Monday, February 12, 2007

Grant Morrison's New X-Men 121

[This post is part of a series looking at Grant Morrison's New X-Men run issue by issue; to read the previous posts just click the labels tab at the bottom of this post.]




Annnnnnd... were back. Emma and Jean enter a bizarre psychic dream world to rescue Xavier's trapped consciousness. One of the comments that sparked this series of posts was from Stephen Frug pointing out that I am not always clear if it is the writing or the art that made New X-Men a failure -- for whatever reason, Morrison's writing just seems better with better artists: Quitely returns in this issue and suddenly Morrison seems to be a much better writer than he was in "Germ Free Generation."

Everyone looks like fashion models again, and the aims of the manifesto come rushing back. The Beak and Angel are not around to mess with the aesthetic integrity of this issue. A childish and scatological sense of humor visible in the last three issues has been replaced with a sense of humor more fun and more weird: Emma suddenly has a flask even though her costume is essentially a second skin which has NO POCKETS it could have emerged from. That's funny. So is the image at the end of Cyclops and Wolverine sitting bored in the hallway, Wolverine reading a book and Scott listening music. The X-women are more powerful and more important and these guys have nothing to do but sit and wait.






The dream-like images in this issue -- crafted by both Quitely and Morrison as we can see in the script that was online at the time -- are haunting, amazing, and simple (no hidden codes here, just an uncanny, weirdly-lit beauty): Jean, for example, has hair in the shape of flame which at one point becomes the Phoenix symbol. Morrison references both Dali and Blake in the script, but they are not necessary or even helpful: they are guides for Quitely rather than keys for the reader. These images and this world are Morrison and Quitely at their best.

The world they build conceals their most audacious image -- in the dream-like and psychically loaded context it seems almost normal, but slow down and realize what you are looking at: Jean Grey, beautiful and powerful and dressed in her fantastically designed sexy black leather uniform is covered in sperm. Sure, she is tiny and this is her psychic view of the moment of conception from inside the womb, the birth of Xavier and Nova. But still. The infamous "camel toe" cover was edgy but this is way beyond that. I have a hunch this is the most audacious panel in any X-Men comic book, and Morrison makes it work. His genius in a mainstream comic book -- his ability to get away with anything -- is nowhere more evident that here. Morrison and Quitely have come to shake things up, and -- boy howdy -- they do. Making Xavier the aggressor against his unborn sister is the main plot point, but this is the image that says with me.

(Just so we are all clear on the plot: the unborn Xavier tries to kill his unborn sister physically, but she strikes back with a mutant ability, causing their mother to fall down the stairs; we will follow how this plot unfolds in future issues, but Nova dies in this fall and survives as disembodied psychic energy, building a body later from the remains of her physical self.)

New X-Men 121 is part of a Marvel stunt to challenge creators to tell a story without dialogue. Clearly Morrison and Quitely are up to the task, but, in a move I am at a loss to understand, they fudge the rules when they don't need to, providing instant message style "emoticons" that age badly, and words written in goo. This is a minor flaw -- I think the issue would be better without them, but they don't screw up what these guys are up to, especially because they do not act as any kind of a crutch. The story stands perfectly without them, and they do not intrude too much.

Casandra Nova's body is in a shell that is clearly a forerunner to the WE3 armor, and Jean casually assembling structures from bricks as she strides confidently toward her goal is almost straight out of Dark City. The key context we need to judge this issue, however, is Joss Whedon. At the time Whedon did not seem like a threatening influence -- he was a TV guy after all. But in light of the fact that he is the guy who inherits Morrison's story in Astonishing X-Men, the famous episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer "Hush," cannot be avoided. In Whedon's "Hush" creatures come and steal everyone's voices, and a large portion of the episode is devoid of dialogue. "Hush" (2001) was probably the inspiration for all of Marvel's "Nuff said" silent comics (2002), but Morrision points more directly to Whedon: though it is, perhaps, an obvious line of dialogue, both "Hush" and New X-Men 121 break silence with the same words: in both, characters say "We need to talk..." and then the story ends. Morrison and Quitely stand on their own merrits, but anyone who thinks the Morrison-Whedon relationship is one way (Whedon using Morrison's characters in Astonishing) needs to look at Morrison's VERY Whedonesque Vimanarama (written during Whedon's tenure with Morrison characters) and this issue of New X-Men. It is subtle, but these guys have been squaring off for years.

