Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cable: Soldier X

Marvel, Cable #105 through #107 and Soldier X #1 through #8, 2002 and 2003, between 22 and 30 pages each, $ 2.25 or $ 2.99 each

Writer: Darko Macan
Artist: Igor Kordey
Artists, Cable #106: Mike Huddleston, John Stanisci
Colorists: Chris Sotomayor, Chris Chuckry, Matt Madden
Letterer: Randy Gentile

Cable, the gun-toting character imagined by Rob Liefeld in 1989 and since turned into a time-traveling warrior priest by a small army of writers and editors, is quite literally all over the place in this idiosyncratic, weird and wonderful little stack of comics by the Croatian writer/artist team of Darko Macan and Igor Kordey.

Geographically, the character shows up in Brazil, Kazakhstan, Hong Kong, Egypt, Russia and India over the course of the 11 issues; chronologically, the Soldier X relaunch jumps ahead two years from the Cable series, to a framing sequence from which the story then proceeds to look back at what happened during the gap, before the final chapter skips forward another 2,000 years; and Cable's mindset is becoming ever more capricious—one moment he's determined, the next he's questioning everything he's been doing, to the point of developing a death wish.

Mr. Macan adopts the general tone of his predecessor David Tischman's stories, but quickly spins the series off into a more character-driven and "writerly" direction. While Cable is still trotting the globe and dealing with issues you wouldn't necessarily expect in an X-Men spin-off, the focus is now on the protagonist himself, rather than on current political issues. The general backdrop: Having defeated his archenemy Apocalypse, Cable is now a soldier without a war, a priest (of his futuristic Askani religion) without a church and a hero without a purpose.

To set up the relaunch as Soldier X, the creators gradually heighten the tension. In the three final issues of his eponymous series, Cable intervenes in a mutant arena fight in Rio de Janeiro, encounters arms dealers in Kazakhstan and attracts the attention of an enterprising Hong Kong billionaire. He finds himself increasingly more powerful—a result of recently losing the "techno-organic virus" that had been hampering him—and, at the same time, proportionally less in control of his mutant abilities.

While that trilogy of one-shots offers some pretty good and fairly unusual superhero comics, there's nothing that could have prepared people for what was coming at them in Soldier X.

Take, for instance, the opening sequence of issue #3.

"I realized then what the world needed.

"It needed to be taught the way of Askani.

"It needed hope.

"It needed me."

As far as stereotypical monologues are concerned, this one wouldn't have been out of place in an early-1990s Marvel book. Here, though, it's on a splash page showing Cable in run-down clothes, riding a stolen bicycle on a dirt track in rural Russia while a schnauzer is running along; the image rather puts the caption boxes in context.

This type of absurdity is a recurring stylistic device in Soldier X from page one, where an Arabic-looking man causes a mass brawl on a flight en route for New York City when he removes his shoes. Also on the plane: returning supporting character Irene Merryweather, a Daily Bugle reporter who botches one assignment after the next because all she cares about is finding Cable.

For two thirds of the issue, Cable doesn't even appear. Instead, the story patiently follows Irene, first to the Bugle, then to a sumo-wrestling match she's supposed to cover, where she chats with a friend before being contacted in the bathroom by two fairly ineffectual S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who are also looking for Cable, when the three of them find themselves threatened by a bunch of thugs with guns, who are then overwhelmed by a sumo-wrestling cosplayer who slips Irene a CD-ROM containing a message from Cable.

All of this takes 19 of the book's 30 pages, and to be quite honest, I'm still wondering, with a warm and fuzzy feeling inside me, how on earth this comic ever managed to get published by Marvel.

It's a thought you get used to, reading Soldier X.

It goes on in the recap pages, on which supporting characters break the fourth wall and address the reader directly ("For Marvel Comics, this is Papken Gharamanukian, from Krasnaya Polyana, Russia!" the fashion-victim Armenian gangster in full-tilt colorful track suit cheerfully ends his recap performance); it's in the kinds of characters Cable encounters (lollypop-licking Armenian mobsters in colorful track suits!); and it's in the kinds of things the characters do, such as the Pakistani soldiers in issue #7, who are throwing their prisoners—women and children—off a plane, without parachutes.

Then again, "absurd" may not quite be the right term for the latter.

I don't know if anyone's ever thrown living people out of planes, but I've heard of enough other things that have actually happened that would seem at least as absurd to me if I didn't know they happened. Which is the point Mr. Macan and Mr. Kordey are making here, of course. And what's with all the violence and the pointless fights in American superhero comics, anyway? Aren't there more imaginative ways to exploit the genre, at this stage?

Watch out: We're in deep Steve Gerber territory already.

Because, as absurd as some of these choices may seem, they're also something else: deliberate. The places and situations Cable encounters are reflections of his interior. In Hong Kong, he's lashing out when his independence is threatened; in Egypt, at the pyramids, his past is catching up with him; and in Moscow, his old mentor Blaquesmith sends him on a mission, which Cable eagerly accepts; of course he does—he's giddy to be told what to do, rather than having to figure it out for himself. "I wished there was someone I could ask for help," a caption reads, shortly after he's on his way. "Anyone to point me in the right direction." Cable isn't just talking about the address he's trying to find.

The most significant place, where the story spends most of its time, though, is the Russian village of Krasnaya Polyana. It's a place where religious and political ideologies clash and are taken ad absurdum; the culmination of that comes in issue #5, titled "The Siege of St. Lenin." St. Lenin, we learn, is "an old factory, where a mad artist used to work on blending Orthodox and Communist iconography." Don't try to imagine the visuals that come with the set, because you're going to fall short. This is the place where Cable ultimately comes to terms with who he is.

The major characters Cable encounters likewise serve as foils for aspects of his personality. There's "Mr. Singapore," a ruthless Hong Kong billionaire with a god complex, who wants Cable to be his messiah of change ("Out with the old!").

There's Magdalena, a 13-year-old girl living in the Russian heartland whose mutant healing ability is exploited by her parents, and who is about to be torn apart in a tug of war between the Armenian mob and thousands of sick and injured people who demand to be touched by her. At one point, she kisses what look like syphilis lesions covering an older man, which I think may be a first in a Marvel comic.

Finally, there's Geo, an obnoxious Communist, anti-Globalist terrorist and part-time superhero wannabe with a gigantic tooth gap, who keeps taunting and harassing Cable about being such a miserable whiner, given his vastly superior looks and powers—worse, since Geo's also got a metal arm (made for Soviet cyborg gorillas in the 1970s, he says), the Armenian gangsters think he's the one who's been causing them trouble at first, rather than Cable.

The unrestrained messiah, the exploited savior and the third-rate superhero: each of the three represents a path Cable could take if he decided one way or another—or has taken in the past.

The story's climax comes when Cable deliberately suppresses his telekinetic shielding and forces his powers to repair the resulting bullet wounds instead, although he isn't quite sure whether his mutant ability will be able to cope with the damage. It's Cable's way of regaining control over his powers, as well as his life:

"Now I know I am neither a soldier, nor a priest, nor a hero. [...]

"I am a man who knows there is no real hope for the world—but who hopes all the same.

"In a word, [...] I am a madman.

"A madman whose gift is limited only by his imagination."

This is the point where Soldier X reveals its kinship with Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes' Omega the Unknown, but also with Grant Morrison's Final Crisis. Like those works, Soldier X treats superheroes as a metaphor for the literal limitlessness of the human imagination—easily the single most compelling aspect of the genre, as well as, unfortunately, the single most overlooked one.

Unlike most writers working in genre comics, Mr. Macan approaches the story in terms of character and scenes, rather than plot and action. Each scene represents a complete unit, with a point that serves the overall narrative, and whatever happens and whatever's said is motivated by character.

There's more urgency, consequently, because the creators don't have to rely on the plot to move things along. The way the stories are constructed has a lot more in common with a high-end HBO show than with other superhero comics, in the sense that the What is a lot less important than the Who, the How and the Why—or, for that matter, the sense that there are a Who, a How and a Why, and that they play ball with each other.

Mr. Macan and Mr. Kordey aren't just ahead of nearly everyone else in terms of substance and craft, though, but also in terms of creative zest and instincts. There's a playful, madcap energy in the storytelling, a friction between Cable's self-important musings and the reality of what's going on at any given moment, between the bizarre characters and the creators' ability to make them into authentic, three-dimensional people with intriguing perspectives.

Each time you think you're getting the hang of things, the story throws you for a loop. A four-page sequence in Soldier X #3, starring S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Dragonfly and Jordan, serves as a prime example: At this point in the story, we're used to them as comic-relief types, but all of a sudden, it turns out there's quite a bit more to them, and the scene turns from blithe to tense in a fashion that's gripping and authentic. It's just one of many scenes in the book that attempt and accomplish credible emotional shifts—which is unconventional enough by genre standards.

Appropriately for Mr. Macan's more character-centered approach, Mr. Kordey's style is more expressionistic here than at the start of the David Tischman run, with rougher and fewer lines and less elaborate backgrounds. There aren't many artists in American comics that have such a stunning grasp on visual nuances and drama. Most of them would struggle with the verisimilitude of a conversation between two ordinary middle-aged men sitting on a bench at a train station in the middle of the Russian nowhere, let alone the excitement. Igor Kordey makes you wish the whole book was about them.

And if you can believe that Mr. Kordey's good at drawing two old Russians on a bench, imagine what he does with the sunny Caribbean island of a future vision in issue #8. Credit where credit's due, though: Matt Madden's coloring really brings that story home, with its beautiful lighting of day and night and dawn and dusk.

When I proposed Soldier X as an addition to Tom Spurgeon's list of the best superhero comics of the 2000s a while back, I realized that I hadn't actually read it since it first came out. After going back, though, I find that this material doesn't just hold up—it's actually even better than I remembered it.

It's not perfect, mind you; the final issue in particular hinges on a conclusion that's hard to swallow. Also, it should be pointed out that the series was, perhaps not entirely surprisingly, a complete commercial disaster at the time, driving off Cable readers by the truckload and getting itself canceled soon after the relaunch—you can tell from the eight issues that saw print that Mr. Macan and Mr. Kordey had a lot more plans. (There were four more by another creative team before Marvel pulled the plug.)

Still, Soldier X is one of a select few superhero comics that are striving to explore the genre's still largely untapped potential, rather than to restage the standards over and over again, and to do so in a fashion that stands up to literary scrutiny. Despite the adverse market conditions these types of books always seem to be facing, it actually ends up being more of a creative success than the aforementioned Omega and Final Crisis.

At this point, I'm just sincerely overjoyed (and baffled) that this stuff managed to get made and published at all—the editor was Andrew Lis, who midwived several other creatively delightful but commercially flimsy projects at Marvel, before disappearing from comics. Soldier X, like its hero, is way ahead of its time. It belongs into a slick hardcover collection, a heavy book with solid covers that demands effort and determination from those brave enough to lift it.

Grade: A

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