Saturday, 27 July 2013

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #45: Luvver Boy

Welcome, one and all, to the sad tale of Jonothon Starsmore.

Writing about Chamber as an X-Man is no easy task.  I mean, I don't have the world's best memory, but can anyone remember anything notable Chamber has done as a member of the senior team?  About the only storyline that's coming to mind is "Poptopia", but that was a) over a decade ago and b) shit.

Even in the late noughties and early teenies (shut up, those are the names), an era in which Marvel writers seem to be putting more effort into characterising their minor roles than ever before, Chamber can be fairly summed up as a walking artillery pierce with an embarrassing English speech pattern (seriously, you'd think British writers have managed large enough inroads into the US comics industry for this kind of ludicrous over-egged rubbish to have fallen by the wayside).  No-one seems to have the first clue what to do with him, as demonstrated by the kind of major re-jigs of his basic nature (he has no face!  He has a face!  He's Apocalypse-lite! He's a man with a sonic weapon strapped to his chest!  He has no face!) that seem to dog characters who combine significant fan nostalgia with current writers' complete inability to use them sensibly (see also: Moonstar, Dani).

There is, of course, a reason for all of this, and it stems from Chamber's very beginnings.  Consider the ultimate fate of the characters that, like him, were either introduced in Generation X during the early '90s, or who are most associated with same.  Husk has rocketed between being utterly side-lined and appearing in stories so bad one wishes desperately she was side-lined for longer.  Jubilee has gone through the same repeated extreme make-over process, with no more pleasing an effect.  It took years for anyone to use M effectively, and given Peter David's reputation for rehabilitating limited and forgotten characters, her starring role in his revamped X-Factor is more damning with faint praise than anything else.  Mondo has long ago disappeared, and Skyn only reappeared after years in exile so Chuck Austen could kill him with breathtaking cynicism.  Hell, Synch was pretty much the only character to not suffer post-Gen-X ignominy, and that's because he was blown to pieces before the book was.

So what is it about these super-powered teens that made it so difficult to spin stories out from them after their own title ended?  To answer that, we need to think about what exactly Generation X was, and what it was supposed to do.

Nothing is new in comics anymore.  Or possibly ever.  Generation X was either a determined attempt to recall what was truly special about the franchise, or a cynical attempt at manufacturing the perfect disease vector for an incoming host of fans, depending on one's perspective.  When the X-Men first arrived on the stands, it was billed as a story about a small group of super-powered teenagers.  Some twenty years later, the decision was made to replicate and update the idea with Claremont's New Mutants.  The changes Claremont introduces are interesting.  Following on from his success with Kitty Pryde, the new team becomes the first group of mutants to be actually written as teenagers, as oppose to a bunch of powers that happen to be attached to teenagers.  Massive popularity followed.
But for all that Claremont deserves credit and praise for having ushered in a new and more interesting approach to young comic characters, reading back through the New Mutants (as I have been) does reveal the limitations of his approach. We now have characters that act like teenagers, and who have their individual qualities - Rahne's shy fundamentalism, Roberto's arrogant swagger, etc. - but the two don't entirely mesh.  The deeply confusing and entirely realistic romantic polygons that make up their romantic lives aside, one can be forgiven for viewing the New Mutants as a half dozen iterations of the same teenage behaviour, with individual quirks soldered on afterwards.

Fast-forward another decade, and the New Mutants too have outgrown the "super schoolkids" tag - in several cases so that they can blow up everything as often as possible over in X-Force - leaving a vacuum that couldn't possibly remain unfilled for very long.  Into the void stepped Scott Lobdell and Chris Bachalo.

What they did was very clever.  Where Claremont (along with Bob McLeod) made great strides forwards by creating types of character that also functioned as believable teenagers, Lobdell and Bachalo focused on representing certain types of teenager.  More specifically, the various kinds of teenager one could recognise easily from one's own schooling.  There's smug know-it-all M, for instance, or the guy like Skyn who uses wise-cracks and attitude to cover a difficult childhood.  Jubilee is there as the intelligent student who's just too interested in everything that isn't school for anything that is to penetrate.

Then we have Chamber, possibly the best realised of all, as the kid whose entire persona springs from three unshakable premises:
  1. No-one in school - any school - has things as bad as he does;
  2. No-one can possibly understand how bad he has it;
  3. Everyone hates him because of how bad things are for him.
Of course, these three points don't require too much re-working in order to hold for teenagers in general.  The ironclad certainty every teenager clings to that their particular situation and thought patterns are so unique that no-one can understand is either delightfully ironic or maddeningly frustrating, depending on how often one must come into contact with it.  That moment in Life of Brian when the crowd shouts "Yes! We are all different!"?  Watching five thousand Wildhearts fans moshing in a field with the phrase "Demand the right to be unique" emblazoned over every single chest?  Such minor examples pale in comparison to a hundred million teenagers the world over insisting that only they are different.

(The more self-aware might include some of their friends in there too. This is what Joss Whedon was driving towards when he mentioned an important part of getting Buffy to work was making sure it replicated that feeling you have as teenagers that you and your friends are terribly real, and everyone else in your life is terribly false.)

Jono Starsmore represents a sub-division of all of this.  We could perhaps call this the goth variant, in which the key ingredient is the insistence that one's life is uniquely awful and depressing, as oppose to merely uniquely complicated and interesting.   I in no way aim this as a swipe at goths in general, indeed I've been something of an honorary member on and off over the years - a love of horror movies and a lifetime of depression will do that to you.  What I'm talking about is the intersection between goth culture and teenage self-absorption.  There is no woman in the world the teenage Chamber could ever be half as into as his own misery.  "I'm in love with my sadness", as Billy Corgan screams in "Zero", and really pretty much that entire song works as an anthem for the kind of mindset we're talking about; clunky self-obsession masquerading as profound insight (not that this stops it being a freaking awesome song, of course.)

It's not that Chamber has nothing to complain about.  He is, after all, missing most of his chest and his lower jaw.  He can't eat, drink or even breathe.  He really is as far removed from the surrounding herd of humanity as teenagers automatically assume they are in any case.  But then literalising is very much Chamber's deal.  Think about it: his chest is filled with roiling energy that he just can't stop from exploding outwards.  He's missing his mouth, meaning it's damn hard (and on occasion impossible) to make his voice heard. He even blows his first chance at sex because he detonates too soon.  Huh?  Huh?

So subtle it isn't.  But then it doesn't need to be.  Indeed it shouldn't be.  When your story is grounded in the ludicrous melodrama teenagers generate faster than acne and BO issues, there's no sense in trying to be coy with your metaphors.  It's certainly not as though Jono's behaviour is any more understated,  This is a guy so wrapped up in his self-disgust (which, as the Manics were so kind to remind us in their best ever single, is just one more flavour of self-obsession) that he can visit a couple with multiple mutant children and tell them they're not treating him well enough because of his condition.  A boy who can ruin a moment of tenderness with the girl he loves because she says something that entirely shorn of all linguistic and relational context could be interpreted as calling him a freak. Why enjoy being with the one you love when you can put the maximum effort possible into twisting their words into formations that might sort of track with your own low opinion of yourself, and then freak out about it? [1]

All of this sounds like I'm down on Jono, but I'm not.  Really, I'm not.  He's no more frustrating than most teenager characters, or teenage people, and the interest comes in how the template is played with, and how and when Chamber gets to move beyond it, whether it be forgiving a former girlfriend for intentionally making his life harder, or recognising enough of himself in a violently deranged mutant to offer her a second chance.

So I'm not suggesting the recipe is flawed, just that the cake it results in goes soggy pretty quickly.  Once you remove Chamber from his similarly extreme teenage colleagues and try to figure out where he can go next, you very quickly run into problems.  In the years after Generation X was cancelled he's done almost nothing.  The best approach to him seems to have been using him as a teacher to the next generation of physically warped mutants, but if that actually can generate any interesting stories, well, no-one's been able to find them yet.

It's a real shame, in a sense, because Chamber was one of my favourite comics characters in the '90s, back when I was roughly the same age (and roughly the same nationality) as he was.  But then the price you pay for so totally encapsulating a certain stage of life is that moving past that stage becomes exceptionally difficult.  Hell, if Whedon couldn't manage it with Buffy, what chance do the rest of us have?

And maybe it's just that the metaphor has grown into something we still recognise but no longer appreciate.  Think back to your mid-teens.  Make a list of the half-dozen people who meant the absolute most to you. People you just knew were going to be your closest friends for the rest of your life. People you believed you would be prepared to die for.

How many of those people have you spoken to this week? This month? This year?  How many of them do you just occasionally run into, when you're back home visiting family?  How many are you only just remembering now, because I've prompted you?

That's who Chamber is now.  All he can be.  The friend you once adored who you know bump into at Christmas and ask how things are going, only to not recognise any of the names or places that constitute the response.  The reminder that you were once so terribly real, before real life took a interest in you.

Goodbye, Jono.  Take care of yourself.  See you at Christmas, maybe?  What's that?  Yeah, those good old days sure were fun. 


Next time on SS v X it's... God, really?  Stacy X?  Jesus, the things I do for you people...

[1] Full disclosure: I had an ex who used to do this.  It got really fucking tired really fucking quickly.


darkman said...

A mutant prostitute with tentacles? That's not a character but a really weird porn movie.

SpaceSquid said...

I refuse to believe that you'd consider such a porn movie as anything other than wearyingly vanilla.

darkman said...

It is true that once you see something like this you become somewhat jaded:

SpaceSquid said...

I fear you.