Tuesday, July 7, 2015
Artist: Stuart Immonen
Collects: All-New X-Men #1-5 (2013)
Published: Marvel, 2013; $24.99 (HC), $19.99 (TPB)
All-New X-Men, Vol. 1: Yesterday’s X-Men is one of the most compelling superhero time-travel stories in years. The X-Men have featured in more than a few such storylines over the last several decades, with a staggering number of the franchise’s major characters hailing from one alternate future or another. It’s become quite a lot to try to keep track of, and it wouldn’t be inaccurate to characterize X-Men continuity, at this point, as being just shy of impenetrable. In All-New X-Men, though, writer Brian Michael Bendis scales back the onus other writers have often placed on the reader by effectively reversing the conventions of the typical X-Men time-travel story. The series makes no demands of us to keep track of alternate pasts, presents, and futures; the dystopic world it takes as its subject is our own.
The book’s high concept is that the Beast, in an effort to show a newly militant Cyclops the error of his ways, has brought the original five X-Men from the past to the present day. Much of the story takes place from the viewpoint of the time-displaced X-Men, thus casting a spotlight on just how far afield the franchise has come from those early issues by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. To the original X-Men, in fact, their present-day incarnations are often entirely unrecognizable – literally so, in the cases of Iceman and the Beast – with the notable exception of Jean Grey, who in the present has been dead for quite some time. The original Jean thus takes on an almost messianic quality in the eyes of several characters, including Storm, Wolverine, and Kitty Pryde – all strangers to this Jean, as they weren’t introduced until years after Lee and Kirby left the original series. Wolverine is especially affected by Jean’s “return,” and perhaps as a result his relationship with the time-displaced X-Men is the most vexed of any of his peers.
And while the young Cyclops’s showdown with his present-day self serves as the book’s climax, it may be Warren Worthington, the Angel, who ultimately inspires more pathos than any other character in Yesterday’s X-Men. While Bendis doesn’t give him a lot to do in this volume, Warren effectively closes the book with perhaps the most heartbreaking lines imaginable in a story so obsessed with the disparity between past and present: “No one is mentioning me. No one is talking about what has happened to me, Bobby. Where am I?” Although the dramatic irony of Warren’s question will be lost on those unfamiliar with the events of Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force, the overall effect is still to underline how unsettlingly bizarre the world of the X-Men has become in recent years.
This volume’s only real weakness is that the original X-Men don’t get much face-time for the first few issues it collects, which focus more on the present-day Scott Summers and his efforts to establish a team of new mutants. As such, we get various de facto origin stories for new characters taking up space in a series ostensibly focused on the five original X-Men, and as a result we don’t see much of our protagonists until about halfway through the book. Bendis is setting up in these first few issues for his run on the rebooted Uncanny X-Men, which centers on Cyclops’s new team and began just a few months after All-New X-Men. Why that series couldn’t have just launched concurrently with All-New in order to give the original X-Men more time to develop on their own is anyone’s guess.
But the real issue that arises from Cyclops’s presence in Yesterday’s X-Men is that it undermines one of the book’s central premises: that what Cyclops is doing is terrible enough to warrant the Beast’s mucking about with the timestream in order to stop him. In point of fact, though, the Cyclops we encounter here seems pretty darn reasonable; while he engages in violence against “normal” humans with some frequency, he does so without killing anyone and only in order to save the lives of otherwise defenseless mutants. Thus, while future volumes in this series will see the characters of All-New X-Men come to view Cyclops with a greater degree of complexity, for the time being their opposition to Cyclops seems pretty thinly motivated.
Like many recent Marvel collections, Yesterday’s X-Men utilizes the company’s “Augmented Reality” app, which allows smart-phone users to access extra content by scanning obnoxious-looking red boxes littered throughout the book. This isn’t the first collection I’ve encountered with this “feature,” but it’s one of the more shameless in its execution. In one scene, Kitty Pryde prattles on about her concern for the Fantastic Four when they don’t answer her phone call; the panel’s “AR” box, when scanned, takes the reader to a minute-long advertisement for Matt Fraction’s Fantastic Four and FF series. It’s one thing to do a little tongue-in-cheek cross-promotion via editorial captions – a tradition inaugurated by Stan Lee himself in the early Silver Age – but it’s another to present such content as “bonus material” that adds value to a book. (Lest we forget, it wasn’t so long ago that collections like this cost a whole five dollars less.)
These criticisms aside, All-New X-Men is certainly one of the more interesting and original series to come from Marvel as of late. Despite the time-travel hook, Bendis seems committed to focusing on characters more than making a further mess of X-Men continuity, and for that reason alone I’ll be paying attention to where this series goes.
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Artists: Eddy Barrows, Eduardo Pansica, Trevor McCarthy, Geraldo Borges
Collects: Nightwing #1-7 (2011-12)
Published: DC, 2012; $14.99
If Scott Snyder’s aim in Batman, Vol. 1: The Court of Owls was to revise Batman franchise history at the macro level – by introducing the idea that Gotham City could be controlled for decades, without Batman’s knowledge, by a secret society of criminals – then Nightwing, Vol. 1: Traps and Trapezes operates at the opposite extreme. It revises franchise history at the micro level, by exploring the relationships between Nightwing (Dick Grayson) and several new characters with ties to his circus roots. The book’s strength lies not in its revelation of major “secrets,” but rather in its supporting cast members and the catalyzing effect they have on the main character.
The most interesting of the new characters is Raya, a redheaded woman who looks strikingly like Dick’s on-again/off-again love interest, Barbara Gordon. When Haly’s Circus returns to Gotham City and Dick sees Raya for the first time since his parents’ death, sparks fly between them instantly. (The book insists, ridiculously, that Dick’s parents were killed five years ago, which would make Dick around 19 or 20 years old – despite the fact that he and Raya are clearly portrayed as being in their mid- to late twenties, at the youngest.) In this respect, Traps and Trapezes is the polar opposite of a book like Batman: The Dark Knight – Golden Dawn, which does a comparatively poor job of retrofitting a new character into the history of an established one. Golden Dawn’s greatest flaw was that, for all its efforts to play up Dawn Golden’s importance to Bruce Wayne in scenes set during their childhood, her characterization in the story’s present was positively nonexistent. Where Traps and Trapezes succeeds, by contrast, is in its making Raya an integral part of the story’s forward momentum, rather than dwelling on her and Dick’s past relationship.
The fact that Raya has little in common with Barbara Gordon, apart from her looks, is an important element to the story. Their differences are underscored when Barbara guest-stars (as Batgirl) in the book’s fourth issue; whereas Raya teases Dick about fairly mundane topics (his never having seen The Godfather, for example), Barbara is more interested in Dick’s feelings and emotional well-being. Although Dick seems to think he’s happy with Raya, there’s an obvious distance behind her beauty – even before the story’s reveal that she is reluctantly helping Saiko, a mysterious assassin who serves as the book’s primary antagonist. The story’s focus on Dick, rather than his superhero alter ego, is underlined by the fact that Saiko is trying to kill the former; at first, he fails to even realize that Dick and Nightwing are the same person. In this sense Saiko is fairly analogous to the antagonist of Court of Owls, who initially hunts Bruce Wayne, not Batman.
The similarity of the threats Batman and Nightwing face in these two books is revealing in regard to both characters. The most compelling element of Court of Owls is its protagonist’s stubborn hubris – despite mounting evidence, Batman refuses to believe that there could possibly be a secret society at work in “his” city – and that element is largely absent from Traps and Trapezes. Dick whiles away weeks of story time without investigating either Saiko’s attempts on his life or the secret history of Haly’s Circus, despite its being hinted at by several other characters – a very un-Batman-like mode of operations. This is perhaps most surprising because Dick actually took up the role of Batman for a number of recent issues, some of which are collected in Batman: The Black Mirror (which, this book explicitly reminds us, remains within post-New 52 continuity).
In fact, the very point of this story seems to be to differentiate Dick’s crime-fighting methods from Batman’s, and in that respect the characters’ vastly different approaches to problem-solving accomplish the task. Traps and Trapezes ends with Dick’s repudiation of the nostalgia that fuels the very ethos of Batman’s mission: “We’re not defined by our tragedies or our turning points,” he thinks as he speeds away from the Batcave on his motorcycle, “we’re defined by the choices we make in the face of them.” If Batman’s war on crime is motivated by revenge, then, it would seem that Dick’s isn’t so much “motivated” at all as it is simply reactionary.
Although writer Kyle Higgins establishes Batman’s fixation on the past as problematic, he resists portraying Dick’s approach as faultless by comparison. It’s the character’s inattention to the past, in fact, which brings about so many problems in the present and keeps him relatively in the dark until Saiko conveniently explains himself in an expository info-dump near the story’s end. And then there’s the final scene, in which Dick angrily confronts Bruce Wayne in the Batcave only for Bruce to lay him out with a single punch. (The same scene also appears, from Bruce’s perspective, at the end of Court of Owls.) There’s more to Bruce’s actions than a lack of anger management – by punching Dick, he knocks out a tooth embedded with an alloy which would have transformed Dick into a mindless killer – but his methodology is disturbing, and Dick’s unquestioning acceptance of it is enough to indicate that he has yet to separate himself fully from the ways in which Batman traditionally operates.
The fact that this is the only scene in the book in which Bruce Wayne actually appears doesn’t help; more interaction between Dick and Bruce throughout could have given the scene more impact for both characters and made for a more thematically coherent climax. It’s not the plot’s only misstep, either – about halfway through the book, the story comes to a grinding halt with a ridiculously out-of-place issue about a rhyming demon who comes for the soul of a circus clown. It’s unclear at this early point in the series whether plot developments like this one are actually laying the seeds for future stories, just as it’s hard to tell whether the shakiness of Dick’s outlook toward his crime-fighting career is a character flaw Higgins plans for him to work through in future volumes, or just the result of lazy writing. Traps and Trapezes has enough strengths, though, that I look forward to searching out the answers to those questions in the next volume.
Saturday, February 7, 2015
Artists: John Byrne, John Romita Jr.
Collects: Uncanny X-Men #138-143 and Uncanny X-Men Annual #4 (1980-81)
Published: Marvel, 2013; $19.99
Although The Dark Phoenix Saga is most often cited as the high-water mark of Chris Claremont’s comics-writing career (and, in particular, of his much-celebrated collaboration on The Uncanny X-Men with artist John Byrne), it’s a story of relatively little social force, a fantasy more in line with the likes of Star Wars than with the more politically radical genre narratives whose attitudes Claremont would seek to emulate in his later work. Of greater political and ideological interest, I think – especially given the allegorical weight the X-Men franchise has been invested with in recent decades – are the issues Claremont wrote directly afterward, collected in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Here we see Claremont’s writing in a state of transition, grasping at the social consciousness he would achieve a year later with X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, and yet also falling noticeably short of it.
At the heart of Days of Future Past is a two-part storyline set, in part, in a dystopian future in which mutants have been hunted nearly to extinction by giant robots known as Sentinels. The last remaining X-Men – Kate Pryde, Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Franklin Richards, and the red-haired psychic Rachel – conclude that their only hope is to change the past, and so Kate is vaulted back through time to prevent a political assassination in the series’ present day. Now possessing the body of her younger self – who has only recently joined the team’s ranks, as “Sprite” – Kate leads the X-Men in thwarting an attack on the U.S. Capitol, saving the life of the anti-mutant Senator Robert Kelly in the process. Whether Kate has succeeded in changing the future, however, is left an open question. (Later storylines, beginning with 1990’s nearly unreadable X-Men: Days of Future Present, would reinforce time and again that she did not.)
The reader is reminded with some frequency that events in the “present day” take place on October 31, 1980, described by the narrator as “the final Friday of one of the closest, hardest-fought presidential elections in recent memory.” And yet, despite setting the story at such a culturally charged moment, Claremont misses the opportunity to make anything more than a vague political statement. The only presidential candidate introduced to the reader is Senator Kelly, and what role his McCarthy-esque anti-mutant hearings play in his presidential campaign is never made clear. Ronald Reagan appears not once, although, as in real life, he would apparently win this election (he appears much later in Claremont’s run on this series, in 1986’s Uncanny X-Men #201).
Confusing things even further, a brief epilogue set a month after the election depicts the president re-activating the Sentinel project. The president appears only in shadow in this scene, although he is obviously (and, by historical necessity, must be) Jimmy Carter – who, if he has indeed lost the election to Reagan, could not realistically possess the political influence necessary for such a move. The attempt to conceal Carter’s identity is all the more baffling considering the fact that he had made a full appearance in the series just a few years earlier, at the height of the original Phoenix Saga.
Any potential for a coherent political commentary in Days of Future Past is thus lost in the book’s ambivalent attitude towards real-life figures and events. Furthermore, I think a great deal of its falling short in this sense can be contributed to artist John Byrne. While he’s credited as “co-plotter” on the issues collected here, the partnership between Claremont and Byrne had in fact all but broken down by this point, with Byrne often drawing scenes in direct contradiction to Claremont’s scripts; the issue following the two-part “Days of Future Past” would be his last on the title. One of the major contributing factors to the book’s confused politics, I would argue, is Byrne’s avowed refusal to draw figures from real life: the aforementioned Jimmy Carter appearance was in fact ghost-penciled by inker Terry Austin. Byrne was notorious, as well, for using his favorite characters (especially Wolverine, who Claremont didn’t care for and planned at one point to write out of the book) as vehicles for his own right-wing views.
It should come as fairly little surprise, then, that a book “co-plotted” by Claremont and Byrne would possess something less than clear political sensibilities. Nor should it surprise us that the story’s most pointed political statements occur only in its script. A caption accompanying an otherwise innocuous establishing shot of the Pentagon, for example, ends with a surprisingly perceptive diagnosis of America’s renewed militarism at the turn of the 1980s:
This is the Pentagon, the largest building of its type in the world, command headquarters of the mightiest military machine that world has ever known. To many people, it is more truly representative – for good or ill – of the reality of America than the White House or Congress just across the Potomic [sic] River.
Claremont addresses the post-Tonkin breakdown of the checks-and-balances system even more pointedly later, in this exchange between civilians fleeing the story’s climactic battle: “‘Good grief! That sound – someone’s bombed the Capitol!’ ‘Yeah – and it was probably the White House that did it!’” As in the narration, Claremont’s politics begin to come through only where Byrne is literally unable to erase them.
While initial printings of Days of Future Past included only Uncanny X-Men issues 141 and 142, an additional five issues have been included since the publication of the 2004 trade paperback edition; the added content begins three issues before the book’s two-part title story, and ends with the issue that follows. Despite the inclusion of a John Romita, Jr.-drawn Annual that relates only tangentially to the rest of the book, the new contents make for a more thematically coherent narrative than in previous editions. The first issue collected not only wraps up The Dark Phoenix Saga with Jean Grey’s funeral and the departure of Cyclops from the team, but serves also as a flashback-filled recap of the franchise’s nearly twenty-year history to this point. It ends with the arrival of a new student to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters: Kitty Pryde, whose character arc forms the crux of the 2004-and-beyond editions of Days of Future Past. The effect is to de-emphasize the dystopian and alternate-future aspects of the title story itself; newly framed, rather, “Days of Future Past” serves as a super-powered bildungsroman starring Kitty Pryde.
However, this shift in focus also further reduces the impact of a story already weakened by its artist’s failure to endorse the politics of its script. As we can see from later texts, Claremont’s politics would only become clear after he became the sole plotter of his work; in fact, as if to herald what was eventually to come, the first issue of Uncanny X-Men following Byrne’s departure was drawn (but not co-plotted) by Brent Anderson, who would go on to collaborate with Claremont on God Loves, Man Kills. We might well view Days of Future Past as not just the end of the Claremont/Byrne era, then, but also as the start of a progressive sensibility that would be fully realized only in the years that followed.