Saturday, 17 January 2015

NGT #3: "To Bamf Or Not To Bamf!"


("We're all stories in the end")

Comments

Oh dear.

I've not, I realise, been particularly complimentary to this mini up until now, but it turns out that there is, after all, always more down.  At least before I could understand what the title thought it was offering: a defiantly simple sword & sorcery epic built on Cockrum's flair for design and slightly offbeat sense of humour. The former tended towards the uncoordinated and the latter was distinctly hit and miss,and it all seemed a fairly thin reed to hang four issues on in any case, but I least I grasped the fundamentals.

Here, though, I'm at a loss.  After two issues of exploring the skylands of the Boggies and of Princess Sabree, Kurt finds himself back on terra firma surrounded by Bamfs, the tiny Kurt-clones Kitty invented for her fairy story back in UXM #153.

It might take a moment for it to sink in just how strange a choice this is. After two issues hanging out with miniature teleporting Kurtelgangers, we've moved on to... different miniature teleporting Kurtelgangers?

This is not the sort of development that reassures you you're in safe hands. Especially since Shagreen resurfaces from being plummeted-presumed-dead status to once again attempt to steal Nightcrawler's powers. Basically, Cockrum is telling the same twice over four issues, making the point of all this opaque than ever.

Even stranger, the second iteration is a clear step backwards from the first, as we go from a desperately slight tale relying almost entirely on Cockrum's new designs to a desperately slight tale relying almost entirely on Cockrum's old designs.  The only genuine USP this miniseries was offering has been removed in favour of traipsing through a two-year old Uncanny X-Men issue.  Yes, I mentioned Cockrum's sense of humour being in play here, but with the best will in the world I can't claim his yuks are anything special, and anyway in this instance he's mainly focusing on making the Bamfs as borderline-rapey as is possible, which isn't exactly my preferred route to maximum lols.

On top of everything else, I'm really not a fan of this kind of "stories are real" conceit. Which probably sounds utterly ridiculous from someone who just yesterday wouldn't shut up about how awesome Longshot #5's "stories are real" subtext is. But there's a vast yawning canyon between the position that a story's effects on the world can be as profound as any "true" event, and the position that you don't have to bother constructing a coherent structure to your fictional world when you can just squeal "Everything's real" and start seeding your pages with sex-pest diminutive demons.

So no. Not impressed.

Clues

Despite the Narnia-like time distortion of whatever universe Nightcrawler is now inhabiting, the calendar of Earth has ticked on by a few days at this point. By my timeline that makes this Christmas Day, which Kitty's Jewishness notwithstanding must have made it pretty tough for the girls to sneak off and do some Kurt-hunting. Though since the timeline has Christmas Day being when Legion is finally set on the road to recovery and Sunspot and Magma are kidnapped, there's probably bigger issues in the X-Mansion in any case.

Date

Tuesday 25th December, 1984

X-Date

X+6Y+298.

Contemporary Events

Two OB/GYN buildings and an abortion clinic are bombed in Pensacola, Florida.  Because domestic terrorism TAKES NO HOLIDAYS"

Standout Line

"Oh, we Bamfs don't need names. We know who we are."

Friday, 16 January 2015

LGS #5: "Deadly Lies"


("We're all stories in the end")

Comments

With only two issues left (even if the last one is grotesquely swollen), time is running out for our dimensionally-displaced hero. Nothing for it, then, but for Nocenti to raise her game.

I'll admit that when I first read this installment, I was a bit disappointed. After four issues which each used a fairly simplistic superhero tale as a springboard for some good-natured meta-sniping at the genre as a whole, LGS #5 intially felt a bit of a mess. It wasn't that I thought it didn't have a good idea; it actually had two good ideas. But neither of them really got time to breathe because of having to rub against each other as well as make room for the final showdown between Longshot and Pup.  Ultimately though the truth sank in: there aren't two ideas here jostling for space, but one idea approached from two very different directions. So let's start off by sketching out Past Me's witless confusion, the better to explain what I came to realise was the truth.

We begin this issue where we ended the last: Longshot and his accompanying gaggle of children face off against a fully-charged and murder-minded Pup, who is finally ready to take his revenge against our hero. Well, first he has to punch the kid with the revolver so last issue's subtext can be paid off, but once that's out of the way, it's on to the battle royale.

