Thursday, 30 August 2012

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #41: The Shifting Psyche

Well, this has taken a while, hasn't it?

There are two reasons why I haven't come back to SS v X in over a year, and both of them involve today's focus: Danielle Moonstar.  The first is fairly simple; Mirage graduated to the X-Men a little over a decade ago, but she's never been around too much in the main books. Add that to the fact she's been a fan favourite in various spin-offs since she first appeared in the early '80s, and you have a character about which a great deal can be said by others, but not really by myself.

The other problem is perhaps somewhat more interesting.  Mirage, like Thunderbird and Forge before her, is a Native American, and I'm worried that I'm beginning to sound like a broken record when it comes to discussing that particular group in these articles.  Simply put, I'm concerned that repeatedly lamenting the similarities of their characters is in itself reinforcing the idea that Native American characters are all the same. Am I picking up on a genuine problem?  Or am I contributing to it with ham-fisted analysis?

Now that I've flagged that potential problem, I'm going to proceed as normal, and anyone who wants to pull me up can do.  Unlike almost every other racial group and nationality I've discussed in these articles, I've never to my knowledge met a Native American, and they're not particularly common in the sections of American film and television I tend to frequent. I'd have to be an idiot to claim any great insight into any group other than white middle class British heterosexual men, but the ground we're treading here I am particularly unsure about.

All that said, it seems to me that for a long time in American comics (and perhaps American fiction in general; Deputy Hawk in Twin Peaks being the first counterexample I can think of), a Native American character can basically go one of three ways.  They can reject their heritage, and end up in dubious stories about how if only they'd embrace the old ways everything would be fine (Forge).  They can accept their heritage and get all pissed off and combative about how things have gone south for the Indian Nations, and end up in uncomfortable stories about learning not all white people are the enemy and we have so much we could learn from each other if only we could get past the Trail of Tears for five minutes (Thunderbird, for the ten minutes he was alive).  Or they can accept both their heritage and the world as it has become, and get all wise and serene, and end up in patronising stories about how noble and spiritual Native Americans are, and how we should be more like them (Alpha Flight's Shaman, who'll we'll be getting to over at Year X in few weeks).

Danielle Moonstar does at least represent an improvement over this simplistic trinity, in the sense that she's a teenager first and Cheyenne second. Frankly, it's often the case that teenagers are written with a lack of variety that outstrips even that of Native American characters, but the combination gets us a little way; we're never sure if Dani is butting heads with Xavier in order to prove the Cheyenne are the equal of the white man, or teenagers are the equal of the fully grown (or, for that matter, if it's just a good old fashioned battle of the sexes).  And if it's maybe strange that Mirage is tied to her heritage much more than her contemporaries (her parents being possessed by a demonic spirit bear, for example), then it's just as easy to argue that makes, say, Nightcrawler insufficiently developed, rather than Dani too much about Cheyenne mythology.  Certainly I've said enough times that the international bent of the team from Second Genesis onward was too often skin-deep.  A character informed by their culture is not to be sniffed at, even if the application of that culture in comics in general can be somewhat less than impressive.

Also, anyone wanting to argue that repeated trips to the Native American well were a mistake (and the extent to which I understand that complaint has more to do with the way Thunderbird and later Forge were portrayed than anything about Dani specifically) faces the obvious problem that once the character became unmoored from her "headstrong Cheyenne teenager" phase, no-one seemed to have the slightest fucking clue what to do with her.  Claremont himself began this trend by making Dani a Valkyrie, and whatever one's position on the use of her heritage, tacking on the myths of a completely different culture (a white European one at that) seems unambiguously ill-advised.  I mean, for God's sake: re-inventing a Native American as the herald of a European concept of oncoming death?  Why not just rename her Smallpox? [1]

Following that, Mirage spends a great deal of time undercover (though that wasn't at all clear at the time) as a member of the Mutant Liberation Front before disappearing for an awfully long time, then returning just in time to be de-powered on M-Day.  I confess I've not read very much at all of these story lines, so take all this with a pinch of salt, but I can't escape the sense that Dani is one of those characters that survives on audience appreciation, not because they have a strong enough hook to propel through the decades.  She's been well-handled in the latest iteration of New Mutants, though even there her status as the team's non-powered member means she's returned to her earliest iteration - a proud young woman desperate to prove her worth.  You can see that as pleasantly cyclical, or you can take it as further evidence that no-one's ever really known what to do with Moonstar since the mid '80s. [2]

Which, speaking of the cyclical, brings us back to where we started: it all comes back to her being Native American. That aspect to her character was so significant that it seemed to swallow her whilst it was present, and leave her undefined when it was replaced or obscured.  I'm obviously not arguing that a strong connection to history and culture is a bad thing for a character, but that doesn't mean one can't go too far in the other direction, and whilst I'm not willing to come flat out and say that's what happened, I'd struggle to come up with an alternative argument that better explains the character's problems.

If all that's not too racist.

Next time (hopefully in under a year, though I'm not optimistic) we talk about what it means to be a woman with the mind of a supercomputer and the heart of and oh my God I don't even care it's Sage and why am I being punished?

[1] Maybe one could put together an argument suggesting a character whose power is entirely based on uncovering the terror of others works as a kind of  metaphorical nod to her own people's greatest fear, but I wouldn't want to be the one to write it. 

[2] She's even been through three codenames, one of which was her own actual surname.  It's damn hard not to see that as a rather appropriate commentary on the difficulty of giving Dani anything interesting to do without repeatedly reinventing her.

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