Sep 10, 2018

Capitalism, Colonialism, Children’s Toys in Warren Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men

Brother Stop Your Moanin’
Capitalism, Colonialism, Children’s Toys in Warren Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

PopMatters had to ask, why response to Warren Ellis’ run on Astonishing X-Men turned increasingly hostile.

Warren Ellis quit the comic. Walked off to more success on other things.

I have recommended this comic to an X-fan by explicitly clarifying, “everyone makes fun of Scott Summers,” and “they deliberately got rid of Colossus.”

There has not been an X-run more worth rereading in its entirety, published in the past ten years.

Keep those four things in mind. They cohere into something after we look through some other lenses at the three stories that make up Ellis’ run. They answer each other and the show us the building blocks of what matters, just not maybe in the ways you expect.

“Who Kills”

Warren Ellis’ run comes after twenty-five issues of Joss Whedon and John Cassaday mostly being nostalgic. Ellis and his collaborators immediately replace nostalgia with hauntology. Nostalgia is replaying dynamics from our youth, giving reassuring lip service to dynamics that have long stopped being valid. That has its place and it will always have markets. Hauntology is the invocation of pasts that are not necessarily our own, histories and nostalgias that might have no past, no one who could be nostalgic for them. If Deconstruction has proved too scary for the fanboys, how are they handling, “The term refers to the situation of temporal, historical, and ontological disjunction in which the apparent presence of being is replaced by a deferred non-origin, represented by ‘the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive’”?

When Hank McCoy, the Beast, refers to Scott “Cyclops” Summers as, “the perfect man who kills,” he is saying something that sounds one way, plays in context of the comics in a different fashion, and in the context of Leonard Cohen, who wrote in “The Reason I Write”,
“I want to be the kind of hero
I wanted to be
when I was seven years old
a perfect man
who kills”
something very different.

These are the levels this run is playing on. Multitiered. A “figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent.” An in-story take, a readerly savviness, and a world-context. And, within the story, every character is aware and unaware in their own ways, language itself is rarely 100% straightforward. Taken out of context, the dialogue in a single panel may seem out of character or inappropriate, while in context, we understand that people make jokes, they avoid issues, politicize and over- and under-dramatize.

There are things that don’t make sense, seemingly without that intention, like the X-Men donning “street tactical gear” meant to look friendlier than superhero costumes, but is just military chic with jewelry. Mysteries that do not make immediate sense, but have to not, so that they beg questions and investigation from characters and audience alike. And, stylistic choices that simply throw us off our game, as readers, so that we come in a little more piqued and critical than normal.

The first story/arc, Ghost Box, starts off with the murder of an impossible person. Exogenetic, the second, concerns a bafflingly impersonal remix of mutants and X-Men ephemera into patchwork horror destined to die. Xenogenesis, the final story, is about babies in a small African country, who must die if others are to live.

The run’s overarching threat is one of extinction: personal, lineal, of the world. No one is having mutant babies any longer. Alternate reality Earths have died or stagnated. To that end, everybody’s horny and afraid to die. Sex, babies, murder, rescue missions, medical care are given emphasis over villain vs hero wrestling, but the stories are rigged so sex, babies, rescue missions, and medical are dependent on kicking or clawing bad people. Or, people gone bad. And, most significantly, understanding that this will not fix everything.

“Some Art, Some Elan”

The run launched with the visually daring Simone Bianchi, and the vibrant colorist, Simone Peruzzi, and Bianchi is a genius at doing things that might be technically “wrong,” that are unexpected and maybe inexplicable, but committing completely to their execution. His page layouts may include panels of unusual shapes, progression of story elements that flow contrariwise to the left to right down left to right flow of English, with power put into textures and shadows that are unusual in comics and more than abnormal in superhero comics. With Bianchi’s visual cache, the run sets an immediate precedent that this is its own animal.

It also launched with tweets on page one, and Hank McCoy in front of the Golden Gate bridge singing an old, public domain anti-blues song, the whitest “blues” possible, the “shaddup about your blues” blues, Brother Stop Your Moanin’. And, Wolverine, in his skivvies, drunk and passed out in an animal enclosure with some buffalo. We know this is San Francisco, by way of visual landmarks. We know it is morning. We know these are X-Men, have a sense of their personalities, and we have the title of the arc in a clear, distinct typeface.

At the end of the collection of Ghost Box, there are four thematically connected short comics, exploring four separate alternate realities, the differing art styles and worlds of each were enough to drive one online critic to say, “They’re each good in their own ways, the Andrews and Davis/Farmer ones especially so, but they all clash violently off one another, and I found the story-like sequence they form confusing to the point that trying to read it was practically upsetting.”

Trying to read was… upsetting.

Usually you have to work had to get an effect like that. In one of the alternate worlds visited, a steampunk Emma Frost reads George Bataille’s The Story of the Eye, and that, maybe, is something that should be upsetting, just trying to read. This Astonishing run, good as it is, is toyetic rescue missions. Simultaneously, hauntology comics should feel uncertain, they ought to distress.

