Friday, 9 October 2015

X-Factor #77-#78: Life is Lead Weights

X-Factor #77-#78 does that thing that X-Factor is doing a lot in this run, of not being as good as it ought to be, as it could be.  It brings in two new important ideas, but it fumbles at making a worthwhile story out of them.

Specifically, a scientist makes a deeply important discovery: locating the X-Gene.  It turns from a notional thing thing that theoretically exists because we can observe that mutanthood is hereditary, and we know heredity happens through genes (although, in the real world in the 2010s, it looks like epigenetics plays a much larger part in development than we expected back then).  Instead, we know where and what it is.  And because you can see it, you can test for it.  It then immediately raises the possibility on using this on foetuses.  It doesn't mention the a-word exactly, but it does mention the rather less medically feasible but more palatable to its audience prospect of in-utero alteration to remove the X-Gene.

This isn't coming out of a vacuum, and it's not even being particularly anticipatory.  This was published about the same time that the idea of a "gay gene" was first in the news, and the X-Gene in this story is barely even a metaphor.  23 years later, it has become apparent there is not a "gay gene" in that sense.   There is no particular allele which causes homosexuality: the strongest factor in sexual orientation in men seems to be birth order.  But there are plenty of other spheres where a minority community is facing an externally imposed "cure", i.e. what is basically eugenics.  Your basic applicability remains.

Unfortunately, having all that potential resonance, the actual story that it hangs off this just isn't very good.  It's a straightforward runaround where X-Factor have to defend the objectionable but perfectly law-abiding scientist, Doctor Tucker, from the Mutant Liberation Front.  They fail, which is unusual, and presents a little grey, but it's all too convenient an escape route.  Rahne makes sure the computer is destroyed, in the fight, leading to the only satisfying character moment in the entire story, but even that is underexplored.  While we're supposed to imagine this will set back the research significantly, I'm not buying that.  Even if Tucker hasn't published, someone else will do soon.  The 1990s is Gene Finding time, and people will be finding genes.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

X-Men #8/Ghost Rider #27-#28: Who ya gonna maul?

So, this story, which covers the end of X-Men #8, Ghost Rider #26, X-Men #9 and Ghost Rider #27 is, you can probably guess from the start of that sentence, a crossover.  Recently I started using a categorisation scheme for crossovers.  No, I've explained it yet. Got to have some mystery, after all. This is a new type, a category I didn’t realise I’d needed.  This is category WTF.

We've not met Ghost Rider yet in X-Men, so I shall maintain the conceit that this might be the only corner of the Marvel universe you've really heard of (like, seriously, why would you even be reading this if you aren’t a hardcore Marvel fan, I don’t know?) and introduce him.  Ghost Rider is a title about a demonic spirit of vengeance that has possessed a biker, called Ghost Rider.  He goes from town to town, righting wrongs and doing motorcycle tricks.  Originally Ghost Rider's human host was Johnny Blaze, who starred in the series from 1972 to 1983.  A relaunch in 1990 saw him replaced with Danny Ketch.

Ghost Rider has little thematically in common with the X-Men, and the incongruity of this team-up is only multiplied by the identity of the enemy: the alien Brood.  You know, nudge nudge, the alien Brood, making their return to X-Men after a protracted absence, at more or less exactly the same time that Alien 3 came out.  So, we have a literal Hell's Angel teaming up with a group of people who represent the next stage in human evolution, to fight a bunch of body-horror monsters from space.  And that's not even what the story is really about.

What it's about is Gambit, and his background.  We know very little of him.  He rescued Storm and has been sort of hanging around ever since, earning the trust of the X-Men through his actions in combat.  This works out quite well for him when his wife turns up at the end of X-Men #7.  She arrives with a problem, specifically that his backstory is unravelling.  See, it turns out that Gambit is from the LeBeau crime family (called the Thieves' Guild, presumably because some LeBeau senior had read too much David Eddings), and his wife, Bella Donna, is from their rivals, the Boudreaux clan, also known as the Assassins' Guild (which is, if anything, even less plausible than the Thieves' Guilds because you just wouldn't get enough trade.  Real life crime families tend to stick to more reliable flows of income, whether that be drugs, or rent-collection).   But in they're not a Romeo-and-Juliet.  Instead, it goes for the second most obvious direction you could take that - they were betrothed to each other to seal a peace deal.  This all went fine (they did like each other) until Bella Donna's brother objected, forcefully, leading to Gambit having to a) kill him and b) go into exile.  This gives Gambit a background that would make him a passable character in a work of adventure fiction even if he hadn't turned out to be a mutant with kinetopyrotic or whatever powers.  (There's no indication as to whether Gambit had his powers back then.  It makes a point that Bella Donna didn't have hers)

So, Gambit is able to persuade the X-Men, or at least those of them who see the X-Men uniform as blue (so, Cyclops, Wolverine, Beast, Rogue, Psylocke and Jubilee) to accompany him back to New Orleans to sort out whatever is threatening the peace between the two families.  They do so by car, with the scripter of Ghost Rider #27 snarking at the plotter for failing to draw the Blackbird.  (The credits have only a writer/artist split here, but I reckon I can see an invisible spaceship when it's not there.)

On arrival they faff around for some time and then try a sneak frontal attack on the Assassins's Guild.  There they discover Jean Martine and Michelle, a married couple from Gambit's faction of the New Orleans LARP community, the latest in the line of victims of the Brood-possessed Assassins.  This is not the Brood’s usual M.O. - they’re assimilators not killers, but it can't just get the puppets these days, and it's agent has its own agenda.  Oops?  Anyway, this is nothing compared to its real secret weapon, a Brood-assimilated Ghost Rider.

The X-Men immediately know who Ghost Rider is (although as far as I can tell none of the members of this half of the gang have actually met him before - I guess they have heard tales from Iceman and Angel, who had been in the Champions with him back in the 1970s, and are obviously more rubbish because they see the dress as gold).  Ghost Rider's attack separates them, and Gambit and Bella Donna have a long-awaited conversation about Gambit leaving.  Gambit ducked off quite precipitously, without even asking Bella Donna to to with him, something that she, unremarkably, holds against him.

Because that’s the type of guy Gambit is.  Fuck him.  Actually, no, don’t fuck him.  Of him and Rogue he’s the most dangerous to touch, because he’ll bugger off the moment you let you inside.  That’s why he’s into Rogue so much, he’s never going to have the ugly physical and emotional reality of her to deal with, he can just continue to hit on her without any thought of the consequences.  I’ve known people like Gambit.  So have you.  They are shits. We love them anyway, damn it.

Bella Donna ends up fridged.  I know, right?  Didn’t see that one coming, did you?  Elsewhere, we get some excellent banter (god, dare I call it that? but that’s what it is) between Logan and Hank, and really difficult scenes between Betsy and Scott that I don’t understand what the fuck they were thinking. Scott needs a sustained period of not being written as a monster.

I'm off to San Francisco tomorrow. I'm there for a week and then I'll be going to Seattle for ECCC. If anyone's there and wants to meet up, drop me a line. I've scheduled posts for while I'm gone.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Uncanny X-Men #287/X-Men #8: Bishop's Gambit

These two issues are both plotted by Jim Lee, and scripted by Scott Lobdell.  Despite this they tie in quite well to each other, and are basically a two-issue story split across the titles.

The main focus is Bishop.  I still don't really see the point of Bishop - I suspect I never will.  We see a bit more of his backstory (or, forestory, I suppose I should say), both the immediate events leading up to the hot pursuit of Fitzroy across timezones.  His attempt to confront a group of remaining time criminals ends with him getting his mates Malcolm and Randall killed.  (Can I just say how lucky is it that the one of them left alive was called "Bishop", by the way, can you imagine the new X-Man being called "Malcolm"? Oh god, I wrote that sentence with the intent to mock it as a bit of a boring name, but then I realised... Malcolm X).  The X-Men turn up well after the nick of time.  Bishop still thinks something is wrong with them, largely on account of their "don't be evil" policy, what with him coming from a time in the far future, well after their IPO.

And after their fall.  Our flashbacks result in a future timeline like this:
  • 1992: "now"
  • the X-Men are betrayed and fall
  • the emancipation
  • 2060 : XSE formed, based on the X-Men ("thirty years of peace")
  • 2090: Bishop's time (just short of a a century)
At this point it is still possible to reconcile Bishop's timeline with the future that Rachel Summers comes from.  We can read the Great Betrayal as the same incident depicted in Uncanny X-Men 188.

This moves into a more oblique fragment about the last man to see the X-Men alive: a wizened future bloke called "LeBeau", aka "The Witness".  In all my reading, oddly, this is possibly the first time I feel that a surprise has been properly spoiled by my basic foreknowledge.  I knew this was Gambit, you see.  Or at least, I knew there was a very good chance it was Gambit, because LeBeau is his surname - but this is a name that has not actually been attached to Gambit the character yet.  In Claremont's X-Men Forever, he ends up as Remy Picard, instead.

All a good bit of flashbacking, Bishop comes around in the X-Men's care, has a quick side-meeting with Xavier and is then introduced as the latest member of the X-Men, I guess because Xavier has got a reputation of dickery to maintain.  BELIEVE IT OR NOT, the other X-Men are not terribly impressed, a fact that is not changed when Bishop accuses Gambit of being the LeBeau (myth confirmed) and being a future traitor (myth unclear).   Everyone vouches for Gambit, which is funny because although he has yet to become the future traitor (and might not yet because of how prophecy works), he is secretly an actual traitor already, as he will later be retconned into organising the Mutant Massacre.  Bishop was right!

Now, this is the part I guess where it becomes obvious that Jim Lee is plotting this issue because it is literally right at that moment that Jean Grey suggests they all go for their picnic.  I've illustrated the picnic with a rare full-page quote, to the right here.  I do not need to explain what is wrong with this, do I?  Oh?  I might as well?  Well, it is the most gratuitously sexualised piece of art in X-Men thus far.  It explicitly presents the male gaze - Cyclops's eye movements are followed, and he's almost mesmerised by this woman appearing partly-clothed in his view.  And it doesn't even make sense in context - a promising everyone argument was interrupted to bring us this sequence.

Because it's not just this.  There's more, including Gambit creepily hitting on Rogue.  The way he is behaving here is appalling, he repeatedly violates boundaries that Rogue has tried to set about her not wanting to be touched.  This isn't just a "oh, I'm willing to take that risk" thing on Gambit's part.  Rogue has only recently got rid of the Carol Danvers within her - and the last thing she wants now is another resident in her cranium.  Touching her is dangerous for Gambit but also for her, and it is against her repeatedly expressed wishes.  But obviously this is not how we are supposed to read it.  Instead, it's supposed to be romantic.  Rogue defends him against Bishop (she had her own issues with being trusted, I guess), and spends lots of time preparing food for him at the picnic (4 hours cooking, she says, which is surely a bit try-hard!)   But honestly I just want her to be able to get rid of this creep.

And then Gambit's wife turns up.  Of which more later.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Hulk #391/X-Factor #76/Hulk #392: What's Green and Clever?

There are several types of comics crossovers, and Incredible Hulk crossing into X-Factor here is a Type C: books written by same person.  Peter David isn't much one for Type A or B crossovers, it appears, but he'll do a Type C every so often.  In Incredible Hulk, well, when was the last time we checked in on that?  A shocking 20 years ago.  A lot has changed in Hulk since then, by any normal standards, but this is an X-Men review blog, and Hulk here now being the "Doc", who combines Bruce's personality and intelligence with Hulk's physicality, is nothing.  In case we've missed it, this is all happily exposited to us (and X-Factor) by Zack Galvin and Val Cooper.

Hulk and X-Factor clash on opposing sides in a civil conflict in Trans-Sabal, a morally dubious US ally, with Hulk on the side of the rebel Pantheon and X-Factor being brought in by the American government.  This a great premise for an X-Men story, but there hadn't been an opportunity to do it between the end of that early situation in the first few issues, where it seemed the X-Men were working for the government, and thr establishment of Val Cooper's X-Factor team.

Incredible Hulk 391 builds towards and ends with a confrontation between Havok and Hulk, which ends badly for both parties.  While this is ostensibly a three part story with the X-Factor issue forming the middle chapter, neither Havok nor Hulk appear, them having been blown clean away.  Instead, this middle chapter has more general team vs team fight, and a strand where Wolfsbane is captured by brother-and-sister supporters of Farnoq Dahn.  This can be omitted if you are just reading Hulk, but probably suffers when read in isolation.  Hulk 392 dispenses with any pretence at moral ambiguity, and avoids the need for X-Factor to turn against the government by having Dahn become a moustache-twirling villain who has literally strapped children to missiles and drugged American advisors into compliance.

He's also strapped Havok to a missile, planning to use his explosive force, which I take with some level of humour, reading this issue in the same day of the Pope's supposed claims that trans people (my default metaphor for the x-men, obviously) are as contrary to the natural order of things as nuclear weapons.  Would you believe it, he gets foiled?   This would be better if it had the guts to be as incendiary as that missile, but it's going in the right direction.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

X-Factor #74-#75: Geecee Deecee

X-Factor #74-#75 continues lacklustre, which by the standards of X-titles in early 1992 is pretty good.  We've one ongoing plot to resolve: the question of Who Is The Real Madrox Anyway?  This is answered, somewhat unsatisfactorily, by the assumption that the Madrox who had had Fallen Angels happen to him was the real one.  This, though is the "wrong" Madrox, the evil one, who is in some kind of complicated conspiracy with Mr. Sinister to discredit mutant-hater or something.  Yes, for it's 75th issue, X-Factor has got as overcomplicated as it was when it began!  Possibly coming to this contextless after a year was a mistake.   ANYWAY.  Short post, I know.  There'll be another one sooner than a week, I expect.

I liked the bit where the Washington Memorial gets destroyed, though.  I wonder if I should start a list of all the buildings to have been destroyed in the Marvel universe.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Uncanny X-Men #284-#286: There Lived a Certain Man in Russia Long Ago

Uncanny X-Men #284 is more literate than I was expecting.  It opens with a potted summary of the dispute between Japan and Russia over Sakhalin.  Some Russians, and then Sunfire, and then the X-Men all deal with this threat there, which turns out to be a kind of portal into a pocket universe occupied by human-looking aliens with boring factional disputes which turns out to be in danger of colliding into our world, destroying both (shades of Hickman's Avengers), and in which Colossus is heralded as a Messiah (shades of Whedon's Unstoppable).

This is all set-up for the real reveal, at the end of #285, where we meet Colossus's brother, Mikhail, who has been stuck in this dimension for some unspecified but long time.  He'd been mentioned in Uncanny #99, as having died in a space launch accident.  In #286 we find that was a cover-up, to conceal the fact that the Soviet government know that Mikhail was a mutant.  This is not really satisfactorily handled, and the only honest emotional beat that's comes near to the issue is Mikhail's surprise at having a sister, and Colossus's genuine inability to explain the horrors to which she has been subject.  There's all sorts of fridge logic that you can apply to this, but it's just the first issue of Mikhail's "return", and none of it is harsher than the point that surely we should have had some more significant mention of Mikhail in the last few issues if we're now expected to buy it as a big deal.  I imagine half the readership at this point didn't even know he was an existing (of sorts) character.

The B-plot is the adventures of Bishop.  Like it's done before, an X-Men title is here anticipating a successful live-action time travel series.  Unfortunately, rather than anticipating something like Terminator 2 again, here it brings us Time Trax, a couple of years early.  Oh well.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

X-Men #4-#7: Omega Red

X-Men's second arc, from #4 to #7 is a story immediately following up the business of Team X introduced in Wolverine #48-#50.  After a first issue with some characterisation of the team (including an attempt by Gambit to kiss Rogue... Oh, god, that's gone beyond creepy into assaulty please stop), we get some fighting with a Mysterious Enemy from Wolverine's Past story.

But it turns out that the Weapon X and Team X stuff has given some emotional weight to this.  Not very much, admittedly, but it's there.  There's a connection, not just to some braggart's past of the sort that featured in his solo, but to something that actually mattered to his life, that time when he teamed up with his archenemy and his dead lover.

They fought Omega Red back in the day, we're told, and he's back.  Omega Red is a post-Cold War creation, one of the first to be retroactively created as a legacy of that.  We've had a rather more prominent example of that lately - the Winter Soldier.  While the Cold War was active, Marvel Comics seem to have steered away from telling straight red vs blue spy stories, instead choosing to dress them up in allegory.  But now, with it over, it's free to tell to the types of stories it thinks ought to have existed, while blatantly foregrounding the fact that it is a relic (a line about "United Germany" here.  The contemporaneous story in Uncanny X-Men also deals with a retconned Cold War legacy hero of sorts, Mikhail Rasputin, who has a line about how strange American/Russian/Japanese cooperation is.)  Curiously, it asserts that Omega Red "was to be the world's first super soldier", despite his cold war (and thus post-Captain America) origins.  For that matter, isn't Wolverine himself a prior example?  Eh.

Omega Red kidnaps Wolverine, to extract from him the location of something called a "carbonadium synthesizer", which makes a sort of Waitrose Essentials adamantium without with Omega Red will die, and so plots to torture the world's most torture-proof man until he gives it up.  That works out about as well as you might expect.  (Most of the arc is much as you might expect.)  We get a fairly entertaining action sequence right at the end with Logan and Besty kicking ass, which is only mildly less objectifying of Psylocke than the gratuitous swimsuit panels in #4 ("I was in the pool", my arse).

I stopped here for a while.  I can see why.  It is only grim determination that has made me resume.