimates, I'd be pretty inclined to buy new Millar Ultimates stuff, but even as a gigantic comic book fan, I have no clue what the content of either book is. And, who was the one who greenlit a book called Ultimate Comics New Ultimates? We know it's a comic and we know it's Ultimate. Why not just call it Ultimate Pages with Images and Text on Them That Are Previously Unseen and Still Ultimate In Case You Didn't Catch That the First Time.
What separates this book from Millar's? How does it draw from the previous Millar Ultimate series? I have no idea, and I'm not particularly inclined to work to find out. And, keep in mind, this is in the line that's designed to be accessible to new readers.
How are these choices made? Shouldn't the goal of branding to make it clear what something is. Apparently not in this case, and that's a big problem in comics in general. Book names are not self explanatory, what separates Uncanny X-Men from X-Men: Legacy from Astonishing X-Men from just plain X-Men? The big problem with any initiative to draw in new readers is that you can put out a book like the early days of the Ultimate line that is supposed to be accessible, but how is someone who isn't already familiar with comics going to know to pick up Ultimate Spider-Man instead of Amazing Spider-Man?
A similar problem from both Marvel and DC is trade paperback chronology. Trying to pick up Ed Brubaker's Captain America, there's a bunch of Volume 1s and 2s, but how do they all piece together? There's no master number system, so where does The Death of Captain of America Vol. 1 fit in comparison to Red Menace Book Two? I can understand not wanting to have Captain America Vol. 20 out there, but make it easier for people to read your books, not harder.
DC usually does a better job, but it can be hard to piece together stuff from company crossovers. I'd love to see an official guide to reading all of Geoff Johns' books or how all of Morrison's fit together. That would help them sell more books, because if you could show the connection between Seven Soldiers and Final Crisis, that expands the audience of both titles.
I'm the kind of person who will do a bit of research to figure out what's going on, but a lot of people won't, and you should make it as easy as possible to follow a series. Marvel and DC aren't really doing that most of the time.
Tuesday, May 04, 2010
It amazes me sometimes that major corporations can make choices that seem so obviously misguided, yet they pass through the many layers of approval needed to get a project greenlit. Here's a couple of things that have baffled me recently.
Friday, July 10, 2009
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.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
X-Men Forever #1 came out this week, the much discussed return of Chris Claremont to the X-Men status quo he left in 1991. I considered his entire first X-Men run a satisfying single work in and of itself with an ending that while not totally satisfying does make thematic sense and carries a feeling of finality. But, I definitely wanted to see Claremont continue on from that era, he created a universe that was perpetually renewed and reborn, and could run forever, so why not pick up again and try to take it another sixteen years.
I think most people have the wrong impression of the way that Claremont’s original run worked. Seen today, it’s broken down into greatest hits moments, with heavy emphasis on the Byrne era and Dark Phoenix, and the occasional branch into the later crossovers, or the Paul Smith era. That’s a consequence of the way the run has been collected, but it reads best as a single work, rising and falling over the course of the entire sixteen year run. The series has many distinct eras, but they flow seamlessly from each other, and the real joy of it isn’t in the individual parts, it’s in looking at the big picture, and seeing the characters subtly grow and change over the course of the stories. Storm going punk in the 170s may seem like an abrupt character change, but it’s actually the physical culmination of eighty issues of character development to get her to that point.
As such, I think it’s hard to judge Forever on the first issue. Claremont isn’t like Grant Morrison in the sense that his single issues are so dense and endlessly debatable that each one is an event, his work is all about letting stories develop over time. As such, this issue is largely about laying out a bunch of potential storylines and setting up the dynamic that the team will function under for the foreseeable future. Though narratively, the issue is one big fight scene, he manages to lay down a lot of character threads that will likely be developed as the series progresses. I don’t think it’s as satisfying a first issue as say, Batman and Robin #1, but I think it does the work that’s needed to do to set the stories in motion. You don’t read a Claremont story for the first issue, you read it to watch something develop over time.
I’ve seen some people criticize the book’s premise as self indulgent and confusing. But, I think it’s actually a lot easier for a new reader to pick up this book than a random issue of Uncanny. And, considering these are Claremont’s characters, you could argue that the more recent eighteen years of stories are the alternate universe, and this is the real continuity. I don’t think that this is the book Claremont would have made then, being written in 2009, it’s always going to exist in relation to the stories told in the interim. But, I think it gives Claremont the sort of freedom he used to have in the 80s, the freedom to make real change, and that’s what excites me about the book.
It’s a tricky thing in serial fiction to make you feel like these are the ‘real’ versions of the characters, and that the things that happen to them have actual consequence. Morrison did it with his X-Men, and Claremont certainly had that in the 80s. I think it’ll take me a couple of issues to get into the universe of this book, but I feel like the characters are the ones I knew, and that’s a good sign going forward.
Particularly with the twice monthly schedule, I’m eager to watch the story develop and see what Claremont can do. I don't read that many comic books as monthlies, but I do like the routine of having something to look forward to on a Wednesday. Hopefully the book will be successful enough to sustain itself for a while and give a nice bookend to Claremont’s thirty-five years on the X-titles.
And, in a bit of self promotion, look for a little trailer for my Claremont/X-Men documentary shortly. Once I get the time to cut something together, I’ll put it online so you can see what Chris and his collaborators are looking like today.
Thursday, June 04, 2009
I’ve mentioned earlier on the blog about my in the works Grant Morrison documentary project, but that’s not the only comics documentary in development. I’m also working on one about the history of the X-Men, with a primary focus on the first Chris Claremont run. Yesterday, I was lucky enough to get the chance to film with Claremont, Louise Simonson and Ann Nocenti, the three people who presided over the X-Men during its rise in popularity during the 80s. The three of them hadn’t been together in over ten years, and we were lucky enough to be there to film the reunion.
I’ve written a lot about Claremont on here, so it was pretty surreal to be sitting there, watching the three of them talking about working together on those stories, and how they came about. It was really fun to see them talking, particularly when they went through a box of stuff Ann had that had all kinds of artwork from the era, including a bunch of original Art Adams pages, which were just beautiful.
I don’t know that there were any huge revelations, but as someone who loved reading those books, there were a lot of interesting stories detailing specific aspects of their intentions and what happened. But, more than that, it was interesting to hear about the spirit of Marvel at the time. It sounds like it was a really fun place to work, and less of a corporate entity than today. There’s always a tendency to romanticize the past, and I’m sure people like Bendis and Quesada could reminisce in the same way twenty years from now, but the Marvel they described doesn’t sound like the one that exists today.
I’m going to cut together some sample footage and put it online soon, probably not as elaborate as the Grant Morrison trailer, since we don’t have as much footage to work with, but something to check out.
And in terms of the next step in documentary production, we’ve got a few things lined up. In a couple of weeks, I’m heading down to Wizard World Philadelphia, and we’re going to shoot some stuff there for both Grant Morrison and the X-Men projects. Then, in July, it’s out to San Diego Comicon, the mecca of fandom. I’m excited for that, and hopefully we’ll get to interview even more interesting people.
Monday, May 04, 2009
I saw the new Wolverine movie over the weekend. Short review is it’s not a particularly good movie, but not as bad as others have been saying. In general, I found the Bryan Singer X-Men movies really overrated, I think it’s really hard to capture the essential appeal of X-Men in a feature film. Chris Claremont was Joss Whedon before Joss Whedon existed, and in the same way that Whedon’s work is most interesting as it sprawls and complexifies, the essential appeal of the X-Men is those long running, convoluted narrative arcs, and the sense of family that develops with the characters over time. You just can’t get that family feeling in a two hour film, certainly not one that’s got to cram in the studio mandated action sequences.
I don’t think Wolverine is as strong as any of the previous three X-Men films, though it’s less glaringly nonsensical than X-Men: The Last Stand. I think the project was flawed at a conceptual level, Wolverine works better as a contrast to the more straitlaced X-Men characters, or as a mentor to a younger member of the team. In this film, as the only hero, everything that makes him unique, the rage, the questionable moral code, is dulled since he’s got to try and tone down Sabretooth and the other crazy mercenaries he works with. I’d have much rather seen a Wolverine film that takes place after the other X-Men movies and follows him and Rogue to Japan, or him and Kitty Pryde on some kind of mission.
But, the film isn’t really that interesting on its own merits. What struck me watching the film was how nebulous continuity is in the context of these ongoing superhero narratives. There’s some obvious departures from comics continuity, having Logan and Victor as brothers, having Gambit save Scott on Three Mile Island, but that sort of thing bothered me less than a lot of stuff that was drawn from the actual comics. I don’t like the idea of Wolverine as someone from 1845, or the notion that he fought in all these wars. I also don’t like the idea of the bone claws in general, I think it ruins a lot of what makes the character who he is. But, these are things drawn from the comics themselves, wouldn’t not having the bone claws violate continuity?
