Filing Cabinet of the Damned

Friday, December 23, 2005

Post 101

Filing Cabinet of the Damned is just shy of a year old and has reached, with this very post, one hundred and one entries.

In honor of a hundred and one posts and a year of existence, I present a random smattering of stuff.


Jack Kirby and Body Dysmorphia: a retrospective offered without commentary.

I'm torn between finding it all cooler than words and finding it creepy.


Moby-Dick: Or, the Whale. A cornerstone of American literature. A masterpiece. A brilliant collection of images, characters, whale facts, and fart jokes. Yep.

An excerpt: “Finally, I always go to sea as a sailor, because of the wholesome exercise and pure air of the forecastle deck. For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim)….”

Pythagoras had a strict rule against the eating of beans, y’see.* Winds from astern? Beans? HAW!

Okay, it’s not all that funny, but come on. Name another nineteenth century novel of high reputation with any references to tooting at all, much less a joke.

The path to great literature is clear to me now. Whaling and fart jokes. Cool.

I don’t know why I was thinking about Herm and the beans today. But I was, and so there you go.


Batman never sings anymore. It’d be sweet if they changed that policy.

Right in the middle of the big Infinite Crisis hoot-n-holler, as the universe is fracturing around him, he should break out a little Cole Porter:

“I understand the reason why
The OMACs are killing with Brother Eye.
It’s destructive,
it’s degrading,
it’s de-lovely”

The man needs some song and dance in his violent, obsessive life, dammit.


DC Comics’ “One Year Later” has the potential to be brilliant. It’ll probably be a letdown, a hiccup that will be all but forgotten in a few months.

Regardless, I think we should start a betting pool. Early odds:

10:1 – Wonder Woman is replaced by Donna Troy

23:1 – The new Earth-2 is populated entirely by the left-handed

37:1 – The current Robin becomes the new Nightwing. The current Nightwing becomes the new Batman. And the current Batman retires to become host of a popular Food Network show called “Batarang Buffet.”

62:1 – The new Justice League of America will require all new members to wear raccoon coats for their first year.

100:1 – Four simple words: “Sword of ‘Mazing Man.”

If anyone from DC reads this, you should know that SoMM would be a top seller. No doubt.

I'm just sayin'.

* Warning: Obnoxious pedantry follows. Sorry, can't help myself.

The reason for Pythagoras’s rule against beans is unclear. Aristotle had a couple of guesses why, such as a connection between beans and Hades. Other ancients thought it was tied in with ideas of reincarnation. Or that it was simply a way to prevent toots during meditation.

Another school of thought believes the maxim “abstain from beans” was a warning about politics. According to these fellows, one voted by dropping a black or white bean in a jar. Thus the warning was against political involvement.

Another theory is that the beans Pythagoras warned against were European vetches (Vicia faba) rather than the beans eaten today, and therefore some people with an inherited blood abnormality could develop a serious disorder called favism if they eat these beans or even inhale their pollen. So he was just keeping his buds out of harm's way. (I don't happen to think this is the case, but hey.)

Regardless, Melville made a Farrelly Brothers-level joke, in his mid-nineteenth century way, in a novel about evil, obsession, and whaling. Boo-yah!

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

With a Heart Full of Napalm: Iggy Pop, Kill Bill, Chris Farley, and Why Gødland Doesn’t Suck

Saturday Night Live has been near-unwatchable for decades. No big deal, lots of shows are. Though from time to time, I’d end up seeing pieces of it when friends would want to watch. Lucky me.

But there was one bit I caught a few times that was deadly funny: "The Chris Farley Show."

Chris Farley would sit in a cheap talk-show set with the week’s guest and hold an “interview.” Let’s say the guest was Keanu Reeves. The interview would go like this:

CHRIS: Hey, um, Keanu?
KEANU: Yeah?
CHRIS: Remember when you were in The Matrix?
KEANU: Yeah.
CHRIS: And you shot all those guys and flew and stuff?
KEANU: Yeah.
CHRIS: (Pauses, searching for words.) That was really cool.

An uncomfortable silence followed as the audience squirmed in embarrassment.

"The Chris Farley Show" provides a brilliant illustration of why the two Kill Bill movies are boring, empty failures. (Stick with me--I'll get to comics eventually.)

Before the first one came out, I thought the movie looked like it would be mega-cool. Quentin Tarantino making a movie celebrating the grindhouse crap cinema of his youth? Using said crap as inspiration and fuel? Oh hell yes. A talented filmmaker using his passions directly to make a popcorn movie? Oh hell yes!

One of the greatest popcorn movies ever, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was born of a similar idea. Spielberg and Lucas took the crap cinema of their youths as inspiration and fuel and produced a classic Big Loud Fun Movie. Few things in this world are better than Big Loud Fun Movies.*

When the movie hit town, my old roommates, a few college friends, and yers truly gathered together and trekked to see Kill Bill Part One, our brains jazzed for a rocket ride to kickassville.

By the time it was over, I was ready to use my own Five Fingers of Death to rip Tarantino’s nipples off.

I couldn’t believe it. The man pulled a Chris Farley.

