Monday, 21 May 2012
MGN #5: "God Loves, Man Kills"
(Man's inhumanity to man.)
We come at last to a graphic novel discussed in hushed tones of humble reverence; the single story that did more than any other to establish the struggle between human and mutant as not just one of prejudice, but one of violent domestic terrorism. It also provided the basis for Bryan Singer's X2, which considering it's the best of the three "central" films, isn't at all bad for a comic more than twenty years old at the film's release.
It certainly doesn't dither at the pool's edge, either. On the first page we're introduced to Mark and Jill, siblings on the run in the dead of night. By the end of the second page, both are dead, shot by the same people who killed their parents. "You have no right to live" says their leader by way of explanation.
This is our first glimpse of The Purifiers, a paramilitary anti-mutant hate group that will pop up many times over the next thirty years of comics. For now, suffice it to say we already know they're the kind of people who'll murder an entire family, children and all, and call it a good day's work. Well, half of one, I guess; the second stage is to chain the children's bodies to the school swings so as to ensure hundreds of children all (or nearly all) of them non-mutants, will be traumatised for the rest of their lives. Nice going, Purifiers! Way to save humanity!
Fortunately, this particularly horrific iteration of show and tell is averted when Magneto finds the Purifier's "message" and cuts their victims down. I assume Magneto's tracking the Purifiers, or maybe keeping tabs on developing mutants, because otherwise even by comic standards this is a hell of a coincidence.
Sunset in New York City. I should point out actually the art in this book is gorgeous. It's the first time aside from the first Wolverine limited series (which came out the same year) that it feels like the artists are trying to evoke an atmosphere, rather than just directly translate the script into pictures. The darkness and shadows that surround the Purifier's grizzly work and Magneto's heartbreaking discovery, and the wash of oranges and yellows that surround the Stryker building, not only work on their own terms, but make their own point: we skipped over the daylight. Things started dark, and now things are going to get darker.
The Stryker building itself is the headquarters of the Stryker Crusade, a worldwide Evangelical movement, which is rarely a good sign in fiction. Reverend Stryker himself seems to divide his time between writing sermons and studying the X-Men, plotting their downfall.
Katherine Pryde throws a kid out of Stevie Hunter's dance studio. She does it through the window, and takes herself with him. Colossus is on hand to break them up - though not before she takes one to the jaw - only to find out Kitty started the fight, after her opponent let slip how glad he is Reverand Stryker is preaching about the need to wipe mutant kind out. Danny calls Sprite (Ariel now, apparently) a mutie-lover before slinking away. Kitty is still swearing vengeance; Stevie tries to calm her down. "They're only words."
What happens next is one of my clearest memories of any comic I've ever read; Kitty turns on Stevie and screams "Suppose he'd called me a nigger-lover?" When I was younger, this made total sense to me: hating mutants is as bad as being a racist. Looking at this with older eyes, I'm less convinced. I was pretty loud in condemning Steven Moffat for having characters in Doctor Who state that murdering the Doctor would make one a greater war criminal than Adolf Hitler. Shouldn't the same hold true for suggesting the oppression of a fictional group of people can be sensibly compared to the hundreds of years of oppression suffered by African Americans?
I'm genuinely asking, here. One straight white guy asking whether another straight white guy gets to make comparisons regarding oppressed minorities. The fact that Kitty said it is fair enough; I've known claims to victim-hood made by older people for far less reason, but having Stevie agree? I lack the necessary experiences to call this one way or another. All that said, if we consider that mutants are a better analogue for homosexuals than they are for black people, then having someone argue that tolerance of homophobic slurs is an odd stance for an African American to take would be an interesting point, though I'd think not one best made in a superhero comic.
Like I said, I've got no answers here. But this has all become rather heavy. Let's get back to the action: there's a Purifier team right outside the dance studio, watching everything that's happening. After some debate they decide to let Stevie live, for the moment at least (basically they want to kill the mutants first, and move on to the traitors later), and just radio in the movements of Ariel, Colossus, and the accompanying Illyana.
Back at the mansion, Kitty floats upstairs to do some brooding, but the rest of the team are settling down to watch Xavier on the television. He's on some unnamed current affairs program, debating with the Reverend Stryker. It's logic versus demagoguery, and with the produces trying to wring out the maximum amount of sound and fury, Charles doesn't really get the best chance to put his views across, and looks like he might have lost to a man so stupid as to argue that by naming mutants homo superior scientists have demonstrated they are an entirely different species from mankind (note to self: name Christina Hendricks my wife).
