Saturday, May 23, 2015

A (Relatively) Quick Look at X-Men 2099

Every now and again I get a hankering to write something big and fun and frivolous, which usually results in a giant writeup about old console RPGs or cartoons. I've got the itch again, and so today I'd like to review today a comic book that has long been dear to my heart: X-Men 2099.

X-Men 2099: False Advertising

Flashback: Around 1991–2, Stan Lee and John Byrne got the idea to launch a pocket imprint within the Marvel line: Marvel 2099. Maybe you could call it a thematic precursor to Ultimate Marvel: it takes familiar Marvel characters and a (somewhat) familiar Marvel universe, starts their continuity from scratch, and skews them in a darker, nastier direction. But instead of rebooting the stories of the Avengers, Spider-Man, Hulk, et al., it propels them (or, rather, their successors) a century into the future to be the vanguard of a new age of heroes for a world that desperately needs saving.

(A general footnote to this whole thing: I stopped following Marvel titles fifteen years ago. Sometimes I'll flip through the trade paperbacks at a friend's place or bookstore, and I'll listen to other people talking about the latest developments, but I'm largely ignorant of the particulars of Marvel continuity as it has developed in the last decade and a half.)

The first wave of Marvel 2099 was launched in 1992, consisting of Spider-Man 2099 (written by the wonderful Peter David, whose 1991–93 run on X-Factor should be required reading) Punisher 2099, Ravage 2099 (created and written for the first eight issues by Stan Lee himself), and Doom 2099. In 1993, two new titles followed: 2099 Unlimited (which was pretty much Hulk 2099 for most of its run) and John F. Moore's X-Men 2099.

:O

X-Men 2099 is a fairly representative specimen of the mainstream comics ecosystem of the early 1990s—an epoch that, depending on your sensibilities, is really fascinating from a purely aesthetic/historic perspective, or is much better left forgotten. This was a very peculiar (and quite bullish) time for superhero comics. The atmosphere was still thick from the fallout of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns—the Fat Man and Little Boy of costumed avenger stories—and so grim, over-the-top antiheroes were all the rage, as were questionable ethics and "mature" (read: dark and violent) stories. (I'd venture to say that Watchmen brought more to bear on the genuinely heady stuff that was happening in DC's Vertigo line than the mainstream serials—Peter David's aforementioned run on X-Factor notwithstanding—which were more directly influenced by Miller's sensibilities.) These were the years when the most important character in the X-titles was Cable, who transformed the cute and cuddly New Mutants into a paramilitary strike force, and whose mutant power (as far as anyone could guess then) was the ability to tote around twice his own body mass in guns. The was the era of Maximum Carnage. This was when Batman got crippled and replaced by a guy who was basically the Punisher in a metal Batsuit. This was when Superman died and Green Lantern became a mass murderer. This was when Rob Liefeld was the hottest shit on the block. In their zeal to max out their EdgyGrittyCool quotient, the superhero comics of the 1990s achieved an inimitable and rather captivating strain of artlessness.

Sesame Street 2099

My sense is has always been that Marvel, much more than DC, is concerned with publishing comics attuned to the zeitgeist of a given decade (or half-decade). It has been admitted that the clashing ideologies of Professor Xavier and Magneto were inspired by the differences between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The fictional nation of Genosha is obviously a comic-book hyperbole of Apartheid-era South Africa. The Legacy Virus was AIDS for mutants; the Civil War storyline was published in the aftermath of the Patriot Act. Lately, Marvel has seen a lot of publicity for Superior Iron Man's criticisms of Silicon Valley culture, and for casting a woman for Thor's latest incarnation (which, in the context of stuff like Gamergate, can't be considered a totally apolitical move). So you bet that Marvel 2099's complexion is going to match the hue of the national mood ring circa 1992—especially since we're dealing with stories set in a dystopian future, which is always less a meticulous scientific projection of where things might be headed than an accelerated, exaggerated image of where things seem to be in the present.


