Tuesday, 26 February 2013

SWA #2-4: "Prisoners Of War", "Tempest Without, Crisis Within!", "Situation: Hopeless!"

(Humans vs mutants vs criminal freaks.)


These three issues take us up to one third of the way through the Secret Wars, so I suppose I should go over what happens.  Fortunately, there's nothing particularly complicated that needs explaining.

Issue #2 starts off with a brawl between the two sides which leaves the villains sorely defeated.  Only Doom, Galactus and Ultron escape a beating, though in the latter's case that's only because Galactus has already deactivated him.  Whilst those villains who escaped capture limp away from their encounter, Doom breaks back into their lair (which he renames, inevitably, "Doombase"), hoping to scrounge together something useful, possibly including Ultron's body.  When the villains return, Doom has reactivated Ultron under his control, and it takes very little time to "persuade" the various ne'er-do-wells that they're best off taking orders from the ruler of Latveria from now on.

Meanwhile, the heroes find a base of their own to make use of, as does Magneto, and Galactus spends his time standing on a hillside brooding in silence.  The issue ends with Magneto sneaking into the heroes' base and trying to start a chain reaction in the generators, hoping to provide a distraction for his plan.  Things don't work out and the heroes catch him in the act.  Magneto is forced to retreat, but manages to grab the Wasp and take her with him.

Oh, and the Thing turns back into regular old Ben Grimm, for some reason.

In issue #3, a massive storm engulfs the land, forcing everyone to drum their fingers whilst they wait for enough blue to make a sailor a pair of Lycra super-tights.  Man, what would our heroes give for a weather manipulator or the God of Thunder right now, huh? Seriously.  Clearly lacking such resources, the heroes sit around and snipe at each other, because that's just what they do. Magneto meanwhile seems intent on either recruiting the Wasp or seducing her; possibly both.

Only the X-Men seem particularly interested in being proactive, though their definition of the word is to plot to sneak out and link up with Magneto, so they can all be mutated BFFs. Spiderman overhears their conversation (a little careless of our guys, actually; it's not like they lack the capability of mental conferencing), but Xavier rather callously wipes the experience from Parker's mind to prevent a superhero civil war.  Which would be awful, when you think about it.

While the X-Men flee the heroes complex and Magneto succeeds in getting to first base with Janet van Dyne, Doom is hard at work slapping together two new supervillainesses to help him crush his enemies.  Meet Miss Rosenberg, AKA Volcana, capable of firing bolts of magma from her hands.  Tremble before "Skeeter" MacPherran, the woman now known as Titania, capable of both throwing gigantic rocks through the air and wandering around in a t-shirt and panties for no real reason!  How did Doom gift them with powers?  Who knows!  What the fuck are they even doing on the Beyonder's world?  No answer is forthcoming!  But boy are our heroes in trouble...

Especially since Thor has decided to interrogate the captured Enchantress, and lets her persuade him into talking away from the heroes' base.  Between this, the X-Men's desertion, and the Hulk failing to wake Captain America when its time to change the watch, the sudden arrival of Doom and his forces leads to a very short and one-sided fight.  The heroes have been defeated!

Lastly, issue #4 deals with the battle's aftermath.  Having punched their way through the heroes, Doom's forces leave the compound so Molecule Man can obliterate it.  Somehow, though, they quickly discover the heroes have escaped, and are regrouping five miles away in plain sight.  Titania's response is to start throwing gigantic pieces of twisted metal at them, a tactic quickly copied by the others, in shape if not in size ("Bomb 'em! With, uh... smaller chunks of debris"). The heroes manage to blast the incoming missiles before they can do any damage, but Molecule Man ups the ante by dropping an entire mountain range on them.  That, it would seem, is that.

If only the villains had seen this issue's front cover!  Then they'd know the Hulk has managed to catch the jagged line of towering mountains and kept it from crushing his fellows.  Which is ridiculous, quite frankly, though in a comic in which we're expected to believe Thor won't fuck the Enchantress because she's only indescribably beautiful on the outside, holding up half the Andes doesn't seem too unreasonable.

Speaking of Thor, the sound of the rearranging mountains persuades him to head back to base to check up on things, only to land in the middle of the villains and be disintegrated by Ultron's new, er, disintegrator.  Doom then has Kang boiled off in the same way, presumably to prove the first go around wasn't just a fluke, or maybe just because green and purple is horribly overused in comics and it's time to put a stop to the madness.

