Thursday, 31 July 2014

NMU Special Edition #1: "Home Is Where The Heart Is"

(Nine realms, nine tales.)

Comments

New Mutants Special Edition was, to say the least, an interesting choice as a follow-up to the six part "Shadow Karma" storyline.  After wading through that story over six months, two phases, and three continents, the question of "what next" was one worth thinking about, and this is something of an unexpected result, at least in part. Swapping out the overwrought melodrama for something a little more frothy certainly seems like a solid move, but 64 pages? After six full issues battling Karma/Farouk, do we really need essentially three more on the team's travails in Thor's homeland? Couldn't we just, you know, chill?

One interesting difference between this story and its predecessor is that our team is rapidly separated and forced to deal with their situation individually.  The set-up for this is fairly brief: Loki, like apparently every other major supervillain in the MU, wants Storm as a concubine/love object and, due to the events of the X-Men/Alpha Flight crossover a little way back, wants the rest of the X-Men tortured to death. Both tasks are given the Enchantress to carry out.  Unfortunately for the New Mutants, their proximity to Storm leads the Enchantress to assume they are the team Loki mentioned, and so all are kidnapped. Ororo is delivered to Loki for some mind-control (because Odin knows there hasn't been enough of that in New Mutants lately...) and a last-minute attempt at escape by Magik leaves her alone with the Enchantress whilst her friends are scattered randomly across Asgard and Hel.

This in effect reduces forty or so pages into nine vignettes as we follow the protagonists through a wide variety of situations. The overall effect is beneficial in some ways, since it prevents any one section or idea from dragging on for too long. On the other hand, creating a satisfactory four or five page comic strip isn't actually a trivial task, and having to do it nine times (ten times if we include Storm's story here of "be controlled by Loki and get turned into a bird") is a real stretch. Claremont's approach here is entirely unsurprising, he just finds eight backwaters of Norse myths (the ninth story being Illyana's tribulations in the hands of the Enchantress) for a bit of whimsy. By now my feelings on this approach have been exhaustively detailed, but I wonder whether even those much happier than I to read Claremont in this mode feel enthused by the idea of so many minor variations on it in one book.

Still, at least this approach lets me talk about the story in a different manner to usual.  Here, ordered in ascending degree of how much they annoyed me, are the nine subplots of NMU Special Edition:

Wolfsbane

Definitely my favourite story of the group. If you're going to just throw things together to see what works you can do far worse than werewolves and giants. Especially if the wolves then fall in love. Via wolf prince Hrimhari we get to see Rahne enjoying herself more than usual, as well as growing as a character, and her dilemma between staying with him and finding her possibly endangered friends makes for a nice change from the usual fretting over life not matching up to her ultra-strict Protestant upbringing.

In fact, this is one the few story strands in this issue that I really wish had been stretched out.  There's a whole issue here about young lycanthropes in love, but instead Rahne just gets a page of two of dithering before Illyana's evil made manifest (we'll get to this in a moment) abducts her.

Magik

Illyana's story is the engine driving this entire plot.  It's also pretty grim, featuring as it does the Enchantress tearing out the elements of Magik's Darkchilde persona and cobbling into a vicious servant. Which would be bad enough, but in addition any damage incurred by the simulacrum instead affects Illyana. It's all quite vicious, a sprinkling of sharp spice in an otherwise mostly bland dish. For the rest of the book, the Illyana-shade stalks the land possessing people, and each hit she takes in the process we know is being directed somewhere else. The most cynical amongst us might see this as poetic justice for her throwing Ororo, Rahne and Dani to the Shadow King recently, but personally I'm far too busy squirming at Illyana's agony to want to approach that argument.

Sunspot

Some people get all the luck. Berto finds himself in an Asgardian hostelry, and quickly makes a name for himself by punching letches through the nearest available wall. This earns him the thanks of the innkeeper and, rather more importantly, no small number of the local womenfolk, which basically lands him the gig of bouncer/chief lady-seducer. 

Which is basically the stereotypical hormone-charged adolescent boy's dream. Show up somewhere where you have super-powers which you can use to beat up people who harass hot women, and by doing so impress hot women. Hell, given the culture he's been dropped in, they'll probably be happy to pay him in mead. Everything's coming up Sunspot!

