Vignette the First: Breakout, Crossover, What’s the Word for it?
Maybe it’s because I had been OD’ing on Greil Marcus. I’d been reading Bob Dylan, by Greil Marcus and it’s simply magnificent. It’s, in case you’ve not read it, the finely crafted simultaneity of two masters of their individual crafts. As an act of portraiture it is both Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. The Messiah figure is Bob Dylan, who ostensibly the book is about. It’s the story of Bob Dylan trying to work himself free from the immense cage of his fame, the cage of being an American Prophet and the Voice of a Generation. The Children figure is Greil himself, whose own career begins to rise as Dylan meanders in his attempts towards freedom.
Bob Dylan, by Greil Marcus is the deep and meaningful opus of one master in the middle of attempting to wreck his fame (by now this fame’s become a vicious trap), and another busily assembling that wreckage, crawling out from under it and rendering it in a form that will no longer trap the original author. “We work in the dark,” Henry James told us, and after TS Eliot reminded us “Each in his prison cell alone….” Perhaps both were alluding to this book, where two masters never meet, but between them carve out a world.
There’s really no way to walk away from Bob Dylan, by Greil Marcus the same person you walked into it. But there is maybe a way to maybe trace an outline or better, trace a line through time for Greil Marcus himself. To read where he began in 1975 with Mystery Train to parallel the moods and the shifts and the tensions in his writing over the years as you read Dylan, by Marcus. So, even before I finish the 2011 collection, I dive back into Mystery Train. But you can’t really escape Mystery Train either. Because it’s an essay in possibility, the idea that new things can still be built, that such a thing as rock ‘n roll sociology can be invented and can enjoy a longevity.
So, I come through all this, carrying this weight of Greil’s lifetime in criticism. And the weight of good friends lost to the devastation in Miyagi. And it’s with all that, that I pick up a copy of Wolverine #300. It’s the issue that backflips into the original numbering for the series. Through the years, through all the Wolverine titles with all their volumes and all their differing names, this is the issue that would have been number 300 had the original series continued.
I pick up a copy of Wolverine #300, the first part in a new arc, “Back in Japan”, because I want my friends back and because I want our friendship to live again. I’d left this newly rebooted Wolverine almost immediately. “Wolverine Goes to Hell”, the opening arc of this new volume of the series, seemed a little too intense, to mired in Christian mythic views of salvation and fall to ring true with me at the time I’d originally read it. Rick Remender’s vision of Wolverine seemed far more palatable. So I stuck with Uncanny X-Force and for the moment foreswore Aaron’s Wolverine.
I pick up the copy of Wolverine #300 because of Japan. But when I read into it what I read into it, that’s because of Greil Marcus, because of Dylan, by Marcus and because of Mystery Train.
It’s only by the very end of issue #304, Aaron’s final issue writing Wolverine, that I begin to realize the inordinate impact Aaron himself has had on the character. Everyone knows Wolverine, everyone knows he’s the badass from X-Men, the tough guy. Everyone knows he’s bad news and that he’s functionally immortal, and that he’s a samurai and a stone-cold killer and that’s why he gets his own book.
But that’s not the thing of it at all. Why is Wolverine those things. In the early part of the last decade, Paul Jenkins wrote Origin: the Untold Story of Wolverine and showed the character to be more than 150 years old. A magnificent work to be sure, but suddenly it seemed there was no more narrative depth to be plumbed in the character. Suddenly, no more Wolverine stories. Then, Jason Aaron.
Aaron’s written some 60-plus issues of the character, across some eight series. He’s not done with the character be any means. Aaron still writes Wolverine in Wolverine & the X-Men, possibly one of the finest monthly titles currently available. But the focus in that book is a different one. It’s Wolverine as an X-Man, living in, loving and building the world, not where he can atone for past crimes and sins, but where he can redeem those be giving them a new meaning. The Wolverine Aaron writes in Wolverine & the X-Men is about the “good” side of the “being bad for good” formulation. And the Wolverine Aaron wrote in Wolverine was about the other thing, about the “bad”.
It’s that last issue though, “One More Round” which sees Aaron’s writing supported by a stellar cast of nine artists, that really stands as a singular work not only defining Wolverine and why he more than other X-Men get a solo book, but stands as a singular work in all of popculture.
“One More Round” is the very definition of the Wolverine’s immortality. It’s not, as it turns out, Wolverine’s healing factor that makes him immortal. But his capacity to entangle himself in situations that will never be resolved, and to, time and again, simply withstand whatever assaults these hazards may sling. The Wolverine collects adversaries in a way that men of an earlier age hunted down greatness. And his ability to not outmaneuver these adversaries, but best them in direct combat, is the root of the Wolverine’s immortality.
All this makes perfect sense if you yourself read “One More Round”. Right after you read Aaron’s full run on Wolverine, starting with Wolverine #175 (Wolverine volume one), through Manifest Destiny, through the sixteen issues of Wolverine: Weapon X, through the ten storyarcs that preceded “One More Round”. And it makes even more sense if before “One More Round” you read Mystery Train. Particularly “Sly Stone: the Myth of Staggerlee”.
Greil Marcus writes: “It is Sly’s musical authority that gives his singers freedom, that builds a home where freedom seems worth acting out. The singing on the Family’s records—complex, personal and unpredictable—really was something new. As opposed to the Temptations or the Jackson 5, whose records were not inspired by Sly’s sound so much as they formalized it (just as earlier Motown imposed order on the risky spontaneity of gospel music), what you hear in Sly’s music are a number of individuals who have banded together because that is the way they can best express themselves as individuals. It’s the freedom of the street, not the church.”
