Friday, 27 March 2015

X-Factor #1: "Third Genesis"

(Ray Wilson)


Sometimes you get famous for all the wrong reasons.

To get the obvious out of the way, X-Factor #1 was intended to be a major deal.  The original five X-Men back together? Including the one thought dead for years? A new series of adventures for them now they've outgrown the teenage angst Lee lumbered them with over two decades earlier?  That's a far stronger hook than Dazzler or Alpha Flight could claim. And indeed, with those two titles being at best tremendously oblique spin-offs (to the point people have asked me why I bothered including either of them on this blog), there's an argument to be made that this stands as the X-Universe's second genuine title to grow from Uncanny X-Men, and the first to not be written by Claremont.

Given this, it's perhaps something of a shame that this issue is arguably best known these days for two absolutely colossal fumblings of the ball. The first of these is the decision to have the new team pose as mutant-catchers so as to hunt and whisk away new mutants without causing suspicion. That goes away soon enough, though, so whilst the idea is awful it does no lasting damage. It's the second problem - turning Cyclops into a deadbeat dad - that really haunts the title going forward.

I think it's a fairly common reaction when something has been so slated for so long to try and offer some kind of defence. So how could we construct such a defence, and how far does it take us? Regarding the plan to save mutants from persecution by pretending to persecute them, I think any attempt at a defence has to be considered DOA. As always, it's not my place to tell an oppressed group how it should combat its oppression. But it does seem fairly clear to me that if in the '70s a group of gay men decided to pretend to be PIs who people could call to hunt down down gay men and cart them off to prison for them, that would fairly unarguably be the worst idea ever. There's a reason Edward Murrow fought McCarthyism by decrying it over the airwaves rather than pretending to help the State Department track down suspected pinkos and then hiding them in his house, and I don't think that reason was just that he was more comfortable behind a microphone.

So that pretty much can't be salvaged, indeed it went down so badly that Layton's successor Louise Simonson revealed it all to be a deliberate plot by Warren's PR man Cameron Hodge to make things worse for mutants - a twist that rather makes our heroes look like utter idiots, but I guess that barge had sailed. Can we get anywhere arguing Scott Summers acted less atrociously than is commonly accepted? Is it possible we can get some way towards forgiving him on the grounds that almost no-one reading this post has the slightest idea how they would deal with learning they were wrong about the unquestioned love of their life dying two and a half years earlier?

That's something I'll come back to, but for now I want to move on to Jean's actual return from the dead; talking about how that affects Scott before it affects Jean herself doesn't strike me as sensible.  The interesting thing about Jean being revived by Marvel just in time to put her in X-Factor is that the two ideas came from separate sources. The original cover for this issue simply has a blank outline where the fifth, female member of the team would be placed once it was decided who it was going to be (with Dazzler being a front runner for the role).

Not hard to criticise this from a feminine perspective, is it?
Meanwhile, Marvel writer Kurt Busiek was exploring the possibility of resurrecting Jean Grey, basically because he was a big fan and didn't like how her story had originally ended. With him pushing the idea of bringing her back, it was eventually decided that it could be allowed, so long as she was completely exonerated of any role in the Phoenix's genocidal actions, and one of comic's most notorious retcons was on its way out of the door.

Whether or not one agrees with Busiek regarding the conclusion of the Dark Phoenix Saga, it's clear his solution raises problems of its own.  This is where the levy breaks, and we start down the road ending in it becoming standard policy in the X-Universe to run stories that, should they go wrong, will stink up the past as well as the present. The X-Men can now no more die than the titles of the comics which feature them can. There can always be another chapter, so long as we fans demand it, unloading onto the internet, clamouring to vote for who should become immortal. Ultimately those fans can end up in the bullpen themselves, like Busiek, a new generation of writers determined to fix the mistakes of the old, for rather idiosyncratic definitions of "mistakes". That all of this should kick off the very moment someone other than Claremont gets their claws into the franchise proper is perhaps fitting.

As to the utility of bringing Jean herself back, I'm defiantly agnostic. I suspect that for many fans the desire to see her return stems mainly from nostalgia. After all, the Jean of the '60s and '70s was at worst a sexist cipher, and even at best she was defined almost exclusively by her relationship with Scott and the generic "strong woman" approach so beloved of male comic writers who don't to put the effort in with actual characterisation. The result was a woman so eminently replaceable Claremont managed to do so with the exact same person; Jean was never anything more than an attractive redhead who loved Scott.  It would be nice to think that Jean's reappearance here was intended as a way to allow her to be written right this time, but with the explicit motivation for this resurrection basically being that Jean was too good a character to die the way she did, hopes obviously aren't high.

Anyway, on to Cyclops.  First let's talk about how his presence here bends the narrative. Generally speaking, when kicking off a new book it's important to justify its existence to the punters. One tried and tested method for this, as we recently saw in Alpha Flight (though in that case it was a change of creative team necessitating justification rather than a new title) is to have the characters themselves doubt and debate their usefulness, so that they can go on convince themselves - and hopefully therefore us - that they are a viable concern. Instead, the narrative gives them Cyclops, and goes out of its way to reinforce the idea that the other guys can't adequately function without him, something which I imagine came as a surprise to any number of Defenders fans.

The reason why this is done is fairly obvious, of course. Leyton wants to justify Summers' return from his retirement. But inevitably placing Cyclops above his three oldest male friends rather makes them look weaker, which is an odd choice when they're 60% of your new book's main cast (it's particularly strange in a book that's already referenced Scott not having the skills to run the X-Men anymore, which means this book is being pitched as a second-tier hero leading his third-tier mates). Instead of learning why we should read about this team, we learn only that we couldn't read about this team without Scott, which frankly reads like Layton is justifying himself to Claremont rather than to the reader. And there's yet another problem generated here. Cyclops' decision to choose the team over his marriage can really only be as justifiable as the team's existence is itself, and that justification hovers somewhere between sketchy and idiotic here.

But even if XFA #1 had done a much better job of selling us the new team (and at the very least they do prevent Rusty Collins from getting himself and plenty of other people killed), would that help exonerate Scott? Let's review what he actually did: he left his wife and newborn child to go on a trip he refused to discuss, and then didn't call them for over two weeks. What manner of defence can we possibly mount here?

First of all, let's do some parsing. I think it's worth considering Cyclops' decision to take the trip separately from his decision to not phone home for a fortnight. The first of these two we can possibly at least partially justify. As I've said, there's a low ceiling on the extent to which we can process Scott's predicament here. And it isn't as though Maddie is helping here either, having just the previous day laid into Scott for caring too much about mutants and not enough about her and the baby.  Which is a pretty ugly look in any case - until I come up with a better name for this I'm going to go with "flatscan privilege" - and is particularly ridiculous when you consider that Christopher might be a mutant as well.  When you insist someone need to stop worrying about the safety of themselves, their friends, their minority group, and possibly your own baby because it's slowing them down getting hold of the nappies, it's possible it isn't your priorities that need rejigging. Yes, Maddie apologises for her outburst that night, but since she then does exactly the same thing again when Scott gets the fateful phone call, I'm not actually all that impressed by her contrition. If you keep pulling the same shit it stops mattering if you're mumbling "sorry" in between.

But if we're going to talk about a pattern of repeated behaviour, we need to shine that harsh light on Cyclops as well. As Abigail Brady pointed out when we briefly discussed this issue (whilst on different continents; I love Twitter), the degree of ferocity behind Maddie's outbursts strongly suggest that this is a recurring problem. And yes, whilst I'm no fan of telling mutants to stop stressing, I can certainly see it might be more helpful if Cyclops could brood and perform simple tasks simultaneously. He made the decision to quit fighting evil and raise a family instead. Requiring him to stick to that decision - at least to the extent that it allows him to function as the father of a new baby - seems entirely reasonable, and if Maddie has reached the point where she's driving that point home with what seems absent context unnecessary force, well, I don't think anyone who reads this blog needs to be reminded that Scott's tendency to brood can be an issue.

In addition to all this, we have the fact that the situation is weighted in favour of Madelyne in any case. In part this is because she just spent nine months carrying Scott's child, and ended up having to give birth without him whilst he was - of course - stress out about mutant rights. As once again Abigail pointed out, a certain degree of benefit-giving and slack-cutting is in order here.  Maybe even stronger a point, though, is that this is another instance of a fake oppression - anti-mutant laws - rubbing up against the very real problem of women being abandoned to raise kids alone because the father suddenly discovers something more important they should be doing (here it's literally another woman Scott wants to see instead).  Trying to generate fictional situations where a man can legitimately abandon their wife and baby without explanation (and it is abandonment; two weeks of silence after a superhero disappears on a secret mission and you're fully justified in believing they're dead) is not a writing exercise we should in any way be encouraging.

So how far can we defend Summers over leaving? Not very far at all. Maddie might have been a pain over the last day, and she might have told you to never come back (because you should clearly take everything your partner shouts at you in anger completely literally) but you still have a responsibility to the woman you agreed to support, and you certainly have a responsibility to the child you fathered. That simply cannot be said enough. You have a responsibility to the child you fathered. We should Clockwork Orange that sentence into every new dad as a matter of course.

All of which leaves us with no option but to conclude we can't excuse Scott over his decision to skip out with no explanation. And with the decision to not phone home for an entire fortnight whilst he moped around Westchester clearly utterly unacceptable, I'm afraid legal counsel simply has very little it can do.  You should have taken the plea deal, Mr Cyclops.

So ends the trial of Scott Summers. The verdict is guilty. The sentence is... well, we'll get to the sentence soon enough.


This story takes place over sixteen days. It has to start after Cyclops and Storm had their duel in UXM #201, and from the sound of it that must have been weeks ago. We'll therefore start this story a fortnight after that issue. I'd like to set this earlier, since the first page states this is set before the winter, but since this issue has to follow Cyclops and Storm's duel in UXM #201, there's nothing to be done.


Tuesday 26th March to Wednesday 10th April, 1985.


X+7Y+24 to X+7Y+39.

Contemporary Events

Standout Line

"Taking off your clothes -- in my office?"

Beast knows how to deal with bigotry. You rescind a job offer because of your colleagues' witless bigotry, you're going to get the Real McCoy. Strip For Justice!

Sunday, 1 March 2015

ALF #31: "The Ungrateful Dead!"

(The one who got away.)


LOLgrim, as we used to say in Durham. This is no skip through the summer meadows.

A major recurring theme of the blog is going to be how we ended up in the blood-slicked nightmare of Marvel's output in the early and mid-nineties. One of my central assumptions on that is that much of the problem can be traced to Frank Miller's two seminal series, The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. As the Bronze Age reached its end cape writers began to cast about for ideas and approaches that could sustain a genre that risked becoming lamentably quaint at best and actually extinct at worst.  Seeing the tremendous success of Miller's one-two punch must have - ironically - seemed like a beacon in the darkness, lighting the way towards continued relevancy for a genre struggling to grow up.  The problem came with all this though is that whilst Miller's contemporaries were easily capable of aping the dark, violent set-dressing of his masterworks, they were utterly unable to grasp the structural and thematic considerations that put that nastiness into context. 

Alpha Flight #31 seems very much a case in point. Just look at how the story opens; a callous murder (for the sake of stealing clothes, no less) in the middle of a red light district at night. The setting, the utterly unnecessary violence, this could all have been lifted straight out of Batman: Year One.

Note also the face in shadow, an ubiquitous '90s motif
The only problem here is that Year One is still months away at this point.

So something else is going on, some more general trend that Miller will perfect, rather than create from whole cloth. The obvious culprit here is the grime-streaked, cynical output of Hollywood during this period, where it was almost impossible to watch a movie for adults which didn't feature absurdly gratuitous nudity and/or a scene in a strip club.  For now I can't offer this more as a gut feeling, but that's my suspicion.

Once we move away from this early auguring of the coming darkness we settle into a done-in-one struggle against a supervillain that distinguishes itself from the herd in two ways: the bonkers nature of Deadly Earnest, and the spectacularly grim manner in which he is ultimately dispatched.

A quick review for those who don't remember my spluttering disbelief: "Deadly" Earnest St Ives fought on the battlefields of the First World War, and became immortal after Death came to claim him and he refused to go. Which, and I'm no expert, doesn't seem to be the way it works, unless we want to assume that literally every other human being who died in the Marvel Universe saw Death rock up and figured they could do with the vacation. That's not really Mantlo's fault, of course, but then I assume no-one was holding a gun to his head insisting he brought back so ludicrous a villain, so it's not like our new writer gets out of this with his hands clean.

Anyway, we learn here that Earnest's indefinite reprieve from death comes with some rather harsh small print; he makes it home to his ecstatic wife and daughter only to kill the former during his welcome-home hug. As a result, his traumatised daughter dedicates herself to being the antithesis of everything her father has become - in other words, taking the equivalent path to Shaman's daughter Elizabeth. Which is a nice parallel, though rather over-signified since this issue decides to offer us a potted history of Michael Twoyoungmen so as to drive the point home. Subtlety is for other genres. I guess, or at least other decades.

So St Ives Jr, dedicates herself to the pursuit of revenge, picking up a codename (Nemesis), costume (ridiculous) and mono-molecular sword (inexplicable) along the way. The latter is ultimately lent to Puck so he can save Heather Hudson from Earnest's lethal clutches, and it's here that we return to the grimness angle, as Eugene borrows Nemesis' vorpal sword to lay down the snicker-snack on Earnest (not something you expect from two characters named Earnest and Eugene). The villain has kidnapped Heather Hudson, Puck's secret love, and this our dude will most certainly not abide.

Ultimately this leads to probably the most horrific scene this project has covered to date, as Puck first chops off half of St Ives' arm, and then chops his head off, resulting in both the severed limb and the decapitated torso still crawling towards our heroes as Earnest's head screams with rage. This, obviously, is awesome.

Not everything about the finale goes off without a hitch, though. Much is made here of Puck having sworn to never again take a human life, which I don't remember having been mentioned before. Certainly it hasn't been prominent. What this means in practice is that Puck only really mentions this tremendously important vow a few pages before he decides to break it.  This is bad idea, partially because it's unearned drama - "I will NEVER kill agai- oh wait I've killed again FROWNYFACE" - but mainly because it feeds into a much larger problem, namely the self-congratulatory myth we tell ourselves that killing is an absolute moral wrong except for those occasions when we regretfully have no other choice,  It's a nice fiction, but the inevitable result is that rather than deciding to kill only when we have no other choice, we can persuade ourselves that we must have had no choice whenever the urge to kill comes over us.  What should be a bright moral line becomes instead a panacea, and worse, a panacea legitimising real and terrible damage. Yes, Earnest St Ives us the kind of character it's hard to care about receiving an extra-judicial execution - he's a multiple murder who killed three of Puck's friends in front of him, requiring some existential hand-waving from Nemesis to save Box and the Beaubier twins - but that's the benefit of fiction; it can generate the villains that would make our choices simple.

Fiction should explore reality, It shouldn't legitimise it. In this sense, St Ives' (latest) death may have caused more trouble for our world than his life did for that of our heroes.

And speaking of causing trouble...

(Meanwhile, in subplot corner, Shaman finds himself back in his old shack and chatting with his grandfather's skull, both of which should be hundreds of miles away, and Snowbird finds herself suffering from unexplained attacks, which I presume is her godly masters once again refusing to send her memos like normal people.)


This story kicks off very soon after the last one ended; we have to assume Deadly Earnest couldn't have been wandering naked through Montreal for all that long. We'll therefore set this issue on the evening of the same day St Ives was reassembled.


Tuesday 24th July 1984.



Contemporary Events

Frankie Goes To Hollywood enjoy the first and second spot in the UK charts. Which is well deserved, obviously.

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