Saturday, November 17, 2007

Comic book round-up...

I have two weeks of comics worth to blog about - and an unusually busy two weeks, for me at least - but I've put off making any comment at all until now. (Too busy, and so on and so forth.) So I'll make some brief comments here, which I'll eventually get around to expanding into longer reviews on (Which is, incidentally, where every blog I write about a comic ends up anyway.)

Astonishing X-Men #23 - I've pointed out a number of times that Whedon's individual arcs have largely the same structure. I won't belabor the similarities that I've drawn out in other posts, but there are some more worth mentioning: Cyclops' resurrection after last issue's suicide marks the second time that the Breakworlders have brought an X-Man back to life; more to the point, this is the fourth time in four arcs that Cyclops has either been killed or recovered from being near death, which seems a bit excessive; as well, his break-out and bad-ass pose on the final page bears much familiarity both narratively and visually to the similar "you've taken your best shot, bub..." poses at the end of AXM #10 (Xavier) and AXM #15 (Kitty). Whedon also continues with his habit of borrowing tropes from old X-Men comics, though the "Cyclops actually can access his powers" swerve is less obscure than those he made in the last couple issues. (Jason Powell notes that this turning point is also featured in Uncanny X-Men #134, #150, and #272, to which I also must add also add X-Factor #39.)

Whedon does manage one repetition with a much subtler and cleverer variation to it, though. In the opening scenes of the issue, two of the rebel Breakworlders discuss the likelihood of an X-Men victory against Kruun. One expresses optimism and Aghanne, their leader, suggests that she has been driven mad by the "hope" that the X-Men have brought with them. It's an interesting choice of words - the mutant cure in the first arc was, we should recall, also called "Hope".

The Order #4 - There's something very Lost-ish, I think, about the frame narrative 'interviews' (job interviews? or therapy sessions? we're not entirely sure) that are probably the most distinctive feature of this comic. New books written in total sincerity and full of characters we don't know are a tough sell, and this quirk shoot straight for the heart every time in trying to compel us to like these people. It's probably not working quite as well for me as I would hope: the first issue's interview was able to integrate Apollo seamlessly into the Marvel Universe and cleverly critique Tony Stark at the same time, making the entire notion of the Order feel somewhat discomforting. The subsequent interviews just haven't cut that close to the bone.

I'm also ambivalent about Barry Kitson's art. He's ideal for the interview panels, where his raised eyebrows or smirks are perfectly expressive without ever being too explicit. But his entirely generic face designs are often confusing, making it difficult to tell one character from another, and there's very little dynamism to their movements. (This is my same complaint of Jim Lee, whose characters similarly seem to be posing when they are ostensibly fighting.)

All-Star Superman #9 - All of the comments I've seen from other fans of this series - I tend to not bother reading actual 'reviews' - seem to agree that something is missing from this issue. Perhaps its the heart. Superman seems weak and whiny in this issue, (and the reason for the weakness, which actually leads to his victory in the end, comes from out of nowhere) and the villains' motivations are cliché but without serving any redeeming metatextual purpose. We certainly don't learn anything about these villains as we did about Lex or Zibarro in their issues, nor do we learn anything particularly interesting about Superman.

Even the political commentary (or what passes for a criticism of Superman's seeming apoliticism, anyway) is rather confused and superficial: the Kryptonians criticize Superman for being at the beck and call of the humans while refusing to release the miniaturized inhabitants of Kandor into the sunlight, but nothing more comes of this potential exploration of Superman's alienness. He meets their complaints with some empty-sounding platitudes and we hear nothing more of it.

Scott Pilgrim #4 - Of all these books, I've read the latest Scott Pilgrim most recently and so given it the least thought. It's easily the most melodramatic of the four books, which doesn't immediately strike me as a good thing. One of the pleasures of the early books is that the heavily stylized art, often esoteric (or, rather, geeky) allusions, and ironic tone have affected a comfortable distance for the readers from the characters: the stories have a kind of magical realism (as opposed to superhero stories which, while featuring fantastical elements, are typically aimed at approximating realism) that borders on the absurd, with dialogue that's too self-conscious and, accordingly, characters that are hilariously adept at meeting our expectations of their type. O'Malley seems to have made a habit of delivering more of everything with each new volume, and this one takes a misstep by turning up teen angst (which is particularly bothersome, for me at least, because these characters are very nearly my age): discussions about the 'L-word', the introduction of new-old love interests just for the sake of complicating things, misunderstandings that could easily be cleared up if the characters weren't sometimes idiots...

Perhaps worst of all, I suddenly realized that Ramona is entirely out of Scott's league and I have no idea what she would see in him. (Which is to say that the consequence of humanizing your characters and giving them real emotional problems is that we begin to regard them as real people and question their decisions accordingly. And there's no question in my mind that their relationship makes no sense.) A recurring exchange perhaps illustrates this best of all - Scott makes repeated mentions of how Ramona's age is "unknown", as if she's some sort of villainous 80s wrestler. And despite this being a cute quirk of the book's style, O'Malley turns it into some sign of their communication problems before finally revealing her age at the book's end as a way of patching things up. (Spoiler: She's 24.)

All this said, O'Malley also continues to widen his range of always entertaining geeky references: that Scott's dreamscape resembles a Legend of Zelda game, complete with a "forest elf", is priceless. It's a wonderful escapist moment in a book that, despite its previous successes in eliding flirtations with the mundaneness of too much realism, seems aimed at demystifying precisely what's made it so interesting.


Jason Powell said...

Hey, my name is in this one! Man, I never get sick of that ... :)

It occurs to me, X-Factor 68 also uses the Optic-Blast-ex-machina bit too. In fact I'd argue that that's the best one of the bunch..

James said...

Yeah, but the difference with Whedon's version is that he is (finally) giving us a bonafide visor-less Scott, which makes this Cyclops fanboy want to yelp and punch the air. Whether it'll last any longer than this run of Astonishing is another matter.

Omar Karindu said...

Astonishing X-Men continues to perplex me, in a way; it wants to simultaneously hit the classic Claremont story beats one after another for nostalgia's and familiarity's sakes, but at the same time it seems to be certain that its plot setups are new and interesting ways of doing the old X-Men themes.

The result is very odd -- a comic with superb artistic technique and some dazzlingly original and interesting scripting choices, but one whose larger ambitions seem to be going unfulfilled. Has the AI dilemma with Danger ever been as compelling as Whedon seems to think it is?

Has the Breakworld really managed to be different than the standard "evil world with a few dissenters" sci-fantasy setup? (Certainly it's not meant to be a convincing science-fictional world; there's no sense of its society having shifted due to the timeshadow technology or the resurrection devices.)

The idea of the manufactured prophecy and the X-Men's potential as social-mutagenic agents might be a good one. Theoretically, transplanting the metaphor to a pre-fab alien world would allow narrative fulfillment and closure of a sort that couldn't occur on the series' Earth or on an established and better fleshed-out alien world for reasons of keping various basic story premises around for future use.

Likewise, Danger should have been an opportunity to showcase the cast's reactions to Xavier's dark secrets, and to play out the ideas of mutation at the level of personality as against static drives and selves. Or alternately, to posit Danger and the machines it awakens as equally valid lifeforms, something else altogether in terms of speciation that has a stake in the future.

In practice, we've had these themes gently suggested in the dialogue but largely irrelevant to the working out of the plotlines to date. The X-Men aren't going to be agents of change on Breakworld because they represent something new and different, they're almost certainly going to achieve this by (as the cover of AXM #23 depicts) doing to Kruun what Kruun did to his opponents. We get a few bits of surface gloss in the form of platitudes and twists from Aghanne, but this is a standard comic-book action story.

Danger, too, seems to have wound down into a villain less enigmatic than merely erratic, there in the latter arcs to amplify the villains' threat levels and then to do a face turn when appropriately motivated. (Emma makes very, very little sense at all here; why wasn't this psychological trick pulled on Danger much earlier in the arc, once her own secret was no longer an issue?)

The execution is all there, but the stakes just aren't. The whole thing is still a rather hollow genre exercise with some intriguing lagniappe in the form of occasional allusions to mutation as memetic rather than genetic. Of course, Claremont and Morrison both played this out much mor einterestingly by making the social mutation into the genuine stakes of the plot. Claremont did so by playing out polymorphous sexualities and incorporating various subcultures; Morrison by creating an entire mutant minority with its own culture.

