Monday, 29 April 2013

Iron Man 3 analysis

Please note that this analysis contains spoilers. Seriously, don't read it unless you've seen the film or are already spoiled about The Mandarin.

Earlier this month I posted about the Lady Mandarin story, noting that the Mandarin himself would be appearing in Iron Man 3. I couldn't quite see how that was going to work, but didn't lambaste them for doing that because I always like to criticise from a position of knowledge.

I am very glad I held fire.

So, let's talk about it. The way people were coming out of the theatre saying it wasn't orientalist at all but they couldn't talk about it gave me an idea of the shape of the twist.

The idea that I'd already had was that Ben Kingsley's character would not call himself the Mandarin, and that name would be either not used at all, or be bestowed on him by the media. That's what they did with Obadiah Stane/Iron Manger, after all. The problem with this, though, is that the Mandarin is the comics character's only name: there's no Earth name for him to go by. They'd have to make something up. I didn't think that likely, and that's hardly a twist worthy of a spoiler warning.

So, here I am watching the film carefully. Noting the lack of actual cutaways to the Mandarin: we saw footage edited together, but always presented as broadcasts. Then, when we do get the cutaways, noting the obviousness of the Mandarin's surrounds being a studio - we even see his teleprompter.

And then we meet Trevor Slattery. I was a little ahead of them - figuring out that the Mandarin was a front man hired to claim responsibility for Extremis malfunctions - but not by much more than a literate audience was supposed to be. And then the film - already quite good - took a step up to be damn good.

I'm told, though I haven't seen it, that some people identifying as comics fans have been very disappointed with what they did with the Mandarin. Did these people seriously expect a sub-Fu Manchu caricature that should have been embarrassing even in the 1960s in a film that Disney are hoping will do quite well in China?

This Mandarin is a composite of multiple figures (he has, for example, Warren Ellis's beard) but most strongly resembles Osama Bin Laden. Or rather, resembles Osama Bin Laden's public persona. Bin Laden initially denied doing 9/11. And you know what, I believed him, in the sense of him having direct personal responsibility. Al Qaeda is not the type of terrorist organisation the west is used to facing, it's not hierarchical in the same way as say the IRA, which has set itself up as an army. Al Qaeda does not have committee meetings with apologies for absence, as I imagine the IRA Army Council doing. Instead, that structure was imposed onto Al Qaeda and Bin Laden's retinue by a western security apparatus desperate to get a scalp that could be sold to the people as sufficient revenge. And after several years of manhunt for him he decided he might as well take credit. Whether or not it's true (and I'm not now saying it isn't) is frankly irrelevant. Bin Laden was blamed because we had to find someone with ultimate command responsibility and that had to be someone with something of a public persona.

Enter the Mandarin. Killian knows exactly how this works. He and AIM can stay in the shadows while he leads the US government on a fruitless search for terrorists who have a better hiding place than the Pakistan/Afghan border - that of not even existing. This is a rejection of one of Iron Man's flaws. Iron Man used this imagery of generic foreign terrorists allying with a US domestic villain without the slighest bit of irony (one of its two main flaws alongside a lacklustre third act boss fight.) Iron Man 3 rejects this as ridiculous, a scenario that plays well in the American media but has no underlying basis in reality and falls apart on even the slightest investigation. It also shows more directly the problem with drone strikes - that all the accuracy in the world is no good if you don't have the intel. And there's that bit about the Vice President - I'm sure that's some kind of commentary on something, but I can't quite put my finger on it.

So, Iron Man 3 blasts the political naïveté of Iron Man. It provides the savage criticism of the theatre that is the War on Terror that has been wanting for ten years of action films. Yet it manages all this while being fun and engaging, having a third act that wasn't just a tedious slug-out, and passing the Bechdel test. And almost as an afterthought it demonstrates that you can do a film which is "just" a superhero having an adventure, without an origin story or large existential threat (Happy and Tony go looking for trouble, they find it.) That this is a genre in which you can tell stories about other things (something The Dark Knight Rises, for example, tried and failed at). Well done that Shane Black and Drew Pearce.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Uncanny X-Men #259-#260: Whatever Happened to the Children of the Atom?

Uncanny X-Men #259-#260 sets aside Wolverine and Jubilee, Storm and the Muir Island set to look mostly at a couple of other X-Men: Dazzler and Colossus. They are opposite sides of the North American mainland, in familiar surrounds (LA and NY respectively), but without their specific memories.

Both of them have enormous luck: Dazzler that she's ended up at Lila Cheney's LA house, where Guido (making his second appearance) is able to tell her basic informationa about who she is. And someone digs up footage for Dazzler: The Movie and releases it. Not showing up on cameras makes a publicity tour rather difficult, though. In New York, Peter Nicholas finds himself in a loft apartment with a bunch of friends, acting as handyman for the building.

Of course, both plots have some action: Eric Beale is trying to assassinate Dazzler; while Colossus's friends are mutant refugees from Genosha being persued by a Press Gang. That, of course, has some diplomatic implications that are more readily apparent when your illegal paramilitary group are operating in the urban United States than in the Australian outback.

Both our X-Men retain their essential qualities of selflessness and heroicity after passing through the Siege Perilous.

We have the briefest of scenes to do with the Muir Island gang: Legion is now trusted enough to be hooked up to a Cerebro. And Moira is definitely acting weird, it's just not the penciller: Banshee and Forge have gone on a Special Mission to avoid her and try and find the rest of the X-Men, as per Lorna's intel. This is I take it the first hint of the Muir Island Saga?

This is the last daily post in the current run. Posts will resume at a more measured rate (like I'd originally warned would be happening back in November!)

Saturday, 6 April 2013

New Mutants #86-#89: Cable

New Mutants #86 starts the run by a new, up-and-coming artist, Rob Liefeld (he'd done fill-ins and annuals for the X-Office before). Simonson is scripting him, at first.

There's no immediate stage of Liefield writing Simonson's plots: the book is changed from day one. If we look back at New Mutants so far, it can be divided into three main eras. Firstly, there is the period from #1 to #34, which is the original format of the New Mutants having wacky adventures while attending a school run by Professor X. From #35 Xavier went into space and was replaced by Magneto. The New Mutants then engage in increasingly outlandish adventures which they handle with aplomb, marred only by the killing of Doug and the loss of Magik, while evading the tyrannical Headmaster Magneto. This era ends when they decide to quit the school and join up with X-Factor (#75).

However, the problem that was present with the setup during the Magneto era is still present with the ship and X-Factor. They've had adventures while X-Factor were out on missions, and have got trapped in parallel dimensions. One team can't very well mentor the other when they both want to be off doing their own adventures. Eventually, the franchise will figure out how to do this reasonably acceptably, by swelling the student numbers and having the adult team as peripheral characters who can't give the juvies their full attention (i.e. copying the format of Buffy back). But for now, this is stagnant. It's the third attempt at this, and despite changing location this time, it still doesn't work.

Enter Cable. He turns up out of the blue, with a big but not yet ludicrous gun, looking to defeat Stryfe and the Mutant Liberation Front (who are violently protesting against the capture of Rusty and Skids by Freedom Force.) By issue #89 he's graduated to using weapons he can probably only carry because of his telekinesis. But it's not all just ridiculously stupid violence. There's also ridiculously stupid character scenes, as well (mind, the page or two where Rahne is looking at her mementoes are great). Oh dear. Cable's introduction and adoption as the team's mentor here is just so clumsy and rushed. Sigh.

I think my attempt at Reading All The X-Men ends here. Although there was no way I was going to read all the 1990s material, I'd hoped to get as far as X-Force proper. I can't. It's April now, and I'd started to draft the entries for this era in January, and I stopped. In part this was due to poor health, but there was also a component of not wanting to have to write about Rob Liefield pissing on the corpse of New Mutants. So, we'll concentrate on Uncanny, X-Factor and Excalibur only from now on...

