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Earth X (Review/Retrospective)

To get ready for Iron Man 3, we’ll be taking a look at some Iron Man and Avengers stories, both modern and classic. We hope to do two or three a week throughout the month, so check back regularly for the latest update.

“Your kind does love to rewrite history, Richards,” the Watcher observes towards the end of Earth X, after we get an introduction and brief recap of the life of Tony Stark. Almost every issue of the collection opens with a review of an iconic Marvel character’s back story, as writer Jim Krueger and plotter Alex Ross attempt to tie the tapestry of the Marvel universe together in some way. It turns out that everything a character underwent wasn’t just their own personal development, but part of a broader tapestry of history within the Marvel universe. No character evolution, it seems, happens in isolation. Everything is interconnected, even if we (or the writers or the characters) never realised it at the time.

Earth X is really just an attempt to tie most of the Marvel universe up in one gigantic knot, to connect everything to everything else. In a way, published in 1999, it seems to foreshadow the current era of Marvel publishing, where absolutely everything within in the shared universe must somehow be connected to something else. Avengers vs. X-Men, for example, would connect the Phoenix from the X-Men to the Iron Fist mythology. Grant Morrison’s New X-Men connected the Weapon X project to the development of Captain America. The X-Men and the Avengers must be united as part of Uncanny Avengers.

In many ways, Earth X reads more interestingly as a treatise than as a comic story. It’s far stronger as a thought-experiment than an actual narrative. It’s more fun on purely technical level, watching Jim Krueger and Alex Cross connect all those dots, than it is as an adventure in its own right.

Stellar...

Stellar…

I’ll be honest. I have mixed feelings about the idea of a shared comic book universe. It’s cool that various characters can crossover and overlap. You occasionally get wonderful stories out of it, and comparing or contrasting particular characters can offer a writer some great narrative tools. Plus, sometimes it is clever to watch a writer make an incredibly logical connection that simply never would have occurred to anybody else. Making Wolverine the tenth iteration of a biological weapons programme that began with Captain America is just a very clever application of comic book narrative.

However, there’s a point where the shared universe encroaches a little bit too much. It’s possible to have a character’s story impeded by the demands of comic book continuity. For example, all the massive events that are constantly derailing books like Ed Brubaker’s Captain America or Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man. There’s also the fact that some story points are incompatible. It is, for example, very difficult to reconcile the racist and prejudiced America seen in the X-Men comics with the idealistic country that The Avengers strive to protect.

He likes to watch...

He likes to watch…

It is very hard to reconcile the fact that all these elements co-exist when they are mutually incompatible. Captain America should, by all logic, by a mutant rights activist. Tony Stark should give Peter Parker a cushy well-paid job, or at least put him on a scholarship so he doesn’t worry about being strapped for cash. It should be physically impossible for Wolverine to commit to all those teams he seems to work on. This is what happens if you push the shared universe logic too far, if you assume that these books all give one perfectly detailed image of a one united fictional narrative.

The solution is obvious. Don’t think too much about it. Enjoy X-Men comics on their own terms, without wondering why the Avengers aren’t campaigning for equal rights. Have fun reading Peter Parker, without pondering why he doesn’t ask some of his billionaire fellow superheroes for a well-deserved hand-out. Enjoy Wolverine in the books you read, without worrying too much about the character’s hectic social schedule.

Suit up...

Suit up…

However, the trend in the last couple of years has been to acknowledge these problems and to push Marvel towards a grander shared and integrated universe. So, for example, the company made a conscious decision to integrate the X-Men and the Avengers following their last huge crossover, Avengers vs. X-Men. The Spider-Man books have already been somewhat integrated with the Avengers line of publishing.

Earth X really feels like the cornerstone of this approach to fictional universe maintenance. Almost every chapter opens with an exploration of a particular character’s past. It offers some nice insights, and then proceeds to contextualise them within the wider Marvel universe. How do the Asgardians relate to the Celestials? How is Bruce Banner tied up with the X-Men? Earth X seems like a conscious attempt to tie everything together – to suggest that the origins of the Marvel universe were all linked and that their conclusion must also be.

Assembled...

Assembled…

It’s not a bad idea. As the wonderful Mark Waid has noted, the Marvel characters tend to fit together a lot easier than the characters who exist over at DC:

The Marvel universe works because the Marvel universe grew organically, and it grew out of the creative vision of Stan [Lee] and Jack [Kirby] and Steve Ditko and Larry Lieber and a small, small, small handful of guys. All right? Whereas other universes tend to be very ad hoc. That’s why the DC universe is never going to be as strong a shared universe as the Marvel universe, because the DC universe—and it’s not to pick, it’s just a statement of fact—the DC universe was created out of properties that coexisted for 50 years before they met. Frankly, there’s not a whole lot of difference between putting Green Arrow and Captain Marvel in the same story as there is putting Calvin and Hobbes and Mary Worth in the same story because they’re both comic strips. Whereas the Marvel universe, they created organically.

In fact, it’s very clear that Ross and Kreuger are heavily influenced by Jack Kirby’s work. The first Marvel character to appear is the Machine Man, Aaron Stack, X-51, from Kirby’s adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The index rather pointedly refers to him as “the last hero Kirby created for Marvel Comics”, so the focus on Machine Man seems to be intended to draw attention to Kirby’s work.

ex-X-men?

ex-X-men?

Indeed, Earth X leans rather heavily on the countless science-fiction subcultures that Kirby created. Reed Richards initially believes that the strange mutation that has affected mankind is rooted in Wakanda, the home of the Black Panther. The Inhumans play a large part. When the X-Men are reformed, they aren’t trained by any of the post-Kirby X-Men characters. Scott Summers plays a vital role in preparing them for the coming conflict. The story eventually hinges on the Celestials from Kirby’s Eternals saga.

In fact, Krueger and Ross even find time to reference Kirby’s “Him!”, the character that caused so much friction between Lee and Kirby on Fantastic Four #66-67. Kirby had intended the character to be an ubermensch character, a parody of Randian Objectivism. Lee wrote the dialogue to make him a generic monster. The disagreement was arguably at the root of Kirby’s decision to eventually depart Marvel, and explains why his creations after that point were less creative or inventive.

Going out in a blade of glory...

Going out in a blade of glory…

Ross and Krueger clearly side with Kirby in this debate, making a point to reimagine the character in his tiny appearance, telling us the cocooned monster was “a new form of humanity… a future form. This new creation, unlike yourself, X-51, looked upon his creators. Looked upon their greed and cowardice and deemed that they were not good.” It’s a scene that doesn’t really have much to do with anything, except serving as proof that the pair know their Marvel history and are intent on tying it all up together.

And that’s the problem with Earth X. Everything exists purely to be tied up. It’s not so much a story and more an oral history reimaging the Marvel universe. Even X-51 acknowledges this half-way through the first issue. “You’ve yet to show me anything that has to do with humanity,” he states. “Not really.” The story itself is very clearly secondary to all this tapestry-weaving, to the point where the plot could be summed up in a couple of lines.

He's got to bolt...

He’s got to bolt…

As an aside, it’s also interesting to note that non-Kirby creations don’t tend to come off too well in Earth X. In particular, the characters who tended to be popular during the nineties comics boom are made to look quite pathetic. While Scott Summers is cast as a hero, Wolverine is portrayed as a cynical slob. Overweight, he seems to have retired to a life of drinking and watching television. When his wife (who appears to be Jean Grey) complains that he has gained weight, he makes a crack about “Slim” Summers, and remarks, “I thought you wanted a real man.”

The Punisher is absent here, but his emblem is adopted by the new Red Skull, a nihilistic teenager who has the power to bend minds to his will and recreate reality in his image. It feels like a rather on-the-nose parody of nineties excess. The new Daredevil, who may or may not be the old Ghost Rider, is a masochist who seems to get off on pain and suffering. Towards the end, he reveals that he can’t feel anything at all.

No skull involved...

No skull involved…

Still, there’s a rake of interesting stuff here. Even if the story itself feels like it’s just a convenient vehicle for Ross and Krueger to hang their crazy theories on, some of those theories and insights are actually quite astute. Even if the reader doesn’t entirely agree with some of the observations, it is quite clear that Krueger and Ross have put a great deal of thought into who these characters are and how they work.

For example, the pair suggest that love is ultimately what separates Reed Richards from his arch-foe, Victor Von Doom. When Sue dies, Reed locks himself up in Doom’s old castle, uses his Doombots to run the country and even takes to wearing his old enemy’s old armour. Later on, trying to get Cerebra to work, Reed literally stretches and contorts his own mind in order to make his brain compatible with the device.

Closing in to seal your Doom...

Closing in to seal your Doom…

I also quite like the theories the book proposes around the Asgardians, pitching them as conceptual shape-shifters. “The Asgardians are wanderers…. and largely uncatalogued by the Watchers,” we’re told. “What is known is that they descended from a race of shape-shifters.” Apparently they adapt to their environment, “like a spore that might grow with differing characteristics depending on the soil from which it germinates.”

“These beings became immortal… because that is what they were believed to be. They were believes to live beyond the clouds… and so that is where they resided.” I’ve always loved books like Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers, which explore Asgard as a realm of stories and fictions. This explains the significance of Loki in the Marvel universe. As a god of lies, his own reality is especially fragile and prone to distort or evolve. Perhaps that’s why he was so instrumental in the formation of the Avengers, a new modern mythology.

A bit of a stretch...

A bit of a stretch…

One can see the hints of quite a few other Marvel stories scattered throughout Earth X. Some are faint echoes of classic tales, and others are the seeds of ideas that would germinate under different circumstances. For example, Krueger and Ross offer a world where Norman Osborn is a massive political power, years before Dark Reign. Discussing the Hulk, Uatu suggests that a split into two entities is the logical conclusion of the “leave Hulk alone!” train of though. “It was seeking independence from its host. It desired identity and form of its own.” Jason Aaron would make that literal during his run on The Incredible Hulk.

I like the story’s portrayal of Tony Stark as the last human inside his armour. “In his own way, though, Tony Stark has also lost his humanity,” X-51 comments. While attempts to contextualise his life in terms of some greater purpose feel a little awkward, given that one of the appeals of Tony Stark is how random his life is and how prone he is to failure, Earth X does interestingly contrast him against Reed Richards. “I think that’s the difference between us, Reed,” he states towards the end. “You always knew what you wanted to do. Exactly what you were trying to create. I had only a vague idea of what I was aiming for.”

Man of Iron...

Man of Iron…

The series also hits upon another contrast that wouldn’t be properly developed until Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man run, comparing Tony Stark to Norman Osborn. Of course, Stark has loads of industrialist bad guys, but Osborn is probably the most iconic evil industrialist in the shared Marvel universe. And they were both disfigured by their work, while dealing with their demons. Comparing them makes a great contrast.

At one point, the Vision criticises Stark’s involvement and association with the President. “Osborn’s riches are drenched with innocent blood. His efforts have caused death around the world.” Stark responds, rather astutely, “As have mine. Are you forgetting the events that led to Iron Man’s birth?” It’s a nice contrast, and a shrewd way of playing the two off one another.

Glow and behold...

Glow and behold…

Other attempts at development or clarification feel a little clumsy. For example, Earth X tries to explain why Magneto would call his associates the Brotherhood of Evil mutants. The answer is obvious. The version of Magneto created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby was a two-dimensional megalomaniac. The more nuanced portrayal of the character didn’t come about until Chris Claremont was writing him. Unfortunately, Earth X is unwilling to gloss over the point. That would mean that this whole Marvel universe wasn’t cohesive, after all.

“Why would Magnus call his Brotherhood ‘Evil’?” X-51 asks. “If he thought he was in the right… why the moral indicative?” Uatu responds, “He forced Xavier into the role of being Magnus’ moral barometer… of being judge over mutantkind… and morality has always been the greatest basis for prejudice.” It seems like a rather metaphysical and philosophical position for a guy who was introduced stealing nuclear weapons and bragging about how evil he was.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

It’s at points like this that Earth X goes a little too far, and the strain begins to show. There is an obvious cohesion to the Marvel universe, but tying everything together is a Herculean and an impossible task. Krueger and Ross are two very smart and very capable writers, but this over-arching narrative can only stretch so far. Earth X works as a thought experiment, and it’s intriguing to watch the pair try to rope everything together.

However, there’s a point where it just strains too heavily, where it seems like cleverness for the sake of cleverness, where the goal isn’t to enhance any individual aspect, or even the story, but to create the illusion that this is all one big story. It’s obviously incredibly subjective, and it obviously depends on the reader’s taste, but there is a point where it feels like Earth X isn’t even a story, just a collection of connections.

A Capstone...

A Capstone…

That’s not to say that some aren’t clever. I like the idea that most of the mad scientists obsessed with evolution in the Marvel universe are essentially driven by the same biological imperative. Discussing the High Evolutionary, Uatu notes, “Like many of your kind whose celestial seed was not planted deep enough in their subconscious, Wyndham was plagued by the dream that mankind was destined to be more than it was.” Given how often the theme of evolution is used, it makes sense.

I also like the idea that Krueger and Ross firmly reject the notion that Marvel superheroes are simply the next generation of gods. That is probably true of DC’s iconic pantheon, as Grant Morrison suggested during his JLA run, but Marvel heroes are typically defined by their humanity more than any potential godhood. “I had first believed the Celestial plan was to recreate man in their own image – to make men into Celestials,” X-51 tells Reed. “But I was wrong.”

Howling on the moon...

Howling on the moon…

He explains, “We’re glorified microbes, protecting not a planet, but a future celestial.” There is a bit of a problem here. The main appeal of these Marvel heroes is the fact that so many are underdogs or “little guys” working for some small greater good, often against overwhelming odds. Tying them all together as part of some sweeping epic with some grander purpose undermines that slightly.

Still, perhaps the references to how these superheroes are but “insects” in the greater scheme of things is the story’s best reference to Spider-Man, who feels a little marginalised in Earth X. Indeed, the character’s minor role supports the feeling that this is a story primarily driven by Kirby characters like Captain America, Reed Richards, Black Bolt, the Celestials.

Guess who's coming to dinner...

Guess who’s coming to dinner…

Of course, it isn’t just Kirby. Krueger and Ross, for example, make sure to rehabilitate John Byrne’s infamous justification of Galactus in his Trial of Galactus arc in Fantastic Four. Byrne had suggested that Galactus was a necessary evil, which was a bit of a weak argument for a genocidal force of nature. Here, Ross and Krueger qualify that a bit. “Keeping the Celestials from over-breeding was his mission,” we’re informed, which makes a bit more sense.

I also like that Krueger and Ross confirm that the marvel universe is essentially powered by imagination, with the higher beings becoming whatever we imagine them to be. Indeed, Reed is able to use comic book logic to save the day, by essentially retconning Galactus. “Reed’s making it true by suggesting to Galactus that this is what’s believed about him,” we’re true, suggesting that Reed saved the world using the power of retroactive continuity.

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

As you might expect, Earth X suffers a little from being overstuffed. While Jean Paul Leon’s art is wonderfully moody and well-suited to an apocalyptic Marvel universe, it isn’t always as clear as it should be, and the book occasionally assumes that we know every minor Marvel character ever. For example, there’s a rather wonderful gag that involves sending the werewolf John Jameson to the moon, but I had to read the index in order to make out who the character was and why he was transforming into something. It also took me a few minutes to realise that the Red Skull was sitting inside a hallowed out M.O.D.O.K., which is another neat visual gag.

Earth X isn’t an incredible or essential story. It’s more of a grand sweeping theory of the Marvel universe from two people who clearly know it and love it well. It’s hard to recommend as a narrative on its own terms, but it is an interesting theoretical experiment, and attempt to tie everything together, even if it’s clear that not everything was designed to fit.

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