“Torn”

(Originally posted to LJ November 16, 2006. I’m reposting it here so I don’t lose track of it.)

Astonishing X-Men, “Torn”

I just re-read the whole arc.

I normally don’t care too much about the plot in my obsessions. I know people who argue that Season Seven Buffy is the worst because it had the weakest plots. Meh. Don’t care that much. I want the major points of canon to be respected. But I primarily care about character.

Give me character development.

If you can give me both — character development based on canon in a tightly-plotted story that derives from who the characters have been in the past — If you can give me that I will sing your praises to the heavens. Or at least the internet.

Joss Whedon is my Master now.

I want to talk about this in two contexts. Both in the context of the X-Men comics, and in the context of Whedon’s other work.

Astonishing X-Men is the emotional continuation of Firefly. Not of Serenity; of Firefly.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the story of how to grow up. How to decide to take adulthood, with all the pain that this could mean. It is about making tough decisions for the first time. Seeing the road ahead and not knowing what’s on it.

Firefly is about a different sort of fear. Firefly is about being afraid to choose because you know what can happen. You know what you’ve done. You know, to a limited degree, the sort of person you are. How very low you can sink.

But the story arc of the characters in Firefly is about What Happens Next. About how guilt, the guilt of the living, is a limiting factor. You only think you know yourself. But staring at all the ill you have done in your life is no more productive than ignoring it. You are not the hero. You are not the villain. You are the sum of your actions and intentions and you are more than that. You contain your future as well. And that holds your redemption.

This is where Astonishing X-Men comes into things.

“Gifted” gives every appearance of being a coming of age story. It is, taken solely on its own terms. But in the context of “Dangerous” and “Torn”, it’s not a coming of age. It’s a facing one’s past. For all of them. “Does nothing stay dead?” No, and most especially, not the deeds you all have done.

“Dangerous” continues this. In the appearance of a major six-issue fight story we have Hank’s inability to accept his animal self. Emma’s guilt at even being in Genosha, alive, makes her manifest the Hellfire Club at a terribly inconvenient time. Scott faces the decision the Professor has made, as does Peter. All of them have some terrible ghost from the past try to kill them.

Why? What did they do to deserve this? They lived. That’s all. Simply living in their world means that they have killed, that the decisions they have made have caused the death of innocents. If they are in AXM, they are alive and guilty of incredible crimes. Crimes of action and of inaction. That. That is the point of “Dangerous”. The X-Men are dangerous. And it is only, to steal a phrase from Lois Bujold, Forward Momentum thats keep them from being dangerous to themselves.

“Torn”.

It’s all there.

Peter’s rage, shown in “Gifted” and in “Dangerous”. It is his downfall here.
Hank’s fear of himself, highlighted in “Gifted”” and Dangerous”, is his enemy here.
Scott’s fear of himself, his mistrust of everyone, his love of Emma — they are his downfall here.
Logan’s ruined mind is his prison here.
Kitty’s leadership, initiative, love and insecurity, are her traitors here.
And Emma’s ability to live, to survive and win through, are her downfall here.

Emma has had two full storylines to observe the X-Men. Observe this family. Emma knows them, knows their kinks and foibles. She takes their fears or their strengths, whichever is more vulnerable, and she breaks each one of them in half. But this is the X-Men; broken isn’t dead. Hell, dead isn’t dead.

Emma knows that these people can live through anything. She knows they can stop her. Rather, she doesn’t know it. She hopes it. Any way this comes out, Emma gets something she wants. If Cassandra Nova wins, Emma gets to die as she thinks she deserves. If the X-Men stop her the way she thinks they will, she dies the way she deserves. If the X-Men pull the miracle out of their collective ass as she hopes and fears they will? Well. Then Emma will live, which she wants more than almost anything. But she will have to live. Go through each day with even more past behind her. More guilt.

But also with more redemption.

Redemption is only ever possible if you acknowledge what you have done, apologised, made amends, and you keep on damn living. Redemption is not the same as forgiveness. Forgiveness is something between you and another person. Redemption is what you get when your life has made something as good as the thing you wrecked. The greater the ruin in your wake, the more difficult your redemption shall be.

