Tuesday, 19 August 2008

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #4: Fly-Boy

Despite my well-known propensity for pouring scorn upon everything in my path, it still came as something as a shock to realise that when considering the characters from my all-time favourite comic book series, I’ve gone three for three in assessing them as intolerable douche-bags.

Tragically, that pattern is unlikely to change as we consider Warren Worthington III, a man for whom the term douche-bag often seems to not go far enough. In fairness, Professor X and Cyclops are irritating because of their inflexible devotion to the big picture regardless of cost, and Iceman is annoying because he seems determined to remain a teenager for the rest of his life. Angel, though, is a dick because he enjoys being a dick.

Or at least, that’s probably what he tells himself. There’s some reason to doubt the idea, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

In many ways Worthington is the polar opposite (no pun intended) of Bobby Drake. On the most obvious level, Warren finds it significantly harder to pass for “normal”. Discovering his mutant “gift” whilst at a swanky college (which, incidentally, is where he meets Cameron Hodge; more on him later), he immediately realises that he won’t be able to keep his budding wings a secret for long, and so he deliberately acts like a prick until he ends up in the private school equivalent of solitary confinement. Even given the fact that his alienation was deliberate on his part, one could hardly blame a teenager for hating his fellow pupils for the inevitable counter-attacks he must have suffered from them. Despite this, though, when a fire breaks out at the school he doesn’t hesitate to disguise himself and risk his life by flying the other students to safety.

Something in that experience changes Warren’s life forever. High on his successful rescue, he decides to upgrade his costumed activities to crime-fighting. Arming himself with a gas-gun (the first of several attempts by writers over the years to make Angel something more than just the chap with the wings), he takes to the streets of New York to bust up the local punks. In the process he catches the attention of Professor Xavier, who takes his X-Men to wait for Angel in his apartment before confronting him [1]. Inevitably, this leads to a punch-up, which leaves Iceman unconscious. Quickly this proves to be unfortunate, since a bit of instant refrigeration would be just the ticket to calm the vial of atomic explosive (!) Warren has lying around after swiping it from some thieves the night before (!!). Only Angel's desperate flight into the upper atmosphere under Xavier’s control saves the day.

This is where the distinction between Drake and Worthington becomes more than skin-deep. Faced with his failure (a failure that he could credibly have simply blamed entirely upon Xavier), Warren's immediate response is to confess that he has made a mistake, and to join the X-Men in order to better himself.

Up to this point, Angel could easily be written off as just an adrenaline junkie, a boy using his mutant wings to play super-hero. But to agree to overcome his own significant ego in order to serve as one amongst equals,and to obey the instructions of a man he has only just met, reveals a genuine commitment.

I hesitate to bring the parents back into one of these analyses again [2], but it’s hardly a stretch to suggest that this commitment to self-improvement (however esoteric the direction) is liable to be the sort of quality one might develop from having a coolly disciplined millionaire businessman for a father. Another, one might surmise, is the desire for control.

I don't think I'm exactly giving away a big secret when I remind people that one of the most basic ingredients of dramatic writing of any stripe is to identify what a character considers most important, and then remove it from them. Sometimes it’s an object, sometimes it’s a person, and sometimes it’s something more ethereal. In this case, I would argue, it is simple self-determination.

It should come as little surprise that Warren Worthington’s motivation is provided by nothing physical. After all, the guy’s a millionaire, he’s liable to have at best a hazy understanding of the word “irreplaceable”. Even women, at least in the early stages of his life, are something he works at until he either succeeds or fails, and in the case of the latter, he simply shrugs his shoulders and moves on. Warren’s attraction to Jean Grey it obvious from the moment they met, mainly because he deliberately makes it obvious. This briefly leads to conflict with Scott, cumulating with Cyclops accidentally wounding Warren during a fight with Kulkulcan [3].

