once more into the breach
Avengers X-Sanction #1, by Ed McGuinness and Jeph Loeb. Marvel.
This is how I pick the superhero comics I'm going to read nowadays: I go to the store once a month to get that Daredevil and that Wonder Woman and then I kind of look around for some old nonsense to spend the rest of what's in my wallet on. I defy you to find a better way of doing this whole "reading mainstream comics" thing. I fully understand that I'm in the minority on this, but I've ceased picking up current superhero titles in hopes of finding any artistic value whatsoever in them. (Again, that Daredevil's an exception here, people.) Today though, I had something a little more specific in mind. It's been too long since I read any so-awful-it's-at-least-interesting superhero comics, and I'd been hot for this one since I saw the teaser image of Cable below in Marvel Previews.
Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness on Rob Liefeld's greatest creation: there's an itch this combination scratches really really well. Over the past half-decade Loeb's gone from a well-enough-respected (in those circles) superhero writer to just the worst hack working, scripting comics that are almost like conceptual art in how few of the requisites of competent storytelling they give the reader and how far they push the envelopes of loudness and saccharinity and suspension of disbelief. Loeb's stated somewhere or other (or maybe he hasn't, and this is just comic shop clerk rumor) that the only measure of success he applies to his comics is the number of copies they sell. By this measure, he's doing okay. I mentioned that he wasn't always that way -- he was never Alan Moore, but once upon a time his work indicated that he was perhaps trying now and then -- so I could note something everyone who gets a little too into their superhero shit's noted: his work started its migration toward its current state right around the same time his teenage son passed due to cancer. It's understandable. What people don't talk about, though, is how interesting Loeb's more recent comics are.
There is a purity of intent -- of spirit, even -- that mainstream comics attempting to "be art" or "say something" never attain. At some point the aesthetic goals bump up against the ad pages, the computer lettering, the losses in translation caused by the assembly-line method of collaboration employed in manufacturing them. The idea always loses something to the form. But Loeb's comics are downright Shakespearean in the immensity of their surrender, their acceptance of what they are. They may be tales told by an idiot, sound and fury signifying nothing, but there is no gap between conception and execution in them. Loeb quite obviously wants his comics to be mindless and bruising and both easy and surprisingly difficult to read (because they speak the little-known language of hardcore superhero continuity)... and they are. Exactly what he wants them to be, in full measure. The thing is, you can't dodge the pitfalls of superhero comics when you're making superhero comics. To make work that isn't corrupted by commercialism, you have to aim for those pitfalls, to throw yourself into the pit. Loeb has. It's understandable.
And Ed McGuinness! It's been a good while since I've looked at a new comic featuring his art, but the sight is always welcome. His style is singularly suited to Loeb's writing: it's superhero art on steroids, the shiny surfaces and straining figures of modern photoreferenced hero comics reintroduced to the classical cartooning value of exaggeration. Muscles pop from bodies and veins from muscles on McGuinness's pages, faces contort in agony or surprise or even just the effort of outlining a conversation's particulars, and the panel borders of the quirkily blocked layouts almost bend outward with the sheer volume of what they contain. McGuinness is one of a few American mainstream artists to have based a successful career in embracing the manga aesthetic -- or more specifically, what the superhero community thinks of as "the manga aesthetic", one in which names like Tezuka and Tatsumi may as well not even exist and even Otomo is a pretty distant memory. Everything is drawn from the screaming, byzantine substance of '80s and '90s action manga, which emphasized deformed, explosive action and dirtied up the cleaner cartooning style of Japanese comics with diagrammatically detailed machinery, architectural cityscapes, crumbling facades, trash.
McGuinness crosses Kirbyist superheroics with this aesthetic quite successfully: everything he draws appears to be made out of some miraculously strong and flexible derivative of rubber, perhaps the Fantastic Four's famous "unstable molecules". But there's a strong horror vacui pushing back against the slick polish of McGuinness's cartooning, one that suits a Rob Liefeld-derived comic perfectly. Panels are packed into pages like sardines, spotted blacks give way to intricate crosshatching, and the characters are framed so tightly in every panel that their figures often have to overlap the boundaries of the individual rectangles, sprawling out into the free space on the page. It's an approach as addictive as crystal meth, and one that actually manages to work as comics, too. McGuinness comics read well, fluffed up with hot air though they may be. Looking at his pages is like taking part in the kind of epic action figure battles you never quite had enough imagination to pull off as a kid.
Finally, this comic stars Cable, which automatically makes it super complicated to explain -- and that, of course, makes it nicely indicative of superhero comics as a whole. For those who don't know (and I'll be the first to admit that I don't fully understand the story here either), Cable is a mutant warrior from a dystopian future who came back in time to prevent the world he grew up in from occurring, but I think he also goes back and forth to fight battles in the steadily worsening future timeline too. Then he's also a Christ figure because he's trying to save the world by redeeming it and because he's Phoenix's kid and she's a Virgin Mary figure (hellooooooo). But he's also kind of a Virgin Mary figure too because he just adopted a girl named Hope who's the for real mutant messiah and he's raising her to grow up and save the world or something. Oh yes, and he's half robot. Also he had a punk rock activist phase that was pretty baller.
This comic features Cable finally getting to the part of his future timeline where shit gets real and there's a nuclear winter he wanders around in waiting for his robot body parts to grow back. I'm pretty sure they don't explain how or why the nuclear winter happened but maybe I'm missing something. (There are actually a lot of things in this comic that they might have explained but I didn't catch it.) But if you were thinking that's the only future timeline running through this book, you'd be mistaken: there are also a few flash-forwards to Hope watching Cable die, apparently. Why or how or when this happens isn't explained, and neither is how Cable knows he's going to die. Cable runs into some kind of alien guy in the nuclear winter timeline and gets told that it all happened because his daughter died and couldn't save the world. Also that he has 24 hours to live. There's a pattern here: none of this stuff is explained either. This is all exposition, though: the main part of the comic is Cable realizes he can fix everything back to how it was (which is like, very slightly less shitty) if he goes back in time and kills all the Avengers. He makes a big deal about how he's a military man and this is a war with a limited time to be fought, but doesn't kill a single person despite spending the majority of the issue with both Captain America and the Falcon tied up at his mercy. The issue ends with a gun shooting off-panel, which we all know means that miraculously it didn't hurt anyone.
It's a really stupid comic, and it isn't even approachable in its stupidity, but there's a lot of appeal to how Loeb writes it nonetheless. He makes sure we know who every character is, both civilian and superhero names. He has people explain what they're doing as they're doing it. He doesn't go nuts trying to make something as nonsensical as Cable's backstory make sense. This shit is hard to understand, but it's easy to read, and that's a fairly singular virtue in superhero comics these days. And I really appreciate how allegorical and allusive the continuity stuff is, honestly -- there's no way anyone could possibly render a coherent Christ narrative from all the information about messiahs and world saving and world destruction that this comic and those it makes reference to contains, but just the fact that it's trying is really pretty cool to me, the fact that this stuff is intended as superhero comics with straightup biblical undertones about the for-realz Second Coming even if it totally fails at being that. When people talk about superheroes as modern gods they're either being purposefully ignorant or just retarded, because those Greek and Roman myths were actually intended as teaching parables and people really believed in them, but in the very small column of religious outsider art, this X-Men stuff stands tall as hell. It's heady material, and the fact that it fails on multiple levels means it's bad, but it's not that much less exciting than reading something good to try and keep track of what's going on in all those levels when they're this bizarre.
So haw haw, superhero comics sure are dumb, but they can look cool sometimes and the cynical laff value they provide is matched by little else, right? Well yeah, of course, but there's more going on in Avengers X-Sanction, surprisingly enough. We've got grizzled old Cable (only superhero with gray hair who isn't the older version of a more recognizable one?) fighting to prevent a "bad" but deeply indeterminate future (or a few of them, actually) that's chiefly characterized by the death of a member of his father-child dynamic. Willing to kill anyone and cause any level of destruction to preserve what he's got. And it's not there in the text at all, but these are feelings Jeph Loeb must be on intimate terms with. A willingness to kill in order to change things, a desperation that could turn back time, a grief that dares any peril. These are the genuine emotions of a father who's lost his child, and it's only because they're run through the stylistic mechanism of superhero comics that they look so absurd, so ingenuine. It would be a fascinating treatise in how what genre comics are kill the personal artistic expression of the people making them, but this is Jeph Loeb we're talking about: the writer who has perhaps embraced the conventions of the idiom to the greatest degree of anyone going right now, who has shown the most willingness to work within them without pushing back.
I imagine a few possible scenarios. Maybe Loeb knows how doomed to fail his attempt at creating a personal story that realistically depicts the pain of a dead child's father is within the milieu he uses but simply doesn't care and goes for it anyway. Maybe he thinks that superhero comics is a tonally appropriate place to work with this kind of content and actually believes that what he's doing is like, "good" or some shit. Maybe he has no consciousness that the story he's telling, which after all is Generic Action Comics Plot #2313, is even relevant to his own personal experience and this stuff is just bubbling up out of him unbidden -- which would make sense given that he's been pinned to such commercial work for so long and hasn't been able to create any art that really deals with his loss head-on. (Except that one Superman short where it gets put into Actual DC Continuity that Clark Kent used to hang out with Jeph Loeb's Son as a kid and was really upset when he died. I'm convinced that story is the reason they found it necessary to do that relaunch a few months back, but I digress.) Finally, and I hope this is the one -- it's certainly the only one where the comic works out as intended -- this is Loeb, who looks like this, in full on wish-fulfillment Avatar mode, living vicariously through Cable, killing with conviction and without mercy to save his kid. Maybe -- hopefully! -- this is even Loeb raging against the superheroes that prevented him from spending more time with his boy while he was still around, finally letting the resentment that has to come with a multi-decade career writing these things rip out of him long and ugly.
In other words, Jeph Loeb's pain is too big to fit on the scanner bed, and this is what it looks like:
So that's what I thought was noteworthy about this comic, the fact that it seems to be a uniquely personalized statement expressed in the medium of sequential art, and in a corner of that medium so incredibly ill-suited to supporting it. It's something unique for superheroes to say the least. But there's something else going on here too, something I think is worth mentioning. I read Avengers X-Sanction right after the new issue of that Daredevil, the final page of which is the letter column, and in that letter column was this:
It's a story from one Percy Yap of Edmonton Alberta, about how his girl died of breast cancer a few years back, turning his world into a joyless place, robbing the comics he read of the meaning they had once held for him. But then he found the new Daredevil, which he and I agree is the best hero book around at the moment. "For the first time in a long time," he says, "I could feel the joy of reading a comic book slip back into my life."
Are superhero comics stupid, are they juvenile, are they artistically compromised to a usually-fatal degree? They are. But these are the comics people care about, this is the stuff that actually means something to the greatest number of human beings. It isn't Ghost World, it isn't Blankets, and it isn't Jimmy Corrigan. Somehow this stuff -- this stuff -- touches hearts, it consoles the despairing, it mends people's lives. And if I can't see it, and if you can't see it, maybe we're individuals of higher standards and more rarefied tastes, but maybe we just need to get with the fucking program.