Sunday, November 30, 2014

"The only people reading are fanboys who don't count": thoughts on Morrison’s X-Men

I recently read the first two volumes of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men (issues 114-126). Here are some of my impressions:

There are expressions one only ever encounters in Morrison’s works -- phrases such as “I feel like a Hindu sex god” that fall so far outside the category of verisimilar dialogue as to create a genre all of their own. That “sex god” line is delivered by Henry McCoy/Beast, a modern Chiron whose character usually emphasizes sophistication over animality. I do not begrudge Morrison’s eagerness to expose the mainstream to esoteric concepts and turns of phrase, but I rather wish he would do so in a manner that is more mindful of precedents.

The initial arc of Morrison’s run introduces Cassandra Nova, the first of a new psychokinetic species, an evil parody of Charles Xavier. In lieu of the usual characterization, Morrison develops Cassandra Nova as part of a purpose-driven extinction machine, putting forward an evolutionary theory of species-wide apoptosis.Though this is not the first time Xavier is shown to have an evil double, previous writers have shied away from making this trope the cornerstone of any pseudo-scientific eschatology. This is certainly a matter of taste, but I find that -- in the interest of narrative flow -- it may be preferable for writers of speculative fiction not to construct elaborate rationalizations for the scientific plausibility of their scenarios, as this only draws attention to those magical/mythical elements which most contemporary readers are eager to take as given.

The second arc deals mainly with the U-Men, a group unscrupulous transhumanists harvesting mutant organs. The U-Men have a frontman in the person of Elon Musk lookalike John Sublime, but the concept of their movement is actually introduced by a school-shooting teenager. It is refreshing to see the enemy manifest as a largely leaderless ideology instead of a government and/or corporate conspiracy against an innocent minority

Quitely’s art is at its most expressive when depicting unseemly mutations; one does not get the impression that the students at Xavier’s are part of a fortunate genetic elite. More than in perhaps any previous incarnation of the X-Men, the reader is confronted with abhorrent disfigurations. Even the more iconic characters are shown in a less dignifying light, often appearing without any kind of distinctive attire. The New X-Men’s work uniforms are clearly more functional than ritual.

Emma Frost, the only exception to this rule, is probably the series’ most problematic character. She is never shown without her X-shaped bikini: one supposes it can stand for either body-positive female-empowerment or male-gaze slavery, but lectio dificilior potior suggests the latter is more likely. I wonder whether Frost’s Machiavellian morality can credibly extend to embrace the instrumentalization of the feminine form.

In an eleven-page manifesto dated October 20th 2000, Morrison states his intention to make the X-Men “cool again,” complaining about the sacrosanctity of status quo in the superhero comic genre.

“ The only people reading are fanboys who don't count. [...] Longtime fans will read the book and bitch about it no matter what. We don’t need to attract them, we need to make the book accessible to the real-world audience. [...] We need to recapture the college and hipster audience because that audience is bigger than ever, and thanks to the movies and games [...] the entire mainstream is pumped and primed to consume super-hero stories.”

With hindsight, it is clear that Morrison’s intuition was largely correct: almost 15 years after his memorable X-Men run, superhero narratives are more popular and influential than ever. Be that as it may, it does not seem as though the superhero paradigm has been in any way subverted. With few exceptions, the superhero narratives developed for mainstream audiences are even more archetypal than their comic-book counterparts. We watch the Marvel cinematic universe with the expectation that an unambiguously prosocial contingent will triumph without suffering significant losses to equally unambiguously antisocial forces -- and our expectations are seldom disappointed. As Northrop Frye wrote in Anatomy of Criticism, "[… W]e could almost define popular literature […] as literature which affords an unobstructed view of archetypes."

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