Tuesday, 27 May 2014

LGS #2: "...I'll Wave To You From The Top!"

(Cash, culture and violence.)


Two issues in, and I'm really rather enjoying this miniseries.  Comics should be About Things, and so far at least there's ample evidence that Nocenti entirely gets this.  The first issue of Longshot was a statement on the unimportance of how a superhero does what they do in comparison to why they choose to do it. To mistake superpowers for the point of a superhero story is to mistake seasoning for the meal.

Nocenti made this point by introducing a superhero who can basically manage anything, just so long as he's doing it for the right reasons, which of course is the underlying principle of 99.98% of fiction which contains any action component at all. But she was also smart enough to realise she could take this idea further.  Issue #1 sets up the idea that Longshot can only operate when pursuing noble goals.  Issue #2 starts to explore what exactly a noble goal consists of.

The backdrop to this exploration is the American film industry, as Longshot accidentally gets himself hired as a stunt-double on a sci-fi film following some ridiculous train-jumping. This leads inevitably to the most obvious idea possible that the pursuit of a ludicrous paycheck doesn't constitute a noble goal - Longshot learns this the hard way when his final stunt leaves him shot to pieces and close to death. But the commentary here lies beyond the obvious, and is rooted in the zeitgeist of the, er, zeit.

1985 was the first year of an increasingly drifting Ronald Reagan's second term. It had been less than a year since the greatest landslide in American presidential history, with fully 49 states deciding they wanted another term from the man who gained such popularity in no small part by selling rapacious capitalism as fundamental to the American dream, and by invading a tiny island nation to demonstrate that the USA isn't afraid to get into a fight, just so long as it's with a country with 1/300th their population which had made and could not make any aggressive moves.

For the chattering classes of the time, then, aggression and materialism were simply the way things were now. It was inevitable that this attitude would filter through into contemporary cinema. The very month given on this issue's cover, Commando was released; Schwarzenegger's first foray outside of science fiction/fantasy since his breakout in Conan the Barbarian.  Commando could hardly be more '80s if it tried (well, maybe the topless chick could've been in a strip club): a former US soldier is brought out of retirement because a nasty South American ex-dictator is killing off his unit (in revenge for them ousting him years earlier), and then kidnaps his daughter.  Obviously the only way to keep his child safe is through the judicious application of endless ultra-violence.

Aside from the jaw-dropping historical revisionism required to suggest that US interference in South America was all about deposing vicious dictators, what's notable is the idea of the US military being unabashed heroes who need to shoot their way to victory to keep people safe. In other words, amazingly high body counts and revelling in murder is actually entirely fine so long as there's some simplistic jingoism that can be bolted on to justify the carnage. This is something to remember next time a voice on the Right starts bellowing about the damage caused by violent films and video games. Thoughtless violence is absolutely the province of the right; it's just they prefer to have it dressed up as a moral tale about the dangers of messing with the "good guys".

But let's compare a simplistic nationalistic tale like Commando with where American sci-fi was in the first half of the '80s. Yes, you have films like Flash Gordon - threnodies for a simpler, four-colour age where the heroes were blond ubermensch and the villains were basically Oriental - but you've also got films like Blade Runner, in which America's future is imagined as a hellish corporate-driven dystopia. It was this latter approach that became dominant, though due to the long development time of films most such movies - Aliens, Robocop, arguably The Running Man, in its own way - appeared a year or two after this comic.

This is more the kind of film that comes in for abuse from those who claim to speak for those worried about "the yoof". And yet the difference here is not really in the level of violence, but in the nature of the hero.  The '80s is absolutely awash with rather unpleasant protagonists, swearing, indiscriminately aggressive types so unpleasant as to require the villains of the piece to be cranked up to 11 just to make it obvious whose side we should be on [1]. To the extent the right's objections to these tales are more than just a knee-jerk dislike of the dim light in which they cast corporations (a tendency that reached its hilarious nadir when the pitchforks were grabbed over the new Muppets film in 2011), it would seem to focus on the heroes killing for reasons other than a noble cause ("noble" here being indistinguishable from "in the pursuit of American imperialism"). Which is ironic, of course, since with the dominant political philosophy of the times being "get rich or damage others trying" and a renewed drive towards the kind of rugged individuality Republicans claim to venerate, you'd think running around slapping people around for your own benefit would be just the sort of thing they were into.

But here lies the rub: the hypocrisy of the money-loving, bloodthirsty right in objecting to violent films does not mean there is no progressive objection to the same phenomenon.  On the contrary, there are many reasons for the left to criticise such an approach, precisely because it echoes so much of the hollow nightmare of Reaganomics.  The film Longshot finds himself involved with is a case in point; a nihilistic vision of the future in which renegades steal from the robber barons presiding over America and, well, keep it all for themselves. The heroes are thieves, in other words, distinguishable from the villains only in that they're acquiring their ill-gotten gains from the villains themselves.

Is this any better than the Commando model? Or simply problematic for different reasons? Aren't we just swapping out Reagan's omni-directional belligerence for Reagan's relabelling of greed as a virtue? Nocenti certainly seems to have her doubts, and she voices them by revealing another sliver of Longshot's past, in which "spineless creeps" have enslaved him into appearing in action movies which are both predominantly improvisational and have very real death-tolls. The question here would seem to be: are horribly violent movies where people only pretend to die really all that much better?

Well, the answer is "yes", obviously. But that just means the comic is hitting us with a reductio ad absurdum. Can we really get out of it so easily by insisting that if everything was faked, it's all good?  I've never been entirely convinced of that. Certainly, the common response of "I've watched loads of violent movies and never killed anybody" is sophistry of the first order.  The relevant question is not whether violence in media lead young people to become killers (which is an argument almost exclusively fuelled by the desire to distract from vastly more pressing social concerns), but whether an abundance of gratuitous violence in media might lead to genuine problems.  How many times can you watch some muscle-bound, flag-wearing lummox punch terrorism to death before you start viewing the world in black and white? There's a sad and very telling story about (mercifully) former US Senator Joe Lieberman in which he was observed watching a war film and punching the air every single time an American soldier dropped a German. It's entirely possible Lieberman's frothing obsession with bombing every Muslim country in range is completely unrelated to his enjoyment of simulated death. For that matter, it could be that Lieberman started off lusting for random murder in other countries and only later discovered his thirst for blood could be temporarily off-set by celluloid corpses. But maybe a steady diet of un-nuanced violence isn't entirely unrelated to the belief that there isn't any problem that can't be solved by the right people tracking down the wrong people and beating the crap out of them.

So ultimately two threads are being brought together here. On one level you've got an extension of last issue's attack on readers more interested in a character's power-set than their desire to do good, by explicitly suggesting that violent stories devoid of restraint or morality are a bad idea. On another, you've got the idea that searching for ridiculous wealth is a terrible pastime.  Nuts to you, Reagan, in other words. I don't want to sign off on every jot and tittle here - Longshot gives a speech about being a superstar is a "shameful job" because you give up entirely on having a private life, which comes entirely out of nowhere and strikes me as grotesquely unfair - but the general point I'll endorse completely.

Especially since there's one last sting in this tale. Our director, "Hitch", has Longshot sign a waiver to protect Hitch from indemnity over any injuries our hero sustains during a ridiculously dangerous final stunt (Hitch believes all stunts should be as dangerous as they look, so as to drag the line as close to actually killing people on screen as is possible).  The trouble is that the contract is utterly illegal (much to the sorrow of libertarians, I'm sure), so when Longshot is badly injured during the stunt - hoping to pick up a cool million for three minutes work not constituting a noble motive, it turns out - Hitch grabs him and throws him first into his truck and then, a few miles down the road, into the river, where he hopes the body will sink and leave him in the clear.

Because why stick to the rules when you can break them to make money quicker?  And why worry about committing crimes when you can always use worse crimes to cover them up in any case? 1985 was too early for Nocenti to know about the Iran Contra scandal, but her tale of nestled crimes in the pursuit of material gain proves that you didn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing.  Everything was awful back then, and Longshot would seem to be just one more casualty of an era that insisted a human being is only as much use as the money they can bring you.

Thank the Gods there's an issue three...

[1] This was a tendency that spilled into the early '90s, of course.  Indeed, I think one could construct a fairly strong argument that says a direct line can be drawn between the nihilistic cinematic output of the '80s and the nihilistic comic-book output of the '90s.


This story takes place over eight days.


Tuesday 22nd to Wednesday 30th January, 1985.


X+6Y+327 to X+6Y+335.

Contemporary Events

USA For Africa release "We Are The World".

Standout Line

"My movie of the future! It's about a bunch of displaced people who form a band of futuristic pirates! They rob the rich to give to themselves!  It's my statement on unemployment." - Hitch

Well of course it is. What could be more Reagan than viewing the unemployed as selfish thieves robbing the rich to fuel their own lifestyles? Strapping young bucks and welfare queens, the lot of them.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Things Past: Take 7

I've had this banging around for a while now, so I've added Ashake into the mix and stuck it up.

c 38 000 BCE: An alien spacecraft crashes in the Arctic, and lures an exiled tribesman to millennia of torture.

c 3000 BCE: Storm's ancient ancestor Ashake meets Illyana Rasputin and Danielle Moonstar after an attempt to flee the Shadow King results in Illyana teleporting them both to ancient Egypt.

1875: A motoring accident in the Transylvanian Alps leads Diablo to create Gilded Lily from the body of one of the victims. He then tutors here in the art of alchemy before being seemingly killed by an angry mob in the classic mould.

1935: Charles Xavier is born to Brian and Sharon Xavier, workers on an American nuclear project never revealed to the general public.

1942: Iceman arrives at the end of a jaunt through time and is involved in a battle that accidentally claims the life of his father years before Bobby was destined to be born, resulting in a temporal paradox ultimately resolved by the avatar of oblivion.

1945: The Trinity nuclear test at Alamogordo on the 16th of July kills Brian Xavier.