I think the second-arc penciler, Phil Jimenez, is the best at the hauntology visuals, at cuing fake memories in us and intermingling them with real memories, with trained responses. Jimenez is always an intelligent, articulate artist and his work in Exogenetic is alive with keen character work, brilliant monsters, and a unique sense that real, organic, functioning beings are moving through actual spaces.

Every inch feels Dave Cockrum classic era X-Men, feels pure fire Thunderbirds are go, and is cleanly Jimenez’s own work.

Even in a collage of past imagery originally visualized by other artists, I am unsure where Jimenez and those earlier pencilers.

“Easy Math”

From the Xenogenesis script: “[A] big double-page portrait of a big modern-day African village. For many reasons, not the least because how often to we see a nice big picture of a contemporary African village in any kind of comics?”

China, Indonesia, the United States, outer space, East Africa, the run takes us around and outside the globe. Places are given specific visualizations, architecture, histories, and politics. Politics and aesthetic design are always paramount in this run, but place is also identified by practical design, by purpose and functionality.

The X-Men home and base that they will not be calling X-Base Alpha, and might be the X-Bunker for their Thunderbirds-like special toys (why does it even need a name? things accrue names, especially branded things) and the home and base of the Chinese equivalent to the X-Men, called Tian, or Heaven, are in the basics, the same place in two nations. A home of mutants banded together to change the world for the best. Each has its own visual design, though, reflecting the culture and individuals who produced it and occupy its walls, but on a purely functional level, not-X-Base has automated doors, hangars, science fiction cars and planes, but in Tian the walls, floor, and air are a spintronic computer. One is a place to keep cool toys, to stash the toolkit. The other is a toolkit. Tian is constantly at play.

The wasteland of Chaparanga Bay, the place in Indonesia where spaceships “go to die,” crashing, abandoned, to be torn apart for salvage by starving locals, is more than just a fancily-designed wasteland; it is us. Chaparanga bay is the world. Poor, desperate for salvage, unfairly hungry, and huge. Haunted by massive, impossible alien future things that are old, broke, refuse. “There are tiny villages inside Cairo’s garbage dumps,” as Ororo “Storm” Munroe puts it, framing her own childhood against her statement, earlier in another issue, that she was, upon joining the X-Men in their big house, “intimidated by the old mansion's opulence.”

Now, Munroe is the queen of Wakanda, a former leader, herself, of the X-Men, a world-traveler who, even though she had been worshipped as a goddess, found a three story house in upstate New York intimidating.

These comics are intimidating mansions of lessons and frivolity, and it is intentionally difficult to discern, maybe pointless to discern which is what. Vessels emblazoned with the Fantastic Four 4 emblem. Dead boys full of wires that echo earlier comics by the same writer. Logan invoking Happy Days, and comparing their situation to an episode of that show somehow involving fresher, rougher material. Forge calling his built mutants, the “New Mutants,” a term, and title of a series of ongoing serials related to the X-Men. Summers says, the “old bad days” could be “three weeks ago.” The end of the world looms just ahead of them, like a four o’clock alarm.

Frost, the former villain turned X-Man, a kidnapper, rapist, teacher, industrialist, inventor, elitist (can you ever be a former any of these?), goes about kissing people who likely don’t want to be kissed right then, and entering minds to make folks dance to her tune, when it is acceptable to her teammates or herself. She kisses a Mbangawi doctor in  Xenogenesis, who looks surprised, probably did not want to be kissed, and certainly was not angling for it. Summers, team leader and Frost’s lover, only asks if she can avoiding kissing everyone.

Ghost boxes, whose name comes from a hauntology music label, are mystery boxes. They do not simply open a gate to another reality, or transport matter between worlds, but bring hauntings.

“Remember When”

From the ghosts of old scenes haunting Scott Summers, to the bombing of Hiroshima and that time Wolverine was impregnated with a brood alien, the past in omnipresent. The entire first arc hinges on Forge being brokenhearted that Ororo Munroe has married and no one else even thinking about it. Forge had, in comics published in the early 1990s, asked her to marry him, and he left her before she could say, “Yes.” He never came back to her, because drama, high drama, melodrama. Melodrama haunts, but it also comforts and we cannot use comfort here. The comfort must be a transient, momentary feeling that only masks a great depth of traumatic potential.

When our X-Men uncover a secret war in Ghost Box, Frost fears a repeat of the 1980s toy-selling miniseries wherein a bunch of superheroes and villains throw down. This secret war is, very similar to the later miniseries written by Brian Michael Bendis, a clandestine conflict between two sets of superhumans, in this case, Forge and his engineered artificial-mutants, and invasive mutants from an alternate reality that has become untenable due to warped time, time turned “liquid” so that they are haunted by future and past as well as starving and desperate.

Those “triploids,” as Hank McCoy terms the mutants Forge builds, are only one in a line of built things. Things built on semblances. They seem to be mutants. In Exogenetic, the weapons are monsters built from hybridized aliens, mutants, robots, swamp monsters. Like hauntology music, they are living, organic mixes, familiar enough that the alienating nature upsets us. So, too, the brain damaged McCoy, the shamed Frost, the suicidal Summers that we meet in these pages, while our X-Men are drinking “organic, single-estate, shade-grown coffee” in their billion dollar X-Bunker and ten thousand dollar beds, like dysmorphic rock ’n’ rollers.