Whedon, though, is doing Claremont without the potential discomfort, and giving lip service to Morrison's pet themes without actually going through with them. It's a dreadfully safe book, one in which the idea of alternative and innovative cultures reduces to a two-sided cominance struggle in which both sides seem to use the same means and ultimately to mean the same things.

Of course, the gorgeous execution of the safest of material means it's a lark to read until you analyze it a bit. Whedon and Cassady are managing a delightful tap dance between nudging towards the line's repeatedly aborted potential and acknowledging the practical publishing impossibility of really doing so. Certainly the dance is subtler than Morrison's hyperbolic jeremiad, "Planet X," and more satisfying than Claremont's original departure from the books and his increasingly flabby revisitations of old plot threads and bondage motifs, now minus the thematic impact.

On that score, Whedon may be managing the only sort of success possible on a mainstream X-book circa 2007. What a pity that success is so constrained by other factors.

Omar Karindu said...

Oh, and as to All-Star Superman #9, it strikes me that the problem is really in how fundamentally uninteresting the basic conflict would be even when fully developed. Bar-El and Lilo are rather bland imperialists made blander by the necessity of tying them to the Silver Age Krypton, an element Morrison and Quitely were quite right to handle with a single panel and caption in the opening of issue one.

To be honest, has any version of Krypton really been made interesting in a fashion that benmefitted Superman's stories? The Buck Rogers utopia of the Weisinger era generated plot items and the like, but as a place it was a sort of dull and unimaginative take on utopia. Little more than a late Fordist vision of paradise filtered through post-war plastic visuals, its main purpose was to ratify Superman's own (by then) firmly Establishment credentials and his existence as the ultimate product, the ultimate status-quo commodity.

Byrne's Krypton was impressively sterile and bleak, of course, and played out as a contrast to the homey wisdom of the Kents, but for just this reason its Jor-El had to be made a curious anomaly and its actual usefulness in Superman stories restricted. Certainly it was never allowed to really influence Superman's personality, outside of stories in which some outside force brainwashes him into "behaving Kryptonian," that is, as an emotionless fascist, so that the reader could see all the better why the noninterventionst, Kansas-bred version was morally superior to those creepy technocrats and their world-shifting ambitions.

Bar-El and Lilo split the difference, combining the imperialist elements of the Silver Age version with the ruthlessly anti-humanist technocracy of the Byrne version. The mismatch of premises is a bit of the problem, though one could argue that the sterility of the Byrne Krypton was always lurking in the push-button Eden of day-glo saucer-shaped buildings that preceded it.

The result is that the villains of All-Star #9 can't be made into rich or sympathetic antagonists because the nature of their motivation makes them disinclined to explain themselves and rather shallowly conceived anyway; they merely act in arbitrarily tyrannical and careless ways so that Superman can react with a mixture of wise pacifism and horrified befuddlement that these two are from the same world as himself.

Worse, the nature of that reaction means that Superman doesn't get to be a protagonist in the story, or really to do much besides gawp, wait, and then lecture. There's a sort of irony in the way that two sorts of technological determinism -- the Green K impregnation that Superman spots and lets do its work, and the "human" inhumanity of the Phantom Zone Projector -- defeat the ultimate techno-determinists in the form of the Kryptonian colonizers, but it's a slim one without much delight in it.

I realize that I'm neglecting the pop-Nietzschean aspect of the two different ways of being an overman, those being Superman's inexorable influence as unobtrusive but powerful, in contrast to the overt world-shaping of the antagonists that proves all too temporary in its effects and nature. (The scientist-observer affecting the observed overtakes the imperialist's direct interaction with the empirical world; another, subtler technocratic ethos overtakes a "less advanced" technique of domination and social evolution.)

But really, that's a theme that Superman does again and again, in ever single Kryptonian-survivor-gone-wrong storyline across several decades, and it's surely time to move on to something new. The sad trtuth is that this is the first All-Star Superman that takes on the conceptual weaknesses rather than the imaginative strengths of the era to which it is a love letter. Some plots resist updating with all their ill-designed structure and soul.