Tag Archives: X-Men

X-Men: TAS Episode 3: Enter Magneto

Hi everyone, and welcome to the latest installment covering a cartoon from 1992 that still feels so relevant it kind of hurts you on an existential level, X-Men: The Animated Series! Seriously, this is a pretty stellar episode with a surprisingly adult script (even for this show), and I don’t want to wait any longer before diving into it.

Actually, I should pause to say one thing: I’m not going to attempt to keep politics out of these recaps. As sympathetic as I usually am to the “please keep your stupid politics out of my fun escapism show” argument, this cartoon happens to deal with a huge amount of political themes. Trying to write about this show without mentioning politics is like trying to write about My Little Pony without mentioning unicorns: You can try really hard, but at some point you have to acknowledge that Ponyland is just bursting to the gills with fucking unicorns, you know?

We start out at a jail; apparently this is some kind of super-secure jail for mutants, or perhaps just hardened criminals, but it doesn’t really matter. Beast is reading Orwell’s Animal Farm in his cell, and the idiot guards are taunting him, mistaking from the title that it must be a picture book for children. Beast doesn’t look terribly upset by this; I’ll bet if you asked him, he would lay the blame for their behavior at the feet of a sub-par American education system that allowed these people to go through school without learning about George Orwell, and he bears no grudge against them personally. For Beast, the root problem is never hate, only ignorance. He may not be entirely right, but he’s right more often than Magneto.

Speaking of which, Magneto is going nuts ripping up the facility with his magnetic tomfoolery, leading the guards to panic. Beast, bless him, calmly puts a bookmark in Animal Farm so he won’t lose his place, and prepares to scold Wolverine, whom he assumes is responsible for the all the hubbub. Alas, it is not the brash Canadian one, but Magneto, in all his power and glory! It’s telling that Beast already knows who Magneto is; even though Xavier clearly hasn’t told the other X-Men about Mags yet, he has confided in his fellow doctor.

Magneto wants to break Beast out of jail in the name of mutant solidarity, but Beast isn’t having it; he wants to go through the legal system properly, to prove that mutants can and should be treated as humans by the law. What’s really striking about this is how out of touch it is with today’s notions of “social justice;” from a modern, progressive perspective, Beast is putting himself in the hands of the oppressor and expecting the oppressor to give him justice after an appeal to their common humanity, and that’s a fool’s errand. The modern view, at least in many academic circles, is that you should do everything possible to disrupt “the oppressors,” because you’re never going to convince them to do the right thing through reason.

But that’s the nature of (this particular) Beast though; you can’t convince him that “civility doesn’t work” (or, more on the nose, that Civil Disobedience doesn’t work), because Beast’s whole character is about rejecting the primal, emotional reactions you’d expect a “beast” to be governed by, in favor of civility. If your path to justice isn’t civil, Beast has no interest. I never thought about it before, but really, Beast is the one who’s more diametrically opposed to Mag’s viewpoint, and not Xavier. Xavier and Magneto are different sides of the same coin, while Beast is using different currency entirely.

“While I respectfully recognize that this is in contrast to today’s notions of Performative Wokeness, I will surrender myself to the mercy of my Oppressor because I refuse to internalize the simplistic Oppressed/Oppressor dichotomy; not primarily out of any altruistic concerns for my ideological opponents, but because I do MYSELF an injustice by conceiving of my existence in such terms.”

“Also, jail gives me a lot of free time to read and that’s awesome, don’t ruin this for me bro.”

Magneto is surprised to learn that Xavier was responsible for the lawbreaking that got Beast jailed, since he always thinks of Charles as sitting around and doing nothing, waiting for humans to start being nice. This is another important distinction: according to Magneto, Xavier doesn’t fight, and that’s naive. In reality Xavier does fight, but he tries to fight surgically, picking the most important battles, whereas Magneto just wants to declare all-out-war all the time. It’s classic all-or-nothing thinking: Xavier does fight back against evil and injustice, but he doesn’t do it exactly the way Magneto wants, therefore Magneto treats it as Xavier doing fuck-all. If he had to accept that Xavier was also actively fighting for mutant rights, he’d have to examine his own views, and he’s too emotionally damaged to do that. Much easier to adopt an “you’re either with me or against me” mentality.

“Listen, Charles doesn’t like us breaking into government facilities on general principle, but there were kids being kidnapped, so we had to vaporize all of their data and destroy all of their advanced weapons.”

