Sunday, 27 September 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #26: Betsy

If the X-Men are about anything, they are about change.

This is simultaneously their greatest strength and their biggest weakness within the world of comics. The advantage is obvious; in an industry so afraid of losing their core audience Marvel will have Spiderman literally make a deal with the Devil to undo years of continuity, the X-Men are free to simply mutate (both metaphorically and literally) into another form and then just get on with it. Admittedly it no doubt helps to be a team book, allowing writers to use cast shifts as cabinet reshuffles whenever a particular regime proves unpopular, but still, whatever one might think of recent changes in the X-line (and I liked M-Day a lot more than a lot of other people, though I can’t deny that far less was done with it than could have been), it cannot be denied that the X-Universe has a leg-up when it comes to avoiding stagnation.

Even the two other main themes in the X-Men, bigotry and dealing with your own changing body, are threads of the same idea. This is obvious in the latter case, though perhaps less so with the former. What is the hatred of mutants, though, but an expression of humanity’s fear of a changing world? Our own inability to adapt? And how is that different from dressing up xenophobia as a concern for “British jobs” (Gordon Brown) or lamenting that you can go to Knightsbridge and not hear an English accent (Morrissey)? It would be an oversimplification to suggest bigotry and change go hand in hand, but what seems unquestionable is that bigotry is at its strongest, ugliest and most plain whenever change is on the horizon. I once had a brief conversation with a man born in Birmingham, Alabama, who had been a child when the Civil Rights marches came to his city. His summation was that the changes the black community so desperately wanted were so obviously reasonable, the only way to oppose them was to hate those doing the asking as much as humanly possible, until you though so little of them in comparison to yourself that their current despicable situation became fair. You can take the idea far further, of course, but it wouldn’t be long until this became another anti-GOP rant, and this is supposed to be about comics. Actually, it’s supposed to be about Psylocke, whom I haven’t mentioned yet. We’re nearly there; trust me.

The accompanying weakness to this constant focus on change, of course, is that the X-books have a (well-deserved) reputation for being almost impenetrable to the casual reader. Endlessly twisting, self-referential storylines might thrill the dedicated fanatic (one of the ways in which we closely mirror soap-opera addicts, a fact which neither side is likely to view particularly favourably), but such unashamed service to the established fan-base makes actually breaking in all but impossible [1]. I reckon it took me three years to get the basics down, and another ten to really get to grips with the specifics of X-Men continuity (the ‘90s being a particularly convoluted period), and I couldn’t blame anyone for giving up. “Too complicated” is a phrase frequently used to describe that era in particular, and the X-books in general. [2]

Psylocke (at last!) is the very embodiment of this problem. In fact, you could put a reasonable amount of money on the chance that upon telling even a comparatively casual X-fan that you intended to write a piece on Psylocke’s character, the response would be “which one?”

For the uninitiated, here is a list of potential Psylockes we could discuss:

  1. The model/charter pilot secretly using her psi-powers to aid STRIKE (the UK equivalent of SHIELD);
  2. The blinded, helpless victim;
  3. The bionic-eyed superhero star of a Mojo TV series;
  4. The faintly sinister X-Man;
  5. The Asian ninja, her mind shared across two bodies;
  6. The “whole” Asian ninja, following Revanche’s death;
  7. The Asian ninja; post-Crimson Dawn (now with shadow-teleporting and added crazy);
  8. The powerless prison for the Shadow King;
  9. The telekinetic;
  10. The dead body;
  11. The miraculously resurrected Asian ninja, without shadow-teleporting any more.

Writing that list I realised I have no idea whether Psylocke retained Jean Grey’s telekinesis when she returned from the dead. I don’t even know how Psylocke got the telekinesis, for that matter, since it took place during the borderline-catastrophic “Revolution” of the X-line which leaped ahead six months, a gimmick that simply ensured everything made even less sense (it also made it very clear that Chris Claremont is a writer who should be remembered, rather than revisited). I don’t even want to get into most of that list, though since I mentioned her in the footnotes, and because it probably qualifies as the most change-y of Psylocke’s changes, I’ll briefly sketch out the Revanche craziness. Basically, the X-Men went through something called the Siege Perilous, which wiped their memories. Betsy was found immediately afterwards by a group of villains known as the Hand. One of them, Matsu’o Tsurayaba, attempted to replace her mind with that of his comatose lover Kwannon. The extra-dimensional entity he hired to do this instead split the two minds over the two bodies, leaving Psylocke to believe she was whole within someone else’s body, until her original body, animated by a mind which also thought she was Psylocke, but calling herself Revanche, arrived, determined to unmask the “imposter”. Eventually the truth came out, and after Revanche contracted the Legacy Virus and her powers went haywire (oh, yeah, she was a telepath too, what are the odds?), she was able to un-shuffle the two minds, allowing Psylocke to live wholly within Kwannon’s body, whilst Revanche (who was now Kwannon) died inside Psylocke’s body.

Confused yet? I don’t blame you. Smart X-writers never, ever mention any of this (I lambasted it earlier, but it occurs that Fraction’s use of Pryor and Revanche in the same story might just have been him having a laugh at the X-Universe’s expense). And that’s just one part of the saga of Psylocke. It’s all a big jumbled mess.

Of course, as a general rule, I like big jumbled messes. Or at least, I enjoy disentangling them. That’s pretty much what maths is, once you factor out the social ineptitude and constant drinking. The problem with Psylocke is that it all sounds much better in theory than it does in practice. In theory, in a fictional universe where writers can just use the phrase “secondary mutation” and immediately turn a character’s life upside down, there might be a lot of worse in taking the idea to its extreme, and doing it with an established character rather than minor or new ones, so that the progress is observable. I mentioned before that part of the “life is change” idea that permeates the X-Men is dealing with the changes to yourself [3]. In an ideal world, Psylocke would take the idea further: exactly how many pieces of you can be altered, reshuffled, or removed entirely, until you get to the point that you’re not you anymore?

This is something that comes up in my head a lot. I don’t think I’ve discussed this on the blog before, but I’ve spent most of my life suffering from depression to a greater or lesser extent, and one of the side-effects of that is a lot of time wishing various aspects of my personality could be flensed away, so that the rest of my brain could function the way it’s supposed to. In more rational moments, of course, I realise that even if it were possible, it would not necessarily be a desirable proposition. Everything is interconnected; removing one straw will cause the others to shift, or even fall, and then all the marbles would drop out and you’ve lost the whole game of Ker-Plunk, and nobody wants that. The most generous interpretation of Psylocke is that her journey demonstrates the dangers of attempting such metaphorical brain-surgery.

If that had been how she had been approached, rather than just randomly saddling her with new shit because no-one knew what else to do with her, maybe that might have worked. Certainly it would have strengthened the idea of her relationship with Archangel, which was set up as two people with their bodies and minds twisted by fate taking comfort in each other, and could have led to an interesting (albeit probably quite depressing) co-dependency, rather than falling into the standard digital oscillation between “blissfully happy” and “troubled” that is all most comic book relationships seem able to offer. We’ve all lost people we were close to following shifts in behaviour (ours or theirs, the former often being confused for the latter), Psylocke could have been that most useful of comic book concepts, the literal metaphor.

I’m not sure it would have succeeded even under those circumstances, though. A lot of the problem stems from the difficulty in successive creative teams managing to keep stable characters consistent. The systematic breakdown of a character across multiple writers is an almost certain non-starter. Moreover, Psylocke’s periodic changes are just infrequent enough to make tracking her progress difficult, but too frequent for any of her incarnations to be reliably thought of as a baseline (her tendency to be ignored for months by writers even when she‘s an active team member doesn‘t really help). There’s no value in exploring how someone changes if there’s no attachment to what was there before the change. At best, you can come up with some kind of overarching similarity between the various faces of Psylocke. You could talk about puppets; Betsy Braddock spends most of her early life being manipulated against her twin brother Brian (also known as Captain Britain), then is enslaved by Mojo, eventually becomes a Hand assassin, and post-Crimson Dawn [4] is almost seduced/mind-controlled into becoming the bride/slave of Kagumi, Proctor of the Crimson Dawn. Even her death was a manipulation by Varga to intimidate the other X-Men, and her resurrection was at the hands of her insane brother Jamie, again as part of a larger plan (he even talks about bringing her back by tightening her quantum strings, which is a fairly explicit puppetry reference). Again, though, it’s an idea that only works in theory, especially since as we’ve discussed, there simply isn’t time to get to know and thus care about the puppet in question.

