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Category: Media

“It must be getting rather tedious, Scott dear.”

Alasdair Watson’s latest Camera Obscura editorial on Ninth Art has got me thinking. Watson claims the problem with the X-books right now is their slavish devotion to the old Chris Claremont soap-opera style of storytelling. I think that is only a symptom of the larger problem at Marvel, which is that the people in charge can’t seem to decide what the purpose of their comics-publishing business is. They seem to be wavering between two options:

  1. Publish worthwhile and entertaining books, attempting to attract a new customer base while continuing to support their current one.
  2. Publish innocuous, disposable crap that won’t scare away Hollywood studios or offend the few parents whose children read comics, which Marvel’s ever-dwindling customer base will keeping purchasing long enough to keep them in business until they establish their 15 movie franchises and can afford to stop publishing books.

Now, let’s see about New X-Men here. Watson notes that the narrative relies on a lot of X-Men history. With the usual caveat that I still haven’t read New X-Men: Planet X or any of New X-Men: Here Comes Tomorrow, I’m convinced that one of New X-Men’s goals is to kill the soap opera and open the way for the X-Men to have new stories. One of my favorite things about the book is the way Grant Morrison makes the soap opera meaningful, finding the elements that resonate with Morrison’s conception of the X-Men and foregrounding them. My next post in my epic New X-Men series will probably focus on the book’s use of the soap-opera relationships, but for now: as you know if you’ve read my other stuff on the X-Men, as far as I’m concerned New X-Men has little if anything to do with “oppressed minority” metaphors. This passage from an interview with Grant Morrison at Comic Book Resources gets at what engages me:

In my stories, the mutants no longer need to achieve “acceptance.” Humanity is on the verge of extinction and the mutants are preparing to inherit the Earth. I prefer not to use mutation exclusively as a metaphor for race or gender as has been the case in the past, and I’m more interested in the connection between the “hated and feared” mutants and our own “hated and feared” children - the inheritors of the future. For me, the real war, particularly at the moment, is between children and adults and the X-Men dramatizes this eternal clash of new ideas with old traditions.

The “eternal clash of new ideas with old traditions” works on multiple levels in New X-Men, and one of those levels is the backward-looking attitude that keeps Claremont writing X-books vs. Morrison’s forward-looking narrative.

But none of this metafictional criticism on Morrison’s part comes to much when you get this in the Marvel solicitations:

NEW X-MEN #155 & 156
Covers & pencils by SALVADOR LARROCA
“BRIGHT NEW MOURNING” pts. 1 & 2 (of 2)—In the aftermath of Magneto’s rampage upon NYC and the Xavier Institute, Cyclops & Emma find themselves at a crossroads. Should the school be rebuilt? Should they continue on as X-Men? And how will it affect their blossoming relationship?
32 PGS. (each)/MARVEL PSR…$2.25 (each)
Issue #155 UPC: 5960601772-15511; #156: 5960601772-15611

Chuck Austen’s name there sends a clear message from Marvel: “We’re not paying attention to our books. We don’t care.” Here’s New X-Men, same as the old X-Men. (For fun stories about just how much Marvel cares, see Rich Johnston’s interview of Ethan Van Sciver.)

I’m glad Morrison is leaving the X-Men behind and going to DC. I’m not as familiar with DC’s superhero comics as I am with Marvel’s, but at any rate, as much as I’m enjoying New X-Men, more creator-owned books from Vertigo will no doubt be more satisfying—for me, at least. The good, innovative, entertaining things about New X-Men will only be strengthened in comparison with the inevitable return to status quo.

Joan of Arcadia, Alternative Superhero

There is, as ever, a lot of talk about superheroes these days. From Jim Henley’s dead-on analysis of superhero books as a literature of ethics to the discussions on reading habits prompted by John Jakala, Why just superheroes? and Why not just superheroes?, which don’t quite amount to the same thing. David Fiore has been talking nonstop about Watchmen and superheroics. Steven has our copy of Watchmen, so there’s no danger of my entering that critical community now. In fact, I’d been feeling sort of alienated from superheroes and comics in general lately, listless, not getting excited about what the characters I like (or hate) might be doing. And I’m guilty as hell of waiting for the trade, but not with urgent anticipation, but with a sort of quiet resignation, that I might as well read it eventually. This would all be less of a problem (or really no problem at all) if I hadn’t signed on to what was supposed to be in large part a comics blog, and then contributed basically no comics content of note. Then I realized that I’m still getting my superhero fix, but in another medium. Folks, don’t laugh, but I’m watching Joan of Arcadia.

