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.

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