You could almost hear him speak over the soundtrack: “You remember when Gordon Liu in Master Killer totally kicked ass on those guys that time? That was cool. Yeah. Or when Brian De Palma did that sweet-ass camera move? That was cool. Yeah.”
The whole goddamn movie was pastiche. He took scenes and ideas from his beloved crap movies and replayed them with his big-budget cast. The dumbass didn’t even bother to include that most basic of elements, a story.

What made Raiders of the Lost Ark a classic was not the inclusion of beloved elements from previous movies, but that Spielberg and Lucas made these elements their own, and told their own story. Tarantino didn’t bother. He didn’t take the kickass essence of the grindhouse to make something new. Oh no. Kill Bill was instead a clip show, a That’s Entertainment of violent b-movies.

Stringing together the favorite bits of your favorite movies doesn’t make for a great movie. It makes for a Crazy Quilt of Crap. A boring, deadly boring, somebody-make-the-bad-man-stop boring, Crazy Quilt of Crap.

This idea, as you would expect, takes us to punk icon Iggy Pop.

When Iggy started out, he was a wannabe bluesman in suburban Michigan. He aped the forms and played the songs he knew. A common story. But even as a teenager, he knew it wasn’t enough and that it wasn’t quite right. It felt hollow.

To learn more and figure out what was missing, he moved to Chicago and jammed with longtime bluesmen, men who had spent decades learning its nuances. The technical achievements of the older musicians flattened him. He worked hard to match them, and became a more proficient musician.

But more importantly, the Ig made a breakthrough. He didn’t want to play exactly like them, because he wasn’t them. He had to make it his own. The way to do that? Figure out what the others are trying to say, and say it in your own way.

In the case of Iggy, he took the core idea and some of the techniques of his heroes, and crafted his own music. He started with Chicago blues and ended up making Raw Power.

So what does this have to do with comics and Gødland?

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

I saw Tom Scioli’s book The Myth of 8-Opus at SPX 2004 and rolled my eyes. It seemed to me that Scioli couldn’t try to be Jack Kirby any more if he started smoking cigars and married a woman named Roz. Rather than throw what little money I had on what looked to be an obvious tribute book, I left the book behind. (The stuff I did buy that day was middling-to-bad. Pity.)

A recent bout of boredom with mainstream comics led me to try a bunch of new stuff, including Scioli’s latest book, a title written by Joe Casey and published by Image, Gødland.

The series centers on an astronaut turned demigod, Adam Archer. Archer was the sole survivor of a botched mission to Mars. After falling into a crevasse, he accidentally discovered a coven of powerful beings hidden in the Martian caves. Transformed by the strange beings into an energy-man for reasons unexplained, Archer returned to Earth and now intervenes when Big Cosmic Menaces emerge. He's kept by the military in a peculiar skyscraper in New York City, along with his three sisters, none of whom particularly want to be his keepers. The secrets of his transformation and the history of the universe are subplots that threaten to pop up, but haven't quite yet.

The first issue didn’t do a lot for me. Scioli’s ability to mimic late-period Kirby was impressive, yeah, but it was mostly a mess. Big green space dog? Dude who glowed? Mission to Mars? Que?

But I gave the book a chance and decided to pick up the next few. It’s up to issue five, Combat Rock.

Oh man. Glad I did.

This is some good stuff.

Casey and Scioli produce a book that looks like a Kirby Tribute, but isn’t. They certainly know and love the old Kirby cosmic epics, yes. But instead of copying them or creating a lame pastiche, they did it right. Rather than ape the moves, they strove for the same goal as Kirby: Big Sweeping Cosmic Crazed Comics.

Below is a page from one of several late-Kirby cosmic epics, The Eternals. Like a lot of Late Kirby, The Eternals had gods, demons, and really, really big machines with inexplicable squiggles on them.

If you read a collection of The Eternals then sat down to Gødland, you’d recognize the similarity of the art and the bombast of it all. But it would feel different. For example, here's a page from issue 3. Very Kirby-esque, yes.

But there are key differences between the works. Kirby created his worlds of gods and demons and let them loose. The pagan divinities of his books stomped around as the focal points of the comics. Normal people did exist, but they tended to be plot points more than characters. The conflict between Darkseid and Orion dominated The New Gods, and little else mattered. Everyday life was a backdrop to Big Cosmic Action.

Casey and Scioli's book stresses the giant gulf between humanity and Big Cosmic Characters. The hero of Gødland, Adam Archer, began as a normal man and became something far more. The series depicts his efforts to deal with his new cosmic destiny. What's more, his family is both annoyed and jealous of his status as a cosmic demi-god. The machinations of epic villains play out alongside regular human drama between ordinary brothers and sisters. That's not a Kirby approach at all.**

In short, Casey and Scioli are telling a different kind of story than Kirby did. Like the Ig, they’re taking from their hero and predecessor what they like and then push forward with their own path. Gødland doesn’t want to be a Jack Kirby comic of the Big Sweeping Crazed variety. It wants to be a Big Sweeping Cosmic Crazed comic and uses some Kirby-esque means to do it.

The difference between the two is enormous.

