Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

The Brilliance of X-Men Legacy

I haven’t written in quite a while about my favorite hobby (comics!), so let’s get back into the groove there with my favorite comic to come out of the Marvel NOW! launch: X-Men Legacy, by Simon Spurrier. If you haven’t heard of X-Men Legacy, you should go buy all of it (currently #1-#18) and read it immediately. I can wait. With that said, I now assume that you’ve read it all and I can spoil things left and right without worry about hurting your feelings or ruining things for you. So today I wanted to take a look into the mind of David Haller and what makes him and his world tick.

Inner Demons

If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles. – Sun Tzu

or, as Magneto puts it:

It’s not a matter of strength, child. It’s not a matter of power or righteousness or will. When one is called to face oneself, as each of us inevitably is — it is a simple matter of self-belief.

From page one of X-Men Legacy, we are introduced to (and reminded about) the power of David’s mind. We finally get a good, rational description of how his power set works: his mind is infected with a large number of personalities, each with their own special power. In theory, David can draw upon their powers and make them his own. In practice, David can only do so when he personally feels powerful. At the beginning of the story, we see David at his lowest, and watch him claw his way up to being able to control most of the personalities hanging out in his brain.

Yet (as of issue #18) we see that David doesn’t have the finesse or ability to control his powers as well as his main antagonist – himself. To be more specific, it’s a personality whose power is to control other personalities (like David can), and is responsible for all of the bad things David has done throughout his life. Its primary form is that of Professor X himself, because Xavier really is David’s biggest fear. David sought love and approval from his father, but simply didn’t get it, so it makes sense that his antagonist would take that form.

Another interesting thing to note here is the main weapon that the Uncanny X-Men use against David in their showdown, at the series’ climax, aptly (and awesomely) named Wear the Grudge Like a Crown (Issues #16-18). Here, the X-Men need to stop David at all costs, and employ the Pyrric, an incredibly slow-moving but destructive weapon that finds the target’s personal flaws and exploits them to destroy that person’s mind. It’s a weapon I’ve never seen before, and is done to great effect: it causes David’s mental landscape to get obliterated, his Legion personality finally gets freed, and we see David apparently consumed by his most powerful personalities. I say ‘apparently’ because:

The Unreliable Narrator

All war is deception. -Sun Tzu

or, as David Haller puts it:

You’d be amazed how easy folks can be led. Or led astray. (Issue #3)

X-Men Legacy is the one comic that establishes its main character as an “unreliable narrator” (aka liar) and uses this to consistently surprise me as a reader at every turn. We first see this in The Judgment of Diana (Issue #9), where David uses information gleamed from Legion to learn of a plot by pretty awesome baddie Aarkus to wipe out all of mutantkind. We see it again with Peter Wisdom in Hope and Glory (Issues #13-14), and again again with the Uncanny X-Men in Wear the Grudge Like a Crown (Issues #16-18). In all these cases, David tricks his poor girlfriend Blindfold (and the reader) into believing that events are unfolding a certain way, before a twist is revealed.

The twists occur in different ways each time, and although I should be expecting them by now, it comes in different enough ways that I still get taken for a ride. This keeps it fresh and interesting, and certainly worth the cost of admission. Yet I wonder about why poor precognitive Blindfold never sees these things coming.

Free Will and Predestination

Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will. – Jawaharlal Nehru

how much choice do they have when legion is pulling the strings?

or, as David Haller would put it:

The future. The truth is: there’s no such thing. No tidy prediction. No predetermined script to sit back and skim before the cameras roll. The future is a fractal fern. The future is a monstrous quantum coral. Sprouting a billion temporal tendrils from every option taken, every decision made, every razor blade millisecond passed. Time is not an arrow. Time is a cluster bomb made of realities being born.

Legacy has a number of psychic (and precognitive) characters running around, which raises the immediate question: how much free will do the characters actually have? Surprisingly, it is quite a lot. Paraphrasing the above quote, precognitive characters can see possible futures, but it doesn’t preclude other futures from existing. This neatly allows for both free will and some level of determinism, especially when we see how the looming question of the “impending catastrophe of the world worm” is handled.

It’s a problem that all of the precogs (Legion, Blindfold, and Luca) all see, and once David learns of it from Legion, he too contends with how to prevent himself from losing control and destroying the world. Interestingly, Luca is the one who kicks this whole story into motion, baiting David into action with the meme that the X-Men are reactive and not really solving the world’s problems, so David should do it himself. What’s doubly curious is that this is the same meme that Scott Summers picks up (although I would say this comes from Magneto).

Another interesting thing to note here is how precognition and allegedly perfect future information actually hurts our precogs. Luca puts himself in physical danger in Issue #17 because his precognition tells him this is the time to strike and save humanity from mutantkind. This turns out very badly for him, since the info he sees in the future lacks context, and thus causes him to make the wrong decision. This reminds me of Clifford Pickover’s excellent book The Paradox of God and the Science of Omniscience, which poses a number of logical situations where “God” (defined there as an omniscient actor) would be at a disadvantage due to their future knowledge, specifically because of it. This restriction so far has not hurt Legion, who at the end of Issue #18 escapes the confines of David’s mind after the damage done via the Pyrric. He has precognition, but it’s not clear if he saw this outcome yet.

Becoming Proactive

One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. – Plato

or, as David Haller would put it:

I won’t be my father, Ruth. I won’t serve his dream by doing nothing but reacting to the bastards who attack it. I will not wait for evil. (Issue #9)

Perhaps the most prevalent theme of X-Men Legacy is David’s rejection of his father’s reactive dream. Luca tells David that he should be angry that mutants are attacked all the time, and that despite all the work his father his done, the world really isn’t a safer place for mutants. David takes this idea to its (perhaps) logical end, deciding to seek out those who would harm mutants and eliminate them before they can become problematic.

This idea works better than I would have initially thought. Clearly there is the 1984 problem of thoughtcrime going on here, where David is judge, jury, and executioner, passing judgment on people for crimes they actually haven’t committed. Yet this has worked so far because his targets have all been fairly non-controversial targets – that is, all obviously willing to kill to make their dreams come true. Of course, it still is thoughtcrime (with the exception of the Red Skull, who has committed a number of actual crimes), and I’m hoping that future issues will tackle this to some extent.

Loneliness versus being on a team

When you form a team, why do you try to form a team? Because teamwork builds trust and trust builds speed. – Russel Honore

or, as Scott Summers puts it:

People won’t fight with you if they don’t respect you. And people won’t respect you if you don’t trust them. (Issue #18)

One problem David runs into on his mission to save the world through proactively removing mutantkind’s baddies is how to go about it. Originally, he starts off as being a long wolf, mocking Wolverine’s X-Men team (although eventually admitting he’s jealous of their cohesion). He evolves to eventually forming a team of his own (temporarily) in Hope and Glory, and reverts to manipulating a team (the Uncanny X-Men) in Wear the Grudge Like a Crown to get what he desires.

His most constant team-like relationship has been his partnership with Blindfold. They’re a solid pairing, and it adds a lot of depth and complexity that while she is his companion, he doesn’t actually trust her enough to let her in on his plans. David seems to like the idea of having her around, but not the actual practical things that come with it (like what to do when she disagrees with him). We’ll likely see this expanded upon in future issues, and I’m excited to see where it goes.

Just Plain Awesome

So that’s a quick roundup of the big themese surrounding the last year of X-Men Legacy. Hopefully I’ve imparted some feeling onto you as to why this comic is so awesome, and if you actually made it this far and haven’t read it, go read it! It also got me into Simon Spurrier’s other work, Six-Gun Gorilla (also awesome) and Numbercruncher (which I have on order). I like the art as well – although it switches artists up quite a bit, my favorite artist here is Paul Davidson (and of course, Michael de Mundo’s awesome covers). The only downside is that the lower $2.99 price point means I don’t get digital copies to go with the physical ones, but I suspect that this is fine for most people. This is just the tip of the iceberg – I haven’t touched much upon David’s personality itself, why I really like it, and why he’s my favorite X-Man, so stay tuned! In the meanwhile, here’s another awesome cover: