A Comic Book Entry – A Square Peg in a Round Hole

Or, “Read as the blogger stretches a metaphor to its utmost limits of usability.”

I wanted to expand this criticism to more media than comic books, but I think comic books have this particular issue more than other media due to the shared universe nature of comic books.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase, “trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.”  This usually refers to an individual who feels they simply don’t fit in the world around them.  From the point of view of the square peg, it is a perfectly fine device meant to fit things together.  It is not the fault of the peg that the hole that needs to be filled is a circle, and therefore it doesn’t fit.  The square peg can be forced into the round hole, of course, but it still doesn’t really fit.

There are certain stories, especially in comic books, that I think are square pegs in round holes.  Those stories, in and of themselves, may actually be quite good on most levels – good characterization, good pacing, snappy dialogue, and all that.  But when the story is viewed within the context of the world, somehow it just doesn’t quite fit after all.  Generally this breaks down to two issues:
1) The characters, while well-written, are not right for that kind of story; i.e., the characters are the square pegs (perfectly fine in and of themselves) but the story is the round hole.
2) The story, while well-written, does not fit into the larger context of the universe; i.e., the story is the square peg (perfectly fine when viewed in an isolated setting) but the universe is the round hole.

Of course, there are other issues with comic books that can complicate this criticism.  As I’ve said before, everyone creates their own amalgams of characters based on what they’ve read.  So in the case of a character-peg, Person A and Person B may differ on whether or not they view the character as a square peg or a round peg.  The context of a comic book universe is also subject to the amalgam theory (and reboots and retcons make that amalgam even messier).

My specific example is X-Factor, from the time it was re-started/rebooted as “X-Factor Investigations” to the end of this latest story-arc.  Basically, for most of the latest run of X-Factor (since 2005), they’ve been involved in the usual mutant stuff – mutant persecution, government conspiracies, time travel, and cross-overs with other story-arcs (typical of most X-Factor comics).  However, there were a few seemingly odd stories here and there involving magic (like Pip the Troll [who was not originally magic] getting kidnapped by Hel).  Now, I’m not going to argue that heroes have to stick with villains solely of their own origin.  The X-men have on various occasions dealt with magic (and Magik) and it’s not a bad way to shake things up a bit.  But, in general, the X-men, and indeed any non-mage, is quite bad at dealing with magic in the Marvel universe.

Tangent time!  Concerning the cosmology of the Marvel universe (or at least my amalgam of it) – Magic in the Marvel universe is not easy or common.  Humans are pretty much the only race that ever gets mentioned that really has anything to do with magic (and the Atlanteans).  Pretty much every other advanced species in the galaxy progressed through technology (the Dire Wraiths being one very dangerous and notable example).

The most prominent magical character is of course Stephen Strange who has been at various times the Sorcerer Supreme, which is the most powerful magic user in the entire dimension (that’s right, the whole danged universe, not just Earth).  There are few other major magic users such as Brother Voodoo and Doctor Druid (or were; I’m fairly certain both are now dead) and a few more minor magic users scattered here and there.  Some martial arts, such as what was taught to Iron Fist, are mystical in nature.  The entire island of England is magical, and Brian Braddock is probably King Arthur, and Merlin probably still interferes because he’s a jerk like that.  But for all that, when there is magical trouble in the universe, Dr. Strange is pretty much the guy who has to handle it.  I’ll also point out (to be pedantic) that Dr. Strange’s favorite “secret” Defenders are the Hulk, the Silver Surfer, and Namor, who are absolutely in no way magical beings themselves.  Brute force of any type can be effective when dealing with magic in the Marvel universe (but even the Hulk cannot punch out Dormamuu).  Non-magical types (not working directly for Dr. Strange) do get mixed up with magic on occasion, and it tends to go badly.  The X-men did end the Inferno, true, but not because of magic as such.  They ended it because they knew more about how computers functioned than N’astirh did.

So, back to X-Factor.  Up until the run called “Breaking Points,” X-Factor had been what I expected – a dark and edgy (see, I’m okay with it some times!) comic about a group of mutants primarily concerned with the kinds of mutant affairs no one else was interested in (i.e., generally X-Factor).  Most of the stories supported this context, including Layla Miller ending up in the Bishop’s dystopian future.  Layla and Jamie Maddrox even got the same facial tattoos Bishop has (the ones marking them as mutants).  Layla herself is a character that was created during the “House of M” story (which is about a world without mutants) and inserted herself onto the X-Factor team so they wouldn’t learn the truth about the House of M fallout (I.e, no more mutants, at least until the executives at Marvel decided to reboot the world again).  Basically, everything about X-Factor was mutant-focused and somewhat narrow in scope (not world-changing events).

Then there was the “Breaking Points” storyline (by the way, I think even reading the summary in Wikipedia makes the following storyline seem out of place even if the reader is not really up on X-Factor).  Not to bore you with the details if you haven’t read it and aren’t interested and SPOILER ALERT if you are…
but Wolfsbane left the team and ended up pregnant by her dead prince werewolf lover (she met him as the result of a New Mutants field trip to Asgard waaaay back when), Darwin ended up half-absorbing/adapting to the power of Hel which directly linked him to death and magic (and left the team), Strong Guy died and was resurrected without a soul (and left the team), and Banshee II (Siryn) became the new Morrigan (and obviously left the team).  Wolfsbane gave birth to her werewolf son by throwing him up and abandoned him in the woods to be cared for by Jack Russell (no, I am not making that up; Jack Russell is a magical werewolf) and re-joined the team.  Then a storyline started called “War in Hell” in which Wolfsbane goes back after her son and finds out every magical thing in existence is out to kill him (also, this breaks Rule 11).  The key plot point is that whoever kills Wolfsbane’s son will rule all the death gods.  This leaves the X-Factor team to literally take on all the legions of Hell.  In the end, Strong Guy of all people kills the kid and becomes ruler of Mephisto’s realm.

Color me gobsmacked.  Magic?  Demons?  What the hell?!

Maybe this is exactly how many X-Men fans felt back when Claremont started on the Inferno storyline.  I wasn’t phased by the Inferno because I picked up the comics long past their issue date and was already somewhat familiar with the history of the X-Men.  Also, Claremont had/has kind of a reputation for writing somewhat ill-fitting stories just to see what would happen.  However, X-Factor, for the most part, has not had much to do with magic at all.  And as someone who has followed X-Factor investigations, for Peter David to say that “Breaking Points” was the culmination of all previous X-Factor arcs (and as the head writer, he ought to know), I still say, “What the hell?!”  Or, to go back to my metaphor, this feels to me like hammering the square peg of the mutant-centered X-Factor into the round hole of the narrow world of magic.

A quick internet search reveals this comic has won several awards and many people like it, and for the most part I don’t disagree.  I like the writing.  I like the dialogue and pacing and the art isn’t too bad (the artist has some trouble with noses though).  But this last big magic storyline just feels like the whole idea went right off the rails to me.  I think the storyline is fine but that X-Factor was the wrong comic for it.  This, to me, is as incongruous a turn for this comic as a Dr. Strange comic that has him fighting demons and monsters all that and then suddenly have save the world by donning an Iron Man suit and the writer saying, “Yeah, I meant to do that.”  It sounds kind of like a cool idea, and maybe even the execution is good, but the whole idea just doesn’t work for Dr. Strange.  Or, because Batman, it’s like a storyline where Batman has to bust out an eldritch tome and start flinging fireballs.  Sure, it might sound cool, but it seems out of place (possibly Batman has done this; I’m not as up on DC).

I’m not sure I want to continue watching what I perceive to be a writer hammering a square peg into a round hole.  The writing is good, the characters are good, the dialogue is snappy, and Peter David probably won’t continue with this magical shake-up.  Or he might.  I don’t know.  Maybe in a few decades time, this won’t be any more incongruous to a fan than Inferno was to me.  But right now,   no matter how many times I re-read this particular storyline, it still doesn’t fit.


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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

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