Munroe is working with Frost, teasing with her, but Frost once possessed her body and had sex using that body. She disembodied and raped her. “Oh, well, let’s do the job at hand,” or even Frost’s excuse for such behavior (“I was on drugs”), are disconnected rock ’n’ roll tropes.

Munroe, and her teammates, all watch Emma kiss an unprepared black woman in the middle of a life or death professional situation, and if they comment at all on her colonialist, sexual harassment, it is to joke it off.

X-Men get to do things. Why else does no one want to the X-Men involved until they absolutely have to bring them in to solve a problem that will always leave hands bloodied?

“Hatred and Disgust”

Kaga, of Exogenetic, is infuriated by the X-Men’s good looks, their awesome powers, the money and influence and verve of them. Their good history. If he was not spending even more money to brutalize them and terrorize the world at large, his point might even be considered more seriously by some of the X-Men. Ororo Munroe didn’t grow up rich. Hisako Ichiki knows the value of a dollar. Summers grew up in an orphanage. Kaga is the one person who can lay these claims on the table and nobody has to listen. Except us. If for anyone, Kaga’s critique and Summers’ rebuttal are for us.

The X-Men imprison Kaga, after his physical defeat, to a lifetime of good medical care. That is his punishment. They take his money and his monsters and they are going to take good care of him until he someday dies.

Kaga is ugly and upset about it. Forge’s fake mutants are monstrous and reliant on it. Dr Crocodile, as the Mbangawi head of state, Joshua N’Dingi is called for his scars, is ugly. Deformed, scarred, but he wants to make himself a monster, too, to be a thorn in the side, a reminder to westerners, to white people and their nations, of what they have done to his country and to Africa at large.

This is a horribly unfair and awkward dynamic. It is repeated every story, every arc. To bear scars is bad. To bear scars, to be modified, to be altered or accept alteration.

“Gouge The Tate Modern”

Body horror and body glory running through each story, refracted in McCoy, blue-furred beast as he is, looking down on reptilian mutants as smelling bad when they bleed. Summers laughing off an old man in a wheelchair with visible deformities, because he cannot take seriously someone feeling the X-Men are not oppressed enough. An alternate reality Frost says, in soliloquy, of Summers, “He was born poor. That’s all that needs to be said.”

If we took Astonishing X-Men always at face value, it would be an almost anti-transhumanist comic. Anti-progress.

In one reality, Emma Frost is policed into house arrest by men in uniforms, fin de siecle sentinels. Another shows her student erupt into a multi-story-tall meat puppet sentinel. Still, other sentinels embed broken mutants within them, using their powers to assault their own kind.

Progress, in Astonishing,  is a churning of soil, a grinding of meat. Ghost cries. The deaths of babies might allow a small country to survive. The killing of mutated monsters facilitates the survival of mutants. Death robots made of bone and flesh explode from the animated corpses of students with names like, Wallflower. Summers, Frost, and Logan are going to remember every dumb accident, every shortsighted fix, every angle they missed. Sometimes, the future kills you. Sometimes it suicides you. It always haunts you.

Logan lambastes Hichiki for her X-name, Armor, teasing her that if her name is Armor, his is Claws, and Rogue, who does not appear physically in any of these issues, is “Suck.”

She considers renaming herself X-Girl, but everyone knows that is a name that won’t last, even though no one in-comic says so. She would be, at some point, X-Woman, or X.

Logan chides Summers for playing ignorantly with African politics, while painting Africa with a wide brush that is undoubtedly influenced by his experience with the CIA in Africa, and a lifetime of government-sponsored abuses.

Summers hears Munroe, who grew up in Africa, saying that she always “listens to Logan,” as her saying she agrees with him. But it is not what she said.

Frost, Summers’ lover, jokes with McCoy, that Summers has never heard of Damien Hirst, one of the major fine art figures of our time (for worse and for better).

Interwoven, bleeding layers of implication, inference, statement and reception befitting a comic that might as well be a Damien Hirst production. Hirst’s work is frequently predicated on the artificiality of its worth. Some pieces, which go for extreme amounts of money, may not physically exist. Some of his most daring and disgusting achievements might not have happened. His dot paintings, which are exceptionally simple paintings of, just, dots, are not all painted by him, probably not even mostly by him, and he will dismiss them. He did at the time. That’s the gag. That is how they work.

It does not matter how seriously you, I, Warren Ellis, or Kaare Andrews take these comics. Veracity and voracity are distinct beasts who sometimes share a build and the same pattern in their scales. It does not measurably and permanently matter how important any of it is, or how real. Anyone who ever heard a scary story or saw a horror movie knows ghosts do not have to be real to have real effect.

Aug 29, 2018

Comics Aimed at Specific Audiences And Why That’s Good

“I didn’t feel invited in.” “I would have liked them to explain cultural terms.” I’ve encountered a lot of that lately from white men, with both Arigon Starr’s Super Indian and Gabby Rivera and Joe Quinones’ America. Mostly, after I or some third party brought up the comic. And in most cases, I think it is acceptable and non-bigoted. To paraphrase, as a response, Dr Frank N Furter’s, “I didn’t make him for you!” Every comic has a target audience, a hypothetical most-likely-reader. Super Indian and America are not aimed first at white men. Neither is actively firewalling white guys, barring them from functional entry, but their hypothetical needs as an audience don’t come first.

Comics Aimed at Specific Audiences
And Why That’s Good
Travis Hedge Coke

If an audience is used to being prized above all others, not having that service can feel like a fence, like a rejection. Unless the field is near-unilaterally walled against a demographic, however, it’s not. When the door pulls open, people who pull to open may get in quicker, easier, but people who push to open, will and can eventually also get in. Three second difference. Still a door.

Technoskin, a giant robot Indian, is not going to be introduced in Super Indian with a “footnote: ‘skin’ means Native American,” because it is understood that the primary audience understands the reference.

Why the university, in America, is Sotomayor University, or what an Indigenous Studies department is, may not warrant a footnote or explanatory dialogue. People, in the story, and in the principle audience, know.

There is an early issue of X-Men vol 2, that makes reference to “brass,” in the sense of, “the man is all brass,” that as a 6th grade kid, I significantly misunderstood. Nobody I knew used the phrase, I’d never been educated on the phrase. But, that is the tail end of Chris Claremont’s decades-long run on X-Men comics, and I was not his target audience. I was not the target, not the bread and butter. Even when Native characters showed up, or characters my age, I was not the target audience. Dani Moonstar was not written or drawn for a young Native audience in New Mutants or other X-titles. Not under Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, not later, by Matt Fraction and Greg Land.

“Warrior of the Cheyenne" is appended to Dani the way, “powerful beams shoot from his eyes" is, to Cyclops, or, “controls weather,” to Storm. Nobody says, “white warrior,” of Psylocke, with her “focused totality of… psychic powers” pink telepathy knife that grows out of her hand. “Warrior of the Polish Americans” is applicable, logically, to any Polish-descent American X-Man, but you’ll never see it, if not satirically, because a white American audience is assumed. You have to prove that Dani isn’t white and American, you have to prove that Wolverine isn’t American.

A lot of the time, when Dani is pointed to as a model minority character that people of all demographics could enjoy — when any character is — it isn’t because they were fairer or better handled, but because they were being directed at the white male audience, the audience who, in anglophone comics and anglophone cultures, largely assume all entertainment is aimed at them or in some way incompetent or possessing an “agenda.”

Other demographics do it, too. There are levels of self-absorption in all walks, all types. But, with other groups, it tends to be, so to speak, a minority of the minority. The majority of those audiences know they are not going to be served first, that some of the work may be on them, even in terms of slang or famous figures.

Different anglophone cultures and subcultures do not share the same touchstones. They do not need to, and no one culture/subculture’s are more real or central than any others’. Women have communities that are not predicated on men. Black women in America have different communities, and thereby a different dialect of reading, a different lens to look through, than black women from England.

The touchstones included in a comic reveal the primary, the most important audience. If the touchstone for “tough black man” is Jim Brown, at least someone’s age is showing, the author and/or the primary audience. Jim Brown is not a twelve year-old’s point of reference in 2018. “Stone butch,” “lala,” and, “yuri,” are near-synonymous terms in the right circumstances, but are neither interchangeable, nor targeted to the same primary audience.

Someone opened and email to me, earlier, with, “My lala sister,” and as an interpersonal exchange, it makes sense, and hey, I’ll take it. But, if you open a comic that way, you’re addressing a more clear-cut and anticipatory primary audience. If you put that scene in a comic, without further elaboration, even to an audience who understands the reference, it is going to seem odd. Odd in the way Dani Moonstone’s continual label, self-selected and by omniscient narrator, as a “Cheyenne warrior,” to the expense of all else, reads weird to a Native audience. No matter how comfortable a white woman or a Chicano man may be, being called any variant of n*****, to an outside audience, questions, generally, will arise.

I think, in America, the deployment of a character actually named “Goodhair,” and written off as “Becky,” by the title character, is a misstep, mainly because she’s actually right in her concerns, and the narrative backs that up. But, I also recognize that it does not matter if I think it is a misstep, because I and my interpretation of the narrative are not the authors’ primary concern. I am not their first, their primary audience. The reference is not for me.

And, at least, I suppose, I get the reference. So, I’m already more in than I was when someone said Gambit was “brass,” and I thought it meant he could turn into metal like Colossus.

Either way, they can afford to lose me for one scene, if not financially, then ethically and aesthetically. Yes, America was canceled after twelve issues, but I wouldn’t doubt it was only ever contracted and scheduled for twelve issues. Most of the “cancelations” today are not due to low sales or lack of positive reception, but because they have enough to collect and keep in print in perpetuity.

Super Indian can afford to not target the largest potential demographic first, because, honestly, they are both unlikely to ever go all in on the property and the largest potential demographic simply is not as important as the one the comic is actually aimed at. We, the Native community, especially the Native comics community, need Super Indian. We need its satire, its casual soap; we lack options and it’s good.

The second bus to come along is usually just as good as the first, but you have to wait. Sometimes, to get on the first bus, people will only ever travel in the cheap seats, or they stand the entire trip, and try not to stumble too often. They might sit on the edge of step or perch on a luggage rack. Rather than limiting the field or blocking readers, having a field that comprises myriad target audiences, instead of a uniform, even one mistakenly assumed to be “universal” target, broadens the entire field, serves more people, deepens and enlivens our pool of resources. And, in having at least one comic talk directly to a person, to them first, encourages them to try more comics, and also to more readily recommend them to people they think that comic will also engage.

Three buses go along that explicitly don’t want you, or feel intimidating enough you don’t step on, it may seem like the fourth will only be the same. People get tired. When audiences tire, they dissipate. A white, American, heterosexual, male-IDing audience, for anglophone comics, will never dissipate. There will always be buses. There will be fleets and the ads on the sides of them will target, too. That’s acceptable. Everyone else needs a bus, too, and we don’t all need the same rickety, fourth one in line. America and Super Indian are comics that feel like the first bus in the line has pulled up, opened its doors, and even turned on a welcome sign.

They don’t even check your ticket.

Aug 25, 2018

The Ultimate Spin: A Lookback at Ultimate Spider-Man

Late last year it was announced that Brian Michael Bendis signed an exclusive contract to DC Comics, ending his almost-two-decade relationship with Marvel Comics. As many of you know, Brian Michael Bendis was the writer of Ultimate Spider-Man from the beginning until its last issue. It happens to be my all-time favorite series.

The Ultimate Spin: A Lookback at Ultimate Spider-Man
Out of Nowhere!
by Migs Acabado

In the summer of 2001, I bought Peter Parker: Spider-Man #30 and in the subscription page I noticed that there were four new comic books with an unfamiliar adjective. All of them were branded as Ultimate books. Being a big Spider-Man fan, I became very curious with Ultimate Spider-Man. However I wasn’t able to grab a copy until a year later, since I was in my final year in grade school and I still couldn't afford to follow any ongoing comic book due to my limited budget.

In mid-2002, I managed to purchase a copy of Wizard Magazine. Then from there, I was able to learn the details of this new title. I noticed that my favorite Spider-Man artist, Mark Bagley, was drawing the series so it was already a must-have for me. I was unfamiliar with the writer. Who is this Brian Michael Bendis?  At the time, he was also the writer of Daredevil, which I couldn't have cared less about back then, and the obscure book Alias, which starred the then-obscure Jessica Jones (his own creation).

Luck finally came to me around Christmastime, when I was able to buy my first Ultimate Spider-Man comic book. It was issue number 30, the third part of the Spider-impostor story arc where Spidey got shot in the arm. I was blown away with what I read. This Bendis guy can really write a good story. I began collecting Ultimate Spider-Man.

Ultimate Spider-Man was the modern reimagining of Spider-man. The Peter Parker here is younger and somewhat different from his regular Marvel Universe (Earth 616) counterpart. It was also set in a modern environment where Uncle Ben was a former hippie, Gwen Stacy is a punk rock chick, and Mary Jane is a brainy pretty girl. The stories are also different from the regular Marvel Universe. Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley did 111 consecutive issues together, making them the longest-running creative team in Marvel history. Stuart Immonen succeeded Bagley, followed by David Lafuente, then by Sara Pichelli.

Just when I thought the book was getting stagnant, Mark Bagley came back for the Death of Spider-Man story arc, in which Peter died and Bendis and Pichelli introduced Miles Morales. an Afro-Hispanic teen who was also bitten by one of Norman Osborn’s genetically altered spiders. This re-ignited my interest for this book, and Bendis even managed to get the Earth 616 Peter Parker and Miles Morales to team up in the Spider-Men mini-series. In Secret Wars, they incorporated Miles to the regular Marvel Universe.

I have a lot of good memories with the series. My favorite stories include the darker, more character-driven Clone Saga, Learning Curve where he fought the Kingpin for the first time, and Spidey’s hookup with Kitty Pryde, just to name a few. Brian Michael Bendis did a good way in writing the characters. They made them relatable. In my teenage years, I couldn’t help but to compare my life with Peter’s. There was a time when some of the things that he encountered also happened to me. (Most of them were girl problems.)

Through the good times and even the bad ones, Ultimate Spider-Man was always there. This book helped me deal with some sad moments in my life. It was my source of happiness when I got culture-shocked in my freshman year in college and during heartbreaks in high school. The Death of Spider-Man and Miles’ introduction came out during a very difficult time in my life. I was struggling with my first job and was losing some friends. This book became my escape to those problems.

When I learned that Brian was leaving, it felt like a longtime friend leaving our hometown for good. The friend that you are used to see every month will never come back and things will never be the same again. But as they say, creators come and go, but good stories live forever. Ultimate Spider-Man is the comic book series that I have followed religiously the longest and I loved every memory that I have with it. Just like a friend who’s going away, the memories that you have spent together will always live within your heart.

