So we’ve got two weeks of funnybooks to catch up on, and they all seem to involve the past shaping the future. New Criminal, Gideon Falls, Silver Surfer Black, and the second issue of Frank Miller’s Superman: Year One. Plus, Mark Waid pulls a historical fast one in the second issue of History of the Marvel Universe. But first, as has been the case in recent weeks, we’ll be starting with our weekly fix of Jonathan Hickman, and the X-Men…
Powers of X 2&3
by Jonathan Hickman, RB Silva, and Adriano di Benedetto
These two issues broke the back-and-forth release of the twin House of X / Powers of X series, and now that both are out, I can see why. They deal with some of the ramifications the Moira X idea revealed in House of X #2, and are linked in very spoilery ways that relate to the overall structure of the series as they were initially laid out.
But before we get to the spoilers – at least for the issues at hand – I’ll just say that Hickman continues to please here. This is a story about the X-Men’s elder statesmen (Moira and Xavier) that’s engaging as much as a structural detective story as it is a study of two characters we thought we knew, but who’ve been turned inside-out by a retcon. A retcon that simultaneously changes everything, and explains a lot about the inconsistencies in how those characters have been written over the years.
How, for example, has Moira MacTaggart, Genetic Scientist, shown a more than passing familiarity with high-tech military-grade weapons at different points over the years? Because she literally spent a lifetime learning how to use that stuff. And why would Charles Xavier treat the developing AI of the Danger Room so callously as he was revealed to have done in the Joss Whedon run, when he’d previously been shown to have such a deep wellspring of compassion beneath his “strict headmaster” exterior? Well, maybe it’s because he knows from Moira’s many lives that machine intelligence is the thing that ultimately drives mutants to extinction, over and over again. Granted, I am reading in a bit; Hickman hasn’t specifically addressed Moira’s weird skill set, or the “Danger” storyline. And I don’t necessarily expect him to. But it’s there, if you’re of a mind to look.
If only all retcons worked so well to explain away bad writing.
Now, then. On with the SPOILERS!
After Powers of X #2, many people (myself included) had started to wonder if the futures we were seeing were actually part of Moira’s other lifetimes. And issue three revealed that, yes, the X-Men Year 100 scenes were actually from her ninth life, when she and Apocalypse formed the X-Men instead of Xavier (what happened to Xavier in that lifetime is, at present, anybody’s guess). But as the mutants face extinction in that timeline, we learn that much of the point of that life was for Moira to find out when Nimrod the Ultimate Sentinel was created, so she could act on that information the next time through. An entire timeline, turned into a suicide mission. Now, THAT’S long-term planning.
And we see the pay-off for it ahead of time in Powers of X #2, when Xavier sends the current X-Men team off to that Sentinel-Head space station we saw an issue or two back, where they’re currently developing Nimrod. I’m assuming that assault will be the subject of the next issue of House of X. But while we’re talking about it… When Xavier gives Scott the order, here’s what happens:
You may have to embiggen that image to see what I’m talking about here, but look closely at Xavier and Scott’s heads in those first two panels. See those little golden glimmers floating there? It’s a gold-lit scene, so I suppose it might just be light reflecting off the helmet and visor, but… those glimmers don’t appear on the previous page or in the following panels. I think that’s Xavier using his powers on Scott to command obedience. And Scott’s change in demeanor afterward seems to bear that out. That’s not Xavier’s usual MOD, but I suppose it becomes his MOD when the key to everything is at stake.
So. X-Men Year 100 is both more and less important than it seemed. But what about X-Men Year 1000? It certainly seems to be happening in the future of the Year 100 timeline. Nimrod’s still around, in a tamed “major domo” sort of form, and we’ve seen them drawing on the mutant gene project he started in Year 100. But lots of other stuff has repeated through Moira’s various lives, so… it’s hard to be sure. That future leader we’ve been seeing there could, now that I think of it, be either Xavier or Apocalypse. Or neither. Or some weird amalgamation of both. Hell, for that matter, it could be some sexless future Moira. As far as we know, none of her previous nine lives have lasted more than the 123 years of Life Nine. Of course, we don’t know anything about Life Six yet, so… Again, it’s hard to be sure. But speaking of the Year 1000 stuff…
Holy crap, that escalated quickly. The future mutant/machine society makes a bid for cosmic ascension that will either pay off… or see them devoured by greater universal powers. I suppose that’s the ultimate end of the evolutionary advancements Xavier’s Dream is coming to encompass in the current timeline. But it goes a lot further than anything I expected, going off into the kind of territory Jack Kirby explored in books like New Gods, Eternals, and (especially) his 2001: A Space Odyssey comic. And that’s a book I never expect to see referenced anywhere.
All the twists, turns, and revelations of these two issues do make me wonder about something else, though. What if the events of this series, which have been tied to “Moira X: Life Ten” on the Lives of Moira X chart, aren’t X-Men history as we know it? Destiny did tell her that she would get ten lives… or maybe eleven if she made the right choices. So what if what we’re witnessing in this Hickman relaunch is Life Ten, and it all serves as a prelude to Life Eleven, which IS X-Men history as we’ve always known it?
Just a thought.
I’m probably wrong.
(I’m always wrong.)
But, still. I might like that twist quite a bit.
by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
In spite of Ed Brubaker’s claims that this volume of Criminal is about telling a wide range of stories as short or as long as they need to be, what’s really emerging from it at this point is a pretty coherent story about Ricky Lawless and his father Teeg. Granted, it’s a story told in pieces, at various different points in both their lives, and from various different points of view. But those two characters, and the relationship between them, are very much the focus of the book so far. I’m starting to understand better why Brubaker started with what looks to be Teeg’s last days, and then immediately went elsewhere with the story only partially told. We need to understand what we learned about Teeg there to appreciate what we’re learning about him and his youngest son now. And I’m betting that what we’re learning now will, in turn, inform the rest of that last Teeg story by the time we get to it.
This is ambitious storytelling, and I don’t think I’ve been giving it enough credit these last seven months. That’s changing now, and I hope Brubaker’s able to stick the landing. Whenever that comes.
None of which tells you much about the issue at hand. This one continues the “Cruel Summer” storyline, about an alluring woman of questionable morality who wraps even men like Teeg around her little finger. This month, we see her relationship to Teeg through the eyes of the post-pubescent Ricky, caught at an awkward stage between childhood and adulthood, and he’s not all that impressed. She’s making a fool out of his dad, and though Ricky doesn’t entirely understand what’s going on, it’s enough to humanize Teeg in his eyes. And he’s not sure how to deal with that.
So it’s an excellent individual chapter of an excellent series that’s even better than I initially thought! What a pleasure.
Superman: Year One
by Frank Miller and John Romita Jr
I really do like this book. It’s got all of Frank Miller’s narrative tics, but his storytelling is more controlled than I’ve seen it in maybe 20 years. He’s still working in epic strokes, mind you. I mean, this issue sees Superman fight the freaking Kraken! But Miller’s more in control here. More grounded. Grounded, like the Kansas soil.
Some of that, I think, comes from a genuine fondness for the character. That fondness wasn’t much on display in Dark Knight, because that story’s being told from a more pessimistic perspective. But here, focused entirely on Clark Kent’s coming of age, one thing shines through quite clearly: Clark’s just an all-around good guy. Sure, he’s got a bit of youthful cockiness about him. But this story seems to be, in part, about him learning his way around that.
At the end of the first issue, he went off to join the military, and this issue is largely about basic training. Though he’s holding back as best his youthful enthusiasm will allow, Clark still out-performs the rest of the recruits, and while there’s still a cocky edge to the ease of it all, what really seems to stick for him is how hard the rest of them are working. How much more difficult everything is for regular people. Rather than breeding contempt, that realization inspires compassion.
Compassion that’s further developed when young Clark’s excellent performance gets him picked for SEAL training. And that’s where things really get interesting. Many would think that Miller would put Clark Kent into that situation, and turn him into some kind of killing machine. And Clark certainly learns how to kill from his SEAL trainers. He learns how easy it would be for him, and how fragile normal human beings are, and while he thrills at using his abilities, even at a limited, almost-human level…
…when the reality of what would happen if he was using a real knife sinks in, it turns his stomach. So when he goes on his one (far too early and highly unlikely) real SEAL mission, and tries to use non-lethal force…
…he washes out, and gets discharged from military service.
Then he spends the rest of the issue romancing Lori Lemaris.
This book goes from hardcore military action to Superman’s mermaid girlfriend.
And I kinda love it for that.
Gideon Falls 16
by Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino
This issue, we turn away from our trek through this book’s multiverse to follow Norton Sinclair back to original small-town Gideon Falls, from which he vanished as a child thanks to the Black Barn. He’s found by his sister the sheriff, and taken to his hospitalized conspiracy-theorist-who-just-happens-to-be-right dad, and the family is reunited. I can’t really say much else about the story without spoiling things, but it’s the usual mix of solid character writing, foreboding atmosphere, and stunning visuals.
Which is to say, I enjoyed it.
History of the Marvel Universe 2
by Mark Waid and Javier Rodriguez
After spending the first issue covering countless millennia of universal history, this second issue hits the 20th Century and slows to a relative crawl. I mean, it still covers a lot of ground, moving us from some version of HG Wells’ Martian invasion all the way up to the fateful rocket trip that winds up giving birth to the Fantastic Four. But compared to issue one, this thing moves at a glacial pace.
It’s also a lot less Kirbyriffic, which was a large part of the first issue’s appeal for me. But Javier Rodriguez’s very pretty historical spreads won me over, so I bought it in spite of my reservations. And it was, I must admit, a lot of fun. It’s neat to see all the various Marvel characters, created across several decades, inserted into the timeline where they should be. Like, I had no idea that Blade was born in the 1920s. But there he is, alongside the young Namor and Steve Rogers.
Things get really interesting, though, when the history gets to Vietnam. Or rather… Siancong. A fictional Marvel Universe East Asian country whose war America got mired in at an indeterminate time that should be the 1960s, but kind of isn’t. It’s where everybody from the Punisher to Ben Grimm to Tony Stark had the war experiences that shaped their later lives, left to happen at a floating point in history that can always be that magical “ten or fifteen years ago” of all on-going corporate spandex characters’ pre-spandex history.
I understand the need for a thing like that with these long-running characters. Ben Grimm and Reed Richards can’t have both fought in World War II at this point, after all, and establishing the Punisher as a Vietnam vet stretches credulity in 2019. But it would make more sense to me if they moved all that to the Middle East. It’s just as pointless a conflict that’s done just as much damage to the generation that’s fought it, it’s gone on long enough that it provides that floating point in history they’re going for, and it would resonate better with modern readers.
But, no. We get Siancong. And I’m not sure I like that solution. It’s a compromise that moves the Marvel Universe too far away from the “world outside your window” approach that’s always defined it, and that always feels like a mistake to me. Some of the other changes we see here, like changing the racist Yellow Claw to the much-less-racist Golden Claw, work just fine. But Vietnam looms too large as a cultural event to just replace it, especially when there’s an easy change of venue that would keep the characters rooted in reality.
But I don’t mean to crap on the book as a whole over a corporate decision that impacts basically one page. This is a fun book overall, and I enjoyed reading it a lot more than I expected. What can I say? I’m just a sucker for dork history, I guess. Still… I do have to deduct a star for that Siencong crap…
Silver Surfer Black 3
by Donny Cates and Tradd Moore
Last issue, I found that I didn’t care about the story being told one whit, but the art was so pretty that I still enjoyed reading. This issue solves that problem a bit, as the Surfer meets a youthful Ego the Living Planet, and something clicks for me that hadn’t quite clicked before: the Surfer’s been thrown far back in time. I think maybe Cates established that in the first or second issue, but I didn’t care enough about whatever cosmic battle royal lead to the inciting incident of this series to pay close enough attention. I just wanted to see Tradd Moore draw some crazy shit. And he’s still doing that this issue, understand.
It’s just that meeting the youthful Ego, and dealing with his weird planetary biology, is a lot more interesting to me than whatever the hell was going on before. And this issue’s cliffhanger ending (the thing that made me suddenly realize how far back in time the Surfer actually was) suddenly turns this book into a Silver Surfer story that’s actually worth reading (instead of just looking at).