August Comics

Here are the best books I read from my tfaw box this month:

Generation Hope #9 (writer: Kieron Gillen, art: Jamie McKelvie, colors: Jim Charalampidis, with cover art by Slavador Espin) is the title that I am citing from this month’s serials.

I’m glad to have been pulling this title from the beginning. Hope’s mission brings the X-Men back to their roots, finding and helping young people come to terms with who they are and what they can do. This issue shows the urgency in that task in a particularly poignant way, but where the stakes are more individual and personal than epic. The dorm room conversation before everything goes wrong is perfectly scripted as a lead-in to the demise of the young mutant and its aftermath. The ending with Kenji and Logan provided the right kind of emotional payoff to a story that is nicely self-contained, while also drawing on X-history and character history in a meaningful, and not pedantic, way.

McKelvie’s character designs also help to tell the story. His English university students look fresh, modern, and youthful, just right for the dialogue and for the way the story plays out. The series of panels where Laurie/Transonic takes off from the air are striking, particularly the way that she is made to look like a bird-shaped missile. While I read comics in part for serialized narrative, I also appreciate when someone can turn out a great story that stands on its own, and this issue is a prime example of a one-off that works well, both on its own and as part of the series as a whole.

In trades, I am still working on Finder, but I did make time to read a few other books, including Batgirl: The Flood (writer: Bryan Q. Miller, pencils: Lee Garbett and Pere Perez, colors: Guy Major, inks: Jonathan Glapion et al). I’ve had this collection for awhile, and had been avoiding it because, at this point, reading the current Batgirl is like watching a TV show that has been canceled before anyone really thinks it should have been. Whatever investment you have in the characters and the narrative is going to be if not wasted, then unfulfilled.

That aside, this book is still, above all, fun to read. I also like the scale of the storytelling, which is more about everyday crime and craziness than world-ending doom. The final chapter here, where Stephanie and Kara have a night on the town that goes wrong, encapsulates the energy and best qualities of the series: sharp dialogue, witty asides, a good nature, and action-packed. I assume I can look forward to one more collection before having to say good-bye, but these books will be on my shelf for a long time, and I hope that A gets around to discovering them.

On ALPHAS and X-MEN

At the end of “Catch and Release“, Dr. Lee Rosen, when given the technology to create, essentially, Cerebro, decides to destroy Skylar Adams’ device rather than put it to use in his search for Alphas. After watching Alphas, I (like many, I’m sure) often think about X-Men, and the extent to which the new series is lifting parts of its narrative from the established franchise, but also where it is recasting familiar ideas. This moment from Monday’s episode is a good entry into that discussion.

The primary difference between the program that Rosen could run and Cerebro is that the latter is in mutant hands whereas, as Rosen and his team are learning, it is not entirely clear whose hands would ultimately be holding any tracking device he might make from Skylar’s computer core. As much as Rosen and his group of Alphas are to the show what Charles Xavier and the X-Men are to the Marvel Universe (and Red Flag is effectively the Brotherhood of Mutants), Alphas are at once in a more fragile position and less part of the social consciousness than are Marvel’s mutants.

In the X-Men universe, mutants are constantly under attack or stress from non-mutants, but they also have allies and their own place, their own “nation” even, from which to build (relative) safety and solidarity. “Mutant” is also a recognized social category in the Marvel Universe (as poignantly, and recently, explored in Generation Hope #9). By contrast, the only people who seem particularly aware of the existence of Alphas are government intelligence agents and Dr. Rosen. In the Alphas storyworld, I might have an extraordinary ability, but would have no way of placing myself in relation to others. While Rosen may represent an ideology of integration between Alphas and non-Alphas, his team do not stand as a symbol of identification as the X-Men do. When and if I am identified as an “Alpha” I run the risk of being warped into a tool for the government or locked away at “Binghamton”. My best choice might be to get accepted onto Rosen’s team, but, from some perspectives, as the series has made clear, that choice  is, so far, little more than another way of being made into a government tool (this is precisely the pitch that Rosen uses on Cameron to get him on the team; be sent off to scary place or join me, either way, we own you).

One of the qualities that makes “Catch and Release” one of, if not the, best episodes of the series so far is that it raises the issue of individual rights for Alphas, or the right to choose a life that involves neither being in Rosen’s group nor in Binghamton. Rosen’s decision to enable that choice for Skylar is a sign of the more tenuous position that known Alphas find themselves in relative to mutants in the MU, which is to say, Rosen is starting to think that it might be safer, for some individuals at least, to go underground than for them to be held too close to the intelligence agents with whom he works. I have a hard time imagining Charles Xavier or Scott Summers taking a similar posture towards most mutants and the X-Men, or, certainly, Utopia. Again, I think the idea of mutants having self-determination is the crucial difference here. Alphas, as far as we know, are scattered and relatively rare, even compared to mutants post-M Day.

Another difference I have noticed between the show and X-Men in its various forms, is how the series is crossing Alpha abilities with mental conditions like Gary’s and Anna’s (“Rosetta”). In X-Men, “mutation” has become a metaphor for difference; mutant/non-mutant is the fundamental divide in the world. Being a mutant is, in the relevant contexts, like other forms of subordinated identity, but mutations generally present as their own conditions. Alphas suggests that being Alpha may present as a form of “disability”, at least when following existing norms for brain function, and for ways of communicating with others and relating with the world. To most people, or, at least, in North America, Anna and Gary already seem “special”, but the meaning of that category changes radically when you move from thinking of those individuals as “disabled” to seeing them as “super abled”, something that current social prejudices would prevent most people from doing. The fact that Rosen is a psychiatrist bolsters the idea that Alpha-ness is associated with mental illness or disability, and we know that Rachel’s parents think of her as having a disease or sickness, that Cameron has been unable to “fit in”, and so forth. As a metaphor for difference and discrimination, the x-gene is understood more in biological terms, as akin to race or sexuality, than it is understood as psychiatric or neurological.

