Reading “Welcome to the Working Week”

I think the phrase these days when you’ve missed a thing is that you “slept on it” (or something like that; I never presume to fully understand the latest internet slang), and it sort of feels like that with Crowded.  I guess the series has been running for about a year now, and I mostly ignored it because I was neck deep in WicDiv as the comic I was most keenly obsessed with.  Since then I’ve tried to read a little more widely, but I still have relatively narrow tastes (just because I can afford to read some series on a monthly basis instead of waiting for trades doesn’t mean I’m eager to just pick up whatever #1 strikes my fancy), and my general vibe was more deep emotional dives grounded in existential angst.  Crowded, if you’re just going by the elevator pitch, is a satire about the technological dystopia we’ve created for ourselves with a big helping of gunsplosions.  I’ve read the writer Christopher Sebela’s 2015 series Welcome Back, and while it had a strong emotional core and an interesting romance, it didn’t totally grab me.  There are some conceptual similarities between that series and Crowded, and I wasn’t sure I’d find the premise compelling for more than a few issues.  Nonetheless, it kept popping up in my Twitter feed (mostly because I inadvertently started following the series’s editor, Juliette Capra, for WicDiv related reasons), so I eventually picked up the first trade.

Our heroines wielding their weapons of choice. (Cover by Ro Stein & Ted Brandt; Image credit: Comic Vine)

I am now hooked, and I plan to read this series to its end.

Naturally, there’s a pretty distinct difference between a comic series that I will enthusiastically read and one that I will enthusiastically discuss at length.  As I sit here thinking about what to say about Crowded, I find myself feeling the tension between those two mindsets.  Ten minutes in the future everything is just slightly more terrible than it is now except that Janelle Monae has been elected President of the United States and I honestly wonder how much mental bandwidth to spend thinking about all the ways that the rich and powerful have engineered society to fail us in such spectacularly stupid ways.  Every story has its pet issues, and Crowded beats a pretty steady drum about the techpocalypse.  The reason our two main characters, Charlie and Vita, are thrown together is because the concept of regulating something like murder has become so difficult in the face of app-driven crowdsourced slaughter that the government has essentially thrown up its hands in defeat.  I get enough of “people are going to shoot other people anyway, so why bother?” in the real world every other week; the prospect of discussing it in the context of a comic series’s witty observations about the thoroughness of our societal self-own feels daunting.

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Look, if everyone outside the Wendy’s were trying to kill me, I’d hug you too. (Artwork by Ro Stein & Ted Brandt, colors by Triona Farrell, letters by Cardinal Rae)

And somehow despite that trepidation, I’m still eager to explore the characters of the series.  They’re pretty familiar types: Charlie scrapes together a living with twenty different side hustles while being the most obliviously terrible person in the world (there is a reason she’s been tagged with a million dollar bounty, and it’s only partially because of whatever shady conspiracy is happening far in the background of the story), Vita has a tragic past full of regrets and should-have-beens that drives her to be the best bodyguard she can be, and Dog is the adorable internet pet that people have, apparently.  The supporting cast is full of sketches of the most obnoxious types the internet has produced, from the unwashed jerkwad teenagers who treat their computer expertise as a free pass on basic empathy to “Hey guys, how ya doin’?” Youtubers who push the limits of poor taste in pursuit of engagement.  I kind of hate them all, but Charlie and Vita’s dynamic as odd-couple fugitives from no law works to terrific comedic effect most of the time and is deeply resonant as a picture of a couple of lonely folks trying to find some kind of connection in the always online present.

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Charlie, you are the worst and I kind of love you. (Artwork by Ro Stein & Ted Brandt, colors by Triona Farrell, letters by Cardinal Rae)

That idea gets more explicitly displayed with Vita, who clearly hates everything modern with her 1950s sedan (complete with tail fins) and antique house that smells of old people, but it also seems to be simmering under the surface with Charlie as well.  What must it feel like to live a life with virtually no roots and an endless stream of meaningless interactions that get quantified into a 1-5 star rating in some tech company’s database?  These two need each other even if it kills them.  Of course, being basically a buddy comedy, they probably won’t actually die; still, I hope that things get plenty harrowing along the way, particularly since I can only say so much about a bunch of tech jokes.  This first issue, for all its thrills, is primarily just world and premise setup.  Charlie mysteriously finds herself the target of a crowdsourced assassination campaign on the app Reapr, so she hires Vita through the Dfendr app to be her bodyguard for the duration.  If Charlie doesn’t die before the month’s up, then the campaign ends with no payout and she’s immune from being targeted by future Reapr campaigns.  It’s unclear at this point why she specifically has attracted so many backers, but that will just be a fun mystery to tease out for a while yet I’m sure.

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And then there’s this adorable little monster. Everyone needs an internet mascot to help boos their brand. (Artwork by Ro Stein & Ted Brandt, colors by Triona Farrell)

Reading “9: Self-Insert”

In retrospect, I should have realized that Die was going to take aim at broader concepts of fantasy and fiction than just what you get in the realm of role playing back with issue #3 when Gillen decided to do a Tolkien pastiche that reveled in the parallels between the battles of Middle Earth and the Great War that shaped Tolkien as a young man.  Yes, Lord of the Rings serves as the most obvious fantasy forebear to Dungeons & Dragons and all the RPGs it spawned, but it’s also the common ancestor of a huge swath of modern speculative fiction.  You can’t set out to play with the conventions of story games without also banging into the conventions of story.  The chief conceit of this issue seems like a foregone conclusion in retrospect.

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The Jailer’s kind of scary looking, but I’m into it. (Cover by Stephanie Hans)

The cover of the issue highlights the Jailer, whom we saw briefly in issue #8.  Her deal gets explained in a lot of depth in the issue, although just based on the cover I can’t help gravitating towards her visual similarities with Ash.  Both are women in these elegant, vaguely gothic dresses (although the Jailer’s is definitely a little more Regency inflected for obvious reasons), and their peculiar eyes are highlighted as major signifiers of their power.  Ash, as a Dictator, has a disfigurement around her left eye that signals her abilities to anyone who may not be aware, although she keeps it obscured most of the time; the Jailer wears a veil to hide her own eyes that have a strange glow to them.  Given Ash’s comments about the tame Dictators who serve Angria, I at first figured that the Jailer must also be a Dictator.  It turns out that she’s something much more interesting, and now I’m turning over the significance of eyes as a visual motif in several of the central characters.  It can’t just be a coincidence that the Jailer also shares some visual traits with Sol, our party member who gleefully put out his own eyes in order to replace them with the D20s as a marker of his bid for power in the game world.

It’s obvious on re-reading the issue that Gillen is letting the idea of vision and sight do some heavy lifting with the larger concepts he wants to explore with this dive into Die’s background.  The revelation that the game world is simultaneously the fantasy world created by the Bronte siblings in their youth bends the sense of causality around the history of everything that’s preceded the party.  It should be sort of mind bending, but in light of the lore that Gillen’s built into the real world analog to the game, it feels incredibly sensical.  The true nature of Die is still very much a mystery, but I can easily take it as a given that there’s a certain timey-wimey aspect to everything which allows Sol to have discovered a pristine pre-human fantasy world that has also been inhabited for over a hundred years by the creations of four English child geniuses (I find myself idly wondering with the Brontes and Tolkien earlier if Gillen has any intention of exploring the fantasy creations of people from outside England).  Die is a Protean sort of thing in the classical sense; its form fits the wants of its (hosts? guests? victims?) while giving them a snatch of the divine.  Your Die campaign maps just as easily on this thing as Sol’s, after all.  It’s built into the rules.

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Oh, that’s a relief because I’m still trying to figure out what Die is after. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Of course, all this talk of Die’s malleability leaves out the other major theme of the issue: fantasy and escapism are costly things; the price of shaping story is typically unseen until it’s hollowed a person out.  This stuff all resonates perfectly with Gillen’s resolution on The Wicked + The Divine, but then it goes and extends the metaphor of godhood as inviting a kind of self immolation by suggesting that internalized storytelling, while quieter, can be just as devastating.  The Pantheon wreak havoc on everything around them in their quests for redefinition; Die’s shapers hurt only themselves directly but then leave ruins that resonate out to affect others they touch.  We must never forget while everyone copes with the horror of their ordeal inside Die, their families are forced to cope with the sudden wretched absence of people who are fixtures in their lives.  If the book Die plays with the love/hate relationship we all experience with escapism and its effects, this issue leans incredibly hard on the hate aspect.

We can talk about the fun that Gillen has with bringing major figures of English literature into his horror fantasy comic (he does love playing around with tradition and legacy) when we discuss the appearance of the Brontes here, but the broad point, if you’re looking for a tl;dr version of the issue’s assertion, is that the indulgence of fantasy incurs a heavy burden on its connoisseur.  The Brontes one by one succumb to illness that this comic posits had a supernatural cause in the form of Die’s predilection to suck its victims dry.  It’s a compulsory sort of thing that they can’t escape regardless of their own inclination towards or away from Die.  There’s likely a bit of a highfalutin pun buried in there about the nature of mortality, which feels very on brand, all things considered.  Regardless, the Brontes’ attitudes towards Die seem to only inform their relative creative success; the cost of having played there at all seems to be the same regardless of the reward.  There’s no middle ground.

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Charlotte tries to let it all go, but even shutting the world out only delays her early death slightly. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, colors by Elvire de Cock, letters by Clayton Cowles)

This is the great conundrum that we find with the Jailer’s story.  If Die is akin to the creative spark, the drive to build fantasy worlds that satisfy some deep-seated need the real world can’t give us, then there’s no real hope for us.  We either embrace it wholeheartedly and let this material world collapse around us, or we resist it and feel ourselves get slowly worn down by the thing in our guts constantly tugging while we try to keep grounded.  Either way, Die is going to happen.

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Thanks, Charlotte. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading Something

I have been blogging about comics long enough now that I’m aware of this weird lull when I find myself between long series.  Consistently at the end of each macro series I’ve gone through, I’ve cast about for something new to enjoy on a more granular level.  Having finished up with The Wicked + The Divine, I’m back to wondering what I should fill my Wednesday blog post with going forward, especially as the other series I’m most interested in reading and writing about on a regular basis begin to dwindle.  I have a few series that are waiting for me to look at in my Comixology library, but I’m a little hesitant to commit to a series that I don’t know I love yet; when you write a thousand words a week about something, you probably need to enjoy spending a significant amount of time with the world itself.  Apart from that, I find that it’s also generally a better idea to go with something that you know has a definite ending.  When I started writing about Ms. Marvel I didn’t have a specific endpoint in mind, and I found myself looking for a convenient jumping off point after a couple of story arcs specifically because the serialized nature of the book made it hard to consider any larger macro plots that were going on in addition to the simple fact that Kamala Khan’s adventures are fun and interesting, but they are not especially complex in comparison to some of the other series I’ve gravitated towards (this is not to say that fun and interesting isn’t enough to blog about; I’m still going strong on Life is Strange at present even though I fully recognize there’s a a bit of repetition to Max, Chloe, and Rachel’s ongoing dynamic).

