Marvel, 2001 and 2002, Cable #97 through #104, between 22 and 38 pages each, $ 2.25 or $ 3.99 each
David Tischman and Igor Kordey's collaboration on Cable debuted September 19, 2001. In the eight-part run, which consists of two politically aware action thrillers in the mold of Three Kings, the gears are grinding—the gears of Marvel's tumultuous restructuring by the Bill Jemas regime, the gears of mainstream comic-book storytelling, and the gears of North American popular culture at large.
Even more so than the Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely New X-Men or the Peter Milligan/Mike Allred X-Force, the series is emblematic of Marvel's then nascent effort to escape its economic woes by producing material that was relevant and cutting edge—and the complete disarray that ensued when the approach was undercut, almost immediately, by real-world events that forced people to radically re-assess the kinds of things that mainstream fiction should, or should not, be portraying.
Two months into the run, issue #98 came with an editorial by the artist. According to Mr. Kordey, Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada had called him on the phone, being "upset about the possible psychological impact of page #12 of this issue (thanks to my ingenious storytelling), with a terrorist flying a jeep full of explosives into a financial building and blowing it up."
Mr. Kordey addresses those concerns in detail. After pointing out that the scene in question was drawn months before the September 11 attacks, he speaks with remarkable frankness about his beliefs on art and life in general. Mr. Kordey's piece, one of the darkest and most bizarre things that have ever been printed in the back of a Marvel comic, is accompanied by a picture of the artist—a Croatian national—and two other men wearing army gear.
The caption below the photograph reads:
"During the war in Croatia, my turn came to defend my country. This picture is from the Croatian highland, Lika, in spring of 1994 (that's me with the hat). I show this picture because there is a story behind it—one of 5,000,000 Croatian war stories. The guy in the middle shot the guy standing to his right (his best friend) during the watch in the dead of night. It was an accident that occurred because we were all scared out of our minds. I was able to save the man's life, because I was the only one in my squad who knew basic first aid. But the man remained an invalid. He was just a poor farmer. A poor farmer with a family of seven."
This is pretty strong stuff for a comic book that, two issues previously, had been a fairly conventional X-Men spin-off telling inoffensive sci-fi adventures with people in colorful costumes.
That's not all of it, though.
Within those eight issues, the title reflects a tempest of major and minor changes that Marvel was undergoing at the time. In the first two pages of Cable #97, a couple of American tourists are blown to bits in a terrorist bombing in Lima, Peru; beginning with issue #99, Cable has a small ribbon on the cover to commemorate the September 11 attacks; as of issue #100, the phrase "Stan Lee presents," or a variation thereof, no longer appear on the title page; longtime X-Men group editor Mark Powers' name disappears from the credits after issue #102; and Mr. Tischman's final issue, Cable #104, opens with a splash page showing the towers of the World Trade Center, right after the second plane hit them.
Mr. Tischman's run ended after those two storylines—much less material than he had planned for, as his introduction in issue #97 and the series proposal printed in #100 indicate. I don't know the reason why his tenure was cut short; the suspicion that the stories were simply hitting too close to home at this stage seems forgivable, under the circumstances. Then again, his successor Darko Macan's run wasn't exactly tame, so who knows.
In Mr. Tischman's first storyline, Cable takes on the Shining Path, a Peruvian terrorist organization seeking to overthrow the country's government. In the second, co-written by Mr. Kordey, the character intervenes in a conflict between Serbs and Albanians in Macedonia.
Issue #101, famously titled "How Many Albanians Does It Take to Screw in a Lightbulb?," begins with a double-page splash showing NATO planes as they're bombing a village in Serbia. The exposition doesn't pull many punches:
"Serbian forces have been raping, robbing and systematically killing the region's ethnic Albanian minority. The Serbian government denies these actions, which the media refers to as 'ethnic cleansing'—a politically correct term for genocide.
"Americans, sitting at home in front of their televisions, are horrified—unaware that the conflict between the orthodox and the muslims has been going on for centuries.
"The United Nations has sent a U.S.-led 'peacekeeping' force into Serbia to help—as if a couple of smart bombs can alter the course of history.
"Especially when that 'peacekeeping force hits the wrong target."
Suddenly, Cable's opponents aren't ancient evil mutants, but terrorist groups bent on revolution and genocide, and driven by political and ideological agendas that actually exist. Suddenly, the book evolves around real issues in real places—the stories are filled with child soldiers and with characters sniffing coke, putting out cigarettes in other people's faces, or sexually abusing dead prisoners, with American (rogue?) secret agents showing up to exploit the situation; and a protagonist who doesn't mind killing anyone who gets in his way—sometimes accidentally, mostly less so.
The first issue introduces Cable reading the paper in a street café in Lima while on a stakeout; later on, it shows him in an average, economy-style hotel room with his suitcase and socks and copies of Time magazine and Playboy lying around. Instead of flashy costumes, the character now wears T-shirts, cargo pants, outdoor boots, lumberjack shirts and an army jacket; he looks like a backpacking globetrotter, in short. Instead of impossibly huge, pseudo-futuristic sci-fi weaponry, he uses regular guns—or ones that look like they might actually exist, at least. And the people he takes under his wings to teach them his "Askani" philosophy aren't North American superheroes, this time, but a Peruvian child soldier and a racist Serbian lab assistant.
All that is broadly consistent with how previous creators interpreted the character, but it also shows him from a fresh angle that serves to reveal new insights.
All of a sudden, the book is about characters and places that, a few months back, would have seemed more at home in a hardboiled international spy thriller than in an X-Men spin-off.
The shift is far from smooth, and readers have to wait until Cable #102 for the character to lay out his new outlook:
"The way I was brought up, I thought I could save the world—as I got older, I realized all I can do is help it as best I can. [...]
"It's the same thing as helping an old lady across the street, or putting trash in a garbage can.
"Right is right. It's not subjective. [...] If everybody did what was right, the world would be a better place."
So, after a period of being sanitized and made into a generally more agreeable hero than the gun-toting Rob Liefeld creation of old, Mr. Tischman and Mr. Kordey's Cable gets back some of his wild-eyed fanaticism, albeit now tempered by the kind of equilibrium and wisdom that aging, white-haired action heroes are prone to.
The key to the creators' approach, in all that, is authenticity. The people, places and agendas in these stories are "real"—some of them in a literal sense, certainly, but also in the sense that they're strong enough to bleed into the gutters of the page, and beyond. You can believe that these characters and places are headed somewhere. They neither begin nor end in these stories, but are merely passing through long enough for the audience to get a glimpse.
Much of the credit for that goes to the art, which creates some spectacularly elaborate and vivid figures and settings. The work by Mr. Kordey and his collaborators is teeming with life and movement, no matter what's in the pictures; the shadows the letters on a storefront window cast on a character's face and body, the wrinkles in their clothing, the way the paper is placed on the table or pieces of tape cover a crack in the window, or the poses and expressions of the people in the background—if there's another artist in American comics who is this good with composition and authenticating details, I'm not aware of them. The artwork alone is strong enough to propel the story forward at any given moment.
The script isn't entirely on par with that, unfortunately. Particularly in the first two issues, the storytelling is frequently choppy; at times, the material reads like somebody went in after the fact and added the kinds of captions that had been omnipresent in Marvel comics of the 1990s, spelling out the protagonist's background and abilities at least once every issue, no matter whether the information happens to be relevant or not.
This particular problem disappears after two issues, but a general over-reliance on caption boxes persists. Mostly they take the point of view of a given character, sometimes it's an omniscient narrator, and too often, they tell you things you already know, or things you don't need to know, or things that might have been better served by being shown, rather than told.
It's hard not to note some of the plot holes, too. There are a couple of characters capable of teleportation, for instance, but its application seems not so much dependent on any consistent logic other than what's required by the plot in a given moment.
Overall, though, I can't help being fascinated by a series that renounces escapism precisely one nanosecond before a lot of popular-cultural tastemakers decided it was a good idea to crack down on anything that wasn't pure escapism. Measured by those standards, this stuff holds up remarkably well.
The creators seem a very good match, at any rate. It would have been easy for the story to suffer from humorless soap-boxing or boring sermons, given the subject matter, but Mr. Tischman and Mr. Kordey find the right balance between the kind of over-the-top superhero stuff that comes with the territory and their desire to address some controversial issues in a storytelling vernacular that they couldn't expect the title's existing audience to be familiar with.
And, again, Igor Kordey's art here is just unbelievably good.