Funnybook Babylon

May 2, 2007

The Unpopular Recommendation

The most recent incarnation of the Exiles

Am I wrong for liking Exiles? It’s one of those marginal books that Marvel releases for no comprehensible reason, except to keep some of their fill-in creators employed.

When you go to your local LCS, you see dozens of books like this. Filled to the brim with obscure characters, generic art, and fan-service plots. Usually, I avoid these books like the plague. They represent the worst of the medium, justifying all of the negative stereotypes of the super-hero genre. Even worse, they crowd the shelves, obscuring the good work that comes from the mainstream, and pushing aside the independent books that will allegedly draw the mythic new fan base in. If you’re a potential fan who stumbled into the store to buy “The Chicken and the Plum” or a Hernandez book, it’s off-putting, and adds to the oppressive atmosphere that keeps new fans away from comic stores.

Furthermore, these books often sell better than quality work that falls outside of the superhero genre. This phenomenon reinforces the notion in the Big Two publishers that super-heroes are all that the fan base wants. It prevents comic books from being taken seriously as a medium by non-readers. It keeps hack writers and artists employed. It causes global warming, and provides comfort and succor to terrorists.

Now I’ll admit that last part had a bit of hyperbole, but the general point is the same. Marginal books are annoying. They’re worse than bad. They’re boring. So why Exiles?

When I first started reading comic books, the fictional universe that the superheroes lived in was what made me a fan. I wasn’t particularly interested in looking at pictures of people in tight clothing hitting each other, just how the world would change if people had these kinds of abilities. Would the stakes involved in the Cold War change (this was the ’80’s)? Would politics and business change? How would these people change the world?

Unfortunately, mainstream comics at the time went out of their way to avoid these issues. We never saw the impact that super humans had on society, except in books like Watchmen (which was way above my head back then) or Squadron Supreme (which involved a fake Justice League). In the Marvel (and DC) Universe, life was the same for ordinary people, except with people fighting overhead. In fact, whenever the issue (of superheroes’ impact on regular life) was raised, both companies (but especially DC) went out of their way to show that not only did the heroes have no impact, but they shouldn’t. Remember the special issue of Superman when he tries to feed the starving Ethiopians? Even though I didn’t know the phrase ‘deux ex machina’ back then, I knew that the climax of that issue was a bit of a con job. The same logic was applied in explaining why the Golden Age DC heroes had no impact on World War Two (“it was a magic stick!”).

The corollary notion that was applied in mainstream comics was a general unwillingness to allow the world to have an impact on the characters. Sure, both companies had (and have) a habit of killing supporting characters to create an illusion of uncertainty, but that always struck me as a crude method of character development. Comics in the mid ’80’s resembled sitcoms from the same era, in that no matter how often growth was hinted at, everything reverted to the status quo by the time the credits rolled. It bored the hell out of me as a kid.

One comic that always struck me as different, that went out of its way to confound expectations, was Marvel’s What If? Although it didn’t show the impact of heroes on the world most of the time, their fate was uncertain. Not only could they die, but the plots could also be somewhat unpredictable. The basic idea of What If? was that the Marvel Universe was composed of an infinite number of alternate realities that came into being when people chose one among many possible courses of action. Essentially, one world where Peter Parker makes the decision to help the police nab the mugger who was responsible for killing his uncle. The series ended before my time, so my access was limited to back issues.

Exiles evokes some of this uncertainty. It is an unpredictable series, with a constantly shifting cast of characters, taking place in the alternate worlds that were the basis for What If? Every time expectations are set, they are demolished. The team originally worked for a mysterious ‘Time Broker’ who employed them to fix damaged alternate worlds, until they discovered that he was a fiction. The creators develop compelling characters, that an audience can develop a relationship with, only to eliminate them from the book. At this point, the focal relationship is between a version of Sabretooth from the Age of Apocalypse X-men crossover (a world where Apocalypse conquered the planet) and a character named Blink from that same world, who is the troubled leader of the team. The fact that there are no guarantees, no mandates from management that someone be kept alive because of marketing opportunities makes Exiles feel disconnected from the mainstream and exciting as a result.

Now I will admit that there are some problems with the book. It has the same weakness that many super-hero books do: always sacrificing character and plot development for battle sequences. And since it’s essentially a marginal book, it never has the benefit of having a consistent writer/artist team. It is also now being written by Chris Claremont, who is a master of useless exposition. But at the same time, it’s still an overlooked series where the unexpected still happens. I’m still looking for a series that shows the socio-political impact of super humans in a mature way, but for right now, wondering whether Reed Richards will give the key to accessing the omniverse to his estranged wife, Susan (who is leader of Hydra) to save his own universe isn’t too bad.

For a more detailed explanation of the history of the Exiles book, check their Wikipedia entry here.

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