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(Fiction Friday) X-Men: The Mutant Era, Part 1 – Control The Changes

Writing 150I’m a huge fan of Marvel’s X-Men, who have been having a rough time of it lately. The mutant corner of the Marvel comics universe has been consistently pared down as Xavier’s students, allies and enemies have been consistently brought to the brink of extinction. Supposedly, the new status-quo will be starting up in a few months, allowing the X-Men a bit of time to settle and get back into the hero game again. It’s about time, I say!

Anywho, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I would do if I were writing the X-Men, rebuilding them from scratch for a modern-day audience. I can’t guarantee that I’d do any better than, say, Brian Michael Bendis or Jeff Lemire, but the more I thought about it, the more excited I got about the possibilities of prospect of telling the story of Xavier’s first class from the ground floor.

So, I’m thinking that writing a snippet of comic every week would be a good exercise for a little while. I’ve been a little obsessed about tracing out arcs and pacing stories for a weekly, serialized distribution model — obviously, because of the Jackalope Serial Company. I dig the idea of treating each of these snippets as a “digital comic” that is then collected every month into a print issue. And comic stories can last anywhere from 1 issue to…well, 12 or so. Marvel’s been really big about treating each year or so of comics as a “season” for a title, but I digress.

This is just an experiment to feel my way around how to structure stories towards a steady release schedule. Hope you enjoy!
Charles Xavier hated to speak in public, but not for the usual reasons. It didn’t make him nervous to have a whole room of people staring at him, and he never had to imagine his audience naked. He hated public speaking not because he had no idea whether or not the people listening were hostile; he knew all too well what they were thinking. Trying to organize your own thoughts while reading the thoughts of everyone else around you was an enormous challenge, even with years of practice.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath while Dr. Kavita Rao introduced him, mentioning his qualifications. Instead of paying attention to the never-ending stream of consciousness that flowed through his mind, he imagined it as white noise. The distinct internal voices faded to a background chatter, words becoming unintelligible, images nothing but static. Beneath that, he listened for his own heartbeat and timed his breath to it. His pulse slowed. A sense of calm settled around his shoulders like a cloak. He could do this.

There was a lot riding on this speech. Mutants — ordinary humans with extraordinary abilities — were just starting to make the news often enough to enter the public consciousness, and nobody was quite sure what to make of them yet. This was a civilization that had only now become used to superheroes; the complication of regular folks having these powers wasn’t something it was prepared to face. But it had to. And Charles had to help make that happen. If they didn’t get out in front of this, who knows what could happen? People like himself could be hunted down, rounded up and thrown into a hole they would never escape from — or worse. Humanity had a long history of fearing what was different, and fear lead people to do terrible things.

His name was called, and applause drew him out onto the stage. He walked with confidence and shook Dr. Rao’s hand with the biggest smile.

The room went quiet, and he settled in at the podium. Charles resisted the urge to lightly scan the surface of the audience; he couldn’t be thrown now. Instead, he paused, and began speaking.

“We used to think that our ancient forebears, Homo erectus, fought a bitter war for survival with our ancestral uncles, the Neanderthals. The idea was that the species that eventually became us, Homo sapiens, wiped out all competition in a bid for dominance that we can all agree was a tremendous success. Humanity is now the most successful species in the history of the Earth. We have molded Nature to suit our needs; we have spread to every environment on the planet; we have learned much about our past and begun the important work of shaping our future.

“However, our understanding of history is being adjusted. Recent studies indicate the possibility that Homo erectus interbred with Neanderthals and other closely-related human species. Ancient humans may have even cooperated with other tribes to their mutual benefit. These findings introduce the possibility of a fundamental shift in our idea of what it means to be human. Instead of seeing ourselves as an aggressive and territorial race from our earliest days, we might learn to see ourselves as adaptable, cooperative, even naturally sociable people. This reconstruction of our earliest recognizable human traits could prove to be incredibly important as we face complicated, unprecedented questions about our future.

“Recently we have made peace with the fact that supermen walk among us. Captain Steve Rogers is able to do things beyond the capability of most of us through genetic enhancement and indomitable will. Tony Stark has built a billion-dollar suit of armor to join the ranks of the superhero; we have Thor, the Hulk, and Captain Marvel. The King of Wakanda is known to us not as T’Challa, but the Black Panther. We have come to think of these people as extraordinary figures in extraordinary times, far removed from our everyday lives. We’re going to have to reconstruct our assumptions about this.

“We have recently become aware of a new species of humanity. Mostly, they look like you and me. They ARE people like you and me, with one exception; the presence of a specific gene that endows them with superheroic abilities. This “x-gene”, as it has come to be called, is inert through the early stages of development of life but becomes ‘activated’ during the complex and difficult set of chemical changes during puberty. Most members of these new species have no idea they’re a part of it until then. Because this gene has only been discovered recently, through the study of those few people who have undergone these changes, we currently have no idea how many individuals make up this population of new humans. Our best theories state that the x-gene is present in as few as 1 in every 1,000 individuals, and as many as 1 in every 20. Globally, that would mean anywhere from 700,000 to 3.5 million people are carrying the x-gene.