I’d argue that there’s a kind of continuity that supercedes the general accepted continuity, and that’s what I’d call ‘pocket continuity.’ Pocket continuity is essentially the idea that you build your own little universe within the Marvel or DC universe as a whole, and you determine what’s in and out of continuity. It’s somewhat along the lines of hypertime, which said that all stories were true, but the better ones are more true because they’re more enduring. But, in this case, it’s more that you pick and choose the aspects of continuity you like, and decide not to mention the ones you don’t.
Grant Morrison is one of the prime people behind this. Final Crisis ostensibly draws on the entire history of the DCU, but most of its continuity is drawn from Morrison’s own works, or the Jack Kirby Fourth World stuff. Morrison built his own conception of the DCU in JLA and Seven Soldiers, and he goes back to that in FC. Beyond his own work, he draws on the stories he likes, the Kirby stuff, some Geoff Johns Green Lantern material, and discards a lot of the material from Countdown or Death of the New Gods that didn’t mesh with his desired continuity.
I can understand why people get touchy with this. To pick and choose the elements you like can invalidate the notion that this is a linear universe. But, I think it makes for better stories, and a more manageable reading experience. You don’t need to have read seventy years of comics to get Final Crisis, just Morrison’s twenty years of DCU work. Doing this makes for a more auteur centric comic, and a more artistically satisfying one.
Even on Batman, where Morrison made a big deal about the fact that every story happened, it was largely about him picking out the stories he liked from the ‘50s, and drawing on those to tell his own story. You don’t have to read every Batman story to understand it, you just have to read the ones that Morrison decided to bring into his own continuity.
Chris Claremont is another writer who did this, crossing the X-Men over frequently with other books he was writing in the 70s and 80s. He built a little universe where characters like Sabretooth and Mystique floated freely around books that he scripted. Only occasionally would he bring in events from the Marvel Universe as a whole, but if he’s writing Misti Knight or Colleen Wing, they’re fair game for the X-Men.
To go back to the Wolverine movie, I, like every other reader, have built my own vision of who Wolverine is. It’s largely based off the zen warrior Wolverine of mid 80s Claremont and Grant Morrison’s run on the title. This is a guy who’s largely conquered his beserker rages, and is a more self aware character. I found a lot of Joss Whedon’s take on the character a bit off at first, because it deviated from this mode for a more animal, violent Logan. But, I’m sure a lot of people thought that was more true to the character than Morrison’s version.
What I will say is that even though the bone claws are in continuity for the comics, they felt off throughout the whole movie. My conception of Wolverine’s backstory isn’t the one in Origins, film or comics miniseries, it’s of a regular Canadian guy who became a government soldier than an X-Man, not a guy who fought in the Civil War. I don’t think the Origin miniseries is a strong enough story to survive in hypertime, it lacks the visceral power of Windsor-Smith’s Weapon X, and I’m guessing a few years down the line, it may be retconned away.
That’s the thing I love about the concept of hypertime continuity. It takes into account the reality of superhero writing. In an ever evolving narrative, things don’t necessarily need to be proven false to move out of continuity, they just need to fade away. The good stories stick around, the bad ones fade away. That’s probably why virtually every X-Men story is still riffing on Claremont’s run, or Morrison’s, they’re the people who told memorable stories, the vast majority of 90s writers, not so much.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
I watched The Spirit on blu-ray a couple of days ago. The film was enjoyable enough, bouncing between some really strong, fun material that was baffling in the way only current era Frank Miller can be, and some scenes that just didn’t work at all. I think it’s totally understandable why the film bombed, and was poorly received, but for me, it was more exciting to watch than most movies out there.
Reading a bit about the film, a lot of people are knocking Miller for his objectification of every single female character in the film, a trope that goes back to his comics work. Miller definitely falls into many standard men writing about women tropes, the virgin/whore dichotomy and identifying a woman by her ass before her face, as well as dressing most of the female characters in a variety of fetishized outfits. But, at the same time, the narrative action in the film is largely propelled by the female characters, and they invariably take center stage over the rather blank slate hero, The Spirit. The Spirit actually does very little, he is bounced between various other characters who define him, be it Ellen who draws him to a normal life, Sand who pulls him towards adventure or even Silken who tempts him towards evil. Essentially, The Spirit himself is placed in the role traditionally held by women in action movies, of being a pawn the other characters use as an excuse to fight each other.
Now, that’s not to say that the film doesn’t have some problematic thoughts on gender roles. The Spirit flirts with everyone he encounters, and is able to have a climactic kiss with Sand, then walk right over to Ellen and be cool with her, even as he flirts with Morganstern at the same time. And, you could argue that the entire film is Miller putting various actresses he finds attractive in outfits he likes and making them fall in love with a blank slate male protagonist. But, in lavishing so much attention on them, they control the film, in a way you very rarely see in a superhero movie.
I’d argue that the film becomes its own kind of feminism, a distinctly male brand of feminism, but valid nonetheless. It reminds me a lot of a Russ Meyer movie, where female characters are presented as objects of visual pleasure, but also become dominant actors in the narrative, and control the movie, lording their power over generic beefcake men who have little personality and no say in how the movie proceeds. Look at the film’s climax, it’s really about Sand vs. Silken, The Spirit and The Octopus are just there to backup their female associate.
Yes, like a Russ Meyer movie, there’s a heavy emphasis on showcasing the beauty and particularly the tits and ass of the female characters, but does doing so invalidate the agency of the female characters? I don’t think they’re particularly fully realized characters, but no one in the film is, you certainly know more about Sand than you do about Denny.
I’d argue if this movie were directed by Joss Whedon, people would look at it very differently. In the same way they can overlook the way he dresses Echo in everything from schoolgirl to dominatrix fetish because Whedon is a self professed ‘feminist,’ they would hail the strong female characters at the center of the narrative, and write off the photocopying an ass bit as just having some fun, or presenting a character with a strong sense of her sexuality. Because Whedon makes such a big deal about being a feminist, it’s a lot easier to accept the contradictions of his work, to accept the fact that a high school girl is presented in a sexualized fashion throughout the first three years of Buffy. Or, look at River on Firefly, a mentally challenged teenage girl who is consistently sexualized throughout the series. Because Whedon is a feminist, it’s okay, but if Miller did the same character, people would find it objectionable.
Now, admittedly tone is a big part of this. Whedon’s work is much more self aware, and pokes fun at its own indulgence, even as it still gives you the pleasure of that indulgence. People don’t seem to realize that ever since Dark Knight Strikes Again, Miller has been messing around with the ultra-serious image he had in the 80s and 90s. To criticize All Star Batman, or this film, by calling it self parody, is like criticizing Airplane for having jokes, and not treating its aircraft disaster story seriously. He’s intentionally pushing things to the point of total insanity, and when it works, it’s a lot of fun to read.
More generally, I find it interesting that this film gets so much criticism for the presentation of its female characters, when it’s one of the only recent superhero films to have a female character who’s anything more than just the girl waiting at home, worried about her hero boyfriend. Who’s a more interesting character, Sand Serif or Pepper Potts? Silken Floss or Rachel Dawes? The Dark Knight is a particularly notable offender, using its female character as an excuse for the men to fight, then killing her off to motivate the final act of the story. She’s a cipher, existing solely for plot purposes, with no will or agency of her own. As in many recent films, she’s given her own job, but essentially she’s just there to support the man she’s involved with.
A large part of the problem stems from the fact that there aren’t that many compelling female characters in either the DC or Marvel universes. Thanks to the efforts of Grant Morrison and Greg Rucka, there’s more than there used to be, but they’re still not the brand name characters that can headline a film. Still, I’d love to see Renee Montoya as The Question pop up in a Batman film, or see some kind of standalone movie about Zatanna.
Over at Marvel, there’s a lot of great female characters in X-Men, but very few in the Marvel universe in general, where most of their movies take place. Is The Wasp the best we can hope for in the Avengers movie, a woman who’s best known for being a victim of spousal abuse? In the X-Men though, there’s a ton of great female characters, largely thanks to the effort of Chris Claremont, who much like Joss Whedon, has created a lot of really strong female characters, some of whom are fetishized, but no more than the male heroes were in his run.
Claremont most importantly manages to have a wide variety of female characters in his X-Men run. There’s the Earth Mother goddess type, Storm, there’s the everyday girl Kitty Pryde, the powerful and dangerous Phoenix and many others. Jean Grey or Storm are probably the most well known female superheroes beside Wonder Woman.
The X-Men movies never made Storm really work as a character, and Jean existed largely as an excuse for the Logan/Scott rivalry. There haven’t been that many great female superheroes on screen. The best presentation to date was Catwoman in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. The film has an underlying feminist subtext, but melds it with the narrative such that it never seems preachy. And, the dynamic between Catwoman and Batman, Bruce and Selina, is consistently interesting and challenging. She’s the character with most of the agency, the one who defines their relationship and her own identity. He’s the one who just wants to settle down with her in a big house and have a family.