All of the X-Men have a lot of ruin behind them. It’s part of why they are heroes; how else are they ever going to be able to look themselves in the eye, stand up and face the future?

In “Torn” every one of the X-Men is broken in order that they may be forced to face their weakness and overcome it. They have to. They must face it in order to live past it. Hank, through all of AXM, has been living in fear of devolving. A silly term, but the fear makes him unreliable, weak. Peter fears his rage, which is also his strength. His rage is fueled by his love. How can he be a smart, thinking, caring person again, a human being, unless he can control his rage? Logan has to face that he is a hollow shell, a broken mind, running through the world fueled by fear. Kitty has to face her future, her hopes of love and her certain knowledge that everyone she ever depends on will betray her. Scott must face the fact that he has handicapped his entire life to protect a boy who never grew up. And Emma has to face her death wish and her love; that she wants to be loved and accepted and deserves absolutely none of it for her sins.

They get through it. And Scott is right. They are stronger for it.

Think, for a moment, of Firefly. Think of the characters and their weaknesses, their strengths. Think of where the show was going when it got canceled. I am now, for the first time, glad that Firefly was canceled. Because Joss Whedon had to take his unfinished issues and work them out here, in the X-Men, in the story and world I love in my heart and soul.

Joss shows us what these characters are supposed to be. Shows us, not tells us.

Scott is a tactical genius, as I mentioned elsewhere — Scott is a tactical genius. And Joss can write him as one. Joss only needs a Data, a Spock, a person to explain it too. Joss is great, because we have seen what Scott is doing and then get the explanation, so his genius is revealed to us. Shown, then explained, not told. This is good writing. Hank made a safety against being devolved. And he told Scott. And Scott, tactical genius, remembered and got it. Scott used every asset he had in perfect ways, from Blindfold to his knowledge of Emma to the gun to his knowledge of Kitty. Kitty is also a tactical expert, as witness her fight with Emma. Shown, not told. Emma’s every conversation is wracked with guilt and pain. Hank’s incredible ambivalence and fear of himself is shown in every scene in which he is not an animal.

These are great characterizations. Amazing.

When “Gifted” came out, I said this was one of the best comic book stories ever written. “Torn” is as well. One of the very best stories ever written. It’s not going to change comics; it’s not Dark Knight Returns, or Sandman, or Transmetropolitan. It is merely a perfectly written jewel of what superhero comics can be.

Superhero comics can be, when they are working right and the writer is good and the artist sings and the air is clear and pure and clean, comics can be the future. The map. The road of possibility toward what you hope to be. You can be greater than yourself. You can be more than what you have done, more than what you meant and failed, more than what you tried and succeeded, more than what you avoided and fled and quailed before. You can be your future. Because no matter your past, redemption is possible. You can strive within the limitations of your past, the self-imposed limitations of your fear. Or you can look your fear in the eye and walk through it. You can walk past it to tomorrow.

Come on; the X-Men can do it. They’ll show you how.

Best moments in fandom, 2008

These the moments in 2008 that had me yelping, swearing, and muttering. The moments when I couldn’t sit still, whether I was in the theater or on my couch or in the parking lot at the comic store. The fist-pumping, whooping moments of glee and triumph, the sniffling moments of transitive loss.

10. Terry Moore’s Echo.

I missed Terry, I really did. I love Strangers in Paradise, despite my disinterest in some of the stories in the third quarter of the run. When I heard that Mr. Moore was starting another original comic, I think I whooped aloud. Then, reading the first issue . . . Yeah. That’s how you do it. That’s how you tell a story with words and pictures.

9. Matt Fraction taking over writing Uncanny X-Men.

I am one of Fraction’s biggest, most vocal, tinfoil-hat-wearing fans. I have trouble not throwing down on people who say bad things about him on forums. But the thing is, I was Fraction’s fan from Five Fists of Science, from The Order #1. Henry Hellrung and Becky Ryan are two of my favorite Marvel characters. And the Twain -Tesla friendship is hilarious and touching and passionate and I love it. So, when I heard that Matt Fraction was going to write my X-Men — well, it was the squee heard ’round the internet.

Okay, not around the internet. But my gmail was very busy for a couple days.

8. The conclusion of the “War and Pieces” arc of Fables, by Bill Willingham and Marc Buckingham.

I’ve been a big Fables fan since it started. I don’t talk about it much because I get it in issue form, not tpb, and it’s a lot harder to judge an individual issue of a comic with such incredibly complex storytelling. But the story, “War and Pieces” — this was the culmination of the entire first arc of Fables. So much happened here, and it was all very satisfactory. There were parts I didn’t like, but, that’s what happens when characters you love are in a war. It was meet and fit and right and proper, and I walked away feeling worn out by the emotional roller coaster.

7. The Dark Knight movie.

I liked this a lot. A lot. I thought the moment on the boats, with the hostages, was the true emotional heart of film, as Alfred well knew. I got a chill when Batman took the blame at the end. I don’t believe in Harvey Dent, but I watched my country this fall as my we believed in Barack Obama. An object lesson in how badly people need to believe, sometimes. I read a lot of overseas news right around the election. How the citizen-on-the-street around the world was certain that Obama would be assassinated before the election. Why? Because that much hope is damn dangerous. So, I don’t believe in Harvey Dent, and found his sainthood in the movie to be not very well portrayed. But I do believe, entirely and with my whole heart, in Batman’s need to protect hope. To keep the candle lit in darkness, even as he falls.

6. No More Gas, by DJ Earworm.

I like dance-pop music. I listen, every Friday night on my drive home from work, to KDWB‘s Friday Night Party Zone. It’s Top 40 dance music — nothing too original, nothing spectacular. The regular 25-song playlist remixed by a dj over a heavy backbeat, intercut with the high-pitched harangue of the KDWB personality exhorting the women to get drunk. (Ladies’ Power Hour, Ladies’ Two-Fers, Dollar Taps, Two Dollar Vodkas for the Ladies, women get in free, bachelorette parties no cover . . . you get the idea.) During the last half of 2008 I have been trying to articulate how these songs make me feel. Struggling with the themes of alienation and hurt that was in these throwaway R&B, pop, and rap dance hits. The guys sing about how no one understands them so they’ll just have sex and throw around their money. The women sing about how they sell their bodies as professional musicians, or as amateur club-goers, and they don’t mind because he’s going to leave anyway. I know that pop music is, with rare exception, about broadly shared emotions (insecurity, loss, lust) and universal events (falling for someone, breaking up with them, being angry at your parents, wanting success.)

And then, I found it. “No More Gas” by DJ Earworm. Where he says, “…Lately in pop music there’s been this growing undercurrent of dysfunction and desperation.” Why, yes, yes there has. I think, out of all my favorite lines in this mashup, I like “If you are what you say you are, American boy, how you gonna fix it?” This mashup says, more eloquently than I ever will, how these songs make me feel on the midnight drive home.

5. “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead,” Doctor Who.

I’ve come to Doctor Who as a New Who fan. Thanks to Paul, Andrew, and Mike of Cadmium II, I am now conversant on the first two series of Doctor Who as well, but I am filling in slowly. (Though, thanks to these gentlemen, I find I care about Ian and Barbara, and I’ve never seen them.) So Tennant is really defining the Doctor for me. Leaving aside shipping wars, and companion wars, and doctor wars — leaving all that aside, I just love this show. Every season offers something that makes me sniffle, every season offers something that scares me to death. Every season — every one of four so far — I care what happens. A lot. This fourth season I found myself rigid with concern during “Silence in the Library.” And I cared, incredibly, what happened to River Song. And when Donna was rescued from being saved? Well, I had my hands up against my mouth at the awful, awful implications of what happened.

4. The Iron Man movie.

Robert Downey Jr. I’ll say it again: Robert Downey Jr. I watched this movie and imagined it with any other actor playing Tony Stark. As I told many people — anyone who would hold still and listen — this was a fine movie without him. With him, it was a great movie. Possibly the best movie about choosing superheroism I’ve seen. Not choosing vengeance. Choosing to reach beyond one’s deeply human limitations and do good because, well . . . because you can.

Certainly the story is a timely one, about taking some damn responsibility for one’s muscle and authority and power. But it is also the story of a lonely, selfish man choosing to do good for lonely and selfish reasons — Tony Stark wants to be a hero because he feels crappy to not be one, and maybe this, maybe this will fill his life when nothing else has. I love stories of choice, of decision. And watching Tony decide, then decide again, then decide again and again and again, to be more than what he has been, well — it makes me tear up in hope, every time.

3. The conclusion to Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men.

This whole story — the 25 issues of it — this story made me ache. It is, probably, my perfect X-Men story. The characters, the one-line jokes, the raw pain, the plots — all of it. Explaining all of how I feel is an entire series of other essays. But this comic is the conclusion, in a way, of the story that I picked up when I was thirteen and a half years old, living in the suburbs of Chicago, and wishing to god that I would get superpowers. It’s a story about so many things, but among those things it’s a story about growing into who you are. Unafraid and unashamed.

2. Paramore’s “Final Riot” tour.

I love this band. I love this band. They are these, these kids out of Tennessee, and they play such goddam rock. And Hayley Williams, she sings, okay? She SINGS. Here’s the thing. Paramore is not emo. Not depressed. Paramore is not worried or scared or alone. Paramore is vibrant and alive, an exaltation in song of everything that blazes in light and hope. Sure, some of the songs are about loss and hurt. But at least half the songs on Riot are these battlecries of hope. Of not giving in to fear or depression, of not giving up idealism and strength.

I saw them in concert this summer. I grinned like a stupid idiot for days. I cried when Hayley sang “Let the Flames Begin.” I hopped up and down with the rock-horn-fingers like an absolute idiot when she said “I wanna see some hooooorrrrrrns!!!!!” I shrieked in glee. I was likely the second-oldest person there who had not brought teenagers. But I didn’t care. Those teenagers, that crowd, that band, those kids — they believe, with all their hearts, that they are going to make the world a better place. Starting right now.

1. My best fandom moments in 2008 are the moments when I got to tell people how much their work has meant to me. I had a chance to meet Tamora Pierce at Wiscon, and tell her in a terrifically fangirlish and totally unremarkable way that I appreciated all her work and had really enjoyed her presence at the convention. Which does nothing to convey how deeply my life is intertwined with and affected by her work, but at least I got to say it. I got a chance to tell Greg Rucka how much I appreciated Gotham Central and the creation of Renee Montoya in the DC canon. He, in turn, told me how to contact Paul Levitz. I told Mr. Levitz my feelings on the matter, and got a really nice thank you note from him. Which I am keeping, possibly forever. I got a chance to tell Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction how much I like their work. I got to tell Marv Wolfman how much I liked his work on New Teen Titans.

The stuff I’m a fan of, it’s made by people. People whose travails, thanks to LiveJournal and WordPress and Twitter, I now know more than ever. They get up and have to clean the cat vomit and they have to figure out how to get to a friend’s graduation party and their kids get sick and they get sick and they have to wrangle their gosh-danged email and their computers break and, and, and — And they make art. They make this ab-so-freaking-lutely wonderful art. They make my world richer, deeper, wider, and the moments when I can explain, briefly, that they have made my life better are some of my prized fandom moments.

I think I’m going to get the note from Levitz framed.

Meet Miranda

A lot of people ask me about my computer. I have an Eee PC 900 by Asus. It’s small and cute. I refer to it as “the wee precious,” but her name is really Miranda. Miranda Zero, if you must know. Net-tops are getting to be all the rage. Now, I’m not usually an early adopter, but here I am with a six-month-old Eee. So, here are my thoughts.

Miranda has two drives, a 4 GB C drive and an 8 GB D. I run her with a 16 GB high-speed SD card in at all times. She runs Windows XP, not Linux. I had a choice when I bought her, and I stuck with what I know (Windows) instead of buying the Linux learning curve. Miranda has three USB ports, a port for a DSL cable, and a port with, umm, you know, the kind with the big heavy plugs and all the little prongs, the kind all computers used to use for everything before USB and wireless.

Erm.

It should be obvious from that last statement that I am not a tech-head. Or, rather, I learn things specific to what I want to accomplish. I am a goal-oriented tech buyer. I’ve never needed to learn the name of that sort of cable or port, and I doubt I ever will.

Other features of Miranda: a trackpad with dual-touch functionality, built-in video and still camera with mic, headphone and mic jacks, and a, a what, and 8-inch screen? I think it’s 8-inch. I’ve never checked.

I use Miranda for almost everything. I run Google Chrome for my browser. I use GMail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, Twitter, LiveJournal, WordPress, and Flickr all online. I take digital photos, hook the camera to the computer and suck the photos directly from my camera to Flickr without pausing on my hard drive. I upload video from my phone to 12seconds.com without using space on my hard drive. I keep all my writing on Google docs, with backup .txt files saved on my SD card and a 320 GB external hard drive named Auxiliary Brains.

I run ESET for antivirus. It’s installed to my D drive, but still needs to write to and from the C drive. Chrome is on my D drive, too, as is Megauploader, Flickr Uploader, Microsoft Works, and Skype. I keep my C drive as clean and clear as I can possibly manage it.

This is a running battle. Chrome likes to store crap on my C drive, and I cannot figure out how to get it to stop saving little icons for every page I visit. I clean out my C drive and de-frag it once a week. I tend to run with 12-17% of my C drive free.

The only major, tedious problem I have with Miranda is music software. I own a Zune, named Lockheed. The Zune software is loaded to the D drive, my music is saved on Auxiliary Brains. But the amount of back-and-forthing Lockheed does over Miranda’s C drive is crazy-making. I have to give up on doing anything else if I am updating Lockheed. Moreover, I have no cd/dvd drive. So, ripping my cds? Nuh-uh. Not happening here. Luckily, I have a desktop I can use for that. But that means Lockheed needs to be kept up-to-date with two computers, and . . . it’s just a pain.

Also, don’t even think about photo or video editing software. Miranda scoffs at your Photoshop. That’s a big no-go.

So — overall, I a quite happy with Miranda. I love the portability, I love the size and weight. I am used to the keyboard now, I am used to the screen. I have a mobile broadband card which I use when I am away from a wifi hotspot, so the real limiting factor for my internet access is battery life. Miranda runs, honestly, about ninety minutes of real use before the battery dies. That’s mobile card, Chrome, and IMing. Ninety minutes.

So, do I recommend net-tops? I do — provided you know what you want it for. Provided you know what you are getting. Think through your computer usage, look at the options out there right now, and think through what you really want. I love my wee precious and won’t be parted from her, but I do admit her limitations.

Left Behind

I remember the day I stopped being a libertarian. I was sitting in the entry to the Art Building in Macalester College’s Fine Arts compound. My then-girlfriend was there, performing her work-study task of after-hours building monitor, signing people in and out. We were there with some other friends, ostensibly doing our homework. What we were actually doing was discussing space travel.

Specifically, we were discussing leaving the doomed Earth behind and how badly we looked forward to the day we could set foot Somewhere Else. The conversation was fun and fine, until one of our number mentioned wryly that he would not, of course, be selected for any mission to Save the Human Race. Asthma, myopia, bipolar — it didn’t matter how smart or motivated he was. No sane eugenics committee would allow his DNA to determine the future of the species.

We looked around. At each other.

All of us would be numbered among those left behind.

There’s a theory, a postulate, voiced by a character in one of Robert A. Heinlein’s books. (We were all huge fans of Heinlein at the time, you understand. His characters were our heroes.) The idea is, “space travel killed Earth.” In brief, space travel — colonization of other places, the ability to leave the planet as a species — consistently removed the best of humanity. It took away the intelligent, the motivated, the forward-thinkers, the active, the people who get things done. And therefore left behind the worthless, stupid, do-nothing mass of breathing flesh who give nothing to anyone, who freeload and consume and never create or contribute.

I’d always known I was one of the 2% of the best. The motto of my high school, unofficial but pervasive, was, “you are the leaders of tomorrow.” I knew — I’d been told, by people who had no reason I could discern to lie to me — that I was smarter than everyone and that this was all that mattered. That the smart, the gifted would lead the future and save the planet, save humanity. That through our intellect my friends and I would save the world.

