Axel-In-Charge: Facing the 'Divided' Marvel NOW! Future
The reread reviews return after a long hiatus with the book the most people said they wanted to read about when I asked in a random thoughts post a few weeks back: Earth X. It’s Marvel’s Kingdom Come and it began as a free book included in a year-end issue of Wizard. But, it’s got John Paul Leon art, so there must be something cool about it. Maybe. Click the link and see for yourself — and beware of spoilers.
I first encountered Earth X on Christmas Day 1997 when I woke up and found a copy of Wizard #77 in my stocking. And like any 14-year old, I thought it was pretty cool. Alex Ross presenting a Kingdom Come-esque look at Marvel’s future. What’s not to like? Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought this way, because Marvel greenlit a series based on this small sketchbook after the response was so positive. Hell, most people (myself included) thought that this was just a preview/promo for an Earth X book! Then came the larger sketchbook that fleshed things out a bit in preparation for the series, then the series itself, which I really enjoyed, reading my dad’s copies. Then came Universe X, which didn’t wow as me as much… then Paradise X with its specials and mini-series spinoffs that completely lost me.
But, that fondness for Earth X remained and, a few years ago, I got the deluxe hardcover Marvel put out — in 2005, I guess. It collects the 14-issue series, the sketchbook material, and the #1/2 issue that I didn’t bother to reread because… well, fuck it, I don’t care. Actually, I’ll be honest with you, after spending the week with Frank Miller, it’s hard to care as much about Earth X.
It’s a nice book if you care more about the small details of Marvel continuity and like to pretend that Marvel stopped making comes in 1983 (or thereabouts). The plot of the comic isn’t the greatest. It’s continuity porn as Ross and Krueger base the story around an idea of explaining the Marvel universe — explaining why the Fantastic Four, Bruce Banner, and Peter Parker got superpowers instead of cancer. It bases it all around the Celestials, which I find amusing since they, and the Eternals, weren’t even supposed to be part of Marvel continuity! Kirby’s Eternals was, basically, a creator-owned book meant to be separate from the Marvel universe despite Marvel’s protests — so Kirby had Marvel characters guest-star except not really. I can’t help but find the idea that this book is meant to be so reverential to Kirby bases itself around characters and concepts that he never intended to be used in this fashion. Not that Ross and Krueger are wrong to do so, because the Celestials and Eternals have been made integral parts of the Marvel universe, it’s just that for a book where Kirby gets the second dedication, that stands out. (Of course, that raises the idea of how should one pay tribute, etc., etc., etc. Better to ignore or use despite that not being the intention…? I say ignore and leave untouched, but that’s my approach and I know others don’t agree…)
In Earth X, Aaron Stack aka Machine Man aka X-51 is taken to the Watcher’s observatory on the moon, his human appearance dispersed by Uatu, and he’s charged with being the new Watcher since Uatu is blind — and has been for over 20 years. The first issue, #0, is a history of the Marvel universe with a strong focus on the Celestials and their impact on the world. It’s a breezy issue despite the large amounts of text. With issue #1, we jump into the actual plot: everyone on the planet is now a mutant. Reed Richards blames himself, living in Doom’s castle, wearing his armour. There’s a young teen known as the Skull that has the power to control people with his mind and he’s taking over America, a country struggling to feed itself. Captain America is a sad old man that doesn’t seem to have the fight in him anymore. Tony Stark lives in a sealed mansion, a paranoid old man scared of germs, afraid he’ll mutate, too. May Parker is Venom, driving a wedge between her and her father. Ben Grimm is married to Alicia Masters and they have twin boys, Buzz and Chuck (who look like their father). Bruce Banner is a small boy with a monster Hulk as his companion/eyes. Thor is a woman. The Inhumans have returned for the wedding of Luna and the son of Black Bolt and Medusa. The world is coming to an end soon.
To totally spoil things: inside the Earth is a Celestial foetus, basically. They implant the eggs in planets and alter the creatues to act as protectors. The Deviants and Eternals were failed attempts at this, while humanity all bears seeds that guide and steer them to be capable protectors, hence why, at a certain point, people began to get powers — to become better protectors from aliens and Galactus. Galactus being a measure of balance — he feeds in the unborn Celestials. Humanity is an antibody, basically. This is the big revelation of the series and how much it wows you will determine how much you like the book. I think it’s a nice idea, but the way that people react is typical self-centred, short-sighted crap. Suddenly, nothing is anyone’s fault except the Celestials because they altered humanity back when it was first forming. My problem with that idea (that our thoughts are not our own) is that since humanity has been like that for so long, that’s just what being a human is. It’s like, what, without the Celestial seed, people would have rolled over for Galactus and let him destroy the planet? They wouldn’t have done their best to advance and improve? It’s a cool idea that doesn’t work when you think about it for longer than two seconds — at least not the way it’s presented.
