Sunday, January 22, 2012

If You Don't Weaken

[Note, this would have been the next Pop Mechanics! column to run, if Renderwrx had not gone on extreme hiatus. Due to developments since then, a postscript/addendum will follow.]

The inestimably cool James Baker wrote the other day, that "X-Men: Prelude to Schism has that wonderful 'We Who Are About To Die' feel that almost all stories ruin by going on to have an ending." And we are talking ongoing X-Men, here, not a standalone, not a non-canon or alternate universe tale, but "to be followed by another twenty plus years of narrative on a regular release schedule" X-Men. And, that is sad, that the feeling of "now, everything changes" and apocalyptic shit hitting the fan is inevitably muted by awareness that it will all get patched up and staid soon enough. Who wants to stay in the water if you know you are riding the last wave of the season?

Even in standalone works, the idea that everything settles in the third act can be disappointing, and that the world will return to normal after the end of the story seems, between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and social extrapolation, a cheat. It is a cheat, only it is a comforting cheat, so we often enjoy it despite the nag of its irreality. I was disappointed when I recently learned the massive launch post Brightest Day at DC was intended to come after Final Crisis, while the Milestone stuff was being integrated and relaunched. But, Final Crisis did something better than that wave of new titles, for my money, ending with public acknowledgment of alternate realities. It ends with a news broadcast that will alter consensual reality and tells the audience at home that "This is one story that is only beginning."

Fiction is traditionally unkind to the public. If everyone gets a jetpack or a torrid romance, they are no longer so special, is the reasoning. As You Like It, is often maligned opposite other Shakespeare plays because every character, even passerby, have crazy epic shit going on in their lives. I love Ophelia and Laertes, but they are undoubtedly at service to _the important people_ and nothing in Hamlet trickles down to the commoners.

The implication of public hows and whys is rare by the end of almost any fantastical story; Zardoz to Alien, the fantastic element is most often isolated by the end and as unexplained as can be managed. When something posits vampires as a disease, for example, it doesn't mean anything but the semantic prosody of "disease." Xenomorphs must be isolated in each film (the fourth Alien might have bucked this), by the end, just as Frankenstein's creation must have a castle dropped on him or be frozen in ice by the end of each of those stories. Followthrough, should be avoided as it takes their culture away from ours, which never changes.

You see the flaw? That idea of a suspended, immutable reality may be comforting - You want to live in a pre Civil Rights Movement United States, though? How about pre vaccination France? But suspended in an era/culture under regulations of fantasy logic, dream or hope logic, it can be comforting. And, while fiction is comfort fiction, not everyone can feel the special case apart from the common public.
In a previous Pop Mechanics, I mentioned a Wolverine comic where the hero was prevented from stopping an act of domestic abuse. The X-Men can't go fixing real things like a husband terrorizing his family, that's a "real" thing, different from liberating nations conquered by Magneto or having tantric frenzies with Apocalypse. So, too, Superman cannot gift the public with amazing Kryptonian technologies, not even some simple ones like the coolest Kryptonian poetry or their best musical instrument.

Superman does not walk in the commoners world, and as a recent way-too-wrongheaded story, Grounded, demonstrates, when he does choose to enmesh himself in _us_, Supes does so by pretending away his special talents and knowledge. He walks, instead of flies. Now, I am for reasons medical and social a walker, I don't drive, and right now I live somewhere with atrocious public transit. Most people do not walk, in America - it is unamerican. They drive. They take buses, airplanes, trains and if they aren't driving their own vehicle, they are riding in someone else's. They do not walk across the country only using their talents to harangue poor communities for their plights and physically intimidating journalists for asking them why they are walking across the country. Why don't we walk across the country if it could be enlightening? Not being able to afford it, is probably a big easy answer. Because leaving our friends, families, lovers and local community for extended periods of rumination and self-examination could be considered selfish. Because we do not need to. Pick one, you will be unlikely to be wrong.

A king who dresses as a pauper to walk the streets indulgently for a weekend is still a king. Right? There is a Pulp song about this. It's really mean and William Shatner covered it. But it is not required that Superman be a king who dresses down feel "real life." I believe, when Warren Ellis wrote (in Terra Occulta) a non-Superman Clark Kent saying "I'm a newspaperman, I'll take a vacation when I die," that he means it, he gives a damn and feel a part of the world. Same when Louise Simonson writes the character, either as Kent or Superman.

A criticism of the Daredevil movie - and I think they lifted this from when Annie Nocenti wrote the title - was when the hero is going to bed and can sense people in danger, people dying, and goes to sleep anyway. The hero can't! But, what is he going to do? He is beat up, he is tired, probably hungry and PTSD already. Exhausted. And he is just a guy in red leather punching folks in the street. The same complaint was levied against Alan Moore and Kevin O'Niel's Black Dossier, when Alan and Mina, two brave but not rich, not powerful, and terminally disenfranchised people did not even try to overthrow the post Big Brother culture and government of their Britain.

Also from Terra Occulta, from the first page: "This is a fast world I live in now." And that is from a forced expat, their version of Wonder Woman, who follows it up with, "I want to go home," having, of course, no home to go back to. Like most of us, she has only this world, the job and the local mall and the jogger who runs by every day around ten with the same music faintly detectable on their earbuds as they pass, politicians we may not have elected in office, traffic jams we cannot control, neighbors we cannot choose and cultural judgments that continue whether we care for them or not.

The couple from Black Dossier are the family the X-Men stop Wolverine from helping. Warren Ellis' Clark Kent is the guy J Michael Staczynski's Superman physically intimidates or browbeats with inaccurate history rather than respond to as another competent adult of equal cognizance. Louise Simonson's Superman drinks Soder Cola and Mark Waid's sees animal life as all so close, he won't eat meat but does not begrudge it of others. The Sookie Stackhouses and Robyn Slingers of fantasticka. The woman who finds listening to seven seconds of a Prince song better ten times a day than the MEEP MEEP or RING RING of a traditional phone ring, not Prince, who can afford to live without a phone and does not appreciate musical ringtones.

To carry the Common People comparison, when Grounded ends, Superman will have learned nothing not superficial, any growth will barely be referenced and the world he inhabits will appear absolutely the same was before. When the groups represented by the protagonists of Hellboy or Ghost in the Shell do their job right, or those of X-Files and Fantastic Four (Future Foundation, natch) do their job halfway, the public is spared the fantastic. Or, as Planetary spelled it out, _deprive_ the public. The fun toys are for our betters.

A great move by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee with Fantastic Four was that the public wanted them to keep all this new (and newly-apparent) wonder to themselves. The people who live in the Fantastic Four's neighborhood want the FF to keep themselves locked up and quiet. Alan Moore, together with Gene Ha and Zander Cannon, inverted this about ten years ago, by ghettoizing the amazing literally, moving all the superheroes, robots, monsters and magic to a single city for ensemble police dramedy Top 10. Isolating the fantasy is also the business of the sell from the protagonist of Doktor Sleepless, "Where's My Fucking Jetpack?"
Eventually you get the jetpack, or you see the other guy with his jetpack, and jetpack technology is extrapolated in non-jetpack directions, there are styles and brands, there are related myths and cultures and symbolic relevance that changes because of a prevalance or avoidance of that piece of the fantastic that has entered the world.

And, maybe Lee and Kirby got it right with the inference in Fantastic Four, and inference that grew in early X-Men to become the defining thematic factor of the X-media empire. Maybe, we do - as a public, as a culture - prefer to isolate the different, the elements whose existence, the acknowledgment of which put the lie to consensus reality. They were right about something else, too. Nothing stays ghettoized, censored art gets experienced, silenced people find ways to talk. Attempts at genocide can be horrendously successful, but they fail.
To paraphrase another X-Men comic, getting back to Grant Morrison, "Nothing ever stays buried."

Especially in serial narratives, but in all fiction, there should be denouements but never endings. If you put out there a set of memes, a frame of ideas, and then try to put the fullstop on it, what is that? Were your ideas too weak to keep up? Are you implying you are stalling out or scaling back because the audience needs that, wants that? Conflict generates refinement, so do not dissolve the conflict - Dissolution of the conflict and ghettoizing of the hypergolic elements is what ends a story.

Grant Morrison managed a beautifully romantic denouement to X-Men with Marc Silvestri, called Here Comes Tomorrow and the issues that immediately followed felt entirely like spinning wheels and desperate bids for nostalgia. Nostalgia is not gas, nostalgia is smelling the gasoline that is gone and remembering what the fuel was like. Chuck Austen spending two issues solving a mystery that had already been dealt with and Chris Claremont wrote baseball. Like he was shouting "Baseball!" to distract us, almost. He could have just had the characters yelling "Mother!" and "America!" a lot for all it fumed of nostalgia and desperate security.

Warren Ellis had some experience writing worlds alternate to a baseline fictional world from his time as Excalibur's writer (during which, he spent four issues or so doing the Age of Apocalypse horrorshow of global genocide, slavery, and blues bars), but when he looks at alternate worlds in his Stormwatch story, The Bleed, he has his regular cast see the alternate and be directly motivated by it, while also giving a gorgeous happy nonending, in a man on a cane walking arm in arm with a beautiful girl to lead an army of superhumans up a staircase into the sky to save us all. His alternate Justice League from the aforementioned Terra Occulta or the Batman of its sister story, Night on Earth, keep the idea complexes of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman using different conflicts to prove the vigor of the memes. Age of Apocalypse, though? He wrote some of it, was not in charge of it, and when it ended and "real"/"right" reality was reasserted, pretty much every interesting idea it brought to light faded immediately away.

Chris Claremont kept things moving forward for a long part of his initial X-Men run, though he found some comfortable spots of maintained ignorance, like the pretense of a reasonable or understandable Magneto. When he dipped into an alternate world or possible future, it fueled the main reality, ideas and people and things leaked in, from the dystopian Days of Future Past to the wholly imaginary Kitty's Fairytale. His returns were all competent but good at defanging all the ideas, at stalling progress... except when he wrote outside the canon for The End. X-Men: The End moved things forward faster, put the conflicting elements against each other harder, and tested and adapted and retested ideas more vigorously than any canon X-story Claremont has written in most of my lifetime. It had to get to the "end," the future, and his canon work seemed designed to avoid that, to keep a today with no tomorrow, no "and then what?" because asking for the "and next" means things would have to change.

"And-Next Fiction" is a jargon term to devalorize some fiction but it is, as a technique, honest to life. Life is and-next. Nocenti's Daredevil run was almost entirely and-next and mostly things that the prevailing concept of Daredevil dictated he had no business being involved with, such as wandering PTSD and grieving through Hell come to Earth and the Devil's son messing with his head. Life bleeds over, it seeps through, it keeps being there, though, and if Daredevil is going to live in the Marvel Universe, a world of monsters, gods, aliens and reality-rewriting gold cubes, then all that is as real and present as hunger, pop songs, and pavement.

Warren Ellis' trinity of post-superhuman comics from Avatar (No Hero, Black Summer, and Supergod) approached and-next in different scenarios, but each of them has a denoument, each sets up not only a new today but a different tomorrow. It is not only that the present and future are different in those stories because of the fantastic element generating dramatic changes, but because one day was Tuesday and the next is Wednesday, and Thursday will get there.

I hope when Schism rolls up it does feel of denouements and not endings. The fullstop end, the out of gas and unmoving is a let down. It's cool when comics feel like Wednesday with Thursday coming hard and fast, but never when we see Thursday in the wings and get an anemic last Tuesday instead. And-next or detourne, retell, follow up, respond or parody or satirize or homage, but like the title of an awesome comic by Seth, a fictional autiobiographical bit of astonishing, spells it out, it's a good life, if you don't weaken.


When I wrote this, the DC relaunch had completely escaped me, or at least, the breadth of it. Not only did the annoying Superman and Wonder Woman stories (despite some good work by some of the talent involved) come to nothing, it was pointless, then, with a vengeance. And, Prelude ended up being a fun read while actual Schism was something I only finished to be fair in my assessment. Schism was wheelspinning at its most frustrating, as it tried to convince the reader it had excess of gravitas and relevance where it essentially had none.

I recently reread Supergod. It remains very cool, intelligent, moving and relevant. And, has a good line where someone's deity tells them they are, in truth, their stash. And, that's why they love them.

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