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On Malcolm X: Can This Be the End for Cyclops and Professor X?

Can This Be the End for Cyclops and Professor X?
November 10, 1992

“I’m not a race man. I’m an X-man,” says Bullrose to Dravidiana, the she-ra with the Hi-8 video camera.

“As in Malcolm, of course?” she crack, whopping them blond dreads out of her face with ye olde roundhouse swing of the dome.

“No, as in Ice Man, Angel, Cyclops, and The Beast. My slave name used to be Scott Summers, dig?” A list that does not leave Dravidiana perplexed, just provoked into Bullrose’s bushwah.

“Whoa, Troop! What happened to X-Girl? You just erasin’ her from the pages of Marvel history?”

The gender interrogation feel like déjà vu to Bullrose. It take him back. Back before Dravidiana turned that lesbonic corner, back when she was his woman and he were her man, back when she routinely took him to task for the masculinist infractions.

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“I remember back in the day when being up on Marvel Comics’ lore was strictly a brother-thang. Can’t nothing be strictly a brother-thang anymore? I know how them all-white country clubs feel. Can’t get away from these niggas nowhere.”

“And woman is the nigga of the world,” proclaimed the she-ra. “But let’s stick to the point. The original question was…”

“… how many peckers did Peter Piper prick?”

“The original question was, why are so many young brothers sweatin’ Malcolm X’s dick so hard these days? Is it ’cause Spike Lee, Chuck D, BDP? Why you got the sleaze-ass likes of Big Daddy Kane saying he aspires to be a combination of Malcolm X and Marvin Gaye, a great Black leader and a sexy entertainer? And a virtual humanist like Vernon Reid coming out the box like he wants to be X and Hendrix rolled into one? How cum? Huh? Huh?”

“Well, all the brothers you mentioned led the way far as the resurrection goes, but X wouldn’t be making this kind of comeback if he wasn’t a bona fide superstar. I mean, the brother had style. He never took a bad photograph in his life. His records still sound dope. And no matter what kinda nigga y0u are, if you read his book you can see yourself in him. Like Chaka Khan said she was everywoman, X was every Black man. I mean, the brother had a multiple-identity crisis going on. Count ’em off: preacher, poet, pimp, prostitute, prophet, player, political activist, warrior-king, husband, father, martyr.

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“X occupies so many housin’ units in the Black male psyche, a brother can’t erase X without erasing himself. I don’t think he shot hoop, and he wasn’t a jazz musician, but he was a great jazz dancer, which is close enough to confer jazzman/jock cache on his godhead too.”

“But what do these brothers really know about brother Malcolm? All they know is what other niggas say about what a nigga he was. Jockin’ on the T-shirts, buttons, and shit. What do they know about his politics, which were like totally fucked up?”

“What does a young brother got to know? X was a smooth operator from the streets with a dope rap who stood up for Black folks and got shot down for doing it. That’s the stuff Black heroes are made of. Staying Black and dying for it. It’s a myth0-pop-poeic world out there. Brother been brought up on it same as everybody else. Malcolm was like JFK or Elvis. He was made for the TV age. Brother man was videogenic and gave great soundbites. The hip-hop nation got to dig him because he could rap, he had street knowledge, mother wit, and supreme verbal flow. You know how we value verbal prowess in the Black community. The brother or sister who can make stone rhetoric swing like a pickax to the brain. All of that is why the young brothers are on Malcolm’s jock so hard.”

“Do you think they’d be following him if he was alive today?”

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“If he was alive today they wouldn’t need to be following him. I mean, do you realize how different America would be today if King and X had been around to provide moral leadership and militant thrust to the Panthers and the Yippies and all them muhfuckuhs instead of them being left out there to freelance and fuck it up for themselves? But, you know, it’s cool, because Malcolm left the brothers their first revolutionary pop ikon. Nat Turner don’t count. Who even knows what he looked like? Coulda been a nerd. And when you dealing with American superstars, baby, all you need to know is he lived fast and died young, a martyr who went out in a blaze of glory. Dying under suspicious and mysterious circumstances helps too. That way you can really hype the conspiratorial element. Live heroes are a problem. They be getting all soft and wet and problematic on you. If you’re lucky enough to die young you can be remembered for being a hard muhfuckuh forever. We celebrate the death of Malcolm X for what it is — the birth of a new Black god. X is dead, long live X. He’s like the Elvis of Black pop politics — a real piece of Afro-Americana. That’s why Spike’s logo is branded with an American flag. Malcolm couldn’t have happened anywhere else.”

“Do you think Malcolm’s spirituality makes a difference to the youth at all?”

“Sure it does because that’s all part of the package, the construct we know as X the martyr. But spirituality is like anything else in America, you got to package it right. Malcolm had the right package. If being Muslim is how you get to be a righteous Black man like Malcolm, then you become Muslim. When you’re young, dumb, and full of cum and, lord knows, you gonna get you some, you like to think you got juice to pass judgment on the world, that youth makes right. Self-righteousness comes with the territory: You think however you living is justifiable because you a sexy young thing, maybe good with your hands or in some sport. But maybe not because it really ain’t as important as being proficient in Black Male Posturing. BMP is a bitch. Carry you farther than you will ever imagine in this world because the whole world gives it so much power. Except for the butch breed like yourself who on the whole are probably less impressed than anybody. And cocky because of it. Yeah, I be checking how arrogantly y’all will ignore a fine brother just because you know it fucks up his whole program. Y’all eat that shit up.”

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“You mean like you, boy-Romeo.”

“Being a loveman is a tough job but somebody has to do it, right? Anything else you want to ask me?”

“When did you first hear about Malcolm?”

“In my house growing up. I’m an old muhfuhkuh so we talking ’65, ’66 when I was around eight or nine. He was a regular on the turntable. ’longside Otis, Coltrane, and Nina Simone. We lived in a big three-story house. The stereo was a big old piece of furniture. So when my people played Malcolm on a Sunday it would fill up the house, every nook and cranny, you could almost smell Malcolm’s voice smoking up the joint. Seems like on Sunday my people kept Malcolm going like we keep candles and incense going today. Except for Nina Simone and Otis Redding and John Coltrane, the only records I can remember my people playing was X. Now all my mother listens to besides jazz-lite radio and weight-loss tapes is Public Enemy. There’s some kinda continuity there, I guess. I don’t know what happened to all those X records she had. Probably got stolen, or borrowed and never returned. They’re collector’s items really. Probably fetch a fine price on the open market.”

“What do you remember from the X oeuvre?”

“Certain phrases will stick with me forever. ‘I’m the man you think you are.’ ‘I’d do the same as you, only more of it.’ ‘You can’t get a chicken from a duck egg.’ I always liked that image. It always made me see a baby chick flopping around in an eggshell three sizes too big. ‘You can’t have a revolution without bloodshed.’ ‘Doesn’t matter if you’re a Baptist or a Methodist, you’ll still catch hell.’ That conjured an image in my mind too: churches burning down. That one where he talks about how if you were a citizen you wouldn’t need no Civil Rights bill. What’s funny is that even as a child — and I’m talking seven, eight years old — X made perfect sense to me. Maybe because he was talking about right and wrong in such binary terms, like in fairy tales. You know he painted the world as Black equals good and white equals evil. Black could be stupid, punk ass, and illogical but not evil. And white couldn’t be nothing but evil. Do I still believe that? Not expressly. On the other hand I’m not impressed by much of anything white people do except for some painters and photographers, a couple stand-up comics and the theoretical physicist types.”

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“Not to digress but you can be hard on your Black visual artists. Why is that?”

“The evidence speaks for itself. It’s not even about where’s the Coltrane, the Baraka, the Lady Day, the Fannie Lou Hamer of painting, sculpture, and photography. It’s about where is the Jr. Walker, the Iceberg Slim, the Gloria Lynne, the Shirley Chisholm. There’s very little Black visual work that personifies blackness. You got people that do good work but rarely does it not lack for the wit, pathos, and absurdity of Black existential reality. We got people that have rolled up close up on it. But it can get even blacker than that. I think so, anyway.”

“How can you quantify the blackness of visual practice and phenomena?”

“Only by the way it does things white boys can’t even contemplate. Like being a Malcolm X, Bob Marley, Miles Davis. If you a white boy you know there’s no way in hell you could be one of them because you could never step inside of history in their skin. Race doesn’t prescribe experience or predict emotional depth, but there are historical experiences that only being Black in space, time, and mind will make possible. You get my drift?”

“Sounds kinda essentialist to me. What’s really the difference between what you’re saying and calling white folks grafted devils?”

“Are we gonna have that old debate again? Look, there is a special kind of alienation you possess as Black person in this society that is all mashed up with your feeling of love and loathing and loyalty to Black folks as a whole. Unless you were raised among Black people you never develop certain sensitivities or neuroses about race and culture and identity that I believe are a fundamental inspiration for Black creative genius. Du Bois talked about Black folks and double consciousness. I think if you’re a Black intellectual you got quadruple, sextuple, octagonal consciousness beaming around your brain. You’re always trying to square things that have no lines and hard edges. Like where Africa ends and Europe begins. How to develop yourself without alienating those who are interested in development on whose behalf you are developing yourself. You know if Malcolm hadn’t had the Nation of Islam’s save-a-sinner program behind him to smooth all that kinda shit out he woulda been another alienated Black intellectual in deep crisis. Trying to figure out how to relate to the masses and redeem ’em without romanticizing and patronizing or, worst of all, pandering to them. It’s easy to challenge Black folks on self-destructive behavior. Harder to challenge us on reactionary practices like misogyny, homophobia, and thinking that intellectual development is a white thang. But what is Malcolm to you, Dravi? What are you looking for from these interviews and whatnot?”

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“Well, like, I was never raised to have heroes. I was raised to listen to what people said and look for how it contradicted what they did. I learned that the person who did a constructive thing for the community today could be about tearing it down tomorrow. I was taught how fragile and selfish most human beings are — except for Black mothers — and that holding power over people makes them even more fragile, vain and lonely and dangerous. Dangerous to others because their charisma makes folks want to let them do their thinking for them. Dangerous to themselves because they have to give up their humanity on the way to the hall of glory.

“I think history shows us that the revolutionaries and prophets that the state killed got a better deal than the ones who became living symbols. Because there’s nothing at the end of that road but bitterness, regret, and tyranny. How can you respect the common humanity of people who hold your ideas, your utterances as more valid than their own lives? That’s why I got no use for heroes. I can respect heroic acts I can’t respect anybody who’d want idolatry for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

“You don’t think that’s what Malcolm wanted, do you?”

“I don’t know that any real revolutionary starts out wanting that. It’s what people want for you. And the only way you can defeat that kind of imposed demogogic status is by rejecting the people and the power they invest in you. Malcolm was one of the lucky ones. History swallowed him before he swallowed it.”

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“Ahh, the humanist response. Deep. Far as it goes. But if you want to know the real deal, I think X was swallowed by the world of the assassins.”

“The what?”

“The world of the assassins. The world he renounced after his trip to Mecca and after he renounced the Nation of Islam. Anywhere you have a politicized secret society you’re going to draw the secret order of the assassins. They’re a guild that’s been around since about the 11th century. For more on this than I got time for here I suggest you check out Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Anton Wilson. I think X became a target when he threatened to come out of the cultish darkness of Islamic separatism and into the light of pantheistic humanism. The assassins thrive wherever humans dispute over difference, borders, territories, or identity — anywhere difference becomes politicized, the assassins have got a stake and probably a hand in it. They killed JFK and RFK when they threatened to bridge differences between nations. And they did it to Martin when he threatened the Vietnam project as well as their program of American economic apartheid. They could have killed Castro but they realized his presence provided the ‘logic’ that kept state terror and the assassins’ order alive and well in Latin America.

“The assassins uphold no ideology, no. The assassins live only for chaos, disunion, and the perfectability of the art of the political murder. To perpetuate themselves they have to practice their craft. Anyone with political power who renounces them in pursuit of dissolving human difference is dangerous. The assassins want to keep us in the Tower of Babel state. That’s why they had to take out Coltrane, Redding, Hendrix, Marley, and X, and neutralize Clinton and Sly. That’s why you see cats like Chuck D and KRS-One only flirt with humanism but not really embrace it. They know that the assassins are on the nether side of bringing folk together, with a vengeance. When you can convince folks they don’t need ignorance, hatred, and fear or the ism-schisms to survive, you’ve effectively cut the heads off the assassins and tossed their mangy torsos into the streets to be mulled over and masticated by the dogs in the clear light of day. Malcolm was on the way to taking them out of the darkness and into the light like every other progressive prophet who ever came down the pike, and that’s why ‘history’ swallowed him. Dig?”

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“Dig? Niggapleeze. If you don’t get out my face with that warmed-over Illuminati Tragedy-Mumbo-Jumbo Rainbow Coalition bushwah — I still say we don’t need another hero.”

“And I say you still don’t get it. It’s not about us. It’s about an ancient conflict over how the soul of the world should turn.”

“No, it’s about the souls of the men and how easily they turn to violence when they can’t control the earth, nature, or women. If any of these prophets you speak of were truly progressive, they’d realize the only way your assassins could be assassinated will be when the planet is ruled by the cult of woman, which is the cult of the earth. But men are too into keeping up the body count because all they can bring into existence on the planet without bowing down to the feminine principle is murder.”

“I ain’t even steppin’ up into that nonsense. Baby, I’m 5000.”

“5000? Not even that high. More like 33 and a third.”

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To Be Young, Superpowered & Black

At Lorestone Comics in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, an African American boy all of eight is shuffling through a stack of plastic-­wrapped comics, his expression drained to rapt blankness. The money in his pocket needs to be spent like, fast, and whole worlds are appearing and disappearing un­der his gaze in quick succession, dollar­-twenty-five universes glanced at and then banished on the merits of glossy foil covers.

Once upon a time, little man’s options ran a narrow gamut of types: Superman, Batman, Captain America, Thor — white-­bread superheroes for white-bread children. The X-Men were as funky as his purchases got, those freaky mutants being the closest mainstream comics come to reflecting the lives of potentially marginal kids. Lately, though, his range of purchases and images has gotten considerably wider and darker. Away from this black-owned storefront, in the corporate offices where decisions about comic books are made, the heroic black figure in tights is the latest rage: DC Comics starts its own black-run imprint, Milestone; Marvel Comics brings back ’70s icon Luke Cage, Hero for Hire; independents publish four-color Afrocentric books (including a caped Spike Lee joint, written by Spike’s brother, Cinque), while small presses like Posro Komics do their own quirky thing in black and white. Even Hollywood has got­ten in the act: Robert Townsend was The Meteor Man, Wesley Snipes wants to be the Black Panther, Carl Lumbly’s TV movie Mantis will return to Fox as a series next fall, and Damon Wayans is set to star as Blankman.

But back to little man at Lorestone. He tells me that he’s not supposed to give his name out to strangers. OK, but what do you read?

X-Men and Spiderman,” he says, shrug­ging. His older brother, 13 and no longer a comic-book fan (“That’s kid stuff”), nudges him and tells him that he reads X-Force too.

“Yeah. X-Force.” How come? He shrugs again. “I like the covers.” Do you watch the X-Men cartoon show? He visibly brightens, no doubt thinking of sugared cereals. “Yeah, every week.” Do you read any black comic books? He looks at me for a second. “Storm’s black,” he suggests finally, a cau­tious reference to the X-Men’s token negress.

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The two of them have been browsing with a girl of about 13, who pipes up that she reads Milestone’s Icon. “It’s got good art, and it’s about this girl who’s a team­mate with a black alien and she has this special belt that gives her powers.”

Storm’s a girl,” the eight-year-old whis­pers. After that, the two teenagers are too busy laughing at him to answer any more questions.

Across town at Manhattan’s Forbidden Planet, there are more black kids stocking up on books: They move around the store just like everyone else, the visual tag of race their only distinguishing characteristic. A mother comes in, holding the purse strings to a nine-year-old who wants to buy her out of house and home. He wants everything, none of it black-themed. “He likes the ones with superheroes,” she explains while he builds a stack as thick as her forearm.

I spy a boy, 14, come in and buy whole rows of Marvels including Cage, and Mile­stone’s Blood Syndicate. “I like the Mile­stone one,” he tells me, “ ’cause they’ve got good art and it’s all about this gang that gets contaminated… Cage has a lot of fights with other superheroes like the Hulk. He’s a good guy, but he still gets into fights.” Do you like the comics with the black characters better? “Yeah, I guess so.”

How come? He looks at me for about a minute, suddenly afraid of saying something wrong. “ ’Cause they’re black?”

Sitting out in Milestone Media’s reception area, I decide that I can tell immediately who does what here from their clothes — ­that the guy in the suit must work in fi­nance, that the long loping figure in the jeans has to be a pencil jock. It turns out I’m only half right.

Launched last year, Milestone is top dog in the black comic biz, with six titles and more than 5 million books sold. Founded by a core group composed of Derek Dingle, Michael Davis, Denys Cowan, and Dwayne McDuffie — Dingle and Davis the money end, Cowan and McDuffie pictures and words — Milestone sits comfortably under the shade of a DC Comics distribution deal. They make the comics and DC distributes them, while DC’s parent conglomerate, Time Warner, watches from the penthouse. Everybody’s making money so far.

Cowan and McDuffie met at Marvel Com­ics while working on Deathlok, Cowan drawing, McDuffie writing. McDuffie, the suit I misidentified earlier, would cut a tall, solidly upwardly mobile figure behind his PowerBook if it weren’t for the trace of nerdy teenage energy that still hovers around his eyes. He’s outlining to me how he pretty much fell into comics by accident, but it’s the kid he used to be who’s really speaking, explaining how relieved he is to have lucked into such a cool job.

“I was at NYU for film school and ran out of money, so I took a job copy-editing tables: tables of numbers, many many tables of numbers. I was bitching about my job a whole bunch to a guy who was working at Marvel, and he said there’s an editing job opening here, you should apply for it. I got it and took a major pay cut, but it was definite­ly a lot better than the tables of numbers. I started writing comics to supplement my in­come and found I liked writing much better than editing. I was writing lots of kid stuff like Power Pack and Spiderman education­al books. I always wanted to do Spiderman, but the closest I got was Spiderman “You Can Be an Engineer” books, or “Spiderman Teaches Bicycle Safety,” things like that. Then I ended up doing Deathlok.”

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For 25 issues that ran between 1991 and 1993, McDuffie spun the tale of a brother named Michael Collins, an idealistic com­puter expert who stumbles across the secret Deathlok cyber-warrior project and has his personality downloaded and imprinted on the killing machine cyborg. Deathlok had a short run in the late ’70s as a white guy, but McDuffie brought him back black, rewriting the character as one long castration-anxiety mindfuck.

McDuffie capped off his time at Marvel with a special series in which Deathlok teamed up with Marvel’s old-school super­hero, the Black Panther, to save the African nation of Wakanda from an African Ameri­can supervillain who wanted to move black people back to the Motherland. “I don’t think most of the editorial staff at Marvel really understood what I was doing with the character, but it gets back to your question of how I got into comics. When I was a kid I only had a mild interest in comics. I liked the goofy Supermans where people would turn into giant turtles and stuff. I saw Spi­derman and I liked that because he was this nerdy science student who was secretly cool and that sure sounded like me to me. I really identified. But it was still a sort of casual interest.

“Then I saw ‘Panther’s Rage’ [Don McGregor’s well-regarded mid-’70s Black Panther storyline] when I was 11 or 12, and it absolutely riveted me. I really didn’t know why at the time. Looking back on it, it’s easy to see that there was something really spe­cial, really validating, about seeing yourself reflected in the media with dignity, with intelligence. Black Panther was all the things that black characters in comics never were. I never went to the store specifically for books until ‘Panther’s Rage,’ but once I saw it, I was in, I couldn’t get away from it.”

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The Panther transmuted into four initial titles at Milestone: Icon, Hardware, Blood Syndicate, and Static. Until things settled down at the new company, McDuffie held sole writing credit on Icon and Hardware, plus assists on the rest, as well as the over-­arching title of editor in chief. It’s virtually unprecedented for any comic-book writer, black or white, to oversee the production of an entire world — something akin to the role the legendary Stan Lee had in shaping Marvel.

“What we tried to take from Marvel — ­from the early Marvel, that is — what we just ripped was the sense that, OK, we’re doing superheroes, but they’re going to live in a world that looks more like our world,” McDuffie says. The key to making Mile­stone’s world look more like McDuffie’s is the city of Dakota, where most of the Mile­stone books are set. The “realness” of this urban setting (a midsize, down-on-its-luck, multiracial community) is what guarantees the realness of the characters. As proof of the work they’ve put into their universe, McDuffie shows me the Milestone Bible, a phone-book-sized compilation of people, places, and things that are found in Dakota. McDuffie and Cowan figure that if they get their nabes right, making their characters residents instead of visitors, then their sto­ries won’t go stale or silly. That was the early Marvel philosophy, which in the ’60s meant having Peter Parker go to Empire State University, while Doctor Strange hung out in the Village.

Nineteen nineties black people, needless to say, occupy very different urban spaces. Blood Syndicate, which tells the adventures of a posse who develop superpowers thanks to a government antigang program gone awry, is set in Paris Island, Dakota’s seamy underbelly. Taking out crack houses and rival crews, the Syndicate struggles to sur­vive and uncover the conspiracy that creat­ed them. Static, the story of Virgil Hawkins, superpowered high schooler with an over­active wit and a prickly crush on a white girl, is set in Sadler, a brownstone-lined community distinctly reminiscent of Fort Greene. So far, Virgil has tangled with drug dealers and the mob, defeated superpow­ered schoolyard bullies, and headed off a Crown Heights–like race riot — this between working in a fast-food joint and keeping his grades up.

Icon is Milestone’s flagship title. Dako­ta’s Superman, Icon is an alien who crash­landed as a baby in the Deep South of 1839. Taking the Milestone ethos about site specificity to an extreme, Icon experiences blackness as just an arbitrary state of mind, his African Americanness locked in by the accident of his initial discovery by a slave. Had he been found by Ma and Pa Kent, he’d look and think like them. For now, his distinguishing characteristic is a tendency toward moral and ethical pronouncements that would be unremarkable coming from Supes’s mouth, but uttered by a brother take on a decidedly neocon slant.

