Sunday, May 06, 2007

How Whedon got his groove back

At this point in Whedon’s run, I’m willing to just give in and have some fun. Granted, he’s making it easier for me: it seems, at first, like some of structural similarities of the first three arcs - as I laid them out in this review many months ago - are no longer in play. But then, many of the elements of my cute little morphology are still haunting Astonishing X-Men. Looking at the story’s bare bones, not much has changed: something far more difficult to describe is happening in this latest arc, and this issue is a particularly wonderful example.

So what is Whedon doing differently here? He’s always been incredibly honest in laying out his ancestor texts for the reader in easy-to-read allusions: shades of early Claremont and especially the Dark Phoenix have been littered throughout, as well as Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men. I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already notice yourself, though – or anything that I hadn’t noted here before. But there’s a new element in the mix with these last few issues. Take the Beast’s bitter snarking at Agent Brand as their vehicles are disabled by a tactical “snowstrike” and they scurry for shelter: “You’re amoral, you’re abrasive, and right now you’re looking at me like I’m a taun-taun.” The reference - which you either understood immediately or eventually Googled out of sheer curiosity – is to the creature that Luke Skywalker slices open and crawls inside for warmth when he’s trapped on the ice-planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a tiny reference, (though certainly not a throwaway) but it opens the field immensely. I also think that we’d be right to suspect that the visuals of the Breakworld are meant to recall Dune, though I’m not familiar enough with the series to know if it goes beyond that. Regardless, Whedon isn’t just playing with just the X-Men sandbox anymore.

Though it’s much subtler, the Empire Strikes Back connection can also be read into the situation of the captive black SWORD agent that Overlord Kruun is torturing for information. We learn in this issue that he’s made a deal with one of the Breakworlders to give them Colossus in return for saving the Earth. And that this deal is no spur of the moment thing – it has, in fact, been in the works all along. (Though Agent Brand’s complicity is unclear. We don’t know if she planned it.) Sure, reimagining the scene in terms of Lando Calrissian betraying the Rebel Alliance doesn’t add anything to your experience as far as the plot’s concerned, but it makes the process of reading it a whole lot more fun.

Whedon extends his palette of literary references far deeper in time, too. The rebel Breakworlders explain to Colossus that they believe the prophecy – the one that says Colossus will destroy their world – might mean that he’ll destroy the order of the world, a sort of restructuring from which something better will emerge. Their interpretation recalls the Biblical origins of ‘apocalypse’, where ‘the end’ is only ever the end of life-as-we-know-it and not life, period. I’m probably wrong to also read this as a gentle chiding of typical comic book doomsday-prophecizing, where the apocalypse is always the end of everything in existence, but it certainly stands in stark contrast to the usual the-end-is-nigh super-hero stories where the fate of all existence hangs in the balance. Despite the chaos and death that necessarily accompanies it, apocalyptic literature has historically admitted that what follows a day of judgment is eventually better than what preceded it. It’s nice to see Whedon recall that.

Whedon isn’t doing anything particularly new - the clever appropriation of ideas and deepening of subtext through allusion is as old as writing itself – but he is getting more creative with where and from whom he steals those ideas. I’m reminded here of what Geoff Klock says about Matt Fraction’s Casanova: “Before anyone objects that Casanova is hardly new, drawing in everything in its gravity, Casanova FEELS new, which is all I am really asking for.” Whedon is still writing a love letter to Claremont and Morrison, but it no longer feels like that’s all he’s doing, or that it’s even the main thrust of Astonishing X-Men any longer.


Jason Powell said...

Of course, Claremont’s first major, long-term story arc on X-Men back in the ‘70s involved a giant space-war between an empire and a group of rebels. The rebels were led by a princess, who was heading to Earth to enlist the aid of a wise old man with powerful mental abilities, who was her “only hope.” This led to the X-Men fighting the emperor, and his imperial troops, but not before battling the emperor’s chief enforcer – a guy in monochromatic armor who also had mental powers. Finally they had to prevent the “deathstars” from entering the proper alignment, but luckily they had that young lady with them who’d recently gotten control of the Phoenix “force.”

Conclusion: Referencing Star Wars in an X-Men comic? Sounds like just another layer of Claremont copycatting to me ...

neilshyminsky said...

I'm skeptical for two reasons. For one, the first Shi'ar story began with a cover date in early 1977 - meaning that Claremont had to have begun writing it in 1976, which was well before Star Wars was released. Second, Lucas was hardly doing anything new - Claremont could be accused of recycling very old archetypes and fantasy plots, but this is simply the same thing that Lucas was doing.