If any of the above incarnations might be viewable as the “real” Psylocke, I guess you could argue it is number 4, the version which first joined the X-Men. That particular aspect had a lot of promise. Her willingness to invade and re-write people’s minds, and even to kill them if she believed the greater good would be served, made her a nice alternative to the usual strong-but-characterless women that blighted the industry for so long (though a less charitable interpretation would be that Psylocke simply predated the relentlessly nasty portrayal of heroes of both genders during the early ‘90s). You can add in version 5 to this as well, back when it was thought her body was new but everything else was the same. Many fans hated her attempts to seduce Cyclops just before the Revanche story line, but I actually loved the idea that someone could be a hero, determined to save the world and help the helpless, but would be happy to cross the line in other respects, such as stealing your friend’s fiance if she felt like it [5], or poking around in a team-mate’s head to gain answers (most obviously Gambit, a decision that led to her ending up helping in the prosecution for his “trial“ by a disguised Magneto) or even rearrange the furniture (persuading Havok to enter the Siege Perilous, despite months of her being annoyed that he refused to trust her). It always seemed strange that people seemed uncomfortable with Psylocke’s transgressions. I’m not saying one has to approve, but for a team that has at least one proven killer amongst their ranks, complaining about a telepath who does too much poking, and isn’t afraid to try and steal your boyfriend, seems a little odd.

Yeah, I kinda liked that version of Psylocke. Shame she was living on borrowed time.

In conclusion, then: you can find a great deal to like about Psylocke as a character, and particularly as a female character in a book (and an industry) that has served women very poorly in the past, if not in the present. Given the sheer amount of variations on Psylocke herself, though, it is impossible to see those rare moments of competency as anything other than proof that if you throw enough shit at a wall, some of it is going to stick.

Next time we investigate Dazzler as part of our ongoing sub-feature of “X-Men I will find it impossible to say anything about”. Tune in next month!

[1] Established wisdom has it that this is why comic readership has flat-lined since the early ‘90s, which seems likely. More specifically, the problem lies in the confusion between stories that reference past continuity, and those that rely on it. Or, even worse, those that rely exclusively on it. Having a long-lost (or even long-dead) character suddenly show up is *not* a sound foundation for an entire story, and yet both Marvel and DC seem intent on endlessly recycling the idea. To touch once more upon the soap opera comparison, DC’s revival of Barry Allen can be seen as roughly analogous to Dirty Den returning to Eastenders, and from what I can gather worked out roughly about as well. Uncanny X-Men is just as guilty of this as any other book; as recently as this year I was forced to sit through the “Sisterhood” arc, which apparently assumed all you need for a storyline in a flagship title is the sudden reappearance of two characters killed off more than twenty years ago (Madelyne Pryor and Revanche, in this case, the latter of whom no-one even liked at the time, but more about her later) and an awful lot of Greg Land’s patented photo-traced porn stars poured into X-uniforms.

[2] For more on just how unnecessarily and unworkably muddled and intertwined this era of the X-Men really was, you should check out
Not Blog X, which attempted to determine whether it really did get as bad as everyone seems to think, rapidly concludes that it did, and then bravely kept cranking out reviews that read more and more like they should be read out using long, hopeless sighs. Unfortunately, these days the blog concerns itself only with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics. Boo, and indeed, hiss.

[3] An idea that I found very resonant as a teenager. It’s probably no coincidence that the X-Men and Spiderman are generally the most popular Marvel titles; the twin themes of changing biology and the pressures of teenage life have immediate hooks for what is usually thought of as the target audience.

[4] Should probably explain this one too. Psylocke was almost eviscerated in a battle with Sabretooth, leading to Wolverine and Archangel tracking down the Crimson Dawn, a mystical power source deep in the Earth that can magically heal people (using, I swear to fucking God, the power of love), but apparently with the weird side-effect of tattooing your face, and making you able to teleport through shadows. So now you know.

[5] On the other hand, it will baffle me to my grave as to why anyone thought licking motor oil off Cyclops’ cheek was meant to be seductive. Perhaps it’s fair to say that I loved the idea of Psylocke attempting to seduce Cyclops, but it’s difficult to argue with the fact that the process did make her come off as more than a little slutty. Still, as I say, we’re talking about a period in which female characters were almost embarrassingly generic, so I’m willing to offer points for effort. Up until it was decided she only tried it on because of Kwannon’s influence in her head, of course. If there’s one thing that irritates me about comic-book heroes, it’s the fact that any non-heroic behaviour is almost invariably explained away, often in tremendously unconvincing ways, rather than just accepting that heroes aren’t perfect. And, once again, note how it's OK for Wolverine to slaughter his way through half of North America, so long as a woman doesn't come on to a man who's spoken for.

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