So I went ahead and read the opening salvo for the “Secret Empire” crossover. And I pretty much hated it. Yes, Marvel’s latest event is off and running, and I already want it to be over. I simply find the entire thing (from concept to execution) exhausting. So exhausting, in fact, that I struggled to find focus throughout reading.
The opening of an event of this nature is designed to make things as dark as possible as quickly as possible, and in that respect it does succeed. All the heroes have nice deep holes dug for them to claw their way out of for the next 3-4 months. If the real-life forces for good in this world weren’t currently stuck in deep, dark holes that their “brethren” had dug for them, I might find such a story line diverting. (Emphasis on “might.”) As it is, I only have so much energy to expend on misery. And make no mistake, “Secret Empire” is miserable.
It’s not interesting; it’s just… sad.
And now excuse me, I’ve got to go scrub the grimdark off and get down to things that are actually worth my time.
In the year 2029, James “Logan” Howlett is a tired and broken down man. He lives day to day, working for peanuts as a limo driver, clinging to the hope that he will one day manage to save enough money to buy a sailboat and retire to the sea with the only other surviving member of the X-Men: Charles Xavier. Xavier, once the most powerful mind on the planet, now suffers from a degenerative brain disease. He lives under Logan’s care and off the grid in Mexico, where he is forced to stay in hiding lest the authorities (who have, in the wake of a mysterious and long-past “Westchester Incident,” classified him as a weapon of mass destruction) should capture and kill him. Into their dire straits, comes Laura—the genetically-engineered mutant daughter of Logan, who is on the run from the men who made her. Against his will, Logan is drawn into a desperate race against time and enemies, as he and Xavier try to save the mutant race one last time.
Logan is a worthy film in many respects, but it is perhaps most interesting in the way it deploys economy in its storytelling—using the roughest sketches to create a vivid narrative landscape that is both highly imaginative and frighteningly familiar. The world has become a bleak and desperate place in the near-future ofthe film. The reason behind this is never really specified. It’s not a catastrophe, per se, although past catastrophes are hinted it, but it is a significant, and lasting, social change. Mutants, with a few exceptions, are gone, and humans are generally happy with that state of affairs. The wealthy live blissfully, the white without much thought or consequence. Everyone else gets by, or not, as they can (or can’t). Whatever happened has left the world bereft but soldiering on, and that’s all we really know. But while the film remains vague on the what, when, and where, it is very clear on the who and the why.
We don’t know what happened to the world, but we know it happened because of white men. Because of their entitlement and their brutality in service of the status quo that privileges them. White men made the world of Logan, and only white men (or those who can pass for them) really benefit from its structures. Everyone else is under the gun. The disabled tracker Caliban who provides physical and emotional support to Logan and Xavier, the family of black farmers that Logan, Xavier, and Laura encounter on their cross-country flight to safety, the Mexican nurses who try to help enslaved mutant children where no one else can or will. They are all under the gun, and they all come to bad ends. And none of that is by narrative accident.
White male privilege presents its face most explicitly in the characters of Zandar Rice and Donald Pierce. Rice—erudite, educated, and a eugenicist—represents power of the highest level. He runs Transigen, an anti-mutant research organization, whose authority is absolute, and whether his power stems from political or corporate sovereignty is unclear, another economical narrative choice with obviously implications. Rice believes himself to be one of the good guys; he believes himself to be creating a better world on behalf of those who cannot or will not create it for themselves. Pierce—by contrast—is almost a nothing character. He commands the Reavers, Transigen’s personal squad of mercenaries, and operates without oversight over an unlimited jurisdiction. But there is nothing special about him. He’s not particularly qualified for his job, and he brings no discernible skill set to the position. He’s personally repellent but largely unintimidating, and one senses that he’d be nothing without the hierarchical apparatus that supports him—that he likely got his job by doing nothing more than kissing the right ass on the way up the corporate ladder. Again, this is not an accident.
These men, along with Xavier and Logan, function as well-known stereotypes: paternalistic puppet master, mediocre beneficiary of entrenched social hierarchies, self-identified ally, bystander. Zander Rice pulls the strings that maintain the world to his bigoted specifications; Donald Pierce attains an undeserved position of authority through nothing more than genetic good luck; Charles Xavier does more harm than good for all his vaunted intentions; Logan sees the ugliness of world and, exhausted by it, turns a blind eye. These are the men who built, and who maintain, the world. They—and their world—resonate because they—and it—are all-too-recognizable. Rich, powerful, old, white men who think they know the best course for their younger, non-white, non-male, non-straight compatriots are a dime-a-dozen on the daily cable news circuit, and we all know that one guy who has nothing going for him but his one-of-the-boys charm and a society willing to give him a pass on his every other failing. Equally well do we know the male ally who never stops talking about how much (and how well) he supports your cause long enough to hear what you actually need or want.
We know these character archetypes and we know their real-world analogues, and in Logan we see the world that they make—a world in which unimaginative, simple-minded hate-mongers drain life of its beauty and purpose—but we also see the world we make through our silence and fear. As strongly as the film positions men like Zander Rice and Donald Pierce as perpetrators of an ugly world order, it also frames well-meaning and indifferent men (Xavier and Logan) as complicit in that world order. Through them, and through knowledge of their real-world analogues, the audience is enabled to reflect on their own role in society. For just as we know the patriarch, the average guy, and the fair-weather friend, we know the person in hiding, the person afraid to rock the boat, the person who just wants their own slice of peace and quiet. Indeed, some of us are that person. And Logan shows us the kind of world that is likely to grow from our cowardice.
Of course, this metaphor—while powerful—is fundamentally flawed. To the extent that this film functions allegorically to explore predominantly white power structures, it effectively sets aside both Xavier’s and Logan’s mutation. They are framed as complicit in the system in a manner that largely fails to take the reality of social attitudes to so-called aberration (in both the fictional world of the X-Men and the real world of 2017) into account. It’s a dangerous move to make with marginalized characters—even, and perhaps especially, with those who can pass for the non-marginalized—but one that inevitably arises when you portray such characters as cis-straight white men in a movie that, if not specifically about marginalization and privilege, at the very least deliberately contrasts them. If I have a major thematic criticism to make it is that the film presents its marginalized characters as complicit without really interrogating the reasons why some find it necessary, for their mental and/or physical safety, to leave the status quo unchallenged. Logan’s anguish is subsumed into more culturally comfortable tropes of manpain and white man’s burden rather than presented as an exploration of the harrowing compromises that many at-risk minorities must make to survive—an oversight that cannot help but weaken the film’s otherwise powerful impact and thought-provoking message.
Speculative fiction trappings aside, it’s easy to read Logan as a cautionary tale. With just twelve years between us and the near-future setting of the film—with political polarization at an all-time high—it’s a simple matter to sketch a trajectory that leads straight from Trump’s America to Logan’s tomorrow. Through its unflinching depiction of a world run into the ground by the unchecked privilege, bigotry, and greed of the ruling class, Logan offers lessons—about how we might meet such a fate ourselves and about how we could avert it.
I’ve got a Logan essay (or two) that I’m currently working on—and that I plan to post this week—but before I finish up there, I thought it’d be nice to bridge the gap between a laudatory breakdown of Logan‘s cinematic themes and the scathing examination of Emma Frost-related nonsense that I posted last week.
Spring is in the air and, with ECCC just passed and Marvel’s Resurrexion relaunch around the corner, I’ve been thinking about my pull list. What to keep, what to drop, what to add.
My pull list has leaned heavily toward Marvel of late, but that’s changing—mainly for obvious reasons (aforementioned nonsense) but also for less-than-obvious reasons (series are ending or creative teams are being shook up and the new stuff on offer largely doesn’t speak to me).(1) Nevertheless, here’s what’ll (for suresies) be in my pull list come summertime:
Batwoman (Bennett and Epting), New Super-Man (Yang and Bogdanovic), Bitch Planet (Deconnick and De Landro), Monstress (Liu and Takeda), Paper Girls (Vaughan and Chang), America (Rivera and Quinones), Hawkeye (Thompson and Romero), Occupy Avengers (Walker).
I’ve been happy with (or looking forward to) all of these series, which are by writers who I have come to have a healthy respect for or which fill a much needed gap in pop culture representation. I’m especially looking forward to the Bitch Planet anthology series that’s going to run during the hiatus between story arc 2 and story arc 3. (I was actually starting to feel like Bitch Planet might be ending, given all the delays, so the news that it is still very much going was a huge relief.)
Speaking of Bitch Planet… I mentioned ECCC, which is where the announcements about Bitch Planet were made, and Marvel’s Resurrexion, and that brings us to the what’ll (possibly) be in my pull list come summertime. Image Comics has several new series coming that are on my radar: Generation Gone by Ales Kot and André Araújo; The New World by Ales Kot and Tradd Moore; Parisian White by Kelly Sue Deconnick and Bill Sienkiewicz; and Redlands by Jordie Bellaire and Vanesa R. Del Ray. Kot and Deconnick are two of my favorite comics writers, so the only real question I’m facing about their new work is whether I’ll pick it up in floppies or trade paperback editions. (At present, I’m leaning toward floppies of Generation Gone and TPs of The New World and Parisian White, but the final decision will be made when the first issues hit the stands.) Redlands just sounds exactly like the kind of thing I’d be in to right now. Three witches move to small town Florida and take over law enforcement in order to get shit done and fight the kyriarchy.
Just take all of my money right now.
I’ve been much more selective when it comes to Marvel’s Resurrexion titles, and since the release of Inhumans vs X-Men no. 6, I’ve become downright inflexible in my requirements. Essentially, any X-book (or any Marvel book, really) written by a cis-straight white man is out. (Unless that writer has a pedigree that I implicitly trust.) That narrows things considerably. Of the ten X-books that will be published post-IvX, eight of them are written by white men. Seven of them are written by cis-straight white men. Pretty slim pickings.
Currently, I’m leaning toward Generation X for several reasons. First, nostalgia. At the height of my first reading phase, the original Generation X (by Scott Lobdell and Chris Bachalo) was my book, and I’m very curious to see what a 21st century iteration will look like. Second, I like Christina Strain a lot (have you read her webcomic The Fox Sister? OMG its so good, albeit indefinitely on hiatus…), and I want to support her. Third, I especially want to support her because, though she’s done color work for Marvel this is her first big writing gig, and she doesn’t have the clout that some of the other creative teams do. (She also doesn’t have one of the infinite Wolverine-led titles, which—for me—is a plus, but—for sales—can be a setback.)
I’ll no doubt report back as the spirit moves me.
1) I’ve been reading comic books (off and on) since I was thirteen, and for many of those years—particularly the early ones—I primarily read Marvel comics with an emphasis on all things X-Men. I broke off reading when I first lived abroad (in my early twenties) and again when I went back to school and became a PhD student, but I began digging back in around the time of Remender’s Uncanny X-Force and Fraction’s Fear Itself crossover (the Marvel event that introduced me to Bucky). My reignited interest in comics coincided with my graduate education, and my reading habits began to evolve. I stopped believing in the Marvel vs DC divide, started focusing more on content creators and less on characters, and began to care deeply about shenanigans and their cultural impact. ⇧
I’m not gonna sugar-coat this. I hated Inhumans vs X-Men.
I hated it as much as I loved Death of X and possibly more. I hated it because of the way it wasted everything interesting that Death of X had set up in favor of perhaps the most cliched trope after “women in refrigerators.” The IvX writers didn’t fridge Emma Frost, which is some small comfort, but they did the absolute next worst thing: made her the poster child for love makes you evil.
Let’s recap a bit. At the close of Death of X, Scott Summers was dead and one of the Terrigen clouds that the Inhumans rely upon as the catalyst for their inhuman transformation had been destroyed. To the world, it looked like Scott had gone to war with the Inhumans and paid with his life. In reality, Emma Frost had been pulling the strings from behind the scenes after Scott died abruptly (and without fanfare) in the series’ first issue. Only Scott’s younger brother Alex, Emma’s Stepford Cuckoos, and a savvy Magneto knew the full truth.
With this brilliant premise established, I was looking forward to Inhumans vs X-Men with more enthusiasm than any of the post-Secret Wars X-books had managed to garner. I had missed having Emma Frost in the mix, and I was pleased with where the Death of X miniseries had left her.
I’m hopeful that this will be the start of a new era for Emma Frost. At the end of the series she was alive. Emotionally damaged and mentally exhausted, but alive. Unsinkable. And—and this bit’s important—free of Scott Summers in a way that she never would have been had he lived. Because as bad as things got, as cruelly as he sometimes rejected her, she could never break from him. And now she can. And if she does, she is going to be nothing less than fabulous.
But, of course, she didn’t break with him at all.
Perhaps in the minds of the men who wrote Emma’s story, it’s impossible to imagine a woman getting over the loss of a relationship with a man(1)—particularly when that relationship has been one of the most important and influential of their life—but I can only lament their lack of imagination. And it is a lack of imagination; one that surprised me after the promise of Death of X.
As extreme as you might argue Emma’s actions in Death of X were, they made sense in the context of her history and character. She and Scott Summers had been partners in the fight to save their species for years. She understood his role in the battle. She understood his function as a symbol for their people. And she understood that his death, were its true cause known, could be a detriment to their mission. With his dying breath, he asked her not to let their fight end in such an ignominious fashion. She acted accordingly, using her intelligence and skills as she always had—to further the agenda they both believed in.
Say what you will—and I suspect the X-Men will say plenty, no doubt transferring their hatred of Scott very neatly to Emma in the wake of her Death of X actions being revealed—but Emma’s actions (in Death of X) were fully rational and greatly in keeping with what the Scott Summers of the last few years would have done. This is the man, let us not forget, who got on national television and called for a mutant revolution, who told the rest of the world to back off or else. Taking out the Terrigen clouds is something he would have been on board with.
The same cannot be said of Emma’s actions in Inhumans vs X-Men, and particularly of her actions in the final issue—in which she inexplicably attempts to single-handedly exterminate the Inhumans in retribution for Scott’s death.
I could perhaps accept a story in which Emma sought revenge for the death of a loved one, provided that it was well-written. She’s certainly done it before. But she’s never sought revenge in such an irrational fashion,(2) and there’s no reason why she should do so now, even accepting the notion that she has been struggling with intense grief. Emma Frost, while not the most powerful mind in the Marvel universe, is perhaps the most controlled. Her utter discipline, and that discipline’s tactical advantage in the face of stronger psychic opponents, is a core component of her character. She’s simply much too controlled to fall into abject irrationality as she does in Inhumans vs X-Men. And that control is more than evident from what she managed to achieve in Death of X.
Fooling the entire world into thinking someone who is dead is actually alive (and actually running around commanding a guerilla army of multiple moving parts) is not an easy task. And it’s not for the faint of heart or fractured of mind.
At the end of Death of X, Emma Frost was in a position to emerge as an independent force to be reckoned with. Nevertheless, instead of having her grow into that independent force, she simply goes from upset to unpleasant to unhinged, getting more and more out-of-control (and more and more out-of-character) with every step. Despite having been romantically separated from Scott since the events of Avengers vs X-Men, despite having come to a sense of perspective about their relationship and its future, when he died she somehow couldn’t live with it. And couldn’t let anyone else live with it either.
Emma’s sense of self, which should have been free to redefine itself, was instead totally subsumed to Scott’s. Indeed, in our final glimpse of her, she has taken on the guise she will presumably present going forward: a Magnetoesque villain, whose defining characteristic is the adoption of a mask that resembles the most recent iteration of Cyclops’ uniform. In the end, Emma Frost is not even herself anymore. She is nothing more than a reflection of the last man to dominate her life.
I cannot imagine a worse fate for any woman.
1) “But wait!” I hear you say. “The same issue of IvX shows Medusa walking away from a relationship with Johnny Storm. Checkmate, motherfucker!” Yeah, she leaves Johnny for a life of duty and flirtation with Black Bolt. That is an epic level of independent womanhood right there. You totally got me on that one. ⇧
2) The most famous example of this is perhaps Emma’s killing of her sister Adrienne for orchestrating the death of one of Emma’s students, Everett Thomas—which was revealed in Generation X vol.1, no. 75 (2000). Emma’s actions cost her the trust of her other students. It was a sterling example of a questionable decision, but it was not an irrational act. ⇧
I don’t understand why so many people seem to think “you’re not in my head you don’t know what I think” is a get-out-of-(debate)jail-free card. I mean, if anything, it’s a do-not-pass-go-do-not-collect-$200 sort of card. Because, if you think about it, it’s a retort that pretty much makes your opponent’s argument for them.
That thing you said/did was upsetting for X reason, says person A.
No, it wasn’t, retorts person B. You don’t know my mind. You don’t know what I meant to say.
Exactly, person A thinks. I don’t know. Which is why I have to go off what you say and do. I have no way of ever knowing what you meant; I have only your actions. Your intentions mean nothing.
And they mean less than nothing when you expect them to be the final word on the matter.
About a week or so ago, there was a big(ish) debate on this subject between Dynamite comics, writer Paul Cornell, artist Jimmy Broxton, and a group of disturbed fans. Broxton had created a transphobic variant cover for Vampirella #3 (pictured at left). Cornell and the editors at Dynamite had signed off on it without thinking. When the furor erupted, Cornell and Dynamite unequivocally apologized. Broxton dug in his heels and asserted that he knew what his own intentions were and anyone who thought he’d made a transphobic cover was just flat-out wrong. But, of course, his intentions—well-meaning as they may have been—mean nothing.
Life would run a lot more smoothly for everyone if we could all just admit that the author is dead. Intentions shape our everyday thoughts and deeds, it is true. Intentions determine our words, our plans, our art. Intentions guide us in the pursuit of our best selves. But some intentions pave the road to hell. And once a word is spoken, an act is performed, a work of art is let go into the aether… its meaning is no longer yours to control.
Allegiance, the brilliant musical based on George Takei’s experience of internment during WWII, is coming back to theaters on February 19, and I can’t say enough about how important it is that as many people as possible go to see it.
I had the privilege of seeing Allegiance in December, when Fathom Events brought it to theaters for what was to become the highest-grossing one-night Broadway musical screening in Fathom Events history. The theater in my Midwest town was delightfully packed—a fact that gave me hope for the future and courage to face it. Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, after all, and it’s incredibly encouraging to see just how many people are committed to knowing their history. Allegiance is the story of one of the United States’ darker chapters, and it—in many ways—parallels the dark chapter we find ourselves in now. It behooves us all to remember.
The play follows the Kimura family through their internment in the Heart Mountain concentration camp and explores their differing responses to the indignity of their treatment at the hands of the US government. As the story progresses, the Kimuras, and their fellow interned citizens, struggle to face the injustice of their situation with bravery and make the best of their lives in the appalling conditions of the facility. But Allegiance is not merely about the situation inside the camps; it is also—and fundamentally—about the ideological divide that existed between Japanese-Americans interned in the camps. While the Kimuras’ only son, Sammy, endeavors to enlist in the army and prove his loyalty to his country, his father Tatsuo refuses to answer yes to the required loyalty questionnaire and his sister Kei joins the in-camp resistance—falling in love with an anti-draft activist in the process.
Sammy’s stance reflects the viewpoint of many Japanese-Americans at that time: that it was their duty to prove to the US government and to their neighbors that they were real Americans. Kei’s stance, and the stance of her fiancé, Frankie Suzuki, reflects the viewpoint of a vocal minority in the camps: that it was their duty to resist maltreatment and to refuse to serve a country that had abandoned and abused them.
In an era of polarized beliefs and philosophical debates over the effectiveness of respectability vs the effectiveness of resistance, the message of Allegiance—that, while each person must protest injustice in the manner they deem best, we cannot allow our differing viewpoints to divide us—feels more timely than ever. The political divide existing between Sammy and the rest of his family ultimately tears them apart—keeping them from one another until it is almost too late to find closure and offer forgiveness. And this is a message we must keep in mind in the days to come. We face grave challenges to our national ideals and freedoms, and many of us have strong opinions about how those challenges should be met, but we must never lose sight of our shared humanity. We must never lose empathy for those of us who are at different stages of the journey.
The internment of Japanese-American citizens in WWII bears an uncanny resemblance to the current targeting of non-white citizens by the current administration, and both have their roots in the same place: ignorance and fear. Time and time again, ignorance and fear have lead American citizens to do terrible things: to burn women to death, to incarcerate Japanese-Americans, to beat, lynch, and segregate black Americans, to persecute intellectuals with counter-culture views. Time and time again, we have fallen from our ideals. But time and time again, we have risen. The outpouring of love and praise for Allegiance is a reminder that we still have the ability to rise, to remember, and to resolve: never again. These are dark days, but so many people are committed to rejecting them—to learning about the past so that we might not go down those terrible and well-trod paths again—and that gives me such faith.
Go see Allegiance on February 19. See, learn, resolve, resist.