Saturday, January 29, 2011

28: Reconsidering Noh-Varr Post-Morrison

I have an unnatural attachment to Noh-Varr. What a goddamn weird sentence to write. My first essay for this blog just under six years ago was on Marvel Boy and it remains one of the pieces I'm best known for. I've since been a vocal reader when it came to the character's subsequent appearances and a very vocal critic of his depiction in those appearances. The way that Brian Michael Bendis writes him, in particular, has drawn some very harsh words from me. You see, Marvel Boy was a big book for me. It was the first comic you could say that I 'got.' My first time reading the first issue, I was a little lost, but I worked at it and, by the end, I could see Grant Morrison writing about the entire Marvel Universe, about teenage rebellion, about the real 'ultimate Spider-Man' and everything else I discussed in that first essay. I'd never 'gotten' a comic like that before.

I was 17. Today, I'm 28.

Those two numbers are significant. When I was 17, I wasn't exactly what you'd call an 'angry young man,' but I wasn't far off. I was smart and I knew it. Worse, I was smarter than most of the people around me and I knew it. Worse than that, I wasn't smarter than a few people around me and I knew it. Arrogance, jealousy, and a little self-loathing all mixed together is not a fun combination. I don't think I've ever outgrown it either, if I'm being honest. I was in high school, of course, and would soon discover the internet. I would soon get the internet at home and would soon find ways to terrorise the world. I wrote a weekly column on my own geocities site. It was called "Shut Up and Listen." Ha. Yeah. I ranted and raved once a week for five years. I looked around at the world and I hated it all. I hated how bad everything was. This was after Bush got elected, after 9/11, too. I actually cared about what on around me, or thought I did. I was also horribly self-involved. For a while there, I had a running section devoted to trying to figure out how to get excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Eventually, I realised that it didn't matter, because just walking away was a lot easier and healthier.

It sounds a little stupid to say that I'd compare myself to Noh-Varr at this time, but there were elements of wanting to carve FUCK YOU into a city in my personality. I was just more apt to act within the boundaries set out by society. Be angry and say angry things, hate the world, while getting good grades and going on to university. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But, somewhere, I equated myself with Noh-Varr. He looked around and didn't see a civilisation, he saw ignorant stupid creatures that thought themselves the pinnacle of intelligence in the universe. Hard to be that age, a little bright, and not see the same thing when you look around. Of course, you're both right and wrong.

Today, I'm 28. I'm both that guy and not that guy anymore. I've graduated university, gone to grad school, had no job for over two years, fallen in love and moved in with a woman, found a decent job, review comics, and lead a pretty normal life. I don't write angry columns anymore. I don't pay attention to politics as much. I still get worked up, not so much on a daily basis. I've settled down some. And I couldn't help but notice that Noh-Varr has as well.

The Marvel Universe doesn't move in real time, but it's hard not to notice that where he is now is where I am now. He went to prison, learned a few lessons, had a crappy job, has gotten a better one, is dating a woman, and has calmed down quite a bit. I've attacked Bendis in the past for these changes, for saying that they're out of character, and now I'm not so sure. Maybe they would have happened more organically and maybe they make for a fairly boring character, but that doesn't mean that's not the way things go. Not everyone stays an angry teenager forever. I didn't.

I reread Marvel Boy last weekend at work. That seemed like an appropriate setting. I read it partly on my lunch and partly when things were slow. It's hard to see it as a comic anymore; it's more a memory. Something that I know, a familiar song that brings back a feeling, a time, a place, another me... How do you read a comic like that with anything other than a mixture of nostalgia, memory, and embarrassment? So much of my love for that comic comes from an emotional connection that was formed when I first read it and that connection is hard to recreate. It's still there, I just can't access it the same way. I read the comic with a purposeful eye to the past, to my younger self, to Noh-Varr's younger self, and where we've both wound up.

I've wound up wondering where Morrison would have taken the character. The only logical endpoint is somewhere near where he is now. He couldn't remain the abrasive, angry teen that he was. He couldn't take over Earth. He couldn't beat the system and reform it. The series points at his growth towards maturity and as a responsible protector of Earth. It's really only in issue three when he takes down Hexus, but that's only because his conflict with Midas gets in the way. Before he could become a true hero, he needed to deal with his personal villain, that angry figure of capitalism and greed, which also tied into Hexus. Both Hexus and Midas represent using people for survival and profit. Oddly, while Hexus is a 'living corporation,' its concern isn't with acquiring wealth, it's with obtaining the means to reproduce and continue its existence. It uses capitalism as a means of survival.

Midas, on the other hand, is a figure of pure greed. He calls himself a scavenger and a pirate. There are no pretences to his own brilliance beyond the repeated mantra that he turns everything to his advantage. He reacts, he uses, and he never innovates. He is the corrupt system, the one that feasts upon people, obsessed with only gaining more wealth, more power, not seeing people as anything but pawns and things to lord over. He's so rich and powerful that he can call in SHIELD for his own personal use and he still wants more. He's everything that a teenager hates. The corrupt, uncaring system of old people. More than that, he's also the evil father figure. As Oubliette's father, he's that prick of a dad that's overprotective and wants to interrogate you before you take his sweet, precious little girl out, and treats you like you're not good enough for her (because no one is). Even his daughter is just a piece of property that he covets and wants for himself just because he wants everything for himself. An ugly, sad man with no redeeming qualities. Almost an exaggerated form of evil, the sort that teens sometimes see adults as.

But, with that seminal figure of authority for a teenage rebel defeated, where would Noh-Varr go next? He defeated greed and capitalism and Daddy... or, at least, moved past those ideas. Came to terms with them in some way. He's still angry. It's not just that small stuff, it's the larger picture, the system that allowed people like Midas to exist. He got past his girlfriend's father and the story ends with him stuck, basically, in school. Prison is school. They say they'll break (educate) him in six months, he says he only needs five before he's running the place.

As we eventually saw, post-Morrison, that wasn't the case. He was broken, for a time, and eventually gained his freedom, taking over. Call his time in charge of the Cube 'college.' He's still in prison (school), but he has the illusion of freedom, of running the show. But he's not free, he's still there! He's learning lessons that being 'free' and 'in charge' isn't all fun and games, it's a lot of bullshit. It's actually not all that different from what came before. From there, it's heading to the real world where his sense of self-importance was still intact until he, basically, saw one of his professors get shitcanned for bad reasons (fake Captain Mar-Vell gives his life to fight the Skrulls), but win his respect in the process. Noh-Varr gets a job (the Dark Avengers), thinking it follows the example set by that beloved mentor/professor only to learn that it's an awful job full of weird office politics and a fairly evil purpose. Hey, it was his first real job, what did he expect? While on the run (unemployed), he meets a nice girl, wants to settle down a bit, tired of the constant rage and fighting, so he gets a bland set of clothes, and gets a regular job with a stupid title but a little bit of self-respect.

While I have no doubt that Morrison's plans for him would have been more interesting and more organic, I'm not sure I see a different end point. He was always destined to be a hero, a protector. Maybe I'm reaching here, looking for parallels between the two of us where none exist. Then again, it makes an odd amount of sense to me. Even the lack of Oubliette fits: the crazy high school girlfriend that he never sees again when he goes away to college.

Today, I'm 28 and I don't think I hate where Bendis has taken Noh-Varr so much anymore. I still find his interpretation of the character bland and uninteresting, but I understand it a little better.