So I Just Saw X-Men: Apocalypse

I know, it’s been a really long time since I last saw an X-Men movie; it was hard to justify going to see Apocalypse in theaters after it got mixed reviews (movies, despite being affairs where you sit in relative silence for two hours, are largely social experiences that are less fun if you can’t get someone to go with you, and I’m the only person in my friend group who really enjoys the X-Men franchise), and as things tend to go when you’re in a transitional year, some stuff just falls by the wayside.  Fortunately, a friend of mine is sharing his HBO Now account with me, so I was finally able to catch this movie for the low, low cost of the time it took to watch it.  All things considered, that’s probably a good deal.

This picture’s probably a good summation of X-Men: Apocalypse: it’s almost has a comic book-y feel to it, but it stops just short in the generic high budget sci-fi category instead of fully embracing its roots. (Image credit: IMDb)

X-Men: Apocalypse is not as good a movie as X-Men: Days of Future Past, which is helps you recognize the quality of Days of Future Past since it’s a movie that was written specifically to untangle the continuity snarl of the movie franchise (this purpose is a bad foundation for a movie to begin with).  Apocalypse has the much more enviable position of getting to be the actual soft reboot of the franchise, and from that position it wastes too much of its time retreading the relationship triangle of Charles, Erik, and Raven (Apocalypse also has the unenviable position of being the third movie in the franchise’s second trilogy, meaning that there was likely a lot of pressure from all sides to make the story tie off loose threads with the arc begun in First Class).  Those characters are well established and given a lot of depth, but they crowd out the younger characters who are very definitely Apocalypse‘s main strength.  There’s certainly a bit of character fatigue happening with the older generation, and it’d be nice to give them a rest; it’s not like Fox doesn’t remind us with every movie just how many other characters are available for use in X-Men stories.

This point is probably my biggest complaint about the movie (and about the X-Men film franchise in general): just like every entry before it, Apocalypse is packed with characters from the comics, and they get under served in the story because of the character density.  The triad of Charles, Erik, and Raven get plenty of space; Wolverine gets his obligatory cameo where everyone can say, “Hey, it’s the Wolverine cameo!” and then move on with the story; even Beast, who’s been a main character since First Class, gets some decent development here; after that you have the younger generation of characters like Scott, Jean, and Kurt who are so engaging to watch but who never feel like they have enough time; left over in the dregs are all the characters that appear just to be window dressing.  Apocalypse’s horsemen are made up of Storm, Psylocke, and Angel, and all three characters are woefully underwritten (Storm fares slightly better since the studio needed to establish her enough to be a presence in future movies, but she really doesn’t do much as a character for the majority of this movie).  Quicksilver is a lot of fun, but he’s totally static besides the development that he now knows Erik is his father (he’s also not enough of a jerk; if you’re going to have Quicksilver, he needs to be really arrogant and snooty towards other characters).  Apocalypse himself is perfectly fine as a wannabe god, even if he’s pretty one-dimensional beyond that (not a big deal; he’s a pretty one-dimensional villain in general).  All of these characters add up to a really crowded story where someone is going to be poorly served, and it unfortunately falls mostly on the characters that we expect to be the major players in future installments.

If you let go problems with character development and just focus on the movie as a spectacle feature where you get to see folks with superpowers do cool stuff, it’s still a lot of fun.  The overall tone feels like the closest the X-Men franchise has gotten to a lighthearted adventure story since its inception (relatively speaking; this is still a movie where its big set piece for the end of the second act is the launching and destruction of the world’s entire cache of active nuclear missiles), and it’s clear that the filmmakers don’t really want the audience to think deeply about the larger implications of what’s happening on screen (the movie’s climax involves Apocalypse building himself a new pyramid in Cairo while Erik magnetically rips apart dozens of major cities all over the world; you’re not supposed to think, “they are killing a lot of people,” so much as, “cool“).  Even the smaller scale action is tonally dissonant, like when Wolverine slaughters a bunch of Weapon X soldiers in front of the kids and they for the most part don’t react like someone who’s just witnessed extreme violence.  The only conclusion you can draw is that this is meant to be a spectacle first, and a character story second (I just realized that’s getting dangerously close to the way you should appropriately describe any Michael Bay movie, and I feel a little sadder about this film).  Go in expecting to see some really fun action sequences and just acknowledge that you’re really only supposed to be emotionally invested in about two thirds of the cast.