Friday, 5 April 2013

X-Factor #51-#53: Blasts from the Past

X-Factor #51-#53 is a welcome return to street level for a series that has spent quite a lot of time in space lately. The Ship has landed them right back in New York, on their old plot, which I welcome, even if the burghers of New York do not. After having a press conference about their zoning violation, Scott and Jean and Hank and Trish go on a double-date at a fancy restaurant where they are attacked by a plague of insects launched by The Locust, of all people, one of the Thomas/Roth run's more memorable but less successful villains. It appears that Hank and Trish are an Item, so I'll mark them on the chart as from #52. It seems, by the way, that X-Factor's identities are completely public knowledge now. Scott uses his real name in a restaurant and people recognise them in civvies. The place gets trashed, but it's fine, there's talk of "superhero insurance", and it's just part of the hazards of being in New York: like you accept the possibility of a quake if you live in California. Locust's attack ties in to their celebrity, too: he got agitated by recognising X-Factor on the tellybox. Following this, Scott proposes to Jean, and she turns him down. Which is fair enough. He did abandon his last wife, after all.

Another plotline features Mole, the Morlock from Uncanny #211, who is on the run from Sabretooth (here defeated by Archangel). He hides in a record shop, where he is discovered by Opal, who shows him kindness and allows him to continue hiding under the staircase. Bobby happens by the store subsequently, and hits on her, and even gets a date out of it, making this Bobby's first love interest since, well, possibly the Champions or New Defenders, but if not, then Zelda! Mole tries to cockblock, but ends up being Sabretooth fodder. And Caliban and Sabretooth fight Archangel!

The letters page of #53 provides a nugget of information about how language changes. X-Factor #47 was a flashback fill-in which is the subject of general praise. Daryl Edelman apologises for the "out-of-continuity" story, by which she means that it is set out of continuous order; rather than the modern understanding of that term which would be that it the events cannot or should not be reconciled with the main series: that it is "non-canon". But that's another rant entirely.

Baby Christopher is talking now. His first word was "ba[ll]", and he's also learned "da". He's being drawn as if he's about 1, I would say.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Excalibur: Cross-Dressing Caper

Excalibur now engages in the Cross-Time Caper, where Claremont and Davies invent Sliders 6 years ahead of schedule. Like that show, it uses its settings principally as sources of comedy, rather than seriously as a tool to examine history; and any drama that arises comes mostly from the characters and their reaction to being stranded. Unlike that show it features a massive BDSM subtext.

I'll skip most of the immensely tedious details of the various alternate timelines (although the gay ogres, the royal marriage of Prince William and Catherine are worth a mention, as is the the world which is a a horrifying preview of what comics will be like in the 1990s. Captain America is a cyborg. Galactus comes in at the end to arresteat everyone for being too silly.)

Instead on Earth-616, Nigel Frobisher continues his long-running plotline. You remember what I wrote about body mod fic in the Lady Mandarin entry. Well, that's not the only fetish stuff that appears in late 1980s X-Men. Nanny would just about slip under the radar if we weren't looking for it (as has pretty much everything involving heroes being tied up), but now we're primed to see what we can find, there's adult baby and ageplay, well before the mass media coverage that that attracted in the early 1990s. The Frobisher plotline has feminization, where Frobisher is briefly transformed - against his will but in line with his innermost desire - to the form of Courtney Ross. It's immediately brushed off as a joke, but those few panels are no more an accidental invocation of this than I am a steeplejack.

Phoenix's costume is kind of a bit, too, and I don't just mean the spikes, when suspended upside down; Kitty is able to wriggle out from her boots (amateur work tying them up). But Ray admits that her boots go up to her neck. This sort of garment exists but is very specialist; typically catsuits are worn with separate boots, even in the fetish community. Even by comic book costuming standards, this is impractical. Catwoman doesn't wear one: the cover of the recent Catwoman #1 shows this quite clearly. And there would have to be a zip or other fastener, something Ray's costume does not appear to have. We know that Ray can shift atoms around to make clothes: is that how the Phoenix costume works? Did she magic it up around herself? She's three openings in her costume away from being Fetishman. Of course, this all ignores the fact that the costume was forced on her, back when she was a hound in the future, which isn't fetishy at all, no. In #16, she dresses up in a different costume entirely, to enter a tournament. This one is a bit more ponygirl.

