Sunday, October 21, 2007

Evaluating Whedon and re-evaluating Morrison

(It seems silly of me to try and summarize a run that hasn't yet concluded. But my recent renewal of appreciation for Whedon's Astonishing X-Men - coupled with the increasingly annoyed and/or dismissive responses from a large number of folks in X-Men fandom - prompted me to produce a version of the follow comments on the X-Universe Message Board a couple weeks ago. Exchanges with Jason Powell allowed me to refine and add nuance to those arguments, so I'll try to capture some of that, too.)

First things first: If nothing else, Joss Whedon is responding to Morrison's persuasive, if ultimately nihilistic, appraisal of the X-Men canon with an appraisal of his own. Morrison, of course, set out to rejuvenate the X-Men, make them sexy and overtly political - to approach the other without returning to the norm. (Indeed, I recall hearing Morrison theorize his New X-Men as a dialectical process, where JLA was thesis and the Invisibles were antithesis.) When he failed - and it is unclear whether failure was always already immanent - Morrison resorted simply to a vicious mockery of those same X-Men tropes that he had claimed to have abandoned.

The major difference, then, between Whedon and Morrison is that the latter saw the tropes and canonical stories of the X-Men as a restriction - Morrison says that every writer must do the obligatory Phoenix, Magneto, Sentinel, etc. stories - while Whedon seems to regard them more narratologically as guidelines that are fundamental to the telling of an X-Men story. Which is not to say that Whedon isn't ambivalent about the way that those tropes and narratives are deployed, and I think this is made clear in the very first issue:

1. Kitty sees apparitions from some of Claremont's best-loved stories, so we know the past isn't just in play but will be actively haunting this run. And indeed: Colossus returns from the dead, as do the Sentinel that killed the Genoshans, Cassandra Nova, and the White Queen. Though you can argue that certain exercises are less successful than others, it's an excavation of their history - in peeling back the layers, Whedon's trying to get at an understanding of who they are and the compromises that each of his cast has made along the way. (And, in turn, how they have been compromised by those decisions.)

2. The costume/no-costume discussion establishes that this isn't simply a reversion to an old status quo - Cyclops says that they have to look like superheroes, not that they are superheroes. Mutant politics and ethics take something of a backseat, but we'd be mistaken if we thought they were absent and they'll come roaring to the fore soon enough. In this point, I'm not even talking about the Cure or the irony in imprisoning a mutant computer program. The most poignant political moment is when the team, in costume, fights the Mole Man's monster but fails to be convincing in their act. They don't make the news and they don't make things better for mutants; dressing - performing - as superheroes didn't hide the fact that they were still mutants. (And, in fact, I think that this realization allows for Cyclops subsequent growth.) This is certainly a critique of writers who portray the X-Men as Just Another Superteam, and perhaps even critical of Morrison for trying to situate the X-Men as post-human. Cyclops' ambivalent relationship to mutanity and humanity allows us to recognize that mutants cannot extricate themselves from their humanness and find an 'outside' that places them exterior to humanity as post-humans. But likewise, having been marked as mutant they cannot ever be entirely 'inside' humanity, either.

Where Morrison left us with a dead-end - a critique with no obvious direction forward - Whedon seems to be trying to resolve what the X-Men can be if they cannot be like superheroes. The alternative, it seems, is to shift genres entirely: Whedon's latest arc (which heavily alludes to Dune) seems to take heavy inspiration from the early- and mid-80s X-Men stories that often found the team in space and otherwise battling science-fiction tropes, the sorts of stories and characters that have receded from interest in the past decade or two like the Brood (Aliens), Nimrod (Terminator), and the Reavers (Mad Max). To steal a line that I heard elsewhere, it seems Whedon is saying that 'everything you forgot was pretty cool'.

My least developed thought is on the structural aspects of the four arcs, each of which seems to mirror the various parts of the Phoenix Saga more or less closely. What I wonder is if it's fair to suggest that Whedon is elevating this story to a sort of 'master narrative', the "totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience" within the X-Men mythos, the control mechanism though which multiplicity is engaged and difference is recognized, registered, and regulated. Certainly, it seems fair to argue that the Phoenix Saga - both its narrative form and tropes of corruption, forgiveness, rebirth - has established the parameters that allow us to makes sense of difference and what it can be "about" within the context of the X-Men.

It might be silly and/or hyperbolic of me to liken the canon of the X-Men to a phallic economy, but I'll go there and claim that the same caveats apply: that Morrison failed to successfully possess and redirect the X-Men precisely because mastery of a 'master narrative' is always delusional. And, sure enough, in the end Morrison seems consumed by an sort of hysterical anxiety - he is able to say what his X-Men are
not, but what they are remains ill-defined or even only negatively-defined, demanding recognition from the canon that it has made great lengths to otherize.


Jason Powell said...

Fascinating. My gut reaction is simply to say, "Keep talkin'..." But maybe there's no more to say until "Astonishing" concludes.

One question I'm left with, though. You write "Whedon seems to be trying to resolve what the X-Men can be if they cannot be like superheroes. The alternative, it seems, is to shift genres entirely..." and then go on to list some of those old tropes from the '80s (you're welcome :)).

But -- and I'm working this out in my head as I type, so bear with me, and be gentle -- is there anything about the Avengers or the FF that precludes their ability to engage in sci-fi stories/tropes? I would think no -- especially the FF, for whom "cosmic" stories was part of the premise from the very start.

And if that's the case, does having the X-Men move into (or move back into) the space/sci-fi genre really constitute a way of positioning them outside of superheroes, or is this not still writing the X-Men as "Just Another Superteam," insofar as any superteam could be plugged into a sci-fi story as easily as the X-Men are?

Or, alternatively, is there something unique about the X-Men as a concept that makes them particularly suited to a story like the one Whedon is currently telling? (Not knowing the details, I am really asking here.)

I'm reminded of Chris Claremont's "Asgardian Wars" story in New Mutants/X-Men circa 1986. On the surface it was a gimmick-story, with each New Mutant getting plugged into a different corner of the sword & sorcery genre -- but the wrinkle was that ultimately many of the New Mutants didn't want to go back to earth, where they were outcast. Why not stay in Asgard, many of them asked, where the fantastic is commonplace, and therefore mutanity can just be another patch on the quilt? This was using the extreme genre-jump in a way that made thematic sense, and wasn't simply arbitrary. Maybe Whedon is attempting something similar?

neilshyminsky said...

The quote you pulled out was one that I copy-and-pasted - and one that I actually meant to change, too. But it's written, so let's work with it anyway and see if I can make it sound less banal...

The Fantastic Four, certainly, would seem to present something of a problem - they have science-fiction adventures and don't do as much of the traditional super-heroing that we see Superman or Spider-man engage in. And maybe Whedon was even getting at this when he chose them as the representatives for socially-accepted heroes: as a family and as a science-fictiony team, they are most like Whedon's X-Men. And yet the X-Men fail to pass for heroes in the way that the FF do.

The difference, I think, is that while FF lifts the narratives of science fiction, the Fantastic Four themselves have never been made Other. Science fiction is a genre, at its most base thematic levels, that is expressive of a fear of the Other - and a fear that it's degeneracy will somehow rub off on you. Victor Frankenstein violates the laws of nature in creating his Monster and it leaves him alienated and drives him to his death; Rick Deckard, we're given reason to suspect, might actually be one of the replicants that he is chasing; Neo may actually be a failsafe function created by the machines to reboot humanity.

The Fantastic Four, for all their power and strangeness, have never neared the boundary that separates the recognizably normative from the Other - they are white, they are heteronormative, and they are able to live out their dreams. Sure, they can have science fiction adventures, but they can't really be science fiction characters. Likewise, the X-Men can have superhero adventures, but they can't really be superhero characters. Their marks of difference, of the Other, has always made them a much more comfortable fit with a genre like science fiction.

Jason Powell said...

Wow. Not to overreact, but that's pretty brilliant. Well done.

You're good, Shyminsky!

neilshyminsky said...

I could, of course, be totally wrong about either science fiction or the Fantastic Four. :)

James said...

I think you're right about science fiction, and I was trying to put together an argument about the Fantastic Four, but couldn't come up with anything very persuasive. The Thing was the original freak-superhero, and recent writers have highlighted how creepy Reed's powers are, but they're still celebrities first and foremost.

neilshyminsky said...

Yeah, it's like their universal acceptance and love mediates any of their freakishness - Reed has only recently been made to seem a bit creepy, and the Thing has also always seemed more loveable because he's out-freaked by the Hulk. And the Thing is also an entirely superficial case, too - we know that he's actually a really sweet guy beneath it all. (Where the archetypal science fiction hero seems to be much more fundamentally tortured, afraid that his normal exterior hides a deviant interior.)