Wednesday, 13 February 2013
SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #44: Chinese Puzzle Boy
Update: Somehow I managed to get my Xorn's the wrong way round (ironic, given my argument that this isn't as complicated a continuity snarl as people say). I've fixed the mistake now. We regret the error.
This seems to have become an unfortunately recurring theme in these posts, but yes, I've been dragging my feet over this one as well. At least with Kuan-Yin Xorn, people can guess about what about the character has caused such a long delay. You'll almost certainly guess wrong, but you can at least give it a go.
My problem with writing about Xorn isn't because of his alleged complexity. It seems to be almost universally accepted amongst those people whose opinions on the character I've read that the guy has a ludicrously convoluted history. Which, let's not mince words, is ridiculous. I'll grant he has a surprisingly tangled story considering how little time he actually spent in the books, but I can't believe anyone with sufficient experience with the X-Men to compile a list of Top Ten Most Insanely Twisty Histories wouldn't be able to fill the slots with better options.
No, Xorn's story isn't overly complicated, it's just flat out ridiculous. The original idea as cooked up by Grant Morrison - in New X-Men, one of the X-books most famous post-Claremont runs, another reason Xorn gets more attention than he should - was that Xorn's identity - a mutant whose head was a star - was actually a cunning disguise being rocked by none other than Magneto himself. The eventual reveal of this was brilliant insofar as Xorn and his actions made more sense in hindsight than they did at the time. There's one scene in particular that stands out for me; Xorn and Cyclops have been captured by the alien Imperial Guard, and Cyclops asks Xorn if he can disable their captor G-Type, because G-Type is basically comprised of sentient solar energy, and Xorn has a head that's a star.
This is utterly fucking idiotic on all sorts of levels, of course, made worse by the fact that Xorn goes ahead and does it. I remember at the time wondering how so wretched an idea could make it into print. Morrison was well ahead of me: Magneto was using his powers to disrupt G-Type's magnetic field, and nothing and no-one about the incident was stupid except for Cyclops.
There's other stuff like this (including an entire issue from Xorn's perspective, which is framed as a report to Cyclops, the events of which in hindsight are at least partially and probably totally entirely false, but which unfold in such a way as to make Magneto's anti-human position seem as sympathetic as possible), but my point is this: the moment when Magneto casts aside Xorn's helmet and reveals himself is inspired. The problem was everything that followed.
Magneto at this stage is completely nuts; a lifetime first of bitter struggle and then increasing irrelevancy has driven him round the bend, to the point where his plan involves flattening Manhattan - which he manages to do at least in part - and when challenged by the X-Men, results in him callously murdering Jean Grey. Not to get too pretentious, then, but Morrison was really killing two fan favourite characters: Grey, and Magneto himself.
The man once known as Erik Lensherr (though that eventually turned out to not be his real name; see what I mean about complicated X-characters) has always been one of Marvel's greatest triumphs, a one-note villain fleshed out into one of the most interesting and complicated characters in superhero comics. He's become a hero and reverted to a villain more than once over the years, of course, but the possibility of permanent redemption has never seemed entirely out of reach. This vicious deception and trail of bodies - including Jean Grey, though I never got what all the fuss was about there - was just too much for people to take, and and editorially mandated hose job took place the instant Morrison's back was turned.
Under the new writer (Chuck Austen, a writer I'm forced to call under-rated because he's merely pretty poor, rather than the worst assembler of vowels and consonants in history, as conventional wisdom has it), the secret identity of Kuan-Yin Xorn was... Kuan-Yin Xorn, who'd gone mad and convinced himself he was Magneto, and apparently had a head that was a star that could transform into a white-haired Jewish guy (talk about your niche powers). Later still, this too was abandoned, on the grounds that it made bugger-all sense, and it was decided Magneto's insane reality-altering daughter Scarlet Witch had created Xorn out of whole subatomic cloth. Which might seem lazy - shrugging off nonsensical developments by making them the work of the mentally unbalanced - but at least it sorted everything out, and no-one ever had to mention it again.
So no, it's not particularly complicated (though the various explanations were spread across multiple books, which meant it was years after the fact that I finally got to understand what was going on), even though Marvel introduced Xorn's brother just to give everyone a headache. The problem with Xorn from the perspective of writing a post on him is that once you've described the character's strange history, combed Morrison's issues for clues, and go into detail about how the Magneto reveal demonstrated the difficulties of hiring idiosyncratic writers and asking them to write in a shared universe (I can't remember any specific examples, but they're out there ), I'm really not sure what's left. It's tough to come up with an original take on a character that never existed in their fictional world.
I suppose I could at least try to be thematically appropriate and reveal that this is actually a post about a completely different character, but that's the sort of idea that sounds much better before you actually try to put it into practise. And perhaps the most thematic option possible really is to just shrug my shoulders and say that, after all, Xorn is really nothing more than skin deep. But what would we be saying there? That there's no point focusing on the surface? How does that make sense? There are hundreds of people in our lives, and exactly one of them gets to entirely bypass the surface, if indeed it can truly be penetrated at all. If you total up all the man hours spent looking at you compared to those spent being you, there's no contest. The outer later is probably worth the occasional moment's consideration, I should think.
