Friday, 6 February 2015

UXM #202: "X-Men... I've Gone To Kill -- The Beyonder!"

(Unclear Non-present Danger)


So here's an accolade no-one was ever holding their breath over: best Secret Wars II tie-in ever.  But that's what we have here, and there's other positives too. This is an issue that is Saying Something.

At first glance the plot here might seem slight, its lashings of Claremontian melodrama notwithstanding. Essentially Rachel Summers concludes the Beyonder is simply too threatening to live, and dashes off to kill him. This is of little concern to the Beyonder, of course, but he takes the opportunity to force her to choose between attacking him and saving the lives of her teammates from future-model Sentinels he's whipped up to kill them. The fact that Rachel chooses the latter option is a solid 24-carat nugget of purest non-surprise, obviously, but then the fact she chooses to abandon her quest isn't what's interesting here.  It's that she embarked on it in the first place.

Objectively speaking, two things seem almost undeniable. Firstly, whatever risks the Beyonder might pose to the planet going forwards, as of his initial arrival he's not done anything that the Marvel universe of the time would suggest he deserves death for.  I mean, if you spend any time at all thinking through what the Beyonder has been up to since his first introduction he's almost certainly a serial rapist and a genocidal murderer, but that's clearly not the way we're supposed to be thinking, which we know because none of that has been so much as nodded at since it happened.  In the morality structure of these stories as written, Rachel's actions here are a pre-emptive strike rather than an application of justice. Further, they're clearly being portrayed as a massive overreaction. Heroes Do Not Kill, not here and not now, and although this rule seems to get bent an awful lot when non-human intelligences are involved, the Beyonder looks sufficiently human that having him murdered whilst minding his own business by one of the X-Men would cause an awful lot of problems. And all of this is without noting that Ororo has an excellent point on page 3: if you're worried you're only alive because of a godlike being's sufferance, resolving to attack said being it utterly deranged. As the old saying goes, if you come at God, you'd better not miss the entirety of existence that he might wipe out in response to teach you a lesson.

It's not, though, that Claremont hasn't thought any of this through.  The idea here is very clearly that Rachel is on a hair-trigger, because she's the only person in the narrative for which the future is literally something she has seen happen already.  What does it even mean to describe something as a pre-emptive strike when it's designed to mitigate a crisis you have already lived through?

Even just all that provides us with interestings question to chew on.  But we can go still further. Because there's every chance Claremont is offering up an analogy here. With the "Days Of Future Past" future so clearly having borrowed from the horrors of the Holocaust, with Magneto's backstory being rewritten four years previously to tie him in to that same period, and with the book's very last issue having taken place at America's (at that point still fictional) National Holocaust Memorial, it's not hard to see a through-line in this point in the title's history. Anti-Semitism might not be the only kind of bigotry Claremont is reflecting in his stories, but it's certainly a major ingredient. And just as he liked to do with Kitty and her favourite N-word, Claremont isn't just interested in how bigotry expresses itself, but how it is responded to.  Which brings us back to Rachel. Eventually, that is.

In late 1985, the time when this issue was presumably written, the Israelis finally finished withdrawing from the areas of Lebanon - other than the South Lebanon "security belt" - they had taken during the war which began in 1982 after the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to the UK.  During that war over 600 Israelis died, as did almost 20 000 other people - including civilian casualties that couldn't have been lower than 5 000 people and might actually have been over 10 000 - as the Lebanese fought a civil war whilst Israel clashed with the PLO and the Syrian army. I'm not a historian, so I'm not going to stick my neck out too far here, but the general opinion seems to be that a) Israel didn't do too well out of this exchange, and b) invading a country over a failed assassination attempt was at best a massive over-reaction and at worst an example of what Naomi Klein might call "disaster foreign policy".  Either way, when the IRA came within a hair of blowing up Margaret Thatcher (And killed two high-ranking members of her party), we didn't respond by taking Dublin, and I've a hard time understanding an argument that says we made a mistake in that.

Ah, but Israel, the line goes, is different. Unique.  The IRA might have hated us, but they didn't surround us. We were fighting over the size our country should be, not whether that country should be swept into the sea. Most important of all, the English and Irish had been at war with each other on and off for at least eight centuries when the Grand Hotel exploded and killed five people, and England never came close to actually losing, you know, the English. We weren't just getting back on our feet after a brush with extinction.

Much has been said from many perspectives about the argument that non-Jews cannot criticise Israel because they can't conceive of the existential horror brought about by Hitler's Final Solution. This isn't the place for me to go into detail about what I think of that, but it's relevant for considering this UXM issue, because it's an argument that reflects Rachel Summer's position here. If someone believes that anti-Jewish atrocities will simply keep happening in an endless cycle of blood that can only be delayed and never broken, that person could well reach the same conclusion as Phoenix: that their future will simply be their past, unless they act quickly and decisively enough. Whether any piece of that thinking lay behind Israel's pre-emptive strike in June 1967, or whether the decision to attack before they could be attacked was grounded in impeccable military logic, I'm not qualified to comment upon. But clearly the instinct is there.

(Another interesting parallel: Phoenix's initial attack against the Beyonder takes the shape of a nuclear mushroom cloud. With a bird's head, admittedly, but still. Israel's long-suspected nuclear arsenal was finally revealed to exist eight months after this issue's cover date.)

And, just as it was with Phoenix, that instinct doesn't always work out. Not every problem can be solved by the lavish application of massive military force. Some, indeed, can only be exacerbated by that approach. What did the first Lebanon War gain Israel except for hundreds of dead soldiers and thousands of new enemies? Countries, like gods, do not become less troublesome after you've attacked them. An exchange where you remove a government's capacity to hurt you for a year and guarantee their desire to hurt you for a lifetime isn't difficult to see as problematic. Even back in the '80s, before the rise of portable media made it so much easier to track how Israel responds to provocation, it must have been clear that the country's frequently maximalist approach to defence and security was locking in its own form of vicious circle. Simply put, to many observers Israel's attempts to render the kind of hatred that fuelled the Holocaust impotent was simply helping that hatred to spread. The people of Israel were being put at risk by the very people who wanted to protect them.

Claremont is not interested in being subtle in pointing out this risk of counter-productivity.  As soon as Phoenix refuses to back down despite her first attack achieving precisely nothing, the Beyonder summons her fellow X-Men to threaten them with death. Worse, his chosen method of execution is the exact same model of Sentinel that slaughtered so many of Rachel's friends when she was younger. I don't think the Beyonder could make his point any clearer, but then I guess having the powers of a god does rather help when driving your metaphors home.

All of which, as I say, makes the fact that Rachel does indeed to save her friends more or less irrelevant. What matters is what forcing her to make the choice has demonstrated. Rachel is none too pleased about receiving this rather perilous lecture, naturally, and I'm inclined to sympathise. It's one thing to object to the dreadful cost Israeli policy has upon the Palestinian population, It's quite another to presume to lecture survivors of terrible tragedy how they can best prevent it from happening again. But then it's not as though Rachel's counter is all that great either. She complains bitterly about the Beyonder trying to force her to achieve enlightenment before she was ready to process things herself.  Which might be an entirely reasonable suggestion if no-one else was involved.  Demanding she be left alone so that she can decide on her own timetable when to stop trying to murder people is not a particularly good look, just as it isn't when Israeli officials demand no-one has the right to lecture them about how many Palestinians they decide need killing in any given month.

Basically, then, no-one on either side of this ends up looking particularly good. Which makes it one more example in a very long list of commentary about Israel that nobody is going to find satisfactory. There are worse things your narrative can do. And it's always smart to remember that disliking answers does not necessarily mean it's not worth being made to face the questions.

(Two quick notes about artwork here. First of all, I love how Romita Jr. draws the Blackbird in panels that are both orientated in the direction of flight and elongated to match the jet's speed.  That's a lovely little idea.

Falling without power here, hence the wider panel

I also dig the visual link between the flowers the Beyonder is spending his time his considering and Rachel when she's curled up, the wisps of her power curling like petals (the colours make this harder to see, admittedly).  It's a subtle but rather grim reminder of how little the Beyonder distinguishes between people and flora.

Great stuff.)


This story takes place in approximately real time.


Wednesday 13th March, 1985.



Compression Constant

1 Marvel year = 3.19 standard years.

(At the time of this post, Beast is 34 years old)

Contemporary Events

American painter Mabel Alvarez dies, aged 93.

Standout Line

"You have seen everyone you care for slaughtered. In a sense, you are the sole survivor of your world, of your race. Small wonder, now that you have a second chance... you are determined to defend them at any coast. Shamed by what was... terrified of what may yet be..." - the Beyonder.

No comments:

Post a Comment