Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Whole Damn Thing--THE PRISONER, Episode 10

Oh yes. This one.

Episode 10--"Hammer Into Anvil"


Paranoid people are sure of one thing--everything, from the time their toothpaste falls off the toothbrush in the morning, to the guy who cuts them off on the way to work, to the co-workers who are surely waiting for a chance to stab him in the back is all part of one large meta-conspiracy directed at them. Of course, that's rarely the case, but good luck convincing them of that. It's at once a defence mechanism (after all, a conspiracy at least implies that someone's in control of things and it's not all a random collision of circumstance) and an expression of ultimate narcissism (of course everything is directed against you, right? /sarcasm) All too often, these people are undone more by what they imagine works against them by what is actually happening to them.

All the above armchair psychoanalysis is my way of prefacing my discussion of this episode, which, were I to boil it down to two sentences would be "No. 6 drives No. 2 barking mad. Also: Kosho."

The episode's title comes from a quote by Goethe: "You must be anvil or hammer." No. 2 expands on this by declaring that he's going to "Hammer" No. 6, which probably sounded far more intimidating in the days before slashfic came along to add another and much less threatening layer of meaning to that particular phrase. It is required of me that, like every other person who's watched this series and has an English degree that I mention that Orwell wrote that "the anvil always breaks the hammer," which I'm certain we're supposed to know on some level because that's exactly what happens here. There's quite a lot of layered foreshadowing in this episode--it's one of the reasons I like it so much.

No. 2, played this time with scenery-chewing godlike assholishness (seriously--this guy does a slide into insanity like the Gotterdamerung is going on in his head) drives one an unfortunate Villager to suicide, and No. 6 decides to seek revenge.

His vengeance takes the form of performing random and completely pointless acts--buying a cuckoo clock and leaving it in front of No. 2's house, playing the same record and timing it (L'Arl├ęsienne--a story of a man being driven mad, which informs on the plot of this episode in a number of ways, if you're familiar with the story), leaving odd messages in the Village paper and generally behaving, to anyone who's not No. 2, like a nutter.

But No. 2, conditioned to the way the Village operates, sees conspiracy. In much the same way as No. 2s turn the weaknesses of the prisoners into the weapon that breaks them, No. 6 breaks No. 2, and it's that turning of the tables that makes the episode so satisfying. We've seen No. 6 get thwarted, betrayed, and outmaneuvered so many times in the episodes up to now and it would be easy to throw one's hands up and say "man, this is just depressing. We know he's not gonna get out until the final episode, so why bother watching the series until we get there?"

So we, as viewers, need a "win" like we get in this episode, so we keep our emotional stake in what happens to No. 6. No, No. 6 doesn't escape, but he does make good on his vow from "Chimes of Big Ben" that he plans to destroy The Village, and if he has to do it bit by bit from within, well, so be it.

That's the good bit of this episode. Now, let's talk Kosho.

A word about fictitious sports in SF, if I may: They're usually silly. Such an effort is made to make the rules recognizable as a sporting event yet sufficiently alien and "futuristic" that everyone ends up looking ridiculous and doing ridiculous things for a goal we're never entirely certain of.

Kosho is no different--it is goofy, hilarious, and insane. I'm not even going to bother trying to describe it, I'm just going to post this Youtube clip. Enjoy.

There are times when The Prisoner just comes out with stuff like this and doesn't bother to prepare one for it, just tosses it right at you and says "Here--you make sense of it." One of the things that often saves a very dodgy Prisoner episode is very often a Kosho scene, because even in the most wretched episodes to come there are no blues that two people fake fighting on trampolines in front of a wading pool can't cure.

Anyways--you now have two reasons why "Hammer Into Anvil" is totally awesome--one of which I have demonstrated to you empirically. This episode isn't one you could intro the series to someone with--it's best saved for a few episodes in, when the prospective Prisoner neophyte can savor the fact that in this episode, at least, he gets to stick it to Village for once.

Unfortunately, this means I have to talk about the next episode now, which is pretty much takes how I feel about this episode and utterly inverts it. Oh, I hate it so much. No. 6 gets embroiled in a plot so damn complicated and highly dull that I reserve the right to embed that Kosho clip again if I get sick and tired of trying to explain it. And I will.

Next time--"It's Your Funeral."

The Whole Damn Thing--THE PRISONER, Episode 9

Hm . . .seems my order of episodes got a bit jumbled in the last block. But seeing as how a favoured hobby of Prisoner fans is arguing just which episode order is the "right" one . . .hell, what's one more mystery?

Episode 9--"Checkmate"

"No escape plan can succeed without knowing who you can trust."

Fun fact--"Checkmate" was the first Prisoner episode I saw--picking it up in a "previously viewed" video bin began my early 90's binge for collecting Prisoner episodes VHS (yes of course I'm old, dammit) It's not my favourite episode of the run, but it's a sound enough episode and besides, you never forget your first, do you?

We begin with one of the more enduring Prisoner symbols--the giant chessboard with Villagers standing in for the pieces, directed by others. It's rather barefaced symbolism and the obviousness of it may make one roll their eyes (yes, part of "Checkmate" concerns the pressure to conform, we got it thanks) but it exists more to set No. 6's interactions with two specific Villagers and we don't linger on it too long.

The two villagers are the Queen, who seems a bit on the daffy side, even before the Village hypnotises her into being madly in love with/stalking No. 6 (Naturally, the honey trap doesn't work on No. 6, and he basically responds by being a real asshole to her, but that's No. 6 for you) this plot doesn't really go anywhere and just kind of exists because they needed to draw out the "A" plot in anticipation of the big twist at the end, which in a rare demonstration of restraint, I will not spoil, but a careful reading of the text should reveal anyways.

The other villager is the Rook, who exploits an opportunity on the chessboard to put the opposing king in check, and for his individual initiative gets carted off the Village Loony Bin for a little Village Mad Science/Pavlovian torture. Rook is a likable enough schlub who just happened to have too much of a conscience out in the real world and was taken to the Village.

No. 6 zeroes in on him with a novel plan for an escape attempt: He's finally figured out how to separate the actual prisoners from the ringers--the ringers (or "guardians") will react without fear when confronted, the prisoners flinch at his crabby intensity. Armed with this knowledge No. 6's plan is, with the help of the Rook, to gather enough prisoners to mount a successful escape attempt.

It goes about as well as you'd expect, but it's something No. 6 does that ends up undoing him, which is a novel twist by now on the Prisoner's stock "egress interruptus," which we need after yet another escape attempt that isn't.

Special note here--No. 2 is Peter Wyngarde, before Jason King and Flash Gordon being rather coolly evil and irritatingly smug--the man can sneer and speak dialogue the way Billy Idol could sneer and sing at the same time. By underplaying things slightly, the full effect of No. 6 ultimately undoing himself really comes to the fore. He's a pretty good No. 2 and it's a shame he didn't recur.

In all "Checkmate" works as an effective Prisoner episode--it hums along at a crackerjack pace, it's surreal without being too obscure about it, and it's a strong enough episode to introduce someone to The Prisoner, I'd say.

But next time, we hit my second favourite Prisoner episode of all time, very closely tied to "Schizoid Man" A new No. 2 hits town, and No. 6 makes it his mission in life to utterly break him. If there is a more audience pleasing episode for people who've been watching The Prisoner for awhile and want to see the good guys win, well this is your episode. Oh yes, and it's the debut of the deliriously wonderful/insane sport of Kosho.

Next time--"Hammer Into Anvil"

Friday, December 4, 2009

"Yes, But How Do You Feel About Power Girl's Tits?"

Right, well, just as we were all grumbling about having to carry our asses back to work after the Thanksgiving holidays (in America, anyways--to my international readers, we ate a lot and had a few days off from work) it seems that once again, Power Girl's boobies have set the comics intelligentsia aflame with anger, defensiveness, and exactly the kind of awful displays of sexism that have made superhero comics fandom the mortifying writhing mass it often is.

It behooves me then, as I attempt to struggle for validity (or even the smallest bit of attention) that I get a marshmallow toasted on this bonfire before it's all burnt out. I will attempt (and likely fail) to avoid being put to the sword by one side or the other by dodging the whole sexism thing as much as possible and addressing another trend that comes from this whole thing that I actually find encouraging.

But before that, I'm going to ramble at length. Let's have a look (not that way) at Power Girl. Lost in all the debate over boobie windows or convoluted origins, it should be mentioned that Power Girl is a product of the zeitgeist of her age, specifically the feminist movement of the 70's.

Whenever superhero comics try to capture the spirit of the age, the results are more often as not cringe worthy stuff (how many black superheroes exploded onto the scene in the 70's? How many of them had nothing more to distinguish them except having "Black" before their name--just in case our attention wasn't drawn to that fact already) done with the best intentions and quite often from a position of white middle-class liberal guilt.

The results, looking back on things with the benefit of hindsight are often hilarious or time to facepalm--black superheroes seem to be constantly furious at Uncle Charlie, and every "feminist" or "liberated woman" (or Lady Liberator) is a serious ball-buster. Part of that could be down to the generally exaggerated nature of superhero comics (like pro wrestling, the phrase "theatre of the absurd" springs to mind--superhero comics deal in hightened, almost operatic, reality) but also the simple fact that it's very hard to get a sense of a social movement while it's happening around you--it's slightly too big to be easily perceived.

It was with equally well-meaning intentions that women characters began to hit the scene in the 70's and in deference to lessons learned (or not) a hell of a lot of them seemed to have "she-" in front of their names or "-woman" or "-girl" after them. Again--just in case we forgot.

