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Category: Comics

Narrative static cling

I’m thinking about David Fiore’s proposal for a essay, “One Damned Thing After Another: Death’s Refrain and Narrative Stasis in Amazing Spider-Man.” Now, to paraphrase David’s argument, in Spider-Man, when Peter Parker’s and Gwen Stacey’s relationship is in danger of progressing to the point that it unbalances the narrative stasis of the text, writer Gerry Conway killed Gwen—and later resurrected her “to provide the readers (who had been too shocked by her death to say goodbye to the character the first time) a chance to mourn her properly, and then allowing her to walk out of the pages of the series forever… intensifying the “logic of loss” at its’ [sic] core a thousand-fold.”

It occurs to me that Grant Morrison’s New X-Men has some kind of inverse (or something) relationship with this idea. Well, this part of the Spider-Man narrative and the X-Men narrative previous to Morrison really aren’t comparable… The death of Gwen Stacy “purifies the “Spider-Man concept” of its’ narrative excrescences.” There’s nothing “pure” about the X-Men narrative! All these relationships and characterizations were set up decades ago—the somewhat troubled marriage of Scott and Jean, Scott’s mopy lack of personality, Jean’s Phoenix-inspired sometime arrogance and aloofness, the Jean-Logan-Scott triangle. I don’t know if the Jean-Scott-Emma triangle is old or if it was introduced by Morrison, but certainly the sexualized tension between Emma and Jean goes all the way back to the X-Men: Dark Phoenix Saga. But anyway all this stuff was set up and then just allowed to stay around, stagnate, become incestuous and absurdly horribly complicated. Then Morrison comes along and explodes the living fuck out of it all. But rather than returning the characters to some previous state of narrative purity (N.B. at this point I’m just bullshitting, because I have no idea what Morrison is actually going to end up doing with these characters in New X-Men: Planet X and New X-Men: Here Comes Tomorrow), he allows them to finally leap out of their ancient deep ruts and run off into a brand new narrative.

I don’t know what I’m talking about, just thinking out loud.

(Hmm. David, have you considered Gwen Stacey’s death as a version of the world-healing myth, repairing and cleansing a broken world and returning to a primal state of purity?)

The mummudrai of Charles Xavier

New X-Men: Imperial brings to my mind a certain kind of superhero story that uses a narrative structure of utter simplicity:

  1. Bad thing X is represented by an evil monster.
  2. The heroes fight the evil monster and defeat it.
  3. The theme of the narrative is, “X is bad.” You can add nuances to the theme depending on which heroes are in the story. For Captain America, “X is bad, but we can defeat it with patriotism.” For a team book, “X is bad, but we can defeat it by working together.”

You see it a lot in PSA comics. Daredevil fights Vapora the Gas Leak Metaphor, stuff like that. X-Men of course provides a famous example: Sentinels a metaphor of institutionalized bigotry, ooh.

Now, in Imperial, Cassandra Nova, the mummudrai, is Charles Xavier’s dark half. It tries to destroy Charles’s dream, tries to kill him and his X-Men, forces mutant-human relations into a crisis state by destroying Genosha and putting the X-Men’s school into the public eye (hoping, I suppose, to start a war between mutants and humans). Charles and Cassandra are psychically linked—does Cassandra’s forcing Charles to out himself suggest a hypocrisy Charles sees in his own method, his refusal to publicly acknowledge and take responsibility for his mutant status? Cassandra punishing Charles for his cowardice? The mummudrai metaphor even incorporates the classic Sentinel metaphor, first as Cassandra sends her army on its genocidal mission in Genosha and then as it infects the X-Men with nano-sentinel germs.

The mummudrai’s stategy is to point out all the failings and stupities and pathetic flaws of her opponents, demolish their self-esteem until they’re too weak to fight back. With Charles, she actually embodies and seeks to bring about his failures. So the mummudrai is Charles’s dark half—not so much his “evil” or “immoral” half as his failed half, the self-destructive part of him that would give in to his self-perceived flaws and accept (welcome) defeat. And that’s bad. But we can defeat it by working together.

OK, remember my previous writing about political metaphors in New X-Men and about narrationy themes in New X-Men:

New X-Men is about characters attempting to create themselves by creating narratives, and it’s about characters losing control of those narratives.

I think my reading of Imperial fits that, don’t you? But then Imperial is this crazy superhero story with an absurd and simplistic metaphor, which is not necessarily at the level of sophisticated writing one would expect from Grant Morrison (it’s certainly not the level of sophistication I was expecting after reading all the praise people heap on the book). Why did Morrison write this? Rose suggested one answer:

…so is it showing that meaning and metaphor can still arise from something so broken and ugly?