The American mood of the early 1990s can be summed up in one word: cynical. The recession that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and almost a decade of Reaganomics (both of which had been touted as affirmations of the divine virtues of capitalism as a beneficient force for all humanity) put everyone a really sour mood. Public faith in government institutions was freefalling. The culture wars were in full swing, and even if you didn't really believe that America was in a state of hopeless moral and social decay, the idea became such a media cynosure as to worm its way into the imagination. This was when The Simpsons' satire of post-Cold War suburban America was its most acerbic and most dangerous; this was when Beavis & Butthead became America's sweethearts and role models, and their satire was so razor sharp that most of the young morons (including yours truly) who watched their interminable marathons on MTV had absolutely no idea the joke was on them. The evening news bristled with stories about gang violence, urban blight, the razing of the rainforests, the hole in the ozone layer, and global warming. Fronted by Nirvana, the grunge movement—the spiritual successor of the heavy metal of the 1970s malaise years—was highly in vogue, as were gansta rap and the apathypunk stylings of Green Day. And in comic books—well, we've already gone over that. Long story short, we were in a really bitter mood, and our popular culture of the time expressed and catered to it.

Same thing, but different.

And so Marvel 2099 grows out of this perception as America as a crumbling, corrupt, and generally hopeless place. As the twenty-second century approaches, the United States government holds only nominal power, while the real masters of the world are gigantic corporations with nothing but contempt for human life. The divide between rich and poor has reached an appalling peak, and the social fabric is moth-eaten and thoroughly rotten. The environmental damage accrued from a century of unregulated corporate rule verges on catastrophic. Things are so awful that when a resurrected Dr. Doom swoops in and declares himself President of the United States, it's treated as an unambiguously positive development.

It is against this backdrop of a ravaged American wasteland that a new team of X-Men is conceived to strike back against the criminal corporations and carve out a safe space for all the mutants, degens, drifters, fringers, and all the other no-money, no-rights freaks of the late twenty-first century.

More false advertising

Why don't we take a look at the X-Men of the future?


Timothy Fitgerald (Skullfire)


As protagonist, team leader (well, ostensibly, just for a while) and the guy packing a long-range blast attack, we could probably consider Tim the 2099 version of Cyclops. His mutant power allows him to suck electricity from the grid or machinery and channel it back out as blasts of spooky skeleton energy. Tim is the final piece of the team, joining it after its other members are already well-settled. He has no idea who the X-Men were or what Xi'an is trying to put together, he's a stranger to the other team members, unsure of himself, and unable to control his mutant power.

But the diffident outsider trying to fit in is hardly what anyone wanted from a comic book hero of the early 1990s, so a convenient plot device was needed to bring Tim up to speed. In issue #4, an attack by the psychic succubus La Lunatica brings all of his repressed trauma and anger to the surface, and just like that, Tim takes control of his mutant power, transforms into a reckless bastard who takes nothing from no one, and masters the art of the Antihero Psycho Grin.




Tim runs around and acts like an aimless crazy person for a while, but sobers up when Xi'an defects from the X-Men and joins the Theatre of Pain. His getting it together is signified by his relinquishing the Antihero Psycho Grin for the Antihero Scowl of Determination.



Xi'an Chi Xan (Desert Ghost)



The new Professor X. Formerly the boss of The Lawless, a legendary outlaw gang. While on the run from corporate assassins, Xi'an had a socio-spiritual awakening and sought to revive Charles Xavier's legacy and form a new X-team to stick it to the man.

Xi'an's mutant power is twofold: his left hand disrupts the molecular structure of whatever it touches, while his right heals wounds and cures disease. The duality of his power is complemented by his dual personalities. Under the visionary with a mind for revolution is a sadistic, power-hungry gangster snarling to break free. By issue #9, Xi'an's Lawless personality has resurfaced and assumed control. In addition to joining the Theatre of Pain and trying to kill his former followers, Xi'an contends with Tim for the gold medal in the Comic Book Psycho Grin Championship.




Typical 1990s comics. Nobody is allowed to just be a good guy.


Shakti Haddad (Cerebra)


Or: Jean Grey 2099. As such, Shakti has a special relationship with team leader Xi'an: she's his right-hand woman, the rock of the team. Unflappably cool, always serious, analytical, empirical, and a very hard kicker. Whoever commands Shakti's loyalty controls the X-Men. Her mutant power manifests in a couple of different ways. She's not a telepath per se, but can remotely detect mutants and muck with people's nervous systems using her Electric Headcrab attack. (I imagine designing "energy signatures" must be one of the most fun parts of drawing superhero comics.)


Shakti exhibits a strange tendency of X-Men 2099's writing. Her official X-codename is "Cerebra," but nobody ever calls her that. She mentions once that Henry sometimes says it to her as a joke, but, again, we never see him doing it. All of these new X-Men have superhero names, but they're not addressed or referred to by them with any regularity at all (I'm not sure if  the word "Skullfire" actually appears anywhere but on the books' covers), with the exceptions of Meanstreak and Bloodhawk—but Bloodhawk's real name is never divulged, and Meanstreak is actually a pretty cool name. Maybe John Moore realized he wasn't that good at coming up with supercharacter sobriquets and preferred not to use them if it could be avoided.


Henri Huang (Meanstreak)


The 2099 version of Quicksilver. C-list Speedster and former Alchemex scientist. When the team splinters and goes their separate ways for a (very long) while, Henri's subplot is probably the most entertaining: he spends a few days taking over and destroying Las Vegas with his college roommate, Halloween Jack, who's way too much of a ridiculous asshole not to be entertaining.

(And here we arrive at a signal problem of X-Men 2099: half the profile of one of the main characters is about a supervillain he hangs out with for a few issues. Not a good sign.)


Eddie Osako (Metalhead)


A prettyboy Colossus clone whose skin takes on the molecular identity of any metal he touches. For the first few issues he struts around looking beautiful and spouting fiery, twentieth-century-flavored anti-oppression rhetoric. In issue #6 he he gets suckerpunched by a degen with a disease hand, turns into a bald, misshapen freak, and leaves the team. (Beautiful things aren't allowed to go on being beautiful. Typically nineties.) Afterwards he spends the next twenty-something issues wrapped up in a platonic-romantic courtship with a baggage-laden degen named Rosa, who's got a mutant fetus in her belly and a psycho assassin babydaddy.



Ruth Porter-Ogada (Krystalin)

 
Let's call her Iceman 2099: her mutant power allows her to pull trace minerals from the atmosphere and create crystalline constructs or launch fusillades of sparkly needles. Krystalin, in the abstract, is why Marvel had a woman assume the mantle of Thor. Everyone in X-Men 2099 talks about how capable and tough Krystalin is, but she's easily the most useless team member. In the course of twenty-five issues, she's captured or held hostage six times (that's once every 4.167 issues). Her crystal shards prove absolutely useless against every significant threat the X-Men come across. Whenever she goes off on her own, she's guaranteed to get into a bind and need rescuing. Her big moment in the climactic issue #25 is when she creates a crystal cudgel for Meanstreak so he can kick ass and score points while she slinks into the background and does pretty much nothing else for the rest of the issue.


Serpentina


A young woman with stretchy body powers. Sort of like a version of Mr. Fantastic as a cute little hippie who knows all the coolest people at Rainbow Gathering and Burning Man. Impulsive, kindhearted, dead by issue #3. Tina cheers for Ladythor from her grave in the future.


Bloodhawk


Let's call him the 2099 take on Angel/Archangel. He never actually affiliates himself with the X-Men, but certainly swoops in often enough to be counted as a de-facto team member. He's less interested in remediating social ills than trying to put the brakes on the development and degredation of the Southwestern desert. He's sort of like a character from an Edward Abbey novel in a dimension where Edward Abbey wrote books about mutant gargoyles from the future.

I would like for us to take a moment and appreciate what a beautiful apotheosis of 1990s comic book character design we're looking at here.


He's a violent eco-terrorist, a misanthropic prick, a horrible serrated monster, and in spite of all this, he's a superhero, and his name is BLOODHAWK. That's "blood" + "hawk." That's 4000 points in GrittyEdgyCool Comic Portmanteau Scrabble.


La Lunatica


Actually, the character Luna most resembles is Big Barda from DC Comics. She was a vicious killer and torturer in the thrall of a demonic entity until she falls in love with one of the Good Guys and breaks her master's leash. Her mutant power allows her to psychically feed on the anguish and pain of others to augment her strength.


Luna and Tim are the Jean Grey/Cyclops of X-Men 2099: they're crazy for each other. (2099 twist: they're also both crazy.) It takes some time for the other X-Men to warm up to Luna after Tim brings her home; she did torture them, sure, but the real, unspoken cause of their resentment stems from their observing that Luna is actually competent, while they haven't done a single thing right in the last twelve issues.

ALL THE INSANE FURY

And now let's have a look at a few of X-Men 2099's more noteworthy villains:

Junkpile


A former member of the Lawless gang who, unlike his mutant "brother" Xi'an, never actually reformed. In the very first issue he sells Xi'an out to a Las Vegas corporate/casino/criminal syndicate because he's a big metal jerk. Maybe we could call him the 2099 version of Magneto: with appearances in three stories out of twenty-five issues, he's certainly the book's most recurring antagonist. How do we try to frame the Xi'an/Junkpile relationship in terms of the Xavier/Magneto dynamic? Xavier and Magneto were former friends and collaborators who came to irreconcilable philosophical differences: Xavier adhered to a ideology of mutual tolerance and cooperation, while Magneto advocated separatism and domination. Xi'an and Junkpile were former gang buddies who parted ways: Xi'an became a selfless idealist with a vision of a better future; Junkpile remained a cynical son of a bitch totally in it for himself. I dunno. I think we're putting more thought into this than John Moore did.



The Ratpack


The elite security force of the Synge Casino complex, and a source of really, truly awful in-battle Las Vegas puns. Noteworthy for coming very close to epitomizing the delicious creamed-corn grotesqueness endemic to low-tier superhero comics. They also demonstrate how little mutant abilities mean in 2099, when conventional weaponry has become so far evolved that anyone backed by a decent budget can buy themselves superpowers.


Master Zhao


A powerful psychic who formed his own X-team about thirty years ago. When his "mindfire" powers began to wane with strain and age, he used powerful drugs to get them up and running again. They worked wonderfully, but carried a minor side-effect: transforming Zhao into a paranoid, megalomaniacal lunatic. After murdering his old team of X-Men in a fit of paranoia, he finds a bunch of B-grade mutants with powers roughly analogous to the original five, subjects them to intense gene therapy, and dubs them his "Chosen."


My submission for a pointless Comic Vine battle thread would consist of Master Zhao's Chosen X-Men (One-Eyed Jack, Psycho K, Wingspan, Frostbite, and Monster) versus Libra's New Rogues (Chill, Burn, Weather Witch, Mirror-Man, and Mr. Magic). Both teams would probably lose.


Halloween Jack



Basically what you'd get if you combined The Joker with Mystique. Halloween Jack originated from the only crossover story in the entire run of the 2099 line, which was about the Alchemax corporation implanting human subjects with nanotech to give them the powers of the (absent) Asgardian gods. The man engineered to be the new corporate-controlled Loki was actually Meanstreak's old roommate, and he managed to escape from the fiasco with his shapeshifting powers and autonomy intact. After getting caught and tortured for stealing from the Synge Casino, he loses his mind (are we perceiving a theme yet?) drops the Loki act, and takes on the sobriquet "Halloween Jack." Not to sound like a broken record, but good god, how nineties. John Moore was so pleased with Halloween Jack that he made him pretty much the protagonist of X-Men 2099 for three whole issues.

Tim Sale practices drawing the Joker
for Batman: The Long Halloween


Brimstone Love


If Junkpile is the Magneto, the recurring antagonist of X-Men 2099, then Brimstone Love is its Apocalypse, its undisputed Big Bad. He's the founder and highest-ranking member of the Theatre of Pain, a secret society that specializes in converting human misery into art-product to be consumed by its sadistic, super-rich clientele. Brimstone Love is immortal, invincible, and he's able to tap into the Earth's core for a limitless supply of (literal) firepower. Like any good supervillain, Brimstone has a predilection for the dramatic and turns down opportunity after opportunity to kill or capture the X-Men by surprise in favor of waiting for a chance to do it with the proper theatrical flair. He has only weakness: the same demonic forces that bestow him his powers have also rendered him unable to configure his facial features into any expression other than the Scott Kolins Zoom snarl.




Looking only at the first twenty-five issues of X-Men 2099, the plot runs something like this. Xi'an assembles a new X-team and goes out looking for pieces of Xavier's legacy. Apparently there was a violent mutant purge thirty years ago, and the mutant population is dismally thin—but rumors persist of underground pockets of survivors. Xi'an and his X-Men traipse around the desert looking for clues, but they keep getting sidetracked, never really find anything, and eventually stop looking. Xi'an loses his marbles and joins the Theatre of Pain, and the team disbands. Everyone runs around doing their own thing for a while. Eventually they converge at the Theatre of Pain's stronghold, where they manage to take back Xi'an and force the Big Bad into a retreat. (The book continues for another ten issues in a different setting, but doesn't build up much momentum before folding—along with the rest of the 2099 books—at issue #35. The whole imprint was condensed to a monthly title called 2099: World of Tomorrow, which lasted only eight months.)

Tim vs. Brim

I'm very fond of X-Men 2099, but I'll admit that it's almost entirely out of nostalgia. The 2099 comics are generally very imaginative—even though they present a future that fails to account for the invention of the smartphone, the vision of an oligarchic police state where corporations dictate the needs of humanity rather than serve them hasn't lost a bit of its bite for the passage of twenty years. X-Men 2099 is no exception, but it can only get so much mileage out of its setting. It's overall a very disappointing book—which is rather surprising, since John Moore also wrote the first twenty-five issues of the thoroughly fun and satisfying Doom 2099 (which was then picked up by a young Warren Ellis). And the problem has nothing to do with the cliches of 1990s superhero comics. I'm tempted to say that Moore didn't really understand the X-Men, as established by Chris Claremont's seventeen years at the helm, or what made Uncanny X-Men work so well as a serial.

First: the X-Men aren't the Avengers, and they're not the Justice League. Typically, an X-team isn't composed of established characters who have already proven themselves capable of shouldering a monthly by themselves. Individual X-people usually aren't that interesting on their own—at least, not at first. Their personalities are forged in the crucible of the team dynamic. Wolverine spent seven years hitting on Marvel Girl, butting heads with Cyclops, arguing with Professor X, fighting with Sabretooth, and pondering his mysterious past before he was ready to get his own monthly in 1982.

There aren't nearly enough moments like this in X-Men 2099.

Moore introduces the reader to seven characters, all sharing the real estate of twenty-two pages a month, giving each of them only so much time for exposure and development. Then he breaks them apart before any are sufficiently defined to be really interesting on their own. Moore's Dr. Doom works wonderfully as a solo character because he's got a huge personality—and also a pre-established character. He doesn't need that much development, and he gets the better part of twenty-two pages all to himself. But these X-Men are effectively disbanded by issue #10, before any of them have proven themselves capable of holding anyone's interest by themselves. Krystalin goes to California to spend time with her neo-Black Panther brother and fight with a bunch of neo-Weather Underground tech freaks (who twice defeat and imprison her, naturally). Bloodhawk fights a giant robot in the desert for some reason. Meanstreak helps Halloween Jack usurp and destroy Las Vegas without any discernible motivation consistent with the character we've (barely) come to know. Eddie spends maybe five or six issues platonically canoodling with Rosa, reflecting on how much he's changed as a person (though we know way too little about Eddie beforehand to appreciate the magnitude of his transformation), and yakking about The Baby. The issues visiting Tim are the best because he becomes the barycenter of the team, and there's guaranteed to be at least two other X-Men around him in a given issue.

Not only are X-characters traditionally built by (and for the purpose of) interacting with other X-characters, but their special powers are meant to supplement their teammates' in battle. (These are superhero comics, after all; superpowered brawls are required.) Moore overlooks this fundamental element of X-books, too. Comic book mainstays like Superman, Batman, Iron Man, Thor, etc. either have one overwhelming, all-purpose special power, or act as polymaths. Conversely, the X-Men are typically a collection of minor powers, each doing only one or two things really well, compensating for their relatively limited individual powers by working in tandem with their teammates. This doesn't happen nearly enough in X-Men 2099, even when the X-Men are all in the same place.

A fight breaks out! Krystalin shoots some crystal shards (not doing any damage), Meanstreak runs around real fast (not accomplishing anything), Shakti knocks someone out (and then finds herself threatened by more people than she can handle at once), Bloodhawk lands one hit by surprise before getting swatted aside, and Xi'an threatens to use his touch of death (but probably doesn't). Nobody's really cooperating or getting anything done, and then the fight ends, often with an anti-climax or the X-Men's surrender or defeat.

Mr. Somers speaks my mind.

And that's the other problem: these X-Men kind of suck. It's hard to root for your state's football team when all they do is lose games, and it's hard to get psyched about the adventures of a superhero team that's incapable of winning a fight without some sort of interference working in their favor. These X-Men get their asses kicked constantly. Unless they're dealing with a bunch of pistol-toting flatscan flunkies, you can expect them to get curbstomped. When they actually manage to win, it's either because of outside intervention or pure dumb luck. Even the fall of the Theatre of Pain, the climactic moment of the series, is effected less by the X-Men's involvement than by a legion of government troops dispatched by President Doom. The X-Men just happen to be there when it happens. (Of course, Doom's forces were there because they were looking for the X-Men, but then that's just more outside intervention mixed with dumb luck.)

One of the most satisfying moments in early 1990s X-Men were those couple of issues in the X-Cutioner's Song crossover when a squad composed of members from the X-Men, X-Factor, and X-Force show up at the stronghold of the Mutant Liberation Front and absolutely trash the hit-and-run fuckers. These X-Men (and the readers of their book) really, really need some kind of victory, and they never actually score one. But this might be deliberate: it shows just how nasty and mean the world of 2099 is, how high the odds are stacked against the new X-Men, and how impressive and heroic it is for them to be able to pick themselves up and keep pushing forward together. But this reading is undercut by the fact that these X-Men are a splintered coalition, not a team. And by issue #12, nobody seems to remember what they set out to do in the first place.

Moment from a fight the X-Men don't win.

In the end, the only character who has made any appreciable progress is Tim—and maybe Eddie, but he's been cut off from the group for so long that his presence in issues #24 and #25 might as well be treated as one of those separate six-page mini-comics that are sometimes stuck in the back of a monthly as "bonus pages" for an excuse to raise the cover price. Xi'an just ends up back where he was before his personality shift in issue #9. For all the time squandered on their solo adventures, Krystalin, Meanstreak, and Bloodhawk haven't seen any appreciable development they can bring back to the team with them. Shakti, for the most part, has been doing nothing for a year's worth of issues except talking to Tim and periodically letting herself get KO'd by Xi'an.

I guess this beggars the question: why am I still a fan of X-Men 2099?

Well, shucks. Maybe it's one of the original sources of my penchant for stories about idealistic losers who really, really want to be heroes, to change the world, but repeatedly fail to get it together.

Or maybe I'm just enamored of all the silly futurepunk neologisms.

"Hyper-media"

"Mondoplex"

"Mag-lev car"

"Sensory simulcast"

"Bio-shop" (hyphenated)

"Bioshop" (no hyphen)

"Neuro-psych"

"Vidtoons"

"Netdivers"

"Circuit-skips"

"Camberabot"

"Syntho-percussionist"

"Techno-anarchists"

"Cybersim"
"Intrusive neural
voyeurtech"

"Videogoth"

"Gigabytes"

"RadabOOmf"
 
One more thing.

In X-Men 2099 #26, we're introduced to a new character, a journalist named Gunnar Tristan Heywood.


Heywood makes his entrance in a car, monologuing about hallucinations in the desert.


We see that Heywood has a penchant for firearms...


...and for overindulging in dangerous drugs.


So what we have here is a character based on Hunter Thompson. Heywood doesn't look much like Thompson or even share many of his personality traits, but the influence is patently obvious. He only sticks around for a couple of issues, and doesn't really do much—but he's there.

The Marvel 2099 line was put out to pasture in 1996. In 1997, Warren Ellis—who, you'll remember, took the reins of Doom 2099 from John Moore—went over to DC Comics and launched his own title, Transmetropolitan, an acclaimed cyberpunk story about a Hunter Thompson-inspired outlaw journalist operating in a dystopic future marked by decadence and corruption.

Coincidence?

3 comments:

  1. The first thing I thought when I saw Heywood's picture was, "Hey, it's Spider Jerusalem!"

    I think the red lens in Spider's glasses are a direct reference to this guy. I have no proof, but they look damned similar.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Possibly!

      The difference between Doom 2099 before and after Ellis takes over is really startling. John Moore is pretty good at writing comics, but Ellis is a great writer, period.

      Delete