Contains SPOILERS for Uncanny X-Men #508! SPOILERS.
Spoilers for X-Men: Kingbreaker follow, also War of Kings, most recent X-Men comics, and some allusions to other Marvel titles.
One of the ideas my friends and I toss around is the concept of a “Phoenix Corps.” Sort of like the Green Lantern Corps from DC Comics, only with a small team of women imbued with the Phoenix Force. Under the command of Jean Grey, the Phoenix Corps would traverse the galaxy righting wrongs, protecting the weak, and generally keeping shit contained. This fantasy was born out of our frustration at the ways Marvel deals with their most cosmically powerful female characters. Jean Grey, Rachel Grey, Wanda Maximoff, Maddie Pryor, Lorna Dane — these women have planet-shattering power. They can destroy, change, and rebuild worlds. They can offer resurrection sometimes. At different points in the canon they have been nigh-unto gods. And they are all crazy or dead.
Marvel has a problem when it gives a character universe-destroying power. The conundrum is, of course, that you have to make a threat a real challenge for a hero — but then you can’t leave the threat lying around. (The problem is not unique to comics. Any GM who’s given her player characters a super-weapon then needs to get rid of the damn thing.) Molecular Man, back in the Secret Wars stories, was a problem. Magneto is a continual problem (and is the male character I see most often treated on par with the X-Women.) Doctor Doom gets world-breaking power every so often and needs to be taken down. But please note — those are all villains. When the threat is a villain you can strip their powers, kill them, have them die in an accident, place them in power dampeners, in prison, any number of other solutions. What do you do when the character with this power is, nominally, a hero?
This is relevant to X-Men: Kingbreaker, sadly. To recap: Havok, Polaris, and Rachel Grey went into space to stop Vulcan from . . . stuff. They are now running with the Starjammers and Lilandra, trying to overthrow Vulcan and Deathbird who rule the Sh’iar Empire. Rachel has met, slept with, and dumped Korvus, a Sh’iar who also has Phoenix-powers. Lorna has been mostly stable . . . mostly. She hasn’t coped with the torture at Vulcan’s hands very well, and her powers are . . . kinda more powerful than they have been. We know that when this happens to Magneto it makes him sociopathic and psychotic, as the magnetic fields alter his brain chemistry in negative ways. And at the end of Kingbreaker #4, Rachel and Korvus simultaneously lose their Phoenix-powers.
For no discernible reason.
But here’s the thing. I know the reason. The Doylist reason — wait, let me explain that, first. The terms Watsonian and Doylist come from the Lois McMaster Bujold website forums, and are explained in her FAQ.
“The terms Doylist and Watsonian derive from the Sherlock Holmes stories. Doylist is from Arthur Conan Doyle, the author, and Watsonian from Doctor Watson, the narrator in the stories. The terms are most often applied to explanations of inconsistencies between (or even within) books or stories in a series.
A Doylist explanation discusses inconsistences or plot in terms of why the author did things that way. Lois Bujold’s Doylist explanation for some inconsistencies is “the author had A Better Idea” in the later book.
A Watsonian explanation discusses the inconsistency or plot point from the perspective of the story. Inconsistencies might be explained by a character lying or being unaware of all the facts.”
So the Doylist reason for de-powering Rachel and making Lorna crazier is that these characters are about to be used in War of Kings, and Marvel cannot have the Starjammers solve the war by Phoenix-ing out on everyone and eating a couple stars, or by Lorna reversing the planetary polarity and telling them all to piss off. Marvel has to provide handicaps for its characters in order to tell stories.
But some characters are given handicaps that are a little more dignified. Black Bolt, for instance, is also a player in War of Kings. He can also destroy planets. His handicap? He has awesome willpower and is just bad-ass enough he can control himself. Why can’t Lorna have that? Why can’t she be tougher than Magneto, why can’t she have the strength of will to resist the crazy and still remain powerful? Powerful and ethical? Why does her handicap have to be that she is weak?
