Monday, 31 May 2010

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #32: In The Land of the Pawns...

Time travel makes my head hurt. Even that brief flashback to my last post on the subject is bringing on a migraine. So as far as Lucas Bishop, accidental fugitive from the late 21st century, is concerned, the deck is already very much stacked against him. So, today's question is whether or not he's worth all the temporal sturm and causal drang?

It would be fair to say Bishop’s story doesn’t start well. Certainly not biologically; he’s born and raised in a mutant internment camp. Not chronologically (from our perspective, that is - did I mention this stuff gives me a headache?) either; within days of his arrival in our time he gets to watch his two squad mates murdered. And not conceptually, by any means. A comic book as long-running as Uncanny X-Men is bound to have its share of disappointing eras, but I’m pretty sure Whilce Portacio’s era constitutes a global minimum. The most nadirific of nadirs. You might as well have been created by Baron Frankenstein as that guy for all the chance it gives you to be accepted by polite society.

Well, except it didn’t work out that way. I should provide a bit of context, as part of my ongoing lamentation for the death of subtlety and story-telling during an entire decade. Portacio started sticking his oar in plot-wise for UXM #281 (the exact division of labour between him and Jim Lee is something I‘ve never been entirely clear on), despite him not being anything so advanced as an actual writer, or anything. This was during that period of time in which comic artists within Marvel (and possibly elsewhere) were loudly proclaiming to anyone who would listen that they weren’t just simply a necessary condition for the existence of comics books, they were sufficient, too. All writers could do, they insisted, was fail to ruin their characters, and that was only if they were very lucky. So why not cut out the middle man and just have the artists write the damn things too?

Well, the answer to that is pretty clear in hindsight (and just why it wasn‘t clear at the time is something I don‘t understand): it’s because that way leads madness and Rob fucking Liefeld. Still, what is your most popular money spinning flagship title for if not for taking completely unnecessary risks to soothe the egos of prima donnas? Huh? ANSWER ME, MARVEL!

Portacio’s run, all of 8 issues, brought us truly gob-smacking amounts of uber-violence, the deaths of multiple supporting characters for cheap (very, very cheap) shock value, plot lines that managed to be both insultingly simplistic and thoroughly nonsensical (which is its own twisted kind of achievement, I guess, kind of like Nazi McGaybash from the other day), and Bishop. If Gambit, as I have argued, was the personification of the ‘90s obsession with attempting to reverse-engineer Wolverine’s success and bolt the results to an endlessly snowballing set of core mysteries never to be solved (and regarding that latter point, I‘m far from sure that it‘s a coincidence that the X-Office settled on that policy so soon after the colossal success of Twin Peaks, or that it accelerated after The X-Files showed up with a similar business model), then Bishop was the avatar of that decade's supreme, wilful, and almost contemptuous disregard for human life.

It always used to amuse me when people complained that they didn’t like the idea of comics because of all those massive-breasted women prancing around in open defiance of fashion, taste, and pretty much gravity. Not because that wasn’t true (though there’s an entire conversation to be had about the way both male and female capes sported “ideal” bodies and whether comics can be held up to blame for what that supposed ideal actually looks like), but because I figured the fact that such gratuitous T&A was going on was an entirely secondary concern to the fact that it was happening at the centre of a hurricane of decapitations, eviscerations, and massacres with three-figure body counts.

Bishop is by no means the character active in that era with the highest kill tally. Hell, I doubt he’s even the X-Man with the most murders to his name, one imagines that would still be Wolverine. What made him singularly problematical was that his taste for spontaneous judicial murder (now with added disregard for innocents caught in the crossfire, kids!) was pretty much all there was to him. I’m not saying there’s necessarily anything wrong with a character with a one line pitch, but a) “He‘s an X-Man who‘s happy to kill!” isn’t anything like a good example, and b) your pitch is supposed to be a condensed starting point, not the character description in its entirety.

One of my big problems with The Sarah Connor Chronicles was always that what I saw as its core concept - that war usually turns people into machines, even when machines is what you’re fighting - was an intellectually interesting one, but not something you can sustain for more than a little while. Just because you understand why all the main characters were emotionally repressed zombies doesn’t mean you’ll feel for them because of it.