It’s a problem I have with a lot of stories where these larger ideas are presented that seem like they should matter, but have such little bearing on the practicalities of life. Yes, try to stop the Celestial in the Earth from being born and destroying everything — but to be angry at the Celestials for what they did so long ago because some things recently have been bad? Reed blaming them for Sue’s death is just insane. That could be the point, but, damn, that guy is a moron sometimes. It’s like they don’t realise that something that long ago, that had such a profound effect… it happening changed things so much that to be angry about it is to be angry that humanity existed at all. To be angry that they existed at all, because, without that fundamental change, all of human history would have been different — and different in ways they don’t know. It’s so big and theoretical that it’s almost pointless to bother with it.
I’m not a big fan of the Celestial seed in humanity idea, because it doesn’t reflect well in our world. It’s one thing if the seed is responsible for superpowers, but for all of human identity? All impulses, urges, desires, drives…? So, the people of the Marvel universe, the superhero universe that emphasised the humanity of its characters, are only like us because of the Celestial seed? Is that meant to be a metaphor…? That without Jack Kirby, the Marvel universe wouldn’t exist, wouldn’t be like us? What then about Stan Lee? Or, is it just a ‘cool idea’ that doesn’t actually work? I don’t know.
It’s that sort of continuity-based plotting that drives Earth X. The Asgardians are shapeshifting aliens that lack identity, so they become what the people they encountered thought they were. Magneto called his ground the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants to force Xavier to take the moral high road, to take a side, to become judgemental, and develop an ‘us and them’ mentality. Sometimes, the ideas work, sometimes they don’t.
Like Kingdome Come, the main character is a passive one that becomes active at a convenient time. Funny how the big Alex Ross projects seem to centre on characters that stand outside of events, looking in. X-51 representing the human voice despite being an android. His interactions with Uatu drive the series and are well-written. Their debates on morality, humanity, and the bigger picture are the most interesting things in the book. The actual events featuring the Marvel heroes seem inconsequential as we jump from character to character as they stumble through the series.
Each issue is structured in the same way: an opening page of dialogue between X-51 and Uatu (later other characters get involved), four pages of flashback to some character/characters showing up their history/origin (to a point around the early ’80s or so), 18 pages of story, and six pages of text accompanied by Alex Ross sketches. It’s an interesting structure that emphasises the importance of continuity and explaining the history of these characters. The text pages at the end often devoted to telling us what happened to characters, where they are now in Earth X. It’s less a story than a presentation of how characters are different — you rarely learn anything that isn’t in the sketchbook material. Actually, you often learn less.
The issues are oddly brief because of the structure. The 18 pages of story told pages with only three or four panels at most, big John Paul Leon drawings that are absolutely gorgeous, but make the issues feel sparse. For its length, there isn’t much depth to Earth X. It treads water a lot of the time, talking around ideas for issues before finally revealing them.
The choice of Leon as an artist is an interesting one, because he’s not at all like Alex Ross. Ross isn’t a bright artist, but he’s a realistic one. He shows things how they are, patterning his figures after real life models, trying to capture reality. Leon’s art is much darker, more angular, impressionistic. Even when there are no shadows, you can’t colour his art brightly. It looks dark with its thick lines that are really very broad and simplistic. He doesn’t throw in a lot of detail or unnecessary lines. There’s a sketchiness to the work, but a restrained sort. His Thing, for instance, only has a few rock lines on his face — just enough to suggest what the effect is. He’s very good at suggesting what’s there without drawing it completely. With drawing characters that look like they’re carved out of stone. His Captain America is rock-like, a scarred man built out of granite.
Without Leon on art, I genuinely wonder how much I’d enjoy this book. Because I do enjoy it when I read it. I like seeing the future versions of these characters, of seeing what choices Ross and Krueger made with characters. But, there isn’t a strong story here, there isn’t any strong character work. It doesn’t seem like they have anything to really say about the characters and their world beyond forcing this explanation of superpowers and Galactus upon them. Unlike Kingdome Come, which was about the concept of heroism and was told in a more compact, immediate fashion, this one is about the Marvel universe… about creating a cohesive narrative for it, about integrating Kirby’s Celestials into it in a larger fashion… and that’s fine if you like it. There are some nice moments, some fantastic pictures, some great pieces of interplay between X-51 and Uatu, but nothing to bring it all together, to make it a worthwhile read as a whole. Nothing that progresses beyond that first sketchbook that I read on Christmas 1997.
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