[31 August 2010]
Well, you’re my friend
And can you see?
Many times, we’ve been out drinking.
Many times we’ve shared our thoughts.
But did you ever, ever notice
The kind of thoughts I got?
—Bonnie Prince Billy, “I See a Darkness”
I’ve had to it here being where love’s a small word.
A part time thing, a paper ring.
I know it’s been done having one girl who loves me.
Right or wrong, weak or strong.
Don’t know that I will, but until love can find me
The girl who’ll stay and won’t play games behind me
I’ll be what I am.
A solitary man.
—Neil Diamond, “Solitary Man”
Beneath the stains of time,
The feeling disappears.
You are someone else.
I am still right here.
What have I become
My sweetest friend?
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end.
—Trent Reznor, “Hurt”
I really hate to say it, but I told you so.
Shut your mouth before I shoot you down.
—Green Day, “St. Jimmy”
I am, and always have been, the first to admit any of my own personal emotional troubles, the sort of problems and demons that afflict any human being with a warm, beating heart. It is with this in mind, during a period of great emotional upheaval—a cross-country move, the collapse of a four-year romantic relationship and much more—that I approached my first full reading of Grant Morrison’s three-year run on New X-Men, the controversial mutant epic that redefined the franchise following Bryan Singer’s first superhero film.
Maybe this colored my reading of the work. Maybe not. After all, Morrison has always been undeniably honest about the origins of his work and how it changes over time based on his personal life experiences. With The Invisibles, King Mob’s lifestyle—the drugs, the violence, the emotional pain—reached out of his four-color sigil and started affecting his own life negatively to the point where he was hospitalized. Eventually, Morrison decided to change King Mob’s luck, leading to, magically or not, one of the happiest periods in Morrison’s life. Joe the Barbarian, his current Vertigo mini-series, tells the tale of a young diabetic child who decides mythologizing his impending death will help prepare him for the great beyond.
Similarly, All-Star Superman is a sci-fi version of the bucket list of a public servant dying of cancer. His work on the Batman character, going as far back as “Gothic” (an early story in the then-fledgling Legends of the Dark Knight anthology) and maybe even his Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth graphic novel, is a fascinating study of how the magicks and mysticism of commonplace things—family history, death, even the architecture of major cities—affects the people who sift through it and how it changes their life choices, speech and even their way of thinking. When darkness and Satan, “the Hole in All Things”, cast their shadow on these everyday normalcies of the life of Man, how do we react?
When Morrison started his New X-Men run, he claimed his goal was to reinvent the comics industry as a pop medium, making each new issue “as essential as the new Eminem release or the latest Keanu [Reeves] movie.” This may be true, but it’s fairly small potatoes for a man who seems concerned with the deeper issues in our lives: magic, darkness, how we think. In the wake of Bryan Singer’s first X-Men and prior to the release of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man or even the revitalization of the Batman film series under British auteur Christopher Nolan, this seemed like a perfectly reasonable mission statement. The X-Men were at the forefront of the public’s awareness. A second film was in pre-production, and their second successful animated series, X-Men: Evolution, was running on the now-defunct Kids’ WB!, riding off the success of the film that catapulted Hugh Jackman to stardom.
Now, though, almost ten years later, it’s easy to see why Morrison explained this as he did. His interest was in protecting the franchise’s newfound viability, and possibly the industry’s, as well. If the mainstream press—or even America’s parents—had heard Morrison announce instead that he’d be using these time-hardened characters to explore the darker aspects of human nature, things like grief, rejection, regret, depression, guilt and adultery—well, let’s just say it wouldn’t have earned the series very many new readers.
Like I said, maybe my read on Morrison’s tale of Marvel’s merry mutants is colored by my recent life experiences. That doesn’t make it any less valid.
Out of all the themes touched upon in New X-Men, the main one seems to be rejection, spurred on, perhaps, by humanity’s constant inability to accept the mutant race’s right to live. Right off the bat, Cassandra Nova, rejecting her brother’s beliefs and life’s work, forces a member of the Trask family to reject his own pacifism. Cassandra, whose name is a pun on both “Casanova” (ironic, given her own status as a rejected life form) and Cassandra, the mythological seer who saw the future but was incapable of preventing it (ironic, of course, since her plan eventually halted).
Cassandra, we discover, is what the Shi’Ar call a Mummudrai, essentially an anti-self that all living beings must allegedly confront before birth. Rejecting her defeat, she created a body for herself and aimed to destroy her brother’s life, and his life’s work.
The theme continues. When he first meets Charles Xavier and Jean Grey, Fantomex rejects reality, instead offering to the two X-Men a false history, identity and lifestyle. Scott Summers, famously telepathically seduced by Emma Frost, attempts to convince himself that his temptations and desires are not his own, but rather a hold-over from his then-recent temporary possession by the ancient mutant Apocalypse. Destroying his marriage in the process, though, Scott is finally able to come into his own as a man, a soldier, a peacemaker and a superhero.
There are smaller examples of the theme of rejection throughout the entire run: Quentin Quire, unable to deal with the revelation that he was adopted, turns his back on the Xavier Institute’s ideals, becoming a drug addict, gang leader, murderer and eventual rioter. Sublime’s U-Men choose to no longer live as humans, instead deciding to adopt certain stolen aspects of mutant biology and grafting them onto their own. Early in the run, Hank McCoy’s longtime human girlfriend, Trish Tilby, leaves him for purely selfish reasons. When she eventually expresses regret over her actions, Beast tells her he no longer desires sexual relations with human women, going so far as to falsely claim he believes he might be homosexual. Finally, the most obvious and transparent moment of rejection in the entire series occurs in Morrison’s final issue: in order to stop a series of terrible events that will leave the world in ruins, Jean Grey, newly reborn from the Phoenix Egg, decides to “amputate the future”. By aborting destiny itself, Jean reminds us of Sarah Connor’s personal mantra, a rejection of destiny: “The future is not set in stone. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”
Then there’s The World, the artificial environment created by the Weapon Plus program. Though its name is remarkably transparent, it lends itself to some unique storytelling properties: when readers are formally introduced to The World after much build-up since Fantomex made his debut, we meet two truth-seekers who literally want to show humanity the truth of the evils of The World, blowing its purpose wide open for everyone to see. While in The World, Fantomex’s frustration with the so-called “car-cops” and the cruelties of the program echo Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter: “There’s too many of then. I can’t kill the whole world.” Artificially created and engineered by scientists to create the ultimate super-soldiers, The World also reflects the scientific concept that the universe we readers actually live in is nothing more than a hologram. When Cyclops, Wolverine and Fantomex lead their “Assault on Weapon Plus”, Morrison soundly flips the bird to the potential reality, choosing instead to believe whatever he wants to believe the real world is.
I feel I’d be doing both Morrison’s work and myself a disservice if I didn’t mention the love triangle at the heart of New X-Men. When Emma Frost bursts onto the scene and falls in love with Scott Summers, Jean is obviously and understandably furious, lighting the fuse of a bomb that the Shi’Ar fear will unleash the Phoenix. As a reader, I have always had a great affection for these three characters and, at times, have even felt a kinship with some of them. Scott, the prize student, the rock who everyone believes in, the man with potential who believes himself stagnant in both station and character. Emma, the misunderstood eccentric, the unwelcome party guest who hides her true self. Jean, who feels first and asks questions later, knowing full well the trouble she can get into.
Now, at this point in my life, without getting too personal or specific, I understand all three of them more than I ever could before. Jean’s psychic “push” from the future for Scott to move on; Emma’s fear of revealing her true emotions except to uninvolved confidants; Scott, who doesn’t really drink, going out with a few friends for the evening and being lovingly mocked for drinking like a little girl during a period of emotional turmoil.
I understand it all now. More importantly, I think Grant Morrison and the X-Men helped me understand.
It’s said that your mindset, your history, is largely responsible for how you view works of art. This is true. Now, though, I also firmly believe that art can inform your knowledge of how you feel; beyond therapy and catharsis, art, like Grant Morrison’s New X-Men can actually sit you down and tell you what you’re thinking.
I’m at home reading about the X-Men, and I’m without a doubt always exhilarated to read Grant Morrison’s work. That said, if New X-Men was an original story with original characters, who knows if it would have the same emotional effect? It’s hard to say, even for a writer of Morrison’s talents. A large part of the emotional value of the story comes from the many, many years of association most readers have with Jean, Scott, Emma, Logan, Hank, Charles, Magneto and the others. It’s like watching friends from a distance as their lives drift away from their feared stagnancy and change forever. Spouses die. Relationships change. Old wounds tear themselves asunder. New friends are made. Old foes resurface. The world keeps spinning, and The World ends.
I’ve always been completely upfront about my emotions. Ask my friends and family. I “wear my heart”, as Shakespeare’s Iago would say, “upon my sleeve for daws to peck at.” I’ve always known what I’ve felt, but sometimes, especially now, understanding the exact nature of the why behind it all escapes me, as it escapes all men and women. That failure to fully comprehend the makings of your feelings—that fear that you will never understand them fully and that you’ll be stuck that way forever and people will judge you and that will be your undoing and you will never escape other people’s opinions of what you’re like because of that—that is Scott Summers’ fear made flesh.
But I have moved past that now. Thank you Jean, Scott, Emma, Logan, Hank, Charles, Magneto, Cassandra, Quentin, Fantomex, Barnell, Angel, Martha, Herman, Lilandra, Mortimer, Lorna, Lucas, Esme, Sophie, Tom, Trish, Sublime, Ernst and all the rest, for helping me understand. Thank you from the bottom of my deep and newly-filled heart.
And thank you, Grant Morrison, for showing them the way and giving them the tools. Thank you.
And to those out there who may need solace: I understand. I may not be ready to forgive…but I understand.
You were always here, waiting for yourself to arrive.
—Jean Grey, Here Comes Tomorrow