Aug 20, 2018

X-Men Grand Design: When One Panel Brings You Down

Before the release of Grand Design, we were seeing preview images, some released by the author, and thank you, Ed Piskor. Honestly, thank you. The issues we had so far are fun, I love this concept, and it’s like a funnier, terser Marvel Saga. Thank you. (He’s not reading this.) Thank you.

When One Panel Brings You Down
Travis Hedge Coke

And, there is this set that he posted himself, online, cool single panel introductions each of the new X-Men: Storm, Nightcrawler… Each shows something unique about the character and has some punchy sentences explaining them.

“Africa. She brought crop-bearing rains to her neighbors. They worship her like a god.”

Africa is not a country.

“Russia. The immense strength of his metallic form is a big help on the family farm,” and there’s Colossus, painting a picture and filling out a t-shirt. Cool. I know this guy now.

I read Storm’s, okeh, things she did. His, things he’s done. She looks cool in hers. He’s actively doing something in his.

And, there’s Thunderbird. Thunderbird is the one who’s going to die. And, stay dead.

So, do we presage that with coded prose? Is the focus on his military career? What he does for a living?

Fingers crossed. Don’t be wrestling a buffalo. Fingers crossed. Don’t be wrestling a buffalo.

He’s not wrestling a buffalo!

He’s standing with his brother in some very green, green place with mountains. And, above him, the text reads: “USA. Strong as an ox. Fast as a horse. Stubborn as a mule.”

Wolverine is a “crown jewel.” Colossus is a “big help.” Storm is worshiped as a goddess.

Thunderbird is a handful of generic animal comparisons.

And, be real, in the comic, in Grand Design, Thunderbird has a minimal presence in a handful of pages, then he dies and is never brought up again.

Aug 13, 2018

Infinity to Secret War: Jonathan Hickman's Epic Avengers Story, III

Jonathan Hickman first gained notoriety in the comic book world as the creator of the Image series The Nightly News.  Marvel brought him in to collaborate with Brian Michael Bendis on the excellent Secret Warriors comic, and it didn’t take long for Hickman to take over as the sole writer.  As the writer of the Fantastic Four, Hickman developed an ambitious long-form style of writing, full of complex big ideas.  This style would be used to even greater effect when he was handed the Avengers franchise in late 2012.  Hickman took over as the writer of the Avengers and New Avengers series, beginning an epic three-year long storyline that would eventually culminate in the massive crossover event Secret Wars.

Infinity to Secret War: Jonathan Hickman's Epic Avengers Story
Part Three
Ben Smith

The Illuminati watch as a noble team of heroes (analogues of the Justice League) successfully avert three incursions.  However, their worst fears are realized when this universe is on a collision course with their own.  The two teams, out of ideas on how to stop the incursion, fight to save their respective universe.  Dr. Strange uses the darkest magic to defeat the heroes, clearing the way for the Illuminati to use their antimatter bomb.

Yet, none of the Illuminati can actually follow through and destroy an entire planet, even if it means their own destruction.  As they wait for the end, Namor grabs the remote detonator, and activates it, destroying the opposing Earth.

Black Panther is livid, and has to be prevented from killing Namor on the spot, but the hostilities are interrupted by the notification that another incursion will occur in just three hours from now.

The heroes make their final rounds, not willing to build another bomb, and resigned to their ultimate fate.  As the final moments tick down, and arrive, and then time passes after without any consequence, the heroes of the Illuminati are left to wonder what happened.

What happened was that Namor, frustrated by the inaction of the heroes, re-forms a new version of the Cabal, full of individuals that won’t hesitate to do the dirty work of killing others to save themselves.


The story continues after an eight month time jump into the future.  Both Avengers and New Avengers now have a banner across the top of their covers, “In 8 Months… Time Runs Out.”  The entire world now knows about the death of the multiverse, and has fully sanctioned the actions Thanos and the Cabal are taking to save their universe.  Because of this, the world granted them the use of Wakanda as a base of operations.

The Marvel heroes are now divided into factions.  Most of the scientists have joined the Illuminati.  Captain America and a few of his most devoted friends have joined S.H.I.E.L.D. in an effort to find and prosecute the Illuminati.  The remaining Avengers not wanting to be involved with either side have joined Sunspot, who purchased A.I.M. and is now using their scientific might for good.

A.I.M. sends an assault team into the multiverse in an attempt to discover the true cause of the incursions.  This team consists of (the Unworthy) Thor, Hyperion, Abyss, Nightmask, Star Brand, and a group of Ex Nihili.

Namor makes a plea to Dr. Doom to help him corral the out-of-control Cabal, but he is busy investigating the incursions himself with (and this is where I get really interested) the Molecule Man, one of my favorite obscure villains.

The three disparate Avengers factions eventually come back together to try and maroon the Cabal on an Earth about to be destroyed by an incursion, at which time Black Panther takes an extra bit of (he thinks) revenge against Namor by trapping him with them.

