Thursday, 23 October 2008

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #7: A Poor Substitute

The difficulty in writing an article about the Mimic is that there is just so little to work on. I don't just mean his infrequent appearances (I can think of a grand total of seven issues of Uncanny X-Men or X-Men in which he shows up, three of them during the brief stint as an X-Man that earned him a place in this series), but the fact that there is almost nothing to his character. Across those occasional showings Calvin Rankin has gone from arrogant prick to mediocre hero to whining loser to, well, a guy whose wings fell off.

It can be argued that any problems that writers may have had pinning down Rankin's character can be explained by the fact that so many years pass between the times he surfaces. That, though, is to look at things from the wrong direction. The X-Universe is positively filled with ancillary characters that pop up again and again. Mystique has a seven page biography over at UXN, that's more than Iceman gets. I suspect the problem is not that his rare appearances make it impossible to pin his character down, but that he is so totally bereft of interesting aspects that no-one ever bothers to use him. The ability to copy someone else's mutant powers is an interesting idea (hence Rogue and Synch, to name just two characters with similar abilities), but it doesn't really make for much of a hook on its own.
Despite all that, though, there are certain things that can be surmised about Mimic. In part this is because Mimic is so close to a tried and tested character trope: the flawed hero. Even within the X-Men this template is applied repeatedly; Gambit's shadowy past; Wolverine's berserker rage; Maggott's relationship with, and debt to, Magneto (I miss Maggott).
What connects those X-Men, though, is that they fight to become and remain superheroes rather than super-villains, to employ their significant abilities on the side of the angels. Mimic, on the other hand, is fighting against against the fact that, in the final analysis, he just isn't any good at being a super-anything.

Rankin's main flaw is obvious from his very first appearance, way back in UXM 19. The first time we see him utilise his mutant power [1] we are distinctly underwhelmed since a) he replicates the talents of Iceman and Beast entirely by accident, and b) he tries to use them for the distinctly unimpressive task of trying to beat up Beast for taking out a woman he had his eye on. Moments later, when Mimic connects the dots and realises that (rather improbably) he has bumped into two X-Men, his immediate thought is that he can follow them to their secret base and bring about their downfall. Why? He doesn't seem to have any idea, it's just the first thought that pops into his head. By the time he's reached Xavier's mansion he's changed his plan: he's going to grab Jean Grey and hot-foot it back to the mine where he and his father once hid.

His ostensible motive for this is to force the X-Men to follow him out there, so that he can use Cyclops' optic blasts to dig out his father's last work, a machine that will allow him to absorb powers permanently. Which is a sound enough plan, I guess, (although renting a JCB might have been somewhat simpler), but it leaves an important question unanswered. Given he had already run into Jean Grey earlier in the day (again by chance; Stan Lee never being one to worry much about piling coincidence atop coincidence), why take the risk of confronting the X-Men in the mansion? Why not kidnap Grey immediately (an almost offensively simple task, this being an issue in which Jean spends her time reading Marvel comics and shopping for her vacation rather than acting like a superheroine) and phone Xavier with a ransom demand?
Rankin provides a clue to the answer in his (briefly) stated desire to crush the X-Men. He reveals more when talking to his captive, as he relates the story of his life. As the Mimic relates acquiring/discovering his powers, he unconsciously demonstrates both the ludicrously frivolous uses he puts it to (beating up people in school, cheating in tests) and, more importantly, his basic motivation: impressing others. Unfortunately for him, though, the more he uses his powers, the more his peers resent him for his sudden "talents" and unearned "accomplishments". Bitterly, Rankin decries them as jealous (though only to himself) and resolves to "show them". Crucially, though, he can only do that by stealing their own talents to use against them.

This puts Rankin in something of a bind. He is desperate to prove himself against others (it is implied that he was something of a loser in school before his got his powers), but he can only attempt that by copying their innate superiority. He finds no permanent satisfaction in what he does, because every act of mimicry becomes a confession that his opponent began the contest with an innate advantage. Even if Rankin wins, he has only done so by artificially levelling the playing field, and he knows it, even if he won't admit it to himself.

Unable to learn from this, though, he simply moves on to the next challenge, hoping this time that his victory will bring him the respect of others he mistakes for self-belief. Hence his rash decision to defeat the X-Men, and his pointless showboating whilst abducting Jean. It wasn't enough to obtain Cyclops' power to dig out his father's machine [2], Mimic has to prove that he can beat the X-Men single-handedly (whilst enjoying six separate mutant powers, of course, and even then once Xavier's students begin to work as a team, they turn the battle against him). It's all classic over-compensation for an inferiority complex, except that Mimic's power allows him to precisely assess his own shortcomings every time he uses it. Even he fact that he narrates his story to Jean entirely in the third person might even suggest some subconscious attempt to distance himself from his own inferiority and pettiness, though that would be an impressive level of thought in a script in which Cyclops shouts "But wait - what of the danger!" when Hank decides to navigate an obstacle course one-handed.

Eventually Calvin makes some limited progress with his repressed feelings of inadequacy. Rather than try to go it alone, he resolves to join the X-Men, so as to find his place within a team. Of course, rather than attempt to earn a place in their ranks, he simply blackmails them, threatening to reveal their dual identities if he is not made deputy leader. Upon being grudgingly accepted, he immediately begins insulting his team-mates and constantly trying to out-do them. Not a fist can be thrown or an eye-beam zarked without him telling all those in earshot about how wonderful he is. In essence, although he truly does want to do the right thing, all that has really changed for Mimic is that he is using the powers of mutants A,B and C to fight mutants X, Y and Z. He may no longer be attempting to fight people using their own skills, but his abilities are still only on loan.

There is one brief moment of self-realisation, when Rankin confesses to himself that
"I'm sentenced forever to live only in the shadow of other men's powers... other men's abilities! Nothing is truly... mine!"
But this is a short-lived revelation, it doesn't take. Perhaps Mimic hopes that stealing enough powers from enough mutants will eventually make him worth something. Certainly, that seems the plan when he is finally expelled from the school for his defiance and gets the choice to join forces with the Super Adaptoid. Once he realises the villain has "Destroy humanity" near the top of his to-do list, though (right after "Enslave Mimic"), Rankin fights back. It costs him his powers, but he defeats the Adaptoid, and he does it not by relying on the talents of others, but by outsmarting his adversary. In what appears to be his final act as a super-being, Rankin finally proves himself.
Ultimately, though, as is so often the case, it is the failures and the humiliations that stay with Calvin, not his one success. Once Rankin reappears (many years later) he simply throws his lot in with the Brotherhood of Mutants in its various incarnations. Less corrupt and conniving than Mystique, less brutal and unthinking than the Blob, Mimic nevertheless follows their lead, apparently because he can think of nothing better to do. The idea of going it alone has long since been abandoned. Within the Brotherhood he seems more comfortable, and less combative. The same problems still exist, though, they are simply expressed in different ways. Now, rather than piling on the bravado and loudly proclaiming himself superior, Rankin works to persuade others and himself that his enemy is too strong, too tough, too well-armoured. There's a brief exchange in UXM 364 between Mimic and Wolverine as they battle Cerebrite Beta in the ruins of Alcatraz which illustrates this:
"I can't seem to penetrate its hide no matter what I do!"
"What? In case you forgot, Mimic, you got the flamin' powers o'
all five original X-Men! Don't tell me you've run outta options already!"

Thus, rather than trying to hide his inferiority behind bluster, Rankin is now attempting to mitigate it by building up the challenge. After all, how can he be blamed for being beaten when the foe was so mighty?
The exchange between Rankin and Logan raises another interesting question. Why does Mimic retain the powers of the first five X-Men anyway? In that particular fight, he could have called upon the powers of Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Shadowcat, Marrow, Post, the Blob, or even Toad, if he felt like a challenge [3]. Why stick so doggedly with the first super-powers he ever acquired?

I may have missed something in his back-story (he made three or four other appearances in the wider Marvel Universe that I haven't read), and he may not have any choice about it. If that's true, it's a shame, because the idea that he is deliberately hanging on to that specific power set is a nice one. Perhaps for all his failures and his flaws, for all his excuses and his denials, he still wants one day to be worthy of the title "hero" once again, and he knows that, if he has any chance to succeed, that it will be because of what he has learned from the X-Men.

Next time: I continue to ask the tough questions as we ponder why a shape-shifter would deliberately construct the most retarded helmet in all of Christendom.

[1] Assuming he is a mutant. His back-story suggests he gained his power by fiddling around with his father's chemistry experiments, though Scott Lobdell at least has insisted that this simply unlocked Rankin's latent mutant powers.

[2] Which turned out to actually remove his powers, not augment them. Apparently even his father was less than impressed by Calvin's application of his ability. You have to wonder about a father-son dynamic in which the former intends to strip the latter of his super power whilst pretending he will make that power all the greater.

[3] Admittedly, Post is a terribly shitty character, and Davis' Toad is embarrassing both in his uselessness and how poorly the writer researched the character. "The bouncing Toad goes over the top! Bop bop!" Sheesh.

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