Saturday, December 25, 2010

God Loves, Man Kills, and Christopher Claremont is Unimpressive

God Loves, Man Kills is one of Christopher Claremont's and Brent Anderson’s most renowned works. It has a straight forward plot about fundamentalists going to extremes to eradicate mutants. We see all the opposing points of view, from extremists on both sides as well as the moderates, and watch as the situation escalates. By the end of the story, we see all the reactions from all the polarizing figures in the story. God Loves, Man Kills ultimately comes to the conclusion that we may have more in common with our enemies then we think. It is ambitious and full of good intentions, but it doesn't have the most complex plot or the most original message. However, these aren't the problems with the story.

Generally, any story with a clear moral usually doesn't make for the best kind of reading. That sort of writing should be left to PBS kids’ shows and children’s books, but when God Loves, Man Kills was released, it was geared towards a more mature audience. The level of violence and language were more graphic then the standard X-comic, and it was actually released as a separate graphic novel to be read outside of the standard month-to-month X-Men continuity.Taking all the special effort and attention that was given to this book into consideration, the expectations that I had were notably higher, and it just didn't live up to them.

The first thing that needs to be mentioned is that although the moral of the story is simple, it is not its simplicity that hinders the story. There are a lot of stories that are told with simple messages, but it is execution that determines the value of the story.

The story opens with two young children on the run from a group of bigots that have just murdered their parents. We watch as the children are gunned down in cold blood.

Violence as a means of conveying a message through shocking brutality is not a new concept. On its own, this scene should be able to tell us everything that we need to know; all the outrage we should be feeling should be in the subtext. The scene ends with Magneto standing over their lifeless bodies, as he essentially sums up the events that we have just witnessed, and what makes it a travesty. Finally, Magneto ends in melodramatic fashion, saying, “No more shall die--but those responsible for this atrocity! Whatever the cost, however long it takes, I will hunt them down--and make them pay!"

In reviewing this scene, I had to ask myself why it irked me; the events that take place are powerful and the art work is clear and concise, conveying everything I need to know without the necessity of words. But because Magneto has so much to say it makes the scene less potent. The failing here is in Christopher Claremont's dialogue.

The monologue as a literary tool is usually used to give us insight into a character’s psyche. It is almost a pause button used to momentarily take the reader out of the scene to illuminate the situation with perspective, but in Claremont's case what we see is that he has chosen to be simple and to the point. However, this is so simple that he doesn't add any depth, and all he is doing is explaining what we can plainly see in Brent Anderson’s artwork , through the way he draws Magneto’s actions and facial expressions.

There are several possible ideas that can be taken away from this scene: Claremont reveals that he doesn't understand subtlety; he lacks the skill and/or technique to present his ideas with any finesse; or, worst of all, he doesn't trust the readers to pick up these themes on their own. Of the three options, the last one is the worst because if the issue is lack of talent or ignorance, then he is just a bad writer; no one should be faulted just for being human. But if he has made a conscious decision to be this overt, then there was forethought involved, and that would just be condescending.
God Loves, Man Kills attempts to be a more mature and progressive piece of work compared to the standard X tale. The implication is that this tale will be truer to reality then your typical “X-Men save the world” story. Claremont does make an attempt to tell as realistic a story as he can, but ultimately his own sensibilities hurt this story.

There are some scenes that do well in trying to depict the X-Men as realistically as possible. One scene in particular shows Kitty Pryde attacking, a young man who has just made a discriminatory remark about mutants. When the two are seperated, Kitty angrily asks why everyone is so calm; Stevie, a young black woman and mentor to Kitty, tries to calm her down by telling Kitty that they are "only words", to which Kitty responds, "Suppose he'd called me a nigger-lover, Stevie?! Would you be so damn tolerant then?!!"
This is a well done scene. Claremont takes the plight of the mutants and anchors it to issues that are real and relateble to the readers. The use of the word “nigger,” although shocking, makes the moment even more apt, as we understand just what the stakes are, in terms everyone can relate to.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story does not keep in sync with this true moment. There are more moments where Claremont tends to fall back on the more fictional elements of the story, making the overall experience less believable.

For all intents and purposes, God Loves, Man Kills is supposed to be a commentary on the social ills of racism. For this kind of a story, super powers, or mutations in this case, should be downplayed. The existence of powers in this universe should be to establish that there is a classification of human beings are treated like second class citizens.

It should be enough that mutants have to live in a world where they are outnumbered by people who fear and hate them. William Stryker; the primary antagonist, is a televangelist and ex-military figure, preaches the destruction of the mutant race after losing his wife in a tragic accident that he blames on the birth of his mutant son. Stryker represents the extreme fringe as the leader of a violent anti-mutant organization that has taken root with a segment of the population, and whose numbers are growing. His ideas should be the most dangerous thing about him, but what we see as the story progresses is that he has far more resources then are believable. The story culminates with the revelation that Stryker has a plan to murder mutants on a large scale using a weapon that he was able to create through a combination of science and resources that he has stolen from his days in the military. Even the short hand description is hokey. In order to believe that this plan is possible it takes a suspension of belief on multiple levels.

