Sunday, July 30, 2006

Why Grant Morrison's Magneto Sucks

On the comic geek speak forum a contributor, having read my blog, noted that I thought the third X-Men film was very very bad. Matt S, responding, dismissed me with "This is the guy who would rate Morrison deficating [sic] in a sack to be 'a brilliant piece of genius layered with meta-textual depth.'" He put a smile face after he said it. Several other people on the forum said how funny they thought that was, and I realized that this is the kind of thing people find funny if they think it's true. It's not true, but I know the impression comes from my trying to keep things positive. To use the Auden quote again, you get people to stop eating boiled cabbage by giving them new, good food rather than telling them that boiled cabbage is terrible. But because I have lost some credibility with people who think I can't say a bad thing about a great writer, I have decided to discuss Grant Morrison's greatest failure: his Magneto.

Magneto is a fantastic and sympathetic super-villain. Superhero comics ride a thin line between the serious and ridiculous and are best when they pull off both. Magneto, as a holocaust survivor in a purple cape and helmet, as a man who fights for the rights of the disenfranchised by killing people with bits of levitating metal, fits the bill flawlessly. One of the things that makes Magneto great, I think, is that, while he is the great X-Men villain, his powers are not a kind of simple mirror image of our heroes: he is not the Dr. Doom to Professor Xavier's Reed Richards (genius vs. genius); he is not the Lex Luthor to Professor Xavier's Superman (brain vs brawn). He controls metal. Xavier controls minds. The lack of symmetry is refreshing and authentic -- it has the ring of truth, in an odd way.

Magneto's portrayal as a sympathetic bad guy culminated in Ian McKellen's Magneto in the first two X-Men films (of the third we will not speak): it was understandable that a holocaust survivor would resort to extreme methods in order to prevent mutants from being numbered and put it camps like the Jews. In the first film he was not aware that his master plan would kill people; in the second he attempted to turn a genocide machine someone else built back on its maker and its maker's race. Though he would have killed countless numbers, his plan had a kind of justice. McKellen -- the best actor in the X-Men films, and one that stole the show a bit -- lent Magneto a tremendous amount dignity. Morrison thought he lent him too much.

In New X-Men: Planet X Morrison's wonderful character Xorn, who everybody liked, turned out to have been Magneto the whole time. The unjustified and unprepared plot twist was only the start of the problems. When Magneto shows himself he appears as an insane terrorist, totally unsympathetic. Morrison's Magneto, still a holocaust survivor, claims that studies how mere humans (as opposed to super-powered mutants) don't feel pain (a common racist argument justifying violence). He also acts like a Nazi dictator and herds people into crematoriums, and uses street drugs like a junkie. He has no dignity; he is too crummy to even hate in a fun way. After Morrison left the book other writers tried to write Morrison's Magneto out of continuity ("that Magneto was an imposter") and satisfy Xorn fans by inventing a way to make Xorn a real character and not a mask. Here is a wikipedia article on the whole thing. In an interview on popimage Morrison talked about his Magneto plotline New X-Men: Planet X. This is what he said:
The 'Planet X' story was partially intended as a comment on the exhausted, circular nature of the X-Men's ever-popular battle with Magneto and by extension, the equally cyclical nature of superhero franchise re-inventions. I ended the book exactly where I came on board, with Logan killing Magneto AGAIN, as he had done at the end of Scott Lobdell's run. Evil never dies in comic book universes. It just keeps coming back. Imagine Hitler back for the hundredth time to menace mankind. So, in the way that something like 'Marvel Boy' had that insistent 'teenage hard on' engine driving its rhythms, 'Planet X' is steeped in an exhausted, world-weary, 'middle-aged' ennui that spoke directly of both my own and Magneto's frustrations, disillusionment and disconnection, as well as the endless everything-is-not-enough frustrations of a certain segment of comics aging readership. In hindsight, I think I overdid the world weary a little but, you know, my loved ones were dying all around me while I was working on those issues, so I'm entitled to a little stumble into miseryland. Fantomex's line [he accused Magneto of speaking in cliches] summed up my own cynicism at that moment, definitely and seems justified by subsequent plot developments. In my opinion, there really shouldn't have been an actual Xorn - he had to be fake, that was the cruel point of him - and it should have been the genuine Magneto, frayed to the bare, stupid nerve and schizoid-conflicted as he was in Planet X, not just some impostor. There's loads of good stuff in Planet X - it's just that miasma of bleakness and futility which hovers over the whole thing.

