Monday, 25 April 2016

ALF #34: "Honor"

(The latest samurai.)


This is the most Byrne-esque the title has been since his departure. Those who've been reading for a little while will know I do not consider this to be a good thing. Mantlo's nods to his predecessors here involve a) clunky exposition flashbacks and b) problematic stereotypes.

As best as I can tell, you cannot be a samurai any more. You can carry the weapons of the samurai, you can clad yourself in their armour, you can even live your life according to one of the philosophies the samurai espoused (which of course was far from homogeneous over time and location within Imperial Japan). But you can't actually be a samurai, because it's a title of nobility within a social structure that no longer exists. You can no more become samurai than you can become prince-bishop, no matter how many prayers you say.

So I have something of a problem with the idea that so many of them are still about in the Marvel Universe. I mean, the whole obsession so many Western writers have with samurai is problematic for all sorts of reasons anyway - it's hard for me to get behind any group of people who had it written into law that they could execute without repercussion any peasant who failed to show them sufficient deference. What I want to focus on here though is the idea that Japanese culture hasn't actually moved on since the last samurai passed into the veil of history somewhere between 1877 and 1947, depending on how you look at it. There's simply no samurai left to act as the bodyguard for Yuriko Oyama.

There seems to be an easy get out here, of course: clearly Lady Deathstrike's minions have just given themselves the title of samurai because it sounds cool. But that's a problem of its own, feeding as it does into the  stereotype of Japanese people being obsessed with the history of their culture in general and its concept of honour in particular. This also suffuses the story of Yuriko herself, which I should probably outline. Yuriko's father styled himself as Lord Dark Wind, and had been a famous Japanese fighter ace during WWII until he was chosen as a kamikaze pilot. He managed to hit his target in his ensuing attack, but his explosive payload failed to detonate, resulting in him being badly injured but alive, and captured. As a result, he suffered great shame.

All of which is utter bullshit, of course. Kamikaze pilots weren't famous fighter aces - if you're a valuable military asset like that, the brass isn't going to want you dead for the sake of one more explosion. The kamikaze flights were a last-ditch effort to stave off American invasion put into action precisely because the actual functioning air defences of Japan had been decimated. Japan simply couldn't replace its losses with aircraft of sufficient quality, so instead they built shitty, outdated planes and stuffed them with explosives. Many kamikaze pilots joined up (often by force) without ever having so much as set foot in a plane. The last thing on these young men's minds would that they would bring shame to themselves by failing their mission, they were concerned they would bring punishment on their families by refusing to commit suicide for their government. It's not that there were no willing kamikaze pilots, of course, but that's the thing about fiction; you can do a lot of damage by underlining stereotypes even when people who match that stereotype actually exist(ed).

Incredibly, it then gets worse. Once recovered and released after the war, Dark Wind dedicates his life to reversing Japan's shame by building a force of superhuman warriors, and enlists his three children to help him, ritually scarring their faces to ensure they can't go off and do something less obviously insane. Yuriko, understandably unhappy about this arrangement, ultimately rebels and kills her father, whereupon her beloved commits seppuku because something something fanaticism, Later, Yuriko learns her father's story, and, deciding his dedication outweighs the ritual scarification and indenture of his children, dedicates her life to finding out who stole the adamantium-bonding process he had developed to restore Japan's glory.

Which brings us to now, and Deathstrike's announcement that despite having never met or even heard of Logan before, the fact he has adamantium-laced bones means honour demands she murder him and take the metal back. This is just utterly ridiculous. It's a plot that can only possibly exist if you just accept that Asian people do inscrutable things inscrutably because of their inherent inscrutability.  If you conclude "honour" is the overwhelming motivation for the Japanese, and that it doesn't even matter how that honour is defined.  It's ahistorical bullshit, as ugly as it is lazy.

And look. I don't actually enjoy basing these posts around ways 30 year old comics have dropped the ball in terms of representation. But there's just nothing else here that's worth picking at. Well, that's not quite true. There's a wonderful moment at the very end where Heather defeats Deathstrike effortlessly - indeed she simply stands there and allows Yuriko to shatter her sword against Heather's forcefield - and asks a dumbfounded Wolverine and Puck if they're still scrambling to protect her. It's not only nice to see Heather getting to have a say in her own love triangle. it's a nice demonstration of her faith in her husband, trusting the suit he built to keep her safe. And even this is rather undercut by Heather thinking she remembers seeing a translation from the Japanese of the bonding process on Mac's desk, and immediately concluding he must have used their honeymoon as bait for Logan and employed her feminist wiles to keep him quiet until he could be captured.  I'm not saying that couldn't be what happened - it's the kind of pointless Byzantine set-up beloved by superhero comics - but having Heather make all these assumptions based on a half-buried memory and the say-so of someone trying to eviscerate her friend doesn't really make her look too good.

All of which leaves us with one moment of fractured beauty amongst a sea of ugliness. This is very much not OK. It is, as I nodded to, a much bigger problem than just this issue or just Mantlo. Even I let far too much of this kind of thing slide when Claremont was doing it - though at least his Logan in Japan stories are thoroughly enjoyable as well as problematic. But as we find ourselves ever closer to the precipice off which we shall fall into the 1990s, we need to identify each unpleasant strand that goes into its weaving. Alas, shoving samurai - along with any number of other misappropriated iconography from Japan barely understood but pushed into service nonetheless - into the panel is very much going to be a major part of that.