Furious, Warren accuses Scott of deliberately attempting to rid himself of competition for Jean’s affections. It's a ludicrous charge, made when Angel was on the verge of delirium, but the other X-Men seem to view it at least as vaguely plausible. Had Warren continued to insist upon it, Summers very nature (see earlier rambling) would have been liable to force him to quit the team, and give Warren a clear run at Jean.

Instead, though, he retracts the charge and apologises the very next day, and then gives up pursuing Jean entirely when it became obvious Scott is her preference (again, compare with Bobby Drake, who still hasn’t given up on Lorna despite her choosing Havok instead at least three times now). There’s no bad feelings, no emo mooching, Angel just moves on with his life.

As laudable as Worthington’s behaviour may be (post-accusation, anyway) there may be more going on than is readily evident. This is where I get back to the point. Angel wants control. He needs control. In any situation where he feels things slipping away from him, he is liable to simply cut and run. The situation with Jean is one example. We see another example years later in his relationship with Psylocke, but that comes about only after a number of other events which should probably be considered first.

In order to keep control, Warren craves responsibility. Whenever the X-Men disband [4] Warren continues to live the life of a hero, not, like Drake, through lack of options (the man has a corporate empire to run, after all), but because he has already committed himself to the task. Not only does he continue to serve in super-teams, he funds them whenever necessary from his private fortune (by the time of Second Genesis, both of his parents have passed away). Ultimately this cumulates in Warren, along with Jean Grey, forging X-Factor, as they are unwilling to return to the X-Men since Xavier has put Magneto in charge.

The creation of X-Factor is interesting for two reasons. First, the tactics which Warren proposes (and with which none of the rest of the team are entirely comfortable) are very different (to say the least) from those employed by Xavier. The goal of X-Factor is to locate mutants and keep them safe, all well and good, but they intend to do it by posing as mutant hunters so as to use the public‘s own bigotry against them. It’s hardly possible to credit Professor X approving of such a game-plan, which of course in turn means Cyclops (the X-Man most people think of when discussing responsibility) would never have thought of the idea either. Whether or not it actually is a good idea is a discussion for another time [5] (short answer: fuck no), my point is simply that Warren saw a need (save mutants without the X-Men’s involvement), created a plan for it, financed it, and recruited his old friends, persuading them of the viability of the somewhat questionable operating strategy in the process. Naturally, as co-founder and benefactor, he got to call the shots. Responsibility and control.

This is highlighted again a few issues later, during the Mutant Massacre, when Warren’s then-girlfriend Candy Southern finds him embracing Jean (entirely innocently, or at least as innocent as such things can be when one party has a previously-admitted attraction) and runs out. Offered the chance to chase after her, Warren refuses, choosing instead to continue with the rescue of the Morlocks.

The second point of interest regarding X-Factor’s inception is the fact that Warren did not dream up the idea alone: he had help from his old roommate Cameron Hodge. It is Hodge’s betrayal that sets in motion a chain of dominoes that totally strips Warren of control not once, but twice, and in so doing changing him almost beyond recognition in more ways than one. Hodge turns out to be an undercover operative for the mutant-hating group The Right. When Angel gets his wings pinned by Harpoon during the Massacre, Cameron alters the resulting medical reports to state that amputation is the only option. Hodge then manages to manoeuvre himself into position as Warren’s beneficiary, thus potentially unlocking a vast fortune for The Right to avail themselves of.

It is then implied that suicide is exactly that option Angel takes once he awakens to find himself earth-bound. I say “implied” because we later discover Hodge sabotaged the plane. However, given that the plane explodes in mid-air during his attempt to fly “one more time“, there is some suggestion ending it all was most definitely on Worthington’s mind anyway. This coupled with the double loss he has suffered (his wings and the accompanying loss of control over a significant portion of his life) certainly gives plenty of evidence that Angel was at the very least dealing with suicidal thoughts, and quite possibly planned to crash his plane at the end of his journey. One last flight, and one last conscious decision.

Life, of course, has other plans. The mutant megalomaniac Apocalypse teleports him from the jet at the moment of the explosion. With some combination of brainwashing techniquwa and an offer to give Warren control over his existence once more, Apocalypse persuades him to become Death. Once again able to fly, albeit using metal, blade-firing wings that he cannot completely control, Worthington is only too happy to fight against his previous allies. Only being tricked into believing he has killed Iceman returns him to some semblance of his previous personality, causing him to turn against his new master.

After Apocalypse’s defeat, rather than rejoining X-Factor, Warren decides to seek out and kill Cameron Hodge, who has by now been revealed as a traitor. This ultimately leads to a confrontation in which Hodge murders Candy Southern, and Worthington responds by decapitating his treacherous friend with his razor-sharp wings.

This moment is probably the most obvious (and most serious) example of a problem that plagues Warren (who now returned to his comrades under the codename Archangel) for some time. Whenever he became sufficiently angry, his wings lash out without his obvious instruction. At first Warren assumes that this is a deliberate feature built into the wings by Apocalypse. On the other hand, it is clear even at the time that it more likely represents some kind of disassociate behaviour on Warren’s part. Angel has lost his original wings, been betrayed by his best friend and co-founder of X-Factor, been transformed into the living embodiment of Death and used to attack his friends, and finally having his girlfriend killed in front of him. Surely on a subconscious level Archangel wants to lash out against the world. With all his nobler aims thwarted, some dark recess of his mind must have chosen to regain some measure of control by simply trying to destroy anything that troubles him. [6] And ultimately, upon deciding to return to the tunnel where the Marauders pinned his original wings, he admits to himself that he had been in control of his new limbs all along.

From this moment forth Archangel begins to reclaim the control over his life that was denied to him for so long, even to the point of refusing to kill Apocalypse when he has the chance during The X-Cutioner’s Song. He would no longer be ruled by his failures, by his enemies machinations, or by his own darker urges.

Such rigid self-discipline does come without price. Never the most emotionally open of people, Archangel becomes even more reserved. To many this was written off as cold arrogance. Take this brief conversation with Bishop in UXM 300, for example:
“I have to tell you Bishop… I was not overly thrilled when the Professor invited you to join the X-Men.”
“Indeed? Here I thought you were cold, rude and dismissive to everyone.”
“I am. But that‘s another story.”
Perhaps it would be fairer however to view it as the combination of dedication and an unwillingness to leave himself open. Certainly the betrayal of his oldest friend makes such behaviour understandable, if not necessarily advisable or easy to tolerate. In this context his apparent conscious efforts to irk his teammates are revealed as simple attempts to ensure his continued isolation, whether or not he is aware of that fact himself.

Although several of the original X-Men have some success in wearing down Warren’s defences, arguably only Psylocke entirely succeeds. Doubtless this is partially down to his clear attraction to her, although this in itself is not unconnected to the obvious similarities between the two of them: children of millionaires transformed by powers beyond their control (in Psylocke’s case Slaymaster, Mojo, and The Hand, but more of that in her own entry). The similarities of their experiences and obvious mutual physical attraction lead to an intense relationship. Archangel takes arguably his first risk (excepting his repeated choice to put himself in harm‘s way) since his jet exploded: he allows someone else to become of great importance to him once again.

If something is important to a character, you take it away from them.

When Sabretooth stages his escape from Xavier’s mansion, where he has been imprisoned for some time, only Psylocke is nearby to attempt to stop him. For her efforts she is left almost eviscerated, all but dead. Thus begins a perilous journey into the magical realms by Archangel and Wolverine (finally attempting to work together, although Logan points out he’d probably have a better chance on his own) to save Psylocke. Terrified of losing his love, Warren fights through the pain of injuries he had suffered taking his revenge on Sabretooth, and risks both his life and possibly his last chance to see Betsy alive in order to expose the part of her soul he carries within him to the mystic powers of the Crimson Dawn. [7]

Doing so undoubtedly saves Psylocke’s life, but in a sense Warren begins to realise that he has lost her anyway. The Dawn changes Psylocke, giving her new powers but stripping her of some of her humanity. During this period of uncertainty and friction (also a time in which his metal feathers moult to reveal his original wings have grown back beneath) Warren once more becomes withdrawn and broody, wondering whether it would be best to just give up on the relationship himself before Psylocke can do it for him. Again we see him struggle to gain control of a situation in he has less influence in than he would like (at around this time, and possibly because of the increased difficulty in maintaining the relationship, Warren began to drift from the X-Men in favour of taking a more direct role in managing Worthington Industries). Ultimately, when Neal Sharra joins the team and Betsy begins to flirt with him, Angel breaks off their relationship, preferring to feel that it has been his choice, and not something forced upon him (he later admits that he has never been dumped in his life, because whenever he sees the way the wind is blowing, he makes damn sure he gets in there first).

He hopes that by doing this he can save face, and also in the hope that she will realise the mistake she has made. Tragically, though, not long afterwards Psylocke is killed by the villain Vargas. The loss hurts Warren deeply, and he continues to lose himself in the dealings of his company, bringing several abuses by underlings to light, including running a mutant brothel (Warren ends up helping one of the prostitutes, Stacey X, until she leaves in disgust when he does not return his affections) and funnelling money into Lobotech, a company run my mutant werewolves[8]. He eventually returns to the X-Men full-time, becoming de facto field-team leader once Kurt begins experiencing problems with being in charge. Once again he closes down, refusing to confide in anyone just how badly he is damaged.

It is during this mission to defeat the so-called “Dominant Species” (that would be the mutant werewolves to you and me) that Angel begins to feel an attraction for the somewhat younger Paige Guthrie (a.k.a. Husk). At first he attempts to keep her at arms length, not wanting to repeat his experience with Psylocke, but eventually he decides he cannot keep out everyone indefinitely.

Of course, this being Warren, this attempt to once again relinquish even a small measure of control is destined to run into problems. After a mission in which Paige is put in severe jeopardy, Angel breaks off their nascent relationship, fearing he cannot survive losing another woman to death. Once she angrily points out that it is her life to risk, though, he apologises, and they begin anew.

Whether or not this situation can last, or whether Warren will return to his old ways, remains to be seen, especially given the chaos that will inevitably blow up following Psylocke’s recent resurrection. Whatever happens, Warren could do far worse than to remember his own words after his split with Betsy, and her subsequent death:
“Certain phrases used to make me laugh. Most of them originated in California. ‘I have issues’ is one. ‘I feel your pain’ is another. ‘I need closure’ used to make me laugh hardest of all. Maybe it’s because I’ve been through a lot lately. Or maybe I’m just growing up. But those phrases don’t really make me laugh anymore.

“My name is Warren Worthington the Third. And my eyes are open for the first time.”

Next time: how you combine intellect, athleticism, bad jokes, and blue fur to create easily the best X-Man from the Sixties.

[1] This is from one of the few dozen issues of Uncanny X-Men I’ve yet to track down and read, so I couldn’t tell you why a genius intellect with mind-reading abilities would think that recruitment by home invasion was anything but a really, really shit idea.

[2] I‘m beginning to wonder if it reveals more about me than it does the X-Men, although given so far I’ve described martyr complexes, gigantic yet brittle egos, and the total inability to learn from one’s romantic mistakes, it’s entirely possible that the horse has left the barn anyway.

[3] I loved that guy. The reincarnation of an ancient Mesoamerican God, whose modest goals included restoring the extinct Mayan civilisation and helping them rule the globe. If nothing else, he didn‘t overlook the little things: “Already I have obtained many labourers… as well as armed police!”. This was back in the good old days, when super-villains were mental beyond belief. Maybe once I’m done with all the X-Men sometime next year (hah!) I shall move onto the bad guys. The world needs to be told about the motivations and idiosyncrasies of the Maha Yogi (chronic bed-wetter), Mekano (driven to insanity due to shoddy construction by evil children), and the Porcupine (voted for Hubert Humphrey by mistake).

[4] Or, on one occasion, after he quits in disgust over the others’ tolerance of Wolverine. It’s interesting to note that it was Wolverine’s total refusal to tow the line that caused Warren to leave. Was Logan simply one more chaotic element than Angel was able to handle?

[5] One of the most compelling aspects of X-Factor both in it’s early stages and during the Peter David re-boot was the overarching question as to how far you are willing to go in order to keep helping people. At first it was simply posing as bigots (and in the process validating bigotry). Later, it became government sponsorship and all the accompanying interference. What do you do when an explosive-collared Sabretooth gets delivered to your door with a note saying “Use this guy to hunt mutants, KTHNX”?

[6] It occurs to me that, much as I slammed Iceman last week for being petulant and immature, he’s the only one of the first four X-Men who doesn’t seem to have a problem with attempting to suppress their darker sides. Of course, when your darker side comes equipped with wings that can cut through steel, suppression is not necessarily a bad course of action.

[7] This shared experience thaws the relationship between them slightly, as Archangel begins to realise he has misjudged Wolverine. Of course, Warren being Warren, it’s another 110 issues before he admits his mistake and apologises for it.

[8] In-between Warren and his team battle Black Tom Cassidy, who has mutated into a sentient, partially-mobile tree. During this encounter Cassidy leeches life-force from Worthington, and in the process somehow returns his skin to its natural colour. Also, mutant werewolves? Running a company? I take it all back; at least occasionally, super-villains are still pretty much just batshit insane.

PS: Damn, looks like the only thing I took from yesterday's links was how to totally rip-off footnote presentation. At least it's something, I guess.


jamie said...

Another excellent analysis; once these are all done I fully expect to actually understand the stupidly convoluted X-Men history of the last forty years (though it may admittedly take another 40 to get them all done ;-)

The pedant in me does note that it needs a little proofreading and cleaning up though... sorry!

SpaceSquid said...

I can always rely on you to piss on my parade, Jamie ;)

Well, that's not entirely fair. I appreciate the compliment, and the fact that you've taken the novel approach of discarding the praise sandwich in favour of, well, praise toast, I guess.

Are we talking stylistic errors, or have I just failed to grasp the English language?

The way I see it, this series should take a year to complete. That's making the fairly major assumption that in the next year they don't introduce a slurry of new characters. Of course, some X-Men have less to be said about them than others (in a few months we'll be getting to "Who the fuck is Sway" and "Changeling: that one who died and no-one noticed or cared and then came back as a different character whose book I haven't read and looks stupid."

jamie said...

Seriously, it's an awesome effort you're making, and very interesting and insightful reading. This is purely the professional and amateur pedant coming out in me, and in no way do the mistakes I saw ruin the piece, just mar it slightly.

There's not too much really, just the occasional wrong or missing word, but I really haven't got the time and energy to comb it properly. I can probably do so next week if you care enough :-)

However, take solace that, the way I see it, you fully deserve to be up in the ranks of the other two blogs you pimped the other day, and these articles can only help, so onwards and upwards!

SpaceSquid said...

My sandwich! My sandwich has arrived!

If it's just basic language mistakes I shall definitely give it another go-over (I didn't have time today as I *gasp* actually did some work; and e-mailed a lot of people. Including you, like, three times). I just wanted to check there wasn't something more detailed I'd cocked-up on.

As to Sims and Bird, I know my place, but I thank you for the compliment in any case. I'm really enjoying doing these, it feels like proper writing.

Now if you'll excuse me, I promised myself I'd at least write a bit of pulp sci-fi before I go to bed. Have to relax sometime...