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.

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