However, Namor and the Cabal are saved when a second incursion happens at the same time, so they are able to save themselves by escaping to this third universe, where they are greeted by the Ultimate Reed Richards, aka The Maker.  This Reed had successfully saved the Ultimate universe over thirty times, all by himself.

Meanwhile, A.I.M.’s multiverse assault team has encountered the home base of the Black Priests.  They fight, but the conflict ends when the leader of the Priests reveals himself, Doctor Strange.  Doctor Strange explains that he and the Priests are merely caught in the middle of a conflict between the Ivory Kings and Rabum Alal.  The Priests kill worlds during the incursion in the hopes that if enough worlds are destroyed, the multiverse will heal itself, like “triage surgeons.”

Inspired by Valeria Richards’ suggestion that they need to stop trying to win, and start figuring out how not to lose, Black Panther and Reed Richards create a “lifeboat,” that will survive the destruction of the multiverse, and begin hashing out who will get to board it.

Yellowjacket (Hank Pym) finally returns from his covert mission into the Multiverse with the stunning identity of the Ivory Kings.  It turns out they are Beyonders, godlike beings from outside of the Multiverse bent on its destruction.  They’ve been busy killing all the Celestials and omnipotent beings across all the galaxies, finishing with the Living Tribunal, and now they’re ready to finish off the Multiverse.  (Molecule Man, Beyonders, this is right in the wheelhouse of my 8-year-old self.)

Dr. Strange and the Black Priests find the Library of Worlds, where they are shocked to learn that Rabum Alal is Dr. Doom.  (Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars, baby!)

The Multiversal assault team actually succeed in killing two Beyonders, with only Hyperion and Thor barely surviving that monumental clash.  They soon find out how hopeless things are, when a dozen Beyonders appear soon after.  They rush headlong into battle, and to their deaths.

After all the incursions, only two universes remain.  The Ultimate Universe, and the 616.  With the end drawing near, Captain America has only one goal before everything goes white, to beat the hell out of his old friend Tony Stark.  The battle is brutal and petty, and continues up until the universe goes white.

Before the white event, Dr. Doom explains to Doctor Strange exactly what is happening.  All beings are different in each universe across the Multiverse, except the Molecule Man.  The Beyonders created the Molecule Man to be a universal bomb that when they detonated, he would simultaneously destroy every universe across the Multiverse.

The Molecule Man and Dr. Doom traveled back in time to the origin of a Molecule Man on a separate Earth, and killed him.  Dr. Doom then spent the next 25 years trying to kill every Molecule Man in every universe, in an attempt to destroy the Beyonders weapon against the Multiverse.  Eventually, the death of a Molecule Man started the incursions.

Along the way, Doom inspired disciples to assist him in this task, the Black Swans.

The Beyonders created the Mapmakers to mark the movements of the Swans, seed sacrifice worlds, and chart each universe where a Molecule Man was destroyed.

Eventually, a faction of the Black Swans lost faith in him, and unwittingly began assisting the Beyonders in their goal by destroying Earths at each incursion point.  One of these Black Swans is the one that was held captive by the Illuminati.

With only two worlds remaining, Dr. Doom executes his final endgame.  He had worried that when the Beyonders found out about him traveling back in time, they would simply do the same and stop him, but Doom discovered the one weakness of the Beyonders is that they’re linear.

So, Dr. Doom and Doctor Strange travel to face the Beyonders atop a weaponized time machine, and when he throws it at them, all of reality goes white.

Thus begins Secret Wars, the true spiritual sequel to one of the most important mini-series of my young reading life, Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars.  Because of that series, Molecule Man, Dr. Doom, and Beyonders will never fail to inspire the utmost joy in me as a fan.  If you’re new to all this, and the idea of multiversal bombs and weaponized time machines don’t excite you, then comics really are not for you, and that’s okay.

However, if it does, then Secret Wars is truly one of the most ambitious comic events ever created.  Most of the regular Marvel publishing line was suspended for the duration of the event, and every significant storyline in the history of Marvel was revived in the ancillary tie-in issues.  Secret Wars was as grand in scope as it was in a publishing initiative, and while it wasn’t perfect, it was highly enjoyable.

But like I said, I’m the exact kind of fan this storyline was devised to appeal to.  I still think it’s well worth checking out for yourself. 

Aug 6, 2018

Infinity to Secret War: Jonathan Hickman's Epic Avengers Story, II

Jonathan Hickman first gained notoriety in the comic book world as the creator of the Image series The Nightly News.  Marvel brought him in to collaborate with Brian Michael Bendis on the excellent Secret Warriors comic, and it didn’t take long for Hickman to take over as the sole writer.  As the writer of the Fantastic Four, Hickman developed an ambitious long-form style of writing, full of complex big ideas.  This style would be used to even greater effect when he was handed the Avengers franchise in late 2012.  Hickman took over as the writer of the Avengers and New Avengers series, beginning an epic three-year long storyline that would eventually culminate in the massive crossover event Secret Wars.

