About Me

My Photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Catching up with the X-Universe

I'll never get to write for the X-Men franchise, alas, though it may not have been out of the question just a few years ago when I was actively doing media tie-in work. I enjoyed my stint doing some work for the Terminator franchise and writing a sequel to the original King Kong movie, but this sort of work is probably not something I want to go on with, and I've not pursued possible opportunities for some time. The death in a car crash of my editor at ibooks, the great Byron Preiss, had a serious effect on my situation, and of course other priorities have come along, some of them unexpected (story of my life!).

Still, that stint with The Terminator was valuable in more ways than one; it certainly taught me new respect for people who make a living from media tie-in writing. It's difficult, skilled work, though also a lot of fun if you can play - officially! - with iconic, resonant characters and settings. It's something I'm very glad to have done.

If, by a miracle, I saw a reasonable prospect of doing some work for X-Men it's the one thing that would make me have another go. From varying distances, I've been following events in the X-Universe ever since primary school, and I think I have as good an in-the-bones sense as almost anyone of the dramatic structures and intentions underlying the whole franchise. So ... what with the world science fiction convention on its way, I've been taking a bit of trouble, just lately, to catch up. Alas, I'd fallen a fair way behind in recent years. It's not that I expect to be handed a run scripting Uncanny X-Men (though wouldn't that be cool!!) or the opportunity to do a trilogy of novels like the excellent ones that my pal and sometime editor Steve Roman published a few years ago. It just seems a pity to lose track of something that I've understood well.

Note here that I'm not talking about the movies or any other spin-off version: I mean the original "Earth-616" continuity.

When I was young and an avid reader of anything I could get my hands on - not least comics - there was, of course, no internet. It's always fascinating to see what controversy is generated on almost anything out there in internet-land. I see that there are a lot of people who really hate what is happening in the flagship Uncanny X-Men comics, currently being scripted by Matt Fraction, but there's also a lot of support out there for current directions. Well, controversy can be good.

By and large, I like what I'm currently seeing. Now of course we're talking here about superhero comics: don't expect the storylines to be scientifically plausible in the same way as a Gregory Benford novel. Expect plenty of deus ex machina endings, characters with sudden mood swings (suicidal one minute, euphoric the next), and other such flaws that would grate horribly in any other medium ... and do grate slightly even in comic-book narratives. Like everyone else in the world who's read it, I have my own theory about how the recent Second Coming cross-over could have been concluded with less of that good old deus-ex-machina feeling, but so what? I guess I really look for interesting extensions of the mega-text as we've received it - good, insightful work with the established characters that also leads to new directions. There has to be a respect for the core of the characters, but there has to be enough that's new to make the whole thing worthwhile continuing, which can even mean killing off some beloved characters like [Spoiler] and [Spoiler] in Second Coming (and making at least some of those deaths "stick").

For example, the decision some time ago now to pair off Cyclops and Emma Frost would have sounded crazy to anyone reading X-Men back in the 80s, but it's an innovation that actually works. These two unlikely lovers go well together in a bizarre way, and their blatantly lusty relationship adds a quirky element to X-Men, slightly amusing ... and just slightly sinister for fans with long memories of a more innocent Scott and a more villainous Emma. Strangely, but convincingly, Emma often seems like the more idealistic, naive one, as Scott has toughened up to do what he thinks has to be done.

I'm enjoying the line currently being taken with the rival visions of human/mutant relations espoused by Professor X and Magneto. That old theme is being respected, but also deepened and complexified. Good for Matt Fraction or whoever is driving this. And I'm especially liking the character work from Mike Carey on the X-Men: Legacy mag at the moment. He's doing very shrewd, deft work with established characters like Rogue (who is currently the central figure) and Magneto (who has rejoined the good guys in a big way, at least for now, and is being depicted very well). I'm going to watch the direction that Carey takes this. The artwork from Clay Mann in the current issue, #238, is beautiful in capturing these characters, with expressions and body language telling us much about them in addition to Carey's script.

With the modern trend to avoid thought balloons, artwork takes on a new meaning in suggesting the emotions and motives of characters. As one tiny example, I like the final page of X-Men: Legacy #238 for the way Rogue and Magneto fall into near-identical fighting stances as they suddenly face a common enemy. It makes a point, never explicit in the script, about these two hardened, effective warriors (both of them rather different from their cinematic equivalents).

