Who to Idolize... And Why.
Every utopia, as Jeremy Rifkin reminds us (4.36 into the clip, but go ahead and watch the whole thing), is already the destruction of human empathy. There is no empathy in utopia, because there is no shared suffering. Just like there is no empathy in heaven because there is no mortality. Somewhere between Rifkin’s new project with The Empathic Civilization and the recent days of the X-Men having lived through the events of “Utopia”, Warren Ellis’ second Astonishing X-Men arc, “Exogenetic” comes to hit the popular consciousness like a wave. Necessary and inundating, “Exogenetic” is the Nile bursting its banks, it’s the growth of wealth hence. It’s grain and writing and culture and Greece and Rome. It’s the perfect body in an imperfect world and it’s the story of individualism crashing against the hard edge of collectivism. It’s the story of the Texas Revolution.
Even knowing what we already know from Rifkin, it’s hard to not be immediately immersed in “Exogenetic”. There is that sense of resurgam that Christopher Wren felt when rebuilding St. Paul’s after the Great Fires of London. How do you not feel it? That thrill, that exhilaration, that thrill-loving exuberance. It happens right at the very middle of the final chapter. Four issues of lovingly-rendered artwork have just been the setup for this moment. How do you not feel the unashamed optimism? The X-Men are in the Blackbird again. Their intercession-rescue vehicle is battered and worn out by having navigated an starcraft of ostensibly alien origin. A starcraft housing monstrously large genetic aberrations.
Cyclops flies the Blackbird through an emergency egress point. The X-ship is about to crash. This is it, it is finally over. Their time has come. An army deploys, as the X-bird comes in hot, crushed and crumpled. Concrete transformation for every bit of momentum the ship has lived through. And there’s that optimism. Unbridled, unapologetic. The story of an unbroken line of genetic success. “I want one of these people in a condition to talk,” Cyclops says, “X-Men are go.”
The villain as we discover soon enough, is Kaga. A mutant who loathes the X-Men for their idealized bodies—the X-Men as the paragon of mutant perfection. The interesting move offered by Ellis is of course the idealized vision of the X-Men. One that goes back to their genesis in the ‘60s with Lee & Kirby. An expected move, and one worthy of a writer the caliber of Ellis. But an even more interesting a move the writer offers is the psychological ideation of the X-Men. The problem is not so much that they look perfect. It is that they have evolved to become perfect. They’ve become nourished on the legend of their own indomitable capacities. Unstoppable, resilient, ultra-competent.
This really isn’t simply the story of the Texas Revolution here. There’s a deeper mechanic at play here. This isn’t simply the individuated X-Men (like Texans, Sam Houston, Davy Crockett) up against the Zerg-like collectivity of Kaga’s exogenetic mutations (playing out a role similar to the supermassive Mexican military led by the Napoleon of the West). The real game here is the crippling of one kind of human psychology, and the emergence of something entirely new. It is the story of cultural synthesis, the kind of mentality emerging from the way we read the internet.
Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men: Exogenetic then is not a success because it taps the old narrative of cultural collectivity versus individuation, not because it taps the same worn tropes of body ideation and idealization that Chuck Palanuik’s novels always have (since as far back as Fight Club straight thru to Snuff). But because it describes the cusp of a new wave of thought-orientation for the human. Exogenetic succeeds because it it is replete with continuities and discontinuities. Cross-cultural reading is called for, the kind that decades of reading X-Men books would have created.
And if you don’t have a history of decades of having read X-books, rest assured, Ellis provides enough access to the story being told. What changes is that after Exogenetic you will want to have decades under your belt. It is about the X-Men you will want to remember, even if you haven’t encountered them yet. It is about a time when they were the ‘Children of the Atom’. It is about Colossus no longer being there to toss Wolverine in a ‘fastball special’. It is, to quote Alexandre Dumas’ Twenty Years After about ‘all we once were, and may yet be again’. Exogenetic is the cultural bleedpoint where the internet has already become comics.
“I guess here’s a question,” culture researcher with Microsoft, Jonathan Grudin, offers in a 2009 interview on the way in which the internet is remodulating our consciousness, “If a student has an assignment to write an essay on a book or on a short story will they do better if they read the short story and think about it hard for two days, and write the essay? Or will they do better, and come up with something they feel better about, if they read the short story and think about it some and go out and 40 or 50 essays that other people have written about it, and synthesize that, reconcile that, asses the quality of the different things they’ve read and put together something different. And I think that they may be able to do the latter in a shorter period of time and come out with something they feel better about.”
But in the final analysis, Grudin describes a cultural circuit tapped by comics almost since the medium’s inception. The story of comics as Water Margin, as the rallying point, the gathering point. The story of the medium is uniquely the story of where heroes gather. Comics is Valhalla, it is X-Men, Justice League, it is Spidey swinging by in the background of a Fantastic Four book. It is the flowering of human empathy.
“Another example of a change that I think that these technologies are bringing about is that maybe optimistically that I think that by skimming and bouncing around,” Grudin offers later in that same interview, “we’ll inevitably encounter many points of view and as a result we’ll become a more tolerant species. I think empathy and capacity for tolerance are part of being human. And being exposed to so many more sources of information and perspectives from new technology can change us as well.”