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The All-New, All-Different Plot for X-Men Comics is a Rehash of M-Day But With Inhumans

First, here’s this.

I’m not totally caught up on the latest goings-on in Marvel’s comic universe (I just finished reading a bunch of the stuff related to Axis about a week ago; Secret Wars isn’t even on my radar yet), but I do know that there’s a big time skip coming up where the editors are going to shake up the status quo.  I was briefly concerned about the state of the X-Men (what with the streamlining of continuities that happened with Battleworld), as there was some speculation that Marvel might nix them from regular continuity in favor of the Inhumans.  Once Axel Alonso, Marvel’s Editor-In-Chief, reassured everyone that the X-Men and mutant related properties wouldn’t be disappearing from main continuity, I felt some relief.  As awkward as it can be to make mutants and their surrounding difficulties logically fit in a world that has hundreds of super-powered people who don’t get discriminated against, the X-Men have been a part of Marvel’s universe since the ’60s.  It feels like something would be lost if they were translated to a different continuity where they don’t have the Avengers and other publicly lauded super groups to play off of.

In Marvel's Comics, the Inhumans Are About to Become the X-Men's Biggest Enemy

The offending page. (Image credit: io9)

But I’m starting to rethink that relief since the previews for the new flagship X-book, Extraordinary X-Men has a scene where Storm explains that the Inhumans’ latest batch of Terrigen Mists is not only toxic to mutants (what the what?) but also sterilizes them (what the double what?).

You know that persistent speculation that people do about Marvel trying to replace mutants with Inhumans in the comics as a way of undermining Fox’s competing movie universe?  Choosing to make it so that the Inhumans are directly responsible for mutants’ decline in universe doesn’t help reduce that kind of talk.  Essentially, the metanarrative that a lot of people have embraced regarding Marvel’s creative decisions is about to become actual narrative.

While I try to accept narrative developments in X-Men comics with equanimity most of the time, this point doesn’t sit well with me.  It might be better if it were actually a new creative direction, but mutant genocides have happened twice before as markers of major creative shifts (the first was the destruction of Genosha by Sentinels at the start of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run, and the second was Wanda Maximoff’s curse on mutants following the House of M event).  In Morrison’s case, Genosha was a one off event that set the stage for a new vision of mutants as an established minority in the Marvel universe with their own subculture; the X-Men flourished following that move.  With M-Day, things shifted the status quo for mutants from thriving subculture to endangered species; it wasn’t my favorite development, but it did produce some interesting storylines in the decade that followed.  When Avengers vs. X-men (for all of its narrative faults) concluded with mutants getting jumpstarted by the Phoenix Force, I was actually quite pleased to be able to put that chapter of X-Men history in the past.

Now it’s three years later in publishing time, and Marvel’s getting ready to start the endangered species thing all over again, but with the company’s new favorite outcasts being the source of the strife, and a huge cash cow in the form of its movie universe looming in the background as a reminder that X-Men don’t get to play with the rest of Marvel’s properties on the big screen.

Maybe the X-Men should just get split off into their own continuity.  At least then we won’t have to deal with all these zero-sum predicaments that seem to be so clearly driven by commerce instead of storytelling.

X-Men and Evolution and Evangelicalism

The late ’00s was a weird, transitionary time in my life.  In the period encompassing 2007 and 2009, I finished undergrad, got married, became really serious about my faith as an evangelical Christian, took a white collar job, realized I didn’t like white collar work and really did want to be a teacher, and embarked on a project that I had wanted to do since I was a kid: reading the entire backlog of Marvel’s X-Men comics line.

The core parts of my life that I’m really content with took shape in that period: I’m still happily married, I’ve been working as a teacher for three years now and I love it, and I’m pretty thoroughly educated in the world of the X-Men (that one’s honestly pretty minor in comparison to the other two, but it’s great fodder for conversation and blog posts).  Other things have changed radically: I’m no longer an evangelical, which in that subculture effectively means I’m not a Christian anymore (although I take serious issue with that), and undergrad is so far in the past now that I’ve reached the point of grudging nostalgia (this is slightly galling, since I recall very clearly as an undergraduate resenting alumni who would come back to campus to indulge their own nostalgia; it’s definitely a case of thinking that my younger self would be disappointed in me).

It seems kind of silly now to look at all the stuff that I was doing at that point in my life and come to the realization that my totally just for fun comic book hobby played a part in my gradual renunciation of evangelical theology (especially since I still love both the X-Men and Christian theology as topics for thought and conversation), but that’s the case.