Honestly, I’m kind of glad that the Phoenix just . . . vanished. I’d rather that than have Rachel unable to go on due to her internal mental collapse (as happened in Uncanny X-Men #183, X-Men vs. Alpha Flight #1 & 2, Uncanny X-Men #200, Excalibur #3, need I say more?) But I want an explanation, and I want, I crave, an explanation that has something to do with the character. With Rachel, with Jean Grey, with the Phoenix. I think it’s a red herring that Rachel said “Mom?” when the Phoenix left — I don’t think that means Jean is back, for instance. I think it means Rachel associates the presence of the Phoenix with her mother’s personality. But I want an explanation that is satisfying in a Watsonian sense. And I want it, very much, to be more than Someone Is Crazy Or Dead.
I wish, I really wish, that Marvel would stop giving the X-Women cosmic powers. Because then Marvel has to take them away. Just leave them at a useful level of powerful, mmkay? Like Storm, or She-Hulk, or Mockingbird, or Rahne.
Anyway — does anyone have any ideas or theories or ficcable notions as to what happened to the Phoenix? My vote is it flew off to go rescue Kitty from her doom in Astonishing X-Men. But that’s just me.
(Originally posted to LJ November 16, 2006. I’m reposting it here so I don’t lose track of it.)
Astonishing X-Men, “Torn”
I just re-read the whole arc.
I normally don’t care too much about the plot in my obsessions. I know people who argue that Season Seven Buffy is the worst because it had the weakest plots. Meh. Don’t care that much. I want the major points of canon to be respected. But I primarily care about character.
Give me character development.
If you can give me both — character development based on canon in a tightly-plotted story that derives from who the characters have been in the past — If you can give me that I will sing your praises to the heavens. Or at least the internet.
Joss Whedon is my Master now.
I want to talk about this in two contexts. Both in the context of the X-Men comics, and in the context of Whedon’s other work.
Astonishing X-Men is the emotional continuation of Firefly. Not of Serenity; of Firefly.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the story of how to grow up. How to decide to take adulthood, with all the pain that this could mean. It is about making tough decisions for the first time. Seeing the road ahead and not knowing what’s on it.
Firefly is about a different sort of fear. Firefly is about being afraid to choose because you know what can happen. You know what you’ve done. You know, to a limited degree, the sort of person you are. How very low you can sink.
But the story arc of the characters in Firefly is about What Happens Next. About how guilt, the guilt of the living, is a limiting factor. You only think you know yourself. But staring at all the ill you have done in your life is no more productive than ignoring it. You are not the hero. You are not the villain. You are the sum of your actions and intentions and you are more than that. You contain your future as well. And that holds your redemption.
This is where Astonishing X-Men comes into things.
“Gifted” gives every appearance of being a coming of age story. It is, taken solely on its own terms. But in the context of “Dangerous” and “Torn”, it’s not a coming of age. It’s a facing one’s past. For all of them. “Does nothing stay dead?” No, and most especially, not the deeds you all have done.
“Dangerous” continues this. In the appearance of a major six-issue fight story we have Hank’s inability to accept his animal self. Emma’s guilt at even being in Genosha, alive, makes her manifest the Hellfire Club at a terribly inconvenient time. Scott faces the decision the Professor has made, as does Peter. All of them have some terrible ghost from the past try to kill them.
Why? What did they do to deserve this? They lived. That’s all. Simply living in their world means that they have killed, that the decisions they have made have caused the death of innocents. If they are in AXM, they are alive and guilty of incredible crimes. Crimes of action and of inaction. That. That is the point of “Dangerous”. The X-Men are dangerous. And it is only, to steal a phrase from Lois Bujold, Forward Momentum thats keep them from being dangerous to themselves.
It’s all there.
Peter’s rage, shown in “Gifted” and in “Dangerous”. It is his downfall here.
Hank’s fear of himself, highlighted in “Gifted”” and Dangerous”, is his enemy here.
Scott’s fear of himself, his mistrust of everyone, his love of Emma — they are his downfall here.
Logan’s ruined mind is his prison here.
Kitty’s leadership, initiative, love and insecurity, are her traitors here.
And Emma’s ability to live, to survive and win through, are her downfall here.
Emma has had two full storylines to observe the X-Men. Observe this family. Emma knows them, knows their kinks and foibles. She takes their fears or their strengths, whichever is more vulnerable, and she breaks each one of them in half. But this is the X-Men; broken isn’t dead. Hell, dead isn’t dead.
Emma knows that these people can live through anything. She knows they can stop her. Rather, she doesn’t know it. She hopes it. Any way this comes out, Emma gets something she wants. If Cassandra Nova wins, Emma gets to die as she thinks she deserves. If the X-Men stop her the way she thinks they will, she dies the way she deserves. If the X-Men pull the miracle out of their collective ass as she hopes and fears they will? Well. Then Emma will live, which she wants more than almost anything. But she will have to live. Go through each day with even more past behind her. More guilt.
But also with more redemption.
Redemption is only ever possible if you acknowledge what you have done, apologised, made amends, and you keep on damn living. Redemption is not the same as forgiveness. Forgiveness is something between you and another person. Redemption is what you get when your life has made something as good as the thing you wrecked. The greater the ruin in your wake, the more difficult your redemption shall be.
All of the X-Men have a lot of ruin behind them. It’s part of why they are heroes; how else are they ever going to be able to look themselves in the eye, stand up and face the future?
In “Torn” every one of the X-Men is broken in order that they may be forced to face their weakness and overcome it. They have to. They must face it in order to live past it. Hank, through all of AXM, has been living in fear of devolving. A silly term, but the fear makes him unreliable, weak. Peter fears his rage, which is also his strength. His rage is fueled by his love. How can he be a smart, thinking, caring person again, a human being, unless he can control his rage? Logan has to face that he is a hollow shell, a broken mind, running through the world fueled by fear. Kitty has to face her future, her hopes of love and her certain knowledge that everyone she ever depends on will betray her. Scott must face the fact that he has handicapped his entire life to protect a boy who never grew up. And Emma has to face her death wish and her love; that she wants to be loved and accepted and deserves absolutely none of it for her sins.
They get through it. And Scott is right. They are stronger for it.
Think, for a moment, of Firefly. Think of the characters and their weaknesses, their strengths. Think of where the show was going when it got canceled. I am now, for the first time, glad that Firefly was canceled. Because Joss Whedon had to take his unfinished issues and work them out here, in the X-Men, in the story and world I love in my heart and soul.
Joss shows us what these characters are supposed to be. Shows us, not tells us.
Scott is a tactical genius, as I mentioned elsewhere — Scott is a tactical genius. And Joss can write him as one. Joss only needs a Data, a Spock, a person to explain it too. Joss is great, because we have seen what Scott is doing and then get the explanation, so his genius is revealed to us. Shown, then explained, not told. This is good writing. Hank made a safety against being devolved. And he told Scott. And Scott, tactical genius, remembered and got it. Scott used every asset he had in perfect ways, from Blindfold to his knowledge of Emma to the gun to his knowledge of Kitty. Kitty is also a tactical expert, as witness her fight with Emma. Shown, not told. Emma’s every conversation is wracked with guilt and pain. Hank’s incredible ambivalence and fear of himself is shown in every scene in which he is not an animal.
These are great characterizations. Amazing.
When “Gifted” came out, I said this was one of the best comic book stories ever written. “Torn” is as well. One of the very best stories ever written. It’s not going to change comics; it’s not Dark Knight Returns, or Sandman, or Transmetropolitan. It is merely a perfectly written jewel of what superhero comics can be.
Superhero comics can be, when they are working right and the writer is good and the artist sings and the air is clear and pure and clean, comics can be the future. The map. The road of possibility toward what you hope to be. You can be greater than yourself. You can be more than what you have done, more than what you meant and failed, more than what you tried and succeeded, more than what you avoided and fled and quailed before. You can be your future. Because no matter your past, redemption is possible. You can strive within the limitations of your past, the self-imposed limitations of your fear. Or you can look your fear in the eye and walk through it. You can walk past it to tomorrow.
Come on; the X-Men can do it. They’ll show you how.