Over in conspiracy corner, it is whispered that Marvel have sabotaged the X-Men, since they don't have the film rights to the characters. Far from believing this, Warren Ellis' Xenogenesis (2012) offers evidence that, even when they enlist a usually intelligent writer to the franchise, there is a complete lack of care and interest.
As a G-d damned Cultural Marxist, I'm bound to be touchy about racial and sexual stereotypes in comics, but Xenogenesis upsets me on an aesthetic level. Despite brave defences of artist Kaare Andrews, it's an ugly book. Cyclops grows a beard within the space of half an hour (in panel time), the anatomy and the facial features of the characters are inconsistent from page to page, and Emma Frost... Emma Frost.
Now, my complaint could be that Ellis devotes a chunk of the first issue to a crude analysis of African politics, which is tedious and reads like a racist wikipedia entry. Or that his plot, a riff on Alan Moore's Captain Britain, adds nothing new to the X-Men mythos, only pages of explanations of comic-book physics. The characterisation is all over the shop (one villain goes from brutal killer to compassionate ally without any real development, while Cyclops bumbles from assertive leader to whining boyfriend), unsettling the plot which devolves into a big fight scene. Ellis did a great job on The Authority, but he appears to be copying another Moore creation, Sarcastic Thug as a shorthand for mature writing.
However, it's Emma Frost who rankles me here. There's another blogger who rejoices in her portrayal - although he admits that her height is inaccurate against Cyclops. He sees the Emma Frost in Xenogenesis as a return to her classic, fierce persona.
For non-fans, let me explain. Frost used to be a villain, and romp around in lingerie, being all evil and sexy. Then she became a hero, but retained her taste for underwear as armour. She dated Cyclops, once a boy-scout hero, in one of Marvel's most explicitly sexual relationships. She is all poise and class prejudice, throwing out shade and devastating beatings to bad guys with equal aplomb. She's a borderline drag act, and eye candy. Even In Universe, characters make sarcastic comments about her outfits.
Andrews' art, which has a fair amount of retinal shudder about it, turns Frost into a pair of tits. It's difficult to tell whether her face is supposed to be beautiful - one scene, not pictured here, has her centre panel, leaning over Cyclops and Storm, boobs presented to the reader and her face contorted that she could be pouting or gurning. Unless she is supposed to be on ecstasy...
The art extracts that I have selected could be a visual essay in why women don't read comics (if they didn't, that is). It's certainly explains why I am learning French, in the hope that Bande dessinée franco-belge don't have artists like Andrews. It might be he hopes that hooters distract from the terrible style - which is perhaps best described as distressed photo-realism. Maybe it's a sexual thing, following Russ Meyer (NSFW).
For most artists, the twisted pose shown on the cover (in which ass and breasts are on display) is the height of their exploitation poses. Andrews starts from there. Apparently, the exercise of her powers involves bending over and pushing her boobies upwards.
Sure, Comics Aren't For Kids, and Warren Ellis has written stories that engage with both the violence and moral dilemmas of the superhero in ways that defy the good/evil morality shared by Superman and Fairy Tales. In Xenogenesis, he is reduced to being self-consciously shocking - Wolverine calls Nelson Mandela a terrorist, Africa is the impoverished continent that appears in appeals for charity donations, and a nativity scene that plays with racist stereotypes (these Africans are, like, so dumb about contraception).
He might have gotten away with it. Andrews' art draws attention to its laziness, neither following a sensual line that lessens the abrasively sexual representations, nor showing any sensitivity to female anatomy. Back in the conspiracy corner, it's rumoured that some comic book artists trace from pornographic magazines. I'm not a conspiracy theorist yet, because this mini-series is explained by that other broad historical theory. No-one involved could care less.