skip to content or skip to search form

Archive: February 2004

“This will be a good life… Good enough.”

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns seems particularly fascinated with superheroes and supervillains whose psychological origins lie in formative traumatic events. Batman of course was born in the injustice of Bruce Wayne losing both his parents to murder. Two-Face was born as acid splashed across Harvey Dent’s face turned his face into a physical manifestation of “good vs. evil.” His “cure” apparently only dooms him, his face fixed but his fortune ruined, both sides of his infamous coin marred. Two-Face’s loss of his human half foreshadows Batman’s loss of his Bruce Wayne secret identity. It’s not a good sign when you look into your supervillain enemy’s face and see a reflection.

The Joker doesn’t even have an origin, nor a name other than “Joker.” Some Web sites I found (The Dark Knight, Carnival of Chaos, “Madness in Gotham” on Kuro5shin) indicate common elements in their versions of his origin story—a failed career as a comedian, a dead wife and children, a fall into a vat of acid—but as near as I can tell these are all inventions of the Joker. At any rate, he has no origin and no name in DKR as Batman and Two-Face do, he hardly even has a personality beyond his love for Batman and his love of killing.

Bruce Wayne is driven to seek justice by the murder of his parents, Harvey Dent is equally driven to injustice by his horrible scarring. The man who killed Bruce’s parents had a motivation—”He was sick and guilty over what he did. All he wanted was money” (p. 14). Then Bruce “was was naive enough to think him the lowest sort of man” (p. 14), but now, well, now we’ve got the Mutant Gang, and why do they kill? They have a quota! In a way that’s worse than anything, because at least Bruce’s parents’ murderer wanted money, and at least the Joker’s murders are an act of passion, his own way of showing his love for Batman.

So the Mutant Gang. These poor jerks, their Mutant Leader likes to talk big—”Don’t call us criminals. We are the law. We are the future” (p. 44)—but there’s just something missing. It’s that thing with assigning murder quotas. Come on, guys, where’s the love, where’s the passion for your criminal careers? The Mutant Leader wants to be Batman’s archenemy, but he just doesn’t get it. He thinks it’s all about enacting power struggles through violence, and meanwhile Batman and Two-Face and the Joker are off in David Fiore Transcendentalist superhero land. Batman’s struggle with the Mutant Leader is played out in testosterone-drenched macho mudwrestling. When he acquiesces to the Mutant Leader’s “rules” for fighting, he’s nearly killed, but when he retakes control of the conflict he takes down the Mutant Leader effortlessly, almost with superhuman ease, considering he’s, what, 50 or 60 years old?

Oh, but the Joker and Batman, that’s a struggle between equals. Do supervillains have to take the Rorschach test? If they do, the Joker certainly failed—he hasn’t just lost his human identity, it doesn’t even exist as memory or history. He’s become a dark laughing god of death or injustice, haunting Gotham. Almost the opposite of Batman, but not quite, since Batman still has Bruce. In DKR, the conflict between Batman and the Joker comes to crisis and must be resolved, but it isn’t Batman who resolves it. As I said in my last DKR post, Batman can’t bring himself to kill the Joker, I suppose because Batman thinks he needs the super-injustice of the Joker to juxtapose with his own super-justice to make sense of the world.

I also said that Bruce Wayne/Batman is a weakling, but that’s really unfair, isn’t it? His real problem is that he can’t get away from the weight of his psychological origin. (The Joker certainly has managed that.) To take one of David Fiore’s favorite superheroes as an analytical foil to Batman: Spider-Man has a psychological origin similar to Batman’s, involving the murder of a parent figure. Peter Parker, though, gets a lesson out of his Uncle Ben’s murder—with great power comes great responsibility!—which he can internalize and use as a moral guiding principle. The murders of Bruce Wayne’s parents are entirely negative—they show young Bruce that the world is an unjust place, and he must invent Batman to fill the moral void he’s discovered in the world. How much bleaker is Batman’s story! Bleaker still, Batman isn’t allowed to internalize. Decades after his origin, in DKR, he’s still driven obsessively by his parents’ murders. It’s not any current injustices in the world which inspire the return of the Batman, but The Mark of Zorro, triggering a flashback to Batman’s formative trauma. He just can’t get away from it! Except, listen to his final lines in the book:

It begins here—an army—to bring sense to a world plagued by worse than thieves and murderers… This will be a good life… Good enough.

Happy day for Batman! That sure sounds to me like he’s finally happy, finally let go of his obsessions, ready to pursue justice for its own sake. And to reach this point, he only had to fail the Rorschach test, conquer Gotham City (with the help of a nuclear explosion and some former Mutant Gang members), fake his own death, blow up Wayne Manor, give Alfred a heart attack… Well, we are in the realm of grim ‘n’ gritty, aren’t we?

(Totally unrelated to anything else: Turn to page 102, see the third tv panel, the lawyer talking about the Mutant Leader. That red hair, those dark glasses… Could it be? A cameo appearance by Matthew Murdock!)

“Bb… Bbbat… Batman. Darling.”

LB, in the comments section of my previous post on Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, notes that Superman is a necessary figure in any potency-based reading of DKR. I think I’ve covered some of this stuff already, so I’ll be brief here. Superman is an odd fellow here—probably the strongest guy on the planet, but one of the weakest characters in the book. He’s sided with the politicians, and we’ve seen how effective they are. If Batman stands up for super-justice, Superman is all about super-politics, super-capitulation to the parents’ groups and Senate subcommittees leading the movement to outlaw superheroes, and that makes Superman so hopelessly impotent that he ends up actually helping set up two of Batman’s moments of greatest triumph. He can’t stop the Soviet missile (of course not—the missile is the ultimate sign of politics’ defeat), and so Batman gets an opportunity to extend his iron fist of justice over Gotham. Then Superman unwittingly plays a role in Bruce Wayne’s death and Batman’s apotheosis.

Jesus, you know, this book seems about the most crashingly unsubtle thing I’ve ever read. I think Dave Intermittent in a post about Frank Miller’s aesthetic techniques gets at why:

…the genius of Frank Miller is that he at once strips characters to their essence and then inflates that essence until it fills the whole world… Miller boiled Batman down to his essence; an obsessive, calculated need for violent justice. And then he took this essence and juiced it up into a narrative juggernaut.

Hmm, hmm. Well, Batman is certainly not a subtle character—well, he’s hardly a character at all by the end, more a super-symbol of justice. What about Bruce Wayne, though? I’ve hardly mentioned that name in these posts, and it’s time for him to make his appearance. I was just talking about this with Rose on AIM, and I’m just going to quote her now because she said it all so well:

Who made him a symbol of super-justice? Can he be a symbol and a man? That’s the Big Martyr question, and I think Batman’s too frightened to answer it. He’s only a symbol because he can’t deal with anything and would rather be a big batimage in the sky than be a man. Even when he upbraids Superman for basically the same thing, he’s guiltyguiltyguilty. At the end, is he being Batman on his own terms, or is he just being eaten by the symbol?

Just think of that… Bruce Wayne eaten by his own symbol! Now that’s horrific. Inevitable, really—after all, Batman’s origin lies in that day young Bruce fell into a cave and came face to face with some monster bat, “…the fiercest survivor—the purest warrior… glaring, hating… claiming me as his own” (p. 19). Throughout the story, Bruce has visions of that bat, its mouth gaping and filled with flame, ready to devour him. And here’s something really scary: turn to page 156, see the sixth panel? The Joker’s corpse, surrounded by fire, burnt to a black sillhouette, mouth gaping and filled with flame.

I think my reading here is returning to a theme that runs through a lot of the textual analysis you’ll find here on Peiratikos: “creation of self through narrative”. How’s it work? Let’s return to a quote I pulled from David Fiore’s Watchmen blogging. David said, what if a superhero’s superheroic “adventure consumed his entire life? … [Peter] Parker’s activities as Spider-Man enable him to lead a more genuine life–but those activities themselves are most emphatically not ‘life’… it’s not Peter’s ‘true self’ unleashed. And if he got trapped in that condition, he wouldn’t be a ‘free spirit’, he’d be more like a wrathful ghost.” I said in my first DKR post that this is what happens to Batman, but of course I should have said that this is what happens to Bruce.

