Wednesday, 13 July 2016

XFA #4: "Trials And Errors"


("Are we the baddies?")

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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!"
"WHICH ONE IS 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.

Clues

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.

Date

Saturday 20th April, 1985.

X-Date

X+7Y+49.

Contemporary Events

Johnathan Davies plays his first match for Wales.

Standout Line

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

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