It goes like this.

Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with mainstream superhero comics knows that it’s a medium that flouts all known science right out of the gate.  Biology, chemistry, physics do not work that way in the real world, and it’s absurd to assume you can expect anything beyond the most fundamental “Hell yeah, science!” message from superheroes.  Do not use these stories as educational on any level.  When dealing more specifically with the X-Men, you have to always remember that evolution does not work that way.

The funny thing is I was aware of this fundamental rule of the X-Men when I was an evangelical.  I thought it was kind of insidious that the series was fundamentally pro-evolution, but also absurd because it was so wrong about how evolution operates.  Essentially, I had some really complicated feelings regarding my consumption of mainstream entertainment when I was evangelical pertaining to the constant worry over ideological infection (which actually turned out to be valid, though from this side I don’t think it was a bad thing at all).

See, besides the pro-evolution stuff that undergirds X-Men’s narrative, there’s also the persistent message that people who are different are not monsters (I know, it’s shocking, right?).  Occasionally, about once per generation of new X-Men, this message gets played out explicitly through a character’s introduction as they flee in terror from an angry mob (X-Men writers really love angry mobs).  Off the top of my head, I remember this scenario occurring with Iceman, Nightcrawler, Wolfsbane, and Oya.  Iceman’s story isn’t that interesting, but the other three have in common a major unifying factor: they’re targeted because the locals who are trying to kill them believe that they’re demonic (and each case is working within an explicitly Christian mythological frame).

Rahne’s been pretty screwed up for most of her life, and it’s really only in the last few years that her faith has shifted from being a burden to being a strength for her. (Image credit: Comics Vine)

Nightcrawler hails from the German state of Bavaria, a traditionally Catholic part of the country, and in his origin story from Giant-Size X-Men #1, he’s attacked by local villagers who take his unusual appearance as a sign that he’s a devil (sadly, Nightcrawler’s origin was eventually retconned so that his biological father actually is a devil, which I think undermines the point of this origin).  Rahne Sinclair, Wolfsbane, is an orphan who was attacked by members of her small Scots Presbyterian community after they discovered her mutant ability to shapeshift into a wolf (to add insult to injury, this mob was motivated by the bigoted preaching of her abusive guardian Reverend Craig, who was eventually revealed to have also been her biological father).  Idie Okonkwo, Oya, is a young girl who was attacked by local militia who took her for a witch after her powers manifested and she accidentally burned down her village in Nigeria.

Idie, like Rahne, was pretty screwed up for quite a while after her powers manifested. Noticing a pattern? (Image credit: Comics Vine)

While Nightcrawler has been largely resilient in the face of his early treatment (he’s always been content with his appearance and displayed no residual self loathing due to the way he was treated in Bavaria, largely because he also grew up in a traveling circus where he had an extremely supportive foster family), Rahne and Idie haven’t been so fortunate.  Rahne’s character arc for many years dealt with her slowly coming to grips with the abusive nature of her upbringing and realizing that the wider world wasn’t as horrible a place as Reverend Craig made it out to be.  She took a long time to accept that her nature as a mutant wasn’t the result of some inherited sin.  Idie, who’s a much more recently introduced character, has had a much shorter character arc revolving around her internalized sense of being a monster because of her powers.  She comes from a village where Christianity had apparently been spread, and up until very recently, she was convinced that her powers meant that she was automatically damned.  Idie’s portrayal in recent stories has shown her as more comfortable in her mutant identity, though the state of her faith is ambiguous (she was involved in a plot by the Purifiers, a group of fundamentalist Christian terrorists who have been recurring enemies of the X-Men since the ’80s, to infiltrate and destroy the Jean Grey School, and it’s unclear how those events have impacted her relationship with her faith).

I bring all this stuff up because I remember really sympathizing with Rahne’s story in particular during my evangelical days (Idie hadn’t even been introduced back in 2008 when I was playing catch up).  Hers was an example of how fundamentalist forms of faith are intrinsically harmful, and even if at the time I was thinking, “I’m glad I’m not that kind of Christian,” I realize now it was important that I was recognizing that Christianity could indeed hurt people in that way and that exclusionary theologies were particularly bad.  My reading X-Men comics was one of the first experiences that helped me grow towards the more inclusivist model of Christianity that I’ve adopted in the last few years.

And yeah, I’m totally cool with evolution, even if the comics always get it wrong.

