Sunday, 9 February 2014

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #46: Just Some Streetwalker

The late '90s and early '00s were not an easy time for Marvel.  Titles were hemorrhaging sales in the wake of the great comics crash, and the tricks cynical writers had used to keep superhero stories afloat since the late '80s had finally been mined out. Even if the hyper-violent boobpocalypse hadn't reached their respective reductio ad absurdum endpoints, comics found themselves crowded out by the continuing rise of video games and the arrival of online porn, which both offered more... direct doses to the consumer.

But old habits die hard.  One of the truly remarkable things about the cataracts of blood that stained a decade of comics was how easily people bought into the idea that it somehow represented "maturity".  It was a bizarre form of arguing by inversion: children's literature features very few deaths, therefore bodycounts that would have seemed excessive in the later Rambo films must somehow occupy the other end of the spectrum. The next step in the "maturing" of comics followed the same misguided logic: if children's stories were completely devoid of sex, the most mature angle possible would be to include a character who had as much sex as possible.

It was time to move the conception of super-being sex beyond coy glances thrown at pneumatic-chested models.  It was time for a hooker superhero.

I've already put my cards on the table regarding how I view this idea, but I must qualify my position carefully. I might pour scorn on what I see as the thinking that led to a sex-worker being introduced into a comic, but that must not be taken as an argument that someone who works as a prostitute should a priori be kept out of the X-Men.  Any argument that suggests a type of person is unsuitable for our merry band of mutants would need to be damn strong before I'd be willing to entertain it. The problem is not that Miranda Leevald was a whore.  It was that she was nothing but a whore.

Stewart Lee once made the point in his 41st Best Stand-Up Ever show that there was a difference between describing a woman as a prostitute and a woman who works as a prostitute, and that the BBC was right to use the latter phrasing when discussing the five victims of Steve Wright's 2006 murder spree in Ipswich.  To him, this was a signifier that the these women were people with their own lives and drives, as complicated and beautiful and messy as those of any others, and the hob they performed and which led to their jobs could not define them simply because it was a role of which many in society disapproved (including sneering Stay-Puft mountebank Richard Littlejohn, to whom Lee directed his rage; arguing it proved Littlejohn was a c***, rather than simply working as one).  The Lee approach to a character who works in the sex trade could be of great value in humanising an occupation everyone you should hate is determined should not be humanised - how else to pour scorn on hookers without having problem with those who employ hookers.

That is not, alas, what we have here. For all that she essentially packs in the day job after meeting the X-Men, Stacy X is not a woman who works as a prostitute.  She is a prostitute, through and through.

What this means is a collection of cliches that for any other kind of character would have been obviously insufficient.  Stacy acts tough, but has a sensitive core buried deep beneath the bile.  She's a woman who took a job in a brothel whose stepfather beat her, because hookers are always abused runaways.  She responds to everyone she interacts with either with insults or by attempting to screw them, because whores don't react like "normal" people; they can only fight and fuck, using their own self-loathing as a weapon. These thoughtless reheated attitudes are bad enough on their own terms, but they further operate as justifications for the comic's other characters to treat Stacy with disdain and disappointment.  If you're using your ex-prostitute character to justify people's dislike of prostitutes, you have, to put it mildly, failed in your intentions (assuming being a dick about sex workers wasn't your plan, of course).

It's difficult to draw any conclusion here other than that Stacy is intended as a tool to be used. The most cynical use she is put to through her brief tenure involves her attempted seduction of Nightcrawler.  In previous issues, she makes repeated mention of her scaly skin, which tends to repulse men, and indeed it's established that some of her extraneous body parts have a habit of dropping off.  All of this is forgotten when she crawls atop Kurt; her golden-skinned flawless body utterly naked, her modesty receiving the most cursory protection possible with strategically placed panels.  She can be unattractive when she's being used to piss off the other X-Men and have them sneer at her, but the instant she wants some sexual healing, she has to give the lads something to look at (that this moment of supreme cynicism is brought to us by Chuck Austen should surprise absolutely no-one). Her role is to act inappropriately and stir up the regulars, but apparently it was inconceivable that she be developed beyond the tough-talking lost girl that for the longest time was all prostitute characters were allowed to be.

Even her name betrays this thinking. Originally her nickname was intended to be X-Stacy, to represent her mutant ability to throw people into paroxysms of pleasure.  People kept getting it the wrong way round, though, until eventually the reversed name stuck.  Because fuck it, yeah? Stacy's a girl's name, she's in an X book; job done, right?  Who cares? Next character please.

After spending twenty issues under first the unimpressive Joe Casey (at least that's how I remember him) and the thoroughly objectionable Chuck Austen (which seems to be how everybody remembers him), Stacy disappeared entirely for three issues, and was written out off-panel.  In the end, the only evidence she was ever there at all was the VHS tape she left for Angel, in which - of course - she engaged in a bout of naked skipping to demonstrate what he had missed in choosing Paige over her (which of course he did; Paige was the nice girl and she was just the shouty whore).  No goodbyes, no reaction shots, she's just gone now, and only Angel gets to respond to it. "Thank God" he says, smiling, as she signs off her tape, promising he will never see her again. Just to drive the point home, he tears out the the tape from the video as well, as if trying to erase her completely from his mind, and - to lapse into the meta for a moment - from continuity himself.  Even Austen's infamous run, with its crude men and psychotic women, didn't have room for someone as bullish and tasteless as everyone had apparently decided whores are.

And so the sad story of Miranda Leevald ends; somehow more objectionable in its ending than its beginning. Later writers have attempted her rehabilitation in various other titles, but for the X-Men themselves it is as if she never existed; the family member you never talk about because they embarrass everyone. It's always easier to judge someone once they're gone, and then to forget them, too.

 If forgetting is your aim, of course. For myself, I would rather mourn Stacy. Not out of pity for what she is, but our of regret for what she should have been allowed to become.

Maybe next time around, we can get it right.

When SS v X returns, we'll have a genuine first: a character I've literally never encountered, having given up quickly on X-Treme X-Men when it became clear the world had moved on from Claremont's approach to comics.  In the interests of you, dear readers, it looks as if a return to the Unlovely X-Men may finally be required...

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