Infinity to Secret War: Jonathan Hickman's Epic Avengers Story
Part Two
Ben Smith

In New Avengers, the Illuminati use Reed’s Bridge machine to observe other incursions as they happen, and eventually find out they can witness past events on a limited basis. Black Panther and Namor continue their uneasy partnership, a blood feud continuing on from the Avengers vs X-Men event, where Namor used the Phoenix power to devastate Wakanda. Elsewhere, Dr. Strange barters with his very soul to gain the kind of power it would take to move planets.

As the Illuminati watch more incursions, they begin to learn more about the various factions involved in the Multiversal events.


The Black Swans are the disciples of Rabum Alal (the true identity of whom is very exciting). The Black Swans operate out of the Library of Worlds, a place that exists between universes. The purpose of the Black Swans has not been revealed as of yet in the story, so stay tuned. A group of Black Swans rebelled against Rabum Alal, destroying Earths during incursions as an offering to him, and to buy more time for other universes.


Mapmakers were created by the Ivory Kings to chart worlds and mark the movements of the Black Swans. They travel the Multiverse through the incursions, stripping each Earth of all usable materials. Their occupation is marked by blue skies, instead of the usual red that signifies an incursion event. The Sidera Maris are their bridge builders, and are used to hold each incursion zone. What exactly they are charting is something that is revealed later, and involves one of my favorite obscure Marvel characters.


The Black Priests destroy intrusive Earths during incursions, with the hopes that destroying enough could stabilize the Multiverse. They are not truly alive, but are instead “animated things that feign life.” Their leader is — wait for it — another surprising twist in the storyline, but seems pretty obvious in hindsight.


The aforementioned creators of the Mapmakers, in direct opposition with Rabum Alal. The reveal of who and what the Ivory Kings really are is a moment that hits me right in the core of my longtime Marvel fandom. It builds directly off of a crucial storyline from my childhood, a comic that played a major part in my lifelong love of the Marvel Universe.

Over in the core Avengers title, many things are happening, and to be completely honest, I find them much less compelling than the incursion story happening in New Avengers. I’m going to do my best to explain what happens, because it is quite complicated in parts, but feel free to skip Avengers #24 - 34, because they do not have my recommendation.

Franklin Richards sends Tony Stark’s granddaughter backwards in time, to help them deal with a rogue planet that has been removed from it’s orbit and fired like a giant bullet towards the Earth. Instead of destroying the weaponized planet, she helps them to build a machine that will phase it into alignment with the Earth, creating a massive source of power that Stark can draw from to use in the coming months.

We learn later on that this planet was purposefully shot backwards through time by the Avengers from 5000 years in the future, a time when the Avengers consists of billions of universal superbeings. More on that in a minute.

A.I.M. is doing what they do, experimenting with the multiversal rifts that have been happening. They successful create a bridge between the 616 universe and one that is in the midst of an incursion, pulling that world’s Avengers over, only this team of Avengers is very much evil. The real Avengers end up battling the evil Avengers, until A.I.M. corrects their mistake and sends the evil Avengers off into an entirely new dimension where they can be happy, maiming and subjugating to their heart’s content. After successfully creating a door between universes, A.I.M. creates a new group of Adaptoids to send out into the multiverse to explore. However, the Adaptoids, well, they adapt past their programming, and end up meeting with and becoming Mapmakers.

Ultimately, the primary result of this story is that Bruce Banner absorbs enough clues between A.I.M. and Stark’s actions as of late to determine that Stark has reformed the Illuminati, and that the multiverse is indeed dying. As a result, Banner joins the Illuminati.

Captain America finally remembers the incursion events, and how the Illuminati wiped his mind after he accidentally destroyed the Infinity Stones. He grabs a group of the Avengers to confront Stark, and just as things are getting physical, the time stone reappears and throws them all into the future. First it’s 48 years ahead, then 5045, then 51,028, and so on. 5,000 years ahead is when they meet Franklin Richards, and he explains to them about the rogue planet, and he also explains to Cap that the Illuminati will fail. They will fail because the task is impossible, but also because they will be opposed by him.

Captain America is the only one that reaches the end of the line, as each jump sends more and more of his Avengers back to the present day, while he continues on. At the end of time he finds Iron-Lad, Kang, and Immortus waiting for him. They explain to him that they are all stuck in a temporal loop, and this journey has all happened before. Last time, they claim they told Captain America to go back and convince Stark to find a better way to combat the incursions, and it still failed. This time, they plan to have him help them destroy worlds to live. But all this journey through time has taught Steve, is to remember who he is. He fights to save people, he fights against monsters, and he doesn’t kill for the greater good.

Captain America tells Kang to shove it, and then returns to the present day, where the Avengers (minus Stark) are waiting for him. He knows what he has to do, and he declares their former friends in the Illuminati to be the worst enemies they know.

Most of those events and ideas sound much better in summary than they were to actually read. Not that they were terrible comics at all, but I remember reading the comics when they were coming out every month and it felt very much like they were stalling, and it still does. The main points to take away from this stretch if you decide to skip these comics, is that A.I.M. is up to no good, Bruce Banner has joined the Illuminati, and Captain America is more convinced than ever that the Illuminati must be stopped.

Next week, the countdown to “Time Runs Out."

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