Some Stuff That’s Nifty 3/4/15

No unifying theme this time, so I thought I’d just hit up a few random things.

1. Rachael and I watched the series finale of Parks and Recreation over the weekend.  It was quite good, and as longtime fans of the show, we were very satisfied with how everyone went out.  We’ve had multiple conversations about just what makes Parks and Rec so special as a show, and the thing we keep coming back to is that it’s a genuine utopian vision where people with differing opinions and values are able to disagree respectfully while trying to work together towards a common good (also, the show is remarkably egalitarian in its treatment of women).  I don’t know what show we might latch onto next as must-watch TV, but we’re in agreement that Parks and Recreation was something special.  If you’ve not been following the show for some reason, then most of it is on Netflix.  Do yourself a favor and start with Season 3 then backtrack to the earlier seasons once you’ve gotten attached to everyone (Season 1 is a pretty bad Office clone, and nearly kept us from sticking with the show; Season 2 is better, but doesn’t really start to shine until towards the end when Ben and Chris are introduced as characters).

Perhaps most gratifying is Rachel and Miles’s love for Cyclops, who has always seemed really sad to me, though he gets a lot of hate for being such a killjoy compared to everyone else on the team. (Image credit: rachelandmiles.com)

2. I’ve gotten into a new podcast this week called Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men.  I discovered the podcast on Saturday, and now on Tuesday as I’m writing this post I’ve listened to fourteen forty-five minute episodes.  My only regret is that at this rate I’ll be caught up in a couple of weeks, and then I’ll have to wait a week between episodes.  As someone who actually did go through the trouble of reading through the entire backlog of X-Men comics beginning with Giant-Size X-Men #1 (the Silver Age X-Men comics just never appealed to me; I’ve never been a big fan of the narrative style of Silver Age stories), I find the podcast delightful because the hosts will pick a topic to discuss, and I can’t stop grinning because I keep thinking to myself, “Oh, I remember reading that.  It was pretty awesome.”  The podcast has scratched an itch I barely ever get to entertain, because the fact that I’ve been playing catch up on so much history means that by the time I read something, it’s old news within the community so there’s no one to actually discuss it with.  Rachel and Miles’s giddy joy at talking about that one issue where Kitty Pryde reenacts Alien with a purple demon on Christmas Eve gives me warm fuzzies.

3. I read this article on the idea of fictional canon the other day, and the thing that most struck me about it was the similarity the central point had with fundamentalist ideology (yeah, I’m harping on fundamentalism a lot lately, but have you seen how many problems fundamentalists create?).  Here’s the part that really drove home this idea for me:

The reason this is such a compelling thing, despite the surface madness of it, is that love sends us crazy. When we love a world, we want to exist and revel in it. We want it to be true. And that truth is disrupted by inconsistency and contradiction. We need that integrity – our belief requires it. Canon is about neatness, and appreciation, and the urge to know and absorb everything about something you love. It’s about ownership and protectiveness. And it can also be unexpectedly damaging.

That’s just as much about faith as it is about fandom, and it highlights our tendency to diminish things into certain terms.  For evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, the need for the narrative of the Bible to be internally consistent is a huge priority, and this can have very unfortunate repercussions on how those same Christians interact with the rest of the world that acknowledges inconsistencies in the text not only in itself but also with other observable facts about our world.  It’s a sobering connection, and I think it’s a good reminder not to let ourselves get so bent out of shape over canon at the expense of building relationships with one another and sharing what we love about the things that we love.

4. Because this is always something that I feel like I have to mention when it happens, I’m working on a new bit of fiction.  It’s still extremely short, and the science is all kinds of dubious, but I think the premise has some potential.  Here’s hoping I get a draft together in the next couple weeks.

Are The X-Men Terrorists?

I’ve started back to work, so I suspect my blog output will slow down a little bit over the next couple of weeks, so no one panic if one day you wake up and my latest rumination isn’t waiting for you in your reader; it’s likely I just skipped posting for a day to rebuild my queue.

Moving on to other things: I was reading an interesting conversation the other day about the nature of stories and how we have a tendency to attribute greater significance to those stories which we think are factual.  The example being discussed was the story of David and Goliath, which was recently explored by Paul Davidson at his blog Is That in the Bible?.  It’s a good read, and well worth your time if you have any interest in this story, since Davidson takes a great deal of time to explore the evidence in the text that suggests there are at least two separate accounts of David and Goliath that were spliced together in 1 Samuel.

Anyway, you clicked on this post because I’m supposed to be talking about X-Men, not David and Goliath (I’m getting there).  In discussing the Goliath story, it came up that some people might look at the narrative differently when they realize that it’s highly improbable that David actually did kill a nine foot, half angel giant who was armed like a Greek hoplite.  I thought this was kind of weird, since I tend to think that things which are true don’t necessarily line up with plain facts (there’s a whole conversation that could be had on that point, but for now just know that I’m speaking of truth in a moral sense rather than a factual one).

So what if David didn’t actually defeat the giant Goliath?  The story about an underdog winning in the face of overwhelming odds is quite inspirational, and its status as fact or fiction doesn’t change that point.  The conversation moved on from there to consider various things about the morality of the story (there was a long digression about whether David is actually the underdog, considering he essentially brings a gun to a knife fight in terms of tactical advantage) before it turned to the question of morality as understood in superhero comics.

All of this thinking was based on the mention by one commenter that his son enjoys drawing his own comics, but the son is at a stage in his development where he doesn’t really understand the implications of death, so his heroes often simply kill the villains outright (because the hero always wins, right?).

Here’s where the X-Men come in.

Another commenter in the conversation pointed out that superhero stories often deal in this kind of crude morality, and offered up that the X-Men are actually terrorists, but we overlook that because they’re the protagonists of their books, and we’re expected to sympathize with them.

I have to admit that I was a little flabbergasted by the assertion, and wanted to write a reply explaining that the X-Men, in fact, are not terrorists, but I had to stop and consider then what the definition of a terrorist is (as you might expect, this is a terribly fraught question since the word ‘terrorist’ has some rather pointed connotations in my American mindset).

For the sake of not getting derailed by a semantic question, let’s just say that a terrorist is a person who engages in illegal (typically life-threatening) activities for the express purpose of accomplishing some kind of political agenda (the fact that this definition overlaps with a broad definition of the term ‘freedom fighter’ highlights one of the major problems in defining such terms: we have to further consider if the person’s agenda is one worth pursuing, and if the illegal actions are also unethical and immoral).  Of course, it’s in all that semantic mess that we find the space for considering whether the X-Men are terrorists.

Let’s start with the political agenda.  The X-Men have a pretty simple mission: achieving equal rights and treatment for mutants.  Considering that mutants are a metaphor for any marginalized group, I can get on board that idea.  I think the X-Men have an agenda that’s worth pursuing.

Next we should consider the legality of the X-Men’s operations.  This brings to mind the question of which laws we’re referencing.  Since the X-Men typically operate in America (barring that one time they were stationed in the Australian outback for a few years after accidentally faking their deaths), it’s probably best to consider them in relation to American law.  We know from years of comics that there are certain shady factions in the government that the X-Men have been at odds with in the past, but currently they’re on semi-cordial terms with SHIELD (the Marvel universe’s umbrella organization representing all top secret government spy agencies).  I say only semi-cordial, since SHIELD’s director kind of hates dealing with the X-Men that are acknowledged to be legitimate superheroes, and she outright loathes Cyclops’s faction (who actually are branded as terrorists within the comics).  This one’s kind of a toss up, because when the X-Men operate on American soil they’re typically responding to other mutant threats instead of directly antagonizing the government, while their more international operations do occasionally bleed over into revolutionary type actions (see pretty much every story related to Genosha before Magneto coerced the UN into giving him control of the island).  Generally, the X-Men operate in a shady area, since they do engage in what amounts to vigilantism and their PR is generally pretty awful (oh my gosh, the idea of public perception as a factor in defining terrorism just continues to complicate this question).

Given the dubious legality of X-Men activities in most of their history, we finally come to the last part of the basic question: while possibly illegal, are the X-Men’s actions ethically and morally compromised?  Well, I guess it depends on which X-Men you’re discussing.  The ideal of the X-Men, as far as their operation as a superhero team, is that they don’t kill.  I believe this sentiment most clearly crystallized back in the ’80s when Claremont wrote an arc about the X-Men in space fighting off alien parasites known as the Brood.  At the time, the Brood were established as a race of purely evil creatures who could only reproduce by implanting their eggs in the bodies of other species and taking control of the host’s body as the egg matured (these creatures are pretty clearly take inspiration from the xenomorphs of the Alien franchise).  Despite being nothing but bad, the X-Men still wrestled with the implications of killing those creatures, making their lives infinitely more difficult (when I read this story, I couldn’t help being irritated that killing the Brood was a difficult decision for the X-Men).  All of this background is meant to highlight the fact that the X-Men, at their best, do not kill their enemies.  Unfortunately, because dysfunction is makes for good reading, the X-Men rarely operate at their best, and multiple long time members in good standing have considerable kill counts (especially anyone who has been associated with Cyclops and Wolverine’s incarnations of X-Force, a team that was created specifically to assassinate enemies of the X-Men when mutants were at their most vulnerable following Decimation).

