Tuesday, 19 January 2010

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #30: Jubilation

We're in the '90s! At last, the '90s are here to save us! You can tell we're in the '90s, because we've gotten to the point where it's odds on any character I focus on will be despised by the vast majority of fans! Also, I've changed the font for the character names! Isn't that just so '90s? Replacing something that was working perfectly well with something designed to look all sleek and futuristic, but which actually dates something more accurately than radioactive decay? It's only a shame I couldn't find a font which drapes each letter in pouches and has the full stops that FIRE THEMSELVES OUT OF THE SCREEN AT YOUR FACE!

I'll stop now. Mocking '90s comics isn't exactly difficult, after all, nor particularly new, either. Beyond that, though, it's vaguely hypocritical of me, since it was during the '90s that I first fell in love with the X books. With greater age and experience, I can understand why so much of that decade's output is so widely lambasted, but just as with your first love affair, it's always pretty much impossible to objectively compare your initial experiences with everything that follows.

This is all by way of saying that I'm liable to be kinder to a lot of these characters than you might imagine (possibly a welcome change from my earlier articles savaging long-beloved staples of the Collected Mutant Adventures).

Case in point: Jubilee. My opinion of Jubilee is the exact inverse of my view of Shadowcat. It's not that I particularly like the character, it's just that I can't really understand why other people hate her so much. Compare this to how I feel about Kitty Pryde, whose general competence as an entertaining character (with more than a few embarrassing lapses) seems to have led to a lunatic cult of personality worshipping her every whiny utterance.

Given this rather interesting inversion, it might make sense to consider Jubilee in comparison to the senior female X-Teen. Certainly, when I mentioned to C earlier this evening that I was compiling an article on Jubilee, his immediate comment was "She was just the next Kitty Pryde". Plus, if nothing else, I'm sure it will make the (entirely hypothetical) hate mail more vitriolic. Also, it will allow me to focus on the period of time during which Jubilee was actual paid-up member of the X-Men. My comics collection is fairly basic up until about 2003 - my feeble coffers before graduation (the first one) being insufficient to feed my craving - so I have only perhaps a half dozen issues of Generation X, and once that bled to death (I keep hearing Larry Hama ran it into the ground, which is a shame considering how strong his work on Wolverine was) Jubilee just flitted in and out of various X-books until ending up de-powered, and apparently in Runaways with super-powered gloves, or something. I am increasingly sick of characters shafted by M-Day being implausibly returned to the cape pool, by the way, but that's another story.

First of all, everything I said in Shadowcat's article regarding the difficulty in inserting teenage characters into an adult-dominated narrative still stands. I feel a slight expansion is in order, though. I don't think the problem is so much that teenage characters can't work alongside adult characters, it's more that I think it's almost impossible for teenage characters to service a driving narrative in which adult characters are taking the lead (or even when they're not; the Harry Potter series could have fit into two books if Potter had ever taken his head out of his arse for ten minutes). For stories in which events are, objectively speaking, comparatively little import (the half hour of Glee I watched the other day being an example), it matters far less, or not at all, but if your central idea is a bunch of superheroes needing to take down Villain X (you know what, I bet he's an actual character somewhere) in order to save Manhattan, a sulky teenager becomes more of a drag factor.

Jubilee demonstrates this problem just as well as Shadowcat did. Once again the same scene was repeated over and over, the X-Men decide their youngest member is too immature to ride off to save the day, and said member finds some way to tag along anyway, either getting captured to generate cheap emotional struggle for the main characters, or managing to save the day and prove everyone wrong about them (sometimes both in the same story). Rinse and repeat.

Whether or not those who had already been through this once with Shadowcat found it doubly irritating when it was recycled for Jubilee, I can't say. In my case, however, there are three reasons why I think it actually worked a lot better the second time around.

