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. :(