Friday, October 20, 2006

"Lost", pop music, and The Authority v.4 #1

On Grant Morrison/Gene Ha's The Authority #1... (written October 20, originally posted to

1. Grant and Warren

Coincidentally, Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s The Authority: Relentless (among other books that aren’t quite so relevant) arrived for me in the mail on the same day that I picked up this first issue of Morrison and Ha’s The Authority (Vol. 4). It’s a totally random but absolutely meaningful confluence: I’d just read on Newsrama that Morrison is looking to Ellis’ run - two-thirds of which is contained in Relentless - for inspiration, and it’s Grant himself who writes the introduction to the Relentless trade.

In describing The Authority as “the first great superhero team book of the 21st century”, Morrison rightly admonishes mainstream heroes for merely maintaining the status quo when they have the opportunity and ability to fundamentally change the world: “traditional superhero teams always put the flag back on the top of the White House, don’t they? They always dust down the statues and repair the highways and everything ends up just the way it was before…” The Authority is the superhero team grown-up (or grown-sideways, at least) – they act like real people might when given ridiculous power and faced with situations of life or death on a regular basis. And they “pump the volume until noses bleed and bass patterns register deep on the Richter scale in Norway”. Before we even crack the issue open, then, Morrison has set the metronome and plugged in the seismograph.

2. “Utopian” and Lost

To this point, the story is quite ambiguous and deliberate – and by no means pounding with the intensity necessary to make your nose bleed, much less move the ground in Norway. In fact, it reminds me more of ABC’s Lost, especially one of those more curious episodes where the ‘cold start’ opening leaves us without any context for understanding what’s happening. In the pilot for Lost, we follow Jack (whose name we don’t yet know) as he stumbles out of the jungle and finds the burning wreckage of a plane (which we certainly didn’t expect to see) and we try desperately to make sense of it all. In the second season’s premier, we follow Desmond, who had a cameo in the previous season, (though we don’t see his face, so we don’t know it’s Desmond) as he goes through the routine of exercising, playing music, medicating himself, and pushing a button in a hatch buried underground (though we don’t know that he’s in a hatch underground until the very end of the sequence). The third season’s premier follows a similar pattern (though you get the idea, so I’ll avoid another detailed summary) of introducing characters that we don’t know and obscuring the identities of those we already do with an aim toward shocking and disorienting us – that terrifying moment of recognition occurring, of course, just before they cut dramatically to commercial.

In the comic we follow “Ken” as he risks his marriage and life to find a downed sub that had been investigating the appearance of a large and mysterious mass on the ocean floor – a search which culminates with the realization (for us, at least) that the mass is actually the Authority’s Carrier. And we’re left breathless, of course, and forced to wait impatiently for the commercial to end. (The fact that it doesn't end for two months is worth complaining about, but the fact that it frustrates us in the way that it does means that it works)

3. Geoff Klock and Wikipedia

On his blog, literary/pop culture critic Geoff Klock writes about the opening scene to Lost’s second season that I described above. Like Morrison writing of Ellis’ Authority, he describes it in a particularly musical way:

One of the things that makes the sequence great it is that it revolves around the Mama Cass song "Make Your Own Kind of Music. […] Pop songs are about building tension through the verses and then exploding into the big satisfying chorus everyone is waiting for. Lost, of course, has built a lot of tension about what is in the hatch and is about to reveal the answer. Much like many ABBA songs, however, "Make Your Own Kind of Music" seems in a rush to get to the big chorus.

Authority v.4 seems to be in no alarming rush to get to the chorus, though perhaps this is more the result of its production schedule than the issue’s pacing – while not exactly brisk, it’s overladen with its own narrative tensions: for the fate of those on the submarine, for Ken’s personal life, for the Carrier (and in the readers themselves, an additional anxiety over the absent Authority). The bass isn’t pumping at full register, but Ellis’ Authority wasn’t one prolonged rave either. An astute Wikipedia contributor observes that Ellis was fond of narrative decompression, a style in which “big, panoramic panels were used to examine action in deep detail, with a slower rhythm and lighter plotting per issue.” If this is true, then the deliberativeness of this issue is possibly indicative of a spectacular send-up to come. Knowing (and sharing) Morrison’s fondness for The Beatles – and riffing on the narrative content of the scene that introduces us to a waking Ken – I’ll take a chance and suggest that Grant is thinking less drum-and-bass, more “A Day in the Life”.

The Ostensibly 'Resonant' Pop-Art of Wildcats

On Grant Morrison/Jim Lee's Wildcats #1... (written October 20, originally posted to

Morrison and Lee’s newest incarnation of Wildcats is about surfaces, what they reveal, what they obscure, and how to understand and problematize that difference. “I want to see beautiful people doing amazing things,” explains Morrison of his choice to join Lee on the comic, merging something of an early 90s Image sensibility with a later Vertigo approach. (but isn’t that what the Authority was?) It’s also somewhat reminiscent of Morrison’s Marvel Boy, an experiment in comic pop art where Grant and J.G. Jones ran through all the tricks in the artistic playbook – and invented others that didn’t yet exist. The pop art effects are most evident in Hadrian and Voodoo’s conversation – ‘screen print’ backgrounds and neon painted sex scenes obviously recalling Andy Warhol – but Lee’s pencils are so highly stylized, lush, and even ridiculous that they serve as their own effect of pop art.

I write ‘ridiculous’ because Lee’s art, for me, falls victim accidentally to the same trappings that Warhol fell into willingly: detachment and insincerity. Every Jim Lee line is perfectly placed and every figure is perfectly unreal – ostensibly realistic, yes, but posed and sculpted in absurdly impossible ways. With few exceptions, their symmetrical and proportioned faces are incapable of registering of emotion outside of the same sort of stock expressions you’d find in an issue of GQ or Cosmo. Lee is all surface, and by reflexively calling attention to the superficial through pop art convention – and in emphasizing Wildcats’ “beautiful people doing amazing things” – Morrison takes Lee in a Warholesque direction.

Hadrian suggests that the Authority failed to change the world because “they were tamed by the inertia of ‘things as they are’”, but this is perhaps just as easily understood as a criticism of Lee’s Wildstorm as an exercise in superhero universe building – a failed artistic venture that collapsed under the weight of its own artist-driven artifice. But this new Wildcats refuses a superficial reading as a ‘thing as it is’, as a mere signifier of Marilyn Monroe (which is elevated to something entirely different in a Warhol print) or beautiful heroes saving the world from yet another all-powerful enemy. Hadrian wants to form a team with “the semiotic resonance of the ‘superhero’” in mind, and Grifter is Morrison and Lee’s first semiotic excavation. Lying in a gutter and ironically spouting Wolverine lines – “I’m the best there is at what I do. And what I do… is drink” – Morrison and Lee play up Image’s influences and the original company’s failure to sustain reader interest merely with beautiful people: “The world ran out of room for heroes like me,” Grifter explains. If he’s back, then it better be as something new. When Grifter finally does rejoin the fight at the end of the issue, he does so with a speech in German in which he proclaims himself “chaos” and “death”. Crucially, though, the German words are in German, untranslated. Echoing Morrison and Lee’s new mission, Grifter’s declaration can’t be absorbed by a non-German speaker and requires some sort of interpretive exercise. This isn’t a one-off moment, but rather an indication of the kind work that the new Wildcats requires of the reader – the search for ‘semiotic resonance’.

It’s said that, in calling attention to the mechanics and pretense of pop art construction, Andy Warhol destroyed the self-effacement that was characteristic of mass produced images in the post-industrial era. Likewise, Morrison is mining the glossy Image/image of Jim Lee to destroy Lee’s own representational self-effacement, calling attention to the men behind the comic and their artistic mission. The only question remains, what is there to the mission other than calling attention to itself? We’ve been told, with one eye winking, to be better readers – but is the comic going to have something to say that's worth that kind of close reading?

