Friday, 24 December 2010

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #38: Safe, Maat; Safe

It seems appropriate that we see 2010 out with the last of the 20th Century X-Men.  At least, I think it does, and I hope that you agree with me on that point. There's very little chance that you'll agree with anything else I have to say here, after all.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that "Even in a minority of one, the truth is still the truth".  Sure, he probably meant it regarding the inevitability of India's freedom from colonial rule, but I'd like to think he'd be thinking along similar lines if he'd lived long enough to see how often Maggott ends up at the top of "WORST X-MEN EVAH" lists.  I think it'd be his kind of thing.

People hate this guy.  They hate him with a passion that's almost impressive in its vitriol, given how little time Japeth was actually on the team (only around a year or so).  For the life of me, I've never understood why.  Given his comparatively short tenure, I could understand people not giving a damn.  I can see why having the mutant power of not being able to digest food might strike more than a few people as less than gripping.  Beyond that, though, I'm struggling to see the problem.

Of course, I would struggle to see the problem, because I believe that Maggott is genuinely awesome.  When the immanent return of Nightcrawler, Colossus and Shadowcat from the pages of Excalibur apparently necessitated the ousting of Cannonball, Cecila Reyes and Maggott, it was the latter whose loss I felt most keenly.  And given my deep and abiding love of Cecilia (I'm delighted she's back in the comics these days, even in the current "generic doctor" role she seems to be fulfilling), that's high praise indeed.

What follows, then, is a full-throated defense of the X-Universe's most underrated mutant.

Of all the complaints one can level against Maggott, the one that I have most sympathy with is the suggestion that he represented one more iteration of the endlessly recycled 90s character model: Tragic Past + Tortured Nature + Brash Exterior.  This, of course, is an issue I have discussed at great length in the past.  I'm no more of a fan of the Wolverine Conveyor Belt (TM) than anyone else.

Having said that, however, we must be careful not to spread our net too wide.  It is easy to fall into the trap of being so expansive in our definition of what constitutes "recycling" that almost anything falls into it.  That's how you become that lunatic howling on the internet that Stargate Universe ripped off Voyager because both shows are about lost space craft, as though that was an idea that sprung into being from nowhere in the mid '90s.  Once you start complaining about disastrous pasts and profoundly difficult lives, you're pretty much having a pop at fiction itself.  Just ask Oedipus.

What matters then is not the basic building blocks from which a character is assembled, but the exact shape into which those bricks have been arranged.  It's here that Maggott diverges sharply from, say Wolverine or Gambit (the two most obvious examples of the trope we're discussing), and it's this change that makes me love the character as much as I do.

Something else that we' ve discussed before is that there is no easier way to make a character popular (well, a male character, at least) than to have him be almost entirely immune to authority.  So it is with Wolverine, so it is with Gambit.  In both cases, the idea is that their fellow teammates, and by extension the audience, value and support them despite their surliness/untrustworthiness/checkered past.  Or, perhaps, actually because of it, since sticking measures of mystery and danger into a cocktail shaker and giving it some welly rarely fails to work in fiction.

This is what makes Maggott both unique and awesome.  Yes, he has a terrible secret.  Yes, his past is apparently filled with horrible truths and disturbing revelations. However, rather than mask it with Logan-style curmudgeonly surliness or Remy-esque snake-tongued charm, both of which are self-defeating as Shadowcat, Jubilee, Rogue and Storm (to name but a few) could attest, Maggott chooses to go for outrageous narcissism.  That's fun enough on its own (look at how miserable he gets when someone calls him ugly), but what makes it really work is that it fails spectacularly.  Wolvie can't move for people throwing themselves in every bullet that comes his way, and nor in general can Remy (before UXM #350, at least).  Maggott just manages to piss people off (hence the quote beneath his portrait).  Wolverine is caught between his desire to be left alone and his need for companionship.  Gambit is torn between a need to be forgiven and his own self-loathing.  Maggott just wants people to like him, and tries so hard that he ends up ensuring no-one does.

This, I submit, is deeply refreshing for a '90s character.  Whilst he might have as much baggage as the next mutant, his desire to be a well-loved superhero is entirely separate to that (even if we learn during the Psi-War that - perhaps subconsciously - he blames his slugs for the fact it hasn't happened).  He's not a mysterious stranger, he's just that guy at the party who's trying too hard.  I suspect we've all been there at some point, in truth; Maggott's problem is just that he doesn't know how to take his foot off the gas.  The fact that he's attempting a Casanova impression whilst constantly accompanied by two disgusting metal slugs just makes it funnier, and more tragic.

It's probably worth considering Eeany and Meany in more detail at this point, because I know that for some people the point that Japeth stopped being interesting was when we finally learned how his life as a mutant began.  One complaint I've heard in the past is that his sudden shift from preening powerhouse to tortured wreck made Maggott vastly too "emo" to be appreciated.

This is something else I've never understood.  From my perspective, broken mutants are always the most interesting. This is probably a good point to consider just how the mutant metaphor functions, actually.  The most common interpretation is that the "mutant problem" is analogous to the struggle for civil rights in '60s America - so much so that "Xavier = MLK, Magneto = Malcolm X" is repeatedly used as shorthand to describe the book's '80s set-up.  Maggott works as a handy reminder that the struggle for equality was not an exclusively American concern, nor is it even close to being settled.  Moreover, by directly entangling the issues of the mutant struggle with the fight against apartheid, there are new avenues that can be explored.  In X-Men #76, we learn Japeth's older brother Lot was murdered in cold blood by White South African soldiers.  When Maggott finds out, he begs Magneto to avenge him.  Magneto is happy to do so, both to aid a fellow mutant and to strike another blow against the humanity he hates.

As Magneto coldly slaughters the soldiers mid-way through their attack on another township, Japeth is horrified.  Not just because ol' Bucket-Head is happily murdering people he could simply have disarmed, but because the township survivors are cheering the massacre.  Of course, our insider knowledge means we can see an extra level here.  A mutant who despises humanity but cares nothing about race chooses to wipe a few homo sapiens out, and the surrounding black humans cheer him on because they see him wiping out their white oppressors.  It never occurs to them that had the soldiers been mutants Magneto would probably have been leading them.  For my money, that one brief flashback scene says more about the complexity of the mutant metaphor and race relations in general than many writers manage during their entire run.

Of course, it's not everyone sees it that way.  Indeed, there are those who aren't convinced by the "mutant as race metaphor" idea at all.  I once read an article (by John Seavey, if I remember rightly) arguing that the true metaphor in the X-Men wasn't racism so much as geek culture - that is, based on one's lifestyle choices rather than colour or heritage.  I don't think that's entirely wrong, and indeed I agree entirely that such an interpretation probably does account for a hefty percentage of the X-Men's popularity, but the key thing that analysis misses is that it's describing almost every superhero comic ever.  Part of the appeal is always the implicit idea that you could be someone truly special without the people around you catching on, and that you might surround yourselves with other equally special people.  It doesn't matter whether you're reading the X-Men, or the Avengers, or the JLA.  The secret identity idea that is so ingrained within the genre does the same job.

What makes the X-Men different from many (though by no means all) superhero stories is that the mutant angle allows them to play around with the idea that what makes someone special might be really, really shitty.  I can realise that you can colour an argument which says all that does is make the suffering most superheroes go through more literal.  Instead of Spiderman trying to keep down a job and look after Aunt May and date MJ all whilst being punched by a veritable smorgasbord of rapacious freaks, you have a guy whose digestive system is a pair of quasi-sentient sociopathic slugs.  I'm not sure I'd agree, though.  I think external pressures and internal ones are very different, and need to be explored in different ways.

This is what makes Japeth fascinating to me.  Up until his arrival at the mansion, the vast majority of mutants that made up the team had no downside to their X-genes, and those problems that did arise were limited to either a lack of control or a freakish appearance (and even those were often due to external factors, as with Cyclops or Beast).  Japeth's problem isn't that he looks strange (though he often does) nor that he cannot control his powers (though in some ways that's true in the sense that he can't always bring his slugs to heel).  It is simply that his power requires multiple torture sessions on a daily basis.  When his slugs have fed and chew their way into his hollow chest to keep him alive, his power is literally eating away at him.  Perhaps that's not particularly subtle, but anyone with a long-running medical condition, physical or psychological, should be able to identify with what Maggott has to go through.

(Oh, and as a side issue, Eeany and Meany are fucking awesome, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.  They're so awesome they hang out with demon vivisectionists for no discernible reason.  They eat bombs.  They attack enemies.  They give Maggott opportunities to look at Sabra's legs whilst she's kicking them into paste.  They're also distinctly reminiscent of Leroy Gomm from Clive Barker's Clive Barker's Nightbreed by Clive Barker [1], and that can be no bad thing either.)

If the X-Men are so frequently about the changes to life wrought by the travails of puberty, then, Maggott is about how one's existence can be irrevocably knocked sideways by the onset of a chronic condition.  Or, at least, he could have been.  His tenure on the team following the explanation of his powers lasted all of three issues, which makes him a massive missed opportunity (as well as making people's issues with the all-new "emo" Maggott all the more strange - I've had hangovers that have lasted longer).  Of all the X-Men at the time, only Marrow had the same opportunity for exploring what it means to live your entire life in pain or duress, but everyone was too busy justifying her place on the roster to give it much thought.

In the end, then, we return to the same ground as we did over Cecilia Reyes.  Maggott was a dropped ball.  A missed chance to do something genuinely interesting.  Maybe my love for him is as much about where I could see him going, as where he actually went.  I can't blame anyone who sees things differently; who focuses on "missed" rather than "opportunity".  That's not how I roll, though.  Maggott was valuable.  Hell, he's so valuable that after his death Sinister got hold of one of his slugs to keep in his lab.  And if Sinister thinks someone is interesting, then you damn well better listen.

RIP maat, you good-lekking oke.

Right.  That's it for the '90s X-Men.  When this series returns in 2011, we shall move into the era that marked the return of Chris Claremont, and ask: can you ever go home again?  And, also, why are all these D-listers showing up on the road back?

[1] Copyright Yahtzee


Anonymous said...

AH! The loathesome despicable Maggott!

Yes Maggott, Maggott has ALWAYS.....

No, you know what i'm sick of it, im tired of putting Maggott down all the Time! what the Fuck is the matter with you people !

Hell i like Maggott, I'm a Maggott fan! and I dont like the way who we always have to say what an Asshole he was!( while he definitely was not...)

I mean his mutant power are the two little robo-slugs that eat stuff and power him up( while giving an immunity to any gastric illness! Ha Spider Jerusalem 's disruptor is useless here!).

The issue of his death, at the concentration camp where he gave one of his slugs to a little kid so she has something to play with (reminds me a lot of "la vie est belle") while he keeps smiling knowing that he'll soon be cremated...made me teary (kind of like Jack Monroe 's lonesome death issue...)
so here 's to you ya big blue omnivore

Great recap man! Even though I completely disagree when it comes to Gambit, when handled well he's one of the greatest characters ever made!


SpaceSquid said...

Man, this is why I love the internet. It would never have occurred to me to mount a defence of Maggott on the grounds that Spider Jerusalem would find himself powerless against him.

You're quite right, of course. Maggott don't get scooped unless dat boykie wanna get scooped, safe, maat?

Poor Big Bird...