Meanwhile, the X-Men arrive at Magneto's base, sneaking in undetected because the Wasp has Magneto using all his concentration turning metal filaments into beauty products for her.  And how is he repaid?  With treachery! Van Dyne flees firing bio-stings at anyone in reach, all because of a little thing like Magneto being willing to murder Captain America if he doesn't let the mutants have the Beyonder's powers.  Women, eh?  Can't live with 'em, can't threaten to murder their friends in cold blood.

Back beneath the mountain range, Hulk is pretty close to collapse.  Fortunately Mr Fantastic has a plan.  There are two parts to his scheme, which are as follows:
  1. Rewire Iron Man's armour to allow the Human Torch and Captain Marvel to direct their power through his repulsor beams, creating a force of massive proportions;
  2. Call the Hulk a c***.
Remarkably, the plan works.  Hulk gets madder, and thus gets stronger, giving Iron Man time to use his re-jigged armour to punch out an escape route.  The heroes find Thor, who'd faked his disintegration earlier and has been trying to dig them out, and together they head to a nearby village, hoping the locals will help them with their wounded.  After some initial suspicions, that's exactly what happens, even when Ben makes a startling transition back to being the Thing, and so everything looks like it might turn out OK after all.

Until Galactus decides it's time to start moving again...

Right.  Summary over, onto the musings.  The most obvious storyline being assembled here with regard to our merry mutants is that of mutual mistrust with baseline humans ("flatscans", to use one of my all-time favourite fictional slurs).  I say "the most obvious" in roughly the same way one might call the sun "the most bright", because this stuff is everywhere, and in all honesty is ladled on so thick that characterisation starts to groan a little around the edges.

Let's zoom out for a moment.  There are, generally speaking, two schools of thought regarding how superheroes in general, and the X-Men especially, are almost always viewed by the public as menaces.  The first group think it too hard to swallow that humanity could be so stupid as to not remember the sheer number of times the entire planet has been saved by "capes", and so short-sighted as to believe that if only superheroes would stop punching the supervillains, Doctor Doom et al would settle down to quiet careers in public service.

The other group are cynical enough to argue that it's precisely how much the human race owes to their self-proclaimed saviours that makes them so disliked.  If there's anything worse than a holier-than-thou type strutting around pontificating on how to live a truly virtuous life, it's the ones that hold you in their debt as well.

Obviously, I'm with the cynics. The only human response that works faster than spinning helplessness into guilt is the one that forges guilt into anger.  I can completely understand why the public would hate the X-Men, even if they believed all that stuff about the M'Kraan crystal.  What I don't believe is that this sneering attitude would extend to the Avengers.

Secret Wars was first published almost twenty years after Scarlet Witch joined the Avengers.  Are we really supposed to believe there's any lingering anti-mutant sentiment amongst the team?  This team that has fought beings so utterly varied and insane it's a miracle they can tell a mutant from a turkey vulture, let alone a flatscan?  That doesn't make any sense to me.  And when you take the mutant element out of the equation, all you really have here is one superhero team sniping at another hero team, and again, you'd think people in that line of work would be a bit more understanding, particularly to people who have saved the entirety of reality.

Perhaps I'm being unfair.  The proximate cause of all this human/mutant friction is after all Magneto, and his surprising inclusion in the space station of heroes.  I can completely understand why that would stir up tensions.  The problem is in how these tensions spill out.  Xavier's point that an alliance against the - for want of a better term - proactively evil evil-doers is entirely reasonable, especially given the history he has with Magneto (which, granted, there's no reason to believe anyone outside the X-Men are aware of).  Moreover, given the chequered pasts of, say, Hawkeye and the Hulk, it hardly represents an unthinkable muddying of the Avenger's crystal-clear waters. 

