Sunday, 15 March 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #21: Speaking Ill Of The Dead

America has a lot of problems dealing with its own past. I guess every country does, to one degree or another, but whether its their culture, their power, their youth as a nation, or merely a corollary to all the douchey things they've done [1], the US seems particularly confused about its role in history.

I touched on this briefly during the discussion of Sunfire, and the State's curious post-war attitude to the Japanese compared with the Germans or Italians. I posited a number of possible reasons for this. The one that I didn't mention, but will now, is the idea that the Americans had to pitch their national attitude toward Japan between confusion and hate, because there was no other way to wash their hands of dropping two nuclear bombs upon major population centres.

Now, I'm not saying the States are the only country to ever have caused massive death and suffering under the theory of "better them than us". Nor am I even arguing that dropping the nukes was objectively wrong (which is not to say such is or is not my position, it just isn't relevant here). I'm just saying that after a country kills (or seals the fate of) more than 200,000 people, mainly civilians, in the space of four days, it will almost certainly attempt to find ways to salve its collective conscience. [2]

You see where I'm going with this. If you can't cope with massacring a bunch of people on the other side of the world over the course of a week without trying to argue they kinda deserved it, then how do you deal with the fact that your country is built on the graves of millions of dead Native Americans, who you killed over hundreds of years with family members that are still with you today, squashed into whatever corners of the continent you've decided to let them keep?

This isn't the place to go through the various outrages the settlers perpetrated against the Indians (and in the sake of fairness, not all of them were foreseeable at the time, and the Native Americans did genuinely benefit in certain ways), the point is that hundreds of years of conflict and confusion and bad blood and repressed guilt and wilful denial has left the attitude of the American majority to its forebears almost impenetrably fucked up.

It seems logical to assume that anyone wanting to add a Native American to the X-Men roster would approach the task with all this spectacular amount of cultural and moral baggage in mind. However, if it's 1969 and you're Len Wein, you might just decide to have him hate white people, think his tribe are pussies for losing, and get him to make constant references to Native American history. You know, the basics.

By the end of his first appearance in Giant-Size X-Men #1, John Proudstar has already referred to Professor X as Custer, [3] and told Cyclops he hoped he wasn't being led into another Little Big Horn, which would be a lot like Henry VII suiting up for a battle and saying "This better not turn out to be another Bosworth Field, that's all I'm saying", i.e. it's about the most ridiculous historical analogy imaginable.

I figured I could make an entire article out of slapping Wein around for such tone-deaf writing. On the other hand, though, he was equally ham-fisted with the rest of the new recruits as far as cultural markers went. Sure, it probably wouldn't have taken long to find a battle in which the Apaches got their arses kicked, but then it also wouldn't have taken long to discover that Irishmen do not, by and large, say "laddy" every other sentence. Slapping around Sixties comic writers for a lack of subtle national idiosyncrasies isn't really worth the effort.

Being equally shit across the board isn't really an excuse. What stayed my hand ultimately was when I realised I might be looking at this from exactly the wrong angle. Rather than wonder how anyone could write such a terrible example of a Native American character after everything that had happened before, I wondered whether there was any way to reconcile Thunderbird's behaviour with that history.

Ever heard Where Is Home, by Bloc Party?
The second generation blues
Our point of view not listened to
Different world and different rules
A question of allegiance

Where is it?
Where is home?

The second generation issue is a fairly common one in this country. How does one react to being born into a massively different culture to the one your parents grew up in? Some ignore their parents' culture, some embrace it to an extent incompatible with British culture, but for many, and probably most, the struggle comes in attempting to balance that which can't be balanced.

That's for those separated from their family history by distance, though. Proudstar is separated by time. Compounding the problem, his parents died when he was a child, leaving him to be raised by his grandfather, which probably didn't help matters as regards striking the right balance of cultures. It may not be any wonder that confused and pointless cultural references are par for the course. John Proudstar is a man searching for an identity, only he can't find it, because all he has is rage. Rage at the interlopers for stealing his country, and then rage at own people for not being strong enough to stop it from happening. He's so angry with Caucasians he joined the US Marines to prove himself, attempting to demonstrate his superiority by doing what the white man wants as efficiently as possible. A few years later, he does it all over again, signing up with Xavier essentially because the latter man called him chicken.

I guess it all comes down to three choices. Fight the system, ignore the system, or succeed in the system. Which is true for all of us, obviously, though some of us at least get to make the choice with respect to "our" system, whatever that means. I would be somewhat surprised had that been Wein's intent, but it makes sense, and it has the advantage of defining the character directly. Whilst, as I say, a degree of caution and understanding would have been desirable in creating James Proudstar, that really only gives you an idea of what you can't do. It's colouring in the borders, nothing more.

