Sep 26, 2018

Grant Morrison's Final Crisis: Genre Coding

In a few months, Grant Morrison will take over Green Lantern, and focus on the “space cop" aspect, which has been Green Lantern, Hal Jordan’s deal since his creation, fifty years ago, but something usually left to window-dressing, because he’s a superhero. Ten years ago, was Morrison’s first stab at coptalk Green Lanterns, at genuinely applying the rhetoric and practices of, if not real police, police genre, to the Green Lanterns, including Hal, in what was at the time, the best-selling comic from DC, Final Crisis.

Crime Story to War Story
Genre Coding in Grant Morrison's Final Crisis
Travis Hedge Coke

While issues were serializing, Final Crisis received grief, even from those enthused by it, for being “confusing,” for dialogue tics and the nature of its location changes. For, not feeling superheroic. In retrospect, it is easier to note that, while FC features many superheroes and supervillains, the structure of the storytelling is not superhero. It starts out, crime drama, the language and shapes of crime investigation television and novels.

The prologue, set in the distant past, is a boy learning how to stop a crime from occurring, by picking up a flaming stick, a proto-lantern, to take this back to the Green Lantern space cops, one of whom is featured on the cover of the first Final Crisis issue. The first current-day scenes are crime investigations and criminal activities. A retired police, investigating someone shot dead and left in a pile of refuse. The active space cops are called in on the same case. A retired detective (turned superhero), investigating missing children, finds her case crossing over with this murder.

Superheroes recovering missing/stolen property are assaulted by a drug-dealer and a rapist (who are also the supervillains Mirror Master and Doctor Light), concurrent to a march down Main Street by supervillains using an excessive force protest to distract still more police and superheroes… from the murder of undercover superhero/policeman, Martian Manhunter, by an organized criminal enterprise who video-record the death as an open threat and recruitment tool.

Our retired old cop from the beginning, Turpin? Led by a criminal-with-a-family into a club whose manager, a mysterious crime boss, might know about these missing kids and his decedent. While the space cops are having their investigation taken over by special forces/internal investigations, our ground level and retired Turpin is being pushed around by crime boss, Darkseid, and shown that those children are now sharp-toothed monster slaves.

That is how Final Crisis begins. Not with direct punching of crime in its supervillain-proxy face, but with leads, desperation, interrogations, and hope. Special crimes units, badge numbers, with cross-referencing of investigations. Kneeling on the pavement and looking for bullet fragments. Walking into clubs and asking the scary, well-dressed asshole at the back for anything, because you know you can’t arrest them.

In 2008, the audience for crime fiction was substantially bigger than that of superhero entertainment. Lot has changed, since then, but not as much as superhero diehards might want. The audience who understand the pacing and lingo of crime fiction probably still outweigh the audience who know the beats to anticipate with the average superhero comic. Superhero rhetoric can be more genuinely impenetrable to a wide audience, than the rhetoric of TV crime shows, but especially ten years ago, when everyone thought they were just a chance’s breath away from being a special investigator.

As Final Crisis progresses, we expect it to dip into tradition superhero arcs and paces. To make the laps we know, use the touchstones we expect. And it does, in its way. But, more, it goes from being a crime story to war. As the crimes expand in intensity and number to a global and then post-global scale, the tone and the genre markers adapt from knees on the the pavement, beating mooks with a toilet seat in a seedy motel room, to drafts, to armies, to fields of the dead and newspaper front pages announcing news from the front.

While “channel-zapping,” the quick scene changes or interstitial moments may have annoyed some people deeply expecting a superhero comic that reads just like any other superhero comic, a 2008 or 2018 television audience ought to have no trouble. What is a David E Kelley show without short bursts of music between scenes or a quick flash to check in on a character before moving to the next plot-moving sequence? If you can cope with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and numbers and talk say people undeniably can, what fear have you of Final Crisis?

The last big criticism, then and when the comic is discussed anew, was that it was too much about genres, about stories and comics and media, in metaphor and mimicry. Again, do these people not watch television? Have they heard no songs as an adult? Music talks about other music and itself, about movies and stories all the time. If you haven’t heard a song use the phrase “love story” or call out another musician or song this year, what are you listening to? How? Do you? Watch? TV?

“We immediately escalate everything to a ten,” to quote from It’s Always Sunny…, which could not exist without “talking about” all other TV that exists.

If anything, Final Crisis, was a little late in coming, except nobody else in comics was getting there, either, except maybe Jack Kirby, forty years before, and to be entirely fair to all everywhere, nobody really knows in the moment what Jack Kirby was fully accomplishing. Kirby comics are going to last because he got genre, he understood genre markers and audience expectations. Jack Kirby understood non-superhero audiences in ways other superhero talent of his age and eras and even those far younger and long after, have often not. The predecessors of Final Crisis, Kirby’s Fourth World comics, New Gods and The Forever People went full war story for pages or an issue, then gothic horror or gothic farce the next. Scenes and characters interwove in ways that felt, in the moment of reading, natural or drastic, but always almost naive. They were not naive. They were built that way; to do a job.

Final Crisis is a built thing. If you are expecting a submarine and you get a Lotus Elan, it is fair to be confused, even frustrated. But, if you are told you’re getting an Elan, you see the car, the car runs great, looks good, eventually, step back and go, Hey, yeah, it’s a car. Then, get in the car and go some place.

Sep 24, 2018

Roundtable: Transformers the Animated Movie

Transformers the Movie was released August 8, 1986 and made $1.7 million it’s opening weekend. It finished its domestic run having made a disappointing $5.8 million.  Its shocking violence and bold storytelling has since made it a cult classic. For the first time since, for one night only, you can catch the movie in select theaters.

Transformers: The Animated Movie
Comics Cube Roundtable

Duy: My family recently asked me which movie from my childhood is my favorite. I said it has to be Transformers the Animated Movie, seeing as how it's the movie from my childhood that evoked strong emotions (Prime's death, Rodimus opening the Matrix), gave me a kickass soundtrack, and is also the most quotable.

Ben: Easily the movie I've seen the most in my life.  There was a time there where I used to have it playing every night when I went to sleep.  Not as a young kid. This was when I was 24 years old.

JD: The best movie of all time.

Max: It took me a long time to realize this was a bad movie for anyone who didn't grow up with Transformers. I'd trade animation recommendations with mates, who would give me Akira or Nausicaa Valley of the Wind. They stopped trading movies with me after watching Transformers.  Then I checked out Leonard Maltin's movie guide book and saw that it got a "turkey" rating.

JD: I was lucky and saw this in the theater when I was six. I was so confused and in such awe. I think this sparked my love of going to the movies.

LaMar: I didn't see it when it came out in the theater, I had to wait until the VHS came out so I could rent it.

Matt: I did not see this movie until I was an adult. It does have a murderer's row of voice talent. Spock, Sir Robin, the guy from Unsolved Mysteries, John Bender.

JD: Eric Idle.

Jeff: First off, I'm a huge Transformers collector. I have been collecting on and off for over 20 years and while there are several collectors out there that live by the "G1 only" line I am a fan of all the different lines that have come out over the years. That said, aside from some really cool moments and lines, this movie isn't all that great. I never had a chance to see this movie in the theater when it came out. It took several weeks from release dates to when they would actually show up in the town I grew up in and given how poorly it was doing at the box office there was no way the local theater would pay to bring it in so I was watching season 3 before it was released on VHS, which means I saw the episode Dark Awakening before the movie and that didn't give me a huge desire to watch it. This movie meant more to me after I grew up and felt the nostalgia for the old series but that died off years ago. Perhaps it would have meant more to me if I had seen it in the theater and got to experience the shock of watching Optimus die. Season 3 pretty much spoiled the movie for me.

Ben: You’re banned.

Matt: Yeah, as a movie, it's not good. The animation hasn't aged well either.

Jeff: It was nothing special at the time either.


The best movie of all time. -JD

Max: The animation was a huge leap forward at the time though. I remember seeing all the little light effects and glowy bits that seasons 1 and 2 didn't have and I was wowed by that. Also the voices had an extra robot/tinny effect. Also, the new designs were an obvious departure: most of the new characters were generally "rounded" rather than "boxy". Except for their hands, which went the other way. The shit you notice as a kid, hey...

Duy: I think the animation has aged really well when you consider the context of the other animated movies coming out at the time that weren't made by the Mouse or by Japan. It's certainly the best animated out of the animated series tie-ins, and that's not even close.

LaMar: I didn't catch that Optimus Prime wasn't on the poster until I after I watched the movie. When it was over I stared at the VHS cover because I thought it would bring him back to life if I stared long enough to have him appear there.

Max: You did it, you turned the tide.

LaMar: That’s what soldiers do.

Antonio: Optimus and Ironhide had the best deaths.

Jeff: Ironhide by far had the best death.  Starscream’s was next.

Antonio: Starscream’s death was third.  Nothing beats Optimus knocking Megatron off that ledge.  Ironhide’s death is just plain tragic.  Dude is a total warrior.

Max: It was kinda weird how each Autobot on board the shuttle went just one step further than the previous one. Brawn bum rushes Megs- dies. Prowl sees this and decides to at least fire ONE shot- dies. Ironhide and Ratchet see this- decide to fire like crazy- they die.

Antonio: Huh, never noticed that.

Ben: Ironhide? He died on the ground like a chump.

Duy: I should add I'm not a Transformers fan. The movie is all I know. And the movie is awesome.  My only problem with the movie is like, that entire middle portion.  From Starscream's death to when they invade Unicron. And Wheelie. Anyway, it's weird how I'm not a Transformers fan and I love the movie. But I am a GI Joe fan and I hate the movie.

Jeff: The GI Joe movie sucked so bad it went straight to video.

Ben: The GI Joe movie is terrible, and a franchise killer, but I still love it.  Nostalgia is a bitch.

Duy: Whatever nostalgia I had for the GI Joe movie was killed in college when I watched it and realized they wussed out on Duke dying. But actually, the movie might have been exactly what ruined Transformers for me. Like I just expected it to always be on that level.

Ben: It’s impossible for me to determine because of nostalgia, but I do think Transformers is a legitimately good movie.

Duy: I think the Transformers movie is legitimately good, yes. I mean, fine, when Orson Welles died making it and he said it was trash, you can understand why he said that, but it's not like it's supposed to be the Sistine Chapel of movies.

Ben: Nobody likes Citizen Kane.

Matt: It’s so booooring.

Duy: And the animation is I think legitimately good for 1986.

Antonio: It was good for the ‘80s, and much better than the cartoon.

Duy: It's better than most episodes of 80s cartoons, it's the best of the 80s cartoon series movies, it's better than the Bay Transformers. Not that these are high bars.  But it's also better than most movies based on cartoons, actually. Better than at least two of the TMNTs (The first one and the animated TMNT would have it beat), better than all the GI Joes, better than the He-Man movie.

JD: Dude, its a toss up between this and the first TMNT movie. Maybe it's slightly leaning towards TMNT. That was my first event movie.

Duy: TMNT is one that doesn’t age well for me.  Can’t get past the rubber suits.

Matt: Yeah, the rubber suits and faces are unignorable.

JD: I don’t mind.  I watch rubber suits step on miniature cities all the time.

Ben: What’s the best scene in the movie?  For me, it’s Megatron’s transformation into Galvatron.

Duy: I'm torn between "One shall stand, one shall fall" and "Arise, Rodimus Prime."

JD: Best scene for me is also Megatron’s transformation in to Galvatron. But Prime’s “You got the touch!” scene is iconic. At least for me.

It's better than most episodes of 80s cartoons, it's the best of the 80s cartoon series movies, it's better than the Bay Transformers. Not that these are high bars.  But it's also better than most movies based on cartoons, actually.  -Duy

Ben: I made an audio recording (on an old portable cassette deck) from when Optimus lands until the Decepticons flee, so that I could listen to it in bed at night before going to sleep.

Duy: Hot Rod turning into Rodimus wins the "cool as a kid, lame as an adult" award.

Max: Sure, but he still had it when he was running against the backdrop of explosions before saying "Autobots, transform and roll out." This is before I knew what a Michael Bay was.

Duy: It was awesome before he turned into a minivan.

Max: Obviously, Optimus chose that mode for him, trolling from the grave.

Antonio: Yeah, his “soccer mom” minivan mode sucked.

Ben: Everything about the attack on Autobot city is amazing. The music really sells it. Obviously, this was the first cartoon where the good guys were actually dying, so the feeling of danger was very real. The lines, the action.

Duy: The Bravestarr movie does the whole thing with the Transforming city. Yeaaaaaah, on that one you know they were forcing it.

Antonio: When the Constructicons start forming Devastator and Kup is like “Fuuuuuuuuck.”

Duy: Devastator here is awesome. Then he shows up in Bay's Transformers and he's a joke and I cried.

Antonio: So who’s the most useless Transformer in the entire movie? FYI, the only correct answer is Swoop.

Ben: I’ll kill you! And it’s Wheelie.

Antonio: Wheelie saved the day!

LaMar: Wheelie ain’t shit.