First, we have to accept that Stryker, an ex-military figure, is able to get his hands on technology of the caliber he requires, years after he has left the military. It just seems like the technology he has attained is far too easily accessible, even for the purposes of the story.

Second, the weapon needs to be able to kill mutants who are not in a collected location, but are scattered, and in order to have that happen Claremont just goes to flimsy fictional science. Stryker must use a mind-controlled Professor X as the engine that will kill mutants, wherever they are, using telepathy. The premise is weak for two reasons : Professor X is one of the most powerful minds on the planet, and to have him be mind controlled so easily by regular humans just doesn't make sense. Additionally, to have to go to such extremes as a writer, to invent a machine for the sole purposes of conforming to the dimensions of the story, just makes it less and less realistic because he has to spend so much time making up science.

Finally, the last problem with the story is the foot soldiers, or Purifiers, themselves. Although the X-Men have powers, they will always be outnumbered, and there is no need to make these people any more threatening other than to have them exist. However, Claremont takes the Purifiers and arms them with fantastic lasers and armor that just aren't necessary. This simply illustrates my first point about the accessibility of high technology and in fact, raises the bar further by equipping am entire army with science fiction weaponry. The more realistic approach to the story would have shown this group armed with nothing more but their influence and basic guns. If you have ever seen news footage of Klan rallies, you would notice that there is a lack of advanced weaponry. It was always their hate that made them a threat.

God Loves, Man Kills tries to be a realistic story, but its lack of subtlety and tendency to go back to a very simple kind of science fiction makes it a story that means well and has high aspirations but misses the mark. It is either an action story trying to masquerade as a morality tale, or a critique of society that happens to have some action in it. By trying to be all things to all people it succeeds in being a half-hearted version of both.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Excellent Joe Casey Interview on The Comics Reporter

Check out this in-depth interview with Joe Casey on one of my favorite comics news sites, The Comics Reporter:

Joe Casey is one of my personal artistic heroes, and definitely up there with Peter Milligan in my pantheon of all-time favorite writers. Like Milligan, Casey's body of work is a good mixture of critical darling and commercial. I didn't know Casey himself is a fan of Milligan, though. For evidence, I present this tidbit:
Of course, back in the warm embrace of the comic book medium, at this point I'm actually quite satisfied with maybe/possibly/hopefully being counted among a nice tradition of cult writers who tried to push the envelope, each in their own ways, and who had occasional flashes of mass, mainstream exposure. Don McGregor. Steve Gerber. Peter Milligan. Mike Baron. Howard Chaykin. These are writers I admire a lot, some of them are bonafide heroes of mine, so if I can even get close to the kind of contribution they made to the medium, that ain't bad at all. It's a niche where maybe I actually fit in.
It's nice to see that two writers I really like have more in common than one might expect from a cursory glance at their respective bibliographies. Casey certainly neatly summarizes impact of Milligan (and the other writers he namechecks) in a way that reminds me why I enjoy reading comics.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

March 2011 = Milligan Marvels

Marvel announced an upcoming Peter Milligan miniseries. It's a five-issue story entitled 5 Ronin. Interestingly enough, it will be released weekly in the month of March. Sounds like one of those fifth-week events, because March has five Wednesdays.

The story features Wolverine, Psylocke, the Hulk, Deadpool, and the Punisher existing in feudal Japan and living as masterless samurai. I presume it's some sort of what-if type of story.

Each issue will be illustrated by a different artist. The artists are Tomm Coker, Dalibor Talajic, Laurence Campbell, Goran Parlov, and Leandro Fernandez. Quite an appealing lineup. Coker has done some fine work in recent years; he illustrated Charlie Huston's final issue of Moon Knight, and I will always believe that Huston's Moon Knight run would have been classic if Coker had drawn the whole thing. Laurence Campbell did some excellent work on the Milligan-penned Moon Knight: Silent Knight one-shot that came out two winters ago. Goran Parlov, of course, is probably best known for his superb work on Punisher MAX with Garth Ennis. (Parlov also did some fine work filling in for Pia Guerra on Y: The Last Man.) Fernandez, too, did excellent work with Ennis on Punisher MAX. (I've actually never heard of Dalibor Talajic.)

All in all, I'm looking forward to this. Milligan often does his finest corporate-owned superhero work when he doesn't have to think about fitting in with the demands of universe-wide events and continuity. The only real question is whether I buy this one issue at a time or wait for the trade paperback edition. Decisions, decisions... I wish I could have my very own TV special just so I could announce my decision.

Check out this creative cover featuring the Punisher as a ronin by Giuseppe Camuncoli, Milligan's partner-in-crime over on Hellblazer:

Seriously, that's a nice cover. You have to love how Cammo created the Punisher's skull using two exploding heads as eye sockets, Punisher's knotted hair as the nose, and the backdrop of the moon as the skull.

You can read the official press release here: