Wednesday, 12 November 2014
NMU #35: "The Times, They Are A'Changin'!"
(Change your career, keep your spots)
Trigger warning: attempted sexual assault & (briefly) pederasty.
Much like Alpha Flight #29, which we covered recently (though not so recently as I would like; damn this house-move snorting up all my time), this issue is more or less forced into a familiar structure by outside events. With the former, this involved the title attempting to prove itself viable following the departure of its creator/writer/penciller. Here, the shake-up is entirely in-universe, as Magneto becomes head-teacher to the New Mutants, but the end result is broadly equivalent: the team members question the new status quo - just as the audience are - and ultimately accept it - just as the audience hopefully will.
Tightening the bindings still further, there are two overlapping points that need to be covered during an average "controversial new leader" story - and this really is entirely average. First the newcomer needs to prove there exists some benefit to the new regime, and then everyone else has to conclude those benefits overwhelm whatever baggage us being hauled alongside. Claremont essentially divides these beat between the two halves of the issue. The first part can be dismissed fairly quickly, since it simply involves Magneto gathering the team in the Danger Room (minus Cypher, who doesn't get to play) and sets about slapping their internal organs out from whatever orifices are to hand. There's not really all that much to say about this, so we'll move straight onto the second stage of Magneto's second job interview.
This is where things get very interesting and in no small way problematic. Claremont needs an inciting incident through which he can demonstrate Magneto's new-found restraint, and he settles on a trio of drunken men attempting to rape Danielle Moonstar.
Obviously, this is profoundly distressing. There's never any actual danger the deed will be done, but that doesn't change the fact that a) Dani is physically assaulted by men who want to sexually assault her, and b) this sort of horror is inflicted on thousands of young girls every day, none of whom are lucky enough to have a winged horse to sweep them away to safety.
There's a lot to not like about this. Firstly, we need to be very careful about the idea that a situation like this turns out OK if the assault is countered whilst everyone still has their clothes on. And by "OK" here, I mean that there are profound psychological issues an attempted rape can bring on, and there's simply no way Claremont can tackle that sensitively or well. Secondly, the idea that the best way to have a white guy show his heroic chops is to punish people who beat up a young Native American girl ties into all sorts of lousy tropes. Our heroes are the white guys who determine for themselves what's best for Native Americans but with good intentions ? I'm not at home to that, especially since it's clear here that Dani's trauma exists in the narrative purely for the sake of Magneto's development.
There's also an issue of narrative laziness to this move, something I like to call "Baron Harkonnen Syndrome" after Frank Herbert's character in Dune. Dune is a wonderfully complex book absolutely stuffed with complicated, multi-layered characters, all of whom have essentially valid reasons for doing what they do. No-one is purely good, no villain is entirely bad. Except Baron Harkonnen, who had sex with young boys. It's a grotesque revelation in a book otherwise dedicated to the complexities of political conflict, and reads like Herbert feared so many shades of grey would lose the reader unless someone emerged as an utterly clear-cut villain (see George RR Martin's Ramsay Snow for a contemporary parallel). It's a very bad idea, partially because it undermines the complexity of the work, but mainly because it treats victims as disposable objects that exist purely to demonstrate how evil someone is. This is bad enough when framing a character as a callous murderer, but at least there the resulting trauma to the victim is something we don't have to dwell on.
And really, this is how we're supposed to conclude that Magneto might not be all that bad? Because whilst he's a mass-murderer, he at least hates rapists? Talk about your low bars. Pretty much everyone hates rapists. Hell, I'm sure most actual rapists hate rapists, because of the horrifically effective way culture has evolved to reassure rapists that their rapes don't really count. I made this point when discussing UXM #200, but if you want to rehabilitate Magneto you really have to process his own mistakes; simply pointing out the Nazis and/or rape gangs are objectively worse isn't going to cut it.
On top of all of this, it's completely obvious just how hard Claremont is pressing his thumb on the scale here. Magneto's plan is to head to the criminal's hideout and threaten them with death if they ever show up on his radar again. Apparently this is impressive and represents personal growth because he doesn't kill them on the spot. But this only actually works our because Magneto scares the three men enough that they decide themselves they'd be better off turning themselves in. What would have happened if they hadn't? Are we really supposed to believe Magneto would keep tabs on them indefinitely? What if the next time they decide a woman's consent is irrelevant Magneto's off saving the world? What if next time they go after someone who isn't a mutant and suddenly Magneto has better things to do?
Really, there's no plausible way to interpret Magneto's actions here other than a reminder that he'll protect his own. Which is laudable in it's own way, but because his own are our own in the context of reader sympathies, it's easy to miss the fact that his approach here will really allow him to only protect his own. Which is exactly what led Magneto to become a killer in the first place; he decided his own subjective beliefs about who got to live and die - who got to be punished - trumped everybody else's.
In short, a lack of body-count notwithstanding, this issue is the most Magneto that Magneto has never been. That the New Mutants lap it up because on this occasion they know and love the person whose decisions he is co-opting makes this all worse, not better.
I'll give the issue this, though. It has made me more willing to accept the idea of Magneto as the New Mutants' head-teacher. Not because it's made me think more of him. Because it's made me think less of them.
 Tellingly Sam's biggest problem with Magneto deciding he's going to deal with the rapists himself is that it should be the team's job, which ignores Dani just as much.
Since this story involves the New Mutants learning who will be their new head-teacher, I assume it takes place on the same day the X-Men return from Paris.
Monday 11th March, 1985.
Thousands of Doctor Who fans wake up two days after "Timelash" began and discover to their horror that it still isn't all a dream.
"I can yell 'Don't shoot' in any language there is..." - Cypher.