If, like me, you have a long-standing love for the X-Men franchise, do have a look at what's been happening lately in the main continuity, or, hey, feel free to comment if you're more up to speed with it than I am.

20 comments:

Kirth Gersen said...

I never read comics as a kid (couldn't afford them), and so have been essentially divorced from the whole "superhero" genre as an adult. But your passion for the art form shines in your posts, Russell, making me feel for the first time that maybe I missed out on something there.

Russell Blackford said...

Thanks, KG. I wish I got as much passionate debate when I post on my quirkier interests like this as I do when I post on the accommodationism wars, but I guess it ain't gonna happen. If I had any followers of this blog who looked at it for my pop culture interests and connections ... well, I must have alienated them long ago. :)

Robert N Stephenson said...

I started off reading comic as a kid, not many because, well, I came from a poor family and a comic had to last 3 months if I ever got one. The modern comic is more well designed and very character driven - and from what I have seen, yes story,lines are nothing to write home about but they do have an effect on emotional states to some degree - the over coming of adversity, the unrequited love, even if far fetched and improbable.

For a time I did run with adult comics - The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and this was all sex, drug and booze and loud music - I guess it was a comic series you just had to be in the right groove to get, but I did enjoy the journey, so I still have a soft spot for comics.

These days the pleasure of a mindless wander through pictures is even more limited by what I have to read foir reviews and what I need to write to stay alive.

Many of the early superhero comics were formed from the idea of the righteous and all powerful god come to life, but there were no proper visualization of this religious god that could be accepted as a brute who physically fought against evil - I think Batman had slight and I do mean slight, religious like ventures, but all the others stayed well clear so as not to get too much flack from the religious gurus of the time... Comic were even for a time called works of the devil in some parets of the world - USA mainly.

The super hero I don't think will ever truly die or be over taken by anything new and trendy and I think X-Men shifted the goal posts considerably in its day, it offered something new within some kind of world vision contruct. THis was the first concept of Us but Different and even the very first ventures into the world of dealing with racism.

Russell Blackford said...

Hey, Rob - nice comment. I think "its day" for X-Men was about 1975 to about 1993, i.e. Chris Claremont's first long run scripting the thing. Some bad decisions were made after that (the worst of which had to be retconned away). Joss Whedon's run on Astonishing X-Men was pretty damn good, though. I've just read the whole thing in one hit and found the ending quite moving (though of course the emotional impact depends a lot on already being invested in the characters, especially Kitty Pryde).

The current writers and artists on the Earth-616 continuity seem to have absorbed a lot of values and themes that X-Men had in 1980s and to be prepared to go on with it from there and create an extended vision for the new millennium. Maybe it'll all fall in a hole down the track, but I'm optimistic. The current vision for the franchise, over the past year or so, and including the big Second Coming event, seems pretty interesting so far, even if some details seem "off", as is inevitable.

And as I said in the original post I'm especially liking Mike Carey at the moment: he gives a sense that he really knows and loves these characters.

Robert N Stephenson said...

well don't tell any one I said anything reasonable or even sensical, I am quite happy at times for people to think I am nuts - they kinda leave me alone actually:

I have opinions on many things, not always good opinions and rarely would I say correct opinions... I am opne to learning on the run when I ready... I am a bit slow in the head though, so I don't catch up too quick

Allan said...

I think my latest flirtation with comics ended at about the end of Astonishing X-Men (soon after the Civil War). The problem with Astonishing was that basically Whedon turned the team into his list of stock characters, and so they didn't really seem to be the characters that I'd known and liked. Wolverine is the best example, but Kitty Pride, Cyclops, and even Beast all fit more into roles Whedon likes to put characters into than the characters they were before.

I like Emma Frost, and wish that her own series had managed to stay alive long enough to flesh out her character. That being said, that relationship strikes me as odd, mostly because when Jean Grey comes back he'll dump Emma for her ... and I think it's actually been established that part of Jean Grey's powers is returning from the dead.

And that sort of relationship thing worked better in X-Men, when Scott was tempted by the rebodied Psylocke while Jean was still around.

Note that you do get to see lustful Scott before this, as I've just recently re-read the comics I have in boxes and his honeymoon with Madeline was, well, pretty much that.

Anyway, I'm not much into comics anymore because it's too much of a hassle for me to get them. I had a lovely situation where the former owner of a comic book store that was close to work decided to basically do it on the side without the building, and he let me put an order on a bunch of them and then get them every few months instead of every month, which let me read entire storylines one shot, which I found worked better for me. He stopped doing it and the person who took over wasn't going to do that, so I stopped getting books. Picked up a bit on my own for about a month or so, and just stopped ...

Deepak Shetty said...

You like Marvel? No!!!! (Im DC or now only Vertigo with a couple of DC stuff). Not even Mike Carey writing was enough to get me to try X-Men. The whole world hates mutants but loves other super heroes never did it for me.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, I was never a DC kind of guy. We could talk about phenomena like Watchmen but not the main DC diegesis, which I always found off-putting for some reason when I was a kid. Silver Age Marvel made a lot more emotional sense to me. I developed a love for X-Men even before Claremont made it popular, though I did like Claremont's way of rejigging everything.

It's good that everyone likes Carey, though. I wonder whether he's coming to the Worldcon.

Anyone else got thoughts on Whedon's run?

J. J. Ramsey said...

It's been a while since I've regularly read comics, though oddly enough, I've managed to learn what's been going on in the various comic books universes through Linkara's video reviews and lurking on the Girl-Wonder.org forums (which is also where I got a much better feel for what real feminism is like, rather than the right-wingers' straw version of it).

FWIW, when I did regularly read comics, I did follow X-Men enough to know what the whole Onslaught saga was about, though my memory of it is a bit dim.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Sorry for the double post ...

Allen: "The problem with Astonishing was that basically Whedon turned the team into his list of stock characters"

I'm rather surprised to read that. I haven't followed Whedon in comics, but I've definitely seen his TV work, and I'd expect him to be better than that. Of course, given that our blog host likes him, maybe he is. Dr. Blackford, any thoughts?

Russell Blackford said...

Well, Whedon certainly developed Kitty Pryde from the Kitty we knew when she was first introduced in (hmmm ... goes and checks) early 1980 when when she was only 13. Whedon presents her as having grown up somewhat, and she seems to be about 19 or 20. (There's been some controversy as to how old Kitty is "now", with Claremont, I gather, still wanting to portray her as a bit younger, but Whedon seems to be showing her as 19 or so.)

That's broadly consistent with the rule of thumb that it takes about four years of comics to cover one year of events within the diegesis. (The opening events in the modern Marvel diegesis, those in Fantastic Four #1, published in 1961, are set at having taken place 13/14 years ago. Hence, Reed Richards was about 30 at the start of Marvel's Silver Age and is now in his early to mid 40s. His 40th birthday was portrayed at some point in the 1990s. Apparently this 13/14 year period is not currently increasing, though they'll have to increase it sooner or later to allow the kids and teenagers to grow up a bit more.)

I hadn't read all the more recent development of Kitty's personality, so maybe Allan's right and Whedon did make her somewhat out of character. But she seemed to me like a plausible enough projection of the girl we first knew as a young teenager.

Russell Blackford said...

Btw, there are all sorts of doubts and dubieties about character ages. The Fantastic Four have been handled pretty consistently - Reed was about thirty and is now in his early-ish forties. Sue was about twenty and is now early thirties. Johnny has always been a few years younger than Sue. Ben has always been roughly Reed's age.

But characters like Emma Frost are all over the place in the way they've been presented.

Magneto is a tricky one. We know when he was born - 1926 IIRC - but he's physically about 40. He was reverted to infancy then re-aged to his "prime". A couple of years later in the diegesis he is described as early 30s. He should be about 40 now, physically speaking, and that's what he actually looks like if you discount his naturally silver hair.

Blake Stacey said...

I wish I got as much passionate debate when I post on my quirkier interests like this as I do when I post on the accommodationism wars, but I guess it ain't gonna happen.

There must be a way . . .

Yeah, I was never a DC kind of guy. We could talk about phenomena like Watchmen but not the main DC diegesis, which I always found off-putting for some reason when I was a kid.

I own the trade paperbacks of a few series, but the closest I got to the main DC diegesis was Sandman. The obsessive love of continuity I've seen in my comics-collecting friends lives in me too, but I used up my adolescent surge of it on Isaac Asimov novels. (If it had been as easy to overdose on manga and anime fifteen years ago as it is today . . . the mind recoils.) Nowadays, I've spent far too much time with professors of literature and Comparative Media Studies to be an uncritical fan — I get to be a critical fan, which is even worse! :-P

Allan said...