“How like Charles, to sit there doing NOTHING!”

“…what part of ‘we destroyed their entire operation’ is confusing to you?”

Naturally, the guards are trying to shoot Magneto, which Magneto tries to use as proof of the humans’ overall terribleness; not very convincing when Magneto was the one who broke in and started causing havok. Beast says that the humans fight because they don’t understand, but Magneto counters that they do understand; humans realize that mutants are superior, and that’s why they fear them.

This is an interesting point, but one X-Men dealt with relatively early in its publishing history. Cyclops has a wonderful speech in X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills about how mutant talents, while special, are not far-and-away above non-mutant talents in terms of overall value. Sure, being able to use your eye-lasers to punch through a wall has its uses, but how does that compare to a doctor who comes up with a new treatment for a disease, saving thousands of lives? How does enhanced physical strength compare to what a visionary artist or musician can do, enhancing the lives of millions? From this perspective, “Homo Superior” really isn’t superior in any meaningful sense, and is merely part of the vast continuum of human ability.

As an aside, the reason why I haven’t enjoyed X-Men comics in about 15 years is because Marvel Comics seems to have collective amnesia about God Loves, Man Kills. They’ve doubled down on the idea of mutants as this special, “endangered” species separate from humanity, which seems completely at odds with what the original point of the series was. Basically, regardless of how much Magneto is involved in the stories (and it varies), recent X-Men comics seem to be about a world where Magneto’s ideology won, and that’s not okay with me. But I’m getting too far afield of the episode here, and I’m sorry.

Mad that Beast isn’t read to join Team Mutants Only, Magneto goes on a rampage and destroys more of the jail. For the most part, he’s seen damaging tanks while the human pilots escape, but there are a few cases where it looks like the pilots must have been killed, or at least hurt. This will be important later.

Back at the mansion, Xavier is explaining his history with Magneto to Jubilee. Now, World War II and the Holocaust cast a huge shadow over this show– especially this first season– but since it’s a children’s cartoon, they can’t be too direct about those things. So Xavier says that he and Magneto met “after a war,” without giving any more specifics. There’s an interesting question here about whether or not Magneto is still truly Magneto if you detach him from the Holocaust, but we’ll come back to that another time.

Anyway, Xavier was using his telepathy to “cure” refugees from the war of their trauma, and I wonder; while this is supposed to be an example of what a good guy Xavier is, it’s does provoke some interesting ethical questions. Like, is his version of “curing” patients just burying their PTSD deep in their minds so it can’t affect them? Because that’s essentially what he does for Rogue, burying the Carol Danvers persona so Rogue can function (and we see what happens in Season 2 when he’s not around to do this). It’s questionable if that’s really curing anything, plus, these patients absolutely cannot consent to what he’s doing, because non-telepaths can’t fully understand how telepathy even works. I doubt this is a problem that we’re going to have to face in real life in regard to actual telepaths, but it is something that may come up the more we develop technology that directly interfaces with the brain.

“I’m going to bury those bad, bad memories away deep in your psyche; you’ll probably start having horrible nightmares sometime in the future and you won’t even know why, but hey, you win some you lose some. I’m a very ethical doctor.”

Magneto was supposedly a “young aide” to Xavier at the time, but the animators couldn’t be bothered to come up with a younger character design for Magneto, so he still looks about 45 years old. Magneto and Xavier reveal their powers to each other while rescuing their patients, and Xavier discovers Magneto’s rage at humanity. Xavier urges Magneto to use his powers to help make peace with mankind, only for Magneto to point out that humans “can’t even make peace with each other.” This is an ironic line on many levels, primarily because if there’s one thing that would make all of humanity band together in solidarity, it would be against the kind of mutant uprising that Magneto wants.

Xavier has already defeated his old colleague once, but he’s disturbed that Magneto is starting a new campaign for mutant supremacy. Jubilee reassures him that with the X-Men here now, Magneto can’t fight all of them, and Xavier doesn’t respond. You can kind of tell he’s thinking “Actually, he can fight all of us,” but you don’t say that to a vulnerable 13-year-old whose just had her entire life turned upside down.