21 comments:

Stephen said...

Geoff, terrific reading of this issue. (If i helped spark the series, then I'm glad, because it's terrific reading!) I also really liked your point about the Whedon/Morrison dialogue.

I wonder if there's any influence from Jim Woodring's Frank here? Your description of this issue -- dream-like images with "an uncanny, weirdly-lit beauty" -- made me think of Woodring's silent, surreal comics.

I still remain totally baffled by your focus on fashion model looks, however -- not to sound all unsophisticated and everything, but I keep thing, who cares if they look like fashion models? On a slightly better note, I think that Ping's comment about how the manifesto was clearly abandoned was right-on, and that I didn't quite find your response convincing. -- I guess I just think that pop-sexy is not a remotely important standard.

butter said...

The fighting foetuses are as good as new x-men gets.
A good writer writes for his artist(s)- the problem with the fill in artists maybe more that they are fill in and thus not written for.
Or did Morrison know from start which the other artists would be?

Ping33 said...

Once again, will respond to the X-men post when I'm at home with the issue in fron of me... just wanted to call attention to the # of comments on the last post... 52!!!

mitch said...

This is a terrific issue. Just the details: the fact that Cyclops is the one listening to music while Wolverine is reading is excellent characterization. The initial instinct would be to have the "cool" character, Wolverine, listening to music because that's, you know, stereotypically "cooler". It's amazing how much character info you can get out of a simple choice like that.

James said...

That was my first thought as well, mitch. Part of why I'm loving Whedon's run is just how far (further) he's going to establish Cyclops as a cool character.

This is a great issue, and Geoff's analysis makes me wish there was a trade of just the Quitely issues. I'd be happy with that and Here Comes Tomorrow.

Matt Brady said...

Wow, I don't remember the sperm moment at all. I'm going to have to grab the issue when I get home and look at it.

I'm not a fan of Buffy (not that I have anything against it; I just haven't watched it), so I was not aware of the episode being the inspiration for Marvel's "Nuff Said" event/stunt. That's pretty interesting. As for Vimanarama being Whedonesque, I don't know if I see that (it seems pretty Morrisonian to me), but I'm not as schooled in Whedon as you are, Geoff.

Geoff Klock said...

Stephen: I don’t know enough about Jim Woodring. I am going to have to find out about that.

Let’s talk about fashion model looks, though; you are a smart guy and you were a big part of inspiring these posts, and I think it would be fun. I think Ping agrees with you and others probably do to, and I should defend myself.

Tell me more about what you found unconvincing, because it could be a few things:

You say “who cares if they look like fashion models” but Morrison does and Quitely does; these guys spent time getting these designs right, and I don’t think time spent on design is a waste. The designs in WE3 make it outstanding and perfect. Visuals are important because the primary enjoyment of a comic book has to be aesthetic. Morrison’s “philosophies” and ideas are great fun, but if that is all he wants us to care about he should have written a collection of epigrams, or a monograph.

I believe style is especially important in a popular genre based on people in crazy outfits doing amazing things. Uniforms are one of the most distinctive things about the superhero genre, and all the famous heroes have been though many different “looks” I don’t need to mention here. Some of them were stupid stunts (e.g. electric Superman) but I think (I hope) you have to agree that outfits are a crucial part of the genre. Morrison had a new idea on the subject, a good one I thought, and it required a particular aesthetic integrity to work right. 121 is one of the best issues in terms of visuals, so I mentioned it.

You may agree with Ping that Morrison abandoned his pop sexy direction, and that I should abandon it to, and stop mentioning it; you say you did not find my argument convincing: do you not see a disjunction between the stylish cover to issue 118 and the dumpy interior of 118? Or do you not think it is important? Or do you see the problem but think I have mentioned it too many times. (One problem with an issue by issue thing is that repeat myself, a problem I will try to keep an eye on in the future). Let me know.

Butter: I don’t know what Morrison’s relationship was to the artists on NXM. I have heard he is often distant with artists other than Quitely, just handing of scripts and letting them be.

Ping: Sorry I messed up the 52 comments with one more, but there were people I had not responded to. Also I hate 52. :)

Mitch: that is a great detail. Thanks for grabbing it.

Geoff Klock said...