Nevertheless, even with all the best intentions in the world, an outsider trying to write for a different gender, sexual orientation, or race will face a certain disconnect. I am not saying that straight writers can't write gay characters or white writers can't write black characters, I'm simply saying there may be subtleties that you can't get to owing to the fact that one is on the outside looking in. It can be mitigated, it can be compensated for, but it's not easily hurdled, and I struggle with it in my writing, too.

Also, a creator's experience and predilections also inform any creation, blatantly or subtly. For instance, a group of mostly old-line creators, raised in times where the gender roles and expectations were quite different are bound to have a certain subtext in their perceptions of women's liberation than someone who was born and raised in the midst of it, and he would have a different opinion than, say, Dave Sim. But who doesn't?

This idea of experience informing intent will become important . . .right now.

Wally Wood designed Power Girl's look. In addition to designing Daredevil's red suit and committing suicide, Wally Wood had quite a line in drawing women who were, if we're honest, built like brick shithouses. Some artists have pretty blatant obsessions, and whether they like it or not, they bleed onto their pages.

So, Power Girl, poster child for "feminism" in superhero comics (not easily defined then, possibly less so now) created with what were surely good intentions, ended up on the page as a bit of a ballbuster who was built like a brick shithouse.

Here's another example--nearly around the same time, Marvel created Ms. Marvel, who is very much Power Girl's opposite number--she's a distaff version of a male hero, she's a feminist who demonstrates it by being a ballbuster, origin and current status has been hopelessly muddled, and her costume's probably more famous than the character. I think they even fought in JLA/Avengers, just in case we missed the connection.

I once read an anecdote Dave Cockrum told about re-resdesigning Ms. Marvel's look. Her first outfit was lacking something and so he designed the second--and ultimately more enduring--costume and presented it to Marvel's head honcho (at least in the public eye) Stan Lee, who was elated and declared that this was what he'd been looking for--"Black leather and tits and ass."

He would know, I'd imagine--this is the Stan Lee who gave us Stripperella, for God's sake.

I present these things not to make any great point (except "this was nascent feminism in superhero comics 30+ years ago.") apart from how good intentions can often go awry in ways we may not be fully cognizant of. Mind you, there was still plenty of times to right the ship between then and now, but . . .well, as anyone who knows anything about comics will tell you, all too often things swing back to a permanent status quo. Part of that is the nature of the beast--to keep the soap opera running things can never fully resolve, after all.

Another part of it is that some ideas that should long ago have been tossed in the bin stick around, molder, and get a bit stinky.

However, that there's this much of a debate, and about Power Girl, to boot, gives me hope for one thing. For all the sturm und drang people throw about (me included) about how the comic market is shrinking and catering to the 30+ year old male geek is resulting in a slow countdown to extinction, that women would get this passionate about a character shows that there are characters that female readers would embrace and would take an interest in, if perhaps something could be done about the barnacles of intentional and unintentional sexism that have accrued on them over the years.

I very much hope those that have been most vocal will bring some of that to bear, perhaps, on creations that redress the problems with these character that prevent that vital connection from being made. Failing that, I hope they get their shot someday to do something with them on their own--I'm a big beleiver that at some point a new generation has to being its ideas to bear on these hoary old icons so it will speak to younger generations and there will be later generations of comics readers.

It's the only thing that's ever seemed to work.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Whole Damn Thing--THE PRISONER, Episode 7

When accepted this job, I was resigned to my fate. My fate is to recap the entire run of The Prisoner, in an epic race to the finish.

Episode 7--"Many Happy Returns"

"Anyone at home?"

"Many Happy Returns" is a weird, weird, episode. It's not as disorienting as some of the later episodes, not as trippy or psychedelic as the finale, but it's very . . .eerie. Maybe it's the beginning of the episode where No. 6 wakes up to a completely deserted and empty Village. No people, no water, no electricity, no nothing. After so many episodes of shiny happy prisoners wandering around in colourful cloaks and umbrellas it just seems . . .wrong, somehow.

No. 6, never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, decides to escape. He makes a raft and sails out to sea, beats up some gunrunning pirates, meets some gypsies and generally refuses to say a word for most of the first half-hour of the episode.

It's that eerie silence that most people remember about this episode--there's barely any dialogue in the first half-hour and what little there is isn't in English. It's only once No. 6 meets up with Mrs. Butterworth, the lady who owns his car and his old house, that he actually speaks, and from there it's a short run back to his erstwhile superiors, to convince them of the existence and the imminent threat of the Village.

You remember what happened last time he did this, don't you? Sure enough, No. 6 finds himself back in the Village, still completely deserted. It's only when he re-enters his cottage that all of a sudden everything comes back on and just in time for one of those climaxes so perfect that you smile, even though the bad guys won.

"Manny Happy Returns" is a great episode, not just because it ticks along with such perfect precision, not just because it has a great ending twist, but because it shows The Prisoner at its best--never afraid to kick over the table and completely upset the format. It's that willingness to do anything that makes this show so enduring ultimately. It's well worth watching.

Back in the Village, again in the Village. No. 6 finds a potential way to escape and an old comrade in arms, and runs up against one of the creepiest Nos. 2 in the entire run of the series and certainly one of the most complicated plots. Next episode--"Dance of the Dead."

There will be music, dancing, happiness . . .by order.

The Whole Damn Thing--THE PRISONER, Episode 8

Episode 8--"Dance of the Dead"

"They don't know you're already dead. Locked up in the long box, in that little room."

"Dance of the Dead" is one of my all-time favorite episodes of The Prisoner, and, in fact, one of the first I got a chance to see in my early days of buying previously viewed tapes from the local video store. Funnily enough, it took me quite awhile to actually get what it was about, but there was enough going on to offset my utter incomprehension of the plot (and to be fair, it's not something you can get if you're half-watching it) that it still held my attention.

First of all, the No. 2 this time is Mary Morris. Despite being a woman (a rarity for Nos. 2) she comes off as curiously asexual, very charming and urbane at moments, but also utterly implacable and malevolent. She plays No. 2 as utterly convinced No. 6 will break (or in her words, "won over") the only thing that matters is how long it takes. Some Nos. 2 (ok, most of them) overact and almost camp it up in the role, but Morris plays it so deadly subtle that it adds an edge to the No. 2/No. 6 dynamic missing from other episodes.

I usually run down the plot at the point, but it's kind of tricky in this case. No. 6 discovers a body washed up on the shore of the Village, intending to use him to send an SOS message when the body's discovered, he runs into Dutton, former ally and fellow inmate. Dutton's at the end of his tether--he's told them all he knows and they won't stop because they don't believe him. The actor who plays Dutton plays his speech to No. 6 with a rather affecting kind of fatalism that makes his final appearance in the climax of the episode even more upsetting. It shouldn't work--this is Yet Another Of No. 6's Friends Who's Setting Him Up, after all, and yet it does work, and very well too.

While that's going on, No. 2 seems to be trying to set up No. 6 with a pretty girl, bit that doesn't work out very well, as No. 6 is a bit of a grump and pretty well immune to the honey trap anyway. He does take an interest in his Observer, but he seems to do so more to hammer her about her unswerving loyalty to the Village and their methods.

All of which comes to a head at the Carnival. The Carnival, like pretty much everything in the Village seems like fun, but is damn sinister. It's a costume party, but your costumes are chosen for you, and the entertainment this year seems to be sentencing No. 6 to death in a trial best described as "a farce."

No. 6 is is sentenced to death. And sure enough, he "dies." Because No. 2 has found the body No. 6 discovered, and his SOS. The SOS will be "amended slightly" and the body will also be "amended slightly." No. 6, to the outside world, is "dead." The feeling at the end of the episode is one of the box being closed around No. 6. The outside world has just become a lot more unreachable and the Village is more of a prison than ever.

It took me a few viewings before I "got" this one, and it wasn't until I read The AV Club's review of it that things clicked into place. No. 2 uses the whole thing with the death sentence and the dead body and Dutton's betrayal as a way of shutting the cage of No. 6, and cutting off any and all methods of escape--literal or figurative. One feels that the stakes have been raised somehow between the Village and No. 6, and there's more of a palpable feeling of danger.

"This is your world," she says. "I am your world." Well, that's pretty much throwing the gauntlet, isn't it? Even No. 6's defiant "You'll never win" feels a little hollow against that sort of implacability.

This episode is a great one, and should be one of the first you see (the assumption from certain dialogue cues, is that it should have been far earlier in the run, but I am consciously trying to keep that sort of talk off these reviews in the name of concentrating on my thoughts and visceral reactions to the series) as it sets the tone perfectly for what kind of series you're dealing with. It's a bit less immediately unsettling than "The Schizoid Man," but it's got a heart blacker than midnight in a coal mine. It's one of The Prisoner's best.

One of the hardest parts of escaping the Village has been working out which of the Villagers are poor victims of the place and the ringers secreted amongst them to keep tabs on the rest. No. 6 thinks he may have found a way to work out who is who, but does he really? And what's the deal with the chess game being played with real people as the pieces? Some scientists say it satisfies the desire for power, you know . . .

Next episode--"Checkmate"

The Whole Damn Thing--THE PRISONER, Episode 6

Episode 6--"The General"

"One hundred per cent entry, one hundred per cent pass."

"The General" is an odd duck in the Prisoner run, as it's the first episode wherein the main plot has absolutely nothing to do with breaking No. 6. There's a few episodes like this in the remainder of the run, but this is the only one in any way shape or form that is actually watchable and doesn't feel like a grind. It doesn't quite pay off its remit in a way that congrues with the rest of the series, but it does keep stride thematically with what's going on.

There's something new and exciting in the Village--Speedlearn! A university-level course in less than three minutes. Just stare at a weird light on your TV screen and the information is indelibly imprinted in your mind. It's a huge hit and people are falling all over themselves regurgitating facts. The same facts. In exactly the same way.

Naturally, No. 6 sees this as a kind of mind control, and the fact that the professor who's supposed to perfect the process just tried to escape in front of him and dropped a tape recorder exhorting his students to "destroy the General" doesn't exactly dissuade him, either.

So No. 6 embarks on a campaign to knock it over in his usual grumpy way and find out just who the General is. Only this time he's got the (very suspicious) help of No. 12, who seems to be on his side, but we're never quite sure. This dynamic is actually a large part of what drives the episode forward, as we're never entirely sure whether No. 12 is on No. 6's side or not.

It's also No. 12 who gets to the heart of what I feel "The General" should have been about when he trips No. 6 up on a Speedlearn question. Speedlearners can regurgitate facts all day long, but they can't interpret them. In effect, No. 2 is training a bunch of parrots en masse. The script occasionally gets into the darker implications of all this, but it all goes a bit pear-shaped at the end, because . . .

. . .The General is a big supercomputer (with tape reels and punch cards, as all 60's supercomputers must) and the denouement of the episode involves No. 6 blowing the General up with some Captain Kirk style logical tricks.

It's a bit disappointing ending and one expects more from the series than this. But the actual episode is sound enough (there are two other non no. 6 centric episodes I am actively dreading covering--thankfully they're broken up a bit by some of my favourites of the entire run) and there's some fun to be had, especially if the anarchist inside you hated school and always wanted to exact some cathartic revenge by proxy.

Coming up, seven episodes in, No. 6 escapes and learns a lesson about knowing democracy and knowing what's fascist (he actually doesn't, but I want to see who gets the reference). Next episode--"Many Happy Returns"

Con Trek II: The Wrath of Con

For those of you who came in late:

Last year, for reasons best understood by . . .well, not understanding them, I went to Nekocon, an annual anime con held in gloriously Virginian Hampton Virginia. That I did this despite my anime fandom having fallen off sharply since about five years ago or so is again, one of those bits of understanding perhaps best left not understood. Upon returning from the con, I posted a long rambling remembrance of the trip in various places on the 'net.

This year, for reasons best understood by . . .well, not understanding them, I went to Nekocon, an annual anime con held in gloriously Virginian Hampton Virginia. That I did this despite my anime fandom having fallen off sharply since about six years ago is, once again, one of those bits of understanding perhaps best left not understood. Upon returning from the con, I am posting a long rambling remembrance of the trip in various places on the 'net. I had promised pictures, but sadly, I couldn't find a digital camera in time, and so you will have to rely on my ability to paint word pictures of the event.

Anyways, our story begins on Saturday, November 7th at 5:00 in the morning. Everything's set from the night before to take off in 30 minutes, but a half-hour to ground oneself before hopping into a car and driving for 3 hours is a good idea, as 3 hours in a moving vehicle is an excellent way to lose one's mind. So, after a little mental centering, I hit the road.

According to Mapquest the surest way to get there fastest was to use the interstates. This is advice I almost immediately discarded because hey, Mapquest doesn't own me, I am not a man to be following directions like some sort of sensible human being who follows good advice and good things happen to him as a result, I am a free man!

. . .or a stubborn fool who is sure his method of navigating using country back roads will cover just as much distance without a lot of dicking around on the interstates, surrounded by people who are driving with much the same relaxed attitude that the people in The Road Warrior had towards driving. So off on my merry way I went.

I have friends of mine who live in other countries. For the most part, they are rather stunned that one can drive three hours to anywhere without finally hitting ocean--it is a manner of scale, and in those terms, three hours end to end is crossing an entire country. Three hours of driving will not even get you from one end to the other of the state in which I live.

A word about driving on country roads, if I may. Driving at 5:30 in the morning on a cool but not unpleasant November morning has its own special perils. One is deer. Yes, like "Bambi." By my rough calculations, we have had the concept of the automobile for a century and change now, and in that time, deer have found no peace with it. It is not uncommon for deer to be hit by cards whilst trying to cross the road. You would imagine, of course, that the deer would get the worst of it, but it's a 50-50 thing--deer can destroy cars as completely as cars destroy deer. Worse still, deer, like moths, love bright lights, and will often stand, enraptured, when in the path of one. You can imagine the rest.

The other danger was, of course, fog. Country roads are built on hilly terrain, usually shaded by trees and as a result, when fog rolls in, it can really sock you in. I drove through pockets of hatefully thick fog where I could barely see maybe a foot in front of me at points. Thankfully, once I hit the highways, the sun was up, and once it went to work, I was in the clear.

Most of the drive took me through the eastern part of the state , through towns that just barely hang on since no industry's been close enough to support them for a number of years. The farmers are the only ones left, really, and even they just barely hang on. Driving through these towns is kind of curious and a bit sad. You can see old and crumbling main streets, proud antebellum-style houses that are huge and imposing and probably way too expensive to live in, and plenty of storefronts that house local business bracketed by a Pepsi logo on either end. I've seen those things all my life, and I've wondered, "does the soda industry really own that many buildings?" (answer: no)

Eventually, one state gives way to another and we're in Virginia. I lament that the weird gargoyles they had out in the cornfield outside of Franklin aren't there anymore--apparently the annual haunted house thing is taking the year off, which is too bad because this means I missed it, and also the subtle mind-screw of driving by mile after mile of cornfields and seeing gargoyles all of a sudden is lost.

Anyways, I finally hit the home stretch--nothing but highway, bridges, a tunnel (yes, that's a tunnel. Underwater. I know--it's odd) there's not much to see and less to comment on--the whole business of staying alive rather takes precedence, so apart from a basic autonomic awareness, one has time to occupy their mind with the deep, searching questions of the day.

In my case, I wondered, "Who would win a fistfight--Perry Mason, or the Fatman from Jake and the Fatman?"

Thankfully, before I could answer that, I arrived. The Hampton Convention Center is a big, swanky nautical themed building (complete with sails!), right across the street from the Hampton Coliseum, a holdover from those days when it was fashionable in architectural circles to construct buildings that look like cakes. I'm not sure what the process was there. "Look, you never know when Godzilla might come out of the bay . . .let's build a building that looks like a cake and he'll come up and be all like 'Holy shit--a cake! I LOVE CAKE!' grab the building and go away." I would really like to think it happened like that.

Inside of the convention center everything is very clean and old school--that means metal and big wooden doors that, if you squinted hard enough, look a little like the offices of Sterling Cooper, which is always something to be admired. Sterling Cooper, however, never had a bunch of people in wacky costumes prowling around, no matter how out of control Casual Fridays got.

The costume thing is the biggest culture shock to the uninitiated--I'm not sure whether people dressed up to get photographed (seriously--if you saw people in costume, thirty seconds later, someone had a camera) or people brought cameras because they just had to document something this crazy for the Folks Back Home, and as I came late to the party anyway, it's not for me to speculate, really.

The clear winner in my eyes? The guy who came as Zombie Jesus, carrying a sign that said, "I"m looking for hearts and minds." I was tempted to run up to him, point and exclaim "SWEET ZOMBIE JESUS!" But I was halted by the fact that I am never sure how many Futurama fans are within earshot of me at any given moment and also that I am a spineless coward who cries himself to sleep every night at the opportunities he misses to yell possibly clever things at complete strangers.

Anyways, my three destinations are--dealer's room, artist's alley, game room. I will repeat this circuit at least 20 times in my time at the con. Oh sure there's other stuff to do, but I am liberated from The Man's suggestions about what panels I should visit by my usual attitude of not giving a damn, and as such, go my own way.

The Dealer's Room is an interesting peek into the future, or as I like to call it, the precise moment I smelled my own extinction. From the amount of fake weapons, leather goods, goggles (clearly Adam Bomb was far more influential a figure than I thought) and just plan crazy stuff being sold, I can honestly tell you I just have no idea what's going on with this younger generation at all. Not that this is a bad thing--it is the responsibility of every generation to make the generation before it feel like it's being pushed into the sea. You just don't expect to see whole "arming for the future" thing happening so blatantly is all.

Artist's Alley is a different matter altogether. Several dozen artists, all plying their trade, crowd into a room and compete for attention. They sell prints, cards, sketchbooks, pretty much anything and everything. I have to say, I draw a little bit, but I cannot and would not compete with the time and dedication most of these people have to their craft and turning into a profession. My hats off to 'em.

The game room was the most crowded place at the whole con. Perhaps, indeed, the whole world. There was never not a moment when the place wasn't crowded with people playing one of the many fighting games available (Including Street Fighter 3: Third Strike. Because Third Strike will always be at these cons, because it's where the big boys play. Like WCW used to be) it was people playing Dance Dance Revolution or something similar to it and moving with agility I have never in my life possessed or ever will.

In between this constant, unceasing circuit, there's a few things to take care of. Lunch is a big one. I find myself in a place that offers a sandwich called the "Baczilla," and I cannot help but wonder if it is made from Godzilla (who would, in that case, be a pork product despite the fact that it is a lizard), though I don't say this to anyone because, despite all evidence to the contrary, I am not completely insane.

The hour gets late and I head for home. In the dark. The plan is to go straight through and, if all goes as planned, I will arrive home at midnight. Long story short, while I do make it home by midnight, my brain is rather dramatically scrambled and the whole thing ends up not unsurprisingly feeling like Hunter Thompson must have felt like walking around Circus Circus out of his mind on ether.

Things I learned from this experience: There are a lot of people in the world with personalised licence plates. All of them are on the road at 11 o'clock on a Saturday night. Also, driving for three hours is an excellent way to forget your own name.

And that's basically the con. There wasn't quite so much culture shock for me this time, since this was my second trip, which means either I'm less easy to shock, or I'm just getting used to the whole thing. Hard to say. Will I do this again next year? Will I travel to more cons and feel equally bewildered at them?

