Tuesday, 14 January 2014

UXM #194: "The Juggernaut's Back In Town!"

("In his suit and tie!")


Here we have a curious beast.  UXM #194 is firmly traditional in its overall structure: the X-Men are bushwhacked by a supervillain, look like they're going to lose, but rally towards the end and see him off.  The specifics, though, are rather more unusual than the broad-strokes picture suggests. Indeed, were one feeling charitable, one might label it proto-postmodernism, or at least one might were it not so horribly unwieldy a term.

Our redoubtable heroes don't spring into action here, they require cajolement over three pages. When they finally do suit up and head toward trouble, it turns out the villain they were tracking - an uncharacteristically well turned-out Juggernaut - is simply chatting with a bank adviser (I like to think he's mulling over buying a house with Black Tom where they can retire together), and they all start thinking about an early shower and an evening of canasta.

There’s a part of me that wishes this is what had happened. Sure, it might not have made for a particularly meaty issue – though I’d happily take an issue of thumb-twiddling over another unbearable Claremont fairy tale – but the idea of mobilising to face a super-villain only to head home when he turns out be minding his own business has a strong appeal for me. We’ve already seen Juggernaut on his downtime, of course, but that was a random encounter; this is a deliberate choice to not engage.

We’ve come a long way since the Silver Age. A team of superheroes encounters one of their oldest and well-known villains, and decides it’s not worth a scrap? This is an intriguing choice. Because it isn’t as if Juggernaut isn’t a wanted criminal. He might not be robbing that bank, but he could well be arranging to transfer some ill-gotten loot there, and even if not, there’s every reason to try and apprehend him.

So why don’t our heroes bother to try? If their stated goal is to aid humanity and thereby prove their worth, why consciously decide to leave Juggernaut alone? Admittedly, they are interrupted whilst still in the field, so it’s impossible to know, but it doesn’t even seem like Kurt plans to call the police and let them know where the Juggernaut is. The plan seems to be to simply let him go unless he directly threatens anyone on this specific occasion.

What this means is that the X-Men are assigning to themselves the moral right not just to beat people up when they cause problems, but actively avoid bringing criminals to justice. We saw this in the previous issue, of course, when Xavier announced the Hellions should go unpunished for their infiltration of Cheyenne Mountain (and James Proudstar’s abduction of Banshee), but there is no small difference between children who are under the tutelage of a power-mad criminal (and in one case motivated by overwhelming grief) and a violent career bully who has caused millions of dollars worth of damage, and who is at best an attempted murderer – can Cain Marko’s swathes of destruction really not yet have led to at least one death?

This idea that self-appointed heroes can claim the moral right to decide the fates of those that break the law is, of course, right at the heart of the superhero genre. It’s also, I think, a curiously American viewpoint – or at least, it's not a British one. US fiction has historically been littered with protagonists who assert the moral right to decide what constitutes justice, and what constitutes atonement. Figures of actual legal authority are to be avoided at best, if not actively worked against.

It would be too pat to try and suggest this entirely hails from the US character in general. That's not to say, though, that there exists no truth in the observation that a country founded on the principle that individual freedom is both paramount and at constant risk of being abridged by the state might also be a country in which the masked vigilante dispenses justice as they see fit and damn what the statehouse says would be welcome. [1]

(Alan Moore's contention that the masked avenger archetype sprung full-formed from a KKK propaganda film, we shall leave for another day.)

This rejection - often but not always implicit - of the force of law can on occasion result in problems, of course. If there's any situation in which it fits naturally, however, it's in regard to the X-books. The simple fact is that no mutant can expect to receive anything even approximating a fair trial (as Dazzler found out to her cost a couple of years earlier). Yes, Juggernaut isn't actually a mutant, but to a jury of your bigoted peers, there's not much reason to hope that technicality will help you out. This puts the X-Men in a hell of a bind, as Claremont is now beginning to explore. If you can't trust the justice system to be actually just, what are you going to do with all these supervillains who stay this side of the line of cackling evil?

As if to underline this basic problem, UXM #194 is the issue in which the X-Men finally meet Nimrod, a peace-keeping robot programmed to execute mutants and super-villains on sight, and conspicuously not programmed to worry about property damage or people within his blast zone whilst he does it.