Astonishing X-Men? Sure. Painfully Repetitive? Doubly so.

On Joss Whedon/John Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men #17... (written on September 23, originally posted to

There’s a certain element of “been there, done that” to Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men. No, not in the sense of nostalgia for Claremont or even Morrison – both of which are there, by the way, especially in the recent storyline’s allusions to both the Dark Phoenix Saga and E is for Extinction – but rather in the sense that Whedon is simply repeating himself.

So doing my best to channel the structuralist literary critic Vladimir Propp, I present a Morphology of the Astonishing X-Men. Here are my constituent parts, with specific examples bracketed:

Friends and Enemies:
*A wolf in the flock (Danger; Cassandra Nova; Lockheed - the mole throughout)
*The villain knows a secret (Ord knows a mutant will destroy Breakworld, #5; Danger knows Emma Frost is in league with Nova, #10)
*Allies have a secret connection to the enemy (SWORD and SHIELD, #6; Xavier, #12; Emma Frost, #13 and expanded on subsequently)
*The team concludes that their allies can no longer be trusted (#6; #12)

*The initial battle is either a diversion or a set-up (Ord fakes a terror-attack to test the team, #2; Danger tricks them into freeing her, #9; the Hellfire Club defeats them in order to gain control of Kitty and free Nova, #14-16)
*An entire issue is devoted to the team being defeated systematically by someone who knows them better than they know themselves (Danger, #10; Nova, #15)
*The previously unbeatable villain is beaten by the physical brutality of a single X-Man (Colossus vs. Ord, #5; Beast vs. Danger, #12)
*A fastball special by Colossus leads directly to the end of the confrontation (with Wolverine, #6; with Kitty, #12)

*Almost perfectly linear storytelling, the rare flashback or dream the exception
*The return of an old friend (Colossus, #4; Xavier, #10)
*The final page splash with a hero’s surprise appearance (Fury, #5; Xavier, #10; Cyclops, #17)
*The last item might also be a subset of Whedon’s habit of making every final page contain some sort of surprise or revelation, though not one that necessarily takes up the entire page

And the Morphology itself, expressed as a linear story outline (there are minor variations in order, but the steps themselves are consistent on the whole):
*A first encounter with the enemy is not all that it seems
*The enemy, who is from within, easily defeats the X-Men
*A hero’s surprise appearance shifts the balance
*The enemy is overwhelmed by an X-Man’s fury
*A terrible connection to the enemy is revealed
*Colossus throws a fastball special and the battle is quickly ended

But the point of this review is to assess Astonishing X-Men #17 in particular, right? It remains impossible to fault Cassaday’s crisp, filmic framing and sequencing – even the strategic abandonment of deep focus resolution, as exemplified in the two panels where Wolverine stares at a can of beer, is deceivingly suggestive and powerful. This said, an artist can only supply the sizzle – the writer has to bring the steak. And after a few tastes, it’s become clear that Whedon’s plots are mass-produced burgers, the toppings being the only difference.

So is it enough that Whedon gives us all the pickles we want, with Portobello mushrooms and half a dozen varieties of cheese? Yes and no. While utterly engaging in the moment, Whedon’s narratives display all the surprise of a screenwriting textbook’s write-by-the-numbers lesson. The dialogue continues to ring with authenticity and snap with perfect timing – but like the plots, the timing is almost too good. It’s an odd sort of backhanded compliment to say that something works too well, but that’s the case here. Whedon has nothing left to prove and spinning wheels can only prove amusing for so long. Here’s hoping that he steps outside his box and tries something daring and different – another berserker fury and fastball special just isn’t going to cut it.

