The Year of the Madman
Travis Hedge Coke
“A soldier thinks of death, dear Irene, no more than a merchant of his wares. We acquire it cheaply and sell it dearly.” - Darko Macan, Soldier X
“Resurrection is not for dogs!” - Ibid.
Roughly a dozen years ago, Marvel published a comic by two Croatian-born wonders called Soldier X. For eight monthly issues, the comic tore open the concepts and conceptions of priests, soldiers, servants, saints, mobsters and parents, holy duties and mercenary actions. Of course, it was not marketed as the story of servants and traumas, as a comic about God and debt, purpose, pain, and journalism. It was a revamp of popular piecemeal 90s character, Cable, during a time when even namechecking the character was a bit embarrassing (hence the title, Soldier X, a phrase applied to the research files on him because even the government agents tracking him down were tired of hearing, saying, and seeing the name and all it implied). Soldier X was advertised, little as it was, purely on those grounds. “Here is Cable, but not like Cable is, so please, read this even if you’re embarrassed to be reading Cable.” Far as I can tell, though, Darko Macan (the writer) and Igor Kordey (the artist), didn’t care about that at all, because not only are those eight issues solidly astonishing, emotional, angry, vibrant comics, they also - along with the support of colorists, editors, and letterers - created the best Cable story anyone’s ever going to do.
The pessimist in me says that this was, if there ever was one, a comic to be half-assed. And, I am in love with Macan and Kordey for not giving it anything but their top game. Not only is every individual issue a solid story, threading together the lives of multiple, rounded characters around the central concern of Nathan Summers, the man called Cable Soldier X, but the comic also plays several long term games, from the obvious overarching thematic concerns and the conceit of everyone tracking down Nathan, to the unforeseen but delicious developments, like the in-world recognition of the incongruous recap pages a different character had been providing each issue until that issue’s choice forgot to do his duty. Soldier X doesn’t slow down or repeat itself for any presumed-dim audience, but soldiers on in strong form. Kordey’s art (and Macan’s script) provide pages that strobe along beautifully moment to moment, or use a tight focus or the occasional pulling back of the readerly eye to enhance a detail or jerk us away from intimacy that had only just been carefully encouraged.
And, what art! Kordey’s work is often called “unattractive” by even complimentary reviewers or readers, but it isn’t not-attractive. It’s the allure in Munch paintings, Tom Tykwer’s Perfume or Kevin Reynold’s The Beast. His artwork, in particular his brilliant cover paintings, are not commercially sexy. They are, however, intelligent, brutal, forward, and sometimes genius. His internal art can be muddy, rounded, loose, wild, maybe even thickly applied, but it is ferocious and articulate, always. There is a liveliness in Kordey’s use of caricature and cartoon that makes more romanticized and “perfect” faces and superhero bodies look mundane in their manufactured sameness. Every face and body that Kordey delineates has a story it is telling, the wrinkled brows, squinting eyes, half-smiles, broken teeth, weak knees, strong arms, the gangsters with crucifixes around their necks and the women with their heads tiredly on their desk.
When Nathan is introduced to his, he is - in a sign of much religious iconography and classical posing to come - crucified, wearing not a superhero costume but heavy pants and a torn t-shirt, hair cropped close, body not Superman-bulging but tightly muscled, fit and strung up presumably to die. We will see him later as an impatient and bloodied child, as a meditating longhair, with mobs pursuing, with legions reaching out to him in hopes of a messiah, as a distant friend communicating through a diary. But, that initial visual is the one we will see the most and it is consciously designed.
So, too, though, secondary characters like the journalist, Irene Merryweather (who is our PoV for most of the first issue, and a framing figure for much of the rest), jovial loudmouth, Dragonfly, shit-talking cyborg, Geo (who should be an influence on the mad-at-America shit-talking slavic cyborg in Warren Ellis’ Secret Avengers run, if he wasn’t), are all fully and strongly characterized by their faces, bodies, and body language, as much as they are by their idiosyncratic dialogue, agendas, and tastes (no two characters alike! no fat on this comic!). The sad, unfixable child, Magdalena, prostituted out as a healing saint by gangsters, the church, her townsfolk, and, at different points, both her parents, is used like a surgical knife on us, as we read, and she is an efficient blade because the visual of her is sharp and the hands that weird it are steady and know their craft well.