What people often forget, of course, is that Magneto, unlike the lovely Sir Ian McKellen, is a mad old terrorist twat. No matter how he justifies his stupid, brutal behaviour, or how anyone else tries to justify it, in the end he's just an old bastard with daft, old ideas based on violence and coercion. I really wanted to make that clear at this time.
Morrison names McKellen and now we see the problem. Harold Bloom's poetics of influence makes the simple claim that writers need both to be original (in order to be needed; if they were not original we would go somewhere else) and to be in continuity with a tradition (if a poem is too radical -- e.g. ink just spilled on a page -- it won't be recognized as part of the history of poetry at all). For Bloom poetic freedom is only meaningful if it is freedom against some prior poem. Wordsworth's Tintern Abby is a powerful poem, for Bloom, because it manages to be like Milton's Paradise Lost, and to be its own poem. Most poems, for Bloom, just repeat the accomplishments of the past (Southey's Madoc is just another Epic poem), or are meaninglessly original (Allen Ginsberg's Howl is just Ginsberg being embarrassingly hysterical, and is of no poetic value).

Morrison's Magneto fails on both of Bloom's levels. On the one hand Morrison wants to tell a story about how Magneto keeps coming back as a bad repetition, and so he writes a bad repetition of historical dictators, and an X-Men comic book that, because it is about cycle, gives us things we have seen before. The problem is Morrison isn't doing anything interesting with this idea; he is just doing what any hack writer does: repeating something we already know. On the other hand he is enacting too strong a break with the past: his Magneto is not the Magneto we have seen in the comics, nor is he show any continuity with McKellen's Magneto. It is the McKellen connection that ultimately sinks him. McKellen OWNS Magneto -- he owns the character in the hearts and minds of everyone who saw the first two X-Men films -- and Morrison is not going to get to have a different version of Magneto without a fight. But he doesn't fight -- doesn't try to show that his Magneto makes more sense than McKellen's, doesn't try to show why his version of Magneto is better or more necessary or inevitable -- he just ignores McKellen, and so he fails. His break with the past is meaningless because it ignores the past.

A lot of fans defended what Morrison did on the grounds that in Morrison's final New X-Men story it was revealed that Magneto was being controlled by an evil bacteria colony that was transmitting itself through the drugs Magneto was on. The Unofficial Guide to Grant Morrison's New X-Men (thanks Stephen Frug) -- quite smart in many respects -- makes this the lynchpin. This may be a narrative fact -- it may be what happened in Morrison's story -- but emotionally Planet X was Morrison's Magneto story, and it only makes sense in that way. If that wasn't Magneto but merely Magneto being controlled by some outside force, then Morrison avoided a genuine engagement with the character and failed to deliver what a major X-Men writer must -- retellings of the great stories in a new way. We know Morrison was trying to deliver new versions of old favorites: the original X-Men team is represented (with a Latino girl named Angel as Angel and Emma Frost with diamond powers as the new "Ice"man), the Shi'ar, the Return to Weapon X (Assault on Weapon Plus), The Phoenix and The Days of Future Past (Here Comes Tomorrow), and the attack of Apocalypse (all of the apocalypse rhetoric and imagery surrounding the evil bacteria colony -- the Beast, Apollyon, the notion of evolution as the highest call -- points toward Apocalypse the character and the Apocalypse in the final book of the bible). If Morrison's Magneto wasn't Magneto he failed as a translator of Dante would fail if he left out the first few cantos of the Inferno.

The only time Morrison has been overwhelmed and crushed by the spirit of an earlier creator was when he was much younger (Arkham Asylum is a too-earnest attempt to make "serious" comics in the Neil Gaiman vein). He was nearly overwhelmed by the spirit of Alan Moore's Promethea on Zatanna (his Zatanna was basically a weak version of Promethea), but was saved because Zatanna was only part of a much larger Seven Soldiers project; in that way he contains in miniature, rather than repeats, Moore's accomplishment. The dialogue in Vimanarama sounded very much like Joss Whedon -- bascially the guy who took over Morrison's New X-Men -- but the book scrapes by because it is such a small project and the Bollywood thing is original. Ian McKellen, however, is the definitive Magneto just as Frank Miller's 1980s Batman is THE Batman. Morrison probably thought McKellen was not a real presence because he was just an actor -- a small part of a whole other medium -- but he was wrong. Actors are comic book creators too.

