I Blame Alex Summers

*This post contains heavy spoilers of the first five issues of Uncanny Avengers. It has also largely become a response to David Brothers’ excellent post on some of the situations discussed herein, which you can (and should) read first. I wanted to write a lot of stuff that Brothers covered much better than I could’ve, so I’ve left it out.*

Uncanny Avengers 005-013I get the feeling writers like writing Alex Summers more than Alex Summers likes being written.

Uncanny Avengers #5 came out this week, and I picked it up despite myself. I’ve liked everything else I’ve read by Remender, although I admit that doesn’t amount to many books. The doomed Doctor Voodoo, Venom, and the first couple of volumes of Uncanny X-Force for Marvel, and the excellent The Last Days Of American Crime don’t make me an expert, but they did give me the impression of a writer with big, wild ideas and the will to explore them, and I am very much All For That Sort Of Thing.

But the first four issues of Uncanny Avengers, starting out with a halfway interesting rationalisation for the team (albeit one that seems almost moot when so many mutants have already been through the Avengers roster) and a pretty good, pretty pretty first issue, quickly burned through my good will.

I could definitely see what Remender was trying to achieve technically with the melodramatic narration of later installments, and could see why it might have seemed fun at the time; you’ve got Red Skull as the baddie, so why not try out some of that overcooked Stan Lee verbiosity? But coupled with a Cassaday art job that seemed to have exhausted itself in that first issue, a vaudeville villain who I’ve never been able to really get into, and who seemed woefully inadequate compared to the often repeated high ideological stakes of the story, and a marketplace already full of new Marvel titles, I took the end of the first arc as a pretty good time to jump off.

Uncanny Avengers 1 - coverPart of the problem may have been that opening gambit, so interesting at first flush, but ultimately problematic.

The idea is that, in the wake of A vs X, Captain America believes what the world needs is some sign that mutants and humans can co-exist happily, and decides to create a team of Avengers who will symbolise that. This allows for a pretty sexy roster for the reader, mixing mutants and regular super heroes that we might have wanted to see together, wrapped up behind a Cassaday cover that can’t help but evoke the classic Whedon/Cassaday X-Men run.

The thing is, where Astonishing X-Men took place – at least to begin with – in a notional continuity-ambiguous bubble, allowing Whedon to play around with doing his version of the quintessential X-Men book, this book exists solely as the result of continuity, and once you start to see the new team in action you can’t help noticing that that continuity is really the only reason for these characters to be together. Never mind that it co-exists with at least two other Avengers books, each of which has it’s own giant, world-defining concept, and at least two other X-Men books, ditto.

This isn’t an awful comic book, but once you factor all that other stuff in it’s hard not to scrutinise each title a little more, try to work out what about it makes it worth your money. And that’s where the real cracks start to show. You can sort of see what Remender is trying to do… alongside the over-arching mysterious uber-villain plots, he’s assembled a cast of characters with very different things to say about the situations they now find themselves in in this post A vs X world. HUncanny Avengers 004-017e knows that the interesting thing about a book like this will be in seeing how they handle themselves and each other. And sometimes he does great work with this stuff – for example, in the first arc I enjoyed the hell out of any scene featuring the Scarlet Witch and Rogue.

But there’s too much to do, and not enough space to do it – especially when trying to incorporate the big, decompressed Blockbuster Super Hero Battles that every team book has to include since Warren Ellis did The Authority, and the Whole New Super-Weird Bad Guy Team that every team book has to include since Mark Millar did The Authority – so the book struggles to nail a lot of the fidgetty stuff.

Uncanny Avengers 003-Zone-008At the core of these problems is the relationship between Steve Rogers and Alex Summers. Rogers chose Summers to lead the team, yet constantly seems pissed at his decisions. Rogers constantly seems pissed at Summers decisions, but pages later and without any real motivation is completely supportive of him. Rogers wants Summers to lead the team, but the truth is we’re never convinced as readers why he thinks Summers is the right person to lead a team of Avengers. We know they need a mutant figurehead, and we know why it can’t be the Scarlet Witch or Wolverine. Alex Summers is incredibly powerful, and has a bit of – reluctant – experience of leading a team, but that’s it, and that could refer to any number of other mutants.

Of course, from a book construction perspective there are loads of reasons for Alex Summers to lead this team. He’s the brother of Scott Summers, poster boy for mutant activism – or terrorism to many – so there’s drama and narrative meat there. He’s always been ideologically opposed to Scott, and this new role puts him at odds with him, which adds to the pot. He’s insecure, and reluctant to lead, and who doesn’t love writing or reading about an insecure, humble guy who has authority thrust upon him, but has the pluck and power to come through?