The question of whether the X-Men are terrorists is a complicated one.  At their best, when they’re fighting only to protect people who are in danger, I’m inclined to say no.  At their worst, when they assemble secret strike teams with the express purpose of permanently eliminating potential threats, I’d say absolutely, they are terrorists.  It’s the weird in between area where things get hazy, and in that space I just don’t know.  I suppose at that point perspective matters a whole lot, since you have characters like Cyclops, who’s a wanted fugitive because of his involvement in the events of “Avengers vs. X-Men” and who appears more or less sympathetic depending on whether he’s appearing in a book about him or someone else.

So are the X-Men terrorists?

I honestly don’t know.

Nightcrawler’s Back!

This is not the original cover of Amazing X-Men Vol. 2 #1. It is, however, objectively the best cover. Cover by Skottie Young. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

Okay, as usual this is old news, but it bears mentioning because Marvel killed off Nightcrawler as part of the “Second Coming” X-Men crossover event back in 2010, and he’s been out of commission for three years (which, if you follow any kind of superhero comics, is a pretty standard span of dead time).  I wasn’t entirely happy with the death when I read it, mostly because Kurt’s been one of my favorite superheroes for pretty much forever, but I let it go as a standard event in the life cycle of a superhero (it’d probably be easier to count off the A-list X-Men that haven’t been killed and resurrected at this point).

For anyone desiring background, the important thing to understand is that Kurt died rescuing Hope Summers, the adoptive daughter of Cable and apparent Messiah to the mutant race (there’s a thing with the Phoenix and Hope’s absurdly coincidental resemblance to Jean Grey) who was also the reason for the eventual schism between Cyclops and Wolverine’s factions of X-Men (basically, Hope’s been the catalyst for major X-Men stories for half a decade).  That’s all largely unrelated to the fact that Kurt got killed, and it was for a cause that not even all the X-Men were sure was a good one.

Anyhow, the opening arc of the recently launched Amazing X-Men (I don’t mean to complain, but does anyone else feel like the X-books have been multiplying again?) deals with Nightcrawler’s return to life after he hatches a plan to stop his biological father Azazel (let’s just not get into the thematic problems inherent in making Nightcrawler, a character who’s famous for representing religious and social persecution of minority groups because of superficial physical traits, have a father who is an actual demon from another dimension) from conquering the various planes of the afterlife.  The long and short of the arc is that Nightcrawler makes a deal with some hellspawn that have become loyal to Azazel where he promises them his soul in exchange for their allegiance in helping him boot his father back to the material plane.  It’s a really good arc and has tons of throwbacks to Kurt’s early adventures (particularly the fact that the whole story is framed as a pirate adventure; Kurt’s an unabashed fan of Errol Flynn and swashbuckling stories), and the scenes where everyone reunites with Nightcrawler are all very touching (I very definitely teared up when I turned to the splash page where Kurt’s hugging Wolverine in the snow).

Because I'm a sap, here's that splash page.  All the feels. Art by Ed McGuinness, Dexter Vines, and Marte Gracia.

Because I’m a sap, here’s that splash page. All the feels. Art by Ed McGuinness, Dexter Vines, and Marte Gracia.

Now, given that this story arc takes place primarily in the afterlife, it has some really wonky comic book logic at play.  First off, we should probably just acknowledge that no theological conclusions can be made from the fact of heaven, hell, and purgatory all coexisting in this story.  The Marvel Universe has about ten different versions of the underworld all competing with one another (and Peter David pretty conclusively wrote last year that all forms of hell are now being ruled by Guido Carosella), so a romp through a version of the afterlife loosely based on pop culture ideas about Christianity doesn’t say a whole lot about the subject.  What is interesting here is the inclusion of Charles Xavier (a nonreligious man who’s made his share of mistakes) as a spectator in heaven, and the strange status of Wolverine’s soul as he goes from one part of the afterlife to another.

Xavier is probably the textbook definition of a secular humanist; he believes in the innate capacity for human good and his life is dedicated to seeing peaceful integration of human and mutant interests.  His presence in heaven signals that we’re not dealing with a cosmology based in any particular kind of faith; Charles goes to heaven because he’s overall a good person.  Contrast this with Wolverine, who, in his better moments of characterization, is a man desperately trying to change his nature and come to grips with the mistakes of his past as he continues to find himself making the same mistakes in his present (I think it’s incredibly telling that in the last story arc of Wolverine & The X-Men Vol. 1, Logan confesses to Cyclops that he’s more concerned with leaving behind something good rather than finding redemption for himself).  Wolverine gets shunted to heaven, where he fights off one of Azazel’s invading pirate ships, but inadvertently falls (something Xavier warns him not to let happen because… reasons).  As Wolverine drops he realizes where he’s been, and there’s an interlude where he considers how much better it would be if he hadn’t seen what he’s never going to get (the implication is that Wolverine knows he’s damned and being given even a glimpse of heaven is a cruel torture).

Based on these examples, the afterlife system we’re dealing with in this story seems pretty straightforward: people who do more good than evil while they’re alive go to heaven, and everyone else has to contend with either purgatory or hell.  It’s the standard popular notion that much of Protestant Christianity likes to rail against because it’s based in works, and most Protestants are pretty vocal about grace being received through faith.  The fact that Xavier gets into heaven, when he’s done very little in his history to contend with his own mistakes, and Wolverine’s damnation is treated as a foregone conclusion, seems particularly egregious.  Nonetheless, this is a comic book we’re talking about, and I can’t find fault with its use of popular notions of heaven and hell in order to tell a story.

Besides that, discussions of Xavier and Wolverine’s status are more just incidental details that make the story more interesting.  Kurt’s state after the story concludes is far more useful thematically.  In a cosmology where a person can trade their soul for a new physical body, effectively banishing themselves from all versions of the afterlife, what motivates that person to continue to act following their resurrection?  I think it’s telling that before he makes the deal with the bamfs, Kurt spends all his time longing to go back to the material world.  He finds heaven kind of boring, and despite the one random soul’s comment in the first issue of the arc that it gets more beautiful as you go further inland (thanks for the Narnia allusion), Kurt just can’t pull himself away from the edge of the land.  Azazel’s attack on heaven prompts Kurt to make the deal that’s eventually going to revive him, but it seems to be a decision that he’s ready to make as soon as it presents itself; this tranquil heaven devoid of doing isn’t worth holding on to.

I’m curious to see where Kurt’s character goes from here.  In a lot of ways, his lack of a soul would mean that there’s a possibility Kurt’s faith could begin to be expressed in a manner that’s very much materially inclined; it’s the kind of attitude that’s popular in progressive circles where that part of the Lord’s Prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” is a literal exhortation to make our current world more like the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus describes.  I’d like to see something like that done with Nightcrawler’s character, although I suspect that he’ll first follow the standard trajectory of all resurrected superheroes and have a few years of grim disillusionment as he wrestles with the fact of his mortality.  Considering that he’s returning to life after having his questions about the nature of his universe answered (I don’t think most heroes get to remember so clearly what they did while they were dead), writers may choose to have him slough off his faith altogether (what point is there in having faith when you know the answers, and you also know that you’ve lost your soul?), which I think would be a regrettable choice, if only because it’s an obvious one to make narratively.  Still, existential questions abound with Kurt’s new status, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he answers them.

“I Rule Me” : Thoughts on X-Men Legacy

Okay, let’s start by getting all the background information out of the way.  X-Men Legacy is a long running X-book that began as the second volume of adjectiveless X-Men (this was the book that sold millions of copies of its first issue back in 1991 when everyone thought that collecting comics would be big money).  The book’s been through multiple rebrandings in its twenty year history, first becoming New X-Men during Grant Morrison’s run in 2001, then reverting back to X-Men before settling on X-Men Legacy in 2008.  In 2012 the book relaunched as a solo series centering on the character David Haller (codename Legion, and Charles Xavier’s estranged son), which ended back in March 2014.