Except that Longshot's hearts don't really seem to be in it. And one can see his problem.  If indeed he is responsible for lumbering Earth with Pup (now calling himself Gog N'Magog which sets up all kinds of potentially interesting Biblical parallels I won't actually go into here), and if his former companion's transformation into a drooling demon is in fact entirely on him, then does he have any business seeing himself as the hero of the piece? And if he does destroy the creature that until sixty seconds ago made up precisely 50% of his friends, who will be left to actually tell him who he is?

As we might surmise from Nocenti's previous scripts in this mini, the solutions to both these problems lie in narrative convention. What does Longshot actually need to know to function in a superhero comic? That he's the hero. How do we know Longshot is the hero? Because he's fighting the villain. That's how superhero comics work, at least most of the time, and pretty much all of the time in this period. Moreover, the relationship here is transparently antithetical. Pup just can't wait to list all the ways that Longshot has screwed up his life. It doesn't matter that Longshot didn't intend for any of this to happen.  It doesn't matter that Pup is on Earth purely because he was brought here as a direct result of trying to murder Longshot. All that matters is that without Longshot, Pup might still be back home killing innocent people, and for that Longshot must pay with his life.

As with so much else in this title, the link to superhero fiction in general isn't hard to tease out. How many supervillains have sworn vendettas against heroes because they blame them for setbacks that aren't truly anybody's fault, or should be laid at some third party's door, or even that the villains themselves engineered and now won't accept the blame for. Doctor Doom is perhaps Marvel's ur-example here, but there are plenty of others. Pup then is not a villain simply by dint of wanting to murder people (and/or lamp kids, albeit ones packing heat) but because of his refusal to take possession of the consequences of his actions.

But does that in turn free Longshot from his culpability here? Well, no, but this too is a regular ingredient backed into superhero sponge-cakes. Whilst we might not be brimming with sympathy for those who use their misfortune as an excuse for inflicting pain on others, though, we do have to accept the fact that an awful lot of bad luck does seem to dog anyone nearby our heroes.  How else could comics keep generating new villains with a personal connection to their nemesis? Pup isn't actually wrong when he blames Longshot's probability manipulation for how things have turned out. But what in fact he's attacking is the logic upon which all superhero fiction works, just as the first two issues explored the endless stream of good fortune a noble hero enjoys, and the third concentrated on the unfortunate effect heroes seem to have on anyone who befriends them. As always, Longshot's powers simply allow the text to comment openly on what has always been lurking beneath the surface.

Issue 3 is helpful here, actually. When I discussed it I noted the "jinxed" man Longshot met was far less a victim of terrible luck than he was his own poor choices and his failure to recognise the many ways in which he was quite fortunate. Now, as then, I don't want to overstate my case, since this kind of selective blindness to one's advantages is a symptom of depression as well as privilege, and I've no intention of even implying obliquely that those suffering the bite of the black dog should try counting their blessings more. As I say, though, that's far from the only reason someone can become so caught up in their woes that they conclude themselves "cursed". And if you're doing that, are you not succumbing to narrative logic; replacing the actual messy randomness of the real world with a perversely comforting story about how your destiny is to be shafted?

It's clear that Pup is making the same mistake here, and Nocenti takes pains to underscore it.  Longshot is losing his battle against Pup when Quark - the goat-headed tracker demon Longshot fought on earlier occasions - arrives to help Luckmullet out.  Quark, of course, is in exactly the same straits as Pup, an alien visitor trapped in our dimension by Longshot's escape attempt.  He's just refusing to be a dick about it. Thus whilst we are reminded here of how the tropes of superhero comics function, we're also warned that as actual people we have a choice. A comic book supervillain can spend their non-existent days lashing out at those with the gall to live their lives in ways that don't correlate perfectly with the villain's needs.  The rest of us should probably reach for some perspective.

Alas, none of this has yet occurred to Longshot, who is too shot through with existential dread to help Quark out.  Instead he flees to brood somewhere else, leaving Quark and Pup to fight to a bloody draw.  It's here that the issue takes what Past Me found a screeching left turn, as Longshot uses his ability to read objects to catapult himself into a flashback/vision of himself meeting his creator, Arize, outside a house surrounded by mechanical butterfly fairies. Which if nothing else is a wonderfully fun sentence to write.

In a comic so concerned about the construction of superhero comics, it's hardly a surprise that as the finish line approaches we should get to meet our hero's actual constructor (I wish Arize was a woman so as to better reflect Nocenti, but I suppose follow that logic too far and you end up writing like Dave Sim).  Arize himself is difficult to get a handle on.  Early on he gives the best summation of the creative drive I've heard for a long time:
Yes, I create. I have just the proper temperament -- impatience for the way things are, and an angry desire to make things better.  
You see, the proper combination of irreverence and rage makes for a great inventor.
That's just perfect. We create because we can't stand the world in the appalling configuration it currently has, and because we have no respect for those who insist this is the way it must or even should be. And so we try to put together something better. This is why Arize creates Longshot, so that he can fight for the freedom of those enslaved by Mojo and the other Spineless Ones. Arize has no truck with Longshot's concerns about whether our hero is really "real".  Of course he's real.  He was created, but he's still real. And he has a job to do.

This is quite delightful. We're watching a fictional character being told that it couldn't matter less whether or not he is "real", what matters is the actions he takes.  Which is as true outside the comic as it is inside. Of course Longshot is real, insofar as his existence as a concept has an effect on other things that are unquestionably real.   If you read a story that inspires me to be braver, or kinder, or more loving, what possible difference does it make whether that story was "true" or not?

Stories change the world.  It's important they change it for the better.

As I said, on my first read-through it wasn't clear to me how this tied in with the first section's focus on the nature of implausibly bad luck in villain creation, but once it clicks it's obvious: this is about how we're all authors of our own life stories.  Not the only authors, obviously; we share writing duties with thousands of other writers as well as endless contributions from the Gods of chance.  But we're always in the writing room. No matter how sad or painful our story, anyone reading this has the capacity to try and make their stories at least a little better, if only by trying to make themselves a little better. We can let our pain turn us mean, or we can let it inform our compassion. Our story can be about how we limited the stories of others, or how we helped to shape them so they found them more appealing.

Which is a lovely sentiment, and something which seems an entirely fitting one to be spun out from a superhero comic (or at least from one not written in the '90s, where these ideas were seemingly forgotten entirely). So why did I fail to see it first time around?  Aside from innate incompetence, I mean? Well, what threw me the first time around was one of the last thing Arize says to Longshot: "Now I build only the frivolous, the amusing -- the beautiful -- nothing of purpose or meaning".  This is just a bafflingly bone-headed thing for Nocenti to put into her fictional counterpart. Of course the amusing and the beautiful have purpose and meaning. A world where mechanical butterfly-fairies exist would self-evidently be one that improved upon ours (until they rebelled against us and started eating our faces, which surely could only be a matter of time). Beauty can be overvalued, naturally, and it can most certainly be misdiagnosed, but neither of those means it should be dismissed.

But I realise there i9s no shortage of irony in my complaining about one moment of denigrating beauty spoiling so beautiful a book. So let's just declare it a bum note of no further significance and move on. There are bigger concerns on the horizon in any case. Longshot #5 spends over half its length riffing on the idea that we can and should work to generate better and more affecting stories.  That's a hell of a hill to climb on to when you've still got your own story to finish.  Longshot is heading off to face down Mojo and rescue the woman in distress.  Is there any way this most clich├ęd of set-ups can live up to the standards Nocenti has set for us?  Even with 40 plus pages to play around with?

We shall see.

Also in this issue: Mojo continues to torture Rita as they slide through dimensions and Longshot teams up with Doctor Strange to defeat Pup (nodding as they do to Mr Creosote, who devoured his final wafer-thin mint just three years earlier). Even after multiple reads, though, I'm struggling to find anything particularly interesting to say about these sections other than that Mojo is even scarier here than he was last issue, so perhaps it's time to bring this post to a close.

Clues

This issue continues directly on from the last one, and takes place over several hours.

The dialogue here unambiguously places this story on Halloween. That requires moving the whole miniseries back by about four months, but the storyline is sufficiently independent of other titles for that not to matter all that much.

Date

Wednesday 31st  October 1984.

X-Date

X+6Y+244.

Contemporary Events

Indira Gandhi is assassinated.

Standout Line

Aside from Arize's line quoted above, it's got to be Mojo

"Strap this imposter to the prow, so that she may be cleansed. Render her baroque."

Or

"Then perhaps you'll start talking -- or I'll smash you oblique!"

Or

"Silent screams? Perfect! She must be in love with me already."

So. Utterly. Damn. Terrifying.

