INSECURE TOWARDS INNOVATION? – X-MEN LEGACY & THE FURY OF FIRESTORM

xleg03X-MEN LEGACY is one of the most unique, intelligent and challenging comics to be released by a mainstream publisher in years. It’s a triumphant battle cry to people who look down upon the superhero genre, and it reminds you that these characters get stronger the closer and closer you get to acknowledging the super powers, the rambling, conflicting continuity, the shared universes, and all of the other ‘hard-sells’ of this very specific genre that holds a death-grip over an entire industry. Simon Spurrier takes his disdain for ‘spandex stories’ and subverts it into a story that could only be told within those boundaries – he challenges the idea of an adolescent, nostalgic audience by telling a tragic, painful coming-of-age story.

But here’s the kicker – I love it just as much as I love a DC comic book written and drawn by a man with decades of experience, who wrote THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN, and pencils in a style heavily influenced by the likes of Curt Swan and Milt Caniff. Am I afraid of innovation? Do superhero comics have a responsibility to be innovative, to push itself into new boundaries and new markets to survive a slow death due to a dwindling fan base? Do we, as fans, need to be telling these companies we demand creators with unique voices to tell complex and honest stories? Or can we have our cake and eat it, too? Can superhero comics be fun, and entertaining, and nostalgic…and also innovate and challenge our intellects and make us feel something deeper? I certainly don’t have those answers, but by talking about X-MEN LEGACY and THE FURY OF FIRESTORM, two of my favourite current comic books being released by the Big Two, two comics that couldn’t be more different…maybe we’ll find out.

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“If you’re ready to THINK FOR YOURSELF — to stick with it — there’s no end to the WONDERS we’ll ACHIEVE.” So begins David Haller’s painful journey from out of his father’s shadow, and Spurrier isn’t afraid to hit us right in the face with the series manifesto – if we stay stagnant, we die. In this genre, and this life, of infinite possibilities, we can’t tell ourselves that limits need to be set, or we’ll end up…well, like the residents of the commune that Legion finds himself in the beginning of the story. His father, founder of the X-men Professor Charles Xavier, has left his son there in hopes that he can gain some semblance of control over his uncontrollable, omega-level telepathic powers. Things aren’t quite what you’d expect – David Haller finds himself being taught by a foul-mouthed guru, surrounded by costumed-weirdos whose brains have been zapped by years of telepathic abuse. “These were the best, pal” the guru says to David on introducing him to his fellow neighbours, “And NOW look. Old, confused, FRAGILE.” Shortly after these three poignant words are uttered, Legion discovers his father is dead, murdered by the Phoenix-force possessed Scott Summers. This traumatic information causes David’s many powers to go into cataclysmic overdrive, and soon, he’s the only one alive in the whole community. He leaves, adrift, purposeless, unable to control the powers rattling around in his subconscious prison; and heavy under the looming shadow of his very important father’s very important death.

xmenleg01It isn’t until Legion embarks on a mission to save two Japanese children held hostage by an esoteric, drug-smuggling clan. Learning that the twins are trapped by the influence of their heritage as much as he is, it gives Legion the strength to get a grip on his powers and his self-confidence. “I think there’s a sort of WISDOM in admitting you’re IGNORANT. Makes the things you do know mean a HELLUVA lot more.” David tells the twins after a heroic rescue, slowly realizing he’s not quite as different from his dad as he always hoped, “What I know is this: children should have CHILDHOODS. People should have CHOICES. Genes shouldn’t matter a single FIGGY #$%&. And NOBODY should EVER be FORCED to FIGHT if they don’t WANT to.” Legion understands that he doesn’t have to follow his father’s ideals and dreams step by step – nor does he have to rebel against him like an angsty teenager. David is a hero in his own right, but he isn’t going to be able to help people in the way people of his world are accustomed to – he can’t throw spandex on, he can’t get a codename and join several teams of other like-minded mutants and heroes. His coming of age is very painful, because it’s very intimate and honest – he’s not drawing a line in the sand and starting a revolution, he’s even afraid to admit to the X-men his new found philosophies – “No, it’s not. The DREAM’S fine. I just think… m-maybe the way he went ABOUT it might’ve been…WRONG.” The hesitance is what I love about this series – it’s not AVENGERS ASSEMBLE! – it’s a stuttering, awkward utter of independence.

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X-MEN LEGACY continues to spiral off into this unique story about one man’s journey from adolescene, and one writer’s rally against the status-quo; Legion finds himself closely connected to the story of Ruth Aldine, AKA Blindfold, who carries an origin story so full of misogyny, bigotry and melodrama it feels like Claremont cranked up to 11. Spurrier continues to test and confront our preconceived ideas of the X-franchise and the superhero genre, with a character set back by complicated back story and contradicting continuity. FURY OF THE FIRESTORM: THE NUCLEAR MAN, meanwhile, is something completely different. Admittedly, I’m a Marvel Zombie first and foremost, but I do have a deep love for DC Comics, and Firestorm has always been one of my favourite of their characters. However, the New 52 stumbled several times over trying to sell the Milgrom/Conway creation. They attempted to make it a story of race relations, they attempted to focus on the ‘fury’ part of the title and turn Firestorm into their own Hulk…needless to say, it was weird, and didn’t really connect with anyone. Dan Jurgens seems to be the go-to-guy at DC to save characters who’ve lost their way, and that’s exactly what he did with Firestorm, by bringing the character back to it’s roots, and what made readers like me love him in the first place.

But, wait. Didn’t I just praise X-MEN LEGACY for being so unique, so innovative, so honest and true and not held back by genre conventions and the audience’s nostalgia? Well, yeah. I did. But sometimes trying new things doesn’t lead to greatness – maybe ketchup and mustard should be in different bottles, maybe we don’t want New Coke, maybe Spider-man shouldn’t be Ben Reilly. Maybe Firestorm got it right the first time, whereas Legion never did. Legion needed a character defnining run, Legion needed an intelligent writer who could handle such a complicated character – maybe Firestorm only needed a fun, comics loving guy who can draw anything and can sell interesting relationships between strong and diverse characters.

firestorm01Instead of trying to spoon feed an ‘adult’ story about race, Jurgens focuses on the interesting stuff right in front of him – mainly, what would it be like being a jock, having the smartest kid at school inside your head? What would it be like if you both came from single-parent homes, and now those single-parents started dating each other? What if you took that complex and nightmarish period called High School and focused on the fun of being a superhero amidst mad hormones and cheating on tests? Obviously, you get something like Firestorm; an expertly done, entertaining series that reads like a super-power, sci-fi take on the Archie comics. Jason can hardly deal with mentoring the hot-tempered Ronnie, who refuses to learn how to use his very complicated powers of transfusion. It’s such a great way to look at the tension that comes from spending a lot of time with someone, and multiplying that ten-fold by actually living inside their consciousness. There’s also unique villains and threats, from shady Government agencies, to a run-in with the Teen Titans and more. Really, it’s pretty standard superhero comics storytelling – but I’m completely obsessed with it, and it means as much to me as X-MEN LEGACY.

“Old. Confused. FRAGILE.” Is that what will become of the superheroes in the Marvel and DC universe? Will I keep this medium and this genre that I adore so much from being loved by others if I support titles that do nothing more than itch my nostalgia for a B-list character from the Bronze Age? Do we owe it to ourselves to remind Marvel that Image, D&Q and so many other publishers are just waiting around the corner, with innovative concepts and fresh, exciting artists, ready to take our hard-earned money away from this giant corporation? I wish I knew. I wish I knew why I still let myself be obsessed with characters who have been around for decades, who were created by men who had their creations taken from them. I do know you will be shocked and moved and challenged reading X-MEN LEGACY. I also know you’ll be delighted and entertained and surprised by THE FURY OF FIRESTORM. And I do know that whichever one you choose to pick up  will determine the future of the weird, wild world of comics in a big way.

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