Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Comics Review #3: October 18

First up is Exiles, and to be honest, I wasn't quite sure how to approach this. On the one hand, issues 69-82 essentially constitute one 14-part saga; on the other hand, said saga is clearly broken down into segmented arcs as well. So I figure I'll review "World Tour" arc by arc, with a retrospective at the end.

Some background first: after a string of hit-and-miss adventures, Tony Bedard brought the status quo of "Exiles" crashing down in a five-part story called "Timebreakers". Having resolved most of the loose threads from his predecessors' runs, Bedard devised a new direction for the series, the high concept of which amounted to a tour of some of Marvel's more popular (or, in some cases, infamous) alternate realities.

The first arc, 69-71, kicks off the "World Tour" with a visit to the main Marvel Universe. Now this has already happened twice in the series' history, once at the start of Bedard's run and once during Chuck Austen's reign of error. But there are two mitigating factors at work: first, the Exiles actually have a reason for dropping in this time - they're sending their most recent (and, some say, most useless) member Beak back to his native reality, to his wife and children.

The second, of course, is that the main universe is currently in the grip of "House of M", which means it's changed beyond recognition. "Exiles" is, perhaps, the most successful tie-in book to the Marvel event du jour, because - from the perspective of "Exiles" readers and the characters themselves - this bizarre reality isn't much different from anything the Exiles have seen before. To them, it's just another "stranger in a strange land" moment.

As an aside, it should be noted that removing Beak is basically an acknowledgement on Bedard's part that the character's presence in this series never turned out quite the way we'd all hoped. It was a well-intentioned attempt to preserve a fragment of the ever-fading Morrison run, and also an interesting approach to the seemingly random Exiles roster - there's no reason they couldn't have been saddled with someone who could barely defend himself. The problem, of course, is that having put Beak in the group (not without some very awkward moments), Bedard couldn't figure out what to do with him. Consequently, he pretty much just hung around in the background and saved the day by calling for help. Having played that card, the decision has been promptly - and wisely - made to get rid of him and move on.

This storyline also features some very interesting character moments. Having absorbed Deadpool's healing abilities in the previous arc, Mimic finds he's also taken on Wade Wilson's disfiguring scars and can't get rid of them. Blink reacts with understandable disgust, and this makes her seem a little shallow at first - until she later explains that she's just sick and tired of the enormous drama she has to put up with every time she and Calvin are together. If they're not bouncing around realities, she's being impersonated by Mystique and he's eating cheese danishes (long story).

As far as the rest of the cast is concerned, we see Heather adapting rather nicely to her new role as Exiles mission control. Morph's humor gets a major upgrade, with new artist Paul Pelletier going for visual gags that leave departed original Mike McKone in the dust. Sabretooth is still playing overprotective father for Blink, which means he and Mimic are still snarling at each other every chance they get.

Everyone has a moment to shine (I'll go into details in a bit) but one thing this story does successfully is finally put Beak in the spotlight. Having retired, he's all set to put the weirdness behind him... only to find his home isn't actually there anymore. His wife is a supermodel who claims she never met him, and his children don't exist. Bedard, taking a final stab at making Beak's presence matter, at last succeeds.

Ordinarily, this would be the cue for the Exiles to step in and set things right. Except they quickly realize that, as far as they're concerned, they've pretty much landed in a perfect world. Though Beak is despondent at his loss, the others wonder if they should just leave things as they are. Frankly, that's a realistic approach to the situation, one that rings truer than anything Bendis or other "House of M" writers have used to any significant extent: the idea that, though humans have become a minority, it's not like they're being hunted in the streets like some inverted "Days of Future Past" (or so it seems at first glance). For characters like Blink and Sabretooth, survivors of the Age of Apocalypse, it's hard to balance one friend's tragedy with a whole world seemingly redeemed. Of course, Mimic is quick to present the counter-argument: it's easy for the Exiles to pass judgment on this world. They don't have to live in it, they're not emotionally invested.

While this quandary is being discussed, we learn that a serial killer dubbed "Mutant X" is making the rounds, exterminating mutants. Readers of Claremont's early (pre-Dark Phoenix) X-Men run will immediately recognize the codename as belonging to Kevin McTaggart, AKA Proteus. Proteus is one of those characters Claremont introduced who had a lot of potential that never really went anywhere: a thoroughly evil, reality-warping mutant who is forced to jump from host body to host body, since his power is so great it burns out most physical shells that contain it. Possession instantly destroys the host mind, with no hope of recovery.

Choosing Proteus as the nemesis of the Exiles is a stroke of brilliance on Bedard's part, for several reasons. Firstly, it's a classic X-Men villain that none of the cast could possibly be familiar with: Proteus didn't exist in the Age of Apocalypse, nor would Beak or Heather recognize him, and Morph only joined the X-Men as a New Mutant, long after Proteus' demise. Mimic's position is a bit unclear, since we don't know much about his time as an X-Man in his own reality, but it's not too much of a stretch to establish he never encountered Proteus either. Secondly, as someone with a penchant for manipulating reality, Proteus keys into the Exiles' mission perfectly. He makes the mess, they try to clean it up. And since he can travel across multiple worlds without using technology, this effectively sets up a chase, where the Exiles have to hunt him down across the Multiverse. Thirdly - and perhaps most importantly of all - Proteus' only weakness has always been metal. In the original story, Colossus was forced to kill him, and for the Exiles this means that Mimic is the only one who can finish the job. But Mimic has sworn never to kill again. It was, previously, a rather irritating mindset that never really served the stories - in fact, Bedard had to twist quite a few plotlines so that Mimic wouldn't have to compromise his position. Now, however, against so grave a threat, the dilemma becomes much more immediate.

In any case, the story mostly moves in a straight line from there: Proteus, having possessed (and thus killed) Beak's wife Angel on a whim, sees the Exiles from a distance and senses something odd about them. He kidnaps (birdnaps?) Beak and starts interrogating him, while the latter, ever slow on the uptake, is wondering if his poor lost love is on drugs or something. The Exiles, meanwhile, meet Moira McTaggart, who gives them (and the readers) the basics on Proteus: his history, his powers, his weaknesses. It's an exposition infodump that would feel clunky if we didn't know the Exiles are hearing this for the first time too.

Sentinels abruptly attack, trying to get to Moira, and they ruthlessly execute any human in their way. This is where Blink's idealization of the House of M comes to a fiery end - for someone who spent her entire life in one of Marvel's more dismal realities, this is an uncomfortable reminder of Apocalypse's policy regarding people he dubbed "expendable". The House of M, she realizes, may look perfect, but underneath it's the same old corruption she's always known.

It's been commented that the Exiles pretty much lose track of the "House of M" question (ie: should they fix it or let it be?). On the one hand, there's something to this - the team has basically elected to continue fixing realities that have gone wrong, and this certainly qualifies. On the other hand, in purely logistic terms, Bedard can't really follow that plotline to its natural resolution, because "House of M" can't be concluded in an issue of "Exiles". And yet it's a conflict that had to be addressed for the sake of characterization. So Bedard does what he can, and pretty much pulls it off: "House of M" pretty much falls aside because the threat of Proteus is much more immediate.

And that threat turns out to be a very credible one, as Bedard and Pelletier dedicate the last issue of the arc to an extended battle against Proteus. Who, of course, completely trashes the Exiles. It's almost disturbing how easily and casually Proteus achieves the impossible, stretching bodies like taffy, conjuring up long-dead and decaying teammates, and even breaking into the Exiles' home base. All done with no visible effort on his part.

Ultimately, Bedard sets up the parallel to the original story, with Mimic (in armored form) set to kill Proteus the way Colossus did all those years ago. This moment works on its own, but is greatly enhanced if you're familiar with the original story. Colossus, at the time, was characterized as your basic Soviet Russian farmer. When ordered to stop Proteus, he did so, without really thinking about what it meant. The emotional turmoil, the doubt, came later, after it was over. But Mimic isn't Colossus. And in the same situation, he does the one thing Colossus could not have afforded to do: he hesitates.

This leads to what seems to be the death of an Exile. I say "seems to be" because, while Bedard has followed Proteus' depiction very closely and has stressed that being possessed effectively destroys the host's mind, it's unclear whether this was really it for the character in question. If it is, I have to applaud Bedard for having the guts to get rid of what he himself considers a primary, "core" character. It's a daring move, and one that adds weight to the story without being artificial or forced.

The story concludes with Proteus escaping moments before the "House of M" reality starts changing again. The Exiles are teleported away, sans Beak - who ironically gets his wish and stays home, just as the world fades to white. Letter pages indicate we'll learn his fate next issue.

If Bedard manages to maintain this tremendous surge of energy and quality for the duration of "World Tour", it promises to be a saga to remember.


From the moment of its conception, I've always had an affinity for "Marvel Next". I know, I know... it was a poorly-defined imprint that, as a result of negligible marketing, sold fuck-all in the monthly format and consequently crashed and burned. On top of that, I can't honestly say - much as I'd like to - that any of them were spectacularly written.