Again, the character is presented in a sexualized, fetishy way, but I think there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. She’s a fully realized character, who dresses that way for a reason, it’s a means to express something within herself. She becomes a kind of grotesque parody of the sort of “bad girl” that men want. Men want a “bad girl” who’s just bad enough to still be controlled by them. It’s the illusion of a dominant woman. She subverts that by then pushing things further, to the point that her power becomes dangerous to the male order that’s trying to control her.
Compare her role in the narrative to Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight. Selina controls things and actually pushes the narrative forward for her own ends, not just to get together with whatever man she’s interested in. And, though it’s far from the film Batman Returns is, that’s what the women of The Spirit do as well. So, even if you're to say that The Spirit is just pandering to men with its parade of hot women, isn't it better to see hot women who can actually do something and have their own lives, than hot women who exist just to support the male hero?
Monday, February 09, 2009
Besides seeing the Joss Whedon panel yesterday, I saw a bunch of other stuff at the comicon. On Saturday, I went to the Torchwood panel. Eve Myles and director Euros Lyn were there. They screened a trailer/EPK type promo piece for the season. To be honest, it looks okay, but not that impressive.
I’m not that big a fan of Torchwood in general. It feels stuck in that Angel season one mode of heavy, way too serious and self consciously dark standalone episodes that never really add together. The second season had some good episodes, but the finale was botched by condensing what should have been a two or three episode arc into one episode. Angel found its voice by going more operatic and over the top, which huge, sweeping arcs and sustained character development. This season is one big story, which could work. But, the trailer looks like more of the same.
Still, it was nice see Eve Myles there, and she was pretty funny throughout. There wasn’t any huge news out of the panel. PC Andy will be in the season, and Rhys will have a bigger role. No Mickey or Martha though, disappointing after the tease in the Who finale. I’ll definitely be watching, but Torchwood just isn’t as good as I’d like it to be.
On Saturday, I also had the chance to speak to Chris Claremont for a little bit. He was promoting his new series, X-Men Forever. He said that the series would explore the question of why no mutants ever get old. The promo material looked pretty nice, I’ve got a signed poster on my wall now, and it’s got the best X-costumes since Quitely’s. These outfits find a nice balance between the superhero style of the past and the civilian style Morrison had. They look like regular clothes versions of the characters’ old style spandex outfits. So, Gambit’s got a black coat, a suit and a pink shirt instead of the pink body armor thing. Rogue wears a green vest over a black shirt, that sort of thing. I wish the poster was online, but I can’t find it anywhere.
He also had pages from an upcoming series called X-Women with Milo Manara. It’s supposed to be out in the summer, and the preview art looked gorgeous. I read Manara’s story in Sandman: Endless Nights, and this story has the same really detailed line work as he had there. Claremont’s worked with a lot of journeyman artists, but he’s also had some great collaborations with people like Art Adams or Paul Smith. It’s nice to see him get to work with a real topline talent on this one.
I also spoke briefly with Louise Simonson and heard a few stories about working on X-Men back in the day. Since I was there ostensibly to work with Sequart and promote my Invisibles book, I didn’t go for any sketches or anything like that. Trying to keep it professional now, y’know?
Anyway, part of that is the next book that I’m working on. Expanding significantly on my blog posts from a while back, I’m going to be doing an analytical look at the Chris Claremont X-Men from Giant Size to X-Men #3, with side looks at relevant sections of X-Factor and New Mutants, and the various minis. It’s a huge project, but I think it’s a hugely important piece of comics history that hasn’t been thoroughly covered, so I’m taking on the task. I’m planning on interviewing Claremont and Simonson, and hopefully other relevant people, as part of the process, and possibly doing a companion documentary as well. We’ll see what develops, but I’m hoping to have that book completed and available for purchase at the next New York Comicon in 2010.
As for The Invisibles book, the title is now going to be Our Sentence is Up: Seeing The Invisibles, it’ll be in the August previews, and available in stores in October. So, look for that.
So, this weekend, I picked up a ton of X-Factor and New Mutants issues to fill in the gaps, and I’m pretty close to having all the books I need to cover for this era. I also got two volumes of Frank Miller Daredevil, which I’ve never read, and am excited to check out.
The con was certainly missing something without Morrison, but it was fun nonetheless, and just zipped by. I was really tired at the end of it, but it was a great three days.
Saturday, February 07, 2009
One day is down at the comicon and so far, it’s gone pretty well. Being at the comicon all day is kind of weird, since time is really nebulous. There’s no windows, so one minute it’s 2:30 and the next it’s 6. Time dragged a bit early in the day, but zipped along at the end.
Today, I didn’t go to any panels, and didn’t really talk to any artists or anything. I spent most of my time sitting at the Sequart booth, talking up our books and just talking comics with some friends of Sequart. Final Crisis definitely remains the contentious topic, with lovers and haters all expressing their opinions in a discourse that features a lot more modified respectful feeling than you’ll typically see on the internet. I think it’s a testament to Grant’s work that he has created a major company event that is so personal and evokes such disparate emotions.
I also got to talk up my Invisibles book a bit to passers by. That book will be in the August previews, so it will come out sometime around October. I saw the preview copy today and it looks good.
Besides sitting at the booth, I wandered around and picked up the Morrison/Millar Aztek and Flash trades, filling in some of the remaining gaps in my Morrison knowledge. I also grabbed a whole bunch of New Mutants and a few 80s X-Men issues to fill in the gaps in my collection for a forthcoming project, on which more will be announced later. I’m hoping to leave the con with the entirety of X-Men/New Mutants/X-Factor and the associated minis from 1974-1991 in my possession, in various forms. Thanks to the dollar bin, that’d doable at not too much money. It’s great to pay cover price on 25 year old issues.
Speaking of Claremont, the biggest announcement out of the con for me was Claremont’s upcoming X-Men Forever series, which will pick up where his run on the book ended with X-Men #3. I believe at some point in my blogging on the series, I suggested a series like that, but who’d have thought it would really happen. Claremont of today is a very different writer than 1991 Claremont, but I’m still eager to see what he does with it, and how he plays off the story that he created, unencumbered by the influence of awful 90s concepts and Marvel editorial influence. It could be great, we’ll see soon enough. I’m hoping to talk to Claremont a bit tomorrow, so I’ll report back on that.
Also, I’m hoping to check out the panel on Torchwood tomorrow, and get an update on the next season of that show. Then, Sunday I’m looking forward to the Joss Whedon and Dollhouse panel, as well as the late con fire sale where I’m hoping to grab some $1 trades. We shall see.
Monday, November 10, 2008
I would seem to be the target audience for Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men. I love Joss’s work, I loved Claremont’s X-Men, and I loved Grant Morrison’s New X-Men. But, I don’t quite feel the love for Whedon’s own X-Men stories. Having read half the run now, it hasn’t totally gelled for me yet. It’s definitely well put together, but it lacks the crazy improvisatory feel that both Claremont and Morrison’s work had, and I feel is kind of essential to making a great X-Men comic.
Astonishing is a decidedly prestige comic, a much more cohesive package than Morrison’s messy run on the title. John Cassaday was given time to draw every issue, no Igor Kordey fill-ins here. In the early going of NXM, the jump from Quitely to Kordey really hurt the title. It was a schizophrenic read, where the story had to work in spite of the art. Here, the art is totally consistent, but even reading it in the trade, you kind of feel the impact of those delays. Morrison’s X-Men felt like the X-title, he defined the world and made it feel like a whole bunch of other stuff was happening, but his book was the only one that mattered. Whedon’s X-Men has a similarly sealed off feel from the rest of the line, but in this case, it makes it feel a bit like an Elseworlds, a piece of fan fiction he wrote as a tribute to both Morrison and Claremont.
A large part of my problem with the book comes from the fact that I consider Morrison’s ending salvos on the title to be a pretty definitive conclusion to X-Men. I don’t think any stories really need to be told about these characters post Here Comes Tomorrow. Obviously they’re going to be told, but I’d have been more interested to see Whedon tackle a different batch of characters than the ones Morrison was dealing with. The stuff with Kitty and Piotr works better than the Cyclops/Emma Frost for me because Whedon’s able to put more of a stamp on them and go into new territory. But, in general, it’s hard for me to read what’s essentially a sequel to Morrison’s run when Planet X and HCT were the perfect pop avant garde wrap up for years of X-stories.
In that respect, the toughest issues for me to read were the first couple. There, Whedon presents the idea that the X-Men should present themselves as superheroes again instead of the stylish emergency rescue team of the Morrison run. This means getting new costumes that just don’t work for me. I love a lot of Cassaday’s art here, but when he’s drawing the team in costume, they just look weird. Cyclops’s outfit is the biggest offender, it’s like he’s wearing a giant condom, and after the ultra-stylish Quitely outfits, it’s hard to go back to Wolverine wearing a blue and yellow spandex jump suit. I much prefer the Morrison outfits, but I suppose these outfits are part of the thematic missive that the X-Men should present themselves more as a superhero team.
