Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon #2

A few days ago, I read an NPR article entitled Not So 'Divergent': The Cookie-Cutter Noncomformist which had notable things to say about the profitable formula of a typical young adult dystopic novel which I do not subscribe to but sometimes always curious about, seeing as most of the women my age seem to enjoy them even the ones whom I share some common interests with regarding other genres of literature. I wonder if it would appeal to me if I just pick one up--oh wait, I did finish the first two books of The Hunger Games series and gave up on it once a favorite character died (and was poorly cast as Lenny Kravitz in the film adaptation). That only meant that I wasn't intellectually or emotionally invested enough in the set-up that I wanted to keep going. I think the last closest thing to a YA dystopia book I read was a manga by Yuu Watase called Fushigi Yuugi: Genbu Kaiden that has the same elements so I suppose I'm fine with the formula itself but only if it's presented in another medium, such as sequential art? Am I too much of a comic book snob? But admitting that I don't like any of these teen dsytopia stories and yet also claiming to love a Japanese manga that essentially tells the same kind of narrative is at least acknowledging that there is a part of me that such a formula appeals to. That's a puzzling paradox, isn't it? In any case, the reason I bring up the NPR article is because it mentioned the X-Men briefly in one of the paragraphs:

"It seems a little bit sad that the only kind of nonconformity that pop culture enjoys feeding kids is the nonconformity of superpowers – that's what X-Men is, after all. Mutants, but mutants with special powers. Secretly, you're not different-bad, you're different-great. You're different-better.
But what if your divergence is a horizontal move, not a vertical leap? What if you can't demonstrate that you're superior to everyone else and you don't have superpowers? What if you're just ... different? Are all these stories really saying it's okay to be different, or are they only saying it's okay to be special?"

It's an interesting argument and one I don't entirely disagree with. If we really get into the semantics and socially relevant implications of the X-Men narrative, it'd be a tad patronizing to compare its stories of prejudice and discrimination to the real-life civil rights conflicts that a lot of the writers were inspired to write about through X-Men, most notably Chris Claremont who has made many parallels between the X-Men's struggle for a place to belong in the society and that of the African-American community during a very trying era in American history. The X-Men are not just different--they are considered to be either two things: as either the next evolutionary step or an abomination to mankind. Either way, this meant the X-Men (and mutants in general) are special. As the article argues, what if you're just different without being necessarily special? Well, I suppose I can make a counterpoint that the X-Men are the special ones and the mutants in general are the nondescript population. It's worth mentioning that not every mutant has a superpower. Not every mutant has a chance to be accepted in Xavier School and be recognized as a superhero. Some mutants may have deformities and even pointless mutations that won't ever get them in the spotlight at all. 

But, of course, we focus on the special cases from the minority group because they're ultimately what defines said group fighting the status quo to get their identity acknowledged in a big way. Do you think all gay men are flamboyant and all lesbians are butch (or temptresses who make out with each other to titillate straight men)? NO. But that's how most heterosexuals believe especially when these stereotypes are so ingrained that even the individuals themselves who posses these qualities use them as strong identifiers to make a statement. But that is what the LGBTQ movement is trying to discourage, much like how the X-Men are out there so people could recognize that their powers can help humanity and that there is more than one kind of mutant. The specifications between "different" and "special" are not entirely inseparable as we see in our pop culture, so the article does make a strong point by raising the issue of what if someone is just different without having any special skills or ability to offer. However, it fails to take into consideration that only the special stand out and are spurned, reviled or discriminated against because its their uniqueness in an area that usually requires expertise that make them the target of attention. I'm sorry to say but if you're different in a sense that you're nondescript then the world will not take interest in you and that makes you lucky if you don't strive to make a statement anyway. I'm not sure if I'm articulating this right but this is a discussion I feel the need to open here, seeing as Joss Whedon is going to be touching upon the same thing with this "mutant cure" storyline.


Let's talk about the visual presentation of John Cassaday so far even if we're only two issues ahead. I'll be honest: I wasn't particularly fond of how angular-looking the faces of his characters were drawn, and I think it has yet to fully grow on me. It's not a terrible style, of course, because there is some depths in his interpretation of character visuals, giving the faces a real depth that is somewhat three-dimensional on page. Perhaps it's this realism that takes me out of their beauty. Still, this could be a compliment; since the characters are drawn to resemble how real people really look like outside of the comic book world, then the more impactful it becomes to look at. 

I would have to complement him for the features he puts into faces down to the minuscule details--such as the eyes, eyebrows, cheekbones and lips. Not everyone has to look pretty and polished (aside from Emma who is supposed to be a gorgeous bombshell in the first place). Kitty is mostly drawn to look like a plain Jane which make her endearing to me because it undermines what a knockout her personality and characterization are in general. His illustrations of cat-Beast are my favorite, however, since I think cat-Beast is the most memorable physical transformations Hank McCoy ever had that really appealed to me. Even though Cassaday's style is not of my taste, I do appreciate the aforementioned qualities and dimensions he adds when he draws character faces. 

