Friday, 8 March 2013
SWA #5-7: "The Battle Of Four Armies!", "A Little Death...", "Beserker!"
("A big big love".)
Right. It's EXTREME SUMMARISING time again. If you're not convinced things are sufficiently EXTREME, then let me assure you that you're wrong, because I'm typing out these SUMMARIES whilst absolutely desperate for a piss, meaning I am risking bladder rupture every second I delay. And all for you.
Issue #5 begins with the arrival of Galactus' worldship, an event which rather puts the wind up heroes and villains alike. Both the Avengers and the X-Men (alongside Magneto) prepare to attack if necessary, all but the Human Torch, who decides to get high with his new alien girlfriend instead. Which proves he's not as dumb as he's suggested to be, actually. He's certainly putting less noses out of joint than Xavier, who's now decided he'll be leading the X-Men in the field despite having had no field experience in the last thirty years. Over at Doombase, the Enchantress tries in vain to seduce Doom in exchange for protection from Galactus, whilst the Wreckers are so busy watching Piledriver attempt to bully Molecule Man's new girlfriend Volcana (which goes exactly as poorly as you'd expect) they almost miss the vast craft appearing in the sky.
Each of the three groups respond differently to the arrival of Galactus' ship and his subsequent construction of some kind of machine that everyone's terrified will blend the planet good and proper so Galactus can chug back a world smoothie. The heroes send Reed to try and speak to Galactus, hoping the fact Mr Fantastic once saved the guy's life might count for something. Xavier meanwhile has the X-Men prepare for battle whilst he tries to make mental contact, using Magneto's latent psychic powers to assist him. I don't think I've seen Magneto's psychic abilities referenced since the mid '60s, so that's interesting.
It's also unwise, however. Initial attempts to make contact fail, leading to Magneto trying to tear his way into Galactus's mind. The resulting pain causes the world-eater to notice the X-Men, which goes very badly when he blows up a third of their base. Interrupted from his reverie, Galactus also notices Reed trying to get his attention, and responds by attacking the heroes with a giant killer robot, so he can get some peace and quiet. No sooner have Cap's forces stopped the machine than the villains attack once more. This is Doom's own response; distract the heroes with his minions whilst he sneaks aboard Galactus's ship.
This he does, and there's almost an unexpected bonus as his forces come close to defeating the heroes. At the last moment, however, the X-Men arrive to help out, resulting in another retreat for the villains. This time the battle is not without cost, however, Colossus is stabbed through the chest by Wrecker - an odd thing to happen considering he's armoured up, but maybe Wrecker's superhuman strength plus his magically enhanced indestructible crowbar is up to the job - and Xavier orders he be left behind, believing his injuries too severe to risk moving him. Fortunately, his hunch plays out, and the heroes arrange for the local healer to save Colossus, but even so, Charles's apparent callousness serves to stoke Storm's suspicions about his fitness for command still further.
Of course, if Doom manages to succeed in his goal of stealing Galactus's power for himself, the internal cohesion of the X-Men won't really matter a damn, and neither will anything else.
Issue #6 kicks off with a look at what happened to Wasp after she was shot down escaping Magneto's base. It turns out she makes an ugly landing inside an alien swamp, which turns out to be where the Lizard has been hiding since fleeing the initial encounter with Cap's troops. Best laid plans of mice and angry sentient lizards, and all that. Not best pleased by the interruption, the former Doctor Connors leaps to the attack, but Wasp manages to calm him down with soothing words and, once she learns the Lizard broke his arm when fighting the heroes, a quick Androcles impression.
Back aboard Galactus's ship, and Doom has made a surprising discovery, when it turns out the villain Klaw, last seen flash-fried in Dazzler, is a) still alive, b) aboard the worldship, and c) out of his fucking mind ("So... I have managed to recreate a raving lunatic!"). Apparently, being made of sonic energy has its advantages, and once Dazzler freed him in a burst of light aimed at Galactus a little while after absorbing him, Klaw was able to gradually reform, albeit as a simple-minded pest. Even he has the wherewithal to carry a message, though, so Doom beams him to the villain's base, where Klaw relays instructions intended to stop Galactus from chowing down on the surrounding landscape.
Over in the shadow of Galactus, our two groups of heroes aren't having the best time of it. Cap's forces are getting more and more agitated, partially because the Wasp is missing, but mainly because the sum total of Captain America's battle plan is to do sweet fuck all on the off chance Galactus suddenly decides to eat the planet. Of course, if that is Galactus' plan, there's nothing the heroes could plausibly do about it, which pretty much means Cap's strategy is to do nothing so as to save strength for when they're all immediately brutally killed.