Given all that, I’m doing a poll.  I’ve done one of these in the past to help me pick a new series, and it got… very little attention.  I partially blame Twitter for that, because I am not an aggressive promoter of my things and my poll definitely got swallowed up in the stream without regular reminders from me.  This one’s going to sit on my website for a week, so maybe it will get a little bit more play.  Obviously I can make my own decision in the end, but there is the very much an aspect to crowdsourcing this decision that doesn’t get enough attention: I want to write about things that I enjoy writing about, but I also want to provide entertaining content.  The base motivation for all this is that I want to talk about the cool stuff that I’m reading, and it’s really satisfying to know that folks have opinions about this stuff too.

Below, I’ve put together a poll of series that I feel pretty comfortable committing to, at least for a few months.  To clarify a few things, I’d be resuming Ms. Marvel where I left off before at break between volumes 3 and 4.  With Squirrel Girl I may examine story arcs over individual issues simply because it’s a comedy series that runs on friendship and jokes, and I can only say so much about jokes.  Saga is a massive undertaking as it’s only halfway completed at this point and it’s already more than fifty issues into its run.  I have written briefly about Phonogram in the past, but I continue to have the itch to re-read it because it feels like a series that gets richer with repeated exposure.  Pretty Deadly is a series that I always feel has so much rich material for discussion, but the aggressively literary bent it has always intimidates me slightly.  The current X-Men books under the Dawn of X relaunch are mostly very good with a larger cohesive story carrying on in the background if the #1s for the new series are anything to consider, but they are also mainstream superhero comics, which are fun, but can occasionally drift into relatively thin excuses to draw lots of punching.  If a reader happened to have some other series I’m not considering here that they’d want to recommend, then I’d be all for hearing about it.  I mostly just want to have some conversations about comic books.

Reading “Strings – Part 1 of 4”

I think I spent the time in between each issue of the second arc of Life is Strange anticipating major Chloe/Rachel drama because it just seemed so obvious to me that at some point they were going to have to deal with the possibility of a long distance relationship and the total availability of Max.  All that stuff ultimately took a major backseat to the more immediate plot revolving around Tristan’s introduction to the book, which makes sense given the need to expand the cast a little bit beyond our three heroines.  I mean, I could read stories about the friendliest of love triangles each month with no problem, but I suppose there does have to be something else going on in between the feels dumps of long chats about relationships.

It’s really fun when covers play with familiar iconography and graft it onto character concepts. (Cover by Claudia Leonardi; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The standard cover of this issue wraps around the book in two parts with a playing card motif.  On the front we have Max, Chloe, and Rachel looking like they always belong in a deck of cards (I know this is not a novel visual concept, but it still delights me when I see it) with one face down card set beneath them.  On the back it’s revealed that that card is Tristan, throwing a bit of chaos into the group’s relatively well-ordered lives.  It’s a nice thematic nod to the way that Tristan’s introduction in the previous arc has precipitated a major upheaval in the status quo of Max’s life.  Last issue closed with her promising to tell Chloe and Rachel everything because of what had happened since she’d met Tristan, and given the utterly bonkers nature of Max’s backstory (“I come from a different timeline where everyone you know and love is dead except me, and also there were a lot of murders and other dark stuff that happened”) the usual associations with playing cards like fragility, uncertainty, and the whims of fate are totally apropos.  For the purposes of this issue itself, Tristan’s relatively minor; he’s there, but it’s also very clear he would rather not be because there’s a lot of baggage that Max needs to unpack, and it’s not the most comfortable thing for someone she’s just met to witness along with her close friends.

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This is the whole issue in one wordless panel. (Artwork by Claudia Leonardi)

The entire first half of the book is just these four main characters sitting in their apartment unpacking everything that’s happened with Max.  It’s like an extended recap of the entire Life is Strange series, but with added feels.  Rachel is understandably upset by the thought that there’s a reality where she and Max never met because she was murdered and also by the realization that Max and Chloe totally got together in the aftermath of that trauma.  Chloe seems to process everything much more efficiently, which I guess makes sense given the fact that she’s the focal point of all Max’s positive feelings.  It’s honestly amazing how much better adjusted this Chloe is than any of the other ones we’ve seen; as soon as she groks that Max left a different Chloe behind, she’s down with the idea that Max needs to try to leave.  This Chloe’s doing okay; the other one lost everything.  Max seems mostly relieved that she’s finally shared this massive secret she’s been sitting on for two years, and Tristan would just like to get away from all the awkwardness of this very complicated living situation.  Given his powers, this is so on brand for Tristan it hurts.

Because the first half of the book is a massive feelings and data dump, the second half packs in a fair bit of set up for this story arc.  Rachel flirts with Dex, the High Seas’ keyboardist (who maybe is signalling that he’s trans or just that he needed a cooler name for his musician persona) and it comes out that the band is touring the East Coast next, with their first stop being an arts festival that is also where Rachel will be going for her acting gig.  Chloe announces that she’s going to travel with Rachel, and we can all see that this is rapidly going to turn either into a road trip story or the majority of the cast is getting sidelined so that we can focus more on Max and Tristan’s misadventures with superpowers.  I obviously am hoping very much for the former, which is almost a guarantee that it will be the latter.

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Rachel is having a bad day. (Artwork by Claudia Leonardi)

Random Bits

  • The background designs on the cover are Tristan’s shirt design and the spiral icon that Max presumably drew on the note board in the kitchen (itself a callback to the original game’s rewind visuals).
  • Max recognizing the sculpture as a representation of the Arcadia Bay storm continues to tease that there’s something weird going on with Chloe, who we’ll remember has been getting unwitting flashes of things from Max’s other reality.
  • Tristan apparently thinks he could use his powers to step through dimensions, which, yeah, okay.
  • Rachel is deep in her feelings, and I want that explored so much more.
  • Just give me a High Seas spinoff already.  The more I see of this band, the more I want stories centered on them.

