I just read: Dissolving Classroom

I’m a big fan of two of the Junji Ito’s other two horror comics, Uzumaki and Gyo. So I was excited to try his latest manga.

Ito has a very distinctive style. His ideas feel like they were written by a demented 7th-grader, but that helps him maintain a sort of allegorical mood—and his stories always feel claustrophobic in their dream-time logic. His pen-work can be alternately beautifully dainty and creepily off-kilter, and that also fits the day-dream-to-fever-dream his tone.

Dissolving Classroom is a collection of stories that follow a strangely polite young man, Yuuma, and his gonzo little sister, Chizumi. Both are unique characters, and their both up to some sinister stuff. But I have to say that I found Yuuma much more interesting. He’s a sort of diabolical version of toxic friend. He’s very well-mannered—almost subservient at times—but beneath that bland exterior lurks an ardent devil-worshipper. Literally. Yuuma kills small animals to lure the devil to him. He keeps in constant mental contact with the devil, and those bad vibes he shares can rot away at his new friends, dissolving their brains and their bodies. He’s like a walking Fukushima, and he’s in a continuous state of demonic meltdown.

It’s not entirely clear whether or not Yuuma enjoys the effect that he has on people. He is constantly apologizing for the harm he has done—and will do—but it soon becomes clear that Yuuma’s apologies are his most common M.O. for melting people down. If Yuuma falls to his knees and starts repeating, “I’m sorry… I’m sooo sorry…” you need to run away from him immediately. Early on, it’s revealed that he’s not actually apologizing to the people around him, he’s apologizing to the devil. And those direct transmissions to Hell interact with the human body in the same way a microwave oven reacts with a popsicle.

The concept doesn’t 100% make sense to me. Why is Yuuma apologizing to the devil? Yuuma’s helping to sow death and destruction, and it becomes clear that the devil likes this. But as I mentioned, this is where dream-logic kicks in, and on some gut-level I really synced with this idea of there being something sinister about apologies.

I definitely fall in the camp of people who might say, “Don’t say you’re sorry, do something to prove it.” And of course, no one likes groveling. But Ito shows effusive apologizing to be a passive-aggressive act of self-gratification. Like I said, this idea really struck me as ‘true’ on a gut level. Maybe I needed a Japanese writer to help me grasp this idea—like how the German language helped us define a concept like Schadenfreude, which most Americans had never really thought about before, but innately realized was a real thing.

Anyhoo… The ‘Dissolving’ concept is definitely not a one-trick-pony. With each story, Ito finds new ways to draw out drama—and creeps—from stiff Yuuma and wild Chizumi. The final story is not as disturbing, but it wraps up the saga in a perfect way that left me feeling surprised but also thinking, ‘I should have seen that coming!’

If you’re a manga fan or a horror fan, I’d say check this out!

Save

Series Condition: Silver Surfer

More and more lately, I’ve been in the mood to read comic books and graphic novels. And more and more, I’ve wanted those comics to be bright and colorful—with fluid line-work and just a little bit cartoonishness to them. I’m really gravitating toward the work of artists like David Rubin and Andrew MacLean right now. But then the other day I realized, ‘Hey, why not check in on the modern master of bold, fun comics… Mike Allred!”

I’ve been a fan of Allred’s since back in my college days, when he drew Madman and also The Atomics. My favorite series he ever did was X-Force/X-Statix. In that series, he just went ree-dic-ulous when it came to color palettes and character designs. But also Peter Millgan’s plotting and themes on that series were surprisingly topical and hard-boiled, which was a nice juxtaposition to the art. I’d definitely recommend checking that out. But anyway…

I’d heard good things about the Silver Surfer series that Mike Allred had been working on, so I decided I should give it a try. Boy was I glad I did!

Silver Surfer
Writer: Dan Slott
Artist: Mike Allred
Color Artist: Laura Allred
Publisher: Marvel
2014-2015
15 issues (A completed series)

I can’t say I’m much of a fan of the Silver Surfer. From what I’ve seen of him, his personality seems as nondescript as his character design. Also he’s one of those cosmically powered characters who seems to be able to do anything, based on the circumstance he’s been written into. He’s a walking, talking Deus Ex Machina. Where’s the drama in that?