The emphasis is Greil’s not my own. But if ever there’s a single tract of writing that sums up the idea of the X-Men, it’s this one. “The freedom of the street, not the church.” And if that is true, then Wolverine really is Staggerlee, as much as he is Sly Stone himself. And that’s why, more than any other X-Man he deserves a book of his own.
Vignette the Second: Missing Inaction
Martin Amis’s Experience haunts me. Is “My Missing” the second chapter of his memoir? It is a profound chapter wherever it appears in the book. The idea that people vanished from our lives also vanish their impact. That losing friends or family to their having gone missing is not at all that different from losing a father, who is also the final intercessor between the son and Death.
In describing the emotional turbulence following in the wake of his father’s death (Amis’s own father also a writer, the novelist and poet Kingsley Amis), and measuring this turbulence out against still-raw memories of a missing cousin, Amis offers us an immortal work. But he does elide as keen a description of the other side of the quandary—the vanished themselves.
When I read X-Treme X-Men, this new X-Treme X-Men penned by Greg Pak, I’m haunted by exactly this. Not the actual having-gone-missing. Not the actual loss. But the phantom loss of never-having-appeared.
The story of my skirmish with X-Treme X-Men (maybe it’s the story of your skirmish too), really begins with last summer’s Flashpoint. It was a beautifully broken world envisioned by DC Comics’ Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns. It all happened because of one single event—Barry Allen, the Flash, ran back in time and prevented the murder of his own mother at the hands of perhaps his greatest foe, Professor Zoom. And that single event broke all of history. As a result, the age of superheroes never came to be. Superman never came to be, as Kryptonian Kal El fell to Earth and was captured by the USAF’s Project Superman. Batman, in a cruel twist of fate, came into being when Dr. Thomas Wayne decided to singlehandedly organize crime in Gotham after the murder of his son Bruce. Green Lantern Abin Sur never died, and therefore never ceded his ring to test pilot Hal Jordan. And Wonder Woman and Aquaman, royalty both, fought a global war that decimated half of Europe and set the tone for geopolitical landscape.
The whole of Flashpoint, including the prelude “Road to the Flashpoint” that played out in volume three of the Flash, including the core miniseries Flashpoint, including the 17 three-issue minis, and the half-dozen standalone issues, and the crossover into the pages of Booster Gold, ran some 75 issues in total. And then, suddenly it was gone.
It seemed like an unimaginable tragedy. These books grouped into these evocative titles—“Whatever Happened to the World’s Greatest Villains?”, “Whatever Happened to the Aliens?”, “Whatever Happened to Europe?”—simply just vanished. For some months last summer there was this lovingly-crafted, fully-realized world wherein the very notion of superheroes never ignited the revolution it did in the “real” DC Universe. For those handful of months there was this inescapable tragedy, this unforgivable wreckage. And then, nothing. The world was simply undone. It was like watching an entire season of the world’s most-watched TV show, only to discover it was only a dream. But then realizing that that dream-season was possibly the finest season of the show to date. Why couldn’t Flashpoint simply go on?
A little earlier this year and I find myself in the same place emotionally with Astonishing X-Men. We’re rounding a corner to the completion of Greg Pak’s Astonishing storyarc, “Exalted”. In it, Cyclops finds himself kidnapped by the Storm of a parallel Earth. Some cosmic something has caused some unimaginable threat. And the only way to prevent the destruction of this Earth, is to use mutants as batteries. But Scott fights his way free and saves this parallel Earth and he does this by reconstituting the X-Men, on a world that has never known them.
It is then that I realize that Greg Pak is my own Missing Person. The person who simply vanished before I got to know him. Like you, I read Planet Hulk, which immersed Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s strange-science-in-the-desert character into the very different high-fantasy scifi of Flash Gordon. Like you, I was moved by the beauty and the savagery of a kind of story I wasn’t completely prepared for. And like you, I simply wanted more of “Exalted”.
General James Howlett, Her Majesty’s Viceroy on the Expedition to Shangri-La, reeks of Wolverine. And seems to be as powerful and as formidable as Wolverine. Will he as a character simply overpower Emmaline Frost of the X-Society? Will he eclipse Kurt Waggoner, who’s not yet taken the identity of the Nightcrawler? These questions turn endlessly in my head, but they’re not important. And neither are their answers important. The real focus here, the question at the heart of things, is this. Will the idea of the X-Men succeed? Will there be an X-Men for the multiverse? Can there be? Perhaps only Greg Pak can write this kind of book. But just as quickly, “Exalted” was wrapped, and Scott was returned to Marvel’s “real world” of Earth-616, and all was well.
But there was this lingering doubt. There was this almost promissory air about things. Something that harked back to Days of Future Past, that idea that X-Men was always working out a story about the idea of the X-Men. That time and again we encounter “othered” X-Men. X-Men from an alternate future, an alternate past, from a parallel Earth. And all these “missing” X-Men ever do is bring into sharper focus the idea of a people who enjoy the “freedom of the street, not a church”.
So why can’t we see Greg Pak continue to write this X-Men? Why did this X-Men need to be simply disappeared?
And a handful of months later, here I stand with a copy of the first issue of X-Treme X-Men in my hands. A better inheritor of the title than a book devised solely as launching platform for legendary X-creator Chris Claremont’s return to the core of the X-Men mythos. It was Chris Claremont who found himself as a weird, postmodern kind of “missing”, Chris who himself vanished from Marvel only to reappear only to vanish again.
Like Chris Claremont himself, Greg Pak’s X-Treme X-Men seems to be a statement about legacy, and about the power of ideas.