Monday, 25 August 2014

UXM #200: "The Trial Of Magneto!"

("The whole freaking system is out of order!")


A trial, of course, is the last thing this is.  Diagetically, at least. A trial implies a ruling; a decision as to how much punishment you actions warrant, if any.  And here, that's precisely what we don't get.  The judges of the UN Security Council get no opportunity to comment decisively on Magneto's innocence or otherwise. But of course this hardly matters, because the aim here isn't to demonstrate Magneto's innocence to the court, but to demonstrate to us his viability as a hero.

With hindsight, and I presume to anyone at the time keeping an eye on the solicitations, this must have been an obviously necessary step.  Magneto is about to take charge of the New Mutants, with the "dying Xavier" storyline coming to an end here (with Corsair and Lilandra whisking Charles off for a bit of space healing). That means some effort has to go into persuading the audience that the new status quo makes at least a little sense.

The issue attempts this in two ways.  By far the less interesting of these is the inclusion of Andrea and Andreas, AKA Fenris, AKA the twin children of Baron Strucker.  Magneto's arrest and trial has at last pinned him down for long enough for the malevolent siblings to take a break from shooting random Africans in Kenya and slap together a plan for revenge.  The thing is, though, that said plan makes very little sense.  Committing acts of terrorism and claiming them as acts of support for Magneto might help sway the judges against him, but even if it looked like those judges needed any help in disliking the defendant, Fenris' aim isn't to get him locked up, but to find and assassinate him.  What good does a bombing campaign do for them?  The only advantage is has is that they ultimately use a fake attack to distract the X-Men whilst they try to finish of Magneto, but it's only the bombing campaign (which the terrorists have made to look like attacks by our heroes) that actually means the X-Men need distracting in the first place. It's like warning someone they're going to be robbed so you can distract them with a fake robbery whilst you rob them [1]; it's just a mad closed circle.

But all that only really matters if we're supposed to be concentrating on what Fenris is up to.  We're not.  We're just supposed to be remembering that there are far worse villains out in the Marvel Universe than Magneto, and some of them are his sworn enemies. It's an attempt to redeem Magneto in part through the "bigger asshole theory", and whilst there's almost no rhetorical heft in the "at least he hates the Nazis" in general, it does at least remind us that Magneto's history and motivations have always (well, since UXM #150, anyway) been more complicated than the label "villain" would suggest.

Which brings us to the second method for selling Magneto to us: the trial itself.  There's no doubt on who's side Claremont is here, resulting in the entire process being used to justify and exculpate Magneto, whilst chief prosecutor James Jaspers (the UK's attorney general, which I didn't know we had one of) reveals himself as an unhinged racist.  This deck-stacking is obvious almost from the first.  Jasper's opening statement is actually pretty good. I mean, it's awful from a progressive perspective - all about how oppression doesn't exist if it isn't codified into law and the oppressed have an obligation to work within the system to clear whatever hurdles that system has placed in their way, exactly the sort of shit the US Supreme Court has been spouting recently, and which the events in Ferguson these last weeks have brought the lie to once again - but at least it lines up with the opinions of an awful lot of people who we could legitimately call well-intentioned.  "You should do it like MLK did it" is both a bad thing for the oppressors to tell the oppressed, and tends to rather smooth the edges off what MLK was up to in any case, but it can genuinely come from people who wish to be of help, especially in the context of a legal case, which by it's very nature is concerned with the application of authority as it currently exists, rather than how we might wish it did.

With that nod towards fair-and-balanced dealt with, though, things quickly slew in one direction. The opening gambit of Gabrielle Haller, as defense counsel, is to move that all Magneto's crimes committed before his forced rejuvenation at the hands of Mutant Alpha be stricken from the record.  In legal terms, this is an utterly absurd suggestion. OK, it's clearly true that we lack the technology-  at present - to physically regress an adult back to childhood.  But in the Marvel Universe such a procedure is far less unthinkable. Reed Richards could probably knock up a machine for the job in his lunch hour. The idea that, in such an environment, a person need only get to their rejuvenation machine to have all previous crimes expunged is flatly ridiculous, though I guess the fact that only the richest people could afford such tech would guarantee them at least four votes on the current US Supreme Court. But we don't need to dabble in hypothetical technological breakthroughs here. Current case law does the job for us, with only minimal tweaking. You can't, for instance, escape a trial on the grounds of amnesia; you don't have to remember a crime to be punished for it. And Magneto remembers his past life just fine. Indeed, his entire identity relies upon it. Haller herself is smart enough to realise this, demonstrating that Magneto has been de-aged specifically by referencing his youth in Auschwitz, a fairly blatant attempt to solicit sympathy. Indeed, had Jaspers been more savvy, he might have let this insane suggestion go unchallenged, since the inevitable consequence of holding Magneto's pre-reversion life null and void is that no-one gets to care anymore about his unimaginably horrific childhood.

But that doesn't occur to him. And somehow, the court allows this ridiculous interpretation to pass. Now, it's true that a few years watching the Roberts court piss all over precedent, the Constitution and basic common fucking sense has led me to conclude that there is basically no legal theory sufficiently unmoored from reality for it not to get the thumbs up from someone in a robe, it seems pretty much unarguable that you wouldn't see five humans dismiss dozens of entries on a defendant's list of crimes (including murder; I flat-out refuse to believe Magneto's conquering of San Marco was achieved without a body count) because of an absurd reading of what constitutes culpability. There cannot be a single actual human being in existence who thinks that, for example, the US would forgive a man for trying to steal their nuclear missiles if he briefly became a baby before you managed to arrest him.

All that said, though, it's inescapably obvious as to why Claremont pulls this trick; it's the only way to make use of Magneto from this moment forwards. The murderous, petty douchebag that haunted UXM from its first issue had to be put to rest so that the new improved Magneto, all grey areas and tortured desperation, can take flight. And whilst the specifics of Claremont's action on this matter leave something to be desired, I'm far from convinced any other approach wouldn't have seemed entirely arbitrary, which means we're faced with the choice of either accepting an unconvincing break from the past, or not using Magneto as anything other than that dude who invaded that place pizzas come from one time. If a plausible argument for taking the latter path exists, then I have yet to see it.

With the opening statements having so successfully washed away the majority of Magneto's sins, the trial boils down to the sinking of the Leningrad and the destruction of the city of Varykino. Frankly, both of these seem like slam dunks for the prosecution.  As I mentioned fifty issues back when Magneto did the deed, there's simply no plausible legal theory under which destroying the Leningrad can be claimed as self-defence; it's only self-defence if a failure to act might actually cause you harm. The intent of your attacker is irrelevant, only their capacity. If a madman concludes you are a vampire and tries to kill you with a Super-Soaker filled with holy water, you don't get to kill them and claim they started it. That rather obliterates Magneto's argument in the criminal terms this trial is running on, but even if we looked at it from the rules of war Magneto wants to frame his actions in terms of, the Leningrad was helpless against him and fully under his control, making her crew POWs by any reasonable definition, and we tend to frown on the mass execution of such people.

All of which James Jaspers could have easily pointed out. Instead, he begins screaming at the defendant, demanding he admit his actions were the opening moves in a plan to take control of the world. Which, even if that were true, isn't the smart direction to take this. The point is that whether Magneto is a wannabe dictator or not,  Leningrad is just as lost. Varykino is no less destroyed (and as always the comments on no-one having been killed when the city fell strike me as highly implausible and rather skips over the fact that being a refugee in Siberia isn't something everyone is going to get out of with their fingers and toes intact). Forcing Magneto and Haller into defending the human cost of his actions would be a thread with some real bite to it. Instead, Jaspers' outburst shifts tracks into the field of international politics, which is where Magneto can make his strongest case. Take a look:
 By what right do those self-same great powers hold me hostage, with their nuclear arsenals?! I am a citizen of neither the United States nor the Soviet Union... yet they possess the capability to slay me and mine. I live, I prosper, solely because two men on opposite sides of the globe choose to keep the peace.  I can just as easily, arbitrarily, be condemned.

Unlike others, however, I have the power to do something about it. I thought, mistakenly, those nations would best understand their own language of violence.  Unfortunately, force begat force -- and, as always, innocents paid the price,  A price -- I discovered too late -- that was too high.
What Magneto is saying here is not without weight, of course. No-one needs to hear the five permanent UN Security Council members hectoring others about believing they have the right to endanger the lives of people who have neither quarrel with nor influence upon them. I'd conservatively guess something like 90% of statements of condemnation from nuclear states boil down to "How dare you do what we do!". That said, though, tu quoque is pretty much the automatic go-to defence for pretty much any dictator who ends up at the pointy end of a tribunal. No-one's hands are clean, not at this level. Which means the only two options is to let criminals punish criminals, or let everyone go free once they reach the point where they're playing with the big boys. Neither choice is palatable, but I know which one I'd rather choke down.

All of which Attorney General Sir Shoutypants might have thought to point out, had he not been so busy pretending he was in a drunken spat at the Bullingdon Club. And alas, the moment is soon wasted, as Fenris attacks, Charles departs and Magneto melts away in the confusion, deciding that Lady Justice isn't someone he wants to dance with after all. But again, justice was never the point. Persuading us we're better off with Magneto out and on our side is. It's one more iteration of that charmingly American idea that redemption is more important than state justice, so long as we get something out of the deal.

And as far as that goes, it's a decent stab, though it does it by making everyone else seem worse than Magneto rather than making him seem all that much more heroic. We can just about consider this job done. And it's certainly a job worth doing for the sake of future stories. And it's probably entirely safe to say that had Magneto's trial reached its conclusion, things would have gotten very bloody and complicated in a way Marvel comics just weren't equipped to handle in the 1980s, and maybe still aren't today. Even so, I can't help wishing the 200th issue of The Uncanny X-Men worked better in its own right, rather than stumbling along in the process of setting later stories up. An awful lot of Marvel Universe traditions have their roots in Claremont's writing. This is not one of my favourite examples.

[1] Which admittedly is most of the plot of The Lies of Locke Lamora, but Scott Lynch has rather more panache on his side than Claremont can claim.


From a comment made by Madelyne, we know that the X-Men spend just over a week back on Earth before Xavier is whisked away into space, so we can reasonably put the time-span of this issue at eight days.

When it actually begins in relation to Magneto's arrest in UXM #199 is a bit trickier, because we have to think about how quickly a criminal trial featuring a team of judges from the UN Security Council can feasibly be put together. It took the UN War Crimes Tribunal for Slobodan Milošević almost eight months to start following his extradition, for example. I don't think it would take quite so long in Magneto's case - when the US and Russia want to nail your balls to the wall, I'd imagine things start moving rather faster - and the fact Maddie was so close to giving birth in previous issues prevents us from moving too far ahead in any case. Nevertheless, I'm going to assume a full month has passed between the last issue and this, and I'm going to move UXM Annual #9 forwards as well as a result.

Which means it's been seven in-universe years exactly since Magneto first tangled with the X-Men, which seems rather fitting, all things considered.


Friday 22nd February to Saturday 2nd March, 1985.


X+6Y+358 to X+7Y+1.

Compression Constant

1 Marvel year = 3.18 standard years.

(Beast is 33 years old)

Contemporary Events

Julio Maria Sanguinetti is signed in as the first democratically-elected President of Uruguay after a twelve-year dictatorship

Standout Line

I'm not sure anything here is going to beat Magneto's little speech, but Colossus reacting to being hit with an energy beam with "As usual, only my costume suffered" is legitimately chucklesome.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

UXM Annual #9: "There's No Place Like Home"

(Now featuring 100% more everything ever.)


One of the basic rules of annuals as far as I'm concerned is this: they should never kick off, continue, or conclude a story featuring in the parent title. The obvious reason for this rule is that not everyone can afford to shell out for the larger annual, and not everyone can find it (back when I was visiting a now-defunct Middlesbrough comic shop in the years before Forbidden Planet, the stockist had terrible problems remembering to even order annuals in in the first place). People with a subscription to, say, UXM have a legitimate reason to be aggrieved if the story they're following suddenly gets wrapped up somewhere else. It's like buying a video game and finding the final act is DLC for which you have to pay; it's awful (which isn't to say it wasn't common; indeed it was a wearyingly ubiquitous Marvel UK scam in the early '90s, as any Transformers fan can tell you.)

There's also another argument to be made here, though. Annuals are different beasts to their parent titles. They're much longer, and often feature different artists to those working regularly on the associated ongoing. Their size, cost and annual nature (it's right there in the name, guys!) all suggest something out of the ordinary. Not only is treating them as the thirteenth and fourteenth issue to come out in a given year rather underusing the premise, it's failing to recognise that 22 pages per month is a very different beast to a 22 page and a 48 page within four weeks of each other. Pacing issues both within the annual and between the annual and its parent title rear their head if you're not careful.

Up until now, Claremont has shown every sign of understanding this.  Whilst I'm not a great fan of his annuals in general, that's because he uses them as vehicles for sides to his muse I've never been fond of.  I can still recognise that stories like "Nightcrawler's Inferno" or "Treasure-Hunt" are proper stand-alone stories with radically different approaches to the monthly title.

UXM Annual #9 is different.  Yes, it manages to more or less entirely avoid treading on the ongoing's toes (a reference to the X-Men being returned from Asgard as UXM #200 kicks off is about the only reference in the main strip), but that's only because Claremont was too busy cramming as many New Mutants references in here as is possible.

Which is basically breaking the above rule in the worst possible way. Instead of needing the annual to understand UXM, you need NMU Special Edition #1 to understand the annual.  Worse, you really need at least some working knowledge of NMU in general to understand the special edition. What this boils down to is that this annual is acting as a capper to at best 64 and at worst 196 pages of New Mutants storylines. The barriers here are becoming more than a little blurred, and the heavy nature of these final instalments (NMU SE#1 was 64 pages, this is 40) create a feeling of bloat which is hardly helpful either.

The obvious retort here would be to argue that yes, this annual is following on from the New Mutant's decision to remain in Asgard at least until they can rescue Storm from Loki, but that the focus changes from the younger team to the older one, justifying this story as an X-Men annual and offering a different perspective on the younger team, which has been operating without back-up since Roberto and Amara were kidnapped back in NMU #29.  The problem with this argument is that there's too much time spent furthering the New Mutants plot strands for any shift in perspective to be evident. We spend six pages on Magma and Cannonball alone, for instance, as she frets about her new elf-form and their friends the dwarves create the magic hammer Loki has blackmailed out of them.

But with the X-Men and New Mutants sharing top billing, not only is there no clear explanation as to why this story is hopping from title to title (other than Claremont becoming increasingly disinterested in compartmentalising), but the whole thing is horribly overbalanced by the number of characters.  Other characters or teams making guest appearances is the kind of nod to the wider continuity comic book obsessives like me really enjoy, but actually giving them equal billing pretty much guarantees no-one will be particularly well served.  Seventeen characters are shown on the opening page; that is is simply too many, even over forty-eight pages, to create any kind of coherent statement.  All you can do is messily develop bits and pieces as your plot sputters forward, which indeed is essentially what we get here.

Which isn't to say that none of the individual strands in here aren't interesting. This may be a mess, but it's not a completely dull one. The basic plot is fairly, well, basic, so we'll deal with that first: the X-Men travel to Asgard, meet the New Mutants and Hrimhari, and together plan to rescue Storm, currently mind-controlled by Loki because of course she is. Things go off-track when half the team are discovered by Loki who then mind-controls Illyana into acting as guard (because of course he does) and further mind-controls the wolves (because of course he fucking does) to seek out the other mutants, along with sundry monsters and ne'er-do-wells. They ambush the free mutants but are quickly beaten back, though Wolverine is fatally poisoned from a dragon bite in the process. The captured team manage to release Illyana and escape, and everyone converges at a ceremony Loki is holding in Asgard to present Storm with the hammer he extorted from the dwarves which will restore her powers (under the guise of honouring her as a hero who fought in the recent Surtwar, which is a nice touch). There Wolverine confronts Storm, and convinces her she has been lied to by the rather extreme method of letting her murder him. With Storm no longer under Loki's influence and a dozen plus mutants available to dissuade Hela from actually claiming Wolverine's soul (which somehow let's him survive the dragon's poison; Norse metaphysics is a tricky business), the God of Lies is rather on the back foot, and Shadowcat ties things up nicely by pointing out there are now seventeen mutants abroad in Asgard, all of whom will happily spill the beans about Loki's latest power grab if they're not all allowed to leave in one piece.

Which if nothing else is a nice way to end this, a sensible and unexpected solution to the question of how one can possibly defeat a god (this is maybe weakened by the teams doing exactly that to Hela a couple of pages earlier, but then as is mentioned, she does have more important things to do than swipe Wolverine). There are interesting things are happening in the margins, too. Rachel Summers is getting ever more into her self-appointed role as the New Phoenix, having now chosen not just that codename but a costume that directly references the flaming bird. In doing so she honours her mother's past, but of course Cyclops takes it pretty hard. It's a weird and strong dynamic: Rachel wants the past to be remembered but doesn't care if anyone remembers it in a different way to her, and Scott would rather not be reminded of that past despite the fact his wife looks identical to the dead woman Rachel claims to be honouring. Questions about what we retain from the past, what we leave behind, and what it might be wise or otherwise to replicate are fascinating ones, and as with all the best drama, both sides here have completely understandable positions; though I can't help feeling Rachel is being somewhat unreasonable in her expectations of Cyclops' responses. She's chosen not to explain why she's so fixated on Jean Grey, denying Scott the context that would give him any real hope of processing what's going on (though he learns the truth later from Hela, of all people), and telling someone in front of their new wife that they've got no reason to be upset about their dead former lover is a supreme dick move regardless of context. Wanting to be Phoenix whilst refusing to consider other people's feelings doesn't strike me as a tremendously healthy path to start heading down.

Of course, heading fown darker paths is very much the theme for young female mutants. Illyana briefly acquires the Enchantress' grimoires and seems very much unconcerned that reading them is driving her every further into becoming a dark sorceress/cruel arsehole. Mirage finds every Asgardian who sees her (and Warlock too) is now terrified of her link to the Valkyrie. Even Wolfsbane has to deal with her new found desire to shift into wolf form and sniff her love interest's backside. It's worth noting at this point just how often Claremont alters the status quo of his female characters like this, compared to his male ones. Illyana was turned from a innocent child into a dark magician. Xian became a morbidly obese mind-slave. Ororo was depowered, and Jean Grey died. Sprite became Shadowcat, and Psyche first Mirage, and then a valkyrie, the latter in the same adventure as Amara became an elf.

What is there for the Y chromosome that matches up? Wolverine has become a fraction less rough around the edges? Cyclops got to retire? I guess you've got Professor Xavier oscillating between wheelchair-bound, walking and dead, but I think there's a clear imbalance here, and it's not at all obvious to me why that is. I'm certainly not trying to paint a picture of Claremont as having issues with women - one could even colour an argument that says the imbalance stems from him having more interest in and willingness to tinker with female characters whilst the males just stand around saying the same old stuff. I don't really have any coherent take on the phenomenon, I just wanted to note that it's there.

What else? Well, there's a smattering of very brief but nice moments here.  Doug offering part of his lifeforce to keep Warlock alive after being shot by Loki is very sweet, and also manages to foreshadow Douglock's creation almost a decade later.  It's also hard not to smile when later in the issue they arrive to reinforce the X-Men by shifting into the USS Enterprise and firing all phasers.  There's an interesting conversation between Logan and Roberto, with the former pouring scorn on Sunspot's insistence that Asgard is a better place to live than Earth because so much more glory is on offer for beating up villains. And, for those interested in such things, Rogue demonstrates a new twist to her powers that I think is never mentioned again, when Nightcrawler grabs her and Cyclops simultaneously and thereby allows her to absorb both of their powers.

So yes, there's plenty to appreciate.  In the end though it never had any hope of gelling. It's not so much that it's less than the sum of its parts so much as that that sum is so big there's no way to sensibly process the number. These sprawling Claremontian epics are getting completely out of hand. Time now to move on to his UXM #200, which is, inevitably, 40 pages long. I shall have to count up how many pages Claremont produced in 1985. If I ever reach the end of the year, that is...


As with NMU Special Edition #1, much of the action here happens in Asgard, which makes the timing difficult.  We do at least know Shadowcat's nightmare must take place between UXM #199 and #200, so we'll place the beginning of this story the day after Magneto surrendered to the authorities, and the rest of it Odin only knows where.


Wednesday 23rd January, 1985.



Contemporary Events

Britain sees its first televised House of Lords debate.

Standout Line

"We had better things to do in Brazil, than read Viking stories."

Good on you, Sunspot. A few less Norse tales might do us all a bit of good.