This is the first tv show I’ve ever followed, with the possible exception of a deeply felt fling with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I didn’t grow up with a tv, and so it’s taken me a long time to even be able to follow and appreciate television conventions. So somehow this fall I ended up watching a show about the family of a well-off and lovely teenaged girl who get messages from God. Joan is 16, new in town, not sure how she wants to fit in at school, basically realistically awkward until God starts appearing to her in the guise of people she’d pass every day and giving her advice and assignments. Joan’s father, Will, has just been hired as the chief of police in Arcadia, an awfully corrupt fictional city, and is working hard to clean it up, which pretty much precludes making any friends. Joan’s mother, Helen, got a nebulous job at the high school office, so she’s around a lot. Joan’s older brother Kevin had been a star athlete in high school until he was paralyzed at the waist after a car accident. The move to Arcadia is supposed to encourage him to pursue independence. Then there’s Joan’s oft-ignored slightly younger brother, Luke, a science prodigy who is slowly becoming more than just a nerd stereotype. Luke initially made friends with Friedman, a creepy misogynist geek, but thankfully is not going in for such stupidity. Joan’s friends are Adam, a confused artist everyone assumes is a stoner, and Grace, whom Steven calls “The Junior Radical”, a rabble-rousing rabbi’s daughter who’s ostensibly the school lesbian.

So how is this a superhero story and not just a standard family/high school drama? That’s where God comes in. I haven’t seen the first episodes, so I don’t know how this is described in the context of the show, but basically each episode involves God giving Joan an “assignment” (Joan’s word) that somehow causes a reaction she didn’t anticipate, often with the same metaphor being played out in subplots about the family. So the basic setup is that Joan has some knowledge about what sh’es supposed to do and has a secret that keeps her different from other people, insight she can’t share. She has power that her peers don’t (maybe - more on this later) and has to decide how she’s going to use it.

I’ve always thought of the Spidey mantra “with great power comes great responsibility” as part of a gnomic triptych with “where much is given much is expected” and “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” They’re disparate sources with a shared message about how to internalize guilt and expectations. I’m not quite sure what power-based reading of this David is rejecting, since I don’t see how there can be an escape from power relationships, but he seems right that “[e]very origin (or “conversion”) story renders the protagonist entirely responsible for him/herself.” I don’t know who’s responsible for the rest of us in this view, since that’s what I think of as the human condition, but this is what happens to Joan. Oh, sure, she can ask God for questions and advice, but God, who’s apparently spent millennia coming up with snarky responses to The Big Questions, wants her to figure things out for herself. God is a built-in support system of sorts, but Joan can’t summon God; it’s nothing she can count on. Similarly, the X-Men can decompress back at the mansion and practice all they want, but whatever happens in the field is a matter of individual choice and chance. I suppose this is true of the sex crimes unit in SVU, for that matter, and I think that’s what attracts me about all the stories, principled individualism. All of these characters have an inner drive and that’s what matters more than maxims about power and what we owe to each other.

Actually, the inwardness is where I think Joan works best as a show. I don’t believe that God is hanging out with Maryland teens, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that I don’t think a radioactive spiderbite would make me superhuman. Taking these stories on their own terms, they are strong metaphors about being a young person and stronger because the metaphorical distance allows plenty of room for identification. I don’t know if people who do think God interacts with them daily (or could, at least) watch or approve of this show, but that’s a different issue. What matters is that mild-mannered Joan Girardi wants to have friends and understand who she is, but most of all she wants to do The Right Thing, and it’s that that gets her into trouble. Because the visits from God aren’t something she can explain to others, she doesn’t have much to fall back on when things go wrong, as they often do. But because she doesn’t question the rightness of her intents, she has an opportunity to analyze herself and her actions and understand herself better, and this ultimately is God’s goal. Well, God has other goals, which basically involve remembering that there’s more to life than being a self-absorbed teenager and that small actions can have major consequences.

