Sunday, 12 July 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #24: Red Junior

So, two weeks ago, Mozz and I are drunk in a bar, trying to decide which pitcher of cocktail we'll use next to punish our already screaming livers, and talk turns to the next article in this particular series; Rachel Grey. The problem, I tell Mozz, is that I can't think of anything interesting to say about her, at all. Never could. Essentially, I always thought, Claremont had somehow managed to create a sidekick for Kitty even though said second-fiddle was, like, a billion times more powerful.

Sitting down and reading through her biography, though, started to generate second thoughts (the luxury of having a brain entirely un-addled by Woo Woo might well have helped here, of course). Writing Rogue's article last month has a lot do with it, since it's possible to see some comparisons between the two characters. As is traditional, though, I'm getting ahead of myself.

It would not be easy to find a character with a more messed up origin than Rachel Grey (formerly Rachel Summers, before a recent fight with her father). Born in one possible future, Rachel is forced to watch as first her mother is killed (by Mastermind, which is a nice touch for anyone who remembers the run up to the Dark Phoenix Saga), then as Sentinels take control of the country, destroy Xavier's mansion, and round the surviving mutants into internment camps.

Whatever else you else you want to say about Claremont (and God knows the man has his share of flaws as a writer), one thing I always enjoyed about his marathon stint on the X-books was his attempts to present the mutant problem through the lens of actual historical examples of intolerance, most often the Civil Rights Movement (watching Kitty scream at Stevie Hunter that she wouldn't be so forgiving of the word "mutie" if you substituted "nigger" is still one of my all-time favourite UXM moments), and the Holocaust. Seeing Magneto in the camps of the future was a very clear signal that where we've been, we can get to again. More on this another time, I would imagine.

This is Rachel's story, though, the internment camps will have to wait. Originally she escapes going to the camps in any case, though "escape" is a word with positive connotations that possibly doesn't apply here. Rather than being imprisoned, she finds herself subjected to a program of brainwashing, so as to turn her into a Hound, a mutant who tracks her own kind.

This is the first of many encounters that displays the similarities between Rachel and Rogue, along with the differences. To some extent every X-Man, and arguably every comic character pretty much ever, finds themselves being knocked around by fate, by powers greater than they are. Even within this, though, Rachel and Rogue share a common bond. For Rogue, the tragedy lies in the fact that every external threat can and often does become internal by the nature of her power, which makes that power both a blessing and a curse (admittedly, Rogue almost invariably focuses on the latter, but we've been through this.

For Rachel, though, the external forces itself inside her in a different way. Though her powers on their own terms can safely be considered a blessing, the desire to which they are coveted makes her every bit as vulnerable as Rogue, and ultimately just as helpless as well. It's an interesting paradox; the more power one has, the more powerful the enemies one attracts, and the more helpless you become before them.

Ahab, the man who lead the American anti-mutant forces in Rachel's time-line, isthe first in a long list of entities who wants to twist Rachel's powers to their own ends. The resulting psychological and physical debasement follows Rachel throughout her later life, despite various attempts to deal with it, or even have the memories suppressed. It is not uncommon for a comic book character to have a single defining moment in their past that colours everything that they are and do from that moment on, and Rachel's time as a blank, vicious puppet qualifies as hers. Even when she finally breaks away from Ahab and attacks him, all it earns here is a place in an internment camp, along with what little remains of the X-Men.

A clarification here. I said Rachel's time as a hound can be considered her defining moment, and that is certainly true. There is something else, though, that could lay claim to the title. Having sent Kate Pryde back in time to alter events, in an effort to de-fuck their present as much as possible, apparently without success, Rachel sends herself back in order to discover where things went wrong. During that jaunt, she attracts the attention of the Phoenix Force.

The more power we think we have, the more helpless we are when we come across a bigger fish.

The immediate effect of the Phoenix's interest is a deal with Kate Pryde that sends Rachel to our present with her memory erased, but the long-term consequences are considerable and extensive. Her powers are increased exponentially, and with it the dangers.

For quite some time, though, her greatest enemy is herself. Despite not being able to remember what happened in her past, enough of her experiences are lodged in her subconscious to make two things very clear. First, a threat must be dealt with proactively, and second, it must be dealt with permanently. In almost her first encounter in "our" time, she meets the vampiric Selene, and decides (accurately) that the world would be a better place if that particular External found herself significantly more Ex (sorry, couldn't resist), and goes hunting with Magma in tow [1]. No sooner have the X-Men persuaded Rachel that killing Selene goes against their moral code (unless its Wolverine and no-one's looking, obviously), then Rachel decides that the Beyonder has to go, too.

More power, more helplessness. The Beyonder defeats Rachel easily, so easily that he even offers her the powerto kill him, at the expense of the X-Men's lives, presumably as one of his bizarre sociological experiments. She chooses the life of her team mates for all of a couple of days before deciding that letting your friends live was a mugs choice, and using their life-forces to bring the Beyonder back for another confrontation. The Phoenix Force (in part) gives her the power she needs to do this, but surely it is what little remains of her time as a Hound that forces her to hunt down her enemies without pause. Is it because she hated being a Hound so much she needs to destroy those with power and the will to use it against others? Or is she still a Hound, still a blood-crazed, single-minded hunter, who has simply acquired different target priorities. Either way, what seems undeniable is that she is still so in thrall to a past she can't remember that all the Phoenix Force in all the world isn't going to make a difference. She's even helpless against herself. Hell, after letting the Beyonder go, and losing the faith of the team once they realise what she did to them, Rachel decides the next sensible step is to try and kill Selene again.

This time its Wolverine who stops her, by the simple expedient of stabbing her to death (apparently appointing yourself someone's executioner is so bad, Wolverine will deal with it by appointing himself your executioner). The Phoenix Force holds her together physically, but the incident leads her into being manipulated first by Spiral, and ultimately Saturnyne and Roma, which brings us to the formation of Excalibur.

My feelings on Claremont-era Excalibur at this point are presumably abundantly clear, but even within my more general issues with the comic (a lot of which I confess is just personal taste), Rachel seemed an odd fit for the group. If you're intent on focusing your stories on a series of crazy alternate-universe capers, then bringing along a mentally-scarred would-be murderer haunted by horrors of the future seems like a fairly odd choice [2]. Rachel's powers might have provided various reasons to keep the narrative going, but as a character she seemed very much out of place. We return to my initial problem with Rachel, at its most obvious during this period; it was almost impossible to consider her character except in terms of her friendship with Kitty. Claremont's continuing obsession with the latter character meant that the presentation of the trials and tribulations they both shared always seemed heavily slanted towards the young Ms Pryde. When Kitty fell for Alistaire Stuart of the Weird Happenings Organisation (a lovely reference, if nothing else), despite him developing an attraction to Rachel, it was almost always through Kitty's eyes that the love triangle was explored. It's much easier to write an awkward teenager than it is a time-displaced fugitive with reality-altering powers, of course, but that doesn't really help us at this point.

I've talked a lot about Rachel's tremendous powers never seeming to bringing her victory. This is counterpointed in a rather depressing way by her empathy (which is real and obvious, even if it does tend to be rather difficult to spot behind her regular need to kill the crap out of people) never seeming to bring her happiness. Kitty may be her best friend, even when things become strained over Alistaire, but is the younger versions of her parents to which Rachel, a lonely girl lost in so many ways, feels the need to turn. This is a tricky thing to manage whilst Jean is dead and Scott on a hair-trigger regarding anything involving his late wife, of course, and it only gets worse when Jean returns and the whole story comes to light [3]. Neither "parent" can accept Rachel as their daughter, and she is left alone once again.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rachel's response to this latest set-back (once her memories are returned when the Phoenix Force abandons sentience) is to once again go on the offensive. This time, her plan is to travel into the future and stop Ahab from developing the Hounds program. This time, at long last, she is successful. Perhaps this is because she is finally facing up to her past, perhaps it is because she has learned the value of being backed up by her team mates, or perhaps it's simple coincidence, but the defeat of Ahab (and let's not lose sight of the irony in a man obsessed by defeating mutants calling himself Ahab, only for that man himself to become the closest thing Rachel has to a Moby Dick) seems to mark a change in Rachel. Not necessarily an obvious improvement in her fortunes (she is finally accepted as a friend by Jean, if not a daughter, but very soon afterwards Rachel is thrown into the time-stream and catapulted across reality), but certainly the ability to think beyond the next kill. When next we meet Rachel, it is 2000 years in the future, and she has very much gotten used to playing the long game, setting up the Askani Clan, a resistance movement to Apocalypse (who now rules the world), and bringing Jean and Scott to the future to raise Cable, who Rachel has also had brought to her to attempt to cure his techno-virus. This last effort eventually kills her, and had her story ended there, it would have been very fitting to see the lonely, broken child grow to fix herself, and so many others, and to try so valiantly to save the life of her half-brother even after her family was unable to truly accept her. She even persuades Jean to take on the Phoenix moniker, pointing out it's importance to Rachel's life, and the things she has achieved with it.

Like mother, like time-lost daughter, though; Rachel was far too bound up in the fate of the Phoenix Force to remain dead. When Apocalypse dies following his failure to use The Twelve to dominate the world, the future in which Rachel had died became impossible. Due to the unique nature of timey-wimey physics in the Marvel Universe, Rachel (long established as being the only Rachel Summers in any reality) was somehow restored to the world, the same age she was before she had entered the time stream, and without the Phoenix Force. Almost immediately she finds herself being manipulated again, this time by Elias Bogan, to cause trouble for the X-Men. This time it is not her power that is coveted, so much as her knowledge of the X-Men and their security systems, but the point remains the same, sooner or later someone always comes for her, and she cannot escape.

Not long afterwards, Rachel finds she can tap into the Phoenix Force once again, and as a result is forced to watch as a squad of Shi'ar Death Commandos kills her entire family on her mother's side. She enters space with Xavier, ostensibly to track down and stop Vulcan, but very much with vengeance and murder once again on her mind.

Ultimately, though, Rachel finally comes to understand that not every crime can be righted by destroying the criminal. More importantly, she casts aside the last lingering side-effect of her time as a Hound, she realises that enemy and friend cannot be easily determined, that individuals cannot automatically be held responsible for the crimes of the communities to which they belong.

There is no guarantee that all she has endured, and all she has learned, is ever going to make life easier for Rachel. It is a sad thing to watch someone wade through endless misery and pain and have nothing more hopeful to say than that they are getting better at understanding why such suffering exists. For now, though, that will have to do. If anyone can help her with this, it would be Korvus, but I haven't read Kingbreaker yet, and to be honest I have my doubts if the descendant of Rook'shir is long for the galaxy. Having had little in the way of romance since she lost Franklin Richards, it may very well be that we will have no choice but to watch Rachel lose another loved one, and wonder whether she is becoming better at handling those kinds of losses as well. I hope so. I hope for a great deal more, actually, but for a force dedicated to rebirth, those that are touched by the Phoenix tend to suffer through a Hell of a lot of loss and destruction.

Of course, I might be missing the wood for the burning trees, here. Perhaps all this pain and anguish is the end of another cycle. Perhaps the next time Rachel is reborn, literally or figuratively, we shall see something different, and beautiful. It is, in every conceivable way, entirely due.

Next time round, we discuss one of the Marvel Universe's most complex and surprising characters, not least because of his place in this series, Magneto himself.

[1] As a New Mutant, Magma isn't likely to show up in these articles anytime soon, although the possibility has been raised of moving into the more general X-Universe once I finish this particular series, sometime in 2012.

[2] Remember when she was determined to FUBAR Mastermind to a truly epic extent, for making her remember her future? Good times.

[3] Just after Rachel has been unable to use her power to directly defeat Galactus. Do we see a theme developing here? Of course, she did stop him, but only because her status as host to the Phoenix Force meant that eating her would destroy all life, which is cheating.

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