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The other McDuffie book is Hardware, the Deathlok-like story of an engineering wiz named Curtis Metcalf and his amazing suit of armor. Sticking close to Dakota’s upscale and predominantly white high-tech enclaves, Hardware wreaks murder and mayhem on the forces of corporate evil in what can only be a riff on McDuffie and Co.’s own experiences in the comics biz. Curtis’s big problem so far has been that he enjoys the vengeful superhero trip a bit too much — and can’t decide if his battles have any relevance to black people who don’t work in office penthouses.

In the past few months, Milestone has started branching out, adding some more shades to the company’s already multicol­ored palette. First, there was the Shadow War, a crossover saga that involved almost all the Milestone heroes and introduced two new titles: Xombi, an Asian American su­perhero (“No, he’s not a martial artist,” says a Milestone staffer) and The Shadow Cabinet, a racially mixed superteam. This month the company is taking up the separatist versus integrationist dilemma that un­derlies its own corporate existence in another crossover miniseries, Worlds Collide. When an interdimensional rift threatens Dakota and Metropolis, Icon and the rest of Milestone’s heroes come face-to-face with Superman and some other (white) folks from DC’s regular stable.

As if juggling all of those stories and spaces wasn’t enough, Milestone’s also set itself the task of doing so without creating any new positive role models. Which is to say, Dwayne McDuffie, the kid who was first turned on to comics by the greatest black comic-book role model of all time, Black Panther, would rather not write any of his own, thank you. “Role models are a trap,” he says, suddenly gone deadly seri­ous. “Role models are another stereotype, Sidney Poitier in early-’60s movies. We are a people, not an image, and it doesn’t really solve anything to replace a negative stereo­type with a positive stereotype. No human being is going to live up to that. I just want books that break the monolithic idea of what black people are. Being a positive role model is too much weight for anybody.”

Blacker-than-thou arguments give my light-skinned self the hives, but you just can’t avoid them whenever you venture onto the subject of black comic books.

When corporate-minded Milestone broke out as the instant black comic heavyweight, the only other group publishing more than one black-oriented title was ANIA, a small consortium of independents based in Oak­land. Neither party wants to say exactly who started the feud (although the word in the black comic scene points toward ANIA) but it wasn’t long before the companies’ respective PR people were faxing broad­sides to the press about whose books were the more culturally aware. Trying to posi­tion itself to capture the newly discovered black market, each company boasted that it knew the best way to render black people heroically in the comics.

ANIA president Eric Griffin said in the press that Milestone wasn’t “black enough,” that its deal with DC Comics con­stituted a sellout. Milestone’s McDuffie countered with “We didn’t want to sell our books out of the back of a truck: It takes away time from the creative work.” It seems like Milestone won the corporate battle of wills: Without a heavyweight distributor and backer like DC Comics, ANIA recently suspended publication.

Nonetheless, Griffin’s dig seemed to sting the fellas at Milestone in a way that re­hearsed references to growing market share couldn’t soothe; they recognized the irony of doing black superheroes in a medium that has traditionally cast black images as less than heroic. The funny thing is that there have always been heroic black bodies in comic-book formats, from a gun-toting yet petite Harriet Tubman to the original X-Man Malcolm to that early hypothetical superteam, The Talented Tenth. At Fulton Mall just a few blocks up from the Lorestone comics shop, one can spy all of these people rendered in and re­duced to four-color comic tones, sold by street vendors along with illustrated Great Black Kings of Africa calendars sponsored by beer companies and black-owned funeral homes.

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Things get a little hairy, though, when you get to ink-and-paper super-Negroes like Black Panther or Luke Cage or the X-Men’s perennial team player, Storm (see sidebars below). These were black superheroes created by mainstream companies for black and white consumption, and in hindsight they seem the very definition of problematic. The Panther’s nobility (African prince named T’Challa turned crime fighter), Cage’s rap sheet (ex-con-cum-professional super­hero), and Storm’s exotica (jungle rain god­dess) are in many ways racist stereotypes, but that hasn’t stopped black comic writers and fans from invoking them over and over. After all, there’s been room for little else in the market, and then there’s always the off chance that in this month’s issue the char­acter might just up and transcend it all, redeeming the tainted history of black representation in the comics.

The new school of black comic makers wants that redemption now. Taking advan­tage of their own years as fans and assis­tants, as well as of a cultural moment when “black-controlled” is a sure sales pitch, the creative types at these companies want to rewrite all those early characters. To do that, though, they’ll have to come up with a new language, create a new set of origins. This could be a problem, considering that everyone involved has spent the last 20 years dreaming that he was either Luke Cage setting things straight Uptown or Prince T’Challa of Wakanda waiting for the right moment to spring from the humid shadows of giant African palms.

Roger Barnes, writer and penciller for Heru: Son of Ausar, is sounding a bit confessional over the phone. “What did I read?” he asks, echoing my question, trying to decide whether to answer it. “Well, I read PowerMan — Luke Cage: Hero for Hire.”

That Dwayne McDuffie cites the regal Panther while Roger Barnes claims free­-wheeling funketeer Cage says something about the difference between Milestone and its independent challengers. Even though McDuffie wants to move away from creat­ing Panther-esque good guys, his Milestone is definitely the “official” black comic com­pany of the moment, he and Denys Cowan as close as black people get to being comic­-book royalty. In comparison, stillborn ANIA (a Swahili word for “protect” or “de­fend”) wasn’t even a single company when it went under. The idea was to strike at the DC Comics juggernaut through a small, agile distribution combine composed of mem­bers with diverse styles and interests. Ini­tially four signed up: Africa Rising (home of Ebony Warrior), Afrocentric Comic Books (Heru), U.P. Comics (Purge) and Dark Zulu Lies, (Zwanna, Son of Zulu.) Cage seems the appropriate patron saint for this would-be outsider crew.

When we spoke, ANIA was still in busi­ness and Barnes full of infectious enthusi­asm. He and Afrocentric Comic Books got their start in 1991 with a comic book called Horus: Son of Osiris. “Prior to 1990, no one was doing black comics,” he explains. “Now everybody and their mother is doing it. At the time the only thing out there was a book called Brotherman, then all of a sudden we had a flood of black comics, pretty much all black-and-white. The novel­ty ran out though, and soon things weren’t selling as well.

“I had known Eric and Nabile [Eric Grif­fin of Ebony Warrior and Nabile Hage of Zwanna] and ANIA pretty much started off with me and Eric talking on the phone. We wanted to come out with full-color black books, and Ebony Warrior and Heru were the first we did.” As the anti-Milestone, ANIA planned to focus on an Afrocentric perspective, “something along the lines of what Professor Jeffries teaches, the stuff you learn when you a get a degree in Afri­can Studies. Whether you agree or disagree with Afrocentrism, it is an alternate per­spective, something people need to be ex­posed to.” Then comes the only Milestone jab of the conversation, directed at Blood Syndicate: “We think doing those kinds of things is more worthwhile then having characters take out crack houses.”

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If that’s the case, then what about Luke Cage? Busting crack houses is precisely the kind of thing you might find a Hero for Hire doing. “Well, he got a lot of criticism, but I still liked him. Spidey was more popular, but Cage was a black character. There weren’t very many, so I only read Luke Cage. Since he appeared in a lot of other comics, that meant collecting everything. If he was in The Fantastic Four, I bought that issue of The Fantastic Four; if he appeared somewhere else, I bought that. I still have every issue from the original series as well as all the other stuff. I even wrote them a letter, which was printed, about keeping him when Marvel was planning to get rid of the book. It was kind of a pep talk: Let’s get serious here, we can do this or that to keep the book going.” Since Marvel didn’t listen to him, Barnes doesn’t follow the new Cage series. “They should have kept him un­-brought back.”

Luke Cage lives though, and not just in his new book at Marvel. In Heru, Barnes applies the habit of meticulousness he learned as a Cage researcher to a new ob­ject: Egyptian mythology. Backed up by Barnes’s advanced degree in African history (the comic even received a favorable notice in Smithsonian magazine), Heru tells of the miraculous appearance of Heru in Kemet (that’s ancient Egypt to you and me, the black upper kingdom from which all Egyptian power and philosophy flowed down the Nile) during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaton. The story finds a kindly Akhenaton sitting on his great throne as light-skinned Arab and Mediterranean barbarians from the north move into the lower kingdom in droves, warping and misunderstanding the values of his people. Heru arrives with amazing-magical powers just in the nick of time, at once affirming and confounding the beliefs of the Egyptians.

It’s hard not to take it as a comment on comic books in general when the royal advi­sor Hosef tells Akhenaton: “Our metaphor­ic mysteries are taken literally by these ig­norant outsiders. The uncivilized have not the brains to grasp our symbolism.” After all, comic fandom is a pretty arcane commu­nity — one whose obsessive attention to de­tail and continuity often makes it unintelli­gible to those who aren’t heavily into the books. Barnes’s pursuit of Cage across titles and years is the deep science of the comic-­book universe, a tendency toward alchemi­cal recombinations of story lines that links comic fans to JFK assassination buffs and UFO enthusiasts. This is why Barnes’s book can be so Afrocentric and deliriously pulp at the same time, its saturated browns, rusts, and golds borrowing from the funk of black-velvet painting as surely as its story relies on the voluminous research of Molefi Asante’s Kemet, Afrocentricity & Knowledge.

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Lacking a unifying theme, except for a marketing strategy and their appeal to a certain demographic, ANIA’s other books take place in Southern-seeming milieus, communities divided only by crime and racism into heroes, self-hating thugs, and plain folks. Eric Griffin’s Ebony Warrior tells the story of Komal Jackson, a black tech-wiz who, unlike Hardware, turns down the For­tune 500 companies to move back to his Southern hometown. By day Jackson teach­es, but by night he dons a high-tech suit of armor and takes out Yorktown’s pushers. Purge, written by Roosevelt Pitt and featur­ing art by Bill Hobbs that easily ranks with any of the majors’ books, reads like an Ebony Warrior that’s been boiled down to its purest essence. To date, its hero has no life or identity outside of beating dealers down. A black ronin, he just keeps doing his violent thing, zeroing in on his elusive quarry: the big-time (i.e., white) importers of drugs.

“The most important thing for us is that the company be black-controlled,” said Barnes before the day to day of running a business did ANIA in. “That’s what we are most concerned about.” Besides the nuts and bolts of putting out books, though, ANIA also had an image problem of its own to contend with. Zwanna, one of the origi­nal titles in the group, came under fire for racist depictions of whites. Barnes didn’t write or edit Zwanna, and the book was the first to drop out of ANIA’s fold, but he makes an able defense against the racism charge: “Zwanna: Son of Zulu was drawn by a white artist. A lot of people looking at that book might not think it. But if Zwanna has a white artist, how could we discrimi­nate against that segment of the population?”

Barnes is too nice a guy to undercut a friend, but the truth is that racism against whites is the least of Zwanna’s problems. Zwanna is a descendant of the great Chaka Zulu, living in the U.S. and enrolled at Black American State University. Whenever racism threatens, he “Zhaabs Out,” becom­ing a loin-clothed super-African. Lost on his way to an In Living Color sketch, Zwanna skewers racist skinheads on his spear be­tween one-liners. A mocking riff on the Panther, Zwanna regales his girlfriend with sweet nothings like “I got that jungle love for you, baby!”

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Then there’s the scene in which the lead­ers of the worldwide racist conspiracy have Zwanna chained spread-eagled while they croon, “Give us some bootie, cutie.” Por­trayed in the book as a lisping quartet of white male transvestites, they plan to break Africa’s will by raping Zwanna. Zwanna breaks free and dispatches them in turn, impaling them on his spear “missionary style.”

The book is rife with such patently offen­sive moments, moments a mainstream pub­lisher couldn’t get away with but that the book’s writer, Nabile Hage, boasts is proof of his independent comix credentials. Zwanna doesn’t reserve its hostility for skinheads and drag queens, though — it spits venom at black people too: foolish sellout Toms or the dippy African American women who want to bed Zwanna down in paroxysms of Mandingo stud fever. For a long stretch last summer and fall, Zwanna was the face of ANIA (in the press at least), and the ugliness of that image might have had something to do with the title’s mutually agreed upon departure from ANIA. Take it as an object lesson in marketing, then, that “black owned” and “black controlled” was enough of a pitch to give a loincloth-­wearing, spear-carrying Zulu named Zwanna his 15 minutes of authentic-black-superhero fame.

I ask Posro Komics’s head writer and artist (Roland Laird and Elihu Bey II) what their book would be if it were a record. It’s the only thing you can ask, really. Posro’s book, MC2, isn’t a superhero comic, it’s a hip-hop comic, the story of Earl Terrel, a regular-joe Harlem barber with a phat jeep and dreams of programming black-themed computer games. It doesn’t come with a soundtrack, but the suggestion of beats is everywhere in MC2, from the clubs that Earl frequents to the tapes he plays in his car.

“I used to think that if MC2 was a record it’d be Tribe Called Quest’s People’s In­stinctive Travels,” Laird says after a mo­ment’s thought as Bey nods. “That and the first De La Soul.”

“Yeah, definitely,” says Bey.

“There could be a little bit of PE in there too, but I keep coming back to Tribe and De La Soul ’cause they were just so differ­ent when they came out. Musically anyway.”

This makes a certain amount of sense. To ask the question, I’ve had to take a Tren­ton-bound train past Joi-zee highways, tree­-covered hills, burned-out factories, smoking refineries, and the back porches of rundown houses to Edison, the clean and suburban town where Laird lives and works. It’s the kind of ride you can make on the LIRR to De La Soul’s Long Island.

Laird used to live in Brooklyn, but he had to go to New Jersey to write his comic, had to “step outside to the quiet to get the work done,” as he tells me. After the heat and noise of the Milestone/ANIA wars, quiet seems like a fine place to be, and Laird and his comic have the turf well staked out. Milestone is part of the comics mainstream and ANIA, in its own Afrocentric way, wants to be, but Posro is a different kind of outsider company, doing comics in black and white, dreaming and working toward the big time but still finding satisfaction in the pleasures of smallness.

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Laird, of course, prefers the term specific to small. “It was important to do something that was relevant to hip-hop,” he says, “and portrayed hip-hop’s versatility as a medium, so MC2 isn’t a superhero comic. Comics fall under stereotypes just like black people do. You tell somebody you’re doing a comic book, and they’re expecting capes, cos­tumes, the whole nine. We wanted to do something that was totally different, in that MC2’s Earl is regular, it’s about a regular person.

“I’m down for positive images, but I like. showing a balanced view. MC2 isn’t a char­acter for people to hero worship, he’s more a character that you can kind of get behind. That’s his thing, his day in the sun, so to speak.”

And Earl’s day it is, all of it. In the first few issues, he cuts hair, kids around with his little sister, does some programming, goes to a club, hangs with his homeboy, and so on, the only “excitement” coming when somebody tries to steal his ride. The slow unfolding of time and scenes in the comic is unlike anything in “mainstream” black books, except perhaps Milestone’s Static, and even that book succumbs to the big company’s sharklike need to keep swim­ming in action-packed waters. Bey and Laird say they could do “mad action” if they wanted, but for now have other, more subtle fish to fry.

“When I was working on MC2 I was try­ing to show the beauty in things that are not that beautiful.” This is Bey speaking up, answering a question about what he wanted out of the comic. “I used to look at certain videos, like Pete Rock and CL Smooth videos, and it’d be set in an urban environment where in reality it was gray stone and cold, but in the video there would be all these earth tones in the surroundings, even in the buildings and everybody would be moving in slow motion. You actually saw the hidden beauty there, and I wanted to capture that in the book. I said to myself: I’m gonna make sure that I capture that.

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“Because when you live in the ghetto, when you live in a poor environment, every day is not bad. Every day is not bad. Some­times you wake up and it’s just like…” Bey searches for the words and then settles on a shrug.

The next few issues are going to touch on misogyny in hip-hop, Negro League base­ball, and a death in Earl’s family. The mix’ll be the thing in those books, as Earl drives his 4×4 down different streets and into new situations, which brings up the question of how Bey and Laird got to this point on their particular ride.

“I can’t remember when I wasn’t draw­ing,” says Bey, hands in his hair, shoulders shrugging. “Basically, I was caught up in Marvel like everybody else. Subconsciously, I wanted to see black images, so I would color Thor and different characters brown, draw them over, maybe give them a different costume, even though they’d still have long blond hair.”

Laird gives me the half shrug, too. “I’ve always been running around doing different things. I read comics but I’m not an artist. I’m really more of a cartoon person. I can probably name every cartoon, every episode. My favorite cartoon is the Flintstones. Believe it or not. I like Mighty Mouse too… and Heckle and Jeckle. I like their… vibrancy.”

All three of us laugh when he mentions Heckle and Jeckle. We all remember watch­ing those jet-black crows with a minor, un­explainable measure of guilt, laughing at them while unsure of just who the joke was on. Usually I’d think twice before admitting I had liked something like Heckle and Jeckle, but not today. Laird and Bey seem just too mellow to judge me for the detours I’ve taken on my way to hanging with them, here in the “quiet-outside” of Edison.

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Lorestone Comics’s Liz Black and David Santana are holding court in their Fort Greene shop, talking the history of black comics. Liz and David are business people but they’re also devoted fans. You have to listen very carefully to keep up with them. They speak in arrhythmic cadences, have little interest in backtracking, and they nev­er, ever, apologize for knowing more about comics than just about anyone they will ever meet in life. It’s not their fault you’re stupid.

Liz: “In the mid ’60s there was Black Panther appearing in The Avengers. Later in the ’60s you started getting a lot of other black characters like—”

“Luke Cage.” David calls out.

“Right.” says Liz. David’s off by a couple of years, but she lets it slide. “That was Marvel. And in DC you had—”

“Black Lightning.”

“Black Lightning. They were heavy into the word black.”

“Black Goliath?” David offers.

“Yeah. Black Goliath, Black Lightning, black this, black that…” From there, the two can and will go on for hours, assem­bling whole genealogies of the marginal one-issue guest stars and also-rans that comprise the bulk of the black superhero world — the Falcon, Moses Magnum, Broth­er Voodoo, the Teen Titans’ Cyborg — on and on through the still counting books and years.

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Lorestone is Liz and David’s home in many ways, a physical space whose door­ways open up onto thousands of fantasy rooms an issue at a time. And Liz and David are the surrogate parents of this home, leading their charges through the racks of books like they were some kind of wilderness. The kids know this, so as they grab at books, tossing them to and fro across the storefront, there inevitably comes a moment when the title gets held up to Liz and David for inspection and advice. “How’s this?” someone usually young and male will ask, and then David will smile or frown before ticking off the names of books he’s liked better. The attention makes the store a magnet for neighborhood kids who’ll roll through after school to browse and buy.

Liz and David like most of the new black comic books fine. A sure way for a comic to get on their bad side, though, is to duplicate or rip off characters and types they’ve seen before. That’s David’s problem with Mile­stone’s Blood Syndicate. “New Jack City with powers,” he calls it.

Liz has a more sociological gripe, saying she worries about the values that the books might be teaching to impressionable kids. “It’s not enough to just say you’re posi­tive,” she figures, noting that many “posi­tive” comics are often more hype than sub­stance. She also has mixed emotions about the kind of black pride that some of the by­-for-and-about companies like ANIA are selling. “Being black, understanding black, being proud of black, doesn’t mean ‘I’m black and I’m proud and everybody else is lower,’ ” she says. “It means I understand who I am, what I am, and I am happy about it. Some people at ANIA don’t seem to understand that, they think black pride means hating white. So David and I decid­ed we wouldn’t sell that book, that Zwanna: Son of Zulu. Especially not to kids. We preferred to eat the price on it than sell it to kids.”

But its not the “kids” who buy the black books in the first place. As an afternoon spent at Lorestone will reveal, the store does most of its business in black books with young men in their twenties, each one of them with very articulate and political reasons for why they buy what they buy. The audience still young enough to be af­fected by black comics, as opposed to mere­ly gratified by them, buys endless streams of X-Men and Batman comics, with bang­zoom Milestone entries like Blood Syndi­cate thrown in here and there.

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It takes a while for Liz to admit how she and David get around the notoriously poor taste of their younger customers. When she does tell me, it’s in tones shaded conspira­torial: “You know,” she says, her voice gone a little low, “sometimes we just give the books away, just give ’em away. Really.”

Even though Liz is talking about a few samples here and there, David, who’s spent his whole adult life working around comics, wants to make sure I understand what she means. At various times he’s made quick, vague remarks about Lorestone “restructuring,” about how hard this business is, about the possibility that he might have to go back to just doing tabletop sales at trade shows, or find a location with lower rent. And in fact, a few weeks later, the shop will close down, the crates of heroes black and white disappearing into David’s apartment until they can find a permanent place to live. Whether or not David knows all this is in store for Lorestone now, he isn’t saying. What he does want to say, in slow, measured words, is why he and Liz might choose to give some of the stock away for free.

“We give them away,” he says, “just to put the book in someone’s hand. If we read a book and we like it and think it has something to offer, we say: here, take a look at this. Not because we couldn’t sell them or because we wanted to get rid of them, but because we want people to read them.”

“Reading is what they’re there for,” adds Liz.

David then tells me that at first they gave a lot of their black comic books away: Then they started selling just about all of them, to customers like the 15-year-old who’s just walked in to buy a Hardware comic. Neither very young nor very old as far as comic fans go, he doesn’t look around, chat, or browse. He just gets his book and his mon­ey together, and heads to the register. When I ask him why he bought that particular title, he seems annoyed by the question.

“Because he’s black,” he says, looking at me like I’m stupid. ■

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Roots, Part 1: The Black Panther

Initially introduced in the ’60s-era Fantastic Four as a hip reference to African liberation movements, Black Panther (ne T’Challa) was the noble prince of the fictional postcolonial nation Wakanda. After a few guest spots, the Panther found steady work with another superteam, the Avengers, where he fought smugglers, poachers, exploitative multinationals and the like — in between lending a brotherly hand to Afro-Americans. By the early ’70s, he had relocated to America, and gotten his own book. Helmed by a white writer, Don McGregor, Black Panther set the standard for a much emulated black comic type: the role-model superhero. A dream date for the big nation-building prom, T’Challa was noble, tortured by injustice, good-looking, selfless to a fault, in good health, community-minded, rich, unquestion­ably het, and not just African but royal. He was what you’d call a real positive brother — no wonder Wesley Snipes wants to play him.