Basically, as I recall it, this is what much of growing up was about, trying to learn to balance others’ needs against your own wants and trying to figure out what your wants even are. So Joan of Arcadia is a story about being a teenager (or a parent or an early-20s paraplegic) and trying to figure out what that means in relation to the world. It’s because it depends on the God conceit and the ripple metaphors in the related stories that it’s more than just a story about somebody being a teenager, etc. It’s both “universal” and personal, insightful without being (overly, so far!) didactic. And in comics terms, there’s good, clear art and sharp, snappy writing. Not to mention believable, realistic anatomy!

So why do I watch this and not explicit superhero shows like Smallville or Mutant X or the unlamented Birds of Prey? Well, in part because I haven’t given them a chance, but that’s not entirely true. I’ve seen maybe 10 minutes total of the last two, and that was more than enough to convince me never to watch again. Silly, campy writing! I like Joan because of the things extraneous to the superhero story. I like female protagonists, though not exclusively. I always have a soft spot for nerds, and Luke is blooming into a fun character who’s wiser and more self-aware than he initially seemed. Grace is wonderful, half-believing the politics she publicly won’t compromise, and I am completely thrilled that the writers for the show don’t feel a need to make her sexual orientation clear. Whether politicized or not, sexual ambiguity and identity are big teen issues and big issues in general, and this is handled in a way that works for me, although people who were hoping for something to watch after 7th Heaven would probably not approve. And an early episode even addresses sexual assault, which is a deal-breaker issue for me, in a lucid and moving way. The parents struggle lovingly with their relationship and clash over religion and how to deal with their children. And there are issues of civic and family responsibility and cliquishness and disability and all sorts of things that don’t show up on mainstream shows. Then again, I don’t watch mainstream shows, so maybe they do. I’d like to think I’m wrong, but I think they’re like the majority of superhero comics, full of almost-caricatures and fights and breasts and ridiculous outfits and perhaps occasional patches of good writing. In both media, I’m glad there are alternatives to this. And I’m even more glad that there are plenty of things I enjoy outside of comics and tv, but it’s good to find things that I like.

Updates on Me Me Me!

Quickly, for those who care, I’ve got small and somewhat inadequate reviews of the movie I Capture the Castle and the Dark Horse collection AutobioGraphix in the new issue of Sequential Tart. I liked both.

Also, I didn’t weigh in on the fascinating issue of Catwoman underwear, which Graeme and others discussed a week or so ago. Target seems to stock Superman (Supergirl?) underwear, but I haven’t seen other comics properties in women’s grundoons. I searched for a scary Hulk face, but to no avail. Of course, maybe that wouldn’t have sold well to people who weren’t me. But the boys got them! Then again, I’m still annoyed the Daredevil boxers didn’t have the proper slogan: HERE COMES… DAREDEVIL, THE MAN WITHOUT FEAR. I’d have bought those indeed!

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.

Iliad Super-Lite

I don’t think there’s anything I could add to this, so I merely note that my friend Jeffrey has managed to sum up the good old fall-of-Troy story in limericks. I’m impressed.

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.)

The Moon Lord

I promised an update on sexual politics and more in the now tragically out-of-printThe Moon Lord. If you want a glimpse of the writing style, Amazon offers a little excerpt, which should whet your appetite for more, or not, as the case may be. Neither of the reviews I found give the names of minor characters, so I’ll just make them up as needed. So with that out of the way, I’m sure we’re all ready for a romp through a medieval romance.

Now, despite the introduction you may have read about the brave chevalier Tancred de Vierzon and his runins with Richard the Lionheart, it isn’t really his story. Well, it is, but it’s more importantly the story of Rosamund Bourton, mistress of Wynnsef castle. With her ne’er-do-well older brother away on the crusades, Rosamund is capably managing the household, though a fat, ugly, old, wealthy neighbor is trying to gain control of the manor and its mistress. His plans are foiled when Tancred and his troups, back from the crusade, overtake Wynnsef and claim it for themselves. Now things really get intersting. Rosamund, recognizing Tancred by his special symbols (Does this tie into the big Superhero Discussions) and his crescent-shaped scar, realizes she and the women of her household could be in for a rough time. So, in a brilliant flash of anachronistic insight, she calls upon Tancred’s well-known honor and makes him swear that he and his men will abide by what is basically The Antioch College Sexual Consent Code. No man will engage in any sexual activity whatsoever with any female in the household without first getting her explicit verbal consent, and there’s not to be any trickery with getting women drunk or anything like that, because that doesn’t count. The men grudgingly agree and take full control of the castle.

