The Joe Casey era is an interest blip on the X-Men radar screen, something that really stands out, but maybe we still don’t know what exactly it was.
Try Something: Joe Casey’s Uncanny X-Men
by Travis Hedge Coke
Joe Casey’s recent collaboration, Jesusfreak, is prime comics. Acid kung fu passion play. Back in the early 21st Century, he and Ian Churchill launched a less successful run on Uncanny X-Men at the same time as Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison turned X-Men into New X-Men and Mike Allred and Peter Milligan started slowly turning the X-Force into X-Statix. The Casey-written Uncanny is not as revered as those other two runs, but it is better remembered than The Brotherhood, which had an anonymous writer and a rotation of superstar artists.
Religion, pop music, class, culturism, code-switching, prostitution, recreational drug use, fashion, tabloid journalism, trauma, drama, and fascism chic: It was a run that aimed high and shot about crotch level.
The traditional, the steady audiences for X-Men related comics, are in general more conservative than, from the outside, you might anticipate. When Grant Morrison referred to some of the runs immediately preceding these makeovers as, “septic,” it is worth remembering that some folks liked that sepsis. There is a reassuring warmth in knowing that, if you know the characters at all, you could, for much of the Nineties, pick up any issue of Uncanny X-Men (or the, then interchangeable, X-Men) and know what you were getting. Everything was a series of emotional moments and macguffins to make the issues string together. Maybe the most pure form of soap comics a superhero book has had.
Chad Nevett (at Graphic Content) said that the main theme of Casey’s run, which utilized a number of artists before it ended, is, “Pop will eat itself.” Could be. I am unsure that it was the theme Casey and cohort started out with, but it does apply good. Not well; good.
The motive of the first supervillain to attack the landmark site of Magneto’s first conflict with the X-Men is because. The second arc, poptopia, positions a nesting doll of villainy or interlinking nemeses: a pop star who dates an X-Man and then uses him for fame before binning; a murderous group of mutants who cannot pass, living underground; a pop-branded one man murder machine of oiled bicep and flamethrower calling himself, Mister Clean, who slaughters several of the underground-dwelling murdery mutants. poptopia – and this is great – is initially a four issue arc, but as the run comes to a close, his final issue is rocktopia part 8 of 5, with no previous indication we were reading rocktopia at all.
What is best, to me, is that we were never reading rocktopia 1 of 5 or 3 of 8, et cetera, ever. What if rocktopia is not the title, but rocktopia part 8 of 5 is? The overextension of an arc we never saw coming, that will never finish. What if we leapt over the moment of denouement without tell, in what David Charles Bitterbaum calls (in Tales from the Dollar Bin), “a mixture of gorging on cliches and mocking them at the same time in an uncomfortable balance”?
At his finest, Casey plays fast and loose like fast and loose are stodgy, and he hams up a comic like our memories of Loeb and Sale books. He is a farce of Frank Miller and I mean that in the best ways. The only breastfeeding I have ever seen in Batman comics takes place in ones Frank Miller wrote. Joe Casey introduced breastfeeding in his Uncanny run, with the press asking a thinly-veiled Britney Spears clone, Sugar Kane, in front of cameras, if she’ll breastfeed the mutant baby they believe she is pregnant with. They ask her manager if she will have an abortion.
The artists on this run are an amazing array, ranging from Eddie Campbell and Sean Phillips to Ron Garney, Ashley Wood, and Aaron Lopresti. Imagine an album where songs are played, without warning, by Steve Winwood or Post Malone or Eddie Campbell. Casey, himself, called this out as a lack of “consistent artistic vision” (in Random Joe Casey Q & A with Chad Nevett), saying, “the book suffered because of it,” and that he also had, “no strong vision,” and, “no particular love for those characters.”
It does not matter to me that he had no love for the characters, the he took the book mostly as a career enhancer. He still tried to write good comics. He still kicked the tires so hard the tires came off, and sometimes that is better than a total success. Being worth talking about is not the same as being a comfortable read or a favorite comic. This run is worth talking, worth thinking about, and for x-fans, I think it is worth thinking seriously about more than just once.
I love Stacy X, introduced in this run, by Casey and artist, Tom Raney, but I don’t love their take on her. I do not love her as created. I think Wolverine looks like an ass, because of how he treats her in this run, but Archangel, Warren Worthington, looks like an even bigger, and stupider ass, as the man who co-owns prostitution outfit called, The X-Ranch, where she works, without realizing he co-owns it, and spends the bulk of their interaction looking down on her and casting aspersions. The ultra-rich mutant, from the elite private school in upstate New York, who owns the lion’s share of a prostitution business, sneering down at the annoying sex worker who thinks she can run with the X-Men. And, she pretty much takes it, bucks against it, takes it some more.
I love that. I love that those scenes piss me off, but other scenes give me reason to keep reading.
