Monday, 19 January 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #14: The Evolving Boy

When Peter David was looking for replacements for Layla Miller and Wolfsbane in the latest iteration of X-Factor, he eventually settled on Longshot (which is a shame, because Longshot was and is and always will be a shrub-headed perma-permed goon) and Armando Munoz, aka Darwin. The former was drafted for his "optimism" (read: total inability to grasp the seriousness of any situation) and "upbeat attitude" (read: twat). The latter, apparently, was chosen almost entirely because it would give David plenty to flesh out.

There's certainly a lot of mystery surrounding Munoz. Or maybe mystery is the wrong term. After all, the word implies a certain degree of secrecy and seeming contradiction, an unidentifiable darkness lying just out of sight. With Munoz, there's no desire to solve the puzzle presented. Plenty of pieces missing, but no particular compulsion to go searching for them behind the sofa. Or, to paraphrase Layla Miller herself, "We just don't know stuff".

I have a theory on why this is, of course, but let's start with what we do know. Darwin's power is "reactive mutation", which is a fancy way of saying that his body subconsciously adapts itself to any situation. Fall off a building? He'll bounce. Trap him underwater? He'll grow gills. Chuck him into a fire? He'll - well, I'm not sure what he does, but he doesn't get burned, anyway. You can even try to incinerate him, throw him into a hole, and then chuck him into space, and he'll turn himself into pure energy and keep himself alive. Which is lucky, of course, because that's exactly what Krakoa, Petra and Polaris do to him during his first mission.

The fourth and final of the "missing X-Men", Darwin goes from being hated by his mother for being a freak (which is kind of harsh), to being hated by his classmates at a swanky school (which is kind of expected) to being experimented upon by over-zealous geneticists (which is kind of interesting, from a scientific perspective). Eventually this draws the attention of Moira MacTaggert, who inducts him into her "Runaways, orphans, and amnesiac psychotics" club. There she performs pretty much the same sort of experiments on him, but now it's in the name of "training", so it's OK ("Hey Darwin, I'm going to train you how not to get killed by mustard gas. And.... DON'T BREATHE!!!"). A couple of days later, he's pure energy that Vulcan is using to keep himself alive with, somewhere in the depths of space. All we really learn about Darwin during this period is that he still can't be set on fire, and nothing else. Well, there's the fact that his reactive mutation apparently makes him a total klepto when it comes to nearby fruit pies, but that's not exactly deep character stuff.

But, and here's the thing, we never really seem to get to the deep character stuff at all. That was forgivable as far as Sway and Petra went, since neither of them were really around for long enough to do much more than spout narrative dialogue and then get massively killed. Vulcan stuck around for longer, and almost immediately became a fascinating ruin of a mess of a clusterfuck, both more cyclops-y (cyclopean meaning something else and thus necessitating that I invent my own term) than Cyclops and creating more havoc than Havok (see what Marvel have done there?); with ancillary daddy issues and vicious spirals spilling out all over the place. In the same period (Deadly Genesis [1] followed by Rise and Fall of the Shi'ar Empire) we seem to learn very little about Darwin, and what is there seems almost contradictory. He starts out fairly passive, not particularly keen on the Professor holding him back (an act of over-protection that must surely stem from what happened to his original team mates), but neither especially vocal in his opposition. During a mission to steal a Shi'ar spaceship and follow Vulcan before the crazed third Summers can do damage on an interstellar scale, Darwin watches (albeit unhappily) as various X-Men take hits during a mission to steal a spaceship and follow Vulcan. Once the Professor himself is threatened, though, it's a different story (and let's be clear, monster standing behind Professor: time to act. Polaris being crushed by deadly energy field: wait and see). Darwin flips out, grabs one of the Shi'ar ex-slaves-cum-killer-robot-beasts, and throws it and himself down a lift shaft. Later on, when Xavier is abducted by Shi'ar agents, Darwin hitches a ride on their space-ship's hull [2] in order to keep an eye on him. The man who has shown no antipathy towards anyone before (the freak-show Shi'ar security constructs hardly count, since Marvel Girl points out they're so hideous that they would kill themselves if they could) breaks the faces (and possibly at least one skull) of several Shi'ar guards outside Xavier's prison.

What is it that makes Darwin, a man who didn't even feel up to sparring with Warpath earlier in the story, defend Xavier so violently and doggedly. What is it flicking the switch?

