Tuesday, 19 July 2016

FRS #3: "This Lady Kills!"

(Reheated meal)


There's not a great deal I can say about this one; it's the third issue of the series, and clearly an instalment which only exists to get us to the four parts Marvel minis of the era apparently all needed to have. The first 15 pages simply retread the material of the second issue, with the White Queen trying to train Angelica to be more aggressive with her powers, and Angelica herself dealing with the resentment of her fellows. This reiteration would be fairly irritating under most circumstances, but compounding the problem here is that Emma is still trying to persuade Firestar (through android training replicas and the "hallucinator" bracelet) that the X-Men desire the young woman's death even after she faced them in UXM #193 and found out there were pretty much OK. Not only does this make much of this issue seem pointless, the need to have Emma explain via flashback what happened during that confrontation means by far the most exciting event of the issue isn't even in the issue, once again raising the question of what this mini-series is actually supposed to be doing beyond filling in some rather uninspiring background on a character only briefly glimpsed before.

There's exactly one moment in the first two thirds of the issue that I like; when Roulette uses one of her bad luck discs to make Angelica trip during a dance class, Empath has to ramp up the teacher's frustration with his own powers to make her explode at Firestar for her "clumsiness". It's maybe not a particularly important thing in the grand scheme of the universe, but I always appreciate the suggestion that an education professional isn't going to start screaming at one of their pupils in the middle of a class because they screwed up. Given the almost endless number of scenes in teenage-aimed stories (and beyond, frankly) in which teachers are portrayed as sadistic tormentors always seventy minutes away from a coronary incident, it's nice when a story reminds us the intersection between those who want to educate children and those who want to terrify and humiliate them is actually pretty small. Of course, this is less an impressive piece of scripting from DeFalco than it is a moment of baseline competence that's somehow ridiculously rare.

In the final third, things get a little better, as Angelica takes a trip home to be reunited with the father who essentially disowned her as a mutant last time they met. It'd be easy to have him remain a one-note bigot and for Firestar to refuse to acknowledge him from the off (which, to be clear, would be a perfectly reasonable position for her to take). Instead Angelica is delighted to see her father, and keen to jump-start their relationship. As always, having never been disowned by my family for an irreducible part of my identity (I've probably come close with my politics, but that's another matter) I can't sensibly describe this as the more "realistic" approach, but I'd characterise it as a more interesting one.

It can't last, of course, Mr Jones, like Rusty in XFC #4, has spent too much of the last seven years hating mutants to be able to process them no longer being just images on the news. His confession to Angelica's "bodyguard" that he sometimes thinks his daughter would be better dead than red mutated has a horrible ring of verisimilitude to it. And he can try all he likes to insist his problem is not one of genetic bigotry but concern for how Angelica manifests her powers, but screaming "Are you crazy, girl?" at his only daughter for the crime of touching a cat makes that a pretty difficult sale. Over the long term, this might actually have been a story with some mileage in it, though one would have hoped it could be written by someone other than a cis-het white guy.

Whilst the final third is a step up, though, it's still not a total success. Frost has only allowed Firestar to come home so one of her agents - dressed as the Star Trek IV boombox punk, for some reason - to fake an attempt on Mr Jones' life. The hope is that this immediate threat to Angelica's last known living relative will finally trigger a willingness to kill. Which is exactly what happens, leaving Emma's pseudo-punk assassin in critical condition, and the White Queen herself in high spirits. At long last Firestar finally cannot claim to have never deliberately microwaved a human's innards. After all that sweat, Frost can finally make use of Angelica Jones as a deadly assassin against... Selene?

Selene. After two issues of Frost plotting to use Jones to murder Xavier - something we already know she didn't do - we suddenly switch to a character not even mentioned in the mini until this issue, when she annoys Shaw (also missing from the first half of this series) and he announces she must be killed.

This is simply terrible writing. It's terrible writing for (at least) three reasons. First there's the fact that failing to introduce Selene until this issue makes it even more clear that this miniseries is just an afterthought to an Uncanny X-Men storyline, rather than anything with its own internal weight. Second, it essentially sets up a final issue in which Emma's plot pretty much has to fail, since there's no way Selene will be taken off the board here rather than in one of Claremont's ongoing series [1]. And third, there's nothing even approaching an attempt here to explain why Angelica's instinctive reaction to save her father will work against Selene. Is the plan to have Selene threaten Mr Jones too? How does Frost intend to get the Black Queen to cooperate? I mean, we still don't even really know why anyone expects Firestar to get the job done in the first place.  Pretty much the only thing we know about Selene is that being thrown into a lake of boiling rock doesn't actually finish her off. Why assume microwaves would do the job, even if Angelica is minded to try? And if Frost and Shaw are using Angelica as their weapon in the hopes that should she fail, the attempt can't be traced back to them, surely having her spend well over a year as an enrolled student at the Massachusetts Academy was an entirely terrible idea.

It's an understandable mistake, sure; the Hellfire Club had never heard of Selene when Frost first took charge of Firestar's education. But that just further demonstrates the structural problems here. This is a story about how Emma failed to get Angelica to murder Xavier, and then undertakes more or less the exact same approach to get her to murder Selene, with what is likely to be the same result. After a rather interesting first issue, this mini has rapidly lost my interest.

[1] Yes, no reader is going to be headed into the final issue wondering whether or not Firestar is going to end up a murderer. But knowing Jones won't kill Selene is not the same thing as knowing she won't die.


This issue takes place over six days.

It's now been a year and half since Angelica joined the academy, which puts the action here as kicking off in June 1985. This implies it's been six month since UXM #193, which seems rather a long time given Shaw is apparently only just now reading Frost's report on what happened, but this can't be helped; UXM's own timeline makes it clear months pass between Firestar's first appearance and Selene becoming the Black Queen, so this title's implication that the two events more or less follow one after the other has to be ignored.


Tuesday 4th to Sunday 9th June 1985


X+7Y+93 to X+7Y+98.

Contemporary Events

Josef Mengele's body is exhumed in Brazil.

Standout Line

"I sometimes think I'd rather see her dead than have her suffer through life as a mutie..." - Bart Jones. Ouch.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

XFA #4: "Trials And Errors"

("Are we the baddies?")


There is no trial here without an error. No error that does not prove a trial for someone else, almost always Jean.

Jean in fact is the focus of this issue, in particular how she's still struggling to come to terms with her return to a now-unfamiliar world. Rather pleasingly, this is kept in the realm of subtext - no clunky dialogue outlining her frustrations here - but it's all still pretty clear. There's three issues she's struggling with: her relationship with her former team-mates, her relationship with her new charges, and her relationship with the team she's on.

It's not particularly surprising that Jean's struggle to work out how and why the dynamics have changed among the five original X-Men mainly boil down to not understanding how and why her dynamic has changed with Scott. Naturally, she's getting nothing from the source, because Cyclops is an inscrutable cove even when he isn't hiding the fact that once he thought his true love was dead he married her exact double. So instead she goes to talk to Warren to see if he has any insights.Which is an entirely sensible idea, in theory, but one rather complicated by the fact Warren is carrying a torch for her as well, and would rather that was the primary topic of conversation.

Which is fine in theory. Nothing wrong with telling someone you think you'd make for a better match than the one they're currently chasing after. But in this particular case things are rather complicated by Warren knowing Scott's secret, and choosing not to divulge it. Starting a relationship with Jean with that feline still in the Prada would surely be problematic; she clearly still feels something for Scott, and might choose to pursue that or not once she knows the whole truth. Propositioning her without her having that context seems like a pretty good way to build up resentment. I'm not saying Warren should necessarily tell her about what's going on with Scott - breaking a good friend's confidence is no small thing, even when doing it seems like it would save another good friend pain, or at least render the pain acute rather than chronic. But if he doesn't want to do that, then he doesn't get to chase after Jean. Those are his choices.

There's also the small issue of Candy Southern to consider, as well.  The fact that she and Warren are still together isn't in itself a reason to criticise Warren for wanting to confess his feelings to Jean. Like Scott, he can be absolutely forgiven for not seeing this turn of events come to pass, and even if he had, if Warren is poly or even just struggling with unresolved feelings that separation had suspended but not swept away, we can sympathise. What's much harder to let slide is the fact he's clearly ignoring Candy whilst all this is going on. She feels the need to remind him who she is when she calls, and he still brushes her off and hangs up on her. That's acting like an arsehole whatever agreement regarding other partners Candy and Warren have reached. And Jean calls him on it, for all that that conversation, like the one in which Warren tries to confess his feelings, gets interrupted by an incoming call.

This second call is from Cameron Hodge, summoning X-Factor for a mission. The team are off to a Massachusetts boarding school to investigate Martin Davies, a student blackmailing both his classmates and the staff with the secrets he's stolen from them with his terrifying mutant brain-powers. There's just one problem: Martin isn't a mutant, and can't read minds. All he can do is build listening devices.

What we see here is several parts of the current public hysteria over mutants interacting. One hopes Headmaster Woodley was never a maths teacher, because he's terrible at probability. Even with a student claiming to be a mutant, the idea that it's more likely he's telling the truth than that he's bugged rooms in the school, or even that he's listening at keyholes, is flatly ridiculous. Aside from wanting to absolve himself of guilt over his failure to keep his secretary-shagging a secret, his reaction stems from the same root as those who become hysterical following terrorist attacks - the sheer scariness of the concept utterly overwhelms the rational knowledge that you will almost certainly never come close to encountering it. It's almost as stupid as insisting a Muslim child is less likely to commit a minor infelicity of common English than he is to claim he's invented clocks in a deliberate attempt to imply he's a bomb-maker through the sheer absurdity of the statement, to take a random example.

X-Factor itself is contributing to this failure to understand risk. Their very existence seems to serve as proof that mutants are less rare an occurrence than sources like the media and scientists and personal experience suggest. If there really is only one mutant per ten thousand people, and if only a fraction of those have the power to be truly dangerous, how could X-Factor make a living by hunting them down? Either they're more common than the official line, or they're more dangerous, or both, and with people like Senator Kelly drafting anti-mutant legislation (his change of heart notwithstanding), it's not like the official line is particularly comforting to begin with.

All of which is a pretty convincing argument that X-Factor doing more harm than good. And things are likely to get worse, too, The longer X-Factor gives the impression of having a successful business model, the more chance there is genuine mutant-hunter businesses will spring up. Which means the faster X-Factor saves mutants from mobs, the more mutants will be kidnapped off the streets and imprisoned/deported/executed.

"We're taking you in, Sabertooth!"

As real as these concerns are, though, it's something else that clues Jean into how bad an idea X-Factor might actually be, and that's the reaction of the alleged mutant mind-reader to the team's arrival. Martin is obviously utterly terrified. He pretended to be a mutant in a desperate attempt to escape being tormented by his classmates - and it's interesting how he's figured out that (claimed) membership of a widely despised ethnic minority can paradoxically earn one cultural cache, or at least help you sidestep personal oppression even as you (claim that you) are subjected to grotesque systemic oppression - but now he thinks he's going to be kidnapped by bounty hunters and the idea horrifies him.  A kid being bullied knows what X-Factor is when he sees it.

The realisation that her team has stumbled into the business of scaring the crap out of schoolchildren who just wanted to be left alone brings Jean up rather short - especially since Scott is clearly deliberately upsetting Martin as a way of uncovering the truth. It makes her think of Rusty. If the faked half of X-Factor's approach has backfired so spectacularly, maybe their actual mission isn't working out either.

Certainly, it's been tough going training Rusty recently. A lot of that isn't Jean's fault, admittedly. Cyclops contributions to the newcomer's education this issue consist of blundering into Rusty's training session for no reason - which is an utterly inexcusable thing to do when dealing with a pyrokinetic with major control issues - and then ticking off Jean for "overreacting" when she yells at Rusty for almost flash-frying both Scott and Artie. Apparently Cyclops won't say anything to Jean about his past or his feelings, but he'll happily harangue her for the crime of not wanting him burned alive.

Rusty himself isn't making things any easier, in part because he's still having great difficulty in accepting who and what he is. Rusty seems to be consumed by the kind of denial and self-loathing you see in those who one day learn they were what they've been taught for years to fear and hate. By this point in the Marvel Universe mutants have been known to exist for at least seven years, and been hated and mistrusted by the public for virtually this entire time. It's obvious that many young people who learn they are mutants will have spent most of their conscious lives hating what they suddenly are. This manifests itself in a particularly - and ironically - ugly way, with Rusty congratulating Hank on the fact he can now pass as human, and yelling about how much he hates the fact the team insist on treating Artie Maddicks as if he's "normal", rather than a "freak". Even as Rusty stews in self-hatred about his new status, he's wielding his passing privilege as a metaphorical weapon against those who can't go out without the benefit of an image inducer or heavy make-up.

Plus on top of all of that, he's still a teenager, which means everything is much worse. Even if Artie was the platonic ideal of an eleven-year old boy, you can bet Rusty would still throw a strop about having to share a room with him. It's just not, we can presume, "fair".

Still, despite all this, Rusty does have a solid point: he genuinely didn't ask for any of this. Perhaps that's a rather facile comment from most teenagers - though I've always had some sympathy with the sentiment - Rusty's specific situation lends it more weight. It's perfectly acceptable for him to have no ambition beyond not being too dangerous to walk down the street anymore. Jean's insistence he buy into the team's larger goal of harmony between human and mutant must seem colossally presumptuous.  Sure, the former X-Men are trying to help him, but when your doctor gives you your prescription they don't generally suggest you should take the pills whilst helping out at a soup kitchen.

It's only upon meeting Martin that Jean realises this, and it's pretty important that she does. There's a direct link between Martin's terror and Rusty's misery, and that's that the team has lost interest in actually making the argument for mutant/human collaboration. Rusty is just expected to work out the importance of this for himself, and the general human population are supposed to do the same even though X-Factor are themselves working to make that harder. Their tactics don't just fail to align with the goal, they're running contrary to it. And no-one seems to have noticed, because no-one actually seems to be talking to each other. Scott wants to hide the truth from Jean; Warren wants to sleep with her, Hank is (understandably) busy looking at his own face a lot, and Bobby? Well, I'm not sure what Bobby's deal is, but given the position this blog has repeatedly taken we can assume he's got a lot of Hank-staring to get done as well.

Which leaves Jean the only one obviously interested in how all this is actually going to work long term, as half the team fret about situations that are obviously unstable and the other half apparently checked out more or less totally. On this occasion her post-revelation activity centres on improving her teaching approach (again, without any help from the rest of the team). But the suggestion is clear that it can only be a matter of time before she take the next logical step, and starts tearing down this entire rotten structure. It is time for something new.

It is time for something that can work.


This story takes place over a single day. Rusty says the team brought Artie back to base "last week". Since we have that as happening on the Saturday, that would presumably mean this story takes place on the following Saturday at the earliest, which is what we'll go for.


Saturday 20th April, 1985.



Contemporary Events

Johnathan Davies plays his first match for Wales.

Standout Line

"When has Scott ever not been broody?" - Warren.