We made mad love, shadow love
Random love and abandon love.
Accidentally like a martyr.
The hurt gets worse, and the heart gets harder.
- Warren Zevon, “Accidentally Like a Martyr”
Let a complex system repeat itself long enough, eventually something surprising will occur. That, too, is in God’s plan.
- Head-Six, Battlestar Galactica
When Warren Ellis took the reigns of three low-selling X-Men spin-offs—X-Man, Generation X and X-Force—around a decade ago, fans quickly weighed in, judging his ‘soft reboot’ of Nate Gray, the multiversal refugee and titular hero of X-Man, to be the greatest success of the ‘Counter X’ line. Transforming Nate from an angsty, displaced young man into a hero with a purpose, a literal shaman of the mutant ‘tribe’, Ellis tapped into the pre-millennial subconscious. It was this mood that had just been attempting to properly filter the alleged ‘Millennium Bug’, the upcoming elections in the United States, the creation of the Euro, a rash of high school shootings, and the resignation of Boris Yeltsin, which led to the subsequent rise to power of Vladimir Putin.
Instead of just another superhero, Nate Gray became a new man on the cusp of a new millennium, fulfilling all the duties of a shaman in the modern age, protecting his tribe, spinning stories and communing with those from worlds beyond our own. While a deeply spiritual work, the ‘Counter X’ run of X-Man also found time to play around with aspects of fringe science that reached a fever pitch in popularity at the turn of the millennium, most notably the genetics of mutation and multiversal travel.
But Ellis’ reinvention of Nate Gray as a spiritual vanguard of the new millennium didn’t emerge from a vacuum. Nothing artistic does.
A matter of months earlier, the legendary Alan Moore began his run on Promethea. This was a series that was part superhero yarn and part personal treatise on Moore’s belief in magic. Moore claims that immediately prior to his fortieth birthday he began to realize that most of his contemporaries were suffering from a mid-life crisis. He instead decided to go a different route: he decided to ‘just go spectacularly mad, which would at least be more entertaining for those around [him]…You should have seen the look on their faces when [he] said, ‘I think I’ll become a magician.’ Half of them were frightened because they thought [he]’d probably gone mad, and the other half were frightened in case [he] hadn’t’.
With this in mind, it’s entirely arguable that Promethea was, up until the point of its publication, at least, the ultimate literary outgrowth of Moore’s time as a practicing magician. As experimental in narrative as it was visually, Promethea told the story of Sophie Bangs, the latest vessel for the titular magical being, and her journey towards total illumination and her ultimate destiny as she leads the world into a new age, away from the monotonous materialism and cacophony of the mass media of the final days of the 20th Century.
‘I loved her, but now it feels like science fiction’: King Mob and Ragged Robin from Grant Morrison’s Invisibles
But this phenomenon was not specific to even just Ellis and Moore. A month after the debut of the ‘Counter X’ line, and early on in Promethea’s finite run, The Invisibles, Grant Morrison’s epic tale of magic, anarchy and humanity, came to a close, wrapping up a story that had been running for almost six years. Largely a tale of acceptance and revolution as well as preparation, The Invisibles was a hypersigil that was so potent it actually palpably affected Morrison’s own health and other aspects of his life, a piece of fiction so powerful it literally reached out and touched its creator.
Malevolent interdimensional beings were a fixture of The Invisibles, just as they were in Promethea and X-Man. Other shared themes, of course, included, beyond the practica of magic, interdimensional travel, the impending shift of consciousness in 2012, time travel, latent superpowers, prejudice, the role of so-called ‘higher life forms’ in the grand scheme of life for us mere humans, terrorism, the definition of good and evil, possession, massive conspiracies, crooked politicians, technological advances, the destruction of social taboos, anarchism and questioning ‘normal’ society.
These three comics, permanently linked by themes, release timeframe and message, are now all fondly remembered by their fans. They predated 9/11, the election of George W. Bush, the invasion of Iraq, the Military Commissions Act, Swine Flu, the recession, the Iranian election, the death of Paul Wellstone and the American conflict over gay marriage. They are forever joined together.
And, not surprisingly, they keep coming back.
Recently, DC Comics has, through their Wildstorm imprint, begun releasing new hardcover collections of Promethea sure to please both complete-ists and new readers alike. Nate Gray, after his sacrifice in the final issue of X-Man, recently returned from the dead to take on Norman Osborn and his cronies in Dark X-Men, his spiritual mission still intact, albeit slightly altered. Additionally, author Patrick Meaney’s Our Sentence Is Up: Seeing Grant Morrison’s ‘The Invisibles’, an academic analysis of Morrison’s series, is now on sale in virtually every comic book store one could think of.
They’re back now. Ten years after, and they’re all back like they never went away, and they’ve all come back together.
Most modern practitioners of magic will argue that there is a cyclical nature to characters and stories of this sort, and this is indeed the case. History, of course, is also cyclical, and the Middle Eastern Holy War that the West is calling ‘The War on Terror’ is perhaps nothing more than an outgrowth of centuries of strife and religious conflict. What characters like Nate Gray, Sophie Bangs and King Mob’s Invisibles cell represent should be clear: an older, but not outdated, look at the world. And a set of arcane and ancient practices and concepts that still have validity today.
They’re simply the latest generation of fictional constructs used to represent an author’s greater understanding of the universe. Where once Freemasons spoke of Master Mason Hiram Abiff and Gnostic Christians told tales of a Christ not entirely dissimilar from that of Nikos Kazantzakis, we now have modern heroes in a truly American artform. In the latest iteration of this cycle, a powerful nation has once again looked to a ‘shining beacon of hope’ to lead them into a new age, just as America once did with John F. Kennedy and India did with Mohandas Gandhi.
That hope, whether it ends up bearing ripe fruit in this cycle of what is more or less a computer-generated hologram, is the reason for the very existence of these characters, their methods, their magical beliefs and traditions, and, of course, their return.
The notion that a sudden upsurge in hope, that things tomorrow will be better than they were yesterday, could suddenly call these characters back from retirement is not a real surprise to anyone familiar with magic or even the collective unconscious. Their return, a minor but highly visible occurrence, serves only to remind us to have hope, to use our mental energies properly and to harness our spirituality to affect concrete change in physical reality.
These characters’ turn-of-the-millennium depictions, and indeed their current depictions, are best summed up in the final pages of Dark X-Men#5 . Nate Gray, subdued and depowered by Osborn and HAMMER, explains individually to each of Osborn’s X-Men that, had they listened to him instead of fighting him, he could have improved their lives on deep, tangible, soul-settling levels. This team consisting of lunatics and villains, after being spoken to by a disappointed mutant shaman, goes to bed crying. Ashamed of their actions, the scene evokes nothing if not Samson’s cry over the death of Belyakov on HBO’s Carnivàle: ‘Don’t you see what he was?’
Forigve them, Nate Gray, they knew not what they did.
They’ll have to try harder next time you come around.
Next Week: At long last, a reaction to the outcry surrounding the current Captain America storyline in “Bleed American”.