1946: Sharon marries Kurt Marko - also at Alamogordo, and blamed by Charles for his father's death - who then moves into the Xavier family home.

c1948: Kurt is killed in a lab accident.  Soon after, Xavier discovers his psychic powers.

1953: After joining the army, Xavier (along with Kurt's son Cain) is deployed to Korea.

1957: Ororo Munroe is born.

1958: Jean Grey is born.

1960: The group of mutants assembled to commit evil by staggeringly racist villain The Claw are freed from their captor's bondage.  They agree to enter into suspended animation, coming out once every ten years for a week to determine whether mutants have finally overthrown humanity, and if so, to offer their entirely uninformed opinions as to how to rebuild the planet.

1961: Bobby Drake and Kurt Wagner are born.

1962: Xavier meets both Erik Lensherr and Gabrielle Haller, the latter of whom will one day bear him a son.

1964: A crewman is washed from the deck of the trawler Mary D and finds a golden egg on the sea-bed; this rapidly hatches into a hominid girl her finder names Marinna. Piotr Rasputin is born.

1966: Rogue is born.

1968: Xavier faces Lucifer in Tibet, in a struggle that costs him the use of his legs.  Dr Michael Twoyoungmen loses his grandfather and his pregnant wife; the latter of which his young daughter blames on him.  Richard Easton finds a ceremonial headband at an archaeological dig in the Arctic, and as a result is requested to and agrees to impregnate Nelvanna, Goddess of the Northern Lights.

1969: Ororo Munroe gives up her life as a street-thief in order to follow a strange compulsion drawing her to the Serengeti.  Katherine "Kitty" Pryde is born.

1972: James MacDonald Hudson learns his mechanical suit design is to be used by the US Army in Vietnam; he responds by destroying the blueprints.  His boss, Jerry Jaxon, is fired as a result, and swears revenge.

1974 James Hudson and Heather MacNeil are married.

1977: Xavier founds the X-Men.  Richard Easton returns to the world after impregnating Nelvanna, and quickly goes insane.

1978: Doctor Michael Twoyoungman becomes a shaman (named Shaman, obviously) under the tutelage of his grandfather's ghost. He then aids Nelvanna in giving birth to Snowbird, and fosters the baby.

1979: The true identity of the Hulk is revealed to the world.  Walter Langkowski was at college with Bruce Banner, and so is inspired to try his own hand at gamma ray experimentation.

1980: James Hudson dons his Weapon Alpha (later Vindicator, still later Guardian) costume for the first time, only to learn that his closest friend and collegue Wolverine has quit Department H in order to join up with an American professor for reasons unknown.

1982: Walter Langkowski triggers the gamma ray bombardment process that mutates him into Sasquatch.  Puck and Marrina meet in Beta Flight.

1983: The creature in Lake Ontario claims its first victim.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

ALF #27: "Betrayal"

(The excluded middle.)


This month's Alpha Flight is all about the dangers of looking before you leap. 

So last time around one half of the team found themselves captured by a reformed Omega Flight (minus Smart Alec, who went mad/catatonic last time the teams tussled) led by the resurrected Guardian, who was revealed in fact to be the robot who essentially got the real Guardian killed in the first place.

First order of business for our cybernetic villain is to get his metallic protruberances on the other half of the team.  Before that, though, we need to drop in on what that half is up to. Shaman is busy bandaging up Aurora (Shaman is a doctor: THIS IS IMPORTANT!) after her unfortunate encounter with the bargain-basement Protectobots last issue. Bochs, meanwhile, has been busy finding an alternative body for Sasquatch to take possession of, so that Bochs can have his robotic suit back and gambol once more through marigold fields, crushing each one beneath his giant steel feet as God intended. And it seems like he's hit paydirt; having put together an interdimensional scanner with Shaman's help (Shaman has knowledge of weird alternate dimensions: THIS IS IMPORTANT!) that's picked up a humanoid form built like "a brick shipyard" with almost no recognisable brain-functions. Looks like Walter's house-hunting is finally almost at an end!

I'm pretty uncomfortable about this.  "Virtually no brain-wave pattern that we can detect" sounds like a loophole you could drag Sasquatch's chrome-plated arse through after a three month diet of robo-burgers and oilshakes. This thing is from an alternate dimension and all you've collected is a silhouette.  You can't even photograph it but we're supposed to believe you've performed a serious survey into it's mental capabilities (which obviously might be difficult to measure given its utterly alien origin).  You think anything with opposable thumbs won't come with at least a little nous? Are we saying we'd be happy with Sasquatch pouring his mind into, say, a gorilla?  Because it'd be quicker than Bochs building another suit? This all sounds incredibly sketchy from a moral perspective. It also sounds like an obvious recipe for disaster; I'd put the chances of this extradimensional bruiser not totalling the lab within fifteen picoseconds of being beamed into Canada at about 0.000054%. And I should know.

Just think a bit before inviting this thing round for tea and body-theft.  That's all I'm saying.

Further discussion on the matter is curtailed when Shaman is hit with waves of agony. The robot once known as Delphine Courtney is torturing Talisman, which acts as an automatic SOS beacon with added unpleasantness. Shaman doesn't get anything so useful as a sit-rep from the experience, but it's clear his daughter is in real trouble, so along with Aurora and Sasquatch, he rustles up some teleports, and the team head for battle.

But it's not just Shaman who's picking up bad vibrations. Snowbird has received the message too, and despite her self-imposed exile into the land of infinite sexytimes, she's willing to reveal that she's still on Earth to her former teammates if it means she can save Talisman.  Which is of course terribly noble of her. But remember how I mentioned looking before you leap? We'll be coming back to that.

Shaman, Aurora and Sasquatch arrive to find Ms Naughtybot back in disguise as Guardian. Since they don't know the truth yet, they buy entirely the story "Guardian" sells them that Omega Flight has been dispatched.  The trap is set, but Shaman accidentally short-circuits the plan when he mentions that, lacking for better ideas, he shrank Smart Alec and stuffed him in his medical bag after the villain lost his mind, and has been carrying him around in said receptacle ever since. Even the erstwhile Delphine Courtney - a goddamn robot, need I remind you - has sufficient juice in her empathy circuits to note that this is horrendous. Sure, SA was a villain.  But right now he needs medical care, something which Shaman (HE'S A DOCTOR! THIS IS IMPORTANT) should be entirely aware of.  The fact that his condition was brought about by magic is neither here nor there; what matters is that the actual results of that condition mean he needs to be put in a bed somewhere whilst cared for and observed. Sticking hin in a magic bag because that way he's out of sight is entirely obscene.  Though it's also entirely in keeping with Shaman's character.  Generally speaking it's entirely right and proper to blame a writer for the terrible opinions of their characters if there's no indication anywhere that those opinions should be challenged.  On this occasion, Byrne has us covered.

Which brings us to the centrepiece of the issue. Upon learning of Smart Alec's fate, "Guardian" steals Shaman's medicine bag in the hopes of rescuing his erstwhile co-conspirator. Finding itself unable to find itself a miniaturised colleague, the robot turns his prize inside-out, and everything goes to hell.

Apparently, the simple act of inverting Shaman's medicine bag generates the Void, a sucking vortex of power that looks like a cross between a rainbow spider-web and an exploding Phalanx, and which would be perfectly happy to swallow the entire world.  This, quite frankly, seems like a terrible property for a man-purse to have.  Who amongst us hasn't turned a wee bag inside out whilst trying to find a biro? I can't see a comatose miniaturised genius being any easier to find.  You grab something you think is what you want but which is actually the hem of the bag and POOF! World over.

Anyway, once everything goes a bit Bing Kong Tong, the Guardian robot and its mates beat a hasty retreat.  Unhappily, Shaman can't do the same, both because he bears responsibility for the expanding multi-coloured deathweb, and because Heather, Northstar, Puck, Aurora and Sasquatch have already been swallowed up. The problem now is two-fold: no-one can dive in and rescue them without someone on the outside to act as an achor, and no-one can go in their in the first place without risking insanity and worse.  No-one, that is, save Talisman. Which is its own problem, as Elizabeth is understandably reluctant to dive into a roiling, insanity-inducing realm to try to drag out four grown humans and a robotic shell.

And so Shaman makes his second mistake.  It's a mistake that fits in perfectly with both the theme of the issue and with Michael Twoyoungmen's past, but that doesn't make it any easier to watch.  Thirteen years ago Dr Twoyoungmen promised his five-year-old daughter that his medical chops were up to the task of saving her mother. It's a completely natural thing to say - a natural mistake to make - and I was never really sympathetic to Elizabeth's decision to blame her father for the accidental lie his mother's death made of his insistences. This time, though, Shaman isn't promising to defeat an as-yet unidentified medical condition. He's promising to care enough about his daughter to pull her out of a mess he's asked her to enter, so that she won't go mad and die.  Failing to keep that promise would be utterly unforgiveable.

So Talisman jumps in.

It takes her little time to find the adrift Alpha Flight and nudge them in Shaman's direction. It seems everything will go to plan... and then disaster strikes. Remember my warning about looking before you leap? Turns out Snowbird didn't get the memo, and she was jumped by "Guardian" the moment she arrived.  Shaman now has a choice to make: help Snowbird, or save Talisman.

In thematic terms, this makes perfect sense: Shaman is absolutely primed to view everyone's lives as his to save, and once again that arrogance is in danger of damaging his family (and rather more directly this time), primarily because he's sure he understands the Void well enough to know in advance when the point of no return will arrive (HE'S A DIMENSION-HOPPING DOCTOR! HOW IMPORTANT!). Alas, in terms of actual plot logic, this is total crap. "Guardian" has captured Snowbird, but he hasn't actually threatend to kill her. Talisman is right at the edge of the Void, and will take but a second or two to free. This is made rather clear in fact when Shaman reaches into the Void, pulling out instead of his daughter the material he needs to distract Snowbird's captor.

In short, Shaman chooses a teammate who wasn't certain to be doomed within the next few seconds over his daughter who absolutely was.  This might be superficially of use in forcing Shaman to relive the horrors of his past, but it's only possible because a female character is being thoughtlessly fridged to do it. That's not the sort of dramatic beat we should be celebrating.

But then this isn't the end. There's a crossover coming to sort everything out, which won't resolve the problems of this issue, but will at least draw a line under them.  It's time, in other words, to dive back into the shallow, brackish waters of Secret Wars II.

Not just yet, though. It's high time we returned to our only current female author, and her voyage into meta-commentary.

Let's get our Longshot on.


This story takes place over the course of a few minutes.

It's mentioned here that Box and Sasquatch-as-was have been working for a little while on the "get Walt a body" project Bochs dreamed up in issue 25. We've got the Gantt chart as having taken up a month so far, which seems reasonable.


Sunday 24th June 1984.



Contemporary Events

I think the fact that last time around I listed the birth of Khloe Kardashian as being the most newsworthy thing to happen on 24.6.84 indicates there's really nothing for me to go with here.

Standout Line

"Just to recap for you..."

Christ Jesus, Byrne, would you put some fucking effort in? There must be thousands of approaches to exposition/recapping less clunky than this. The fact this dialogue is the start of Bochs explaining to Aurora the state of play regarding her own goddamn boyfriend just makes it all the worse.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

NMU #32: "To The Ends Of The Earth"

("Your first step into a larger world.")


We march now unafraid into the fourth part of the Shadow King/Karma/Gladiators plotline.  Last time we caught up with the junior team, they'd gone rogue in the hopes of hunting down their former teammate, now villain, Xi'an. The decision to go it alone was partly out of a sense of obligation, but mainly because Bobby is convinced Xavier must have known Xi'an - thought by her friends killed months ago - had survived.

Sunspot continues to push this theory throughout this issue, and my Gods is it getting tiresome.  I realise it's a plot point that young master DaCosta is dealing with his frustration and guilt and failing to save Karma by being a hotheaded jerky teenager to all and sundry - Claremont is kind enough to point this out directly in case it wasn't utterly obvious - but the problem here is that no amount of understanding why Bobby is acting out makes up for the fact that it's horrendously dull and repetitive. It's another reminder that writing teenage characters with too sharp an eye for realism just makes them utterly unbearable.

Still, once Sunspot has finished being unbearable in the States, the New Mutants get onboard an overnight flight (on which Sunspot is unbearable), he gets to head to Southeast Asia with the team and be unbearable in... Madripoor.

Madripoor! A thousand Wolverine stories can trace themselves back to the island nation's humble beginnings here in NMU #32. In all honesty, the place is rather sketchily drawn here (pretty much literally; either landscapes aren't really Sienkiewicz's bag, or he has no interest in fleshing this new playground out any). Claremont likens it to various historical and sci-fi locations in which criminals of all breeds can mix safe in the knowledge that any police off-island have no jurisdiction, and those in the local cop shops couldn't possible give less of a damn - though they seem to have a curiously strict visa policy for a country catering to criminals; how fortunate our heroes have access to distracting volcanic eruptions and alien helicopters - but otherwise this is a pretty blank slate right now. MacGuffin as location, if you will.

Once safely in the country, it's time to assault Karma's compound (Doug is left behind, which of course just ends up in him being captured anyway).  It's interesting to see how far the team has come at this point. Sunspot might be characteristically unbearable about it, but Dani has become a pretty solid field leader, and the team is starting to gel together into a decent assault force, something it was clear they were going to become from the very moment they signed up with Xavier (there must be a lot of interesting material written on the tension between drawing vulnerable people together for mutual protection but thereby painting a target on everyone nearby; I wonder if Xavier is basically using his vast wealth and impressive mansion to disguise the fact he's asking mutants to ghettoise themselves).

All the competence in the world doesn't help though if your werewolf goes off half-cocked (a common problem for us all, of course) and pretty much your whole team gets themselves possessed by your enemy (who has clearly been sharpening his/her possession skills recently).  Of the team, only Illyana manages to escape through a stepping disc, dragging Dani with her. When they return, a standard Rasputin overshoot occurs, and they find all of Shadow Karma's henchmen (former LA gladiators apparently prepared to outsource themselves to Madripoor) have been massacred by the New Mutants.  Apparently Shadow Karma has herself some new toys now, and is busy clearing away last week's models.

(This is actually an interesting development, insofar as it highlights the difference between '80s & '90s and contemporary comics. In a contemporary comic, it would be close to unimaginable to have the heroes murder people, even villains and even while brainwashed, at least not without major consequences. Here it's just ignored completely for at least the next two issues. I've mentioned before that the slow spiral downward into the thoughtless violence of the '90s is first evident - in the X-Books at least - in Claremont's mid '80s output, and here is another example of that.)

There's no time to process all this, alas.  The local cops have arrived and are definitely switched to the shoot-first setting. Knowing that the now-departed SK has another base in Cairo, Illyana attempts a long-distance jump.  Fortunately they arrive early enough to set up an ambush for Karma, so long as the materials they build their trap out of can last 5000 years. Fortunately for them, and ludicrously coincidental for us, they've touched down within spitting distance of Ashake, an Egyptian priestess and sorceress, easily identifiable from her white hair and blue eyes.  It doesn't take a genius to wonder whether she's a relation of Storm given those indicators, though I'm not impressed by the idea she could actually be mistaken for Storm. She might have the same hair and eye colour, both of which are pretty much unprecedented in those of African descent, but a 3000BCE Egyptian wouldn't look anything like a 1980s child of a Kenyan and an African American. You might as well say George Bush and Václav Havel would be indistinguishable if they both donned green wigs and violet contact lenses.

They weren't even the same fucking hairstyle
I'm really not sure what purpose this scene serves, other than to remind people Storm exists for the final page (which seems unnecessary), unless it's to introduce Ashake for later use, which if so seems like wasted effort; she's listed as appearing in all of four Marvel issues from this point on. Anyway, as a sorceress Ashake can both understand English and use her powers to get our heroes home.  It turns out she has the same flaws as Illyana, though, if not to the same extent, and our intrepid duo end up a few decades late to SK's homecoming, to discover their teammates are still at her mercy, and busy murdering people in 21st century Cairo on their boss's orders. Fortunately a refreshed Illyana has the energy to make one more trip through time, landing them back in what they hope is the present day.

Unlike their pit-stop in the land of the Pharaohs, this trip to the future at least serves some plot function, in that it shows them what will happen should they fail to rescue their friends.  Which, fine.  Not sure the stakes needed to be clarified, but I get what the point of it is.  Unfortunately, this then leads to a page of Dani freaking out because she's not sure whether what she's just seen is inevitable or not.

Which is utterly goddamn ridiculous. It's only been fifteen issues since this exact same thing happened when the New Mutants were captured by the White Queen. Dani and Illyana jaunted to the future and saw how their friends turned out without being rescued.  And then Mirage and Magick went back in time and changed the future. Dani knows these trips to the future aren't set in stone because she's already changed one.  For fuck's sake, she specifically mentions the White Queen caper here, and then says "and just like then, we don't know If what we saw is the shape of things that will be, or that might?!". Well take a fucking guess, Dani.


Illyana has the presence of mind to start yelling at Dani for being utterly useless, but a promising argument is interrupted when Warlock - safe from Shadow Karma because of his alien mind - arrives with reinforcements.  He's found Storm, somehow and somewhere (how big can East/North-East Africa be, after all?), and she's ready to help out.

Time to bring our children home.


This story takes place over three days, with various flashbacks and time-travel antics.

The arrival of Storm at the end of this issue causes some potential complications, since by our timeline Storm is still in Africa over a week after last issue's story.  But there's no reason why it can't have taken the New Mutants some time to discover "Karma's" base in Madripoor, and of course Illyana and Dani might be a little ahead of the curve due to temporal problems caused by jaunting.

We'll assume the latter isn't true for now, though - next issue this might need revising - and assume the hunt for Karma took a fortnight, thereby giving Ororo time to travel from Kenya to Cairo.


Saturday 19th to Monday 21st January, 1985.


X+6Y+324 to X+6Y+326.

Contemporary Events

The San Francisco 49s beat the Miami Dolphins 38-16 in Superbowl XIX.

Standout Line

"Welcome, fellow students, to Earth's version of Mos Eisley spaceport -- a modern-day Tortuga, haven of world-class pirates, crooks and assorted lesser scoundrels. No extradition, and government security make this the perfect hideout. A sort of Neutral Zone where the deadliest of enemies can hang out in absolute safety, without fear of each other or foreign cops." - Cypher

So now we know. A legend dawns.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

UXM #198: "Lifedeath: From The Heart Of Darkness"

("Nah. Needs garlic.")


When I covered UXM #197 and its focus on the fall-out of the Colossus/Shadowcat break-up, I set this up as an obvious return to the approach of the original Lifedeath after a few variations on the idea had proved less than successful.

So what did the precious issue introduce that went wrong, and how is Claremont correcting things this time around?  The obvious answer is the return to Storm. This carries the clear advantage of returning focus to a female character, rather than a young man talking at great length about his feelings whilst his female companion is replaced by a robot.  It also moves us away from the suffocating dullness of Colossus' inner monologue, which didn't really seem to have much to offer.  One might want to argue it's a shame to move from real-world concerns like relationship troubles and onto a tale about a woman who no longer has superpowers, but you could just as easily argue that more people can identify with a woman struggling with serious loss than can a teenager upset because he cheated on his girlfriend with someone who died just days after he met her.

(Especially considering the target audience.  Not all comic-loving teenagers are the same, of course, but I can certainly state for my own self that during my teenage years I couldn't have given two shits about men lucky enough to not be ignored or giggled at by every attractive girl they met.)

Besides which, getting bogged down in issues of resonance in this particular issue is missing the point by some considerable distance.  Of course this issue doesn't resonate with its intended readers.  It's about a black African woman, not only features no superpowers but refers to the only time it appears there might be as a delusion, and most importantly of all, it features no scenes outside Africa and - Ororo's hallucination of her former team aside - features a majority female cast and no white characters.

Think about for a moment.  Every character in this issue is a black Kenyan (or possibly Tanzanian; it's not clear if Ororo crossed the border, but we'll get to that).  This is utterly unique for the X-books of the time, and indeed it may never have been repeated since.  Indeed, with the possible exception of the Black Panther, I'd be more than a little surprised to learn this isn't unique across the entire Marvel Universe from beginning to present day. To know this was written in 1985 is genuinely heartening.

It also means that to my mind - my sympathies with Jack Graham's dislike of redemptive readings notwithstanding - that to some extent the problematic elements here are lessened in their impact.  The most obvious of these issues of course is the idea that a white American man is in any way qualified to write about the lives of Kenyan women. I'm certainly not about to ignore that fact. That said, it's well known that this is just one side of a no-win situation for white male writers; either we write about other kinds of people and are shouted at for appropriation and/or ignorance, or we stick to what we do know, write a lot of stuff about white men, and get into trouble for ignoring the wider vista of human experience.

In this case, I find it hard to come down on the side of this sort of thing should a priori not be attempted.  We can (and will) discuss specific ways in which this issue fails to avoid the pitfalls of writing about people whom you do not understand, but back in 1985 if this kind of story wasn't going to be written by a white guy, it wasn't going to get written at all, and my gratitude that Claremont was willing to remind so many Americans that there's a rich world outside their own country overrides my concerns about him tackling subjects he's clearly not qualified to sensibly tackle.

Of course, I have nothing but respect for people who want to take the other side of that argument, especially since it would be pretty reasonable to suggest that such failures are utterly inescapable, so separating concept and execution is really just a shell game. Which might be right, but it's also rather limiting.  If literally all western white literature is racist, it would be ridiculous to say racist literature should never be attempted. What matters is the aims of a given piece of western white writing, the degree to which those aims are reached, and the number and depth of problems generated in the process.

So yes, I think the aim here is totally laudable, and the resultant circulation of this issue could at least plausibly be called a good thing.  But the devil is in the details, and there are certainly devilish details enough here.  For one thing, there's a kind of unpalatable culture clash thread running through this, associating the Kenyan wilderness as a place of innocence and western innovation and culture as rapacious but more adult.  This first appears when Storm, hiding in a cave from a desert sandstorm (no sandy desert borders the Serengeti so far as I can determine) hallucinates the X-Men, and Xavier announces he "forced" Storm to leave Kenya because otherwise she would have metaphorically remained a child.  I trust I do not have to offer specific examples of how this idea of removing native people in order to educate them falls into a monstrously horrible body of racist work.  Later, after Storm has rescued Shani, a pregnant woman from a ruined car [1], she comes across the ruins of Shani's village's crops, which have been all but destroyed by over-farming using giant farming vehicles. "Outlanders" sold them to the village to as to increase the amount they could farm, and the villagers tossed aside the approaches that had sustained them for millennia, only to find that the new approach required steadily greater amounts of fertiliser and time until ultimately the whole local ecosystem collapsed and became pretty much barren.

There's an unsurprising degree of buyer's remorse working round the village at this point. A desire to return to the old ways. Which is understandable in context, of course, but it makes me nervous.  The rapacious nature of the "outlanders" (never described as such, but almost certainly white by the narrative conventions of these kinds of stories) is fair enough - not subtle, but this is Claremont - is fair enough, but there's more than a hint of the unfortunate need to make a fetish out of less technologically advanced/inclined cultures; the "noble savage" trope most obviously and recently displayed by James Cameron's Avatar. Holding such cultures as in some way superior and closer to nature than our own is better than considering them backward and needing enlightenment, of course, but it's still a way of representing people different from you as "the other".  Ask the American Indians what they get out of endless stereotypical renderings of them as wise, silent trackers. Worse still, the fact the tribe bought the farming equipment and used them themselves makes them complicit in their own demise, which rather waters down any implicit point here about the damage the industrialised nations did to Africa over centuries.

So yes, problems, though problems of a type typical of writers with the best intentions. Other things here work rather better, however.  The framing of the farming problems is unfortunate, but it's clearly meant here to reflect the imbalance Storm feels within herself; a fear that she has deliberately sealed herself off entirely to prevent herself getting hurt.  The destruction of the village crops shows the dangers of the outside world, but when Shani's child is born unbreathing it is Storm's first aid training (possibly given to her while she was an X-Man) which saves the baby.  If she'd never gone to New York, she'd never have known how to save the child.  Of course, if she'd never come back, she'd never have been in a position to save him. [2]

The argument here, then, is for a balance between keeping your central self intact but not preventing it from being influenced by others. Under this reading the mistake the villagers made was not to try out the new farming methods, but to commit them so totally they had no idea of what to do when it went wrong.  Storm's problem was to insist her elemental powers must dominate her attitude to the point where upon losing them she had no idea what she was anymore.

All of which takes us to the end of page 20, and things have just about been kept on an even keel.  The idea that every time a child is born the oldest in the village has to die strikes me as a tad harsh, but then what do I know? I would say that the truly brutal nature of this practice is given a hell of a makeover here by having the elder M'Jani "will" himself to death in the desert, rather than having him die of dehydration and exposure over an agonising few days, but it's not tough to see why that wasn't considered as a strand in what is clearly intended to be an upbeat ending.

Unfortunately, page 21 is when it all comes completely crashing down with Storm's closing narration, which I shall reproduce in full:
Somewhere on these plains, it is said that, countless ages ago, the human race began.  Now, two great cultures crash headlong into each other.  The very old against the very new.  The one must give way to the other, for that is nature's way... but at the same time its wisdom and experience must teach... least youth and immaturity bring about unwitting catastrophe.  Technology is not inherently evil, merely the careless, stupid use of it.  Neither tradition is wholly good, if it blinds us to ways of making out lives better and happier.  A bridge is needed between these two halves of the world -- a synthesis, a blend -- a person who is both one and the other, whose mind comprehends and whose hands command the machines... yet whose eyes -- and soul -- look upon them with the wisdom of the ages.
This is horrible.  It just waves away the possibility that more powerful societies might decide to stop being terrible people and create systems by which indigent people can continue to live their lives however they fucking want to for as long as they want to. It mythologises as the same time as it dehumanises - this is just the way it is, they'll be gone soon, like the giant panda.  Come see them in the wildlife parks we've created for them.  Make sure you ask them for their age-old wisdom on whether we should use combine harvesters before the poor dears die out.

Calling this "nature's way" is desperately fucking offensive. It is our way, and we're not going to change that so long as we tell ourselves we realise we screwed up and all these less tech-heavy peoples probably shouldn't have been so terribly harmed over the years, but it's too late so whoops let's make sure we look sad enough when they pass into whatever cool ethnic afterlife they believe in and maybe buy some jewellery from them first.

These people aren't gone yet.  They don't need to be gone. If they do disappear, it's because we've decided that our role in making their traditional approaches impossible (and describing such people as having the wisdom of the ages and us as children in comparison is both patronising and seeks to obviate our own guilt) isn't sufficient reason to try and make genuine restitution to either them or the world around them which we've been fucking up for centuries because we never met an internal combustion engine we didn't like.

(Yes, I recently read Maureen Kincaid Speller's piece on Native Americans in genre fiction.  Why do you ask?)

It's an awful, awful end to an issue that to that point had done a decent job of justifying itself despite its underlying and inescapable problems. I realise this is all done in the service of giving Ororo a new role for herself, as a bridge between the modern world and more traditional cultures - one wonders how said cultures will feel about her appointing herself their ambassador - but the whole idea is poisoned at birth by Claremont's horrible framing of the issue.

Still, at least no-one gets called by a hideous racial slur this issue.  That's progress of a kind, I guess.

[1] Hey, remember what I was saying just last post about every hero in the Marvel Universe has Longshot-level luck powers when it comes to stumbling across people in need? Admittedly, a violent sandstorm is a pretty good reason to expect a car to crash, but there's a reason "desert" and "deserted" are such similar words.

Arguments about likelihood notwithstanding, however, I will happily confess to loving this scene, where Ororo admits to herself she herself is vastly more badly injured than Shani - who's mostly just heavily pregnant and shaken up, as oppose to Storm's self-diagnosis of cracked ribs and a probable concussion - but she still takes the role of rescuer and protector immediately, because dammit she's a hero, and that's what they do.  

[2] If indeed it is the first aid that works.  The tribe are outside throughout the difficult birth dancing to "propitiate the spirits" to heal Shani.  This is nicely never either revealed as a waste of time, or suggested that it worked.  I can never stand either righteous diatribes against spiritual practices (unless they're directly interfering with medical aid, of couerse) nor the kind of "OR WAS IT!?!" ending which gives us just enough reason to think the writer is suggesting the efficacy of whatever is going on without actually having the guts to outright state it.  I'm relieved Claremont took neither route.


This story starts in the evening/night, and ends at dawn two days later.

It's not clear how long Storm has been travelling after being shot, but her terrible state of health following her trauma suggests it can't have been long, or she'd have perished.


Friday 11th to Sunday 13th January, 1985.


X+6Y+316 to X+6Y+317.

Compression Constant

1 Marvel year = 3.21 standard years.

(Beast is 33 years old)

Contemporary Events

21 years of military rule in Brazil come to an end when Tancredo Neves is elected president of Brazil.

Standout Line

"The snake is as much a part of life, and the natural order of things, as I. Deserving the same fundamental respect.  neither more -- nor less -- to be feared."

Bullshit. Snakes are pure malevolence, sneaky crawlers of upmost evil.  We'd be better off with every one of them dead.

So my girlfriend has instructed me to say, at least. Personally I'd be far happier if we could get rid of beetles.