In addition to being a psychiatrist, Dr. Rosen is also notable for not being an Alpha, and for that reason is a kind of liminal figure on the show, neither fully trusted by Alphas nor by non-Alphas. Xavier for all of his belief in homo sapien and homo superior living in cooperation, is a mutant who advocates for mutants. Rosen’s position is more ambiguous, as he himself seems to be realizing.

A lot can change on the series, particularly as the number of known Alphas increases, and if and when their existence comes to be more widely known. I think that the show has done an interesting job in giving the central cast a set of abilities that can go unnoticed or be explained away, but after too many scenes like the rescue in “Bill and Gary’s Excellent Adventure” or the Red Flag operations in “Rosetta”, it will stretch credulity to think that no one outside of government intelligence and a few known Alphas would know about people with superpowers. In either case, these are the narrative directions that will push Alphas even further onto the same ground as X-Men.

Checking in on TORCHWOOD: MIRACLE DAY at mid-season

At the mid-point of Torchwood: Miracle Day, for me, whether the series proves to have been worthwhile or simply a high concept mess depends on who or what is actually behind “the miracle”; and here I, like the central cast, am assuming that PhiCorp is not at the end of the plot. I am pretty open-minded about possible explanations, but at the very least I think there should be something like the Wolfram & Hart Senior Partners moving all of the pieces, if not some force to which PhiCorp is little more than a handmaiden, like Pope & Zinco in B.P.R.D. I would be perfectly happy for PhiCorp to turn out to be essentially opportunistic, unconnected to the who or what of the miracle.

Otherwise, the series leaves you with a pretty venal and stupid corporate conspiracy as the mechanism for the plot, and one that cannot possibly sustain the series premise over the course of ten episodes (or, really, any episodes).

Just imagine this board meeting:
“Hey, you know if we could make it so people stopped dying, but still could feel pain or suffer from chronic disease and debilitation, we could guarantee a permanent market for our product.”
“You’re right. But what about the excess population? You know, people who are essentially ‘dead’ or who can’t pay for the drugs they night need.”
“Gee, I dunno. Maybe we could incinerate them.”
“Hmmm. Yeah. That could work. Let’s get on this.”

Evil, sure, but also mind-bogglingly dumb as a business plan. While the corporate element seems like a necessary part of the story being told, it does not seem sufficient to fulfill the plot. The fact that Jack is mortal at the same moment as others are made immortal also suggests some kind of will at work beyond the ken of an earth-bound corporation, no matter how greedy or big it is. I trust that PhiCorp will, indeed, turn out to be nothing more than a shell or even irrelevant to what’s really going on.

Making the underlying secret of “Miracle Day” a good one is also important because as the series has become more heavily plot-driven, it has, paradoxically, also become more lax. Most of the key details to the Torchwood crew’s investigation have been yadda yadda-ed, as in, the team needs to get into this or that highly secure facility, yadda yadda, and they’re inside.

Even when the writers bother to note complications, these are so easily dismissed in the script that I am left wondering what the point was.

In the most recent episode, for example, Rex mentions, off-handedly, that he has started to heal. Leaving aside the greater significance of what this revelation means to the miracle, the immediate implication is that this will make it harder for him to be placed into category one containment. Seems like a problem to be worked, right?

Not so much. Not only is there no strategizing over this challenge, but the computer networks and procedures for the camp are so leaky that Esther, posing as no one more significant than a brand-new clerical worker, can, on the spot, not only reclassify Rex, but order medical staff to act on the new orders.

This, however, pales in comparison to the ridiculousness of Gwen and Rhys not only managing to get all of the appropriate credentials for access to the Overflow Camp housing Gwen’s dad, but also being allowed to just hang out after their cover is blown. Rhys, in fact, seems to actually pick up work while there, and, in short order, learns what the supposedly highly secret Modules are for.

There are aspects of the police procedural and the heist film to Torchwood, but the show is not fully of either of those genres. I am fine if there are details which get glossed over so long as it is in the service of something interesting, and that something has yet to be revealed in Miracle Day.

What I find most frustrating about the most recent episode, particularly, is that it seems as if it would only take a few minutes of showing members of the team doing reconnaissance to establish that the pace and scale of events are such that there are holes in the security networks  to be exploited. There is no reason to just rely on the idea that everyone here is so awesome and charming that they can break into whatever facility they choose.

Through the first three episodes the series focused on philosophical and affective reactions to the miracle. In the last two, the show has taken a hard turn to the political, and I am struck that there are no notable characters here within government. The governmental response to the crises coming out of Miracle Day appears to have been dropped from the sky.

And maybe that is what happened, bringing me back to the beginning of this piece and hoping that the second half of the series shows us something big and interesting underneath the surface of events.

(And, as a side note, as much as Dr. Juarez is one of my favorite characters, I was not terribly moved by her death, but maybe that is because at the heart of the series is the conceit that people can no longer die, which raises provocative questions about what happens after incineration. Or maybe it is indicative of a series that hasn’t been able to develop an emotional core yet).