plainly and simply parasitical on the obvious or univocal reading

Friday, January 13, 2006

Scattered Thoughts on De-powering

I don't really read that many superhero or superhuman books anymore, or at least not contemporary ones, but I do read a number of bloggers who do. So I have gotten little bits and pieces of information about this "Decimation" event and one particular reaction, and continued thoughts in its comment thread have me thinking a bit about it as well.

While Jenn's concern seems at first to be about diversity of characters within the Marvel Universe, most particularly the X-Men books, and the effect of the event on them, things got really interesting for me with Ragnell's post in the comments and what I think it reflects about firstly the mutant as minority metaphor, and secondly the white guy editor/creator's conception of what minority means (and subsequently how to fit that into the metaphor of mutants). I'll reproduce the parts of the post that I'm talking about here:

Here's the thing about Morrison's run, though. He played up the cultural differences parallel. He created tons of new mutants from all ethnic backgrounds. He gave mutants fashions, and pop culture icons, and neighborhoods where they clustered together and listened to mutant music and dated other mutants. It wasn't simply fighting each other. Morrison took the mutants and justified the "civil rights" analogue by showing us that there was more to the mutant world than violent superheroes. There was potential for an entire new species there.

But Marvel's EIC thought that the opposite was achieved. From this article: "In explaining the decision to cut down on the number of mutants in the Marvel Universe, Quesada said that part of the X-Men's appeal was that mutants were a minority, and that allowed for empathy with readers. As Quesada explained, that feeling of "minority" had been lost over the years."
It's pretty lame, I'll admit, to be nostalgic about something that happened less than five years ago. Even so, I think Ragnell's really on to something when it comes to the appeal of the mutant population during Morrison's tragically short run. Morrison's mutants, more than any others prior or since, embodied--in a way that felt more authentic to me--what it really means to be a minority in a political sense, to be marginalized to the point of having to create your own cultural space in which to grow and thrive. As the post above shows, the mutants as Morrison wrote them had their own culture, and it was fabulous, and it totally freaked out the flatscans, and that was a wonderful thing. And it set up a tension, just like the tensions that exist in the actual world, between striving for equality and acceptance and maintaining what it is that makes mutant culture special. I guess what I'm saying is that if mutants are going to be a minority metaphor, then that's the way I'd like to see it handled (but with more superpowered fights and stuff of course).

By contrast, Quesada's view (if his view is actually as stated; it's hard to know when there is no real line between discussing the work and promoting it) seems mired in the idea of minority status as numerical in nature, which to me misses the point. After all, there are more women on the planet than men, but which one is the minority? Issues of otherness and power-over go way beyond mere numbers. I guess in that sense, though, House of M itself kind of missed the point, too. Well, "missed the point" is kind of harsh. I guess I should say oversimplifies or takes a shallow view of the situation. Within the "established reality" of the regular Marvel Universe, after all, the superhuman abilities of the mutants don't compensate for their political situation. The powers, apart from being responsible for their situation in the first place, don't really affect the political realities of mutant life at all. What I'm getting around to is, even if the situation is flipped on its head from a numerical standpoint as it is in House of M, that's still not enough to establish mutant as the "default" setting, and therefore getting rid of mutants' powers shouldn't have any effect on anything at all. Now I haven't read any of these books, so for all I know Wanda's actions were supposed to read as irrational in both cases (but since when, exactly, is Wanda so irrational? That seems to have come out of nowhere). But clearly some real-life human creators thought that getting rid of most of the mutants would make their status as minorities read more clearly, and I'm curious as to what the rational basis is for that.

I'm aware that it's all going to get changed back eventually, by the way, but the implications of the exercise are still worth thinking about here and now, in my estimation, given that every time a change happens in these comic universes, it's because some real-life person honestly thinks it's a good idea. That is, it's a stunt to sell books, but surely there's an explanation of the mechanics of it in there somewhere.

In many ways, I've tended to see the Marvel mutants as a pretty poor minority allegory not because of the number of them, but because the only thing that separates them from the "default" of humans is their powers, which plenty of non-mutants have as well, and who do just fine culturally and politically. Other than that, they seem to be completely assimilated into the default culture themselves, apart, again, from the Morrison run. In that sense, the political portion of their struggle doesn't ring true for me. Which is okay for the most part because the beating-up-on-the-bad-guys part of the struggle is what drives the books anyway (it's just not what makes them special). Where this ties back into de-powering is that you could reasonably have an enormous number of mutants and keep adding more every year and still never have it affect their political and social position as minorities if that's what you were going for. You also wouldn't have to retrofit the remaining powered mutants with new and contradictory personalities every time the plot needed it. Metaphorically and creatively, the de-powering seems like a dead end to me. And that's not even getting into how de-powered mutants self-identify, but I suspect that will actually be addressed in the various series because, well, how could you not?

Anyway, that's what went on in my head after I read that post. Back when I was actively reading this stuff, if you were a teenager and you read comics, you read the X-Men. I imagine it had a similar grip on others, and I'd really like to know what others think of the de-powering thing as well. Thoughts?


Jon Silpayamanant said...

I seem to recall an issue of Daredevil(?) with guest appearance by Wolverine who was tracking the mutant killer Bushwacker (who, as I recall, is/was also a mutant). Both DD and Wolvie want Bushwacker, but for different reasons--Wolvie wants him dead, and DD wants to "bring him to Justice" so this leads to the overused fisticuffs because of differing ideologies (I don't think I'll ever get tired of using the archaic "fisticuffs"), namely, the 'hero-vs-anti-hero' schtick.

But that's not the point and I ramble. DD and Wolvie's fight brings them to an iron fence upon which the body of Bushwacker's latest victim is 'propped.' She was a ballet dancer and was staged in a grotesque 'leap,' her legs and arms impaled on the sharp points of the fence. Since Bushwacher only hunted mutants, then it follows that the dancer was a mutant--so presumably her ballet skills were the result of her using some preternatural atheletic/acrobatic mutant ability.

See--that was what was interesting to me. The whole hero-anti-hero ruckass and the whole bringing-Bushwacker-to-some-form-of-"justice" seemed irrelevant than the one (or possibly two) panels that focused on DD and Wolvie's pause in brawling as they realize their actions allowed Bushwacker to off another mutant.

That there might be a sort of continuum between what would otherwise be considered two distinct subspecies/races. Just some of the implications flooded my mind at the time--could Mozart have been a mutant? Einstein? Ramanujan?

I guess, after reading your last post, and this one, I started thinking abou 'Power' and how it seems to operate along a continuum--and how there seems to be several lines of power that could possibly interesect. A mutant that looked otherwise normal, while having 'superior mathematical skills' could fit into specific cultural roles, for example.

I guess, in a way--I almost see the whole dichotomized issue of a minority being about number or about power to be a little too simplistic. I'm not saying that's exactly how you're framing it, Dan, but it seems like alot of the discourse does get framed in just these ways. I think my own background has something to do with it since being (genetically, at least) half-Asian, but politically and legally a Thai citizen, (I am a permanent resident with green card here in the states) I've had the 'pleasure' of seeing how power relations work in ways that just don't quite align up with any sort of strict dichotomy.

For example, one of the last things my ex said to me was "You can't be an American husband and a Thai son." Just where along any continuum of a power relation would that fit? It's a statement pregnant with criss-crossing of different power relations--the gender/sexual relation; the race/ethnicity/minority relation; the political/citizenship-hood relation.

So yeah--I think making the equivocation between number and power is very misleading--and almost reads like a way to set up Morrison's 'universe' as a straw universe to be taken down on the false assumption of the vaidity of the equivocation. Too simplistic.

On the other hand--there's no reason that 'de-numbering' should have to take away the relationship constructs Morrison has created. Maybe the EIC just wants to focus less on these types of minority mutant communities and just can't think of an intelligent way to say "We want more superhero-supervillian brawlfests!"

Anyway--I'm just rambling more than anything. I've never really had many opportunities to find 'comfortable' cultural spaces for myself in this region of the US (despite the rising hapa and .5 pride communities/awareness groups) so I usually just have to 'fit in' wherever that may be possible.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Oh yeah--great to see you blogging again, Dan!

Dan Jacobson said...

Thanks, Jon. Yeah, that's one of the reasons why I find the mutant thing to be such an unsatisfying metaphor, I suppose (and to be fair, I rarely see anyone making the connection between the X-Men and real world civil rights struggles outside of the context of superhero comics apologetics, which I have little use for nowadays). I guess I would prefer that if it's going to have that element of racial tension or civil rights struggle in it, that the problems should at least be addressed in more than just the numerical manner. I think that's one important aspect of it, as is political power, as is the ability of some mutants to "pass" and others not (something that was maybe ham-fistedly addressed with the Morlocks, perhaps?), as is the pervasiveness of sexist ideas even within the broader cultural struggle for "mutant rights," etc.

They have also never satisfactorily answered the question that I think is hard to avoid: how do people who were born with their powers differ from those who have powers they obtained by some other means (usually accident, I guess)?

To me it just seems that if they want to address the issue of minority rights, well then, address it in all of its complicated messiness. That doesn't mean it has to necessarily detract from the soap opera and violence, either.

I guess also that when an editor makes a statement to the effect that there are too many mutants and it makes them seem like less of a minority, I'm eager to examine that for what it might reveal about how a member of the "default" category views the nature of the minority situation (whether it actually does or not, who knows, but I think it's interesting that it was phrased in that manner).

Jon Silpayamanant said...

They have also never satisfactorily answered the question that I think is hard to avoid: how do people who were born with their powers differ from those who have powers they obtained by some other means (usually accident, I guess)?

That one always bothered me as well--there are the obvious reasons why there are differences that could (and should) create a difference type of response to the newfound abilities, namely that one group had the luxury of "growing into" their power while the other had it "thrust upon them" in a manner of speaking.

I think this difference is one of the reasons that I find Dave Fiore's insistence that Spider-Man is the ultimate foil to Batman to be a little, well, just off the mark. Iron Man always seemed to be a more interestingly complicated foil if for nothing else than that both Wayne and Stark are just ordinary men who responded to a trauma AND a natural ability (presumably non-mutant/non-meta though we can argue about genious being a mutant or meta ability) in very different ways. But, this is a discussion for some other time

Back to mutants and minorities and messy political identities--alot mutants' genetic quirks just don't seem to fit in with just being, well, genetic quirks. Would wolverine, bereft of his adamantium endo-skeleton (thus taking away one obstacle for further mutation), be more marginalized? Hank McCoy--do we even call his 'extended' mutation (blue fur and bestial appearance) just a natural phenotype of his genious (presumably mutant) intellect in genetics? Where do we draw the line between accidental 'mutation' and 'natural' mutation? And how much does culture and technology play into how someone is marginalized?

That last is interesting, because the whole idea of genetic mutation is bound within a context of Western science, and a significant 'accidentally' gained powers are the result of technology gone wild (e.g. Gamma Bomb; Radioactive spiders). Superheroes for a technocracy--which contrasts with alot of Asian 'superheroes' who've gained their 'powers' through either mystical means, or through tried and true hard work perfecting some esoteric martial arts skill. While it is tempting to make alot of the false East/West dichotomy (Jim Roeg and I have said a few things about this), the differences are at least suggestive of cultural differences and certainly shape issues of power and privilege.

So yeah, address the issue of minority rights, identity, politics in all of its complicated messiness.

I do think that it is somewhat natural to make the equivocation of minority/fewer in number, the tendancy here the framing of minority in it's politico-electoral context. A minority party is a party with fewer subjects. And this sits well with the framing of size in some metaphorical discursive contexts. Less is smaller, and minority implies smaller as opposed to majority and its implication of 'bigger.'

But yeah, power operates on so many different levels and in so many different contexts--and maybe this is part of the problem. How do we address the fact that, though politically and perhaps legally, mutants may have less power, but physically and mentally (in probably more cases than not) they have more power? The sheer presence of so many mutants might just be too threatening because of the collective physical power they wield. So I can see some of the reasons for the need to "downsize" the population.

I don't know if I would even fall in that "default" category, because, despite Morrison's elaborately constructed mutant culture, I've never really even come close to identifying with much of it at all. I guess I might be more of a Deleuzian nomad, or a 'border-crosser' as Guillermo Gómez-Peña might put it. Maybe my ability to "pass," at least partially, in many different groups is some of the reason for this nomadic behavior, and is a reason why I've never quite come close to identifying with any group. I really don't know and I thik my thoughts are even more scattered that your title implies yours to be! :)

I think I've babbled enough for now. :P

Anonymous said...

One thing about mutant population size: it would seem to me that many mutants would be sterile, and that two fertile mutants might not be able to have children successfully.

That would probably hold the population down.

Another thing that occurs to me: the original concept, if I'm not mistaken, was that mutants were 'children of the atom'. I don't know if that's still the case, especially with Wolverine and Mystique and others having origins well before the atom was first split. But if it is still canon, then there's the issue that, at least in the real world, nuclear testing has become far rarer - especially open air testing. If the Marvel universe has followed the same path, then there could have been a mutant baby boom, followed by decreasing mutant birth rates - except in nations that have had more active testing programs.

That'd be kind of an interesting plot point - America and Europe would be toward the end of a bell curve of mutant birth rates; Russia, China, and Central Asian states would be at an earlier point on the curve (possibly with higher birth rates than the west had due to sloppier practices and more radioactive contamination); India and Pakistan would be on the rising part of the curve.