Max: My favorite Dinobot in the movie was Snarl.

Ben: So here’s the hardest question.  Best quote?

Antonio: “You’re an idiot Starscream.”  “Such heroic nonsense.”  Tie between those two.  Both Megatron lines, proving they had a hard-on for him.

Ben: “You’re an idiot Starscream,” in one of my favorites, and one I still use a lot, but it’s not the best.


Antonio: “I can’t deal with that now.”

Duy: But no, for me it always was, always will be, "One shall stand, one shall fall."

Antonio: “Spaaare me this mockery of justice!”

Ben: “First we crack the shell, then we crack the nuts inside.”

Antonio: “Run Blaster, save yourself.”

JD: “No way, two can play.”

Duy: Blaster having tiny Autobots coming out of his tape deck is creepy. What the hell is Perceptor supposed to do? See far? They all have visors that can see far.

Max: Bro, microscopes see things that are close, not far.  But yeah, he sees far in the movie.  I don’t know why, it was a crazy time in their lives I guess.

Duy: He turns into a telescope, it’s the first thing he does.

Max: He’s a microscope, that… that… functions like a telescope.  Anyway, you’re wrong.

Duy: Blaster has little people coming out of him!

Max: At least you used the politically correct term.

Jeff: Minions, not little people.  Don’t be racist to them.

Ben: Have you thought he was a telescope for 30 years?

Duy: Being a telescope is the first thing he does!

Ben: Who is the best new character? Besides Ultra Magnus, of course.

Duy: Ultra Magnus is useless. Springer is the best. Springer number one.


LaMar: Springer had a sword, that was enough for me.

Duy: It’s clearly Springer, come on.

Antonio: A tie between Springer and the Sharkticons.

Ben: He doesn’t even do anything!

Antonio: He doesn’t have a potty mouth like Ultra Magnus. “Open dammit,” doesn’t make his lines better.

Ben: Anyway, the real answer is Galvatron

Antonio: Galvatron doesn’t have half the charm of Megatron

Jeff: Ultra Magnus, worst leader ever.

JD: What did Ultra Magnus do except fail Optimus’ last wish and cede leadership of the Autobots to Hot Rod, of all people?

LaMar: Shoulder missiles

Antonio: He nerd-shamed the team scientist.

Ben: He wouldn’t shut up!  A simple yes or no.

Ben: Ultra Magnus has the better voice, better lines, better toy, and is actually important to the plot. Remove Springer and it’s the same movie.

Duy: Vision is more important to the plot of Infinity War than Falcon, and Falcon is still cooler.

Ben: They’re both worthless.  As worthless as Antonio at an academic bowl.

Duy: You’re right, Vision and Magnus are as worthless as Antonio.

Ben: I hope you become an Unsolved Mystery, Tano.

Duy: There's the unsolved mystery of why he settled for the second lamest character in the movie.

Ben: He accomplished more than Springer, who did nothing!

Duy: Springer saved a quarter of a ship. That's a quarter of a ship more than Magnus did. Springer did that thing where he didn’t die. Because he had better things to do.

LaMar: Okay, that was good.

Ben: You’re still ugly.

Any other actor (than Judd Nelson) might have risked making Hot Rod/Rodimus unlikable...that was the hardest character to pull off. -Max

Duy: I forgot how Hot Rod's got some cool lines too. "If you're gonna ride, ride in style!" as he tosses Daniel into his driver's seat and transforms.

Antonio: Good animation sequence for such a tiny scene.

Duy: I think it’s the best animated 10 minutes of the movie.  Which is a shame, because the best part of the movie should have been the last scene.

LaMar: One thing I have to admit, Hot Rod lifting the Matrix and Optimus saying "Rise, Rodimus Prime" still gets me

Duy: "This is the end of the road, Galvatron." Hot Rod's lines are really underrated

Ben: Final question, who wins the “Val Kilmer in Tombstone” award as the dominant performance in the movie? Since it’s animated, we can go character or voice actor. Personally, I think Optimus Prime owns this movie and his death is the enduring legacy of it.

Duy: Prime.

JD: Prime.  Maybe Galvatron a close second?

Max: I'm gonna say Judd Nelson. Any other actor might have risked making Hot Rod/Rodimus unlikable...that was the hardest character to pull off. Plus he had the closest thing to a character arc, so he had to shift a few gears across his performance, which I don't think anyone else really had to do.

