Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mutants, Cowardice, and a Severe Misunderstanding of Quicksilver's Behavior

"We're trying to completely reimagine the concept of the super hero team book here," Mark Millar told Wizard. "I mean, wouldn't it be interesting to see some people chicken out and call in sick when there's somebody they know can kick the sh-- out of them?"
--Mark Millar during the runup to Ultimates
"It's a cynical corpse of a superhero universe"
--Kalinara, Miller vs. Millar: A Rant About Cynical Superhero Storytelling

I must confess that back in the 90s DC I had no aversion to a Mark Millar writing credit. I remember my sister pointing out--when he wrote DC books--that he had an irritating "twist" ending at the end of all of his stories that was predictable in itself, but I never really had a problem with him. It wasn't until they launched the Ultimate Universe over at Marvel that I realized that I hated Mark Millar's work.

I initially liked the line, Bendis's Ultimate Spider-man was quite good and the first storyline of Ultimate X-Men featured my favorite set of villains--Magneto and his two brats. But there was something about Ultimate X-Men that rang hollow, though at the time I couldn't quite quantify it. This had been meant to be a slick, streamlined relaunch but there was a sleazy layer of grime to it. Wolverine in particular seemed... lesser. As a fan of Wolverine's more relatable aspects (the cranky uncle of the Marvel Universe, the guy who finds it all the more irritating that he can't really hate the man married to that girl he loves, the brooder who stays above his animalistic nature but doesn't let on about it, the smartass old bastard on the team) I'm not impressed by making him a more brutal or successful fighter. I'm not impressed with crazy eyes or hostility from this character. (He's blunt, not hostile.) Millar seemed to have lost thehuman side of Wolverine. I'm quite attached to him as the guy who stands around the breakroom in his cowboy hat drinking beer and being kind of a dick to Cyclops, who puts up with it because he knows they can count on him in any situation. The inherent trustworthiness of Wolverine wasn't there. Maybe it was coming on to a teenager instead of a grown woman. Maybe it was not enough standing around the breakroom in his cowboy hat being good-naturedly dickish rather than just dickish. Whatever the problem, Ultimate Wolverine just didn't work for me.

Ultimate Magneto was another problem. The common complaint is that Magneto is more honorable, but that wasn't precisely my problem. My problem is that Magneto is more mature than he was in the Ultimate universe. Really, attacking the White House and throwing around cars just seemed puerile to me. It wasn't something the arrogant old fuck we all know and love to hate would do. It's too small and childish for the guy who reversed the polarity of the whole fucking planet in the regular universe. The worst bit was him begging Xavier for mercy. Our Magneto is a sneaky hypocrite, but he has too much pride for that. He's a dignified bad guy. That's why he's such a big-name bad guy.

Still, Ultimate X-Men featured a genuinely creepy Professor Xavier and Pietro turning on his father (the look of shock on Magneto's face was a good moment) so I didn't consider the first arc a huge disaster. It was enough to bring me over to Ultimates, which promised an appearance by my two favorite Avengers (who also happen to be two of my favorite X-Men villains). That is where I realized exactly what was wrong with this entire universe.

There weren't any heroes there.

Seriously. Marvel has always been famous for the fundamental flaws in its heroes, but there were always redemptive qualities that balanced these flaws out. Mark Millar's reimagining of the "superhero" concept deliberately stripped the characters of their redemptive qualities. In Ultimates, Bruce Banner doesn't attempt desperately to cure himself while running from a man who wants to turn him into a weapon. He is addicted to being the Hulk and knowingly activates it again. Tony Stark doesn't seem to feel any guilt about his inventions at all. He is purely in it for the rush of being a superhero, there's no nobility or responsibility balancing his hedonism as there is in the mainline and the movieverse. Thor (who to be fair was one of the better re-imaginings just because here everyone assumes he is insane) is content to gather a cult and withhold his help based on politics. (Yes, it was funny, but it wasn't exactly a heroic idea.) Giant-Man and the Wasp were in a deeply abusive relationship that robbed both of their best qualities (his genius and genuine desire to do good, her strength in actively obtaining powers and leaving the relationship once the first punch was thrown).

Captain America is without a doubt the absolute worst. His core concept is that he is the absolute ideal of every American history book, the complete best that the country could possibly have to offer, the moral pinacle of the American culture preserved perfectly in time from what is almost universally regarded as the most just position the USA has ever taken in wartime. Instead, he is the embodiment of the most shameful aspects of his generation, and an indictment of the worst aspects of the prevailing US political climate.

That didn't make me drop it, though. What ultimately made me drop it was when Millar's above quote came into effect and Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch sat out fighting the shapeshifting aliens because they were "sick."

When I first read Millar's quote on calling in sick, my traditionalist mind pictured one of the younger team members sitting by a toilet sick to his stomach with fear while Captain America talked some sense into him. Or, at best, the guy that calls in sick, then changes his mind and shows up at the climax. But that was the fault of my foolishly conventional mind, Mark Millar had other thoughts for a heroic story. Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, my two personal favorites, chickened the fuck out the first mission and sat it out. Because giving in is apparently more interesting than someone transcending their weaknesses.

Now, I have an idea why Millar might have picked those two. On their first mission as Avengers, Pietro establishes his especially bad habit of running ahead of the group. Not two panels pass before a terrified Pietro runs back to Captain America.

I find this actually quite adorable, and not just because Don Heck drew an adorable Quicksilver. This is a necessary component of heroic stories. Fear. It's something you need to overcome to face the monster, and seeing one of the heroes get out of sorts when coming face to face with the bad guy emphasizes the danger. Pietro's a young man (I believe at this point he's a teenager, but that's a long unsettled argument between Kalinara and I), and this is his first time out as a hero. It is natural that he's going to panic a little. That's not cowardice, because he doesn't run off from the battle or hide from the bad guy. He just has the character trait of being fearful. It emphasizes his heroism rather than detracts from it, because it's something he has to fight through. Cowardice is when the character is fearful, but doesn't fight through it.

The Ultimate Universe is the Marvel Universe reimagined without nuance or complexity. (I've long argued that it is Marvel's answer to the DC's Crime Syndicate, and I eagerly await when the two meet and Captain America kicks Captain Jingo's ass while scolding him for disrespecting our oldest allies.) When Millar recreated a character, he first distilled them to his or her basic character components. Then he carefully discarded the merits and magnified the flaws, occasionally adding completely different ones. All he had to do afterwards was add profanity. Pietro and Wanda go from being wide-eyed and fearful on their first mission to being full cowards. Rather than joining the Avengers to build a positive reputation and prove themselves better than Magneto, they join to hide from Magneto who scares them shitless.

To be fair, this is reasonable considering he seems to have raised them in the Ultimate Universe. I'm not sure exactly how early he got them, but I imagine he would have fucked them up even more royally if he'd known they were his kids right away. Magneto somehow manages to be an even worse father when he actually tries to be a father. (See Magneto Rex, House of M.)

Still, as much sense as this chain of events makes in how people behave, I don't read superhero books to root for cowards and glory-seekers who never learn that it's bad to be cowards and glory-seekers so I dropped the book to preserve both wallet and blood pressure.

I'm glad I dropped it when I did, because subsequent scans have revealed the Loeb ran with the incest angle on the Maximoffs. That really pissed me off.

See, Quicksilver has long been criticized by the arrested development set as having a "creepy" relationship with his sister. I can only conclude that these critics are either severely emotionally underdeveloped, or they have never sat down and thought through Quicksilver's personal history.

Pietro and Wanda were separated from their foster parents (whom they believe are their real parents) at a young enough age they don't have a clear memory of them. They're twins so no one really has seniority, but they've been raised in an old world mindset so Pietro has picked up some sexist attitudes about male responsibility. He's not so much a chauvinist as a chivalrist, but still, quite sexist in that he believes that as the boy he's the stronger and should be the more responsible.

Couple that with their natural personalities. Pietro is an anxious, very grounded in reality, and holds a serious outlook. He has physical (or at least, manifesting as physical) powers, and wonderful control over them. They're nothing but a boon to him, and these speed powers seem custom-made to make him an excellent protector and provider. Wanda is a distracted romantic, a dreamer. She has trouble from an early age distinguishing truth from fiction (in "Nights of Wundagore", a 70s story, they establish that her foster parents told her stories about WWII and she believed that they'd happened to her), is much slower perception and reaction-wise than he is, and her powers manifest as bad luck/clumsiness. It probably took until Magneto found them before they realized she was powerful instead of simply clumsy and unlucky. Not only that, when they DO realize she has powers, they realize she has almost no control over them. (This is actually part of the appeal of Wanda. She is incredibly awkward and clumsy early on, and grows into being a pretty badass superhero. That's also why that West Coast Avengers storyline, Disassembled and House of M were so fucking infuriating. They threw away the growth and returned her to poor Wanda with the crazy powers who needs her baby brother to protect her.)

So, in Pietro's mind, he's got a slow, clumsy, gullible and chronically unlucky sister. He loves her very much, but as he can see it he's got the advantage and it's his job to take care of things. And to make matters worse, she grows up to be HAWT. I believe it's safe to assume that even before they ran into Magneto, they ran into a lot of predatory types.

Now we have a set of orphaned and alone twins, a girl who is chronically unlucky and a boy who is very athletic. The chronically unlucky girl is in the wrong place at the wrong time, a fire starts, and she gets blamed for it. They are now fleeing an angry mob when OUT OF NOWHERE, a man appears and fends off the mob with his fantastical powers. There's probably a great deal of bloodshed, but we don't know for sure because you couldn't show that sort of thing in a code book during the Silver Age. The man collects the terrified twins, who are in awe of his fantastical powers and the violence he's willing to put them to.

They were probably fooled early on into thinking this man is a benevolent protector (unless, of course, he graphically killed the whole fucking town in front of their tender adolescent eyes like I think he did), but I imagine that misconception went away the second the recruitment drive started and they saw the unsavory sorts they were forced to room with. What we end up with is two traumatized teenagers in a room filled with terrorists.

So we have Pietro--with what he considers his slow, clumsy, gullible, chronically unlucky sister--in room full of terrorists with fucking amazing powers. The old man has unimaginable power, designs on world domination and is perfectly willing to maim, kill, mutilate innocents and even let his own men (specifically, Pietro) die if it'll get them towards that goal. One of them casts illusions and doesn't even hide that he wants to fuck his sister. The other likes to gross out his sister and will sell them both out to the old man if it'll get him a treat. Oh, and the old man is perfectly willing to present his sister as an incentive for more powerful men to join the group.

Is the protectiveness not starting to look less like incest and more like a Type A personality's natural reaction to a truly fucked-up situation?

And as this happened during their formative years, it's a habit you won't discard even in the safety of Avengers Mansion. He might not trust unfamiliar people right away, especially as Magneto had presented himself as a savior. He might worry that allowing them to disrespect her will lead to them taking even further liberties. (This isn't so far off, considering that every male in the Avengers seems to go through a point of crushing on Wanda, Wonder Man even going so far as to prevent her husband's restoration to get in her pants. Hell, Hawkeye was willing to sleep with her while she was an amnesiac, which is pretty creepy.) He might not fully trust the robot who was made by their worst enemy to take care of her. He might react very badly to finding out all these people that he learned to trust slowly over time (overcoming the anxieties formed by spending his adolescent years in the Brotherhood working Magneto) are willing to--after not killing Kang, not killing Loki, not killing Dr. Doom and so on--discuss executing his sister while she's ill.

And the incest idea really annoys me because it shows me that either the writer has not actually sat down and considered where Pietro's character comes from, or the writer's just an incredibly cynical person who sees a sexual motive in any closeness between two members of the opposite sex. (I'll give you, this is one place Bendis managed well in House of M. He got where those two were coming from and wrote a tragically devoted relationship without creepy overtones.)

This is without going into the underlying truth of the relationship, which is that for all Pietro's worry and protectiveness, Wanda is the one actually in control. Wanda, the idealist, is the one with the real core of strength here. She's from a traditionalist mindset when it comes to gender, but that doesn't mean she lets her brother push her around. She'll defer to him on some occasions, but more often than not she knows better than to put baby brother in the driver's seat. Pietro's anxiety weakens him, and he has an inherent softness to him. He's an emotional, family-oriented worrywort who tags along to make sure she's safe. Wanda is the one who makes decisions for her own life and happiness, and progresses as a person. He just orbits her. He has no worth in his own mind except for his powers and how he can use them to help his family. That's why after House of M he starts to lose his fucking mind, while she's content to make a a secluded life without him or power. (Yes, even regressed as she was by those two crossovers, she still comes off stronger than her brother.) Part of why he's so zealous to protect her physically is because he can't handle a life on his own. It's a very old world gender dynamic.

Why bring this one up? Because it carried over into the Ultimate Universe. Wanda was the controlling twin. She was the primary decisionmaker. She comforted and supported him emotionally. So, if incest was going to happen, it was actually more on Wanda's head as the stronger in the relationship than on her anxious, needy brother. So the incest angle really tears her to pieces, and reduces the primary relationship in her life to a sexual one. This is especially problematic as Wanda is one of very few female characters in comics who places such importance on a nonsexual relationship.

Of course, I haven't read the actual issue, and the incest may not be Wanda's fault. But that's even worse because then the balance in the relationship between the Maximoffs is thrown out of whack. Pietro (and a version of Pietro that is inherently weaker as a result of Magneto's influence than our beloved mainline basketcase) the physical protector and provider is now also the decisionmaker, and Wanda has no pull whatsoever. Some 21st Century updating of the Avengers.