“There are obvious concerns about this, but there is also reason for optimism and wonder. This is quite possibly the most important scientific discovery in the history of biology and genetics; by studying the x-gene and investigating the factors that may have had a hand in its development, we can learn valuable information about the evolutionary process and how our modern society may be guiding humanity towards its next stage. And by remembering our more nuanced understanding of evolutionary history, we can learn to collaborate with this new species for our mutual benefit. Men and x-men working together to cultivate our abilities to the betterment of all is not just a dream; it is a necessity if we hope to manage this transition and chart the course of our own future.

Charles stared out into the sea of faces staring back at him, pointedly not attempting to read their thoughts. “I would like to leave a lot of time for questions from the audience. If you have any you would like to ask, please form a line in the center aisle behind the microphone stand.”

He was surprised to see half the seats emptying, a murmuring roar rising up in the crowd. This…might be a longer engagement than he thought.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2017 in Comic Books

 

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(Friday Fiction) X-Men: A Tale of Two Kitties

Writing 150(Continuing my little snippets of fiction imagining Beast settling in at the Jean Grey School, because the news from Marvel coming out of Comic-Con sounded really really bad for our merry band of mutants. While the X-Men line has…maybe seven titles out right now, many of them will be taking a hiatus once Civil War II is over. Then we’ll get the ominously-titled Death of X, which then spins right into Inhumans vs. X-Men. The promotional material tips the scales pretty heavily against the X-Men, though this could all be a swerve seeded by Marvel to get X-fans riled up. It’s working.

The worst part, of course, is that Beast doesn’t actually feature in ANY of the promos. He’s working with the Inhumans right now to find a cure for the Terrigen Mists, but it looks like that won’t lead anywhere. He doesn’t show up in any of the Death of X variants, Inhumans vs. X-Men, or any of the X-Men OR Inhuman titles for the rest of the year. 

Someone has to write about Dr. McCoy. Might as well be me, right?)

Henry mumbled to himself as he squeezed beneath one of the computer panels of his shiny new basement laboratory. Something about the electronics just wasn’t flowing right, and while he had narrowed it down to the tremendous and chaotic bundle of wires beneath the main monitor, that still left literally hundreds of tiny insulated cables that had to be checked by hand. It would have been a chore for anyone, but with thick and brutish paws like his the work went twice as slowly as it should have. Not for the first time, Dr. McCoy regretted relying on Shi’ar tech so heavily. It allowed him to do so much, but it was an absolute nightmare to troubleshoot.

He held a dozen or so of these impossibly thin wires, feeling them roll through the leathery pads of his fingertips. He used his other paw to adjust his glasses, squinting in the dim light to see the colors of each one. He felt the wrench he was holding brush against the fur above his brow, and was certain that there was now a thin sheen of synthetic oil sinking into it. Another mutter under his breath, this one just quiet enough for him to hear. He was going to take a long, hot bath after this, drying time be damned.

It was hard work, of course, building the tools that would go on to build the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning — but then, he knew it would be. That was part of what drew him to seek out the position in the first place. It had been far too long since he had been able to put his considerable talents to use for a cause he believed in unreservedly, and now he had his chance. He had a hand — paw — in rebuilding Xavier’s dream from the ground up, in shepherding a new generation of young mutants towards the ideal that one day human and mutantkind could live in peace. That thought was what propelled him through countless long nights, several hours of poring over manuals of alien technology and navigating his own physical difficulties with performing fine detail work. Most of the time, it was enough. Today, though…

The fur on the back of his neck stood up. There was someone in the lab.

He bumped his head and broad back under the console as he tried to slip out, rubbing the back of his head with a grumble. He tilted his nose up, sniffing the air — nothing but metal, coolant, the lubricant he was rubbing into his fur again…

He tossed the wrench down with a frustrated “Bah!” and looked around the lab, his goggles glinting as they caught the much brighter fluorescents beaming from the high ceiling. There was no movement, just the chaos of his dream lab being put together. Still, something didn’t feel right…

He felt a breeze ruffle the whiskers on his right side, and his ear flicked as he heard the barest whisper of fabric rubbing against fabric. Someone was behind him. He turned his head slightly in that direction and caught the scent he was looking for.

He leaped before the arm had even lifted, flipping a twisted somersault in the air to land on his feet (and one hand) while facing the spot he had been just a few seconds ago. Henry snarled instinctively, ears flattened, mane lifted; it embarrassed him to show his teeth that way, so he followed up quickly with witty banter.

“I don’t know who you are…” He looked up then, and saw Katherine Pryde phasing into sight, eyes wide and clearly startled.

“Well,” he said, “Kitty Pryde, as I live and breathe…” Henry straightened, grateful for his fur for once. As uncomfortable as it was, it did a wonderful job of hiding it when he blushed. He threw out his arms and rushed into a hug before she had a chance to recover.

Beast felt her stiffen for a split-second before she relaxed, letting her arms drop around his neck. His heart skipped a beat when she laughed; he spun her around and gave her the briefest squeeze before setting her down. For a moment, it was just like old times. All was right with the world.

“Hey, Hank!” She bounced on her feet as she landed, pushing a lock of her hair behind an ear. “Logan told me you were down here, so I thought I’d surprise you…probably wasn’t the best idea.”

Henry smiled, but not too wide. He knew how off-putting his fangs could be. “Ahhh, my dearest Kitty, a thousand apologies! It’s…been an eventful few months. I’m afraid my fight reflexes have gotten a bit too good.”

“You don’t have to explain that to me!” She smiled back. “When you live the life we do, you learn to hate surprises.” She turned around, looking at the enormous space that was only now just taking shape. “Look at all this, though! I’m impressed! You’ve really outdone yourself.”

Beast took her hand in his when she turned around, unable to keep himself from smiling wider. “Ahh, you’re too kind! It’s easy to do something impressive when you have access to alien technology and unlimited resources. Would you like for me to give you a tour?”

“I’d like nothing better.” Kitty squeezed one of his fingers and stepped to the side, letting him lead her. “I thought I recognized Shi’ar tech in this place. It has this really distinct feeling when you phase through it.”

Hank’s eyebrows lifted. “So that’s why I haven’t been able to get the main monitor working. I knew the design would be quite touchy, but I figured it wouldn’t be so bad once I had safely ensconced them behind the safety paneling.”

“Oh, no! I didn’t think you had turned anything on. I’m so sorry Henry…here, I’m not doing anything this afternoon, why don’t we order in a pizza and I’ll help you fix it?”

Henry paused as he walked along with Shadowcat, clapping his other massive paw over her hand. He looked into her eyes, his whiskers practically bristling with contentment. He had his doubts about the Jean Grey School — it was quite a risk, after all — but this was the first moment he was certain he had made the right decision.

“Nothing would make me happier. Let me show you the Warbird Fusion Reactor, and then I’ll tell you about this marvelous place I’ve found. They’ll even take custom toppings! I had an extra-large steak tartare pizza that was just delightful.”

Kitty laughed, “Oh Hank, that sounds awful!”

“My dear, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.” Beast smiled, then lead Pryde through a narrow passage and behind a panel that hadn’t been affixed to the wall yet. This place would be really something, once it all came together.

 
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Posted by on July 29, 2016 in Comic Books, Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

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(Comic Review) The Totally Awesome Hulk #1-4

Reading 150The Hulk has been one of those characters where it’s been impossible for him to settle down for very long. Every writer has a wild idea with him that they’d like to try out, and that means over the past several years he’s had wildly different status quos. After Greg Pak’s legendary run with Planet Hulk and World War Hulk, Bruce Banner has been imprisoned and replaced as the Hulk by his nemesis, Thunderbolt Ross (Hulk by Jeph Loeb); separated from the Hulk as payment for services rendered to Doctor Doom (Jason Aaron); remerged and used as a “tactical nuke” for the worst case scenarios (Mark Waid); underwent a moral inversion to become the villainous Kluh (AXIS); and finally managed to remain the physical Hulk with Banner’s intellect intact, intent on depowering every gamma-irradiated hero or villain in the Marvel universe.

After Secret Wars destroyed the old Marvel multiverse and replaced it with…something else, it was time for another big status quo shift. As part of Marvel’s ongoing initiative to replace its A-list superheroes with more diverse legacy characters, it was revealed that Amadeus Cho — teen super-genius — would be the new Hulk in the All-New, All-Different Marvel. Better yet, Greg Pak would return to write the series and the character he created, while Frank Cho would be the regular artist. I’m not entirely sure, but this is the first time one of the Big Two publishers have had an Asian superhero written and drawn by Asian creators. It’s kind of a big deal.

So…how is Amadeus Cho doing as the new, totally-awesome Hulk? Not bad! I don’t know an awful lot about Amadeus before now, but he’s considered the eighth (?) smartest person in the world and has been the sidekick of both Banner and the “god” Hercules. Amadeus was convinced that if he had the power of the Hulk, he could remain in control and be the “best Hulk ever”. Under mysterious circumstances that unfold over the course of the first arc, he gets his chance.

TAHCompared to Bruce, Amadeus is remarkably well-adjusted. He’s a happy-go-lucky kid that seems to relish the chance to be a superhero, and with his sister Maddy there to keep him focused and level-headed he might actually have a shot at sticking the landing. What’s clear in this first batch of issues, though, is that he’s got a few blind spots that are going to bite him pretty hard in due time.

His first set of missions sees him finding and capturing giant, powerful monsters before they can wreak havoc in populated centers. This puts him at cross purposes with Lady Hellbender, who wants to collect the monsters for an intergalactic reserve where they can run and play and be monsters to their heart’s content. I think folks would like Hellbender’s civilization, which sees insane power as something to be respected, almost idealized; though Amadeus thinks this is a good idea, Maddy and others think it might not be the best thing.

Once Amadeus “proves” his might by defeating Fin Fang Foom, Lady Hellbender then tries to take him as Earth’s ultimate monster. Which, you know, probably doesn’t go very well for anyone involved, right?

What’s interesting about the comic so far is how character-focused it is. Amadeus is a vastly different person than Bruce Banner, so his Hulk is triggered by a different set of emotions. It’s not his anger that you have to watch out for — it’s his youthful inexperience, his arrogance, his irresponsibility. Now that Amadeus has achieved the great power side of the equation, the consequences of not mastering the other side has risen to unacceptable levels. What happens when he makes his first major mistake?