Series co-creators Scott and Allred avoid this problem by introducing Dawn—a plucky-yet-vulnerable earthling girl who becomes the Surfer’s companion on his galaxy-spanning adventures. Does the ‘companion’ part sound familiar? To me, it sounded a lot like Doctor Who. I like Doctor Who somewhat, but the episode ‘Silence in the Library’ kind of ruined the series for me. It was legitimately (and schlockly) scary—which I like—but also it emphatically points out the fact that the Doctor is compulsively putting random civilians in horrible danger, for the sake of intergalactic adventure. Sure the humans are willing participants, but it seems quite neglectful—even slightly diabolical—that the Doctor doesn’t offer much to protect his companions, except for a chintzy ‘sonic-screwdriver’ and the constant advice, ‘Run fast!’

This ‘Silver Surfer’ series avoids this problem of manslaughter-level adventureneering because:
A) It quickly establishes a quirky, swashbuckling vibe, and the dangers never seem that visceral or immediate.
B) The Surfer is always cosmically powerful, so he can keep Dawn safe in just about any instance.

The story begins twelve years before present time, and Dawn is a just little kid wishing on a star. That meteor ends up the being the Silver Surfer, who is in his pre-heroic phase—when we was a enthralled henchman of the planet-devouring god-villain, Galactus. Instead of wishing for something for herself, young Dawn wishes for the falling star—wishes that it will keep flying forever so that it always have the chance to grant wishes to others.

This first connection is never brought up in the series (although maybe it is revealed in the next volume), but nevertheless, the story skips ahead to present-day, and Dawn is abducted as a hostage because some enigmatic cosmic device declares that she is the most important person in the Silver Surfer’s life. How is that possible if they have never really met? The series spend a chunk of time unspooling the Surfer and Dawn’s relationship. And along the way, they find themselves in some pretty zany predicaments.

They tangle with the Never Queen, who is the cosmic entity who embodies of all unrealized possibility.

They go to a planet where everyone is obsessed with being the ONE perfect expert in their profession. On this adventure, they meet Warrior One, Banker One, Ice-Cream Maker One, etc.

They return to visit Dawn’s family just in time to face off against the obviously-name villain Nightmare. Then we’re treated to a classic ‘everybody faces their greatest fear’ adventure.

Add to that a ‘time-loop’ adventure that’s laid out so that the comic book issue can be cut up and pasted together into an real Moebius strip. Seriously.

Along the way there’s plenty of nice, smaller moments. Like the one where the Surfer has to get used to traveling across interstellar distances with a human who has to eat and drink three times a day, and pee and poop out all that stuff even more often.

But the highlight of this run is a multi-part story where the duo find a hidden planet occupied by 666 billion refugees from 666 billion worlds. Hmm, what kind of monster could have destroyed that many planets? (Burp!) and who is the former indentured servant who helped lead that monster to all these worlds? Let’s just say that the Surfer’s past comes back to haunt him, and it leads to a turning point in his Dawn and his relationship. And also a clash of cosmic powers that is actually truly memorable. The story culminates with a ‘I am Spartacus’ moment that ‘calls back’ to the Surfer’s origin story, and that is actually pretty emotional. It’s one of the best pure superhero stories I’ve read in a long time.

I’d highly recommend the series, if you’re looking for comic-book in the vein of Guardians of the Galaxy or Doctor Who. And the good news is that there’s a volume of Silver Surfer with the same creative team, so that means a whole other galaxy of possibilities and adventures to explore!

 

Save

Save

Series Condition: Tokyo Ghost

I’m updating this post from June to note the Tokyo Ghost finale.

I’ve heard a lot of great things about the comics writer, Rick Remember. Nearly every one of his Image series has sounded cool enough to hook me in for at least the first issue. Unfortunately, Black Science, Deadly Class, and Low all felt too nihilistic, too ‘hair-trigger’ for me. Lots of bouts of sudden violence; lots of main characters or innocent bystanders being killed off. They were cool books, with great ideas and art, but I had difficulty finding something enjoyable or sympathetic to grab onto, something to make me hang on for the ride.

tg00That’s not the case with the thundering tank-cycle that is Tokyo Ghost. So far, I’m totally hooked for the ride.

