Sunday, 19 August 2012
NMU #6: "Road Warriors!"
(Who are we allowed to punch?)
We're going to stick with NMU for a couple more posts, for reasons which will become apparent later (short version: something happens in NMU #7 which must have taken place before UXM #172). Last time around, the New Mutants concluded they'd been abandoned by Xavier (now in Mexico trying to help Team America manage their mutant powers), and struck out on their own in an attempt to rescue Psyche, currently a hostage of Viper and the Silver Samurai.
Their first stop, interestingly, is California, where Shan's wicked uncle Nguyen is in the early stages of a floozy party. It's a nice idea, trying to interrogate him into giving away Viper's location - it's not a plan that's particularly likely to work, but given the team are out on their own, it's about as reasonable a move as they have available to them - but it doesn't quite work out, since the teenagers aren't willing to hurt the guy to get the job done.
We might as well take some time at this point to discuss a major topic in a great deal of fiction, which has actually managed to spill out into the real world due to US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia being, not to put too fine a point on it, a puddle of diarrhoetic stool left to fester and bubble in the summer sun. 
There's plenty more regarding my boundless hatred for Scalia over at my other blog, so I'll try to keep the words I waste on him to a minimum here. His disgraceful, soulless aura is invoked here because he was the guy who argued - not just with a straight face but with a contemptuous sneer for anyone who would disagree - that the authorities torturing people shouldn't be against the law because that would mean having to arrest Jack Bauer.
As obviously and agonisingly stupid as that idea is (I wonder if anyone ever told him his hunting trips should be illegal because of how much losing his mother upset Bambi), Scalia at least realises that events in fiction should not be considered entirely independently of those in the real world. He's got it entirely the wrong way round, of course. We shouldn't base the real world on how fictional characters behave; we should consider the validity of fictional characters actions in the context of reality.
Or at least, we should when the characters we're watching are those we're supposed to be sympathising with. Judge Dredd can beat the crap out of a street hoodlum because Judge Dredd isn't (or at least wasn't) intended to be someone to identify with, so much as someone to enjoy watching him shoot things. The New Mutants, though - and for that matter, Jack Bauer - are characters we're invited to connect to in some way.
So, when characters who you're at least supposed to be rooting for on some emotional level are faced with the problem of what to do to a guy who you need to spill the beans, we've arrived at an important fictional consideration, and one which has been explored in a very large number of ways. Sometimes the antagonist can be easily bribed. Sometimes they're so cowardly that the threat of violence is enough. Often the heroes are accompanied by someone more morally ambiguous who gets the job done for them.
All of these, of course, are kind of cheating, in the sense that they avoid the moral problem rather than resolving it. At the risk of somewhat contradicting my earlier point, because this is fiction, we can consider torture in terms of its moral dimensions rather than its real-world efficacy. All I mean there is that we can bypass the fact that torture is generally regarded as a pisspoor method for extracting accurate information, making it tactically unwise in addition to immoral. We're setting up a moral dilemma here: hurt someone who can't defend themselves or fail to gain the information you need to save your friend/a city/the world, so let's assume that this is truly the choice to be faced. What's a superhero to do?
Having drawn all this out it might feel almost like cheating to admit that I don't actually have an answer, but then anyone paying attention would have seen that coming in any case. Part of why this is such a major question in fiction is precisely because no-one's come up with a compelling answer. Good guy has to kill bad guy: there's endless permutations of circumstances and motivations that let you get away with that. Good guy has to reach for the pliers and start extracting fingernails? Not so much (which, to digress from a digression, is what made Sayid so interesting for five and half seasons of Lost, before he was epically pissed away). Plus, of course, a reaction of "fuck, I don't know!" is exactly the reaction you're looking for in an audience when you present them with this kind of quandary.
The New Mutants answer to all this is one of the most common ones; indeed, Claremont has used it before in the first Morlock story just a few months earlier, albeit without the torture aspect. Shan agrees to serve her uncle as his pet mind-stealer for a period of one year in exchange for being told where Dani has been hidden. It's worth noting that later versions of this scenario undercut this solution by having the heroes refuse to live up to their end of the bargain - to paraphrase The Five Doctor's Cyberleader, "Promises to douchebags have no validity" - but the same basic set-up is still being applied. Indeed, the answer to the dilemma above that comics seem to have taken in general is to actually deny that characters as rigidly noble as the New Mutants actually exist (Sayid is often heroic, but no-one could mistake him for an '80s good guy ). Maybe that's a cheat as well, but then this whole, wearying thread has been about a choice that's pointedly unrealistic, so complaining there's no way for two obvious constructions to interact realistically is probably a waste of breath even by the standards of this blog.
While the teenage mutants try to work out just how far they're willing to go, the Professor has his own problems in north Mexico. His new bestest friends of all his friends are heading off to do Viper's dirty work and hence save Dani, but they insist on enjoying themselves along the way! Those ungrateful gitchimps! Don't they understand that Professor X himself has agreed to mentor them? That he made the supreme sacrifice and cast aside his young charges in order to help Team America, despite them at no point asking him too! And now this group of young hog races have the temerity to... race their hogs? How sharper than a serpent's tooth, indeed.
(In fairness, Honcho takes Xavier's side in all of this, but that doesn't reinforce the professor's point so much as it makes Honcho look like an arse as well. A lecture that boils down to "We could die today, so kindly stop enjoying your lifelong passion" isn't really much use to anyone.)
There's a larger issue for Professor X, though, which is the intense strain he's under trying to keep tabs on Team America and the New Mutants at the same time. Apparently the plan is for TA to try and secure Dani's release through their deal with Viper, whilst the New Mutants work as back-up in case the bikers fail, or Viper doesn't keep her word. This, frankly, smells like a retreat from last issue's conclusion, in which Xavier tries to justify to himself his decision to forsake his current class in order to ensure the Team America gestalt doesn't accidentally harm anyone else with their powers. Certainly the New Mutants themselves don't seem to have any idea about Charles' intentions when they try to shake down Nguyen; it's impossible to credit that Shan would be willing to possess her uncle and threaten to kill him (even if she ultimately couldn't go through with it) rather than taking him to Xavier so he can poke through his memories for them. Of course, a few pages later it's made very clear that Shan is expecting regular contact with Charles, so who knows what the hell is supposed to be going on?
Even the villains don't seem to be having the best time of it, over at their secret base in Big Sur. The Silver Samurai has learned that his father has been killed (by Wolverine in WOL #4, published half a year earlier), and is none too pleased, especially since his half-sister has taken over the family assets, and also announced she's marrying the foreigner who killed Yashida's father in the first place. This will all have some effect upon our timeline, actually, but we'll deal with that when we discuss UXM #172. For now we'll just say that it's interesting to see one villain in pain over an event which isn't in the issue (or indeed the title) under consideration, and another villain trying to comfort him, rather than treating the whole thing like a colossal waste of time.
We return to Mexico, and more specifically, Black Mesa (which isn't in Mexico, but never mind). Team America have arrived, and whilst some of them scout out the terrain (and the ominous looking base that is its most interesting feature, unless you're a geologist), the rest have been put to sleep by Xavier so he can better "hone their powers". Because that's not weird or disturbing in any way. If the goal in restating the conclusion to last issue was to make the professor seem less calculating and unfeeling, then this sure as Hell isn't helping.
While Xavier is playing Sandman - and freaking out all and sundry - Honcho and Wrench ninja their way into the complex, which proves to be run by AIM. For those keeping score, then, one villain is trying to keep a second villain from going mad with grief so they can steal something from a third villain, whilst a fourth villain is being pumped for information about the first and second villain. Phew. With so much going on Wrench and Honcho barely have time to knock out two female guards and steal their clothes. Whatever else they are, though, they ain't slackers, and if stripping unconscious women is what they gotta do, then dammit, they're up to the job. Their newly acquired disguises even get them far enough through the base to half-inch the crystal Viper sent them to find, but it's at that point that everything goes horribly wrong. Xavier is attacked by a mutant presence lurking somewhere within Black Mesa, which also rather inconveniently explodes.
The explosion apparently marks the birth of a new and horrifically powerful mutant, one that almost fries Charlie's cortex and Lilandra right alongside. So that's villain number five. It's raining pricks. This latest one is particularly problematic since they decide to haunt Shan as she's leading the New Mutants in a sneak attack on the Bir Sur base. As a result, she gives the game away, and the HYDRA goons start swarming around them like angry snot-green hornets. Their cover blown, our heroes resort to more overt tactics, which has the immediate advantage of freeing Dani from her cell when Cannonball slams through the building, and the rather less fortuitous result of getting Wolfsbane damn near chopped in half by Kenuchio. Shan's team manages to chase Viper and the Samurai away before they can cause any more damage, but when Karma possesses Viper in the process Kenuchio swears his lover will kill her for the insult.
South of the border again, and we learn that Honcho and Wrench somehow survived the detonation that heralded our new threat's arrival - possibly, they muse, due to the strange crystal they've boosted - but the team are far from safe; AIM seems to have sent every hovercar they own after them. Happily, this provides us with the first moment in the whole story where Xavier turns out to have done something useful; El Lobo is able to consciously focus the gestalt into himself and thus become the Dark Rider. No more of this possession business. It's maybe a bit of a sudden leap forward in competence, but then there was never much chance Charles would be the team's mentor for any particularly lengthy period of time. In any event, El Dark Lobo Rider makes short work of the AIM forces, and it's all over bar the shouting.
The bikers return to Xavier to find he's still unconscious, but they quickly bring him round, and they head for Big Sur. But it's too late! Viper and Kenuchio have blown up the base, and Charles is convinced the teenagers were in there when it happened.
Dun dun DUUUR!
Since last issue, Team America have gone from Washington D.C. to Mexico, and the New Mutants to California. With the rejig to suggest Xavier has been assisting the younger team after all, we can assume his modified SR-71 Blackbird (which I don't believe has been mentioned before, though my memory may be playing tricks on me) to get people to where they need to go. It's not unreasonable then to assume the story starts soon after sundown of the same day Charles signed up with Team America. The story then continues until dawn the next day.
Scientists in San Antonio conceive a baboon in a lab dish. Because science will not be denied!
"The New Mutants do not kill, Robert. That is our pledge. If we do not hold true to those beliefs... then we are no better than my uncle."
Since I spent so long talking about the torture issue, I'll keep this one brief: can we please declare a moritorium in arguing that murdering innocents is equivalent to murdering murderers? It makes everyone sound like an idiot. Like in that Mitchell and Webb sketch:
"You're asking me to operate outside the law, sir, and if I do that, what's the difference between him and me?"
"He murders nuns!"
 If anyone can remember what that is.
 Or a '90s antihero, for that matter, since he has a conscience and no pouches.