January 8, 2006

I liked Peter David’s Madrox mini-series, so I picked up the first issue of his new X-Factor series. It’s a lot of fun, and I decided to make the title an exception to my fewer-floppies rule. The second issue reinforced my decision, because it introduces Monet, a refugee from Generation X and a profoundly unpleasant young woman.

Does anyone write well-intentioned misanthropes better than Peter David? Take this bit of dialogue from Monet:

“I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic… Not that I am sympathetic. I’m not. I just wish I hid it better.”

And with that, I’m in love.

This isn’t the first time David has taken one of the surlier residents of the Marvel Universe to a slightly different, more entertaining place. In his run on a previous version of X-Factor, it was Quicksilver, who had gone from hero to villain and back, with several stops at jerk along the way.

In one of the best issues of David’s run on the series, the team goes through psychological debriefings. During Quicksilver’s session, he succinctly describes the reason for his aggressive unpleasantness: the nature of his mutation makes it seem like everyone around him his moving at a crawl. They can’t possibly keep up, and crankiness just naturally ensues.

It’s a great bit of characterization, not excusing so much as explaining. Quicksilver is still a jerk, but he isn’t an irredeemable one. (Unfortunately, just as David’s take on the character was gelling, Quicksilver got swiped by Bob Harras to mope around as a noble cuckold over in Avengers.)

David did something similar with Moondragon in the first chunk of his run on Captain Marvel. Even more than Quicksilver, Moondragon had always been portrayed as the ant at the picnic – difficult, conceited, manipulative, and, from time to time, outright evil. The shifts always seemed rather utilitarian, though. As a C-list dragon lady, Moondragon tended to serve at the whim of the story, so her contradictions never really cohered into a character.

David took a more focused approach, finding ways to portray Moondragon that were consistent with previous portrayals but were more specific. She was still unpleasant and controlling, but David managed to highlight some of her vulnerabilities without undermining her authority, for lack of a better word. She was a person who had been plucked from her life, trained to be a paragon of physical and mental perfection (to no end, ultimately, as she was just a back-up), and jerked around by forces beyond her control. She could be excused for being a little bitter.

But she wasn’t completely, corrosively so in Captain Marvel. Under her self-imposed purpose (training the clueless novice super-hero) was a desire to learn how to connect with people in more normal ways. She wasn’t very good at it, but the layers were welcome. (Again unfortunately, David sidelined her and most of the supporting cast when he revamped the series, taking the protagonist from hapless to crazy in the space of an issue. I didn’t think it made the Captain any more interesting, and it washed a lot of the color out of the book.)

And now David has added snide little rich girl Monet to X-Factor to spike the punch with her honeyed meanness. (She’s the Cordelia, if you will.) I’m looking forward to seeing more of her.

One of the recurring agonies of watching soap operas was the certainty that a smart, mean, funny character was destined for one of two depressing fates: they would become so evil that their usefulness on the canvas would run out and they’d be dumped to the nuthouse, prison, or morgue, or their rough edges would be sanded off in some brutal way to make them sympathetic. As the Witch put it in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, “You’re so nice./You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.”

I’m glad to see that David still has a fondness for the jerks and can portray them in imaginative, entertaining ways.