Matt: Vimanarama is very Whedonesque because the world is coming to and end and you get lines like "good think I brought my hammer". Deflating a big moment in that way, again and again, is a mode Whedon did not invent, but it is one he owns. With Whedon working on Morrison's characters at the time he wrote it, I think Morrison was thinking of him.

Stephen said...

Geoff,

Okay, about fashion models. First of all, I'm not objecting because you're repeating it -- I think that's a natural and mostly unimportant byproduct of the blog-post-series format -- I'm objecting because I don't agree. Let's see if I can say why.

You're right, of course, that Morrison & Quitely care: but that doesn't mean that they're right. One extremely common thing in aesthetics of all sorts is for artists (in the broad sense, including writers) to misunderstand what they do well and what they get right. It's strange but it happens.

It also depends on what you took as important from the manifesto. I agree that the stylish/hip bit was part of it -- but it's not what stays with me. In terms of visuals, what stays with me from the manifesto is the rejection of the "outfits", i.e. of the costumes. Of course you're inarguably correct that costumes are a central part of the superhero genre, but I remember the concern of the manifesto as sidelining that as comparatively unimportant. And I think that's one thing I liked about Morrison: they dress in uniforms, and so "don't look like idiots in broad daylight" or however Wolverine puts it.

I also agree that the primary enjoyment of a comic has to be aesthetic, but I think that "aesthetic" doesn't just mean "visually pretty"; I personally tend to use the term in a broader sense, one that would capture, e.g., the rapture of storytelling as aesthetic. Thus, for me, I would hold artists to the (aesthetic) standard of: do they tell the story well? Is it visually interesting? (Obviously this is a big concern in my series on Cerebus; but what I mean are not the outfits or having beautiful people but having interesting comics pages.) And as far as We3 goes, that's what sticks with me: the wonderful use of tiny panels juxtaposed with large ones, the wonderful use of partial views, etc.

I agree that Morrison's philosophies/ideas are fun (I wouldn't agree that they're particularly deep, but they make interesting reading); but I think that the test of making them a comic are:
1) do they make a good story? I've said before that I tend to prioritize writers over artists; I've said before that this is clearly arguable. But as long as the art is solid and decent, I don't focus on it unless it's stunning (as in Cerebus or, say, Promethea, or Dave McKean's collaborations with Neil Gaiman, etc.).
2) do they convey themselves visually? In other words, not are the people/outfits beautiful, but are they a good story, told in the way that comics tells stories, namely, with juxtaposed sequential images? For me Morrison's X-Men fits that bill (although, and I don't know if I've said this before, I think it's merely okay; I wouldn't put it up next to We3 or The Filth or The Invisibles or Doom Patrol or Animal Man, which are the works of his I like best).

I liked the innovative visuals of #121; but if they're lacking then I simply try to read Morrison's story: if it's funny or fun or engaging or weird and wonderful, then I like it. If not, not. So, to answer your question, I see the disjunction between the cover of 118 and of the issue (although I probably focus on it less than you, since I read Morrison (as I read most comics) in trades; but I didn't care much. I liked the story, and the art told it serviceably. I agree the other artists aren't as good as Quitely -- but as long as the lettering is clear, I'll read the words and see what I think (which doesn't stop me from saying that Dave Sim is a kick-ass letterer, and actually enjoying that aspect of his work).

...just to be clear, I am making two separate points here: one, that I am mostly concerned with functional ("does it clearly tell the story?") art; and two, to the extent that I am interested in the art, I am concerned with it's being beautiful as page layout, or innovative in its use of the comics medium, or even beautiful in terms of gorgeous images (which tend to be a plus for me but their lack is not a negative) -- but not in terms of pop/sexy looks.

Over to you,

Stephen

PS: Check out Jim Woodring. He's interesting. He had a huge collection of all his Frank work, The Frank Book published recently -- by Fantagraphics IIRC. It's pricey, of course, but libraries might get it because it Looks Big and Important (e.g. I read my university library's copy, and they ain't generally good on comics.)

Ultimate Matt said...

I was absolutely blown away by Morrison's entire X-Men run when it first came out, especially by these first 10 or so issues. I never had a problem, though, with the shifting artwork and focus on ugly, weird characters. I suspect (and I could be completely off-base), that this is because I came to these comics after a lengthy period of apathy towards the comic world, reading only sporadically for about 2 years, and reading very little news and previews type stuff. I was never really exposed to all the interviews about being "pop sexy", etc, and instead was just affected by how "new" the whole thing felt to me.

