Saturday, 8 February 2014
X-Men And Alpha Flight #1: "The Gift"
It's that rare beast: the two-part mini.
Philip Sandifer once said over at his gaffe that two-part Doctor Who stories (of the original flavour) are pretty much unworkable by the structure of the show: the first episode has to mark time until it can whisk away the curtain for the big reveal, then the second episode has to rush through everything necessary to tie the story up.
Nowadays, of course, twenty-three minutes is easily sufficient time for Who to burn through a resolution, but by the same token, half an episode of noodling would be unthinkable. Similarly, with 48 pages each, it's entirely possible the resolution to this two-parter will tick all the right boxes. But it sure feels like we're treading water here.
So, with more than two standard-length comic books to fill before we really get to the point, what's a writer to do with two super-teams. The answer is obvious: FIGHT!
First, though, we have to get through the introductions. I'll start off here by noting that figuring out where to pitch the opening of your cross-over miniseries strikes me as a legitimately tough job. With Uncanny X-Men and Alpha Flight the first and second most-bought comics of December 1984, a certain degree of cultural suffusion must be going on even for non-readers, but by the same token, it's clear Alpha Flight isn't some minor concern kept afloat by the most dedicated buyers of Uncanny X-Men. Both books would have had fans that needed to be caught up on the current goings on in the other title. Add to that the people who buy neither, and are buying this out of curiosity (bear in mind this is 1984, before either X-books or miniseries in general had become slightly less common than hydrogen molecules), and the fans of both titles, and you have a difficult juggling job to do.
All of which is to say this wasn't a pass you'd surprised to see fumbled. And fumbled I think it was.
Not completely, by any means. The summary of Alpha Flight is short and effective, picking up on Sasquatch's recent problems with his powers without any references that would confuse the newcomer. The characters are sketched fairly well with minimum dialogue, and while one might wonder at Aurora's opening moments involving her offering Walter Langkowski some non-specified sexual release in Shaman's clinic so as to cheer him up, I've had offers like that myself, though at least the bearer of the proposition had the courtesy to suggest it in my own office.
The problem here is the X-Men. We get a page of the New Mutants goofing around for absolutely no reason I can think of (maybe this will get a call-back next issue, though the title of the mini makes me think that would be its own problem) before heading over to the mansion to watch a training session with the X-Men. Man, Claremont loves him a training session, doesn't he? Despite the fact that they almost invariably are interrupted and/or go horribly wrong. You'd think after a while the team would go on strike until Xavier takes health and safety a bit more seriously.
On this occasion the proverbial spanner in the works is Rachel Summers, who suffers a kind of psychic seizure which someone overrides the computer to create a tactile hologram of her future. This sort of thing drives me crazy. Not just because the idea Rachel can manipulate code with her mind at astonishing speed (which is fine for a mutant power, but not when dropped into an established character's repertoire without explanation), but the idea that losing control can lead to such a specific, complicated and precise reprogramming. It's like suggesting da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in thirty seconds because he stubbed his toe.
What this really is, of course, is an excuse for Claremont to keep his plates spinning RE Uncanny subplots. Which isn't this comic's job. Claremont did a fairly good job of keeping his previous miniseries walled off from more general concerns, but here there's nothing that distinguishes this from one of his double-sized UXM issues. Which, as I've argued before, is fatal for a miniseries - if you're not using it to do something different, don't bother, and "the X-Men meet Alpha Flight and the resulting fight lasts a bit less time than usual" really isn't going to cut it.
(On the other hand, I really rather liked the return of Cyclops, mainly because Claremont makes it very clear that the dude is entirely happy being out of the superhero business and with his new wife (we have them as having been married for eight months now). It's nice to not see him brooding over whether he's made the right choice and blah blah blah. The inclusion on his northbound flight of a flagrant mutant hater is also a nice set-up for what's coming later: the discovery of a device that can make everyone into a de facto mutant isn't one that's going to thrill the whole world, whatever mutants themselves are hoping for. Scott's loadmaster mentions The Lathe of Heaven, but for my money the relevant sci-fi classic here is the Forever War, and the time-drifting heterosexual who comes back to Earth to find the whole planet has become gay whilst he's been away.)
Right, so, plot. Rachel's freak-out is over a vision she's had of Cyclops and Madelyne being shot out of the sky by an atmospheric special effect Cyclops says reminds him of Shaman's powers. This being a superhero comic - general motto "There ain't nuthin' mellow 'bout melodrama!" - Rachel considers this ample provocation to fly to Canada and attack Michael Twoyoungmen along with anyone nearby. Naturally, the X-Men find themselves dragged into the resulting fracas until Xavier can wrench Rachel's mind out of her body to give her a stern talking to.
Which doesn't really cut it, to be honest. As Shaman points out, it's sheer luck no-one was killed because Rachel thought her father thought Shaman might be behind the crashing of his aircraft which might possibly have been deliberate. Indeed, one thing Rachel does - to reach inside Aurora's head and switch her personality back to Jeanne-Marie - is so fucking disgusting I'm amazed Xavier doesn't try to mindblast her back to the future on the spot. I realise that it might be by own history that makes me boil with rage at watching a woman's mental disorder fucked around with whilst taking superfists hitting superfaces in my stride, but at least when two superheroes trade punches, they have an idea of what damage they'll do to each other. Rachel is taking an instrument she cannot possibly understand (for all that she can access it in ways we can't) and screwing with it to make her plan to maim or kill someone she's angry with. Fucl, quite frankly, that.
(Of course, if I'm so enraged by Rachel's actions here, can I justify Xavier's decision to return Aurora to the forefront of her brain? Is meddling any better when you're restoring the status quo, especially when "the status quo" basically just means the state of affairs that happened to be in effect when you arrive? This one I'm less sure on, but I'm vaguely on Xavier's side, figuring a rapid return to what you've found offers the greatest chance of allowing whatever approach Aurora/Jeanne-Marie, her family, her friends, and her doctors have figured out is what is best for her.)
Once the truth comes out, then the traditional internecine slap-down comes to a close. With Scott's plane missing at the same time Cerebro picked up a massive mutant signal near the crash and Snowbird having one of her periodic collapses over major mystical uprootings, the decision is made to find the source of the problem. The X-Men and Alpha Flight are joining forces.
(Meanwhile, for reasons as yet unexplained, Loki of Asgard has travelled to the realm where the Gods of the Gods reside, to ask for a boon after saving Earth. The unfathomable beings who reside there make the entirely reasonable point that redemption is not usually quite so quid pro quo as Loki is making out here. Thor's half-brother is stung by the rejection, but vows that saving humanity once isn't good enough for these meta-deities, he'll just have to put on a repeat performance.)
The world turns, and the combined forces of the X-Men and Alpha Flight - including Northstar, who is presumably only there because Aurora is too enraged with Rachel to let the team in on Northstar's terrorist past - are headed north in a DeHavilland Otter that anyone but Claremont would just have called a plane. The trip offers an opportunity for bonding and youthful angst, but frankly none of that is as interesting as Nightcrawler's pilot cap thing. He looks so dapper! Has there ever been a more interesting confluence of interests within the same X-Man?
Once they get to their destination they find first a glorious golden city in a meadow amidst snowbanks, and then Cyclops, sans ruby glasses. He's been cured!
This is where things get interesting, and also aggravating. Scott and Madelyne, along with their loadmaster and passengers, have found a shaft of light in the Arctic Circle that turns any non-mutant that touches it into a superhuman. Maddie herself is now Anodyne, and has the power to heal, hence Cyclops' new and improved non-death eye. Others have the abilities to generate food, or buildings, or control animals. But it's Anodyne who is the most interesting, because she epitomises the insane plan of Scott's companions to bring peace and goodwill to all men by using the strange light to make everyone into a superhero.
Let's put aside for now the utterly insuperable logistical problem this plan entails. Let's not even linger on the surely self-evident truth that humanity managed to cycle through a bewildering array of atrocities against itself in the millennia before mutants came along in anything like contemporary numbers; returning everyone to a level playing field won't work better this time just because we have all sorts of interesting new ways to tear pieces out of each other. Instead, we'll focus on the horrible arrogance at play in the idea that the best idea for the world is for everyone to become the same.
The specifics of this need some careful unpacking, because no-one needs or wants to hear a white guy arguing that it would be a bad idea for oppressed minorities to suddenly become the only game in town (Claremont's Lathe of Heaven reference at the start of this issue suggest that's exactly where's he going, alas). We could try and skirt around this by pointing out only Cyclops (to the best of our knowledge) is the only mutant in the group, but there I'm not sure we need to. I think even I can safely point out the problem here: mutants are a fictional minority, but the ideea of forcibly pulling a minority into the majority is already a suggested course of action in the real world. Whether it be the idea of praying people straight, giving deaf children cochlear implants, or discussing methods by which to prevent autistic children from being born, the idea that certain people are to be considered disadvantaged and require "improving" is a pernicious and common one.
And if this were Claremont's point, I'd be right behind him. But if it is, why does Anodyne get to "cure" Puck of his dwarfism? Yes, she asks his permission, but all that means is the average-sized guy writing this comic believes dwarves don't want to be dwarves anymore (this is mitigated by the pain Puck's dwarfism causes, but with the amazing powers at Anodyne's disposal it's hard to credit the idea that she couldn't relieve his pain without changing his height). And this is why it doesn't work, because Claremont is setting himself up to decide who should and shouldn't be happy for a move into the mainstream. There's still another double-size issue to deal with, so it's possible this will be dealt with far better next time around, but right now things are looking somewhat bleak.
Speaking of which, the issue ends with Snowbird missing from the plane - despite being only hours from death - and Shaman's medicine bag is suddenly overflowing with gribbly demons with a taste for human flesh.
How will our heroes get out of this one?
This story takes place over a night and the following two days.
This is a difficult comic to place in the wider continuity - something we're going to have to get used to as the train-lights of the '90s rush toward us. Since Sasquatch is still, er, a Sasquatch, this issue has to take place before ALF #23. Really, it has to take place before ALF #21, since that was the issue Snowbird first suffered from the attacks that led to her leaving the team and Langkowski leaving (briefly) this mortal coil.
On the other hand, Talisman's involvement means the book has to fit in after ALF #20, since that issue concludes her introductory story. And naturally, ALF #20 and #21 are two parts of the same story, which then bleeds into ALF #22.
There's nothing for it but to split the time-frame so Snowbird's part in ALF #21 gets pushed forwards. Then we can assume this adventure takes place immediately after Aurora leaves Northstar in disgust at the conclusion to ALF #22.
We might therefore want place this adventure the day after ALF #22, and save Snowbird's collapse for whenever this two-part miniseries concludes. This doesn't quite track with the X-Men's activities, though, since this period falls between UXM #189 and #190, whilst Logan and Kitty are still in Japan. They get back in UXM #192, though, so we'll simply place this new story inside the months-long gap in that issue. The result is moving ALF forward by a week and a half or so, but that's not particularly serious.
Friday 4th to Sunday 6th May 1984.
X+6Y+64 to X+6Y+66.
(Even if you hate Belle and the Devotions, you should watch the preamble to this video. It features continental linking that is almost impossible to comprehend ever being suggested seriously, and for an added bonus boasts that curiously '80s ability to simultaneously be utterly recognisable as of its time and utterly unrecognisable as having belonged to this planet, ever.)
"Jean-Paul. teamed with a woman?!?" - Heather.
I continue to love the efforts of first Byrne and now Claremont to rub Northstar's sexuality in the CCA's conservative, bigoted face.