The first, and I think most important reason regards Jubilee's power set. One of the things that bothered me most about Shadowcat was that her intangibility made her essentially invulnerable and her computer skills made her capable of effortlessly pulling off ludicrous last minute escapes (for the record, a deus ex machina doesn't really become any more palatable just because a main character gets to program the machina the deus will be ex-ing from). Not only did the former mean there was little sense of danger and the latter little sense of satisfaction, it meant that every time Xavier or Cyclops nixed Kitty's wishes to suit up, the implication was that the audience should disagree with them. I get that at the time, as now, UXM was almost exclusively targeted at teenagers, so there was bound to be a lot of sympathy for Kitty's plight, but as tips for good fiction go, "Don't make your entire cast of heroes bar one look like tossers" is pretty high up there, or at least it is whilst talking about fairly simplistic superhero tales. [1]

Jubilee, on the other hand, is generally not all that much use, especially in her early days. Sure, with enough experience and training, you wouldn't count her out, but she turns up for her first day on the job with enough power to temporarily blind a random goon maybe, combined with all the defensive capability of wilted rhubarb. This is not a chick with which villains are going to be afraid to fuck.

And defensive capability was, like, fucking important during the '90s. Comic creators pretty much across the board seemed to decide back then that maturity was the same thing as packing in as many gratuitous, wasteful deaths as possible. There's no phasing for Jubilee. If she finds herself in Sabretooth's clutches (which she does, at least once), then absent some swift rescuing she's pretty much going to end up torn into strips. If you're gonna have a teenage girl nominally on the team, and then treat her like she's a liability, it makes far more sense for it to be Jubilee than Shadowcat.

Whilst on the subject, it is worth nothing that the other advantage to Jubilee's mutation is that it both reflects her temperament and reminds us that "mutation" was always analogous to "puberty". Neither of these facets are particularly subtle or clever, of course, but in superhero comics, it doesn't often pay to bury things too deeply. Moreover, one of the defining characteristics of our teenage years is the headlong rush towards those things we consider "adult" and the total denial of those things we deem "childish", even though most of the time the things we define adults by are ridiculously superficial (I've always wished that I could have back the time I wasted accompanying my sixteen year old friends as they attempted to find a pub that would serve them lager), and the actions we define children by are conveniently only ever present in other people. Both Shadowcat and Jubilee managed quite well in conveying these ideas, but I would argue Jubilee has the edge because a) her conception of "adult" was one she was clearly unprepared for (whilst Shadowcat bounced between amazing world-saving competence and idiotic fumbles), and b) she had Illyana around as a foil for her doomed attempts to cast childhood aside. The fact that Illyana then dies and forces Jubilee to once more face her mortality is icing on the cake (though not from Colossus' perspective, I guess).

The third reason is simple relatability. If you genuinely want to construct a character with which the majority of the audience can easily identify with, there's not much point making her a pointy-headed super-genius. Jubilee works because the only difference between her and us is that she's a mutant. Teenagers might dream that they too could develop super-powers and join the X-Men, but getting special abilities and reaching the level of intelligence necessary to reprogram Skynet is probably stretching it. It's at least arguable, and I know it's arguable because I'm about to argue it, that the best kind of relatable characters deviate from the norm in exactly one way, and every further variation just sets up distance between character and reader. That would be another point to Ms Lee, I believe.

Of course, whilst the way Jubilee was handled worked comparatively well conditional upon her hanging around the X-mansion at all, it doesn't necessarily mean there was any worth in her turning up in the first place. There too, though, the young Ms Lee has Kitty beat. Shadowcat might not have been overly comfortable with the idea of her parents divorcing, but it doesn't track from that fact that her best bet is to be stuck in a "school" which is under attack by giant robots and slavering demons on a bi-monthly basis.

Jubilee, in contrast, is a homeless orphan. Her alternative to the X-Men is hoping that she can steal enough food in her local mall to stave off starvation. It made sense that the X-Men would take her in without automatically wanting her tagging along the next time they headed off to hand Sinister's ass to him. Making a character an orphan was a cliche even back then, and it has been remarked before that even given (or perhaps because of) her sketchy character origins various writers have presented conflicting accounts of her childhood (most obviously whether or not she is second generation American, or at least third), but that's the '90s for you, and it does at least legitimate her presence amongst the rising body count.

Actually, if I were to speculate on the reasons Jubilee seemed to grate so much in comparison to Shadowcat, part of the reason might be hidden in that last sentence. Shadowcat was a strange and implausible addition to the team roster, but those were strange and implausible times. I've remarked before how frustrating a writer Claremont was in the '80s, ricocheting as he did between stone cold X-Men classics (Dark Phoenix, Inferno, The Fall Of The Mutants) and excesses of "wackiness" that would have a fourteen year old staring at their shoes in embarrassment. At a time that a comic writer can submit an entire issue in which a main character (Shadowcat, natch) simply tells us a fairy tale (UXM #153) and then get paid for doing that, including a child on the team perhaps didn't seem so ludicrous. By the time the '90s arrived, however, all shoulder-pads and shoe-lace thongs and needless decapitations, even the toughest of children was going to have a hard time not sticking out like a mutated sore thumb.

Maybe that's where the problem lies. For all Jubilee's protestations that she was tough enough to handle the X-Men's world, no-one was able to make their minds up about whether or not that was the case. Hell, she hangs with Wolverine [2] long enough to imply there was very little she couldn't handle, but once she leaves his shadow she's immediately cast as the whining brat, and no amount of pointless attempts to tap into '90s teenage culture was going to change that (since I have little knowledge of what the kids my age - or slightly younger, probably - were getting up to across the Atlantic, I have no idea how close Jubilee was to resonating with "the kids", but it sure pissed off a lot of other people).

In any case, that's my defence of pre-Generation X Jubilee. Once she signed up for Banshee and the White Queen's new school (that she herself had suggested setting up), fan hatred of Jubilee seemed to subside. As I say, at this point I more or less lost track of her, save to note she switched from being the sulky rookie to the voice of experience, which I liked, and that she spent a lot of her time unsure about who she was attracted to or whether to do anything about it, which in a universe where 90% of the characters seem to imprint one one member of the opposite sex almost immediately and pretty much for life, made for a welcome change. None of this mooning after Colossus for thirty years, no sir.

Still, if she never came back, it wouldn't bother me.

Next time on SpaceSquid vs The X-Men, we consider the brief craze that was Gambitophilia, and get to the nub of the matter as we ponder the essential question: just what was up with that pink body armour?

[1] At least, it is when considering superhero comics. You can, of course, put together a cast of bullies, brawlers and bastards and it still be fascinating, but a superhero comic isn't the place to do it unless you're Warren Ellis.

[2] As a side comment, I always thought that pairing worked at least as well as Wolverine and Shadowcat, mainly because I loved how hard Jubilee tried to ape Wolverine's tough-guy persona without realising that what actually connected them was Jubilee having the same bleeding heart as Logan but without the experience to disguise it. Again, not exactly subtle, but...


Ellen said...

I'd like to quote you with this line, which is so ME that (to use a 90s term, since hardly anyone bothers with actual e-mail anymore) it's "sig-worthy."

Member of the lunatic cult of personality worshipping Kitty Pryde's every whiny utterance,

CatEcumen the Ecumenical Cat

SpaceSquid said...

You are, of course, entirely welcome to it. Welcome to the SquidZone.

Anonymous said...

You know, while like for Maggott ; this article was heartwarming, there are a few disagreements. Powerwise, she can fight & can eventually knock or even kill her foe, but the last option is not what she'd use much. Besides what's wrong with not being powerful? Teams need members that are not fragging wreckers!It's the balance that makes it interesting.
Anyway Squidman, hope you'll answer my comment! (I'd be honoured by that!)

Her's one for the road !


SpaceSquid said...

Those are brilliant! And your point regarding the interest in people whose superpowers aren't, erm, "super-powered" is well taken.

I'll try to respond to your other comments when I have some free time. In the meantime, as a shameless plug, if you found plenty to say about the SS vs X series, feel free to get to work on arguing with me at Year X: