Two Roads

*Two superhero books, two takes on the halfway forgotten. Not the only two ways to go about it, and I don’t think one is inherently superior to the other. In terms of these specific books, I enjoyed them both.

Iron Man: The Inevitable #2 (of 6)

One way of going about the modern usage of ‘classic’ (don’t let that necessarily denote ‘enduring quality’) superhero characters, is the relatively straightforward invigoration of older concepts with new ideas. Characters like the Spymaster and the Living Laser don’t necessarily need to be treated with fawning reverence, but they can be reconstructed as fundamentally contemporary beings, for participation in new stories. So it goes in this Joe Casey-written miniseries, an interesting counterpoint to Iron Man’s current ongoing core series (and already released more frequently).

Warren Ellis, in the core Iron Man book, has been going about reorienting the title character to match his own retroactive origin philosophies, that technology and man can be combined to perform Good things, and that bones thrown to the forces of destruction can ultimately be outweighed by a quieter, empowered initiative for good (really, it’s the same idea that Ellis has been throwing around regarding Elijah Snow’s current motives in Planetary). To that end, the title hero is literally reconstructed in body and armament, the form now matching the function (though the originality of the specific powers granted to dear Mr. Stark is apparently up for argument). Casey takes a similar route in covering a handful of Iron Man’s villains, though his transformations have something a bit more sweeping in mind.

The Living Laser is still holed up in Stark’s labs, a specialist having been hired to make contact with his seemingly amorphous new form, unable to hold itself together as something resembling a humanoid any more. Only the magic of Telepathic Intrabeam Particle Communication can be used to reach the ghost broken out of its shell, and the results of the effort have apparently led to an all-new level of human existence, a free-floating land of sparks and glowing where the mind can truly ‘feel’ things - much to the detriment of the corporeal form, unfortunately. Frazer Irving’s lovely art (he does everything except the lettering) gets positively psychedelic in these sequences, pinks and purples and twinkling stars spread out everywhere, the color schema neatly matching some of the hues employed in the waking-world sequences, raising the question of how far these new ways of living really are from where we’re at now.

Think about it - in this issue, Tony dispatches his Iron Man armor to fight without him, and the Ghost moves freely through walls like they’re water. There’s as pronounced a sense of gradual detachment from plain old ‘human’ reality as there is in Ellis’ work, although instead of the long-range, idealistic goal of Ellis’ take on matters (which, from what we’ve seen, largely boil down to better means of surveillance, defense, and hitting bad things), Casey offers the evolving supervillain as key to no less than the doors of perception. That Stark himself seems a bit uncertain as to what to do with these discoveries (as contrasted with the devoted Dr. Dillon, unconcerned with her physical form), provides much of the suspense for me. That the (non-amorphous) villains seem intent on physical matters (either using the Laser as a weapon or toppling Stark’s corporate empire), provides all the markings of them as ‘villains’ that we need - the costumes are but a formality.

Plus, it’s a fun comic, and Casey has a great handle on the characters; the most amusing bit is actually a running gag, where Stark has to keep making excuses for missing out on witnessing the birth of the new perception because he’s otherwise occupied with Iron Man things. And I loved the Ghost’s decidedly nonchalant reaction to discovering Iron Man’s secret identity: “Stark is Iron Man? Sorry, I don’t follow celebrity gossip. Makes sense, I guess.” That Irving manages to sell the joke through Spymaster’s reaction, despite the fact that the character is wearing an expressionless mask, is the mark of a quality talent. Watch the body language of the two villains, how they’re completely set apart as individual characters, though neither of them have faces. It’s good work, supple enough to match the script’s bigger ideas, but flexible when it comes to humor. The same goes for Casey’s use of these characters; there’s lots of fun, but these things are being primed for strong, future use.

X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl #1 (of 5)

On the other hand, you could simply dive into burlesque, injecting heavy doses of genre comment into a cackling display of irreverence, seizing underused properties for their satirical potential. And what better venue to do it in than a revival of Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s much-loved revamping of X-Force (later re-titled X-Statix). Riding a wave of relatively progressive Marvel mutant books (also featuring Grant Morrison’s New X-Men and the aforementioned Casey’s Uncanny X-Men), Milligan and Allred transformed the moribund franchise into a vehicle for laughs and sniping at everything from the tropes of superhero books to the very philosophic premise of the X-Men line. Current events got mixed in too, climaxing with an infamous aborted storyline, originally meant to involve the departed Princess Di joining the team. The book never really recovered from the subsequent backtracking and story covering.

It’s had a rest though, and now it’s kind of back - note the “X-Statix Presents” in the title, because that’s your warning that this isn’t as much an X-Statix book as a wide-focus Marvel Universe takeoff. The title heroine doesn’t even appear until the last page, with no less than Doctor Strange taking the lead for this initial chapter. It seems something is going wrong in the afterlife - a mysterious C-list villain has taken the name of the Pitiful One, and has discovered the secrets of temporary resurrection. This is significant, since resurrection in the Marvel Universe is rather common, yet highly selective. Dead villains come back all the time to bedevil their foes, yet you’d have to expect that those who’re left in history’s dustbin chafe at the situation. Thus, the likes of Kraven the Hunter and Mysterio jump at the opportunity to seize the reins of comic book revival for themselves, no longer slaves to the dictates of a cruel, impossible-to-understand fate (which is to say, writers and editorial mandates). Also along for the ride is a departed member of the X-Statix team, just to keep things on point a little.

All of this is contrasted with Doctor Strange, who’s fallen victim to an odd malaise: “Oh, it doesn’t matter. Hell, Heaven, Earth, life, death. Who cares?” It’s understandable - Milligan goes the praiseworthy route of not spelling this out, but it’s clear that the endless shocking deaths and stunning resurrections of a superhero universe have left its most attentive metaphysical denizen awfully blasé about the whole thing. I imagine he hardly blinked an eye at Hawkeye or Northstar’s deaths - how many readers did, anyway? It’s transient, this passing from the plane, and the Doctor is simply sick of it. Still - villains taking the power of writing themselves back into active continuity is a serious breach of superhero funnybook decorum, and they’ve got to be stopped. And the Doctor’s unimpressed reaction upon seeing their dirty work, heaps of corpses strewn around a U.N. building, sort of says it all: “By the waxing moons of the lilac planet… I sense a malign hand at work.” Because really, what does it matter anymore?

I hope Milligan plays around a lot more with the atmosphere of futility, as it’s something that’s been rattling around in my mind regarding superhero comics for a while. I also hope he punches those continuity nerves good and hard, playing up those things that still can’t be done in Marvel Comics - bringing back Gwen Stacy is a good start, but I don’t know if I’ll be satisfied unless Uncle Ben plays an action-packed role in the series’ climax. Milligan is even really to smash some taboos set up in his own prior works, aiming to reunite a certain long-separated couple, which should be fun. I should also mention that even with Nick Dragotta taking over on pencils, the Allred style remains dominant, Mike Allred’s inks standing out greatly (that shot of the psychiatrist’s tongue sticking out seems ripped from the early, more grotesque pages of Madman) and Laura Allred’s colors popping as always, though I have to say the book seems oddly dim, all of the images slightly soft. It’s as if the captions and word balloons are being displayed at a noticeably higher resolution than everything else. Maybe it’s just me.

Not everything works here. Doctor Strange’s ongoing struggle to make his dialogue sound more contemporary comes off as a bit much, maybe one too many self-referential spices tossed into the mix (it clashes since it really doesn’t tell us much of anything beyond signaling the writer’s distaste for such styles of dialogue). But I’m taken by what Milligan has brought to the table here, and I’m very interested in seeing what sort of resolution he reaches, if any of these characters can find something to stick with in this slippery immortal world.