Saturday, 25 June 2011

Essential Classic X-Men: Vol 1

Having read this for the sake of the other blog, I thought it was worth reviewing here.

Reviewing stories from before the Civil Rights movement (or for that matter congruent to it) is often a tricky task.  Some people think Tomb of the Cybermen is one of the best Doctor Who stories the program offered, but others can't get past a vision of the future where monosyllabic black men do the bidding of scheming whiteys.

Essential X-Men: Vol 1 is more or less racism free, actually [1] - you'd have to wait for the second volume for that - but there is most certainly a pervasive sexism running through the book.  Masses of it.  Oodles of it.  If the amount of sexism on display here could be measured in washing-up, you'd need at least three women to tackle it. It's everywhere.

You can either get past the fainting fits and patronising-cum-chauvinistic concern, or you can't.  I found it distracting, rather than unbearable.  It kept pulling me out of the narrative, but it's not like Stan Lee's writing was massively engrossing in any case.

Having said that, this review serves as a belated apology to Lee.  After years of dismissing Lee's work as indicative of an era that didn't know any better, even after I read this TPB for the first time, I've reconsidered.  Partially, to be sure, that's because his successor on the title was so entirely wretched.

It's more than that, though.  Part of my problem the first time around was that Lee's comics were simultaneously ridiculously po-faced and fundamentally unserious, like a performance of Hamlet in which every actor spends half their time mugging at the audience.  I still think that, actually, it's just that I enjoyed it a great deal more once I knew that was what I was getting.

I think it's a fairly common problem, actually: once you love something enough, it's difficult to see it being twisted into a parody of itself.  The fact that in this case the parody came first doesn't really make a difference.  There's just a part of your brain that can't process the discrepancy.

Once you get past that, though - and I managed this mainly through reading enough shitty contemporary X-comics to become essentially immune - Lee's books are actually really good fun.  All of that mugging I mentioned above turns out to simply be a sign of a comic determined not to take itself remotely seriously.  The secret is to realise the ridiculously overblown titles - and for that matter, stakes - are all a part of that.  Once you read "Lo! Now Shall Appear -- The Mimic!" as equivalent to Ron Burgundy exclaiming "By the hammer of Thor!", everything falls into place.

In any event, even if pun-laden soft bigotry isn't your cup of tea (that you'd better make for me post-haste, woman!) you have to salute Lee just from a world-building perspective.  Over nineteen issues, Lee introduces us to the six quintessential X-Men, over a dozen major supporting characters, and concepts from the Danger Room to the Savage Land.  As a historical document alone, this should be in the British Museum. [2]

[1] You could argue that it dips into colonialism, though, with how easily San Marco falls to Mastermind's imaginary legions.

[2] Or the American Museum, I guess.  Do the Americans have their own museum?   Doesn't matter, we'll just nick it, like the Elgin Marbles.

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