This kind of wish fulfilment quickly gets boring, of course, but for a few short pages it's a nice way to essentially take the fact that superhero comic books are male wish-fulfilment anyway (every man has super powers and a ludicrous mega-titted sassy hourglass to grind against - there's even a joke here about how Sunspot is even more strong here because he reacts to Valhalla's sunlight the way Superman reacts to Earth's) and take it to the extreme.  Especially since here the extreme involves Volstagg, by far the most awesome character Marvel's Asgard has thus far offered. Observe his glory as he challenges Sunspot to pick him off the ground:


Hah! "Hast thou begun yet lad?", indeed! Of course the nature of this section as "Roberto's daydream" means that ultimately Sunspot succeeds (though he knackers his back in the process), but this is still my single favourite moment amongst these 64 pages.  Just imagine what hilarious scrapes DaCosta could get up to following the Warriors Three around.

Instead, alas, the Illyana-shade arrives and takes over his mind.  Because mind-control isn't something we ever see in New Mutants stories, obviously...

Cannonball

This feels a little like a wasted opportunity, actually. Sam finds himself in the tunnels of a group of dwarves, but not once does Claremont link this to Sam's own experiences in the mine-shafts of Kentucky following his father's death.  There's such a rich vein (pun very much intended) of material that could be used here; Sam's conflicted view of mining as the manner by which his town survived but his dad was killed.  The fact that whilst underground his power essentially lets him create tunnels, but always with a risk of collapse. Sam is the potential rewards and dangers of mining,

So bringing him in contact with delving dwarves - who actually go so far as to ask him to help out - only for him to end up battling trolls and dark elves seems like a tremendous waste of potential.  It's not that we get a bad story here - I'm putting it above Cypher's because at least here our protagonist gets something to do - it's just so far short of what it obviously could have been.  Admittedly, as with Rahne's tale, you'd need far more space than is offered here, but that just underlines the problem with this issue, you have two stories that could have easily supported an issue each, and seven more that are somewhere between mildly diverting and utterly throwaway.

Sam's tale ends when Loki makes a brief appearance to cause trouble (along with Storm, who he's transformed into a hawk to hide her from the dwarves - why he didn't just not bring her is left unexplained), annoying the head dwarf enough that he tells Sam where to find his friends, hoping the New Mutants can upset the God of Mischief with a little chaos of their own.

Cypher

Our resident translator finds himself in a Viking mead hall surrounded by drunken warriors.  Not particularly where a scraggly teenager wants to be, though Doug comforts himself with the knowledge that at least his abilities mean language is no barrier.  This is actually pretty funny, since precisely zero of his friends have any problem understanding the natives either - well, that dragon might've been telling Warlock she came in peace, I guess - which rather underlines the fact that Doug's power set is rather rendered impotent by basic narrative convention.

Which may or may not be why no matter how good he is with the Viking subjunctive clause, his unwilling hosts make him into their mead-bitch when he demonstrates he can't even beat up a woman. This unfortunate state of affairs lasts until Illyana's demonic twin arrives to kidnap him, only for Doug to be saved at the last minute by Warlock.

Which isn't really much of a story. It does function as a mirror to Sunspot's tale, though; offering us the flip-side to waking up surrounded by legendary warriors; this time without the strength to get your own way. One hesitates under the circumstances to call this the "realistic" option, but it's certainly a reminder of how far short of our daydreams life invariably proves to be. There's an alternate universe version of this pairing in which this would be the better, more interesting story, actually, but in Claremont's hands it just functions as an impediment to the jolly muckarounds he likes to write.

Still, Doug doesn't let that stop him shoving a Viking for being a dick, which I suppose is cathartic for all those of us who spent our adolescence being bullied by ale-swigging Scandinavian brawlers.

Warlock

Warlock meets a dragon who he eats, since he's running on fumes, and then meets Hela, who he runs from because a) he needs to find his friends and b) he's not an idiot.

So ends the saga of Warlock. For the rest of the story he's just a literal vehicle for gathering characters for the final showdown. Which I guess someone had to do, but that doesn't make this thread any more interesting.

(There is at least a fourth wall-breaking sight-gag here, whereby Warlock shifts into the form of Longshot - because that's what finding his friends is - despite the two never having met.  Instead the link between them is that this issue was pencilled by Arthur Adams, who co-created Longshot and drew the Longshot mini that was running whilst this was released. I wouldn't call it a funny joke, still less a clever one, but as a nod to those behind the curtain it's certainly preferable to, say, the X-Men invading Marvel HQ on a scavenger hunt.)

