Wednesday, 13 May 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #22: Kitten

This is not liable to go well. Pretty much every member of the X-Men, former or present, has their own legion of devoted fans (Hell, I still think Maggott was the best addition to the team since Bishop, and I will maintain that position to the grave), but the adoring hordes willingly enslaved to Katherine Pryde are genuinely something else [1]. A man could get himself FUBARed over this sort of thing.

I exaggerate. Probably. Ultimately, the problem with the Hangman's position is that I can’t possibly understand it. A good number of those I have spoken to about their love of Shadowcat (or Sprite, as she was at the time) have told me how they came of age at the same time she did, that they grew up as she grew up, that she was their window into the world of the X-Men. It may well not have hurt that she reminded them of their current school-yard crushes, with the added advantages of being a genius super-heroine and not being able to turn round and crush their dreams with the contemptuous sneer of the young and disinterested.

I wasn’t reading X-Men when Kitty was introduced; I was too busy being born. If I had an “in” to the team when I first started picking up the comic, it was Cannonball, which didn’t really have the same effect. The other alternative would be Marrow, but by the time she arrived (as a member rather than a villain), I was already approaching twenty, plus also she was a psychopath. [2] Moreover, by the time Shadowcat drifted into view, she had done her growing up in Excalibur (you‘re not going to stay innocent and naïve long when Pete Wisdom and Warren Ellis get hold of you). Perhaps for those that had accompanied her on her earlier adventures (hopping dimensions, befriending dragons, enrolling in English public school cheerleading contests, the usual) there was a sense of satisfaction seeing the woman that they had known as a child, but to me the character arrived as an adult, and it was on that basis I had to judge her.

In fairness, I never had any great problem with Kitty. Certainly, she avoids the trap that ensnared Jean Grey and Polaris; Shadowcat’s endless on-off situation with Colossus might be an important part of her character, but it never seemed like the sole unique facet of her life, the way the Summers brothers loom over everything Jean and Lorna do. Further bonus marks are awarded for her quiet faith, and for managing to be caring and empathic without it seeming totally unnatural (I‘ve always thought it very difficult to produce a character who is clearly caring without them either becoming a Mary Sue, or having to endure corrective bouts of outrageous dickosity that make them capricious and unreliable). So I don’t hate her, by any means, even if she very rarely does anything to truly impress me.

Here’s the thing, though. Katherine Pryde doesn’t really seem to be a character people discuss in terms of who she is, but in terms of how far she’s come. Far more than most, Shadowcat is a product of her early appearances, and so it’s on her early teenage years that she must be judged. Again, it should be noted that unlike those that read about her as teenager as teenagers, I would estimate my first exposure to the origins of Kitty was at the age of twenty-seven.

It’s fairly common knowledge that Chris Claremont based the character on the teenage daughter of friends of his, and you can tell. Whatever else you want to say about Kitty, she certainly does act and react like a teenager. Claremont did an impressive job of catching the internal contradiction of the hormone-charged early teens, particularly intelligent girls, a rabid insistence on fairness and theoretical kindness clashing against relentless self-absorbed petty bitchiness [3]. If I’d been Claremont’s editor, though (and I grant that for all I know they thought and said the same thing), I’d want an answer to two questions: how and why?

Let’s start with “why”. To return to a familiar theme, just because something is realistic does not make it good. If you plan on introducing a thirteen-year old to the X-Men, ensuring she be well-written is a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. There’s a reason why people roll their eyes when a mid-pubescent kid flounces into a storyline, it’s because by and large they are massive pains in the arse. Ninety-five percent of the time, a teenage character can either be believable, or not be an impediment to the plot, but not both (this is why the argument that Kitty is very believable tends to fall apart whenever she actually does anything useful, at which point she’s basically Wesley Crusher with better hair). There are exceptions, obviously. If you base your storylines around teenagers, you’re OK. The New Mutants was proof of that. So was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but that’s because the whole series (or at least the first three years, when it was at its best) was build around a metaphor devoted to teenagers: surviving school = battling evil. Had a thirteen-year old wandered into, say, Firefly, it might not be so obvious as to what was to be done with her. [4]

The “how” then complicates matters. No amount of good writing (and Claremont ran distinctly hot and cold even back then) is going to cover up the fact that an adult superhero team isn’t going to gel well with a kid. Buffy gained the (grudging) admiration of various adults by being able to do something they couldn’t (Willow managed the same, eventually; Xander was pretty much useless throughout). Shadowcat (or Sprite, or Ariel, or what have you) was amongst the fellow super-powered, her only distinctive quality was being young, and kind of whiny. [5]

Given that, it’s no surprise that her fellow X-Men constantly attempted to shield her from danger. Of course, all that means is that it was clearly idiotic to have her arrive in the first place. Time after time, Kitty’s stories added up to nothing more than slight permutations on the “Inexperienced newbie proves their worth”. In order to facilitate this rather tired trope, every other character was forced to mutate into either concerned parents or snaky elders, so that they could be proven wrong by the spunky newcomer. You’re always in trouble when you have to twist characters to fit into your plot, and it gets worse still when the plot isn’t really that impressive or original to begin with.

Long story short: Kitty was a nicely realised character in entirely the wrong comic. Franky, Kitty is probably the first symptom of Claremont’s early Eighties desire to write bonkers universe-hopping stories with minimal internal logic, which is why it was such a relief when Excalibur arrived and allowed him to blow off steam. That she survived the process (up until running into the Ordworld’s Planet-Wrecker Penis, at least) is fairly impressive, and there are certainly X-Men who irritate me a great deal more, but if and when Shadowcat returns, it would be nice to have her be interesting for where she is, not for where she’s come from.

Next time: we take a look at the Rogue, the first team member introduced as a genuinely morally ambiguous figure, rather than just a stand-offish prick.

[1] Actually, that’s a pretty nice site, which is worthy of your time, and I’m not just saying that because the editor emailed me once to congratulate me on how mean I am to twats.

[2] Which was fine, don’t get me wrong. In fact, I liked Marrow a great deal in those days, though she was prone to bouts of rebellious cliché and terrible dialogue. Then Alan Davis made her pretty, proving once and for all that characterisation is something Davis does entirely at random whilst he's charging towards the next alternative universe.

[3] I don’t think it any coincidence that Buffy and Willow both exhibit the same paradox to a greater or lesser extent. In fact, As Hangman notes, Buffy was deeply informed by Kitty; Joss Whedon being another member of her devoted fan base. Like Hangman, though, I too see more of Kitty in Willow than I do in Buffy.

[4] This is to say nothing of the fact that Willow and Buffy were either sixteen when the show began, or reached that age very soon afterwards. When Dawn was introduced, much closer in age to the original Kitty, she managed to be whiny and an impediment to the main storyline which supposedly hinged on her.

[5] I'll grant that Hangman's point regarding Kitty's comparatively unimpressive power could be considered part of her appeal, since it increased the parallels between the character and her teenage fans. Again, though, this idea sits uneasily with her status as the resident teenage super-genius/computer prodigy, and by the time I got round to meeting her, she was also a trained ninja, or something, which makes it even harder to consider her "one of us".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Personnal experience with this character :
Kid Kitty:UNBEARABLE! can't stand her in the old x-men or the whedon version (Buffy-lite anyone?)b

Excalibur Kitty: dig her with Pete Wisdom (glad Ellis did ... the nasty...with her, besides it's FAR less creepy than Colossus!)

& the evolution cartoon is great & BELIEVABLE, so my perfect Shadowcat is a mix between these 2 versions

Other than that , I'm Not all that interested in drawing or writing her...