Saturday, January 20, 2007

Book Review: X-Men - Dark Mirror by Marjorie Liu

So here's the thing: I'm not going to be reviewing comics for a while.

Looking back at 2006, what I'm mainly feeling is tremendous apathy. It's not that everything sucked, it's that even the successes are marred by failure. With Marvel, the post-post-Morrison revamp of the X-Men line got me interested in all three core books, but also resulted in Chris Claremont taking over "Exiles". "Planet Hulk" turned out to be a prelude to another crossover event. "Young Avengers" has disappeared. "Spider-Girl" sank into the backwaters of Clone Saga continuity. DC has fared no better: Worldstorm crashed and burned, leaving only "Gen13", "Tranquility" and "Stormwatch: PHD" (all interesting, all too new for me to decide whether I'm sticking around or not). Of all the OYL revamps, only Gail Simone's "Atom" managed to maintain some kind of appeal three months in, and even then we've only had the one arc so far and it falls into the same category as its Worldstorm counterparts.

Then there are the books that have been (and will likely remain) consistent: Brubaker's "Daredevil" and "Captain America", Vaughan's "Y: The Last Man" and "Runaways", "Fables", "Girls", etc. Don't get me wrong, I'm very grateful they're still around, but I don't have anything to say about them. They're excellent reads, but they always were (at least in terms of current runs - I refuse to vouch for pre-Brubaker Cap).

And then you have the failures. The dismal, dismal failures, with "Civil War" topping the list. But "Civil War" is only a symptom of the greater problems: incompetent writers, lazy editors, brain-dead administrators, false advertising bordering on fraud, increasing reliance on shock tactics in lieu of substance and creativity... Frustrating? Absolutely so. But it's been frustrating for just long enough now that I see little need to comment on it anymore. The mainstream is as much a barnyard target now as it was at the end of 2005, but that's not likely to change any time soon. I'm just tired of it, and I'd like to take what few series still please me and let that be that.

Of course, that doesn't mean I can't check out something like "X-Men: Dark Mirror". If Marvel makes the effort to hit the prose market, the least I can do is sample what they're offering.

The agenda behind the novel line, as it stands now, isn't immediately clear to me (aside from cashing in, of course). I'd like to think someone at Marvel recognized that comics regularly dabble in certain themes that don't get the page allocation they might otherwise merit; I can certainly see that being the case with "Dark Mirror". The high concept of body-switching has been done before, but Marjorie Liu makes a conscious decision to focus on the psychology behind that premise, the more horrific take on being trapped in someone else's body, while a stranger wears your face. It's much more nuanced than anything comics could offer, since the generic tropes of superhero fiction require that certain staples be ever-present (ie: The Fight Scene), so I'll concede that there's merit - in theory - for this sort of thing.

Sadly, Marvel makes the same mistake here that they make with their comics: they select writers that simply aren't up for the job.

I can't accuse Liu of phoning it in - it's plainly obvious that she's making every effort to convey the complicated feelings "Dark Mirror" is meant to evoke. Five X-Men wake up in a mental institution, imprisoned in human bodies (and in some cases, in bodies of the opposite gender). They're helpless, at the mercy of doctors and nurses who believe them insane, and they have no idea what happened or who might be using their powers and faces. It's a terrifying situation, but Liu can't seem to tap into that terror, that kind of raw emotion that would make the story work. It's not laziness on her part; I really do feel that she gave it her all, but the results are middling at best. This is a story about people, not powers, but Liu can't seem to access those people at all. She strips her protagonists bare, reduces them to the core of their character, but is unable to proceed from that point. In fact, there's an almost clincal detachment with regards to how Liu depicts her cast, and that's precisely the wrong way to go about it because caring about the X-Men as people, as individuals, is the only thing that would motivate anyone to keep turning the pages.

It doesn't help that the novel suffers from interchangable protagonism - that is to say, any character could have been substituted for the X-Men, and the story would remain the same. There's nothing in the novel that inherently makes it an X-Men story, no real thematic link aside from the Phoenix-ex-machina (but more on that in a moment). Again, that approach runs somewhat at odds with the directive at hand: if you're setting aside the masks and codenames, it'd probably behoove you to make sure the person underneath is defined well enough that it's their story, rather than a story in which they happen to be present.

"Dark Mirror" is also (intentionally?) vague about its chronological setting; Liu claims that she "tried to do something inside X-Men continuity, but that was rejected because the people in charge thought it would be too confusing to new readers." Hmph. Ironically, the plot's conclusion hinges on a twist no new reader could possibly decipher (the aforementioned Phoenix Force, which - let's face it - requires some basic knowledge of X-Men comics lore). Likewise, Liu doesn't do much to flesh the characters out beyond their pre-established parameters, so if you don't know these guys going in, you're not going to emerge any more enlightened by the end of it. I'll willing to shift part of the blame to the powers that be; as much as I'm an advocate of accessibility, the whole Myth of the New Reader has to stop now. Anyone approaching "X-Men" to begin with will have some elementary understanding of what lies ahead. Maybe Liu would have done better had the story been set in present continuity; as I said, there is a kind of dissonance between what she's trying to summon and what actually turns up on the page, which means she's either a very limited writer or she's doing what she can with characters she never wanted to write in the first place.

I suppose we'll never know. Good thing we have "the people in charge" looking out for our interests. Meanwhile, that's another novel down the drain. :(

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Quick comment on Supernatural 2.10

If the weather channel mentions any wild gusts sweeping over the Middle East, that's just me exhaling in relief. The most recent episode of "Supernatural" has finally revealed the Big Secret, and I'm delighted to report that no sharks were jumped.

I have to admit, I was nervous; but this is one time I'm glad to admit I was wrong to expect the worst.