Anyway, Thunderbird goes completely for option 3. If the world is a game run by white men, he's going to make damn sure he beats them at it. Each new challenge is an opportunity to prove he's the strongest, or the fastest, or the most determined. Each success is crowed over, each failure leads to one of those bizarre outbursts of simultaneous sullen self-pity and needless aggressive fronting most commonly observed coming from hormone-crazed teenage boys. Ultimately, Proudstar's obsession with demonstrating his worth leads to him jumping aboard a departing Harrier jet, so as to get to its pilot, the villain Count Nefaria. Despite knowing full well that Banshee could have stopped the plane easily were he not in the line of fire, Thunderbird insists on destroying the plane himself, which not surprisingly gets him killed.

Maybe that was the intention all along, whether or not he realised it. Believing his last act a success, maybe Thunderbird didn't want to risk another. This battle he had won, but I don't think he ever believed he could win the war. The Apaches knew that early on in the hills of Arizona. The US Marines realised it quickly enough in the stinking jungles of Vietnam. We all know that, one way or another, we're going to fail eventually, and fail so badly we can't recover. There's just too many different directions we have to run, and too many measures by which we can fall short. Any situation in your life has a geometric distribution, you succeed until you fail. And a lot of the time, those successes aren't worth the price you pay for them, and the failures not worth the effort you put into fixing them. If you think Thunderbird was crazy for jumping through "Custer's" hoops, I bet it takes you all of thirty seconds to think of a time in your life when you tried to succeed at something for the worst possible reasons (I'll bet further that it involved someone you wanted to interfere with sexually).

This is where the Neil Young quote at the start of this post comes in. It's a sentiment that holds some attraction in certain situations (artistic endeavour for one), but a human life isn't one of them. I have to admit, though, that Thunderbird's solution is at least internally consistent. Why keep running until you trip, when you can just stop the race while you're winning? I suppose my problem lies with the underlying principle that it's the wins and the losses are what we're meant to be fixing on. All that does is guarantee a loss, in this case the first death among the X-Men's ranks (aside from Changeling, who a) was already dying, and b) was masquerading as Professor X at the time anyway), all for the chance to stop a single villain who had already been bested.

It's pretty hard to not see that as a life wasted. Crucially, though, I'm sure Thunderbird would disagree (certainly he'd tell me to fuck off and mind my own business). For him failure was the waste, and by succeeding on his own terms (horribly warped though they may have been), it was a waste he avoided, and there was nothing more important to him.

I guess there are worse fates than getting what you want.

That's the last SS v X for a little while; what with me having a thesis to write, and papers to either review or sell. Once I have some spare time again, though, we'll make a start on those recruits of the 1970's, starting with the decidedly Marmite-esque Shadowcat.

Update: Mozz points out in comments that I was talking smack yesterday; Shadowcat is the first recruit of the 1980's. For some reason I'd forgotten Giant-Size ended a five-year hiatus.
Oh, also, I found this site whilst checking up on Proudstar's history. I suddenly feel much better about the Musings as an entity.

[1] You could also argue it has something to do with the myth of American Exceptionalism. Let's see if this line of reasoning sounds familiar. You did something bad, but you're totally awesome, therefore there must be some reason why it wasn't your fault, or alternatively it was actually a good thing to do, and people just can't understand that, because they don't realise how great and special you are.

It's almost impossible to observe any discussion of American foreign policy without someone putting forward a variation on that argument. Of course, the same is true of any discussion of American policy on anything at all. Or when people of any nationality are trying to justify their own bad behaviour, on any level. This is because people are almost invariably hypocrites, but then you knew that.

[2] I'm speaking in massively general terms, obviously. I don't think it's really necessary to point out that I'm not implying everyone in the States approved of the bombings, or attempted to justify them ex post facto as being a reasonable thing to do. I am pointing it out, though, because if the internet teaches you anything it's that someone somewhere will be obtuse enough to deliberately infer a position, no matter how retarded, simply because it isn't specifically refuted. This is because people are almost invariably idiots, but then you knew that, as well.

[3] Despite the fact that there is no apparent similarity beyond the fact that both are white, and despite the fact that the Apaches (coming from areas in what are now Arizona and New Mexico) had nothing to do with Little Bighorn (which mainly involved Sioux and Cheyenne tribes), which was fought in Montana.


Anonymous said...

Hate to be a pedant here Squiddy, but aren't you already in the 70's? I thought that Giant Size X-Men 1 came out (without looking) in about 1975! I'm fairly sure that when you tackle Kitty (and we know we have different opinions on Ms Pryde, after some previous hurting and healing) you're into the 80's.


SpaceSquid said...

D'oh, you're quite right (though Shadowcat is only just in the Eighties). For some reason I've always thought Giant-Size #1 came out in 1969. I've corrected my error.

Good to know someone's paying attention, though.

And yes, I fully expect to be universally reviled for my opinion of Shadowcat, but them's the breaks ;)