This being a Hulk comic, there’s still plenty of smashing to be had. Frank Cho — he of Liberty Meadows fame — is one of the absolute best superhero artists out there right now, so it’s a thrill to see him taking on this monthly comic. Each character is excellently-designed and wonderfully detailed, and he has a particularly good eye for the feminine figure. He can draw women as powerful, dynamic people while not necessarily pushing them into objectified figures for the male gaze. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and I think he does it well. That might be me unable to spot his excesses in an industry where women-as-sexual-objects are more or less the norm, though.

tah2

Even though sales figures for The Totally Awesome Hulk aren’t stellar, they’re solid enough that I’m not really worried about the series being cancelled. With Cho taking part in Marvel’s big summer event — Civil War II — and being promoted as part of the Champions (a sort of “Young Avengers” who have different ideas about superheroics), it’s clear he’s not going anywhere soon. It’ll be interesting to see what Pak and Cho have in store for Amadeus after the dust settles from the latest superhero dust-up. For now, though, his solo series is a solid spin on the traditional Hulk tale, and a worthy update for a new generation.

 

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2016 in Comic Books, Reviews, Uncategorized

 

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(Friday Fiction) The Job Interview of Dr. Henry McCoy

Writing 150I’ve had superheroes on the brain for a while now, and there are a number of reasons for this. However, Beast of the X-Men is someone I just can’t get out of my head — also for a number of reasons. Ever since All-New Marvel Now!, when Brian Michael Bendis took over as the guiding hand of the X-Books, Hank has been in worse shape than usual. He pretty much broke the multiverse going back in time to get the original X-Men; he underwent another mutation that turned him into a cross between an ape and an elf; his future self was brainwashed by the son(?) of Charles Xavier into becoming one of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and subsequently died; he succumbed to the power of the Black Vortex, becoming an all-powerful nemesis; and finally he threw a hissy fit when the other X-Men confronted him about his hypocritical, out-of-character actions, leaving the Jean Grey School before Secret Wars hit.

I firmly believe that in better hands Hank can be a really fascinating and fun superhero. But to be honest, he hasn’t been written well in a long time and the current X-Universe being what it is, it’s unlikely he’ll be better served any time soon.

I keep thinking that it would be neat to allow the status quo of the X-Men to settle for one god-damned minute in order for characters to evolve and grow in ways other superheroes get to do in the Marvel universe. The period after the Schism — where Cyclops and Wolverine split mutantkind in two with their differing ideologies — is a great one to go back to for that. Here, we see the older generation stepping into roles of mentorship and command. New mutants dealing with their own evolution in the unending battle for acceptance are coming up, learning the lessons of the previous set and adapting them to their own time. It’s a rich setting, and one that suits Beast perfectly.

So here’s a conversation between Wolverine and Beast, who is signing up for a position at the Jean Grey School of Higher Learning.
Hank McCoy slipped between the trees with a feline grace that somehow enhanced the bulk that looked to be at odds with it. His boots — modified to fit his new digitigrade stance — whispered along the undergrowth of the forest, leaving only the lightest of tracks on a path he scented more than he saw.

It figured that Logan would want to meet him out here. A quick scan of the area told him there was a cabin somewhere in this wilderness, though most people would have a devil of a time finding it. He had to leave his car behind a couple miles ago, slinging a backpack over one broad and furry shoulder to walk the rest of the way.

It wasn’t a bad day for it. The sun shone through a thick canopy of leaves, small pockets of light reaching the ground ahead of him. A gentle breeze carried the scents of the forest to him; trees struggling to procreate in the springtime, birds and animals that remained out of sight but which were present just the same, the slight but noticeable trace of Wolverine leading him forward. It was even cool enough that he didn’t feel overheated as he moved. Since his latest mutation, his fur had gotten thicker, enough to shift the range of temperatures he was comfortable with. It had been a long adjustment, and he was only now becoming comfortable in his own body again.

Which is why he had no hesitation dropping to all fours (though he looked around, as if to check for anyone watching him) to speed up his pace; it was nice to take a stroll in nature, but he wanted to be prompt for his meeting. Logan might not care about punctuality, but he certainly did.

Hank had only recently taken to exploring the new, bestial attitudes that flitted across his ever-thinking brain. Since becoming a bouncing blue cast member of the musical Cats, he had difficulty accepting his new-found fondness for raw meat, or the powerful instinct to chase or pounce others. It disturbed him, not just because they were present, but because sometimes they were so strong. The Cassandra Nova business hit him where he lived there, and it was a long way back to being unafraid of himself. He had hoped getting back to what he did best — being the chief scientist for the X-Men — would complete the healing of that trauma and allow him a chance to feel like himself again at long last.

But first, he would have to convince Logan to take him on.

He loped between the trees quickly now, his paw-like hands churning up leaves and dirt as he galloped along. Wolverine’s scent became stronger now, along with the smell of coffee, alcohol, cigars and burning wood. He paused for a moment, then pivoted towards the northeast. Another few minutes, and dense wood gave way to a small clearing with a modest cabin squatting right in the center of it. He scanned the area with sharp and slitted eyes. The birds were at ease here, and he spotted a squirrel or two darting between the safety of two tree trunks. A lazy plume of smoke rose from the cabin’s stone chimney, and another one rose from the porch. Logan was there, wearing simple jeans, a flannel shirt and boots. He was chewing his cigar like it was his breakfast. The mutant stared right at him as he stood and stepped out of the trees.

“Hank,” he said, as if he had been waiting this whole time.

“Logan,” Beast said, clapping the dust off of his hands as he cleared the small distance between himself and the new headmaster of the Jean Grey School. “It’s so nice of you to invite me to your summer home.”

Wolverine shook Beast’s hand without smiling. Hank wasn’t offended; it was a weak joke. “I just figured you’d want to meet somewhere private. Those SWORD guys still after you?”

Beast waved him off. “Heavens, no. That was sorted a little while ago, thank the stars. Dr. Henry McCoy has a spotless record once more.”

Wolverine simply grunted, turning to sit on one of the chairs next to the cabin’s door. “Have a seat. Can I get you something? A beer?”

Hank glanced at the chair; it was solid wood, but a bit too narrow for his hips. He chose to lean against one of the porch posts instead. “No, thank you. It’s a bit early for me to indulge. I did bring you something, though.”

He slung his backpack off his shoulder and opened the zipper with a claw. “I know it’s customary to bring a token of esteem in these situations; most would have gone with a fruit basket of some sort, but I figured you’d appreciate this more.”

Wolverine eyed the bottle of whiskey, staring at the label once it was handed to him. “Single malt, huh? Not bad.” He wasted no time twisting the top off and taking a long swig.

Beast glanced at him, then looked out over the clearing. “Yes, a small batch distillery from Cork that I thought you’d like. I thought the apple notes were quite a nice distinction.”

His ear flicked as he heard the bottle upend once more, a full tumbler of the stuff disappearing down Wolverine’s throat in the span of a few seconds.

“Mmm, it’s all right.” Logan sat the bottle down on the porch, then exhaled. “Now that you’ve broken the ice, want to get this over with?”

Hank grinned. “Certainly. Though I have to admit I was surprised you wanted to interview me for the position. We’ve worked well together before, and we seem to be of the same mind on what we want for these children.”

“We are. But I need to know where your head’s at. You left the X-Men, Hank. You went out to space with your girlfriend and only reached out to me when you found out I was rebuilding the school.”

Hank furrowed a brow. Was Logan upset about his defection? Or something else? It was hard to get a read on him; his scent was mostly covered by burning tobacco and the stinging alcohol he had drained a half-bottle of in under a minute. “If you’re worried about my commitment, then you certainly don’t need to be. I believe I’ve proven myself to be quite dedicated to causes I believe in.”

“True. But you’ve also had a hell of a time of it in the past six months. This school is going to be a target for a lot of people…maybe some of our own’ll be gunning for us or our kids. You sure you’re ready for that?” Wolverine kept his voice even, calm, but there was something about that question…

“I’ve been fighting to protect the innocent for over a decade now, Logan. It’s my life’s work.” He turned towards the mutant, arms folded. “And you’ve provided me with the opportunity to continue it.”

“So why didn’t you open the school yourself? Why wait for someone else?”

Beast blinked. “I…didn’t think I could do it on my own.”

“Who said you would have been?” Wolverine stretched out, leaning back in his chair.

“Call it an educated guess. I am many things, Logan, but a leader of man and mutant I am not. I’ve never been comfortable convincing others that my choices are the ones that need to be followed. I don’t have the knack for it that you or Scott or Ororo do…”

“You think I want to be a leader, Hank?” This time, Wolverine smiled. “I’m stepping up to this because somebody’s got to. You’d think that one of Charles’ students would want to be the ones to take on his legacy…”

“But Scott is becoming increasingly militant, and Jean is no longer with us. Warren….good heavens, who knows what’s happened to Warren. And Bobby is…well, Bobby has his own issues.” Beast shook his head. “As much as it pains me to say it, none of us are capable of doing that at the moment. But you are. Let me help you.”

Wolverine stared at him for a long time. “Of course you’re going to help me.” He stood and stepped forward, offering Hank a hand. “Welcome to the Jean Grey School, Dr. McCoy. She’s going to need you.”

Beast beamed, showing the full measure of his fangs before he could help himself. “Thank you. Now, shall we talk about compensation?”

Wolverine grunted; it’s what passed for a laugh most of the time. “Free room and board, provided you design the school and lead the building of it.”

Beast blinked. “You mean the mansion isn’t rebuilt? How…far have you gotten in this process?”

Wolverine slumped back into his chair and picked up the bottle of whiskey. “So far, I’ve hired on a Vice-Principal to help rebuild Charles’ dream from the ground up. Not a bad start.”

Beast took a deep breath and grabbed the whiskey when it was handed to him. He took a swig himself, straight from the bottle. “Not a bad start at all, my friend.”

 
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Posted by on July 1, 2016 in Comic Books, Writing

 

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(Review) Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur #1-6

Reading 150When Marvel resumed their regular universe in the wake of Secret Wars last November, they released a really great line-up of diverse comics under the “All-New, All-Different Marvel” banner. I wrote a little about the titles I was most interested in here, and it’s taken me a little time to get to most of the titles. Still, they’re in my pull box and I’ve been steadily making my way through. So, how are they faring eight months later?

Not well, I have to say. Red Wolf, Howling Commandos of SHIELD, and Weirdworld have been cancelled already, and a lot of the other fledgeling comics aimed at diversifying their line-up in either character or tone have been consistently soft-sellers for your local comic shop. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the diversity initiative is a failure; with a more diverse readership comes way more diverse ways of reading, so while a lot of the audience for these books might not be heading to the LCS to pick them up they might be getting them somewhere else — digitally through the Marvel or Comixology app, or in graphic novel form through their local bookseller or on Amazon. Still, the Diamond sales figures reported from comic shops is essentially the Nielsen rating that comics titles live or die on, and the big two publishing houses still use that as a key figure of success.

So let me preface this review by saying that if you’re a comics fan who has been championing more diversity in superhero stories, it’s vitally important to offer feedback to the companies giving it to you in a way they understand. Visit your local comic shop, pre-order the title or buy it off the shelf. A lot of these businesses are locally owned and operated, and they can certainly use the patronage (and the proof that broadening the tent of the superhero story is bringing in new and diverse fans).

MG and DD

One of the titles I was most intrigued by is Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, which wrapped up its first arc last month and released its first graphic novel collection. Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare have been doing some great work here, establishing Lunella Lafayette as a next-generation Peter Parker who just so happens to have a supernatural dinosaur as a best friend. Lunella’s story is relatable and engrossing, even when the more ridiculous elements dominate the scenery. It’s grounded in street-level concerns, coming off a bit like Netflix’s Daredevil — a look at how the high-minded heroics of the Marvel universe affect the working stiffs who have to deal with the fallout.

Lunella, for example, is a ten-year-old super-genius whose parents simply can’t afford to send her to a school worthy of her intellect. Worse, her repeated applications to the prestigious Future Foundation are rejected. So she’s stuck at her local elementary school where she fights off crushing boredom and disconnection by working on a problem that’s complicated enough to engage her and personal enough to motivate her: finding a way to keep the Terrigen Mists making their way around the globe from turning her into an Inhuman. She knows she has these dormant genes locked up inside of her, and exposure to the Mists will activate them, turning her into a different person. Of course she doesn’t want that; she just wants to be a normal girl. So, she tries to hunt down a Kree artifact in the hopes that it will tell her how their experiments worked. Maybe if she gets an explanation, she can reverse-engineer a cure.

Meanwhile, both Devil Dinosaur and a tribe of early hominids called the Killer Folk are displaced through time after a fight; when Lunella finds the artifact that sent them into the modern day, she becomes the Killer Folk’s new target.

This is my first exposure to Devil Dinosaur, though I’ve seen his name pop up here and there in various Marvel cartoons and games. I suspect I’m not alone in this, especially if this particular comic book is meant to draw in readers who would have never gotten into the Marvel universe some other way. I’m intrigued by his back-story, even though I don’t think we’ll get much explanation of it here; the first arc is all about Lunella making sense of her world and the crazy things she gets caught up in and DD is very much a sidekick. But it feels like his fight against the Killer Folk reaches back across the eons, especially since the inciting incident involves a ritual that the Killer Folk perform a blood sacrifice and the dinosaur’s original companion — Moon Boy — is *also* an ancient hominid. What’s going on here? And how does it tie in with Lunella’s life beyond the Kree connection? Maybe that will be answered in future arcs.

MG and DD coverThis one, though, is a lot of fun. We’re introduced to Lunella, her family, her school, her neighborhood and problems through these intensely disruptive influences that reshape them quite a bit. We see Lunella’s fearlessness as she draws her strength in the face of adversity; how she gets that from a mother willing to do what it takes to protect and provide for her family; and how her work ethic comes from a father who sacrifices his time and attention to make ends meet, but still does his best to be present for a daughter he doesn’t really understand. Lunella, on some level, recognizes the good intentions of her parents even while she knows they can’t possibly get what she’s going through. That tension between love and isolation is well-drawn here; and it informs so many of her decisions. She puts up with the teasing from her classmates, the impatient hostility of her teachers, the dismissive ignorance of the world at large — not because she thinks she’s better than they are, but because she knows how her differences sets her apart from just about everyone. If her own family doesn’t understand her, how can she expect anyone else to?

I know that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but it is. Lunella is a great heroine because she doesn’t let this fundamental disconnection get her down. She still believes in the people around her, she still wants to be a part of the world. The first arc of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur establishes that desire while also showing her that she can embrace the full oddity of who she is and how she relates to the world around her. Seeing that is a true joy and ultimately inspiring.