Tokyo Ghost
Writer: Rick Remender

Artist: Sean Murphy
10 issues
Years: 2015 to 2016
Publisher: Image Comics

If anything, Tokyo Ghost should be the Remender book that I most hate, because it might be his most misanthropic premise. Here’s the description from Comixology: The Isles of Los Angeles 2089: Humanity is addicted to technology, a population of unemployed leisure seekers blissfully distracted from toxic contamination, who borrow, steal, and kill to buy their next digital fix. Getting a virtual buzz is the only thing left to live for. It’s the biggest industry, the only industry, the drug everyone needs, and gangsters run it all.

tg01To establish the setting, Remender presents us with a ton of carnage and depressing scenarios. Also, a couple of truly ruthless and depraved bad guys, including a kazillionaire (a Donald Trump stand-in) who’s so debauched, he spends most of his business hours Donald-Ducking it. (Word of warning: If you don’t like doodles of men’s diddles, or other bits of nudity and bad language, then this might not be the comic for you.)

Again and again, the book goes over-the-top to show you just how this potential future is nearly-completely awful. I think one of the things that pulled me through this section of the book was that the future Earth in my ‘Idyll’ novel has some similar things going on (i.e., crowds of people who are emotionally and physically reliant on indulgent technology).

Then we go to the Garden Nation of Tokyo, which is the one place on the planet that is off-the-grid. In my mind that’s when the story really gets good. We learn more about our two main characters, one of whom is finally forced to disconnect from the tech that has consumed him.

tg02bThe story is always moving, with something at the end of each issue that breaks the status quo established by the issue before it. Then in issue 5, Remender really pulls the rug out from under our heroes, just when they’re at their happiest point.

Besides Remender’s twisty plot, the other HUGE draw is Sean Murphy’s art. He has a new, fun, ‘scratchy’ kinetic style, (I like Otto Schmidt and Sanford Greene, too).  Murphy’s delicate scratchy lines manage to be both dynamic and meticulously rendered. His art is like the beautiful love-child of Bill Sienkiewicz and Alex Nino. Every other page, I had to stop reading and zoom in on my iPad to enjoy a rendering of a Zen Garden, or a kinetic kick, or just a reflection in water.

By Issue 6, the story has turned dark and nihilistic again, but I’m imagining that Remender has more surprises up his sleeve. I’d like to see more of Tokyo’s Samurai Shangri-La as opposed to being stuck in just another Cyberpunk Dystopia. Here’s hoping the story goes to more beautiful locations, to complement Murphy’s stunning art.tg03

tg04

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Update:

Issue #10, which came out in September of 2016, marked the end of the series. Murphy is moving over to DC Comics to work on ‘All-Star Batman.’ That should be pretty cool. It would’ve been interesting to see where ‘Tokyo Ghost’ might have gone, if it had stayed an ongoing series, but the story had a natural conclusion to it at the Issue-10 mark. Actually, it probably could’ve wrapped up by Issue 9. The plot seemed to tread water in issues 7-9. Perhaps the creators were trying to work out whether they should end the series or not. Also, the latter issues were pretty damn bloody and nihilistic, so a bit of the antithesis of what I liked about the first few issues.

I did like the finale, partly because it went into that sci-fi idea of just giving up on the physical world, uploading your brain into virtual reality, and living there forever. Idyll Book 3 deals with that idea, somewhat. Also, I don’t know if I’ve ever read a genre book that’s dealt so heavily with the theme of co-dependence. That’s the primary (internal) struggle that Debbie faces in the last issue: Does she have the strength to make a break for her independence? Should she want to?

So, next steps for me: Keep an eye out for Murphy’s ‘All-Star Batman.’ And I might check out Remender’s ‘Deadly Class.’

Series Condition: The Spire

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.39.24 AMI’ve been trying more fantasy genre comics lately, including this 8 issue limited series, The Spire, and Monstress by Marjorie Liu, which I plan to review later. The two series have some similarities with topical parables to issues of today, including cultural melding and intolerance.

In ‘The Spire,’ the world is separated into two basic races, humans and the ‘sculpted’ (sometimes called ‘skewed’ or just ‘freaks’).  There are several types of sculpted, each mutated with extreme appearances and abilities. All of the sculpted are able to live in the outside world, which is a toxic desert wilderness. Because of the harsh environment, a good deal of the human population are squeezed in a towering city of stacked ghettos that gives new definition to the term ‘vertical growth.’