At this point, the plot boils down to a romantic comedy, in which Rosamund learns that this horribly vain and useless Tancred has actually occupied the castle to spite her brother, who had shown himself to be a scoundrel, not exactly news to her, by engaging in some traitorous act I’ve now forgotten, which was news indeed. Now Rosamund finds herself falling for the honorable Tancred in earnest, but he’s just too darned honorable! When she gives him his bath, he won’t allow anything that might give the impression of impropriety to go on, or when it seems he might, they get rudely interrupted. When she sneaks into his room to confront him, he has some Oriental herbs burning to ease his slumbers, and he refuses to take advantage of her in her inebriated state, having inhaled the toxic fumes, despite her repeated pleas that he do so. And Tancred, who originally took Wynnsef to anger Rosamund’s brother, finds Rosamund to be so honest and capable that he can’t help but fall in love with her completely. However, Tancred doesn’t think he’s good enough for such a beautiful and pure lady, because (at least as I recall) he had been tortured and molested by the Saracens who left the scar on his cheek.

Meanwhile, her best friend, whom I’ll call Elizabeth, a novice in a local convent, comes to visit and eventually falls for Tancred’s right-hand man, Mehmet or something like that, who happens to be a Saracen. Eventually Elizabeth gets excused from being a nun by her chipper Mother Superior and is able to get on a horse heading east with her beloved, off to start a multiethnic family. There are several more twists in the Tancred/Rosamund story, which does manage to reach its logical culmination, since this is a romance novel. But then Tancred is driven away by something or other. And Rosamund’s land is going to be repossessed and she’ll be married off to the hideous neighbor, but at the last minute there’s something very exciting that happens instead, and I won’t tell you because I don’t want to ruin the surprise. And what a surprise it is! Ok, not really. It’s a happily-ever-after.

What fascinated me about this book, though, was what seemed like fairly radical content under its surface. I haven’t read enough romance novels to make any kind of informed comparison, but it seemed more overtly political than the books my classmates chose (except maybe the one about the lawyer for the evil land-grabbing corporation who fell in love with the lawyer who wanted to save the lakefront property as a bird preserve). I assume, like superhero comics, there’s a major aspect of wish-fulfillment going on here, and so I wonder if the author was trying to make an explicit point about issues of full consent and the like. And while the middle American readers might not be keen on multiracial couples (or maybe they are, which would be a fine thing in my eyes) they don’t seem to mind love matches between Franks and Musselmen (to use the book’s term) or, according to classmates, Apache and white settlers. If this were a realistic modern story of a woman with strict rules about sex and more pressure from her family than she wants (because Rosamund is more than happy to share the task of running the castle with the right man) who falls in love with a rough but sensitive man of his word who’s a troubled survivor of sexual abuse, I’m not sure whether it would find as many readers. Add in the best friend finding bliss in a relationship her society wouldn’t condone, and we’ve got something pretty much unlike what I’d expected from a romance novel.

The book was not without flaws, several of which I’ve already mentioned. I wasn’t really comfortable with the rape-fantasy aspects of it, although they were perhaps mitigated by the elaborate consent structure. I’m not sure what message to take away from that, that it’s good to have such structures in place but that it’s still nearly impossible for a woman to say “yes” when she means “yes” or what? And then there’s what seemed to me like a lack of historicity. I don’t like my historical stories to be so pristine and easy, although this one clearly had at least some reasearch feeding it. The “Saracens,” both good guys and bad guys, didn’t seem to get beyond cliches, but I suppose they’re not as cliched as the handsome, principled swordsman with a heart of gold. Still, since I had to read a romance novel, I think I made a good choice. It certainly seemed better once I realized the promiscuous characters in several different modern-setting books my classmates chose were named Rose. Usually they save a name like that for alcoholics and suicides! Anyway, those are the bones of it, and anyone who’s interested can read more. I’m almost tempted to try to dredge it up again, but I don’t think I’ll make any special effort. Once may have been enough.