Since fighting the minions of con­glomerates is what noble princes of Wakanda were thought to do as naturally as breathing, Black Panther’s cre­ators felt no need to gift him with any special powers. An expert in African fighting and mystical arts, he was who he was, a black panther — stealthy, fast, powerful and, uh, black. As far as spe­cial powers were concerned, why would the Panther need them? It wasn’t like he was fighting the planet-eating Galac­tus on a regular basis.

Roots, Part 2: Storm (Ororo)

Ororo lives in the shadow of both her Africanness and her status as a mem­ber of the X-Men. A shorthand psycho­logical type who rounds out the affir­mative-action figures at the world’s bestselling comic, Ororo puts in triple duty as the team’s plain talker, nurtur­er, and exotic. Drawn with t&a fore­most in mind, she’s forever flying off into the rain to clear her head or dress­ing one of the male X-Men down for not paying enough attention to someone’s — sniff — feelings.

Ororo’s own feelings are opaque by design, making her downright moody, liable to shift in the blink of an eye from wind-riding nature girl to diffi­cult-to-approach-ice-queen-with-a­-mysterious-past. A tragic mulatto from the heart of Africa, Ororo was the team’s nominal leader for a spell, but even in a leadership capacity she was melancholy and withdrawn as if by def­inition, immensely popular but never quite center stage. Until she gets her own book, her real glory seems des­tined to be the outside context of fandom, where among other things she lives on the Internet as a staple of X-Men/lesbian-themed porn.

Roots, Part 3: Luke Cage

A creature of the ’70s, Marvel’s Luke Cage isn’t the oldest of the major black heroes, but he had the longest run in his own title (though, in an effort to boost sagging sales, the title kept changing — from Luke Cage, Hero for Hire to PowerMan to PowerMan and Iron Fist). Given superhuman strength and steel-like skin by a jail­-house experiment, Cage was a walking cliché of black macho. When Marvel teamed him with mystic martial artist Iron Fist, a blaxploitation dream team was born. Heroes for hire, the pair mostly faced colorful hustler types, supergangsters, and drug dealers, as well as the occasional Roxxon or A.I.M. scientist seeking to reproduce the PowerMan Process.

Low on subtlety and heavy on ac­tion, the book’s mean-streets setting and mack-daddy bad guys hit high notes of unmitigated ’70s funk before getting canceled in 1986. Two years ago Marvel decided to revive the char­acter — in a book called, simply, Cage. So far, the new series is an ongoing oedipal drama, bringing Cage back to the site of his super origin. Writer Mar­cus McLaurin wants to dialogue with ’70s black macho — the historical space of Cage’s origin — hoping to critique the type while still relying on it to make the comic fun. It’s a neat enough trick when it works, but when it doesn’t, today’s Cage is a skipping record, hitting the same blustery note over and over.

Roots, Part 4: Brotherman

Produced by people who obviously grew up on Mad magazine, Brotherman, Dictator of Discipline was one of the first comics by, for, and about black folks. Done by three brothers (literally: Guy Sims writes, David Sims ­draws, and Jason Sims handles the business end) from Irving, Texas, Brotherman’s eponymous hero is hardly new take on the genre. Antonio Valor is just your average black district attorney who can’ts takes it no mo’ and turns crime fighter — blah, blah, blah. The real action in the book happens off to the side, where David Sims mixes looks borrowed from graffiti art and the smoothed-gray surfaces of Mort Drucker’s Mad movie parodies.

Similarly, writer Guy Sims’s fondness for crowd scenes in which each meticulously drawn bit player has a perfectly timed one-liner to offer sug­gests an infatuation with the work of early Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman. His auteur turn, though, has to be Brotherman’s elaboration of the love interest as comic book device. Not only does Antonio have a coworker and se­cret admirer named Melody, but entire issues are devoted to her pining for him — a narrative that’s all the more poignant for the fake Whitney-esque songs floating dirgelike through the di­alogue boxes above.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

Road to Endgame: The Marvel Cinematic Universe Reviewed

On Friday, April 26, 2019 — 11 years after Robert Downey Jr., launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the help of Iron Man’s rocket boosters — the Avengers’ saga reaches its climax with Endgame. So how did Tony, Cap, Natasha, T’Challa, and the rest get to this point? It was a long road, one that would take fans almost two days of continuous watching to travel, complete with low points (Thor: The Dark World) and high ones (Thor: Ragnarok), laughs (“I am Groot”), and tears (the end of Infinity Wars). Overall, in slightly more than a decade, the MCU has minted new stars, redefined the Hollywood blockbuster, and sparked countless arguments among the online commentariat. If you haven’t been paying attention so far, it may be too late to catch up, but here’s what the Voice‘s film critics thought about everything you missed along the way.

Iron Man
Released May 2, 2008
“Even when the plot of Iron Man kowtows to convention, the movie’s personality — hip to the times without ever resorting to self-congratulatory snark — keeps it zipping along. Rarer than a grown man in a rocket suit, it’s a summer blockbuster that comes to entertain first and shill second.”

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The Incredible Hulk 
Released June 13, 2008
“Banner’s a weakling in the comic books — to the point where writers have begun depicting him as suicidal, or almost eradicated him entirely. Which would have been just a wee bit problematic for Universal, who clearly wants another franchise to hawk.”

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Iron Man 2
Released May 7, 2010
“Downey Jr. gives his glibness a vulnerable twitch; his out-of-control drunk bust-up at his birthday party, while wearing his heavy-ordnance suit, suggests a more dangerous, more interesting sequel.”

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Thor
Released May 6, 2011
“Unlike the muscled-out, metalhead, beach-blond (from head to candy-corn eyebrows) hero, Loki’s like a walking Spandau Ballet music video, with a trim, bottle-black New Wave shimmer, pale, angular features, mirror-trained smoldering affect, and custom-tailored, dance-ready formalwear.”

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Captain America: The First Avenger
Released July 22, 2011
“There’s not so much as a single mention of the ideological divides that plagued the times — and, subsequently, spawned the original anti-Fascist Captain America comics. So what is Captain America fighting for? Apparently nothing more or less than screen time in The Avengers.”

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The Avengers
Released May 4, 2012
Every time the movie hints at something rich and evocative, Whedon undercuts it with a punchline — his instincts as a big-picture storyteller crippled by his short-term need to please the crowd.”

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Iron Man 3
Released May 3, 2013
“Downey’s firecracker dialogue sometimes feels improvised — maybe it is — and it’s often bitterly funny. To respond to his vulnerability is to thrill to his sharpness as well; keeping up with him is much of the pleasure of watching him.”

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Thor: The Dark World
Released November 8, 2013
“As Thor matures, his ego shrinks, along with his identity. Lacking Iron Man’s wit, the Hulk’s brains, and the Captain’s ideals, he’s in peril of going poof himself if the franchise doesn’t figure out how to capitalize on its most glorious hero.”

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Released April 4, 2014
The Winter Soldier has the taut nervousness of a story anxious to get in, get the job done, and get out. It’s more grounded than other flicks in the Avengers franchise: There’s no road trip to space, no cackling galactic goon or cheap-looking space trinket with the power to destroy all life.”

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Guardians of the Galaxy
Released August 1, 2014
“B
y the end, you’ll have been winked at so much you may think you’ve been staring at a strobe light for nearly two hours. Guardians of the Galaxy is proof that a picture can have a sense of humor yet have no real wit. It hits every beat, but it hasn’t got the beat.”

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Avengers: Age of Ultron
Released May 1, 2015  
“Of all the fated moments in the most foretold hit of the summer, the most honest comes when two robots stand on a hill admitting that mankind is doomed. Perhaps in 2035, an android can direct the twentieth Avengers sequel.”

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Avengers: Age of Ultron
Released May 1, 2015
“In Age of Ultron, a character has a premonition showing all the Avengers lying lifeless in a ravaged landscape — this is a future the team must act to stop. But we know this imagined tragedy will never come to pass.”

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Ant-Man
Released July 17, 2015
“If not quite the loose surprise of last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s blessedly free of gods-weep ponderousness. But it’s also uncentered in a way that Marvel’s origin films have never been.”

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Captain America: Civil War
Released May 6, 2016
“It’s odd to think that a generation of viewers may not remember a time when interlocking superhero epics didn’t command such swaths of the mainstream moviegoing firmament. These films no longer have to delight and surprise us; no, their job now is to manage the brand, not screw anything up too royally, and keep us hooked for the next installment.”

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Doctor Strange
Released November 4, 2016
“As in Ant-Man or the original Iron Man, the Marvel Studios releases it most resembles, Doctor Strange sells its wearily old-hat dude-becomes-hero tale through strong casting, an emphasis on emotion and humor, and the good sense never to let action overwhelm character.”

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Guardians of of the Galaxy Vol. 2 
Released May 5, 2017
“Why in these blockbuster adventures does the woman character always have to be the mother hen: the most talented, the smartest on the team, the one who sacrifices intimacy for her career; the killjoy sold as ‘strong’ but curiously lacking in dimensionality and humor, even as she runs in heels and is treated as ‘the girl.’ ”

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Spider-Man: Homecoming
Released July 7, 2017
“You know how some comics fans insist that they actually read sequential art or graphic novels? Spider-Man: Homecoming is comics, unapologetically, as close as blockbuster filmmaking gets to cartooning.”

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Thor: Ragnarok
Released November 3, 2017
“In its own weird little way, Thor: Ragnarok manages to poke fun at the constant churn of myth and entertainment of which the movie itself is a part. It’s a candy-colored cage of delights, but it is a cage nevertheless — and it doesn’t hide that fact.”

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Black Panther
Released February 16, 2018  
“Wakanda may be a realm of Afrofuturism, boasting culture, technology, and Black excellence untouched by colonial influence, but the world it inhabits is the real world — our world. One of military-industrial complexes, of refugee crises, of African-American struggle, and of questions of cultural belonging.”

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Black Panther
Released February 16, 2018
“Coogler and his team have conjured a universe and fleshed out its players, one existing (honestly, thriving) in the even bigger cinematic universe that is Marvel. It’s a case of the right story landing in the right hands.”

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Avenger: Infinity War
Released April 27, 2018
“The cliffhanger climax of Infinity War left the audience at my screening in a state that I can only describe with the most tired of critical clichés: They were stunned. No matter the film’s flaws, that decade of character work — of character love, even — powers an all-too-rare pop-culture wallop. For once, the superhero movie punches us.”

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Ant-Man and the Wasp
Released July 6, 2018
“Ant-Man and the Wasp
tries to have it both ways. It keeps the conflicts relatively inconsequential, but piles them indifferently atop one another as if to reach a prescribed level of momentousness.”