The Spire
Writer: Simon Spurrier
Artist: Jeff Stokely
Colorist: Andre May
Publisher: Boom!
2015-2016
8 issues (A completed limited series)

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.44.43 AMIn this city, the titular Spire, humans and sculpted live almost literally on top of each other. The mix of weird ‘ethnicities’ will seem familiar to anyone who’s read  China Mieville’s New Crobuzon novels (and if you’re haven’t, you should check them out!), but Spurrier makes his world unique, with medieval/feudal politics and parables to today’s political climate–all knitted together in a nifty detective story.

The series’ protagonist is a sculpted woman named Sha who is the city’s chief of police. Sha is trying to stop a masked killer. Of course, the killer’s victims are far from random, and Sha eventually realizes that the killings are connected somehow to incident that befell the Queen-mother thirty years ago, while she was pregnant. Coincidentally, (or is it?!) Sha has a gap in her memory that has erased everything in her memory that is older than thirty years. Also, (coincidentally?!) Sha is in a clandestine relationship with one of the Queen-mother’s daughters.

IScreen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.39.57 AMt’s a compelling and intricate mystery. I was able to figure out some parts, and I was pleasantly surprised by others.

The other distinctive aspect of this series is the art. The art here is very cartoony in places, it reminds me of loose, doodle style you might see in a comic strip in a local alternative newspaper. The art adds some levity to the story, here and there, and it is definitely not a conventional match for a fantasy series. But it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

The coloring is undeniably beautiful, though. Andre May uses a palette from the back row of the crayon box. Ultramarine, salmon, orchid, turquoise, pea green, and ‘off key’ pastels that add an otherworldly feel.

As I said, it you like comics and Mieville novels–or the Gentlemen Bastards books–then I think this series could be worth a try.Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.40.49 AM

Series Condition: Tokyo Ghost

I’ve heard a lot of great things about the comics writer, Rick Remember. Nearly every one of his Image series has sounded cool enough to hook me in for at least the first issue. Unfortunately, Black Science, Deadly Class, and Low all felt too nihilistic, too ‘hair-trigger’ for me. Lots of bouts of sudden violence; lots of main characters or innocent bystanders being killed off. They were cool books, with great ideas and art, but I had difficulty finding something enjoyable or sympathetic to grab onto, something to make me hang on for the ride.

tg00That’s not the case with the thundering tank-cycle that is Tokyo Ghost. So far, I’m totally hooked for the ride.

Tokyo Ghost
Writer: Rick Remender

Artist: Sean Murphy
7 issues (so far)
Years: 2015 to now
Publisher: Image Comics

If anything, Tokyo Ghost should be the Remender book that I most hate, because it might be his most misanthropic premise. Here’s the description from Comixology: The Isles of Los Angeles 2089: Humanity is addicted to technology, a population of unemployed leisure seekers blissfully distracted from toxic contamination, who borrow, steal, and kill to buy their next digital fix. Getting a virtual buzz is the only thing left to live for. It’s the biggest industry, the only industry, the drug everyone needs, and gangsters run it all.

tg01To establish the setting, Remender presents us with a ton of carnage and depressing scenarios. Also, a couple of truly ruthless and depraved bad guys, including a kazillionaire (a Donald Trump stand-in) who’s so debauched, he spends most of his business hours Donald-Ducking it. (Word of warning: If you don’t like doodles of men’s diddles, or other bits of nudity and bad language, then this might not be the comic for you.)

Again and again, the book goes over-the-top to show you just how this potential future is nearly-completely awful. I think one of the things that pulled me through this section of the book was that the future Earth in my ‘Idyll’ novel has some similar things going on (i.e., crowds of people who are emotionally and physically reliant on indulgent technology).

Then we go to the Garden Nation of Tokyo, which is the one place on the planet that is off-the-grid. In my mind that’s when the story really gets good. We learn more about our two main characters, one of whom is finally forced to disconnect from the tech that has consumed him.

tg02bThe story is always moving, with something at the end of each issue that breaks the status quo established by the issue before it. Then in issue 5, Remender really pulls the rug out from under our heroes, just when they’re at their happiest point.