However, this means that the things that are interesting about Alex Summers are all about who and what he isn’t, rather than what he is. He’s usually the guy who ends up in charge because nobody else is left, and here Steve Rogers is choosing him. He seems to keep making decisions that Rogers sees as wrong, and half the time we’re not sure whether Summers is just trying to assert himself and test Rogers, is just headstrong, or is just being written badly. Uncanny Avengers 004-017 CapAnd with Rogers being handled so erratically, this is even harder to get a handle on – is Captain America unsure of his own decision? Did he really only want Summers as a tokenistic gesture? Or is Remender showing us that Summers is going to make a few big mistakes before he can adequately fill this role?

Anything is possible, and in a less crowded Marvel Universe, I might have been able to stick around to find out more, but I pretty much decided #4 was going to be my final issue.

And then #5 came out with the triple-header of Olivier Coipel/Mark Morales/Laura Martin on art, and I wondered whether I was just sour on John Cassaday’s art. So I read it.

You’ll have probably by now heard about Alex Summer’s press conference/speech toward the end of the book. I’ll talk about that in a while, but to be honest David Brothers covered most of what I wanted to say in his typically excellent post on the matter.

Uncanny Avengers 005-012What I haven’t read in many places is that that speech comes at the closing pages of a beautiful looking book that’s unfortunately still full of the problems that the first arc struggled with. Characters wander onto the stage, generate a bit of tension that more often than not feels unearned, and then wander off; scenes behave in a similar way. Rogue is a bit of fun acting as an agent provocateur, but for the most part the book handles one-to-one conversations well, and then bleeds characterisation when more people are introduced into the scene. It’s all very exciting, but I was never sure where my attention or sympathy was meant to rest, and it left me feeling edgy, in ways that I suspect I wasn’t meant to.

When Summers took to the podium for his one-page speech, albeit after an introductory page that scanned to me as all visual and narrative non-sequitirs, it seemed like the most “real” character moment in the whole book, while at the same time highlighting all of the core structural issues I have with the title.

X-Men 97 - coverThe Alex Summers I know has always been defined by opposition to his brother Scott – not rivalry, but complete contrasting character. Wrapped up in this is his desire to be left the hell out of everything - in the context of the X-books, the desire to just be able to live, without getting wrapped up in Xavier’s mission.

Peter David did great work with Summers that took all this into account. It’s a naive desire, and one that’s a little incompatible with him being the leader of any team, especially this one – although with Scott being pushed further to one end of this ideological spectrum, maybe Alex himself has to become as extreme. But I get it.

I also get why the reaction has been intense, both in support of Remender’s/Alex’s choices, and attacking them. I can’t agree with either reaction, but I get them. This is heady stuff, and one way or another, one line or another of that speech is going to speak to you if you’ve ever felt marginalised.

Personally, I’m sympathetic to the broad strokes of the culture-shift Summers is aspiring to. As a personal choice it’s easy to relate to – many people who’ve been bullied or have experienced prejudice ostensibly because of a difference between them and those persecuting them might dream of becoming invisible, or at least becoming The Same rather than The Other, which is what Summers is really talking about here. It’s one of those happy little coincidences that David Brothers himself raised the question on Twitter in the last few days about whether or not there are any real biological differences that mark out black people (I’m paraphrasing).

Uncanny Avengers 005-015

Many of us who’ve been on the outside of anything looking in have believed the simplistic – but also kinda true – ideal that we humans are all basically the same, and we should just leave each other to it. And it’s perfectly consistent, in world, for Alex Summers to feel that way himself. Ideologically, he’s no idealist. And it’s no surprise that in the real world there are a few people latching onto that aspect of his speech.

But then there’s “the ‘M’ word”. “Please, don’t call us mutants”. Moments after stating, of his brother, that “no man should ever unilaterally take action or choose for so many”, Summers makes an arbitrary call about universal culture and language, and does it in a way that clearly analogises the word “mutant” with the word “nigger” – despite there being no in-world precedent for that reading. And it isn’t really a surprise that people are reacting badly to the implications of that.

(Brothers covers this particular ground a lot more concisely and smartly than I have, by the way. You should definitely have read his post first.)

Alex and Lorna detailMight Alex Summers believe all this on a personal level? Yeah, sure. I don’t know what he’s been up to in the last ten years of continuity, but it doesn’t seem like that much of a leap.
Does Alex Summers think this is a reasonable or smart thing to expect of the world? Well, hell, maybe. He’s a pretty self-contained guy. I’m pretty sure deep down he knows that this is the sort of stuff he’d be likely to spout if given the podium, which may be why he’s never much liked being in charge.

