Sunday, November 19, 2006

I continue to be of two minds on Astonishing X-Men...

I’d really like to be able to write that the newest issue of Astonishing X-Men, and the last issue of the “Torn” story arc, managed to exceed the diminished expectations that I set out in my review of the previous issue. I’d really like to, but I don’t think that I can.

I can say, at least, that it didn’t end with a fastball special, as did the last two. But while I gestured broadly toward some similarities between “Torn” and “The Dark Phoenix Saga” in my last review – whereas I categorized and listed the nearly identical plotlines of all three AXM arcs – the final issue puts those similarities in sharp and undeniable relief. Call it an homage or a reinterpretation if you must, but “Torn” is unmistakably “The Dark Phoenix Saga: 2006”. Rather than draw my own list and risk seeming like I’m repeating myself, I’ll copy-and-paste the list created by X-Universe Message Board poster Omar Karindu:

*Psychic female teammate goes dark and evil.
*Hellfire Club turns up, and swiftly wrecks the team.
*One lone X-Man survives, plunging into the waters below the mansion where the fight takes place.
*A villain who casts illusions into the mind of the X-Man-gone-bad is responsible for their heel turn and is allied with the Hellfire Club.
*A psychic event in Scott's mind involving his telepathic teammate gone bad leads to his breaking loose and free the rest of the cast.
*There is debate about whether the team will need to kill the psychic gone bad.
*Just as the inner conflict of the psychic teammate is reaching the point of resolution, aliens abduct all of the heroes.

To this point, I had been suspecting that Whedon was purposefully re-imagining classic stories and rewriting his own with some end in mind. He did, after all, seem to set a mission in his first issue. When Cyclops discards the leather uniforms of Morrison’s run and decides the X-Men need to dress as super-heroes again, it's with the goal of rebuilding trust between the team and the public – ‘dressing as something they [the people] recognize’. Implicit in his words, of course, is that the costumes are part of an act - the X-Men can never really be super-heroes, but they can try to look like them. The issue of super-heroics and a kind of performance was mostly ignored through “Gifted”, but came up again at the beginning of “Dangerous”, where the team saves the city from a monster but is questioned by the Fantastic Four and fails to make it on to the evening news. Cyclops, for one, seemed disheartened – maybe, then, the slightly crazy Cyclops shown here is our link to that initial plot? Whedon is heading somewhere interesting and new with the team leader, it would appear. Just don’t ask me to explain how it all ties together. Or if it actually ties together.

I'm torn between admiring AXM #18 for its beautiful and idiosyncratic visuals, characteristically snappy dialogue, and wonderful characters – unexpectedly, Danger and Ord are shaping up to be a wonderful comic duo – and admonishing Whedon for plot twists that are increasingly predictable and/or contrived. It’s not that I dislike retellings and reinterpretations – I love The Authority and Ultimates, Marvels and Astro City – but I don’t know that Whedon has a point or goal beyond giving us immediate, visceral satisfaction with his own witty and fun revision of “The Dark Phoenix Saga”. Admittedly, I ask a lot more of Whedon than I do of most comics. And maybe I should realign my expectations – maybe I should just enjoy Astonishing X-Men as pure ‘pop art’, bubble-gum entertainment. I just wish that I didn’t have to.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Midnighter and the problem of spin-offs

I like the Midnighter. Equal parts Batman and Wolverine, Midnighter is a not-so-subtle parody of both. Unambiguously gay and in a relationship with his teammate, Apollo – himself a Superman trope – he makes explicit and then sends up the sexual anxieties that have surrounded Bats for decades; as an artificially enhanced uber-man with an Asian daughter, there’s also some room for a Wolverine-Jubilee analogy. (Though, again, being that Midnighter is gay, he also troubles the connection between hetero-masculinity and ultra-violence.)

But I only sorta like this comic. Interestingly, it reads more like a ‘classic’ Authority issue than the new Authority series does itself. The narrative style of compression and (un?)necessarily gory battle scenes seem pulled, with minor variation, from either of Ellis/Hitch or Millar/Quitely’s runs. The particularly gruesome ways in which Sprouse – one of the medium’s best storytellers, might I add – renders Midnighter’s conversation with the ‘Technical Advisor’ in Afghanistan carries a distinctly Ennis flavor, and the Advisor’s murder is delightfully ironic (and, again, distinctly Ennis) in the context of the slur that Midnighter muffles with his staff.

So it’s a fun Authority-like read with the requisite twist-ending, sure, but is it anything more than that? Even the arc that it’s kicking off seems too familiar – the ‘living weapon compelled to become an assassin for the bad guy’ thing was featured in Wolverine a year or two ago, and Ennis’ own Punisher stories included a variation on the same theme. Sprouse also seems too obvious a choice – like Tom Strong, for which Sprouse is probably best known, Midnighter and the Authority are often characterized as benevolent super-fascists, meta-fictionally wrestling with the moral-totalitarianism of the super-hero tradition and their own particular super-antecedents. (Remember Krigstein and his very familiar super-human army?)

Despite his appropriateness, then, something seems entirely too safe and self-conscious about Sprouse on this book – maybe because it becomes it all the more clear that this is more Solo Authority than Midnighter sans the Authority. Where Twain makes clear that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is no mere sequel to Tom Sawyer – and is likely even the more challenging book – or where Claremont took steps to justify the creation of a Wolverine title by distancing the solo character’s tales both geographically and thematically from Uncanny X-Men, Ennis makes no such attempt to show us why Midnighter’s stories needed some new outlet. I think that one question needs to be asked of every spin-off and answered to some degree of satisfaction: Does the new title do something so different that it requires its own separate existence? For all of Midnighter’s appeal, this first issue would indicate that the answer is ‘no’.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The bombastic mess of Seven Soldiers #1...

It’s difficult to assess the bookend of what what Morrison has dubbed a 30 issue ‘megaseries’ in isolation. Reaching through the seven mini-series of seven distinct characters in seven different generic forms of storytelling and vastly different styles of art, the challenge to somehow tie it all together was immense from the start. That this issue was about half a year late just compounds the anticipation and expectation of an already heavily invested readership - an impossible task becomes that much more daunting.

It’s even more difficult because Seven Soldiers #1 is an opulent, self-consciously bombastic, sometimes brilliant, and undeniably self-indulgent mess. Which is to say that it’s exactly what you would expect of Grant Morrison and J.H. Williams III – especially if we take at face value the report that Morrison’s original script clocked in at something like 100 pages. This is a finale delivered at a level of narrative compression somewhere in the neighborhood of a black-hole-crushes-everything-into-oblivion type of density.

Any explication of Seven Soldiers #1 will suffer from one of two problems:

A concise but coherent review will suffer from a confusing and unfair reductivism that fails to address just how many narrative and thematic lines are being drawn in from the various minis. It would subsequently fail to address this conclusion’s undeniable complexity.

Case in point: you need to have a pretty keen eye to notice that Don Vincenzo from Shining Knight was Kid Scarface from the Newsboy Legion shown in flashbacks from The Manhattan Guardian. You’d need an even keener eye to catch that the dog who inherits the Don’s criminal empire near the end of this issue looks a lot like Millions, the same dog that died while briefly a member of the same Newsboy Legion. And you’d probably need to re-read your issues of Shining Knight in order to recall that Don Vincenzo was killed by the Sheeda because he controlled one of the Seven Imperishable Treasures, the Cauldron of Rebirth and Plenty – and then surmise that Vincenzo used it to return Millions to life. (A complete review would also point out that Grant Morrison appears to be the Unknown Gentleman on the first page, and so he’s writing himself into a comic…again. Who are the other six, though? Are they here to save the DC universe from itself?)

Conversely, a more detail-oriented review would suffer from precisely the same long and rambling tangents that characterize my previous paragraph. By the time we list all the connections and ask ‘what does it all mean?’, we’ve probably lost all perspective and forgotten that the Vincenzo-Scarface-Millions connection that I’ve made out to be so very intricate and ostensibly important occupies only three tiny panels on one page of Seven Soldiers #1. What do we make of the appearance of Ali Ka-Zoom, also from the Newsboy Legion, as a savior for Zatanna and some sort of mentor for the Shining Knight? Or the necessity of Mister Miracle’s death by gunshot so that he could emerge from the ground on the final page? Or, for that matter, of Klarion’s mad cackling as he becomes the Sheeda King – especially when he shows up in 52 with no suggestion that he still holds that power or authority? We could dissect any one of these or more, but where would it all lead us? And would each narrative line lead us in a divergent or even contradictory direction?

The great challenge, and great frustration, offered by Seven Soldiers #1 is precisely this sort of rampant ambiguity and failure to sate any conventional expectation. The narrative closure of the Sheeda Queen’s death is brief and cheap – first impaled on an arrow that’s not even fired by one of the Seven Soldiers, the Bulleteer finishes the job only by sheer accident. There’s something to be said about the way Morrison has weaved coincidence into a complex tapestry of fate, but the sudden and surprising resolution of the primary plot – especially when it’s further diminished by the rapid ascension of Klarion as a replacement baddie – leaves a sour taste after nearly three dozen issues of cataclysmic threat.

All this said, there’s a lot to like in the finale of the Seven Soldiers megaseries. At the heart of the story has been a crisis of genre, as each solo title has had a distinctive visual and narrative style and played up one of a number of generic approaches: The Manhattan Guardian, for example, features clean and crisp art and plays out as a nostalgic Daredevil-type vigilante story, while Klarion’s colors and line-work evoke a centuries-old aesthetic that’s much more typical of a Vertigo book. Tellingly, both styles are problematized by narrative shifts that disrupt their internal continuity: the flashbacks in the Guardian trace its artistic debt deeper to the na├»ve silliness of the Golden Age, and Klarion’s participation in a Newsboy Legion-like group in New York muddles his own participation in a distinct genre by tapping into the same retro sensibility. The importance of genre is foregrounded even more explicitly in Seven Soldiers #1, as Williams adopts the visual style of every other artist – including Jack Kirby, in a history of humankind and its encounters with the Sheeda – when he draws the characters that they helped to (re)define.

The revelation that the Sheeda are an uber-evolved race of humans from the future, feasting on their own history, resounds even more meaningfully in this context of genre and influence. The implication, I think, is that Morrison via the Seven Unknown Men and Seven Soldiers is railing against a comic book industry that feasts endlessly on the scraps of its own tradition, producing very little of value and certainly nothing new. The aforementioned ‘self-indulgent mess’ is at the very least disruptive of the mainstream approach.

Like Williams’ interpretation of each limited series’ artist, some of Morrison’s exercises are more successful than others – and a few are even baffling disasters. But as a structural reimagining of what a comic series can be in theme and structure – an 30 issue exercise in mass genre confusion and confluence – Seven Soldiers gestures away from the tired and the done, even if not clearly indicating a new direction itself. That final image of Mister Miracle tearing himself free of his own grave is apt, if not immediately apparent in its purpose. The superhero has been recycling its own tropes for so long that it might as well be put to rest. It’s about time for something else to rise from the grave and take its place, isn’t it?