Bruce, a little boy scarred by the murders of both his parents right in front of him, invents Batman to make sense of the world: there is Justice, which is Batman, and the only crime is to be unjust. He creates Batman to make sense of the world, but of course the world doesn’t cooperate, and so Bruce/Batman finds others like him, hiding behind masks, to help him make sense of the world. Two-Face, the Joker. Mere criminals aren’t enough for Batman—a symbol of super-justice needs symbols of super-injustice. The Joker has far more insight into his and Batman’s relationship than Batman does. His vision of their relationship has poetry:

They could put me in a helicopter and fly me up into the air and line up the bodies head to toe on the ground in delightful geometric patterns like an endless June Taylor dancers routine—and it would never be enough. No, I don’t keep count. But you do. And I love you for it.

Batman meets his greatest defeat in DKR when he can’t bring himself to kill the Joker. After all, the Joker is Batman’s reason for existence. This is where Dr. Wolper’s psychoanalysis of Batman as a “social disease” almost gets it right, but misses the point—Harvey Dent and the Joker may well be weak-willed, but the real weakling here is Bruce Wayne.

News item: Texas most repressed state in Union

Texas mom faces trial for selling sex toys.

Texas law allows for the sale of sexual toys as long as they are billed as novelties, BeAnn Sisemore, a Fort Worth attorney representing Webb, told the Houston Chronicle before a gag order was issued by the judge presiding over the case. But when a person markets sex toys in a direct manner that shows their actual role in sex, then that person is subject to obscenity charges, she told the newspaper.

Congratulations, Texas, you win the prize for most bizarre law inspired by sexually repressed Christians. Can we all please just accept that some people actually have healthy attitudes toward sex and stop trying to prosecute people for having fun?

Sisemore plans to file a federal lawsuit to get insane obscenity laws overturned, so hopefully some good will come of this.

“But ‘comic book’ doesn’t work for what we do these days.”

In reading the Mars Import interview with Craig Thompson I came across this description of the book’s subtitle:

MI: BLANKETS bears the subtitle, “an illustrated novel.” Is this your own personal entry in the what-the-heck-should-we-call-these-things” derby, or simply a marketing decision made with bookstore sales in mind, or both?

CT: Yeah, both. It DOES sound a bit pretentious, but “comic book” just doesn’t work for what we do these days. And graphic novel doesn’t either. Neither does “illustrated novel”. But at least it’s a raw enough term that it sparks a reader’s curiosity, rather than polluting their preconceptions with images of super heroes and Garfield.

Ok, maybe I’m just being pedantic, but isn’t the important part that it’s a novel not that there are pictures inside? Anyone who picks it up sees the pictures. Blankets: A Novel would explain that it is, in fact, a cohesive story rather than, say, a chunk of collected monthly floppies from an ongoing series. When I bought The PowerBook it had the subtitle A Novel both to differentiate it from Jeanette Winterson’s nonfiction writings and to keep people from thinking it was some sort of laptop how-to. I’m not sure why the standard “graphic novel” doesn’t work for Thompson, but it seems to me that an illustrated novel is quite a different thing, and far from a “raw” concept or term. I guess I just don’t see why, when something’s being put in the graphic novels section and is clearly full of sequential art, it’s important to comment on the cover that it’s got words and pictures. It seems the more pertinent information is what the story content is, rather than its pictorial context. What am I not seeing?

“The Commissioner is an excellent cop—but, I think, a poor judge of character.”


Pinocchio helped me figure out something about Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Weird, huh?

See, I just watched Pinocchio (Walt Disney’s version) for a film theory class I’m taking this semester. In the course of a discussion on the class’s message board, I said:

Talking animals show up at crises in Pinocchio’s narrative. Jiminy Cricket is the first character Pinocchio meets after the Blue Fairy, and of course is present for Pinocchio’s first lesson about conscience and morality. The fox and the cat arrive to escort Pinocchio into his acting career and later to Pleasure Island. Even the poor donkey boys serve a similar function, as the appearance of Pinocchio’s donkey ears and tail come at the moment when he finally starts to get the picture–being a bad boy is a bad idea! So making these characters talking animals distinguishes them clearly from the human characters and the non-talking animal characters, and also keeps them within the cartoon world of the movie–they’re not realistic like the Blue Fairy.

Then, just a few minutes ago, I was thinking about DKR, trying to decide what to write about tonight. Recall that last time I ended with a question: “If politicians and psychologists are impotent to judge or do anything about Batman, is there anybody who isn’t impotent?”