Scene change to the courthouse, where Beast is being arraigned. Anti-mutant protesters hold up signs saying things like “GO BACK HOME,” and “GO BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM!”, which is amusing since Beast is a U.S. Citizen. This is typically the problem with telling people to go “back where they came from,” because Earth isn’t that big a place; if you’re dealing with say, a Shi’ar invasion, you could get some mileage out of “Go back to the solar system where you came from, bird-feathered scum!” but that’s a rather unique circumstance.

Angry Mob in New York: “Go back where you came from, mutant!”

Beast: “Very well.” *Packs bags, goes home to Illinois*

Angry Mob in Illinois: “Go home, mutant!”

Beast: “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.”

Inside, the prosecution moves to deny bail to Beast because he’s a danger to the community. I think it’s not accidental that the prosecutor is depicted as a black woman; just because you’ve experienced prejudice, that doesn’t mean you won’t dish it out to somebody else when you get a chance. I think it was actually a pretty ballsy choice to do this, since you didn’t see a lot of black female lawyers in cartoons (or on live-action TV) in 1992, and this is a decidedly negative portrayal, brief as it is.

“Your Honor, The People would like to clarify that the phrase ‘People of Color’ has never included, and will never include, blue people. Some colors are just wrong.”

Beast’s lawyer claims that The People want to deny bail just because Beast is a mutant, and the judge is offended by the suggestion that the court is prejudiced. The kind of brilliant thing is, I think the judge honestly believes he isn’t prejudiced; he’s just part of a larger system that is. Like the judge may honestly want to be fair to Beast, but if everything he’s heard about mutants for his entire life has been biased to give him a negative impression, there’s a limit to how fair he can be.

Just in case any adult viewer had somehow missed the fact that anti-mutant sentiment is meant to parallel real-life racism, Beast takes this opportunity to quote The Merchant of Venice. Oy vey, the man has about ten PhD’s, and none of them have taught him how to properly read a room. The judge denies bail, and I can’t even say he’s wrong to do so; the audience knows that Beast did not approve of the violence Magneto did in the course of trying to rescue him, but the court has no real way of knowing that. There’s an element of Magneto’s fears being a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it’s stuff like his attack on the jail that torpedoed any chance of Beast being positively received in court. Beast knows this, and seems more sad than angry.

“Oh God, he’s really doing it. He’s quoting The Merchant of Venice in the courtroom.”

“I thought we talked to him about this.”

Beast holds up a copy of Crime and Punishment and says he’ll have a chance to “catch up on his Dostoevsky,” and I call BS; there’s no way in hell that Beast hasn’t already read Crime and Punishment at least three times, possibly in the original Russian.

Then all hell breaks loose when Sabretooth busts into the courtroom and starts attacking at random. Grrr, Sabretooth! Stop making Beast look bad by association in court! I don’t know, I feel like I should be excited for the arrival of Sabretooth, being such a major recurring villain and so on, but he’s much less interesting than everything else in this episode. The guards manage to use their wimpy little laser guns effectively (for once) and knock down Sabretooth, leading Cyclops to say “they’re going to kill him!” This is unusual, because while characters use euphemisms for murder a lot, very rarely on this show do they actually use the words “kill” and “die”; I think there was some kind of limit to how often you could use words like that on a Y-7 program.

“Arrgh, this is the one time these puny pink laser guns do something? Are you kidding me?”

Wolverine, who’s even less excited by Sabretooth’s appearance than I am, is prepared to let Sabretooth die, which probably comes off as shocking and disturbing if you don’t know the history between the two characters yet. Cyclops fights off the guards and saves the ‘Tooth, although how he lugged about 400 pounds of feral Canadian mutant back to the mansion without Wolverine’s help is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless, somehow Sabretooth ends up in the X-Men’s infirmary.

Jubilee is immediately sympathetic towards Sabretooth because he reminds her of Wolverine; fortunately for her, Wolvie isn’t in the room to hear her say that. Cyclops passes on to Xavier that Wolverine knows (and hates) Sabretooth, and the Professor wants to know why; naturally, no one knows why because Wolverine refuses to tell anyone anything. This little storyarc ends up being about how the team should have had a little more trust in Wolverine when he told them that Sabretooth was bad news, but Wolvie’s at fault too for not even trying to explain. If he’d sat Cyke and the Professor down and told them his whole history with Sabretooth, they might not have kicked the guy out, but they would certainly have been a lot more cautious. The only way Wolvie’s decision not to share information reads as anything other than horribly stupid is if you assume that sharing stuff from his past has come back to bite him more than once, and he’s afraid of making that mistake again.

“Grrrr, I hate this guy so much! Don’t ask me why, it’s a secret. I will take to my grave the reason why I hate this guy, but I want everyone to know that he is just the worst. The worst!”

Wolverine wants to literally push Sabretooth out of the mansion, bed and all, which is kind of funny; he could just pick up Sabretooth and throw him out of the house, but then he’d have to actually touch him, so I guess just shoving the entire bed outside was more appealing. Obviously, Xavier is not going to tolerate any patient being forcibly removed from his infirmary like that, so Wolverine is forced to decide how far his loyalty to Xavier goes. Or rather he would have been, except Magneto attacks a nuclear missile base (!) and everything else is put on hold.

On the way out, Wolverine asks why the X-Men have to go beat up Xavier’s old enemy, but go easy on his, and there’s a very simple answer: because Xavier is in charge, and the X-Men trust his judgement Re: who needs to be beat up more than they do Wolverine’s. But what he says manages to touch a nerve anyway, as Xavier’s grimace shows. The Professor is very conscious of the dangers of abusing his power as the X-Men’s leader; granted, he still does it, but he’s worried about it.

“You know what you are, Chuck? A big fat hypocrite.”

“Be that as it may, nukes are being launched. I need you to go stop Mutually Assured Destruction. You can be angry at me whenever we’re not busy saving the world.”

“…Oh, I see what you did there.”

Magneto starts wreaking havok at the missile base, and to be honest, I’m not sure what his goal is here, exactly. Does he want to set off nuclear Armageddon, figuring that while humanity’s leadership is destroyed, he’ll be able to fill the vacuum? Seems kind of foolish, since a lot of mutants would be killed in a nuclear war too, but I can’t think of any other motivation that makes sense. If he just wants to destroy this one base as proof of what he can do, all he’s doing is setting all military everywhere on high alert, making his life harder. I can’t really complain that the specifics of his plan aren’t discussed though, because there’s no way they could be discussed on a show with this age rating; frankly I’m surprised they got away with identifying the missiles as nuclear warheads, specifically.

Anyway! Storm, Wolverine, and Cyclops show up. No idea where Rogue, Gambit and Jean are right now (you’d think this would be an all-hands-on-deck kind of situation for the X-Men), but whatever; I will have to get my regular dose of Gambit another day. Magneto quotes The Tempest, because spending any time around Beast apparently does that to people, and introduces himself. He seems genuinely disappointed that the X-Men aren’t in favor of his “Nuke our way to happiness” plan. He writes off Xavier’s dream of peaceful coexistence as hopeless, leading Storm to haughtily respond that his preferred alternative is a civil war. To which he basically says, “YES, exactly! A gold star for you!”

I see this argument taking place a lot today, albeit in slightly different form. A lot of people go around saying “Do not even try to reason with members Group X,  they are trash, they are garbage, it is hopeless,” and in some cases, they may even be right. But then it’s like…uh, what alternative do you propose? I have yet to hear any good ones. People who don’t outright call for violence seem to have their hearts set on the naive hope that if they just ignore their ideological opponents hard enough, they’ll somehow stop existing.  At least Magneto realizes that the only solution his logic allows for is violence, and he’s up-front about that.

Magneto throws the X-Men around a bit just to show he means business, then takes off. One thing that’s nice about Magneto as a villain is you don’t find yourself asking “why didn’t he just kill the heroes?” because he will always spare mutant lives on the assumption that they’ll eventually realize that he’s right and join him. Anyway, Wolverine’s version of trying to stop the nuke is to smash up all machinery in sight and hope that some of it, somehow, connects to the launch mechanism; in a way, Wolverine is kind of like a befuddled senior in a “Learn to Use the Your Computer!” class who just doesn’t get how this newfangled technology works. Needless to say, he is about as successful as most 89-year-olds at setting up their email, and the nukes launch.

FISSION MAILED

Professor X said that he “should have stopped Magneto when he had the chance,” which sounds an awful lot like saying he should have killed him when he had the chance, but censored for kids TV. Actually, what the Professor could do (and has done in the comics, although it didn’t stick) is disable Magneto’s mind to the point where he’s a vegetable; either way, not something they can be specific about on this show. Storm decides the only solution is to use her winds to pull the missiles after her and then detonate them over the ocean, killing herself in the process. Apparently there were no rules against suicide on Saturday Morning cartoons at Fox Kids; probably just the word suicide itself was banned.

Using Cerebro, Professor X sends technical information about the missiles into Storm’s mind, which teaches her how to disable them without blowing them up. This seems to work kind of like learning a new skill does in The Matrix, since in a couple of seconds, Storm knows enough about the warheads to know exactly how to deactivate them. Telepathy on this show is exactly as weak or as powerful as it needs to be at any given moment, but to be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show that utilized telepathy where that wasn’t the case.

You have no idea how hard I worked to get this screenshot. So many shots on this DVD end up just being a blur of two cells together, and there were very few shots with Storm AND any of the missiles in the same frame! See what I endure for you, dear reader?

In an impressive display of her power, Storm guides the missiles, uses electricity to deactivate them, and deposits them harmlessly into the ocean. She then faints, not unlike a nineteenth-century woman in a corset getting the vapors, but eh, I’m not going to make a big deal out of it. It is sexist that Storm (and also Jean) are more likely to faint after using their abilities than the men are, but I don’t think this scene makes Storm look fragile; it makes her look incredibly badass, first for being dedicated enough that she was willing to kill herself on the spot, then for working so hard to stop the missiles that she had nothing left after she was done. Anyone who thinks she looks weak for reaching her physical limits is being unreasonable– the woman just single-handedly averted nuclear war, for crying out loud. Have some respect.

“What would have happened if Storm was on another mission, and instead we had say, Rogue–“

“Don’t ask those questions, Wolverine. Storm was here. STORM MUST ALWAYS BE HERE.”

As the X-Men take off, Magneto gives credit where credit is due and admits that the X-Men have been well-trained. He seems genuinely confused as to why Xavier would turn his back “on his own kind,” and oh dear, this might be hard to explain. If Magneto doesn’t understand why Xavier doesn’t see “provoking global nuclear war” as synonymous with “helping mutantkind,” it may take a while for them to get on the same page here.

“All I wanted was the death of untold millions and the utter chaos that would emerge after the devastation, is that really so much to ask? Why does Charles have to be so unreasonable? He really hasn’t changed from that time we were involved in the [redacted]War in [redacted].”

Next time: Sabretooth reveals his evil scheme! Jubilee pulls her weight! Rogue flirts too much and makes everyone super-uncomfortable! See you next time for Episode 4, Deadly Reunions.

 

X-Men: TAS Episode 2, Night of the Sentinels Part II

Time to wrap up this opening story. We’re in the middle of the mission to destroy all of the files at the Mutant Control Agency; an ill-advised plan, but oh well, it happens. Cyclops, Rogue and Gambit are waiting outside the building. Cyclops is worrying about how the mission’s going, to which Gambit reiterates that he should be the one inside, in case anyone forgot how this mission should have gone down.

Inside, Storm nearly walks her team into a trap, but Wolverine stops her. He claims he can smell gun oil, so he knows that there’re armed guards on the other side of the door. Funny, I would think the scent and pulses of about six people would stand out more than the gun oil would, but what do I know? Maybe Wolverine just really hates that new gun smell.

“There’s guards on the other side of the door, so blow the door off its hinges and send them flying; in fact, always do that. That’s how we’re gonna handle all doors from now on.”

Beast makes a joke about wondering where Storm got her Nom de guerre, and I’m 99% sure this line only exists so kids would ask their parents what ‘Nom de guerre’ means. Then the parents would ask where the kid heard that term, and the kid would say “X-Men!,” and at least temporarily, parents would think X-Men was educational. Oh Fox Kids, you devious charlatans.

A bunch of reinforcements arrive outside to back up the guards, so Cyclops begins taking them down. Cyclops instructs Rogue and Gambit to do the same, but cautions them not to hurt the humans; Gambit snarks that perhaps Cyclops should tell the humans not to harm them. This may shock you, but I think Gambit has a point; Cyclops is assuming that the X-Men outmatch their foes by enough that they can afford not to take the fight seriously, and that assumption is going to cost everyone dearly. I mean, I don’t think Rogue and Gambit should be running around using lethal force on human guards, but still, they’re playing this way too fast and loose.

Back inside, Morph uses a ruse to get some guards out of the way, and the voice he uses is so obviously Cal Dodd (Wolverine’s voice actor) making a froggy voice that it’s pretty funny. The inside team begins destroying the mutant files. Going by the size of the file cabinet, it looks like the MCA has data on thousands of mutants. Err, not good.