Looked at from this direction, there's a charitable reading of Morrison's big reveal that suggests the underlying point is the difference between how we see ourselves and how we see others. It occurs to me that a lot of the people I respect most both in my social life and in the wider world are those who are no stranger to self doubt, or even self disgust. And yes, "self disgust is self obsession, honey" - thank you, Manic Street Preachers - so maybe this is just an oblique way of saying I identify with the self-involved (which I have no intention of denying would make total sense), but perhaps it's just that it's wiser to rely on people who spend at least some of their time worrying about whether or not they're colossal arseholes. After all, you don't become a terrorist by worrying about the appropriateness of your actions.
Magneto, I admit, is not one for self-reflection, at least not often. He's spent time mulling over his approach, of course (see the beginning of the X-Men series in the early '90s, for example), but only so he can decide in which way his obvious unquestionable awesomeness can best be applied to all the proles who don't really deserve him. So it's at least possible to draw a line between his previous appearances and the conclusion to Planet X, in that the idea that he was more use to mutant kind pretending to be Xorn than being himself would be utterly unthinkable. The problem isn't being a dick, it's being a dick who's capable of hiding their dickishness (often called "being polite") and choosing not to bother. The masks we wear are "the real us" to the vast majority of people who know us in the first place, and if that mask is as capable of doing as much good as Xorn, or even preventing us from doing as much damage as Magneto, then is it any wonder that casting it aside to reveal our "true" selves is going to go down very badly? It's an act of monumental ego to suggest that the public exhibition of one's personal demons is worthwhile in and of itself (again, there are circumstances under which it is very much beneficial), and monumental ego has always been one of Magneto's biggest problems.
(I should make very clear at this point that I not making an argument for conformism uber alles. I'm not trying suggest people should shut up and fall in line and never rock the boat. Nor am I suggesting there is no societal ill for which I'd not be entirely behind a Magneto-style "no compromise" approach - which is different to approving of his specific actions, of course. I'm simply pointing out that the kinds of people inclined to self-reflection and self-censorship strike me as having the edge over those who charge through life doing any damn fool think they like on the grounds that "it's just the way I am". If sufficient honest and thoughtful appraisal leads one to conclude that shouting and screaming is the best way to go, then I'm all for it.)
There are two problems involved in this reading, though (three if you count the fact that "people with massive self-belief are often a problem" is hardly an original thought). The first is that Grant Morrison in all his fame-hungry Moore-bashing wank-magic (that is not a euphemism) glory seems a pretty unlikely source of commentary on the self-destructive nature of ironclad personal belief - Magneto's problem is presented as one of a refusal to adapt, not a refusal to self-reflect. The bigger problem, though, is that it just makes things worse from the perspective of anyone who'd read a comic from before 1990. The one fundamental principle of Magneto as a character, the central tension that if you can't grasp you can't claim to understand him, is whether he's the way he is because of the trauma of Auschwitz, or because he's a galactically egocentric and prideful douche. Or, obviously, a bit of both. The point is, the latter is entirely counter to long-term undercover work, and whilst I have no intention of trying to speculate on the likely temperament of Holocaust survivors, everything we've seen of Magneto in the '80s and '90s (including an amnesiac clone, of course) suggests he's the magnetically-pop-hearts first, ask questions later type.
In other words, he's ruled by his passions, some noble, some tragic in the truest sense of the word. Which means the idea that he could spend months pretending to be Xorn without the slightest hint of his true nature emerging, or for that matter without gaining the slightest sliver of compassion and respect for those he was deceiving, utterly incompatible with the man we know. There's a word for people who perfectly mimic the behaviour of those surrounding them without the slightest flicker of empathy for or at least identification with those they're deceiving - sociopath. And reducing Magneto, a character who's entire deal is that he cares so much about one group of people he's ended up hurting them time after time, the idea that he's the functional equivalent of Kevin Spacey Cylon from BSG just pisses all over a bare minimum of a decade's worth of stories, stories moreover that were almost certainly the only reason Morrison could make the Magneto reveal as shocking as it was in the first place.
To sum up, I think Morrison came up with a great idea (new X-Man is actually an undercover villain), and put a spectacular amount of work into building the trap and then salting the run-up with clues. In terms of puzzle construction, it's unquestionably impressive. But so much work went into preparing for and delivering the reveal, no time was apparently spent on making sure it all fitted together with what was going on around it, which means that as part of a larger narrative, it's horribly destructive.
Which, I admit, is pretty much exactly the conventional wisdom as regards Xorn, but never mind. I can't be horribly controversial all the time. Oh, except that I don't really think much of New X-Men as a whole. There's that, I guess.
Next time out, we investigate the mystery of the boy with half a face, and ask ourselves whether his real power was to be always from all and no class of English society at any given time.
 Or you could read something about Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men, which whilst almost entirely different in tone and intent from Morrison's work, actually has a similar problem, in that it involves a big name who couldn't successfully mesh their own ideas with the established universe they were playing with, necessitating some degree of back-pedalling after the fact.
 This, for what it's worth, is why I dislike songs like "My Way" or Nelly Furtado's "I'm Like a Bird"; they just read too much as people announcing they're aware that they're not particularly nice, but they have no intention of changing, and it's other people's job to accept that fact.