Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Redefining Superheroes: All-New X-Men / The Astonishing Ant-Man

Since 2012, the definition of ‘superhero comic’ has changed dramatically with a surge of all-audiences books like Ms. Marvel, Batgirl, We Are…Robin!, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and a host of others from the Big Two: DC and Marvel. While most of these titles do indeed feature young female protagonists designed to speak to young female readers, they’re all incredibly well-written books that many outside the target demographic enjoy immensely. There will always be a place for more traditional-leaning superhero comic books on the shelves, but the inclusivity presented by these quirky titles is helping make the entire genre more relatable and emotionally engrossing in an industry fast becoming a creator-owned market.

Two current Marvel Comics series are helping redefine the superhero genre using emotional relatability as a core conceit: The Astonishing Ant-Man by Nick Spencer and Ramon Rosanas, and All-New X-Men by Dennis Hopeless and Mark Bagley. Of course, these aren’t the only series that are using emotional character development to cement Marvel’s solo ongoing game, but they’re the titles I want to talk about right now. Both titles are continuations of previous volumes, though in different respects.

Nick Spencer and Ramon Rosanas helmed last year’s five-issue Ant-Man series that led up to the release of the summer blockbuster of the same name. After an Annual and The Last Days of Ant-Man leading into the massive Secret Wars, Spencer and Rosanas’ ongoing narrative featuring Scott Lang relocated to Miami, Florida to run a security firm with two ex-villains continues in the re-named The Astonishing Ant-Man.

Conversely, All-New X-Men didn’t undergo a name change, but the cast, mission statement, and creative team changed. After Brian Michael Bendis wrapped up his years-long X-Men saga (spanning All-New X-Men [Vol. 1] and Uncanny X-Men [Vol. 3] with Uncanny X-Men #600, Dennis Hopeless and Mark Bagley were tapped as the new creative team with a slightly new roster and endless possibilities after the original time-displaced X-Men were freed from Bendis’ X-mythos saga.

All-New X-Men
Hopeless and Bagley take the X-Men back to their roots in their All-New X-Men, a series focused on teenage mutants helping anyone and any way they can while learning to control their powers and maturing both physically and mentally. More than any other X-title in the past decade, Hopeless and Bagley’s All-New X-Men has already reset the bar for X-Men stories. Instead of beating the crap out of each other like the adults are so keen on constantly doing, the younger generation is focused on real-world crises and actually doing good for good’s sake, not to make mutants look better or to work towards some agenda. This is the basic difference between All-New X-Men and the concurrent Extraordinary X-Men and Uncanny X-Men, that Hopeless and Bagley have taken the X-Men back to basics and it works while the other two titles continue the recycled the doom-and-gloom X-titles have been stuck on for so very long. Just the past two issues – All-New X-Men #4-5 – prove how well Hopeless and Bagley handle these characters and the very concept of the X-Men.

In two issues, Hopeless pens an extended montage sequence that takes the the team from Tokyo to the Ko Phi Phi Islands of Thailand, then to Paris where an overly-aggressive encounter with between Wolverine and the All-New Blob (with a more sophisticated taste palate and wardrobe to match) snowballs into a full-scale battle that eventually involves the entire team. Much like how TV sitcoms sometimes split the cast into A, B, and C stories that pair up different characters to see how they interact in more intimate settings, All-New X-Men #4-5 zones in on some lingering issues between various members of the “roadtripping throwback X-Men.”

Angel and Wolverine’s relationship – and its issues – is the most relatable and authentic comic book romance I’ve read in a long time. Hopeless does an excellent job clearly defining both Warren and Laura for the readers while also making their romance believable in the context of passionate, teenage love; these are teenagers with superpowers who have traveled into space, fought future and/or past versions of themselves, and regularly throw down with supervillains and natural disasters around the world, and they’ve somehow found an attraction in the midst of total chaos. That said, this doesn’t preclude them from normal relationship issues. Though Warren and Laura are the same age and both vetted X-Men, Warren – for all intents and purposes based on when he was plucked from his earlier timeline – hasn’t been a superhero as long as Laura considering her time as X-23 and serving on various X-Men and X-Force teams. Warren’s stomach for Laura’s role as the new Wolverine (basically, the bull in a china shop that can’t die) is tender, and his discomfort and dissatisfaction with their relationship begins to weight on him more and more. Conversely, Laura can’t wrap her head around Warren’s stance when he got with her knowing full well who she is – the new Wolverine, the best at what she does. Put the superheroics to the side and you have a justifiably over-concerned Warren at odds with Laura being asked to be something she’s not. So normal fare, right?

The conversation between Iceman and Kid Genesis gives incredible context for Bobby Drake’s paradoxical feelings about his own sexuality. A cute French boy offers his number to Bobby, who initially seems interested only to balk at the suggestion before walking away altogether. Evan astutely feels as though Bobby felt judged, and asks why he thinks Evan – the kid clone of an obsessively genocidal mutant demigod at war with his own nature – would ever judge him? This leads to a powerful revelation that as much as society has grown to accept homosexuality, Bobby was plucked from a time when it hadn’t yet, and that affects Bobby’s feelings toward his situation, not to mention seeing how angry and disenfranchised the older Iceman who suppressed those feelings for decades has become. Bobby feels judged because he believes people will judge him, not because he genuinely thinks Evan is judgmental or bigoted. It’s a stark moment that Hopeless deftly handles without getting too heavy, and it gives greater depth and insight to young Bobby Drake than Bendis did in his entire run with the character.

As much as I enjoyed reading the above stories play out, my favorite might be Idie Okonkwo’s confrontation with her creator. In Paris, Idie visits the Notre Dame cathedral to have words with God. Idie has witnessed more horrors in her short life than any should have to in a lifetime. She’s watched her friends die and has taken lives herself. She grew up with a debilitating self-hatred of her own mutation borne of Christian ideology turned psychologically scarring. Inside and out, Idie has battled demons her entire life and she has every right to be angry at the God she wants to love but cannot excuse. Hopeless could have totally fumbled here and gone high-concept with flowery language and vague euphemisms. Instead, he chooses to take the blunt, critical path and presents an angry Idie yelling at the Christian God, a powerful sequence made better by Bagley’s emotional nuance and subtle body language. Idie’s monologue is an impressive moment for the character that proves how well Hopeless can handle these characters. Other writers may have chosen to be less direct in approaching an issue like religious discord, yet Hopeless tackles it head-on.

All three of these plotlines very much show how Dennis Hopeless and Mark Bagley are simultaneously moving the X-Men forward and taking them back to basics with a series that integrates insightful character development with fun X-Men superhero action without sacrificing quality in either regard.

The Astonishing Ant-Man
Last year, Nick Spencer and Ramon Rosanas brought Ant-Man back in style with the plainly-titled Ant-Man that led up to last summer’s big-screen blockbuster of the same name. Spencer and Rosanas aptly took Matt Fraction’s updated Scott Lang (from the incredible ‘Marvel NOW!’ FF series) and gave him a new thesis: the actual everyman superhero. Though Fraction’s Hawkeye grounded Clint Barton more than ever before, Spencer and Rosanas’ Scott Lang is a charming, lovable klutz who can’t do anything right. The best and worst part about Scott’s situation is that he knows he’s a major screw-up, and every way he tries to make it better blows up in his face because he either (a) Didn’t think it through, or (b) DIDN’T THINK IT THROUGH!

Scott is perpetually stuck in scan mode, unsure of himself in most regards and unwilling to settle on any one thing for too long. To be fair, he was killed back in 2004 during Avengers: Disassembled only to be reborn during Avengers: The Children’s Crusade, the final chapter of Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung’s Young Avengers saga and watch his daughter, Cassie, die at Doctor Doom’s hand. He then accepted Reed Richard’s request to watch over the Future Foundation with the Fantastic Four went on an interdimensional family road trip. During his time in the Earthbound Fantastic Four, Scott learned some responsibility, but ultimately gambled it on a plan of revenge against Doctor Doom that put the Future Foundation kids in grave danger, an unacceptable action by any length. So yeah, Scott’s been through some stuff. Way before he was ever murdered, he was a con man who stole the Ant-Man helmet only to get Hank Pym’s blessing after the fact. Scott isn’t a bad guy, really, he just makes terrible decisions and keeps getting lucky when everyone forgives him. Spencer doesn’t shy away from giving Scott moments of self-reflection, sequences where he actually looks within and sees his inadequacies and flaws. What’s better, even, is that Scott is growing as a person and learning actual responsibility, like when he finally fesses up to Cassie and tells her he’s been coming to every basketball game and major life event, only miniaturized so he can bypass his no-custody status; yes, he’s caught as Ant-Man when he didn’t want Cassie to know then just admits his actions because he’s on the spot, but he does it all the same and that’s something.

But Spencer and Rosanas didn’t just give their main star a facelift; they also filled Scott’s Miami with a great cast of supporting characters, including two ex-villains-turned-coworkers, an ex-girlfriend in need of Scott’s security services, his ex-wife and daughter, and most recently the all-new Giant-Man, Raz Malhotra. There’s an astonishing (no pun intended) level of depth to every one of these characters that Spencer retains from issue to issue flawlessly. Grizzly and Machinesmith (they just call him Smith) are the odd couple ex-villains Scott hires to work for his new security firm, and their decision to become part of a legitimate organization is humorously documented when they fumble and almost sell out their boss in a pinch. Darla Deering makes her return to the Marvel universe after her tenure as Ms. Thing in Fraction’s FF, though she’s back to being a superstar singing sensation who decides to enlist Scott’s security services for her time in Miami. But are her motives pure? Probably not. Scott’s ex-wife has every reason to hate her ex-con, ex-dead, ex-Avenger, ex-husband, and that sour attitude shines through every time she appears on-page. Similarly, Cassie’s disenfranchisement with her deadbeat dad is palpable, and even though she’s been a superhero herself understands that there are better ways to achieve your goals than the ways Scott chooses.

Raz Malhotra might be the best new addition to the Marvel universe since Kamala Khan because he has a healthy dose of self-doubt, a level of acceptance that he might not know what he’s doing and might be putting people in danger because he doesn’t know what he’s doing. And when Scott admits to the Wasp that he chose Raz to be the new Giant-Man because, “He seemed cool?” it makes the whole situation all the better because it wasn’t pre-ordained or a legacy pick or even a fanboy – this is just some guy that Scott see potential in, a guy who stood up to a supervillain (the D-list Egghead) after being brainwashed and didn’t flinch, a guy who actually put on the superhero suit sent to him by some other guy he barely knows and tried to do good regardless. Raz represents an optimistic contrast to the typical millennial, a young man ready to answer the call to action, learn from his mistakes, and become a better person through the whole it all.

The Astonishing Ant-Man is thematically about taking responsibility for your actions and holding yourself accountable to you. Scott is trying to please everyone else, so he makes poor decisions as a means to an end instead of accepting that he – and only he – is responsible for the state of his life, that he has to learn to do what is right and not cut corners to achieve his goals quicker.

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