In college this changed somewhat. At Macalester we were told we were not smarter than everyone else, no. We were deeper. Our understanding of humanity was more insightful that that of others. We comprehended the world in sophisticated ways beyond the common understanding. With our insight and compassion we would create new, richer understanding between nations, forge peace treaties, found non-profits, establish foundations. That, with whole heart, my friends and I would save the world.

But. But none of us were completely healthy. Our bodies, a factor not mentioned at the institutions I attended, would very obviously prevent us from leaving on the colony ships. We could contribute all we liked to the effort from the ground, then wave as the future left without us. We were the worthless, the parasites, the sucking maws and greedy meatbags left on the dirt while the better people departed.

I was shocked.

I’d always thought of myself as a, a rugged survivalist. Yes, go ahead and laugh if you please. But I’d been raised on family camping trips, back when camping did not mean “tread lightly on the Earth,” but meant “bend the world to your will with axes and fire.” I read — devoured — Boy Scout Handbooks, Army Survival Guides, Wilderness Preparedness books. Little House on the Prairie. I loved My Side of the Mountain and the whole host of YA novels about surviving alone. Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson filled my head.

When I was seven years old I led my five year old brother, a seven year old friend, his four year old sister, and my three year old sister out into the North Woods of Upper Michigan to construct a winter bivouac site. Using nothing but pocket knives, twine, snow, fir trees, and two milk jugs. By the time dark fell and we returned home we had excavated a large room under a fir tree, built wind-proof walls of snow, built an S-shaped entrance to block wind, made a smoke hole, built a fire-ring, and constructed raised bed platforms along one wall. I was prepared.

Prepared for what, you might ask. Nuclear winter, of course. In Upper Michigan, in Wisconsin, we would survive the first strikes. No missile bases, like the Dakotas, no major industry like my grandparents in Chicago. We would, unfortunately, live. And we had to be ready. We had to be prepared. This sense of immanent nuclear dark was something everyone my age knows, I think. My personal emotional response was in keeping with who I am today — I wanted to know what was coming so I could face it with all the knowledge and skill possible. Hence my survivalist streak.

The unintended side effect of all this survival reading was a sense that I was better off alone. If not completely alone, then at least with a small group of people, a family who I trusted. Fewer mouths to feed. Fewer supplies needed. And with a group of, say, five or six, we could learn and have the skills needed to live for quite a long time. We would need nothing, depend on no-one . . .

Robert A. Heinlein did nothing to discourage this. In the novel, Time Enough for Love, my favorite part of the entire book was the list of supplies needed for a wagon train to the middle of nowhere. Now that was being prepared. Despite the protestations of the narrative character that this was the least desirable course at hand, that this was dangerous and in-ideal, it is not presented that way in the text. The text presents this trip as . . . hard work, but more rewarding than living with people. Heinlein overall harps on the idea that other people are a plague, a nuisance. That one really ought to avoid them at all costs. That humans are dangerous, stupid beasts when they are in large numbers while paradoxically being the perfection of evolution when considered individually. “I am a good thing,” his narrators mutter grumpily, “and you’re not too bad, but that gang over there are too stupid to tie their own shoes.”

Heinlein, survival, bunkers, shelters, outposts, colonies, alone escape free safe — all these ideas had broiled along in my head, unexamined, until I was nineteen years old. I looked at my friends in the Art Building foyer and realized — no matter how smart we were, we could not run a pharmaceutical industry by ourselves. Smart didn’t enter into it — there simply weren’t enough of us. For the first time in my life I realized I and the people I cared for needed things that could not be provided by a small group. That we needed things that only a larger culture could provide. For the first time I realized, I would not be leaving Earth.

You can smile indulgently if you like, but I was nineteen, and a geek from start to finish. I’d let go of my ambition to develop mutant powers and join the X-Men at age sixteen. The realization that I was no fit space colonist died more slowly, being as it was faintly more plausible. (Faintly.) I walked away from that conversation stunned. The logical extension of this revelation was dawning, slowly. If I was not going to leave Earth, I . . . . I had to care about what happened here on the planet. This was going to be my only home.

I stopped being a libertarian and began the slow process of becoming a liberal progressive the next day.

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