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.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

MAN TRUE--Dominated Mind

Just a quick hit to point you to this article courtesy of Cracked (who sucked as a Mad magazine ripoff but do an amazing job as a site primarily about lists) 5 Superheroes Rendered Ridiculous By Gritty Reboots.

Here's a little taste:

"Now, there's nothing wrong with dark and gritty superhero stories, we love The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. But when you take the humor and heart away from Spider-Man and stick him in a terrifyingly grim future that finds him heartbroken, you take away everything that attracted Spider-Man readers in the first place. And, sure, guilt has been a hallmark in the Spider-Man comics forever, but when you have a comic where Parker accidentally fucks Mary Jane to death, you've officially crossed the line. At some point, you're straight up torturing Peter Parker. No one wants to watch a bitter, depressed old Spider-Man humorlessly fight bad guys in a perpetual state of mourning. If Spider-Man fans wanted to read The Punisher, then they would read The Punisher."

The Iron Man bit alone makes it worth reading, but oh lord it may not even be the most embarrassing one of the bunch. Well worth a read.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Figured I'd best post this before my New X-Men Ultimate Collections get here, along with the other books I'm waiting on and planning to write up my backlog threatens to become intolerable.

Achewood, like Dinosaur Comics or anything else, I seem to like, polarises people like you wouldn't imagine. Either people get the strange groove it establishes, wherein author Chris Onstad can swing from entertaining if rather bizarre gag strips to the depths of pathos, presented without melodrama, to epics that start surreal and get even stranger from there (the recent Lash of Thanatos storyline is perhaps the best--and freshest--example of this. Sorry I posted the post-denouement strip of it, but they haven't updated the "jump to a story arc" drop-down in quite some time) even Wikipedia seems to find it hard to explain just what it is about this comic featuring the ongoing adventures of three cats, two bears, and an otter who is always five that people seem to respond to so much.

Nevertheless, it seems to have enough of a fanbase that Dark Horse has seen fit to give us Achewood Volume 2: Worst Song, Played On Ugliest Guitar (amusingly, the strip that gives this volume its title isn't in the book) Volume 1, was, of course, the epic The Great Outdoor Fight, notable for being the first Achewood saga wherein Onstad filled in a lot of the mythology around the event (there is tons of GOF stuff, both online and in the hardcover, none of it vital to understanding the actual story, but it's an interesting backdrop to what's going on, and, grounds the strip in its own internally consistent fictional reality) and also for being the thing what got this guy into Achewood big time.

Volume 2 doesn't contain a great long story arc this time (unless the text pieces in-between the comics detailing how everyone gets into Onstad's house count) instead, this volume covers the early days of Achewood, though not in chronological order. Onstad provides running commentary on the strips over the course of the book and explains--correctly, I think--that Achewood doesn't properly begin until this strip that the comic evolves from weird gags to a more fleshed-out community of interrelated characters who interact in various hilarious/insane ways. The older strips are included in the back of the book, and one can see the beginnings of something else coming together, and some of the gags are quite funny, but its obvious that it's going to end up being something very different than what it began as.

Would I recommend it to the Achewood neophyte? Yeah, I suppose so. It's not going to get you into the ground floor of Achewood's continuity (there really is no such thing) but it will get you familiar with Achewood when it's not in the midst of a story arc, and allow you to get in on the ground floor of the characters (no being hide-bound by continuity here--the comic is fairly exclusively character-driven, and how many comics, web or otherwise, can one say that about in this day and age?) and is a perfect entry point to decide whether you like it or not.

In short, I would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony and I would all buy them a copy of this book to keep them company, but as I am very cheap and very poor, you'll just have to go out and grab a copy for yourself.