Marvel's Civil War and the disconnect between 'real' and 'implied' readers

On Mark Millar/Steve McNiven's Civil War #4... (written September 23, originally posted to

Let’s get this out of the way – Mark Millar knows what he’s doing. Millar’s Professor Xavier in Ultimate X-Men cribs lines from Ralph Waldo Emerson and pits The Authority against a villain who is self-consciously modeled on Jack Kirby. In doing so, he speaks subtextually to the issues of post-humanism, nostalgia, and influence that inflect much of language used by comic book writers and critics alike. And when you consider that Millar’s reputation was built on the epic, “widescreen” pop-comic stylings of The Authority – a book where the characters’ disagreeable attitudes are dwarfed only by the absurd and outlandish foes they match up against – one can only conclude that Civil War need not be read like your typical sort of Marvel super-hero story.

On Newsrama, Millar explains that this latest issue “radicalized a lot of [heroes] we'll see in the next couple of issues, kind of like the way some Muslims were suddenly radicalized when Iraq got a little shock and awe”. Fair enough, I suppose – Millar and Marvel alike have pushed Civil War as an allegory for American domestic and international policy, and it only makes sense that Millar would encourage people to choose sides in this battle according to the politics that they find most agreeable in the real world. The specific perspective that Millar expresses in the quote above, though, is only one possible interpretation and not necessary the most useful – by obscuring and swapping many of the particulars, Millar creates a space of liminality in which each side carries markers of the patriot and the reformer, the soldier and the terrorist, Big Brother and Winston Smith. The tag-line “Whose side are you on?” is not so simple a question.

Like The Authority, Civil War is also larger than life – the super-heroic id unleashed in all its libidinal glory. It’s no wonder that the Thor clone, brandishing the most phallic super-weapon of all, is the one who should tip the balance. It’s also intriguing that the Invisible Woman – whose very power of invisibility is a quizzically active projection of her “lack” under Freudianism as a woman, or the embodiment of penis envy – should be the one to stifle his attack and defer certain defeat. Already compelled to favor one paradigm or another, we now have to consider that the symbolic order itself is at risk.*

[*October 13th Update: On Comicboards' Avengers Message Board, Omar Karindu theorizes the battle as a crisis of genre - "procedural and law enforcement on the pro-Reg side, and traditional superhero genre standards on the anti-Reg side." This is probably a more productive reading, since it takes a decidedly more meta-commentary approach - which is much more in line with Millar's past work - than my more abstracted psychoanalytic tack.]

Except that this isn’t The Authority – Thor isn’t Apollo, Cap isn’t Midnighter, and Iron Man isn’t the Engineer. And subtext tends to miss its mark when the text itself is so outrageous to the reader that disbelief can no longer be suspended.

What Millar and Co. seem to have completely missed is that Marvel readers are called “Zombies” for a reason – they show up out of loyalty to the characters, not for the high-brow conceit. While casting Iron Man as an antihero in the mode of Dr. Frankenstein (or, given his recent neuroses for contingency planning, maybe Batman) seems like a pretty clever idea, few Iron Man fans will appreciate that cleverness in the face of so much textual contradiction with his past representations.

It appears that Marvel has forgotten – or never realized – that their consumers read for the characters first. The plots or high concepts will only ever be secondary, and so editor Tom Brevoort’s suggestion that “It's human nature to root for the underdog” misses the point. The reality is not nearly so philosophical. For many readers, super-heroes were one of their first points of identification, a mirror stage in their moral development. Millar may recognize this pseudo-psychoanalytic function of the super-hero comic in his symbolic play, but his attempts to deconstruct it seem to indicate a rather stark disconnect between theory and practice. When pushed to choose between two sets of their beloved heroes, characters who they’ve quite often internalized and made fundamental to their own sense of self in some way, fans will invariably detest the side fighting to incarcerate and indoctrinate – and, yes, kill – their friends. There’s no sympathy for Iron Man when he crosses his own line and inadvertently kills Bill Foster, and Cap’s ostensibly irrational and fanatic response to being beaten within an inch of his life seems irrefutably heroic in contrast.

For the fanatic reader – who, it seems, is very nearly the average reader – the allegory collapses under the weight of four decades worth of affective sediment. But pretend, if you will, that these are not Marvel heroes but rather The Authority. Or even better, The Ultimates. Can you imagine how this would read and be received as an Ultimate Marvel crossover, with no over-burdened and over-determined history? My guess it is that it would be received rather well.

'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)

Analyzing the Man of Steel

On Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman #5... (written September 8, originally posted to

Lex Luthor explains that “We all fall short of that sickening, inhuman perfection, that impossible ideal.” Lex’s diatribe is familiar, but his situation is uniquely dire. Having charged himself in Morrison’s first issue with the mission of “getting serious” about killing Superman, Luthor is now on death row. This is a particularly uncontrolled Lex as well, his obsession having surpassed the neurotic and become a full-blown psychosis. The line separating the ice-chilled logic of Luthor and the lunatic genius of the Joker has never been so thin – and it’s certainly never been so gleefully fun to try peeling back the layers and parsing those minute differences.

To my mind, the rather uncomplicated relationship of Lex to Superman – “It’s all very simple” Lex naively declares. “If it wasn’t for Superman, I’d be in charge of this planet!” – has always disappointed when compared to the depth of the relationship between Batman and the aforementioned Joker. Morrison would appear to agree, and the Luthor/Superman relationship under his pen is more psychologically engrossing and entertaining than ever. Enacting a sort of quasi-Oedipal mission to not simply destroy Superman but to replace and become him, Lex’s final interview with Clark Kent – his “Gospel of Lex” – is less an autobiography and more a rant about his attempts to refashion himself in Superman’s admittedly unattainable image. Lex charges recklessly into a confrontation with the Parasite – oversaturated with energy after greedily siphoning from Clark the same power that’s killing Superman – screaming and beating on the super-villain in a heavily symbolic and uncontrolled rage. It’s with just a little bit of irony in mind that a frantically note-scribbling Clark gently asks Lex to calm down, as his “shorthand can’t handle the volume”.

Irony and pastiche at both the textual and aesthetic levels have been the touchstone for Morrison and Quitely’s All Star Superman. Clark saves Lex’s life numerous times through acts of seeming buffoonery, adding a degree of campiness to the issue that’s evocative of Superman’s Silver Age comics (not to mention dialogue and images that recall even the more measured campiness of Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman). The visual gags don’t end with those slapstick exercises, but it would be a crime to reveal some of the most unexpected and absurd moments of incredible campiness. The best of these serve to remind us that Quitely is not simply providing wonderfully detailed and well-laid storytelling, but is also an active contributor to the book’s meanings and messages – the humor in the acts through which Clark saves Lex, for instance, rely entirely on Quitely’s delivery. While a good penciller directs the reader’s attention and avoid distracting from what’s happening in the text, an artist like Quitely builds on the words and adds a depth and texture that encourages and rewards close re-readings.

Perhaps the most interesting ironic commentary is directed at the issue of Lex’s genius and his adequacy as an intellectual, if not physical, replacement for Superman. Morrison’s Lex, after all, is a blowhard who admits that he’s never succeeded in his life’s one ambition (that is, to kill Superman), a man who sucker-punches a defeated Parasite and claims victory, who can’t read Clark’s shorthand (though he brags that he can decipher any code), and even comically misuses the word “ironic” in conversation (!). That he also declares Clark to be the exact opposite of Superman and totally fails to realize they’re the same person is a given – the comic is, as I said, very much an homage to the Silver Age. But Lex actually intellectualizes and acknowledges Clark and Superman’s striking similarities – “You have the eyebrow shape beautician’s call the ‘Superman swoosh’” – and still bafflingly fails to make the connection. Such an inept villain is hardly worthy of beating Superman, much less replacing him. One has to wonder whether the final irony will be that Lex has known Clark’s secret all along, and that his interview and his Gospel is just one more knife-twist in the stomach of a distraught Superman on his last legs.