This has always been the ultimate destination of the X-books' metaphor: that the authorities are always a problem and commonly an enemy. Not just in the way that Spiderman has an image problem in the New York media, but on the level whereby powerful people in the national government offer funding to people who claim they can make you disappear. Being on the shitty end of a FOX News smear isn't something you would recommend to your friends and family, but neither is it anti-miscegenation laws or secretly infecting you with viruses.

Leaving aside for now the difficulties in a group of almost uniformly white men writing about marginalised groups and how they should respond to that marginalisation, the emerging consciousness of the X-books on the subject faced a major obstacle: the Comics Code Authority.

For those not familiar with the CCA, a little history might be in order. By the mid 1950s, comic books were in real trouble. Not in the sense of declining sales - though that was surely part of it - but in the sense of being the target of one of America's regular evangelical freak-outs over the corruption of youth. In 1954, Frederic Wertham released Seduction of the Innocent, a gruesome work of pop psychology that attempted to link every conceivable problem of children or teenagers - real or imagined - to the hyperbolic utterly unrealistic adventures of people in capes punching each other. Grant Morrison has a lot of fun with Wertham's approach in his 2011 book Supergods, but sixty years ago there wasn't a lot to find funny going on. Senate hearings were convened so that wilfully misunderstanding comics and their creators could be given an official seal of approval, and a campaign of persecution by any other name began. Much as with the HUAC witch hunts, the First Amendment suddenly proved to be the last refuge of the pervert, something you were entitled to only if you didn't need it. If there was one thing worse than a pinko, it was declared, it was a pinko hoping to fuck up your kid's minds by showing them pictures of women who were naked under their clothes. [2]

One can understand how problematic the situation had become simply by looking at what was floated as a compromise option: the CCA would be created as an alternative to (utterly unconstitutional) direct government regulation. The adoption of the code possibly saved comics from extinction, in much the same way grabbing the life-ring thrown from the cruiser that just sunk your vessel might save you from drowning. The code contained multiple hideous stipulations. The ban on openly gay characters is one; that lasted until 1989, meaning that openly gay Marvel characters have been on this Earth for less time than Rhianna. The important rule for our purposes here though is this one:
Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.

The ramifications for a comic book increasingly interested in tackling head-on its central metaphor of a victimised minority is clear. In the past, Lee had gotten around this by having the original batch of Sentinels be a privately-funded concern. Claremont had kept his nose clean by portraying governmental antagonists as either good-hearted, empathic figures (Senator Kelly) or square-jawed military types acting entirely reasonably with the intelligence available to them (last issue's tangle with the Air Force, for example). This kind of softly-softly approach could only work for so long, of course. The hypercharged melodrama of superhero comics means a metaphor treated at arm's length is liable to disappear. The book needed an official foe, and it needed them to be callous and violent.

Enter Nimrod.

By UXM #194, Nimrod's origin is fairly clear. Between him noting his arrival in New York as temporally anomalous, and him knowing exactly who time refugee Rachel Summers is, the implication is inescapable. By reaching into the future, Claremont can present the face of vicious oppression by the authorities without having his own authorities come down on him. It's a clever solution, not least because it also fits in to this issue's interest in shaking up standard approaches. Author Stephen Donaldson once set himself the task of writing a story involving a villain, a victim and a rescuer, where the villain eventually becomes the victim, the victim the rescuer, and the rescuer the villain (the result being the interesting but horribly difficult to read The Real Story). Something similar is happening here, with the notional villain Juggernaut requiring rescuing from the notional force for justice Nimrod (this leaves the victim to rescuer role to members of a persecuted minority who are determined to be superheroes, of course). With all this reassignment of roles, it's entirely appropriate that Nimrod is eventually defeated by Rogue appropriating her team-mate's powers and using them in unexpected ways.

Stuck in-between the unaccountably popular Gath two-parter and "Warhunt II" on one side, and a Power Pack crossover and the first tie-in to Secret Wars II on the other, this issue might be mistaken for something lightweight. The truth is very different. This is a statement of intent for the X-books - and ultimately Marvel comics in general - that still holds today. Roles are fluid, context is everything.

Pay attention.

(Meanwhile, in subplot corner, the Russians spend some time fretting about whether the US has finally declared war on its own mutant population - something the Kremlin is rather concerned will lead to global catastophe - and Storm arrives in Kenya in time to rescue a local woman from an amorous white hunter. This latter scene is mainly memorable for Claremont's decision to include his second horrific racial slur of his tenure. Last time round, he was at least making an interesting point - albeit not on a topic a straight white man should feel comfortable ponificating about. Here, it's mainly here to remind us how these villains are all racist and stuff, which, if it serves any larger purpose at all, is rather counterproductive, serving as it does to reinforce the notion that racists behave this way, and that anyone outside the envelope of those willing to throw disgusting abuse at non-white people has escaped infection by the Racist Bug.

In short: frowning upon something is not a sufficient talisman for including it in one's work.)

[1] If Britain had an equivalent before the US juggernaut became so unstoppable as to lay its spores the length and breadth of our fiction landscape, it might perhaps have been more interested in the the pursuit of economic justice against the powerful (read: posh), rather than involving a half-dozen people who live in a mansion beating up street-level criminals (see also Reginald D. Hunter's opinion of Batman; summed up as: fuck Batman).

[2] I must confess having been unaware of the severity of what went down in the '50s when I wrote my post on UXM #14 clearly being influenced by the activities of HUAC. I still think some influence exists there, but one wonders whether Lee was drawing upon the ugly birth of the CCA as well, which makes his ability to have said CCA sign off on the issue a delightful irony in an era where irony itself was, if not dead, certainly suspected of dissident leanings.


This issue picks up immediately after the last one ended, and takes place over a single day.  There's a coda here set in Russia either on a Friday or early Saturday (ruined weekend plans are mentioned), which causes a slight problem with timing here.  We can easily move UXM #193 and NMU #26-27 -as well as the epilogue to UXM #192 - to compensate, though.

Wolverine mentions it’s been a tough year, citing the events of Secret Wars as part of the reason why. Happily, our timeline has that story taking place at the start of the year currently ending, so that works out perfectly.

Storm mentioned last issue she would reach her homeland “within a week” from the mid-Atlantic. That’s a trip of some ten thousand kilometres by boat, or around five thousand if she made landfall on the west coast and headed eastwards from there. I don’t know enough about the infrastructure of Africa in the 1980s (or now) to be sure, but this strikes me as kind of unfeasible considering the number of stops necessary in getting a boat round two thirds of a continent, or the multiple borders you’d need to cross to pass through.

However accurate Claremont’s sense of distance, however, it’s clear Storm should not have been able to reach Kenya in-between Thunderbird kidnapping and the X-Men meeting Nimrod. One solution here might be to extend the gap between the events of “Warhunt II” and those depicted here, but various team members spent so much time here complaining they never get a day off it seems hard to credit this. Instead we’ll assume Storm’s storyline is taking place a full week ahead of the rest of the team’s. This shouldn’t prove too much of a problem for future issues.


Friday 21st and Friday 28th December, 1984


X+6Y+294 and X+6Y+301.

Compression Constant

1 Marvel year = 3.18 standard years.

(Beast is 33 years old.)

Contemporary Events

The USSR launch the Vega 2 space probe for a fly-by mission past Halley's Comet.

Standout Line

"Don't say "thanks" or nothin'. Jerk." - Juggernaut fails to achieve Rogue's basic gratitude standards.


  1. "Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority. "

    I'm not sure this was such a huge deal when these comics came out - my impression is that by the 80's and 90's, the CCA was mostly concerned about sex and violence (and by the 00's, it was just a stamp). This was a good ten years after the Captain America book had a thinly veiled Nixon revealed as a fascist terrorist, for example.

    I think the reason it took so long to arrive at Claremont's "morally grey paramilitary units engage in tribal warfare in slightly sci-fi setting" setup was that the superhero conventions the book was built upon from the beginning really runs very counter to these themes.

    "but one wonders whether Lee was drawing upon the ugly birth of the CCA as well"

    Stan was certainly not a fan :).


  2. Interesting; I haven't read a single Captain America comic from before the turn of the century, so I'd missed that - though on reflection, was that the Secret Empire plot that led to him giving up on America?

    Beyond that, I wonder if the CCA might make a distinction between digs at political figures - even ones given a mandate by the masses - and law enforcement. I'm struggling to think of an example of, say, cops who were anything worse than verbally unforgiving to mutants during the '80s.

  3. Yeah, the Secret Empire plot, which actually has quite a lot of X-Men appearances in it. I'm personally not at all fond of Steve Englehart's writing, but it's audacious stuff to say the least coming from the early 70's.

    I'm pretty sure we had corrupted cops at this time in the Marvel U, especially when the Kingpin was involved. That said, saying that there's individual bad eggss is of course different from saying there's institutionalized oppression, which is where the X-Men are heading.