41 comments:

Ping33 said...

If you read those books you can see that Xorn was Magnito all along.

I will grant you that Magnito goes over the edge, a bit. Maybe he is not the Magnito we have seen before but he is also a Magnito who has just seen a second genocide in his lifetime. And perhaps one which has completely given up all hope. A man with no hope has no morality and no empathy.

I have long thought that the best way to take Morrison's New Xmen was as an entire separate Xman continuity which refracts and replays the Clarmont run in theme if not in plot. There is a beginning a middle and an end in Morrison's run, and when it's over it's over. Comics fans tend not to understand or like wrinkles in continuity and Marvel didn't really know how to handle it either, wanting to keep elements of Morrison's run but not all of it. I think that this shunting of story to fit continuity only helps to marginalize the story and make it easier to dislike it for fans ("I don't have to read that if it never 'happened'")

But within the scope of Morrison's X-men story I thought it worked quite well. You can maybe argue that this isn't the best use of Magnito, but it worked in the story (and he really does drop hints about Xorn's Identity right from the annual) and was a critical element of Morrison's take on the Arc of the Xmen.

Also the idea that Magnito is more powerful, influential and pure as an idea on a tee-shirt than he is as a meglomaniacal man is wonderful and quite true to my experience of life.

Geoff Klock said...

Ping: I don't deny there are hints in the run that Xorn is Magneto; I deny that there were enough to get that "surprising but inevitable" feeling a twist should give. You give reasons why Magneto has gone over the edge, but the book does not, and it should.

I think you have cracked a big secret in seeing Morrison's run as detached from full-on continuity. All strong runs should be partly self-contained. And you are right that his Magneto works with the X-Men arc he has in mind -- cyclical, exhausted, world-weary, in his words. Using the X-Men comic book to argue that the X-Men are in an uninspired cliched rut is actually quite bold. Where it all goes to the zoo is that, in order to make his point he gives us, for example, a cliched exhausted drugged up Magneto, and that is no fun. I think comics should always be fun. I think the best way to argue that the X-Men are in a rut is to write such a good comic book, such an exciting break with the past, that everyone can suddenly see how bad it was before. I think that was how he started out in E for Extinction, but once the fill in artists showed up, it all went wrong.

I know there is a school of thought, derived from Artaud, that says art should be like going to the dentist (painful and important) or like a near-death car crash (painful, important, and life-changing) but I don't buy it. I want to have fun. Seven Soldiers is freakin fun.

Troy Wilson said...

You're bang-on, Geoff. Couldn't have said it better myself.

And yeah, I agree about the tee-shirt bit, ping. It's the single bright spot in Morrison's otherwise dismal and oh-so-weary portrayl of Magneto. (Well, that and the whole "magnetic waves travelling the universe for ever and ever" when it looked like he'd actually been killed in Genosha.)

Mitch said...

My anticipation for this post persuaded me to re-watch the first two X-Movies and re-read Planet X. As I suspected, I largely agree with you Geoff, though I am much more forgiving of Morrison’s run in general. Also, I agree with Ping, Morrison’s best use of Magneto was as a Che’ Guevara style counter-culture icon. He dropped the ball when Mags finally came on stage.

On the subject of Ian McKellen, I have a unique perspective. My line of work (Broadway Theatre) has allowed me the unique pleasure of meeting McKellen. When he came into our office and I bumped into him, he was an overwhelming presence: he was wearing a ripped up pair of blue jeans, an electric-sky blue windbreaker and pink converse all-star sneakers. He also hadn’t shaved in a day or two. When I greeted him he gave me this low-pitched “Hullo”. Something about the glint in his eye made me realize why he is such a great actor. It’s because he is such a charming personality.

