In Praise of Creators

I’ve devoted a good chunk of time this summer to writing about the work of a lot of writers and artists.  Some of my commentary has been very positive, and some of it hasn’t.  A lot of that has depended on my personal taste, although I’ve also tried to write from the perspective of someone who wants to understand what objectively makes a good story.

The cover of New Mutants (vol. 1) #87 featurin...

Even though this is objectively awful, someone still put themselves into it.  The cover of New Mutants (vol. 1) #87 featuring the first appearance of Cable. Art by Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Several weeks ago, back when I was in the middle of writing my series on Chuck Austen’s Uncanny X-Men story “She Lies with Angels” I was reading through my feeder when I came across this article by Shauna Niequist on being a creator.  Her first two pieces of advice are useful for anyone who is an artist in that they offer some guidelines for how to approach criticism.  Her third point is also addressed to creators, but I think it’s valuable advice for anyone:

Be on the side of the creator.

As Niequist points out, once you’ve actually put in the time and energy to make something of your own, you begin to understand how difficult creation is.  You wonder if your work is worthwhile, if you can pull it off so that other people will enjoy it, if it’s really just a waste of time and you should give up.

Creation is a deeply personal experience.

And not only is it personal, it’s also vulnerable.  You expose yourself whenever you create something and then dare to show it to another person.

So, yeah, I really don’t like Chuck Austen’s run on Uncanny X-Men.  It feels out of place in that canon, and I think that the writing and plotting were weak.  In spite of that, I don’t dislike Chuck Austen.  His work is not to my taste, but I can’t deny that he is a professional writer, which means that on a very regular basis he produces his own work and submits it to the public for approval.

In the same vein, though I utterly despise Rob Liefeld’s artwork and what he did with New Mutants and then X-Force, I try to keep that separate from any personal animosity.  He’s a creator.  Though I think he can improve his work, I don’t begrudge him for making a living by being creative.

All of this is to say that it’s fun to be a critic of other people’s work, especially in a space like the internet where you’re safe from having to look them in the eye while you do it.  Austen and Liefeld also provide easy targets, because they’re rather unpopular creators in the comics industry.  So, I thought it would be good to remember that despite whatever flaws we find in other artists’ work, they are still struggling and fighting to produce these things that they then release into the world to stand on their own merits.

It’s an act of love, and whatever else, I can’t criticize that.

Superhero Role Models: Danielle Moonstar

There’s a fine tradition in superhero teams (particularly X-Men teams, since that’s my primary expertise) of having a squad that’s made up of people with really nifty powers led by someone with really crap powers.  I’d call it a running joke, but I enjoy the storytelling dynamic it introduces (Leaders are not the most powerful heroes, they are just the ones who are most skilled at leading).

In the X-Men alone, we’ve gotten such distinguished leaders as Cyclops, Storm, Cable (for all the hate I pour on his version of X-Force, I actually think Cable became a pretty good character after Rob Liefeld stopped writing him), Jamie Madrox, Angel (okay, he’s not really a good leader, but he does lead during Chuck Austen’s run and his powers suck), and Danielle Moonstar.

What all of these characters have in common is that they’ve been field leaders for different teams, and they are objectively some of the weakest members of their teams while holding that position (Storm and Dani have both been made field leaders during periods when they were in fact depowered).  You can make arguments about how Cyclops has a ton of force behind his eyebeams and Cable’s actually a powerful telekinetic, but they’re both powers that have limited application.  Cyclops can knock things down; that’s about it.  Cable’s powers have waxed and waned so often that he’s never heavily relied on them; usually they’re just there to keep his metal cancer from spreading while he focuses on using guns.  Madrox’s powers are pretty cool, especially in the hands of Peter David, but when you boil it down, what he essentially does is make a bunch of normal guys to help him beat stuff up (also, he’s extremely prone to dying; sometimes I think he should change his codename to the Mortal Man).

That’s a tangent; I’m supposed to be telling you about Dani Moonstar and what makes her a great role model.

Dani, who has almost always been associated with my favorite X-Men team the New Mutants, belongs to the wonderful stable of characters who were created in the ’70s and ’80s to help diversify superheroes.  She’s part of the distinguished ranks of X-Men who hale from Native American backgrounds including John and James Proudstar, and Forge.

It’s kind of a short list.

Yes, she is aiming a bow with her foot. What else should she do with a broken arm? (Image credit: comicvine.com)

I bring this up, because one of Dani’s defining features in her early appearances is the pride she takes in her heritage.  She was co-created by Chris Claremont (big surprise), who obviously had as part of his ongoing agenda the goal of creating as many distinctive female superheroes as possible.  To that effect, Claremont went to a lot of trouble to make sure that while Dani strongly identified as Cheyenne, this was not the only aspect of her personality.