This stuff, put together, makes the Hellfire Club and Emma Frost look vanilla.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Uncanny X-Men #256-#258: Lady Yellowface

Going by the cover dates Uncanny X-Men #256-#258 contains the first issue of the 1990s. And as if they already know what the decade is going to be like, the first thing they do is make one of their characters into a bloody ninja.


The Mandarin. He's primarily an Iron Man villain, and he's going to be played by Ben Kingsley in this film that's coming out later this month. Do I need to go into his name? Mandarin is a word in English that originally referred to Chinese imperial bureaucrats. In this sense it has a bit of a perjorative usage. Because of this, it also the name used in English for the standard spoken Chinese used by the Chinese government, and also that of the northern varieties of Chinese spoken in the north. In both senses it is an exonym: a word applied to a group by others. Do you imagine Stan Lee knew any of this in 1964 when he invented the character? Of course not. Why then do I bring it up now? Because hey, it is the 1990s, and people really ought to be thinking.


The Mandarin. Hong Kong. They tried to book Madripoor, but it was in use by a Wolverine storyline. OK, so can we get Wolverine? Psylocke. Mojo. Ninja brainwashing. Obviously ninjas have to be East Asian. Skin colour. Epicanthic folds, installed on a face hidden behind a mask. Psylocke becomes "Lady Mandarin", Mandarin's chief enforcer. Wolverine and Jubilee arrive on a boat; Wolverine disguises himself as "Patch", which worries Mandarin, and Psylocke is sent to deal with him. When the mask is revealed Wolverine recognises her. It's her face, just changed a bit for the 1990s. Psylocke takes a rare look inside Wolverine's head (and sees the Nick Fury and Carol Danvers inside there), a sight so shocking it breaks the conditioning.

The body transformation thing is just dropped in there as a minor detail. Well, beyond the Mojo-y dream sequence thing which reads awfully like bad transformation fic. I find it hard to believe this got published in a Code comic as far ago as 1989, before comics had really given up on the teenage market; but there it is, in front of me, in four (or more) colours. The colourist is told to draw her skin one shade darker. Betty doesn't even really acknowledge what happened to her physically, the real problem is the brainwashing. Lots of things will go back at look at the corporeal aspects. For now, the Japanification is just there as a fetish element.

And that's why it's - without question - problematic. If you had the exact same story elements used differently in a story that was actually about race, then could one make a case that it was worthwhile. That's not happened. It's a gimmick.

Still, we've not had much post-Lady Mandarin Psylocke to deal with yet; perhaps there will be some thoughtful consideration of identity (you'll note that in addition to having her appearance taken from her, she remains in the swimsuit with ribbons that she was assigned in this storyline - her codename had come from Mojo, too, back in the day) And she can compare notes with Sharon and Tom, who had a similar experience. But this story isn't it.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Uncanny X-Men #255: She Did, In Fact, See It Coming

Uncanny X-Men #255 forms one continuous story with #254, but for a change I've split this into a post per issue, as two kinda momentous things happen, one in each. The last issue we celebrated the speed of X (a new X-Men team forms immediately on dissolution of the last one, like monarchy travels instantly and makes the new heir King or Queen). This time around, we have a very significant death which will haunt the series well into the 2000s: Destiny.

Irene knows what is to come, but is keeping Raven from it, because it's the only way to keep Raven alive. Both of them would sacrifice themselves for the other. This Destiny/Mystique thing is quite blatantly being portrayed as a relationship now, especially in the bits where Irene gives the future Raven/Forge thing her blessing. (So, welcome to the chart, you two. I'm sorry it didn't work out better for you in the end.) Raven (we're told here that's a self-picked name, by the way, but any idea that it was a cover identity has been forgotten) ought to have seen this coming. Destiny's quite old at this point.1 One day she was going to die. And Destiny would inevitably win at the sacrificial game. There's no way she'd allow Mystique to beat her to it, and no way Mystique could prevent it.

Mystique doesn't quite see it that way, of course. She already blames Forge for the end of Fall of the Mutants, where she believes Rogue died, and considers this another black mark against him. I can see another long-running plot arc starting there.

Monday, 1 April 2013

X-Men/She-Ra One-Shot

This was posted on April 1st, as part of a joint effort with SpaceSquid and Teebore. We never imagined that anyone named would see it. My apologies.

Hello! I'm writing this on 30th of March, somewhat in a hurry, as I've realised I've got another hole to fill. I had planned to cover the backups in Classic X-Men with Nate in them, but I forgot to even bring them up to Bradford with me! I guess those will have to wait for a while. But I don't want to have to readjust all the dates subsequent posts are being made on again, and leaving another gap so soon seems not very classy.

Fortunately, there is one thing I can do: the X-Men/She-Ra promotional one-shot for a while. And since I missed by some time the actual era-appropriate position, the fag end of the Claremont era seems as good a time as any. I discovered it a couple of months ago, when I was at a Local Comic Shop with an extensive back issue collection.1 I found it in a 25p bin, quite damaged (frankly, it was the worst condition I have ever seen a comic), and at first it looked like just another 1980s X-Men issue, but I wanted to figure out which one, because I do have some gaps in that era. And then it turns out to be something else entirely.
So, anyway. This is a rare writing collaboration by Chris Claremont, who might have plotted with other people, but very rarely co-writes - in this case with a Dom Jon Seepyus, presumably coming in from the Masters of the Universe side of things. The pencils and inks are provided by P. R. LaFolio, and are about satisfactory. Like the earlier X-Men/Micronauts miniseries, it seems to exist to sell toys and/or provide interest in another comic line; but instead of being published as a normal comic, it seems to have been bundled with toys instead.

I simply don't have the context for this, because I don't remember very much of He-Man/She-Ra. I certainly have watched bits of He-Man - it broadcast on ITV in the mid 1980s, but I remember finding it stupid, much preferring ThunderCats. I don't remember ever watching She-Ra specifically, either, which makes my memories of limited use here. I certainly wasn't aware of the involvement of J. Michael Straczynski in it, 'cos that was the very start of his career, before even The Real Ghostbusters (which I do definitely remember watching and enjoying.)

I'm not even sure I really found He-Man to be stupid on its merits, rather than because of peer pressure. Although BBC and ITV were as direct rivals as you can get - and both were free-to-air - there was still, in the time and place I was growing up - a whiff of classism about them. CBBC was slightly more respectable than the crass populism of CITV. And we were trying to be middle class (and trying to be middle class affects your activities a lot more than actually being middle class, it turns out). Yes, some of my favourite children's programmes were CITV ones (Woof!, Knightmare, Press Gang2, Bad Influence) - but that's all live action stuff. The cartoons I liked tended to be broadcast on CBBC. I believe my first exposure to X-Men/Marvel would have been the repeats of Spider-Man on his Amazing Friends on CBBC.

So, having realised I was in no position to comment on this comic, and finding that the fragments of it were in too poor condition for me to risk transporting again (or even to scan - not that I actually own a scanner), I asked the comic shop in question whether they had heard anything more about it. And jackpot! They had a transcript of it! I have sent this to my colleagues SpaceSquid and Teebore (links to their blogs are in the blogroll), and they tell me they plan to do actual analysis of this soon.

1. I am blessed to work near Orbital Comics and live an Overground stop away from Krypton Comics. If you're reading this, hi guys.

2. Steven Moffat's first TV series. Apparently it still holds up. I also really liked Dark Season by a certain Russell T. Davies, which... doesn't so much. But Marcie is a really good Doctor.