We'll just have to wait and see.

The Whole Damn Thing--THE PRISONER, Episode 5

Sorry these took awhile--I was in a Tryptophan coma. You know how it is.

Episode 5--"The Schizoid Man"

"You'd hardly know yourself, No. 12."

This is one of my favourite Prisoner episodes of all time, perhaps the favourite from the whole series. I'm not sure exactly why it works so well--perhaps it's just how sinister the whole thing is, perhaps it's how unsettling the basic concept is, perhaps it's how disturbing it is that this No. 2 almost succeeds in breaking No. 6--it has a real visceral impact. So much so that some people who've watched it with me consider it the scariest episode of The Prisoner ever.

The plot is a clever twist on the hoary old "hero is confronted with an evil double of himself" cliche that every TV series seems to do at least once. The spin is that No. 6 is replaced with double (No. 12) and then convinced through Village Mad Science that he is No. 12 and he is being enlisted in a plot to destroy No. 6's sense of reality.

No. 6 sees through that part of it immediately--how can that be No. 6 when he is No. 6, and asserts it when he's confronted with "No. 6" (on the new Blu-Ray version, you can very plainly see the split-screen photography when it doesn't join up properly) who comes off as sarcastic and more than a little bit snotty, but in all ways seems to be No. 6.

No. 6, however, doesn't seem to be himself. He's left-handed instead of right-handed, the distinct features that he thought made him "himself" are systematically taken away (remember no two people are supposed to have the same fingerprints? Well . . .) and No. 6 comes dangerously close to being shattered by this (mind you, it's all eventually undone by some faulty wiring, but that's par for the course) and the end result is a narrow victory for No. 6 and the possibility for escape by turning the tables. I won't spoil it for you, but as we're on episode 5 of 17, that should tell you something about how well that works.

I don't want to say too much about this episode as I'd rather not spoil it, and so much of it depends on seeing it play out the way it does that it would be redundant. I would say, if you wanted an "entry point" into The Prisoner, this is as good as any to give you a feel for what the show does well and the peculiar way it works.

That's it for this time. Join us next time for a rather unique episode, wherein the goal is not to break No. 6 at all, but to perfect a new system of learning that can inedlibly jam a semester's worth of coursework into your brain in less than 5 minutes. But the Village being the Village, there's naturally a catch to it all. Join us next time for "The General."

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Whole Damn Thing--THE PRISONER--Episode 4

Episode 4--"Free For All"

"You are free to go! FREE TO GO! FREE TO GO!"

Ostensibly. and indeed for part of the running time of the episode, "Free For All" is an attack on the sham nature of political elections. It also, soon enough, evolves (or devolves) into a surrealistic nightmare, up to and including, No. 6 going nuts and shouting at everyone else, being drugged and subjected to wacky hypnotic science and getting slapped a lot and oh yeah there are guys worshiping a glowing Rover and no I don't know what any of it's about. Those who say that the completely batshit-crazy final episode just kinda leapt out of nowhere, must either ignore this episode, or make very little note of the fact that it just explodes into crazy-go-nuts territory really early on.

Let's approach the lot, as best as we can: No. 2 suggests to No. 6 that he run for "office"--in other words, become No. 2. That it's all of a sudden an elected position when it's always been casually assumed it was an appointed position and later on we find out it's an excessive title and . . .y'know what? Dwelling on the continuity minutiae of The Prisoner is a great way to go insane, and really, let's not.

Anyways, as No. 6 begins his campaign (with venomous contempt for pretty much every iota of the process--he considers it compromised, corrupt and in service less to any ideals than to itself and, of course, he's right) Somehow, No. 6 being assigned a hyperactive maid who can't speak English works into the plan, but it's not really apparent why until the end. The plan, so far as No. 6 is concerned is to break through to the higher echelons of the Village's order, free everyone and destroy the village--not necessarily in that order.

Well, an escape attempt and a fistfight on a speedboat puts paid to that. No. 6 gets drugged and hypnotised with a Powerpoint presentation (oh man, we've all been there) and proceeds to run as a model Village candidate, albeit one prone to sweating, looking anxious and yelling at people (just like Richard Nixon, really) has a meet-cute and a drink with No. 2, wins the election, gets bitchslapped around a little (literally) and realises that the whole business has just been a shell game, with him as the mark . . .just like the whole electoral process.

"Free For All," despite being one of the most blatantly overt political statements, doesn't really gel as much for me. I like the political stuff and I like the mind-control stuff, but oh lord the two don't really sit comfortably in the same episode right next to each other and the join is so apparent it all feels a bit arbitrary and Frankenstein-y. It's still good and worth a look (Like pizza, even when The Prisoner is kinda bad, it's pretty good) but it's not exactly a personal favourite if mine.

Next time, we will look at an episode that is a favourite of mine--in fact, it's near the top of the list for my favourite Prisoner episodes of all time. It was described on one site as "No. 2 tries to break No. 6 by making him grow a nasty mustache," which is completely accurate and also really damn funny. Join us next time for an episode people who I have watched it with have called "genuinely disturbing." The password is "The Schizoid Man"

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Whole Damn Thing--THE PRISONER--Episode 3

Continuing our continuing (until we get to Episode 17 anyways) run-through of The Prisoner, tonight, we submit the following for your approval:

Episode 3--"A. B. and C."


This is one of my favourite episodes, I must confess. First of all, it's great to see No. 6 not being an asshole to everyone and anyone (of the many things one can say about The Prisoner, it must be admitted that No. 6 is not the world's most sympathetic protagonist. In fact, at times, he can be a real cock) but it's got this cool "first act of a James Bond movie" deal going through it, it's our first glimpse of The Village's soon-to-be-standard approach of "Oh let's just drug him and hook him up to the machine that goes ping" mad science which is emblematic of the series.

Oh yeah, and this is the first time No. 6 gets to win, which is infrequent and also pretty damn cool.

It all begins with No. 2 getting a call from No. 1 on the Big Red Phone (seriously, that thing is ridiculous) that he damn well better get on the stick re: figuring out why No. 6 resigned. No. 2 sells this well by getting a look of pants-wetting terror and muttering "Yes, I know my future's at stake" and we're off to the races.

No. 6 is drugged and thanks to various spools of tape, electrodes, and the aforementioned machine that goes "ping," is transported through the magic of 1960s-era virtual reality to a party in Paris. No. 2's belief is that No. 6 resigned because he was planning to sell out, and has boiled the possible buyers down to three possibilities--the aforementioned A, B, and C. Over three nights No. 6 will meet each one in turn, and hopefully, the answer will be found.

"A" is a former ally/current defector with an effete manner and the kind of mustache that probably seemed like an excellent idea in the days of the Kaiserreich. He and No. 6 trade those casual but underlaid with menace barbs that always happen at the beginning of every Bond movie you've ever seen, then "A" takes him away from the party in a car for a location shot and a fist fight, as one tends to do.

A word about fistfights in The Prisoner, for a moment, as there will be a lot of them in the coming episodes. They're not terribly good (which is odd, as Partick McGoohan was actually supposed to be a fairly accomplished boxer, I believe) full of quick cuts, obvious misses, and sudden onset brass-heavy music that is supposed to let us know that this is an ACTION! scene. They are silly, they are dodgy, and they are absolutely hilarious and I clap like a seal whenever one breaks out in a Prisoner episode.

"B" is your average "spy from a non-existent but, judging from her accent, foreign country." She and No. 6 have some history and exchange pleasantries, however this is all happening a bit too slow for No. 2, so they try putting words in B's mouth (via more science that's probably more than a bit suspect) but No. 6 twigs to what's going on immediately and knows things are Very Wrong Indeed.

This feeling of wrongness (plus the ever-increasing track-marks on his wrist) make him think something's up, and, finding the lab where they've been ABC-ing him, decides to turn the tables just in time for him to meet "C." I won't spoil it for you (y'know, for a change), but suffice it to say it involves the music getting louder, "Batman" camera angles and the most elliptical way possible for No. 6 to turn the tables you could possibly imagine . . .if you spent a lot of time wondering how you were going to get back at the people who'd doped you up and strapped you to a table for the third night running.

"A. B. and C." is a great episode, really, as you get little smatterings of everything The Prisoner is about in one delicious packages--there's some standard spy stuff, a little surrealism, mad science, snappy dialogue--it all works very well. In fact, if I were going to "sell" someone on The Prisoner, this would be the episode I'd use, I think. This is the first episode in the run that feels more like how the creators of the show wanted things to go.

That's all for this time. Next time, No. 6 runs for office, and a wicked satire on politics and elections takes a hard right turn into weird surrealism, people worship a glowing Rover, and No. 6 yells and sweats a lot. Cast your vote here for "Free For All"

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Whole Damn Thing--THE PRISONER--Episode 2

Continuing our review of the The Prisoner in it's entirety . . .

Episode 2--"The Chimes of Big Ben"

". . .but both sides are becoming identical. What in fact has been created is an international community--perfect blueprint for world order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realize that they're looking into a mirror, they will see that this is the pattern for the future."

We're still in standard spy-stuff territory here in terms of the plot. A new female spy--Nadia-- from the "other side" (or as we know it in the real world, Russia) comes to the Village, tries to escape, gets a rather savage psychological test (she's trapped in a room with alternate electrical current running through the floor that she can cross if she's confident enough) and, stirring No. 6's protective instincts (if not his romantic ones--one of the rules of The Prisoner is "no romance"--and the honey trap does not work on him, ever) offers him a big carrot--she knows where The Village is, and has formulated a means of escape.

No 6, for his part, has one as well, and finagles a way that his art project can provide the means to escape. And they seem to pull it off.

