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Archive for April, 2010|Monthly archive page

All New Mutants All the Time

In New Mutants on April 9, 2010 at 11:35 pm

There are so many reasons not to let myself get too excited about the just-announced New Mutants Forever miniseries by Chris Claremont, Al Rio, and Bob McLeod.  But I can’t help it.  My inner thirteen-year-old (not known for his discretion at the best of times) is squealing with glee.

The New Mutants hold a place of honour in my pubescent pantheon of imaginary friends (of which there were plenty, I assure you), and I have fantastized more than once that Claremont might return to write the team exactly as they were when he left them back in the ’80s.

Dani, Sam, Roberto, Rahne, Shan, Amara, Illyana, Doug, and Warlock: alongside Wolfman and Perez’s New Teen Titans, you remain the most perfect super-powered teenagers ever conceived.  Perfect, not because you were cool, better-looking, more capable versions of me, but precisely because you were geeky, average-looking, and sort of dopey replicas of me–only with mutant abilities and more interesting problems.

I loved the dark tone of the series, which captured the terror of being a teenager with unerring accuracy.  I also loved the art, which was fabulous under McLeod and Sal Buscema, but which reached levels of expressiveness and visual sophistication I had not even dreamt possible when Bill Sienkiewicz took over.  Claremont could not have asked for a better interpreter of his sinister-offbeat sensibility, and I could not have imagined a headier pleasure than seeing my fellow mutant-geeks shed their X-Babies skin:

This poster, which I first ran across  in the old Marvel Age Magazine, was…  I don’t even have a metaphor for what it did to me.  I guess it somehow gave form to the enticing promise that I, too, might one day graduate to the level of extreme ass-kicking awesomeness on display here.  So much for that.  But it was a sustaining idea at the time!

And don’t think that my romance with the New Mutants ended with Claremont’s departure.  In fact, in a curious way, his departure led to a renewal of my ardor.  Lousie Simonson’s New Mutants rivited me, and so, too, did the post-Sienkiewicz artists: Mary Wilshire (inked by Sienkiewicz), Butch Guice (already excellent), and Bret Belvins (his self-inked pages are among the most beautiful of the entire series).

Despite my immense nostalgia for the entire series now, I was a fairly inconsistent reader of the New Mutants until the Simonson era.  I had read the first dozen issues or so religiously, then lost track of things in the ‘teens (for some reason; I’m not sure why), renewed my obsession during the Sienkiewicz-era, and bought sporadically through the Magneto’s-in-charge period (I was not a fan of that idea at the time).  By the time Simonson took over as writer, I was ready to be hooked again, and she made it easy.  It all turned to mud in the 90s, of course, when he-who-shall-not-be-named was given the keys to dad’s Ferrari, but so ended many great series (New Titans *cough* *cough*).  I don’t hold a grudge.

That isn’t to say that I’ve enjoyed all of the attempts to continue the stories of the original New Mutants since, but I have enjoyed many of them and have followed most.  I am unabashedly enjoying the current New Mutants revival by Zeb Wells, which has made a point of trying to recapture the characterization of the original series–and has succeeded quite well in this regard.  The new series is fun and one of the first things I read the week it comes out.  I am thrilled that Leonard Kirk is coming aboard as (possibly permanent?) series artist, as Diogenes Neves’s capable but unremarkable art has been the one thing I have not loved about the relaunch.

And now, never one to be given pause by the adage that there can be too much of a good thing, Marvel has magnanimously decided to double my pleasure by giving Claremont the chance to pick up where he left off in issue #54 of the original series, at least for the duration of five new issues that focus on Nova Roma and a recently fractured team that finds itself under the tutelage of Selene.  This is obviously an opportunity for Claremont to revisit some of his trademark obsessions: powerful evil women, lost civilizations, morally ambiguous mentors, and teenaged angst.  I look forward to all of it.  But mostly I look forward to the sheer weirdness that only Claremont can bring.  I look forward to dialogue like this:

It took me several years to figure out what the hell “Kayo” meant–a neologism that was ubiquitous in Claremont’s mutant titles in the ’80s.  (It is short for “knock-out,” in case you are as dense as was/am.)  Yet this delay in “translating” Claremont’s ludicrous writerly ticks reflects so much of what made his writing so wonderful to me back then: its sense of mystery and portent, the way its concluding scenes so often suggested that a terrible price would be paid for some nebulously defined transgression, its habitual style of coating violence with a kind of zany jocularity that gave the whole affair the savour of an exotic sour candy.  “Oz poppies, Rahne–we’ve got to out of here, fast, before their scent kayos us!”

Yes, yes.  That was then.  This is now.  Be sensible, Jim.  You can never go home again.

But you know what I say to that.  Bring on the damn Oz poppies!

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The Outstretched Hand… The Swarm…

In The Incredible Hulk on April 3, 2010 at 9:07 am

Well, I’m finally drunk, so let’s get started.

“The Brute Battles On!”

The brute in question is the Hulk, of course, as imagined by Stan Lee, Herb Trimpe, and Dan Adkins in The Incredible Hulk #112.  My first Hulk story.

I’m five years old, maybe six, and the year is 1977 or ‘78. It’s impossible to know if I was reading my comics hot off the drug store spinner rack or a little after-the-fact, having gleaned them from one of those well-thumbed piles that emitted a magic call from the lower shelf of certain smoke-laced magazine shops in downtown Winnipeg. I wasn’t reading the actual Incredible Hulk #112, in any event, but a reprint published in Marvel Super-Heroes #66, with, strangely, a slightly redrawn cover:

(Permit me a small digression: I mean…how wonderfully odd. What was the decision process here? The mid and rear planes of the original cover are absolutely preserved; only the foreground has been redrawn, making the Hulk more…what, exactly? Dynamic? Outraged? Brutish? Saleable?  To my eyes, the revision has made the Hulk more childish—a toddler throwing a tantrum. None of the weight, the struggle, the pathos of the original cover survive. One hates to be one of those fanboys, but it’s difficult not to decry the shabbiness of the modernizing impulse of the marketplace so vividly on dislplay here.)

I may be flattering my younger self too much when I imagine that I was not entirely unaware that the story contained within this cover was already something of a relic. But surely I must have sensed that the pictures inside were subtly different from those in other comics I’d read—slightly cruder, somehow more barbaric and “powerful”—even if I didn’t have the language to name Trimpe’s faux-Kirbyisms, an aping which Trimpe himself charmingly mocks (without naming names, of course—he’s much too classy for that) in his modest introduction to the Marvel Masterworks edition of the story.

After expressing genuine dismay that he cannot redraw the pages from this era of his career to produce his own “director’s cut” of the stories Trimpe muses: “If I were to redraw #111, I would change very little in the storytelling or the layouts. It’s the drawing I would focus on… The splash in #111 shows an odd fellow with his hand outstretched in dramatic fashion. This is a gesture which more than a few have made fun of because of the frequency of its occurrence—even when the gesture was not at all necessary… Issue #112 sport many an outstretched hand, including double outstretched hands on story page ten.”

Without question, it is mortifying to look back on one’s own early work. But thank goodness Trimpe was never able to make good on this wish to revisit his pencils, even if that means he must remain bewildered by the many convention-goers who “describe emotionally to [him] how meaningful these stories had been to them.”

Like these other fans, I was and am still moved by the fantastic energy of his Hulk, however “gnome-like” (Trimpe’s word) he sometimes appears.

But mostly, I love the hands.

What better image to figure the urgent melodrama of childhood, where everything is to be apprehended, grasped, conquered? In its reaching, the outstretched hand conveys desire, but in its gestural splendor it also evokes the sorcerer’s conjuring; there is might in it, achievement, mastery, and threat. However hackneyed, however preposterous, Trimpe’s ubiquitous outstretched hands are objective correlatives for this powerful tangle of affects. They are a summation of what it feels like to plunge at life, to grasp at its elusive promise, and, perhaps, truly, to catch it.

There is, in this latter regard, a close correlation between his outstretched hands and his pointing ones, which evoke even more strongly the feelings of triumph and exhilaration.  “Behold!”

But that is only one side of the story—the human one that is told through the humanoid Warlord, his people, and the Hulk himself.

There is another story between these pages, too, and this one is pure horror. This is the story about death—the death of the ego, at least, if not the real thing—told through images of the amorphous “Galaxy Master,” a tyrannical disembodied cosmic maw with the terrifying power “to assume any form [it] desires[s].” It begins by donning the shape of a Cyclops with sledgehammer hands—the only time in the story that it will present itself to the Hulk as an adversary that meets him on equal footing. After shattering his sledgehammer on the Hulk’s back, the Galaxy Master adopts a new tactic that will ever after be characteristic: he becomes ungraspable. He multiplies.

You cannot hit what you cannot touch, and now the enemy is everywhere. In two pages that made my five-year-old skin positively crawl with revulsion, the Galaxy Master transforms himself into a swarm of monstrous centipedes that overrun the Hulk at the foot of a starship, clinging to his back like burrs.

The explosion engineered by the Hulk to disperse the centipedes is only temporarily effective. The Galaxy Master will later become a cloud of toxic gas and a hail of white hot meteors. The Hulk will only succeed in destroying him when he surrenders to the self-annihilating logic of the swarm, becoming himself a kind of particle that “disappear[s] right into the center—right inside—of the thing in the sky.”

The Hulk’s improbable/inevitable victory is not what stayed with me, however. Rather, what stuck were those two awful pages of crawling horror—and one other. This one:

For of course Herb Trimpe (or was it Stan Lee?) must have been reading H. P. Lovecraft, whose barrel-shaped Elder Things from At the Mountains of Madness seem to have furnished a prototype for the Galaxy Master’s barrel-shaped, betentacled alien race, “creatures of evil,” spawned “a thousand universes away.”

It is presumably no coincidence, then, that the Galaxy Master’s embodiment of the swarm would evoke precisely the kinds of amorphous Lovecraftian terrors whose existence routinely mocked human notions of singular identity. (The eponymous Colour Out of Space, for example.)

Between the outstretched hands and the alien swarm, between the human story of grasping and mastery and the horror story about death (the moment of our own terrifying multiplication/dispersal/vanishing), Stan Lee places a third story—his favourite story, perhaps—one about poetic justice, that most seductive of imaginary morals.

This story emerges “between”the others because its function is mediatory.  It is through the self-destruction of the callow humanoid servant of the Galaxy Master (“Traitor! Your own cowardice has destroyed you!”) that Lee rewrites and reconciles the existential dilemma presented in the story’s two main plots. Falling backward off a cliff after betraying his people’s revolution against the enslaving Galaxy Master, the Warlord resolves the tension that has emerged over the course of the tale between human striving and the horrorific pre- and post-egoic state of material chaos against which that striving sets its energies.

How nice it would be to defeat the Galaxy Master, yet how impossible it actually is to do so. But don’t worry, the Hulk can manage it, and fortunately there is a yawning gulch on hand to swallow up the “treacherous” Warlord, the “betrayer” whose only crime is to tell the truth: that we are all in permanent thrall to the Galaxy Master and that our resistance is touching but pointless.  It is through this latter ending (not through the Hulk’s more ambiguous, unsettling defeat of the Galaxy Master, which occurs only at the cost of capitulation to the swarm-logic of miniaturaization, a becoming-molecule of the “Goliath”) that Stan converts the existential dilemma (the striving of life against death) into a moral/political choice (the old theme of the betrayal of the just cause), and thereby reassures my five-year-old self that we really can cheat death—so long as we are good!

But the Hulk knows a story-cheat when he smells one.  And this one stinks:

Who wouldn’t turn away in disgust? Such lies! Outrageous! “Mad world” indeed!

So, how wonderful is it, then, that Stan recants on the final page?  No more fairy tales!  The issue ends with the Hulk turning back into helpless, human Bruce Banner to be pinned by the crushing cabin pressure of the space vessel on which he is packed away by the alien princess to travel “back from whence he came.”

Now this is a story.  This “cliffhanger” of the Hulk’s transformation back into Bruce Banner is what epiphany looks like.  In other words: Oh, shit.  There is no NEXT ISSUE.  And for those of us who bought comics from spinner racks for 30 cents or from garage sales for a nickel, there literally wasn’t.  This was the end of the story.

Last panel:

Magnificent, isn’t it?