Friday, 9 January 2015

TWTYTW: 1985

Like all years, 1985 was stuffed to the metaphorical chrono-gizzards with beginnings and endings.  Let's start, as we more or less have to, with Claremont.  I mentioned last time that 1984 saw him at the peak of his time on the X-books, in the sense that never again would he have such total control over the franchise he had inherited during its first uncertain post-relaunch steps and forged into an apparently unstoppable force. I stand by that assessment, but it's worth noting how little sign there was of impending change there actually was in 1985 itself.  As my chart shows, Claremont's output in '85 eclipsed even his staggeringly prolific previous year. Two miniseries (albeit one that kicked off in '84), two ongoings, multiple annuals and special editions - this was still very much a man in charge.

As I've argued before, though, Claremont here is about to become the victim of his own success.  The problem with making a franchise so lucrative is that sooner or later people are going to want to expand it, and they're not likely to be all that concerned about how you feel about that. It seems almost a law of nature that any halfway successful franchise will either shrink to nothing or rampage out of control. Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the only way the falcon doesn't get too far from the falconer to hear him is if it falls dead from the sky.  At this point in the story of the X-books, the hawk isn't quite out of range just yet, but it's certainly realised it'll have to leave the aggravating shouty mammal behind if it's to get a chance at the tastiest rodents.

(Here tasty rodents are standing in for money. Metaphors are fun!)

The actual zero hour for Claremont having to share his toys hasn't yet quite arrived. Bob Layton's X-Factor #1 won't be released until the early days of 1986. But the change is in the air for those who can see it. A child doesn't get to wait until a new baby actually shakes loose before it finds its world adapting to support the new arrival. Parents with foresight will want to start more fiercely promoting the importance of sharing before the first meeting of siblings across the battlefield of enchanting toys. We see this here as Claremont eases Cyclops out of the retirement/happy ending he had planned, so that he could be reinvented as a colossal douche in the early issues of X-Factor. Given how universally this move was panned, it might be tempting to argue that Claremont should have been left in charge indefinitely of the X-books (and it arguably took six years to find another writer who matched him in terms of reputation and importance). That would be a mistake, of course. Sooner or later Claremont needed to be left behind as surely as Cyclops did (not that we've seemingly learned either lesson). Not just because no-one can remain at the peak of their creative powers indefinitely, or that sooner or later the best of us start to run out of ideas about what to do with the same franchise, but also because - again as with Cyclops - if no-one ever gets to retire, there's steadily less and less space for others to shine.

Which neatly brings me on to Ann Nocenti. I was rather down on her Beauty and the Beast mini which straddled '84 and '85, but her Longshot series, the majority of which came out in this year, was a genuine revelation. A coherent overall theme explored in its various facets each issue? This was the face of the future.  As soon as this arrived, Claremont's approach of endlessly repeated emotional beats against a randomly shifting backdrop looked dated in comparison. Somehow whatever was destined to replace the Modern Age in comics (which of course we've not settled on a name for yet) found itself being born at the same time as the Modern Age itself. Alas, some combination of growing '80s cynicism and veneration of the sacred cash-cow would smother the Nocenti approach of postmodern dissection in favour of dragging us into the darkness of the 1990s, where forests of dead trees displayed forests of dead bodies, and - if I may enrage Yeat's shade twice in one post -everywhere the ceremony of innocence was drowned in stale coffee and crocodile tears.

Speaking of death, despite there being two Dazzler issuea with an '86 cover date, this post seems the right place in which to mark that title's passing. Dazzler was always going to be a hard sell; a single lead in a franchise defined by team books, and a female protagonist in a male-dominated landscape without the benefit of legacy, history (Dazzler made only three or so appearances before DAZ #1 was released) or, if we're being honest, a particularly interesting power set.

For all of that, though, Dazzler in its early days was frequently a pleasant surprise. In some ways it was a twisted mirror of the Spiderman titles, in that it focussed on how superpowers would likely regularly interfere with one's attempts to find love or get a career off the ground. Whilst Spiderman thoroughly mined out his famous power/responsibility formulation, though, Dazzler replaced those words with "uniqueness" and "tribulations", respectively. Issue by issue, it probably did a better job of exploring the mutant metaphor than even Claremont's UXM, and no small part of that stems from how often the comic focussed on the small scale. "Microaggressions"is the term. In this regard, Dazzler was no less refreshing than Nocenti's Longshot mini, and just as destined to be buried beneath the detritus in the coming storm of bullets and boob-socks.

But never mind. Sometimes an idea needs to be exposed to the light more than once before it starts to grow. 1985 was a fascinating year in the margins, but the (bad) writing was on the wall. The X-Books have been noticed. The strip-mining must now begin. And if there's something that's inevitable about mining, it is this: there is no way to go but down.