Alex Ross: A Love Song to Modern Mythologies – Part 3: Earth X (Review)

Review by Raphael Borg

Published by Marvel Comics
Written by Jim Krueger & Alex Ross
Art by John Paul Leon
Lettering by Todd Klein
Inks by Bill Reinhold
Colors by Matt Hollingsworth, Melissa Edwards and Linda Lessman

Originally planned as a means to capitalise on the sales of the Distinguished Competition’s Kingdom Come, the stage set at the beginning of Marvel’s Earth X is very much the spiritual sequel to DC’s own dystopian parable. At first glance, the book seems a very convoluted and exhausting read even when considering its length alone (472 pages…more or less double Kingdom Come’s page count) but even more exhausting is wrapping your head around the insane amount of continuity that is packed within these pages in such a way that we are made to acknowledge that these snippets of Marvel’s mythology are part of a coherent whole. The layered narrative obligingly lends itself to a symbolic reading as some of the narrative choices are deliberate; using the entire Marvel Universe as its stage, it is hard to imagine any other reason why a certain character and not another goes through a particular event or makes a particular choice, other than to convey a symbolic message to the reader.

The landscape in which the narrative takes place seems to be the nuclear wasteland of Kansas in Kingdom Come, as the disheartened heart of America becomes seemingly once more the land upon which the Superhero Narrative once bore fruit but is now a lifeless landscape. It has now become a place in which history had left no mark, a sterile wasteland in which nothing could ever hope to one day be able to flourish. Making his first steps across this land, Stack once more breaks the silence by speculating that “maybe there were still people [t]here…watching over my planet” and that “great civilisations stood [t]here once[…]maybe a war was fought [t]here and that’s what killed everything .”

The opening lines to Stack’s arrival on this desolate landscape, quoted above, are reminiscent of the opening lines of Dante’s The Divine Comedy:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

In the midway of this our mortal life
I found myself in a gloomy wood,
For the path direct was gone;

And even to tell, no easy task
This fearsome forest, robust and eerie
Which to remember renews my horror

The protagonist seems to be, both in the incipit to the Comedy as well as that of Earth X, a lonely, anxious and troubled protagonist standing for the closest approximation to the state of the human being in that particular point in time. Whereas Dante lives in an era where the debauchery and lust for power that has wormed its way into politics and religion has had immense influence to the shape of society at the time, Stack lives in an era where the human being has shed itself of its humanity and became entirely dependent on its form and function, having acquired all the power it desired to the point where it decided it did not require its super-heroes any longer and where they had achieved the peak of their genetic potential making them completely self-sufficient and independent of one another and of the powers that be. Its rejection of the former superhuman community rendered it a utilitarian society, essentially making itself a machine. This later offers a stark contrast with Stack himself, a machine attempting to discover and live through the sensibilities of a human being – a veritable Pinocchio who desires to be a real human.

The allusion to Dante’s journey through the afterlife proves important as the entirety of Aaron Stack’s journey seems to be a parody of an introspective and spiritual journey. Whereas Dante uses the journey to cleanse himself of all that keeps him from “the path direct”, a journey that is set to bring him closer to humanity, the journey Stack is about to embark on goes the opposite direction, a quest in taking away all of his humanity starting from his own identity and his human face. His every attempt to reclaim humanity is met with contempt by the perpetrator behind this; “I call you as you are, X-51” presses an ever-vigilant but very blinded (in ever so many ways) Uatu, the Watcher.

Back in my Marvels review I discussed how Ross’ and Busiek’s book shifted the focus from the superhero narrative to the struggle of the individuals “watching the watchmen” between objectivity and subjectivity. The watchmen in Earth X are, however, and have ever been watched by a literal Watcher since the dawn of existence who made his comic debut in Fantastic Four (Vol. 1) #13 as a dispassionate, detached chronicler of events who has observed the Earth since its very creation. Here, however, Uatu takes the role of a guide, a role not dissimilar to the Divine Comedy’s Virgil, who guides the lost Dante across the afterlife in the search of his own humanity. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, however, Uatu’s guidance takes his ward in the opposite direction; while Virgil attempts to guide Dante through a journey of self-cleansing (Inferno and Purgatorio) and embrace of whatever aspects of his self brings him nearer to salvation (Paradiso), Uatu takes Aaron on a journey through the mythologies surrounding the Marvel universe in an attempt to impose perspective and dehumanize the android, making him embrace a mechanistic view of existence, that life is a meaningless process of self-preservation and self-perpetuation whose existence is merely a means of the self-perpetuation of their creators. All this, it seems, in an effort to pass on the mantle or to make up for his blindness. For this reason the Watcher has ripped Stack from his mundane life to a vantage point which is as objective to the world he left behind as possible, embracing a perspective not at all dissimilar to Nietzchean ethics particularly as described in the Genealogy of Morals. The overmen have been dethroned by the sudden exaltation of the human being. Their values have been dissected and found meaningless by popular opinion. Their existence is now obsolete.

The irony behind this, of course, is the fact that Uatu is trying to force his perspective while having to “see” through the eyes of a machine trying to be human. To force the emotional to be objectively mechanistic who has to see things through the eyes of one trying to be subjective. As the Watcher’s persistence explicitly goes, “The face of all mankind has changed, X-51. Would you now emulate a race that no longer exists? Would you choose to be a ghost?” Even the fact that the moon itself is revealed to have once been part of the world seems to accentuate this struggle and perhaps weaken his perspective – the very ground he walks upon has once been part of the world that he’s trying to set himself apart from, and there is no denying that. His attempts are further explicated by the fact that the Watcher first appears to the android by means of a screen, thus also forcing the reader to notice that he himself has succumbed his being to the service of a literal machine. The appendices to each chapter thus play out as a continuous struggle between the two points of view trying to overpower one another.