To this end, there’s an attempt to integrate them into the larger Marvel Universe as a whole. I always prefer the X-Men when they’re sealed off in a world without other superheroes or space travelers. Generally speaking, most sci-fi works have one central conceit that defines their world, in Terminator, you can buy that robots come back from the future, but it would stretch credibility if Sarah Connor all of a sudden could fly. Similarly, I like the idea that the one conceit of X-Men is that mutants exist, throwing in other superheroes and aliens like Ord just takes it further and further away from the reality based storytelling that I think serves the title best. My favorite eras of Claremont’s run were Paul Smith and the Mutant Massacre to Fall of the Mutants, when the book was grounded in something closer to reality. As such, Ord doesn’t really work for me as an X-Men villain, he doesn’t say anything interesting about the characters, he’s just sort of there.
To enjoy the book, I had to get past the fact that it wasn’t trying to do the same thing that Morrison did. Morrison’s goal was to take the best aspects of Claremont, jettison the rest and explode the book into the 21st century. Now, you could argue that he failed in his mission and by the end had reverted to simply replaying the same X-Men vs. Magneto conflict that had been going since X-Men #1. But, I think the ragtag bunch of X-Men left behind at the end of that storyline was decidedly different than what we’re used to from the title.
Morrison riffed on the archetypal X-Men stories through the lens of his personal thematic concerns, and I suppose that’s what Whedon does as well. Kitty Pryde is in many ways the template for all of Whedon’s strong, but neurotic female protagonists. She’s a remarkable character, so vastly different from most female comic book characters, who are statuesque goddesses, and Whedon makes her the star of his run to date.
In general, the character stuff works really well. I like the way he writes Scott and Emma, though the endless teasing about Emma possibly working with the Hellfire Club doesn’t bode well. Also, I have issues with his more aggressive Wolverine. I prefer the zen warrior Morrison wrote, and even though a gag like Logan’s “I like beer” thought caption is really funny, it diminishes the layers that both Claremont and Morrison wrote into the character. But, Scott and Kitty work really well and function as a strong emotional center for the story.
Most of my issues come from the plotting. I like the idea of the mutant cure, but it doesn’t really go anywhere, which leaves us with Ord and Danger, two really weak villains. The beauty of Claremont’s run at its best was the fact that there weren’t really any villains, just a whole bunch of moral ambiguity. Danger and Ord are very one note villains, they have motivations, but they’re not interesting in any way. The Danger arc in particular is nonsensical, and falls prey to the same logical absurdities that any evil computer story, outside of HAL, has. Shouldn’t Whedon have learned his lesson with “I Robot, You Jane.”
So, I’ve got a lot of conflicted feelings on the book. It’s objectively better than the vast majority of X-Men books, but I got more of a charge reading the early part of Mike Carey’s run than I did reading this. I suppose it’s expectations, there I was surprised by just how much I liked Bachalo’s art and the character stuff Carey was doing. Here, I’m getting what I paid for. It’s good, but there’s no real surprises. But, perhaps the rest of the run will treat me better.
Saturday, October 04, 2008
In his New X-Men pitch, Grant Morrison wrote about wanting to make the X-books accessible to new readers, while still respecting the continuity of the past, to make them post-human, sexy and stylish. His conception of the X-Men isn’t so much a superhero team as it is a model for evolution, both biologically, but also culturally. Not all these concepts pay off in every arc, nobody’s sexy in Kordey’s world, and the time spent with the Shiar has little to do with the way that mutants are building their own culture. But, taken as a whole, he fulfills most of his goals, and, most importantly, he makes it feel like these events matter, that the characters are real people who feel the weight of what they’ve been through, and will grow and change as a result of the events they’ve experienced.
That, more than anything else, is what makes this such a special run, it’s what makes his run feel definitive, while other writers’ feel like fanfic. The beauty of Claremont’s original run is that you could feel the characters evolving as he wrote them. Jean became one of the book’s most compelling characters, then died. Scott, the longest running X-man, left the team and got married. He’d still come back from time to time, but you got the sense that his life went on offscreen, and there was no doubt that Claremont would come up with new characters who were just as compelling. Think of the transition from the Mutant Massacre to Fall of the Mutants. Kitty and Kurt, two of Claremont’s finest characters, left the team, but Dazzler, Psylocke and Longshot ably replaced them. I don’t think those characters were as strong as Kitty or Kurt, but I liked the fact that the universe expanded, and characters moved off stage when their stories were done.
By the time of “X-Tinction Agenda,” everybody’s tending back towards normal, the corporate sanctioned team of X-Men was in place, with Jean and Scott at the head, the Professor overseeing everything from his wheelchair and Wolverine as the bad boy on the side. Morrison said that he read all the X-Men TPBs that were in print before starting work on the title, and most of what is in print from Claremont is the crossovers and the Dark Phoenix era stuff. He doesn’t seem to love Paul Smith era Claremont, or later Claremont in the way that I do, and it makes sense that most of the mythology he’d draw on would be from the Dark Phoenix era. You can fit the whole Scott/Maddy Pryor thing into Morrison’s conception of the character, but in some ways, it works better without him ever having been through that darker experience.
Anyway, writers after Claremont struggled to make an impact on the title. There’s very few new characters introduced after 1991 who made any sort of an impact in the X-Men world, and very little character evolution. You could easily jump from 1991’s X-Men #3 to New X-Men #114 without any trouble following what’s going on. I’ve read some mid 90s X-Men books, and generally speaking, you don’t get the sense that the characters are ever going to have meaningful change happen to them. Most of the writers who did try to change things were held back by Marvel, and even Claremont himself failed miserably to tell good stories.
Luckily, Morrison had the combination of his skill as a writer and the corporate leeway to tell the kind of stories he wanted to, to do a kind of self contained run on the title that could radically change things and leave up to the next writer to figure out what’s next. I’ve read a little bit of Joss Whedon’s X-Men, a full read is forthcoming, but I don’t really need any more after the end of “Here Comes Tomorrow.” That feels like a fine place for the X-Men narrative to end, in the same way that X-Men #3 did. Obviously their lives will go on and the stories will continue, but I don’t need anymore. Part of the reason I liked the early parts of Mike Carey’s X-Men is that he’s dealing with a totally different corner of the X-Men universe than Grant did, and I can appreciate that book on its own terms rather than as a continuation of New X-Men. But, still, that book doesn’t come close to what Morrison did.
I would agree with people who say that Morrison’s run is uneven. Reading the beginning, I was thinking that it wasn’t as good as I remember it. “E For Extinction” is very cool, but it feels largely conceptual. X-Men books should be messy and emotionally overwrought, not the perfectly sculpted cool of that first arc. “E For Extinction” is pretty close to flawless, it’s certainly the arc I’d give to someone who’d never read X-Men, but much like Claremont’s run, the deeper we go into the world and the characters, the more fascinating they become. The first year on the title is hit and miss for me, with the Quitely issues working great, and the Kordey fill ins really draining momentum. “Imperial” is the nadir of the run, from both a writing and artistic perspective, salvaged primarily by a fantastic last issue.
The second year expands the world and changes the focus from fighting for survival to building a new society. I love the three issue Fantomex arc, that to me is the epitome of sexy post human X-Men, while still working on a character and emotional level. The two Jean Paul Leon issues are also fantastic. The “Riot” storyline played a bit weaker than I remembered it. It’s still great in a lot of ways but could have been paced a little better. And, having seen the way Quitely art looks in All Star Superman, it’s clear how poorly it was finished here. The second year is where the dream comes to fruition, and subsequently starts to become undone. People will always rebel against even the most perfect world. The year culminates with another flawed, but at times brilliant storyline, “Murder at the Mansion.” That storyline doesn’t work so well conceptually, but on a character level, the Emma Frost stuff is as good as anything in the run.
The third year is where everything seems to fall apart. After the fun detour to “Assault on Weapon Plus,” Magneto takes control of the book and spins it upside down to “Planet X.” I wrote more about this storyline, and “Here Comes Tomorrow” than I did about the entire rest of the run. I think that’s a testament to just how huge both stories are, and how good a job they do of synthesizing all the themes that have come before. “Planet X” has its flaws, but there’s so much to think about, so much emotional engagement that I consider it easily one of the best stories in the run, and an important story in X-Men history. “E For Extinction” makes a lot more sense, but it doesn’t hit me in the way that “Planet X” does.
“Planet X” reminds me of the Doctor Who season finale from this year. It’s the kind of story I always wanted to read when I first found out about X-Men, and it feels almost unhealthy to get something that hits so many things that I want. Like those Doctor Who episodes, it’s frequently nonsensical, but I don’t care, I’d rather have the insane brilliance of the story than almost anything else.
And, reading it again, “Here Comes Tomorrow” was a revelation, an echo of “Planet X” that somehow manages to synthesize all the central concepts from the run into one fantastic final story. Morrison goes out on a high note, his motley crue of future X-Men torn apart, only to be saved by Phoenix.
New X-Men has a special pull for me, since it’s a combination of my favorite corporate comics property and my favorite comics writer. I can really enjoy Morrison’s work on JLA or Final Crisis, but I don’t have that childhood connection to these characters. I’m frequently at a loss when faced with a mass army of characters moving in and out of the work without identification, and if you’re not familiar with X-Men, I’m sure seeing Jamie Madrox or Bishop suddenly appear is pretty confusing. But, I know all those people, I’ve read hundreds of issues of X-books and I know the mythology he’s referring to. I’m as big a fan of the Claremont run as anyone, and this is the only run on the book I think is comparable to what Claremont accomplished.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
“Planet X” is on one level a story about how it’s impossible to truly change these corporate icon superhero characters. Morrison can spin the X-Men into a totally different world, one where they’re not even fighting people, they’re just trying to change the world. But, eventually, things will tend back towards the norm, if he didn’t do it, the writer after him would have had them fighting Magneto once again, back as a superhero team.
However, I think the amount of regression in “Planet X” can be a bit overemphasized by some fans. I’d argue it’s one last confrontation with the old paradigm, by defeating Magneto there, they’re proving once and for all that his way doesn’t work, and ensuring the continuation of a new paradigm. In the context of the story itself, the end of the arc isn’t telling us the X-Men are doomed to perpetually fight Magneto, it’s telling us that Magneto has been so utterly defeated he can never really threaten what Charles has built. The immediate follow up to Morrison’s X-Men may have been Joss Whedon putting them back in spandex and battling orcs, but in my mind, the motley team surrounding Xavier in that final panel goes on to change the world and keep things evolving.
But, there’s one last foe to battle, and that’s the destructive force of war itself, Sublime! The first time I read “Here Comes Tomorrow,” it soared over my head, much like Volume III of The Invisibles, I struggled to process everything that was happening, even as I loved the essence of the story, and the surreal-emotional finale. It reminds me a lot of what Morrison did with “Glitterdammerung!” at the end of The Invisibles, flinging us into a future world with different rules and strange happenings to provide an emotional closure and answer some lingering questions about the run as a whole. It’s a challenging arc, but on this reread, it’s one of, if not the, best arcs in the entire run.
New X-Men on the whole gets a lot of criticism for its artistic inconsistency. And, the first year or so on the book really is crippled by some awful Kordey fill ins that don’t mesh well at all with what Quitely was doing. But, from “Riot at Xavier’s” on, this book has a series of artists who perfectly complement what Grant is doing, and give each story its own unique feel. Obviously it would have been cool to see Quitely do the whole run, but I don’t know if even he could have topped the cumulative coolness of having a perfectly chosen artist for each story. It reminds me of Jay-Z’s The Black Album, where each track has a different superstar producer and a unique feel. Because everyone’s just coming in for one arc, they don’t get worn down, and Jiminez, Bachalo and Silvestri all produce career best art. I can’t say for sure, but I think the success of the rotating art teams on this book probably inspired the similar diversity of styles on Seven Soldiers. And, in each case, the artist gives the arc a distinct flavor that works really well.
Silverstri presided over some of Claremont’s best stories in the 80s, including the fantastic “Fall of the Mutants” crossover and the over the top insanity of “Inferno.” I liked his art on those issues, but he looks a lot better with today’s coloring and reprinting technologies. I really wish that Marvel would get their act together and get Claremont’s entire X-Men run out in omnibus format, I got the first volume a while back, and had no idea that the coloring on those issues was actually pretty good. It’s just the reproduction on the single issues was awful, and didn’t display the art to its best advantage. Here, Silverstri is tasked with building an entire world and introducing an entirely new cast. He does a fantastic job, giving everything a kind of dirty, reckless future feel. It’s alien in a way that very few other comics are. This may not be our future, but it’s definitely not the world today.
The story itself has a couple of functions. On one level, it’s just about Morrison doing his take on one of the quintessential X-Men riffs, the dystopian future that could be. Morrison’s a bit more ambitious than most writers of this kind of story, building a world that’s totally credible, and not just about killing off the characters we know. I love “Days of Future Past,” but it has produced a lot of bad stories in its wake. Morrison’s gang here is enjoyable enough that it transcends the shock value of a future story and becomes a valid world in its own right.
The other, more significant level of things is the final battle between the two essential forces that have been in conflict throughout the entire run, evolution and stagnation, the Phoenix force versus Sublime. Or you could view the entire thing as a Mulholland Dr./Bardo like passage to death, in which Jean constructs this entire world as a way of coming to terms with her own passage to death, to come to terms with Scott and Emma getting together. It all works equally well, and that’s part of the beauty of the storyline, it’s a frantic mess of ideas that leaves room for interpretation while still telling an entertaining surface level story.
We open 150 years in the future, where Tom Skylark is under attack from a band of genetically modified Nightcrawlers. I like the replacement of the traditional foes in this scenario, sentinels, with a genetic creation. It fits more with the X-Men world and ties in with the concept that underlies Sublime. Let me delve a bit deeper into Sublime first off, as much of the story hinges on it. The way I see it, evolution is about adaptation, organisms modifying themselves to survive better. The ultimate destiny of evolution would be to transcend death and live forever in peace. Sublime is the genetic death wish, the drive to destroy ourselves and perpetuate old conflicts.
Virtually all of the philosophy in Grant’s works can be traced back to The Invisibles. Sublime is the ‘war,’ the us vs. them posturing that makes King Mob or Sir Miles want to destroy his enemies. It’s the war that prevents us from evolving into something better. The counterpart of Sublime is the Phoenix Force, which is evolution incarnate, burning away that which doesn’t work and leaving something that’s stronger and better. The Phoenix force is the rescue mission, and the early part of Grant’s run is all about the Phoenix in ascendance, the X-Men transcending the wars that have doomed them in the past and becoming something new and better.
The latter part of the run, specifically the battles with Quentin Quire and Magneto are about sublime in ascendance, the tendency to destroy combating the positive growth of the Xavier institute. While Quentin Quire may have had some valid points, he’s motivated entirely by hate, by the desire to destroy humanity simply because they destroyed other mutants in Genosha. Taken to its extreme, this tendency will doom all life on Earth by creating a cycle of destruction that won’t end until everyone is destroyed. Here, we get the retcon that Kick contains Sublime, making it clear that Quentin Quire and Magneto weren’t exactly themselves, they were under the influence of this evolutionary death wish. You could view that as a way to excuse their actions, but I’d argue it functions more as a metaphor. The hate that made them want to destroy humanity is given a name in the form of Sublime, but really, all that kick is is the power that we get from anger and aggression.
The future X-Men in this story are notable for their diversity and their co-dependence on each other, the opposite of the solitary Beast and his mutinous, selfish assistants. Tom Skylark is in a symbiotic relationship with Rover, the sentinel who protects him. Tom is now the hunted minority, a solitary human in a world where almost all of humanity is extinct. Now, the sentinel that existed to kill mutants, a force of Sublime, is in service to Tom, a protector and creator. Apart, they’re each powerless, together they are a force to reckon with. The same is true of Cassandra and Martha. E.V.A. is also a symbiotic being, though her familiar, Fantomex, has died. The X-Men are now a robot, a human, a brain in a jar, a giant bird, an old woman and Wolverine. It’s a radically different vision of the team, a truly post-human bunch. They’re also pretty badass, as we see in the two page spread with all of them walking through a rainy night in issue #152.
Next, we jump over to the Beast in his castle for a rant about the nature of the new universe. Why did Morrison choose to have Beast become the leader of this evil movement in the future? Part of it is a desire to tie into traditional apocalyptic mythology, having everyone refer to the beast ties into book of Revelations stuff about the “number of the beast” and all that. It’s also a spin on the Dark Beast character from the 90s, a misbegotten concept who perhaps didn’t need to return. And, on some level, I think it’s just about giving every character in the run something to do, and making clear just how bad this future is.
From there, it’s over to the Cuckoos, who are connected to a giant version of Cerebra, three sages in this desolate future. They feel very much like characters out of Greek mythology spouting cryptic dialogue about a “terrible flaw at the heart of things.” They know that this world isn’t right, things went wrong back at the end of “Planet X,” and it continues here, awaiting Jean to heal it all at the end of the arc. Notably, the Cuckoos seem to exist outside of time, perceiving things like the reader does. They ask “How did this happen so quickly?” Wolverine takes it to mean the total dissolution of society in such a comparatively short time, but I feel like their consciousness flings forward direct from “Planet X” to here, in the same way that Jean’s does.
What is the flaw in the heart of the universe? It’s found 150 years earlier, back in the present of the rest of the run, where Scott’s guilt about what happened with Jean causes him to step away from running the school and set off a chain of events that will bring the universe down. While I really like the rest of Silvestri’s art, his Emma is awful. For one, it makes no sense to wear a giant fur coat and leave it open on her barely there outfit underneath. And, the way her face is drawn, she looks like either a porn star or a blowup doll.
But, that aside, I like the concept of this scene, and the way it’s repeated at the end of the arc. Scott has been consumed by guilt the entire run, he doesn’t want to be with Emma because he thinks it will somehow be betraying Jean. He’d rather walk away and abandon the kids, the next generation for his own self indulgent self loathing. How can the world be healed? It will take the intervention of Jean herself from far in the future.
The Phoenix Egg is the mcguffin for the first part of the story, allowing Morrison to build this world and indulge in a number of cool action sequences. E.V.A and Tito versus the bunch of nightcrawlers in #151 is awesome, as is the band of early 90s style characters versus Appolyon and hundreds of crawlers in #152. There’s a majestic beauty to the panel with Rover standing in the city, surrounded by crawlers, explosions all around him.
Cassandra Nova reappears, dressed in the same outfit she wore back at the very beginning of “E For Extinction.” As we find out later in this arc, Ernst is the rehabilitated version of Cassandra Nova, but her presence here implies that she might actually be a force for positive evolution. As Xavier says in the “New Worlds” arc, it took Cassandra to force him out of stasis and start really changing things instead of just accepting the world as it is. Obviously she did some pretty awful things, but on some level, she was a force for positive change. I guess Cassandra’s presence here is the ultimate testament to what the Phoenix can do, burning away the destructive parts of her personality and leaving only the positive force for change.
Cassandra asks the Cuckoos what they see in the future, and all that’s there is “Consuming fire. The judgment of the Phoenix.” But, this is not a bad thing. The destructive power of the Phoenix scares people, but in the end, it is a positive force for change. The Phoenix will remake this world and take away all the pain within it in favor of something better.
This raises the question of what it feels like to watch your world remade in favor of a better one. For all the sadness in this world, there are still some beautiful moments. Do they exist anywhere? This is not what the future is meant to be, but the moments still happened, the feelings were still felt. Jean does not so much eradicate this future, as spin the present in a different direction. Outside of time, this world exists, but in the forward progression that will be the rest of the present day characters’ lives, it is gone.
It’s kind of like hypertime. In this story, the HCT world is the river, the way that everything flows forward. What Jean does is redirect time at the source of Scott’s decision so that the HCT world is no longer the main river, it’s a branch that dries up 150 years in the future, sacrificed so that the main timeline, the river itself, can continue on a better path, far into the future.
The dark Shakesperean feel of the Beast storyline continues as he prepares to raise the Phoenix from the fire. I love how epic this is, the fiery cave like something out of Lord of the Rings, and Beast himself shouting these over the top words, begging the Phoenix to “Arise!” There’s a lot of similarities between him and Magneto in “Planet X,” reinforcing the idea that Magneto was under the possession of a force beyond his control. The Beast claims he has waited three billion years for this moment, to finally control the Phoenix. He has overseen the wars that have guided all life to this present moment, and if he should control the Phoenix, he would have possession of the ultimate weapon, a way to stop positive change and finally win this war of absolute ideas.
I love the representation of Jean in this arc, she exists first as an entity of pure energy, more Phoenix than human. She says “I was in the crown,” a reference to Keter, the peak of the Kaballah, a place of pure divinity. She has been pulled down from Keter to serve one final role on Earth and end this war once and for all.
One of the best things about this arc is how epic everything is. We move from the fiery pits of the Beast’s lair to Panafrika, where Phoenix battles a bug mutant and ignites nuclear blasts over the plains. It’s the kind of thing that only comics can do, and Morrison manages to give us this epic imagery without sacrificing the emotional content of the story. So many people make comics that just feel like storyboards to movie, what makes Morrison and Moore so much better than everyone else is that they understand intrinsically what only comics as a medium can do. In comics, this massive story “costs” the same as two people in a room talking. That’s not to say that two people in a room talking can’t be great, it’s just that when you can depict anything, it’s a bit frustrating that so many comics remain Earthbound, using the visual vocabulary of films rather than the imagnation.
Phoenix kills Bumbleboy, then ushers him into death in the same way that Xorn helped Quentin move on out of this world. When Xorn/Magneto did that, it first read as a beautiful moment, Xorn acting out of mercy to help Quentin leave behind the pain of this world an become something more. In retrospect, it becomes one of the major examples of Xorn’s malevolence, the Magneto lurking underneath. But, perhaps he truly was motivated by a desire to help. That was the good piece of Magneto, recognizing a kindred spirit in Quentin, and helping him pass into another world without pain. In the end, we see Quentin in the White Hot Room, part of the Phoenix Force, not consigned forever to Sublime.
Either way, the scene with Phoenix holding the skull is amazing. I love the way Silvestri draws the moment, and Phoenix saying “You were always here, waiting for yourself to arrive.” It seems that the White Hot Room is the place we all go where we die, the pure energy consciousness from which all humanity springs. In the worldview of The Invisibles, it’s the supercontext. To die is to be absorbed into the White Hot Room and reunite with the universal essence we lose touch with when we’re on this world. On Earth, we mistakenly believe that we are individual beings, in the White Hot Room, we’re once again reminded that we are all part of something larger, a singular organism that is growing and evolving together.
Apollyon and Beast have a relationship similar to Magneto and Esme in “Planet X.” Beast’s hubris prevents him from seeing both how frustrated Apollyon has become with him, and the inevitability of his failure. If Sublime is about the negative force of evolution, our tendency towards self destruction, it would make sense that he constantly sabotages himself. He believes he can control the Phoenix, but in the end, the Phoenix will burn him away. Even as she becomes more and more self aware, he only rages on about tying to stop these new lifeforms from multiplying, to stop them from becoming “immortal, unstoppable supermen.” If they were to reach that level of existence, he would lose power, to him the fight against mutants is the fight to protect himself.
Next up, the X-Men go into battle to save their whale ally. I particularly like the sentient whale saying “Help! They’ll mak’ tallow and soap o’ me!” Luckily the team roars into action. Cassandra says smething interesting here, describing a painting as “Like some sad memory of a future that never happened,” which perfectly describes the very story we’re reading. We also get the fun moment where Tito is excited about doing the fastball special. Tito is a next generation X-Man, still awed by the legacy of the original X-Men, including Beak. It’s funny to hear him say that he can never live up to the legacy of his great grandfather, Beak, both because of the ironic juxtaposition of the Beak we knew with the apparently legendary figure in the future and because it makes clear that for all Tito’s mutation, the lack of self confidence is a hard coded genetic trait.
From there, we see the sad fall of Rover, who is apparently jealous of the close relationship between Tom and E.V.A. Judging from their relationship here, it’s not verboten for humans and robots to have “intimate” relations, and it seems that Tom is making his play when Rover is torn apart by an army of ‘crawlers. Rover collapses into the sea in a haunting panel where his hand reaches out even as he sinks deeper into the depths. These characters have only been around for a couple of issues, but I still really care about them and that moment hits a real emotional note.
I love pretty much any story that involves a flashback to three billion years ago, which Morrison uses in issue #154 to explain the origin of Sublime. I’ve discussed the basic concept quite a bit already, what he’s saying here is that Sublime, the fighting itself, was the dominant species on the planet for three billion years, and it’s not until mutants that someone comes along who could transcend that paradigm and create a new world. That’s what the entire run is about, Xavier trying to find a better way to do things, a way that isn’t bound up in human prejudices and pettiness, that instead helps humanity evolve and create a new world. The Beast is devoted to stopping that from happening.
Despite the fact that their relationship is at the emotional core of the run, there’s precious few scenes where Scott and Jean are actually together. I think that done intentionally to sway out sympathies towards Scott and Emma getting together, and make it clear that Jean has moved on to post human interests. Jean is a lot closer to Logan throughout the story, from their kiss in the woods to their journey into the sun together. So, it makes sense that they’d be the last ones standing in the future, debating the future of mutantkind.
The Phoenix spouts the party line, that “Extinction is part of the cycle of natural growth and death.” Sublime made her believe that no species can last forever, but Wolverine proves the exception. He personally has evolved into “a potentially viable species,” and many other mutants have to. Logan then ties Sublime into everything that’s come before in the series, and the entire history of X-Men. The X-Men are designed to evolve, Sublime is the anti-evolution. While I love the concept of Sublime, and think it enhances the story and gives it a thematic cohesion, I won’t deny that it does kind of come out of nowhere here in the last storyline.
It’s retconned in nicely, but the connections between this Sublime and John Sublime from the U-Men storyline are shaky. If that story had given us a hint that Sublime was part of something larger, it would have made more sense, as it is, the groundwork is there, but you still have to do most of the work yourself. In that way, it works a lot like Magneto/Xorn. I think both revelations do work, and I’m glad the last two arcs happened as they did, but they could have been better integrated into what came before.
Jean and Logan’s conversation is interrupted when Cassandra plunges her plane into the head chakra of the Phoenix, to “unplug the crown.” It’s a glorious moment of metaphysical action. The crown is the entry point to the White Hot Room, where individual humanity transcends into the collective entity. But, to save the world, Logan needs to tap into Jean Grey herself. Only she knows how to heal the whole in time and prevent the world from ever going this way.
In one page, we see the history that led us to this moment. Scott is the anchor of the school, and without him or Emma or Jean, Hank couldn’t keep things under control. This page has two really important functions. One is to make it clear where the hole in time began. According to Logan, Magneto killed Jean as part of his service to Sublime, to eradicate the opposing force in a never ending war. The hole in time wasn’t Jean’s death, it was Scott walking away from the school, Jean now has to reverse that decision and heal things.
Equally significant is the revelation that Kick is Sublime in aerosol form. Sublime didn’t have the hold on mutants that it did on other species, the rise of mutants, and the impending death of humanity threatened to make Sublime irrelevant, to push him towards extinction. His first attack was the U-Men, an attempt to turn mutant and human against each other. When that didn’t work, Sublime took a more covert form, infiltrated Xavier’s with the drug, and used Quentin Quire and Magneto to attack Xavier. This is the last of those battles, the moment when Jean has to make a choice between giving into her human side, and holding onto Scott, or letting him go, and transcending with the Phoenix force into something more.
From here, everything spirals into chaos. Cassandra is ripped apart, and the Cuckoos self destruct rather than be absorbed into Cererbra. Here, it’s revealed that the Cuckoos were Weapon XIV. The Weapon Plus program was started by Sublime as a way of manufacturing mutant killers. It’s notable that three of the core of X-Men here, the Cuckoos, Wolverine and E.V.A. were created or modified by Weapon Plus. The force of Sublime may be powerful, but it can be overcome. The Cuckoos are the government traitor alluded to in “Assault on Weapon Plus,” but thanks to the training at Xavier’s School, they now fight for good. While the revelation that they are Weapon XIV is kind of out of nowhere, it makes the stakes clear. It’s Emma’s training that helps save them, and if she and Scott aren’t there to teach the next generation, mutants will be doomed.
Much like in the Magneto battle in “Planet X,” the Beast emerges and the X-Men gradually tear him apart. One of the high points here is Tom screaming at him “Why does there always have to be people like you?” The answer is the Sublime force, if they eradicate that, then maybe there can be a world without power mad tyrants bent on destruction. With Tom’s life at stake, Rover emerges out of the sea and flings the Beast to the ground. But, the Beast tears them all down. I love the moment at the end where E.V.A. is dying and sees Tom as Fantomex.
In the end, as before, it’s Jean and Logan left to end things. He tears at Beast, but Jean tells him “Don’t let Sublime contaminate you! Don’t fight!” The best way to destroy Sublime is to love it, to integrate it. It’s the same concept we saw with Jack and Sir Miles back in the end of Invisibles Voume I. Logan falls, but Jean is actualized. “Did you think you would live forever, little speck?” Against the power of the Phoenix, Sublime will fall. Life has grown and flourished in spite of Sublime, and now Jean tears him out and heals Beast. Henry returns for a moment and dies, along with everyone else in a mad rush. Appolyon tearing off his skin suit seems to come out of nowhere, but just adds to the manic mood. Much like “Planet X,” we leave the battle in media res and spin off to another world as Logan hands it off to Jean.
The White Hot Room is a concept I love, an extradimensional space within the M’Kraan Crystal where the Phoenixes of many worlds gather together to help move worlds forward. This scene echoes the end of the original Phoenix Saga, when Jean goes into the M’Kraan crystal to heal a rift and save the world. Morrison makes it a more emotional thing in his conception, the rift isn’t an abstract idea, it’s the pain that Scott feels, and the only way to save it is for Jean to send him a message and liberate him to move on with his life.
There’s a lot of reference to the dichotomy between her humanity and her godhood. She talks about losing her concentration when “Heart got stuck.” She needs to play one last role as Jean before passing into the collective. The X-Men are the “parents” of the world they live in, without them all that’s left is “A badly wounded orphan universe,” a world ravaged by Sublime. But, the Phoenix can heal that. Quentin Quire appears to tell her that healing the universe requires her to “water it with your heart’s blood.”
Quentin then speeds off into the cosmos, telling her they’ve met hundreds of time and “if it was me, I’d just let it die.” Is this referring to Quentin’s possession by Sublime, in that capacity, he and the Phoenix certainly have met hundreds of times, and it would make sense that he would abandon the world to die. However, if that’s the case, why is he wearing the Phoenix outfit? Perhaps he is the rehabilitated Sublime, now serving the cause of the Phoenix masters. Notably, he refers them as “they,” like he is not one of them. The way I took it, Jean is not outside the Phoenix force, she is part of it, she would refer to “them” as “we.” This Quentin does wear his Omega Gang hairstyle, perhaps he clings to that part of himself even in this collective space that is the White Hot Room.
In the end, Jean recognizes her duty. The only time we saw her enraged in the entire run was when she caught Scott and Emma together. She was fine with abandoning Scott for large chunks of the narrative, both of them knew they were drifting apart, but a part of her still felt possessive of him and couldn’t stand to see Emma with him. That was when she gave into Sublime, now she is confronted with that moment again. She could keep Scott and Emma apart, as she apparently did the first go round, to create this future. But, in the end, she has become part of the Phoenix Force, she understands the way that petty human jealousy can tear them apart, and she gives Scott her blessing, “Live, Scott,” and is echoed by the Phoenix Force, which empowers the orphaned universe and sets everyone off in a new direction. The old world, ruled by Sublime, is dead, there will be a new, better one now.
Speaking with Emma, Scott expresses sadness at the fact that nothing they do makes a difference. He sees only the conflict, not the progress. But, they are changing things, and without him, the entire world will crumble. This is where Jean comes in, giving him the power to not get bogged down in that despair, to choose a new path for himself. Now, when Emma asks Scott if he wants to inherit the Earth, he says “Yes.” He and Emma will be at the forefront, molding a new generation of mutant minds free from the influence of Sublime, to become something better. The run ends with Scott and Emma finally kissing for the first time in the real world, Scott is free of his guilt, able to pursue what he really wants without trying to cling to an image of himself that he has outgrown. For Emma, this moment indicates acceptance. To be loved by Scott, the ultimate boy scout, means that there must be something good in her. And, because she has so many flaws in her past, Scott doesn’t have to hide any of his own inadequacies or bad feelings. Together, they become something stronger, together they will build a better world.
In the end, this whole trip to the future is about this single moment, showing how much a single person can change the world. It’s about Jean coming to terms with her passage from this world, it’s about Scott and Emma learning to live and get out of the cycle of grief, it’s about the X-Men finally triumphing over the force of self destruction and paving the way for a new world. It’s about evolution.
And so ends the only run on X-Men since Claremont’s that really matters. I’ll be back shortly with a wrapup of the run as a whole, though this storyline functions as such a successful summation of the themes, there’s not that much more to discuss. But, despite having written 10,000 words on these past two storylines, I think there’s always a bit more there.
Friday, September 26, 2008
One of the interesting things about the arc is the way it positions Magneto’s revolution within the political climate of a post 9/11, Bush governed world. Magneto realizes that he needs a few soundbites rather than big speeches, The fickle nature of the populace is central to the arc, they don’t want real change, they just want to hold on to their comfortable lives. In that respect, it’s easy to sympathize with Magneto. In stories, a desire to maintain the status quo generally isn’t an admirable trait. People who just want to live their lives aren’t the ones we care about in a story where the stakes are global. Particularly because they remain largely off screen, the fickle populace acts essentially as a drain on the revolution. Magneto’s ideas fail because people don’t care enough to engage with them.
Or at least that’s how he views it. What Morrison would probably argue is that the kind of revolution Magneto poses was always flawed because it’s very much an Invisibles Volume I “Us vs. Them” showdown. It’s fingers fighting for control of the hand, that kind of thinking will never lead to real growth or change. Even if Magneto’s plan succeeded, he makes it clear that he’s going to keep humans around as a servant underclass, taking the jobs that mutants don’t want.
Perhaps the toughest scene to reconcile with previous presentations of Magneto is the opening of #149, where Magneto and the gang oversee the movement of humans into a crematorium. On one level, you can reduce any narrative inconsistencies to Magneto was on kick and insane, there anything goes. However, it’s more interesting to consider what Morrison does present, to not necessarily try to justify it with previous stories and instead accept it on the terms of what he’s presented in New X-Men. What Magneto is doing is presenting the extreme other side of what Xavier does, the kind of confrontational viewpoint that Quentin Quire also advocated. He’s powerful enough to destroy all existing social order, and pave the way for a world dominated by mutants, but his revolution gets tripped up every step of the way because it’s not practical for the real world. As Xavier makes clear at the end of the arc, what he stands for makes more sense as a t-shirt than as a real world practice.
That said, on a base level, much of the arc is about the basic insanity of Magneto’s viewpoints and the spiral into a nightmare world of a man with way too much power, and little relevance in today’s world. Magneto is George Bush, he is the American military-industrial complex, frustratingly one note in a world that’s infinitely more complex. I love the absurdity of Magneto smacking Beak to win the argument about whether a carrot can feel pain, and if it’s a fruit or vegetable.