We don’t see black heroines who are smart, fearless and devoted to excellence all that often. Most of the time we see them as tough powerhouses who don’t take shit from anyone (see: Zoe Washburne, Amanda Waller, Miss America, etc.). And while that’s awesome, Lunella is in a class all by herself. She gets by on her brain, and her strength comes from her ability to stick through a tough problem until she finds a solution. She just doesn’t give up. That willpower is her birthright, and she’s applying it to the problems that we face in the 21st century. Ours is a complex, interconnected and quickly-changing world, and just when you think you’ve got things down the landscape shifts under your feet. Lunella is simultaneously firmly rooted in who she is and adaptable to whatever the world lays at her doorstep. She’s incredible.

The art from Amy Reeder and Natacha Bustos is a big part of this comic’s appeal. It’s bright and dynamic, capturing the lightness of childhood perfectly blended with the hard edges and long shadows of living in a big, dangerous city. They’re able to run the gamut of grounded scenes at the family dinner table, the primary-colored chaos of an elementary school classroom, the neon-and-shadow contrast of a city at night, and the traditional craziness of big superhero action without sacrificing their style; it’s consistent and balanced, simple but extraordinarily capable. This book isn’t only a pleasure to read, but so many of the panels are a joy to look at as well.

I really love this comic, and I think a lot of you out there will, too. And, as much as I hate to say this, it’s important that you find it. Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur debuted in November 2015 with nearly 39,000 copies sold; sales figures have since dipped into the 12K range — beneath Contest of Champions, Star-Lord and Hyperion. It’s not quite into “automatic cancellation” territory, but it’s close. The most recent issues of Weirdworld and Red Wolf have only pulled 9K and 7K copies, respectively; Marvel’s top ongoing comics generally pull around 75K copies.

I’m not going to pretend Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur will ever pull that many numbers, but it’s important for us to show Marvel that there’s room in their universe for heroes like Lunella Lafayette. Now that the first collection is out, go to your local comic shop and pick it up. If you like it, make it a point to grab individual issues every month. I know that the feedback model is bogus — digital and bookstore sales absolutely need to be given more weight — but let’s deal with things as they are. Now that Marvel has listened to us and given us diverse and compelling heroes, it’s up to us to show our appreciation with our wallets and words.

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2016 in Comic Books, Reading, Reviews

 

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(Comics) A Wolf for the People: Sam Wilson’s First 100 Days as Captain America

Reading 150Sam Wilson has not had an easy time of it during his short stint with the shield. He’s basically operating on a shoestring budget out of the basement of a neighborhood church, with only two (testy) people on his staff and no resources. He’s on the “wrong” side of an ideological difference with his best friend and former mentor, Steve Rogers; that same difference has caused most of the public to turn against him. And, for four issues, he was transformed into a wolf/human hybrid against his will by a mad doctor.

Fortunately for us, Sam’s trouble is our delight. The first six issues of Sam Wilson: Captain America makes a bold statement about how he handles the responsibility of being a symbol; writer Nick Spencer positions Wilson as a superhero in an intensely divided country, so no matter what he does he’s going to piss off half the population. Still, Wilson takes a stand even though it’s unpopular, because he’s learned the only lesson worth knowing from Rogers. In order to be worthy of the costume, you have to live up to your morals unflinchingly.

What makes Sam so interesting as Cap is that his morality is so different from Steve’s. Their big rift comes from the fallout of learning that SHIELD has been working on a Cosmic Cube that has the power to reshape reality. The person who leaked this information, an Edward Snowden-type known only as The Whisperer, was nearly caught until Sam helped him — he believed that blowing the whistle on SHIELD’s activities is a public service that he shouldn’t be punished for. Rogers, on the other hand, thinks that though The Whisperer did the right thing, he should still be brought to trial for his actions. Wilson doesn’t believe it’s possible to trust due process in this case, but Rogers does. It’s the difference between Lawful Good and Neutral Good.

That rift deepens when Wilson takes on a militia appointing themselves as border patrol to stop the flow of illegal immigrants, and it’s there he discovers people are being taken and experimented on by Dr. Malus. On the run from SHIELD and Rogers, Wilson is captured and turned into Cap-Wolf, which is the real reason you folks should get these issues. Of course.

Wilson’s investigation takes him through the business world, where Serpent Solutions is making a power-play on behalf of other corporations. The commentary on the current state of corporate politics is a little more ham-fisted, but Sam’s resolution of the arc is surprising yet pragmatic; what I love about the way the story winds down is his realization that ideals don’t happen in a vacuum. Choices have far-reaching consequences, because at this point of American life everything is connected. You can’t advance your morality without stepping on a political landmine, and those politics are deeply influenced by gigantic corporate interests whose success and failure affect the livelihood of millions. If you shut down one thing, you begin a cascade that quickly spirals outside of your control.

Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson have different ways of reacting to the system. Rogers’ Captain America was wholly inspirational; he wanted to be the physical embodiment of the best principles America was founded upon. He believes that the system works, but only as long as the people within it strive for the ideals they serve to the best of their ability. Wilson’s Captain America isn’t so sure; he believes that the system is rigged and leaves out a lot of people who can’t defend themselves against it, and those are the people he wishes to serve.

The Whisperer is the embodiment of that difference in opinion. Since Steve believes in the system, he believes that he can convince people to do the right thing and justice will prevail. But Wilson understands that even if they win in the courtroom, other connected threads will act to preserve the status quo however it can. The system will protect its own, and Steve is inextricably tied to it. Sam has always been an outsider, so his morality doesn’t depend on that allegiance.