Magma

I've complained already about Claremont relying on the "mental control" plot twice in a row with respect to the Illyana-shade taking people over. Magma's story manages to be even more irritating by taking this mind-control plot following directly on from another mind-control plot and putting a mind-control plot inside it. Come to think of it, the last time Claremont took our heroes and threw them into what's basically a fantasy role-playing adventure, everyone had their minds wiped by Kulan Gath.

In short, this is all getting desperately tiring. Moreover, Magma is tremendously badly served here.  She wakes up, accepts food and drink from the locals, and finds herself immediately taken over by villainous dark elves.  She's then moulded to look like her captors and pressed into their war against the dwarves looking after Cannonball, which means Amara's own storyline is entirely subsumed within Sam's, with her becoming a mere background character to be saved and then cared for when she's finally freed of elven influence. When Warlock left his plot line (along with Magik, only he and Magma don't see a return to their stories in this issue; everyone else is checked in with at least twice) he at least got to operate as the wheels. Magma and Magik just have to wait for someone else to rescue them.

Dissatisfying!

Karma

This is about as simple as stories can get whilst maintaining a non-trivial page count: Karma finds herself in a desert, wants to lay down and die (because of how horribly Farouk has altered her body), but finds a small girl wandering alone and resolves to see her to safety.  The trip is just long and arduous enough for Shan to get her figure back, and concludes with the girl turning out to have been an agent of the Norns, who presumably have some reason to want Karma alive and/or svelte.

There's a very strong argument to be made that this is an amazingly weak wrapping-up of Karma's time as a morbidly obese survivor of abuse.  Which is a fair point, but frankly this plot strand is unpleasant enough that any ending has to be considered a mercy. Becoming morbidly obese makes you want to kill yourself? As though we didn't have enough problems with superhero comics conflating overweight people with the useless and the malevolent (something we're still having to deal with today, remember when Amanda Waller looked like this?). Even if you wanted to ignore the arguable link here between Karma becoming a hero again with her shrinking waistline (which is probably a stretch), the fact that no-one sees fit to make the obvious point that heavy does not equal worthless is a major problem for me.

I don't want to oversell this, of course. My chunky status is pretty much my only window into anything even remotely approaching the world of those hated on simply for who they are (well, that and my rapidly growing bald spot). Nothing is worse than straight cis white guys complaining that they have it tough because they're chubby, or strawberry blonde, or whatever. Then again, the real damage that gets done by the anti-weight brigade is aimed at women like Karma, so I can safely be annoyed on their behalf.  Especially since, as I've said, Karma's extreme weight gain was an outward manifestation of some very real and unpleasant trauma which is in danger of being swept under the carpet as quickly as her new BMI was.  Again though, it's not so much that I wish Claremont would explore the angle (I'm not sure how good he could possibly do there) so much as this underlines how problematic the Shadow Karma arc was to begin with.

Ultimately Karma gets found by Warlock and Cypher, and it's off to the final battle.

Mirage

Oh no. No, this won't do at all.  Mirage's tale involves her finding a winged horse in a trap. Saving it, she makes the acquaintance of the Valkyrie, who ride similar steeds.  Dani returns home with them, which works out just fine for a while, until she ultimately discovers that her bond with her horse means she has been chosen as a Valkyrie herself.

Which, as I've argued before, is a terrible development. The problem with overwriting - even just in part - a Native American's identity with something from European culture should be horribly obvious, but somehow that's exactly what's been begun here. One of the most obvious trapdoors white writers have to be wary of when including characters from other cultures is to avoid writing them as basically white characters with different skin colours and reference points.  This has never been a strong suit of Claremont's, whose dialogue relies on various surface differences to disguise what are actually pretty similar voices, which of course here means pretty similarly white.  Mirage's treatment here is a particularly unfortunate extension of this policy of starting with varied characters and then treating their developments as completely interchangeable.

In any case, Mirage is for now attempting to resist her fate, and she flies off to join her friends once she learns the truth. Which brings us at long last to the grand finale.

Endgame

Once everyone is assembled, either under Nega-Illyana's sway or in opposition to her, things work out pretty fast. Karma gets to show everyone how useful she is by taking over their enemy, which immediately breaks the hold on our captured heroes.  Within a few pages the Enchantress' castle has been stormed, Illyana's dark soul returned to her (which immediately heals her for absolutely no reason at all) and Xian has produced the goods once more by possessing the Enchantress just long enough for Illyana to teleport her to Limbo and hand her over to S'ym.

So all's well that ends well, except for two things.  First, Storm is still Loki's prisoner. Second, Bobby and Dani are too happy, Amara too scared, Shan too curious, and Rahne too in love to actually want to leave Asgard. Both problems have the same solution, of course; time for the New Mutants to pay Loki a visit...