Now, let's get to the content. Much like the first issue, the second part of Gifted is all exposition but with just the hint of a rising action ever so slowly taking a curve-ball. I think that Whedon had been taking his sweet time setting up all the pieces first which hopefully would entail a much more satisfying, vicious climax in the long run. This composition of the scenes are evenly paced, serving to contrast the different tones of the narrative which, thankfully enough, don't clash with each other or compete for which one must be heard the loudest. Whedon allows the characters to chew on some scenery because the trick for such stories is truly in the details.

The readers are enlightened by two major things in this issue. First is Dr. Rao and the mutant child Tildie who serves as her 'muse' for her goal in curing the mutant disease. The woman has good intentions, I guess, and for now she does struck me as someone who sees a problem and tries to offer the most humane solution. In this case, she doesn't hate the mutant people themselves but rather the 'disease' that corrupted their 'healthy cell activity', that being gene X. It's comparable to that of religious people who don't proclaim hatred and outright bigotry towards the homosexuals as people but rather the sin that has made them that. Lots of naysayers would disagree, of course, that there is a very blurred distinction between what was deemed the 'sinner' and the 'sin'; that by calling it a 'sin' (or, in this example, a disease') is still a negation of the individual's right to be identified as whatever he or she is biologically born with. With homosexuals, it's therapy or going to the 'pray the gay away' camps with the promise of reversing the so-called 'sin'; with the mutants, it's this end-all cure for their genetic mutations as founded by Dr. Rao. Both cases offers an alternative without bloodshed and bigotry, a compromise for the affected to seek counsel and expulsion so they can finally live normal lives. This kind of belief is not as dangerous as that of the avid anti-mutants like the Purifiers, but is nonetheless just as cruel and hypocritical, even pitiful and misguided. That's why I don't really hate what Dr. Rao is trying to do but her scientific view devoid of human context in approaching this eradication of mutants is still as deeply troubling as the next hatemonger spewing hellfire on what he perceives to be a bunch of godless cretins in need of cleansing. I really want to see how Whedon plans to play this one out.

The second thing to take note of in this issue is how the X-Men reacted upon receiving the news concerning this miracle cure. I don't feel like mentioning that incident at some rich people's gala event with an alien named Ord trying to wreak some havoc because it felt a little bit out-of-place and small potatoes. I don't really care for now why he's here and what he plans to do. He came off as a silly distraction which the X-Men easily got the best of which was good enough of a victory, seeing as Cyke found a way to turn this into a PR stunt to show that, much like the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, they're also trying to help the city and law enforcement when bad guys like this roll around. Unfortunately, the media is more interested in their reaction about the cure, and Wolverine foremost is not happy about it:

And now for the interesting character interactions. First, we have this lovely exchange between Emma Frost and Kitty Pryde. And by lovely, I meant kindda sad and brutally honest, especially on Kitty's end. She basically tells Emma off as we discovered that it was Emma herself who invited Kitty to come back. As Emma tries to make nice and establish some trust with Kitty, the latter just outright refuses, essentially criticizing her relationship with Scott, her teaching style, and describing in detail that she was quite the abhorrent evil vilainess back in the day and Kitty hasn't forgotten about it and isn't planning to so soon. I thought it was a little unfair but understandable enough if you look through it with Kitty's negative bias perspective. I don't think these two women are ready to be friends and bury the hatchet anytime soon. And that's fine, because their tension and rivalry may keep things on the edge and interesting. We'll see how they fare together in the next issues.

The second character interaction is the last one between Beast and Dr. Rao whom ge revealed to be a former colleague of his. He broke inside the facility where he reseach was located and she was right there waiting for him. Beast made no qualms denying the purpose of his visit and Dr. Rao was quick to defend her stance, emphasizing her goal to help mutants who do want to be rid of their 'genetic disease.' Beast interrupted her speech midway and quietly confessed that he was not there to destroy the cure but rather to study it; he wants to know how and if it truly works. That last panel shot of Beast looking away as if in shame as he admitted that openly really perturbed me. It's so easy to forget that this is a man who had lived in fear concerning the volatile and unpredictable physical transformations that his mutation puts him through each stage. I think it's safe to say that Hank is tired of always being taken off guard, dreading that his next evolution will further deform him and not just his physical state. It wouldn't surprise me at all if he wants to try the cure as well. His mutation is a burden. If there's a chance to remove it, he's taking it. Rogue in the movie version did, and we can also sympathize as to why she did so in the first place.

The stakes have been set here in the second issue but I'm still lowering my ratings so I can save up for the ones that deserve a high grade. As enjoyable as this had been, I knew it's still all exposition without that much substance but I know this could change anytime soon and I'm really, really, REALLY looking forward for the developments that are about to unfold. So far, I'm very much intrigued with the kind of curiosity that is unrelenting. Whedon is weaving a brilliant plot here, moving the pieces in corners that I can't see yet but I'm confident enough will be revealed soon. The characterizations for each X-Men have been spectacular, especially that conflict between Kitty and Emma which I know will continue to evolve and perhaps even drive the narrative in many ways soon.


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