Wednesday, 31 August 2011
Avoiding spoilers is a pretty tough job for a comics fan, particularly when you have a significant interest in the X-titles. I've known about the basic idea for Schism - this year's major X-event - for months now, at least in broad strokes: the embattled, besieged-every-other-Friday Utopia community splits in half over how to survive in the post-mutant world.
So we know that's what's coming (or at least you do now). Indeed, Marvel are talking up the fact that this, er, schism will result in a new X-book, Wolverine and the X-Men (maybe that'll last longer as a comic than it did as a cartoon), as well as pissing on over 540 issues of history by resetting the clock with a new Uncanny X-Men #1 (which of course will become UXM #600 within five years, but that's another story). I don't know where Astonishing X-Men, X-Men and X-Men Legacy will fit into all of this (though the fact that the first of those has become totally irrelevant and the second started off that way makes me think something is for the chop), but the driving idea seems to be running two simultaneous titles which are clearly distinguishable by their characters' approaches.
I have no problem with that idea, actually. Indeed I was a big fan of the attempt to do something similar with New Avengers and Mighty Avengers following the Civil War, though it didn't take long for the idea to come unglued. However, we'll be able to start judging the new set-up soon enough. Today's concern is all about how the journey to that destination has begun.
Of course, it's impossible to ignore that destination entirely, because you start evaluating the story not just on whether it's entertaining, but whether it can possibly provide the necessary flash-point at the end of its run.
The early signs on this front (I've read issues #1 and #2 so far) are not unpromising, but they're not exactly unproblematic, either. Cyclops' arrival at the UN and his subsequent call for disarmament would seem to strongly suggest that the eponymous event will be at least partly born not from a pitched battle with supervillains, but from the way mutantkind interacts with their human relatives. This is not a story about the X-Men versus Apocalypse, or Sinister, or even Emplate. This is a story about two hundred people trying to survive in a world in which as many as seven billion people might want them dead.
It's also about the inherent difficulties, frustrations and - above all - flat-out denials that are attached to becoming a sovereign nation, and having to engage with others on that score. Making him bald isn't fooling anyone, the Supreme Leader of Iran is an obvious stand-in for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with the latter's equal-parts hilarious and terrifying insistence that Iran has no homosexuals is just swapped out for an insane insistence that Iran has always been mutant free. As Ur-Ahmadinejad hectors Cyclops about the "arrogance" of mutants being what is really to blame for mutantkind's dire straits, and pouring scorn on the very idea that Sentinel's exist (he himself has at least two in hiding), it's impossible not to hear shades of equally deranged suggestions from diplomats and heads of state over the years: "They hate us for our freedoms", "The evidence is overwhelming", "We have no such weapons", on and on and on.
It's no coincidence, then, that it's the revealing of these people's darkest secrets that leads them to activate their hidden Sentinel assets. Nothing drives a politician to acts of self-destructive madness like knowing they've been rumbled. This is like the opening minutes of Wag the Dog. Only with Utopia instead of Albania. And an invasion that's actually liable to happen. And lots of robots, obviously.
As the various Sentinel forces begin to gather (and in the main break down or run amok), Aaron's inspiration becomes clearer. Utopia isn't just a country, Utopia is Israel. The prominence of Iran in this story is one obvious clue, of course (possibly the best moment in issue #2 comes when the Supreme Leader expresses his outrage that Cyclops has sent an all-woman team to save Tehran from their own rampaging Sentinels, and Kitty takes the time to point out to him that she's Jewish, too). But it's more than that. Cyclops tells those watching the unfolding chaos that the sudden reactivation of so many Sentinels might have been immediately triggered by Quentin Quire's actions at the arms control conference (what could be more familiar in foreign affairs than watching lunatics on both sides claiming to speak for their countrymen), but at its heart it's a reaction to the mutant population going from a scattered group to a battle-forged country.
Utopia is the Promised Land. And that makes Cyclops the ultimate Zionist, a role he seems disturbingly eager to accept. The first signs of the cracks that will eventually form an insurmountable obstacle between him and Logan begin to show as Cyclops strays ever closer to becoming mutantkind's Menachem Begin. It's not Cyclops' dedication to keeping mutantkind safe that has Wolverine worried, of course, they share that goal entirely. It's Cyclops insistence on dragging the new generation into the fight as well that has Logan on edge. This, I think, is an excellent reading of Wolverine's character. As bloodthirsty and violent as the man is, as ever-ready to talk with his claws, the idea of turning other people into soldiers - or worse, weapons - is abhorrent to him. He has suffered too much himself in that regard.
That's what made the setting up of the new X-Force just after Messiah Complex so interesting, in fact. Wolverine was thrilled at the idea of the new team, and then argued himself hoarse that essentially no-one but him should actually be on it. He knew what needed to be done, but didn't want anyone else but him to actually have to do it.
Whilst it does neither character justice to suggest this is the whole story, the major difference between Scott and Logan is that one is fighting to keep people safe, and the other is fighting to keep people alive, and it's only now becoming inescapably obvious that not only are they not the same thing, but that Scott is more than willing to make people - including 14 year old girls like Idie - much less safe, in the hopes that the overall population of Utopia stays as high as possible.
If nothing else, I have no trouble believing that these are conditions that add up to a powder-keg, and maybe one that's been in plain sight all along.
I mentioned that this approach had its problems as well, and so it does. The problem is easily defined: how do you make a story about the X-Men fighting humanity interesting? Whilst weight of numbers is clearly against the mutants (indeed, Cyclops points out at the arms conference that at this point there may actually be more Sentinels in the world than there are mutants), but that's not exactly going to lead to compelling or memorable villains.
Aaron's solution is to reveal the mastermind behind this conflict be a 12 year old megalomaniac arms dealer, who kills his own father and gathers together some kind of "super-kids" posse. It's certainly one way to go about it, admittedly, but at present it feels like far too silly an idea to work, given this storyline is supposed to be so important and portentous that it breaks apart a nation under siege, to say nothing of how many friendships and romances (I don't know yet exactly what the cost will be, of course). Maybe the later issues will address this, but at present it feels like there are two totally separate flavours to this story that shouldn't under any circumstances be mixed.
Still, there was certainly enough in these opening two issues to grab my attention. I look forward to seeing what's coming next.