Wednesday, 24 November 2010

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #37: The Unlovely Bones

There is a brilliant moment in an episode of The Simpsons - one of the earlier ones, obviously, when the show was still skewering tired institutions rather than being one - when Homer puts down a copy of Andy Capp and says with amused fondness: "Ah, Andy Capp.  You wife-beating drunk".

Marrow could be said to inspire a similar reaction. "Ah, Marrow.  You unrepentant mass-murderer".  The X-Men isn't intended to be light-hearted comedy, of course, but arguably it's no less incongruous to include the orchestrator of a nightclub massacre on a superhero team than it is to make spousal abuse into a Sunday paper cartoon punchline.

Frankly, I don't think there's any way to consider Marrow without dealing with that fundamental problem.  Nor is it easy to solve, given the blood and violence involved.  Perhaps we can at least find a way to consider it, though, by returning to a topic we've covered before regarding both Gambit and Joseph: redemption.

Whilst I was working on Joseph's post, I spent a lot of time thinking about Angel and Angelus.  Whilst their situations are not entirely similar, there is a certain degree of similarity between a man who cannot remember his crimes and one who committed their crimes whilst controlled by a demon, especially since both characters are determined to atone for what "they" have done.  I spoke to SpaceSquid Sr. on the issue, and he was very clear on the opinion of the law: amnesia is not going to wash as a defense.  It seems plausible that what can perhaps best be described as a plea of "not guilty by reason of disassociative identity disorder" isn't going to cut the legal mustard either.

In both cases, however, the sympathies of the show and the audience are with the hero's choice to bypass the legal system in favour of making their own choices over how best to repay their debt to society.  I wonder whether this is a particularly American phenomenon; some corollary of their constant obsession with their supposed sine qua non of individual freedom.  Certainly, I struggle to think of any British shows that work on the same premise.  Characters like the Doctor often circumvent authority, of course, but that's not quite the same thing.

If we accept for the sake of argument however that this kind of DIY community service is an acceptable idea (in fiction, at least), two new questions announce their arrival.  First: is there any upper limit to the viciousness of the crimes that can be answered for in this way?  Second: is it something you can force anybody to do?

Both of these questions are relevant to the Marrow situation.  Sure, Magneto's rap sheet is longer than his purple cape, but on top of the fact that hardly anyone remembers anything he got up to in the early years of his anti-human crime wave (conquering San Marco, anyone?), he stood trial in the mid '80s over everything he had done until up to that point.  His debt, at that point, was judged to have been paid.  Angel has committed any number of brutally obscene acts in the past, but he has an eternity to work towards atonement.  Besides, crucially, we know very little about exactly what he got up to, which is part of what makes Angel work as a series.

Marrow's handiwork, in contrast, is well known.  Indeed, her first act after returning from the pocket dimension in which she grew up was to murder a hundred-odd people in a nightclub for no better reason than to announce Gene Nation's arrival to humanity  That's not an easy sin to wash from one's soul, especially since her next act is to abduct the passengers aboard a subway car and rig explosive devices to them.  Nor does she see the error of her ways at the last minute; Storm is forced to rip her heart out in a desperate attempt to save lives.

When Marrow returns from the dead, then [1], it would have been difficult for anyone who remembered her original appearance (only two years earlier) to buy into her place on the team, even had she made it abundantly clear she is seeking redemption.

Of course, redemption is the absolute last thing on Marrow's mind.  At the absolute best, she's become more likely to just threaten to stab you to death, rather than pull out one of her bone daggers and actually bother doing the deed, but that's about it.  I find it impossible to construct any reason to not hand her over to the authorities.

In fairness, I suspect Lobdell - who both created Marrow and engineered her return - was the victim of circumstance here, at least to some extent.  Marrow was reintroduced in the early stages of the Operation: Zero Tolerance storyline.  As a brief primer for the uninitiated, O:ZT is an attempt by the villain Bastion (who somehow spends the whole story posing as a human despite being bright fucking pink) to end the mutant threat once and for all by using hundreds of sleeper agent Prime Sentinels - cybernetically-enhanced humans, rather than giant robots - to round up homo superior and lock them away permanently.

In the story as released, Senator Kelly managed to talk the US Congress to pull the plug on Bastion's scheme, which was a something of a nice payoff for years of character development, but rather anti-climactic as the conclusion to a crossover event. In any case, the original plan, absent editorial interference, was for O:ZT to last for months, with the X-Men on the run the whoe time.  In that context, having Marrow on the team would make far more sense.  She's just the sort of stone-cold killer the X-Men might have needed to rely upon to survive.  Not only would that throw up some interesting moral quandries, but it would also mean that post-O:ZT, the X-Men would owe Marrow a considerable debt, which would at least partially justify keeping her around.

Instead, barring Marrow's assistance in getting Iceman and Cecilia Reyes out of harm's way, Marrow does pretty much nothing to justify a room in the mansion, or out of a jail cell.  Indeed, there are several occasions where characters explicitly point out the ludicrousness of having Marrow on the team.  Storm in particular is baffled as to why a murderer has taken up residence (hardly surprising, considering their history). When Rogue reminds Ororo she came to the X-Men as a wanted criminal, Storm replies that Rogue never took a human life.  I'm not sure that's the point, though.  Rogue might technically not be a killer, though she came damn close with Carol Danvers (in fact, whose to say that deliberately stealing someone's memories and powers and leaving them in a coma you expect to last indefinitely isn't a worse crime), but Wolverine most certainly is.  The difference isn't in the crime (or at least, the nature of the crime in qualitative terms), it's that Logan and Anna Marie chose redemption.  Marrow has redemption forced upon her as a condition of staying at the mansion.

This brings us to our second question. When did the X-Men decide that they were a law unto themselves?  Sure, they've always strayed into that territory, just like pretty much every superhero team.  And yes, it's difficult to blame them for being somewhat more leery of authority than usual after O:ZT was given the go by the government, short-lived though its lifespan was.  Even so, there's a line being crossed here, from providing sanctuary to providing extra-legal punishment.  The fear that mutants can't get a fair hearing notwithstanding, it's a pretty ugly look for a team dedicated to harmony between themselves and humans.  All of which is to say nothing of the implication that that from that point on there was little a villain could do and not join up with the team the following week.  Hell, they wouldn't have to say they were sorry; just promise to only stab those mutants that could survive it.

Ultimately, the decision made over all this was to chart Marrow's progress from rebellious teenager to confident young woman.  Which, of course, is fine in theory. Tried and tested, in fact.  It just couldn't work here.  To return to another Groening product, we can paraphrase Turanga Leela here: "Y'know, Marrow, once I thought you were an sociopathic serial killer.  Then I realised that inside you were just a frightened teenage girl.  But now I see that outside that frightened teenage girl is a sociopathic serial killer!"  I really don't care whether Marrow becomes more confident and learns to find her inner beauty, because she's already killed hundreds of people.  Her teenage angst, to quote Heathers, has a body count, only Marrow can't blame everything on Christian Slater.  I know I give Alan Davis a lot of stick for his ultimate choice to stick Marrow into a Skrull medical system that rearranges her DNA to make her beautiful (I think they nicked it from the Shi'ar; tough to see what use shapechangers would have for an ""ensexifier"), because it entirely threw away what'= had been been built up and rather confirmed that Davis just can't handle anything that involves moving his internal dial away from "whimsical".  In all honesty, though, there it's hard to think what else he could do, other than writing her out (which would certainly have been my choice).

None of this is to say that, on an issue-by-issue basis, Marrow didn't have her moments.  You could even see her as something of a replacement for the absent Gambit, only without any trace of charm or style (possibly another reason she didn't last too long once Remy returned).  In total, though, it's difficult not to consider her the sum total of the '90s worst vices: a vicious, amoral, argumentative anti-heroine totally disinterested in the amount of collateral (or indeed direct) damage she caused.  And yet, as far as I can tell, Marrow was the most popular of three new recruits the team acquired during O:ZT.  The fascinating Cecilia Reyes was soon reduced to a supporting character, and the bafflingly underrated Maggott was gone within a year or so, but Marrow remained, offering razor-bone sandwiches to all and sundry.  I guess that serves as an important reminder that if we didn't actually birth the monster back in those days, we were certainly happy to feed it.

Eventually, mercifully, people saw sense.  Since her unexplained disappearance prior to Claremont's X-Men #100 (part of the Revolutions line-wide reboot which, like most such things, didn't really work out), Marrow has resurfaced occasionally, but back to what she started as, an furious genetic terrorist.  Again, it's a shame to waste everything she went through, but there's no denying this original and current model is the only one that can possibly work within the comic.  Like the '90s themselves, the character was not without her moments, but perhaps in the final analysis, she's best left buried in the past.

Having said that, now that Cyclops has declared a general amnesty...

Next month we conclude our look at the X-Men of the '90s by discussing Maggott, and I risk the wrath of the entire internet by arguing that he was entirely awesome and not liking him makes you dangerously stupid.

[1] By virtue of a "second heart", which rather undercuts the original metaphor of her original death.  Which is something of a shame; I always liked the subtext to Storm's actions, despite the spectacular lack of subtlety.


Jamie said...

One of your paragraphs is incomplete: 'In any case, the original plan, absent editorial interference, was for O:ZT'...

SpaceSquid said...

Every time I see your name on the list of commentators I know I've screwed up somewhere ;)

Seriously, though; that's really weird. I certainly wrote the full paragraph. I don't know what happened there.

Anyway, 'tis fixed now.