Hooked on Comics: Cape Comics Only Make Sense If You Read More Cape Comics

Uncanny X-Force 10 Dark Angel

For the past 18 months, I’ve been navigating through the ever-extending universe of X-Men. As I’ve gotten deeper into the X-Men world I’ve noticed that I’ve been making fewer and fewer research visits to Wikipedia and other comics to understand plots and characters. As an individual reader, this is a pretty pleasant development because the stories are finally starting to flow due to be me being knowledgeable about the X-Men. But as someone who likes to share things, it’s incredibly frustrating because I’m unable to talk about the comics with anyone other than people who have also read 30 years worth of comic books, which is no one that I know.

The normal course of action would be to seek out people who have also read 30 years worth of comic books and I can kind of dig that. But honestly, that seems like the wrong approach because the problem isn’t that not enough people read comic books. The problem is that not enough comic books are made to be readable by anyone other than people who regularly read comic books.

I know that this isn’t a new observation. Feminists have been making it for years, frequently giving up on cape comics and opting for independently published graphic stories, or writing and drawing their own (which they’ve actually been doing since comics existed). But I’m bringing it up now because it’s intriguing how transparent the effort has been to just give up on accessibility.

For instance, I just finished Uncanny X-Force, a series about a mercenary wing of the X-Men that tries to reconcile killing people with the X-Men’s philosophy of preserving life. In “The Dark Angel Saga” story arc, X-Force attempts to save its member Angel from succumbing to his evil persona Archangel. Archangel exists because the X-Men villain Apocalypse once kidnapped Angel and brainwashed him into becoming his minion. To save Angel, X-Force recruits Dark Beast, a minion of Apocalypse and doppelganger of the X-Man, Beast, from the Age of Apocalypse parallel universe where Apocalypse has conquered the world. Dark Beast takes them to this parallel universe and then the real story begins in earnest, going on to span 8 more comics.

Since this story arc starts with Uncanny X-Force issue #11, it makes sense for the authors to assume the reader has knowledge of issues #1-10. But to assume knowledge of comics from over a decade ago is quite a stretch. Seriously, the mere scaffolding for the story, its basics, requires knowledge of the X-Men universe that extends to storylines from the 80’s and 90’s. For these comics, suspending one’s disbelief is secondary, possible only after have already expended one’s time and money. Even as someone who has paid these costs, I don’t like this.

And it’s not because I think there are inherent problems with learning curves or opacity or niche audiences. Barring governments, healthcare, the internet and parks, I don’t think that everything needs to be easy and accessible and widely available to everyone. I think there’s real value in rarity and mystery and exclusiveness, depending on the circumstances. I’m struck by these X-Men comics because the opacity never goes away. Despite different artists, writers, stories and characters, the learning curve never really smooths out.

In other words, I fibbed earlier. The comics actually aren’t flowing that much better from when I first started; I’ve just learned to navigate the gaps. There are always more comics to be read, more Wikipedia pages to scour. Reading these comics is like having a daily commute over a street that’s riddled with potholes: the gaps eventually just become a part of the street.

I once celebrated the fact that comics had slowly phased out advertisements because I always used to see those ads as “interrupting” the stories. I now realize that the stories themselves have become advertisements and that the product being sold isn’t the comics themselves, but access to them. To put it differently, cape comics sell literacy of cape comics. Inaccessibility is built into this model. This doesn’t mean that all cape comics are a scam or that all their stories and art are invalid. There are good stories and ideas out there. But they come at a steep price that probably isn’t worth it.

Suddenly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t seem like such a cool idea.

Byzantine Blues/I’m Feeling Lucky

Last night I was stopped in Arlington, Virginia for being an “unlicensed driver in the state of Virginia” (apparently having a Georgia license and a Virginia registration is not acceptable) and was issued a ticket for not having a Virginia driver’s license. The officer told me that I can avoid the court summons and a fine by getting a Virginia license and going to the courthouse before my court date to prove that I am newly compliant with Virginia driving laws. Maybe I’m being reductive, but paying for an unnecessary new license (my Georgia license expires in 2017) and visiting a courthouse sounds incredibly similar to appearing in court and paying a fine.

I wasn’t too excited about being forced to waste time and take off work for something so slight and inane. But I soon realized that because I’m moving to DC proper at the end of the month, I will now have to get a VA license just to own it for 2 weeks, then exchange that license for a DC license within 30 days of moving in.

Hoping to avoid this ridiculously annoying sequence of events, today I called the courthouse and asked if there were other options. They very dryly told me that I have a “perfect grasp” of the situation and that my only other option is to appear in court and explain my situation.

I hadn’t considered this, but it really is an option. I could wait 3 months, then appear before the judge and explain, “I am here before you today because instead of navigating the Byzantine system that has been elaborately and weirdly designed to coerce me into paying nominal licensing fees at the expense of my time and money, I have decided to expend my time and money in order to explain this Byzantine system to you in hopes that you, someone who is comfortably ensconced within this system, will suddenly recognize the horror of this nightmarish machine of parasitic pettiness and solve my silly problems in a heroic swoop of Reason and compassion.”

Because I really doubt that I could speak so eloquently for so long, I’m going to go with the first option of getting a license, going to the courthouse, then getting another license. Even if I got a DC license, then appeared in court, I would probably still end up being fined because on that day I was driving without a VA license.


I know that this annoying episode will come and go as quickly as it came, but I can’t help but dwell on it because there’s something scary about how normal this situation is. There is nothing unusual about a police officer scanning vehicle license plates while driving (generously assuming that’s even the real reason I was stopped…), stopping drivers, sidling up to their car windows, and enforcing municipal licensing rules that people have never heard of until the moment they were enforced. This happens every day, multiple times a day, everywhere.

This was my first time ever being pulled over, so perhaps that, plus the fact that I’ve actively kept up with the nationwide epidemic of police violence against folks of color, just have me on high alert. But even if that is true, that I’m being paranoid over what was a rather uneventful encounter, why shouldn’t I be? It is precisely the very uneventfulness of this entire experience that alarms me. All it takes is one unlucky and unnecessary police scan to send someone spiraling down a bureaucratic rabbit hole that can only be escaped via time, money or an unlikely rejection of the bureaucracy by someone who holds power within it. For some people, like the residents of Ferguson, the spiral never ends .

But that’s not a surprise. I’ve always known that I live in a world where a black male who gets stopped by a cop feels “lucky” to “only” receive a ticket and “only” have to do some pesky bureaucratic maneuvering. The surprise is just how exhausting this so-called luck feels. I haven’t even started my bureaucratic relay race yet, but I already feel winded, defeated.

After I got home, I undressed, brushed my teeth, then told my girlfriend what had happened.  “I’m just glad you’re okay,” she responded. I told her that I was glad too, and to my horror, I really meant it.

Remind Me To Remember What You Told Me (On Black History Month)

Like most commemorative events, Black History Month is an assertion, a statement that this month and what it represents are important. The Canadian rapper Shad almost captures this commemorative spirit in his song “Remember to Remember.” I say “almost” because despite its pithy title, which is repeated in the chorus, “Remember to Remember” betrays an attempt to conceal its own origins. We have to be to told to remember to remember precisely because it is easy to forget. And this ease suggests that the things we want to remember might actually be unmemorable, unimportant. The sheer conviction of the statement “Remember to remember” paints over that anxiety of forgetting, which I think is dangerous.

Another rapper, DOOM, more accurately captures the spirit of commemorative holidays, drunkenly rapping, “Remind me to remember what you told me,” in his song “All Outta Ale.” DOOM’s line simultaneously asserts his desire to remember and admits that he’s already forgotten. He knows that the importance of memories is contrived, arbitrary, so that’s how he treats them, embracing the artifice. He doesn’t see forgetting as a vice, a denial of Truth. He sees it as more reason to remember. Importance is a concentrated effort, not an inherent characteristic.

I pinball between these two modes of thinking about historical memory, but I ultimately side with the DOOM approach because it is more transparent. “Remember to Remember” has a certain self-evidence to it that I think is ultimately self-defeating. If black lives and history inherently mattered, we wouldn’t have to declare their importance.

This is precisely why #alllivesmatter falls flat on its face. Not only does it grossly deface the point of #blacklivesmatter, which is to highlight the devaluation of black life through ongoing systemic racism, but it obscures its own origins. In other words, #alllivesmatters paints itself as an “obvious” correction, an “of course,” when it is really a reaction to #blacklivesmatters’ collective observation that all lives seem to matter except for black lives (as well as other marginalized groups). If all lives inherently mattered, no one would be compelled to make the counterclaim that certain lives don’t.

The same goes for the silly annual tradition of people asking, “Why is there no White History Month?” which is unfortunately rarely a rhetorical question. That question can only be asked if you view history with a severely unempirical eye, thinking of it as a mere archive rather than as the process of archiving certain things toward certain ends, like the Texas school board fighting to get textbooks that misrepresent Islam, climate change, and the Mexican-American war, among other things.

There might be some implicit nihilism in the assertion that no life is inherently important, but I’d rather embrace that nihilism than bet my life on some alleged inherent properties of this life that have never been acknowledged. This stance, and Black History Month as a whole may seem like a concession, but that’s the point. Black life and history matter precisely because we say that they matter in spite of how they are routinely treated. Without that concession, that painful admission that this remembrance is willed, it’s just another empty cause.

In the end, I’m just saying that I think it’s important to remember why we remember, not just to remember. Because as soon as Black History Month or #blacklivesmatters forgets or elides their reasons for existing, they spiral into meaninglessness, losing their power to change and joining the ranks of other defanged projects and customs, like Labor Day and Earth Day. We can do better and it starts with actively remembering why we have to.

Key and Peele on The Limits of Pathology

I’m not entirely sure exactly what Key and Peele set out to do in this “School Bully” sketch, but when I first watched it, I immediately thought of pathology, the search for origins and causes, meaning. Pathology is deeply ingrained in how people, especially college-educated people, understand the world, and though there is nothing inherently wrong with pathologizing, it’s a mode of analysis that’s easy to abuse, assigning meaning and offering explanations to things without acknowledging its own fallibility.

This sketch exposes that fallibility, showing how silly and absurd our messy world looks when we tidy it up through our search for singular meaning.

Every bully isn’t secretly a victim of abuse. Every internet troll isn’t a lonely virgin, sitting in a room full of Lucy Liu posters and empty bags of Cheetos. Every angry person isn’t secretly sad and rejected. Every homophobe isn’t secretly gay.

Some people are just assholes.

Further reading:

Cameron Kunzelman, Thinking About Trolls with Foucault.

Shakey Dog, An Epic

Ghostface Killah Fishscale

“Shakey Dog,” from Ghostface Killah’s 2006 album Fishscale, tells the story of two veteran stick-up dudes, Tony Starks and Frank, driving to a stash house, entering it and having a shootout in pursuit of the spoils. The story is very light on plot – the previous sentence just summarized the entire plot – but it overflows with details, from the S. Dots on Ghost’s feet, to the smell of fried fish from Harlem and spliffs saturating the car, to the size of Frank’s hoody, to the backstory of an old woman pushing a shopping cart. Way before they even enter the stash house, we can feel the wintry New York City air and the tension that’s making Frank stutter like a nervous dog.

And these guys aren’t amateurs. When they pull up to the block, the stash house’s first line of defense does nothing because they don’t get paid enough to deal with men of Frank and Tony’s caliber. They’re not about that life. But still, Frank is shaking in his goose-down coat. This job has lots of liabilities. “Jackson 5-0,” cops on foot, might come. The cab driver might speed off if things start to look sour. They might not make it back to the Marriott. Through it all Tony is talking tough, blunted into a state of cool confidence, but when his stomach growls after smelling the plantains, steak and rice on the other side of that stash house door, it’s clear that he’s got the shakes too.

Ghostface weaves this tapestry of images effortlessly. Not only is he participating in the story as Tony, speaking in first-person, but he’s also rising and receding with the instrumental, which samples “Love is Blue” by Johnny Johnson, and oscillates between frantic horns and dramatic, pained wails. It’s a juggling act few would attempt and even fewer would complete without failing.

But what really sells the story is not the story itself, but Ghost’s storytelling, the way he delivers the details. “Push the fuckin’ seat up,” he yells with irritation after mentioning that Tony is in the backseat with a stiff leg. “I’m on the floor like ‘holy shit!’ ” he shouts with strangely exhilarated surprise after the stick-up takes an unexpected turn. When he tells the backstory of the 77 year-old lady with the shopping cart and the shotgun inside of that shopping cart, his typically whiny, ambulating voice, briefly becomes respectful, because she’s not someone to be taken lightly. These granular details are what initially stand out, but it’s Ghost’s voice that really brings them to life. For Ghost, merely providing the details isn’t enough. He uses his voice to add dimensions to each description, shading in each image, simultaneously providing and justifying his excessive attention to sights, sounds and smells. Just like your neighborhood barbershop sophist, who always talks more than he listens, Ghost uses every available opportunity to convince the listener that what he’s saying matters. No large breast, no nervous stutter, no stomach growl, is left behind.

A lot of authors try to make their stories more vivid post hoc, paving over gaps and ambiguities in their work in an interview or an afterword or a sequel, but Ghost makes his mark in media res. His directing itself serves as director’s commentary. For Ghostface, everything about this story is big and important and awing, so that’s how he presents it, refusing to allow even the tartar sauce on his shoes to be overlooked.

This insistence on every detail being relevant deviates from the classical definition of epic, where the sheer events of the story indicate the story’s importance. That kind of epic is what you’ll find in a fantasy or fairy tale, where simply seeing a giant or a blind man allegedly elevates the story to epic proportions. That’s not a dismissal of fantasy, but when it comes to storytelling “Shakey Dog” earns its stripes precisely because it doesn’t merely walk us through a museum of certain highly-valued, pre-packaged icons, like “impossible tasks that must be done” and wise blind men. “Shakey Dog” makes it clear why each exhibit deserves our attention.

Of course, every story shouldn’t be in Ghostface Killah High-Definition©. That’s what leads to the dry world-building of some fantasy and sci-fi stories or the misguided search for the “true” person behind RiFF RAFF. Sometimes readymade, easily understood symbols work just fine. Even Ghostface himself could learn from that; some of his songs are vivid to a fault. Ultimately, the need for details really depends on the story being told. For “Shakey Dog,” Ghostface knew what was necessary and he delivered, flawlessly, epically.

Because we live in a world with things like like Epic Meal Time and epicfails.com, it might feel disrespectful to call “Shakey Dog” an epic. With all the other words out there, at first glance epic feels like a George Foreman grill, rarely useful and easy to live without. But that’s precisely why “Shakey Dog” has to be considered epic. It takes a cheapened word, blows off the dust and crud,  and shows its real value. 2007’s Epic Movie may have fallen flat on its face, but its heart was in the right place. Epicness is much more than symphonic movie scores, hour-long battles and men standing on mountaintops. It’s Ghostface Killah, paying $60 plus the toll to take a cab from Staten Island to Harlem, and wreaking havoc in a crowded apartment, all for the cash, coke and the crack.

Further reading:

To Be Continued, by David Brothers

Take Me Back: Ghostface’s Ghosts, by Steven Shaviro.

Mutants, Meillassoux and Contingency*

Over the past year, I have read hundreds of X-Men comics. It has been a strange journey and even now I’m neither sure why I began this journey nor why I continued it, but it happened, and the weird adventures of Marvel’s mutants are permanently etched into my mind.

There is a great deal of fluff in this extensive archive, even during the much-celebrated Claremont era, and especially during the 90s, which had comics that I can’t even look at because the drawing disgusts me (If you like that artwork, it’s fine, but the artwork coincided with a narrative departure from the civic issues, identity issues and overall science fiction coolness that make X-men interesting to me, so it is hard for me to parse the two). But despite the fluff, there are many rich moments, in terms of storytelling and character building, and in terms of concepts.

One concept that has really stuck with me is the idea of contingency. Contingency is at the heart of genetic mutation and arguably at the heart of the series: the central motif of X-Men is how do people live with abilities that they have no previous understanding of or that can change without notice even when they do understand them (due to secondary mutation, stress, experimentation, fear, the government etc.).  I think that the best iteration of this theme came during the Avengers vs X-Men crossover series of 2012.

In that limited series, members of the X-Men and members of the Avengers take sides on the issue of the coming of Phoenix. The Phoenix is a cosmic force that perennially crosses the universe, doing whatever it wants, usually destroying planets and civilizations. The series starts when the two teams learn that it is coming to Earth. The X-Men anticipate the return of the Phoenix because they think it will save mutants, which are on the brink of extinction; the Avengers dread the return of the Phoenix because they think it will destroy the planet.

When the Phoenix arrives, the Avengers intervene and instead of taking one red-headed host, as it usually does, it takes five hosts, all members of the X-Men (and notably all without red hair!). Wielding this newly-acquired omnipotent power, the Phoenix Five do good deeds across the world. But after being persistently opposed by the Avengers, they decide to hunt for the Avengers and other perceived threats.

One of these threats is Mr. Sinister. Mr. Sinister is a mutant, geneticist and longtime enemy of the X-Men. Sinister has a history of horrific experiments on mutants and horrific actions against them, and when the Phoenix Five arrive, he lures them into giving him control of the Phoenix. Things look bleak until the Phoenix simply decides that it itself doesn’t want to be controlled by him, electing to return to the Phoenix Five.

Avengers vs X-Men Marvel Phoenix Mr. Sinister

Up until this point in the series and in X-Men history, the Phoenix has just been a plot device. It comes, it shakes things up, somebody dies (usually someone with red hair) and then the world is saved. In all of those previous instances, the Phoenix had a determined function, in the narrative and as an entity. In this story, the Phoenix is completely indeterminate, in form, in function and in potential. It is contingency incarnate.

In his book After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux has a chapter where he distinguishes between contingency and probability. Probability is the potential for change under constant, established conditions, like a dice roll. Contingency is is the potential for both the variables and the conditions to change, like a dice roll in which the the dice grow another face and become seven-sided and then explode into butterflies. In regular practice we do not expect dice to do such unexpected things because the world seems to work according to fixed, predictable rules, allowing us to make decisions based on what will probably happen. In a contingent world, there are no fixed rules. Anything can happen at anytime. Dice can turn into butterflies and grown men can eject metal claws from their knuckles.

Mr. Sinister Uncanny X-Men Avengers

The ultimate point of that chapter of the book is that though we cannot fathom raw contingency because our world is relatively stable, contingency itself is contingent, so we actually do experience this raw contingency, but only because contingently, contingency holds the world together. In other words, the seemingly absurd world in which butterflies are born from dice and men have metal claws is actually the world we live in. We just don’t see these things because the potential for these things is also contingent.

A lot of science fiction, including the X-Men, makes a few things contingent and then watches how these strategic tweaks play out, but my point here is that none of this was fully realized contingency. As anticlimactic as it is in terms of narrative, the Phoenix’s decision to simply not be controlled despite Mr. Sinister winning his battle with the X-Men is an example of raw contingency. Mr. Sinister didn’t plan for it because he couldn’t. There’s no such thing as a contingency plan when you are dealing with actual contingency. That is horrifying.

Unfortunately, the Phoenix does not make any more radically contingent decisions as the Avengers vs X-Men goes on, so this is just a brief glimpse into what radical contingency can look like. Marvel’s What If series toys with this kind of contingency all the time, but none of it is canonical, so the horror of raw contingency is dialed back because it is purely speculative. Still, it happened once and if the right mind makes the effort, perhaps an entire story about the horror of raw contingency could happen someday.

*I wasn’t very thorough with citations in this post, but Uncanny X-Men Volume 2 #15-17 are the comics I summarized and took the screenshots from. The chapter in After Finitude is chapter 4.