That said, I wish we could have seen Xavier respond to Stryker reading out a quote from Senator Kelly: "The ever-increasing number of mutants poses a clear and present danger, both to the United States and the socio-political order of the world as we know it." I think the second of those two is probably quite right, to actual, and whilst I'm not sure I'd say the socio-political state of the world at the time (or for that matter now) was any great shakes, you can't address the risk of massive global upheaval just by re-iterating that mutants are humans too.
As the program ends Scott, who's standing alongside Ororo just off-set, gives his unequivocal opinion: "We were slaughtered". Worse is to come, though; Stryker is planning to attack the trio of mutants in Central Park, under the cover of a psi-dampener.
Which is exactly what happens. Interestingly enough, the strike comes just moments after the professor laments the fact that, unlike with villains such as Magneto, Stryker isn't someone the X-Men can physically challenge, and can instead only battle in the court of public opinion. It would be fascinating to watch something like that actually go down. Indeed, recent storylines in UXM have brushed on this, but still ultimately fall back on lots of punching. I realise it's the nature of the beast that everything will ultimately end in a flurry of mutant fists, but the political angle is worth exploring more thoroughly from time to time, I think, and it seems odd for Claremont to bring this up just four panels before the Purifiers try to blow up their car.
The ambush is over very quickly. The X-Men's car skids off the road and overturns. Cyclops is shot as he pulls himself from the wreckage, and Ororo, weighed down by the professor, is tagged seconds later. Moments after, the car is engulfed in the blast on an RPG. None of this looks good for our heroes. Indeed, when Nightcrawler picks up the phone a little later, as the rest of the team cool down after a particularly strenuous Danger Room session, he is given the bad news: Charles, Scott and Ororo were in "accident", and all three have been killed.
The next day, we find Kitty by the lake, mourning her friends. Naturally, in Ms Pryde's case, mourning requires that she shout at everyone around her. Illyana calms her down by pointing out "they were my friends too". Poor old Illyana, I really feel for her. One more self-obsessed tantrum from her best-friend-by-default and I think Limbo's going to start looking like a fairly decent option. She tries to at least get some interest out of Kitty's mope-fest by teasing Kitty over her crush on Illyana's brother, but even that goes sour when Kitty starts complaining about how horrified her parents would be to find out she's hankering for a little slice of nineteen-year old. She even strays onto the subject of sexytimes, which not surprisingly makes Illyana want to change the subject.
Luckily, the young Russian has just the topic; she's found an electronic listening device on the grounds (presumably this wasn't difficult, since it's two feet tall and almost as wide, and hidden by a few pieces of green cardboard). Kitty has one of her much better ideas, and creeping up behind the camera, she shorts it out with her phasing power, and the two of them hide in the bushes to watch to see if anyone comes to fix the device.
Over at Central Park, the rest of the team are checking out the place where Xavier's car crashed. Wolverine can tell right off that something's wrong - the scents of the dead and burned bodies don't match their friends (I wonder who they were?) When Colossus asks how Logan can be sure, his response is that he's staged his own "accidents" more than once, which brings up all sorts of unpleasant questions that Peter, perhaps wisely, chooses not to pursue. On a nearby lamppost, Nightcrawler is watching the nearby roads, and reports two men have been checking out the group's car, and are now waiting close by. Love how professional the X-Men are being here. No more of this "show up, and wait to see who punches us" nonsense. This time, they get to start the punching themselves, which is exactly what Logan suggests. The first the Purifier's squad leader knows of having been rumbled is when a blue fuzzy shape suddenly obscures her binoculars.
Her response is to floor her car, hoping to kill herself and Nightcrawler. Kurt is fast enough to teleport both himself and the driver to safety; those in the back seat are less lucky. The other Purifier units arrive, dressed in those full-body armour suits that are all the rage in comics, and get stuck in. They take out Colossus first, and look like they're going to roll their way up the whole team, until at the last second our heroes are saved when their attacker's armour is stripped away, then used to encase its erstwhile owners. It's not too hard to work out what's happening even without the blue power signature: Magneto has shown up to lend a blood-drenched, murderous hand.
Back at the mansion, the technicians have finally arrived to fix the broken snooper. They've brought back-up in the form of another dude in power armour, which Kitty and Illyana weren't counting on. Kitty phases into the ground, hoping she can get far enough across the clearing to come back up in cover, and use a distraction to keep the enemy away from Illyana. Just as she reaches the surface, though, the Purifiers get their scanner back on line, and it immediately detects Illyana as, not a mutant exactly, but certainly something weird. The Purifiers shoot her, and carry her unconscious body to their car. Kitty quickly phases unseen into the car boot, so as to keep tabs on her friend. Alas, she trips an alarm somehow, and the Purifiers fill the boot with nerve gas as they drive away.
A little later, the rest of the team arrive at the mansion, along with Magneto and four captured Purifiers. Wolverine tries to threaten the location of their base out of them, but when that fails, Magneto just tortures the shit out of one of them instead. This proves effective, but certainly not uncontroversial. Colossus registers his objections, as does Nightcrawler, who asks "But if we use our foes' methods... how are we better than thay?" The answer to that, Kurt, is that they're using those methods to exterminate a sub-branch of humanity. You're using them to protect people. That doesn't mean it's morally acceptable, or even tactically wise, to use it (and for sure had this been real, and I been there, I hope to hell I'd have the courage to stand with Peter and Kurt), but the idea that this makes two groups indistinguishable always strikes me as a poor argument.
Atop the World Trade Center, Professor Xavier is being crucified and tortured by his X-Men, each of whom has been transformed into some kind of demon. They'd have managed it too, killed them man who brought them together, gave them purpose, but at the last minute he's saved by a beam of holy light and the arrival of Jesus Christ. For a moment this is enough to make Xavier believe but, as the Son of God reaches out to him, Charles lets doubt flicker through his mind, and he finds himself cast into the abyss -
- By Phil, a disheveled technician working for Stryker. He's hooked Charles up to some kind of VR system designed to convinced him of the need for God's salvation, and to help things along the professor has also been linked up to Scott and Ororo, who are being methodically tortured so that Charles will subconsciously pick up their discomfort. It all seems an exceptionally complicated and expensive way to be a total dickhead, but I'm sure Stryker has a specific goal in mind. Indeed, when Ororo asks just what the hell he thinks he's doing, we're treated to a flashback. Which looks absolutely beautiful, by the way, all sepia tones and a style that borders on Impressionism. This isn't actually the best example, but it's the only scan I could find:
Long story short: Stryker's child was a mutant, so he killed it, and his wife, before trying to take his own life. He failed, and became a reckless, violent drunk, until it finally became clear to him that he wasn't to blame, that his wife had been evil, and that murdering his her and their newborn baby was proof that he had been chosen by God. Not, in other words, someone you'd hope to reason with. Especially since he now considers Xavier to be the Antichrist. If nothing else, you'd think the son of Satan would be rather better at TV debates, wouldn't you? Not that there's any telling Stryker; he's too busy quoting the Bible, and ordering Kitty be killed.
The car carrying Illyana has made it as far as the South Bronx, which is where they stop and riddle the boot with machine-gun fire. Apparently they've rigged their cars to deploy knock-out gas to the boot, but not anything fatal. I'd call that an oversight if this whole thing wasn't so ridiculous. Anyway, the wall of lead they unleash doesn't actually do any good: the boot is empty! Not to worry, though; The Purifiers' leader Anne has the signal, and her team snaps into action.
Kitty is wandering through the Bronx after dark; feeling awful after having inhaled a whiff of gas. She phased a fraction too slowly, apparently (I'l just note for the record that the gas was deployed whilst the Purifiers were still at Xavier's, and thus this makes chuff-all sense). She meets up with the Warriors, or at least some close cousins, who promise to protect her in exchange for - well, let's not think about that too much, shall we? In any case, Anne arrives, guns blazing, and Kitty escapes during the ensuing shoot-out, managing to call the mansion and give her location to Nightcrawler before the Purifiers catch up with her.
They corner her on a train she phased into, shooting the conductor and announcing it will appear that she was to blame. I've no idea why they think this is going to work, but it turns out to be a moot point; Magneto has arrived, dead set on vengeance. The X-Men are hot on his heels, and between them they make short work of the Purifiers. Kitty is surprised to say the least over this strange alliance, but whilst Nightcrawler teleports as many of their unconscious foes to Riker's (sic) Island prison as he can, Magneto removes the bullet from the stricken conductor as an act of good faith, and forms a "flying carpet" of metal for the mutants to ride, first to a hospital to drop of the wounded conductor, and then - to war!
But are they already too late? Back at the Crusade HQ, Phil has finally broken Xavier, to the point where he's willing to burst Scott and Ororo's brains in order to prove he's all about the Word of God. Doctor Phil has clearly done his job well, but as he leaves in his limo to head home, he discovers his reward will be: getting kidnapped by Ariel. Oh, the shame! Phil's probably relieved when Nightcrawler starts choking him. For all his earlier protestations, Kurt's at least learned something about the value of instilling fear. We're spared the rest of the interrogation, but I can't imagine it was particularly pleasant.
Back to the Stryker building, and Anne has arrived with Illyana. The broken bodies of Cyclops and Storm are to be taken to the basement to be incinerated, and the plan is to drop Illyana off on the way, for whatever unpleasant procedures the Purifiers have in mind for her.
Instead, though, the elevator starts to climb. Magneto, as Anne realises in horror, has finally found them. The best she can do is to force open the doors and fling herself onto the building's roof, as the master of magnetism pulls the lift to the top of the nearby Twin Towers. There, Illyana and her brother are reunited, and Wolverine gives Scott and Ororo the once-over, declaring them somewhat less dead that Dr Phil believed. Logan recommends a short course of electro-shock therapy. The endlessly inventive Magneto obliges, shaking the two X-Men from their near-death states, apparently induced in them by Xavier, who had just enough free will left to not actually scramble their brains. That's a horrible cliche, of course, but given Claremont didn't make much of their "deaths" to begin with, it's not really all that much of a deal.
What comes next is certainly a lot more interesting; Cyclops is not remotely happy to discover his team are working with Magneto. An argument breaks out almost immediately, with Magneto pouring scorn on Scott for bothering to try and save humanity in the first place, and Scott demanding to know what would make a mutant dictatorship any better. Magneto's response is arguably the first time that he becomes a sympathetic character as he is (as oppose to having sympathy for what he's endured in the past). The man is absolutely convinced that with mutant-kind in charge they can eliminate famine, pestilence and war (death might have to wait his turn), and that humanity would happily give up some of what it narrowly defines "freedom" in exchange for never having to go a day with an empty belly or a sore throat. In all honesty, I can't be entirely sure the man is wrong about that. The rub, though, is in how many would have be killed or incarcerated to get to that point. It's one thing to keep someone in food and antibiotics forever, and quite another to start doing that the day after you killed her husband.
The American media has gathered in Madison Square Garden, awaiting an alleged game-changing sermon from Reverend Stryker. Discontent is beginning to brew over his hard-line "mutants < human" stance, and tonight, he promises to address that.
And address it he will, though not necessarily in the way anyone might expect. He's slapped together his own version of Cerebro, and he's planning on having the brainwashed Xavier use it to make contact with as many mutants as possible, before melting their brains. Even Anne's arrival to warn him of the X-Men's escape and Dr Phil's abduction doesn't phase Stryker: he is on a mission from God, and tonight he fulfils his objectives. To that end, he heads to MSG, launches into his exceptionally unpleasant and bigoted speech and, halfway through (just as he gets to the point that the Bible mentions neither mutants nor evolution, and therefore scientists are evil and mutants are hellspawn), he activates his Cerebro rip-off.
The effects are instantaneous. The X-Men begin to bleed from their ears, and nearby mutants pass out from the strain. Logan immediately notes the bind they're in: if they do nothing, they may well end up dead. If they attack Stryker on national television, they'll seemingly be making his point for him.
That's an atypically restrained conclusion for the usually bloodthirsty Wolverine to come to, but it turns out not to matter. The X-Men might cast away whatever reputation they've built up by attacking Stryker, but Magneto has no such concerns. Upon his arrival, Stryker immediately labels him as "self-styled overlord of Earth, enslaver of its people!", but it looks as though at least some in the crowd might be beginning to work out exactly who the real villain is here. Not that it does Magneto much good, as Stryker redirects the entirety of his mind-weapon against him. He falls into the crowd, and everything goes mad as most of them try to trample him to death, the security guards try to pull him out, and Stryker's psychic device seems to start affecting random humans as well.
The increasingly damaged and unsteady X-Men launch an assault at the building's entrance, hoping to sweep the Purifiers away as quickly as possible so as to grab Xavier and drag him from the machine. It doesn't look like they'll make it though; Charles has set up a psionic shield there seems to be no way to penetrate. Even so, their attack is worrying enough for Anne to run to Stryker to warn him, only for her nose to start to bleed. That's enough proof for the reverend that she too is a mutant, and, in front of the TV cameras, he tosses her from the stage, apparently breaking her neck in the process.
The mood of the crowd begins to turn. Some are still intent on blaming Magneto (presumably using my sister's approach to arguing, which states arguments can't start following ridiculous and offensive comments unless someone is unfair enough as to object to them) , but more are realising that a guy who'll instantly turn on his second-in-command is maybe a tad too unstable to be in charge of anything more complicated than a one-man band.
Back at the battle, it's become clear to everyone that they can't work their way forwards to Charles' position. At Logan's urging, Scott moves to the back-up plan: 'Crawler teleports Wolverine directly behind the professor, whilst Scott ricochets his optic blast of a few walls before clipping Xavier on the temple. The idea is that either Cyclops can stun their mentor, or Wolverine can kill him. Fortunately for the mental well-being of all involved, it's Wolverine the professor chooses to feel the brunt of his psychic force, and whilst Logan and Kurt stagger back in pain, Cyclops knocks Xavier out, before turning his eye-beams on Stryker's machine.
Then, they step on stage, determined that this fight will end with words after all. It shouldn't be hard: Stryker seems to have gone entirely off the rails, demanding all and sundry recognise that he is the chosen of God. All the X-Men ask is that people consider the possibility that perhaps a mutant is no further from God than any other person blessed with abilities that separate them from the rank and file. It's even possible that mutants are part of God's ultimate plan for humanity and therefore, in fact, mutants are closer to God than anyone else. More, in that sense, "human."
Stryker is so offended by the suggestion that Nightcrawler could be considered human that he reaches for his gun, and when Shadowcat defends Kurt (and quite eloquently, in truth), he trains the gun on Kitty. A shot rings out... and Stryker falls to the ground.
This is my favourite part of this whole novel: Stryker is shot not by Magneto, or another mutant, or even Anne (who I assumed must have been responsible when I first read this), but by a random cop. Some nameless police officer who saw what was happening and acted. A human mind that the X-Men had persuaded. Chekov might have been pissed at that, but it works for me.
Magneto and the X-Men watch a news broadcast on Stryker. He survived the cop's bullet and is loudly insisting that the courts will clear him of all charges. Magneto rubs salt into everyone's wounds by pointing out plenty of people are arguing Stryker was basically correct, merely too extreme in his approach. The resultant malaise is so strong that for a moment Charles considers packing it all in and signing up with Magneto, only for Cyclops to slap him down hard, not just for losing faith, but for doing so having spent so much time teaching the X-Men to follow him. Shamed to his senses, Charles refuses to join Magneto, and the X-Men's original enemy flies into the night.
So after all that, how does this now almost thirty year old book hold up? Damn well, is the answer. The artwork is gorgeous, and the story has proven its value by the number of time later writers have attempted to put together something similar. As a happy bonus, Claremont has dialled the wackiness to zero, and whilst he's never going to be the world's best writer of dialogue, much as with the Wolverine series he did with Frank Miller, his script matches the tone of the story and the artwork pretty well. This, to me, is where the X-comics truly came of age.
The team roster used in this issue together with the fact the mansion isn't in pieces means this story can only take place either between UXM #150 and #154, or after UXM #167. The Essential X-Men series seems to think the latter (which is why I'm covering this graphic novel now), which is backed up by the fact that Shadowcat is wearing a costume most similar to that she wears around this time.
On the other hand, she shouldn't even be in the team at present - or at least, she can't be if Cyclops is. I suppose though one can easily argue that Stryker isn't likely to make the distinction between a former member now transferred and a fully-fledged X-Man..
The story itself takes place over eight days, but the X-Men themselves only become involved on day three. We'll therefore place this story between UXM #167 and UXM #168, during the week we already assumed separated those issues.
Saturday 9th to Sunday 17th of July, 1983.
X+5Y+100 to X+5Y+107.
Chad forces retake the city of Abeche.
"Once more, genocide in the name of God. A story as old as the race." - Magneto