This is as much Magdalena’s comic as it is Nathan’s. Or, her mother, Vera’s comic. It is Irene’s comic. Blaquesmith’s. Geo’s. Ours. While most American comics are titled for their main character(s), from Archie to Green Lantern, Beetle Bailey to X-Men, Nathan isn’t called Soldier X in the comic, it’s a term applied to what might be him, where he might have been. It’s isn’t his comic, it’s a comic about his influence, his existing, but implicitly and explicitly, if he exists then so does everyone else in the comic, equally, hold their place. A mob seeking a healer to cure their diseases and injuries gleefully transfer their faith from the aforementioned young girl, Magdalena, to crusty old Nathan. The SHIELD agents pursuing Nathan around the world happily accept a mechanical arm being kept as a religious relic as belonging to Nathan, but it’s actually Geo’s. Geo is also pursued by Russian gangsters because, while they look otherwise nothing alike and are unlikely to ever be put in a lineup together, they do both have one mechanical arm.
With issue titles like The Siege of Saint Lenin and images of cruciform shadows falling across worn faces, votive candles, halos, and Nathan Summers crashing through stained glass to enter a church and stop a child from being made to kneel and kiss the diseased boils of a gangster as her mother videotapes it, this is much more than a purely narrative comic about things happening, it is concerned with how things seem, with how things feel and what they imply. Relics are as significant as genuine people. Rumors and stories carry world-altering potency. A mutant healer sitting, having been resurrected, atop the head of a giant, praying, angel-winged Lenin statue that Nathan scales as a haloed and crucified christ in green-rusted copper eyes him from the ground below, isn’t even scratching the surface of how much iconography and semblances play into Soldier X. The cover of that issue even casts Nathan, himself, as a hammer-wielding statue, bare-chested, belt tight, goggles up on his head, clearly ready to work. And what work would a mutant from the future do, when he has defeated his lifelong enemy and ostensibly saved his time, trapped in ours and traveling eastern Europe?
Soldier X wouldn’t even stay in Manhattan like a good Marvel comic is expected to (to the point where the promo for the next team after Kordey and Macan assures us “Next month we… return Nathan to the good ol’ United States!”). While Irene and the SHIELD agents stick to New York, Nathan his having dinner in Moscow or taking a bullet in Krasnaya Polyana. He seeks out a plane in midair over Kashmir, children being tossed out of it, walks right on the air towards the plane’s door, and asks the children to come out to him, a well as any of the soldiers who want to join him, keeping them all aloft as the plane goes down. In Singapore, they have made a movie of Nathan’s reputation, an action epic full of guns and cool poses, while in a rural town somewhere, Nathan sits and prays, teaches some to fly and helps others to walk.
Under Kordey and Macan, Soldier X leaves us with the same duties it puts on us at the beginning. It is for us to weather, ruminate, to accept or discard elements, and to make sense of the world presented. Readers are never provided anchors, though we are given anchoring points. Scenes and characters are like chains, strong and expertly made, but it is our call whether we tie ourselves up with them or use them to haul something ancient and glorious onto the shore to dry and shine. The glory and the grief we find may be reflected in Nathan or in Irene or Magdalena, but it is ours, intimately, and we are left with it after those characters have disappeared in the final pages of the comic (or resurrected in the next comic, as the case may be). Like the story of how Nathan’s arm resides in a reliquary, the low-budget action movie of his life, the prophesies of his past, or the eternal anticipation of a next issue, this story, as well, as purely a story.
“The memory is still sour.” - Ibid.
“Now I know I am neither soldier, nor priest, nor a hero. I am a man who has been in too many wars not to dream of peace.” - Ibid.