First of all, let’s deal with some liminally potent characters: Commissioners Jim Gordon and Ellen Yindel. Both eventually come to the same conclusion about Batman. In Commissioner Gordon’s words: “I realized I couldn’t judge it. It was too big. He was too big…” (p. 56) Commissioner Yindel later echoes: “No. No. He’s too big…” (p. 176) In admitting their inability to judge Batman, they are allowed to judge him. Note that both these characters are part of the political world, but apart from it. Gordon is a rogue, unafraid to ignore political expediences, forced from his job by politicians. Yindel sides with the politicians who want to get rid of Batman (at first, anyway), but unlike them she’s ready to take action.

Back to Pinocchio. I was trying to figure out what role the Joker and Harvey Dent play in DKR, and then… The talking animals, who appear in Pinocchio’s life as catalysts for crises in the narrative—that’s the Joker and Harvey Dent! Well, they’re not talking animals, no—but they have similar narrative roles, don’t they? Harvey Dent returns to a life of crime just before Batman comes out of retirement, the Joker just after. Batman’s encounter with Harvey brings up a problem for Batman that Dr. Wolper also brings up several times (not that it matters what Wolper thinks): as Wolper puts it, “Batman’s psychotic sublimative/psychoerotic behavior pattern is like a net. Weak-egoed neurotics, like Harvey, are drawn into corresponding intersticing patterns” (p. 47). “I see… a reflection, Harvey” (p. 55), Batman says. Get it? Harvey Dent, Two-Face, reflections, Harvey is Batman’s narcissistic mirror slave, as Batman and Harvey work in their adverserial relationship to validate each other’s existence.

I still have the Joker and Robin to talk about here, but I think that’ll have to wait till tomorrow.

Belleville Rendezvous!!

I took my 12-year-old brother Bertie to see The Triplets of Belleville today. So far, the Curtin family opinion is (unanimously) that you should find it, see it, stay through the end of the credits! It’s a madcap mixture of George Booth and Quentin Blake and Jacques Tati and a million other things with a complex visual vocabulary and spectacular music and sounds. I have a strong pro-verbal bias, and this was a movie with almost no dialogue, and yet I don’t think words could have improved it. Instead it worked fully within a language of images. Well, not fully; I had a great time watching the posters and street signs and graffiti. My favorite writing was what amounts to URINATION PROHIBITED on the wall of what I think was someone’s house.

It benefited greatly from a willingness to be a bit loose with visual styles, bringing things into focus as they become important to the story and letting them slide to the background (or foreground) when not needed. What impressed me most was a consistent editing touch that would splice simultaneous scenes together, crosscutting. When one door opened, you’d see what was behind a different door, and yet this wasn’t confusing. Triplets is just a movie that depends heavily on parallels, on multiple converging stories, on the choices people make to bind themselves to each other. I’ll have more to say later on how this relates to my pet theme, but I’m too tired now for analysis. I’m too tired for anything but polemical cheerleading - see this movie! It’s fun! Take an interested kid!

In fact, that last point is an important one. We both enjoyed the movie, and I was proud of Bertie’s level of analytical sophistication. He appreciated parallel structure in the beginning and end of the story and was quite excited about this. He laughed that a puppy who had a runin with a toy train would become a dog who barks at commuter trains. Most importantly, and setting this apart from previous film excursions, he didn’t need anything explained to him in the course of the story. Perhaps my constant exhortations that if you don’t ask who the person entering the room is but listen instead to see if it becomes clear have gotten through. Well, I also quietly translated some of the written French at the beginning to make sure he was following. At any rate, it gave us plenty to talk about and he’s already (well, was already, before his bedtime) bragging about how he’ll be able to tell all his friends tomorrow that he saw a movie that has “only one line of dialogue!” My littlest brother’s growing up, and it’s good to feel I’m doing something right in gently guiding him. Ah, the cleverness of me!

Batman: “You let them do it. I always knew you would.”

A brief follow-up to my last post. Over in comments section of Todd Murray’s Four Color Hell post on Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, John Rowe says that John Byrne has criticized the inclusion of Cold War politics and the threat of nuclear war in DKR, since it “was uneccessary and really didn’t fit. He thinks Miller didn’t have this angle planned originally, but read Moore’s Watchmen… and was so influenced by it…” John Rowe, agreeing with John Byrne, points out that although the story apparently takes place in some unspecified future time, the inclusion of the Cold War stuff and especially of Ronald Reagan as President roots it firmly in the 1980s.