But Alex Summers is one of those guys in a minority who can “pass”. He looks human – white, blue-eyed human – and he’s got a pretty good handle on his powers. That he could be this dismissive of his genetics isn’t a stretch, and at the point when I read this comic I pretty much figured Remender was setting Alex up, if a little heavy-handedly, as the guy who was wrong in opposite but just as messed-up ways as his brother. There’s story potential there.

Thing is, if I’m right, it’s a sophisticated technical exercise that stumbles in execution. We’re lead to believe that at least three other characters, all of whom are human – albeit augmented – but who also look “normal”, knew what he was going to say, and tacitly approved it by standing at his back. And four mutants, all of whom are headstrong and proud, one fiercely nationalistic from a whole ‘nother country, one the headmaster of a school full of mutant kids who can’t “pass”, and an Asgardian god, all of whom live in a world where Sentinels with mutant hunting tech, and Cerebro exist, stand by and listen as he talks about how aren’t we all just basically human and no I don’t like labels I consider myself a member of the human collective I say collective because race is excluding because races have winners and losers…

It’s easy and cheap to mock writing like that, and the truth is I’m actually mocking Alex Summers. I think Remender is a good enough writer to have chosen what Summers is saying very deliberately, and to be setting up dominoes for later knocking over. It actually only really becomes a problem when the book overplays it’s hand – as it does by having the other Avengers behind him; as it does by having Captain America introducing him and giving him a little nudge; as it does by letting us know what all of the characters are thinking through exposition before this big scene, but not letting us see their reactions during or after. This shit exposes the writer or editor’s hand, so we can see the dominoes being put in place.

Uncanny Avengers 005I keep making overtures to what the “problem” with this book is, and of course that’s all bullshit. As I’ve said before, this isn’t a horrible or awful book. At times it’s really well written, and if you’ve got a head for hidden mysteries and longer arcs and huge comic budgets, it’s fine. At least this issue was beautiful. And there’s a very real possibility that Remender is playing the long game, and building to something real and heavy and exciting. He wouldn’t be the only writer at Marvel right now asking for a little investment from the reader with the intention of a massive pay-off down the line.

There’s nothing in this book that anybody should actually be ashamed of. It’s pretty much all defensible, if flawed and a little adolescent.

HOWEVER:

This book plays with some big themes within it’s narrative, and it was always going to excite attention once it was out in the world. And rightly or wrongly, how a comic professional handles that attention is always going to reflect on them and their work.

A few people were always going to criticise Remender for Summers’ speech, and those people were always going to vary in tone from aggressively entitled to thoughtful to smart to dumb. In these situations, my default setting is to not assume that every character speaks for the writer, and that they are giving each character their own motivations or voices. I tend to assume that writers are smart, I guess. For me, the best thing a writer can do when something one of their stories does causes controversy is for them to take that tack. The worst they can do is get defensive, and take attacks on their characters’ actions personally. That makes it harder to see them as the voice of God, at a remove from characters that they know are behaving badly or irresponsibly. For me as a reader – albeit one with the luxury of not being so close to the issues that that colours my responses – the worst thing I can feel is that the writer doesn’t have a broader perspective on their characters and the work.

Uncanny Avengers 003-Zone-015It’s the difference between watching a comedian skillfully navigate a particularly inflammatory subject in the pursuit of a joke, or watching them fluster and flounder into the actual verbal assault of a member of the audience who caught them off-guard with a heckle. The former can make you feel smart for sticking with them through choppy waters til they get you to the other side, the latter like you’ve put your faith in someone who you’re realising doesn’t have as good control of the boat as you thought.

There’s a thought – reading is an act of faith in the authors. As much as I think comic fandom could do with remembering that and not weighing work down with their expectations, those authors need to remember it too, and understand that when leading people through dangerous ground, you may need to be a little more convincing.

In a five issue span I’ve seen Remender prickle viciously at reasonable critique of this book, twice. He’s apologised for the most recent outburst, removing the worst of his tweets (while continuing to RT fellow writer Jason Aaron’s defense of him and a reference to trolls) but still – it makes me less comfortable that he’s going to guide me through this ideologically charged narrative to a satisfying place.

I’m sure many in comics fandom did throw claims of racism or homophobia at Remender and Marvel – there are plenty of people on the internet ready to throw those accusations at the slightest perceived slight – but in my timeline, and over on The Beat and 4thletter, the response was pretty measured, and more about the naivete of Summers words, and the subsequent inability to engage effectively with criticism of them from Remender. Putting this stuff in the book might have been a bit daft – Brothers refers to it as “the opposite of realpolitik. It’s tumblrpolitik”, but reducing all commentary on it to people claiming that “the point of view expressed by a fictional character in a book (you) write (reveals you) to be a racist”, as Remender still does in his apology, is seeing that commentary as pretty black and white – no pun intended but come on you totally know I chose those words on purpose. It makes them look whiter.

