Wednesday, 12 November 2008

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #9: Fatal Exorcist

During my thorough and entirely deserved kicking of Jean Grey I pointed out that while some of the blame for her truly feeble character development through the years could be pinned on the awful treatment she received at the hands of her Sixties writers, it wasn't really the whole picture. Yes, it was a hard time to be a woman in comics, even if most of the writers could (generously) be said to have had the best of intentions, but many other super-heroines created in that period (and it's not like the male heroes back there were particularly fascinating character studies either) went on to become far more complex and interesting than their humble origins would suggest.

In particular, I referenced Polaris as an example of how far one could develop such vacuous non-characters, given time and effort. Certainly, to compare Polaris and Jean Grey these days (ignoring the rather inconvenient fact that Grey is dead, or at least I think she is), it isn't immediately apparent that forty years ago one could only distinguish them by powers, costume and hair colour.

That's something of an oversimplification, though. Whilst Polaris has been redefined many times over the years (though she rarely redefines herself, and more on that later), and far more completely than Grey (whose occasional lapses are generally retconned), studying her history makes it clear that it took at least thirty years for any meaningful change to come about, and that until that happened, Polaris was actually far worse served as a character than Jean Grey was.

As mentioned in my article on her, Grey spends more time in the original X-Men run as a damsel in distress than I was entirely comfortable with. Despite this, though, and despite her shopping obsession and her truly vomit-inducing puppy love for Cyclops, even through those early days she does at least show signs of becoming the strong-but-caring woman that was mistaken for good female characterisation until at least the Nineties (and probably later). Polaris, by contrast, is pretty much the damsel in distress and nothing else.

We first meet Lorna Dane whilst she is under the influence of the hypnotist Mesmero (himself working for a robot he believed to be Magneto; long story), who only avoids being run over (hypnotised people apparently not understanding how to cross a road, making the whole "collect mutants" plan a bit of a bust from the get-go) when Bobby Drake pulls her out of harm's way. Clearly thinking with the wrong head, Drake brings Dane back to the mansion so she can coalesce, risking the security of the X-Men in the process [1]. It then turns out that Lorna has her own secret, along with the worst hair-dye on the planet, when a shower reveals that her tresses are in fact bright green.

There is little time to process this before Mesmero attacks the mansion, and Lorna is captured (along with Iceman). This is something of a repeated theme in Lorna's life. Up until she joins X-Factor in 1991, some 23 years since her first appearance (and thus around four comic years), it seems every storyline she is involved has her at the mercy of some enemy or other. This is particularly egregious in the early days. First she joins "Magneto" following her abduction by Mesmero, apparently due to a combination of believing herself to be Magneto's daughter[2] and a person's innate desire for power. Beast goes so far as to suggest this is a combination that would force her to take Magneto's side, which seems a somewhat unenlightened position for McCoy to take. The next time she ends up in trouble (having, probably wisely, concluded that the life of a super-heroine probably wasn't for her) it's when Sentinels attack her apartment, and she simply goes into shock. Jean might have gotten herself abducted a little too frequently, but at least she gave some vague impression of fighting back.

It is while a prisoner of the Sentinels that Polaris meets Havok, a man with whom she spends almost the entirety of her comic history. The pair return to the mansion and join the team as reserve members, much to Iceman's disgust, as he believes he had first shout (or dibs, or whatever expression you want to use for the ridiculous notion that there exists some kind of rigid etiquette to love). Inevitably the two come to blows, eventually leading to Iceman being injured and Havok leaving in shame. Xavier sends Lorna after him, hoping she can persuade him to return. This she manages, though only through the somewhat unusual method of being captured by the Hulk and needing to be rescued by Havok. The two don't even make it home before they are both imprisoned by the Secret Empire. The other X-Men don't even search for them, assuming Polaris was too rubbish to either tempt Havok back or remember to phone them to tell them she had failed.

Are we seeing a pattern yet? It would be tempting to pile on the accusations of accidental sexism, but that would be unfair, at least in part. Polaris' problem was that her character was totally unnecessary within the group. Her magnetic powers at this point were not all that much more impressive than Marvel Girl's telekinesis, with the added problem of only working on metal [3]. Beyond that, she was just another woman on the team, without anything more specific to recommend her. I've read most of Polaris' original appearances in the black and white Essential Classic X-Men series, and it's remarkable how difficult it is to tell the two women apart without their hair colours making it obvious. The best bet is to see who's fighting over her in any given panel, which implies that Lorna suffers from the same problem Jean does, she promotes conflict in other characters rather than having one within herself. Only the way this problem is dealt with particularly distinguishes the two at this stage.

With Polaris, there seem to be three options. Firstly, get rid of her. Lorna repeatedly drops out of the X-books, citing her education (she and Havok apparently have a sideline in geophysics), a desire to escape the superhero life, or an attempt to recover from the latest in an apparently endless series of traumas.

The second option is to have her captured, or possessed. This too is a recurring theme. The next time we see Polaris after the Krakoa incident[4] both she and Havok are under the control of a Shi'ar agent, who attempts to use them to stop Xavier meeting Lilandra. Proteus attempts to control her not long afterwards, and next it's Malice's turn. Malice, one of Mr Sinister's marauders, possesses Polaris for so long that the two become permanently bonded, seeming removing Lorna from the equation indefinitely. Ultimately Polaris only regains control when Malice herself is captured by Zaladane in the Savage Land. Malice is thrown from her host body, but Zaladane steals Polaris' magnetic powers.

This leads us to the third method for attempting to do something useful with Polaris; mess around with her powers. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Lorna escapes the Savage Land with a new power, the ability to feed off surrounding negative emotions and convert them into mass and strength. This, whilst in some ways just making her a poor substitute for Colossus instead of a poor substitute for Phoenix, does at least keep her going until she is once again captured, this time by Legion (who himself is possessed by the Shadow King), and used as a battery for captured negative emotion (by now we have learned that she induces negativity as well as absorbing it).

In the resulting fight, the X-Men and X-Factor join forces to defeat the Shadow King, and Lorna regains her powers. In the wake of this, she joins a new iteration of X-Factor as a government-sanctioned mutant team. It is now, at long last, in 1991, that someone (namely Peter David) puts some effort into defining Polaris as an actual character. Realising that this post would require me to read some of his early X-Factor run was a genuine pleasure. The '91 reboot represents some of the best writing of the era, at least where Marvel was concerned.

One day there might be time to discuss David's run in more general terms (it's certainly worthy of study), but for now the key point is that David made Polaris into an actual person. The consequences of Lorna's low self-confidence and repeated external manipulation finally began to make themselves felt. She is referred to a psychologist, but refuses to speak, seeing his attempts to "get in her head" as one more act of mental violation. Eventually, though, he allows her to come to terms with herself, in addition to persuading her that she may be borderline anorexic.

This, at last, is the beginning of a genuine character. I've spoken before about the fact that the "flawed hero" archetype usually relies on a very narrow field of potential flaws, usually a dark past, torturous present, or a temperament unsuited for beating up super villains without killing them. Polaris tries to be a hero despite her low self-esteem and resulting extreme weight-loss. For all her fear of both recommitting to Alex and of losing him, and her conviction that she is unworthy of her role in X-Factor, she pushes it aside when it comes to the crunch. As time passes she begins to build her esteem, and becomes the moral backbone of the group. Now at last, she is strong and compassionate because she has overcome her demons, not simply because it's the accepted template for comic book heroines.

Naturally, this state of affairs couldn't last. Later stories (post-David) had her once more melt into Havok's shadow, needing him to save her from repossession by Malice, and freaking out totally when he leaves her (actually part of a plan by Dark Beast, which was part of a plan by Onslaught, which was then built upon by a plan of Havok's, it all gets very confusing). By the time Polaris returns to the X-Men following X-Factor's cancellation and Alex's apparent death (he actually just changes dimensions for a while), she is as helpless and pathetic as ever, running scared from a team of Skrulls that are tailing her when she should be beating the extra-terrestrial crap out of them. Her decision to join Magneto in ruling over Genosha (given to him by the United Nations in exchange for him not destroying all electronic equipment on the planet) at least shows some steel [5], but we quickly learn her motivation was simply to learn the truth about Magneto's relationship to her. No sooner has she learned that he is indeed her father, then the Sentinels of Cassandra Nova attack, all but annihilating the entire Genoshan population.

I mentioned some weeks ago that whilst Polaris' development as a character was undeniably significant, it was also cynical in the extreme. It is from this point on that this charge becomes applicable. The dual shock of discovering her father's identity and the massacre of millions of mutants changes her forever. The first change is entirely welcome, to the reader if not her colleagues: the murder of so many fellow mutants persuades her that Magneto was right all along, in terms of general philosophy if not necessarily in each individual terrorist act. With Magneto dead, she takes his place, finding herself comfortable in the role as his daughter and his successor, leader of the battered remnants of his country.

If they had left it there, everything might have been OK. The idea that even one as devoted to Xavier's dream as Lorna could turn 180 degrees in the wake of such tragedy is a powerful one (the real world parallels need not be named), and it gave her a mission and a purpose that she had always lacked. This, though, required that Magneto stayed dead (which he absolutely, absolutely should have, for so many reasons), which was never particularly likely.

Instead, Polaris returns to the X-Men to find Alex alive, though in a comatose state. At this point she switches into full-on Fatal Attraction mode, threatening Alex's nurse Annie with magnetically-controlled scalpels, taking every advantage to criticise and belittle her, and basically act like a total bitch. When Alex finally awakens, Lorna begs him to marry her, a rather sad proposal that the rest of the X-Men treat as a done deal before Alex has a chance to respond. It's all bound to end in tears (though it does lead to a sequence with a stag-night shape-changing stripper that's probably the funniest scene UXM has yet produced) since Alex has fallen for his nurse (her mutant son has been setting them up on psychic dates while Havok was comatose, which is one of the freakier things I've heard of). Waiting until the ceremony to confess this (Havok being, essentially, a douche) he sets Polaris off on a murderous rampage.

This is where we get into trouble. Dealing with Lorna's trauma over the Genosha incident by having her change her political philosophy and embrace her father's legacy made total sense. Watching someone who has been, on and off, a super-heroine since the late Sixties become essentially a terrorist sympathiser and even backer probably upsets a lot of fans (it bugged me a little too, though mainly because of how I remembered her from X-Factor back in the mid Nineties), but it was a logical progression that breathed new life into the character. But have her try to kill all her mates because she's been dumped at the altar? Sheesh. I get the argument: that this was just the straw that broke the camel's back, but having a genocide survivor finally snap because her wedding has been cancelled (a wedding, by the way, that she was very clear about being a sensible move rather than a heartfelt or passionate one) is nothing short of pathetic.

In the issues since then, she has lost her powers again due to M-Day, once again becoming whiny and useless and entirely defined by Havok (who now loves her again, did I mention he's a douche?) before being captured (hooray for tradition) by Apocalypse and converted into Pestilence.

Ultimately this bonding gave her back her powers, and she has both forgiven Havok and possibly restarted their relationship (it's hard to tell, they're in space now), but she still seems to oscillate between the unforgivably wet whining Lorna of the Sixties; the raging, directionless psychopath of the new millennium; and the pointless Jean Grey clone she seemed to be at more or less every point in between.

For God's sake, Marvel, give her back to Peter David. He's even writing X-Factor again.

Next time, we take a look at Havok, the final X-Men from the Sixties (that'll make seven years already dealt with; and they said this couldn't be done), and discuss the problems inherent in being a younger sibling to an apparent golden boy, and also to have powers which are rubbish and keep going crazy.

[1] Though since she actually sees Beast and he just tells her he's off to a costume party (in the middle of the day, natch), she's clearly too outrageously stupid to be of any real threat to the operation's secrecy.

[2] This, of course, is true, but complicated. Since Magneto had an affair with Lorna's mother, and later apparently killed both her and her husband in a plane crash, the truth wasn't actually known by Lorna's adopted parents (actually her "paternal" aunt and uncle), hence the "reveal" in UXM 52 that Lorna and Magneto weren't related), leading them to debunk the tale that, years later, turned out to be true.

[3] It's worth noting that Polaris' similarities to Marvel Girl is somewhat echoed by Havok's similarities to his brother (this at least makes somewhat more sense). I don't think it surprising at all that neither character remained with the X-Men for particularly long.

[4] The battle in Giant X-Men that led to the changeover between the original team and the Seventies recruits that re-energised the comic, and ultimately turned it into a franchise. It was also the crisis that led to Phoenix removing the mental blocks Polaris had apparently subconsciously erected to limit her powers. Apparently otherwise there would have been a very real chance of her achieving something.

[5] And some pleasing moral flexibility, too. Magneto loses his access to his powers in his attempt to shut down the world's machines, and only close proximity to Polaris allows him to regain his abilities. Had Polaris refused to join him, it is likely that his rule over Genosha would have been short-lived in the extreme.


jmc247 said...

As one can see from these X-Factor pictures above the base line for Lorna's belief in extreme methods for protecting mutants was clearly there before Genosha. She had Alex as a 'guide', but even he couldn't stop her real feelings from coming out when she got angry and those feelings were closer to Magneto's philosophy then Xavier's. She also said in Uncanny 430 that on Genosha she began to believe in Magneto's dream which is easy to see why.

Yes, Austen's 2003 run with Polaris and Havok was mishandled in great part because he based Lorna on an exgirlfriend, he based nurse Annie on his wife and Havok on himself as he told fans at a con. Anytime a writter lets their personal issues creep too much into a storyline they are making a big mistake.

It was stupid love triangle that polluted everything he did with the character in 2003. He did quite well with Lorna in 2004 after the love triangle was over. Uncanny 443 is IMHO one of the best Polaris issues of all time.

Magneto during 2003 wasn't a real person to Lorna as much as he was a protective shield to protect her from the emotional and mental pain she suffered. The Lorna we saw in 2004 in issues like Uncanny 443 was a more extreme version of the Lorna in the scans above, but it was still well done and had no love triangle involved.

SpaceSquid said...

While I see what you're driving at, I'm not sure it's quite right.

In UXM 443 Polaris argues that Magneto was justified in sinking to the level of the human bigots who had had a hand in destroying Genosha, or at least not attempted to stop it in any way.

In the panels you've scanned, Polaris' argument is that the bigots should be raised to her level. She demands an apology, that this petty human shows some common courtesy. That's Xavier's philosophy, not Magneto's. She genuinely wants this schlub to see that he's being unfair to good people. Magneto would want to punish him for who and what he is.

What I would say is that her method is less close to Xavier's. She doesn't ask for an apology, she demands one before she will put him down. I haven't read this particular issue, so I don't know how the situation is resolved, but once you set up "Do X or I won't let you go," you're going to have problems if your hostage refuses to get himself some X action.

You make an interesting point about Magneto being more a shield to Lorna than a person. This in turn would have added to her difficulties when she discovered he was her father, since she was then denied the ability to consider him as some nebulous bringer of protection, and instead deal with the flawed, violent egomaniac he was.

But, yes, Polaris was brilliant in 443, even if she and Xavier sound more like a debating team than two old friends arguing. That's why I was so annoyed that they brought Magneto back again. The whole Xorn thing really bugged me; you could just have easily had 443 without the attack on New York (though I admit that it might have lost some power if the argument was held after Magneto had been dead for a while), and bringing him back once again left Polaris without direction just as there was some thread of her becoming really interesting. Christopher Bird pointed out not long ago that having Magneto constantly be de-aged or what have you to deal with the fact he survived the Holocaust gets more ludicrous with time, and I think he has a point. Far better to have left him dead, and have Lorna continue his work. Instead, we got UXM 500, which almost made me sick with rage at how bad it was.

As to Austen using his own issues in his writing, I don't think it's automatically a bad idea (Sorkin has been doing it for years), but it requires an objectivity that Austen apparently couldn't manage. It's the difference between writing about what's happened to you and writing about what you felt was happening at the time.

jmc247 said...

Magneto could have been left dead for several years after Planet X if Morrison didn't do everything he could to completely destroy the character in the series. The editors retconned the Magneto in Planet X in record time. Which was very good for undoing the damage to Magneto as a character, but it left Lorna as a character hanging. The driving force behind the character disappeared as soon as Magneto returned.

Her raison d'ĂȘtre was there and then gone all the sudden and since then what she has done since then is followed Bobby and then Alex to find a reason to be.

In the now airing animated series Lorna suffers from the same problem as you will see.

Its a hard issue to deal with and as long as Magneto is alive I don't know what the solution to the problem is.

I also agree with you that Uncanny 500 really sucked. It dragged Magneto back into the mutant messiah crap and made him come off like a wacko in my opinon so the writers didn't have to deal with the fact that Scott has morally and philosophically moved closer to Magneto, so they have Magneto act like a crazed idiot to make Scott look good in comparison. The writers certainly don't want people to think Scott has replaced Magneto as the mutant willing to go to extreme methods to protect his race so they decide to have Magneto come off much more 'extreme' to avoid people thinking of that.

For Lorna her reason to be right now is to help her boyfriend kill his brother. When she gets home I suspect she will be dragged for a time into whatever Magneto is doing. But, I don't see her having a long term raison d'ĂȘtre anytime in the forseeable future.

SpaceSquid said...

You're probably right that bringing Magneto back was probably damage control after Planet X, though the whole "It wasn't really Magneto" idea could still have been employed whilst still having the actual Magneto dead.

I hadn't considered Magneto in UXM 500 being used as a comparison to Scott, but now that you say it, it makes a lot of sense. And yes, it sucked. I actually think as an idea it isn't too stupid, it could have shown that Scott still has quite some distance to go to reach where Magneto is coming from, but they dealt with Scott moving along the militant spectrum by moving Magneto along it as well, which as you say just made him seem crazy. Especially since the whole thing was over a piece of modern art. The five hundredth issue of one of the most popular comics of all time, and it was a fight over a piece of art. Lame.

Anonymous said...

First of all, the whole Magneto connection : NO SHE IS NOT THE DAUGHTER OF MAGNETO! Her first story itself revealed that for God sake!
Also you remind why Davis,Austen , Morrison & Milligan can be put in the hack pack (when you ignore positive development or have shortsight in your writing , well the title qualifies. You EARN your Hack card when you do not do research or write heroes as unlikable dipshits...)

Lorna should be a friggin ghost buster after all her possessions. I mean, maybe it should be part of her character , imagine all the fun discussions she can have.
Although , it seems unfair to credit ONLY PAD, I'd add JF Moore & JM DeMatteis since they handled Lorna professionnally!