Monday, October 26, 2015

The Astonishing X-Men by Warren Ellis, Volume 6: Exogenetic

You would think that the insanity would have calm down just a bit after the clusterfuckity that was Joss Whedon's first run for The Astonishing X-Men. But you're reading an X-Men title so your plucky optimism will only be surely crushed if you ever expected any different. Sure, Warren Ellis' two story arcs so far within ten issues haven't been as crazy and experimental compared to all of Whedon's four arcs, but it doesn't mean things have improved. In fact, the last time we left our heroes, certain events still remain to conspire against them, and this time their survival as a species is at stake, all thanks to Scarlet Witch's irreversible decimation where the mutant X gene had been wiped out, causing a tectonic shift in power. Now with only two hundred or less mutants globally, the X-Men are in a tight place. After recently discovering a mutant baby born in the aftermath of M-day and sending her somewhere dimensions far away under the care of Cable, Scott Summers' estranged son, the X-Men have been occupying themselves in making sure no more mutants will die, but that has to be the most difficult thing to do given the never-ending amount of enemies showing up left and right, trying to take advantage of the whittled down number of surviving mutants.

In the last arc Ghost Box, self-proclaimed mutant engineer Forge tried to create his own mutants by placing a modified X-gene in a different chromosome strand akin to those mutants who belong in alternate worlds. Mentally unstable, he justified this radical move on his part as a necessary evil but the X-Men fortunately was able to put a stop to all of it by allowing S.W.O.R.D leader Agent Abigail Brand (Beast's current squeeze) to step up and obliterate said alternate worlds via explosion through a ghost box which connects dimensions together. It was an enjoyable story especially with the pleasant addition of Ororo Munroe who was recently married and now queen of the rising African nation Wakanda. Because of M-day, she felt that her old friends needed her to fight by their side once more, and her timing couldn't have been more right. However, there seems to be a tension between her and Scott concerning how to run the team and his methods in containing situations during battles. Their difference in philosophies was pronounced by the previous arc and I got the feeling that Ellis might explore this some more in their other upcoming missions. Scott Summers has been changing--evolving into someone who more often than not has to cross certain lines his old self back in the more idyllic days of his team-leading never would have taken. As we will later witness in other titles and during the course of other decimation stories, this change in his leadership will only continue to grow and in turn will create a chasm between him and his colleagues/friends. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's discuss Elli's second arc, Exogenetic covered by issues #31-35.

Much like Ghost Box some asshole is taking advantage of M-day and specifically targeting the X-Men. His nefarious plan is much more twisted than Forge's was, however. Apparently, he's been reanimating dead mutants and combining their DNA with certain machines which is as disgusting as it sounds. This unholy union of genetics and confounding vendetta has produced really nightmarish killing machines such as a flesh-made Sentinel, and a horde of rabid Broods. But the most appalling thing about it was how this unseen enemy was able to get access to such a horrid necromancy idea in the first place; and that is no other than the helpful information provided by Hank McCoy's research. As a scientist, he had been working on different scenarios to ensure the safety of their mutantkind and that meant thinking outside the figurative box of conventional methods so, yes, he had written down the possibility of harvesting recently deceased mutants in hopes of possibly activating the X-gene...or some shit. Frankly, I was definitely as horrified by the fact that he considered much like everyone else. But not like Scott though because Scott is more than horrified; he is absolutely livid and is getting ready to kick his old friend's ass. 

They have a lovely verbal sparring where all their issues towards one another are finally discussed out in the open and in the presence of other parties. It's a really great way to clear the air. I loved the conversation because it was brutally honest and considering how Scott and Hank are now for the MARVEL NOW! continuity, it's great to see them speak up their minds and not worry about offending each other. There remains trust and friendship between these two and it's a remarkable relationship that was unfortunately snuffed out after the Avengers vs. X-Men debacle (you know, where Scott was possessed by the Phoenix force and ended up murdering Professor X).

Hank raised valid points concerning Scott, psychoanalyzing him in a way that Emma had before during the TORN arc. Meanwhile, Abigail Brand has been developing as a rather likable character for me even if Scott disagrees because they never seem to ever get along (for now). I think that the only reason why they don't get along is the simple fact that they actually have the same methods of operating and leading their teams--and are therefore very judgmental of one another because they see their flaws reflected back at them through each other. I wonder if they were even aware of this paradox concerning their interactions but perhaps Ellis will touch upon in the next arc. So Agent Brand has known about this asshole targeting the X-Men for quite some time and was trying to contain the situation all by her lonesome before the X-Men get mixed up on it because, well, I think she is beginning to deeply care about the mutants. As brash, mercurial and stubborn as the woman is, Brand always upholds her duty and takes her job seriously but now that she's in love with Hank and is always hanging around the X-Men, her emotional investment is growing. She's now experiencing sentiment which Hank has pointed out back in Whedon's run is something that she lacked. It's pleasantly surprising to see that this has changed and now she's putting herself at risk to defend the X-Men from any unseen forces trying to tear them down. Scott will continue not to like her and distrust her, however, which I think Brand would rather have because they both keep each other honest and this actually works well for their strained and begrudging alliance. 

Anyway, the unseen enemy here is a man named Kaga who was a villain I did not expect to feel so much sympathy for when his motivation for attacking the X-Men was finally revealed. It turns out that his mother was a survivor of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki US bombings and her mother's exposure to radiation has malformed in during pregnancy. He is the original "child of the atom" and this has made him physically disfigured, shunned and unloved by the majority. He has no superpowers whatsoever and his intelligence came from his dedication and hard work to rise above his afflictions. Finding out that there is a group of mutants who fight for equality rights such as the X-Men has gotten him so excited because he thought he will finally have a place to belong to and a new family to accept him. But seeing what the X-Men are and what they can do made him feel betrayed and cheated on because he argued a valid observation concerning the privilege that mutants have even if they are considered outcasts by humans. Kaga claimed that they at least have their powers and are aesthetically attractive as a unit, and that they will never know how real alienation, savagery and deprivation truly feel like, not like he has. That's why he felt the need to punish them. He was merely lashing out because he has been hurt all his life and it's time to hurt back even if most of his torment and the target of his vengeance are only imagined slights. Still, I can't help but feel very sorry for him:

Kaga's story is a great cautionary tale against revenge and also an introspective story about self-loathing and self-acceptance. It's great for writer Warren Ellis to raise these issues in his arc and for creating a supposed villain who is only acting out due to the anguish, jealousy and grief over the unfairness of his life, humanizing him as someone who doesn't know how to be compassionate and kind because he has not known anything remotely close to those qualities. The X-Men also realized that even though they represent a marginalized sector of society, their outsider status can still be considered a privilege next to someone like Kaga. Unfortunately, Ellis didn't commit to the message and the story awkwardly ends with an out-of-place humorous exchange about Wolverine after he knocked out Kaga because he mistakenly thought Kaga was still going to attack them when it was obvious he was finally surrendering. I was upset that Ellis pulled back the punches and instead left me cold and disappointed. He could have had something emotionally powerful and meaningful here by making the X-Men consider other people outside their mutant community who look up to them and what their fight for equality symbolized. 

But instead, he chickened out in the last minute and just turn a redeemable villain like Kaga into a prisoner, some burden that Scott was only going to take care of not because he felt pity towards the guy but because he wanted to spite him. What a douche move, slim. Ororo should have said something because she seemed to be the only one who sympathized, given her facial expression in that one panel. Emma was expectedly cold-hearted; Hisako was too young to comprehend the poignancy and moral quandary she is witnessing; and Wolverine was UNCHARACTERISTICALLY BRUTISH. When he punched Kaga, that really shocked me. Sure, Logan can be a bit macho but we all know that underneath that is a man who had fought enough wars and experienced enough bloodshed to understand that Kaga is someone to heal, not someone to assault like that! I'm just very disappointed by how everyone acted here. It's times like this that we need Kitty Pryde more than ever; someone who is humane and empathic. But Kitty is gone, so who will step up to that plate and fill her role?

For such an insensitive conclusion, I'm deducting one star and making this arc a seven our of ten.


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