But do they really? (As there are 15 more episodes, well, use your own judgment)

The real meat of "Chimes" is less in the plot (of which one would recognise elements re-used from "Arrival") and more in the interaction between No. 6 and No. 2. Of course, good Nos. 2 will, you'll see, will see us through episodes that might not be up to snuff, plot-wise. This No. 2, as we'll see over the course of the series, is rather special, and Leo McKern's performance sells it wonderfully. By turns hammy and threatening, chummy and iron-fisted, it's fitting that this No. 2 delivers a rather intriguing line which will be echoed by his successors in later episodes, quoted here:
"That's why he'll break. He only needs one small thing. If he will answer one simple question, the rest will follow: why did he resign?"
We also learn something of 6's motivation in the following exchange:
"Do you still think you can escape, Number Six?"
"I'm going to do better than that."
"Going to escape, come back."
"Come back?"
"Escape, come back, wipe this place off the face of the Earth, obliterate it and you with it."
That's kind of what motivates his escape attempt and his subsequent tense (and rather hammy in places, thanks to "Commander McBragg" himself as the Colonel) negotiations with his former employers. Unfortunately, it seems once again that his employers may well be in on it, and given Nadia's point of origin, the "other side" may be as well, echoing the No. 2 quote from before. What does this mean for No. 6's desire to escape and destroy the Village? If he's unable to muster the allies necessary to destroy the Village from without, and no help is coming, what can he do?

Well, we'll learn more about how No. 6 will fight the Village from within next time, as the Village uses one of its trademark mad scientist attempts to break No. 6 Next Episode--"A. B. and C."

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Whole Damn Thing--THE PRISONER--Episode 1

And things are back to normal, more or less. We'll ignore the skull-busting disappointment of the 2009 model Prisoner and return to the original from 1967. Bear in mind that this series has numerous books, essays, comics, homages, and on and on and lord knows what one poorly-attended, seldom updated blog can do to add to any understanding of this often brilliant and frequently frustrating TV series, but I asked what y'all wanted and the people have spoken. So here, for your consideration, enlightenment, delectation, and perhaps the occasional bar fight, here are my thoughts on The Prisoner.

Episode 1--"Arrival"

While this will be the place where I begin taking about the episode in question, there's not much to say about "Arrival" that wouldn't be redundant by the time I finished the preliminaries, as it's very much a "setting up the storytelling engine of the show," and so, in the name of getting things moving, we'll address that right now:

A man resigns a job. We're never entirely sure what kind of job, except that it's tip-top high security. As he returns home and packs his things, a man steps out of a hearse and goes to his door. The room fills with gas and the man passes out.

Time passes and he wakes up in his apartment. As he looks outside the window he sees he's actually somewhere else.

The Village. It's a pleasant enough place--warm, sunshiny, on the water, but it's . . .wrong somehow. The phones only place local calls. The taxis only go local. The man asks for a map, but the only maps they have are those of The Village.

Oh yes, and everyone is a number, not a name. In time, the man meets Number Two, the man in change of the Village (second only to One) and learns that he is Number Six, which he immediately denies:

"I will not make any deals with you. I've resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own."

Naturally, Six, having declared his intentions against toeing the line, immediately decides to escape and, upon attempting it, discovers Rover, which is the most curiously threatening yet utter ridiculous thing ever minted --a great white weather balloon that lives in a lava lamp and attacks and suffocates dissidents with ruthless efficiency. Rover gets quite a workout in this episode--pushing Number Six around, suffocating a guy--he certainly makes the most of his moment.

But the real meat of "Arrival" (and The Prisoner in general) is setting up the main conflict of the series--Number Two (and his successors) want to know why he resigned. Or that's what the stated reason is--No. 2 says he believes No. 6's stated reason, but says "one needs to be sure." (Later on, of course, we learn there's more to it than that) Over the course of the series, No. 2 will try to break Six and discover the secret of his resignation, and No. 6, disgusted with the whole concept of the Village, wants to escape, and return to destroy the Village. Other Number Twos will supplant this one (it happens about midway through this episode, as a matter of fact) and each one in turn (with a few exceptions) tries to break Number Six with one elaborate plot after the next.

The bits of "Arrival" that don't involve learning about the village are pretty standard things indeed. No. Six gets tangled up in a rather perfunctory plot involving a former colleague and his erstwhile Village girlfriend who dangle the opportunity to escape in front of his face, only for it to turn out to be a convoluted plot/trick. There's a lot of this in the initial outings of the series, as it gradually sheds its 60's-era spy trappings and finds its own way. More than that, and this is something I never really put together until I read about it at The A.V. Club that the Village initially tries very conventional plots, but as time gets away from them, they attempt more desperate and extreme measures.

But that's a bit away. For now, we'll pause and take up things next time for episode 2, "The Chimes of Big Ben." Join us then , won't you?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Just Sayin'--THE PRISONER (2009)

Hi folks! Yes, we're working diligently on the Whole Damn Thing write-up of the original Prisoner series, but before I do, let's have some words over the remake.

It was just about the time it was revealed that The Village's preferred methodology of papering over things which interrupt the status quo was to blow the fuck up out of their own buildings that, as if an epiphany sent by God himself, I decided this show could kiss my ass.

Someone on Bleeding Cool agrees with me (even though I can't really see eye-to-eye with him about TORCHWOOD: CHILDREN OF EARTH being the epitome of anti-government popular entertainment---really? Really?!?) but dear lord--someone took a series that managed to say something and examine things through the lens of popular entertainment in an allegorical structure that didn't really always work and . . .

. . .they made it into a cut-price copy of LOST.

I thought V was as far as you could go in the direction of remaking something and completely missing the damn point of the original. I was really, truly, completely, horrifically wrong. Please avoid this show in much the same way you would if someone offered you a free dead dog well into the process of decomposition.

Of course, it goes without saying we will not be reviewing the new Prisoner series here.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Wrath of 'Con

Right! Well, I'm off to the con for the year. Should be interesting.

Before I go, as I'm undecided about what to cover next, I thought I might leave it up to the readers (for once) and offer you the following: I'm planning two big write-up projects for when I return, and I figured I'd let y'all decide which one I did. Will it be . . .

1) The long-promised Doctor Who week (which will probably go quite awhile past a week, but that's mission creep for you?)


2) Another "Whole Damn Thing" review, this time of the legendary cult series The Prisoner?

You make the call!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Just Sayn'--V (2009)

Well, uh, that wasn't very good.

The original wasn't high art by any means and all too often ended up being high camp in low taste (it was, after all a naziploitation/sci-fi/WWII/Holocaust allegory. From space.) but it had the odd moment of effect here and there. This . . .doesn't. Nothing that happens within the pilot manages to have any blow-away plot moments on its own terms (which, when you consider that's supposed to be one of the hooks of the damn thing in the first place--bearing in mind that I was 8 or so when it first ran and it hasn't aged terribly well now but you were given enough time to absorb the story and the scope of it and just when you had a handle on how bad the Visitors are, the alien bitchqueen eats a damn guinea pig.) or really entices you to go further. All the cards are alrady on the table at the end of the first hour and my gut feeling is "Yeah? And? So? What?"

It looks and plays like every other post-BSG show out there, and frankly, after BSG, Secret Invasion and the like, I'm totally burned out on quasi-religious alien/robot sleeper agents. Done with that shit.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Whole Damn Thing--NEW X-MEN: PART 3

Concluding our trilogy tonight, we first get the FTC business out of the way: Yes, I bought this book with my own money too. Just like the last two. Leave me alone.

I said last time that if we follow a trilogy structure for New X-Men, this this volume would comprise the unmaking of everything Morrison set up in the last 2 volumes, and it's certainly that. However, it's not a complete "smash it to the floor and dump the pieces" unmaking, as it certainly leaves the door open to go forward with it, but it nevertheless feels like the summing up of a thesis. Perhaps more than one. We'll hopefully see as we go.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The volume begins with "Assault on Weapon Plus," which may have been the most poorly-received arc in the whole run at the time. Part of it may have been the fact that Chris Bachalo draws it in what can only be assumed are, at times, the throes of delirium. Part of it was apparently because it featured Fantomex and people just hated Fantomex. But the main reason was that it was perceived at the time, to be an attempt to put the plot on hold while Morrison indulged in some of his patented Mad Ideas.

Thing is, it doesn't. "Weapon Plus" actually carries on the plot thread involving Cyclops' estrangement from the X-Men and and his rather dispiriting conclusions about the ultimate success of their mission. So it is rather necessary for the flow of the story--of course, it doesn't hurt that it sets up something in the next arc as well.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. "Weapon Plus" begins, as all things must, with a night of extreme drinking. Cyclops, morose and annoyed after Phoenix and Emma have a set-to regarding Cyclops' telepathic "affair" with Emma Frost. Cyclops decides to go to the Hellfire Club, proves himself a killjoy when offered a table dance, and then gets into a drinking contest with Wolverine, who showed up at the Club to meet Fantomex, who apparently has finally decided to pay off his longstanding allusions to knowing something about Wolverine's past (Wolverine is Weapon Ten, Fantomex is Weapon Thirteen) and since Cyclops is there (though falling down drunk) he gets taken along.

Their journey takes them into a quintessentially Morrison concept. Weapon Plus creates its super soldiers in an artificial reality called The World, wherein, people are injected with nanotechnology and put in an accelerated time bubble to forcibly evolve it millions of years in a controlled environment. Unfortunately, just before they arrived, Ultimaton (Weapon Fifteen) suffers a silicon chip inside his head being switched to overload and breaks through The World and finds his way to Weapon Plus' space station headquarters where we learn that not only has Weapon Plus been in operation for ages (Captain America and Nuke being earlier Weapons, a retcon that's been pretty much ignored since) but Weapon Plus' latest plan was to create a generation of "Super Sentinels," consisting of Fantomex, Ultimaton, and Huntsman (Weapon Twelve--remember him?) who would be introduced to the public as a hip new superteam meant to be a convenient public cover for mutant genocide.