Book Review: Star Trek - Dark Passions (Vol. 1)

During my brief introduction to Star Trek (courtesy of Tom, my Trekkie then-boyfriend), one concept that piqued my interest was the Mirror Universe. It's a theme I'm quite partial to in fiction, the notion of characters facing negative images of themselves. It's why "Future Imperfect" is one of my favorite Hulk stories. Even after I lost interest in Star Trek proper (sci-fi, in general, isn't my cup of tea), I'd tune in whenever "Deep Space Nine" aired a Mirror Universe episode. It all went spectacularly off the rails towards the end, but those first few episodes were quite good.

Over a decade later, I've stumbled across a pair of novels by Susan Wright, set in the Mirror Universe and focusing specifically on female characters, politics and intrigue. The tagline promises four powerful women vying for control of the universe; sounds good enough for a casual read, doesn't it?

Wright starts off nicely, going behind the scenes to depict the internal structures and hierarchies of the Alliance. This is something we never got to see before, as the bulk of Mirror Universe episodes tended to focus more on how characters interacted with their counterparts. "Dark Passions", by contrast, isolates the MU from any other context and asks us to interpret these characters on their own merits.

Which would be just fine, except Wright offers little in the way of exploring her cast. It's one thing to skimp on fleshing out Worf and Kira, who'd already been well-established in the TV series, but most of the story revolves around characters we'd never seen, such as Annika Hansen (better known to Voyager fans, if any exist, as Seven of Nine). And without any in-depth characterization, the novel falls flat rather quickly; after all, any novel about political manipulation requires some sort of anchor, a character who serves as the focal point. Wright offers several possibilities, but none of them are especially compelling: Kira is her usual hedonistic (to the point of idiocy, really) self, Deanna Troi's position as consort to the Alliance Regent doesn't seem to grant her much in the way of real power, B'Elanna Torres (Intendant of Sol) is built up as this huge force to be reckoned with only to fizzle out, and so on and so forth. Wright fails to take full advantage of these women, of the fact that she has carte blanche to remake popular Trek characters as she sees fit.

In fact, the novels' tagline is rather misleading: the four primary protagonists of "Dark Passions" aren't fighting each other for control of the Alliance at all. Kira's the only one with tangible ambitions; Troi just wants to build a Club Med on her homeworld, B'Elanna would like everyone to forget she's half-human, and Annika's a pawn taking orders from whichever master she's stuck with. There are so many possibilities, and Wright chooses the least interesting option each time.

Part of the problem lies with the author's tendency to describe key scenes and interactions in retrospective summary, after the events have already taken place. A character will abruptly start an internal monologue and deliver a huge chunk of exposition about events that occurred between the pages of the novel. Not only is it distracting, it shatters the pace. I'd hazard a guess that Wright was under some sort of length constraint, though neither book is much more than 200 pages. Besides, there are ways around that sort of thing, none of which manifest here.

Then there's the innuendo. The DS9 episodes were infamous for its lesbian subtexts (specifically with regards to Kira), but Wright pretty much makes all of her female leads lesbians. It's a bit monotonous by the end of the first book, especially when all these supposedly-powerful women end up using the same techniques of sapphic seduction to get what they want. I get the sense that Wright may have written "Dark Passions" as a female-centric response to that trope of "Star Trek" where the captain has to shag some alien bint in order to save the galaxy; here, women use that same power against other women for the same purpose. But it seems to be the only method of political maneuvering Wright can conceive of, and she wears it out fairly quickly.

Ultimately, the first volume doesn't live up to its potential at all; I didn't even bother with the second book.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Bitch Is Back!

A bit ahead of schedule, but I give you: Sententia 2.0! New look, new content, new possibilities! Let's hope the Law of Sucky Sequels won't apply. :D

Getting down to business: I tend to find bad porn somewhat amusing, so when one of my very best friends brought Stonewall and Riot to my bachelorette party... well, it was the perfect gift, really. It's more than just porn, you see. It's gay porn. Gay superhero porn. In CGI. The damned Holy Grail for reviewers everywhere, to be certain.

Now, I could take the traditional route of "Jesus bloody Christ, human bodies can't actually do that!", but the thing that got my attention - what makes this movie worth mentioning - is the fact that it's kind of funny. Not in the usual sense where you laugh at awkward sex scenes and atrocious puns and you can't help pitying the poor schmoes who got stuck with the voice-acting; there are moments of deliberate humor in this movie that work.

It's basically a send-up of Batman circa Adam West, the gimmick being that Stonewall and his wiseass partner Riot defeat supervillains by screwing them, rather than beat them into submission. So when the town's resident mad scientist is kidnapped, they "investigate" by sleeping their way through an entire rogues' gallery. Cue twosomes, threesomes, foursomes and a very weird two-man body-job on a giant dressed like Henry VIII.

Now, I'd never accuse a porno of being subtle; the bad guys include Doctor Probe (who obviously drives a giant phallus-shaped robot) and Straight Boy, whose power involves switching sexual orientations when he's really drunk. But, from time to time, creator Joe Philips surprises me by pulling off a successful gag. For example, in one scene, Stonewall and Riot have to suit up and promptly spin in clockwise circles, only to emerge dressed as Wonder Woman and Artemis - at which point they remember they're supposed to spin counter-clockwise. Sure, it's silly, but this is hardly a film to be taken seriously... I mean, it includes a five-minute origin story presented as a musical number by a Joker analog who calls himself the French Tickler. Garth Ennis is probably sitting at a bar somewhere, wishing he'd come up with that one.

I don't think it's particularly erotic, though. Campy as hell, and rather like something Chuck Austen would've written if he had an inkling of comical talent, but I have a hard time imagining anyone would genuinely get off on it. Still, it got quite a few giggles out of me and my girlfriends, so I suppose it's not a complete waste of time. :)