With this bizarre scenario in mind, think for a minute on the infamous “God among Insects” scene in X2. That, to me, is the pivotal scene for McKellen’s Magneto. In the comics and cartoons Magneto has always been portrayed standing atop a mountain or building, giving radical oration to his followers and barking at the moon. In this small and excellent scene in the film, McKellen’s Magneto renders the orating Magneto useless. When Magneto can use his over-powering charm to bring young mutants to his cause, why shout and riot? Please note that Magneto “orates” in both X-Men 3 and Planet X.

I know you said no X3 talk… but here’s another little tidbit I picked up from “The Art of X-Men: The Last Stand”, without major spoilers. In this coffee table book there is a storyboard sequence for the entire final climax. Some of these story boards have dialogue under them, including one frightening bit that was thankfully cut. In addition to several other terrible one-liners Magneto is given in that scene (Is everything he says a cliché?), Magneto was originally going to say the following to Pyro before the showdown with Iceman: “Are you a God… or an insect?”

If anyone knows to whom I should address a thank you note for cutting this line, I’ll be obliged.

Geoff Klock said...

Mitch: that is a great point about the "god among insects" scene; I almost wish Ratner had kept the bad line in X3 if only because it makes the split between 2 and 3 so stark.

And for the record I don't hate all of Morrison's run. E for Extinction was amazing (so amazing I was crushed at how much New X-Men sunk), the defeat of Cassandra Nova was amazing, Fantomex (even though he was probably meant to be a parody) is one of my favorite comic book characters of all time, Assault on Weapon Plus was amazing, and not just because I am Bachalo's biggest fan. The very last issue had a lot going for it, and the book picked up quite a bit in the final arc. It's the rest of it (Germ Free Generation, The murder of Emma, the Riot, the stand alone issues, the fill in artists, etc) that sticks in my craw.

ping33 said...

See I thought Riot at Xavier's was the best arc.

I loved the idea of generational revolution and how these seemingly "revolutionary" ideas are just the same old junk repackaged and rediscovered.

Geoff Klock said...

Ping: I know we are having the same debate we had about Magneto; but my opinion on the Riot was If the kids do not present a genuine threat to the status quo -- both in terms of physical force and ideas -- who cares. I know Morrison's point was how no one has any new ideas about the X-men, but I think the fun villains are the ones who present real challenges (McKellen's Magneto really does fight with Xavier for our sympathy). The kids are crummy, no fun to hate, not sympathetic; the adults have the boring moral highground. The kids failure to overthrow the school with new ideas was Morrison's failure to reinvent the X-Men.

James said...

I'd just like to bring some Patrick Stewart-love to the table. My favourite scenes in the two good X-movies are the ones with Xavier and Magneto together. Their relationship is brilliantly well-defined and believable in both the dialogue and the acting; it's a real treat to watch them spark off each other. McKellen is fantastic, but I really there's a symbiotic relationship between his and Stewart's performances, and that each enhances the other.

I think most great movie performances work in this way. For instance, everyone knows how good Ben Kingsley is in Sexy Beast, but Ray Winstone doesn't get enough recognition as his foil, without which Kinglsey wouldn't be nearly as effective.

Mitch said...

That Unofficial Guide has some interesting stuff in it, too. Like you said and it says, the uninspired cliche stuff allows for some great moments from the very get-go. His run begins with that beautiful Quietly full-pager of Cyclops and Wolverine fighting a Sentinel, with Wolverine slashing at the Sentinel's head. Cyclops says, "Wolverine, you can probably stop doing that now."

Right.

Like Wolverine is EVER going to stop slashing open Sentinel heads.

Geoff Klock said...

Mitch -- yes I was glad I could bring it to the attention of people.

David Golding said...

Great post, Geoff (though I disagree about X3).

But I have to say: it's not just boiled cabbage, it's watery, overboiled cabbage that's disgusting. - Now I've found it, I'm reading the Auden essay, which looks a treat too.

David Golding said...
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Geoff Klock said...

David: I feel compelled to point out that, while that Auden line stuck in my head, and the essay in which it appears is one of his best, I don't actually like Auden as a critic or a poet very much. Auden, who thought the idea of "genius" was outdated, believed that poetry should not be as important as the Romantics thought it was (for the Romantics and their followers poetry was displaced religion). Auden said "Art is small beer. The really important things in life are earning one's living so as not to be a parasite, and loving one's neighbour." I can't get behind the arts being only a small (and silly) part of a well lived life. Auden was a self-loathing poet, in part because he was a very serious Christian who had trouble seeing how poety fit in with theology. If you must read Auden, please follow it up with Walter Pater's Renaissance (its like 90 pages and the last five paragraphs will change your life).