Jeff: I think you can give the Kilmer to either Prime or Megatron. Loosened from the rules of TV cartoons, Megatron was able to up the ante, but Prime’s arrival to turn the tide showed him turning it up a notch too and their fight is easily the best Prime vs. Megatron fight so far.

Antonio: Megatron’s just so sassy. Seriously some of the best lines. Optimus just because his arrival at Autobot City grabs your childhood by the front of its Izod alligator shirt and pulls you out of your seat onto your feet.

Max: Galvatron had some great lines, but I felt he was a bit standard as a baddie.  Not as interesting as Megs.

Antonio: Megatron should have been the one to kill Starscream, not Galvatron.  There, I said it.

JD: Latta being Latta gets an honorable mention for the Kilmer award. Starscream had some great moments, too.

Jeff: I just love how Starscream finally gets the leadership and bang, he’s killed off.

Max: Yeah, the replacement villains were all a bit cookie cutter compared to Megatron and Starscream.

Ben: I can’t argue with Nelson/Hot Rod. The movie is really his movie start to finish, and I didn’t leave hating him like some did. I guess I am going to argue against it by saying that even though it is his movie, Optimus comes in and steals the show for 10 minutes.

Duy: It's Hot Rod's movie, but Prime is the show-stealer, and the climax of the movie basically has Hot Rod turning into Prime.

Max: He gets his theme song and everything.

Duy: I mean, yeah, instead of being a badass truck he turns into a minivan. But still.

Ben: Seriously, whose idea was it to turn the coolest looking new character into a minivan?  Some executive was spitballing, “he needs to be more dependable, and have plenty of room for all of the kid’s soccer equipment.”

Duy: It’s totally because Prime was a truck right?

Max: All Autobot leaders must have storage space. It is a bit hard to divorce Cullen's performance from the impact of his scene, though. I mean Prime rolls in, basically defeats the Decepticon army single handed and then dies while passing on an (until now) unknown mystical artifact. Cullen sold it, but there's no other scene written like that in the whole film. Maybe Hot Rod's victory over Galvatron and transformation comes second.

Duy: That entire scene, from Hot Rod and Daniel fishing to Prime dying, is on a whole different level from the rest of the movie and makes it look much better than it is as a whole.

Max: Hot Rod seeing the Decepticons and just blasting away, biting off more than he can chew is still great.

Ben: I’ve always loved how he immediately opens fire.

Ben: I never considered Optimus a favorite as a kid, but I guess he turned out to be super necessary. He was like a parent.

Max: Yeah, I don't think I realized how important Dadimus Prime was to me until they took him away.

Ben: I wonder if the drop off wouldn’t have been as bad if they hadn’t replaced 90% of the characters along with him. I liked season 3, but it killed the franchise.

LaMar: Yeah they took that too far, corporate mandates and all that. It's a lot like what DC did with their stuff, throwing longtime fans under the bus for an in-the-moment rollout that wasn't thought out too well.

Ben: They figured they were all just toy commercials and that it wouldn’t matter because they stopped selling the older toys.

LaMar: That was stupid too, stopping production on the older toys.

Max: Really underestimated the emotional impact their toy commercials were having on a generation of kids.

As an adult, some of the season 3 episodes are pretty intriguing, experimental. -Ben

Duy: The movie is my only real exposure to the franchise outside of the toys. And even with the toys, we had Prime. So Prime really is by default my favorite.

Max: The movie was a hard shift in consciousness; not only was everyone you thought was important demoted, but death was a really, really blunt thing. it might have been a tad easier if the old cast of Autobots showed some of the ingenuity they had in the show before dying. but we went from, "guns don't kill and Autobots always have a plan that works" to " "Nope. Dead.” And then after the movie, you kinda had these expectations, and then season 3 didn’t deliver.

Ben: As a kid I was in regardless, I didn’t care. More Transformers any way any how. As an adult, some of the season 3 episodes are pretty intriguing, experimental.

Duy: As a college student who finally had access to episodes, season 3 was the one I was most intrigued in... something about what came after being more intriguing. But it was just not the same.

Ben: They stuck with the morbid theme, with ghost Starscream and zombie Optimus.

Max: On top of zombies and ghosts, even the addition of the Quintessons. They looked more grotesque than anything from previous seasons. Cyclonus and Scourge had a lot less fun as bad guys than the original cons, and Galvatron legit had mental issues and needed therapy.

Ben: By the time they brought back Optimus Prime, it was too late.  It was over.

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.