Tuesday, 16 June 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #23: The Swamp Rat

I am delighted to announce that this post will continue my new policy of not thinking all female X-Men are total vacuous wastes of ink.

After the latest Star Trek movie I briefly dipped into a discussion between Chemie and S. Spielbergo over whether Uhura required any more than two words to describe her "strong woman". Spielbergo (quite correctly) pointed out that Hollywood is littered with characters that can be encapsulated in two words. Of course, the obvious counter is that when one of those words refers to their gender, then you're really in trouble.

I slammed Jean Grey and Storm for being "strong women." Polaris received similar treatment, though with extra bonus slamming for periodically oscillating between the strong woman mid-point and the extremes of helpless damsel and psycho bitch-queen. Shadowcat fared better, because even if having "teenager" in the description doesn't strike me as all that much better than "woman", there are a number of other adjectives in there as well.

Rogue is different. Partially its because she's the first woman in this list who feels like her character traits came first, before expressed through the prism of her gender, rather than her gender being decided first and her characteristics slapped crudely on top.

Mainly, though, it's because she's almost impossible to describe at all, and for good reason. On the face of it, she's hard to pin down because she spends so much time under the influence of other personalities. The real reason is more subtle, and much more interesting. Rogue works because, as with so many of the best superhero characters, her powers are simply part of the human condition writ large.

This is true in three different ways. Most obviously, we have Rogue's baseline assumption, underlying almost everything she does, that if she could touch people, her life would become suddenly OK. It's not hard to understand where she's coming from on that, who doesn't like touching people (some people, obviously, usually the ones that wash regularly). In truth, though, much of her desire to touch and be touched likely comes from a deeper problem, her difficulties of self-definition. In that light, being able to touch people wouldn't help her any more than being able to see, hear and smell can. If you can't trust the reality inside your head, then no amount of external stimulus is going to help you. We all have moments where we question how accurate our conception of reality really is, whether we truly are who we think we are, and whether anyone else sees us the way we see ourselves in the mirror. Rogue has taken those moments of doubt and smothered herself with them. This is probably why her personality is as loud as it is; Rogue practically bleeds over everyone she meets. Everything she does, from her weird hair coloring to her constant chase for an adrenaline high, screams "I'm here! Tell me you can see I'm here!". It's nowhere near as irritating as Marilyn Manson's tired "shock" tactics, or for that matter the arse in the office who insists on describing himself as "zany", but it's born from a similar desire, to see yourself reflected in other people (the irony that Rogue feels the need to do this is one of the reasons I love her).

Secondly, and not entirely without connection (see above RE irony), there's Rogue's desire to separate herself from the influences of the personalities she has absorbed, and the traumas they brought with them. I don't think I'm over-generalising when I suggest that everyone, at some time or another, wonders what they would have been like had they not met certain people, and not have them spew their poison all over them, or wonder how things would be had their mother (or indeed their dog) hadn't died.

In Rogue's case, this is clearly futile. Her constant stated desire to just be herself, without anyone else rattling around in her head, is pointless. That amalgam of memories and emotions and assorted misery is what she is. It's all she's known for years. There's no reason whatsoever to assume life would be better for her without all of that. Worse, whatever remained would lack context, the remnants would just float anchorless through her cerebellum. Once you experience something, however unpleasant, it becomes part of you, and whilst in serious enough cases it might still be necessary to remove the memory in order to function, as a general rule losing those influences risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As James T. Kirk might say: we need our pain. We're all just cobbled together from the people who've affected us, and the traumas we've shared with the people we love. Rogue has a more obvious reason for wanting to get away from that fact, but it's as true for her as it is for anyone.

The final way in which Rogue's character taps into human psyche in general involves one of my favourite subjects: chaos. Rogue is an obvious personification of chaos. Not only can she not control her powers, but those powers frequently lead to her reality fracturing. At any given time, dozens of different psyches might be pressing in on hers, or even trying to wrest control entirely. One moment you might be talking to Rogue, the next it's Carol Danvers, or Mystique, or Wolverine. The great tragedy here is that Rogue is desperate for the change to stop, for stability to arrive, but the only way she can manage that is through change. It's quite the paradox ( especially since it was suggested in UXM #239 that Rogue's inability to control her mutant abilities was an entirely psychological problem. For all her talk of wanting to learn to control her powers, most of her time is spent pretending those powers don't exist. She dreams of the day when that one final change will bring her happiness, but she deliberately avoids any attempts to make that day arrive. It's always easier to hope for your dreams than to try and achieve them, because it's only when you really try to grasp them that you realise how far away they are. Another case in point (and I'm quite impressed with myself for having gotten so far without mentioning him) is Gambit. In the early stages of their relationship Rogue constructed a fantasy for herself that if they could learn to trust each other, then perhaps they could make it. When Gambit finally offers to reveal his past crimes in X-Men #45, though, she turns him down, and leaves the X-Men. She knew where she wanted to end up, but she was too scared to take the only route that lay in-between. When his crimes were revealed to her during "The Trial of Gambit", she was so outraged she left him to die (though in fairness that was partly due to elements of Gambit's guilt that she had absorbed). Better to cherish a dream than to work for it.

In truth, I can't blame Rogue for that attitude. She spent years wishing Cody would wake from the coma she had put him in the day her powers first manifested. In the event, he never woke up, the coma only ended when he was murdered by Gambit's ex-wife. The woman has extensive experience of change bringing the worst.

The thing is, of course, that this doesn't matter in the least. Hoping to avoid change is silly, and hoping certain specific changes will occur in order to protect us from other, unwanted changes is even sillier. All we can do is identify what we want, decide whether pursuing it is worth the risk, and, if the answer is yes, strike out into the void and hope we hit our target. You either push through the roadblocks that almost inevitably seem to appear, or you don't. What you can't do, though, is use those roadblocks as an excuse to not put your feet on the road in the first place. That just means going nowhere. No, worse, it means only ever going anywhere that fate decides to take you, which is a pretty bad idea considering it can be mathematically proved that fate is a big fucking dick. We're all already far too similar to driftwood in a strong current without us helping it along. "Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans", as John Lennon said, but I don't think he was implying that makes all plans useless, just that we need to try things out that we don't know in advance will work out.

I hope that ultimately Rogue figures that out. Frankly, I hope we all do.

Next time: I join a pretty big club in not being able to say anything interesting about Rachel Grey.

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