A lot of comics creators don't understand the difference. Rather than dedicate themselves to the goals of their artistic heroes, they simply go through the same motions and hope it comes out to be as kickass as the original. And it never is. They produce boring and derivative schlock.

Casey and Scioli don't make that mistake. They understand the Lesson of Iggy. God bless 'em.

Because of that, Gødland is fine junk food. Yep. It's the comic equivalent of a bag of Fritos: bad for you and lacking in nutritive value, but packed with oily, salty goodness.

I loves me some Fritos.



The Lesson of Iggy came from an interview the illustrious Mr. Pop gave a couple of years ago. I think I read it online, but dammit, I can't find it. Reading Gødland reminded me of The Ig and his wisdom. If'n anybody can find that interview, I'd be beholden to you. Thanks.

*Okay, a lot of things are better than Big Loud Fun Movies. Like love. Or the delicate play of sunlight upon swaying blades of grass on a cool spring day. Or General Tso’s Chicken. I’m striving for rhetorical effect here, yo.

**I mean solo Kirby, not Lee/Kirby. The New Gods stuff, Kamandi, OMAC, etc.

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Friday, December 16, 2005

Cousin Larry

Oooh! I’m joining in the Great Larry Debate!

For those who don’t follow the currents of the Comic Blog-o-Sphere, publisher and indy comics icon Larry Young recently wrote a column for Comic Book Resources where he lamented the general crappiness of comic criticism.

I mean, how else to account for what passes for comics criticism, nowadays? When was the last time you read something online or in print that wasn't a bunch of negativity, or, at best, dissembling? Where is everyone's passion? Where is the enthusiasm? I mean, if you don't like what you're reading, here's a thought: stop.

And later, after lamenting the group-think of critics:

Is that what's going on? Commentators on the scene want the "safest story?" Better to write, "It was kinda good, except for this one part I didn't like," instead of waving your proverbial beer in the metaphorical air and screaming "This comic was the most awesome thing I've ever read!"? Or, "The people who made this comic should be forced to plant trees to make up for the ones they killed to make this crap!" Commentators on the scene are worried about what other commentators think of their work, instead of reaching an audience with their opinions? And is that audience that they are reaching merely other commentators?

The blog Crisis/Boring Change had an excellent history and explanation of the debate that deals with the bulk of the fracas. I disagree with some of his conclusions, but his recounting of the history is worth a read.

So rather than work over the whole debate, I thought I’d draw attention to a single part: the sheer weirdness of Larry's accusations.

A lack of passion?

Jesus Christ on a pogo stick, the one thing comic criticism has in abundance is passion. Consult any board on Newsarama for proof. For a lot of critics, passion is all they have. Afraid to make waves? That's all they want to do.

Where many critics fail is their inability to sharpen and direct their passion. A lack of clarity and insight, not a lack of fire, is the problem. What makes bad critics bad is that they can’t explain their passions beyond “this rawks” or “this sucks.”

Go back to any critic you admire, and examine his or her work. Why is it good? What makes the criticism worth reading? The good critics are able to explain their passions and relate them to readers.

Without focus, without thought, a critic is just some jerk yelling.

Young's later defenses of his piece, posted on the message board The Engine, could charitably be described as “inept.” He began with the "I was just trying to start conversation" response, a lame and pathetic ploy. Rhetorical bomb-throwing is an adolescent stunt. It’s easy, it’s cheap, and it’s weak.

The nadir came when Young claimed the post to be a variant of a Cousin Larry Joke.

(A CLJ is best explained by its defense: "If you liked it, I was serious; if you were offended, I was being funny/exaggerating to make a point/being ironic/didn't mean you.")

Cousin Larry Jokes are so feeble they need to be taken behind the shed, patted on the head, given a treat, and then shot.

I actually felt a frisson of embarrassment on Young’s behalf when he tried that rhetorical defense.

Then there's his "peer pressure" and "negativity" charges, which, as any short tour around the Comic Blog-o-Sphere would show you, are disconnected from anything resembling reality.

When the charge of critical "negativity" arises, all I can think of is Kevin Costner. Costner's love note to himself, The Postman, which he directed and in which he starred and co-sang the theme song, opened to dreadful reviews. Not surprising, what with it being a dreadful movie. Costner's response? "Well, critics hate my movies because my movies are positive and they're negative people. They don't like positive things, so they come down on me."

Upon reading this I replied, as any sane man would, “Bwah-ha-ha-haaaa!”

Madonna made an identical accusation a few years ago regarding her own work; I think it was for Swept Away. Regardless, it was hilarious.

To put it in mathematical terms: Accusations of “negativity” = an inability to accept that you might just suck.

“It can’t be that my book stinks! The critics are all mocking me! It must be that…they’re all negative. Yeah! That’s it! Y’all’re just haters!”


So...let’s combine Larry's charges.

1. Critics are dispassionate
2. Critics think in a hive mind
3. Critics are “negative.”

This suggests that his ideal critic would be passionate, individual, and “positive.”

Or, in short, somebody who will praise his books to the skies.

After all, he’s a minor publisher, so those seeking to be “individual” would naturally seek him out. Those who don’t like his books he encourages to shut the hell up, and those who like it, he encourages to yell about it REAL LOUD.


Ever the huckster.

Like most ill-conceived rants, there is a nugget of truth to Larry’s charges.

A lot of would-be critics are indeed simply jerkoffs screaming real loud. (Lacking passion? Nah. Just stupid.) To which one can only say: So what? The responsible critics ignore them, and the jerkoffs themselves won’t go away because you tell them to.

And yes, you can find a lot of repetition in criticism. Though, one must ask, how much can you do with a thirty-page comic without dragging in either an academic crutch (such as the classic trio of race, gender, class) or weird-ass tangents that have nothing to do with the comic at hand?

Also, have you ever noticed that critics in other fields move in packs? Because they’re responding to the same works as one another. That an overwhelming percentage of critics are digging the new King Kong movie doesn’t necessarily mean they’re sheep. It could mean that it’s a good movie. D’oh!

They’re saying the same things? Wow that's a shock, because they’re reviewing the same movie.

You know what critics do suck? The self-anointed contrarians. Those who decide to hate what everyone loves or love what everyone hates, to demonstrate their “independence.” They are tools, plain and simple, and unworthy of note, because they abandon their first duty, honest criticism, in service of the lesser goal of reputation.

(For an example, the movie critics of If every other critic loves it, they hate it. If everyone hates it, they love it. If reviews are mixed, they don’t know what to do. Because They! Must! Be! Different! Oy.)

Larry later amended his rant to say that what he meant was that critics should be better.

Which we file under D for “duh.” Thanks a lot, Lar.

Comics should be better too, including his own. I’ve read some AiT/PlanetLar books and found them mediocre.

Publish better comics, Lar.

And for the love of Jack Kirby, stop being so negative! Don't go hatin' on us!

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

I Are Smart-o-fied: Educational Comics

Comics, long derided for their lack of erudition or educational merit, can teach those who care to learn.

Here are a few things comics have taught me.

Cowboys are atheists.
(Theological insight courtesy of Avengers #142)

Art school is hilarious.
(Truth courtesy of Eightball)

And the squid, while lowly, is capable of using air jets to shoot itself across a city.
(This moment in science brought to you by Mister Miracle #1)

Who knew?

You did, if you read comics.

Comics: The Back Door to Smartification and Brainiacitude.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005


Comics, being ephemera and under great strain to produce Big New Stories at a tremendous clip, often produce excellent ideas and then abandon them to lie fallow.

Case in point: Monsieur Mallah and the Brain.

Sure, they’ve had some exposure, but to nowhere near the degree the concept merits.

Who are they?

The Brain is an evil scientist who is now, yep, a brain in a jar. Brains in jars are cool. Especially evil brains in jars.

Monsieur Mallah is his assistant, a silverback gorilla modified by the Brain’s experiments. Mallah is highly intelligent, carries around automatic weaponry, and can talk. Best of all, he speaks in a French accent.
In what medium aside from comics would a brain in a jar and its talking, gun-toting French gorilla assistant be considered a minor and forgettable idea? Put them on teevee and we’d never hear the end of it.

If Mallah and the Brain were on Lost, they’d be huge. They'd be the topic of conversation for decades. Imagine the water-cooler talk the day after they premiered:

Person A: “Did you see last night’s episode?”
Person B: “Yeah! There was a brain in a jar and a gorilla with a French accent!”
Person A: “I bet the Brain becomes Sayid’s new love interest.”
Person B: “That’d be hot. And Jack and the gorilla seem to have something going on.”
Person A: “Man, who would have thought of a French-speaking gorilla with a machine gun and a brain in a jar?”

Who, indeed.

Sadly, the Brain and Mallah were confined mostly to the pages of the Doom Patrol comic, with the occasional stop to bug the Teen Titans. (I think they even appeared on the teevee cartoon Teen Titans Go. One appearance on a kid’s cartoon doesn’t count as exposure, dadgumit.)

They are pure High Concept. They are visually striking.

They are asking, nay, begging for a shot at the Big Time.

For example, why not make them recurring Batman foes? The Brain could be a master planner type, while Mallah would be his strong right arm. Gotham’s gangsters are used to whackos in tights and guys with clown faces, sure. Crazies are an everyday thing to them. But show them a giant surly gorilla and a brain in a jar and they’ll do anything you ask. Gorillas are nasty and brains in jars freak people out. Plus, Mallah would be able to put a hurtin’ on Batman, giving the stories some menace.

They’d be a fine addition to anyone’s gallery of rogues, really.

But why stick to ordinary super-villainy? Why not expand the concept?

Perhaps give the Brain and Mallah a miniseries of their own. As Villains United recently showed, a villain-centered comic can be a lot of fun and a big seller. Tell the stories from the other side. Daring hair’s-breadth escapes from superheroes; double-crosses with other villains; the careful construction of intricate plans; the debates over deathtraps (“We used mutant sharks last time! I say we use lasers mounted on broccoli stalks.”) Brain in a Jar + Big Monkey + Villain-Centered Stories = Good Time Comics.

Or go even farther…

Have the Brain and Mallah become, if not heroes, at least not villains.