There are two possible answers to this. The first one to occur is yet another variation on the Xavier-as-surrogate-father meme. Armando is four when his father walks out on the family, something that Darwin's mother rather unfairly holds him responsible for [3]. Whatever Darwin's feelings toward his actual father (having not read the issues of X-Factor in which he shows up, I can't comment), there is clearly a role to be filled there. This is then compounded by how miserably Darwin fails at ever impressing his bitter and miserable mother (his power first appears when he aces an IQ test whilst trying to make her happy, she responds by packing him off to an elite boarding school). With one authority figure gone whilst he was still a child, Darwin fails to hold on to the other. This ultimately leads to a suicide attempt, which of course his body prevents from succeeding. With Xavier, the desire to have someone who will take interest in him, and be impressed by his success, is finally something that can potentially be fulfilled. Given that, it would hardly be surprising that where Vulcan wants to blame Charles for his own failures, Darwin wants to prove himself. If nothing else, it allows Xavier to still retain some authority after losing the trust of many of his students, most notably Cyclops.

There is another possibility, though. Much has been made of the degree to which Darwin's body can alter itself to almost any situation. The IQ test he takes proves the same is true of his intellect. What if his personality is manipulated in the same way? During World War Hulk, Darwin's body concludes that he cannot defeat the Hulk, and teleports itself away. If his movements are not always under his control, then what else isn't? Is it his love for Xavier that makes him so brutally defend the man? Or does some dark corner of his psyche simply recognise that his interests are best served by keeping his benefactor and teacher alive? Were it his new friends in the X-Men threatening Xavier, would he be any more restrained than he was fighting the Shi'ar? Or would the red mists descend?

Once you start thinking along these lines, Darwin suddenly stops seeming like a blank slate, but as a constantly shifting pattern. Nothing is revealed because nothing is constant. Moreover, it makes him a dangerous and uncertain ally, because you can never be sure when his id is going to decide it's better off without you, and send him psychotic. There are other less critical questions, obviously, whether he would deal with romantic rejection by hardening his heart (more than the rest of us, I mean), for example. Mainly be worried about the flipped-out murder spree possibility, though. The flight/fight/freeze/flock response is an evolutionary trait like any other, and when you come right down to it Darwin's body simply selects whatever evolutionary trait is most appropriate. With the Hulk, it was flight. You don't want to be around for fight. The last human he got into a fight with ended up on the crappy end of two fists made of stone (some evolutionary characteristics are more plausible than others, obviously).
On the other hand, maybe I'm worrying unnecessarily. Just as defending those important from you is something many animals have evolved, so too has the desire to co-operate within a society. Dawkins describes this tendency well in The Blind Watchmaker (he was so much better before he decided to just travel to various places and tell the faithful there that they were pricks), but the nickel version is that being a prick gets you further than being a nice guy, but groups of pricks tend to explode, while groups that co-operate carve Mount Rushmore.
Hopefully Darwin's ego understands this. Certainly his brief conversation with Vulcan in UXM 484 suggests that his natural tendency is for compassion. "Banshee, the innocent people on that plane, the man flying that Sentinel... just wasted lives." At this point he Darwin is trapped inside alien handcuffs that presumably deactivate his powers to some extent (otherwise it wouldn't be too hard to escape from them), so we can assume he's talking from his default position.
More than that though, when faced with his mother drifting ever further from him, his powers chose not to steel him against that loss, but instead to try to bridge the gap. The ways in which love can be an evolutionary adaptation isn't something I like to think too much about (mainly because it feels like breaking a toy to see how it works), but it's nice to think that ultimately, it will trump the others.
Next time: with Vulcan's short-lived team out of the way, we move onto Second Genesis, and several mutants that changed the face of the franchise, starting with a man who looks like a demon and wants to be a priest. Or possibly a pirate.
[1] Which in fairness should probably not entirely count since Darwin spent most of it trapped inside Vulcan's head, and then growing himself a new body in Hank's lab. Not a lot of time spare for a list of hobbies and turn-ons.

[2] Having only just discovered he can survive in space (without becoming the energy-form he did following Krakoa) a little while earlier, and with no idea as to how long that survival period actually is.

[3] It's interesting to note that Darwin is half-black and half-Hispanic (his pale skin is hypothesised to be due to spending so much time in cooler climes, where an abundance of melanin isn't really very useful), which is pretty rare in the comic book world. Race relations in America being what they are, the repeated labelling of Darwin as a freak may bring along with it some heavy subtext.

No comments: