Friday, 17 July 2015

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #47: Some People Stand In The Darkness...

Writing an essay on the subject of Heather Cameron isn't the easiest task in the world, simply because she's spent so little time on the page. Claremont introduced her in the late stages of X-Treme X-Men's first arc, and she disappears at the end of the second. I know from the handy chart at the time that she reappeared during the Utopia years, but I couldn't swear to having ever read a book in that period where she actually appears, let alone speaks.

In several ways, it's a shame we don't get to learn more about her. With her mutant power being the ability to spontaneously adapt to deal with any situation, she's very much the forerunner of the ever-interesting Darwin. Indeed, should one wish to be smug, you could label her a Darwin at an early stage of evolution. And we always want to be smug around here.

But there's more to Lifeguard than that, which is just as well considering that, as we shall see, Claremont quickly ditches most of the possibilities that her power set offers.  There are two distinct advantages (potentially at least) to having Cameron be literally a life-guard. The first is something I at least nodded to when discussing Cecilia Reyes, there's something rather nice and generally unexplored about those with the power to become superheroes who instead devote their time to saving people in comparatively prosaic occupations. There's obviously a difference between Cecilia and Heather; one tries to ignore their abilities whilst the other makes use of them to be more effective in their job (whether this would still be true if Cecilia's powers could have been useful to a trauma surgeon is an interesting question). But the basic question is still the same: how would actual people go about living their lives as mutants? The nature of the central X-Book metaphor is such that most mutants become vigilantes, criminals, or victims, so it's nice to every now and again see someone with the X-gene who's just going about their lives. Indeed, it's pointedly not the fact Lifeguard is a mutant that brings her into the story, rather the fact her father was an Australian crime-lord, recently murdered, and the team wish to protect her from whomever has beef with the Camerons. The coincidence that our heroic mutants tracking another mutant find he's murdered the father of yet another mutant is rather pushing the laws of probability even by Claremont's standards, but at least the results are interesting.

Alas, this idea is rather blown out of the water (pun entirely intended) early on when extra-dimensional forces invade and Heather's biology responds by revealing her half-Shiar side. The already bubbling-over cauldron of coincidence has now exploded of course, but that's not the problem here.  The problem is we go from a woman using her evolutionary flexibility to hold down a lifeguard job on an Australian beach to being a golden bird-woman fighting to save the Earth from alien interlopers. Her power is now simply to look like alien royalty and freak out Khan's flunkies accordingly.

Ultimately, then, this reaches a bit of a dead end. So too does the other interesting aspect of Heather Cameron, though I'm a bit more ambivalent on this one in any case. It doesn't take much effort for anyone who lived through the '90s to recognise what Claremont and Larroca are referencing with Lifeguard's first appearance. And even if you don't catch it, the artwork is helpful enough to write the name of the show on Lifeguard's red swimming costume (on her chest, natch).

There are two ways to process this. The rather more generous one is to suggest this is an experiment in adding mutants to a narrative that already exists, to see how their presence warps the story.  In theory this is a brilliant idea; if you want to postulate the existence of an entirely new kind of person, figuring out how those people would change the way we tell stories is an important thing to do. Hell, you don't even need to invent a new minority; adding the oppressed into narratives that traditionally exclude them and seeing how it alters that narrative is both a vital task and one that's doing wonders reinvigorating the sci-fi genre right now. Either way, the suggestion that the popular stories of the past must be revisited and improved upon from a perspective of social inclusion is a powerful one.

But whilst all that might be true, there's a glaring problem in this specific instance. My exceptionally hazy recollections of Baywatch (it wasn't a show I watched) suggests there was indeed a problem with its failure to meaningfully include minorities, and indeed a quick Google search of the original cast suggests only one of the eleven main characters the show started with was non-white. But what Baywatch was most frequently criticised for wasn't the racial imbalance in its cast, but in how completely it was geared towards the male gaze. This was a show that took the "for the dads" idea to its ultimate endpoint, including so much for the dads there was little left for anyone else. The standard idea of Baywatch centring on an endless array of large-busted women jogging in slow-motion down beaches may or may not be exaggerated, but it's apparently true that the show became so reliant on Pamela Anderson flaunting her curves that when she quit the show the producers hired three more similarly voluptuous women to fill the gap. If aliens had intercepted broadcasts of the show, they would have been impressed Earth had so many performers at open-air strip-clubs who would interrupt their routines to save drowning swimmers.

So if we wanted to warp the narrative of Baywatch to make it more progressive, at an absolute minimum you need to get rid of the scantily-clad curvaceous women (not that I want to body-shame anyone, any more than my desire to see less white people on TV suggests there's something wrong with being white).  This, it goes without saying, is not something we can hope for from a 2002 Marvel comic. Indeed, it's not even possible to tell if Heather looks the way she does because she's modelled on Pamela Anderson, or just because this is what passes for the standard female form in superhero comics. This is already a problem before we consider the fact that Pamela Anderson has in her life had four sets of breast implants. Her motivations for those operations are her own business, but the result was to make herself look more like the standard model of western female sexual desirability created and maintained by, amongst other things, comics books. There's something profoundly depressing about a comic book character modelled on a woman who had her body altered to essentially look more like a comic book character. Ultimately then the answer to how including mutants would warp the Baywatch narrative is: not at all.  It's still about women with - in the neutral sense of the word - unnatural body shapes saving people whilst not wearing all that much in the way of clothes.

It's worth remembering though of course that much of the problem above, whilst real and dangerous, can be laid at the feet of all comics at the time, not just this one. So I'm still inclined to give some credit for the narrative invasion idea, whilst wishing Claremont had been smart enough to take Peter David's approach with Darwin and argue Heather's body shape is its own kind of subconscious mutation to make her life easier [1].  But of course this idea too is rapidly shut down by an actual invasion. Which is a real shame. Some promising ideas got cut short here by another Claremont indulgence in space opera. But then that was almost always what Claremont's space stories did. They separated the comics from their central metaphor, and replaced it with a crudely-whisked melange of whatever sci-fi franchises happened to be in the ascendancy at the time. Heather Cameron's story is just one more casualty of that.

Actually, though, I am being a little unfair. There is one aspect of Heather's character that remains of interest once the antimatter bombs start falling. Discussing that, though, requires a slight change of focus. We need to talk about Davis Cameron.

[1] Though one could respond to this that suggesting white skin makes one's life easier than brown skin is very different to arguing the more conventionally attractive and sexually desirable a woman's body the easier they will find life. Perhaps it's just as well Claremont never tried to wade into that particular swamp; he may have needed saving from drowning too.

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