If it was a lack of love, a lack of pre-built sentimentality that allowed Casey to write with pop-minded punk-gutted abandon on a flagship title? Then, a lack of love might be a good thing (once we are way past day of release, when the run is over and the trades are in print or not, and the analysis is entirely fannish or academic). Sex workers saying their work is empowering, Kurt Wagner making the leap to priesthood, all this somehow superhuman supremacists who are white with their anxiety at the concept of superhumanity, this are jumps and jabs and politics that a writer with too much love would not try.
Joe Casey used his first issue to springboard us a Jean Grey/Wolverine kiss like nobody’s business. He just did things. Like that.
For a work without love for the trademarks, it was a run that tried. It tried to do political things, things of social relevance, and things that were geeky and effervescent.
The arc involving police turned superhero turned schoolteacher, Banshee, leading psychically-controlled villains in nazi-styled new outfits, to fight injustice more brutally than the already fairly violent X-Men went down like the mouse under the lead balloon smooshed into soft mud. And, that was while it was being softened by removing some of the more nazi elements, thanks to some last minute adjustments.
The go for broke free wheeling approach can get attention, it can keep things worth discussion, and you cannot truly break these trademarks and their traditional narratives for very long, but they can be bent too far out of shape for the fanbase, or the door watchers.
A franchise like X-Men has professional doormen for the pros, or to make sure we pay for the issues before reading them, but it also has door watchers. Door watchers are not paid, they are not vetted, they may not even have paid their own ticket in. They are just watching who else is getting in and what sort of thing is going on inside. They do not need to have a love for much, but they have to love a status quo.
Fascist-trapping Banshee and Jesused-up Supreme Pontiff were a tip too far, for people who were getting nervous after decades of but they can’t! lust was unleashed with a small single kiss. This was a book that loved the bent over woman, too. It had the straightest Iceman anyone has ever given us, in any comic. It reads like the X-Men are trapped in channel flipping between seventeen different commercials. But, seventeen commercials on pretty normal stations. Casey’s run ends up an esoteric comic with no esoterica. Or, a general audience book with too much nerd.
Whatever the imbalance is, general and educated consensus is that it fell short. For all some of the X-Men are pretentious to Stacy X, she gets to be the new audience voice countering the old nostalgics – and even teenaged Chamber, with half his face blown off by his own powers, is a nostalgic. Wolverine gets to roll, because he has seen everything, and Banshee can see his old teacher send a fascist cosplay unity into Germany and still call him, “A good man,” but, Stacy is the one who gets to react with disdain or fear, to react with modern, new eyes.
In a nutshell, there is this scene, Archangel and Stacy in a plane, alone:
“When you meet Charles Xavier,” says Archangel, “you’ll understand why. Banshee’s got his way of doing things. We’ve got ours. But no one wants a war. Any chance we can get to promote a general understanding.”
Stacy replies, “They don’t want to ‘understand us’… If I had a dime for every time I’ve been marked for death…”
“You’d be a millionaire?” he quips. “Well, I am a millionaire. I think I know what I’m talking about, Stacy.”
He goes on to tell her that the world is complicated, which, of course, as the rich man in the cockpit, he needs to tell the mutant sex worker beside him, because how would she know the world is complex? She lacks his money.
That is the run. That is why we still have plenty to think through, to talk about. That scene, and how, later periodically, Wolverine is decent with her, even trying to steer her away from being who he thinks he is, when he describes his traditional superhero outfit as a costume his rapists made him wear so he would feel part of something. Nightcrawler, being a mensch to her, simply because Nightcrawler is a mensch.
When, Chamber defends X-Corps, the not-nazi party Banshee has formed, he claims it is because, “He’s a passionate man,” and, “The girls I went to school with are here.” Truth is, he’s brainwashed. That’s yesterday’s reader. An issue later, faced with traditional 1960s supervillains, he declares, “I’m talking to himself,” because they are genuinely in his head.
There is no good in to this run. The very first issue is nostalgia to spit nostalgia. The very last is throwing a gear into a place in the machine that might need a gear. The ironic turns are not really ironic if you do not know stories or expectations from before this run. Nothing, really, is introduced, even new characters. The ramifications?
Blob is on a team, in this book, and the X-Men have serious issues with him. Right now, many x-fans are significantly pleased with Blob being repurposed as a sensitive, intellectual with facial hair, courting a woman who, in previous appearances, only ever called her “a skirt” or insulted her gruntily, as an anti-intellectual bully and sometimes decent wrestler. X-fans do not, particularly, appreciate their villains too actually villainous, or their heroes too well-behaved. But, they do not want, more than either, for the book or the characters to tell us too clearly which is which.
Amazingly good covers, these comics. Not everything tried, actually lands. But, the covers are gorgeous and fresh, and if we could have read comics to equal those covers, we might have less to say than we do with the comics we got. Blob beating up women. Archangel with a huge gun.
In the words of Nightcrawler, two issues before the run ends:
“Looks like Feuer left the circus behind. Perhaps this is the path to true peace of mind.”
Try Something: Joe Casey’s Uncanny X-Men
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