Clues 

This story picks up with the New Mutants on the island of Kirinos, a destination suggested by Storm at the end of NMU #34. From the sound of things they've had at least a couple of days to settle in, which together with the time needed to travel from Egypt to Greece (how did they even get hold of their passports? Or did Illyana finally manage a decent group teleport?) makes me inclined to start this story three days after the Shadow King's defeat.

When it ends is impossible to judge right now, since the script is explicit that our heroes have ended up in slightly different time periods across Asgard.  We'll just have to come back to this after UXM Annual #9.

Date

Friday 25th January, 1985.

X-Date

X+6Y+332.

Contemporary Events

Norway launches a four-stage sounding rocket to study the Aurora Borealis over Svalbard, almost causing the Russians to launch a nuclear strike when the rocket is mistaken for an ICBM.

Standout Line

Absolutely nothing's going to beat "Hast thou begun yet lad?", I'm afraid.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

NMU #34: "With A Little Bit Of Luck!"


("In my experience, there's no such thing as luck.")

Comments

The next few entries are going to involve some jumping around since the December issue of UXM takes place after October's New Mutants: Special Edition and Uncanny X-Men Annual 9, both of which follow on from this issue of New Mutants.

Clear?  Good.

At last, after six issues, we come to the end of the Shadow Karma arc. My feelings on the degree to which it was worth stretching out this story so far are well known at this point, so we'll just focus on how good a job this issue does of wrapping things up. Really, that comes in two parts; how well does issue #34 wrap up the events kicked off in #29, and how well does it resolve the Illyana-is-evil plot set up the previous month.

The answer to the first question really hinges on how successful one views the revelation that Karma has been possessed by the Shadow King. From a historical perspective, there's a low ceiling to this; six issues to be presented with a reveal you already knew was coming just feels vastly too long.  But that's precisely the wrong way to look at it. Criticising a slow reveal because you know what's going to be revealed anyway is far from fair.  The only relevant question here is whether the revelation could have been worth it for readers at the time.

Even here, though, I have my doubts. The problem here is that the very surprise of the Shadow King's return works against the story.  Farouk's return from the dead will certainly be surprising for those who remember who he is, but since he'd appeared in just one issue of a different title one month shy of seven years earlier, it's hard to believe there could be more than one in a hundred fans who recognised who he was - a fact rather underlined by Claremont finding it necessary to have Magik travel back in time to watch Xavier's seemingly kill Farouk back in the '60s. Really then all we learn is that Karma isn't actually Karma (something mentioned before in the story in any case) [1], and as I've argued before, the nature of comic convention is such that this is actually the most plausible explanation possible.  Only the reveal that Karma is entirely herself would actually surprising here, and of course we don't get that.

The entirely unsurprising nature of a New Mutant not being evil is a good segue into talking about Illyana. As I mentioned last time, there must have been essentially zero readers at the time willing to believe Illyana had actually sold out Storm and the New Mutants to Shadow Karma. The cliffhanger wasn't over whether or not she'd turned her heel, but how giving Dani, Rahne and Ororo to SK might sensibly form part of a plan for the villain's ultimate defeat.

Here we learn the answer, and much as it did last time around, the success of the move depends entirely on how fully you're willing to buy into the idea that Claremont is deliberately writing Illyana as having heroic intentions but being sufficiently compromised by her time as Darkchilde that her plans are almost wilfully unpleasant and deceitful.  A surface reading here does the comic few favours; Illyana's plan turns out to be to use the goodwill she generated with SK to get Warlock (disguised as herself) in close to the villain to keep him distracted whilst she 'ports out everyone else.

It's perhaps not the most impressive plan to cap off a six-issue story, but the bigger problem is that it offers no explanation as to why Magik believed she needed to sell Ororo out. Giving SK Dani or returning Wolfsbane should have been enough; SK was offering her an alliance from the very start, and even after Illyana gives everyone she can to the villain, he still plans to double-cross her, so it's not like she's actually gotten anything extra from the deal.

Or maybe she has. Maybe offering all three mutants instead of just one did increase the odds somehow.  If we use the "malicious hero" reading, then this suddenly makes total sense: Illyana in her current iteration should be entirely happy to subject her friends to humiliation and degradation purely because it stacks the odds in her favour a little more.  What does it matter how Ororo and Dani suffer? All that counts is that Illyana has the greatest chance of rescuing them all.