They could dedicate themselves to exploration, finding lost cities and travelling into outer space. Brain in a Jar + Big Monkey + Outer Space + Wild Adventure = Big Time Coolness.

Or perhaps one day they receive a summons from King Solivar, monarch of Gorilla City, a city of super-intelligent gorillas hidden in central Africa (which used to figure into issues of The Flash quite a bit). Solivar tells the duo that there have been a string of murders in the hidden kingdom, and the locals are, for mysterious reasons, incapable of locating the killer. They need an outsider who is also another gorilla.

Only one creature in the world can help: Mallah. And he'll need his father-figure-in-a-fishbowl to crack the case. He's out to clean up a city that likes being dirty, and it's gonna be one hell of a fight.

Undercover Ape would be a huge seller.

“There are six million apes in the naked city. One of them is different. He killed his brother gorilla. Now I’m pounding on doors and beating on skulls to find out who put Simian Sam on the night train to the Big Adios.

"Gorilla City is a city of secrets. And I’m here to rip the lid off all of ‘em.”

Brain in a Jar + Big Monkey + More Big Monkeys + Mystery + Exotic Locale = Top Seller, Baby!

Then again, they do seem perfectly suited for family comedy. As the old saying goes, "first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the disembodied brain of an evil scientist preserved in a steel containment unit in a baby carriage." What family couldn't be compared to the Brain and Monsieur Mallah? Their dynamics remind me a lot of my own family.

Well, okay, they don't, but they could.

It'd have something for everyone: laughter, learning, and Very Special Issues.

Brain in a Jar + Big Monkey + Touching Heartfelt Stories of Family + Fart Jokes = New Family Movie Starring Steve Martin and Koko the Sign Language Gorilla.

Or perhaps they could spur a revival of the romance comic. The Brain and Mallah do love one another, as they reveal in the panels below. The Brain had just stolen Robotman's body. And what is the first thing he does?

Declare his undying passion for his Lover-Monkey!

Yeah! You go, disembodied brain that just got itself a new body! Can you feel the love?

This book writes itself.

A Brain…A Gorilla…Romance!

Tales of forbidden love! Tortured passion! A love that defied the odds and a number of laws!

The world told them no! Their hearts told them yes! Even though one of them doesn’t have a heart and is a brain in a jar!

Brain in a Jar + Big Monkey + Love, Sweet Love = Eisner awards by the boatload and a three-picture deal with Paramount.

Ah, comics. Where a Brain in a Jar and an armed gorilla with a French accent can find love, adventure, and all kinds of fun in a crazy, mixed-up world.


Note: I know gorillas aren't monkeys. But the word "monkey" is much funnier than the word "ape," and therefore is better suited lends itself to Big Time Komedy Laffs.

Second Note: I refuse to include any "Pinky and the Brain" jokes, despite the fact that yes, Mallah and the Brain keep trying to take over the world and failing. I leave those jokes to you, my dear readers.

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Friday, December 02, 2005

Behind the Times and Proud of It: Grooving to New X-Men

Rare are the trends that I catch when they’re raging. Rarer still are the trends I anticipate. No, I’m one of those guys who follows in the wake.

Therefore, I’m about to heavily praise my new discovery, a major comic published in 2001.

I don’t sweat the waves of fashion, yo. Nor do I fear to write long articles. Proof of both follows.


The New X-Men: About Damn Time

The X-Men began with a simple idea: a handful of people are just plain born with superpowers. No aliens, radioactive spiders, time travel, or mythological gods involved. They’re just mutations from normal humanity. Neat, simple, easy. The characters were in a school to train them to use their powers and they fought villains. That’s not a bad idea.

Early in their history another idea was added: mutants were a persecuted minority, and that the X-Men were “hated and feared by the very people they protected.” They fought both evil mutants and those who would destroy all mutants everywhere. It added a hint of weight and a unique bent for an otherwise forgettable concept.

Even with this different approach, it didn’t resonate. Sales were low and the book died after a few years.

The team returned in the mid-seventies when Marvel decided to create an “international” team for international distribution. They stocked the team with mutants from around the world and relaunched.

Right after relaunch, the book gained the writer Chris Claremont. And holy crap, did it work.

Claremont (with great assistance from some damn fine artists, including Dave Cockrum and John Byrne) brought to the book a combination of soap opera, character, and style that hadn’t been seen before.

The books were beautifully adolescent. Nobody before or since translated the operatic emotions of the teenage years into the superhero idiom half as well: “I’m so brilliant and beautiful and tormented and alone and a freak and nobody gets me and I love everybody but I hate everybody and there’s never been anybody like me ever ever ever except my friends at school.” Claremont had a true gift for combining bombast, self-pity, and big action.

By the early eighties, The Uncanny X-Men became the biggest title Marvel had. Exciting, involving, emotional, more than a little nuts. And for a while, all was well.

But, of course, it couldn’t stay that way.

Claremont wrote the book from 1976 to 1991, a remarkable length of time in the comic business. Over those years, his strengths and weaknesses both magnified. As a result, the soap opera elements grew more complicated, subplots proliferated beyond belief, and weird motifs returned over and over.

Claremont’s departure from the book didn’t help as much as it could have. Because then came the spinoffs. Character proliferation increased to lunatic levels. And still more convoluted stories.

Oh, my, the convoluted stories. Egad.

Take, for example, the villain with the amusingly-spelled name of Stryfe, a major player in the mid-nineties. (Love that pointy armor! Dude was a walking tetanus threat.)

Who is he? This'll take a while.

    --Stryfe is a clone of another character with a funny name, the hero Cable.
    --Both Stryfe and Cable are from the distant future.

    --The parents of Cable, and by extension, Stryfe, are X-Man Scott Summers (“Cyclops”) and his wife, Madelyne. The boy was named Nathan Summers.

    --Madelyne was later revealed to be the clone of Jean Grey, Scott’s longtime girlfriend, who happened to be dead for a while. When Jean came back to life, Scott left Madelyne and went back to Jean. (Yes, he’s a cad. Also, Madelyne later became a villain known as “The Goblin Queen” and got up to various evil deeds. But never mind that.)

    --Madelyne was created by a villain (“Mister Sinister”—one of my favorite silly names) to breed Jean with Scott and create a son. Said son was supposed to be super-powerful. With Jean dead (at the time), he had to resort to cloning to make the plan happen.

    --Mister Sinister was second banana to another villain, Apocalypse. Sinister planned to use the massively-powered boy to kill his boss.

    --Apocalypse protected himself from his underling by infecting the newborn Nathan with a “techno-organic virus” that would kill him. The X-Men defeat both villains and get the infected boy back.

    --An old woman calling herself Askani appeared out of nowhere and said she could save the boy. She came from the far future, where medicine had advanced enough to beat the techno-organic virus.

    --Askani was actually Rachel Summers, Scott and Jean’s daughter from a future timeline that had already been prevented. (How she exists is a bit of a mystery to me.) So she was kinda-sorta Cable’s sister. Sorta. Don’t think too hard about this.

    --Upon their arrival in the future, Askani died. Her followers took the baby and cloned him, knowing that the clone would be free of the virus. However, the original boy lived. So they had two young Summers boys, one infected and one not.

    --The villain Apocalypse, ruler of the world in this distant future, kidnaps the clone Nathan, thinking it the real one, and names him Stryfe, after a badass dude he fought a long time ago. He raised the boy to his teen years. Apocalypse’s plan was to then transfer his “essence” into the boy, who indeed had tremendous power. (An ancient man seeks to “place his essence” in a teenage boy to become young again? Ahem. Cough, cough. Anyway…)

    --Before the villain could do the deed, a trio of folks attacked and dissipated the villain’s “essence,” saving the boy. Who was this trio? (Oh, you’ll love this.) It was the original boy, now known as Cable, and a pair known as “Slym and Redd.” Slym and Redd were Scott Summers and Jean Grey, who somehow had their minds implanted in different bodies in the far future so they could raise their son. (Oy.)

    --For reasons I don’t know, Redd, Slym, and Cable don’t take the clone with them. (I’m sure they tried, I just don’t know the details.) The boy is instead raised by the villain’s crony and becomes a major villain in his own right.

    --After reaching maturity, Stryfe time-traveled back to our present, where he formed a terrorist organization, almost killed Apocalypse (thereby giving himself his name, courtesy of a time paradox), fought his clone, unleashed a “mutant plague,” and…

Oh, never mind.

Now here’s the scary part: Stryfe was neither a minor character nor unique in his convoluted and insane backstory. Moreover, the story was given in reverse order and doled out teeny bit by teeny bit, to allow for more and more Shocking! Revelations! So that list above is worlds clearer than the actual comics.

Then there were alternate versions of the alternate versions, such as the later character X-Man, who was also Nathan, son of Scott and Jean, but not the same one as Cable or Stryfe.

It makes my head hurt.

The whole damn X-enterprise became tired, confused, and hostile to anyone who didn’t have a thorough knowledge of twenty years of X-Men and all of their spinoffs.

Ye gods.

I avoided the X-books completely. There was potential in the premise, but the whole line was bloated, self-righteous, tedious, and way too confusing.

This begs the question of how it got so bad.

Because it sold well. Claremont’s approach does wonders for reader retention. Elaborate mysteries, long-running subplots, zillions of inter-related characters, and other such techniques keep the suckers coming back month after month.

But over time, even the mighty X-engine wore out. It became too twisted, overextended, and confusing even for its die-hard fans. And then Marvel was stuck with a sinking group of comics with more backstory and twisted logic in it than fifty years of “One Life to Live.”

In 2001, Marvel decided to make a clean break with the past and brought on Big Name Writer Grant Morrison. Morrison, known for his arty and deeply weird comics, was considered a shocking choice. He was given the main X-book to write, which was retitled New X-Men.

I didn’t read Morrison’s run when it came out. All I knew was that X-fans either adored it or thought it was gawdawful. It ended in 2003 and apparently all of the changes Morrison wrought have since been undone. In short, New X-Men was a hiccup in the giant and bloated history of the X-franchises.