I don’t think I’d use the phrase “broken and ugly.” Maybe I’d say, “It’s showing that meaning and metaphor can still arise from those silly little awkward stories about Superman fighting Smoko the Cigarette Monster or whatever, stories that are often dismissed as irredeemable crap written by hacks who didn’t care. Maybe not especially entertaining (in all senses of the word!) meaning, but meaning nontheless.” In fact, I will say just that! Right now:

It’s showing that meaning and metaphor can still arise from those silly little awkward stories about Superman fighting Smoko the Cigarette Monster or whatever, stories that are often dismissed as irredeemable crap written by hacks who didn’t care. Maybe not especially entertaining (in all senses of the word!) meaning, but meaning nontheless.

Now, this New Frontier…

Augie de Blieck Jr. in his Pipeline column on Comic Book Resources:

The issue reads like a storyboard to a feature film, and not just a comic book.

“Just” a comic book?

To clarify a bit, I’m questioning an implicit assumption I see here that New Frontier is better than “just” a comic book because of its apparent aesthetic association with movies, or at least with movie storyboards. I doubt Augie intended to suggest that movies are better than comics, but nevertheless I see in the subtext some ambivalence about the worth of comics compared with movies.


Eve Tushnet has written a good essay on Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Now I’m almost tempted to reread Watchmen… Her stuff on symmetrical patterns in the text is making me think of Jorge Luis Borges’s labyrinths—symmetrical patterns and labyrinths as metaphors for reality, reality as an unsolvable puzzle we are driven to solve.

I’d make the “two unsuccessful replacement gods” Eve mentioned a trio, adding Nixon, responsible for outlawing masked vigilantes (along with Keene of Keene Act fame, I suppose) and for coming dangerously close to starting a nuclear war with the Soviet Union for the sake of whatever American ideals still exist in the world of Watchmen. Not only masked vigilantes and big blue superguys threaten the world with their attempts to impose a moral meaning or pattern. Adrian Veidt, Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, Dan and Laurie, Nixon, all have an asymmetrical power relationship with the rest of the people in the world—I mean, they’re potentially better equipped than others to create and manipulate patterns of meaning in the world. Veidt and Nixon are especially similar, in that they both choose methods of acheiving their goals which kill millions of people.

New X-Men, hurrah

Sean Collins gives away tons of spoilers for the current New X-Men story. OK, New X-Men: Riot at Xavier’s was a neat revisionist take on classic X-Men political themes adapted to the pet themes of New X-Men. I was impressed with Grant Morrison pulling the soap-opera stuff together to address those themes in Murder at the Mansion. And with his managing to make Wolverine’s backstory (including even Origin!) fit into the ever-growing creation-of-self narrative. And now… Magneto, Phoenix, Apocalypse, future storylines, all the hoary old X-Men plots coming together into what I’m starting to be able to grasp as a coherent whole, and jesus christ. I think Sean says it all:

Wow. This is the kind of geeky, idea-intensive frisson that the best, most highly-detailed SFF can engender. I love love love it. More more more!

Damn it, why hasn’t Marvel published New Worlds Planet X in TPB form yet? (Yes, I’m evil and waiting for the trade. I might be more willing to buy New X-Men single issues if Marvel didn’t destroy the aesthetic of the work by sticking ads all over it.)

Thor is President Bush! Except more Nordic

Dirk Deppey links to this proposal for a Thor miniseries by former Crazy Twit At Marvel Bill Jemas.

Ooh, that would have been really bad! Like, as bad as that Superman (or whatever) comic where President Luthor was going to send the U.S. military to invade “Qurac.” Of course, both that story and Mr. Jemas’s proposed Thor story are political allegories—rather “thinly veiled” ones, as Mr. Jemas notes perceptively.

Last semester, I took a class on (post)modern fantastic literature and film. At one point, the professor proposed a (fairly half-baked) theory that a fantasy narrative is an allegory distorted/altered/transformed by the gravity of its fantastic world. What he meant was that every fantasy story begins its existence entirely on an “idea” level of reality before the author creates a concrete fantasy world which is a metaphorical mediation between the reader and the idea level of the story, and that the fantasy world is not a perfect cipher from which the reader must decode the idea-level meaning of the story, but a great complex beast which transforms the idea level from the author’s original “intent.” What most of the students thought he meant was that fantasy stories are allegorical ciphers and their job as readers was to decode the meaning. So these students (mostly English majors, who in my experience often seem to have no greater desire than to figure out what they think their English professors want to hear and then say it, much to the dismay of the professors) began dutifully decoding, coming up with, for example, the idea that in Wings of Desire, West Berlin symbolizes Heaven and East Berlin symbolizes Hell (because it has angels, so it must be a religious movie!). They latched onto the fact that China Miéville is a Marxist theorist and became convinced that Perdido Street Station is a Communist allegory and refused to accept repeated assurances that China Miéville in fact is not and never was a Communist. They briefly pondered whether the various fantastic species populating Miéville’s stories might have one-to-one correspondences to real-world races or ethnic groups, at which point the professor finally got fed up and told them to quit with the allegory.