After killing Basilisk because of a fart joke, Magneto has a falling out with Esme. She says “Are you waiting for them to stop you,” which functions on a number of levels. On the one hand, it’s a meta comment about the nature of superhero comics. Villains will always push things to the brink, but never pull the final trigger, always leaving the door open for the heroes to come in and save the day. Esme felt empowered by a Magneto who offered the chance to upend the status quo and become the ruler of a new mutant empire. As part of a hive mind, she’d be particularly interested in asserting her singular identity. Under Magneto’s wing, she drops the prim and proper Emma Frost inspired clothes she wore with the other Cuckoos for an Omega Gang inspired vamp outfit. She’s playing at the being the bad girl, wielding a whip just to add to the image.
But, she’s growing frustrated with Magneto. She’s from a younger, instant gratification generation, the kind of people who don’t have time for Magneto’s Shakespearean speeches. If he’s going to flip the world, just do it already. She doesn’t understand what the hold up is. Of course, she does recognize the self destructive streak in Magneto, he has everything he wants, and still he’s obsessed with showing up Charles and proving that his way is the right way.
This all leads up to the central scene of the arc, in which Magneto is confronted by Xorn, who appears to have gained his own consciousness as an entity separate from Magneto. It’s reinforced throughout the arc, the fact that people prefer Xorn to Magneto, and now Xorn shines through as Magneto’s conscience. You could argue that this Xorn is Xavier speaking to Magneto, but I prefer to think it’s the Xorn fiction suit reclaiming agency and saving the world. People who criticize the Xorn/Magneto twist harp on the narrative implausibiltities of it all, ignoring the rich allegorical layer. Xorn is the best in Magneto, the kick addled old man we see here is the worst. He says “I am your inner star, Erik. I will never let you be.” What’s doomed Magneto’s schemes in the past is his conscience, he’s never been able to be fully evil, to wipe out humans, because he has an innate decency. On some level, he is Xorn, and as reconfigured in this story, it’s that part of him that continually makes him lose when he battles the X-Men.
When Magneto speaks to Charles, he makes it sound like this entire assault on Manhattan is an attempt to prove that his way can work. As Xorn, he saw Xavier changing the world, making it a better place for mutants, and transcending the human/mutant conflict in a way that Magneto never could. Magneto wants to prove that he does have relevance, but in reality, Xavier took the best of Magneto’s ideas and applied it to X-Corps. Ernst sums it up when she says “Nobody likes what you’re doing, Magneto. It’s boring and old-fashioned. It’s all coming to an end and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.”
It all builds to issue #150. Claremont’s #150 was a major turning point in the redemption of Magneto, when he almost killed Kitty Pryde, he hit bottom and started down the path that would eventually lead to his rehabilitation around #200. Morrison’s #150 is a strange climax, an emotionally charged spiral towards insanity for all involved. Let me first note that Jiminez’s cover for this issue is one of my favorite comics covers ever, a singularly epic image, that’s nicely echoed by the beautiful image of the Phoenix that opens the issue.
Jiminez kills it again with the outré image of Wolverine reforming himself as he and Jean cross space to confront Magneto. Jean says “I had to die to come back, Logan. But I don’t know how long they’ll let me stay,” reinforcing the idea that it’s not really Magneto’s energy charge that kills her at the end of the issue, she’s always dead, this is just her fading ember doing one last cleansing duty in the universe.
The issue is structured as a series of assaults on Magneto, each destroying a little piece of him. Beak shows up and doesn’t even fight him, he just shouts “Xavier school is the best school,” a cutting refutation of the revolution Magneto is trying to create. It’s all about showing up Charles ideologically, and he can’t do that here. A more showy assault is Fantomex’s dive from E.V.A into the building, guns blazing, bullets screaming. I love Fantomex, and I’m glad that Grant brought him back here to spin through the air and spout catchy one liners like “You and whose knees?” I think Fantomex would have been a great fit in Seven Soldiers, he’s the kind of guy who, if written right, could headline a mindblowing ongoing series.
Again, it’s not so much the bullets that bother Magneto as it is Fantomex asking “Is everything you say a cliché?” Magneto in this storyline has old ideas, and with each passing moment, the X-Men prove him more and more irrelevant. Scott does this too when he tells Magneto how much he loved Xorn. Magneto constructed Xorn out of a piece of himself, a piece that he now claims to hate, but deep down knows may be better. But, he’s stuck in the old paradigm, he’s got to be the bad guy. He won’t evolve.
Next up, Esme turns on her mentor and assaults his mind. She talks about being inspired by Magneto as an idea, then getting gradually disappointed as she comes to know the real man, another pointed comment on how Magneto is more powerful as a symbol than as a person. He sends her earrings through her brain, killing her. The scene where Emma holds her dying body is particularly interesting. Emma talks about how proud she is, even as Esme rails against her. Esme is in a period of rebellion, she has to reject her parental figures to claim her own self identity, even as she follows much the same path that Emma did, latching on to a powerful man and trying to use her sexuality to make her way. When she speaks to Magneto, she even notes that he doesn’t look at the way she dresses, she wanted to be everything for him, but he was just an old man. Emma knows that rebellion, it’s the same rebellion she had. In the end, Emma has more in common with Esme than with the Cuckoos who blindly follow her.
This all leads to the frantic climax as Magneto struggles to prove that he is in fact Magneto. Wearing Xorn’s helmet to protect his scarred face, he finds that the people no longer believe he is who he says he is, and the X-Men are reacting against Xorn’s betrayal, not to Magneto’s attack. In the end, Magneto is beaten down, the populace he inspired from beyond the grave now rejects him and won’t even acknowledge him. I love the panel of him tearing off the Xorn mask, and screams “See you morons! I AM MAGNETO!” The Phoenix mocks him, asking “Is this the Magneto anyone knows? Is this what he looks like?” Identity is fluid, a construct. Magneto stands for certain things, he appears a certain way, beaten down, Magneto can no longer match up to the symbol who inspired people. The revolution has come to pass, and it’s failed miserably. He says that the Xorn mask is suffocating him, the identity that represents the best hope of what he can be has prevented him from achieving his goals. It is his conscience, tearing him down.
Xavier sums it all up when he says that “the worst thing you ever did was to come back, Erik.” Xavier has learned from his experiences, he wants to “put away the old dreams and manifestos,” and just listen to the new generation. That’s probably why he’s stepping down as head of the school, he got obsessed with his own new vision, and it backfired when he alienated people like Quentin Quire. There will always be forces in opposition with each other, that’s the way that change happens. What Xavier is saying is that his and Magneto’s ideological opposition did not breed positive change, it only reinforced their previous biases and locked them into ideological corners. Xavier saw the need to change and did so, Magneto can’t make that same adjustment, he has been rendered irrelevant in the face of a new group of X-Men. I particularly like that Xavier says all this while surrounded with a cast of new characters from Morrison’s run. Sure, Beast and Cyclops are there, but it’s the new faces who stand out, the universe has expanded, and the old villains don’t have the place they once had.
So, Magneto kills the Phoenix, and asks for death. It’s a strange set of beats, but the scene works for me. The entire arc has been pitched at this insane level and having Wolverine chop off his head in a single panel is as good a way to end it as any. We’ve already seen Wolverine acknowledge that is place in this world is to be a killer, in this case, it’s a mercy killing. In that sense, Wolverine is much like the Phoenix itself, he destroys things that don’t work, paving the way for people like Charles who can build things that do. A lot of the run has dealt with the fact that it takes a crisis to produce a change. Cassandra Nova provided the impetus for Xavier’s new vision of the world, and now Magneto’s insane assault on Manhattan gives Logan the excuse to kill him, and by extension prove that his ideology is a destructive dead end that doesn’t work anymore.
The story ends with Jean literally slipping away into white light as chaos continues to spin all around. After such an insane arc, it’s appropriate to go out with any sort easy denouement. The Cuckoos claim that “something’s gone wrong with the whole universe,” Scott screams for Xorn, Jean slips away and we jump 150 years into the future.
So, that’s Planet X. It’s an arc that has some issues, but it’s also thematically fascinating, hugely ambitious and beautifully drawn by Phil Jiminez. Is this the Magneto I knew and loved from Claremont’s run? Perhaps, you can make the leap, but I don’t necessarily view Morrison’s run as a direct continuation of what Claremont did. He has his own spins on the characters, drawing from their essence as defined by Claremont, but molding them into something that makes sense for his storytelling purposes. I can forgive the disparity between 80s Magneto and this Magneto because I think the story he tells gets to the core of the character in an interesting way.
I particularly love the way the arc begins by telling us that Xorn is a construct, a total fiction who’s just been playing us the whole time, and the arc ends with Xorn saving the day. Xorn makes Magneto doubt himself, he brings Magneto’s conscience back, and in the end, Xorn obscures Magneto. He makes it so that the populace doesn’t know who’s real anymore. The X-Men believe he’s Xorn, the people don’t know who he is, and by the end, it’s Magneto who’s not real. He’s just a face on a t-shirt, an abstract idea that’s tied to a man who can’t match up. And, in the end, Wolverine returns him to a pure idea state.
Next up is “Here Comes Tomorrow,” an arc I’ve only read once, and struggled with the first time. I’m eager to delve into it again and figure out exactly what is up with the most avant garde section of Morrison’s tenure.