Tuesday, 18 March 2014

UXM #196: "What Was That?!!"

("And the answer is: not really.")


So last time I asked the question: what impact upon the X-Men would the Beyonder's arrival have?  If you answered "sweet FA" then congratulations; have a biscuit.

How much this actually constitutes a problem is, I suppose, very much dependent on your point of view.  If anyone bought UXM #196 specifically because of the promise in the top right of the corner, they could most certainly feel legitimately aggrieved (though really it's no more egregious a failure of advertising than the cover image itself is). Given how successful the title is at this point, though, I wonder if it's more likely this issue will boost interest in Secret Wars II rather than the other way round. It's really readers of that series who have the best reason to be aggravated - SW2 #1 ended with the Beyonder deciding experience is all and observation a waste of time, but aside from ordering lunch here he does nothing but observe the X-Men at length.  I mean, plenty of contemporary crossover tie-ins pretty much tread water, but at least they don't actively undo the conclusions of the core series in order to do it.

As I say, though, that's a problem for SW2 readers.  For this issue, the fact the Beyonder does almost nothing here (he's accidentally responsible for setting off a booby-trap towards the end of the issue, but we'll get to that) is almost certainly a boon. Firstly, it allows a lovely little scene in which Nightcrawler confesses to his priest that the Beyonder has royally messed with his faith.  And really, it's not hard to see his point.  A being of such incalculable power that he could snuff out Earth without us even having time to notice him doing it?  That's a pretty damn threatening creature for God to have thought a good idea.  I don't blame Nightcrawler at all for having been knocked for a loop.  There's probably a longer conversation to be had here about the nature of faith in the Marvel multiverse - how does one believe in a benevolent creator in a dimensional system where dozens of Earths have already been destroyed by aliens or zombies or mad geniuses?  How can we consider ourselves of worth when its apparently just blind luck that our world still exists?

The second benefit of this low-key approach to Secret Wars II is that it allows for one of Claremont's more low-key stories, which are oftentimes his most interesting.

Indeed, in theory this is the kind of story that justifies my interest in mutant stories, as oppose to any other form of superhero tale. The X-Men learn (through an accidental mind-read courtesy of an exhausted and near "psiblind" Xavier) that some of Charlie's students are planning a murder, and set about trying to find the intended victims and/or their stalkers, ultimately learning that the intended victim is Xavier himself. That's not a bad twist, and the idea that these thugs are a) the same thugs who beat him almost to death a few weeks earlier and b) have been sitting in his class this whole time earns points as well.  It's a shame that these villains have no more interesting a motivation than they just hate muties.  I mean, the sheer incomprehensible loathing on display is scary all on its own, of course, but there's always a sense of a missed opportunity when a story about bigotry and fear portrays the enemy as so over-the-top and without nuance. You end up tearing at a straw-man, leaving the real racists (and their allies the wilfully ignorant and unengaged) alone in favour of beating on an image of evil that represents pretty much no-one.

Still, dwelling on that point feels a little unfair - if Claremont's biggest sin is to not have fully developed the social justice narrative that few of his contemporaries had any interest in so much as touching, then I don't want to slap him around too much on that point. [1]

So let's talk about the n-word instead.

It is in the end the X-Men's very own Nancy Drew who solves the case, as Kitty discovers some kids in her college computer course are planning to assassinate Xavier [1]. When they confront her they accuse her of being a mutie herself and, since the speaker is black, Kitty gets to use her favourite racist slur in response.

We've talked about this before, but to reiterate, this is obviously a huge problem.  What we have here is a white guy using an imagined minority to fling actual slurs at an actual minority in the name of making a point.  Inventing a race to point out black people might be racist too [2] is pretty much the definition of a solution looking for a problem, and the solution as shown here is desperately unpleasant in any case.  It implies that minorities should somehow know better than to cause problems for other minorities, which has the effect of at least partially letting white people off the hook, and it implicitly puts white people in charge of determining how minorities should be treated, which since we've done a fucking awful job of that for centuries, shouldn't really ever be raised as a possibility.

