Mutable Mutants

[Originally written for my Comic Cartography image blog.]

Chris Claremont’s catalog of tics is well-known: verbosity, repeated catchphrases, and exceeding focus on mental enslavement and the joy it can bring. What part could maps possibly play in this?

But there are a lot of maps in that final, mad dash to the Muir Island Saga that is Claremont’s exit from the title. They’re homodiegetic maps–that is, they occur inside the plot of the book, in full view of the characters (as opposed to the heterodiegetic maps, say, at the beginning of fantasy novels). The maps are there for the characters.

But unlike in The Losers, the maps aren’t something to be understood–they’re not foreshadowing difficult missions. Instead, the maps serve as narrative shortcuts. The remove all the business of searching and sleuthing; they directly point the way for the heroes or villains.

They belong to a little subset of late-Claremont plot devices–maps, jets, environmental suits–that serve to remove the characters’ struggles with the everyday. They don’t get hot or cold or even that hurt; mutates don’t have to go to the bathroom; everything they’re looking for is findable. Even when they live in the middle of the Outback, they can teleport across the world to get food and decor.

Soap opera elements are also abandoned; there are no more baseball games, and romance, often drawn out across pages during the ‘70s, is confined to ambiguous, single-panel kisses.

As the everyday drops away, the entire cast becomes violently mutable. Who can deal with romance when you’re not even sure who you are, were, and will be from moment to moment?

But let me go back. It all starts with the X-Men’s apparent deaths in Dallas. They’re given a chance to redefine themselves and relocate to the Australian Outback. They find that they’re invisible to cameras and scanners, and any mention of them in computer databanks is deleted. Without these secondhand methods of observation, they have a chance to define themselves based only on direct interactions, which is a freedom that no one could ever experience in our world. Self-definition at its finest.

Unfortunately, they never really get the chance to exercise this opportunity. Here’s a rundown of the many changes they go through upon being given the opportunity to reinvent themselves:

  • Rogue loses her powers and is taken over by the psychic remnants of Carol Danvers
  • Wolverine loses his powers and becomes old and sick (which is sort of his antithesis)
  • Polaris is taken over by the psychic entity Malice
  • Madelyne Pryor is influenced by Mr. Sinister and the demon N’astrith, eventually turning evil
  • the rest of the X-Men are, in turn, influenced by Madelyne, now calling herself the Goblin Queen
  • Longshot disappears
  • Rogue disappears through the Siege Perilous (a magical reinvention device) and is presumed dead
  • Storm is turned into an amnesiac child and is presumed dead
  • Polaris is stripped of her powers
  • Polaris gets new powers that make her grow
  • Psylocke, Dazzler, Colossus, and Havok go through the Siege Perilous
  • Colossus lives as a human artist
  • Havok becomes an anti-mutant Genoshan magistrate
  • Psylocke is made to look like an Asian, gets a new power, and becomes a ninja
  • Moira MacTaggart, Legion, and the rest of Muir Isle are influenced by the Shadow King
  • Banshee loses his mouth, Marvel Girl grows tentacles, and Callisto becomes a model
  • Cyclops becomes a Hound thing
  • Rogue becomes two bodies and loses her powers and lives among dinosaurs
  • Storm becomes a mutate and then an adult again
  • Professor X is replaced by a Skrull (or is it two Skrulls?)
  • Psylocke is replaced by a Skrull
  • A bunch of other X-Men are taken over by the Shadow King

And this is all in three years of the title. This intense and constant change is only exacerbated by the number of artists sharing duties on the title: Marc Silvestri, Rick Leonardi, Jim Lee, Kieron Dwyer, Bill Jaaska, Mike Collins, Whilce Portacio, Klaus Janson, John Byrne, Michael Golden, Larry Stroman, Art Adams, Paul Smith, Andy Kubert, Steven Butler–and that’s just the pencillers! The long runs of Cockrum or Byrne (or even Smith or Romita) are things of the past. The portrayals of the X-Men change as often as their identities, mindsets, and powers.

The overall effect is almost akin to the body horror of an alternative comic such as Charles Burns’s Black Hole: no one is who they want to be or who they thought they were, and they’re all struggling to attain a stable self that will never come. However, with bodily needs and everyday errands rendered moot by the plot devices that kicked this whole essay off, Claremont’s body horror (as can be expected from a superhero) is writ large and dramatically. Marvel Girl bemoans the loss of her telekinesis but exults in her half-dozen tentacle arms, only to lose the appendages just as she’s getting used to them. It’s not that the individual changes are horrifying; it’s that the rate of change itself is horrifying, too fast, and never when it’s wanted. It’s the generation gap, the medical and technological advances, the niche movements becoming mainstream and the mainstream fracturing, all at once and over and over.

Change itself has never been the enemy in X-Men. The villains have always been those that try to force change according to their own viewpoints and against the will of others. In the early X-Men stories, these villains were bigots or racists or mutant supremacists, and they tried to force change at a societal level, shouting to the world so that it would reflect their moral values.

In stark contrast, the villains of these twilight Claremont years enact change on a personal level, both physically and psychically: the Goblin Queen rewriting the citizens of New York, the Nanny’s child-reversion weapons, Genosha’s de-sexing and de-bodying, Masque and his enforced grotesque, the Skrulls as body snatchers, and the multitude of psychic infiltrators.

The horror of these last few years of Claremont’s run comes from the fact that the medium of conflict has been altered. The war is no longer fought with words and weapons. This battle is being fought over the shape of your flesh and the tint of your mind. The battleground is your own body, so you can’t choose to ignore the fight anymore.

So the world can spin on as it was, clearly mapped and labeled. The bad guys have a different canvas in mind for the forceful aesthetic of their ethos: your body, rendered into decay, wrapped tight in leather, and (perhaps joyfully) swinging a mass of tentacles.

[See all the X-Men maps here.]

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