I object! The detonation of the nuclear warhead is central to the narrative of the socio-political world’s impotence against Batman! That world is so ineffectual that it actually (temporarily) destroys itself, the EMP from the Soviet missile causing a collapse of the social infrastructure (it even takes out Superman, super-symbol of politics), so that Batman can step in and dish out his own brand of apolitical super-justice, at least until Superman returns to try to punish him. It’s true that Frank Miller’s specific use of Cold War politics as a metaphor here ties the book forever to the 1980s. That the politics are now somewhat outdated only enhances the seeming ineffectiveness and worthlessness of politics in Batman’s world.


Batman: “He was too big…”

First, a summary of the URL-retrievable texts relevant to this post…

Eve Tushnet inspired the comics blogging community with a thoughtful essay on Watchmen, “Oh, How the Ghost of you Clings!”.

Jim Henley considered the question of what to do with post-Watchmen superheroes other than perform autopsies on the supposed corpse of the genre and proposes the idea of a “literature of ethics”:

  1. “I Watches the Watchmen”
  2. “I Watches the Watchmen II”
  3. “Literature of Ethics Blogging”

David Fiore took his Eve-inspired rereading of Watchmen as an opportunity to clarify his interpretation of certain texts in the superhero genre:

  1. “The Moore Method: ‘I will give you bodies…’”
  2. “Watchmen: For real this time”
  3. “Rorschach Quest”
  4. “Watchmen IV (I think he fights the Russian guy in that one!)”
  5. “Watchmen: The Wind-up”
  6. “Unwinding”

Todd Murray claimed in his own contribution to the saga of Watchmen blogging that “Dark Knight is about getting older in a media culture, where the assumptions are always changing… What happens to values and beliefs when the only rule is change or die.”

Finally, Vaughan wrote a (tragically superficial) essay on insanity, psychology and psychoanalysis in Batman comics, Madness in Gotham, arguing that “madness and badness are often linked in Gotham” and that the origin of “madness” in Batman characters is often connected to “the influence of traumatic experience and pursuit of ‘forbidden knowledge’.”

I think that about covers it. Now, the point is, reading all of that stuff has helped me clarify my thinking about Watchmen’s grim ‘n’ gritty partner in crime, Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. As with my New X-Men blogging, I plan to write a series of mini-essays on The Dark Knight Returns, on whatever specific topics I happen to think of.

The Dark Knight Returns is not about placing Batman in political or psychological contexts. OK, but there’s tons of politics and psychology in the text, right? Well, yes, but let’s see just how much Batman is profoundly, permanently and non-transiently affected by attempts to politicize and psychologize him.

Let’s look at those attempts:

  • Lana Lang, practically Batman’s only supporter other than Police Commissioners Jim Gordon and, eventually (and reluctantly and almost only implicitly), Ellen Yindel, is all about Batman as a symbol of empowerment and resistance for victims “of fear, of violence, of social impotence” (p. 66). If due process and civil rights are trampled in the process of the symbol’s creation, too bad.
  • Dr. Bartholomew Wolper gives us Batman as “social disease” (p. 66). The Joker and Two-Face aren’t responsible for their crimes, Batman is—his superhero persona is like a black hole of ego, devouring otherwise innocent, but weak-willed and mentally unstable, people who try to validate their pathetic lives by opposing Batman. (All of the psychoanalyses of the “hero”/”villain” relationship offered by characters in DKR assume that Batman is responsible for his actions while his rogues gallery is not responsible.)
  • The political/power establishment, as represented by Ronald Reagan and enforced by Superman, don’t like Batman because he refuses to play along with them—his only concern is justice, and no law or political reality will get in the way of his pursuing it.

That last point gets at the core of the psychological/political problem with Batman. >Superman says

When the noise started from the parents’ groups and the sub-committee called us in for questioning—you were the one who laughed… that scary laugh of yours… “Sure we’re criminals,” you said. “We’ve always been criminals. We have to be criminals.” (p. 135)

This is important—Batman does not care about fighting crime (if he did, he probably wouldn’t be calling himself a criminal), he cares only for justice. (His thirst for justice is an internalization and abstraction of the experience of the murder of his parents, memorialized obsessively and conflated in his mind with all injustice [p. 24].) This in itself places him beyond the reach of politics.

At any rate, politics and psychology are impotent against Batman. The psychologist characters don’t even try to treat Batman as anything but the corporeal manifestation of others’ psychoses (as I said, Batman is apparently considered mentally stable and responsible for his actions—all characters accept without question that Batman himself is a political problem, that psychology may at best explain his “victims’” responses to him). Representatives of the poltical establishment don’t fare much better. Certainly they eventually manage to drive Batman underground into hiding, but this is hardly a defeat for Batman. He arrives at the narrative’s end no longer obligated to maintain a connection to the socio-political world through his “playboy Bruce Wayne” identity, so he is disconnected from—thus unbeholden to—that socio-political world. He finds himself with a newly acquired army eager to join Batman’s war for justice, which will now be a guerilla war. Most importantly, he seems at peace with himself for the first time.

Now let’s take a short break to see what David Fiore has to say about Rorschach in Watchmen and his relationship to Spider-Man (or, as David later says would be a more appropriate character for comparison, Dr. Strange):

Take Peter Parker, for instance. When we first meet him he’s an ostracized nerd–a nonentity. In more realistic fiction, this type of character only has two options open to him: either he continues to endure social oppression, or he becomes a “somebody” by “standing up for himself”, thus altering the power dynamic in his community. In the actual event–he does neither, thanks to the spider bite. Throughout Ditko’s run, at least, Parker remains the same bookish nerd he’s always been. And yet, his newfound indifference to the power structure that so determined his life before his “conversion experience” enables him to develop actual relationships with other characters… His “adventures in morality”, as Spider-Man, ground him.

But what if that adventure consumed his entire life? Wouldn’t that “grounding” then become something akin to a burial? Parker’s activities as Spider-Man enable him to lead a more genuine life–but those activities themselves are most emphatically not “life”. Web-swinging is more like meditation, or an exorcism–it’s not Peter’s “true self” unleashed. And if he got trapped in that condition, he wouldn’t be a “free spirit”, he’d be more like a wrathful ghost. He’d be like Rorschach, in fact.

Oh, lovely! Compare with The Dark Knight Returns, in which the “burial” that results from allowing your “superhero” identity to consume your “real life” identity becomes literal, as Batman “dies,” is buried, and is “resurrected” as “a wrathful ghost.”

Rose has a theory that superheroes can’t have complete Oedipal trajectories, and I think David alludes to that idea when he talks about “static—or, at least, anti-teleological—narratives” in superhero comics. He also says that Spider-Man (and superheroes in general) needn’t reject the possibility of romantic relationships (which are necessary for the completion of the Oedipal trajectory, obviously) “in order to protect the purity of his ‘mission’–it’s not supposed to be an either/or proposition!” Which is to say, superheroes’ inability to complete the Oedipal trajectory is not caused by an obligation to avoid marriage (or an equivalently committed sexual relationship) for the sake of a “mission.” Rather, it’s caused by the eternally unresolved oscillation between “real life” and “being a superhero” (see, again, David’s quote above). Batman seems to have found a way to complete the Oedipal trajectory, though. Admittedly he’s not particularly married (the closest thing he has is his quasi-sexualized relationship with Robin, which I may analyze more later). Still, it does seem that he’s come to a point of resolution and closure in his life as he thinks, “This will be a good life… good enough” (p. 199).

Well, this barely scratches the surface, but it’s almost 3:00 am here and time for sleep. Next topic: If politicians and psychologists are impotent to judge or do anything about Batman, is there anybody who isn’t impotent?


Marvel’s continuing quest to fuck up their own books

More scandalous revelations from Ethan Van Sciver on Millarworld:

As for those covers: stat, reverse, remove background elements: Voila. Did you know that on that Emma cover, you could see Esme sitting in the other seat, smiling and inviting you in? She’s gone.

The extent to which Marvel apparently fucked with New X-Men is fascinating.

(Van Sciver’s interpretation of Marvel superheroes vs. DC superheroes on the same thread is slightly bizarre, though.)

“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.