Besides Remender’s twisty plot, the other HUGE draw is Sean Murphy’s art. He has a new, fun, ‘scratchy’ kinetic style, (I like Otto Schmidt and Sanford Greene, too).  Murphy’s delicate scratchy lines manage to be both dynamic and meticulously rendered. His art is like the beautiful love-child of Bill Sienkiewicz and Alex Nino. Every other page, I had to stop reading and zoom in on my iPad to enjoy a rendering of a Zen Garden, or a kinetic kick, or just a reflection in water.

By Issue 6, the story has turned dark and nihilistic again, but I’m imagining that Remender has more surprises up his sleeve. I’d like to see more of Tokyo’s Samurai Shangri-La as opposed to being stuck in just another Cyberpunk Dystopia. Here’s hoping the story goes to more beautiful locations, to complement Murphy’s stunning art.tg03

tg04

The Agony and the X-stasy

MODERN X-MEN COMICS

If you’ve been an X-Men comics fan in the last ten years, you’ve had to deal with some pretty crappy premises. Illogical… Ill-conceived… The good thing is: If you dove beneath the high-concepts, most of the actual storylines were pretty good. Let’s take a look at the ways X-Men writers shook up the status quo and created new drama for our favorite mutants.

1336639-1162858_no_moreM-Day
In 2005, the powers-that-be at Marvel editorial decided that the world was filled with too many mutants. Mutant ghosts, reality-star mutants, sentient mutant viruses. There were probably less mutants in the world than there were Inuits, but Marvel editorial decided that being a mutant wasn’t ‘special’ any more. So the decision came down to cull the herd. The editors decided to do this with a magical event call ‘M-Day.’ On that day, 99% of the mutant population suddenly lose their powers.

‘Wow!’ you might say. “Which of my favorite X-Men lost their powers?” To which, my answer would be ‘Iceman and Magneto.”

That’s right. 99% of all mutants lose their powers, but only about 2% of the popular ones. And no  narrative explanation is ever offered as to why the more marketable mutants got to keep their power.

250px-X-Men_EndageredDecimation/Endangered Species
So, all the mutants you’ve never heard of lose their powers. And all the popular mutants lose their damn minds. Foremost on this list of crazies was Cyclops. You would think someone who has furious blasts of destruction coming out of his eyes AT ALL TIMES, would realize that losing one’s mutant powers might not be the worst thing in the world. But no.

Granted, a lot of the remaining powered mutants are ‘concentrated’ in ‘camps,’ by the U.S. government, supposedly for their own protection. Also, a bus-full of depowered mutants are bombed by a gang of anti-mutant terrorists.

But the crux of this era is focused on the idea of unborn mutant babies. Cyclops is fixated on the idea that no more babies will be born with dangerous, disfiguring mutations. He declares that mutants are now an endangered species, and that the X-Men need to hunker together and rectify this situation. Yes, after 40 years of Professor Xavier espousing the belief that mutants are just ordinary people who just happen to have extraordinary powers, Xavier’s star pupil now decides that mutants are a separate ‘species’ that has to protect and advance themselves BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY. OK, I get that the mutant ‘family’ might be more vulnerable than its ever been, and that they have to protect themselves. But why are they so concerned about making sure that future generations have mutants in them? The worst thing about this is that nearly every other mutant buys into it. It’s especially weird that Beast, the X-Mens’ most annoyingly sanctimonious member, buys into it too.

153_x_men__second_coming_1g_02Messiah Complex & X-Nation & Second Coming
Cyclops starts forming death-squads to take out anti-mutant terrorists. I don’t remember any scenes where the X-Men start taking prisoners and waterboarding them, but there are definite correlations between this era of X-Men comics and the era of the Bush Doctrine. I can’t decide if the writers intentionally created these parallels. ‘You’re either with us, or you’re against us.’ This is what Cyclops tells the rest of the ’superpowers’ of the Marvel Universe. Namely SHIELD and the Avengers. Probably not the greatest idea.

Also not a great idea? Taking all the people you want to protect and publicly sequestering them onto one small landmass that could be obliterated by a nuclear bomb or biological weapon. Also not the best PR decision? This new base used to be Magneto’s headquarters when he was in his world-domination phase.