(Yes, if one wants to hew to the fairly robust argument that mutants are an analogy for LGBT people, it's certainly true that there can be friction between the two communities - listening to Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... certainly made that clear. It's not like no black person has ever evidenced anti-Semitic attitudes, either, so we don't even have to think of an analogy for Kitty's heritage. But it isn't the job of straight white guys to solve that problem, and it certainly isn't our job to do that by wielding our own failures of humanity to try and shame others - "How can you treat these people as badly as we treat you?".)

Having said all that, of course, it's not slightly difficult to believe why someone as horribly self-centred as Kitty would think this a wizard come-back.  Let's move on.

With Kitty locked down by bigots, and Xavier almost literally sitting on top of a ticking bomb, the situation is, at best, grim-adjacent. Fortunately, fate intervenes when the Beyonder tries to sniff around Xavier's office whilst Charles is in there with Rachel and Magneto. She detects his arrival and tries to link her mind to the two older mutants to clue them in.  This sets off the "psiscream" bomb the students swiped from whereabouts unknown, but - if I'm reading this right - Rachel pits her own powers against it, turning a potential psychic frying into a standard explosion.  I'm not sure that constitutes much of an improvement, really, but miraculously no-one is badly hurt.  Moreover, during her exertions, Rachel has located Kitty and discovered her peril.

Rachel, hotly pursued by Magneto, heads to Kitty's location, and effortless overwhelm her captors. Magneto wants to leave it at that, by Rachel wants to massacre all bigots.

This brings on one more iteration of the endlessly infuriating discussion over whether heroes get to kill those people who really fucking have it coming.  My feelings regarding this discussion are probably quite well-known by now, but in this case at least I'm entirely with Magneto. Or at least, I agree with his position.  His arguments are total crap. Who cares if by killing these bigots their fear of mutants becomes in some sense justified?  They didn't need any justification before, why worry about that now? Moreover, there are few more foolish ways to judge our own actions than whether or not they will please our enemies (something conservatives could really stand to learn in general).  The metric here is what will best serve mutant interests.  If that truly is to execute these domestic terrorists, then the possibility this would be their "final victory" - what bigot doesn't dream of being put down like a dog after being roundly whipped by people they consider inferior, after all - is utterly irrelevant.

The sensible tack to take is instead to point out that a) killing someone is something that stays with you far longer than the spinning singularity of rage inside you that makes you do the deed, and b) you cannot justify an execution through an appeal to convenience.  If you think you can trust it, you hand
them over to the justice system.  If you can't, you either accept that (possibly keeping tabs on these criminals) or you set up your own jails and do the job your damn self.  The awkwardness of turning Xavier's east wing into Cell Block H (tried more than once, of course, and bought into full-scale following the founding of Utopia) does not offer an excuse for killing off enemies you have already subdued.

Anyway, ultimately Rachel comes around, and our heroes' latest escapade comes to a close.  With seemingly an anti-mutant bigot on every street corner and every classroom, though, and with Nimrod rapidly developing his own fan-base, it seems likely that we're heading towards something pretty messy.

(Meanwhile, in subplot corner, Ororo is minding her own business in Kenya when she is shot down by the racist hunters she tangled with previously. Concerning! They get to use an abominable racial slur of their own, actually.  It will be nice to see the back of this.)

[1] We should also not neglect a brief scene this issue in which Rachel and Rogue save a man from being mugged only to discover he was attacked whilst in the process of spraying anti-mutant graffiti onto a nearby wall.  This idea of the X-Men regularly saving people who turn out to be bigoted arseholes has a long and glorious history in the X-books, and it's always a nice reminder that the X-books figured out much faster than most that superhero comics didn't have to limit themselves to square-jawed heroes and frothing avatars of evil.

[2] I should note here that there is a popular line of thought that suggests African Americans cannot actually be racist, because the word "racist" implies a dominant position in the power balance that clearly doesn't exist here. It's unlikely that anyone needs or wants me to map out my objections to the idea, but since this is my blog and I need to define my terms, here it is anyway.  I'm not a fan of this argument.  It might be linguistically accurate, but insisting on firm definitions in the face of complicated real-world issues isn't something to be encouraged.  In my experience it's a major challenge getting white people to understand why "X do/are Y, says Z" is a racist formulation when X stands in for black people and Z is a white person, and not racist when the two are swapped around.  It's all too easy to forget that because something is unquestionably true, it is not obviously true.  Allies need to get better at justifying the superficially contradictory ideas that treating any one race as different is bad and wrong and that white people are a group apart who can legitimately be criticised in terms that would be utterly unacceptable in any other context.

This is an important and frankly pretty difficult task, and if you're going to do something to make that job harder I think you need a good reason for doing so.  I just don't see where that benefit lies in - rather than promoting understanding of that the boundaries of racism are different outside dominant white culture, and what can be seen as racist is often unfairly labelled - just straight up saying black people can't be racist and hoping that somehow makes people more sympathetic.

This story takes place over a single day; a Friday from the fact Xavier's class are heading off for the weekend.  Wolverine has apparently been keeping a close eye on Xavier for days, which means at least a little time has passed since Charles returned from Muir Isle to deal with the Beyonder.  The fact that classes have restarted post-Christmas suggests we're probably at the end of the second week of January.  Thus do we pass into 1985 in our increasingly implausible time-line.

Interestingly, Kitty explicitly states here that she is fifteen years old, several publishing years before her fifteenth birthday.


Friday 11th January, 1985.



Compression Constant

1 Marvel year = 3.19 standard years.

(Beast is 33 years old.)

Contemporary Events

More than four hundred people are killed when a train in Ethiopia crashes into a ravine.

Standout Line

"The Big Apple's own hero... somebody who looks out for the little guy... instead of spending all of his time saving the world or the universe or whatever."

Yeah! Right on! Who are all these fancy big shots who won't help out the Big Apple because they're too busy saving the universe? Those high-and-mighty jerks!  Who needs the entirety of reality when you've got NYC, huh?


  1. "Allies need to get better at justifying the superficially contradictory ideas that treating any one race as different is bad and wrong and that white people are a group apart who can legitimately be criticised in terms that would be utterly unacceptable in any other context."

    Ain't accepting that white exceptionalism also, though? As when someone's saying non-whites can't be racist, because of course there has to be some pale guy guiding the course of history...

    (Not trying to be right wing here, I hope people see that)

  2. Good question. I should start off my admitting my ignorance - there are millions of people better at answering this kind of question than I am. But again, since it's my blog, I should set out my stall.

    First of all, I think the term "white exceptionalism" causes problems here, because it comes freighted with one definition of exceptionalism - i.e. exceptionally good - which people who believe in white exceptionalism that we're not using here.

    So let us say "white uniqueness" here instead. Why in this respect are white people unique?

    Maybe it's better to not think of white people as being separate from everyone else, and more at the top of a ladder. Because people like me are at the top of the ladder, there's really no way for me to punch but down (in racial terms, at least; I can punch upwards economically, though even there I have to be aware of my middle-class privilege). Any comment I make about a race other than my own would necessitate punching down, which is bullshit. Anyone not on the top of the ladder can punch upwards, which is fine and groovy. That's not uniqueness, it's just a measure of difference.

    Of course, the idea of kyriarchy implies that there's multiple dimensions with ladders in each one, so you can punch in Gods alone know how many different directions. It also might be a dangerous analogy in that it implies there's a sensible and coherent way to organise every non-white race (I'm bypassing for now the problems inherent in the very idea of "race") on the ladder, which I've no reason to believe that's true.

    But it isn't hard at all to work out who's on top, and why that produces different rules to everybody else.