On Christmas Day 2013, my brother gave me a booster pack of random, non-sequential issues from a variety of popular comic book titles that syndicated in the late eighties to mid nineties. The nineties was a time of groundbreaking work in the comic community that gave birth to the age of modern comics. Sometimes, not so much. These are snapshots of the industry at its best and worst. This is Brian’s Comic Book Grab Bag.
The Man Called A-X Volume 1 #3
Writer – Marv Wolfman
Penciler – Shawn McManus
Inker – Shawn McManus
Letterer – Todd Klein
I read an article a month or so ago that gave me chills, touting the arrival of the world’s first official cyborg. Some likely continued their browsing, unaware of the implications of what this means for humanity, equating it to an advanced prosthesis. I understood it as a cosmetic augmentation, similar to the prosthetic implants featured in Masamune Shirow’s cyberpunk property, Ghost in the Shell. Nevertheless, Neil Harbisson’s experimental headgear has expanded his sensory range beyond that available to humans. He is a cyborg in the most classical sense because of the biomechanical integration between his organic body and the inorganic parts grafted onto it.
The greater issue at stake is the definition of being human. What qualities render a human? How does Harbisson’s augmented perception advance him beyond normal human categories?
The fascination with automatons in the Early Modern period is proof that humans have desired to transcend their fleshly limitations for some time. Science fiction also reimagines man through the use of cybernetics, though a clear boundary between the early 20th and late 20th century is evidence for the growing cynicism directed toward utopianism. Antiquated mindsets glamorized the luddite aversion towards progress, while pessimistic postmoderns have philosophized the drawbacks of giving our lives over to the machines we have made. From this has spread a whole genre of apocalyptic narratives that showcase the downfall of man at the hands of autonomous machines. Still, the sense of wonder that automatons imbue within the common folk has gone unchallenged. There is something morbidly intriguing about the prospects of an artificial being gaining autonomy, if not sentience. How does that change who we are, when technology begins to define humans more than humans define technology? Is Harbisson still considered “human” with the aid of his implants? What if he was to remove his legs, arms, and spine, to replace them with implants and manufactured components? Would Harbisson still be a human if his body was made by Nissan or Mitsubishi?
The Man Called A-X is one of many creative properties of the 90s intent on grappling with the issue of self and identity in light of the advancing computerization of society. James Cameron’s Terminator 2 had just released only 3 years before, with The Matrix Trilogy to follow 5 years later. Of course all these properties owe homage to William Gibson and Phillip K. Dick who foresaw these visionary dystopian landscapes decades earlier with alarming accuracy. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the coup de grace of science fiction film, advanced a dizzying introspective look into the relationship between mind, body, and artificial intelligence with his “replicants” and their hunter Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford). (Whether or not Deckard is actually a replicant remains one of the film’s alluring mysteries.) A-X’s plot follows the same path as the aforementioned properties, only with simpler ideas, enmeshed in worn tropes.
In the same vein of Universal Soldier, A-X is the remnant of the US armed forces, only his body has been stolen from him by criminals to act as a living weapon. Upon waking, A-X stumbles, falls, and kills many people. Who can blame him? He doesn’t know who he is, what he is, or why he is. The catharsis of watching a blameless man being hijacked, mutilated, and retooled to be an extension of warfare is strong. Therefore Wolfman’s writing in A-X is far superior to the cheese that afflicted Crisis on Infinite Earths, likely because the material that he is working with has closer proximity to the readers experiencing the comic. A-X’s key narrative philosophy is similar to the 2005 film Jarhead, which chronicles the effect of war training on human beings, and the psychological changes normal recruits undergo in the indoctrination process. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Anthony Swofford is trained to kill, but never does, resulting in angst and frustration. A-X, like Swofford, is full of angst, but of the opposite kind. His life is subjugated by death, and he yearns for something beyond what he was programmed to do. Both a soldier and a victim of war atrocity A-X lives separate parallel lives within his mind. The human component of A-X is a backseat observer watching the carnage unfold and any connection to the violence is linked to instinctual, biophysical responses of attributed to fight-or-flight response. Consequently, A-X represents the horrors of becoming victimized by technology, abdication of Self to extension, and being locked outside of his own body. Other cyberpunk properties had already predicted the growing infatuation with total gaming immersion by the Oculus Rift VR headset.For instance, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex features a government hospital filled with elite hackers stricken with web-based psychological trauma and dissociative personality disorders resulting from the abdication on individuality inside the sea of the Net. In similar style, A-X faces a reality that he can’t interact with or understand because he is trapped behind a physical firewall represented by his own cybernetic parts.
Whether or not A-X is human, or can be correctly categorized as one due to his organic mind, is the central argument Wolfman advances. Throughout the issue A-X is confronted by internal voices that feed him a steady supply of targets to assassinate, but the man inside A-X’s body experiences them as automated reactions. A-X’s will is hijacked by these commands, but desires to override them. Even though he can’t evade the prime directives, he finds ways to augment his routine. In one scene, A-X crashes a police helicopter because he doesn’t want Bedlam PD to kill innocent bystanders caught in the cross fire. He also detours from his objectives to find out what happened in an earlier incursion, by traveling to a landfill on Mercy Island, only to find his own mangled body buried beneath some wreckage. A-X’s confusion demonstrates his out of body experience as an authentic display of sentience. Issue #3 is the first turning point that begins A-X’s transformation, from a killer cyborg to a conscious person. I have not yet seen if A-X possesses a brain case, but his demonstration of personal will and agency is enough to retain his operative designation as human.
It was a pleasant surprise for me to find out The Man Called A-X was my final issue in the Grab Bag series, only because it deals so thoroughly with the denouement faced by postmoderns today. At the exit of modernity, poised to go forward, into a new age of information and wearable tech, Humans more than ever are burdened with the knowledge that they are losing control of their own lives. Data protection/recovery services, hardware warranties, and software patches demonstrate the inherent limitations of technology, and how wretched life is without it. Comics from the late 80s and early 90s demonstrated the patching mentality, covering up old storytelling tropes with big boobs and roided out action sequences. Nothing had truly changed, just the aesthetic. Growing sentimental attachment to the simplistic narratives reacted against dark revisionism by introducing a new wave of idyllic stories, best represented by Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s masterpiece Kingdom Come. These stories protected what was familiar, keeping them safe from further corruption. The shareholders, the consumer base wanted personal assurance that the stories they grew up with would continue. But even these stories were lackluster and unable to effectively communicate with a new generation of readers. The departure from such stories created the market base for indie stories, which continue to thrive to this day. Ultimately the 90s was a moment of crisis for comics. They were aimless and without direction. But at the end of the 90s, Grant Morrison’s JLA set things right at last, recovering the fantastic realism of superhero comics and enmeshed them with the iconoclastic tenets of postmodern thought.
My Grab Bag still sits on my shelf. I don’t plan on throwing them out anytime soon. They are each time capsules from another era, one known for advancement and embarrassment simultaneously. They were all a pleasure to analyze. It is my hope that they were just as pleasant to read.
All the best from The Man Called A-X,