Smith said...

You make some good points there, Geoff. But I don't agree that Arkham Asylum is a "too-earnest attempt to make 'serious' comics in the Neil Gaiman vein".

At that time Morrison was arguably a bigger name than Gaiman, who was only just starting on Sandman. Didn't DC get McKean to draw Arkham because they thought nobody would buy Black Orchid unless readers had already seen Dave's art in a Bat-book? (But then went ahead and released it before Arkham anyway.)

So I don't think Morrison was copying Gaiman at all because the biggest thing Neil was known for at the time was probably Violent Cases, which is nothing like Arkham Asylum. At all. Even with Dave's art.

Geoff Klock said...
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Geoff Klock said...

smith -- fair point; I didn't properly say what I meant. I meant there was this idea in the early 90s that comics should be "serious" and he went with it; Neil Gaiman ended up being the king of "serious 90s comics" so I said "Neil Gaiman vein." That was confusing for no good reason. The "earlier creator" I had in mind was the Alan Moore of Watchmen, and I should have put it that way.

Geoff Klock said...

I deleted a comment I posted twice.

David Golding said...

I did enjoy Aphorisms on Reading, but am otherwise completely unfamiliar with WH Auden, except to confuse his name with EM Forster. I will seek out Pater (I also have a recommendation from Samuel R Delany's About Writing to check out Pater's Plato and Platonism). Thanks!

Geoff Klock said...

You are going to have to go to a good library for Plato and Platonism, which is out of print. It's good but the Renaissancce is shorter, better, much more famous, and in print.

MItch said...

In regards to "serious" comics and what Morrison was going for, I feel it's important to remind everyone that the subtitle for Arkham Asylum was "A Serious House on Serious Earth". haha.

Geoff Klock said...

mitch -- yeah, I am so glad he moved on from that kind of thing. I can't imagine him putting those words on a comic book today. "Seaguy: A Serious Man on a Serious Earth". "The Bulleteer: A Serious Woman on a Serious Earth".

Anonymous said...

Ok, here's two cents from an old school X-Men fan. Sorry, but X3 the last stand was a TERRIBLE movie. Charles Xavier taking over the body of a helpless person? How does that gibe with his true persona? And if it was so easy and if he didn't have a moral dilemma with it, why didn't he do it years ago when he originally first had his legs damaged? Why spend the rest of your life as a cripple if (1) you can put yourself into a new body and (2) you don't have any moral qualms with doing so?

Brett Ratner is a hack, he was the THIRD choice, and anybody who thinks that movie was a celebration of everything that made the X-Men book (the original!) legendary is just not really paying attention, or just hasn't read far back enough.

Geoff Klock said...

Anonymous: if you are new you may not have had a chance to read my original review of X3 for the Oxford Newspaper (there is a link to it in the May archives); in short, I could not agree more.

Anonymous said...

Ginsberg's Howl not connected to tradition? By the hoary hosts of Haggoth, say not this!!

Check out "Howl fifty years later, J. Schindler ed." You can order it from the NYPL.

Duncan F said...

I don't especially love Arkham, but the 'serious house on serious earth' subtitle is from Philip Larkin, 'Churchgoing' iirc.

Anonymous said...
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Aaron Taylor said...

Duncan F is right about the Arkham subtitle, and whatever one may think of Morrison and the book, in light of the line's context I take the subtitle as a reference more to the nature of the Arkham locus than the Arkham book, 'serious' though the latter is clearly intended to be.

Matt said...

Wait, "Serious House on a Serious Earth" ISN'T supposed to be a satirical/ironic/knowing nod/wink?

I assumed the guy who's spend all that time (Animal Man already had those critics, if I remember correctly) talking against the uninformed pseudo-maturing of the superhero experience would be taking something of a piss with that title.

Anonymous said...

What I think is often lost in the criticism of Morrison's take on Magneto is that Magneto wasn't always how Claremont and later writers developed him.

