Thursday, 1 October 2015
NMU #38: "Aftermath!"
("A Godforsaken fucking tomb.")
A familiar approach in later years, this is the New Mutant's "Secret Wars II" comedown issue, although really it's just the first installment in their comedown arc. Which is fair enough; being brutally and callously murdered only to be raised from the dead as bodyguards for your murderer is exactly the kind of mind-fuck you can imagine taking a while to untangle.
Obviously doing this story justice is rather difficult. There's no real-world analogue for being brutally murdered and then resurrected by your killer (not unless you're the most cynical Christian imaginable) but the closest analogue must be some kind of horrifically traumatic near-death experience deliberately brought about by someone vastly more powerful than you, and there's no real hope that something like that could ever be satisfactorily worked through in a superhero comic, or at least not in a superhero comic where the heroes have to go back to punching people in a couple of weeks.
The degree to which this matters is open to debate; one would hope there are very very few people who can come close to understanding what the New Mutants are going through, which makes questions of accurate depiction of distant concern, and clearly something had to be done to address the events of last issue. In any case, Claremont's solution to the impossible problem of tackling an utterly unrecognisable situation in a ludicrously short space of time by shifting the focus to Magneto's struggle to help his charges, rather than their own experiences. In general this is not an approach I'm happy with, since it subsumes the story of the victim(s) into the story of the observer, but there are two things to be said for using it here. The first is the aforementioned unreality of all that happens here; it's harder to object to someone not telling their own story when that story has no meaning for the real world (though as mentioned there may be people who can come close to relating here, and I'm not sure they'd be happy with the focus on Magneto). The second is that it allows Claremont to at least mine the comic's set up, as he offers up a story about how the adults just cannot understand what the children's problem is.
In fact, what Claremont manages here is genuinely impressive. The idea that the teenagers' trauma would lead to them being listless, inattentive and unconcerned with the future is at least plausible; they don't see any point in embracing or preparing for a life they know can be snatched from them at any time. You can't strive for a future you can't imagine existing. But as well as being a plausible approach regarding the New Mutants' trauma, it represent perfectly a common form of teenage behaviour, and in a way that actually strengthens the idea that this is how our heroes would respond to their trauma. There are, fundamentally, two types of school pupil who aggravate their teachers; the badly behaved, and the apathetic. The former are the ones who terrify the student teachers - hardly without reason; I was all of four weeks into my main teaching placement before one of the maths teachers was poisoned - but it's the latter who are ultimately the bigger problem. You can teach a child to behave (and if you can't a decent school will have strong support structure in place). What you can't teach them to do is care.
The area in which I did my teacher training was not a fun place to visit, and what I saw strongly suggested it wasn't improved by having stayed their through your childhoods. When I think back on the kinds of small, economically devastated former pit towns I worked in, I start thinking that Lord Howell's greatest sin wasn't in calling the North East desolate, but in failing to realise the extent to which his comments were accurate (which is little, but not none), his party is the reason why. Thatcher tore the heart out of those places no less surely than the Beyonder murdered the New Mutants, but when you kill a community the individuals who remain go on living. They go on living, and they go on having children, children who grow up seeing vast swathes of the adults around them living their lives on the dole because there's no other way to generate money. For an entire generation - perhaps even two by now - the assumption among the schoolchildren in these former mining communities was that school was just what stood between playing in scrubland and spending a life not being able to find work.
Try telling those kids that if they work hard enough they can improve their futures, and see the looks you get. They will stay with you, I promise you.
So as much as I question making this story so about Magneto (there is some stuff from Dani's perspective too, in fairness) the resulting image of a new teacher trying to pull students from an existential funk strikes me as an enormously powerful one. This is all the more true for how closely it cleaves to certain subsections of our own world (one wonders whether the Guthries are fated to go the same way one day). Like so many new teachers, Magneto has not yet built up an understanding of how children can be motivated, or the vocabulary he needs to do it. He knows what punishments he can dole out, but he has no idea how to use such sanctions in a constructive way. Even were he more experienced, thought, there's always the horrible possibility that the only thing that could potentially save these kids is to get them rolled in a different school where they would have a chance to interact with children whose backgrounds give them hope for the future. Enter Miss Frost and the Massachusetts Academy. In the context of the story the transfer is from a school without a telepathic teacher to one with (playing on Magneto's fear of being unable to replace Charles, in another nice touch), but within the metaphor of hopelessness, this is clearly about taking those who believe their lives have no meaning and taking them somewhere where they can learn what life can offer to those fortunate to have above average skills/talents/intelligence/whatever.