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Steve Ditko: Beyond Spider-Man

1962 was a good year for pop culture. The Beatles released “Love Me Do”; Andy Warhol discovered Campbell’s soup; John Glenn went into orbit; Bob Dylan played Carnegie Hall; and Steve Ditko, a 34-year-old journeyman comics artist, co-created Spider-Man. Ditko died in his West 51st Street apartment on June 29, at age 90, prompting a surge of wistful recollections from commentators and fans recalling their youthful identification with the teenage superhero who, co-creator Stan Lee once said, “gets sinus attacks, he gets acne and allergy attacks while he’s fighting.” The gangly Spider-Man launched one of the most successful movie franchises in history, but Ditko had already pushed well beyond the “cinematic” — an adjective often applied to his page layouts — to formal, narrative, and aesthetic frontiers unique to the comics medium. This would become most apparent in the mid 1960s, when Ditko and a stable of topflight freelancers were taking turns dazzling readers on the pages of Jim Warren’s concisely titled black-and-white horror magazines Creepy and Eerie.

Ditko began his career after serving in the Army in postwar Europe, moving to New York to study comic-book illustration at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (later, the School of Visual Arts) under Jerry Robinson, an artist who worked on Batman comics and created the Joker character.

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In 1954, Ditko began illustrating (and sometimes writing) horror and suspense stories for Charlton Comics, a publisher that paid low rates but allowed artists wide creative latitude. The limbs of Ditko’s figures were often stretched to extremes, hands thrusting toward readers, fingers writhing; close-ups of eyes would fill panels, adding tension between characters seen at varying distances. Such visual strategies were enhanced by abstract webs — sometimes colorful, often pure white — which might represent fog or smoke or just mysterious ectoplasm, all the better to conjure run-ins with criminals, encounters with ghosts, and journeys into ultra-dimensional time and space warps. Ditko, like all great comic artists, understood that unlike in a movie, where even the most powerful images must follow one after the other, he was presenting readers (who are also viewers) with a full page, which would not only tell a story but also work as a collage of light and shadow, shape and perspective, volume and line.

Comics were cheaply produced — Charlton’s magazines in particular were notable for pages by turns flooded with ink or barely legible from worn-out printing blankets. So comics artists employed heavy outlines, because detailed draftsmanship was often muddied by slapdash color registration. Ditko’s bold compositions withstood these degradations better than most. In addition to Spider-Man, Ditko created the Doctor Strange character for Marvel, and his swirling compositions were a perfect fit for the master of mystic arts’ astral journeys into psychedelic realms. (In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe describes LSD advocate Ken Kesey sitting “for hours on end reading comic books, absorbed in the plunging purple Steve Ditko shadows of Dr. Strange.”)

The sheer artistry of Ditko’s dynamic mix of abstract composition and elastic figuration received showcase treatment in Warren’s black-and-white horror publications. A typical Warren mag from the mid to late 1960s was a highlight reel of some of the best draftsmen this country ever produced — in each issue’s half-dozen or so stories, readers might get Reed Crandall’s woodcut-like drawings adapting Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hop-Frog,” Angelo Torres’s mix of film stills and noir lighting in a twist on The Phantom of the Opera, moody graveyard scenes in misty grays by Gene Colan, or the hyper-real figures and passionate layouts of a Neal Adams vampire tale.

Between 1966 and ’68, Ditko drew sixteen stories for Warren, all but one of them scripted by the incredibly versatile Archie Goodwin. Two examples, done in polar-opposite styles, show Ditko at the top of his game. In “Collector’s Edition!,” from Creepy #10 (1966), Ditko used concise crosshatching to achieve expressive tonalities emphasizing the tension that arises when a slovenly dealer of occult books taunts a fanatical collector with the possibility of obtaining a rare masterpiece detailing the darkest of the diabolical arts. The close-ups of eyes Ditko deployed for compositional variety a decade earlier are here arrayed in a narrative sequence that punctuates the antagonism between buyer and seller, which shortly escalates to murder. Goodwin — as sharp a yarn-spinner as ever came down America’s pop-cult pike — was no doubt having fun with the collecting manias that were driving the burgeoning comic-fandom phenomenon. The blasphemous tome featured in the story, Dark Visions, written by “the Marquis Lemode,” contains both stygian realms of evil and predictions of the future, giving the collector a preview of his own onrushing demise. Ditko’s precise line work propels Goodwin’s entwined narrative to its sardonically surprising conclusion.

But it’s in Creepy #13’s “Second Chance!” (1967) that Ditko displays ink-wash chops that, in their verve and subtlety, were unlike anything he achieved in mainstream comics, the delicate gradations of gray overlaid with white filigrees impossible to reproduce in color comics. Ditko’s crepuscular ambience enhances Goodwin’s plot, which begins and ends amid graveyard dirt and in between takes a trippy plunge into a hell filled with undulating demons, flailing victims, and diaphanous mists. The broad range of shadows and patinas of light give Ditko’s figures a supple grace he rarely equaled in his superhero comics.

Notoriously reclusive, Ditko spent his last decades more and more consumed by a rigid — not to say black-and-white — view of the world, inspired in no small part by the stark divisions between good and evil as espoused by writer-philosopher Ayn Rand. Although he did create more characters in those passing years (most notably Mr. A., a humorless vigilante who wore metal gloves, all the better for pummeling moral trespassers), Ditko never surpassed the sheer graphic elation of his Warren work. All the gray areas were gone.

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“Avengers: Infinity War” Debrief: How the Marvel Epic Challenged Its Heroes’ Commitment to Sacrifice

Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel’s ten-year culmination, is a sad film. It’s fun, no doubt: It zips by despite its gargantuan runtime, and even finds slowed-down moments to remind us that we love these characters in part simply because they often crack wise. Yet those wisecracks exist not to break up action beats — as is the case with many of its franchise predecessors — but rather to provide levity from a story steeped in the failure of heroism. The movie depicts not just the broad concept of heroes failing to achieve their goals, but rather the failure of the very ideals the Marvel heroes have spent a decade arguing for and solidifying. It’s a film in which heroes are constantly asked to weigh the cost of individual lives against the greater good — indeed, in which the ability to do so defines one’s humanity. Though one might rightly ask, once the dust has settled and the implications for future Marvel films become clearer: To what end? Can the Marvel Cinematic Universe retain its stakes in a story where time, reality, and meaning itself can be unwritten in an instant? (Spoilers for several Marvel movies to follow.)

With a mere snap of his fingers, Josh Brolin’s megalomaniacal Thanos wipes out half of all life in the universe in Avengers: Infinity War. With six Infinity Stones at his disposal (Time, Reality, Power, Mind, Space, Soul), he can manipulate the fabric of reality and the arc of the Avengers’ narrative, robbing their sacrifices of consequence as he rips holes through space and time, traveling from incident to incident whenever and however he pleases. Thanos’s universal genocide would ordinarily be the midpoint of such a story, but it finds itself a cliffhanger here, setting up what is sure to be an unexpected (and as-yet-untitled) Avengers follow-up in 2019. Thanos’s bejeweled Infinity Gauntlet grants him near-limitless power, which he uses for purposes he thinks altruistic. “This universe is finite. Its resources finite,” he tells his adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana), one of the Guardians of the Galaxy, as he recalls the fall of his own planet decades prior. His solution to Titan’s overpopulation was the random culling of half its citizens. He was cast out and branded a madman for his ideas before Titan eventually fell, after which he made it his mission to ensure no other planet, including Earth, suffered the same fate. Terrifyingly, his methods appear to work: Gamora’s home planet, from where Thanos kidnapped her as a child after murdering half its people, now flourishes. Its children no longer starve.

In purely numerical terms, divorced from any sense of empathy or emotion, Thanos is arguably right. His methods are distinctly inhuman, stripped of all emotional meaning and attachment, but what makes him such a fascinating villain is what remains of his humanity despite this. To achieve his limitless might, he needs to collect the Soul Stone, an ancient Infinity Stone granting its wielder mastery over life and death. Its acquisition, however, as Thanos is informed by the Stone’s ghostlike guardian, demands a sacrifice to ensures its new keeper understands its cost: It requires the death of that which Thanos loves most. Gamora, who has reluctantly led her father to the Stone’s location, laughs at this revelation. In her mind, her father the Mad Titan is incapable of love. She is mistaken. Thanos, for all his shortcomings, still loves Gamora. He very much possesses the ability to weigh one meaningful life against countless others — the faceless trillions he’s unlikely to meet — and, in choosing to kill Gamora, he rids himself of what little emotional direction his own life possessed beyond his murderous mission.

Once confronted with the implications of the Soul Stone, Thanos holds back tears as he yanks Gamora to the edge of a cliff and tosses her off it. His success is made all the more harrowing by the fact that Avengers: Infinity War, and the Marvel universe at large, has thus far toyed directly with this exact predicament of sacrificing certain lives in order to save others. The rejection of Thanos’s philosophy in this regard — the refusal to barter with people’s lives — is nothing less than the foundation of the Avengers’ heroism. “We don’t trade lives”: Captain America (Chris Evans) is firm in this belief, expressing it to the artificially intelligent being the Vision (Paul Bettany), a hero whose forehead houses the Mind Gem, one of the Infinity Stones sought by Thanos. The Vision’s beau, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), having been granted her powers by the Mind Gem itself, has the ability to destroy it — and the Vision along with it. But the Captain insists there must be another way. He takes the Vision to Wakanda, home of the Black Panther, to see if the advanced Wakandan science can separate the Vision from the Gem in his head. For Rogers, to sacrifice the Vision would be both a wholly personal choice and a last resort.

The World War II–set Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) ends with Captain Rogers saving millions of New Yorkers by crash-landing an atomically armed plane in the Arctic rather than putting it down in a remote land area where a few thousand would die instead. Rogers’s superhuman abilities keep him alive, but he loses seventy years of his life in the process. In that film’s follow-up, the crossover landmark The Avengers (2012), the idea of sacrificing millions to save billions is introduced when New York is jeopardized once again. The World Security Council, a shadowy, militaristic U.N. parallel, orders a nuclear strike on the alien-ridden Manhattan to stop the extraterrestrial invasion from going global. The superhero team, however, is unwilling to make this trade; Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) carries the nuclear warhead out into space rather than letting it harm a single innocent person. He doesn’t die, either, but the sacrifice extracts a cost, leaving him with crippling PTSD (as seen in Iron Man 3).

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), the debate over trading lives takes on an immediately political dimension. American drone-ships take aim at “potential” threats, with the intention of killing a few million individuals to achieve a peaceful outcome for the world’s remaining billions. As expected, Captain America stops these ships from ever firing, believing that the punishment must come after the crime rather than before it. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) sees the Avengers’ own robotic creation — Ultron (James Spader), a being detached from humanity and empathy — trying to bring about world peace by destroying humanity itself, the root cause of all conflict. Ultron even builds a backup plan into his apocalyptic scheme, one in which he lifts the fictional nation of Sokovia hundreds of miles in the air before planning to drop it like a meteor, thus bringing about global extinction. Even if the Avengers succeed in saving the rest of the world, they would still have to destroy the floating city and the thousands of people on it, making them pariahs to those who survive. While on his way to this mission, Captain America vocalizes the fact that their success at the cost of Sokovia’s citizens is still a failure. When it seems like the Avengers don’t have any way to succeed, they decide to stay on the floating mound until their deaths, saving as many people as they can rather than escaping. But since they eventually succeed with outside assistance, their unlikely success can’t help but feel as if the film is avoiding the difficult questions it raised itself about the perils of heroism.