Morrison, using Sublime/Kick, brought Magneto temporarily back to his roots in his final destruction/criticism of the X-Men comics evolution through the years.

RonG said...

even more, Claremont wrote Magneto as sympathetic anti-hero for 11 years (approx. 1980-1991). Later writers returned Magneto to his pre-1980 roots (as even Claremont's early UXM showed Magneto as a ruthless terrorist).

As I see it, Morrison's take is a valid continuation of the Magento portrayed in Fatal Attractions (Lobdell and Nicieza), Trial of Gambit and subsequent XM issues (Seagle / Kelly), Magneto War (Davis / Kavanagh) and Eve of Destruction (Lobdell).

To say that Morrison didn't portray Magneto as he "should have been", is to ignore completely a decade of X-continuity.

Nathaniel said...

jesus christ.....seriously????....in the opening of the initial blog post, we have the author citing the first x-men movie.......well....let me reference our buddy logan at the climax when he tells magneto, "you're full of shit."....if magneto was so sympathetic and righteous, then HE'D be the one making the sacrifice. magnet is the BAD GUY....magneto is FULL OF SHIT!!!! that's why he's the BITTER OLD MAN BAD GUY!!!! he KILLS people to prove a point....hmmm......morrison wrote the REAL magneto.....i wish wolvie would chop his head off a few more times......

Nathaniel said...

i think the jerk-off in this blog actually wants to BE magneto (if he wants to defend FICTIONAL genocidal terrorists so badly)....sorry bro.....you seem to be about 38....i don't think your mutant powers are gonna kick in any time soon...

Kristina Despises Lioness and All Other Magneto Arse Lickers said...

^ This so f-ing much Nathaniel! This blog sucks HAGneto's (fictional) wrinkly old b-s more than Mike Carey and Clay Mann! Clay Mann actually likens HAGneto to a park ranger defending the animals under his protection as an excuse for his treatment of humans to quote, perhaps out of context... not too interested to re-read the whole nauseating interview again... excuse me? HAGneto is the mutant Hitler no excuses! and Carey acts like a 2 year old throwing a temper tantrum because not all readers accept his blatant whitewashing of the old fart's past crimes. Makes me glad I no longer buy any Marvel titles.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Nathaniel and Kritina need to take it down a notch, and take it a little less seriously than they do. They're almost at Twilight level fan arguing.

Danielle said...
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McKenna J. aka McBitchy said...
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Anonymous said...

Go hifreann leat da-aodannach anonymous administrator! The rumours me and various acquaintances have heard about the people running this site are true after all.

Anonymous said...

Magneto has always been portrayed with a massive ego. The idea that an egomaniacal character would put on both a mask and an elaborate deception masquerading as a humble Buddhist teacher with infinite patience with troubled kids to infiltrate the Xavier school is beyond ludicrous. Magneto is a character that blasts down the walls of the X-Mansion and makes others bow to him, not one that plays dress-up and disguise and tutors special ed students. Not only was this story angle "jumping the sharknado", it also effectively undid the one fun (and uncynical) part of Morrison's run - the character Xorn.

Anonymous said...

I also don't think Morrison knew Xorn would be Magneto "all along" as he claimed, or that it was part of a master plan from the beginning. Despite trying to make it seems like it was (he refers to the fact that Xorn was in an "iron" prison - duh, aren't most prisons iron?) - how could Magneto have faked the burning of people's faces from exposure to Xorn's face or the gravitational field? Magneto as Xorn really isn't consistent with anything that happens in that annual, and it seems likely this was a story twist that Morrison didn't envision until much later. And the whole revelation and Magneto arc was ultimately so bad it's hard to believe he put much forethough into it.

Anonymous said...

Geoff - I've not read the Morrison books for a decade, so I'll stay out of that fray; however, I'd like to offer up a point on the nature of Magneto and Professor X. There is indeed a very direct correlation between their powers. One has near absolute control of the physical world while the other the mental.

An oversimplification is that they are nearly identical individuals (an oxymoron I realize).

Early appearances showed Magneto almost able to use his magnetic powers to do anything (including control minds) and neither had much angst about using their powers to violate others (something which still took place into at least Morrison's run).

I could go on