Friday, December 27, 2013

1987 and all that 020: x-mental

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Uncanny X-Men #213-224 (Marvel)
by Chris Claremont, Alan Davis, Barry Windsor-Smith, Jackson Guice, Marc Silvestri, Bob Wiacek, Dan Green, Glynis Oliver, Tom Orzechowski, et al.

Something that comes up a lot in X-Men comics is the idea of a mutant community, whether or not it exists and, if so, what it’s like or should be like. In these issues from 1987 though, Chris Claremont is less interested in that idea of group identity as he is in exploring what happens when a single person’s identity is threatened, stolen, or lost. The team’s shared objectives and attitudes are relatively stable. The X-Men get attacked directly a lot in this period, and constantly being on the defensive makes it easier to work together toward a common goal: survival. Yet while as a unit they’re fairly reliable, several individual members of the team have some sort of identity crisis during this run, from emotional and mental breakdowns to having their minds controlled to the even worse fate of poor Madelyne Pryor (see below). It’s not a theme that is openly discussed or always present, but there are pretty regular reminders in these comics that one’s sense of self is a fragile thing, and that the results of damaging or removing it can be severe for the person affected and everyone around them.

Though other, smaller problems pop up along the way, the X-Men’s primary opponents in these issues are the Marauders, a gang of evil mutants secretly working for Mr. Sinister. They go after not only the current X-Men, but their friends and former members as well, and the Marauders don’t limit themselves to strictly physical assaults. Their leader, Malice, is a bodiless psychic force that invisibly enters other people and takes control of them. At first, she uses this power to make several of the X-Men fight one another, but eventually Psylocke’s own psychic abilities combined with Storm’s willpower are able to temporarily defeat Malice. So instead of just body-jumping anymore, Malice sets up camp permanently in Polaris, who’s not even an active X-Man when this all goes down. But she’s still their friend, so having her become a foe but knowing she isn't in control of her own actions presents an especially difficult challenge for the heroes. Most of all Polaris’ boyfriend Havok, who pretty much falls to pieces when he sees that the woman he loves has been mentally hijacked by his enemies. Torn between his powerful affection for Polaris and his just-as-strong fury toward Malice, Havok breaks down.

Malice also does a number on Dazzler, the first person she inhabits and controls. Like Polaris, Dazzler isn't’t technically one of the X-Men at the time, trying instead to make a go at a music career. That dream is quickly cut short by Malice, even after she’s been driven out of Dazzler’s body, because the whole affair forces Dazzler to rejoin the X-Men rather than staying out on her own as an unguarded target for future Marauder attacks. So Dazzler becomes a superhero again, even though it’s not the life she’d choose for herself, and though she does it well and with great determination, it takes it's toll on her. She’s on edge, constantly second-guessing herself and losing her temper at the drop of her hat, acting rashly and arrogantly for no reason. The lifestyle thrust upon her is not one that is necessarily a good fit for her or that she enjoys. There’s some satisfaction to be gotten from doing good, but it’s not nearly the same as what she gets from singing and performing and doing all the other things she truly loves. Yet fighting alongside the X-Men is better than dying alone, so she sticks it out despite her unhappiness and emotional instability.

Both Havok and Dazzler see the lives they were trying to build suddenly and unexpectedly demolished, one personal and the other professional. They have to start from zero, trying to find meaning in the incessant violence and fear of life with the X-Men. Along similar but even more dramatic lines, Madelyne Pryor, not even a mutant but married to one, is put through absolute hell by the Marauders, only to end up, like Dazzler, with no options except to stay with the X-Men indefinitely for her own protection. After putting her in the hospital and stealing her baby, the Marauders go further and erase every trace of Madelyne’s life, making it so that, according to any and all available records, she never existed. With no way to prove who she is, and no real leads as to the whereabouts of her stolen child or her M.I.A. husband Cyclops, Madelyne’s situation is dire to say the least. She knows who she is, and so do the X-Men, but the rest of the world refuses to acknowledge it, making her a strange sort of non-entity. Powerless to change what has happened to her or to do anything that would significantly improve her future, Madelyne’s stuck, still alive but without a life. It’s torturous and hopeless and huge, driving her, quite understandably, to the point of nearly committing suicide.

Even Wolverine, the super-experienced, cool-as-a-cucumber veteran of the team, loses himself for a time. While investigating the scene of one of the Marauders’ many crimes, he picks up Jean Grey’s scent, the woman he loved unrequitedly for years before she died (it’s really Madelyne he smells, because she’s a clone of Jean, but nobody is aware of that yet). With all his painful memories of Jean flooding back to him all at once and out of nowhere, Wolverine is overwhelmed and freaks out completely, becoming the most animalistic version of himself, a being of pure instinct. It doesn't last for more than a few days before he snaps out of it, but Wolverine is the only X-Man to have this kind of breakdown due to his own senses betraying him, as opposed to the machinations of the story’s villains. Yes, the Maraduers are indirectly involved, since it is in searching for them that Wolverine goes nuts, but they don’t do it to him on purpose. It is his own already fragile and fractured psyche that shatters his self-control.

Not everyone in this book has their identity upturned like this. Both Longshot and Psylocke manage to avoid the kinds of personal crises their teammates have to deal with, for very different but equally logical reasons. Longshot is by nature a bit unpredictable, the token wildcard of the team. This is not to say he doesn't have a personality, but as an outsider in our world, he has a naiveté and curiosity that leave him on slightly less sure footing than the rest of the cast to begin with. Add to that his own ignorance of the exact workings of his luck-based superpowers and corresponding lack of control over them, and it becomes clear why messing with Longshot’s sense of self would be trickier and maybe less interesting than it is with everyone else. He’s already trying to figure out who he is and his place in this world, so there’s no need to introduce those dilemmas again.

As for Psylocke, she keeps her wits about her by virtue of being the X-Men’s resident telepath. She is their most useful defense against Malice, their communication system, and the most stable mind among them. It’s hard to be effective with psychic superpowers if you don’t have a good connection with your own mind, and Psylocke is nothing if not effective. The first issue of this run, 'Uncanny X-Men' #213, is all about Psylocke proving her worth by facing Sabretooth one-on-one and living to tell the tale. After that, she’s firmly cemented as the team’s sturdiest pillar, and it’s a role that suits her. She’s considerate, intelligent, self-reliant, and able to tap into the thoughts and insecurities of all her allies and, if needed, soothe them or bring them back down to Earth. With the other X-Men losing their grips to one degree or another, it’s important that the team have a rock, and Psylocke’s the perfect person to fill that slot.

The only X-Man I haven’t addressed—other than the handful of members who are comatose for all of these issues thanks to severe beatings from the Marauders—is Rogue. She also manages to avoid any serious loss of ego or sanity, but Rogue’s whole power set is based on her draining the abilities and personalities of others and absorbing them into herself. She’s a walking identity crisis even when she has her act together, because she’s always got the powers and psyche she permanently took from Ms. Marvel rattling around in her head in addition to her own. That’s never exacerbated by the events of this run, but it’s not assuaged at all either, so she fits in with the theme of the fragility of identity through the very concept of her character.

There are several sprawling, near-fatal fights between the X-Men and the Marauders, all of them scripted, choreographed, and drawn quite nicely. Both sides take some heavy beatings and have a few close calls over the course of the long-running conflict. But the more significant threat to the titular heroes is the vulnerability of their personal identities, the fine line between sanity and madness, confidence and doubt, of which the Marauders are smart and sadistic enough to take advantage. It’s not the high-powered, theatrical superheroics that hold the most danger and intrigue in these comics. It is the resulting melodramas the characters are put through where the real excitement is found, impactful depictions of people who have lost track of themselves but have to move forward with their lives anyway.

No comments:

Post a Comment