Meanwhile, Colossus may have been healed, but the exhausted Avengers and Fantastic Four don't seem to have any interest in him, and he's finding it hard to keep his mind of Kitty (who he last saw all of two days ago) because of how smokin' hot he finds Zsaji, the alien healer who repaired his chest wound but apparently plucked out his heart first. Alas, she apparently only has eyes for Johnny Storm and his classy pick-up lines (see end of post).
The rest of the X-Men have their own problems. When Charles's mental snooping reveals Doom has dispatched a team for reasons unknown, he orders Cyclops to lead an interception team, enraging current leader Storm. When she confronts Xavier about his recent heavy-handed tactics, and threatens to quit as a result, Professor X calmly tells her that her options are limited to following his orders willingly, or being mentally forced into doing what she's told. You'd better believe we'll come back to this later.
For now, though, we follow Cyclops, Wolverine and Rogue into battle as they charge forward - despite Xavier specifically ordering they not engage - and engage Doom's team, who've been sent to a range of dormant volcanoes for unknown reasons. Given that the villains here include the Molecule Man, it doesn't seem likely that our heroes have much of a hope. Of course, Wolverine is smart enough to realise that, so his very first move is to try and cut Owen Reece in half. Only a last second optic blast from Scott saves the villain, who is still almost eviscerated.
With that, the villains retreat, meaning the X-Men are free to investigate the area, and Cyclops concludes Molecule Man's goal was to re-ignite the volcanoes. Curious as to what the villains planned, and assuming it might have something to do with Galactus, Cyclops takes the utterly demented decision to open fire into the nearest caldera, setting of a chain reaction of eruptions across the plain. The team get out in their ship at the last second as Scott muses "I hope I did the right thing!" Ensuring the assumed exact goals of your enemies come to pass on the off chance it will benefit you too later on? What could be more right than that?
Back in the swamp, Lizard is well on the way to being domesticated; he's already learned to say "sss-sorry", though admittedly only after announcing "I hate humansss... crush them all!", so there's some distance still to go. Alas, Janet van Dyne won't be around to help out; the Wrecking Crew arrive under orders to retrieve the Lizard, and they shoot Wasp straight through the chest before she even knows she's there. That's the thing about the alien vehicle the criminals are driving:
it's just so damn hard to see or hear coming. The Wrecking Crew grab both the Lizard and the Wasp's body, and head out of the swamp.
Meanwhile, a shadowy figure watches the heroes from the shadows...
Onto issue #7, and the mysterious stranger is quickly revealed: it's a super-heroine named Spider Woman. Not the New York one, but someone from Denver, who was swept up by the Beyonder when this new world was being formed. This answers the question of where Titania and Volcana came from originally (though not how Doom met them), and finally confirms that the inhabitants of this world are not from the galaxy the Beyonder destroyed in the opening issue. For those keeping score, then, it's at this point that the heroes horror about seeing an entire galaxy get torn to shreds could convincingly fade into the background.
There's some concern that this new heroine might be a spy (Spiderman is none too pleased about encroachment on his IP rights, also), but the discussion is rapidly tabled when the Wrecking Crew rock up in their tank, sticking around just long enough to throw Jan's dead body to the ground. Naturally, our heroes are outraged, but Cap refuses to countenance retaliation, still being too worried about what Galactus might be planning. It's still best, he insists, to wait and see what happens, even when Captain Marvel points out attacking Galactus is suicidal in any case.
(As is trying to sneak into his base, as Doom soon discovers when Galactus finally notices the intruder, and has Doom sucked out of the nearest airlock. Somehow he survives, but when he finally staggers into his base several pages later, he immediately passes out on a lovely comfy double bed. Apparently even Doctor Doom needs a kip from time to time.)
Back with the villains, Molecule Man isn't looking good. He's close to bleeding to death, and both Cyclops' vessel and a second craft carrying Xavier, Magneto, Nightcrawler and Storm are closing in. Watching on the Doombase monitors, Volcana strikes a deal with the Enchantress to be teleported to her boyfriend's side, which proves fortuitous, as seconds later the villain's craft is shot down and another battle with the X-Men begins. Ultimately the villains escape by stealing one of the X-Men's shuttles. Storm is less than impressed, but Charles argues their performance was good enough to prove he belongs as their field leader and that Magneto is a boon to the team. Personally, I think the only upside to the whole affair was that Wolverine got to chop the Absorbing Man's arm off, but then I'm not the master tactician Charles (has persuaded himself he) is.
Upon returning to Doombase, the villains lick their wounds and clean up. Titania threatens to tear the Enchantress in half if she doesn't save Molecule Man, the Wrecking Crew find a cage for the enraged lizard, and the Absorbing Man learns to his significant relief that he can re-attach his severed arm upon transforming from rock back to flesh. There's no time to get anything else done, because at that moment She-Hulk attacks. She's struck out on her own, but with surprise on her side - plus, obviously, massive strength - she takes out the entire Wrecking Crew in seconds. Ultimately, however the sheer number of bad 'uns nearby overwhelms her.
Incredibly, when he learns She-Hulk has gone rogue and is almost certainly on the shitty end of magical/molecular torture even now, Captain America still refuses to roll out, so terrified is he that if Galactus eats this world, some of his men might not live long enough to die in the resultant apocalypse. It's only when Xavier finally does something useful and offers his services as Galactus' baby sitter that we finally get to see Rogers step up to the plate. Avengers gotta assemble.
That at least is a nice ending to the infighting that's plagued the heroes since the first issue, even if it comes at least four issues later than it should have. But with the Avenger, FF, and X-Men all working together at last, is there anything one could seriously object to in these three issues?
Oh my, yes.
There's two major problems with these three issues, which though very different do have a definite intersection. We'll start with the one more directly relevant to this blog's focus, I think, and talk for a bit about Charles Xavier.
I never really understood why so many readers were upset over Whedon's portrayal of Xavier in his Astonishing X-Men run. Sure, there were problems there (a crippled man driving an articulated lorry being my personal favourite), but anyone claiming Professor X would never enslave an AI in the service of the greater good was simply not paying attention. Charles Xavier has always been a douche. In fact, that's what I like about him, genuinely flawless Messianic figures being pretty much unbearable. Hell, even Jesus fragged that fig tree for no good reason.
The problem, I think, is that a lot of people mistake Charles's dedication to empathy as a general concept for giving two shits what anybody else thinks. Charles has decided that the world would best be served by people living in harmony, and he hasn't any interest in listening to suggestions about how best to do it. He spends a lot of time agonising over decisions in his own head, which is part of why people might think of him as reasonable (it helps that for decades we were able to see what was going on inside his head), but once his deliberations point one way or another, that's it; the truth has been found. In short, whether he's truly reasonable or not, he can't be reasoned with. This is the point Chuck Austen made with his very first and arguably best Uncanny X-Men issue back in 2002; Xavier and Magneto differ in both goals and methods, but they're actually exceptionally similar in terms of how they respond to those who disagree with their impenetrable self belief.
These Secret Wars issues underline this point. The instant Xavier is capable of standing, of course he decides the best thing he can do is lead the team in the field. He's the one with the vision, so it stands to reason he's the one best suited to carrying it out. When Storm threatens to quit, and thereby cost the team one of its most important power sets, of course he tells her she'll be mentally controlled unless she falls into line. Because Xavier knows what's best, and he doesn't have time for you people to work it all out for yourself. The fact that between threatening Storm with being reduced to a mohawk-sporting meat puppet and tearing pieces out of Spiderman's memory he's lecturing Magneto on the sanctity of human life, and when he's not bellowing at the X-Men to attend him immediately he's explaining to Magneto the dangers of expedient concision rather than warmth, is all part of the same thing. It's not so much that he's a hypocrite, as he's completely unable to fathom the idea that his decision on what is and isn't necessary could possibly be the wrong one.
To the outside observer, this seems maddeningly inconsistent. Ten minutes after ordering the X-Men not to engage the Molecule Man's squad, and telling Storm she'll be brainwashed if she disobeys orders, he's congratulating Scott on disobeying orders by ordering a ridiculously fool-hardy attack that only worked because Logan almost killed someone, and which proved to be pointless when Cyclops did the villain's work for them anyway. Indeed, it's pretty hard to see this as anything other than playing favourites. Even that ties into Charles's bigger issues, however; it makes total sense that he'd prefer the man he chose as field leader to be his second in command, rather than the woman chosen by the team without his input.
Of course, what isn't explained by Cyclops being Charles's favourite might be attributable to plain sexism. These are not good issues from a feminine perspective. The Wasp spends almost every panel right up to her death complaining about the lack of lunch spots and hairdressers, pausing only to blame the X-Men for not stopping her stinging them repeatedly in the face and then stealing their shuttle, or to take a distinctly schoolmarmish tone with the Lizard. This is hardly helped by us seeing her death but skipping her funeral, rather reinforcing the idea that Wasp's death is a shock event, entirely independent of her character save that it removes same.
As I've mentioned, though, this could be me just bringing my more general Wasp baggage into this story. On the other hand, if Shooter wanted to steer people away from accusations of poor sexual politics, he should've cut out the rather nasty streak of fat-shaming that goes on throughout these issues. This is Volcana:
Alas, not everyone agrees with me. Over the course of these issues, Volcana is called a Guernsey cow, a fatbag, plump, and bloated. Which is utterly, utterly horrible. I'll come clean here and admit that I've never been as bothered about the way women are drawn in comics as some, at least up to a point. The giant breasts are a problem for me, but in general, a lot of women in comics are drawn like a lot of men in comics, according to what society at a given time tends to view as a desirable body shape. Now, that's clearly a major problem in itself, but it makes comics a symptom of a wider problem, and the symptoms are only particularly obvious here because comic artists lack the constraints upon casting directors. I'm not trying to defend comics from what are accurate criticisms of their treatment of women; I'm just saying there's a wider context here.
