Sunday, 21 September 2014
SW2 #5: "Despair!"
(Despair is right.)
We'll cover this issue on its own. Not because it's any good - it isn't, though I suppose in this ongoing train wreck this is one of the ones that most avoids damaging houses or knocking over pensioners. But it's worth running though this one on its own, partially because it sets up a fairly major shift in the story which will take us through into the final third of this benighted series, and partially because this is by some distance the most mutant-heavy issue of this title so far.
It's also, relatedly, the debut of Tabitha Smith, AKA Time Bomb, AKA Boom-Boom, AKA Boomer, AKA Meltdown. As one of very few 20th century X-folks who've survived in general rotation without either Stan Lee or Chris Claremont having any hand in their creation, Tabitha Smith generates interest through rarity if nothing else.
And that isn't all there is. Tabitha, we learn, has run away after her father learned she was a mutant and responded by punching her in the face. Now she's on a mission to find the school she's heard about that functions as a haven for mutants. X-folks have had problems with their families before (Iceman is the most obvious example, though in truth we didn't actually learn that until soon before he and his father made up in any case), and they've been threatened with exclusion and even violence before (see Nightcrawler's introduction). But the explicit mentioning of a young mutant suffering physical abuse from a parent simply for being who they are is new.
This is clearly a logical step in continuing the build the mutant metaphor. Which isn't to say it can't be problematic as well. It's a brave step to take. Domestic abuse is always a difficult topic to write about without seeming crass, and it's a particularly uneasy fit in a genre where punching people at the slightest provocation seems to be generally regarded as a spiffing idea. Shooter's tack here is to compare the Beyonder's loneliness over Dazzler's rejection (and, implicitly, his status as the only one of his kind) to similar feelings in Tabitha stemming from her father's abuse. Which is perhaps an interesting comparison, in theory, but the problem here is obvious: being rejected by a girl is a common problem for the intended audience of this comic. Being a young girl beaten by her father most definitely isn't. You can't push this parallel without being entirely unequivocal that implying anything but the most skin-deep similarities is thoroughly awful.
Which might well be what Shooter is trying, in truth. There's certainly no lack of indications that the Beyonder is exactly that sort of solipsistic arsehole. He sulks about how his infinite power doesn't help persuade a woman to love him; a fairly transparent iteration of the disgracefully rich man whining that they're only 95% immune from the constant unbearable shitstorm of reality. Even more damning, he accompanies Tabitha to Xavier's mansion even though he knows the X-Men are leery of him, and when they inevitably attack (apparently having learned nothing from his previous admonitions about mutants having good reasons to be a little less knee-jerk about who they consider threats) he simply yawns and disappears. This has the direct effect of forcing Tabitha to flee from the only people she knew of who could maybe have helped her sort out the damage her father and wider society have done to her life. And throughout all of Tabitha's genuinely upsetting confessions and knock backs, the Beyonder remains utterly uninterested, using her as nothing but a sounding board for his solipsistic mooching. Later in the issue he prepares to obliterate the universe just to force a reaction from the Celestials, sparking a battle that wrecks an alien city and which very plausibly kills people too. Literally the best thing you can say about his behaviour in the first two thirds of this issue is that he doesn't allow her to commit suicide after he prevents her speaking to the people she's travelled so many miles to find.
But if the idea is to skewer the Beyonder for his self-involvement, Shooter takes a tremendously anaemic approach to it. Tabitha doesn't blame the Beyonder for the damage he causes, instead begging him to come back when he leaves, setting the time bomb that would have killed her if not for his intervention. We return to the fundamental problem of this entire mini: the Beyonder expands to fill everything, denying any other character the time they need to respond satisfactorily. And of course this is particularly problematic here. It's one thing for the Beyonder to wave his hand and give Power Man a massive pile of gold. It's another for him to wave his hand and remove Tabitha's black eye. It's not that we should want this thirteen year old kid to keep the marks of her abuse. It's that they need to be healed, not just be waved away to demonstrate the protagonist's good will.
Actually, I'm being a little unfair here. The one part of this issue that I think works is Tabitha's insistence that whilst she's perfectly happy for the Beyonder to remove her bruise, he's not to remove her mutant power. He can heal the damage, but he is determined to remain who she is. This, at least, is how things should be, I think - a separation between wanting to be rid of the effects of bigotry and wanting to be rid of the slices of your identity that sets the bigots off. It's also interesting that the Beyonder neither offers nor Tabitha asks him to remove the memory of her father beating her. I'm not in any position at all to speculate on whether survivors of domestic abuse might wish for their memories of what they've suffered to be wiped, but on balance I think it was the right choice not to try it here. If you want to introduce such heavy and difficult subject matter, it needs to be processed, not waved away.
Except ultimately that's what Shooter does, as Tabitha finally gets sick of the Beyonder's pointless acts of destruction and insults him enough for him to teleport her from the ruins of the city below the Celestials and back to Earth. Ultimately this is what rankles most of all; it's time for the Beyonder's interminable, joyless story to continue, so the determined, lonely little girl running from a father who hit her for no good damn reason at all has to be set aside. Well, OK, she's still in the final pages, phoning the Avengers to explain how terrifying the Beyonder is and then helping to set up a trap for her new acquaintance so the Avengers can beat the crap out of him (they stop when he refuses to resist, which is odd since their entire plan revolved around attacking him before he could resist because any resistance and they'd all be dead), but that's just plot mechanics; it could have been anyone who made the call.
All of which is to say that there's no longer the merest scrap of doubt; this is a book about things that happen to the Beyonder, and absolutely nothing else. An already thin idea stretched past the point of all reason has become as self-involved and dull as it's own protagonist. I'd rather read the worst five issues of X-Men: The Hidden Years than revisit this series up to now.
But change is in the suffocating, humid air! Next issue begins the career of the Beyonder, superhero! Can that finally turn around this wagon and offer us something better? And dear Gods, can it possibly get any worse?
This story takes place in approximately real time.
Friday 25th January, 1985.
Pretty much nothing.
"I should've put a bigger time bomb in his lasagna."
Never mess with Tabitha Smith. Not if you want to ever eat dinner without fear again.