That's not to say the idea is necessarily a good one, of course - if nothing else, if Magneto's interested in helping out the heroes he could at least stop being an insufferable prick for five minutes.  Neither though is it the obvious slap in the face the Avengers take it to be, and the immediate assumption jumped to - the muties are hanging out together, what a surprise - is exceptionally ugly.  Certainly, the X-Men's decision to hang out in a separate part of the heroes' base to everyone else doesn't seem hard to understand afterwards.  It also gives an entirely obvious geographic explanation as to why the X-Men aren't on hand to battle Magneto when he sneaks into the base at the end of issue #2, which is why Captain Marvel can piss right off with her "how convenient the X-Men weren't around" bullshit.

I'm not exactly hiding my hand, here, the Avengers are being dickholes.  Though I would say that, wouldn't I?  I said the same thing during A vs X, and the reason then could well be exactly the same as the reason now: I just know the X-Men so much better.  It's certainly true that they could stand to be a bit less aggressive in shouting the Avengers down; not only has Magneto attempted to kill every single one of the assembled mutants at least once (with the exception of Rogue), he shows no remorse whatsoever for sinking the Leningrad.  Which contra Magneto and many fans through the years, wasn't an act of self-defence.  Magneto had already demonstrated he could fry the nuke's tracking systems, meaning they couldn't get anywhere near him.  Killing more than a hundred people who can't possibly harm you is cold-blooded murder even if they're actively trying to rub you out.  If my 82 year old grandmother came at you with a box of Dairy Milk she'd have a better chance of finishing you off than the Leningrad did Magneto; you'd still get time in the chokey if you decided to drown her.

In short, neither side are completely in the right about Magneto, but the X-Men's position is at least slightly less unpleasant than that of at least some of the Avengers.  I can't know for sure, but I'd imagine anyone reading the Avengers at the time might have found their attitude somewhat off.  It's a good job then that Shooter strives for balance, having the X-Men act like total berks in issue #3, not only deciding to secretly leave the heroes in the lurch so they can join up with Magneto, but re-writing Spiderman's memories when he catches them plotting.

Because everything I said up there about superhero solidarity cuts both ways.  If you want to argue about whether Magneto gets to hang out with the cool kids, fine.  You're under no obligation to just shut up and go along with everyone else.  Nor are you obligated to follow Captain America's instructions, just because he's been chosen as leader by the majority.  But once you've had your say, you shut up and toe the line, or you announce you're leaving. Sneaking out the back door because you don't want to explain your intentions is cowardice, pure and simple, and if Professor X is as keen as peaceful mutant/human relations as he claims, you'd think blowing off humans without so much as a text message to go hang around a mutant mass-murderer would be something he'd be keen to avoid.

Actually, maybe this isn't all that balanced after all.  Maybe the X-Men really are coming off worse here?  I mean, however snide Captain Marvel gets, however clearly bigotry seems to run underneath the humans' comments, at least no-one suggested secretly leaving the mutants to fend for themselves.  We'd probably need something really ridiculously over the top from the human contingent to redress the balance.

Enter the Wasp.

I've never liked Janet van Dyne.  Maybe it's because I have no interest in fashion.  More likely it's because I have no time for those people who both are interested in fashion and think there's something wrong with anyone who isn't.  I don't begrudge people their trivial interests - I have more than my share of my own - but I rapidly lose patience with people who are convinced their own ephemera are objectively more important than anyone else's, and that doesn't change just because they're lucky enough to make their money off the back of them.

In fact, there have been no few occasions when I've wondered whether Van Dyne is simply an unpleasant character, or an unpleasant stereotype.  It's certainly not that there's any lack of superficial people in the world, of both sexes, and one could make the argument that the Wasp's obsession with creature comforts and the latest dresses are not too different from Johnny Storm's love of hot chicks and fast cars.  On the other hand, the latter isn't a stereotype of men, but a stereotype of a certain type of young man.  Van Dyne just seems modelled on more broad and generic a trope, and that's a problem.

Whether she's a sexist cliche or not, though, she's certainly a gigantic pain in the arse here.  I actually really like the idea of her pretending to fall for Magneto's seduction routine, because there's no way he'd ever figure out he was being played (having Magneto make her combs from iron filaments is pretty funny as well, though it feeds into the spoiled child routine she has going on that's one more reason to be wary of her portrayal here and elsewhere). Indeed, even if she'd genuinely been into Magneto and his icy-eyed charm, it's typically egomaniacal of the man to openly admit the Avengers might have to be killed if they don't tell the line, and act surprised when the Wasp doesn't respond by making eyes toward the bedroom. Her decision to attack him and the X-Men alongside is his fault, pure and simple.

The devil, though, as we've been told before, is in the details.  Magneto's argument runs as follows: someone's going to end up with the Beyonder's powers, and it cannot under any circumstances be Doom.  Since this would seem to be a battle to the death, then, Doom will have to go into that good night first, because the alternative is just constantly knocking the guy down until he finally has a lucky day and wipes the heroes out.

So far, this is not only plausible, but it might actually be the most sensible option, so long as - and this is crucial - you're in favour of the final result, which is that one of the heroes gets the Beyonder's blessing.  There's two schools of thought on this.  The first would be the standard power corrupts argument.  Under that argument, though, the heroes must enforce a stalemate with the villains, and potentially live the rest of their lives fighting villains to bloody draws, rather than being back home where they can help their own people (that's if the Beyonder doesn't just squish them all for refusing to get with the program).

The second argument is that at least if one of their number became a God, he or she could help their comrades home, to check up on a world that might well not be doing too well without its three most famous super-teams. What are the Hellfire Club up to right now?  Or the Skrulls?  Or Thanos?  It also suggests (and again, this is returned to almost thirty years later in A vs X) that an obvious upside to the arrangement is that there's plenty of non-sinister stuff a heroic God could get to do, like create infinite food and water, or cure malaria.

That's Magneto's pitch.  He wants Doom dead to ensure he can never dominate reality, and figures he should get to be Beyonder Mk II so that he can liberate the mutant population and create a new golden age.

This, of course, is where it all goes off the rails, because whilst the "kill Doom, go home" plan isn't automatically terrible, it should at least be ensured that whomever gets to play God isn't someone who's convinced they deserve the role. It certainly shouldn't be someone so convinced they're right they're willing to kill their ostensible allies, even if, like Magneto, this is suggested only to ensure said allies can't get in the way of eliminating the absolute worse case scenario.

The upshot of all of this is that the situation is horribly complicated.  There is no clearly right answer here.  Magneto's plan is callous, and it calls for murder, and it ends with a former terrorist becoming God, but the problem isn't that his aim is evil, it's that his aim is almost certainly unattainable, and it risks evil being done both as a means to an end, and as the eventual true end itself.  Someone better point this out quick before everything goes to hell.

So what does Janet decide to do when Magneto announces his intention to forge "An age in which men and mutants live together in peace!"? She tells him he's "the most evil scum since Hitler". [1]

This, in the end, is what Secret Wars seems to be telling us: that even those humans sufficiently empathetic to become heroes can only care about mutants in the abstract.  Mutant viewpoints that differ from their own are to be considered only insofar as they demonstrate that mutants are a single amorphous mass of "other".  Two mutants disagreeing with you is not evidence you might be mistaken, it's evidence that all mutants stick together and can't be trusted.  A mutant who wants the ultimate power to end the oppression of his people is worse than a human who wanted ultimate power to wipe as many other peoples off the face of the Earth as he could.

These are America's heroes.  These are the first shots fired in America's second civil war.  This is where a dislike of mutants stops being shorthand for villainy or at least fearful, violent ignorance and starts simply being one more facet of human psychology.  All of which is exceptionally important, and long overdue, because if you're going to get serious about mutants as a metaphor, you've got to make it smarter than "rascists are all idiots and dicks".  What we see in these three issues needed to happen.

But my God, does it look ugly at it's being born.

[1] Obviously, the fact Wasp says this to a Holocaust survivor makes it all the more unpleasant, but it's pretty unlikely Janet actually knows Magneto's history, so I'm not inclined to criticise her for that, at least.  Mind you, a few panels later Xavier is announcing he himself is no better than Hitler because he wiped thirty seconds from Spiderman's mind to prevent a pointless battle between the X-Men and the Avengers.  A sense of proportion is apparently something mutants and humans alike lack in the Marvel Universe.


Magneto confirms that the days and nights on the Beyonder's world are approximately equivalent to our own.  Therefore these issues taking place over twenty-four hours or so on that world means the same time has passed back on Earth.


Tuesday 10th to Wednesday 11th January, 1984.


X+5Y+316 to X+5Y+317.

Contemporary Events

Standout Line

"None may touch the person of Magneto!"

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