Those questions are, in fact, asked more directly in Avengers: Infinity War. “We don’t trade lives, Captain,” the Vision repeats as he saves Rogers, despite inadvertently putting himself and the Mind Gem in Thanos’s path. The refusal to compromise on this point has been part of the Avengers’ identity for nearly a decade — the self-sacrifice in some cases being more tangible than in others. In Thor (2011), the God of Thunder allows himself to be killed — albeit temporarily, as is the case with many of these films. Thor’s sacrifice saves faceless extras in New Mexico. Captain America’s sacrifice is to save faceless millions in New York in 1942, which is the exact same case for the Avengers in 2012. The millions all over the world in Winter Soldier, the few thousands in Age of Ultron, and so on and so forth, are ultimately a distant collective, representing an outcome that, while helping to define these heroes’ philosophies, doesn’t ground their sacrifice in interpersonal emotions. In Infinity War, however, the heroes are constantly forced into positions wherein they have to debate sacrificing not only the populace at large, but one another.

Wanda, for her part, must consider killing an increasingly human A.I. whom she loves, lest Thanos retrieve the Stone in his head. Gamora, the only living person with knowledge of the Soul Stone’s whereabouts, makes her lover, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), promise to kill her if she’s captured. But even after Star-Lord and Wanda agree to their respective deeds, and even as Gamora and the Vision agree to die in order to save the universe, Thanos immediately undoes their respective sacrifices using the Stones he already possesses. He manipulates reality and turns Star-Lord’s bullets into bubbles. He turns back time and returns the Vision to life, undoing his noble sacrifice (and Wanda’s painful act). He cracks open the A.I.’s head to take his Mind Gem, rendering the couple’s sacrifice moot and killing the Vision anyway. When Gamora learns that her death is the key to the Soul Stone, she attempts to take her own life to prevent a universal genocide. Thanos turns her blade into bubbles. Sacrifice may as well be child’s play to Thanos unless it’s in service of his goals.

Nearly every Avenger engages in some form of self-sacrifice in order to stop Thanos. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who has lost everything from his family to his home world, takes the full blast of a star’s energy to forge a new weapon: the axe known as Stormbreaker, for which fellow-superhero Groot provides the handle by cutting off his own arm. Thor eventually uses this weapon to stab Thanos in the chest, but Thanos simply snaps his fingers, wiping out half the universe and rendering the attack meaningless. Whether it’s Wanda and the Vision, Star-Lord and Gamora, or Groot and Thor, Thanos denies the Avengers any opportunity of heroic sacrifice, quite literally undoing their important narrative beats with the power at his disposal. The heroes lay everything on the line, even going against their own ideals of refusing to compromise lives, only to have the villain get what he wants by robbing each of them of their willful sacrifice. The only sacrifice that has long-lasting consequence is Thanos’s ruthless murder of his daughter in order to achieve the tools for his genocide.

By the film’s end, half the heroes have withered into dust. None of their sacrifices have been allowed to matter, and, while their individual moments of demise hit hard for long-time fans, their deaths exist seemingly independently of any universal logic. There is no why to any of their deaths — not yet, at least. As the remaining Avengers scramble to make sense of seeing their comrades dying in front of their eyes, only an injured Thanos is allowed an ending approaching completion, as he watches the sun rise on what he calls “a grateful universe.” This, above all else, hammers home Infinity War’s melancholy undercurrent. It ends at a point where every death, sacrifice, and decision made by its heroes feels entirely inconsequential — an understandable point of frustration for those skeptical of Marvel’s myriad-chapter narrative structure. In simpler terms, this is a movie where the villain wins and the heroes are left at their low point. And while there are several questions yet to be answered — many of them logistical, like how Iron Man will return home from space after being stranded on Titan — perhaps the most pressing is the question of whether the decision to delve entirely into meaninglessness can be made to matter in future entries.

While peering into the future using the Time Stone, a powerful object he’s sworn to protect, the mystic sorcerer Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) sees more than fourteen million possible outcomes. The Avengers lose in all but one of them, though Strange doesn’t reveal what exactly the lone victorious future entails. That is, until the moment Thanos is about to kill Tony Stark. Strange then hands Thanos the Time Stone — and thus the universe itself on a silver platter — in exchange for Stark’s life. Strange had previously made it clear that if it came down to saving Stark or protecting the Stone, he would not hesitate to let the billionaire die. Yet he goes back on his word here, handing Thanos a device that would allow him to kill trillions, seemingly in order to save a single life, in a curious reversal of what the Avengers stand for. In Strange’s case, this unwillingness to sacrifice a single life is, in fact, a compromise. But “It was the only way,” Strange himself says as he’s about to wither at Thanos’s hands.

Among the deceased Avengers are Black Panther, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and all but one of the Guardians of the Galaxy, all of whom are sure to get a sequel film in the next few years. These characters clearly aren’t dead for good, as is the case with many a Marvel tale in the comics. Perhaps no one who died in Infinity War is dead for good. But in keeping with this logic of future appearances, it’s worth noting that the remaining Avengers include Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Captain America, and Hawkeye: the original team from 2012. Most of them are unlikely to appear in any Marvel film post-2019 — due to contractual reasons, of course. But there must also be a narrative logic, on behalf of the storytellers, to even this “random” selection of who gets to live or die according to Thanos’s will — an opportunity, perhaps, for future sacrifice to be meaningful. Perhaps the strangest thing about Avengers: Infinity War right now is that audiences don’t know whether it will matter in the grand scheme of the Marvel Universe. The answer remains to be seen. Despite all the quips and jokes and weighty speeches about compromise, the film’s true nature will remain in limbo, for better or worse, until its conclusion next year.

 

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“Jessica Jones” Season Two Boils Down the Superhero Formula to Personal Terms

The second season of Marvel/Netflix’s Jessica Jones, which debuted on the streaming service last month, is at once a stark departure from the trappings of its genre and a work playing distinctly within the superhero sandbox. (A renewal for a third season was just announced as well.) The first scene places its protagonist within a narrative space specific to her while also drawing on Marvel’s established vernacular. Having emerged from a trauma-centric first season, Jones finds herself at a crossroads of identity she isn’t ready to confront. Now a well-known face among the populace at large, the booze-soaked P.I. is solicited in a pizzeria by a scorned woman who wants her to use her fatal super-strength on an unfaithful lover. Familiar with the burden of taking a life — in season one, it was that of her rapist, Killgrave, played by David Tennant — Jessica isn’t ready to become a supervillain. But she isn’t certain which path to walk instead: the violent vigilante, or the hero of the people. It’s a decision every modern superhero must make, especially if they’re of the Marvel Cinematic Universe variety and their identities have ballooned into public knowledge. Still figuring it out, Jessica in this moment chooses a path of apathetic non-intervention, for fear of the people she might hurt, physically and emotionally. “A hero would have you locked up for soliciting murder,” she tells the woman at the pizzeria. “A vigilante would beat the shit out of you. Now, which one am I? Choose.”

In the average Marvel creation, this decision of identity ordinarily hinges on the central superhero’s evolving sense of morality in response to the world around them. Not for nothing is the foundation of the Marvel Universe Iron Man’s refusal to manufacture weapons like his father after witnessing their grisly effects up close for himself. In Jessica Jones’s fork-in-the-road quandary, however, it’s her family that is the determining factor. As a teen, she lost her mother, father, and younger brother in a car accident. Thereafter, she was adopted by the mother of a teenage celebrity, who offered up said daughter to directors in exchange for roles. In the ensuing years of drift and malaise, Jessica has been unable to forget the incident that killed her family but left her with the possession of superhuman strength — a result of the research laboratory I.G.H.’s life-saving gene-splicing. Her Manhattan building superintendent and potential love interest, Oscar (J.R. Ramirez), and his young son, Vido, are the only ones who continue to show her unselfish kindness, a warmth so unfamiliar to her she initially rejects it. She’s more used to the people in her orbit — adoptive sister Trish “Patsy” Walker (Rachael Taylor), business associate Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Ann Moss), neighbor/P.I. protégé Malcolm (Eka Darville) — pursuing their own agendas and pushing her away, just as she does them. If she continues on this trajectory, she will inevitably end up alone.

The life-saving experiments that brought Jessica back from the brink and gave her unnatural abilities are the same procedures that, in the new episodes, create a burgeoning monster: the militaristic Will Simpson (Wil Traval). A role premised on the comics’ Nuke, a dark foil to Captain America, Simpson here walks a tightrope between violent impulses and romantic obsession with Trish. The organization behind the technology that granted Jessica and Will their powers is the shadowy I.G.H., which, after some hints and teases the last time around, finally comes into focus here. (Spoilers for the entire second season follow.)

This shift starts when Trish, former child star and current investigative-journalist radio host, pushes Jessica to move past her scotch-swilling ways and face the scars of her past. Trish’s persistence opens as a twofold plan: Helping Jessica chase down these leads would be for her own well-being, and it would also bring the mad scientists of I.G.H. to justice. However, an unseen menace soon begins eliminating all the witnesses by murdering anyone in close proximity to the case; meanwhile, Trish, a former addict, stumbles upon the drug that gives Simpson his temporary super-strength. Though Trish uses it to defend herself at first, she gets hooked on the rush of having superpowers, turning Jessica into a mere pawn in Trish’s new plan to resurrect I.G.H. As the offscreen enforcer continues the violent crusade, the crises pile up: Simpson is killed, Trish is placed in mortal danger, and Jessica is left with a new case that, should she choose to accept it, may force her to use her powers to kill once more.

Midway through the new season, the rampaging murderer is revealed to be Jessica’s mother, Alisa (Janet McTeer), thought to have perished in the car accident. But the I.G.H. procedures also saved her life, giving her a new face, super-strength that far exceeds Jessica’s, and a raging temper that can seldom be controlled. Crucially, though, as misunderstood I.G.H. scientist Karl Malus (Callum Keith Rennie) puts it, the experiment merely tapped into what was already present in Alisa and Jessica’s DNA: Their existing strength and rage have only been magnified by the technology. The circumstance that, in season one, was brushed away as an unnecessary genre trope — Jessica and fellow superhuman Luke Cage merely exchange the words “accident” and “experiment,” rather than harping on the technicalities of this superhero’s origins — re-enters the spotlight here as a kind of externalization of a fundamental battle fought by most humans throughout history. It’s not a battle of good versus evil, but one between the dueling forces of becoming our parents and moving past what they made us. Suddenly, Jessica must wrestle with bringing her mother to justice for her crimes and finally having a relationship with her in adulthood.

Karl Malus, for his part, turns out not only to be a humanitarian forced to work in the shadows (rather than, say, a Victor Frankenstein type), but also Alisa’s new husband and, in essence, Jessica’s surrogate father. While Jessica and Alisa’s rage pre-dates their accident, the form it currently takes comes from the same place (Karl’s experiments) and results from his decision to separate them until Alisa’s dissociations and violent outbursts could be controlled. While unethical, he is by no means malevolent. But he is also the ultimate signifier that the hell these women face, externally and within themselves, stems from the same source. He may be a person, but he is also a circumstance. He is what happened to both of them: the man who gave them the gift of life, albeit without their consent and with dangerous side effects.

Following this backstory reveal in episode seven, Jessica and Alisa remain at odds with one another, spurring a six-episode tête-à-tête. Where previous Marvel/Netflix efforts like Luke Cage, Daredevil, and even Jessica Jones season one fell victim to wheel-spinning, spreading thin their plots over thirteen contractually obligated episodes, Jessica Jones season two makes this seemingly inevitable repetition part of its substance. As Jessica grows closer to Alisa, she becomes something of an emotional pendulum, swinging between desiring to help her mother and be a daughter once more, and wanting to do her duty as a potential hero by preventing Alisa from hurting anyone else. In viewing her mother as human, through fleeting smiles and the recounting of faded memories, Jessica sees the best in her. Yet through Alisa’s temper and her desire to kill anyone who would hurt Jessica or Karl (including Trish), Jessica also begins to see the worst in her mother, the rage that exists in her. It’s through this dilemmatic swirl of emotions that Jessica’s question of Heroism-versus-Vigilantism is reframed in more personal terms: Will Jessica reject Alisa, thus becoming her own person entirely separate from her mother? Or will she accept her, aiding and abetting her escape, thereby preserving their bond of blood? In this articulation, the Hero is no longer merely a law-abiding crime fighter, nor is the Vigilante simply the violent foil. For Jessica, the Hero is an identity entirely divorced from her roots, from the rage that made her who she is. The Vigilante, on the other hand, is the full-on embrace of both her mother and of the darkest parts of herself. Jessica’s choice is absolute.

Marvel and other franchises like The Fast and the Furious have discovered success in tales of found family. (Per director James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is about the bonds between adults who were abused as children.) But throwing off the shackles of toxic or abusive parents is easier said than done. While Jessica’s found family centers on her adoptive sister, Trish (a connection cemented after the two cut Trish’s manipulative mother out of their lives), her birth family isn’t one she can simply ignore — doing so would result in more casualties. The opportunity for Jessica to reconcile with and get to know her birth mother despite Alisa’s violent actions is a narrative scenario uniquely dependent on a lack of negotiable momentum: For each step forward, there is a step back. Jessica’s dilemma exists in stasis; there are seemingly equal upsides and downsides to confronting her abusive parent, as if either path will lead to its own brand of misery. Some moments lead her toward her mother, toward warmth, toward the childhood of which she was robbed; others lead her away from the one person who understands her volatile physical and emotional circumstances, having lived them herself. As Jessica debates between locking up her mother and letting her roam free, she also has to consider the logistics of where to put Alisa if she chooses to turn her in. A prison for super-powered people would mean total isolation; a regular prison would allow mother and daughter to have a semblance of a relationship, but would put guards and inmates at risk.

Ultimately, Jessica sets her sights on helping Alisa across the Canadian border. But even this decision never gets a chance, thanks to her mother’s sudden demise. This time, Alisa’s death is for real, and comes at the hands of Jessica’s own sister, who takes a shot from the shadows before Jessica has had a chance to say a proper goodbye. Knowing Jessica would likely not have been willing to pull the trigger herself, Trish takes matters into her own hands to protect them both. In the process, Jessica is left with one final choice now that she’s been robbed for good of a relationship with Alisa. She must decide whether to embrace the alternative to rejecting her mother — becoming her mother, by hurting Trish in a fit of rage — or whether to keep walking an uncertain path with no easy answers until she figures out how to pave a new one. She chooses the latter, isolating herself from everyone including Trish once more, though when her neighbor and romantic interest invites her for dinner for what feels like the thousandth time, she finally accepts.

Jessica Jones is not yet a fully formed individual; she is rendered an abrasive archetype, and she cannot progress until fundamental questions about her identity are answered. Her growth as a character was stunted by the trauma of her parents’ accident, resulting in a tumble down a drunken rabbit-hole and the resultant cruelty to herself and to those around her. As much as her signature black leather jacket is her uniform, as a P.I. and as a superhero, it’s also a cocoon. It’s an armor she can’t shed for fear of losing the best parts of the people around her or becoming the very worst in them — the same desirable and detestable qualities that exist in herself. But it’s in the mere act of rejecting her inertia and finally accepting that invitation from Oscar and his son that any new path even becomes possible.

After being jolted out of her dilemma, unstuck in time thanks to even more trauma brought on by her sister, Jessica is no longer caught between two destinies: taking up the mantle of a violent past, or rejecting it to the point of refusal to deal with its fallout. If she is to be molded into a new person, her own individual, someone who doesn’t have to choose between Hero and Vigilante, then her process starts here, after having lost (willingly or otherwise) all the relationships that had defined her for so long. It’s a journey she’s positioned to undertake with people who care for her unselfishly, and, most importantly, people she no longer desires to push away.

Jessica Jones streams on Netflix.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Yes, “Infinity War” Goes on Forever, but Thanos Makes It Worth the Time

We can say this much for Thanos. For the greatest villain in all the universe — a tyrant whose chin might be lumps of grape mashed potatoes scored with a fork to resemble Devils Tower — he’s got some ideas that aren’t all that bad. His mission, to gather all six of creation’s so-called infinity stones, is a bit of childish collector’s mania, a bit of a prank on the superfan marks who buy multiple copies of an Avengers comic to get all the “variant” covers. But Thanos’s endgame I can understand: In the name of achieving “balance,” he aims to blink away half the population of existence. When he announced this, not too long into Avengers: Infinity War, I admit to thinking about the film’s running time (160 minutes) and daydreaming that he might vacate his asteroid lair for the editing bay. Forget the cosmic genocide, Thanos, and show Marvel how to kill some darlings!

Infinity War does claim a body count, the specifics of which, I’m happy to report, fans probably won’t guess. As the third Avengers film, it has an air of senior year about it: There are some drearily solemn speeches, but you’ll remember the blowouts, and there’s plenty of time to wonder which of these faces you’ll see again. This epic, the first of two final Avengers films, finds the Class of ’12 — the core Avengers — getting together for one last rager, joined by select newbies and spazzes from the ranks of sophomores and freshmen. Here’s Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, all giddy heart and whip-fast Looney Tunes action. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange takes up the role of square-jawed stiff who just can’t believe/grudgingly respects this Iron Man fellow. Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther turns up much too late into the movie for the superhero whose own film is Marvel’s top grosser. (His job, essentially, is to host the apocalypse.) And the Guardians of the Galaxy zip through to get caught up in yet more daddy issues and remind us that, even with the fate of all creation on the line, there’s no joke they can’t belabor a couple of beats too long.

Simply put, the Marvel Universe is too big to squeeze into one movie. But the biggest surprise here is that much of Infinity War fairly zips along, as directors Joe and Anthony Russo and their armies of previz teams and editors cut between dozens of competing characters and cliffhangers — they’ve yanked all the good parts from a colossal Marvel comic-book crossover event and chucked them onto the screen. To the heroes, they dole out big moments the way awards show producers dispense goody bags, making sure each star has reason to go home happy. Everyone gets a quip to crack, an ass to kick and an opportunity for noble sacrifice. (The latter especially — Thanos the editor would have cut one.) The second biggest surprise, after many spectacular face-offs and showdowns, is the ending, which I’ll not spoil except to say this: I didn’t see it coming. I mean that literally. When the screen faded to black, I thought there must still be half an hour of fighting to go. What higher praise can one give a movie that takes all day than, “I got caught up enough that I didn’t notice how much day it had taken”?

The first action set piece, in Greenwich Village, stands as a highlight of all the Marvel films, a witty world-outside-your-window dustup full of team-ups, tech upgrades, and a wizard fighting space aliens at high noon in Washington Square Park. The second, set in what we’re told simply is “Scotland,” whiffs, but it stars the android Vision (Paul Bettany) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), mopey characters whose souls have not survived the promotion from comics to movies, possibly because the movies cut away every time they start making eyes at each other. Here, their limited screen time is amusingly at odds with their crucialness to the plot. That’s perhaps proof that Marvel movies truly are made by fans for fans — whenever these two are onscreen, Infinity War itself seems like it’s ready to sneak out to the bathroom.

Their scenes seem trimmed to make way for Josh Brolin’s Thanos, the character whose movie this is — nobody’s onscreen more than this brooding purple titan, and he’s a more compelling villain than most non-Loki, non-Killmonger Marvel screen baddies. Still, his pronouncements veer from the monumental to the tin-eared, often in a single line. “I ignored my destiny once,” he rumbles, before adding, unnecessarily, “I cannot do that again.”

It’s the house style of the Marvel movies to undercut grandiosity with wisecracks, essentially RiffTraxing themselves. Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord points out that Thanos’s chin looks like a “nutsack,” and Rocket, his one-raccoon-army pal, tells a giant space dwarf played by Peter Dinklage that naming an ax forged from the very essence of a star “Stormbreaker” is “a bit much.” That ribbing often seems to me cheaply self-exonerating, a case of the filmmakers letting themselves off the hook for the goofiness of these stories — for their failure to sell us the most outlandish elements. Rather than commit the imaginative resources to stirring awe in us at the power of Stormbreaker, they layer a critic’s complaint about its cheesiness right into the scene. Rather than design the villain so that he doesn’t look like a rugged scrotum, they score a laugh out of it and move on.

Infinity War only sags, I think, in its middle, when the filmmakers give us too many underlit scenes in a row set in what seems to be the basement junkyards of a host of indistinguishable planets. Thanos stalks through some of these in ponderous monologue, as humorless as a pastor on Good Friday. That’s true to the comics — Marvel villains do go on — but the relative blandness of the cosmos is not. Jack Kirby, Jim Starlin, and the many other architects of the pen-and-ink infinities that have inspired Infinity War all packed their universe with weirdness, visions, and grandeur. The Russos and the hundreds of craftspeople who worked on this film have dreamed up marvelous battles — especially the one where a motley assortment of heroes take their cracks at the purportedly unstoppable Thanos. But only once here did an intergalactic vista catch my breath the way a splash page in a Silver Surfer comic might.

That’s partially because the filmmakers are always in a hurry: Grandeur takes time; jokes can come quickly. To be fair, in all Marvel universes, it’s the characters that count most. That’s what the films have gotten right ever since Jon Favreau’s Iron Man ten years ago. The world-building has sometimes come at the expense of narrative (Iron Man 2, Avengers: Age of Ultron), the storytelling has often been rote or formulaic (Ant-Man, Doctor Strange), the action has sometimes looked like an afterthought (Spider-Man: Homecoming), and Thor: The Dark World remains, unforgivably, Thor: The Dark World. But through them all — even in Captain America: Civil War, which scrambled motivations to create conflict — is a certainty about just who these heroes are, what makes each interesting and what fans have dreamed of seeing them do. More often than not, the filmmakers have achieved the latter.

(Super-vague ending spoiler follows!) The cliffhanger climax of Infinity War left the audience at my screening in a state that I can only describe with the most tired of critical clichés: They were stunned. No matter the film’s flaws, that decade of character work — of character love, even — powers an all-too-rare pop-culture wallop. For once, the superhero movie punches us.

Avengers: Infinity War
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Walt Disney Films
Opens April 27

 

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