I started catching up on the Legion volume of Legacy a few months back, and from the start of it I’ve been taken with this version of the series.  Most of Legacy‘s run has been as a team based book with a focus on secondary or tertiary X-Men teams (except for a few brief runs where the focus was on Charles Xavier in particular while he tried to deal with various fallings out he had with other members of the X-Men following the Mutant Decimation).  Aside from the Morrison run, this book’s never been one of my favorites, but the Legion volume was a whole different ballgame for me.

The cover of each issue is everything I want in a comic book cover. They all have this wonderful surreal quality that reflect David’s state of mind while still tying in thematically to the plot of each issue. Cover of X-Men Legacy Vol. 2 #8 by Mike Del Mundo. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

The premise of the most recent volume of Legacy is pretty straightforward: David Haller has been learning how to control his multiple personalities (he has dissociative identity disorder) with the help of a mystical hermit when he receives the news of Xavier’s recent death (he was killed at the conclusion of Avengers vs. X-Men by a Phoenix-possessed Cyclops).  This news throws David’s budding control out of whack and he ends up going on a trek around the world trying to figure out what he’s supposed to do in his father’s shadow.  Along the way he meets and falls in love with Ruth Aldine, a precognitive telepath who’s studying at Wolverine’s mutant school and the person destined to become David’s nemesis.  At the same time all this is going on, David’s also busy dealing with a rogue personality that’s taken the form of Xavier within his mindscape.

Overall it’s a very tightly plotted series, and the story that the writer Simon Spurrier wanted to tell fits nicely into twenty-four issues.  I suspect the tight plotting was intentional, because solo X-books have a history of not lasting very long (with the exception of Wolverine’s solo series, which is on something like its fifth volume currently and has been running since the ’80s, most solo X-titles end within two years of starting).  Of course, whether intentional or not, the bonus of such a short self-contained series (current events in the larger continuity get referenced occasionally, but this series has literally no impact on other X-books) is that it’s easy to pick up and read through without worrying about other stuff that’s happening (or to just ignore it if it’s not your thing).  As far as ongoing comics go, this series is about as low-commitment as you can get without only reading miniseries.

But setting aside the meta reasons for reading this series, there are good plot and character reasons too.  David Haller’s a difficult character to work with, and most of his appearances in X-Men history have been as a kind of anti-villain (I think we’re always meant to sympathize with David, but the combination of his mental illness and his extreme powers make him very dangerous).  Turning him not only into a hero, but also the protagonist of his own book is an ambitious undertaking for a superhero comic.  There are problems with how you represent a real mental illness in the context of a superhero world (unfortunately I just don’t know enough about the experience of DID to speak to how well Spurrier deals with this issue, though I can thankfully say that he makes no mention of David being autistic, an early description that Chris Claremont gave him when he was introduced, and an entirely inaccurate one for the kind of illness that David typically exhibits) as well as character issues to consider (David’s been insane and dangerous for most of his history with the X-Men, so he doesn’t have a natural supporting cast to flesh out the book).  The approach that Spurrier uses to deal with these issues is to represent David’s illness metaphorically as a prison mindscape where he houses all of his extra personalities, pulling on their powers according to the needs of the physical situation and his own self confidence; the threat of David losing his focus and ceding full control of his body over to another personality is a constant concern.

And it’s that issue of control that binds all the threads of David’s story together.  At the same time that he’s trying muster his mental resources to accomplish his goals, David’s also on a one person crusade to try to help the mutant race, often using trickery and coercion to get others to help him.  Being unable to trust his own mind to help him out, David also has a distinct distrust of others helping him too, and much of the run deals with the various ways that David’s personal mantra, “I rule me,” backfires on him as he drifts further into isolation from people who would be willing to help him if he’d just ask for it.  Even the one positive relationship he maintains with his girlfriend Ruth is a fraught one, where he often fails to tell her all the details of his plans and even tricks her into assisting him in ways that she’s not comfortable with (up to this point Ruth has never been more than an odd background character among the X-Men, but Spurrier fleshes her out in ways that make me hope she gets more active roles in future stories); the way that she never backs away from calling David out on his trust issues is refreshing, because it brings a depth to the romance beyond the inexorable attraction that these two feel toward each other because of fate (and there is a lot of talk about fate in this book; it’s kind of necessary when one of your central characters is a precog).

All in all, Spurrier’s run on X-Men Legacy is the best treatment of the character Legion that I’ve seen.  It’s a short run, and the entire narrative is easily contained without having to know much about what’s going on in the larger Marvel Universe.  If you have any interest in dipping into a nonstandard superhero book, this is a good run to look at.