The biggest reason to doubt this describes Claremont's intentions is Illyana's behaviour at the beginning of the issue, where she faces Warlock down after he attacks her for seemingly betraying their friends.  Not only does she refuse to fight him (betting on him not being able to murder her in cold blood), but she gives him a stirring pep talk about how awesome he is and how much she needs him, and how she's still a friend. This really doesn't come across as the behaviour of a scheming, cold-blooded manipulator.  Even here, though, the alternative reading has weight.  Illyana knows she needs Warlock for her plan, and that means she'll say anything to keep him on-side and ready for action. Viewed that way, and her comments stop being heartfelt reassurances that all is well, and cynical manipulation in order to get what she wants.

It's not a perfect fit (we see Illyana fretting about Storm's suffering, which doesn't really make sense), but it's an interesting enough angle for me to not particularly mind that. It's certainly the best spin I can put on this issue.  Even using this approach, though, things fall apart at the end. Illyana's rallying of the New Mutants quickly leads to Farouk's defeat, and though he tries to hide out in Cypher, an awakened and apoplectic Kama tears him out and tosses him away as flames consume his Cairo nightclub.  It would seem that this is a happy ending, Karma's unfortunate condition notwithstanding.

Except of course that it shouldn't be. Yes, the Shadow King has been defeated, but it took the mental enslavement and subsequent abuse of three women to do it. Karma is obviously terribly damaged both physically and psychologically by what's happened, but it was just yesterday that Dani, Rahne and Ororo were seemingly betrayed by Illyana and forced into psychic slavery.  Don't anyone of them want to point this out?  Don't anyone of them want to argue that Illyana's plan doesn't become acceptable merely because it worked? You would think there would be more than one awkward and urgent conversation to be had, but instead Ororo just suggests they all head for a holiday on Kirinos and the story comes to an end.

Perhaps there will be some space in the 64 pages of New Mutants: Special Edition to go through some of this in depth (for that matter, we still haven't dealt with the fact that under the Shadow King's compulsion some of the team carried out several brutal murders). For now, though, this is that most frustrating of storylines, an overlong and bloated tale that still manages to end up feeling rushed.

[1] Technically I suppose it's also heavily implied that the mutant that attacked Karma's mind in NMU #6 - still more than four years earlier - was not a new threat but an old one. It also gives us a plausible explanation as to why she was never found after the Hydra base in Big Sur exploded - she was already possessed and headed off to cause mischief. None of this is so much as mentioned in the actual script, which seems odd to me, but I suppose if Claremont has decided to assume his audience can remember the specifics of events from books he wrote years before, he might as well go all in.

Clues

This story follows on directly from NMU #33, and takes place over the course of a few minutes.

Date

Tuesday 22nd January, 1985.

X-Date

X+6Y+327.

Contemporary Events

It's the one week anniversary of Israel pulling out of South Lebanon, which is ironic since over in El Salvador Lieutenant Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Perez is enacting his "Israeli Solution" during the sixth year of that country's civil war. This consisted of 12 "free-fire" zones in which any person not identified by the military was assumed to be an insurgent and subjected to "indiscriminate bombing".

Standout Line

"Query: FriendIllyana approves of self's disguise?"
"Welll -- 'E.T.'s' was better..."

It's hard work disguising aliens.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Nightcrawler #1: "How Much Is That Boggie In The Window?"


(Ten pounds, in my case. Ugh.)

Comments

So, this is something new.  I'm going to have to talk about artwork.

This is the third time in the X-Universe that an artist has been allowed to produce the pencils for their own strips (and one of the two previous examples was Obnoxio the Clown Vs. the X-Men). As such, it's hard not to compare this issue against the work of Byrne, the only other writer in the X-Universe who by this point in the franchise's development can plausibly claim to be as well known for their artwork as their plotting.

There are all sorts of ways this book can be considered superior to the average Byrne joint.  There's not much in the way of gender issues, though the fantasy/sci-fi princess is one more casualty of the prevailing pre-millennium opinion that "regally dressed" is synonymous with "rapidly approaching naked":


Cockrum could also teach Byrne a thing or two about flashbacks, cramming the necessary back-story to this issue (which comes from a completely different comic, of course) into half a page. This is low-hanging fruit, though. Our interest should lie not in the obvious pit-falls Cockrum has managed to avoid, but how he measures up to his fellow artist-writer when they're at their best.

This is difficult for me to do, naturally; I'm just not any good at critiquing visuals.  I know when something looks ugly to me, and I can talk about major deviations from the norm. Beyond that, I tend to run out of things to say.  So bear with me if this isn't my most insightful post.  All that said, though, the difference between Bryne's #ALF art and Cockrum here is that the former favours a generally rather meat-and-potatoes style, with occasional flashes of the much more interesting.  I don't mean this as a criticism, particularly, there's nothing wrong so far as I can see with a comic that uses its visuals as an underlining of the text, rather than a potential distraction to it. Byrne's occasional experimentation - the monochrome city of the Great Beasts, the gorgeous technicolour wig-out of the dimension within Shaman's medicine bag - are all the more striking for being meted out sparingly (all of this must be taken with a pinch of salt given my comparative disinterest in art to begin with, of course).

In comparison, Cockrum is throwing it all onto the page almost from the very beginning. Nightcrawler and Lockheed  whisked away to an alternate dimension (via a Danger Room snafu we'll discuss later) and immediately find themselves in the grip of an inflatable air-squid-thing.


Elsewhere we have a flying pirate ship not entirely unreminiscent of Jabba's sail barge (which almost meets its end the same way when Kurt takes exception to their villainous ways), a royal yacht, also flying, and a gigantic city, which also - well, you get the idea.

All of which look very pretty (I especially like the squid, but then I would, wouldn't I?). The problem is that whilst it all works just fine in isolation (except maybe the city, which looks too much like something you'd pull out of someone during emergency surgery), the overall effect is too disparate. No two things here look like they're plausibly from the same culture, or possibly even world. There might be some in-comic explanation for that, but even if there is, the end result is just a riot of colours and forms. Nothing has any context. A world where the population (so far as we can tell right now) never touches the ground could lead to some fascinating world-building, but there's none of that here, just page after page of Cockrum chucking what he can at us. By the time Nightcrawler is kidnapped by his former pirate buddies and sold to a slavemaster with the head of a shark, the eyes are not so much well-fed as suffering indigestion.

Like I say, I'm probably the wrong person to listen to on stuff like this. But there's a broader point here, which is that if you're not digging the art on display there's not much else here. Nightcrawler gets to play pirate for a few weeks until they come across another ship and he quickly learns that actual pirates are colossal, violent dicks, but as revelations go that's about the most banal possible. There's a lot of stuff about people mistaking Nightcrawler for a "boggie", but aside from it clearly being something undesirable neither we nor Kurt have any idea what it is or whether the mistake will cause problems (though at least it leads to a nice Lewis Carroll joke at Lockheed's expense). What we've got here is a very Claremontian dimension hop with nothing to sustain it but a kind of clich├ęd fantasy weirdness.

The only really interesting idea in the book is how 'Crawler is spirited away to this strange land in the first place; he describes the Well at the Centre of Time he encountered on an earlier adventure, and when Kitty tries to replicate it in the Danger Room, she somehow generates the real deal, causing our hero to be sucked out of our reality. The cynical amongst us might suggest this is a transparent attempt to get the action going with as little effort as possible, and indeed there's not enough time spent establishing how impossible this is to make me believe it's a plot point to be returned to later as opposed to essentially handwaved away. Even so, there's something inherently interesting in the idea of the image of something actually being the thing itself (see, for example, Doctor Who's "Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone", or Ringu, from which the former shamelessly and gloriously cribbed). I'm sure there's some kind of philosophical theory on this idea, like how if you draw a settlement on the wrong place on a map eventually a settlement will grow there from all the people who show up expecting to find it.  I wish I could remember what it was called. My much smarter friends tell me it might have something to do with post-structuralism (Baudrillard argues that today there is no such thing as reality, which at least implies what we create and what actually is cannot be usefully distinguished), or maybe substance theory, which says there's no difference between an object and an image of an object if the stimuli we take from them are equivalent. Others say it all goes back to Platonic ideals; @RedFoxglove tells me "You can track it all back to Plato's "idea reality", where material beings are just representations of conceptual ones, but idea and copy have equal existence. But it's also a belief phenomenon, if you look at cargo cults and voodoo."  Which is useful, because the best example I had until now was Linda Kowalski panicking about photographing Aborigines in Crocodile Dundee.

Whatever the idea's provenance, I love the idea of drawing a picture of a girl drawing a picture (which is essentially what Kitty is doing when you get down to it) which then becomes the real deal. Because everything else in comics works the same way; we process the pictures as if they shift between panels. Of course there's no difference between an image of the Well and the Well itself, not to people who themselves are lines on paper. Perhaps the lesson to be taken here is that some of us (and I most definitely include ourselves) spend too much time worrying about how one particular set of curves and colours got onto the page, when the answer all along was "because I drew it; now sit down and start reading".  For any number of reasons I'm not a fan of that suggestion, but I guess it has a certain value in liberating comic stories from a coherent cause-and-effect model that we already know long-term they are incapable of cleaving to in any case.

So I guess in the end it's not entirely just a bunch of pretty pictures.  Well, except for the fact I've no reason to believe Cockrum realised he was making that point.  And that the point is basically that a comic can be a bunch of pretty pictures. 

To which I guess the only response I can give is: in that case, couldn't you have made the pictures just a wee bit prettier?

Clues

This story takes place over the course of a few minutes (according to "our" reality, at least).  The last time Kitty and Illyana were both in the mansion was just before NMU #29, so we'll place that story there.

Date

Saturday 22nd December, 1984

X-Date

X+6Y+295.

Contemporary Events

Madonna's "Like A Virgin" begins its six-week reign of the US charts.

Standout Line

"It's a boggie!"
"--And his frumious bandersnitch!"
"Shouldn't that be bandersnatch?"
"Nope-- too small."

Thursday, 10 July 2014

LGS #3: "Just Let Me Die"


(The certainty of chance.)

Comments

Three issues in, and Nocenti is still doing an excellent job here. This is another story that makes use of Longshot's unique status to deconstruct both the superhero genre and fictional stereotypes in general.

This time around the setup is obvious, if not downright inevitable; pair Longshot up with someone who considers themselves entirely devoid of fortune. A self-described "jinx", in this case Theo, a balding homely guy with a nagging wife, two indifferent children, and more than his share of money worries.

In the hands of a less interesting writer, the route this scenario might take is depressingly obvious; an issue dedicated to the intersection of Longshot's powers of fortune with that of Theo's accidental maledictions.  I suppose with sufficient thought one could construct something clever there, but Nocenti takes what I think is the smarter tack here, which is to contrast what it means to consider oneself lucky or unlucky.

The first of these isn't all that interesting to me, in truth; repeated reference to one's own good luck almost always translates into bulletproof self-belief of a kind I find wearying. The people who truly recognise their luck in the areas that actually end up mattering tend to be quieter about it, predominantly out of guilt. What I'm interested here is in the desperately unlucky sidekick.  There's two divergent and perhaps even contradictory threads here.  The first, as stated, involves the conventions of the superhero. At this point we're still almost a decade out from Green Lantern #54 and the infamous scene that led to Gail Simone coining the term "being fridged", but even so it's fairly clear that being superhero-adjacent is a pretty good way to get your life turned upside down, or even snuffed out. In the strange rules by which the universe of fiction conducts itself, all that good luck superheroes enjoy as they pirouette through storms of blades and tsunamis of bullets has to be cancelled out somehow, and that task usually falls to the poor schlub who's tagging along.  Just as Longshot represents all superheroes and their ridiculous streaks of luck, "Jinx" is every superhero's friend, just waiting for death so their mate can sulk a little in-between brief trips to their own graves.

So much for the comics meta-commentary.  The other question raised here is what it actually means to be unlucky in any real sense.  "Jinx" spends his time bemoaning the fact he's less attractive or fit than Longshot, but elsewhere the issue seems to rather take the stance that this position shouldn't carry much weight with us. Our guy's lack of fitness isn't something that lies beyond his control, any more than does his dissatisfaction with his approach to life. And OK, I get that whether or not other people fancy you is something you can have limited control over, but even then, the two-page foray into Longshot's malfunctioning memory demonstrates how subjective the issue of attractiveness really is.

In fact, this brief window into the world of the Spineless Ones goes much further, reminding us as it does that Longshot came into this world an enslaved pit-fighter forced to risk his life for hideous creatures who despised him. We're sure we want to call him lucky because he's enjoying his escape?

This is the problem with people who bemoan their luck (and I've been as guilty of this as anyone) it's so often seems to be an endless avalanche of small potatoes.  Parking tickets and shitty dates. A wife and kid that don't give you the respect you've unilaterally decided you deserve. A suboptimal roof over your head, and less than delicious food on your table. In my experience, the people who have actually found themselves significantly disadvantaged by life tend to blame systemic factors [1], if they want to blame anything at all. There's no need to put it down to luck because the actual mechanisms materially damaging their lives are all too easy to see. Is there anything less impressive than watching an able-bodied white man with a job and a family bemoan his bum hand?

Seen this way, "unlucky" seems primarily to mean "fortunate enough in life that setbacks can be assumed not to represent systemic disadvantages", which is hardly a position we'd expect to elicit much sympathy. The closest "Jinx" seems to come to actual systemic disadvantage is the degree to which the power company is leaning on him.  Here the story is wonderfully without ambivalence; the power company is in the wrong. It must be, because when Longshot decides to steal their perfectly legal profits to return to the people in the street, his good luck powers hold out all the way. Sure, Longshot doesn't know at the time the money was legally acquired, but as we saw last issue, Longshot's context-dependent luck powers don't require him to think he's doing the right thing, they require he actually do the right thing. Quite who or what has the actual job of determining that within the narrative is never explained - it's just so obvious authorial fiat that there doesn't seem any point in considering the issue further - but the end result is a clear comment that power companies bilk their customers to so ridiculous an extent that literally stealing some of that money back should be completely justified. 

It's a wonderful note of social commentary, knocking aside the usual anaemic bullshit arguments that rich people follow the law when they rob people blind, as though rich people didn't set the laws up that way to begin with. But it's also pretty much the only way "Jinx" is positively portrayed in the story.  His suicide attempt is wretched. He blames Longshot for saving him when he throws himself from a bridge only to land on our hero's unconscious form, but the truth is if you've leapt from a bridge into water only to land without injury on a prone "human" form that saves you from so much as getting your crotch wet, you were never leaping from high or aiming for deep [2]. Also, when he finally decides to end it all, Theo's first instinct is to shoot his television, terrifying his wife and kids.  Because you know, he's so unlucky he's going to leave his wife a widow and his two young girls without a father, the day he starting shooting up their home. A few pages later, he's bemoaning the fact that even his TV is busted, completely failing to realise that this, like so much else on his list of complaints, is an event he was complicit in. It's too pat to say we make our own luck, but we should make efforts to contextualise our luck, at the very least. We should consider what really matters, and what really lies outside our control.

Of course, this is easily said.  There's a major potential problem in this line of thought, as which is as follows. One of the most insidious features of depression - and "Jinx" has a hatred of repeated tasks like teeth-cleaning which reminds me of the experiences of more than one acquaintance who suffers from depression - is just how difficult it makes it to objectively process your experiences.  The last thing I want to do is seem like I'm telling depression sufferers that they should suck it up and realise how lucky they are.  Everyone who's ever felt the bite of the black dog can tell you how terribly counterproductive that "advice" is.  This is the one major criticism I have of this story, it would have been so much easier to process its meaning if Theo was presented as simply a self-obsessed complainer, rather than a man in the grips of depression flirting with thoughts of suicide.

So how do we square the circle here? How do we suggest people with obvious societal and economic advantages learn to better process their self-labelled misfortunes even as we accept there are circumstances under which that's essentially impossible?  I've absolutely no idea.  If I did, I'd probably be a lot more help to people, to say nothing of considerably richer. The best I can do is to say there's a difference between not recognising something, and finding recognition unhelpful.  Is that enough to tiptoe our way through the minefield? I just don't know.  All I really know is to my mind  the most plausible reading of Nocenti's issue is that even suffering from depression doesn't give one a license to first terrify and then abandon your family, which seems essentially unobjectionable, and that whilst actually suffering from depression can reasonably be described as "unlucky" (though again; compared to what?), the actions we take whilst under its influence remain our responsibility, they are not simply outbreaks of bad luck we can blame on the caprice of fate. As I've suggested, this all rubs rather uneasily against the idea that superhero sidekicks genuinely are unlucky, but that just boils down to an argument that says the fictional trope being played with has to be considered separately from the social commentary on offer. 

I can live with that. 

[1] Which isn't to say people with no actual reason to won't try to blame systemic factors as well, of course. This is a non-trivial proportion of what keeps the conservative movement alive.

[2] I'm not trying to minimise the importance of the "cry for help" approach to suicide here. I'm not one of those people who feels comfortable lambasting suicide survivors for "selfishness" or what have you. My point is simply that Theo's suicide attempt is presented here as being part of a wider pattern of self-involvement.

Clues

It's not clear how long this story takes to tell (mainly it depends on the distance between Jinx's apartment and the river), but it can't be more than a few hours.  Presumably it must follow on more or less directly from Longshot being unceremoniously dumped in the river.

Date

Wednesday 30th January, 1985.

X-Date

X+6Y+335.

Contemporary Events



Standout Line

"I find the spine particularly distasteful."