Oh yes, and Weapon Plus has a mole inside the Xavier school and the person behind Weapon Plus is apparently named "Sublime." Yes, the guy who fell out the window quite a few issues back. How this is possible isn't quite explained here, because it's actually setting up the grand finale of the run (along with some other bits and bobs that we've unknowingly been following along as the issues have gone by) but it indicates that there's Something Sinister Moving Behind The Scenes, and that's enough for now.

The real meat of things is Cyclops' sad realisation that no matter what he or the X-Men do he'll be hunted and hated forever and conspiracies like this are inevitable. And tragically, though he goes racing back to Earth in time for the start of the next arc, the developments that comprise the climax of New X-Men won't exactly dissuade him from his pessimism.

"Planet X" is the climax of New X-Men as a run and as a continuing story. There's another story to go after this, but for all intents and purposes, this is where everything comes to a head. I will be spoiling the hell out of this, and while I will make a game effort to convey as much of how awesome this story is, I will probably leave out some stuff because there is a lot happening in this story.

Hey, remember Xorn? That weird guy with all the laid-back Zen ideas and the star for a head? The one who seemed rather curious and rather sketchily thought out and never really made an impact? Well, he's Magneto. Yep, in a shocking swerve not seen since the days when the Thunderbolts turned out to be the Masters of Evil, Magneto infiltrated and slowly destroyed the X-men from within. Who's been dealing Kick to everyone? Who was Weapon Plus' informant? Who created a bullet capable of shattering Emma Frost? And who's re-crippled Professor X, destroyed the school, and turned Manhattan into his own personal fiefdom?

Things go amazingly well for Magneto initially. He manages to separate and nearly kill the X-Men, strand the Beast and Emma Frost and trap Phoenix and Wolverine on an asteroid heading towards the sun, and it looks very much at the end of the first issue of the arc that holy crap, Magneto might well win this time.

Then, Magneto screws it up. Like Quentin Quire before him, Magneto is a failed revolutionary because he doesn't have a specific answer to the question "now what?" He might have at one time, but Magneto spends most of the time out of his gourd on Kick in this arc and his easily wounded vanity and frequent confusion makes him an almost pathetic figure--again, hearkening back to the Riot, it's clear there is no plan apart from "knock everything over." Apart from his natural charisma, which fails him frequently (he can't even keep his new Brotherhood, culled from the dregs of the Xavier students from falling apart) he's completely unable to hold the attention of a fickle public, too puzzled as to how authentic Magneto is (he's come back from the dead so many times, they doubt it's really him) and it becomes painfully obvious his Brotherhood was far happier as the Xorn he pretended to be rather than the Magneto he truly is.

Worse still, whether by instigation from outside forces or his own fracturing mental state, Xorn taunts Magneto subconsciously, claiming to be truer to the more laudable elements of his character as fiction than he is himself. This makes Magneto no less crazy, and more willing than ever to cross a line or two. As we as readers had gotten use to Magneto as, at best, something of a "tweener," it was a bit of a shock to see him portrayed this way.

And yes, we're going to talk about That Scene--Magneto overseeing a mob of humans being led into crematoriums for mass extermination. Comic fans then and now were up in arms about that--surely Magneto, survivor of the Holocaust, would never do something that was so blatantly Nazi-esque.

But the point of "Planet X" is that Magneto is a fraud, even moreso than Xorn was. His phenomenal power is supplied by a steady diet of drugs. He has no agenda beyond destroying the established order and making sure the crowds feed his narcissism, and when the crows get unruly, the notion is "well, let's kill some humans and get their minds off their discontent."

"No one likes what you're doing . . .it's boring and old fashioned," says one of Magneto's cohorts says, and that accusation is a comment on both Magneto's scheme and the type of story Morrison is working in, here. How many times have we seen these high body-count megalomaniacs raising hell in the name a higher purpose in stories just like this and because we're so deeply involved in the blood and thunder of it we never much thought about it all? "Planet X" functions on a meta level as a commentary on these repetitive, wasteful kind of stories.

Magneto's poorly-thought out master plan unravels in short order. Wolverine, hoping to spare Phoenix the gruesome fate of solar immolation, kills her, and (naturally--it's in her damn name) causes her to resurrect at her full potential. She rounds up the other X-Men in short order and in even shorter order, Magneto's on the ropes, having alienated his new Brotherhood, he's set upon by Fantomex, who frees Professor X, and Cyclops, who, still carrying his mad-on from the "Weapon Plus" story, sets upon Magneto, and said mad-on builds to a crescendo.

Because even with his disillusionment about his mission and his marriage to Phoenix, Cyclops had come to see Xorn as a friend, and a good person he could believe in. Robbed of that, he is Very Pissed Off indeed, and in what I consider to be Cyclops' Crowning Moment of Awesome, blasts Magneto's helmet off his face point-blank.

Magneto gets kicked around a little more, but the damage has been done, and the X-Men's Big Bad becomes a small, pathetic, nearly laughable figure right before our eyes. Phoenix sneers that Magneto's takeover of Manhattan has been nothing more than a temper tantrum on a grand scale. The crowd completely turns on him and refuses to believe this pathetic raving loony (or in Morrison's words, "a mad old terrorist twat") is the pop icon whose image and message was gaining traction. Morrison says it best through Professor X, and it's worth quoting in full here:

"Magneto had become a legend in death, an inspiration for change. Now look at you--Just another foolish and self important old man, with outdated thoughts in his head. You have nothing this new generation of mutants wants . . .except for you face on a T-shirt. They have ideas of their own now. Perhaps it's time we put away the old dreams, the old manifestos . . .and just listened for awhile. You way will never work, Erik. This can't go on . . . I think we've all had enough."

And with that, you probably never needed to being back Magneto again, or if you did, you'd have to do it another way, because in a page's worth of dialogue, Morrison completely deconstructs everything longtime X-men readers had assumed was the rules of the game, and even though he may not have provided answers, the floor was open for some new questions.

It's tempting to read Magneto's response in the story as a prefiguring of the backlash against this story and New X-Men in general, as Magneto kills Phoenix, refusing to be dismissed so easily and is then killed by Wolverine (again--he'd been "offed" by Wolverine in the story previous to Morrison's run, which ended up being a nice weird bit of symmetry) There's a sad bit in the wake of this where Cyclops calls out for Xorn to heal Phoenix, but, as Morrison himself said, Xorn never existed--that was the cruel irony of him.

And that's the finish of "Planet X." Cyclops, already disillusioned and withdrawn, has lost his wife, and someone he believed it and might have called "friend." Feeling that he has nothing left, he walks away from the Xavier school, leaving a vacuum that will have catastrophic consequences.

Those consequences play out in the final story, "Here Comes Tomorrow." If "Planet X" is the climax of New X-Men, "Tomorrow" is the grace note which restates the themes one last time in a quiet, reflective reprise. The lion's share of the action in "Tomorrow" takes place in the ruins of an Earth busily falling apart. Mutants are in ascendancy, humans virtually unheard of, and both are besieged by the cloned hordes of The Beast, who is, of course, the the Beast.

Only he's not. Desperate to keep the school together after Cyclops said, essentially "man, screw this," he gets addicted to Kick, which we discover is not a super-drug as much as it is Sublime. Sublime, rather than being a nebbishy Scientology-type or a shadowy conspiratorial type, is a sentient colony of bacteria, who's been playing a VERY long game against the mutant strain. Mutants, it seems, are resistant to Sublime's influence (hence the U-men dissecting them, in an attempt to create a more usable superpowered form and the Kick drug, which "rots the x-gene.") so the plan has been to control mutants and if that's not possible, eradicate them.

Worse still, Sublime finds and resurrects the Phoenix, which, from all accounts, should be the winning trick. It's up to the last remaining X-Men (including Fantomex's partner EVA, who spends most of this arc looking like Witchblade--what the hell, Marc Silvestri is drawing this, after all; a newly reborn--and good--Cassandra Nova, a geriatric but somehow still fit Wolverine, and a boy and his Sentinel) to save the world, or at least make sure Sublime doesn't get his way.

"Tomorrow" collects a number of elements Morrison has been playing with throughout his run--Fantomex, Sublime, Cassandra Nova, etc and stages his own Gotterdamerung (apocalyptic possible futures/alternate realities being a longtime X-Men trope) that can play as rough as it likes (because it was uncertain any of Morrison's tropes would be picked up upon his exit from the book) and also provide a sense of closure to the themes of evolution and acceptance of change that have been running through the book. It's a rougher read and the "just dropped in from 1992" artwork is a little disorienting at first, but it works well as a summation and a grand finale that despite the destruction of this future and resultant apocalypse, the story, the arc, and the entirety of the run end on a note of hope renewed and new possibilities. You could leave a book in worse states.

New X-Men was a necessary shot in the arm to the X-men franchise at the time, and even if you liked it or didn't, it certainly was the talk of comics at the time. It set the agenda for the X-Books in specific and Marvel Comics in general. It came about in a time when Marvel was willing and able to take chances this dramatic, and with the right person on the right book, open the concept up in ways that hadn't even been thought of before. More than that, it was a book with tremendous energy to it--no matter what was happening, you couldn't wait for the next issue, and in this day and age of waiting for the trade, how many comics can say that?

It was a great series of books, and the entire run (in the 8 dozen formats they've been collected in) are well worth your time. But file it away in the back of your mind that New X-Men is a non-recurrent phenomenon. Given how the culture of both the genre, the industry and the people who make the comics have changed in the almost ten years mean it's very likely we'll never see it's like again.

And really, would that shock anyone? Innovation never really happens the same way twice after all . . .

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Whole Damn Thing--NEW X-MEN: PART 2

Okey-doke, we'll just jump right in after I throw a sop to the FTC: I bought this book with my own damn money too, just like the one before it and the one after. Happy? OK.

Book 2 of Grant Morrison's New X-Men run is an interesting beast. If looked at as a trilogy, Book 1 is the kicking over of the standard X-Men checkerboard as a statement of purpose, Book 2 is the segment where Morrison puts everything back together and beings world-building the X-Men as he sees it. Book 3 is the unmaking of almost everything in Book 2, but we'll get to that soon enough, let's dig in.

After a pretty good done-in-one Xorn solo story (with art by the . . .well, unlikely, team of John Paul Leon and Bill Sienkiewicz) we get into some world-building with more on Xavier's new pet project, X-Corporation. X-Corporation expands on the notion of the X-Men as mutant search and rescue on a global scale and, handily enough, keeps the other X-characters in play by randomly assigning some of the second and third string characters to various satellite offices around the globe. One might either see it as the X-Peace Corps, or the X-Character Welfare Program, depending on how you look at it. It's all drawn by Igor Kordey, with all the good and bad that implies.

This leads off an arc wherein the X-Corporation, led by Professor X and Phoenix, try to deal with two competing issues. One, there's a freakish living weapon in the Channel Tunnel turning everything it touches into zombies (more or less) and the arrival of infamous ("infamous" meaning in this case "apparently well known though we never heard of him until now") criminal Fantomex on the scene. Fantomex is one of my favourite creations of this era, and not just because he's basically Diabolik in an X-men comic. Fantomex seems to have connections both to the mysterious creature in the Tunnel (whom he calls Weapon Twelve) and to Wolverine (who is not Weapon "X" but Weapon "Ten") but doesn't seem immediately forthcoming on either of them. Yet.

This arc raised quite a lot of hell at the time because they killed off Darkstar, and yes, of course there are comic fans who lost their shit because Darkstar, a 25-year cipher of a character who was Russian, shot stuff out of her hands and . . .yyyeah, that's all, was killed and it was proof that Morrison didn't get the X-Men or whatever. Darkstar, for God's sake. There are longtime comic fans who don't even know who the hell she was. Comics--it's own punchline since whenever.

At least he gave her a damn funeral (again, drawn by John Paul Leon and Sienkiewicz. It's a funky melange to be sure) Basically, these issues don't comprise an "arc" as such as an effort to keep certain plot points ticking over. One--Cyclops is still withdrawing into himself, both from Phoenix and the X-Men in general. His continual assessment of his life and his situation and the ultimate potential for success of the X-Men's mission comes to the fore here and in a real sense forms the spine of the run as a whole--a lot rides on Cyclops' decisions, ultimately, but more on that when the time comes.

In the meantime, though, he's fooling around with Emma Frost (Lord, speaking of things that caused people to lose their shit back in the day . . .) It starts out as "therapy" to help him with his withdrawal, but of course it mutates into something else soon enough . . .on both sides. Cyclops is obviously reaching out to Emma more than he can to anyone else, and Emma, the longtime shit-stirrer, begins to discover something in herself as well. It was (and is) unlikely-bordering-on-unthinkable, but Morrison makes it work without making it feel too soapy (and seeing as how X-men has been the exemplar of superhero as ongoing soap opera for longer than most of us reading this have been alive, it's no mean feat) and keeps it in the background for most of this volume.

There's another done-in-one story that deals with the fallout of the Sentinel massacre of Genosha and the death of Magneto which gives us a glimpse of something that'd been hovering in the background--Magneto, in death, is being made into a messianic figure in mutant culture, succeeding in promoting his view better in death than he ever did alive. This notion of what one does or is able to do as an active or passive participant will come up again, and is a central thesis of New X-Men as a whole. For now, we get a rather striking (if somewhat dodgy in terms of plausibility--Magnetic fields containing memories? Really?) issue wherein Magneto delivers a stirring posthumous message from the ruins of Genosha. It doesn't seem like much at the time, but as with many moments in New X-Men, from small splashes come big ripples.

The X-Corporation tour stops in Mumbai in the next issue, wherein a new student is added to the school in the person of Dust (who's a Muslim girl who can turn to sand) who's actually become an enduring member of the lower-tier X-Books, as I understand it. In addition, Professor X gets dumped by Lilandra as the Shi'ar bugger off because the X-Men are nothing but trouble (good riddance, really) and the world tour thing finally wraps up . . .

. . .Just in time for "Riot at Xavier's," which may be one of my favourite arcs in this entire run. It might be tempting to say this is the beginning of the "unmaking" of Morrison's structure as I mentioned before, but it's more of an attempt to bring various simmering issues to a head in anticipation for the detonation to come. There's also a foreshadowing of future events in the plot for this arc and what happens in microcosm (the Omega Gang stages a riot/failed revolution at the school) will happen in macrocosm in a little bit.

But let's get right to the heart of this thing. Quentin Quire, uber-nerd honor roll student at Xavier's, has a bit of breakdown and, fueled by the drug "Kick" (which, at the time, seemed like a mere mechanism to raise the stakes) forms the Omega Gang out of a group of similarly disaffected Xavier students and begins beating the crap out of humans and generally stirring things up, which in the short term leads to yet another "open to the public day" at Xavier's ending in disaster. Naturally, as with all embarrassing and poorly thought out acts of adolescent rebellion, this is done less with an eye towards challenging the established order and more to do with impressing chicks, but what else is new?

Despite this, however, Quire does an excellent job of puncturing the idea of Xavier's as some liberal happy fun time fantasyland where everyone gets along and actually does challenge some long-held notions about how the X-Men work. In his proposal, Morrison equates mutants with youth, and a force for change, whereas humanity is equated to parents, to the Old Order that wants to retard progress. Well, here it is, only now it's applied against the people who, for 30+ years we assumed were "in the right" just because they happened to be the heroes of the book. Quire claims that all Xavier's done is "find new ways to do nothing," while Xavier and the staff struggle to balance their high-minded ideals with the need for discipline, which, as they wring their hands, crumbles. By the end of the arc, no one's really come out a winner (the Omega Gang crumbles, Quire "dies," more or less) Xavier's had a serious knock-back and several students are dead.

Oh yes, and Frank Quitely gets to draw a pretty awesome car/foot chase. Also, Xorn has, while this is going on, wiped out a group of U-Men and seems awfully focused on keeping it a secret. Wonder what that's about?

Meanwhile, things get worse. Cyclops and Emma's affair is discovered by Phoenix, who's high-handedness about the whole thing causes him to leave in a huff (although it happens so fast one wonders if he hadn't been actively looking for an excuse) just in time for Emma to confess her love of Cyclops and then to be shot by a diamond bullet, shattered into a million pieces, and a murder mystery to suddenly break out.

This sets up "Murder at the Mansion," a two-parter wherein Bishop and Sage of the sister book X-Treme X-Men (hey kids, remember when people told you that the 00's were so much better than the 90's because people didn't use "Extreme" in comics anymore? It's a load of crapola) show up to solve the mystery and, incidentally, pick up on some ancillary plots going on in the wake of the Riot--Angel and Beak become parents (and get caught up in a pretty torturous red herring) we learn exactly what a "mutant crime procedural" looks like (I rather like Bishop's explanation to Xavier of how much of a potential headache mutant crime can be) and while we learn the identity of the murderer, there is the indelible feeling that this is one small piece of a larger puzzle. Who supplied the murder weapon? Who's supplying the drug "Kick" to the school, and most importantly, how in the hell is anyone expecting to keep the X-Men together when they seem to be flying apart at lightspeed?

Well, we'll address this next time when we look at the third and final chunk of New X-Men--questions get answered, things get revealed, everything goes to hell and then goes to hell some more, then gets better, and it eve has one of the coolest Cyclops bits ever, and I'm just as amazed I can type that without irony as you are. Join us then!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Meanwhile, Elsewhere on the Net . . .

Over at GUNMETAL BLACK we've updated one again. I've added the following items:

-Chapter 4 of GUNMETAL BLACK 6 is posted in the "Stories" section.

-New art from me in Art Gallery 4

-New Fanart in the Fanart Gallery

-New pics (again, from me) in the Mecha section.

If ever you wanted to know what I'm doing when I'm not on the Prattle (because one of you three must have wondered why the updates run dry from time to time) well, this is one reason. Check it out!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Whole Damn Thing--NEW X-MEN: PART 1

Here we go.

From time to time, I will look at the totality (sometimes even the focused totality) of an entire run of issues of a comic or episodes of a TV series in detail. To make the FTC happy, I will say here and now that the three New X-Men Ultimate Collection books were bought with my own money, because only important people get comps copies of anything, and seeing as how I run a blog read by (at most) three people, that's not me. If ever it is, standards have fallen dramatically.

When last we talked about the X-Men, things were not going so well. The Shattering book gave way to The Twelve, a crossover based solely on an offhand reference to something in a little-regarded issue of X-Factor twenty-some years ago, which went about as well as you'd imagine (hint: Apocalypse was in it, and really, he's only tolerable as the end boss for X-Men vs. Street Fighter. So yes, it was bad.) Things had meandered along to a place where the old methods that had seen the franchise through the 90's hobbled along, but it was clear that as the century turned, the approach was running out of gas. The tendency, to paraphrase Grant Morrison, was that X-men continutiy had grown inward and festered, like a toenail sometimes does.

A change was needed. And who better than Chris Claremont? Marvel went through a period from 98-2000 of returning more to its roots (for better or for worse, depending on the case) and one could see Claremont's reinstatement on the book, 9 years after he was removed. There was a huge amount of anticipation and buildup for this and to this day, I'm certain that Claremont went into it rather determined that this would not retread the old cliches (that he himself had established) and he would blaze some new ground.

It lasted 9 disastrous months. Claremont's new ideas weren't that much different from his older ones and the one new idea he intended to build around (the X-Men fight a third species) just wasn't tenable at all. So, in the ashes of this failed relaunch, the decks were cleared and things were relaunched once again, this time with Grant Morrison at the helm.

Natural enough choice really--Morrison's JLA work had really started the ball rolling on the "making retro now-tro" trend and after a successful run on the book, his star was in ascendancy. On whatever he worked for, there was a tendency for real idea-driven stuff wherein a lot happened, things felt anarchic on first read-through, but were (as discovered on further re-readings) very intricate and interlocking plots. Things that seemed rather dashed off in issue one, for instance, become critical later on.

Morrison had a story to tell with the X-men that built on what had come before without being utterly beholden to it (good thing too, as with a successful movie franchise now, there was the possibility--however unlikely--that non-comics readers might discover the comics and perhaps presenting a daunting tangle of continuity isn't the best way to deal with that) There is a central theme to New X-Men that forms the spine of every issue to come, and it's this:

Evolution. Biological evolution, societal evolution, evolution of ideas, and in the background, the evolution of superhero comics (if I can be that hyperbolic) Things change in this book, and change pretty rapidly--the remit and character of the X-Men as a team (moved from generic superheroes to a kind of search and rescue team operating outside of the school) change dramatically, the mutant population explodes and is reduced by 16 million somewhat simultaneously, and oh yes, the human genome has four generations left before it dies out.

And that's just the first three issues. "E For Extinction," the opening story arc sets the tone and the pace for what's to come. Cassandra Nova activates a nest of Sentinels and exterminates nearly every mutant on the island of Genosha (which had, in the course of years, moved from a allegory for South African apartheid to, basically, a mutant Israel) Nova follows this up by assaulting the X-mansion, kicking every X-Man's ass, and nearly gets killed before she can use the X-men's technology to wipe out every mutant on the planet in a stroke.

A lot happens in these three issues, not just in the foreground, but in the background. Beast learns that the human genome is headed for extinction. Cyclop and Phoenix, the longtime cornerstones of the team, are drifting apart. Emma Frost joins the team as resident shit-stirrer with the nifty extra ability to turn into a diamond (which takes the colourist a little time to work out how best to convey--those first few times they just slap the "chrome" filter in Photoshop over Emma Frost and it looks just about as awful as anything you ever try to use that filter on) the school opens its doors once again and Xavier outs himself as a mutant, although there is a sense that all is not what it seems there.

And all the pieces are in place to make for an interesting character drama--Cyclops is isolated and withdrawn after everything he survived in previous arcs (longtime readers decried that Morrison dumped a lot of hanging plots when he took over, but really, that's just not true. He just didn't slave the entire story to it, is all); Phoenix is moving into more of an administrative role with the X-Men and experiencing power creep; Beast struggles with his secondary mutation, which wreaks havoc on his love live and drives him more inward, with potentially destructive results; Emma Frost seems to hang around just to mess with everyone; Professor X moves towards becoming more or less an emeritus figure, and Wolverine, curiously, seems to be cast more in the role of the balancing figure between the various extremes--ironic, since when he first hit the scene, he was the shit-disturber.

But we've got one more member to ad, and so we pick up with the 2001 Annual, or as I like to call it That Damn Sideways Book . You see, Marvel in those days had tendencies towards gimmicks that may have seemed terribly clever at first, but ended up being more of a hassle to the people who actually have to go out and make them (more on that in a bit) This time, the idea was to print them in landscape format for a "widescreen" effect ("widescreen" was a oft-touted buzzword in comics in the early 00's. It doesn't really mean anything concrete, but then, neither did "extreme" when you get down to it) it looks really stupid.

Fortunately, the story is rather good and runs counter to the often-espoused maxim that annuals are just junk stories that mean very little in the larger picture. We also have two characters introduced in this story:

The first, John Sublime, seems to be little more than a generic guru-type as this point. Sublime has daft notions about how human beings can upgrade themselves to a perfect Third Species (Morrison succeeds conceptually with the notion here) by grafting mutant organs onto themselves. Adherents to his cause call themselves the U-Men, and they'll be more of an annoyance than an out-and-out danger to Our Heroes throughout the run, but for now it's more important that Sublime has a connection the Chinese, who, in addition to feeding the U-men a steady stream of Chinese mutant organs, are keeping a dangerous, powerful mutant chained in a prison of iron.

That prisoner's name is Xorn, and so far as we know, he has a star where his head should be. Upon freeing him, Cyclops appeals to his better nature and Xorn joins the X-Men. As with all major turning points, of course, nothing is ever quite what it seems.

A theme which will carry us through most of the rest of the book in macrocosm, and definitely the next storyline, "Germ Free Generation." The school is open in force now, and the threat of Sublime's U-Men come to the fore. Morrison frames these developments against the experience of two new students--the well-intentioned but absolutely useless Beak and the obnoxious street kid/professional outsider Angel. These two serve as our look at the "uglier" side of mutant abilities, wherein you don't get gnarly powers or appear on lunchboxes--they just makes you a little weird and gross-looking. These two actually become fairly important characters that function as a Greek chorus for the events that follow the story.

The U-Men attempt to harvest Angel's fly-wings and the X-Men further investigate Sublime and the U-Men. Sublime articulates that he considers mutants little more than livestock and makes the rather dubious tactical decision to break Emma Frost's nose, a decision that bites him in the ass a bit later when he falls out of a skyscraper window whilst Phoenix handily dispatches a group of U-Men who attempt to assault the school, displaying that her powers have now elevated back to Phoenix levels, which will be a cause for concern, because the last time she was this powerful, she kinda blew up a planet back in the day and all that.

Because that's not enough happening, before he can convey a rather important plot point, Beast gets taken down by Professor X, who then goes off for a vacation with the Shi'ar. Quite why he would do this seems a bit curious until at the end of "Germ Free Generation," two things become clear. One--Professor X is trapped in Cassandra Nova's body, which has been booby-trapped to rapidly deteriorate and trap his psyche within. Two--Nova--as Professor X--is coming back to Earth with an alien warship full of superpowered beings under his command, and he's going to wipe the school off the map.

Before we tie up these last loose ends, a few non-storyline word. By this time, Frank Quitely, Morrison's preferred artist on New X-Men, has fallen so far behind that a rotating crew of fill-in artists have been pressed into service so that the book has some chance of actually coming out on time. One of them--Igor Kordey--produces some pretty ghastly work (admittedly, due to deadline pressure) but otherwise, this book would probably still be finishing its third arc in 2010 had we waited. I've made my peace with it in the passing years, and it would have looked fine, except it's a bit over-inked in places, which makes everything look a bit lumpen in the final analysis.

Point two is that the whole strange business of Cassandra Nova is handled in the next issue, and it's another one of Marvel's rather dubious gimmicks. "'Nuff Said" month (which turned out being two or three months, because of late books) was this--for the entire month, every issue would be completely dialogue-free. The party line was that this would "demonstrate the power of visual storytelling," but when you get down to it, I think it was just that a lot of people had really liked that "silent issue" of G.I. Joe that came out when I was a kid.

Most of the participating books were horribly derailed by this, but it works OK here. Phoenix and Emma Frost jump into Professor X's mind and rescue him from Cassandra Nova's deteriorating body, and in the process, we learn that Nova is Professor X's twin sister, who was so evil that Professor X's killed her in the womb. Somehow she survived despite this and eventually led the Sentinel assault that destroyed Genosha.

Oh, and in the next issue she's wrecked the entire Shi'ar empire (and good riddance, really--I've never liked the X-Men's spaceborne chums) and has brought a warship to the doorstep of the X-mansion at the same time that Phoenix and the rest of the X-men are holding a press conference to reassure humans that a school full of potentially dangerous superpowered individuals isn't dangerous at the same time that an awful lot of them are coming down with the flu.

Needless to say, things don't go smoothly on any front. The Shi'ar Superguardian Elite attack the school, Cyclops and Xorn outrun a suicidal superdestroyer, the press conference ends up a bit of a wash, and it's only with some quick thinking (and a bit too much plot convolution from Morrison--I was perfectly OK with Nova being Xavier's evil bodiless twin. The rest of it wasn't really needed) the flu epidemic (really a colony of bacteria-sized micro Sentinels) is cured, Nova gets boxed, and Professor X can walk again, all thanks to Xorn's ability to heal people. Quite what "healing" has to do with "having a star for a head" is not really explained, but later on, you kind of realise that's the point.

And that's where this first trade finishes. It was an amazing story to read when it first came out, as it was completely different visually and tonally from the last few years of X-Men books, and it felt so different (even though it wasn't) that at first it may have been a little off-putting to those most conservative of conservatives, the superhero comics fan. If approached with an open mind (or the benefit of nearly a decade removed from the original publication) it can be appreciated for its daring and its storytelling efficiency--despite the trends whirling around Marvel at the time this book is not decompressed--if anything it's hyper-compressed. So much happens in these initial issues you almost wish you had a little more space to take it all in. Of course, the speed at which things progress is fairly necessary, as some of the time bombs of plot might not work so well if you had a slower pace to be able to pore over them. This books has such a tremendous sense of energy it demands to run at a fast pace and carry the reader along with it.

In any case, even for a jaded longtime X-Men fan as I was, this was some great stuff, and it's well worth revisiting.

Join us next time for part 2 of 3.