Jemas’s Thor proposal reminds me of those students. When it comes to High Art vs. Low Art, there seems to be one community of readers who believe that the distinction between High and Low is that High Art is allegorical and Low Art has no meaning at all. Like, OK, Thor is just this dumb kids’ comic book, so we can make it meanginful and relevant by saying it’s about the inevitable failure of American foreign policy. Which is an attitude which puzzles me. I mean, isn’t that a bit cheap? If you want to write a story about American foreign policy, why not write a damn story about American foreign policy? What do you gain by turning into cartoony fantasy? A 10-year-old (well, a 10-year-old who keeps up with politics, anyway) can say, “Thor is America and this magical kingdom is Iraq and this big evil dragon is the bad things that happen to America when they mess with Iraq too much. Look, I wrote a story!” Introducing allegory doesn’t make your story relevant art. It makes it something a 10-year-old could write.

The problem is that the particular kind of allegory we’re talking about here, where the story elements are all symbols that have a transparent correlation to part of some abstract idea that the story is trying to communicate, is cheap and facile. It offers no insight into either the abstract idea or the symbols used to represent it. Thor’s mission to export his morality through foreign policy fails, so the United States’ attempt to export its morality through foreign policy is failing! Oh yeah, thanks, but I can figure that out from CNN. The failure of American foreign policy is not the root of the problem, it’s the result of deeper problems (this is assuming you think there’s a problem with American foreign policy in the first place, obviously). You want to use Thor to criticize American foreign policy, for christ’s sake don’t write just write about American foreign policy in disguise—think about it, decide what those deeper problems are, write about those. If you can’t be bothered to dig below the surface of your story, quit pretending you’re a brilliant auteur because you figured out a parallel between Thor’s superpowers and America’s military strength.

X-Men, Cyclops, love triangles

Big Sunny D responds to our X-Men blogging. What he says about recent developments in Cyclops’s soap-opera love triangle sound very good to me, and I think the connected Scott-Emma-Jean and Scott-Jean-Logan love-triangle plotting has been a central focus for the New X-Men themes I’m interested in. Right now I’m thinking: the Cassandra Nova storyarc plays with the themes in a crazy overwrought fantasy metaphor, New X-Men: Riot at Xavier’s does them as a revisionist critique of the X-Men political metaphor, the Weapon Plus stuff does them as a story about turning control of your self over to a higher power. And the love triangles revolving around Scott’s pathetic motionlessness is of course doing them as good old-fashioned X-Men soap opera. Moreover, I read the soap-opera plotting as metacriticism, about the X-Men property itself losing control of its narrative in decades of directionless subplotting muck.

“It must be getting rather tedious, Scott dear. These reruns of your grief.” That’s a great line, hinting at that metacriticism. Is Scott’s absurd love life a microcosm of the X-Men, endlessly repeating old stories, the Dark Phoenix Saga, Days of Future Past, Days of Apocalypse, ad absurdum? Morrison’s New X-Men has been hailed (and derided) as the first truly new thing to happen to the X-Men in a long time, but look what we get: Phoenix. Soap opera. A now-he’s-dead-now-he’s-not plot twist with Magneto. An apocalyptic-future storyline. Ooh hoo, the newness. Is what’s new a sense of playfulness about the way the stories are told? I hasten to note that New X-Men is practically the first X-Men comic I’ve ever read, but I get the impression (from, e.g. J.W. Hastings’s post on the X-Men) that the X-Men have been rather a serious and grim bunch for quite a while. The Stan Lee/Jack Kirby X-Men issues I’ve read are not surprisingly very fun and playful, so the fun and playfulness of New X-Men isn’t so new, but it certainly seems to be a change. Even when bogged down in the awful art and nonsensical mysticism of the Cassandra Nova story, Grant Morrison manages to keep his words both light and serious, joking around (”You’re my favorite super hero, Scott,” one of my favorite lines) and suggesting some pretty heavy thematic stuff below the surface, which kept me going without too much effort even as I gnashed my teeth at hideously drawn characters babbling about evil psychic twins built out of Charles’s spare body cells.

I’m not as confident with thinking and talking about the art as I am the writing, but I have some vague ideas about it. I think one thing Frank Quitely manages to do is capture Morrison’s sense of energy and fun. And there’s something about his tiny stick-figurish Emma and Jean that’s both creepy and endearing, I don’t know what.

I’m getting really interested in the Cassandra Nova stuff in preparation for Cassandra returning in Here Comes Tomorrow. My goal for this weekend is to reread the first couple TPBs and blog my thoughts on them. I also need to think more on the evolution of the X-Men concept over the decades, which is going to require an expedition in search of early-Claremont-era stuff, probably some Essential X-Men and maybe the Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past if I see them.

More X-Men Metaphors: Role Models and Leadership

In talking with Steven about his current fascination with the X-Men, I ended up rereading Eve’s post about why she likes them. One paragraph in particular has stuck with me:

If you read “X-Men” as a book about leadership, you won’t be disappointed–and leadership is something I could think about all day. It’s an endlessly fascinating topic to me, since I was pretty much forced into a leadership role I wasn’t suited for, and had to figure out how to make it mine. I think I did. I’ve seen my debating society hijack a lot of lives, and so I’ll read anything that helps me understand how it exists and how its particular brand of alienated, intense, political personal leadership works. “X-Men” resonated.

In college, before Steven read X-books, the people I talked to about them were all, like me, seriously overloaded with intellectually rigorous activist leadership responsibilities. This was obviously partly a function of the nature of my peer group — although I’m including professors and administrators in it too — that we readers were all women with heavy leadership burdens. I don’t remember ever talking about whether we read as a sort of cheap therapy, but I think we all intuitively connected with a lot of the dynamics and personal setbacks the team endured.

Back then, I was falling too deeply into metaphors, dealing with my life by partitioning it into more manageable fictional pieces. I could cry for Betty Banner because I couldn’t enunciate my own pain. I could understand X-Men problems and didn’t always think about how they weren’t such a stretch from my own seemingly endless inability to get my fellow executive board members in the same room or to make people keep their phones on when on-call for hotline duty. I wonder now if they were doing the same thing, relaxing with the X-Men in the same way we’d decompress with each other, with people who understand and care. It wasn’t escapist fiction, because even the happy “endings” are never satisfying or complete, but it was certainly encouraging to see the successes the team has, though it was easier (at least for me) to identify with the setbacks.

In talking about geek pride and alienated teenagers, maybe I didn’t stress enough the power of hope, that no matter how different from “normal” you may feel, you can, through much effort, be a profitable member of a society you shape. Part of the continuing theme of the X-books, as I read them, has been an effort to get the reader to identify with the X-Men, but not without recognizing the humanity and integrity of the groups with whom they have conflict. As someone who spent a lot of time working toward a little legacy of change on the campus, I’d be encouraged to think this was something incoming freshmen were thinking about, issues of mutual respect and philosophy of leadership and responsibility and modes of social change. If you can get that from X-Men, that’s as good a place as any.

New X-Men: Liberal Interventionism

[The Three-In-One sez] In our dreams we have seen a new Dark Age. Seen all history set back by a thousand years of ignorance and war. Seen, worse than all these, a terrible flaw at the heart of things. How did this happen so quickly?

[Wolverine sez] I guess no one thought Rome could fall, either… those guys had a postal service that could deliver mail across 170 miles in one day. They had indoor plumbing, the women were free, they had art and science and a communications network that spanned the civilized world.

Within a hundred years, it was all debris and lice.

Sometimes ya gotta take care of what you got. (New X-Men #151)

Then Sean Collins sez:

Now, I may just be desperate to find a fellow liberal-interventionist defender of civilization against theocratic fascism and nihilist terrorism out there in the great big wide world of funnybooks, but what alternate explanation for this passage by Grant Morrison can you offer?

Well, I haven’t read this particular issue of New X-Men yet, but I can think of a few alternate readings of the passage other than as criticism of moral complacency in the face of “theocratic fascism” and “nihilist terrorism.” E.g., as criticism of the moral complacency of liberal-interventionist defenders of “civilization” who’ve decided they’ve got this “civilization” thing down better than so-called “theocratic fascists” and “nihilist terrorists.” Or even better, you could read it as a criticism of moral complacency just in general.

(N.B. You needn’t read this as a critique of Sean’s politics, which I don’t know a lot about since I’ve not read many of his blogging on politics. As far as I know Sean is a perfectly non-complacent liberal-interventionist defender of civilization, self-aware and capable of self-criticism.)

Freudian readings of Spider-Man

Spider-Man is standing on Mary Jane’s head. And Mary Jane looks a lot like May from Trouble, doesn’t she? Didn’t it turn out in Trouble that Aunt May is Peter Parker’s real mom? Now here’s Mary Jane looking exactly like the young Aunt May, and standing right next to Aunt May! This is clearly a subtle reference to the buried Oedipal subtext of Spider-Man.

Superheroes in neverending serial publication have a big problem with Oedipal trajectories—they can’t complete them! Unless they stop being profitable and get a resolution, I guess. Poor Peter Parker got married and still couldn’t complete his Oedipal trajectory (if he’d completed it, he would have settled down and quit trying to save the world all the time—he’d just live with Mary Jane and have babies and grown-up stuff). Can’t complete his Oedipal trajectory and saddled with a wife—it’s tragic!

Actually, reading serial superhero comics in terms of the Oedipal trajectory would probably be very interesting.