Wednesday, 14 January 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #13: Prodigal Son

Vulcan is a slave. Stolen from Earth with his father, inside his mother, by an alien space craft. Cut from a dead womb by an insane alien emperor. Force-grown in a vat and pressed into service at a Shi'ar outpost on Earth. His master there is Davan Shakari. We might also call him Vulcan's father. After all, everything he learns about life is gifted to him in that prison; obedience without understanding. Escaping, ultimately, with his life but not his memories, he is accepted into the care of Moira MacTaggert. He calls himself Gabriel, but that is not who he is. He calls himself free, but that is not what he is. Slaves do not become free simply because they are separated from their masters. Sons do not become adults simply because they are separated from their fathers.

Vulcan is separated from both his fathers. Vulcan is a slave.

But then, how can he ever become anything else? Fathers demand obedience, but the good ones teach duty, too. Obedience without duty can only be instilled and enforced by punishment and pain and fear. The constant stimulation of the reptile brain, to prevent the higher consciousness from questioning, or reasoning an escape. This is what Gabriel is, a slave, following orders without understanding them. Even after his escape from the Shi'ar, his memories mercifully repressed, he is still a slave. How could he not be? To remove slavery from Gabriel would be to remove his entire self. His memories may have gone, or been lost, or deliberately discarded, but the bedrock remains. As long as he can still walk, or talk, or fight, or scream at the world, he can still access pieces of what he once was. And all he once was or will be is a slave.

This is why he went to Krakoa. Why he accepted his place in Xavier's hastily assembled emergency squad: four teenagers hoping they could succeed where six others with far more experience had failed so quickly they didn't even have the time to feel their fall. Obedience, not duty. He was called to work for Xavier, and he did so without question. Xavier became his third father. As a result of which, fully one half of the four friends he had in the world were brutally killed, and he was left to rot inside a hole inside an island inside infinite nothingness.

Not surprisingly, he is furious. He manipulates energy, channels it, augments it. The energy generated by his anger is something he has had years to throw into a loop of positive feedback. Every iteration makes him stronger, makes him more furious. By the time the resulting wave of power from M-Day reaches him, he has channeled and re-channeled the energy so many times that it's all he can see, all he holds. His only card.

The prodigal son returns to Earth, and the only father he knows that he has. Like all prodigal sons, this one has failed his father. But his father failed him, too, taught him obedience without duty, and then forgot him. Forced others to forget him, as it turns out. Cyclops cannot play the role of outraged older brother in this fucked-up parable, because he has been denied his part by his father. Gabriel means to see that the scales are righted, and that he receives his fatted calf. He will be remembered.

The pathos of Gabriel's story, the overarching tragedy of his life that informs and is informed by every lesser tragedy, is that he goes about seeking justice in the most unjust manner possible. He has no duty, no understanding, simply a desire to make his father pay. Now once more he has a choice, and chooses to be a slave; this time to his anger. Anger doesn't understand. It demands obedience. In service to that anger, Gabriel murders Banshee. A fellow former X-Man, a title Gabriel once believed to be what he wanted most. A lover to the only woman Gabriel could plausibly call mother. Banshee dies a hero. He too has a choice, to flee the aeroplane Gabriel is attempting to destroy, or try to save it; to use his shredded vocal chords one last time to keep innocents alive. He embraces duty, because he understands it. He would say that he had no other choice, but that is a lie. The truth is that he had no other right choice.

The plane is destroyed anyway. Men and women and children die in flames. Gabriel doesn't notice. He simply moves on to his next target. Anger doesn't understand.

Ultimately, Vulcan achieves his goal, but at a greater price than he expects. Demanding Marvel Girl help Xavier telepathically unearth the truth to Scott and the X-Men, Gabriel is remembered, but he also remembers. Remembers Shakari and the prison. Remembers Emperor D'Ken and the blood of the womb and of his dead mother. Gaining his revenge on Xavier is now far less important than vengeance against the insane ruler of the Shi'ar. One moment Gabriel stands poised to kill Xavier, the next he is in deep space, heading for the Emperor with the speed of light, and of anger.

He is so caught up in his visions of justice that he fails to notice the truth of what Xavier has shown the others. Gabriel could have left Krakoa with his brother, seen him and his team safely home. Planned their next strike more carefully. Gathered greater numbers. Already it seems clear that the island is too strong for them.

He doesn't, of course. Slavery is obedience without understanding. His master and his father have given him his orders. He returns to the jungle with his team, to prove himself an X-Man, and moments later Sway is dead, and Petra is dead, and Darwin is missing, and he is trapped. The failure is his. His duty was to protect his team, but he never learned what duty was. He is still a child, separated from his parents.

He makes this point to himself as he rots in a Shi'ar jail, one eye taken from him by the Imperial Guard who subdued him for daring to threaten their emperor. His remaining eye turns inward, seeing himself as a child, berating him.

"They're right about you," he tells himself, "You know that? You're just a widdle baby".

Helpless, Gabriel demands himself shut the Hell up. Not a particularly sensible sentence to write, but sense has long since left the building. "... You're finally a fifteen-year-old. Though, mature-wise, I'm thinking closer to thirteen."

He is a child, separated from all his fathers.

The knife is twisted.

"Is that what you really are? Just some weak little kid who thought he was all grown up?"

Gabriel knows the truth. Like his fathers, he is no fool. Like his brothers, he is broken, and he knows it.

Gabriel is like his brothers in many other ways, and different in still more. That's what brothers are, all oscillation and destructive interference. No two brothers, or three, are the same. No two brothers, or three, have the same father. To Scott, Charles Xavier is truth and Christopher Summers is a disappointment. To Alex, Xavier is the measure of his failings, and Summers is an enigma. To Gabriel, Xavier and manipulation and Summers is an enemy. To all of them, to all of us, fathers are all these things, and more, and less.

Eventually, children grow up. Scott learns to question Xavier and accept Summers. Alex learns to measure his own worth, and to understand his father's motivations. Gabriel rebels, though, refuses to grow up even once he knows he has to. Charles remains the manipulator, responsible for every choice Vulcan makes. Summers remains the enemy, right up to the very moment when Vulcan breaks him, light-years from home, and throws his corpse beside the body of Emperor D'Ken, to lie bloody and pointless in front of the M'Kraan crystal that began it all. Summers dies on a rocky world no-one should ever want. But Gabriel wants it. He wants it all. He wants Deathbird as his bride, and through her the Empire. Rather than reach for maturity, he reaches for power, because he thinks power is anathema to helplessness and helplessness is for slaves.

He is wrong. Power and freedom are not the same thing. Gabriel is powerful and helpless. Helpless to keep the Shi'ar rebelling against his rule. Helpless against the attacking Scy'ar Tal. Helpless against his own ossified view of the universe; the certainty that others are to blame, that every atrocity he commits can be laid at someone else's door, and that another atrocity is needed in revenge.

Vulcan is a slave.

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