So who IS Captain America these days? What interest does he serve? As our understanding of the government shifts and our ideas about what it should and should not be doing changes, every once in a while we need to step back and check on that. I love that Nick Spencer is really diving into that through Sam’s turbulent first days on the job, and I’m really curious how Wilson’s journey continues. There is going to be a lot more fighting for him coming up — Avengers: Standoff is getting into full-swing, and there won’t even be time to take a breath before Civil War II lights up comic stores this summer. Somewhere in all of that, Steve Rogers will don the mantle of Captain America once more, giving us two versions of the hero serving two different visions of America.

Maybe, at this point, that’s the best we can hope for.

 

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(Review) Why Black People Don’t Time Travel

Reading 150Edana Peterson is a writer who works temporary jobs to make ends meet; during one of these jobs, she meets a white, blue-collar worker named Kevin Franklin and falls in love with him. Kevin rejects his racist family in order to marry Dana — not something that’s easy, but it was especially so back in 1976. As the newlyweds move into a small place together, Dana gets dizzy while having a conversation with her husband. The room begins to spin; her vision blurs. And suddenly, she’s in a river with a drowning child. She saves him, and in reward for her trouble she’s attacked by the boy’s mother and nearly shot by a white man wondering what she’s doing off of a plantation.

This is the first of a half-dozen incredible trips back in time and across the country for Dana, the protagonist of Octavia Butler’s seminal work Kindred. Over the course of the novel, she learns that she’s being pulled back through time to save a young man named Rufus Weylin, who turns out to be an ancestor living in slavery-era Maryland. However, Rufus’ calling her have massive and long-lasting effects on Dana and Kevin; the first-hand experience of American slavery leave deep and lasting scars on both of them that they struggle to deal with.

Kindred is essentially a fictionalized slavery narrative that does something vital — it recovers the true extent of the slave’s experience and contextualizes it for modern-day audiences. One of the greatest disservices that have been done to American history is the sanitization of this period. So many stories set during this period are “lightened” so that audiences don’t lose their stomach for the tale while still hopefully learning how difficult it was. But what that does is distance ourselves from the very thing we need to be connecting to — no matter how difficult it is, knowing exactly what happened to black Americans during slavery and who perpetrated these horrors is essential in understanding the social and psychological impact it had on the people and institutions of modern-day America.

Both Dana and Kevin see themselves as progressives of the time, but the forced confrontation of the reality of their history is still hard to take. Their experience gives them no choice but to re-examine the idea they had about slavery and the choices that people under that brutal regime had to make in order to survive. Kindred illustrates just how people could possibly come to accept the abuses they endured and why they did it; it gives shades to those “Uncle Tom” and “contented mammy” characters that were caricatured in stories like Gone With The Wind; and it restores agency to so many other people trapped in the huge social ecosystem of the Southern plantation. The slaves that Dana meets when she’s transported through time don’t belong to merely a few stereotypes; their rich inner lives shows us the vast array of responses to their enslavement and how those decisions came about.

Perhaps more than anything, Kindred makes me understand just how much black women in particular suffered under white patriarchal supremacy in the antebellum South and how much they continue to do so today. They were perceived as nothing but property by all of society, and were subject to the base desires and whims of their masters. When all of the world was arrayed against you, you had to think very carefully about how you rebelled; it wasn’t simply a matter of worrying about your own life, because you had to think about the lives of your children and family as well.

One of the most fascinating things about the novel is how the shared experience of Dana and Kevin affects their relationship. Even as they become separated across time and space, what they have to endure changes them. Kevin has to disabuse himself of several notions about the struggle of black Americans in both the slavery South and the more “enlightened” times of 1970’s Los Angeles. When he returns to his “world”, it’s clear that he can’t really absorb what happened and move forward. Combined with Dana’s trauma, the couple must struggle to build a life together as best they can. The novel ends on that difficult, unresolved, yet hopeful note.

I think that’s the ultimate lesson of Kindred; fully facing a difficult history will change you in ways that are irrevocable and possibly damaging, but ultimately necessary. We can no longer go on as a society thinking that we don’t have the scars we do. If we don’t pay attention to our collective wounds, they will continue to fester and grow infectious, poisoning the very life-blood of our society. This unwillingness to look at the legacy that was left for us by our ancestors results in the continued abuse against minorities of those in power; the persistent inability of our legal system to properly recognize how those abuses have been perpetrated, largely unbroken, to this day; and the unchecked, raw anger and resentment that so many of us black Americans feel for our brothers and sisters with different ideas, lives and stories as well as the broader society that we’re all struggling to integrate into.

Kindred teaches us that clear understanding of our history is difficult but also healing. We are not whole people; we’ve done and endured terrible things. Facing that teaches us to better grasp the decisions of others within that system, see how its consequences are still baked into our society and have more compassion and empathy for our ancestors and each other. Realizing the hell we were all in simply gives us better orientation to get ourselves out of it.

So, if you can, read Kindred. Precisely because it is difficult, and will change you.

 

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