There are a couple elements that have been cropping up lately in X-Men comics. One, the “cast of thousands” principle has seen storylines guided by huge casts. Two, old obnoxiously powerful villains are being dusted off to make dramatic returns, most notably Legion in New Mutants. Three, the annuals are crossing over with other books to form event arcs just to the left of what’s happening in the main books. What this says to me is not so much “2011,” though, as “1991.”
The early 90s created some of the most memorable and widely-read comics in the X-Men’s history, for better or for worse. So which one was this week’s forgotten event — Kings of Pain?
In the late 80s, Marvel had some success running enormous mega-crossovers as roughly annual events — annual in the sense of their frequency, and in where they happened. Using the company’s annuals was advantageous for a couple reasons: it meant that everyone with an ongoing series could be used without actually disrupting the series; it provided spaces for an effective company-wide primer for new readers or ones looking to explore the other corners of the universe; and finally, annuals had higher cover prices and usually used less well-known (and thus less well-paid) artists, making them more cost-effective. (Atlantis Attacks featured the Marvel debut of one Rob Liefeld, for example.) Marvel only did two of these — The Evolutionary War and Atlantis Attacks — and DC later co-opted the format for Armageddon 2001, Eclipso: The Darkness Within, Bloodlines, and probably some stuff I’m forgetting.
After Atlantis Attacks, for whatever reason, Marvel opted to scale down. Rather than doing one huge mega-arc that involved everyone in the Marvel Universe (and thus was likely a logistical nightmare), they began doing smaller events spread across three or four annuals apiece. These stories were usually linked up by title; in 1991, for example, the three Spider-Man titles’ annuals formed the three-part Vibranium Vendetta, while the Avengers-related books launched into Subterranean Wars. The X-Men, meanwhile, got Kings of Pain.
Sort of, anyway. The X-Men as they stood in 1991 don’t actually appear in this story; for those of you looking for that rare X-Men story where Wolverine doesn’t even appear once(!), seek no longer. Storm, Colossus, Psylocke, Gambit… nope, nope, nope, nope. This was near the end of Chris Claremont’s epic (and epically diffuse) run on the X-Men, and no doubt everyone in the main cast was tangled up in something or other. We have to settle for, well, just about everyone else at that point in the X-Universe: the New Mutants (soon to become X-Force), X-Factor (soon to rejoin the X-Men), and Moira MacTaggert’s de facto Muir Island-based X-Men team (soon to become nothing). We also get the New Warriors, then still a rookie prospect (more or less), because the arc’s writer, Fabian Nicieza, was also handling their book at the time.
On the one hand, this isn’t so bad. Though New Mutants was one of Marvel’s hottest books — this was between the end of that series and the launch of X-Force, capturing the team in a somewhat transitional phase — it’s easy to see them as the B-team. Likewise X-Factor, who despite containing the five original X-Men, were not the X-Men. The New Warriors had a couple mutant characters to provide a tenuous connection, and Moira’s team was relevant to the Muir Island Saga unfolding in the main books at the time. Everything more or less fits together, it’s just missing the marquee players, Cable excepted (remember, it was 1991).
On the other hand, this just wasn’t the right story for that. It hinges on the return of Proteus, Moira MacTaggert’s insane, reality-destroying mutant son. As Cyclops himself notes in the last part of the story, he was the only person present who’d ever fought Proteus before. Okay, so? People fight new villains all the time; the Joker’s traveled to Metropolis once or twice in his life, you know? Unfortunately, Proteus is such a big deal — something the story itself belabors considerably — that the “real” X-Men’s absence just comes across as baffling. We’re never even given a concrete explanation of why they can’t come help defeat the guy who almost destroyed the All-New, All-Different team on one of their most dangerous missions, just that they’re busy, or something. It’s like watching an episode of SVU where a criminal has it out for Stabler and Benson and we spend the entire episode with him pitted against Munch and Fin, because the other two are “busy.” (To those of you who don’t watch SVU: imagine that I made an analogy using a show you do watch.)Continued below
Kings of Pain doesn’t do everything wrong, but it’s definitely a one step forward, one step back kind of process. Unlike some of these “cast of thousands” stories, it makes some effort to make the snowballing cast seem natural. It starts off with the New Mutants investigating an attack on the X-Terminators(!); their investigation brings them into contact with the New Warriors; after the customary fight scene the two teams head to Muir Island to stop Proteus; while those three groups fail to contain Proteus, X-Factor comes running in as the cavalry.
On the other hand, the antagonists (Proteus included) are so poorly defined as to hinder the story. We spend most of the time following the fight against Harness and Piecemeal, a pair of mutants who go around being unpleasant and sucking up residual Proteus-energy (Piecemeal being a small boy who is actively harmed by the use of his powers, Harness not really giving a crap). AIM and some company called “Genetech” (who I believe hail from the New Warriors’ series) are involved, but beyond their plans to re-constitute Proteus, we’re given no reason to care. It could be that they’re just trying to revive an insane reality-manipulator for no concrete reason, but that’s not super-interesting as a comic book story. Finally, it turns out in the end that this whole thing is a chess game between two shady characters soon to become thorns in X-Force’s side. Naturally, once X-Force’s book started up, this story was never mentioned again and those two secret masters were never shown to have anything further to do with one another.
I’ll be up front and share that I’m not really that into the 90s phase of the X-Men continuum. I gobbled it up as a kid, but looking back at it as an adult, I feel sort of ashamed of myself. Kings of Pain is a clinic in everything adult-me dislikes about that whole period. There’s a poorly-defined antagonist (who is naturally a pawn of an even more poorly-defined antagonist), twisty continuity that’s as fun to crawl through as razor wire, quips in place of characterization, melodramatic monologues in which characters declaim their soap-opera blues… blah, blah, blah. It’s not my thing, and there’s not even great art to make up for it: we get Guang Yap, Mark Bagley in full-on rush mode, a young Tom Raney (whose backgrounds conspicuously vanish halfway through), and Terry Shoemaker turning in far from his best pencils. The only visually striking thing about the whole crossover is the set of covers by Mike Mignola, giving the story a visual representation that makes it seem both more cosmic and more grotesque than the interiors bear out.
Kings of Pain‘s ultimate purpose (beyond ‘give the X-Men annuals something to do’) is that of a Message Comic, which probably contributed to its fading from memory. The X-Men are as familiar to heavy-handed moralizing as a fish is to water, but here the pathos are exceptionally thick. The 1990s hold a treasure trove of stories that use societal problems involving children to yank at the readers’ heartstrings and make them think they’ve read something more profound than they did. Children brought guns to school in, by my estimate, 15% of all Batman stories published between 1991 and 1997. (I base that statistic on absolutely nothing.) Tons of heroes inserted themselves into abusive domestic situations, often to learn a bitter lesson of some sort about life or whatever.
In these Message Comics, the brass ring was child abuse. Kings of Pain shows how to grab for that brass ring and then absolutely fail to make any kind of coherent, intelligent point. That Harness abuses Piecemeal is terrible — of course it is! — but we’re given no insight into the problem other than “Harness is a psycho.” While beating up kids can rarely be considered a sane and rational choice, casting Harness as a generic maniac does nothing to actually address the problem of child abuse constructively. “Sorry, kid: we know it sucks — see, we said as much in this comic! — but whoever’s beating you up is, in fact, just plain crazy and there’s nothing that can be really done about it.”
The muddled way Kings of Pain deals with a serious topic like abuse becomes even more baffling by the story’s resolution. Piecemeal and Proteus, merged into a gestalt being, are overcome with rage, shame, loneliness, and other aspects of the angst and depression that came from abuse. The way the heroes save the world from being consumed by the merged being’s anger is to convince it to kill itself. They debate the ethics of it beforehand, but the end result as a narrative is still the same: “abused and psychologically damaged children lash out at the world, and the only way to fix it is for them to off themselves.” This seems like an especially poor choice of ending — while villain-suicide drama has been done well elsewhere, the juxtaposition of this with the abuse stuff shifts Kings of Pain from generic action-movie territory to something distinctly nihilistic and unpleasant.
So maybe it’s best left crossed-out.