Sunday, 2 December 2012

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #43: Cold As Ice

Once again it's time for the old villain-to-hero switch.  Obviously, Frost is far from the first such example of this comic phenomena amongst the X-Men.  That said, if we dismiss those characters who were only briefly villains (or who only rarely showed up at all, like Marrow), there's really only two major examples: Rogue and Magneto.  Most of our discussion of Rogue centered around female characters in the medium, and the Magneto post mainly concerned itself with the nature of the character's back-story, so I think we're overdue a consideration of what a successful transition from supervillain to superhero actually entails.

So far as I can see, there are three goals that need to be reached if this kind of thing is to be pulled off successfully.  First of all, there needs to be a compelling reason for the change of alignment.  Secondly, there needs to be a plausible way for the X-Men to be able to forgive or at least overlook the past crimes of their new recruit.  And thirdly, there needs to be something about the character that makes the effort that goes into this kind of manoeuvre worthwhile.

Of those, the third is the easiest to deal with; if you can't do something interesting with a character who's switched sides, then you may as well not bother.  If, for instance, Emma Frost had been intended to simply be a snarky telepath with a ludicrous rack (even by Marvel standards), then there'd be no reason to not just create a character from scratch.  But the first two are at least as important.  Particularly the second.  If you can't come up with a good excuse for the new status quo (Rogue's sudden insistence she was terrified of her power and didn't want to murder people any more, for instance, came entirely out of the blue), then that can sink a few stories during the transition period.  Screw up the justification for forgiveness, however, and the whole enterprise is doomed.

Take Marrow, for instance.  At first her role on the X-roster made sense; the US mutant population was being decimated by Operation: Zero Tolerance, and the fact that the crisis made for uneasy bedfellows wasn't remotely difficult to understand.  With the (editor-mandated) return to the status quo following the cross-over, however, her place on the team was obviously ridiculous, since she showed no remorse whatsoever for the innocent civilians she had killed or tried to kill, and constantly seemed on the verge of a new bout of homicidal violence. Rogue at least quickly managed to prove her willingness to change, and Magneto's rehabilitation was (correctly) deemed so important as to require the entirety of UXM #200 to work through.

(We could also briefly consider Gambit, here, who got around this by not letting on as to what his past crimes were, and therefore gained all the advantages of being a former villain turned hero without any of the baggage, at least until UXM #350).

Magneto, in fact, is a useful comparison for Emma Frost, because they both joined the X-Men for similar reasons: the desire to mould the next generation of mutants.  This both ensured Emma past the first of the three tests, and represents one of her most fundamental character traits; her love of teaching.

Before talking about that, though, we need to backtrack a little.  We've talked a lot in the past about the tendency of female characters in comics to be mainly defined in terms of their relationships with male characters (Jean Grey being the most obvious example).  In truth, there is more than a little of this problem regarding Emma, though it's rather more interesting in both form and origin. On this occasion, the overwhelming male presence isn't the lover, but the father.  Which, sure, no prizes for originality, but at least it's a unisex cliche.

The basic tension between Emma and her father can be boiled down fairly easily: dude's a prick.  It's all cold disdain and disinterested eye-rolling, from a man so unbearable he won't even leave the money he's made screwing over the little guy to his own children, unless they can prove themselves sufficiently morally bankrupt and callously vicious enough to meet his satisfaction, all whilst demonstrating the icy resolve of Winston Frost himself.  Which meant, in addition to becoming as unpleasant a person as possible, the only route for a child desperate to impress their father was to put as much effort as possible into not looking even remotely interested in impressing their father.

This, not surprisingly, rather screwed Emma up.  It would mess with anyone's head, of course, but here the toll was particularly severe because what Emma really wanted to do, from a very early age, was become a teacher.  I speak from personal experience when I say that teaching is not a career where you'll get anywhere not giving a damn about anyone.  I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say a good teacher and a successful business leader require entirely opposite philosophies and intellectual frameworks (though I do know that I love teaching, and consider the everyday lives of people like Donald Trump and pre-politics Mitt Romney so hideous to contemplate that I could almost feel sorry for them, were they not such a disgusting pair of turds), but I'm comfortable suggesting that as career paths go, they're exceptionally different.