I got into comics when my mother got a couple of boxes for about $20 from a friend who was getting rid of her son's collection. After filtering out what I didn't like -- enough to give away at school -- I still had quite a few of them, Marvel and DC mixed, but I always liked the Marvel one's better.

Deepak,

The Civil War in Marvel was rather pointedly the idea that all superheroes were disliked. I'm not sure how long that stuck around after that, though.

On Astonishing, Wolverine was the best example of Whedon shoving him into a stock role; he acted basically like Spike from the end of Buffy and Angel, and was missing a lot of the things that made Wolverine such a good character. Since Wolverine is probably my favourite character, I would notice that. And the interactions between Cyclops and Wolverine were pretty much the same as the interactions between Angel and Spike in the last season of Angel. After this, you start reaching a bit, except for Kitty.

See, Kitty's been around for years and had development through Excalibur, where she was one of the team leaders. I think her being older and more mature than a 19 year old pretty much was assumed after that point. Whedon makes her 19-20 -- as Russell mentioned -- and a woman who kicks butt. Gee, wonder where we've seen THAT before.

Kitty does indeed have the background to pull that off, but it does seem a bit of a step backwards.

Don't get me wrong; I liked it. It was entertaining. But they weren't, at least to me, the best of the characterizations of at least some of those characters.

Russell Blackford said...

Allan, I'm going to defer to you on some of those specific points because I have no deep knowledge of Buffy and its spin-offs. I still thought that the characterisation of Kitty was plausible in its own right, at least based on early Kitty aged a few years, and was quite moving. I guess you're not actually disagreeing on that but making a different point that may well be correct. I thought Whedon's take on Emma, for example, was pretty damn good. I can hear her distinctive voice, and I like it.

How that goddamn giant bullet travels many times faster than the speed of light bothers me, but that's the sort of thing that does bother me when I read comics. I could accept it if the damn thing had a warp-drive or something, but it seems to be basically a dumb projectile (albeit with all kinds of protections against interference).

Still, we have to accept alien, quasi-magical super-science ... I suppose. I realise that there's a certain futility in complaining about lack of scientific realism in narratives about people with super powers. :)

Deepak Shetty said...

@Russel
I follow DC because I have loved Batman and Superman for 23 years now.
Vertigo seems to be the only line that produces consistently good work - Lucifer -Mike Carey being my all time favorite series (better than Sandman!).
The thing that irks me is that books like Crossing Midnight / Air / American Virgin/ Scalped / Unwritten all seem to attract all of at the most 10,000 readers and get cancelled while being so superior to any superhero stuff (including X-*)

Deepak Shetty said...

@Allen
"The Civil War in Marvel was rather pointedly the idea that all superheroes were disliked. "

I read Civil War (though not most of the tie-ins) - It seemed to be that non approved superheroes were disliked - not in general.
But the characters behaved so unlike themselves that I couldn't care less. I dont follow Marvel much though.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"Still, we have to accept alien, quasi-magical super-science ... I suppose. I realise that there's a certain futility in complaining about lack of scientific realism in narratives about people with super powers. :)"

IMHO, superhero comics, at least the relatively more serious ones, take place in a universe that is more or less a parallel to our real world, but with particular exceptions. Circumventing relativity with Applied Phlebotinum? Sure. Having an ordinary projectile go faster than light? Not so much. While there may not be an expressly stated reason for every deviation from normal, real world physics, unusual physics should generally apply to characters and circumstances that are already marked out as unusual.

(I contrast serious superhero comics with, say, comics that are supposed to be campy or a giddy, goofy romp, in which case, the Rule of Funny and Rule of Cool reign almost supreme.)

Deepak Shetty said...

J J ramsey
"IMHO, superhero comics, at least the relatively more serious ones, take place in a universe that is more or less a parallel to our real world,"

This is an imaginary story, aren't they all?

J. J. Ramsey said...

Depends on what you mean by "parallel." What I was thinking of was a world that was mostly like our world, at least superficially, rather than, say, a universe populated by, say, squid -like creatures with air bladders whose thought processes are radically different from ours, or a surreal dream world where the physics are apparently inconsistent. Contrast this with Superman's Metropolis or Spider-Man's New York, which aren't radically different from many present-day cities.