Oh yeah, and then there’s this baby who’s born with mystically ill-defined mutant powers. Cable, a mutant from an ill-defined future, makes an ill-defined prophecy that this mutant will be the Messiah for mutant kind. Does anything ever come of this? I guess sorta. Like many long-running MacGuffin plots in the X-Men saga (‘The Twelve,’ ‘The X-Traitor,’ ‘The X-Ternals’), the Messiah  storyline slowly collapses under its own inertia of mysteriousness. The less spoken about Hope, the better. And yes, the baby-Messiah’s name is Hope. Cheese.

Wolverine_and_the_X-Men_cover1Schism
For generations, Professor X has called his X-Men students. He calls himself ‘Professor,’ after all! But at the same time he gives his students quasi-military uniforms to wear, he puts them through dangerous training exercises, and he occasionally sends them out to fight in life-or-death battles. So the X-Men are students, but they are also soldiers. Even the youngest among them. This dichotomy has been established for 40 years of comics. People have questioned it, but they’ve never really done anything about it. (Because, let’s be honest, reading 40 years of comics of kids in math class would be pretty boring.) That all changes once Cyclops becomes the mutant’s primary leader. Cyclops (who has always been prone to bouts of assholey-ness) goes 100% military and 0% mentor. Wolverine decides he doesn’t like this, and he splits, taking about half the world’s mutants with him. While Cyclops is holed up in his fortified island base, Wolverine and his friends start a new School for Gifted Youngsters.

I guess on its face, this premise makes sense. For decades, Cyclops and Wolverine have been the polar-opposite pivots of the X-Men family. And it’s cool to see Cyclops go from stick-up-his-butt do-gooder to rigid dictator. And Wolverine goes from roguish warrior to world-weary father-figure. But something about the execution, or the timing of the execution, didn’t entirely work for me. Maybe it’s that Wolverine doesn’t seem to acknowledge the fact that 13- or 14-year-olds have been fighting in X-Men comics for years. He himself gave Kitty Pryde some training to be a ninja. It also doesn’t help that Wolverine was one of Cyclops’ most X-Treme (crack open the Mountain Dew!) killers, just a year before this.

Avengers_vs._X-MenAvengers vs. X-Men
Okay, I have to mention Hope again. The X-men and the Avengers figure out that the Phoenix force is coming to Earth to find link up with Hope. The Phoenix is this amoral cosmic entity that possessed Cyclop’s girlfriend, Jean Grey. It made her blow up an alien planet and eventually kill herself. Despite all this, Cyclops is all for Hope and the Phoenix merging because, you know, unborn mutant babies. The Avengers are not keen on the idea because, you know, the possessing and the planet-exploding.

Cyclops turning to the Phoenix to fix the mutant genetics problem is a bit like Van Helsing deciding that he wants to Dracula to turn him so that he can treat Mina Harker’s high blood pressure. The logic doesn’t quite track. Still, Cyclops goes to war with the Avengers so that he can give this a try. The pros: It ends up working. The cons: Cyclops himself becomes possessed by the Phoenix (hmm, who could have seen that coming?). He takes over the world, and he kills Professor X. Cyclops is then defeated, and he’s viewed as one of the biggest villains on the planet.

Avengers_vs._X-Men_Vol_1_6_Textless2I think that X-Men and Avengers fans alike were frustrated by parts of this crossover, and the way the writers worked the characters into knots to wring out the most chop-busting conflict possible. Did Captain America and his team act as reasonably as they could? Probably not. Did Cyclops? Pfft, please. But it was pretty cool to see Phoenix-Cyclops re-create the world in his own image, with a really cool selection of characters as in inner circle.

One of the best things about the X-Men is that the plight of mutants (which at is, at its heart, is a metaphor of puberty and growing up to embrace differences) can be so easily portrayed as an allegory to other issues. Bullying. Racism, Religious intolerance. The struggle for civil rights. The second X-Man movie effectively compared its young heroes to gay teens coming out of the closet. In this era of ‘Cyclops the Reactionary Militant,’ several new parallels can be drawn. Already, we’ve seen similarities to Cyclops and the Bush era. Or some might compared Cyclops’ island HQ, a tiny nation beset on all sides by potential enemies, to Israel and its Mossad forces. Or maybe you’d rather compare Cyclops to a separatist militia-leader. Or he becomes the new ‘Malcolm X’ to Professor X’s MLK persona.

Or you could just say that Cyclops becomes Magneto. That’s basically the point. If you wanted to wrap up the ‘arc’ of X-Men for the last eight years: Cyclops becomes the new Magneto. Cyclops is now a militaristic, separatist anti-hero. And as this fact dawns on more and more of the X-Men, Cyclops loses more and more of his followers.

allnewxmenAll-New X-Men
Nobody hates Magneto-Cyclops more than Beast. The uber-annoyingly sanctimonious super-scientist decides to extract Cyclops’ younger self out of the past and show him to Evil-Cyclops, to show him how far he’s traveled down the super-villain path. It’s still unclear if this whole time-warp thing is more of a punishment to Older-Cyclops or to Younger-Cyclops. After all, Younger-Cyclops ends up stuck in a supposedly inevitable future, where everyone thinks he’s a jackass.In fact, all of the original X-Men (including Beast’s younger self) end up stuck in the present day—their future. Even Bill & Ted could tell you introducing your past-self to his future-self can create all kinds of time-warping paradoxes. Surely Beast considered this before he went all wobbly-wobbly timey-wimey? Not really.

Forget all us nerds screaming ‘Foul;’ the All-New X-Men premise leads to some pretty good moments. The premise is messy, and illogical, and just plain bat-sh*t crazy. But the young, original X-Men add a breath of fresh air, especially after so many years of doom and gloom.

Eventually, it’s sort of retconned that Beast suffered a nervous breakdown when he hatched his crazy paradox plan. So what happens when the younger X-Men learn everything about their future fates? Or when the younger Angel gets new cosmic wings, which the older never had? Or when the past-version of Ice-Man realizes he’s gay, while the current-version of Ice-Man apparently isn’t? Wibbly-wobbly. Fortunately for the time-space continuum (and unfortunately for those of us enjoying the stories), all of these concerns are rendered moot by the ‘Secret Wars’ mega-event, which is ripping apart the Marvel Universe and rearranging the timeline anyway.

Because of Secret Wars, this tumultuous era of Magneto-Cyclops is closing with a whimper rather than a bang. (A corporate fight over film rights might also be a factor.) In fact, the last issue of the Cyclops era, Uncanny X-Men #600, has been delayed for about six months, to be released as Secret Wars is drawing to a close.

Overall, it’s been a wild ride, at turns fascinating and frustrating. One complaint that’s often leveled against super-hero comic is that nothing ever really changes. No one can say that’s the case with the X-Men for the last ten years.

Series Condition: Y: the Last Man

I have a confession to make… I’m a pretty lame comics fan. I’ve never read any of the classics of the 90s or early 2000s. I know nothing about Sandman or Starman. I’ve never read Preacher, Powers, or Planetary. I don’t know the difference between Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis.

But I’m hoping to bone up on comics knowledge by reading some of the modern classics over the next few years. The first series I tackled was ‘Y: the Last Man.’ Here are the basics:

Y the Last Man Issue 1Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Pia Guerra (primarily)
60 issues
Years: 2002 – 2008

Of all the comics on my bucket list, YTLM has the catchiest premise. A mysterious calamity sweeps across the globe and kills every male of every species—except for one young man named Yorick Brown and his pet monkey.

Before I started reading, it was hard to predict what the tone of the series would be. Given the premise, I might have expected some gratuitous male-fantasy wish-fulfillment, something like ‘I Am Legend’ re-imagined by the people who brought us ‘Van Wilder.’ Or, given Vertigo’s reputation for heady, ‘alternative’ titles, I might have expected a 60-issue allegory about misogyny, or ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’ The series is actually like something written by Joss Whedon, Brian Michael Bendis, or Lev Grossman. Very character-driven. Lots of charming dialog, occasionally punctuated by action scenes. Overall, YTLM is a prolonged road trip, with Vaughan speculating on how a sudden a lack of men would affect different cultures around the world. He presents some pretty interesting ideas.

