Thursday, September 20, 2007

How is that again?

Something that's been bugging me a bit lately: how exactly does the X-Men franchise get away with inserting lame space-opera elements into the mythos when it really makes for an odd fit? For decades now, since almost the very beginning of the "All-New, All Different" X-Men and the franchise's sales hegemony (a domination that has continued unabated for almost thirty years, waning only very recently), there has been an established annex of X-Men stories that take place in space, specifically the Shi'ar empire. By nature the vast majority of these stories are removed from the tightly-plotted soap-operatic confines that represent the bread & butter of the franchise.

And yet, to the best of my knowledge, the X-books periodic space stories have never produced a noticeable decline in sales or readership. One of the laziest canards when writing about superhero comics is to trot out a property's "thematic underpinnings" (or whatever you want to call it) as reason for said property's enduring success. This is certainly true for the movie versions of these characters, where screenwriters have to develop thematic and metaphoric shorthand to express things to a general audience that have been, in most case, long ago sublimated by comics readers. Hence, the Spider-Man films harp on the "power and responsibility" themes to the point of ponderous repetition, and the X-Men films are far more rhetorically concerned with the "hates and fears" underpinnings than the comics themselves (usually) are. But in the reality of the comics themselves, the characters have mutated far beyond their initial brief. Sure, the X-Men titles have always touched on the whole "world that hates and fears" them vibe, but the day-to-day working of the series has always been much less about tapping into metaphorical significance than finding ways to keep X amount of characters busy for Y amount of pages, to be continued next month.

In actuality, the X-Men's myriad space adventures have one real explanation: Chris Claremont liked putting the X-Men into space, and he did it a lot. The Shi'ar were introduced during the Phoenix saga as a kind of cosmic deus ex machina, dancing around the giant MacGuffin of the god-like Phoenix force. With Phoenix out of the series, the Shi'ar could easily have faded back into the woodwork, but for some odd reason they stayed at the forefront of the mythos: Professor X fell in love with Queen Lilandra; the leader of a band of Shi'ar space pirates (!!!) just happened to be Cyclops' long-lost dad; hell, at some point Wolverine was even revealed to be a Skrull in disguise (way back in the late 90s), so it wasn't just the Shi'ar that kept intruding. Hell, travelling around space at some point the X-Men encountered another race of foes called the Brood, a group of predatory parasites who had even less to do with the series' original brief even than the Shi'ar and their quasi-feudal militaristic bird people oligarchy. At the very least, the Kree and the Skrulls always seemed plausible: highly militarized pseudo-fascist oligarchies, one of which just happened to be ruled by a technological amalgam of thousands of the race's brightest minds (still a pretty striking idea, considering how often alien races get boiled down to "humans with funny skin condition" archetypes).

But the Shi'ar are presented pretty much at face value, in such a way that the readers are expected to care about "good" empresses and "bad" emperors - all of which points to a pretty disgusting royalist streak on the part of these creators that really doesn't jibe with the egalitarian identity politics at the supposed heart of the franchise. I'm a citizen of the United States, and the only "good" emperor is one that's been deposed and beheaded. I wonder, in helping to prop up the Shi'ar oligarchy, just how many interstellar atrocities can directly or indirectly be laid at the X-Men's feet? I imagine that to the average Shi'ar on the street, folks like the X-Men seem about as legitimate an instrument of imperial power as Hessian mercenaries seemed to the American colonists in 1780.

And yet, as I said, to the best of my knowledge none of these factors have ever had so much as the slightest impact on the books' popularity. Which, I suppose, is as good a commentary on the nature of franchise storytelling in mainstream American comics as anything else: as long as you've got Wolverine making with the stabby, does it really matter what he's stabbing, or why? By that same token, there was a period when Claremont (at the outset of Wolverine's own solo book) tried to inject Wolverine into a pseudo-Terry and the Pirates milieu, the "Patch" period where Logan spent all his time on the mythical southeast Asian island of Madripoor, fighting Chinese gangsters and retro-styled femme fatales. Did it matter that the whole thing was preposterous? No, because it just didn't matter what Wolverine was doing. As long as he was doing something, people would buy it. And boy oh boy, Wolverine's done a whole lot of something in the pages of his own books for the last twenty years or so. As to just what that something is - well, there have always been a lot of guys in suits with guns, and ninjas. About as fun as watching grass grow, but there you are. I feel the same way about the X-Men's space adventures (and I'm generally a fan of space-opera stuff). I'm obviously not the market, however: the market is people who just want some kind of monthly dose of Wolverine and Co. They could be sitting around baking a Christmas ham for all that the actual content of the books has ever influenced their popularity.

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