What makes Emma so interesting is that as a result of her childhood desires and experiences (and who knows how much those two things have interacted with and influenced each other), Emma tries to run with both simultaneously.  The effect of secretly caring about people whilst running an international corporation is something that interests me not at all, but the difficulties of maintaining a facade of utter indifference whilst trying to do the best for the children in your charge strikes me as fascinating.

To import a school structure from a very different intellectual property (though how different they actually are is an interesting question), Emma's role first as joint head of Generation X and later of Xavier's is basically that of Severus Snape, alongside Xavier's Dumbledore and Cyclops' McGonagall (not sure where Banshee fits in there; either a Gilderoy Lockhart with actual courage, or Flitwick with a stronger chin). Care for one's students and their progress is swapped out for dispassionate rewards and punishments, and the inculcation of a superiority complex as regards fellow pupils.

The problem is, it doesn't work, or at least Emma is always worried it doesn't work.  Her first students, the Hellions, were all but wiped out by Trevor Fitzroy.  Generation X disbanded after a terrorist attack left one of them dead and the school in chaos.  The class she took on in Magneto's Genosha was obliterated in a Sentinel invasion that killed almost the entirety of that country's population.  That last development is in some ways the most important, because Frost herself only survived because she learned she could transform herself into an indestructible diamond form.  A form, remember, which prevents her from using her telepathic powers.

Think about that for a second.  The only way she survives the third time her class has suffered death and dissolution, and the second time that both happened simultaneously in what can fairly be termed a massacre, is to transform herself into what is, visually and metaphorically if not literally, a being of ice.  A being no longer able to make the only emotional attachment Frost ever admitted to being interested in; the linking of minds.  It's as though her intellectual attempt years earlier to distance herself from others in order to win her father's favour has failed so badly that her body itself has tried to do it for her.

Which makes her next decision all the more interesting.  Let's go back to men again for a moment.  I said that Emma was defined by the relationship with her father.  Which is true, but not complete.  The approval of men in general is clearly important to Emma.  She dyes her hair blonde, and she's very open about having had cosmetic surgery (explaining why she has a body that even other Marvel characters can comment about being ridiculously proportioned).  Knowing as little feminist theory as I do, I have no intention of discussing the wisdom of those choices, but they are clearly there.  So too is how obvious Frost was in her desire to win Sebastian Shaw's approval.  Ostensibly this was for the sake of increased power, but this is profoundly unconvincing as a primary motive.  Emma doesn't want to wield power; she wants others to determine she's worthy of being given it.  First her father, then Shaw (who, let's not forget, at one point devised a test for Emma which specifically required her to not care about her closest companions), both men with no obvious trace of empathy and warmth about them.  Both men who Emma sunk significant time and effort into (and in the latter case, risked her own life for) in the hope that they would respect her, and demonstrate that they needed her.  Not in an emotional sense, nor in Shaw's case a carnal one, particularly, not that such wasn't a bonus.

So what does she do now her secondary mutation has metaphorically severed what little connection she had with people at large?  She chooses a new emotional cripple to court who shares her commitment to teaching.  For the first time, she's no longer being pulled in two directions.  She can spend her days pretending not to give a damn about her kids (apparently she thinks putting on an English accent is useful here) whilst steering them through their super-teenage crises, and her nights having all the emotionally unconnected sweaty sex she can stand. [1]  Although Frost had already joined up with Xavier's mob back during the days of Generation X, it is here that the first and third necessary pieces of the villain-to-hero switch really come to the fore.

Of course, whilst this eases the central dichotomy, it does not remove it.  We're still dealing with a woman desperate to have everyone (most especially herself) believe that she couldn't give two shits about anything other than where her next glass of Krystal is coming from, but is now in a situation where she's not only more fully connected to her pupils than ever before (now being a staff member of a boarding school full-time, rather than having either a corporation or a career as an evil-doer on the side), but is finding her relationship with Cyclops to be entering the realms of the emotional in a way she hadn't expected.  There's also the little matter of goal two of the switch to deal with.  How are the X-Men supposed to forget the damage she did to them back in the day; particularly Kitty and Ororo?

