Aug 19, 2015

Common Criticisms Revisited: Peter Milligan’s X-Men

Common Criticisms Revisited: Peter Milligan’s X-Men
Travis Hedge Coke

In 2005, after Grant Morrison’s New X-Men had wrapped up, and Milligan/Allred’s X-Statix was over, the the X-world was looking like Sammy the Fishboy and Emma Frost playing baseball.

Peter Milligan moved onto X-Men, for better and or worse, along with Salvador Larroca, Danny Miki, and Liquid! on colors. For twenty-two issues, with backup from various parties, they took a small team of X-Men and their relatives through a mix of class horror, religious weirdness, romantic comedy, indulgent action and vigorous silliness.

This X-Men run could have been my favorite, ever. There are some killer moments (Emma getting ready to cut off her own cheek with a pair of office scissors; Lorna’s happy face when pursuing Daap; Nightcrawler trying to be nice to his mom), some fantastic new characters (The Leper Queen; Bling), amazing character work, good drama… but it’s not. It’s a run I’ve revisited a lot, even though I don’t think of it as my favorite. There is a lot going for it. What went wrong?

Too Weird

For some readers, Milligan’s X-Men, which is really a toned down sort of Peter Milligan comic, was just plain too weird. There’s an entire arc revolving around the blood of an ancient mutant, a killer in a hockey mask obsessed with cleanliness and blaming mutants for her daughter’s death, an alien fungus that engenders fear and paranoia. Doop’s creepier, less pleasant-looking double, Daap. And a subplot of Mystique trying to break up her daughter (Rogue) and her daughter’s boyfriend (Gambit) so she can set him up with a “better” man of her choosing, while they’re realizing that not being able to touch each other probably kept them together more than it really was a hindrance to their relationship.

I tend to look at it two ways: One, the X-Men already involves psychics, magic, alternate realities, space aliens, time travel, and other madness, and Two, this is a very tame Milligan comic. This is not Skreemer. Skreemer is weird. Skin or The Extremist have a serious frisson of this is not right. This is not that.

But, there are kinds of weirdness, and the kind of weirdness here is not necessarily the kind normally found in X-Men comics. When Mystique disguises herself as Foxx, the semi-psychotic jailbait that everyone falls for (or rolls their eyes at), to sow dissension between Gambit and Rogue by macking on him, it is not nearly the first time we’ve seen Mystique look like a little girl or make herself “more attractive” to seduce someone. She really hadn’t combined the two, though, or done it for what might — uncomfortably — be earnest reasons.

We can’t tell, in this run, if Mystique is ever being honest, ever on the level. When Apocalypse and his body-of-stone second engage in their big machinations, we cannot be sure they’re even sane, that any of it will make sense or come to anything. What’s the big alien fungus that generates paranoia want? What sort of comic is this where we’re asking what the big alien fungus might desire?

Pulse Wouldn’t Fix Rogue’s Problems

This uncertainty, especially with Mystique’s motivations, worried a lot of readers. Chief among the concerns was that her plan for her daughter was selfish, absurd, and not going to work out. The man she’s selected, a thief named Pulse (who I would bet was a proxy for a not-available Fantomex), is not a great fit for Rogue. And, Rogue does have a boyfriend. And, is a grown woman who can pick her own men. And, doesn’t particularly like or trust her adoptive mother.

There’s nothing in the comics that imply that it has to work, though, or that Mystique isn’t trolling everyone or just that messed in the head. Some characters worry that she’s just causing trouble, while others actively fear that she actually means all of this in a good way. Plus, she did, as part of her plan, make Gambit feel he’s a pedo cheating on his girlfriend and beat the snot out of an actual teenager who got uncomfortably rapey about her when he thought she was being a tease.

Ultimately, giving an answer to her “true motives” would probably cheapen what energy and consequences her actions have. But, saying her plan is dumb is the same as saying any of Magneto’s plans, from conquering small countries, enslaving cavemen, or building a robot nanny to watch the X-Men are dumb plans. Of course they are.

The plans of X-villains aren’t workable, or the X-Men probably wouldn’t want to stop them so bad. But they are good for making the X-Men fret.

The X-Men Were Too Neurotic

Milligan and Larroca’s X-Men is all about anxiety. In a serious way, the talent are the villains of the piece, because they are torturing the X-Men. The in-story villains represent, in very naked, purified ways, abstract concepts of control, fear, lust, blind love, futility, impotence, self-loathing, and death.

