Comic Book Melancholia

By Jason MiddletonAugust 25, 2016

Comic Book Melancholia
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

IT IS BY NOW A COMMONPLACE that summer movies don’t tell new stories. The comic book sources that have especially come to dominate the blockbuster offer well-known properties that appeal to contemporary Hollywood sensibilities. But neither cinephiles who bemoan this state of affairs nor casual viewers who attend these movies know much about the stories on which they are based. Like many other films in the current superhero cycle, this summer’s X-Men movie, Apocalypse, recycles plots from the comic books of the 1960s through the 1980s. This was a time in which comics made and kept promises, and these promises kept us turning the pages, rushing out for new issues, and hunting for the backstories in spaces that carried a hint of mystery or peril — strangers’ garage sales, older brothers’ bedrooms, downtown shops whose comic bins sat alongside racks of magazines barred from us but never concealed from view.

Today’s superhero movies follow the logic of the “Ultimate Marvel” comic book series launched in 2000, which feature contemporary retellings of the stories that originated in the ’60s and ’70s. Ultimate Marvel comics sidestep the complications of continuity by simply wiping the narrative slate clean — and the movies have mostly followed suit, establishing their own timelines and versions of events from the original comics. For younger viewers and those who haven't read the comics on which they are based, the movies are spectacle with a dash of story, like any other contemporary blockbuster. For those who read these stories as they were published, the movies attract us with the promise to restore the feeling of an older promise: a story that is vast yet finite. A story read in fragments, out of order, but with the conviction that if all the pieces could be recovered, they would fit together in a single clear picture, a cause revealed for every effect. Collecting was an act of faith in a deified continuity system. The Simpsons offers a gentle satire of these childhood obsessions when Bart and his friends pool their resources to purchase the coveted first issue of his favorite superhero comic, and gather in the treehouse to reverentially turn its pages. “So that’s how it happened …” Milhouse whispers in awe, as the source of Radioactive Man’s powers is revealed as yet another version of the protean radiation that gave birth to The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, and others. The movies’ ability to evoke the pleasurable memory of such revelatory reading experiences carries the melancholy not only of their pastness but also their impossibility in a present in which the continuity system has long since fragmented.

The singularity of birth and death — a character’s origin story or demise — carried particular weight within this bounded narrative system. The Fantastic Four might defeat Doctor Doom many times over, but they would only once be transformed by cosmic radiation into superheroes. A hero’s death was rarer still, producing a narrative and emotional impact that the movies have struggled to capture — a struggle exemplified by X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Brett Ratner’s reviled attempt to adapt the story line often regarded as the most tragic death in Marvel Comics.

“I definitely would love to take another stab at the Dark Phoenix Story.” This quotation from X-Men: Apocalypse producer Simon Kinberg fueled intense and widespread speculation in entertainment reporting and on fan sites: would the new movie set the stage for a redress of Ratner’s failed effort? That film was met with critical pans and fan outrage, so Kinberg’s comments teasingly offer the prospect of closure, the chance to get it right this time so that we can all move on. But the brief image of Dark Phoenix toward the end of Apocalypse’s plodding two and a half hours signals the fundamental impossibility of such closure. The original X-Men story that culminates in the death of Jean Grey produced a collective melancholy that ultimately joined fans and creators in a kind of repetition compulsion: Jean Grey was resurrected six years after her death in a half-baked story line which even fans who rejected the idea of her death struggled to accept. The very continuity of the Marvel Universe proved inadequate to the trauma, as Jean was killed and reborn again and again in ever-proliferating alternate timelines. The cinematic challenge of Jean Grey’s death speaks to a larger paradox of superhero movies: they emerge from a loosened continuity system that allows endless narrative do overs, even as they try to recapture the force of story events from a time when second chances were not allowed.

I had been reading and collecting comic books for a few years, but came to the X-Men right in the middle of the Dark Phoenix saga. I was nine years old, and it was unlike anything I had read before: narratively dense, with characters defined as much by their friendships and love and sex lives as by their superpowers. It felt very adult for a comic book at that time, a time when children, not adults, were the ones for whom comics were written. And it was the first time I had seen a major character die.

Grieving is conventionally described as a process of seeking closure. Artist-theorist Scott McCloud describes “closure” with a different meaning the cognitive process of observing the parts but perceiving the whole — as central to the experience of reading comics. He suggests that the space between panels termed “the gutter” activates the human imagination to form a single idea from two separate images. For McCloud, closure is the very grammar of comic books, through which readers construct “a continuous, unified reality” from a series of discrete moments.

But this “continuous reality” is continuously in process. The kinetic bodies of beloved characters give way to lines and gaps on a page and back again; closure is deferred the moment it is achieved. In turn, the serial form of comic book narratives offers temporary resolutions only to introduce new conflicts. And collectors add pieces to a vast puzzle, fitting sections together even as the puzzle grows larger with each new issue. Comic books work best when each of these interconnecting types of closure — cognitive, narrative, and archival — feels present but fleeting, possible but just out of reach.

Live-action superheroes in film and television never worked very well until recent advances in computer graphic imaging. The images photographic technologies offered were never as “continuous and unified” as the ones readers visualized in the gutters between panels. Movies simply could not convincingly do the things superheroes could do. Now that cinema can present comic books’ fantastic worlds with an acceptable verisimilitude, the spectacular externalization of long-imagined images becomes a central element of these films’ attraction. And the affective charge of this technologically mediated closure also proffers a restoration of narrative consequence in the era of multiple timelines, where the movies simply follow the comics’ own lead in recycling and recombining iconic stories. Death is no longer permanent because temporality is no longer linear or even coherent. But the temporally delimited narratives of cinema make the death of a central character feel very final indeed. The excitement surrounding moviemakers taking “another stab at the Dark Phoenix story” lies in fans’ deep-seated desire for Jean’s death to recover the weight it originally carried.

Jean Grey died in X-Men #137 in September 1980. In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), Michael Chabon’s monumental fabulation of the origins of comic books and the American Jewish diaspora, Tommy Clay — the son of one titular character and stepson of the other — peruses the racks of comics at his neighborhood dime store. Spotting an issue of the fictional comic book Escapist Adventures whose cover depicts the hero poised for execution by a firing squad commanded by his own alter ego, “Tommy felt powerfully teased by this provocative illustration, even though he knew perfectly well that, in the end, when you read the story the situation on the cover would turn out to be a dream, a misunderstanding, an exaggeration, or even an outright lie.” So it was with the cover of X-Men #137, the final chapter of the revered Dark Phoenix saga. It is the story of how radically heightened power corrupts Jean — original team member of the X-Men, protégé of team patriarch Charles Xavier, lover to both team leader Scott Summers (Cyclops) and fan favorite Wolverine. Possessed in an earlier issue by a cosmic force called The Phoenix, Jean’s telekinetic mutant powers are steadily amplified to god-like proportions. Jean becomes Phoenix, and Phoenix becomes Dark Phoenix when she lashes out violently against the mind control spell of an evil adversary of the X-Men. Her rage culminates in the destruction of a civilized planet in a distant galaxy, for which she is called to account by an intergalactic governing council led by Empress Lilandra — this despite the X-Men’s plea that Professor Xavier has exorcised the Phoenix force from Jean’s mind and body. We fans believed this apparent resolution from the previous issue, and knew, like Chabon’s Tommy, that the words “Phoenix Must Die!” emblazoned on the cover of X-Men #137 were not to be taken to heart. Lovers, teammates, their backs literally to the wall, defending against unseen adversaries with the full force of their mutant powers, Scott and Jean strike the classic pose of a last stand — one from which they were certain to find a way out. But from its opening pages, X-Men #137 introduces an unease that never goes away.

It is clear that the X-Men are outmatched in the duel they must fight with the governing council’s imperial guard to save Jean’s life, but superheroes are frequently cast as the underdogs in fights from which they emerge victorious. Our expectation of the issue’s outcome is gradually unsettled not by the power of the team’s adversary, but by the X-Men’s own emotional ambivalence about the cause. In unhurried exposition, the issue visits each member of the X-Men individually as they prepare themselves for the duel; writer Chris Claremont’s florid prose grants us access to their hesitations and regrets. Are they fighting to protect a dear friend and hero, or to defend a perpetrator of genocide? And can the two truly be held separate, as the professor claims? Moral ambivalence redoubles the X-Men’s recognition of their slim odds against the imperial guard, lending two meanings to a brooding Wolverine’s uncharacteristic pessimism in the face of battle: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this fight.”

The characters’ internal monologues show us how this fight focalizes their complicated feelings about Jean/Phoenix, one another, and themselves: Angel acknowledges his insecurities as the least effectual member of the team; Nightcrawler recalls his childhood in Germany after the Holocaust; Storm meditates on her own pervasive sadness and longing for her home country of Egypt; Wolverine asserts that the fight is justified because “nobody understands Jeannie like I do” (although she has chosen Scott). Even Scott and Jean both admit to themselves that Lilandra may be right and that Jean shouldn’t escape consequences for her actions as Phoenix. Not only do the X-Men carry these internal conflicts into battle, but Lilandra herself, an ex-lover of Professor Xavier, conceals the deep sympathy she feels for Jean and the X-Men, and secretly wishes she could fight on their side. In other words, everyone enters the fight conflicted; no one really wants it, yet no one knows how to stop it. If superhero comics conventionally offer fantasies of power and agency, the duel that unfolds in the second half of X-Men #137 features heroes whose fighting is a means of expression for self-doubt, moral conflict, and unrequited love. Every character is driven by feelings that are denied verbal expression. Rarely has the disjunction between “thought bubble” and “word bubble” played such an important role in a comic book’s narrative.

The heroes’ strength and resilience, and even the near-universal rules of the genre described by Chabon, all feel increasingly unreliable as the X-Men fall one by one to the imperial guard. When Scott is attacked, the Phoenix emerges again in Jean, and threatens to destroy everything around her. Knowing that no one else can stop Phoenix, Jean orchestrates her own death after a tearful pledge of undying love to Scott. The issue ends with Scott weeping in the rubble of the fight, his final monologue expressing a simultaneous revelation for Scott and the reader: the grand battle was largely irrelevant, and Jean had planned this ending all along. If Lilandra’s guard couldn’t kill Phoenix, then she would take care of it herself.

So, the issue’s cover does prove to be something of a fake out, but not in Chabon’s terms. The hero doesn’t cheat or defeat the threat of death, but rather, she decides in advance that she does not deserve to do so. The tragic power of the character’s death lies not just in its reversal of our expectation that the hero survives, but in its subversion of the superhero convention in which fighting determines the outcome of the story. Good tautologically wins because it is good, but also because it is always stronger in the end. The X-Men in this issue were not stronger, but even if they had been, it wouldn’t have mattered. Jean’s life was never up for grabs in this battle.

Chris Claremont’s writing was always marked by genre pastiche and by liberal borrowing from existing works of literature and cinema. Considered in terms of its cinematic influences, the Dark Phoenix saga derives regressive gender politics from film noir and classic horror. Jean and Dark Phoenix conform to these genres’ good/bad woman binaries; in appearance and comportment, Dark Phoenix is an ultra-powerful femme fatale. Female agency and sexual autonomy are threatening and must be punished or destroyed. On the other hand, the story contains elements of melodrama and the woman’s film that subvert the masculinist logics of the X-Men’s conventional hybrid of action and science fiction. It is a story of a doomed love affair in which everyone is hobbled by emotions they cannot express, and agency is available to a female protagonist, but ultimately only in the form of self-sacrifice.

I read issue #137 over and over, knowing full well that it always led to the panel showing Jean’s death, but hoping each time that it might somehow turn out to be “a dream, a misunderstanding, an exaggeration, or even an outright lie.” Reading forward through the handful of X-Men issues I owned always brought me to this same terminus. So then I began reading backward, collecting older issues, each a hard-won prize. The X-Men had been published for twice as long as I’d been alive, and comprehending the full story felt like staring down a well. Recent back issues gradually came my way, but the prospect of ever completing my collection and (like Bart Simpson) learning the full story of the X-Men seemed impossibly remote. And this was reassuring: the more my reading expanded the story of Jean Grey and the X-Men, the more Jean’s death receded from its painful, immediate view. The sheer magnitude of the story and the fetishistic unattainability of the early issues meant that I could endlessly defer the ending I already knew to be inevitable. There would always be more Jean Grey if I pressed on with the pleasurable melancholy of collecting and reading.

The Marvel Universe conventionally protects its heroes not only from violent death, but also from the slow deterioration of aging by employing a “floating timeline”: time passes for the characters, but extremely slowly compared to the reader’s world. Real-world historical events are often adjusted or updated to match the temporality of the Universe.

Jean Grey’s death marked a traumatic rupture not only because heroes always fight their way out, but also because the temporal binding of life itself is, for superheroes, reassuringly elastic. Claremont felt betrayed by his publishers’ decision to resurrect Jean and revise his original story. He took it as a betrayal of the story’s impact and his authorial integrity: “Why should anyone trust us again?” But the unique impact of Jean’s death in X-Men #137 is actually revealed by its perpetual return in comics and now in movies. From all indications, the next X-Men movie will hew closer to Claremont’s original Dark Phoenix story than the previous cinematic effort. But any sense of authenticity it achieves will only arouse and prolong the desire for closure of the loss not only of a treasured character who might have lived endlessly in the floating timeline, but also of the very narrative finitude in which this loss could only happen once.


Jason Middleton is a professor of film and media studies at the University of Rochester.

LARB Contributor

Jason Middleton is a professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of Rochester. His articles have appeared in Cinema Journal, The Journal of Visual Culture, Popular Music, The Velvet Light Trap, Afterimage, and Avidly. He is author of Documentary’s Awkward Turn: Cringe Comedy and Media Spectatorship and co-editor of Medium Cool: Music Videos from Soundies to Cellphones.


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