Whilst it's certainly Grant Morrison who deserves the lion's share of the credit for making Frost's induction into the X-Men go as well as it did, it's Joss Whedon who's given the task of finishing the job by addressing this problem head on.  Just listen to what Kitty tells Emma in the second issue of Whedon's Astonishing X-Men:
The first time I ever met the X-Men, the first day... they were ambushed. And captured. And caged.

By you.

I learned more about good and evil in that one day than I ever have before or since. I was thirteen.

When I think about evil. Whenever I think about the concept of evil, yours is the face I see.
Whedon's approach to dealing with this is perhaps one of the less interesting stories he's spun - a basic re-telling of the old "looks like the untrustworthy one has betrayed their team, but it's all a trick!" saw - but it gets the job done, completing the three goals in a way that was never truly managed with either Rogue or Magneto.

Emma Frost is the first unquestionably successful alignment switch these comics ever pulled off, and the first to not at least in part quietly bury the specifics of the past.  She's the most interesting example of the reluctant hero just wanting a quiet life ever, because her formative experiences and formidable telepathic powers have resulted in a totally warped sense of what quiet actually means.  And all through this she's doing the best she can at an enormously important job, whislt trying to convince everyone she doesn't possess the sole quality anyone who would want that job must absolutely possess.

All that, and she's an unrepentantly sexually active woman in a comics world that still hasn't managed to drag itself entirely into the post-sexual revolution world.  Indeed, I love this character unreservedly, which makes it all the more enraging when shit like this gets produced.

That's what Ed McGuinness thinks Emma Frost would look like in an insane asylum.  That was released in 2011.

We still have a long way to go.

[1] A somewhat long aside here on sexualisation in the X-Men.  It's interesting to note that for most of the comics' run up to this point, sex is generally either entirely ignored, or specifically labelled as off-limits.  Shadowcat's clumsy attempts at sleeping with Piotr out of sheer terror for her life during the team's time fighting the Brood in space don't get her anywhere.  Storm and Jean Grey are both portrayed as having no libido whatsoever.  Rogue's whole thing is that she can't knock boots with anyone; she's literally untouchable.  Aside from the one night Rogue spends with Gambit whilst her powers wane, there's very little reference to an active sex life for any character in Uncanny X-Men or its sister title.  

Interestingly, the biggest exception to this rule is the period during the early '90s when Psylocke attempted to seduce Cyclops (a campaign that involved her, amongst other things, licking motor oil of his face lasciviously, as though that could be a turn-on rather than utterly disgusting and probably very bad for her health).  Basically, this was a plot about how the explicitly sexualised slut was going to steal the whitebread boy from the arms of his loving but sexually unadventurous fiance.

It's interesting then that Morrison basically runs the exact same plot (right down to the question as to how much of what is going on is down to the would-be seducer's psychic powers).  This time, the attempt actually succeeds, which leads to a good deal of interesting storylines.  That said, it's a problem to me that both times the X-Men comics run stories about consenting adults being interested in having sex, it involves a woman behaving in ways that could be labelled as slutty.  Indeed, there is too much of this angle to Emma in general; apparently we still can't have a female character with a clear interest in recreational sex without her also having slept with two thirds of the Marvel Universe.  The fact that the next female X-recruit we'll be talking about in this series is an actual prostitute makes this problem much, much worse.


darkman said...

What does Emma Frost teach anyways? Except for reading the mind of celebrities I mean.

SpaceSquid said...

I seem to remember her tutoring kids in resisting telepathic attacks at some point. Mainly I just imagine her as one of those schoolmistresses who used to teach proper posture to girls back before World War II.

Abigail Brady said...

Emma teaches ethics (famously).

SpaceSquid said...

I was actually going to put that, but then decided it was so ridiculous that I must simply have made it up.