The same should have been true of Bishop. More true, even, in part because the Marvel Universe’s insistence that heroes never kill meant lacked the moral grey areas TSSC spent most of its life in, but mainly because Bishop was already the dead-eyed soulless killer John Connor was so frightened he would become. There was simply no there there, in fact “there’s no there” was the characters entire point, and what good is that to anyone?

Except people ate it up. It’s impossible to believe it now, but for a brief while Bishop’s popularity was absolutely staggering. This probably says more about comic fans than I’d like, to be honest. Actually, perhaps it would be fairer to say it says more about humanity in general than I’m happy about. After all, I‘ve talked before about how injecting an insubordinate, mysterious, trigger-happy curmudgeon is a fairly standard trick to increase one’s popularity without, y‘know, working for it in any way (see Seven of Nine, Ronon Dex, et al).

Certainly, Bishop had the mystery angle working for him: his history - our future - was one of the major concerns of the time. For Bishop, the X-Men were legends, champions of puppies and Christmas for years before they were slaughtered by an unidentified traitor in their ranks. For whatever reason, probably on the word of his “Grandmother”, Bishop was convinced that the hideous world he had grown up in - where mutants were branded and kept in concentration camps before the Summers Rebellion, and left to rot afterwards, and where hordes of vampiric “Emplates” terrorised the streets (ultimately killing Bishop’s sister Shard) - could have been averted if only the X-Men had survived for a little while longer. Whether or not that would prove to be true might be an interesting plot line, but these things being what they are, we were dragged instead down the Endless Mystery Spiral, with just enough time out for Bishop to repeatedly blame Gambit for it all. And if you don’t think watching two superheroes from the “Who needs characterisation when you have attitude” stable repeatedly engage in extended bouts of dick-fencing sounds like your idea of good times then, well, Rob Liefeld probably thinks you’re gay, but everyone else thinks you have a point.

Like I said. Not so much for Bishop with the good beginnings. Oddly though, after a few years, something genuinely interesting did start happening, despite the general bloodthirsty excess of the time. You can think of it as the inverse to the crisis at the heart of TSSC: what happens when the deliberately distant, emotionless killer starts to realise he’s giving a shit about the people around him? It’s not even remotely original, of course, indeed yet again we can draw a straight line right back to Wolverine, but it was at least something. And in Bishop’s defence, there is one important difference. Wolverine has the advantage of wanting to protect the X-Men because many of them are his friends. One or two of them, he considers family. There’s no struggle in that, for all of Wolverine’s anguish over so much else.

Bishop, though, is protecting the X-Men not because he cares about them (though despite himself he does, as we'll get to), but because he’s trying to rebuild the time stream from the ground up. He’ll keep you alive for exactly as long as he thinks you’ll help save the world. His world. If you deviate from that, he’s going to drop you in exactly as much time as it takes to draw his pistol. Any one of them could be the traitor, or do something else to risk locking our world into its temporal collision course with his own. In this, at least, Bishop resembles less Wolverine and more Professor Xavier, desperately trying - and inevitably failing - to maintain emotional distance from a group of people he may one day have to blow to pieces. The weight of an entire world is on his shoulders.

It is then both entirely fitting and impressively ironic that he should be so integral to the events of the Age of Apocalypse. For the uninitiated (and shame on you, because AoA is by some distance the best X-Men crossover of the '90s, and probably far beyond), Professor Xavier’s mentally unbalanced son David goes back in time to kill Magneto, and thus allow his father to preach his dream of human/mutant harmony unimpeded. Instead, he manages to kill Xavier himself, awakening Apocalypse decades early in the process, and generally fucks up the time line to a truly epic extent.

This is important for two reasons. Firstly, Bishop is one of the four X-Men sent back through time after Legion, only to fail to stop him. Thus, even before he’s had the chance to take a crack at the X-Traitor, he’s already demonstrated that he may well not have the time-travelling chops necessary to be of use to anyone. Hardly the best news, in this reality or any other.

Secondly, Bishop’s status as one of the “chronally displaced” means that whilst the rest of the planet is reset by David’s snafu, Bishop stays right where he is, decades in our past (which rather begs the question: what exactly happened to Cable?), with his memories of the “real world” buried deep inside his skull. It is he who persuades Magneto to risk his own life, those of his X-Men, and the world in general, in a desperate attempt to reset the time line to its original specifications.

The gambit (no pun intended) works, and normal service is resumed. Bishop more or less forgets everything that happened, but his memories of the horror remain in his brain, buried haphazardly under a thin topsoil of causality in a shallow grave that his subconscious keeps trying to uncover. He can’t quite reach them - at least, not to begin with - but they’re certainly there, reminding him on some level the stakes he’s playing for. The risks of altering the time-line remind him of the risks of leaving it alone, no matter who he might have to bump off in the process.

This is why one of Scott Lobdell’s best ideas was to frequently team up Gambit and Bishop: it forced Bishop to confront the paradox. To befriend the man he was entirely willing, and probably actively planning to kill. At first begrudgingly, and then almost happily, Bishop forged, if not a friendship exactly, a solid working relationship with LeBeau. Following Sinister’s discovery and excavation of Bishop’s repressed memories, it's to Gambit that Bishop admits being almost happy to learn he is not going insane (and there’s another nice little slice of irony, I think, the villain many people had pegged as being the most likely reason for Gambit turning traitor is actually the one to indirectly strengthen the bond between Remy and Bishop). And this is, though Bishop presumably doesn’t know this, on the very night the X-Traitor is finally revealed into the bargain. It’s kind of fitting that Bishop and Gambit bury the hatchet just a few hours before the latter is vindicated, and the former succeeds in saving the X-Men by facing off against Onslaught/Professor X.

Of course, the fact that Bishop succeeds in reaching the point where he can embrace the paradox that has been trailing around him for so long only makes what takes place following M-Day all the more tragic. It also makes everything that happens between those two points all the more frustrating. With the X-Traitor storyline resolved, Bishop loses his USP, especially since by this point the ’90s are finally starting to move beyond their obsession with absolutely, positively having to kill every mother-fucker in the room, and that basically makes Bishop a more pragmatic version of pretty much everyone else. In the following years, attempts were made to refashion Bishop as an interstellar adventurer (which entirely failed) and a hard-nosed cop (which didn’t work as far as I could see, though I lost interest after Chris Claremont got his hands on him in X-Treme X-Men). It wasn’t until the world lost all but the smallest fraction of its mutants that Bishop’s became truly interesting again. It was then that his status as a refugee from the future would once again become important (and no, The Twelve doesn’t count, even though I seem to be rather less unhappy with it than most). Everyone else wanted to know why Bishop hadn’t seen this coming, and Bishop himself - who most certainly had seen it coming - wanted to know what the Hell he was going to do about it.

Bishop, as people often forget, never actually chose to come to our time, he simply chased a bunch of dangerous criminals through a time gate that proved to be a one-way only kind of deal. If he had made the journey deliberately, though, we now know that he would have had two major goals. Keep the X-Men alive, and ensure Hope, the first mutant to be born after M-Day, ends up really, really killed. The fact that every other X-Man - the people Bishop has stood beside for years, who he has watched fight and on occasion die for a dream he shares - cannot be allowed to matter.

I don’t know how many people were upset when Bishop started carving his way through his former allies. It’s been a while since the X-books bothered with letter pages, and I don’t have any other connections to public opinion in general on these matters. What I can state with utter certainty however is that anyone who did object to it on the grounds that it was out of character was a jive sucker (what? I’m branching out!). This shit was so in character it hurts. It’s always much harder to believably turn a hero into a villain than it is to go the other way, or at least it is in comics. Havok as leader of the Brotherhood? Do me a favour.

