Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Poetry of Death and Difference: X-Men: Endangered Species

This week’s X-Men: Endangered Species one-shot is more of a visual mood poem than a story, and that may be why I enjoyed it so thoroughly and so unexpectedly. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I might be ready to give the X-Men a serious try again.

The issue’s slight narrative concerns the X-Men’s attendance at the funeral of one of the 198 mutants who survived Wanda’s magical interdiction in House of M; largely, it is an excuse for the X-Men to reflect on their new status as “the last of their race”—to reflect, that is, on the nature of death and the meaning of life. There are no earth-shattering revelations here and very little action—almost none in the conventional sense. What we have instead is a series of character pieces that chart a range of responses to the new mutant status quo. These responses span a realistic range of emotions, from fatalistic piety to dignified defiance, culminating in a surprisingly affecting 9-page scene between Cyclops and Wolverine that is the raison d’être of the book and a rare example of effective decompression.

The scene is simple, but it does its work beautifully. It begins with Scott Summers alone in the graveyard after the funeral; he removes his quartz glasses and releases a frustrated eyeblast into the overcast sky, igniting a storm. Scott’s subsequent confession to Logan that he feels guilty for not having successfully recruited the boy to Xavier’s school confirms that Scott’s grief, guilt, anger, and fear center specifically on mutants as an “endangered species.” But then something wonderful happens: Logan replies that the X-Men’s new situation forces them to confront the reality of death as such, not just for themselves as a “species,” but as a universal condition of being alive.

This is pop profundity, to be sure—but it’s no less true nor is it any less affecting for that. It’s also a welcome qualification of the “endangered species” theme, which could very easily be played as a race war in which the theme of mutant “survival” becomes the excuse for reveling in a quasi-racialist discourse of “species survival” for its own sake. There’s a fine line between the metaphor of genetically different mutants as cool but embattled minorities (the reason many of us fell in love with the X-Men in the first place) and uncritical celebrations of group identity. In these paranoid times, I’d prefer my X-Men to be embattled but still alert to what might without too much embarrassment still be called “the universal.”

This danger of overvaluing one’s own identity (“species”) at the expense of what we all have in common is precisely what this issue is about, as the accusation of the angry father of the dead mutant boy make clear. When Scott and Emma try to pay their respects, the man bristles: “You’re paying your respects to a name crossed off your list. You’re just here to mourn your own hard times.” Judging from Scott’s confession to Logan, the shoe fits.

Yet, the conversation between Scott and Logan ends with an affirmation of the two-sidedness of an existence that is always haunted by death and of the will to life that compels us not despair but to keep fighting. Indeed, there is no death drive in Wolverine’s universe: we don’t give up on life because “we don’t know how.” If only that were true! But as fantasies go, it’s one I can’t help but enjoy. Moreover, it’s particularly gratifying here because Wolverine’s gloomy affirmation (spoken in the graveyard just as the rain begins to fall) seems to qualify the vapid consolations of the minister who assures the mourners that “pain—all pain—has a point” that will be understood at the end of history. Penciler Scot Eaton does a superb job of rendering Charles’s skepticism about that bit of biblical “wisdom,” as well as the bored faces of a number of other X-Men in attendance at this public rite. The narrative privilege accorded to Logan’s more sober, implicitly secular account of the individual’s encounter with death as “the only way you know what life is worth…Any life…” puts a very different spin on the minister’s faith in a transcendental justification for suffering.

The last three pages depicting the thunder and lightening of the storm over the cemetary, followed by the breaking of sunlight beyond are obviously symbolic, but like any true symbol, the meaning of these sky pictures is rich and ambiguous. They might be taken to affirm the minister’s view of pain followed by divine redemption, but they might equally affirm Logan’s reflections on the way that death gives life meaning here on earth, or perhaps some nebulous combination of the two.

More generally, the wordless two-page spread of the sun bursting through the clouds concludes the book on a “poetic” note that elevates the resonance and ambiguity of the entire issue’s-worth of vignettes. How? It’s a truism that realist prose fiction conventionally tends to favor literal language over metaphor, whereas lyric poetry conventionally reverses this situation, favoring metaphorical language over the literal. The reason for this is obvious (though perhaps tautological): realist prose fiction is about advancing a plot, moving a story along, whereas lyric poetry is principally about evoking a complex situation and equally complex emotions. X-Men: Endangered Species is nominally a narrative, but it veers repeatedly in the direction of lyric poetry, and it does so by substituting visual images for lyric poetry’s verbal metaphors. All comics do this to some degree, but it is especially prominent here. The visual poetry of this issue (which is, after all, about reflection rather than action) works particularly nicely at the end because the shift to symbolism that is not anthropomorphic strikes the note of universality that Logan’s concluding speech has already sounded.

All of which is to say that Mike Carey does a nice job with the words and that Scot Eaton (with John Dell on inks) does an extra nice job on the pictures. It’s incredible how much Eaton has grown as an artist, isn’t it? His work for CrossGen’s Sigil was a quantum leap from his early work on Swamp Thing; his pencils for New Excalibur and Endangered Species are even slicker. The book couldn’t have succeeded the way it does without an artist as good as Eaton, and I notice that he will be drawing a great many of the Endangered Species back-ups in the X-titles over the coming months. I may actually have to start reading X-Men again after all these years.

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