Thursday, 22 October 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #27: Fame Junkie

There is no shortage of reasons why everyone should read George R R Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series. In fact, there are almost no reasons why anyone shouldn’t, save for the fact that it will almost certainly never achieve anything so tawdry as an ending. One of the (many, many) aspects of the series which has drawn praise, however, is the skill with which it argues that knights were the rock stars of the Middle Ages.

The parallels between the two are hardly difficult to see. If one were to suggest the medieval joust was the forerunner to the rock concert, one might not expect to win any prizes for original insight, but at least the chance of abject mockery would seem fairly small. Likewise, the tales of a knight’s courage and martial prowess could be seen as some form of prototype for hushed whispers in the pre-gig darkness regarding Keith Richard’s seeming indestructibility or Sting‘s mystical tantric sex powers [1]. And if attaining a knight’s favour is not particularly similar to either stage-diving or sucking a drummer off back-stage, we can at least recognise the root desire to be known through association.

The point is this. One can fairly easily draw a straight line between the 15th Century knight and the contemporary rock star. However, it is just as possible to draw a line between the knight and the superhero. Perhaps more so, actually, since the number of real knights who gained notoriety in jousts was very small compared to the number of fictional knights whose tales were told as evidence that society just wasn’t what it used to be anymore (plus ca change…) In fact, we can draw a line between the superhero and the rock star as well, and thus create some kind of insane equilateral triangle that blasts heedlessly through the barriers of space and time, and fiction besides. [2]

The key point to bear in mind regarding both knights and musicians is this: it is of little consequence as to whether or not the stories that surround them are true. Just ask Marianne Faithful about that Mars Bar deal. Knights were akin to rock stars in that some amongst them created followings, slavishly devoted fans who were utterly convinced that their pick was objectively the best. They were also similar to superheroes, though, in that many of the tales told about them were intensely implausible at best, and sometimes outright impossible.

There is another critical similarity between the three groups (and again this is something explored very well in Martin’s books): all three share the stated goal of improving the lives of others. Knights swore oaths to defend all sorts of people, places and ideals (sometimes leading to problems when their promises proved mutually exclusive). Superheroes pledge themselves to public service (specifically those parts of public service that involve punching criminals in the face). Whilst the manner by which rock stars aid humanity may be less clear, the belief that music can change the world, or at least give people a good enough time to stop them sticking their heads in the oven, is sufficiently common that whilst it may be a myth, it is no less plausible than the idea that a person becomes more worthy and honourable through receiving a knighthood.

Finally, as a consequence to the above, all three run the risk of becoming so addicted to the worship of the people they wish to help or please that adulation becomes the goal.

As the X-Men’s resident pop diva, Alison Blaire epitomises the struggle between entertaining/helping people for its own sake, and doing it so that people love her. At least, that’s where we end up eventually. In her earlier appearances, the theme is very different: everyone in show business is a dick.

Given Dazzler’s original conception, this is perhaps not surprising. The character was birthed out of Casablanca Records' desire for a bizarre cross-promotional stunt involving a comic character, an actual singer, and ultimately a movie tie-in. Nobody at Marvel was particularly keen to write the comic, and eventually Casablanca pulled out in any case, leaving Marvel with a heavily promoted and now entirely pointless character. I don’t know if the situation brought out any resentment in Danny Fingeroth (who ultimately drew the short straw on writing the series after a brief run by Tom DeFalco), but the series’ focus on the useless venality of almost everyone involved in showbiz makes it an easy conclusion to draw [3]. Her stepfather, who she meets as an adult, proves to be a washed up singer so obsessed with returning to the big time he admits to considering hiring super villains to attack Dazzler just so as to cash in on the publicity. Immediately after this, she tries to make it as a dancer in music videos, only for the first director she works with to try and kill her, hoping the resulting media storm will raise the profile of his efforts. Next up, she is cast in a film, but quickly discovers that the director knows she’s a mutant and wants to profit from the resulting press. Are we sensing a theme yet? The director goes on to organise a media stunt that goes wrong (fanning the still-young flames of anti-mutant hysteria), and though the resulting film might undo some of that damage (by portraying mutants in a positive light), Dazzler ends up having to destroy it after the film’s funder Eric Beale demands she sign a lifetime contract (and/or fuck him, depending on your interpretation of the proposed contract).

As is so often the case, the situation changed once Claremont was allowed to get his hands on the character. First appearing in New Mutants, Alison agrees to return to the gladiatorial arena she once escaped, in order to rescue Magma and Sunspot, now captives forced into fighting. In the resulting combats, Alison is forced to confront the possibility that she has become addicted, not to the adrenaline drug injected into the fighters, but to the adulation of the crowd. It occurs to her (and to us) that worship is worship, whether it follows from singing a melody or disemboweling an opponent. This is question #2. Question #1 is "how do I achieve fame?" and most people never find an answer (though there are plenty of people don't feel compelled to look, of course). For those that do, though, there are a hundred thousand sophomore albums that describe (generally in excruciating detail) the second question "Why did I want fame?".

This is the question that Dazzler spends the rest of her life asking. Why does she want to sing? Why does she feel the need to help people in need? Why would a knight go to all that effort of slaying the dragon? To keep the crops unburnt? Or because slaying a fire-breathing winged lizard is just the ticket for wooing the only buxom virgin for miles around?

She knows she wants to earn fame, at least. The Beyonder offers it to her once, for free, but she is smart enough to know that some things only have value once they are paid for. On the other hand, when next offered her heart's desire (whilst in the Citadel of Light and Shadow) Dazzler chooses to be a bag lady, so as to revel in self-pity (another trait not uncommon in famous musicians, or superheroes either, though in the latter case one can generally pass it off as melodrama). She chooses to have choice taken away from her. If gaining prizes unearned is less preferable to working for them, giving up entirely apparently beats both. Perhaps the answer to her question lies within all this, at least at that stage in her life. Maybe it isn't about making anyone happy, or even about them making you happy with their praise. Maybe it's just about not having to need to stress over the journey anymore. Perhaps in some strange way arriving at one's destination is the same as not being able to travel. Either way, you get to stay still.

Later, during Inferno, when the team's worst impulses are set free, Dazzler proves too interested in her own reflection to help out the rest of the team. I guess that doesn't really prove anything beyond the fact that the need to be desired is in the mix somewhere (a property hardly unique to rock stars). In any case, a second encounter with Beale (now bankrupt following Dazzler's burning of the film stock years before) leads to her using her powers to make him see the beauty in life, and that moment makes her realise that helping people is genuinely what she wants to do. The answer to the second question: "because this way I can make a difference to people."

This is not the end of Dazzler's story, by any means. She marries Longshot, and leads a rebellion against Mojo. She becomes pregnant only to lose the baby. Ultimately she returns to our reality, divorces Longshot, and rejoins the X-Men. What's important, though, is that by this point she's made her choices. Hero rather than singer. Saving people rather than having them worship her. It's likely that both of those choices required her to come down on the harder side. Certainly, as a singer or even a fame-hungry superhero, everything is a simple. Not necessarily easy, but simple. She would smell a damn sight better than a bag lady, sip champagne every night, and she would find people crossing the street to meet her rather than avoid her, but essentially the choices would still be in the past. At its simplest, Alison's choice is to keep choosing. If it's about them instead of about you, that's what you have to do. Keep choosing. Allow for the possibility you might fail, rather than work on the principle that it is only other people that can fail you.

I guess the only way to ensure you're remembered for the right reasons is to not care whether you're remembered at all.

Next time: a consideration of Dazzler's one-time love, Longshot; a man whose ability to subconsciously manipulate luck means he always gets the girl. One suspects that I will not be kind to him.

[1] Or even for the gossip over Amy Winehouse’s capacity for booze, or Pete Docherty’s ability to replace his blood supply entirely with heroin and still be able to play Killamangiro (albeit shittily, though I guess one could argue writing a terrible song and failing to do justice to it live requires its own kind of talent).

[2] Maybe the link between musicians and superheroes explains why something like 73% of Dazzler stories begin with her being attacked in the middle of a gig. Alternatively, it could just be an advanced case of lazy storytelling. Furthermore, the attempt to link capes in with the stories of yore is the only possible way to explain the out-and-out lunacy of Beauty and the Beast, a four part miniseries in which Dazzler falls in love with Beast, the power of her emotions allowing her to overcome the drugs she is being injected with in order to make her fight in gladiatorial matches. Not that Hank doesn’t deserve himself a hottie, of course, but even so… damn.

[3] It might also simply represent an outpouring of frustration at the world in general. I don’t know how well comic book writers were treated in the mid ‘80s, but if bears any similarity to their situation in the early ‘90s (when we reached the zenith of the “only the artist is of any worth” school of thought that led to Whilce Portacio getting his hands on Uncanny X-Men and screwing with it to an almost inconceivable extent), one can understand a few shots at the extent of those who make their money through other people’s talent.

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