Saturday, 11 September 2010

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #35: The Approximation

Character descriptions can be tricky things. On the one hand, you don’t want them to be overly complicated. That’s not to saying complex characters are a bad thing, obviously, but if you can’t sum up the essentials in sound-bite form, it’s generally evidence things are too murky and confused. Psylocke is a case in point: “Sexy psychic ninja [1]” doesn’t give us anything about who she is, and anything in addition is liable to trap us upon the endless Ferris wheel of madness that makes up her existence. “Angry, lonely, beer-swilling samurai”, on the other hand, gets us far closer to who Wolverine really is.

Things can also go wrong when you try defining a character by what they are not, rather than what they are. “She’s not a typical woman!” “He’s not the sort to give a crap!” “They’re not going to play by the rules!” Whilst these might not necessarily be automatically bad (or the last two, anyway; see below), there is a depressingly high number of examples for which this approach has led to sub-Gambit-style literary laziness.

In short, then, you ideally want something snappy yet informative, which defines the characters rather than just sketching the outline they form against the void.

With all that in mind, then, it’s probably not a good sign that the only real way to describe Joseph seems to be as follows: “He’s not Magneto”.

Looking back at Joseph’s brief life, it seems like every dramatic beat in his entire story involves him behaving either just like Magneto, or entirely unlike him. He loves human children, but he massacres those who threaten his charges. He has faith in human nature, but he’s still desperate to take Rogue aside for some horizontal jogging. Plus, of course, he goes crazy at anything the writers judge reminiscent of the Holocaust.

It was probably inevitable that things would turn out this way. Joseph could no more escape Magneto’s shadow than New Coke could distance itself from its ubiquitous older sibling (and in fairness that was at least partially the point – both for Joseph and for Coca Cola). Still, just because something was bound to happen does not mean we should be happy when it does. In truth, Joseph is of very little interest as a character, precisely because of this phenomenon – everything he does is compelling only in comparison to someone else.

So is there anything we can take from what literally no-one is calling “The Joseph Years”? Well, one would hope we might say something regarding the old battle between nature and nurture. This, of course, is a central issue within the X-books, at least from Claremont onwards. The assembled masses of anti-mutant hysteria are ignoring nurture entirely, after all, claiming nature is so important as to trump any consideration as to who someone is, rather than what. Moreover, there is always some interest in seeing how well-known characters react in radically different circumstances. This is one of the wonderful qualities of the Age of Apocalypse. It’s fascinating to see Cyclops forced to choose between his conscience and his father figure, rather than finding them always in lock-step (until after the millennium, at least), or watch Wolverine actually with Jean Grey, and then watching her drift slowly away. The AoA was an entirely different world, though. If you want to study the effects of altering someone’s background, one should not start the experiment in a laboratory and conclude it in a burning field.

Joseph gives us the opportunity to change the pieces without changing the board. This is a great idea in theory – though it’s worth noting that as careful as the Holocaust needs to be handled in superhero stories in general, you need to handle the idea of Holocaust survivors forgetting their experience far more carefully still [2]. Unfortunately, though, it turns out that the ‘90s X-Men writers were uniformly of the opinion that Magneto – horrific personal trauma – years of fruitless struggle = whiny little bitch. Even his one real remaining link to his past, his powerful attraction to Rogue (and I do like the idea that this is coded into his DNA, though this may be because I am convinced my predisposition towards redheads is entirely genetic) reduces him to squabbling with Gambit like a lovelorn and sulky teenager.

This is particularly disappointing because the juxtaposition between Joseph and Remy is far more interesting for other reasons. The comparison between them is particularly important whilst considering this question: can you be held responsible for crimes you no longer remember?

This is naturally relevant for Gambit. His crimes remain a secret for almost the entirety of Joseph’s tenure on the team, and when they are revealed it is not through his choice. If Joseph can be held morally responsible for the crimes of Magneto, however (if we make the same assumption as the characters at the time and work from the position that Joseph is a de-aged amnesiac, rather than the clone he ultimately proved to be), then it is clear that Remy is no longer the X-Man most in need of absolution. Somehow, though, Joseph is accepted by the majority of the team almost immediately. Worse, Gambit watches Rogue, his former love who left him specifically because of her fears about what he might have done, become Joseph’s most stalwart defender, and perhaps more as well. Apparently, fighting and sacrificing for redemption is far less appealing to the observer than simply waking up one day and forgetting what you need to atone for in any case.

In this particular example, the flaw in Gambit’s logic is clear. Lacking recollection of Magneto’s messy and blood-stained past might save Joseph from some sleepless nights, but that’s irrelevant beyond it being Joseph’s good luck. The X-Men have already forgiven a Magneto entirely in possession of his memories once before, in the ‘80s, precisely because the deeds he chose to atone for were well-known, and because he asked no-one to forget them. Gambit, in contrast, keeps it all secret and hopes everyone else will forget any of it was ever there in the first place. It’s like apologising to someone for stealing their money, and offering to pay it back in monthly instalments, but refusing to disclose how much you stole in the first place.

In general, what should be done with Joseph is unclear. Or at least, one’s initial inclination might well diverge sharply from the law. As far as, say, Rogue is concerned, Magneto is gone. Not dead, necessarily, because Joseph may in theory regain those buried memories, but perhaps in a coma – a state which does not generally suggest itself to a jail cell. Whilst Joseph remains ignorant of his past, then, it could at least be argued that there is nothing to be done.

Is that true, though? Part of the answer to that depends on how one views justice, and weighs its various aims. We talk about those who die before sentencing as “escaping justice”. Rehabilitation (often the most pressing concern of the liberal, myself included) has now become a non-issue, but society’s need to see the guilty punished has been denied. If such is your primary concern, then it is very difficult to argue that someone can escape justice whilst going free. That might seem to depend on what we understand by the term “guilty”, but actually it doesn’t. The law is quite clear that amnesia is almost never a defence against verdict, merely a qualifying factor in punishment (this is why, to return to Joseph’s true nature, one should not consider an amnesiac criminal as entirely interchangeable with a clone of same).

Our question, then, is not whether Joseph should be held responsible, so much as what should be done about it. This boils down to considering his capacity to re-offend. If Joseph is truly divorced from “his” former life, then rehabilitation is not only impossible, but if one is interested in preventing Magneto from committing further crimes, locking him up with no memory as to why would seem to be entirely counter-productive.

But is that divorce total? His reaction to the Phalanx proves his memories are entirely missing. He is clearly in possession of a great deal of his education. He can speak English, he knows where America is, he doesn’t have any problems understanding the way a convent works. If all that remains (and yes, a lot of this simply stems from the way fiction treats amnesia), then can we be sure that the state of mine that led to him, say, sinking a Russian submarine with all hands is truly no longer in evidence? The nature of law states that whilst one is assumed innocent until proven guilty, once the latter is decided the burden is upon the defendant to prove they are deserving of clemency. This can be summed up by the following example: if you are found to be carrying heroin, claiming it was planted upon you will not save you from conviction, only (possibly) helping you out with your punishment. Whether or not this is fair is a discussion for another time. It remains true. Whether Joseph should escape jail time (or even the death penalty) is a matter for sentencing, not for the attribution of guilt.

Obviously, none of this is really relevant with regard to the X-Men. As Rogue, Emma Frost and (to a far greater extent, as we shall cover next month) Marrow make clear, the team is entirely willing to take in former criminals, even when their contrition for their earlier crimes is somewhat less than complete. At that point, however, we’re into the question of how much one should consider oneself beholden to a system you already know is desperately biased against you – a topic for another time. Let’s just say that the team tends to believe they’re a law unto themselves, and this is something that always works far better in fiction than it would in the real world. Moreover, perhaps the good a superhero can do is so great that we should consider serving with the X-Men as a form of saving lives (though there is probably an entire article to be written on whether the sheer power of superheroes should mean that they should be allowed to atone for serious crimes by what amounts to exceptionally useful community service), though that is of course an argument that the system can be improved, rather than ignored.

Let us leave things there. Joseph serves as an interesting experiment. Perhaps he was a failure as a character, but it must be said that anyone who can generate so much text on the subject of his existence (even compensating for my tendency for ludicrous verbosity) should not be immediately dismissed as irrelevant.

Next month, we take a very brief break from considering mass-murderers and ask ourselves what you're supposed to do when all your mutant power serves to do is get in the way of your true gift.

[1] I feel bad listing “sexy” as a trait, in all honesty, but then I don’t have a great deal to work with. I shall refrain from embarking upon another rant about how “strong woman” only counts as a character description if you secretly believe a woman behaving like she has no interest in being a second-class citizen is worthy of comment. It’s a mirage, a way of providing female protagonists without providing female characters.

[2] Hint: having Joseph explode with rage because his memories of Auschwitz have been stirred by bird aliens being eaten by Borg aliens? Not the way to go.

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