The titular mister is an aspiring escape artist… He’s training a helper monkey… His mother is a U.S. senator… His girlfriend is on a walkabout in Australia… He’s named after a Shakespearean character who’s famous for being dead…  Mmmkay. Despite this weird confluence of uniquenesses, Yorick is, at his core, an everyman (an onlyman?). Unless he discussing random trivia about world history or etymology, Yorick is not particularly bright (other characters point this out continuously). He’s pretty weak. He’s pretty slow. He’s annoyingly sanctimonious, if the plot calls for it. He’s kind of a goober, not at all smooth with the ladies, and constantly pining for his unreachable girlfriend, while wandering through a world of 3 billion eligible bachelorettes.

Actually, Yorick can’t be blamed for his lack of assertiveness. In the wake of the gender-cide, a cult of misandrists (the opposite of misogynists… look it up!) are gathering in the cities. And foreign agents are hunting him because they view the last living source of y-chromosomes as an asset that’s worth killing for. In general, the post-plague world is not a very safe place to be. Infrastructures are failing, crime is rising.

In the way YTLM portrays a crippled-but-not-devastated society, it reminds me of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Instead of post-apocalyptic, YTLM is semi-apocalyptic. And Vaughan brings up some good points. What would happen to the world if half the population dropped dead? What do you do with all the bodies? And since soldiers, airline pilots, mechanics, sailors, and construction workers tend (or, in this case, tended) to be men, what happens to those pillars of our society? In some ways, I think Vaughan is too pessimistic. For instance, in one of the first few issues, Yorick is nearly crushed by an improvised sanitation worker, because she can’t figure out how to work the brakes on a garbage truck. Then the woman gets out of the car wearing a ridiculous skimpy outfit for her job, which is gathering half-decayed corpses.

Hmm. Not the most practical outfit for harvesting corpses.

Hmm. Not the most practical outfit for harvesting corpses.

I have to say that the first issues of YTLM were the hardest to get through. They’re full of kinda dumb and unrealistic scenes like the one above. Yorick makes his way across the semi-apocalyptic landscape to his mother, who is now one of the highest ranking officials in the U.S. government. Within pages of being reunited with her son—who has miraculously survived a Biblical plague, who may be the one chance the human race has of continuing the species—Mrs. Brown agrees to let him journey across the continent with a single bodyguard. On foot. It makes no sense at all. If this series was at all realistic, Yorick should have spent the next 60 issues locked in a bomb shelter impregnating Olympians and valedictorians. But no, instead he stumbles across the country, continuously falling into trouble that is often highly avoidable.

But Yorick picks up some interesting friends, and I stuck with the series, mainly based on its sterling reputation. Then we get to issue 19. And that’s when the series truly kicks into gear. There is probably a term for the type of character that is introduced here. She is a mouth-piece for the readers, and basically she tells Yorick what the readers probably want to tell him: “Stop being such a douche!” It’s a similar sort of role that Spike played on ‘Buffy the Vampire’ and ‘Angel,’ with the way he would ground the protagonists with a snarky remark when they started to get too mopey or irrational. After issue 19, Yorick stops being so mopey and irrational, and the story is a blast from then till the end. At the same time, Pia Guerra’s penciling gets better and better. She starts off excellent at convey emotion through facial features, but her figures are her compositions seem a bit stiff. By the end, her stuff is cinematic. Perfect. The coloring also gets better, I can’t think of another example of coloring so adeptly conveying mood and setting.

YTM_02_ab

An example of early YTLM artwork, and artwork from later in the series.

It’s interesting to think of how Vaughan might have changed direction as the plot progressed over six years. It felt to me like he had a loose outline of where he wanted to go. The first few issues establish several possible causes for the plague (some mystical, some biological, some quasi-scientific), and I wonder if some of these red herrings were also possible alternative that he wanted to keep in his back pocket if he had decided to take the story in a different direction. It’s also interesting to see new characters pop up and old characters fade to the background, as if Vaughan realized that they had become obsolete. In that way, I guess writing a comic series can be like being a show-runner on a 12-episodes-a-season TV show. I don’t think there’s any question that Vaughan makes some fine choices for his primary characters, that he adapts nicely, and that he most definitely sticks the landing at the end. And I have a feeling that the story of Yorick and his friends will stick with me for a while.