I must be careful here, because this is cleaving dangerously close to an argument in favour of private schools, or at least in favour of some kind of voucher system that can take those who are sufficiently gifted out of state schools and into private education. That's not what I actually think at all; what I think is that the obvious correct response to failing state schools is to make state schools better. It may well be true that voucher systems really are of benefit to those students who can make use of them, but the result is that those left behind are even more bereft of hope, even more aware of how thoroughly the deck has been stacked against them for reasons entirely outside of their control (it also relies on our society being even-handed and thoughtful about how we define "gifted", which I completely don't believe we're realistically capable of). So technically speaking, in terms of the metaphor Magneto makes the wrong decision politically.
But of course we don't need our heroes to make the right choice every time. They have to be allowed to make mistakes once in a while. Indeed, this is ultimately I think an entirely forgivable error on Magneto's part; he's inexperienced, his charges won't talk to him, and he has the luxury of being able to send his entire school to somewhere "better" rather than having to pick and choose which students get the break. It's also worth noting that in a few issues the recuperation of the New Mutants will prove to only be possible with Magneto and Frost working together - true co-operation between social strata, in the language of the metaphor. So Magneto's mis-step here, born as it is of frustration and concern and fear, is entirely understandable.
So much so in fact that it's actually a real shame that it turns out he's being manipulated by Empath to feel as rotten and confused as he does. The set-up here is almost perfect in terms of what it shows us about students and teachers and the difficulty in instilling hope. Magneto's reactions are so human and believable that learning it took Empath to push him to those straits actually makes me think less of Magneto, though I suppose if you wanted to argue Mags would never see so clearly through his colossal impenetrable arrogance without psycho-emotional manipulation, I'd have a hard time arguing with that idea. In the end, though, Empath's involvement simply serves to give something for Magneto something to punch (or intend to; we'll see next issue how successful he is) and given how wonderfully this issue works in reminding us that there are some fights that simply can't be won with a square jaw and a strong right hook, distracting us from that fact seems unfortunate. Again, though, since this story-line ultimately ends with Magneto and Frost both realising the New Mutants can only be helped with time, space, and compassion, perhaps Empath's intrusion here doesn't actually make all that much of a difference in the great scheme of things.
In short, you can question the specifics here, and you can certainly ask why the tale of these children's recovery is being filtered through their teacher rather than told themselves. But the tack Claremont has taken here does much to remove the bite from that line of criticism; there's just too much to be said for showing us the complexities of pupils who are bereft of hope from the perspective of the teachers who just don't know how to help them.
Of course, what we really need now is to see those same issues from the student perspective. Roll on NMU #39.
This story takes place over at least a week. Doug Ramsey's father notes that his son has been depressed for at least a couple of weeks. We'll therefore set this story to end just a hair under three weeks after the Beyonder was returned to his own dimension.
That places us in the early weeks of spring. This is contradicted slightly both the amount of snow on the ground (my limited understanding is that late April snows aren't unheard of, but this density pretty much is) and the fact someone says "Merry Christmas" at the local party, but there's no way to deal with that without unpicking the whole of "Secret Wars II". Problems exist here anyway since Magneto states here that he agreed to take over the school in summer, which would put his X-books on a time scale slightly faster than that in real life. But this would require the events of "Secret Wars" to have taken place over the course of well over a full year, which isn't plausible for all sorts of reasons. This is one of those occasions where we're just going to have to ignore our lyin' eyes.
Monday 30th April to Monday 7th May, 1985.
X+7Y+47 to X+7Y+55.
This cheque is cut, apparently. Points available for naming the movie.
"Brightwing?!! You're bowing!?! To a frog?!?" - Dani
Oh, I forgot to mention: Thor is in this too. As a frog. Man, I love this stuff.
(Full credit to Claremont for his permutation approach to punctuation there, too.)