Welcome to the third in a six-part series examining some nine-year old Marvel Comics featuring their Cable character, written by myself, Tucker Stone, and Noah Berlatsky. The first part is located here, and the second is here, and the fourth part is here.
Soldier X #5
Written by Darko Macan
Art by Igor Kordey
Published by Marvel Comics, 2003
Before I get into anything about these particular issues, I feel I must take up a sidebar: you've got to look at these covers. Don't focus on the Kordey illustrations--they're great, it's not that I'm stuck on--instead, take a look at the background colors, specifically on this issue and the sixth. How gorgeous are those? I doubt whether the color selections had any specific meaning, but doesn't it add a certain layer of...not seriousness, not maturity, but a certain adultness to the material? You know, that sort of fake adultness that super-hero comics still, even now, does better than iCarly or Big Time Rush? Maybe it's just me. I doubt it, that I'm the only one who still gets a bit jacked in when super-hero comics play at being grown-up and serious in ways beyond somebody cutting the Joker's face off and hanging it on a wall while the Joker makes a joke about how said torture made him cum. (That example is from a comic that was released today.) It's that feeling, the one you get when fake-Thing realizes what friendship can mean in "This Man, This Monster", or what Bruce Wayne's say when he shakes his fist at his empty costume in "Death in the Family", that feeling that has nothing to do with being a real grown-up but still encompasses what you thought being a grown-up meant.
That's what that washed in background reminds me of, I can't help it. It reminds me that this was a series from a couple of guys who were resolutely committed to making an American comic, but couldn't help the fact that they were serious dudes from serious places. They cared about stuff that a lot of American super-hero comics just don't care about as a general rule, and one of those things was the way the background colors on the covers had to look handmade. (And if it is handmade, even better.)
Following Cable's accidental resurrection of mutant healer Magdalena in the previous issues, "The Siege of Saint Lenin" opens with him once again in the position of beggar, trying to convince a young mutant not to take risks and exploit her powers. And like before, his attempts to convince fail--but this time, Macan makes it more obvious why:
It's an old twist, a classic one: he's the same as what he condemns. Arriving in an impoverished, crime stricken wasteland of no hope and old religion under the vague, unconfirmed orders of someone Cable hasn't seen in years, the character sets about doing "what's right". And Macan whips it up into a lather--here's a mutant girl, her mother's a religious harpy happy to suck the last cell of life off her daughter's albino flesh, her father a broken wimp; here's violent crime, the poor, the stupid, the hopeless and weak--all the better for Cable to save the day, right?
And yet he accomplishes so little. Like a man who considers fatherhood to end at orgasm, or a kid who adopts a dog because he liked a puppy, Cable resurrects a damaged, fearsome young girl and then finds her repellent when she fails to act like a high quality victim. But unlike before, Cable doesn't run a broad spectrum lobotomy on the surrounding locals, most of all, he doesn't run. He's learned a lesson.
He's got to learn one more.
I don't completely disagree with Noah's criticisms of Cable as being a bit of a boring slug, after all, I think that might be, in part, what Macan and Krodey thought of him as well. Look at the way he's depicted in those first three issues--a death tourist, an oblivious wrecking ball. He goes down into the bowels, gets irritated by the way those in the bowels operate, and then he destroys. When he's accosted for his failings and offered direction--one that's unclear, but a direction nonetheless--he flies off into the sky, yelling for attention like a grounded teenager pounding pillows. And now, in the abandoned art dumps (ridiculous, hilarious, overwrought sculptures of historical Soviet icons) of Russia, he wanders, trying to accomplish a task.
It's the Geo character--that's him screaming at Cable in the panels above--that seems to make Macan's curious case the best. A quaint (and yet not at all harmless) terrorist credited for the destruction of hundreds of McDonald's, the fight scene between Geo and Cable takes up only a scant few pages in "The Siege of Saint Lenin", but the point is still made, albeit as bluntly as possible. After listening to Cable bark around about "orders" and "superiors", Geo finally snaps and tries to beat some sense into him. Like the rules or hate the rules, but this isn't where Cable lives. It's Geo's home, Magdalena's, and the constant braying that his values and priorities apply here, that his cell phone should work, that people should talk in calm voices or at the very least make some kind of sense...it isn't just arrogant, it's obnoxious. Now, Geo's screaming ranges all over the place. Not all of it makes sense. Some of it might be a philosophical argument, so Macan just goes one better, and works it into the lens of what is, basically, a comic foil with insecurities and earthy lusts. Geo doesn't have a firm worldview to advertise, he's not that kind of dude. He's a simple, emotional person, and he's sick and tired of seeing this hard edged soldier prick treat this little Russian hellscape like Yojimbo's chessboard.
Geo can't beat Cable in a fight, that's always clear. The most he can hope for is to get Cable out of his head for a minute, to make him realize his value isn't to be found in the processing, but in the doing. He doesn't know that's what he's shooting for, of course--but neither did Falstaff when he leads Henry astray, he was just trying to get the kid to learn about good times--and the intent isn't what matters, and it's instinctual either way. Who hasn't tried to convince Mr. Serious to come outside and fuck around a bit?
Of course, as Noah has pointed out, this is a Marvel comic. There's certain other tricks we've got, when gags won't work.
Throughout this portion of the comic, Magdalena's mother has been getting tortured by the local Russian gangsters. Macan isn't kind about it either--he works really hard to make those gangsters funny, and he lays the overall horribleness of the victim on with a trowel. She's as close to evil as civilian characters get in comics, with that stock religious mania that always bodes extremely bad tidings forMarvel mutant characters (in the last few decades, only the Scarlet Witch has outpaced religious zealotry in devastating Marvel's mutant population).
But forget about complexity, say Macan. A naked woman is getting tortured in broad daylight by a bunch of angry young men. Her daughter is listening, on the verge of becoming a monster herself. The husband? A weak, sniveling mouse of a man. The local, homegrown hero? Bested.
This? This is a job for Cable. Hell it's perfect for him--right on the verge of becoming a complicated person, right on the verge of realizing that his save-the-girl, punch-some-dudes, and talk-righteous method doesn't work that well when he's surrounded by people who are more indebted to personal passions (be they hate, be they love) than they are ennamoured with rules. Some blind righteousness is needed. There's a lady that needs rescuing.
Get to stepping.
The sixth issue of Soldier X is pure, bloody climax. And like those three Cable issues that came first, it's a specific subversion of expectation. Every minor note that was hinted at before--religious mania, resurrections, the Passion--is blasted again, at a diabolically loud volume. Every character gets a chance on the stage, but they gotta be prepared to ham it up.
First, of course, is Cable. Given the opportunity to play hero, he spins the dial to eleven--he won't just win, he's going to make some people believers while doing so. Specifically, he walks into a neverending hail of gunfire, forcibly shutting down his own super-hero shields so that the bullets can rend his flesh and explode through his skin. His severed fingers fall to the earth below, separated from the muscle, torn from the bone. Of course, he's never really in danger--he dedicates that never-ending powerset of his to repairing the damage even as it is occurring--and his would be killers and the civilian populace read into him right what Macan wants them to: a savior, right here in our shitty neighborhood.
(I feel like I've seen this joke a million times, but I can't remember it being done with a guy who is actually missing a limb.)
Due to space limitations, the comic has to leap from "Everybody thinks Cable is some kind of God" right to "They decide he's not, and attempt to kill him, crazy mob style" in the span of four panels, and yet this makes it the perfect set-up for our next Classic Genre Beat, Extreme Edition, this one most commonly known as The Previously Emasculated Joke Character Sacrifices Himself. Geo, delivering what has to be my favorite bit of dialog he gets, and he's got a lot, literally shoos Cable away, before welcoming the mob to beat him to death, one pipe wielding fucker at a time. Again: these aren't the gangsters doing the slaughtering. This is just regular old people, the poor, bored and sad. It's been a shitty couple of lifetimes, there's been a lot of bloodletting, and this is one of those nights where everybody goes a bit too far. Geo is more than happy to draw the short straw. Make fun if you want, he seems to say.
From there, the conclusion to this six part arc is finally reached. Magdalena forgives her mother (by killing her, but hey, that's how forgiveness works sometimes) and Cable puts her on a truck out of town. Our gangsters commit a quick, sanity-saving coup, and the local church decides to toss the only body part Geo has left behind--his cheap cyborg arm, stolen from a gorilla who would've wasted it--up on the alter.
It's a cheap, standard present that Cable leaves behind--release and religion, the same shit that missionaries always have in their rearview. But this being a Marvel comic, he can give them a miracle, and before Macan and Kordey close the door on this--the only true "arc" that Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada let them have--that's exactly what Cable does. In keeping with Kirby, it's big and loud, and in keeping with Lee, there's an unbelievably cornball rainbow in the background.
(I don't know if those are the best kind, but I'm pretty sure they're the only kind I like.)
-Tucker Stone, 2011