My Life is Choked with Comics #6 - Soldier X #1-8 (and surroundings)

It was the day of Jemas.

A lot of things had happened to various Marvel comics since Bill Jemas had become president of consumer products, publishing and new media, with Joe Quesada as editor in chief. Reader attention had been mobilized, and several noteworthy projects had begun. Not every effort initiated in that time would be successful, nor would all of even be noteworthy, but in retrospect one can sense an atmosphere of relative experimentation, albeit one formed from financial strife.

And nothing screamed 'relative experimentation' like the extended X-Men line.

I've heard some call this period of X-history a 'progressive' era, one that extended roughly from writer Grant Morrison's debut on the freshly re-branded New X-Men in July 2001 to the X-Men ReLoad event of May 2004, a line-wide creative shift which served, in part, to erase some of the departed Morrison's most visible story and character changes, and in a wider sense marked a return to more emphatically traditional mutant superhero stories. But that period didn't just begin with Morrison; it saw a large number of upsets occur, in both the creative teams and the very directions of several series.

And there for the duration, just as indicative of the time as Grant Morrison, was Igor Kordey.

A Croatian-born illustrator, designer and comics artist, Kordey first became visible on the US comics scene as a painter, his first work for Marvel being the two-issue Tales of the Marvels: Wonder Years in 1995. His 20th century work at the publisher would not extend beyond that, and the two-issue Conspiracy miniseries of 1998.

Instead, he contributed to a number of licensed books, most notably offering extensive contributions to Dark Horse's Tarzan line, including a sadly unfinished 1999-2000 series titled Tarzan: The Rivers of Blood (four out of an intended eight issues published, never collected), which had been in the works for over a decade. Kordey both drew, and co-scripted with fellow Croatian Neven Antičević, who devised the story with noted Danish writer/translator Henning Kure. Two other Tarzan projects are worth noting for our purposes: the 1995 one-off Tarzan: A Tale of Mugambi and the 1998 miniseries Tarzan/Carson of Venus (both collected into a 1999 trade, named for the latter work), with Croatia-born writer Darko Macan. The two would reunite before an English-language audience during that period of mutant growth at Marvel.

The path of Kordey's latter career at Marvel quite neatly follows the trajectory of the 'progressive' era for X-Men and related books. It began in November 2001, on a revamp of the consummate '90s mutant character Cable. It ended with the July 2004 X-Men ReLoad revival of Excalibur, the very series set to do the heavy lifting of continuity adjustment. Kordey was set as the series' regular artist, but he was suddenly released from his duties the day prior to online solicitation posting, despite having completed issue #1 and begun work on issue #2. All of his material was replaced. He has not worked for Marvel again, although, interestingly, it appears that he was offered the troubled Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq project, that Dan Jurgens eventually drew.

But it wasn't just a straight path from the revivials of 2001 to the counter-revivals of 2004. There are always bumps in the road. Surely the biggest bump in Kordey's time with Marvel was his infamous run on Morrison's New X-Men, where he began as a fill-in-for-a-fill-in. These, it is sad to say, are likely the works Kordey remains best known for across the whole of English-language comics. Given the popularity of New X-Men, and its status as prime X-Men book of the day, it was likely many readers' first and only exposure to Kordey's art.

And if all you had read were those issues of New X-Men, you might have thought Kordey wasn't worth much. Pages seem ripped apart with gashes of thick black ink. Poor Cyclops looks like he's been punched in the face for a full hour. Those leather Frank Quitely costumes seem to seethe like hot, stretching tar. Reading over the material, it's frankly not as bad as I remember it being, but it's still not good.

The problem was, Kordey could draw an entire 22-page comic in about 10 days. And he did, when both primary New X-Men artist Frank Quitely and fill-in artist Ethan Van Sciver couldn't keep with the deadlines, and X-scheduling got tight. He shouldn't have, but he did. "I was my only judge, jury and executioner all the time," Kordey later mused (see link above). He drew more issues after that. And an awful lot of readers disliked him, greatly and biliously.