(Meanwhile, in sub-plot corner, Doug Thompson arrives at Mansion Alpha with an ill Snowbird who he refers to as his wife, Shaman begins a voyage to discover how much of his power remains now he's forsaken his medicine bag, and the long-absent Marrina is kidnapped by Attuma.)


This issue follows on directly from the last, and takes place in approximately real time.


Tuesday 17th April, 1985.



Contemporary Events

Iraq ratifies the 1979 Occupational Safety and Health (Dock Word) Convention

(Yes, I admit it; I'm struggling.)

Standout Line

"Are we a team... or are we back to being a bunch of hot-headed individuals , each going his or her own way?"
"I for one never saw anything wrong with that!" -- Box and Northstar

Thursday, 7 April 2016

NMU #39: "Pawns Of The White Queen"

(In loco parentis)


It's stage two of the New Mutant's post-death therapy programme. Magneto hasn't been able to jolt them from their existential hard-drive crash; is Emma going to have any better luck?

Well, no, obviously, but the route by which we arrive at this foregone conclusion is an interesting one, rooted in Emma's growth as a character. Long gone is the one-note cackling villain the White Queen first arrived as. It's very clear here that Emma genuinely wants the New Mutants to feel better about themselves. The pride she takes in helping massage Rahne's mind to help her get past her trauma demonstrates that this is about more than simply getting the New Mutants back into fighting shape so she has more troops for her elite mutant army.

That's clearly part of it, obviously. But even there things aren't entirely simple. As the front cover of the issue shows, Emma wants to turn the New Mutants into Hellions, but there's more to that impulse than a simple craving for additional minions. Emma seems to genuinely believe our heroes would be better off in pink and black. And honestly, she's not utterly without a point here. After all, the Beyonder massacred Xavier's charges for the sake of making a point, not hers. Shan didn't find herself mentally compelled to become a villain and develop an eating disorder whilst studying at the Massachusetts Academy. There will come a time when Frost's cupidity (along with general '90s bullshit tendencies) will cause the total collapse of the Hellions, but right now she can make a strong case that she's protecting her students rather better than Xavier or Magneto ever has.

But the fact Frost's motivations mark her out as more than a simple villain, it doesn't mean they're not shot through with selfishness. She might genuinely want to help Rahne recover, but she can't resist poking around with the girl's sense of propriety so she won't be scandalised by Emma's clothing anymore. It's obviously none of my business what Frost wants to wear in her own home, but manipulating Rahne's reactions to it clearly isn't cool. But then this is precisely Emma's problem; the Hellion project has worked out fine for her so far, so she's convinced it's the only way to go, and everyone should get on board. Everyone should, in short, think the same way. No wonder she has Empath supercharge Magneto's self-doubt to the point where he willingly gives up his students to her. As far as Emma is concerned, every moment the New Mutants spend with Magneto whilst he blunders around looking for a way to help them is a moment wasted. He can't succeed; he can't look after students as well as she can. The sooner he admits he has failed, the sooner she can get the job done right.

This isn't exactly a slam-dunk reading, I accept. It's rather more interesting than assuming Emma is literally interested in nothing but adding the New Mutants to her recruitment pool. But even this comparatively generous reading of her actions needs to recognise that altruism is not her driving force here. The title of this story alone makes that clear. There's also a wonderful visual metaphor at the start of the issue in which see first the New Mutants' POV of Emma in her office, and then flip round to see her view of them.

What the teenagers are seeing is all opulence: fashionable chairs, sculptures, what appears to be a solid gold lamp, etc. What Emma sees, in contrast, is all function; uniform shelves of books and arrays of computers. Visitors to the office see luxury, the trappings of power (note Emma is talking to her new students whilst sipping at what is surely a tremendously expensive cocktail). What Emma sees is tools to use and resources to be employed. And you can value what you make use of. You can even come to care for it. But it remains, fundamentally, something that you take an interest in because it can get you what you want.

And really, realising that Emma's view of her charges is fundamentally as assets she happens to care for is the only way to understand why she keeps Empath around at all.  Because Magneto is absolutely right; if we were to ever accept that there are certain people who deserve to be executed for their crimes, it's a man who is not a serial sexual assaulter of women, but who just last issue forced two colleagues and close friends to rape each other constantly for days. I mean, that's so horrific an idea I have a real problem with Claremont for putting it in NMU in the first place, but since it's here it serves as clear evidence that no-one who willingly employs Empath can possibly claim to have any real interest in people as people. Yes, Emma keeps tabs on Empath and - so far - has been able to intercede and shut him down every time he has attempted to rape one of his own teammates, but that's a dance she can keep up only so long, and even she must realise that. But Empath is a useful tool for her, and so he gets to be kept on the shelf alongside all her other tools.

As an amoral policy of expedience, allowing Empath the run of the Academy is so horrendous I can imagine Richard Nixon balking at the idea. For as long as he stays, there can be no chance for Emma to even claim the moral high ground, she is simply too grotesquely compromised. She can tell herself this is for the New Mutants' own good all she likes, but the truth is she wants them to share the halls with a dangerous monster, because that dangerous monster makes her life a little easier.

What this ultimately means is that, whilst Emma Frost has become a more complicated and rounded character, and whilst she now seems to have embraced her duty of care, however twisted her conception of that is, things are worse than ever at the Massachusetts Academy. Something is going to have to break.


This story takes place over a single week.


Monday 7th to Monday 14th May, 1985.


X+7Y+55 to X+7Y+62.

Standout Line

Nothing much worth noting this issue. Well, there's Catseye dismissing Cannonball and Jetstream as "Noisyboys", I suppose. That's kinda fun.