Thursday, February 12, 2004

Back In The Saddle

So, as you may or may not know, its been a long stretch without any comics. For various (money-related) reasons, I've head to go without comics for the longest sustained period since I was probably five or six years old .

That said, after a prolonged absence things seem to be returning to some semblance of normalcy - meaning, I can buy comics again. At least a few - there's still a bunch of stuff I missed these past few months and will be slow to catch up on - but the process of reacclimating myself has begun.

First, I think I should say that having been without comics for so long, I return to the scene with a renewed vigor. I mean, seriously, its hard to stay excited about these things when comics become a weekly slog - more a chore than a joy. Its something I think we can all relate to in one way or another, those of us who have stayed with the medium for as long as we have.

Second, now that we're actually back to reading comics, I can get back to the business of this here comics blogosphere and start talking about comics. Herewith, I shall commence a new semi-regular feature for your gratification and edification:

X-Statix #13-18

I have never seen a once-great series "jump the shark" so succinctly and with such seeming finality.

I can remember way back - or, at least, it seems like a long time ago now - when the powers-that-be (or, were) at Marvel announced a bold new direction for one of Marvel's mainstay sub-franchises, "X-Force". Normally, like many, I wouldn't have been caught dead near something like "X-Force", but the new direction promised by the creative team of Milligan & Allred was impossibly enticing. Sure enough, I bit the hook and I was glad I did. The "All-New, All-Different" X-Force was one of the best mainstream books of the last decade, somehow managing the impossible, and using the tired superhero formula to say something, something if not new then at least interesting, about the world around us (and not just in the time-tested, ham-fisted "Your Sidekick's A Junky!" fashion).

I was excited about each new issue of "X-Force" as I hadn't been for a mainstream comic in many moons. It was damn good. I even ponied up the dough to get the inevitable hardcover collection, even though I already had everything in it - because I liked the series that much and wanted to see it in the deluxe format.

But when it made the shift to "X-Statix", something was lost. Perhaps the initial shock of the new had worn out. Perhaps the series premise was such that it couldn't really stand up to prolonged scrutiny. I don't know. For whatever reason, things just started to get "wacky", and usually when you're talking about once-good properties, "wacky" is the kiss of death.

Sure enough, that brings us to the "Back From The Dead" storyline, which I just read in one sitting.

I know all the backstory, and quite honestly I am left wondering if their original plans for the story would have made it any better. Certainly, the fact that the main thrust of the story was basically gutted before it ever saw the light of day didn't help - but if you look at the shape of the story that did see print, you don't see a lot of real room for improvement. Its sloppy, its episodic, and its cliched. It seems to actually be two or three different storylines in the place of one, with different things happening for no real reason and with no real explanation.

Suddenly, Henrietta is the Secretary of Homeland Defense. Suddenly, we discover that longstanding team members have been selling arms to Saddam Hussein. Suddenly, the story's plausibility is shredded.

It commits some of the most unpardonable sins you can possibly imagine an action comic book committing. There are whole issue that pass with the main characters sitting around debating what to do without, you know, actually doing anything. These debates serve no purpose other than to illustrate horrendously opaque plot-points. The characters, almost to a man, all break character egregiously at one or more points throughout the story - reinforcing the fact that the story was badly shoehorned and needed to be seriously rethought. Multiple characters die for no real reason other than shock value . . . which I do realize is a staple of "X-Statix" (hell, the first issue of the new "X-Force" had the whole team killed), but here it comes off as forced and desperate. There's even a Spider-Man cameo - and its so perfunctory that Spidey just sort of disappears halfway through a battle, undoubtedly confused or bored, or both. I know he he feels.

So, I think if I can say anything with any degree of certainty, its that they should have scrapped the whole idea once they figured they couldn't use Diana. I mean, seriously, this one misstep seems to have destroyed every last bit of momentum this book had. I realize that whole issues were already produced - but hey, half the books already look horrible because Allred obviously had to rush through and redraw certain passages. The fact is, this storyline is a shambling undead mess, and should serve as a cautionary message to creators everywhere: sometimes its best just to walk away, rather than putting your name on crap.

But if you squint real hard, you can at least see small glimpses of what they were going for. In particular, the last scene of the arc, featuring an undead Henrietta (Diana) confronting the president of her unnamed European country, the president who ordered her death. Its easy to substitute, in your own mind, the real intended participants - a shuffling zombie Diana confronting a cowering Queen Elizabeth. Its a powerful image, even if it doesn't exist anywhere but the readers' minds.

I didn't think the original premise of "Back From The Dead" was all that great an idea in the first place - it smacked of flop-sweat, to be honest. I was never really that upset when the inevitable announcement came that the higher-ups had quashed Diana's appearance in the story because I thought, and will continue to think, that it was a lame idea. It seemed to be transgressive merely for the sake of being transgressive, jejune instead of honestly provacative. Of course, when all is said and done, it will probably be said that this one idea was enough to kill the series.

They're supposed to be going to the Marvel Knigths imprint but will that ultimately accomplish anything? The damage is done. Momentum is destroyed and the creators have lost their bearings. Perhaps it would be best to have the concept go the way of the original Doom Patrol - ie, kill everyone. At least that would be in character.

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