That said, I confess that most of the Next stories have been at least above average, and certainly fun. I'm thinking here of "Livewires", "Scorpion: Poison Tomorrow", "Machine Teen", "X-23: Innocence Lost", "Spellbinders", "Vampire By Night" and the latest offering, "Gravity". Two more are in the pipe - Karl Kesel's "Vegas" and Simon Furman's "Death's Head 3.0", after which it's most likely the imprint's going belly-up.

Before I go into my review of "Gravity", a few words about this soon-to-be-expired project. I think one reason I've been unusually tolerant towards various deficiencies in "Marvel Next" is because, when it comes to Marvel, I'm so very, very desperate for new characters. I mean that in both senses of the words: new characters, and new characters, not Layla Miller, Prepubescent Plot Contrivance. Sometimes it feels like the last genuinely new character who stuck around long enough to make an impression was Wolverine, and that was in the '70s. So for Marvel to dedicate an entire imprint, or directive, or whatever the bloody thing was, solely to creating new characters was a welcome initiative. Of course they bungled it by not doing their absolute best to make their characters every bit as potentially compelling as Spider-Man, and by completely failing to promote the characters. Still, they did manage to put out a nice - and at least mildly interesting - selection of various characters, even if we all knew we'd never see any of them again when their respective miniseries came to an end.

Now, granted, a rather large number of the new characters produced by "Marvel Next" were generally derivative of a pre-established character, ie: X-23 as Wolverine's female clone, Scorpion as a female analogue of the Spider-Man villain, Vampire By Night as a distaff Werewolf By Night... have you spotted the pattern? :) But again, I'm somewhat forgiving when it comes to that specific critique, both because derivative characters don't necessarily mean they're poorer than their template (look no further than "Watchmen" for proof), and because, realistically speaking, if there wasn't some potential connection to Marvel history, the majority of change-fearing, circle-jerking fans would be even less inclined to give it a shot. As it is, the average number of readers for a "Marvel Next" book hovered somewhere around six to ten thousand. This, while All-Star Batman and Robin got over two hundred thousand. You know, the comic that gave us this:

Anyway... "Gravity". This is actually a very simple comic, but to describe it solely as such takes away from the fact that simplicity, in this specific case, works to its advantage. There's no overwrought technobabble here, no foreign set of rules the hero's powers operates upon. This is a "baptism of fire" superhero story, following newcomer Greg Willis from his very first night as Gravity.

Generally speaking, these types of stories have been done before. But I think there's always been this cliche attached to them where the hero undergoes all these trials and tribulations and growing pains, only to eventually achieve either a perfect synthesis between his dual identities or something that comes close enough (ie: Spider-Man). It's a paradigm that does its job well enough, but Sean McKeever goes one better here and gives us the story of a hero who does not find that balance. Greg Willis has a good heart, but once he decides to use his newfound abilities as a superhero, everything you could realistically expect to happen to him happens. He gets beaten down at practically every opportunity, people take advantage of him, his first year at NYU quickly deteriorates into an academic nadir, and a potential romance shatters apart after he pulls one too many disappearing acts. At one point he just decides "Screw this" and gives it all up. But, of course, that's not the end of the story. :)

Again, this isn't necessarily new territory - we've all heard "Spider-Man No More" every now and then. But it took Spider-Man fifty issues of being down on his luck and suffering every curse the Fates could toss his way - McKeever compresses this into the space of days and asks the serious question: why would any sane person, no matter how well-intentioned, suffer such abuse, risking his life for a thankless job? That's where the simplicity of the story comes in: Greg's motives aren't enmeshed in some dark past, some hideously byzantine psychodrama. Not that I don't like psychodramas - hell, I love 'em - but every now and then it's nice to try something a little different, and "Gravity" is certainly that. It's almost like a Silver Age pastiche that simultaneously connects to contemporary, 21st century values while maintaining a certain degree of light positivity you don't normally find in a DC or Marvel comic. There's even a predictable streak or two where you clearly can guess what's coming, but that makes it no less enjoyable when the moment you've foreseen comes to pass.

McKeever's always been great at creating characters that instantly click with readers, because he infuses his cast with traits you could reasonably see in yourself, or in people close to you. There's not much room to explore, given the five-issue limit, but within those five issues we're introduced to a small group you can't help identify with. Even the villain of the piece, Black Death, has a moment where you can almost understand why he does what he does.

Apparently the miniseries doesn't constitute Gravity's last appearance, as he's set to appear in a Marvel Team-Up arc with Arana, X-23 and others as the Legion of Losers. And it's by Robert Kirkman. Can you tell how thrilled I am at that prospect?

But McKeever's work stands very well on its own. It's accessible, it's light yet true to life in many ways, and it's entertaining. There's a digest coming in December, and quite honestly I can't think of a reason not to buy it. :)