Whedon is using very old archetypes too, as I suggest with my reference to the apocalyptic, but his employment of Star Wars is undeniable. Claremont's, though? I think it's dubious.

Jason Powell said...

Good call on the dates. Still some weird coincidences, though -- especially by the time you get to the "death-star" thing -- though now I realize that Claremont had titled a 1976 comic "Deathstar, Rising", a full year before the release of "Star Wars."

Weird. I'd thought for a long time that Claremont and Cockrum were riffing off Star Wars, but I guess I'm wrong.

On the other hand, when Claremont did "Classic X-Men" in the '80s, it was a different story. Classic X-Men #4 has Nightcrawler saying to kids outside a movie theatre (standing by a Star Wars poster), "My favorite character is the Wookie. I have a friend who's not as tall but just as hairy, and I always let HIM win too."

And an interpolated page in Classic X-Men #14 (when the X-Men land on "the world" to fight the Emperor and the Imperial Guard), Nightcrawler thinks to himself, "Eat your heart out, George Lucas! This is a REAL 'Star Wars'!"

(On the apolocalyptic note: I assume you've read Promethea, right? That's the only superhero comic I've read that acknowledges what you discuss in your post about the more accurate interpretation of "apocalypse.")

neilshyminsky said...

That's actually really interesting - Claremont realized that there was some sort of affinity between his Shi'ar story and Star Wars, and so wrote it back on to stories that never could have been written with Star Wars in mind. It's like he was misreading himself. Crazy!

I've read Promethea, yeah, and it works exactly that angle. There are elements of the apocalyptic in a lot of Moore stuff, of course - Swamp Thing, more subtly, but the Watchmen is very apocalyptic. Neither is on Promethea's scale, but I think that the major difference is less about scale and more about that which follows.

The post-apocalyptic world of Watchmen is ambivalent, we're not sure that everyone gets the ending they deserve or even sure what they deserve, and the story's final page is ominous - things could very well become much worse. Promethea's conclusion is enthusiastically (though not exclusively) optimistic and redemptive. Something about it is almost Christian, I think.

Jason Powell said...

"Something about it is almost Christian, I think."

There's some interview, it might be the one he did with Eddie Campbell that was reprinted recently in "Disease of Language," in which Alan Moore says that he has "a closer relationship to Christ than a lot of Christians." I think that's the notion behind the scene in issue 9 (I believe), in which Promethea chastises the Christian zealots who want to destroy her, opining that these murderous intentions represent a perversion of what the "story" of Christ is meant to be about.

And then there's the issue during the Kabala quest where Promethea weeps at the sight of a crucified Jesus. So there's definitely a sympathy with Christianity throughout Promethea, although it's always couched in the terms that Christianity is one piece of a much larger puzzle. (i.e., in issue 9 Promethea explicitly states that she and Christ are "both sacred" because they are "both stories," and in the Kabala issue it's made clear that Jesus Christ only fits in one sphere of the 11-sphere "tree of life," and it's a sphere that fits right in the middle, rather than at the top or at the base.)

[as a sidebar: even before Promethea began, Alan Moore was giving interviews in which he said the apocalypse was coming, but that it would be a good thing. He said, "I think we are going to get the shit kicked out of us, and I for one will be glad to see it gone."

I quoted this line in a paper I did about Moore in college, and one of the things the professor marked up in that sentence was the "see it gone." She wrote, "see *what* gone?" I so dearly wanted to write, "What's the only possible antecedent in the whole sentence, idiot?" and hand it back to her. But, I didn't. End sidebar.]

neilshyminsky said...

I laughed when I read that Moore line just now - there was a split-second disconnect, but you're right, there's no other option.

But as a TA who has read enough papers to know how and when it's necessary read closely or, alternatively, simply gloss over the text, I think the joke was subtle and/or clever enough to elude most markers. I'm not sure that this speaks highly of our profession or the schools that pay us for 2 minutes per page, but there you have it.

Jason Powell said...

Good point about teachers being busy. I should point out that I wouldn't necessarily fault any professor for glossing over the quote and missing the point -- but this lady was something of an intellectual snob, who always seemed ... I don't know, "bemused" is maybe the word ... that I would actually write a paper about *comic books.*

So it was kind of like -- okay, you're going to give *ME* a hard time about where I focus my brain and yet YOU are the one who doesn't get how pronouns work?