Concepts like mutants treated as a subculture, which even dissafected human youths could identify with, appealed enormously to me, a longtime metalhead finishing his sociology degree. It was these sort of "obvious yet brilliant" pieces that I remembered most fondly from this run; I had a feel for the pop sexy bits as well, but I guess without looking for them I was comfortable with the ugliness and beauty co-existing this way. It actually seems more natural in a way, to me.

People want to identify with the "prettier" & more aesthetically pleasing aspects of the subculture (ex: human kids with Magneto was right T-Shirts - another brilliant, brilliant piece -; or admiring hot chick mutants like Jean or Emma). They tend to overlook the parts of a culture or trend they find disagreeable (like beak or angel). To me, it seems to reflect how these things usually happen. The more appealing aspects of a subculture grow into a trend, leaving behind the undergound (and often "true") elements.

Geoff Klock said...

Stephen: I don’t disagree that artists can be wrong about their strengths and be wrong describing their own work. Freud thought he was a great scientist, but he was wrong: turned out he was a great mythmaker.

Morrison does seem like he wants to sideline the traditional costumes, but he replaced them not with street clothes but something he and Quitely carefully designed. Those outfits call attention to themselves in every panel, and Morrison has the characters comment on their outfits and other’s outfits at several points: they are scaring people in their black leather, the outfits of the U-Men are commented on again and again, there is a throwaway line about how popular the traditional 90s costumes are in India (because of Bollywood), clothes are a big part of the Scott-Emma affair, and the start of the riot is when the Omega Gang get new outfits, Fantomex’s outfit is crazy and so on. Many of these are costumes of people other than the X-Men, but at no point does Morrison sideline clothes. He may intend to, as you suggest, but they come up again and again, so I think they are worth keeping track of, and caring about.

I don’t think aesthetic just means “visually pretty,” but it does include things like clothes; it is not like I was exclusively talking about outfits. But you were not saying I was exclusively talking about “visually pretty” so I am confused: if you don’t mind me repeating myself, what’s the objection to mentioning it?

A minor point but an important one: you wrote “I would not agree Morrison’s philosophies are particularly deep”: that’s not me, I never said that. But I think you are responding generally to Morrison fans, and not to me. But still, I don’t want people thinking I am calling Morrison a great philosopher.

Not focusing on art unless it is stunning is something I understand completely; I did it myself for years, was justly chastised and converted, and am not doing penance here by trying to focus on the visual. The pendulum there, I will admit, may have swung too far the other way, but that is the cost of doing business.

I do agree that New X-Men is merely OK (though I would phrase that slightly differently: I think it is alternatively brilliant and awful). I am not sure Animal Man and the Invisibles are better, but I am sure WE3, the Filth, Doom Patrol (and All Star Superman) are where Morrison is best. I don’t think we have a very big disagreement at all: the only issue is do I put overemphasis on clothes.

Ultimate Matt: beauty and ugliness may be a perfectly “natural” combination but I do not think superhero comics should reflect nature this way – check out my February 13th W.H. Auden commonplace book entry for why.

Stephen said...

Geoff,

I agree that our disagreements are pretty minor. And heck, I'm not bothered if they're not: aesthetics isn't ever going to get universal agreement. Doesn't mean we don't both benefit from the discussion. I know I do, anyway. (I disagreed with your book in some pretty fundamental ways; but I've read it a few times, loved it, recommended it and got back into superhero comics because of it. These things aren't contradictory, at least for me.)

And I don't so much object to your mentioning the clothes/pop/sexy stuff, as find myself utterly unconvinced by your argument that on that basis some issues are better than others. This seems to be a central part of your argument that Morrison's issues are uneven; I guess I'm saying I don't find that to be a relevant criteria, for me. This might be that we have different tastes; it might be that I'm focusing too little on the art, or you too much (or both); or something else.

Anyway, I enjoy hashing it out, but we may have come to a place where we each say "our spade is turned".

Your point about Morrison's emphasizing the clothes is a good one; I guess I'd just retreat to the idea that he's wrong that this is among his more interesting elements. (And Freud is a great example; I don't think I've ever seen him pegged so well so briefly. Spot-on.)

Oh, and I didn't mean to attribute that idea about Morrison's philosophy to you; my bad if I suggested otherwise.

As for The Invisibles/Animal Man... you may be right they're not quite as good as We3/Doom Patrol/The Fiflth. (All-Star, as I've mentioned before I think, I'm waiting to read in the trade.) The Invisibles I've only read once, so I'm not quite sure of my judgment, although I did rather like it a lot. Animal Man is different: I've read only the third trade; I loved it, and have reread it a few times (and the final issue more than that), but have no particular impulse to go back to the others -- in fact, I totally failed to get into volume two at some point. There, interestingly, the art is definitely holding me back: it's just too much dull, cheesy 80's superhero art. But the third trade I love, particularly that final issue.

Anyway, I hope that's clarified my take. If not, ask again, and I'll try again --

Cheers,

Stephen

aka Ultimate Matt said...

Ah well; different expectations, I suppose. This was also my first major exposure to Morrison, and I've since read damn near everything by him (except for Zenith and Flex Mentallo 2-4). Compared to some of his other stuff, I do agree that his New X-Men pales in comparison (notably Doom Patrol & The Invisibles, IMO)to some of his other stuff. But it does have a lot of emotional & nostalgic resonance for me since it turned me back into a commited comic book fan.

David said...

Hi Geoff,

Sorry, I don't have time to comment much on this lovely series of reviews, but the baby keeps me away!

I'd just like to say that I disagree with you about many points on New X-Men, especially regarding manifestos and post-humanism, but that your focus on the aesthetics nails my problem with the book, especially with your post on #119. For me, the writing on New X-Men wasn't good enough by itself to keep buying the book, it was Morrison with Quitely that worked. I wouldn't likely articulate this in the same way as you, but you are absolutely right on target.

(Though I think the writing was lousy enough in 'Riot at Xavier's' to drag down Quitely's art, and Morrison's writing was good enough in 'Here Comes Tomorrow' to overcome Silvestri.)

Anonymous said...

Hi,

Just wanted to call in a reference I haven't read anywhere else (haven't read all your posts on NXM yet, so I might be late).

To further Morrison's relation with his readers, he names a group of humans trying to be mutants as "U-Men"...

I'm enjoying your posts on the comics. The sexy-pop thing was the basic reason why I bought these issues.

David said...

A bit of time, so:

I would have liked to have seen what Quitely could have done with Fantomex. I never thought he looked good. Not knowing much about Fantomas, I thought Morrison's mutant looked like a cheap rip-off of GI Joes' Storm Shadow (who, incidentally, had an appearance in the famous silent issue of that Marvel title in 1984).

Geoff Klock said...

Stephen: So not so much disagreement. OK. Let me know in the future when you think I have gone off the rails though. The Freud sound-bite is from the first paragraph of my new book (which is also my doctoral thesis); I should admit that was not off the top of my head or anything.

Ultimate Matt: I cannot emphasize enough that you should track down the rest of Flex Mentallo on E-Bay – it is one of his best and most important works.

David: I agree with you about Here Comes Tomorrow and Riot at Xaviers, the only Morrison Quitely team up that is less than perfect. I have to disagree about Fantomex – he does look like a cheap rip off of Storm Shadow but that is all part of the joke, and that characters absurd brilliance. Fantomex is one of my favourite comic book characters of all time; I will obviously have much more to say about him when I get to his issues.

Ultimate Matt said...

I have issue 1, and I just won issues 2 & 3, so they should be on their way shortly. One more to go - I haven't spent so much on individual issues in YEARS.

Oh, I also have a blog now. I'm such a follower.

craig taylor said...

The silent issue is my favorite out of all the Morrison/Quitely New X-Men. Not my favorite M&Q collaboration, but like Invisibles 3.1 it's a perfect single issue. I especially liked how Quitely inked his own pencils; the spotlight on Jean and Emma.

I wasn't fully aware of the Buffy connection. I knew about "Hush" being the inspiration nut I didn't realise that Morrison had lifted the dialogue.

That line "We need to talk ..." has another meaning: relating to Jean and Scott's personal relationship.

Geoff Klock said...

Ultimate Matt: they are worth it.

Craig: good point about jean and scott

jennifert72 said...

interesting point about the whedon/morrison interplay. it makes sense that i particularly liked vinanarama...
one of the things i love about art is how two such different minds can play off each other to the greater benefit of the art (and the lucky audience)