But for much of his time at Marvel, Kordey was a fine talent. From his b&w line art, it's clear that his range extends from graceful cartoon observation to well-defined, idiosyncratic realism. He could also do some nice action and careful environments, although neither of those examples are from Marvel projects. Color did not sap any power from his lines, which worked well with both rich and faded hues. But his lines were not quite like what usually graced a superhero comic, even though they were rather close; I suspect that some readers who did see more of Kordey's work than was displayed in New X-Men, probably didn't care for it much anyway. Yet it was the rushing, I suspect, that always colored the wide view of his work. Hell, people disliked those New X-Men issues so much I've been on message boards where Kordey's work was used to slam Quitely, some posters unable to distinguish between the two men's work. Dislike that potent can be projected.

Yet Kordey's style was fitting for Marvel in 2001. Kordey didn't entirely draw like a superhero artist, and he can thus been seen as a perfect representative for books that didn't entirely want to seem like superhero comics, for a short time, for better or worse.

Take the Cable revival. Written by David Tischman (usually a writing partner for Howard Chaykin, who was initially meant to supervise the series but couldn't), it saw the famed time-travel gun messiah decide to travel the globe, finding various scrupulously-researched 'hot spots' and affecting present-tense change by shooting things and alluding to his backstory. It was a decent run, with some vivid secondary characters and convincing political settings, but it ran into the same problem faced by several of these superhero hybrid projects - the superhero elements sat uneasily in the larger work. For me, every mention of baroque X-Men continuity kind of tossed me around; it's not that you can't have a serious political gunfire comic with superpowered people (Golgo 13 isn't all that human, after all), but you have to be very careful with the mix. Tischman didn't do a great job of matching mentions of the Legacy Virus and such up with his larger international action story - it's like that whole 'Marvel superheroes' business kept getting in the way, lousy stuff!

Interestingly, in the back of the first trade paperback collection of Tischman's run as writer (Cable: The Shining Path), Tischman's series proposal is included as a bonus feature. And that proposal actually does a much nicer job of integrating the mutant superhero and political explosion elements of the project. For example, in the first storyline Cable finds himself mixed up with a group of Communist revolutionaries in Peru. This group has neatly mixed mutants in wih humans, and Tischman proposes using this setup to draw parallels between Communism and the famed 'dream' of Professor X - both deeply idealistic, and both doomed to fail when put in the real world. You can make out echoes of this theme in the story itself, but the execution tips the balance greatly toward the politics, leaving the superhero stuff to look lost.

Also in the proposal was an ongoing focus on Cable's role as Askani messiah, master of a future peaceable-yet-proactive philosophy that he hopes to plant the seeds for, thus saving the future. Tischman and Kordey even managed to cleverly use Marvel's 'Nuff Said no-dialogue gimmick month to have a special issue in which Cable finally overcomes the techno-organic virus that had always held his amazing mutant powers back, thus giving him the uncontrollable power of a god. Tischman seemed to want to develop the spiritual aspect of Cable in greater depth as the series went on. He didn't manage it himself; having started on Cable #97, Tischman ended his run on the book only as far as issue #104. For Tischman's final four-issue storyline, seeing Cable dealing with clashes between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians, Kordey aided with the story for the first three chapters, and became primary writer for the final one.

At that point, the writing chores were taken over by the aforementioned Darko Macan.

I think it's very useful to read all of Tischman's material, plus Tischman's proposal, and then all of Macan's material, because the whole thing is an excellent example of how one writer can pick up the work of a prior writer, introducing his own themes and his spin on the material, while continuing the work already started. If Tischman wanted to go farther with Cable's spirituality, and his attaining the power of a god, Macan absolutely presses it to the limit. The final issues of the regular Cable series, #105-107 (featuring some rare fill-in art on #106 from Mike Huddleston and John Stanisci), sees the title character really struggling with his powers; he accidently wipes out dozens of minds in a secret fighting arena, evaporates a building housing a nuclear weapon, and becomes tempted by a Singapore zillionaire who wants him to shape the whole world -- not just a few countries -- as a corporate-backed God. The last of the Tischman issues and the beginning of Macan's run are collected in the trade Cable: The End.

And that was the end of the Cable ongoing series.

Which leads us to Soldier X.

Which is actually the old Cable series, with Macan on writing and Kordey on art, but retitled in a multi-series, mid-2002 effort to goose sales and better set up revamped properties as individuals (and maybe make them easier to get rid of, should the need arise). X-Force became X-Statix, Deadpool became Agent X, and Cable became Soldier X.

Kordey and Macan lasted for eight issues on Soldier X. Sales were not good. The material was never collected. But these issues are some of my favorite things from the X-Men revamps of the period, ideal back-issues to stumble across, loaded with eager personality, and willing to boil the tortured concept of its lead character down to the essence of superhero metaphor, while retaining the global outlook of the stories that came directly before it.

There's more comedy than before, and maybe a excess of ambition to the structure - the first six issues tell a long story, which zips the character's 'present' timeline to two years after the end of the prior series, yet acts as a lengthy flashback to near the prior present, as a Daily Bugle reporter reviews a disc of information sent to her from Cable about his transformative adventures. Even as the flashback material occurs, we see Cable's present-day recorded narration via caption; sometimes it falls into the trap of telling us what we're seeing, but more often it exposes the stony character's impressions on what's going on.

But the first issue barely even features the main character, instead following the reporter as she sits through terrorism fear bedlam on an airplane, has her job endangered, meets with bumbling agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., encounters a sumo wrestler in a Sailor Moon costume, and more. Kordey's character art by this time has grown broader, perhaps as a result of his punishing workload, but it matches Macan's tone perfectly. Often, Kordey delivers 23 pages of new art instead of the typical Marvel 22; this is because several of the recap pages are fully-realized pieces of art, with a different character explaining the plot to the reader in their own voice. At one point, the recap page actually appears in the middle of an issue, as a minor character stops the book with converse with YOU. Several jokes are made at the expense of the book's cool new title, and the plotting is deemed "enchantingly meandering" by its own cast of drawings.

I can't say they're wrong - the plot is all over the place, with Cable meeting up with what seems to be his wrinkled Yoda-like mentor Blaquesmith, except the once-sage little imp has become a total hedonist. He directs Cable toward a young mutant in Russia, who seems to have Christlike healing abilities - touch and be cured. Along the way, a large supporting cast attaches, including the girl's drunken father, her controlling-yet-devout mother, a gang of Armenian gangsters, a mob of devout Christians looking for healing, and a bizarre Russian surplus superhero named Geo, who's taken to blowing up empty fast food restaurants in protest of globalization. The action moves (gradually) from Russia's urban environments to the countryside, and then on to St. Lenin, "an old factory, where a mad artist used to work on blending Orthodox and Communist iconography. In a way it made perfect sense. It made sense because it made no sense at all."

Some might extend that notion to the story itself. Characters often don't act so much as converse. Sequences of mutant action mix with images of the grotesque, like the little mutant girl kissing a grown man's massive chest of boiling sores. This mix of tones and approaches is handled very carefully by Kordey, though, his art often adopting an especially Corbenesque character, emphasis placed on squat, weathered characters walking through rough but vivid places. It also manages to 'sell' the mutant superhero angle a lot better than the prior stories, if only through its general air of anything going.

And Macan's story really does cohere very nicely. It's a detailed parable for personal spiritual awakening, kissed with a unique concern for Westernization and ethnic & capitalistic conflict. The Armenians are determined to be better exploiters than victims, but all of them dress like American gangbangers, and some are obsessed with a movie hero notion of being 'hard' men. They want the little healer girl for money, but her mother wants her because religious faith is all she has, and there is nothing finer than to be the mother of a Saint, even if it means the child is martyred. The girl herself makes a mid-story transformation from healer to a type of succubus, drawing strength out of people when she used to give it away - a nice little story about religious faith, that. Geo challenges the confused Cable to stand for something:

"I want the right to be a hero WITHOUT LOOKING like one! I want a world where I could be EQUAL without being the SAME!"

Feel free to indulge in any metafictional reading that pleases you.

Anyway, Cable eventually wakes up. He even undergoes a scourging, his skin torn apart by "three thousand" bullets, then even more of it torn off his body in long strips by people eager for healing. Needless to say, he rises again, even if he doesn't die. He grows to giant size, and strips all the metal off his skin, and decides that if he has the powers of a god, he ought to start acting like one. Clearly, the superhero-as-God theme isn't a new one (even the unfortunate film event Superman Returns came complete with an ill-advised Jesus subtext); what makes it work here is Macan's investment in an emphatic catalog of beliefs among characters, recognizing that religion and politics and philosophy and ethnicity often cannot be separated. And I can't say I've ever seen that subject matter addressed quite so effectively through the broad men-as-gods sweep of a Marvel superhero comic.

The final two issues of Kordey's and Macan's Soldier X more or less act to complete the work's themes. Issue #7 suffers from what seems to me like evident compression problems, owing to a creative team being asked to clean off their desks and wrap things up. Sales weren't good, you know. Cable flies around, using his powers for uniquely non-violent godly purposes; he wants to demonstrate that having destructive powers doesn't mean you need to use them. He discovers that the Blaquesmith he met was a fake, but the impressionable imp becomes Cable's disciple, reversing the master-apprentice roles.

And issue #8, just like with the end of Morrison's New X-Men, whisks us far into the future, to the year 4006, long after the seeds of Cable's Askani way have taken hold. For this issue, colorist Matt Madden works directly from Kordey's pencils, creating a delicate, unreal sensation. The story follows a young Askani boy and an older woman, who travel to a nearby town to defuse a race skirmish, and serves mainly to underline the themes of the stories that preceded it, and show that the man-and-god influence of Cable has congealed into a semi-misinterpreted religion that nevertheless equips people to face most of the same problems as existed in the past. Not a bad Christ metaphor, which is what they're going for. But Cable gets off a little easy in comparison - we get a flashback/flash-forward to Cable's peaceful death, in one of those sequences (I'm a sucker for) where nearly all of the characters from Macan's and Tischman's stories show up to implicitly say goodbye.

Ha! I told you Macan worked to further Tischman's themes! All of these Cable/Soldier X plots add up from the nation-by-nation focus of early issues to the broadest effect of all, if one ironically dispersed in impact. This is a rare occurrence in modern superhero books, where lines are often drawn by writers. Here, it is Kordey, the artist and sometimes-writer, who is the constant. And that may be due, by and large, to his embodiment of the time.

Solder X went on for two more issues, under a different creative team, and then ended in late 2003. Marvel didn't seem to know what to do with Kordey. He'd have been excellent on The Punisher MAX, had the series not had months to go before it started. Instead, Kordey was puzzlingly placed on what I gather was the most traditional, most stylistically conservative of the X-Men line, Chris Claremont's X-Treme X-Men. Kordey was not an easy fit with such classical superheroics at all. He ran into content clashes with editorial. He blanched at being assigned inkers, which to my mind (given my limited exposure to the work) seemed to act as a means of slicking his work up, to hammer it into a 'proper' superhero approach.

By the time ReLoad came around, Kordey was gone. He'd later do lovely work on the IDW series Smoke. He'd work on the first two albums of project for French publisher Delcourt, L'Histoire Secrète. I don't know what he's doing now.

But you can still find his works scattered. They might not collect them, but they can't hide them. I continue to see Kordey's Marvel work as perfectly of its time, yet never really dimmed by what few years have passed. I think his reputation will get better, as time burns off the snark and controversy, leaving the work. He was fast. He was good.

Maybe he'd have even gotten this column in on time.