Besides having a strong cultural heritage, Dani’s also kind of stubborn.  Like, the kind of stubborn that makes you wonder if she’s really strong willed or really stupid or really both sometimes.  Usually it’s the former, which I can’t help but find admirable.  It’s the same sort of admiration I have for runners who can make themselves keep going despite all the inherent aches and pains you get from going for more than a mile.  Dani’s the kind of character who if you told her she had to run a marathon without any prior training, she’d first curse you for not giving a good reason, and then do it anyway because she’s not a wimp.

And that’s what makes Dani a good role model.  No matter what’s going on, she’ll do what needs to be done.  When she has a task in front of her, she accomplishes it regardless of her own discomfort.

Why Did I Read She Lies with Angels Again? (Part 6)

No, Wolverine doesn’t do a whole lot in this issue. Why do you ask? Art by Salvador Larroca. (Image credit: comicvine.com)

(Part 5 here)

Alright, I now bring you the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the end of this review series!  We’re finishing off “She Lies with Angels” with Uncanny X-Men #441.

We open with a splash page that makes entirely the wrong kind of sense if you think about it too hard.  Paige and Warren, who just worked out their issues in front of the rest of the team and Paige’s mother, are joining the Mile High Club without the aid of an aircraft.  A single speech bubble erupts from the lower corner screaming, “Joooshuaaa! NOOOO!”

Maybe I just have a twisted mind, but I read this panel and think, “Warren’s an angel mutant; Josh’s an angel mutant.  What if Paige got confused about which angel mutant she just flew into the sky with?”  After you let the feeling of ick wear off, just remember that even though this isn’t her brother, it’s still kind of creepy.

Of course, the whole point of this splash page is to establish that Paige and Warren are in the air, so they can conveniently spot the Cabots coming to kill the Guthries (which, alternatively, could have been achieved by Warren just, y’know, flying on patrol seeing as how his team’s still on a mission).  In the whole scene’s defense, it does give Austen an excuse to have Paige do an aerial dive bomb as she turns into stone to increase her terminal velocity.  As an action set piece, I think it’s fun.  I just regret that the setup had to be two of our heroes having sex in the air when there’s imminent danger and all.

Setting aside that faint bit of praise, we have in this issue a whole slew of senseless death and destruction.  Ironically, all the victims are human, and with one exception they all belong to the Cabot side of the feud.  Generally I don’t mind when a character dies in the course of a story.  It can either be meaningful or it can be random and pointless.  Both approaches typically tug on the heartstrings of the audience.  Of course, I say that with the caveat that it should fit the tone of your story.  In something that’s supposed to generally be light and optimistic (like superheroes!) senseless deaths are cheap and smack of audience manipulation.  Especially when it’s the deaths of side characters who were clearly only introduced to help score moral victory points for the heroes instead of being filled out into fully realized characters.

Like Ray.

You guys remember Ray, right?

If not, I’ll sum up what he does in this story arc.  He’s a friend of the Guthries whose son is involved in the fight where Jeb gets shot.  He and his son Ray, Jr. stay with the Guthries for support while the X-Men wait for something to happen with the Cabots.  Also, Ray is Lucinda’s boyfriend.  Then he dies in the fight between the Cabots and the X-Men.

Also, Ray is black.

This may be cynical of me, but I get the impression that Ray was introduced just so that it could be shown that the Guthries are not bigots and then killed off to give Lucinda a little extra pathos (she’s already got a dead husband, why not add a dead boyfriend?) and to avoid the pesky business of keeping up with the continuity of minor characters we’ll rarely, if ever, see again.

Besides Ray, Chester Cabot and Sheriff Pete bite it in the fighting; specifically, Pete has his redemption moment where he turns on Chester and shoots him in the head, then promptly dies when Chester shoots him in the stomach at the same time.  His last words are to ask Lucinda out on a date again.

I’m sorry, Pete, but no.  When will you learn that shooting people in the face is not how you make women like you?

Predictably, the X-Men prevail and everything’s sunshine and daisies (except for all the dead people).

Meanwhile, Austen doesn’t want us to forget that we still have the unresolved plot of Julia and the apparently dead Josh.  At this point, the one thing you need to know in order to understand how this is all going to work out for the worst is this: In the last major story arc before this one, “The Draco,” Chuck Austen introduced the concept of mutant bloodlines, specifically demonic and angelic ones.  It was supposed to be an in-universe explanation for why some apparently unrelated mutants had similar powers.  If you haven’t guess by now, Warren and Josh have near identical power sets.  Warren doesn’t have the super voice, but he does have magical healing properties in his blood.  Naturally, so does Josh.  Only no one’s told him that might happen (mostly because he never actually interacts with the rest of his family through this whole story, but someone who knows Josh’s mutation might have asked some questions upon seeing Warren).

So Josh is dead and Julia, in her fit of despair that’s supposed to mirror Romeo’s takes Josh’s smoking, perforated body with her into the pond where they first fell in love, intending to drown herself in his arms.  The fact that this is more shades of Ophelia rather than Romeo seems lost on Austen.

You can guess how this goes, right?

Julia drowns and Josh’s wounds wait until after she’s dead to start healing, so that when he wakes there’s no chance of saving her.  The next logical step in the Stations of the Doomed Lovers is for Josh to kill himself.

That doesn’t work out so well for him, what with the super healing powers, so he pointlessly impales himself multiple times, which is how Warren finds him after the fighting’s over.  From there we close with a monologue from the now-dead Julia talking about how Josh will heal with time and move on.

This whole ending setup just baffles me.  Every time Austen does something to draw attention to the fact that he based this story on Romeo & Juliet, I cringe because it’s so ham-fisted.  Julia died and Josh wants to kill himself, but he can’t because he’s a mutant.  What a tragedy.

I don’t buy it.

Yes, it is awful that Julia commits suicide.  As much as I dislike the character, I think that’s a poor end for anyone, especially a teenager.  Yes, Josh has good reason to grieve.  Even if he didn’t know Julia very well, he still cared about her, and he’s going to have to grieve.  As far as not being able to kill himself, I’d say that’s a pretty sweet deal.  He’s protected from making a very serious mistake.

So no, this is not a great tragedy on par with Romeo & Juliet.  If Austen really wanted to go for that, I would have preferred if he’d inflicted more damage to both the Cabots and the Guthries.  The essential tragedy of the original play is that these two families literally tear each other apart because they can’t stop fighting.  They have no future.  The only children of both the Capulets and the Montagues are dead when the curtain draws.  Though we don’t see it, this is the end of both houses.  “All are punish’d.”

To be truly honest, I think the story would have been better served with Josh staying dead.  His healing powers feel like a cop out, and on a meta-level, I can’t help feeling that this story line just served to establish a new Angel clone for the New Mutants series that launched in July 2004, a couple months after “She Lies with Angels” concluded.  Josh went over to that book immediately following his introduction here, with all the emotional baggage that having a dead girlfriend grants a character in a series that revolves around high school drama.

To be fair, I thought that Josh was much better written in that series, and I didn’t cringe every time I saw him pining over a picture of the girl he knew for two days.  Eventually he was killed off as they wound that series down, and it was kind of a sucky end for him.  Maybe in another post I’ll discuss that story someday.  But for now, just know that “She Lies with Angels” is over.  We can move on with our lives and it can never hurt us again.

Man, it sucked.

Why Did I Read She Lies With Angels Again? (Part 5)

(Part 4 here)

You guys know the story of Romeo & Juliet, right?  Two kids meet, get their eyebeams all mixed up in a tizzy and fall in love, and then carry on this grand secret lover affair behind their parents’ backs because of families who are fighting and don’t even remember why.

How’s that end again?

Oh yeah, they both wind up dead.  It’s a tragedy (in both the literary and situational senses) because Romeo and Juliet are victims of their families’ inability to reconcile.  When the Prince shows up at the end and declares “All are punish’d,” you really get the sense that this was something that could have been avoided had everyone been just a little less vindictive.

Also, poor communication kills.

Yeah, we can see where this is going. Cover of Uncanny X-Men #440. Art by Salvador Larroca. (image credit: comicvine.com)

See, in the play, Romeo commits suicide because he fails to get the message that Juliet’s only faking her death.  When she awakes and sees his body, she despairs and kills herself.  It is, objectively, the worst thing that either of them could do.

I bring all of this up because it’s more interesting and carries more emotional weight than what’s going to happen in “She Lies with Angels.”  In Uncanny X-Men #440 we get the set up for the doom that’s waiting for Josh and Julia in the final part.

There are three plot threads woven through this issue: Josh and Julia being discovered by the power armored Cabots, Warren confessing his feelings for Paige to her mother, and the X-Men actually fighting the villains (finally).

If you look at the cover for this issue, you’ll see that Josh is holding Julia in his arms while he screams at the moon, suggesting that she’s dead.  Don’t panic; comic covers, while they typically advertise something important that happens in each issue, are not always entirely accurate.  Julia does not die here.

Josh does.

Chester Cabot, in true angry, abusive, bigoted fashion (in case you didn’t realize he was the villain) backhands his daughter with his power armor when she stands up to sasses him.  Julia gets knocked unconscious, and Josh, in a rage attacks the Cabots by himself.  He ends up lying on the ground with a big smoking hole in his chest, which is how Julia finds him when she wakes up.

Meanwhile, back at the homestead, Warren finally confesses his feelings for Paige… to her mother.  Paige isn’t happy about this and tells Warren whatfor because she’s an adult and she can make her own decisions.

Then they fly off to have sex in the air.

We know they’re having sex because Paige’s night shirt flutters down from off panel, and her mother, who just witnessed the whole thing turns to go back inside instead of watching her eldest daughter get horizontal at 5000 feet.

We also find out that Sheriff Pete isn’t just being paid off by the Cabots to let them run amok, but he’s also an old-fashioned racist, because he reacts very badly to seeing that Lucinda is actually dating Ray, the black neighbor who we met very briefly way back in #437.  Like, points-a-gun-in-her-face bad.

Before I go any further, I’ll give Chuck Austen some credit.  This is not really a bad issue.  There’s plenty of action, and the exchange between Paige and Warren is not entirely nauseating (mostly because they don’t act like lovesick idiots the way Paige’s little brother does).  I even understand Josh doing something foolish like attacking three heavily armed men because he thinks that Julia’s been seriously hurt.

Because this is the penultimate issue in this arc, Austen’s working to up the tension with all the different plotlines, and he’s moderately successful.  Though I don’t particularly like Josh and Julia, I feel like they’re in real danger, and I’m wondering what’s going to happen to them, just like I wonder what’s going to happen to the Guthries when the Cabots finally attack the homestead.

Now that I’ve said all that, let’s get to it.

This issue (and really, this whole story arc) is rife with contrasts between the romantic entanglements of Paige and Josh Guthrie.  Josh’s love is young and reckless, while Paige’s is supposed to be more mature and dealing with the complexities of a person’s responsibilities to their partner.  Josh rushes into a relationship heedless of the ramifications for his family (or with anything approaching a rational sense of attraction) where Paige has been thinking about Warren for some time by this point in their history together, and she wants to make a serious commitment to him.  Josh wants to win Julia with bad poetry; Paige wants Warren to get over his relationship anxieties and treat her like a real partner instead of pushing her away “for her own good.”

There are also parallels, with some being more subtle than others.  The biggest honking one that smacks of lazy writing is the fact that Josh and Warren’s mutant powers share an angel motif.  This is important for narrative reasons that we’ll get into next time, but for now it’s enough to say that this little tidbit left me so infuriated by the way the whole story resolves in the last issue.  It’s another case of poor communication getting people killed when it’s not necessary.  Unlike in Romeo & Juliet though, which has done a lot to make me care about its lead characters, “She Lies with Angels” just makes me want to bash my head against a wall for the stupidity that the characters exhibit and the failure of the fictional universe’s internal logic.

Come back tomorrow for the entirely predictable conclusion and some thoughts on why translating a Shakespearean tragedy to a superhero comic just doesn’t work very well.

Why Did I Read She Lies with Angels Again? (Part 4)

In our last segment, I ranted about the problem with a pair of ten-year-olds staying in love for eight years without ever seeing or interacting with each other again until that fateful night when they just happen to run into each other at a cafe and the one with the angel wings starts singing exactly about that one summer all those years ago.

Angel and Husk do nothing in this issue. I’m not even sure why they’re on the cover. Uncanny X-Men #439. Art by Salvador Larroca. (image credit: comicvine.com)

Ugh.

At the risk of repeating myself, a hiatus that long just doesn’t strike me as realistic, and it irritates me continuously to think about it being a plot point that Chuck Austen expected his readers to buy into for the sake of this story.  He also expected his readers to be happy with an issue in which everyone sits around and talks about their relationships.

We are now three issues into this five issue arc, and the only superhero action we’ve gotten to see has been a kid with lightning eyes accidentally blowing up a house before a cop shoots him in the face-shoulder in the first issue and a three page fight between Angel, Husk, and a bunch of rednecks in the second.  If you were hoping that Uncanny X-Men #439 was going to be the one that finally got to the action, then you will be disappointed.