Note the continuous use of words alluding to vision; View. Perspective. Watcher. Appear.

The artwork of the book, done by John Paul Leon, highlights this as, uncharacteristically for a book behind which is the mind of Alex Ross, offers very little detail and extremely simplistic. The colours, unlike those in Kingdom Come are much muted and sometimes seem to blend into one another making the landscape very depressing and the heroes described into mere shadows of their former glory. Every panel is claustrophobic and crowded, heavy in shadows and inks highlighting the tensions in each moment while also presenting an interesting contrast to Kingdom Come. Whereas Alex Ross‘ artwork in that book allowed itself to breathe and thrived in hyperrealism, John Paul Leon‘s artwork in Earth X goes the opposite direction. Ross’ art could be pretty much described as reality being translated into traditional art, thus reality attempting to be simplified, reflecting the shift from the superhuman and the human at the end of the book. Leon’s art here, on the other hand, seems pretty much like traditional art attempting to translate itself into reality but failing to do so due to its lack of substance and detail.

The main focus of the tale seems to be following the fallen symbols of superheroic tradition, prominently among which is the most traditional and symbolic heroes himself, Marvel‘s answer to DC’s Superman, the idealistic figure: Captain America. Here, however, we see the regression of the traditional symbolic idea of the mythic Superman as we have left him at the end of Kingdom Come. It is a world of sameness, of mediocrity, where there is no distinction between man and superman, where the super has been reduced to the man and thus become obsolete.

And therein lies the centre point of Earth X’s main discourse. Kingdom Come ended by “dethroning” superhero tradition, rendering it completely indistinguishable from the humans among which these gods watched over. The fear and suspicion of the UN at the end of that book had made ordinary people of the heroes and traditions that reigned above them, thus empowering the Average Joe to stand shoulder to shoulder with the gods until the saviours became obsolete and unwanted. In Uatu’s own words, “[The heroes} are hated because they have what others do not. Power. Distinction. Purpose. And so they are hunted and hounded…often out of nothing more than the need within humanity to worship something. Mankind resents its need for authority. They wish to be their own authority, X-51. They would be Gods themselves. The heroes are hated because they threaten the very existence of the people they feel compelled to protect .”

While this shift made superheroes and their tradition more relatable and easier to understand, it also made them powerless and thus unnecessary since humanity was now capable of, in its own eyes, saving itself. And thus tradition, represented by the most traditional of Marvel’s flagship heroes, is put through a gauntlet of temptations. The first is the one faced in Kingdom Come, that of exerting authority it was not meant for as represented by the Red Skull, he who, in typical fascist fashion, repeatedly sought to impose his creed of sovereignty belonging to a master race through violent conquest and an iron fist. Just as in Kingdom Come, the resounding defeat of this temptation to exert power resulted in being reduced to the other extreme of obsoleteness, of meaninglessness. Captain America, disgraced and dressed in the rags of the flag he formerly represented, has thus reached a point where he no longer relates to the society he has found himself in. He has now become a relic of an outmoded mentality more than ever before, and a deluded one at that, such that he refuses an offer of presidency because he “…had lost the ability to be a representative of his own people. His country was no longer the country where all men were created equal. Captain America’s very existence had changed that .”

The book thus exposes the dangers of regressing tradition to mediocrity while continuously reminding the reader that such tradition should be true to itself without becoming an end in and of itself by using its power to perpetuate itself, thus manipulating those it is meant to guide and to provide a vision to; Uatu takes X-51 the machine man on a journey through the mythologies surrounding the Marvel universe for this very reason; an attempt to impose his own perspective and distance the android from the humanity he is so passionate about achieving, making him embrace a mechanistic view of existence by revealing to him what he believes to be the only relevant truth; that life is a meaningless process of self-preservation and self-perpetuation whose existence is merely a means of the self-perpetuation of their creators and the universe, where concepts of good and evil are artificial and thus exposing the humbling and degrading truth that mankind is but a blip to the existence of the universe with an innate lust for power. All this, it seems, in an effort to pass on the mantle or to make up for his blindness by embracing Nietzchean ethics particularly as described in the Genealogy of Morals. The overmen have been dethroned by the sudden exaltation of the human being. Their values have been dissected and found meaningless by popular opinion.

Regardless, the flag of humanity is still held high by those whose actions have made them heroes before the world crumbled into mediocrity; by the end of the book a second truth breathes new life. The flame of humanity has been set alight to burn away the ravages of power, and the role of tradition is once more reinstated – that to remind humanity that it is also within its nature to aspire to be greater than itself, however brief and meaningless its existence might be in comparison to the grand scheme of things.

I will be eventually releasing a meatier article about this book; it is extensively layered to the point that it can be headache-inducing to the layperson who does not know their way around the mythology that makes up the Marvel Universe. Regardless, it does make a good read particularly as a follow-up to Kingdom Come – my only suggestion is that one should do so with a clear mind. I would be very reluctant to dock any more stars just for this reason but it is definitely a setback to anyone wanting to venture into its pages; thus, I award this book four out of five stars.

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