With Bishop, though, it totally works, because he was always playing for bigger stakes. You know that old moral question about whether or not you’d want to go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby? That’s the entirety of Bishop’s life. Everything is a calculation about what needs to be changed to save the world. That’s why he went off the reservation during the civil war; he has loyalties that run far deeper than the X-Men. In fact, and this is another nice touch (or would be if I didn’t suspect it was entirely coincidental), loyalties that run deeper than this mostly new iteration of X-Men that never existed in the legends of Bishop’s time because Bishop himself is responsible for their existence. Bishop is willing to kill the X-Men who are actually alive - alive because of Bishop - because they can’t compete with his own extrapolation of the dream embodied by the X-Men who were dead before he arrived. How’s that for a kick-ass time paradox, Chris Chibnall?

(Ah, Chris Chibnall. You worthless hack.)

So, Messiah Complex treated us to the sight of Bishop attacking or even trying to kill his teammates. The ongoing Cable series has taken that to a whole new level. By this point, Bishop is tracking the new mutant (now named Hope) through time, and Cable with her, determined to finish her off. Clearly by this point Bishop is most certainly deep into unhinged villain territory, but crucially it still makes total sense from his perspective. What’s changed isn’t Bishop, really, it’s the way in which the world has presented itself to the person Bishop was all along. Cable, in this sense, offers the final piece of the puzzle. As we watch Bishop exterminating damn near the entirety of humanity in the centuries that follow our own, we discover not that Bishop has completely lost his mind, but that Bishop’s most serious flaw was always, and I mean always, that he was arrogant enough to believe that he could make the call over what was the right thing to do. He was like that back in the mutant concentration camp of his childhood, he was like that when he and Shard were on the streets together (note how much trouble he has dealing with her once she returns as a hologram with her own ideas on how things are supposed to be), he was most certainly like that when he first met the X-Men. This is just it taken to a horrifying degree. Bishop is so sure that the death of Hope will rewrite everything that he’s willing to kill billions - maybe tens of billions, considering our rate of population growth right now - on the theory that he’s right. Not even that, in fact. He’s doing it on the theory that he’s right and that he can't possibly fail.

At that point, you can stop drawing a line to Wolverine, and aim for Shakespeare instead. I’m not even slightly kidding. I haven’t gotten to the end of Cable’s run yet, so I don’t know how it all ends. One assumes it will go badly for Bishop (Second Coming alone proves that it can’t have gone too well for him, certainly, not to mention the last time I saw him he had a Brood stuck in his neck). He’s already an arm and an eye down, after all (his obsession is making him lose the parts that make him who he is DO YOU SEE YOU GUYS?). I have to confess to hoping he makes it through, though. Right now, he’s more interesting than he’s ever been, and in a way that makes absolute sense to the total non-character he started as almost two decades ago.

In fact, you could spin that out for a quite a while. Set him up as the guy who’ll take your side or not, based on the future only he knows, and will only trust himself to shape. An uncontrollable wild card who will save the day whenever it suits him. In other words, what everyone thought they were getting with Gambit all those years ago. It would be logical place to take the character, and sooner or later, when our world finally catches up with his, it might finally give him some peace. His current mad obsession, notwithstanding, I think I’d like to see that.

Course, it might be a bit harder now he’s killed the entire fucking world. But whoever said fiction was easy?

Next time on SS v X, we discuss the X-Man everyone had forgotten even existed, and discover why that was the best way for everyone to go in any case.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have all of Bishop's series. He was never a murderer, and when he did his own thing, he was still a true hero. He was an X-Man in the first one and acted as such. In one ongoing and one limited series, he operated as a cop (arresting criminals, using lethal force on criminals when necessary, and letting the system take care of the rest) & saved everyone's ungrateful ass from AOA. In one ongoing, he was in an alternate timeline teaching kids to be like the X-Men. The other two limited series kind of played as histories filling in moments of his timeline.
fuck marvel for spitting on character dvlpt & history just for schock stories!
fuck house of m & messiah complex & morrison's run (yeah i know district x & mutant culture aside the rest was putrid ,wretched & mean spirited!)

I mean, hell when you start rooting for Stryfe to slaughter the "heroes", something is definitely wrong!