Saturday, 29 August 2015

Firestar #1: "Mark Of The Mutant!"

(The All-Consuming Fire)


Reading this book is an odd experience for me, providing me as it does with the earliest link to my own X-Men history. The very first time I ever heard of the X-Men (to the best of my fading memory) was lying on the carpet in my parent's living room, watching Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends on some Saturday morning magazine show (Saturday Superstore? Going Live? I think it was BBC1, but I'm not even sure on that). Much of what happened in the episode where Spider-Man, Iceman and Firestar teamed up with the X-Men I'd long forgotten [1], but the residual memory - remembering how desperately impatient I was between the two halves of the episode, split up with what always seemed like hours between in the standard cruel manner of such morning shows - is part of what prompted me to tune in to the X-Men animated show in the early '90s, where of course I became lost forever.

So seeing Firestar in comic form - the only female character there was in the show that exposed me to the X-Men, and along with Daphne from Scooby-Doo likely almost entirely responsible for my redhead preference - is wonderfully circular for me.  And it's circular in general, of course; the Spider-Man comics were successful enough to generate a cartoon series, which in turn was successful enough to generate first a cameo for its only original main character, and then her own miniseries. These days such circularity is everywhere, with Marvel's movie sideline now having grown so massive at its parent format dwindles that is now quite clearly wagging the dog. Scuttlebutt has it in fact that sweeping changes are coming in the wake of "Secret Wars III" (it's important to be able to count, folks) which are designed to bring the Marvel Universe more in line with the world the films portray, with the X-Men therefore marginalised so the Inhumans can take their place. How true this is remains to be seen (or at least it does for me; I've still not reached SWIII in my reading).

But enough of the circumstances: what of the plot? I've been talking recently about the value of taken well-worn stories and dropping a mutant into them to see what happens. "Mark of the Mutant" is very much an example in point. The basic structure here - teenage girl starts new school, falls foul of the established dominant clique, but turns the head of the local hunk, while a father who just doesn't get it looks on helplessly - was a fully-established staple long before Tina Fey got around to skewering it in Mean Girls.

Fact. BTW, the "M" Angelica is referring to is a shape in her palm
her grandmother insists is proof of her specialness.

Throw in a beloved grandmother who dies near the end to generate extra tears, and you're all set to go.

Now, the broad strokes of this kind of narrative are problematic. The basic idea that you should be yourself and ignore bullies and people will like you is fine, I suppose (though I tend to think the idea that bullies are best ignored is generally one spouted by those not inclined to bother getting involved), but in practice it always revolves around the heroine being conventionally attractive and them being rewarded for their perseverance with a conventionally attractive boyfriend.  This boils the blood for two reasons: firstly it treats physical attractiveness in your partner as something you earn by being a good person - God forbid we suggest that being being nice you might end up with someone who is also nice - and secondly because it taps into the idea that "the bullies are only jealous" which again works as a bromide rather than a solution, and in addition directly implies certain people are better than other people, generally for reasons beyond anyone's control. I understand the impulse of my teachers to tell me I was being bullied (not in the worst way, really, when I compare it to the experience of others, but still) because they were jealous of how smart I was, but the idea that this doesn't mean being smarter than someone doesn't mean being better than them is not something my teenage brain was equipped to handle, and I don't think I've ever been able to shake this concept from my subconscious. Not fully, at least.

Firestar #1 suffers from all these problems, but since they're inherited from the narrative which mutantism is invaded, that's to be expected. What's important is how much adding the X gene to proceedings does to critique the standard set-up. Whilst exploring that, it's useful to compare the story of Angelica Jones with that of Katherine Pryde, who also features here. Kitty Pryde, I know, gets a lot of love from people, in no small part because Claremont - conditional on his addiction to garrulous melodrama - managed to write her as a fairly believable teenage girl. Which is a fair point (though as I've noted before believably irritating teenagers are still irritating teenagers), but if we're pinning any part of Kitty's popularity on her being a realistic teenager who happens to also be a mutant, we have the non-trivial problem of her also being a computer science genius. Shadowcat's story is not and never was about taking an average teenage girl and making her a mutant, it was about taking a standard genius-level superhero - Tony Stark, Reed Richards, Hanks Pym and McCoy, on and on and on - and seeing how they work as a teenager. It's not a standard narrative with added mutants, in other words, it's a standard mutant narrative with added youth and inexperience.

That's not what we have here. Angelica Jones is described by her father as very intelligent, but it doesn't seem to have translated into her grades; she's certainly a far more average kid than Kitty is, even if the rules of her narrative means she has to be pretty. But the comparison with Shadowcat raises an important point; what exactly is the difference between a teenager who's unique amongst her peers for her amazing ability at programming computers, and a teenager who's unique amongst her peers for her amazing mutant powers? Sure, the latter is impossible, but while I'm hardly an expert, it seems to me that Kitty's skills with computers are no more plausible than her ability to walk through brick walls. There's an obvious and at least slightly welcome difference in how well Angelica's power fits into the story, at least: her emerging heat powers means she's quite literally going to... well, take your pick. Get hot under the collar. Feel her blood boil. Demonstrate a fiery temper (making her a redhead always was a little on the nose, but there you go). Heat is something we associate with anger, with impatience, with frustration, which is to say with being a teenager. That horrible burning sensation all over your body at just how perverse and unfair and badly cobbled-together human life is and how nobody more than five years older than you has the slightest fucking interest in doing something about it. The all-consuming fire we had when we were young, spilling out in all directions as we raged at the world that might actually be OK if it would just listen.

To be a teenager is to be on fire forever. There's a reason it was Johnny Storm who got to be the second Human Torch, after all.

But nodding at Sue Richard's little brother just demonstrates how obvious the metaphor here is. Whatever Stan Lee's many strengths, generally speaking if he works a metaphor into one of his characters you shouldn't feel too smug about being able to spot it. In other words, comicdom's most talented hack writer ever dreamed this up in the '60s, seeing it rejigged here isn't particularly impressive. Especially when you consider that we're supposed to have another metaphor to call on here: mutantism. Long gone are the days where being a mutant was just a way of bypassing questions about how someone acquired their powers (not that that wasn't a smart idea in itself). Being a mutant is different to being super-human. This is what I mean about the value of placing mutants in standard narrative templates; it's analogous to putting minorities into narratives they've previously been excluded from. There is always much to debate on which minority groups are being and have been included in this way, how well that inclusion has been handled, and whether this seemingly endless parade of cis-het white male writers are the best people to be doing it in any case, but the attempt is still supposed to be made.

So how much use does FRS #1 make use of its built-in metaphor? Alas, almost none.  There's a point towards the end in the wake of her grandmother's death where Angelica showcases her powers to her father, who freaks out, fretting to himself that his daughter is a "freak" and a "mutie" - odds that Angelica will tell him she wishes he'd died rather than Nana by this mini's end can't be worse than one in two - but otherwise her status as a mutant is only relevant insomuch as it provides the justification for the X-Men to try and recruit her only to find Emma Frost has arrived there first. It's a MacGuffin in other words, at least in this first issue, which given we already know Firestar will sign up for the Massachusetts Academy one way or another means it doesn't convince even on the unengaging terms it sets for itself.

All of which rather underlines the central question of why we needed a Firestar miniseries. Rogue hadn't had one yet. Cyclops hadn't had one. Any of the New Mutants, beyond the one Illyana shared with Storm. Literally the only mutants to have solo miniseries at this point were Wolverine and Iceman (with Longshot being retrospectively added to the list much later). There is something delightful about giving a female mutant her own series so soon, and I don't want to ignore that. From a certain perspective the idea of saying "Iceman was on that show and got a miniseries, why can't Firestar" and willfully refusing to consider any additional context is a wonderfully maximalist position, and it should be applauded.

So maybe we can argue this series' mere existence is enough. That doesn't mean it couldn't have started better.

[1] I remembered only that Nightcrawler smelled of brimstone when he jaunted, and that there was a girl with a rubbish costume who could walk through walls. I didn't even remember the TV Thunderhawk could turn into a bear, which I guess was probably for the best, John Proudstar's run was cruel and pointless enough without being upset that there was no longer an opportunity for Logan to ride into battle on a grizzly.


This story takes place over several months, beginning on the first day of the new school year, and continuing through to mid-December. I more or less at random found a county in New Jersey and made use of the term dates to give an idea of when this story starts.

The first page tells us this story takes place before UXM #193.  Since that story takes place (according to our timeline at least) in early December, I'll put this story some way further back, during the previous winter. That puts this somewhere around the first appearance of the Hellions in New Mutants #16, which seems about right.


Monday 5th September to Monday 12th December, 1983.


X+5Y+186 to X+5Y+284.

Contemporary Events

St Kitts and Nevis becomes an independent state. New Caledonia however has the offer of independence withdrawn by France after violence erupts between French ex-pats and the indigenous Kanak population.

Standout Line

This one is really the kind of "What were they thinking?" that you have to see for yourself:

Thursday, 20 August 2015

XFA #2: "Bless The Beasts And Children"

("It's not the same world I knew before.")


It's an entirely obvious and common point that whilst the first issue (or arc, these days) of a new comic needs to set up the characters and concept of the series, the second issue (or arc) has the job of demonstrating what a "standard" adventure in the title should look like.  X-Factor #2 is an interesting example of this, in that in some senses it clings to this approach, but in other ways it rejects it.

The most obvious rejections are at the story level. Yes, there's a brand new mutant-of-the-week for our heroes to battle (the thoroughly uninteresting Tower), but his attack on Vera's apartment causes complications for the team's X-Factor cover identities, meaning we're only two issues in and already the ostensible structure of the title is in danger of toppling over. The decision to outright reject writing a story in which X-Factor works as intended is a fascinating one, and combined with Jean and Warren's horror over the causal anti-mutant slurs offered to them whilst in disguise as mutant hunters makes it clear Layton realised very early on that the X-Factor scam couldn't last for long. In other words, only two issues in this title is obviously already in a state of transition.

Which makes sense given the wider context of the issue. Whilst plot-wise this doesn't operate as a template for later issues to riff off of, the underlying theme of X-Factor is very clear here, which is that this is about the past and the future meeting. Naturally this is clear from the book's very nature; how could a book reuniting a '60s super-team to fight '80s threats not be about that? But the degree to which past and future interact and often clash here demonstrates Layton's commitment to the idea. Newcomer Rusty develops a crush on Jean that pits him against Scott - new against old - but Scott himself can no longer function with respect to Jean in the way he used to, being now married with a child (though both have now disappeared leaving no forwarding address). Beast bumps into his old girlfriend Vera, only to find that she's ditched her '60s librarian look to bring herself up to date - a link to the past that demonstrates just how much has changed since we first heard names like Juggernaut and the Mimic. Tower's hunting and kidnapping of Beast seems like a new threat until we learn it was on the orders of Carl Maddicks, a villain from Amazing Adventure's Beast run at the start of the '70. Maddicks too has changed, though, he's no longer doing the bidding of the Secret Empire, instead he's looking for an "antidote" for his mutant son. Even Angel becomes part of this through his old friendship with Cameron Hodge which is now taking on a new and unfamiliar shape, exerting new and unfamiliar stresses on the old girders that structure their relationship.

The situations, relationships and characters have been returned to us, but in new configurations, underlining just how much has changed since Jean was thought dead (the opening pages of the issue make this explicit, in fact). Indeed, as Scott's refusal to open up to Jean and Bobby's desire to "steal"[1] Vera from Henry demonstrates that's there no good reason to believe this team can actually function at all any more, save for nostalgia. This of course would hardly be the last comic to attempt to power its sales mostly or even wholly through nostalgia, but it's nice to see it so thoroughly recognised in the text.

That said, there is a problem here, which is that the brand-new elements of the story aren't particularly interesting on their own terms. Rusty is an obvious analogue for a younger Cyclops - his powers are horribly dangerous and beyond his control, and he has a serious crush on Ms Grey - but he does little here to make himself interesting in and of himself. Tower as mentioned is thoroughly boring, a random mutant goon with nothing to distinguish him beyond an unusually unappealing costume. Artie Maddicks, the son for whom Carl went to the effort of abducting Beast is nothing but a prop, a staring, dead-eyed MacGuffin to be waved at to explain Carl's plotting. In fairness none of these characters really get enough to do here for things to be otherwise, but that just demonstrates that there are pacing problems here too. Either way, it's obviously concerning when an issue about how the old inevitably changes to give rise to the new doesn't actually have much in the way of newness that can excite us. This issue does a fine job of demonstrating the problems of a comic that spends its time looking backwards for inspiration.

Now it needs to show us some solutions.

[1] Just to be clear, I'm not arguing Dr McCoy has any kind of proprietary rights over Vera. Is she wants to pursue her ex's best friend, that's entirely up to her. I'm simply pointing out that it can be plausibly argued there was once a time when Bobby would never think of trying to make a move on Vera. The two of them used to strike me as being much more into the "bros before hos" mindset.  

Well actually, the two of them struck me as an obvious gay couple deep in denial (am I shipping? Is this what shipping is?). And following recent revelations in Bendis' X-books, I appear to have been proved at least half-right.


It's not clear how long this story takes to run its course. The pace of the narrative suggests it all takes place within the same day, but since it's also implied Carl's men drive Hank from New York to Atlanta, and at a sensible speed, which means a trip that would surely take some fourteen or fifteen hours to complete.

We shall therefore assume the action here straddles two days.


Thursday 11th to Friday 12th April, 1985.


X+7Y+40 to X+7Y+41.

Contemporary Events

Ladyhawke escapes into the world to frolic through the imagination of a hundred thousand geeks.

Standout Line

"Brainwashed by aliens?"
"Drug overdose?"
"Vietnam flashback?"

Bobby and Hank attempt to figure out the root cause of Vera's extreme make-over. The correct answer, by the way? Elvis Costello. Go figure.