I don’t see the problems with Uncanny Avengers #5 as being about a straight, white, male writer not “checking their privilege” while writing, so much as them exploring some pretty edgy territory in the text but the text not yet being clear enough about intention. But the defensive response makes it feel like there is an issue of feeling entitled to write about whatever you want for a wide audience, without then having to stand in front of the work to defend it properly.

Interestingly, Jason Aaron’s tweets engage with the discussion more, but inadvertently highlight the textual problems with this book:

 

…he may speak for his own work, but his words don’t remotely describe Uncanny Avengers. With the choices made on these first five issues, and the opening conceit of the book, a discussion of prejudice and tolerance can’t help but be prominent. And those two tweets about the elements of the X-Men narrative that will break down when viewed through a certain lens chimes perfectly with Brothers:

The X-Men are, in the eyes of both Marvel and the vast majority of fans, an oppression metaphor. Mutants-as-blacks, mutants-as-gays, mutants-as-outcasts. You can fill in the blank with your preferred marginalized group, up to and including white dudes. It’s a tremendous asset to the franchise, because everyone feels alone and like an outcast sometimes. The X-Men are feared and hated by a world they are sworn to protect, which sets them up as underdogs.

BUT!!! This is an example of the franchise flying too close to the sun and getting too specific, which is usually a mistake. The metaphor has worked for so long because it’s amazingly broad and they rarely ever address the actual factual parts of being marginalized within the text.

…Nailing this kind of specificity is a tough row to hoe, and if you tilt too far toward realism — toward acknowledging the actual oppression that provides fodder for X-Men stories — the balance gets entirely upset.

There is no way that Remender, or at least someone on the editorial team on the book, weren’t aware that the syntax used by Alex Summers was evocative, or what it was evocative of – if they weren’t, than they’re pretty dumb, and why are we buying comics by dumb people? But it’s a cool and totally defensible approach to cover that stuff in your book. However, if you’re going to benefit from working with those themes, and you aren’t willing to own-up like a grown-up to that being what you’re doing, then, well… it’s probably better not to say anything to your detractors, or thank people for their custom and say “I’m sorry you didn’t like it and I hope you find something you enjoy more next time”.

Uncanny Avengers 004-008You don’t owe readers your dignity, but you probably don’t get to write a mainstream, high profile book and show them your arse.

Getting to write books that so many people want to read, even before you’re attached to it: that’s a privilege worth checking. It’s one that you’ve earned, and you don’t have to thank anyone for it, but there’s a certain cost attached to having people read your stuff, and that’s that some of them won’t enjoy it.

Over on Spider-Man, Dan Slott killed Peter Parker, while elsewhere Dennis Hopeless has been killing teenaged superheroes for sport. Both have been handling a flood of some of the most mean-spirited criticism, often of issues that haven’t even come out yet. Both are shaping up to be excellent books, and in each case they and their response haven’t become the story, and many people have had their minds changed about the work. Hopeless’ awareness of what he was doing was palpable in his response to criticism. Slott sometimes makes sport of engaging with trolls, but it’s clear that he takes the responsibility he’s been given very seriously.

If you choose to make your book about something, that you’re counting on resonating with feelings and beliefs and experiences people have in the real world, you have to know that people are going to react to it, and that you’ll have no control of that reaction. If you’re going to position yourself to gather some of the positive vibes that putting your work out into the world may garner, and you’re also going to go after people’s attention with emotive language and subject matter, you have to be aware that there’s a flipside to that, too. Nobody creating objects and inviting feedback is entitled to immunity from criticism, if that criticism is politely delivered or reasonably voiced, and if you can’t respond to it with a little grace, it’s worth being aware that responding with butthurt, rather than politely excusing yourself from taking part in the discussion, is going to reflect badly on you.

Intolerance and prejudice shouldn’t be the issues that they are, but because they are people can make a living writing books like Uncanny Avengers, which so far has almost completely been about those issues. If those people draw flack because something they did misfired with some people, the defense that they weren’t trading on those issues in the first place is at least deluded and at worst disingenious. If you are the writer on a book that people find difficult, and you handle the response to it in a way that acknowledges that you know it is difficult, I’ll respect you endlessly. If you act like the people who find it difficult are the problem and they can go fuck themselves, it becomes really easy to write your book off.

You made the creative decisions you made, and if you’re deliberately pushing buttons with those decisions, you should stand up for them, rather than yourself. Even if standing up for those decisions means politely telling people you’re sorry your book isn’t for them, or asking them to wait and see. There’s a certain punky joy to writing something that may fire people up, and there’s something to be proud of in doing so, so own it, and own the response to it too. And that’ll make it way easier to trust your next book.