Reading “8: Legacy Heroes”

Typically I would wait a couple weeks before jumping into the next Die issue, but seeing as I took a month off from writing about comics, I need to do some catch up on the ongoing series that I’m reading.  I figure that if I work out thoughts about issue #8 now, that will give me a little breathing room to think about issue #9, which I read immediately after #8 and needs some time to process.

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Yellow is an extremely sad color when you desaturate it enough. (Cover by Stephanie Hans)

The star of this issue is Matt, and the cover reflects that fact indirectly.  It’s been clear for a while now that the sword he carries serves as the focus for his grief powers, and the sword’s sentience revolves around trying to make him as miserable as possible.  We’ve seen little bits here and there where the sword needles at him, but this is the first issue where Matt’s relationship with his weapon is more fully explored.  The blade of the sword serves as the focus on the cover, surrounding by sickly looking flowers with thorny vines and deaths’ head moths hanging about them.  In the reflection we see Matt’s wife and daughters set above a grave with a skeleton in repose at the bottom (probably meant to be his mother, who died when he was a child).  The entire composition reflects how the sword feeds off of the grief of its owner.  It’s one of the most somber covers the series has presented so far.

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The sword is mean, but its single-mindedness about making Matt miserable almost gives its whole trolling schtick a comedic tone, especially when Matt tells it to be quiet and it does. Almost. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The structure of this issue focuses on Matt as he copes with the burden of waiting while other people do important things.  Ash’s half of the party have arrived in Angria, a realm that apparently runs on the subtleties of court intrigue, and Matt’s character class is not suited to that type of play at all.  In the rules for the Die game, Gillen describes the Knight classes as built for players who want a straightforward, combat heavy experience in terms of mechanics.  We’ve seen this within the story before as Matt is very good at killing things that get in the way of the party physically moving from one place to another, but he’s not really suited to encounters built around the soft skills of role playing.  This issue begins with him and Angela having a conversation about how useless they feel waiting around while Ash does all the talking; Angela’s decided to do a solo sneaking mission back in Eternal Prussia to gather intelligence because that’s what she’s best at, and it will save her the trouble of metaphorically sitting at the table while the GM focuses on the party diplomat for an entire evening.  Matt doesn’t have the luxury of being able to generate a task for himself, so he’s relegated to the most miserable and familiar task of his life: waiting.

What we know about Matt before we reach this issue is laser focused on two formative experiences in his life: first, the death of his mother when he was a child, and second, a life-threatening illness that his daughter had when she was younger.  Matt’s emotional core is grappling with the sense of helplessness that accompanies grief; his entire character concept is built around being able to take this abundant useless resource and turn it towards something that’s at least temporarily cathartic.  In Angria he can’t do that because it would be counterproductive.  Because of the frustration that is bound to well up from having nothing to do, we get this story where Matt doesn’t directly interact with the larger plot, but he gets some spotlight time to explore his character.

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BE SAD. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The lead up to Matt’s solo outing is literally ten pages of him waiting around just trying to pass the time.  He has conversations with his sword and with Ash primarily, and we get a boat load of world building exposition that I’m sure will be important later, but isn’t really that consequential for Matt in the moment.  It’s mostly just distraction to keep him from dwelling on his inefficacy in the present moment.  When the call to adventure does come (in the form of an NPC literally wandering into the tavern where Matt and Ash are hanging out to deliver a cryptic note) there’s a massive shift in visual tone.  The waiting sequences are all done in washed out yellows and browns, and the beginning of Matt doing something opens on a double page spread in these vibrant greens and blues that have been so rare in the series as a whole up to this point.  There’s some sense of foreboding as Matt enters the Eightfold Temple (the lingering question of when exactly he would have chosen the grief sword if Sol assigned him the Grief Knight class before they began the game is an interesting one), but it’s overridden by the sense of satisfaction that things are happening.  The entire sequence in the temple is filled with these intense colors keyed to Matt’s conflicting emotions; he’s having a major moment of temptation in the sequence, and it feels Deeply Significant ™ in ways that the before and after don’t (again, despite the fact that lots of very plot relevant things are happening just outside of Matt’s view in this issue).  That the sequence ends with Matt feeling like he’s had some catharsis following the chance to beat up some mooks and the colors coming back down to that washed out yellow feels totally on point.

In the end the side quest with the Eightfold Temple is very tenuously connected to the larger plot; Matt’s defeat of the representatives from the Joy Knights’ Order serves that most cliche of RPG tropes: earning the aide of a potential ally by demonstrating your superior strength in combat.  By proving that he’s definitely the Knight Paragon, he gets the Joy Knights in line to help Ash’s larger plan to build a coalition that can fight Eternal Prussia while also trying to find Chuck and Isabelle.  Of course, all Ash’s careful maneuvering gets overridden when Isabelle shows up to confess that the party is responsible for the destruction of Glass Town, so Matt’s adventure was once again mostly just an exercise in obscuring the futility of his position.  We’ll see if this theoretical coalition matters to the plot in the future, but for this moment its apparent mootness underscores the emotional reality that the issue wanted to explore with Matt.  Often we can’t actually do anything but wait, and one of the most common refuges from the creeping grief comes in the form of relatively hollow distractions and temporary catharses.

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ARE YOU STILL SAD. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading “7: Wisdom Check”

First things first: it feels very strange to be back to blogging about anything other than my own drawing right now.  I spent a month straight drawing stuff and dashing off little thoughts about it on a daily basis, and all of a sudden I’m done with the rapid pace activity and need to go back to my old creative routine.  I mean, I know I don’t need to do that, but there’s been a definite itch in my brain to get back to discussing stuff that I find fascinating, including the pretty large back log of comics I’ve been meaning to read.  Theoretically this post will go up on Wednesday, which is the same day that issue #9 of Die is supposed to come out, and I still haven’t read #8 because I didn’t want to get it all mixed up in my head before I could really process and unpack this issue, #7.  I mean, Chuck’s a genuinely awful person, right?  I don’t see a way to read this story and conclude that he’s redeemable; the whole point is that he has all the self awareness he needs to learn to act better but he just doesn’t give a flip.  I can have compassion and empathy all day for fools who repeatedly fail because they just don’t understand themselves, but Chuck’s the opposite of that.

