Sunday, 13 December 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #29: The Maker

As Charlie Munger once pointed out, to the man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The point is undeniable, and much has been made of it in comics generally and the X-Men specifically. After all, if you've spent your entire freakishly extended lifespan learning more and more ways to efficiently gut twelve people at once with your razor-sharp claws, it’s going to be difficult to come at a problem from a diplomatic perspective.

There is a counter to Munger’s point, though, and it’s this: to a man with every tool imaginable, every problem looks like a hundred different things, with no way to choose between them.

For the mutant known only as Forge (or other variations of the nickname), lack of tools is never going to be a problem. Hell, even if he did only have a hammer, he still would have the option of turbo-charging it or infusing it with powerful shamanistic magic.

So how do you choose? When there are a thousand different ways to tackle a problem, some which will work, others which won’t, and still others that will actually make everything worse, how do you decide which tool to take from the box?

I have already written several times about the paradoxical paralysis that can result from holding too much power. Forge doesn’t seem to have that problem, which I guess in some sense is to his credit. His problem comes when one considers the mechanism by which he chooses one tool over another.

The roots of Forge’s power, and his problem with applying it, can be found in his youth. Forge is born into a Cheyenne tribe, and it is immediately apparent that he had been gifted with an unheard of level of magical power. Given this, he is raised by the shaman Naze, intending for Forge to become a shaman himself, and combat The Adversary, the age-old enemy of his people with an annoying sideline in attempting to destroy the world.

Whether or not Forge is content with his planned destiny during his childhood is not known. Certainly, however, once his mutant powers manifest during his adolescence, granting him the ability to build almost any device of which he could conceive, Nate’s vision for his pupil doesn’t seem particularly appealing.

In later years Forge claims that as a teenager he made the conscious decision to put his faith in technology rather than magic. I think that is the truth, to some extent, but only insomuch as the each of those things lies on either side of the dichotomy which Forge actually faces: control and being proactive versus channelling and patient waiting.

“Give me a lever big enough and I will move the world,” Archimedes said (and not Aristotle; thanks Jamie). Metaphorically speaking, Forge can slap that lever together over breakfast, and it would take less time to use than it would to dust the toast crumbs off it's sides. Obviously, that’s a rare and powerful gift. The trouble is, of course, that if there’s no gap between concept and execution, and no gap between creating mechanisms and changing the world, there’s no reason to consider or even recognise the steps in-between. If Forge can build any device he can think of, then he can build any reality he can think of, just so long as he can work out what he needs to get there. What tools he needs for the job.

In a way, Naze traps himself early on. He spends Forge’s youth telling an impressionable boy that he is destined to change the world. That’s not really what he means, though. What he means is that Forge is destined to prevent the world being changed by something else. And that this process of maintaining stasis will only be possible by sitting around waiting for the Adversary to show up, so that he can be defeated.

Like so many teenagers whose are convinced their guardians simply want to create carbon copies of themselves, Forge rebels. His powers gave him the chance to actively do some good, rather than waiting around for some legendary figure to show up and start a ruckus. At this point, though, Forge’s vision is limited; he chooses not to head for the place he could do most goof, but to the place that was as far away from Naze as possible. Despite Naze’s protestations that the American struggle against Communism wasn’t really anything the Cheyenne really needed to be concerned with, Forge enlists with the US Army, and is shipped out to Vietnam.

Forge ends up a sergeant, fiercely dedicated to the soldiers under his command. If nothing else, the responsibility Naze taught him to human life is certainly understood; Forge suffers a crisis of conscience following his first kill, and from that moment on it seems his priority is to protect his own men, not harm those of the enemy.

In this task, the first of many, Forge fails completely. His squad are caught in an enemy ambush. His men are killed, and he himself is injured. Unable to make use of his gift for invention, Forge reaches for another tool: magic. Whilst he was never content to use magic as a passive safeguard, he understands its application as a weapon all too well. Forcing apart the walls of reality, he summons a pack of demons which devour the enemy troops. Later, it is learned that this spell is the one that allows the Adversary to return to our world. Like I said, sometimes you’ll choose the tool that makes everything worse. Forge realises his mistake, and calls in an air strike to destroy the demons, an action that quite literally costs him an arm and a leg (well, a hand and a leg, at least), but the damage is very much already done.

It is this choice, this terrible fateful decision that ultimately costs the lives of the X-Men (though inevitably they are resurrected almost immediately) that casts doubt on Forge’s claim to prefer technology over magic. Clearly, it is simply about control. If a magic spell can be aimed and fired in the same way as a plasma rifle, then all to the good. Otherwise, forget it. Forge has a time machine he needs to build. Or a power-nullifier. Or freaky-ass mutates to replace the near-vanished mutant species. Or…

One of the most important things to understand about Forge is that he not just a maker (or The Maker, as he is sometimes known), he is also a fixer. This is crucial, because it means he not only views reality as something he can create, but also as something which he can repair. I made the point after The Waters Of Mars was broadcast that the Doctor has now become so adept at the last-minute save that he no longer considers the ramifications of his actions. If anything he does goes sour, he can just fix it with a wave of his sonic screwdriver.

Forge has the same problem (though in fairness I suspect he would consider the sonic screwdriver as a toy for newborn babies, or possibly particularly slow dogs). He decides what he wants to do and then he does it, unshakable in his belief that it’s the right thing to do, and that he can undo it the very moment he thinks he needs to. This is why he builds the anti-mutant nullifier gun for a government he already has issues with over the Vietnam War. He can see why it would be helpful against the threat of the Dire Wraiths, and he’s sure he can destroy it whenever he wants to. Of course, that choice leads to Storm losing her powers, and her breaking his heart when she learns the truth and leaves him in disgust. [1]

This is not the last time Forge’s assumption of control will cost him in his relationship with Storm. For a while they seem to have achieved happiness, thanks in no small part to finding themselves trapped together on an alternate, abandoned Earth for a year (giving Forge time to reverse the nullifier’s effects upon his lover) in the classic Lifedeath story. Their contentment doesn’t last, however. Ultimately Forge proposes, only to rescind the offer because she doesn’t answer quickly enough. He claims he has realised that she will never leave the X-Men for any reason, but the truth is far simpler; he retracts the offer because it’s the only way to make sure she cannot say “No”. If he can’t have Storm as his wife, it is critical he be able to believe that it was choice. Some years later, after M-Day, he finds himself blackmailed into aiding a Nimrod Sentinel, so as to keep Storm safe. The breathtaking arrogance of assuming she cannot take care of herself, that her safety is something only he can risk or assure, is something he is apparently completely unaware of.

After Forge’s brief proposal, he joins X-Factor, and almost immediately the Adversary returns. After more than a decade of being taught how he could channel the forces of magic to defeat the Adversary, what does Forge decide to do? He builds the biggest fucking guns he can think of, and hands them out like candy to the rest of the team, all of whom end up slaughtered (again, only briefly) the instant the Adversary attacks. Hell, even his brief relationship with his team-mate Mystique is predicated on control, though since she’s an unprincipled murderer I’m willing to cut him at least some slack for designing a machine that prevents her from morphing into specific forms.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Forge. After all, he abandoned technology for magic in Vietnam, and almost caused the end of the world. The next time he meets the Adversary, he tries to rely on technology, only for those under his command to die once again. Then again, that proves only that there is no right tool for every occasion. Once Forge has chosen what tool to use, it is the work of only minutes to take that path to it’s conclusion. Open a magic portal, build a hand-howitzer, whatever. It is Forge’s curse that that initial choice always seems to go wrong for him. In once sense he ignores the past (most especially those parts of it where he refuses to listen to Naze or to Storm), but in other ways he allows it to totally controls him. The loss of his men in Vietnam haunted him for years. His mistrust of magic lasted longer still. Most importantly of all, though, in his final encounter with Storm he simply cannot get past the fact that she did leave the X-Men, at least temporarily, and she did it in order to marry someone else.

Were Forge any other man, one might assume his fury at Storm’s marriage to the Black Panther stems from the realisation that perhaps Storm would have married him, and he could have been happy. For him, though, the problem might well lie elsewhere. For Forge the worst case scenario is that Storm would never have married him under any circumstances. That he never had control. That no tool could have done the job.

I say "final encounter" because, to the best of anyone's knowledge, Forge is dead (by which I mean: Forge isn't around until someone tells us he didn't die in the explosion that concluded Ghost Box). After being knocked out by Bishop in Messiah Complex (or possibly Cable #2; apparently there's no impending time-line crisis so serious it can't be solved by punching Forge in the face) there is some suggestion he is suffering from brain damage at the end, so conclusions must be drawn with caution. Having said that, his final act in this world is to attempt to rebuild the mutant race by any means necessary, without any thought to the consequences of his meddling. That sounds an awful lot like Forge to me. Trying to simultaneously recreate the past and deny it (this bunch of horribly slapped-together mutated monsters won't go crazy, nooooooo), trying to find any solution because that's always better than inaction. The "engineer's solution" he calls it, which is pretty much code for "better this problem be addressed unbelievably badly than it not be addressed at all". I guess what's really sad is that the man with the intelligence to revise and improve upon any given machine was never really able to apply that skill to his own life. He never learned the lessons people tried to give him, he only learned new and exciting ways to make the same old mistakes.

Despite all of this, the Marvel Universe owes Forge a number of debts. For all that it cost Storm her powers, Forge was ultimately able to save Earth from destruction at the hands of the Dire Wraiths. He may have gone about it in the most pig-headed and costly way possible, but he was responsible for preventing the Adversary from performing similar acts of Armageddon on at least two occasions. And perhaps I'm laying the blame for his failures at the wrong feet. After all, it would be strange to consider the uses and applications of tools without noting the way Forge himself was used as such, first by Naze, then the Adversary, and the government, and even arguably Xavier and then Cyclops [2]. Lastly, I'm aware of the dangers of armchair quarterbacking, and that's before you get into how much more foolish such a practice would be if the quarterback had a medicine bag in one hand and a plasma pistol in the other.

So come on home, Forge. Take a breather, get your head together, but then come back to us. If nothing else, we've got an awful lot of nails for you to take a look at, and you are always our favourite tool. [3]

That concludes our consideration of '80s X-Men. Next time, we enter one of comics' most lambasted periods, and ask whether or not it's possible to be the quintessential '90s X-Man despite there not being a single pouch or over-sized gun in sight.

[1] I guess that you could make the case that if she hadn’t lost her powers to begin with, they might never have met under the right circumstances and fallen in love, but generally speaking I think the old “Better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all” bromide contains a healthy exception for “Unless your entire relationship is built on a lie and suffocates you with your own guilt.”

[2] Even that doesn't entirely get Forge off the hook, though; since the Forge of the Age of Apocalypse spent all his time training Nate Grey to fight Apocalypse, and yet always insisted they wait for something to happen. I always thought casting Forge in the Nate role was a nice touch.

[3] Fuck you, I resisted as long as I could.


Jamie said...

Haven't got through it all yet, but it's interesting so far. Just wanted to point out that the 'Give me a lever' quotation isn't attributed to Aristotle, but Archimedes...

SpaceSquid said...

Oops! I put the quote into Google and the first hit attributed it to Aristotle. That'll teach me not to cross-check...