Friday, October 20, 2006

'Smartpop'? Given the quality of Unauthorized X-Men, that's ironic, right?

On Smartpop's The Unauthorized X-Men... (written September 9, originally posted to

It seems to be an unspoken rule that all popular culture studies books must fall into one of two equally maddening categories: 1) the jargon-filled and nigh-unreadable texts of an uber-academic who over-states his or her case in order to impress upon us the mind-altering importance of their subject, or 2) the fluffy and superficial sort that is dominated by stereotypical personal narratives and succeeds mostly in telling us what we already know. And while ostensibly endeavoring to maneuver his book into some space in between the two extremes, Len Wein’s The Unauthorized X-Men is entirely of the latter sort.

The set-up is reader-friendly enough and even savvy to younger readers who might be frightened off by dense considerations of, say, the feminist implications of the X-Men – which, incidentally, are located much closer to the end of the book than the front. To this end, the book is divided into three sections: ‘Writing the X-Men’ (creators musing on their experience as X-writers), ‘Heroes and Villains’ (character analyses), and ‘The X-Men and Our World’ (cultural and literary criticism). If, like me, it had been your assumption that each section implied a greater theoretical complexity than the one that preceded it, you’d have been wrong. Once you’ve read one my-childhood-geekiness-made-me-feel-like-a-mutant story, you’ve probably had your fill – and this book has no shortage of such instances of anecdote-turned-essay.

In fact, the book rarely progresses past the casual and uncritical prose of the opening pages. Len Wein’s introductory essay is characterized by a suffocatingly self-deprecatory tone – “’All this fuss about the X-Men? But it’s…it’s just mutants’” – that entirely elides the expected epistle in support of the X-Men as a cultural artifact worthy of scholarly study. Instead, Wein takes aim at his readers and mocks their most beloved stories: “Chris killed the asparagus people…If he’d killed a planet of Brussels sprouts people, I might have been a little upset. I mean, I like Brussels sprouts.” Wein claims that the book will reveal why the X-Men are such a fascinating cultural phenomenon, but fails to convince us that he himself is actually fascinated or even interested in this project in the least.

Nearly every article suffers from one of two problems: an overestimation of its own importance or the exact opposite, a fear that comics won’t be taken seriously that results in various efforts to prove the worthiness of the X-Men for study without actually making specific arguments of any kind. Joe Casey’s essay falls into the former category, as it features the revelation that “what mutants are truly metaphors for…are comic book fans.” The statement is not simply cliché, but is embarrassingly presented as if Casey were the first to sense such the obvious and oft-repeated (online, anyway) affinity. Most unfortunate of all, his is not the only essay with such a banal and groan-worthy conclusion.

Charlie W. Starr’s contribution on Wolverine in the ‘Heroes and Villains’ section is emblematic of the latter sort. Starr reintroduces Wein’s “Why?” issue and while his encyclopedic knowledge of Wolverine and listing of Jungian archetypes is impressive – in contrast to his knowledge of social history, which is very much lacking – he does little to answer his own question. Frustratingly, Starr can’t get beyond the question of “why?” itself and seems intent on exhausting most of his limited space in justifying the existence of Wolverine scholarship. (Nevermind that he supplies little of substance that can’t be found in an online biography) If we’re reading the book, can we at least be given credit for agreeing that Wolverine is worthy our attention? And while Starr fills his essay with allusions to Frankenstein, Gilgamesh, and Dirty Harry, he does little in the way of proving that Wolverine is significant or important as something other than a derivative comic book version of these distinct cultural touchstones.

Even the most artfully written papers seem to be unsure of their place in Wein’s collection. Adam Roberts’ essay on the X-Men and Ovid appears to have landed in the wrong book altogether, as he draws some artful parallels but seems more concerned with what the X-Men can offer to scholars of the Classical literary tradition in contemporary popular culture than with advancing the study of comic books as their own unique art form. And while Roberts writes as if he’s out to revolutionize the reading of the X-Men, his words hit with little more than a dull thud. For all of his self-import and refusal to consider the X-Men’s progressive political message – “I’m going to argue that, instead of reading X-Men as an allegory of race or gay rights, it makes much more sense to read it as a version of a 2,000-year-old poem written in a dead language” – the study of comics via Classical imagery and archetypes has been dominant among the literati for decades, and Roberts’ study seems neither new nor particularly effective in convincing us that a much more contemporary or politicized reading of the X-Men is somehow “wrong-headed” or “dangerous”.

These three essays are in fact emblematic of the largest failing of the book – most of the writers never take a chance and no one says anything particularly new, novel, or remotely provocative. While many of the essays feature moments of cleverness or are written from perspectives with which the majority of readers would be unfamiliar – like that of a posthumanist futurist – such contributions seem, as with the Ovid paper, connected to the X-Men only in the service of promoting some other academic agenda. Perhaps my expectations are too high – especially having such gems as Jeff McLaughlin’s Comics as Philosophy and Geoff Klock’s How to Read Superhero Comics and Why on my bookshelf – but these contributions seem no more interesting, and even inferior, to the kind of X-scholarship being performed by people like Julian Darius or many of the folks at any X-Men message board. Maybe these essays will come as something of a revelation to the casual X-reader, one who has never trawled the internet for criticism, read a literary essay, or themselves mused on what the X-Men actually ‘mean’. For any other fan, save your money and stick to the internet.

(Special note: for a kinder, even more detailed, and equally thoughtful look at this book, follow this link to read Jason Powell’s review at Comicboards' X-Universe Message Board)

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