Frankie, one of the mutants involved in a riot in Southern California, is a third rate Wolverine and he knows it. Funny hair, some weird skin markings, thick claws tipping his three-fingered hands. When he kills another mutant for looking at him in a way that makes him feel ashamed, nervous, Boy, leader of the riot and former pool boy comments, “Listen to me. He was an albino with virtually no skeletal matter. Compared to him, no one looked funny.”

Frankie can’t see himself as an albino with virtually no bones sees him. Emma Frost cannot see herself, her position in the X-Men or her life history, the way that Wolverine can see her (while not seeing himself so well). None of us know ourselves very fairly, but mutants, it seems, can seriously suck at it with the power of supreme soap opera dynamics.

Gambit and Rogue try psychic liaisons, since they cannot physically touch, skin to skin, without serious harm. Emma Frost, resident telepath, assists, similar to her engagement with Cyclops that led to she and he having a psychic affair, but it’s on Rogue and Gambit to maintain the illusion they want. Gambit, being Gambit, slips up and replaces Rogue for a moment with another woman. A seemingly-underage other woman, who is his student. If Emma or Frankie cannot keep their real situation straight, Gambit can’t even keep his fantasies in line.

Havok’s determined to renew his romance with Polaris because he wants to be his brother and prove he can keep his first girlfriend forever while Cyclops is with another woman (and his first girlfriend is dead). Polaris is in blind love with a weird, manipulative thing she saw in space. Iceman is trying to be with Polaris because he feels threatened by Havok, and clearly has issues with being close friends with a woman without feeling uncomfortable or emasculated. The more emasculated Iceman gets, the more transparent he actually seems, physically, turning into purer and purer ice as he pleads and retreats.

Actually, that the characters are, here, all tightly-wound balls of extreme repression and stress is the comic's best feature.

Spinning Wheels

It’s worst feature might be that halfway through, the comic hits a holding pattern as the line, overall, sorts itself between big crossover events. Milligan reportedly denies credit for one of the ONE issues, wherein piloted Sentinel robots stand around the X-Men’s front lawn, keeping them under house arrest and acting as a forty-foot subtle reminder that humans like to build big ass robots to aid in the capture or genocide of mutants. The issues have a lot of his hallmarks, so I imagine he did contribute to them, but who knows what changes were made? What was fait accompli? It’s unlikely that they would feel like such spinning wheels that never touch ground, if Milligan and Larocca had been freed from the shackles of some other book’s status quo.

Too Much Social Issues

While not Holy Terror (or The Fixer, for that matter), this run was pretty political, especially, maybe, by general X-Men standards, where, usually, politics goes as far as “racism is bad” and “the UN was pressured into giving Magneto a nation to rule as dictator, but it’s okeh because he’s a well-intentioned mass murderer who was sweet on Rogue that one time.”

For me, it was refreshing to see someone authorize an X-Men mission into space, grateful for their saving the day, but also eager to keep the press away, to ensure that no one turns the X-Men saving the world into mutants being heroes or anything.

Classism, racism, brand savviness, the family unit, nationalism, sexism, grief, trauma, doopsexuality… a lot of issues were highlighted and turned round and round for examination. Often, it was satirical or semi-satirical, and other times a concern could be so bluntly positioned before the reader that it became hard, as a reader, to be sure what the authors’ full intentions were.

Some folks weren’t annoyed by it being too issue-y, but were upset that the issues are addressed or turned around, but not solved.

Was Night of the Mutants a race riot? A protest? A class uprising? Cover-up for a mass murder and the beginnings of a cult?

What did the pretense of the ONE pilots walking their Sentinels around the grounds of the X-Mansion actually gain anyone? Is it in earnest? Is it just a dog and pony show using four-story tall genocide machines? Are people really looking at this as serious? At a man rejecting old school Soviet Communism for an ape-based philosophy his ape allies have rejected or a mass murdering houseboy as serious political signatures?

Nothing Got Wrapped Up

Peter Milligan doesn’t seem all that interested in tying up, neat with a pretty bow, his runs on properties he doesn’t own. It has happened, inasmuch as Shade got tied up neatly a few times, but Elektra, Justice League Dark, Infinity Inc and this run just sort of enter new phases in his last issues. Fair enough, right? There will be more stories with these characters.

But, in a fandom where closed runs of more than a dozen issues are becoming a kind of mark of accomplishment, the sort of emotional or narrative closure seen in this run (and, similarly, the other three runs I mentioned) doesn’t seem to cut it with the fan who wants one last giant apocalyptic battle for it all.

The final arc, "Blood of Apocalypse" is apocalyptic, but not in the blowy-uppy sense. It’s revelatory. Characters, including Apocalypse, see the world with new eyes, understand even themselves anew. Apocalypse spends much of the arc sitting. The final issue is almost entirely talking, hugging, characters lying on the floor looking up into someone’s face… and a brief fight between several wound-too-tight X-Men with no villain to pummel.

Gambit and Sunfire take off. Polaris splits, to go find herself, and it’s inevitable that she’ll be back. In fact, I think someone (Brubaker?) brought her back in less than five months’ time.

There’s never a full accounting of the Leper Queen. It’d be less interesting than the sense of mystery, or her own avoidance of truth, anyway, but convention would be to explain explain explain.

Just how nutty is Apocalypse? We may never know. It takes three licks to get to the center of that oversized blue and gray mutant.

The nature of Daap and his relation to Doop? The origin of the fungal invasion from space bearing connections to the mythical place where Christ was crucified? What Mystique was actually up to? Would Rogue and Gambit have actually made it without interference from meddling parties? Is Lorna crazy? Is Iceman? None of it is really addressed or cleared up. Why doesn’t anything from "The Apes of Wrath" play back into the rest of the run?

The Art Was Baaaaaaad

Larroca gets a bad rap on this run, and I’ll admit, it’s not his finest work. It does progress into something superior by the time he’s doing washes and pacing out the final storyline as a standalone arc, but that’s after how many issues?

Larroca doesn’t communicate the atmosphere of non-fight scenes, and since the run opens with a horror story and follows that with a New Girl at School melodrama, and other developments are a house arrest story, a comedy of transformations and supervillain machinations, Bobby Drake’s long and weird road of repression and paranoia, Wolverine feeling old and old-news, and loads of psychological drama and only short bursts of action, being only solid with the action is not good.

It is not bad art, though, on its own. It may sometimes be an ill fit, but at worst it’s competent, and in general it is superior to the substitute artist, Roger Cruz, even though Cruz does some very cool things, himself.

There are some brilliant tracking shots, and some genuinely harrowing scares. Tasked with a number of old characters and new, Larroca manages to make it all look apiece. Rogue closes her eyes when she’s going to be kissed, managing to look dopy and sincere and really cute about it. No one wants to get too close to Iceman while he’s iced up, which is subtly sold by him trying to mack on Polaris, only to have her hug at arm’s length or kiss his neck by pushing out her lips and standing back from him. Bling, jealous of Foxx fawning over Gambit and, basically, not over her, starts dressing like Rogue.

Larroca managed to make the Chuck Austen-designed (that is, vaguely ripped off from a videogame source) costume for Polaris work, by drawing it without trying to make it look good or flashy, just a sad, gaudy Halloween costume on a woman trying to hold it together.

But, the colorist ends up having to establish a lot of the atmosphere, by coloring “scary” scenes dark, serious scenes in somber tones, and action with some bright flashes of powers. No slight to the colorist, but they shouldn’t have to try to do the heavy lifting that way. Without the coloring - sometimes even with - the horror and action and romance all look fairly same-same, with no change in angles, emphasis, or style. The fights between normal-sized mutants and giant robots are cool until you realize that nothing is ever done to sell the size of the Sentinel robots, and in some panels, thanks to perspective choices, they're the same subjective size as Colossus or Havok.

Foxx is presented as every straight man and queer woman’s fantasy girl, and maaaaaybe Milligan has scripted this as an ironic goof in the vein of how many people fall for Doop’s apparent in-story sexual attractiveness and charming personality, but if so, it doesn’t play either. It isn’t sexy or funny, it’s just off. Ultimately, that’s my problem with the bulk of the artwork, not that it’s poor draftsmanship or anything, but that it isn’t funny, or sexy, or scary, or exciting, it’s competent enough, it’s fairly cool sometimes, trying to be better, but it’s toneless and awkward.

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