The two plotlines that we cut between in this issue relate to our dear Julia pining away over Josh as she explains the depths of her love to her grandmother and Chester Cabot unveiling his diabolical plan to kill the X-Men using some high tech power armor that he found in an abandoned base that used to belong a different, more interesting set of supervillains.  We also get a scene of the X-Men sitting around in a barn arguing with each other about how Angel used to be a jerk, especially to Wolverine, but he’s better now.

Because sitting in a barn airing your grievances with one another in the middle of a mission is a wonderful way to spend your time (if anyone was wondering, this two page interlude is all the X-Men do in this issue; the rest of it’s just evil scheming and poorly written teenage romance).

So the majority of this issue deals with Josh flying to Julia’s house to woo her and then whisk her off to a romantic evening by the pond where they spent that one summer together.  As best I can tell, it’s intended to be playing on Romeo & Juliet‘s famous balcony scene.

Julia’s weeping about her only love sprung from her family’s only hate (yes, she says this; no, I don’t think Austen was being ironic when he stuck it in there; yes, in the original play Juliet owns up to participating in the feud like everyone in her family while here, not so much because we can’t have pettiness and bigotry sullying such a perfectly sweet character) while her grandmother tries to explain that this is foolishness, and her father will never allow her to be with Josh.  Julia’s reply is rather marvelous in its eloquence:

GRANDMA: Julia. They’re all mutants

JULIA: That’s not a reason. That’s an excuse. An excuse to turn inner pain into anger and focus it on someone other than yourself. An excuse for those whose own inadequacies are so immense–that they can only feel less deficient by dominating and controlling others who must be categorized as “beneath” them.

As an aside, I love the way comics speech bubbles add emphasis with boldface.  The words writers choose to emphasize just don’t always sound right.

Now, here’s my issue with this bit of dialogue.  I don’t actually disagree with the point that Austen’s trying to make.  I honestly think he’s saying something of worth here.  The problem is that he’s the one saying it.  This doesn’t read like something that an eighteen-year-old girl from rural Kentucky would say in a fit of passion as she’s trying to explain why the family feud is so stupid.  It’s the author soapboxing about a moral point he really wants to drive home instead of trying to make his characters sound real.  This is a major problem, especially since storytelling in comics is driven by two things: art and dialogue.  It’s not fashionable anymore to have mounds of narrative text boxes explaining what’s happening on a panel; readers generally expect their comics to behave like a television show where you can tell what’s going on based on what you see the characters doing and what they talk about.  Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with the printed page you don’t have the luxury of an actor interpreting what the writer has written to make it compelling.  If the dialogue’s flat, or in this case just poorly written for the character who’s saying it, then there’s no intermediary between the audience and the writer.

That’s one of the reasons that dialogue in comics includes boldface to indicate what parts of lines should be emphasized, by the way.

When Josh shows up and makes his oh-so-corny comparison between Julia and the sun (Romeo was thinking that, not saying it, probably because he knew she’d laugh in his face at something so cheesy), everyone gapes in horror at his creepy stalker smile, and he and Julia say a bunch of sweet nonsense at each other.

If you stare too long, he'll eat your soul.

If you stare too long, he’ll eat your soul. Art by Salvador Larroca.

I’ll give Austen credit here for characterization and dialogue; I hate most of what these two lovers say to each other, but I at least understand that Josh, who’s a young songwriter, probably spends a lot of time practicing lines like what he spits out here (“Hate is a choice. Love is a gift. An edict. A command. Love doesn’t understand names or labels.”) so I can at least believe that he’d say this drivel when he’s trying to impress a girl.

So they make googly eyes and Julia’s grandmother faints because apparently people still do that at the sound of pretty words.  Julia is completely unconcerned that her grandmother may have just had a stroke because Josh is right in front of her being beautiful.  Then the grandmother wakes up and tells Julia that she should run off with Josh right now or else she’s going to go after him herself.

So Julia does just that.  She drives out to the pond where they spent that magical summer of magicalness and finds Josh patiently waiting for her.

Then they have sex.

And as a prelude to the awkwardness that comes in the next issue, we end with Julia’s father and brothers riding in crazy power armor as they stumble across the lovers, because nothing says funny/terrifying like being caught in the act by your dad when he’s literally on a murderous rampage.

Why Did I Read She Lies with Angels Again? (Part 3)

Alright, so when last we left our heroes, there was a feud going on, and with the start of Uncanny X-Men #438 it’s time that Chuck Austen reminds us of this fact.

Isn’t he just… angelic? Cover of Uncanny X-Men #438. Art by Salvador Larroca. (image credite: comicvine.com)

The Guthries, who’ve been talking with Sheriff Pete about their ban from the town and the imminent arrest of a twelve-year-old as soon as he’s well enough to get out of bed (he was shot in the face-shoulder last issue; why isn’t he in the hospital?), see that the Cabots are coming, armed to the teeth, to peaceably discuss the situation.  The matriarch Lucinda Guthrie tells one of her daughters to bring her rifle, because the woman has some common sense about what you should be prepared to do when a truck full of angry men with guns and molotov cocktails arrives on her property.  The sheriff, in contrast, says that maybe they shouldn’t get all up in arms yet–of course, this is the sheriff who shot a kid in the face-shoulder, so I doubt his worth as a crisis manager.

This doubt is justified when on the next page we see that Chester, the Cabot family patriarch, has come with the express purpose of taking young Jeb out and beating him senseless.  That’s expressed violent intent, and the sheriff doesn’t do anything about it!  It’ll be revealed before this issue’s over that he’s in Cabot’s pocket, but it’s still gut-bustingly asinine that he doesn’t even call out the fact that the Cabots are acting aggressive without imminent provocation.

Also on this page, Lucinda finally retrieves her rifle, which looks suspiciously like a double-barrel shotgun.  I actually like Lucinda; she’s one of the better drawn characters in this mess, so I’m going to chalk this up to an art mistake.  It doesn’t strike me as plausible that Lucinda wouldn’t know what kind of gun she owns otherwise.  That mistake aside, Lucinda is now armed, and the first person she turns her gun on is the sheriff.

Let me repeat that.  She points her gun at the sheriff.

I understand being suspicious of the fact that Sheriff Pete is not doing his job very well.  He did, after all, shoot Lucinda’s son in the face-shoulder and try to brush off the appearance of an angry lynch mob on the Guthries’ front porch as people just come to talk things out.  But you don’t point a weapon at a police officer in order to make your point!

Cut back to the cafe where Julia is still fawning over the angelic Josh.  She’s utterly smitten with him after listening to him sing one song that Josh’s current kind-of girlfriend Rosalinda (*nudge* just like Rosaline!) unfavorably compares to Enya.

I think this whole scene of Julia falling head over heels for Josh is supposed to be a callback to the Capulet’s party where Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time, but with the reversal that the girl’s crazy wrapped up in the moment.  One thing I like about Romeo & Juliet is that even though they’re kids, Juliet is no idiot.  There’s very strong evidence that Romeo’s kind of a moron who’s ruled by his emotional whims where Juliet is much more rational in her approach to their relationship.  Not so here!  Julia’s utterly smitten with Josh, and she hasn’t even spoken to him yet.

Something needs to be said here about the trope of “love at first sight.”  I get that it’s really common, and Romeo & Juliet is like the ur-example in English literature, but it’s just not a very satisfying device.  See, in the Elizabethan period people had this conception that a person’s eyes worked by sending out invisible beams that bounced back and told them what they were seeing.  We now know that it’s actually the reverse of that; your eye takes in light and produces a photographic image that your brain interprets as what you’re seeing.  But in the 1500s, it was eyebeams.  Here’s a stanza from John Donne’s “The Ecstacy” where he uses the eyebeams as a metaphor for the intertwined fate of lovers:

Our hands were firmly cemented
By a fast balm, which thence did spring ;
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string.

And here’s a link to the whole poem if you want to read the rest.  The point is that “love at first sight” had a different meaning for Shakespeare’s original audience.  It was not just the simple, immediate attraction that we generally understand the term to mean today.  If you fell in love at first sight, then you and your beloved’s eyebeams were intertwining and piercing you both physically.  Unfortunately there are no eyebeams to speak of in this story (Cyclops wasn’t even featured in Uncanny X-Men during Austen’s run).

I would love to see a modern love story that plays with that kind of interaction between lovers.  “She Lies with Angels” is not that love story.

No, instead Julia’s just smitten with Josh because he has a superhuman voice, which she has just discovered is because he’s a mutant when she goes back to his dressing room after his band finishes their set and she finds that his wings are *gasp!* real.

But we don’t dwell on that revelation for more than a splash page before we return to the stand-off in progress at the Guthrie homestead.  Sheriff Pete’s getting awfully nervous about having that gun pointed in his face, so he tries to talk Lucinda down by first explaining to her that he had to shoot her son in the face-shoulder in order to calm the situation and then asking her out on a date.

Cop of the year right here, folks.

Chester Cabot, finally sick of all this posturing, shoves Pete out of the way and fires his gun.  All of a sudden, we get an action sequence as Austen finally remembered that this is a superhero comic, and readers expect some superheroics!  So Angel and Husk beat up the Cabots and send them running with their tails between their legs.  Sheriff Pete finally does something right and threatens to arrest Chester.  Of course, in another art flub, Chester’s already been arrested by Angel’s fist, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for Pete to order him into the back of his squad car.

The excitement only lasts for a few pages though, because we’re back to Josh and Julia, and they finally have their first conversation where we learn that they’ve actually been secretly pining after one another ever since they were ten years old.  This in spite of the fact that they haven’t seen each other in the intervening eight years, and, you know, puberty.  Josh makes it seem like Julia was this great idealized love that he never got over, but I find it hard to believe that he preferred his memory of a prepubescent ten-year-old to any teenage girl who would have taken an interest in him as the lead singer/song-writer in a local band who also happens to be stupid handsome.

Nope, I don’t buy it.

We get a reenactment of Romeo and Juliet’s first conversation where Romeo does the whole kissing her hand thing, and it just makes me gag because as hard as Austen’s trying to make this romantic, it just seems saccharine and overwrought.  I just can’t believe these two characters are in love and spouting this kind of nonsense to each other (in front of Josh’s friend who apparently has a moment of meta-clarity when we get a close up panel of his bewildered face as he watches the scene unfold before him).

Thankfully the scene gets interrupted by Julia’s grandmother stepping into the dressing room and informing the two lovers that they belong to feuding houses, just like the Nurse does in Romeo & Juliet.  These parallels get exhausting to point out, but I want to make it clear that this is not a tribute; this is a rip off that steals the structure of a better told story to try to make the audience care about its characters.  Also, am I really supposed to believe that these two kids have remembered and pined over each other for years, and they never crossed paths in all that time in a small Kentucky coal-mining town where their families are supposed to have been feuding for no one remembers how long?

My mind is boggled.

The rest of this issue shows Lucinda calling Pete an insensitive moron for expecting to get a date with her after he shot her son in the face-shoulder, Josh pining over Julia while his friend Manny gags with a spoon, and Pete releasing the Cabots back at their house, where it’s revealed that Pete was supposed to let the Cabots go and kill all the Guthries in one swoop.  Also we find out that Chester Cabot poisoned Lucinda’s husband to death, a retcon that boils my blood because the original story was that Paige’s father had died of the black lung after a life as a coal miner, and his family had to scrape by to survive.  It was a poignant bit that acknowledged that there are real life tragedies that arise from social injustices and not just costumed villains.  I hate that Chuck Austen decided to throw more fuel on the fire of the Cabot/Guthrie feud that he invented by making it so Lucinda’s husband was poisoned to death.

Check out the next installment when the X-Men finally show up, three issues into this five-part story.

Why Did I Read She Lies with Angels Again? (Part 2)

Okay, so yesterday I wrote about my bizarre childhood dream to catch up on X-Men continuity, and how that drove me to endure some truly awful periods in the franchise’s publishing history.  The one that sticks out in my mind as the most mind numbingly awful, for the primary series at least, was Chuck Austen’s stint from 2002 to 2004 on Uncanny X-Men.

Though Austen didn’t create the character Stacy X (yes, she is a mutant stripper with pheromone powers that, among other things, can induce people to have sex), he didn’t shy away from using her to add tension to the relationship drama that he brought up constantly throughout his run.  Michael Aronson, in reviewing the first arc of Austen’s run, pointed out that Austen wasn’t above depicting an argument between Stacy X and Husk where romantic feelings are reduced to pure chemical lust and Stacy derogates Husk’s appearance, which the younger girl takes as the ultimate in insults, storming away crying because she’s just been slut-shamed by a character who should know better than to do that!  The guy that the women are fighting over (because every instance of a love triangle that we get from Austen involves two women fighting over a man who’s completely innocent of the conflict) is the X-Men mainstay, Angel.

Y’know, the guy with bird wings who’s been around since the ’60s?

Yeah, at first it’s just a more or less harmless crush that Husk, a 19-year-old at this point in continuity, has on Angel, who is probably in his early 30s.  When it gets reciprocated (in the pages of “She Lies with Angels” where the couple fly off to have sex in the air right in front of Husk’s mother) it becomes skeevy.  It breaks the dating someone younger rule, which is universally understood to be:

(Your age/2) + 7

Most of these characters do not appear in this issue. Some of them don’t even appear in this story arc. Cover of Uncanny X-Men #437. Art by Salvador Larroca. (Image credit: comicvine.com)

That’s the minimum.  If Angel is even just 30, then that means he shouldn’t be dating anyone younger than 22.  It’s creepy.

But I’m ranting about generalities when I need to be ranting about specifics.

The first issue of “She Lies with Angels,” Uncanny X-Men #437 opens with what I’m guessing is a reference to the opening scene of Romeo & Juliet where members of the rival houses are figuring out how to start a fight without getting blamed for being the ones who started it.  Except here it’s a bunch of middle school kids acting pretty much the way middle school kids act.  None of them really know why there’s a feud going on, but they have no problem contributing to it.  I’ll give Chuck Austen credit for this opening, because I think it’s believable.

Until the sheriff intervenes and shoots a kid in the face.

Let me back up and say that the kid in question is a mutant, and he’s just caused a rather large explosion (by accident!), so there’s probably a reasonable expectation that he could be dangerous.

But the cop shoots him in the face.

See, the way I recall Romeo & Juliet working, you have a fight, but no one gets seriously hurt so much as the public order’s being disturbed, and the Prince steps in to keep things from escalating.  Shooting a kid is not a de-escalation technique.

From there, we cut to Westchester, New York, where Husk, better known as Paige Guthrie, catches up with Angel, or Warren to his friends, to define their relationship after he finally reciprocated in a previous issue.  I don’t remember the details; don’t ask me to relive more of this than I have to.  Warren’s been pushing her away, and Paige wants to know what’s up with that.  She lays it out there, and Warren shoots her down pretty directly.  The only irksome thing is that at first it seems like Paige is going to handle this like an adult, since she asks him rather straightforwardly if she just needs to move on.  When Warren says that, yes, she should give up on him, Paige nearly breaks down crying right in the hallway until Jubilee comes along with the phone saying that Paige’s brother has been shot.

Okay.

I don’t have a problem with someone having to deal with heartache, especially when the person they’re pining for has just flat out told them to move on.  But this scene starts with Paige composed and ready to discuss the problem that Warren created between them, and it ends with her going to pieces.  It didn’t have to.  Paige could have maintained her composure until she got somewhere in private, but no, the waterworks start the moment Warren walks away.  Why?!  She was prepared to have this conversation, knowing it might not go the way she wanted!

Poorly written characters frustrate me.

We cut to the Guthrie family home where we learn that the kid who got shot in the first half of the issue was actually just shot in the shoulder.  So we have sloppy art on top of a cop who is clearly unfit to carry a sidearm.  Anyway, the kid’s fine, just bandaged up and bedridden at home (except I’m pretty sure that gunshot wounds would generally require at least staying overnight in a hospital) where the entire Guthrie clan is gathered, along with their black friend Ray and his son Ray, Jr.

It’s very important that we know the Guthries are not racists, in order to contrast with the Cabots, who are unrepentant bigots of every shape and kind.  Otherwise we wouldn’t know who the villains are in this Romeo & Juliet “tribute.”  Forgive me, but I thought it was pretty clear at the end of that play that both the Capulets and Montagues are at fault for what’s going on.  The Guthries are squeaky clean, upstanding folks who never do anything wrong for the rest of this arc.  Their only crime is having a twelve-year-old boy who acts exactly like a twelve-year-old boy.

Anyway, we learn that the Guthrie boy, Jeb, intentionally provoked the Cabot kids, so the cop, in a move that tips the hat that he isn’t a neutral party at all, says that the entire Guthrie clan is banned from town.  You know, because guilt by association is established in the American Constitution.

Anyway, after the cop makes this unimpeachable legal decision, the Guthrie matriarch Lucinda takes it in stride, acting like it’s perfectly rational that the entire family’s been banned from town for the idiotic actions of her adolescent son.

Before the issue ends (there’s four more of these, you know), we finally cut to a cafe where Paige’s brother Josh, who’s a year her junior, is singing with his band.  It’s revealed that Josh, like most of his siblings, is a mutant.  His mutation apparently granted him red bird wings (this speaks to a whole subplot that never really got off the ground during Austen’s run that I’ll address later) and the ability to modulate his voice so that he can sing complex harmonies with himself.

We’re introduced to this character through the eyes of Julia Cabot, our Juliet stand-in.  Austen makes a valiant attempt at giving her inner monologue some poetic flourishes, but it sounds labored and overwrought; teenagers do not spout off this kind of flowery language extemporaneously.  Also, directly comparing a guy who has wings and a self-harmonizing voice to an angel is the epitome of lazy symbolic writing.  Warren typically gets a pass because he’s a character who was conceived in the Silver Age when that kind of stuff was de rigeur, but Josh is a character who was updated and fleshed out specifically for this plot line.

Make sure to come back next time for Part 3 when we discover the absurd explanation for why Josh and Julia are meant for each other and their families just don’t understand them.