Even that, I'm just saying to highlight how terrible these issues are in comparison to standard comic problems. It's one thing to pretend everyone looks like society says they should, and quite another to actively mock those who don't fit into that ridiculously narrow (in both senses) template. And yes, all the people throwing this crap at Volcana are villains, but that doesn't really make me feel much better. We've sort of touched on this before, I seem to remember, but "it's only villains displaying bigotry" isn't nearly as good a counter-argument as a lot of writers seem to think. At best, it implies bigotry is so obviously villainous that it can't be found in otherwise decent people, which is as wrong as it dangerous, and at worst it leads one to wonder exactly why that particular line of prejudice is coming up so much. Four references to a woman's weight in three (actually, two) issues? There's no other way to show these characters are arsebiscuits? Sooner or later it stops looking like trying to make characters seem unpleasant, and starts looking like trying to have characters be unpleasant to provide you with cover. It's why Seth MacFarlane can't get away with arguing his offensiveness is part of studied character comedy. Eventually the straw hits the camel's spine and you realise the guy just wants to say shitty stuff and get away with it.
It's not all bad, though. I wanted to quickly take a look at Wolverine's attempt to murder Owen Reece, because it allows Shooter to present iteration number 974,665,846 of the "heroes don't kill" speech. I thought this was worth focusing on because of how much time I've spent railing against how stupid the idea is, but reading this scene actually made me think again.
The reason I'm unusually sympathetic to Cyclops' argument here is that the Molecule Man is clearly a man with severe mental issues. He was seeking therapy and trying to live the straight life when the Beyonder threw him into Doom's clutches for the sake of good interdimensional TV, or whatever the hell all this is. Also, lacking any actual improvements to his physiognomy, it's not like Wolverine couldn't just have punched Owen out instead of trying to bisect him. In short, Logan was absolutely right to try and take MM out of the fight, but the argument that either had to or deserved to die is particularly weak here.
The counter here is obvious; you only kill when you absolutely have to. Which, fine, that's not hard to grasp. There's any number of situations the Marvel Universe has thrown up where killing a villain has been unambiguously the right decision, what with the entirety of the universe about to be exploded and suchlike. But there are two ways to phrase this idea. The first is to have a rule that says "No killing unless there is literally no alternative save allowing innocent lives to be lost". The second is to have a rule that says "No killing under any circumstances" and understand that under certain circumstances it is right to break that rule.
The most obvious real-life analogy to this involves the endless (as well as endlessly horrible) conversation in the US about whether or not torture should be legal. I use the term "real-life" somewhat loosely here, since so much of that debate has been taken up by various conservatives (including at least one Supreme Court Justice, who seems utterly determined to disgrace their position until the very instant death claims him) that the events of 24 should be considered a historical document. If Jack Bauer has to torture some Arab to find the location of a nuclear bomb before it blows up Los Angeles, then a real operative might have to torture some Arab to find a similar bomb. And if that might happen, torture has to be legal, because otherwise that operative might hesitate for long enough for plutonium atoms to start getting jiggy in a way biological life doesn't appreciate.
Even leaving aside the implausible nature of the scenario and the commonly stated view that torture is a great way to get information but a terrible way to know if that information is accurate, this is a horrible argument. It's a clear recipe for morality creep. Leaving this door open is an invitation to step through them, and each time we do, it gets a little easier to do it the next time. The only option is to lock the door, and recognise that there might be some sufficiently convoluted series of events under which someone could kick the door down and run through, and it not be something we should punish after the fact.
So maybe at the end of the day the bright clear line of "never kill" is exactly what the X-Men need. If everyone understands that under certain circumstances every rule might need to be broken, there is something to be said about deliberately making rules too inflexible, especially when making them too flexible can have terrible consequences.
Ah, Jim Shooter. You bring enlightenment, but you also bring the mocking of women who couldn't stand atop a rhino's head and insist they were a giraffe. What wonders and outrages remain in the final five issues of this series, I wonder. Will any amaze me? Will any disgust me? And most importantly, will any make me any less depressed at the thought of reading Secret Wars II?
These issues take place over the course of roughly a day.
Wednesday 11th to Thursday 12th January, 1984.
X+5Y+317 to X+5Y+318.
After years of attempting to restore the Pyramids of Giza using modern building techniques (which you'd think calls into question what the word "restore" actually means, but anyway), the committee responsible agrees to return to traditional techniques to repair the structures. This was generally agreed to be a good idea, both because it was historically appropriate, and because the water used in modern cement was eroding the limestone from which the pyramids were originally built.
"Being that it may be the last couple of days of our existence, how about we sneak off and go necking over by the waterfall?" - Johnny Storm