I ignored it until recently. But Morrison’s latest work, the Seven Soldiers of Victory miniseries, has been a lot of fun, and I had a gift certificate to Borders burning a hole in my pocket. On a whim, I picked up volumes one and two of the collected New X-Men, and was impressed enough to later buy volume three. (Volumes four through seven will have to wait a bit. Stupid finances.)

The books were excellent. For once, the X-Men made sense. And Morrison got a few things right that the X-writers of the past did not.

Ah, but what, you ask?

First, a quote from the man himself:

"In the last decade or so, the tendency at Marvel has been intensely conservative; comics like the X-MEN have gone from freewheeling, overdriven pop to cautious, dodgy retro. What was dynamic becomes static - dead characters always return, nothing that happens really matters ultimately. The stage is never cleared for new creations to develop and grow. The comic has turned inwards and gone septic like a toenail. The only people reading are fanboys who don't count. The X-MEN, for all it was Marvel's bestseller, had become a watchword for undiluted geekery before the movie gave us another electroshock jolt. And in the last decade, sales fell from millions to hundreds of thousands."

Yeah, it’s all true.

So what’d he do that was so cool?

Laying off the continuity soap opera.
From my memories of the X-Men, it was always a big freakin’ mess of continuity. Characters and storylines dragged on forever and/or didn’t make any goddamn sense.

To understand the New X-Men stories, all you need to know going in is (1) there are “mutants” born in the world, and (2) the rest of the world isn’t happy about this. I had a passing familiarity with the main characters, and it proved to be more than enough.

Keeping the cast small-ish.
Morrison initially focused on five X-Men, a manageable number. Previous X-teams were often large and had fluid rosters. New X-Men kept the focus tight and clear. It did wonders for clarity.

A buttload of peripheral players came along, but they were introduced slowly, it wasn’t too hard to keep them straight, and they weren’t the focus of the stories. Lesser-powered mutants, brought to the school as students, were kept as subplots.

Making some mutations just plain nasty.
The first story of the run begins with two X-Men returning home with another mutant they’ve just rescued from killer robots. His mutant power? He has three faces on one head. That’s it. Other mutants with disfiguring changes turned up shortly thereafter.

I like that. Rather than play the tired game of “Mutation=Easy Way to Get a Superpower,” Morrison turned mutations into something strange and scary. It added richness and a sense of realism. Given how nature works, it feels right that a whopping percentage of mutants would not be demigods but just really strange freaks.

It also made the X-Men make more sense. They were among the few mutants who were powerful and non-monsterous. One of the new students of the school, known as “Beak,” was a hideous bird-man hybrid who couldn’t even fly. His sole superpower was being disturbingly ugly.

Acknowledging the logic of anti-mutant fears and giving humans some credit.
More than anything what’s kept me from the X-books was the whining. “We’re different, we’re rejected, boo hoo hoo.” Hamfisted parallels to civil rights movements and the difficulties faced by minority groups have always been a big part of X-lore.

This is crap.

In my head, I heard myself arguing with whiny X-Men every time I read one of their comics. “Assface, you can turn into steel and punch through tank armor. Your teacher can read my goddamn mind and compel me to do things. Why the crap shouldn’t I be scared to death of both of you?”

Imagine that happened in your neighborhood. What would be the reaction to such a discovery?

Would it be (a) “How fascinating! Come, let us celebrate! Would you care for a scone?” or (b) “AAAAAHH!!”

Having a passing acquaintence with the human race, I’d hazard a guess that most people would choose option “b.” Y’know what? It’s an entirely rational response.

The “mutant as persecuted minority” metaphor doesn’t really work. At a root level, law is based on force. No one person can run amok for long, since the rest of us could turn on said person and beat the hell out of him or shoot him. No matter how big, strong, or well-armed you are, you can’t beat everybody.

And that’s true for every single person in the world, no matter who they are or where they’re from. People are people are people.

In the case of many mutant superhumans, that’s not true. If a man who can turn into living steel decides he’s tired of waiting in line at the DMV and starts busting heads, who could stop him? A normal man could be bum-rushed. A superpowered man would require at least the army to stop him. That’s a scary thought.

According to the numbers given in New X-Men, roughly 0.26% of the population is mutant and that percentage is growing. (As of today the earth’s population is about 6.5 billion, and the beginning of the first volume claims there were about 17 million mutants worldwide.) That translates to roughly one out of three hundred and eighty people being a mutant. Just about every small town in America would have at least one.

Work out the math. A city of a hundred thousand, what is basically a big town, would have about two hundred and sixty mutants. The greater New York City region would have about fifty thousand.

A shocking percentage of mutants have mutations that give them super-powers. (That seems to be how it works, based on the comics.) Okay, let’s say half of the world’s mutants have mutations that would be considered “super-powers,” with the other half stuck bearing deformities or useless powers. (The percentage of genuine superpowers appears to be more like 90%, but let’s assume that comics don’t pay attention to the lesser-powered and so they seem rarer than they are.)

Right. Do a bit more math based on the numbers above. That would mean a world with eight and a half million superpowered beings, many of them with powers that could shake the world.

Psionic powers are common in the X-books, so there are may be about a half-million telepaths in the world. Let’s be conservative and say a quarter-million. That would mean that about one in twenty-six thousand people could read your goddamn mind.

And what’s the only thing protecting the human race from having their cities shattered by the most powerful mutants and their thoughts routinely violated by blithe telepaths?

The mutants’ own sense of decency and fair play.

Were this the case in the real world, I don’t think I’d be much comforted by notions like that. Historically speaking, basing actions on “hoping that the people with the power don’t abuse it” tends to be…

Well, let’s just call it a bad plan. Tends not to work, what with human nature and all.

Imagine if just a hundred random people around the world woke up tomorrow to own their own nuclear weapons, and that they could set off the bombs without injury to themselves. Would you be okay with that? What if one of them were crazy? Or just a touchy asshole? Imagine how the people’s personalities would change in response to it all. Don’t you think at least one might go and do it?

Morrison thought of this and decided to run with it. He didn’t paint the human fear of mutants as simple bigotry or a fear of "those who are different," as Claremont did. He showed it instead as a fear of massive power imbalance.

Not only does that make more sense in the context of the X-Men’s world, it provides a fresh angle to pursue the whole issue of human/mutant relations.

In a nice touch, he also made many of the mutants more than a little snotty about their “superior” status and capabilities. In volume three, Charles Xavier, the leader of the X-Men dismissively refers to human law as “chimpanzee law.” That’s rude, dismissive, arrogant, a dangerous attitude, and…a really cool character trait to give the often-dull Chuck X.

The story logic of New X-Men also explained why mutants are feared while non-mutant superhumans generally aren’t. The mutants exist in amazing numbers. They can emerge anywhere at any time. And everybody knows that they’re the “next stage in evolution.” For cryin’ out loud, they’re known as a new species, “Homo Superior.”

The mutants represent the end of the human race. To paraphrase Kruschev, they will bury us.

A handful of scientists getting powers from cosmic rays is a one-time event. Sixteen million superpowered beings appearing around the world with more born every day is a massive change in the course of human history.

Mutants were painted as the next generation of humanity. The struggle between generations, with the mistrust and resentments, became more important under Morrison. This shift from civil rights metaphor to a generational one not only made more internal sense, it provided a fresh angle for the characters.

Not to say that the “ethnic minority” interpretation died; mutants formed subcultures and lived in mutant-dominated neighborhoods, and yes, simple prejudice against difference did exist. But for once, an undercurrent of logic ran through it.

How sweet is that?

Indulging in weird and wacky crap
I have a great fondness for weird and wacky crap, as this blog so often demonstrates.

Morrison added to the team a mutant named Xorn, who had “a star for a brain.” Yes, really.

Kept in captivity for most of his life by terrified and power-hungry members of the Chinese military, he implodes the star and has “a black hole for a brain” just before he joins the X-Men. To protect other people, he wears an iron mask. This is insane…and super-cool.

(Yes, I’ve heard about “the true identity of Xorn,” revealed at the end of Morrison’s run. He’s still super-cool. I even like the big reveal.)

Morrison also had the beautiful audacity to screw with the big icon of the X-Men, Wolverine. Wolvie was a mutant who, many years ago, was surgically modified by persons unknown to become “Weapon X” and stripped of his memory. He escaped the Weapon X project, became known as Wolverine, and went on to join the X-Men. Swell, fine.

In Volume 3 of the collected New X-Men, a fellow shows up claiming to be a later product of the same project. He refers to Wolverine as “Weapon Ten.” (The man making the claim is “Weapon XIII.”)


The X was supposed to be a ten and nobody knew it? For decades? The most popular character in the Marvel Comics stables for ages, Mister Over-the-Top-Drama with the Tormented Past, botched his own name?

That is hilarious.

(I’m sure that didn’t stick either. Hush. It’s funny.)

It’s amazing. I’ve been reading comics on-and-off since I could read, and became a collector in 1984. In all that time, I’ve never cared much for the X-Men. Except for this one spectacular hiccup.*

Morrison blew my mind with one simple idea:

The X-Men don’t have to be terrible.

Who’d have thought it?

*Okay, okay, and the Claremont/Byrne/Austin run of the late seventies-early eighties. Love that art.

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Thursday, December 01, 2005

Victory at last

I won. The book is complete.

The novel is 50,468 words, though it has no title.

It does have ostriches, ninjas, pirates, madness, death, love, a cardboard cutout of Bettie Page shot through the forehead, a giant spider, twenty large canisters of pudding, a rapier duel, model train enthusiasts, regret, slavering monsters, exhumations, a floating village off the Philippine coast, sansabelt slacks, and a magical chicken sandwich. It's a busy little story.

It lacks coherence, depth of characterization, and monkeys.

It's a fusion of too many comic books, P.G. Wodehouse, bad movies, the zeitgeist of the McSweeney's era, and, um, classical Russian novels. It's a giant mess.

But goddammit, it's done.

Now I can alter my business cards.

"Harvey Jerkwater: Hero, Lover, Rock-and-Roller, and Novelist."


Now let us never speak of this piece of crap again.

Back to comics!

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