Think of me instead as a watchman
Rereading Earth X by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, John Paul Leon and Bill Reinhold.
In the quarter-century since the Dark Age of comics and the graphic novel revolution, my tastes have changed. Realism is no longer something I look for. Superheroes are pretty much played out. The whole seriousness that I demanded from comics, that grim-set jaw, now seems silly. Half the comics I thought were serious were silly; The Dark Knight Returns is having fun with the vocabulary and grammar of action movies, not trying to be the ultimate one. All the black-and-white indie stuff I eschewed back then is now where I feel the life of comics.
Given the above, I’ve had a hard time understanding why I like Earth X so much. Because its all the things I believe myself to have grown out of: laser-eyed serious superhero opera, cemented with revisionism, the heart of the plot the old boring debates about whether heroes should kill retrodden again. The reverence for slick painted textures that obsessed the early 90s is right here. And the stern explanations, the rationalisations of old continuity errors and half-thought out superhero powers, crowd every page. The engine of the book is exposition. Every chapter except the first and the last begins with two double-page spreads focusing on a particular hero or group of heroes overlaid with captions, an exposition conversation giving their themes, motives, their serious place on serious earth. There’s an explanation, for example, of why Magneto called his team the Brotherhood of Evil if he believed himself to be in the right. I hand over to the Watcher: “IN CLAIMING TO BE EVIL, MAGNETO FORCED XAVIER AND HIS X-MEN INTO THE POSITION OF THE OPPOSITE POLARITY… THAT OF BEING GOOD. HE FORCED XAVIER INTO THE ROLE OF BEING MAGNUS’S MORAL BAROMETER… OF BEING JUDGE OVER MUTANTKIND… AND MORALITY HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE GREATEST BASIS FOR PREJUDICE.” Got that?
So we’ve got a 14-issue series based on designs which sent the early 90s Wizard readers crazy in which the opening four pages of every issue could be stuck straight into a new Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Handbook, and the closing few pages are B&W text pieces tying up continuity loose ends in this everything-rationalised future universe. Which hits on another personal problem I should have with it: I’ve never been a Marvel guy. Sure, Miller’s Daredevil and Elektra, sure, the Walt Simonson Thor, and yeah, I followed X-Men and X-Factor and New Mutants for a couple of years and I’ll always defend the Nocenti-Romita Jr Daredevil run. But I don’t know the universe like I know the DC universe; I don’t know or have any affection for the minor players, the history of the heroes and their sidekicks and their villains. In a comic where the chief activity is raking 30 years of continuity into nice straight lines, that should be enough to kill my interest.
But instead I’ve read and reread Earth X. It was one of the first comics I downloaded, back when it wasn’t easily available, because I’d been intrigued by the covers and the concept. Last year I bought a copy, admitting to myself that this was a comic I admired and enjoyed, something I’d read again and again and likely would read again and again. After escaping from under the crushing weight of superhero universes taking themselves completely seriously 20 years ago, I’ve allowed myself to slip back under. It should have been Kingdom Come that got me like this, full of my guys and references I get and objectively better written, not so slow and without all that exposition caption sawdust in the thunderously ponderous gears, but instead it’s Earth X. Why?
Well, partly it’s the way it began. Rather than an attempt to say something about modern comics or a homage to the comics past the creators loved, Earth X began as a sketchbook. Or not even that: a few sketches by Alex Ross in Wizard, one of which was a fat Spider-Man, Peter Parker bulging out of his costume at the midriff. Then came more sketches, published as a bound-in comic. Ben Grimm as a blue-collar Brooklyn dad with twin orange rocky boys, the Brothers Grimm. The Hulk as an ape in a nappy ridden by an eight-year-old Bruce Banner. Reed Richards old, bearded, riven with regret and wearing the armour and robes of Doctor Doom. Tony Stark reduced to an old man commanding a million machines. Thor as a woman. Machine Man as X-51, a transparent assemblage of circuitry. Scott Summers as a bony middle-aged man with a combover surrounded by a freakshow. Captain America as a gladiator in rags. I don’t have the original Wizards – I never read a Wizard in my life – so I don’t know at what point writer Jim Krueger became involved, when the characters changed from being visual conceptions to servants of a plot. For me, the strength of the project comes from the fact that, like the Marvel and DC universes, it was put together on the fly. Characters were created first, whether new versions of old ones like Captain America, riffs on Marvel’s history like the Skull, or actual newcomers like the Iron Maiden and the unkillable Daredevil, and only afterwards did the difficult work of slotting them all into one story begin. Testimony seems to show that this is how Marvel began: Kirby and Ditko creating the killer visuals and Stan Lee weaving a story around them. It works just as well as it ever did.
The primacy of the visual side of the storytelling, the beguiling charm of these jarring takes on familiar icons, makes the story endearingly goofy as well. Machine Man is there because Alex Ross and Jim Krueger think he’s great, but he’s a left-field choice of narrator and it only gets odder from there. Texas Jack Muldoon, an adventuring millionaire from Kirby’s Captain America run, plays a significant role. So does John Jameson, the Man-Wolf. There’s no real reason, in terms of plot, for Thor to be a woman and there’s no reason at all for Hulk to be the way he is. The new Daredevil gets a bunch of mordant one-liners about his death wish but plays no real role in the story. Neither does Scott Summers, Mr S, and his band of X-Men which bring the team visually back to their original conception, mutants that actually look weird rather than hot models in fetish gear. Wolverine, now a fat, hairy couchbound beast, appears in a thread which never touches the main story and ends up as a one-liner, a cheap joke at his expense. Of the two main drivers of plot, one is a long-winded investigation of how everyone on Earth has become a superpowered mutant led by those perennial second-stringers, the Inhumans. Black Bolt never speaks and Medusa’s a wife first and a protagonist second. They’re not natural leads. (And that world full of superhumans? Forget about it. It’s the backdrop of a couple of crowd scenes, never explored.) The other plotline, the Skull’s takeover of America, is much more traditional comics complete with Cap wrestling with his conscience. But neither is really vital. Both are there, really, to give the thing some forward impetus, the illusion of a story. The explaining’s the thing.
The Watcher explains the Marvel universe to Machine Man. In the first issue he explains all that First Wave, Second Wave, Deviants, Eternals stuff that makes up its history. But he strives toward more. The early 90s were the era of explanations and rationalisations. Over at DC, the entertaining-enough Invasion crossover invented the metagene to justify the sheer number of superhumans in that universe. The Earth X explanation – it occurs to me now that maybe the X stands for Xplanation or Xposition – is that the Earth is womb to a Celestial, and the superhumans and mutants were created to protect it from the wearing and constant alien threats. It’s beautifully simple and makes sense of all kinds of stories. And the metanarrative is well-delivered, the X-51/Watcher dialogues both convincing and readable, interrupted at just the right time and parcelling up revelations neatly in tandem with what’s happening on Earth. It’s as slick a get-out for a universe as anything Alan Moore’s ever written, Supreme’s lovely reality-revisions included.
Alex Ross provided not just sketches but full art for his other epic 90s projects, Marvels and Kingdom Come. I don’t know if Earth X would have worked as well if he’d done so here. Folds in clothes and light sources and models and all, he still represents a particular brand of realism; the ordinary made heroic, the American as God. This isn’t ultimately a heroic story. Mankind survives by dogged persistence, by underhand tactics, by refusing to fulfil its destiny. So John Paul Leon’s dark, craggy art fits it far better. It’s not a dark world or universe, it’s not Manichean, but it is one where light resolves itself from darkness. The new characters and costumes are served far better by being glimpsed than being delineated like a new line of action figures. It reminds me of Steve Yeowell’s art for Phase Three of Zenith, depicting a crowded battle against the apocalypse as a mass rather than individuals. And the crowded narrative, so much to tell you, means that full-pages and double-pages are rare and powerful: Galactus vs the Celestials doesn’t even get one, the blind Watcher earns his.
I thought, for a while, reading it on a PC monitor issue by issue the first time, that I’d missed stuff. That the things I didn’t understand were either continuity references I failed to get or plot elements I’d forgotten. Rereading, actually no. There are things included that seem important that go nowhere. There are questions unanswered: what’s under Black Bolt’s mask when Medusa looks? Most importantly, how does deus ex machina Franklin Richards come to believe he’s Galactus on the other side of the galaxy? The plotting isn’t all neat. And the sequels, Universe X and Paradise X, slip over the line and become incomprehensible continuity porn. I read both and barely remember a thing in them. Part of Earth X’s charm is the wholesale discarding of characters that didn’t have new visuals or didn’t fit its plot. Universe X has barely begun when it’s telling us the deeper purpose of the Microverse and Man-Thing.
Post-Watchmen comics, now we’re almost 30 years post-Watchmen, have got themselves a bad name. Typified by a vigilante character losing his family in horrible circumstances and turning into a torturer and killer along Rorschach lines, grim and gritty, they’re an unloved little genre. The much-mocked Rise of Arsenal, where a former Green Arrow and Teen Titan kills thugs, uses drugs and suffers impotence is a recent example.
But Earth X is a far better example of a comic that tries to emulate Watchmen’s success. It copies the format: open with a title card, close the story with a literary quote, finish with a B&W section. It copies the seriousness, the humourlessness, the dressing of once-colourful heroes in literal and moral darkness. And it copies the original premise. Before the proposal with the Charlton characters, and before they were ruled off-limits and new characters were created instead, Watchmen was about Archie’s Mighty Crusaders line. The basic idea was to take a closed system, a universe, and end it; provide the finality which vanishingly few superhero stories, up to that point, had ever had. And though the universe was much larger and the ending much more epic, cosmic, that’s what Earth X does. It doesn’t imitate Watchmen’s techniques, nor its tone or its style. But it uses the same first principle to create a polyphonic song of closure, a hymn of ending.
Earth X by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, John Paul Leon and Bill Reinhold was printed as Earth X #0-#X and is available in the trade paperback Earth X.