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I’m sure there are layers of unlucky symbols in Mistress Woe’s design that I don’t recognize, but I do appreciate her pet black cat immensely. (Cover by Stephanie Hans)

Pause that rant.  Let’s talk about the cover; unlike previous issues that highlight one of the five party members, the primary cover for this issue features one of Isabelle’s chief divine creditors, Mistress Woe.  She’s shown toying with the D6 that Chuck sports as a lucky earring, giving a solid sense of what the main thrust of this issue will be.  We’re going to see how far a Fool is able to push their luck when they’re playing directly against a god of misfortune.  The intervention of the Mourner also suggests that there’s going to be some interesting bits related to Isabelle explored here.  She and Chuck approached their decision to stay in Die from very different angles, and it’s an excellent point of tension to consider how they might continue in their little alliance when they want such drastically different things from their time in the game world.

The overriding sense that I’ve gotten from Isabelle up to this point in the story is that she’s someone who revels in her regrets.  Everyone in the cast has their own ghosts haunting them, but the deeply internal self flagellation that Isabelle engages in seems specific to her.  Mistress Woe’s price for healing her after the incident in Eternal Prussia is the public reading of her teenage diary to a congregation of devotees to the Godbinder, and despite this public humiliation (which only Isabelle perceives in that way), when this issue opens we see that Isabelle is still recording her thoughts.  I mean, I get that once you get in the habit of writing about yourself it can be hard to stop, but the subject matter of Isabelle’s reflections seem laser focused on how she screwed up.  There’s processing what you did wrong to avoid doing it again in the future and there’s whatever she’s doing.

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The writing’s almost compulsive, isn’t it? (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The issue primarily is about Chuck though.  From beginning to end the structure feels like a mix between a picaresque and a morality play as he stumbles from one misadventure to the next with the apparent purpose of learning a lesson.  The only thing that doesn’t line up is the fact that Chuck is not an innocent fool getting embroiled in things bigger than him, nor is he actually changed in any meaningful way by his final encounter; he’s the catalyst for his own bad luck who throws his weight around until it blows up in his face (and long after he’s harmed everyone in the immediate vicinity).

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Chuck is like the worst parts of Simone and Brent from the last season of The Good Place mixed together. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

It’s significant that Chuck’s three major encounters in the issue are centered around characters with varying levels of development as parts of the game world.  The Titan’s a mindless monster that we don’t even see Chuck fight because it’s just a mindless hack-and-slash sequence.  He doesn’t think it’s a big deal, and so it gets as much narrative time as you would devote to any of the boring parts of a story.  The dwarves Dour and Delighted are one-note NPCs, but Chuck spends extra time with them because he relates to their simplicity.  The elf queen is the most developed of the characters, but she’s just as easily dismissed because Chuck is the kind of person who can dismiss other real people without a second thought.  He’s the embodiment of solipsism, looking only as far as how others in his proximity affect him.  Regardless of the actual status of Die’s world as real or imaginary, Chuck’s callousness is unflappable because everything is a game to him.  His argument at the end of the issue that he has to be this way because it’s how he survives in Die doesn’t quite hold water after we see what increasing success in his real life led him to do.  This is where the secondary structure of the issue, as a morality play, becomes more prominent.  When Isabelle asks Mistress Woe to play with Chuck as a way of teaching him a lesson (what is the precise lesson supposed to be, anyway?  Don’t mess with Godbinders?  Actions have consequences?  People deserve to be treated like people?), the expected outcome is that there will be some sort of circumspection.  Gillen likes to play around with structure though, so while there’s the possibility that Chuck might have an epiphany as he describes treating his real ex-wives like the fictional character he’s just bedded, the inverted result is that he concludes real people are no more significant than fictional constructs.

All of this stuff about Chuck’s callousness further establishes the contrast that was set up between him and Isabelle when they originally opted to stay in Die.  While it should be pretty obvious that Isabelle is not the totally selfless paragon that she imagines herself to be (the deal with Mistress Woe is ultimately petty and meaningless at a time when it’s paramount that Isabelle not overextend her debt to any of the gods), but she has an idealism that chafes in such close proximity to Chuck’s cynicism.  We’ll see how long they can stand to stick together.

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Chuck wishes he could be more shallow. Only time will tell if he actually turns out to be what he wants or if there’s more there despite his effusive protestations. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading Powers of X #6

I suspect, having just re-read the last issue of HoX/PoX, that I will need to re-read the entire series now that all of the paradigms have been shifted, and all the cards are on the table (at least, the ones for this round of the larger story Hickman seems set on telling). It’s been a gloriously baroque prologue, and with the final piece we at last understand the context for the various eras in which parts of Powers of X have been set. The extent of Moira’s commitment to her cause is significantly clearer, although there are still some mysteries to be uncovered. Given the complexity of the story, it’s only fair to go back and revisit it now that that last shoe has dropped.

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Moira surveys the devastation of all her lives. (Cover by R B Silva & Marte Gracia)

In the mean time, there is this fifty page behemoth to consider. From the first issue, Powers of X has been primarily about exploring Moira’s perspective on the problem of mutant failure. We now know that the Year One Hundred and Year One Thousand eras were actually events in Moira’s two longest lives, key incidents that specifically shape her ideology and methodology going into the present era of the X-Men. In the Apocalypse future, Moira learned the importance of stalling the advent of Nimrod to give mutants a fighting chance; in the Ascension future, she learned what the apparently inevitable outcome of the arms race among humans, mutants, and machines is (it’s no wonder now that Moira’s seventh life was essentially an extended rage against the Trasks for inventing Sentinels in the first place). Moira’s seen nine different permutations on mutant ascension, which is not a very big data set given the scope of the multiverse, and her personal trauma has given her a breathtakingly dour perspective on what can happen. The issue’s midpoint gives us a glimpse at Moira’s private journal where she documents her progress with each of the major players she’s manipulating to enact her grand vision for mutant dominance, and it’s clear that she cannot fathom the optimism with which Xavier and Magneto go about their own machinations. They lack Moira’s vast life experience (over two thirds of which is contained in nearly a millennium of captivity), so she sees them as being foolhardy or headstrong when it seems to me that they are simply not caught up in the same extreme hypervigilance that has been instilled in Moira.

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I need to know about Ruth right now, because I will burn this whole mutant nation down if they don’t have a place for that very good girl. (Artwork by R B Silva, colors by Marte Gracia & David Curiel, letters by Clayton Cowles)

I think where the divide between Moira and her co-conspirators becomes most clear is in their decision not only to recruit Sinister to the cause, but also in their resolution to allow Destiny to eventually be revived (clearly Destiny’s return is going to be a big deal at some point in the future of Hickman’s run on the X-books). Xavier and Magneto have seen Moira’s memories at least once, so they’re aware of her experiences, but despite those they also seem committed to working towards full transparency in their methods of governance. At the very least, they make a strong showing of appearing to value not lying to all the other mutants about the knowledge they’re working with indefinitely. It seems like a clear point of tension that will spawn some interesting stories, particularly as the pragmatic backdrop for a de facto ban on precognitive mutants in Krakoa. I can’t tell at this point if the way Hickman draws attention to this specific demand of Moira’s is meant only to underline her adversarial relationship with Destiny, or if it’s also going to be used for more socially minded stories. Precogs aren’t extremely common within the X-Universe, but Destiny is by no means unique. I read “no precogs” and immediately wonder what that means for Ruth Aldine, who is essentially Destiny, Jr. but also very much not dead or depowered [Update: Oops, she is dead. I just haven’t read that story yet.]. Did Hickman just forget about her (seems unlikely), or will this turn into a really compelling seed for a story about inter-mutant discrimination? Either way, it has echoes of the earlier X-Men story “Age of X” where Legion made a pocket universe that was run by one of his personalities who manifested as Moira who banned the existence of telepaths specifically because they would have been able to seen through the illusion.

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Based on nine data points. (Artwork by R B Silva, colors by Marte Gracia & David Curiel, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Thinking more broadly about the themes in play, there’s something especially interesting going on with Moira’s precog ban as a way of controlling access to the threads of fate. Other folks have noted that Moira’s name literally means Fate, and there’s a specific sense of rivalry with Destiny due to the problem of competing visions of the future. Destiny, being an actual precognitive with the ability to see the myriad potential timelines of the multiverse, is a serious threat to the hegemony that Moira has established for herself based on her perfect recall of her nine previous lives. Moira’s predictive abilities are based on knowing and processing all of the disparate data points she’s experienced, which are superior to everyone else’s except a powerful precognitive like Destiny. What if there are multiple potential pathways to mutant thriving that Moira simply hasn’t considered because she doesn’t have the available data? She can’t have it because she doesn’t see forward; she can only look backward and project based on patterns she recognizes. Destiny is a threat because she killed Moira that one time and predicted that she’d not live past her eleventh life; she’s also just a way better resource to the Krakoa project than Moira could ever be.

Reading House of X #6

There is definitely a rant to be had regarding the way Charles Xavier chooses to treat the first Krakoan criminal, and there are lots of weird things going on with the Quiet Council that will likely bear out in the ongoing series that are following the end of HoX/PoX, but for now it’s probably best to enjoy the celebration that ends House of X.  Krakoa has become a sovereign nation, and mutants have a safe place to call their home.  The party pages are the end of the issue are excellent fun and do some lovely character beats in a very small amount of space.

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Has anyone ever thought to have Siryn and Dazzler team up to do a light show before? (Artwork by Pepe Larraz, colors by Marte Gracia & David Curiel)

Okay, now that we’ve reveled, it’s time to discuss the stuff going on that’s really messed up.

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Yeah, these characters are definitely in this issue! (Cover by Pepe Larraz & Marte Gracia)

The big one in all the discussion that the council has is the judgment passed on Sabretooth for the murders he committed while participating in the theft of the information that clued the X-Men in to the Mother Mold’s creation and imminent activation.  That plot thread’s been dangling out there for a while with no real clear hint at resolution other than the fact that there would need to be one, so I’m glad it comes back here.  Like a lot of folks, I am concerned about the method of punishment that Xavier and the rest of the council settle on.  Barring comic book universe shenanigans, Sabretooth is a character whose core identity is founded on an unrepentant bloodthirstiness; he is meant to be fundamentally irredeemable, and giving him endless second chances would be irresponsible.  Indefinite containment or elimination are the only really feasible options for dealing with someone like him.

I do like that the need for judgment clashes with the introduction of mutant resurrection as a concept.  Let’s set aside my complaints about this not being genuine resurrection and focus on the fact that Xavier has made the preservation of all mutant genomic data in living form such a priority that he will not consider capital punishment.  This doesn’t seem to be based in any anti-capital punishment sentiment so much as a practicality of the resurrection system which is apparently so automated that killing Sabretooth would only put him in line to be resurrected again.  There is no way to create an exception in the system, perhaps because Xavier fears the potential abuse that could arise from giving any set of individuals control over mutant immortality.  I can see the wisdom in this up to a point; despite the creepiness of the system, Xavier’s intentions appear to be offering every mutant immortality as an inalienable birthright.  Capital punishment is inadequate for dealing with Sabretooth in these specific circumstances.

That leaves containment as the only viable option, which presents its own challenges.  Sabretooth has been held in captivity in the past, and he’s always proven to be an extremely dangerous ward.  Furthermore, Xavier makes a rather principled statement about Krakoa being a nation that will not tolerate prisons.  This bit of rhetoric falls extremely flat given the way that the council ultimately chooses to dispose of Sabretooth, although I suspect its motivations are founded in the enlightened understanding that prisons easily turn into modern modes of enslavement.  Attempting to avoid that outcome is admirable, but it seems to lead to a very simplistic formulation of what consequences are actually just when considering what to do with Sabretooth.  The solution that Xavier offers in place of traditional prison and execution is an unhappy medium between them.  Sabretooth won’t be killed because he’ll just come back to life, and he won’t be released because he’s a danger to the rest of the world.  Instead he’ll be buried deep inside Krakoa where he’ll continue to be alive, but he’ll also be immersed in total sensory deprivation without any anullment of his consciousness.

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Yeah, it is a good start. I still don’t trust you, Charlie. (Artwork by Pepe Larraz, colors by Marte Gracia & David Curiel, letters by Clayton Cowles)

In effect, the council’s punishment is still prison, but to such an extreme extent that it’s effectively worse than permanent death.  Xavier calls it exile, which I guess is technically true, although only technically.  In effect, it’s the worst kind of prison, which is why Xavier’s rhetoric feels so cheap on this particular societal point.  I’d perhaps be able to stomach it more without that one flourish, because the larger implications about Krakoan justice are way more interesting.  When you build a society where death is irrelevant, you need a new ultimate punishment for immoral action, and the suggestion that mutants, by adopting this new version of existence, are now bound to an even more terrible fate if they transgress in their new society creates opportunities for a variety of interesting stories.  On the more optimistic side there’s explorations the moral obligation that comes with existing as ascended beings in the world, and then to turn things a little darker there are stories of the potential abuses of this new penal system.  At the center of it all is still Xavier, whose ultimate ambitions remain relatively cloudy.

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I still get a bad vibe from this guy. Also, taking bets now that this is a teaser for a new Exiles book. (Artwork by Pepe Larraz, colors by Marte Gracie & David Curiel, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading “Waves – Part 4 of 4”

I read this issue for the first time probably about a month ago (definitely before the move), but I haven’t revisited until this past week when I was thinking that I really needed to try to get back onto a regular blogging schedule (we see how well that’s working out).  I recall making a vague prediction at the end of part three of this arc that Tristan would serve as a springboard for Max to jump back into the time stream and leave these particular versions of Chloe and Rachel to enjoy what happiness they have together while she figures out where she actually belongs.  Low key super-powered problem solver was always a fun mode to see Max operating in back in the original game, even if we understood that all her little correctives were probably contributing to the massive storm careening towards Arcadia Bay.

I definitely thought when I saw this cover that Max was preparing to do another quantum leap. Chloe deserves to be happy with Rachel, but Max also deserves to be happy with Chloe, after all. Also, Tristan’s too fun to leave in a stable timeline with supportive friends. (Cover by Claudia Leonardi)

Despite being aware of that likely cost to adjusting the timeline, it’s incredibly satisfying to see her do a rewind, especially in order to save Tristan’s life.  Max has been keeping a lid on her powers for over two years (three if we count the year she spent in the timeline where Arcadia Bay was destroyed), and in all that time the major question that’s been brewing is what circumstances would push her to rewind time again.  The central problem of the first arc was so focused on her powers manifesting in a new, uncontrolled way, and her inner arc in this story has been about feeling she needs to suppress an important part of herself to be accepted by her friends, that it feels good to see her reclaim this thing that belongs to her.  Yeah, there will probably be consequences, but at some point the universe needs to either make it apparent how Max’s rewinding reverberates or she needs to accept that there are always going to be unforeseen consequences of her actions and she can’t let them paralyze her decision making.  Whatever the fallout of saving Tristan’s life may be, we should keep in mind that this is still a Max who originally decided that saving a friend’s life was more important than being weighted down by an aftermath that may or may not have been her doing.

Compare all of these beats in Max’s story with where Tristan’s arc goes.  His backstory with Atsuhiko is an inverse of Max and Chloe’s reunion in the Blackwell Academy bathroom.  Tristan’s powers manifested at a moment of crisis that precipitated his best friend’s death.  The fault lies squarely with the drug dealer who shot Atsuhiko, but Tristan’s trauma leaves him directly correlating his disappearing power with Atsuhiko dying.  His decision to go to Chloe and Rachel for help, and then to use his powers to help save Max in return, brings things full circle as he finds that he’s able to help people instead of just running away from what he fears.

A slightly smaller, but still interesting development in this issue is Rachel Amber’s realization of how close she still is to the shallow, image-focused LA life that her work friends all still inhabit.  The drug overdose with her friend Callie serves as a reality check for her, especially after she notices the rest of the party goers instinctively using the incident as an opportunity for some publicity and cheap drama on their respective media feeds.  The epiphany feels good as Rachel has always been a character who seemed just on the verge of getting caught up in the image-driven life, but it feels even better when she takes this impulse and channels it towards even greater good when she uses a livestream direct to her social media followers as a way to force the drug dealers to back down from threatening Max and Tristan.  It’s a somewhat surreal inversion of the usually sinister bent associated with the constant self-surveillance that social media often represents, but it fits perfectly with who Rachel is at her best.

Compared with the rest of the story’s main cast, Chloe doesn’t strike me as having completed much of a major arc at this point.  I suspect, given that Max doesn’t actually jump to a new timeline at the end of this issue and elements of the old timeline have slowly been bleeding into Chloe’s consciousness, that Vieceli is building towards something larger for Chloe that will likely culminate with the next arc of the series.  I’ve wondered on and off how long this comic series could go on, and just like with the end of the first story arc I was pleasantly surprised to see that another was being planned.  I’m enjoying seeing more adventures with Max and Chloe, so I hope that it remains an ongoing for a while yet, although I’m pretty sure I’ll be satisfied if it ends at twelve issues so long as Max finds herself in a timeline where she can be with Chloe (Vieceli continues to give off strong Chloe/Max shipping vibes, so I hold out hope that’s her end game).

In the meantime though, we get to look forward to a little more time spent with relatively happy Chloe and Rachel in LA, which means that Max needs to do some work on her relationships.  The big development of the issue in terms of relationships is Max’s decision to explain everything to these versions of Rachel and Chloe.  It’s a big step given how scared Max has been about letting anyone know about her powers, and I’m curious to see the fallout.  It can’t be easy to have to explain to your best friends that you originate from a timeline where one of them was violently murdered and the other rebounded from that trauma into a romantic relationship that you never quite felt lived up to what it replaced.  It has to mess with a person’s head.

Reading Powers of X #5

I have to admit something: I am not super into the far future plot line.  There was some potential for cool intrigues early on with the questions of how we got from evil clown Nimrod to helpful Clippy Nimrod and what the ultimate resolution of the three-way war among humans, mutants, and machines would be, but since the reveal that Apocalypse’s X-Men of the future are from Moira’s ninth life, the sense of connection between this era and everything else in the series has felt extremely tenuous outside of broad thematic parallels.  Conceptually, I like the idea of exploring a far future where the ascendant species on Earth is grappling with how to ensure its survival on a cosmic scale when there are AI collectives massive enough to become black holes that are de facto rulers of everything because they’re simply bigger and smarter than every other sentient organism in the universe by near uncountable orders of magnitude.  That’s a cool idea!

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I’m kind of over the PoX covers being more about what’s going on in the series overall rather than anything specifically happening in the issue itself. Sinister standing triumphant over the eggs has absolutely nothing to do with the contents of PoX #5. (Cover by R B Silva & Marte Gracia)

The problem that I run into feels like it’s directly related to the very scale issue that Hickman wants to grapple with in all this speculation.  When you’re talking about entities that are indistinguishable from any modern conception of the Divine for all intents and purposes, there’s an automatic distance that gets created for the reader.  I think that pondering the concept of God’s vastness is fun and interesting conceptually, but I don’t experience a really visceral connection to it.  We have always wanted to personify our gods because there’s a deep desire to be able to relate to them.  The omniscient, the infinite are alien things to us; at worst they inspire abject terror and at best confusion and awe.  These Dominions that Hickman throws at us at the end of the issue are the stuff of cosmic and eldritch horror, which is great if you just want to tell a story about how much the universe does not care about any of us, but it’s emotionally flat.  Combined with the fact of Year One Thousand’s cast being composed entirely of characters we’ve just met in this series with no distinguishing features beyond wanting to figure out how to survive an AI takeover, I find myself having no emotional investment in what’s happening.

It’s a great thought experiment, and it resonates as a counterpoint to what Xavier is doing in the present with his slow methodical construction of an organic mutant collective (what else can you call the construction of a massive redundant database designed specifically to preserve in perpetuity every mutant person on Earth and recreate them endlessly like bits of information?).  Xavier’s plan is breathtaking in its ambition, but the implications, like I said last week, are terrifying when considered on a personal level.  A lot of X-Men died, probably multiple times, and Xavier has decided the solution to slow motion genocide is to cheapen death asymptotically until the only thing lost is a copy in an infinitely long series of identical copies.  Never mind that the individual identities of each copy are quashed irretrievably, and this obsession with perfect cloning will eventually stamp out the concept of natural mutation altogether.  If Xavier’s plan proceeds in the way he seems to be envisioning it, he’ll save the mutant species by rendering its identity completely meaningless.  He will stop the machine apocalypse by simply making mutants the new machines.

That doesn’t mean I can bring myself to care about the blue people in the future though.

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This one panel makes the entire issue. Yes, let’s do the thing that the X-Men have done multiple times before which always ended horribly. Maybe this time it won’t. (Artwork by R B Silva, colors by Marte Gracia, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Turning from the big ideas of the issue, the character work in Powers of X #5 is far more solid.  It’s apparent at this point that the Year One and Year Ten periods have been designed to serve as distinct character vignettes highlighting how familiar characters in the X-Universe rationalize to themselves playing a part in Xavier’s particular scheme.  Hickman excels at framing these moments so that they hinge on each character being tempted by the chance to do something that appeals to their higher ambitions (occasionally even moral ones) at the cost of contributing to a scheme that Xavier hasn’t fully explained to anyone.  This issue’s two feature characters are Forge and Emma Frost, and they go pretty much exactly as one would expect.  Forge quickly gets caught up in the intricacies of how he could solve Xavier’s technological needs without stopping to really consider whether he should (Forge was a tech-bro before we had conceived of such a thing), while Emma agrees to do a lot of really shady stuff under the auspices of working towards a better future “for the children.”  I’ve grown to appreciate the complexity of Emma’s character; you don’t usually see consummate educators portrayed as also being extremely ambitious in fiction.  It leads to some fascinating paradoxes, not the least of which here is that Emma finds herself preparing to do some extremely unscrupulous things for a better future that Xavier continues to keep relatively vague.  The promise of being able to make the wrongs of the Genoshan genocide right is a big one for Emma, seeing as she is one of a handful of survivors, but it feels like it’s coming at a significant cost.

We’ll see where all this ends up soon, I suppose.

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As always, here’s the link to the weekly HoX PoX ToX (which I really need to read; I’m running behind.)