We switch scenes to Detroit, of all places, where Jubilee has been kidnapped. Gyrich is trying to get her to spill the beans about the X-Men, but unfortunately for him, Jubilee didn’t stay with the X-Men long enough to even finish the Orientation Breakfast, so she doesn’t know squat. Well, actually she does know the location of the X-Men’s headquarters, and the personnel, and so on and so forth, but she’s not talking. This doesn’t play like Jubilee playing tough to protect her new friends; more like she’s so confused by constantly being kidnapped that she doesn’t even know what’s what anymore. You can’t really blame her.

Bolivar Trask, scientist-guy who makes the Sentinels, discovers that Gyrich kidnapped Jubilee and is clearly upset about it. At first it seems like maybe he’s a decent guy who thinks they shouldn’t be running around kidnapping kids. But no, he’s just pissed that Gyrich went as far as kidnapping a mutant before the Sentinel project had reached the next benchmark.

“Now listen here, if you want to kidnap 13-year-old girls and strap them down to a table, there are certain very specific items of protocol you need to be aware of, Gyrich. First of all, that is not my preferred bondage table.”

Cyclops, Rogue and Gambit are all fighting the guards outside while being careful not to play too rough. Cyclops wants the inside team to come out so they can regroup before things get out of control. Oh Cyke, things are already out of control; you’ve got Rogue dumping tanks into the Potomac. You probably should have told her not to do that.

Fortunately, the inside team is almost finished destroying all the files. Beast tries to wipe out the digital files with a computer virus, but Storm loses patience and fries the computer. I would like to be able to make some joke about how that data is backed up on Dropbox and Storm is screwed, but eh, it’s 1992; Storm’s probably right to just take out the hard drive and call it a day. Informational terrorism was so much easier in the days before the Cloud.

It haunted poor Derrick here that when the hottest woman he had ever seen touched him, he called her a “freak” because of the whole mutant thing. Determined not to ever let that happened again, Derrick adopted a new personal motto: “Booties before Muties.”

The two teams meet up outside, and make a run for the Blackbird. Morph makes another comment about how it’s “Clear sailing all the way!” and oh my God, I’m ready for him to die at this point. You’ll notice a lack of pictures of Morph in this post; that’s not deliberate, I just never felt the urge to take a screenshot when he was on screen. I guess I’m not Morph’s biggest fan, is what I’m saying.

Okay so I felt guilty for not even taking a screenshot of Morph, what with him selflessly sacrificing himself and whatnot, so here you go. Heroic Morph! To be fair, death improves his character a lot; his arc in Season 2 is fun.

Oh no, the Sentinels from Detroit have gotten to Washington in record time! Wolverine is ready to scrap, but Morph gets worried and jumps to push Wolverine out the way of a blast. Jarring scene change to Jean groaning over Cerebro; Morph just died off-camera, sacrificing himself for Wolverine. By the time Xavier puts on the Cerebro helmet to try to sense Morph, it’s already too late.

“I ain’t gonna say I tol’ you so, but I tol’ you so, mon ami.”

As little as the character of Morph himself moves me, I’ve always been impressed with this choice. Killing off a member of the team in the first story shows pretty strongly that there are real stakes here, and makes you question what the X-Men are doing. Was this entire mission worth it? Hundreds, maybe thousands of mutants may be safe from harm now that the data has been destroyed, but the X-Men don’t know that for sure; for all they know, the MCA could collect the same info again quite easily. And even though I didn’t like Morph much, a lot of viewers did; the show killed off a character people actually cared about.

I’m not sure how the show got away with this, because it seems way too hardcore and depressing for a program rated acceptable for 7-year-olds; I have that thought frequently while watching this series. When I first watched it I was already 10, maybe 11, so I had already encountered death in books, but I wonder what it must have been like for really young children who saw this on TV.

We skip ahead a bit to the team arriving back at the mansion; we’ll flash back to the fight against the Sentinels in a moment. This actually reminds me a little bit of the famous second episode of Evangelion, where you see the first half of a fight and don’t get to see the end of until much later; it’s much less dramatic than the Eva version, but to be fair, this came first. Wolverine is about ready to take Cyclop’s head off for leaving his teammates behind, but Jean comes and defuses the situation. She shares that Beast is alive (Thank God!) but Morph is not (okay.)

Instead of shredding Cyclops, Wolverine takes his rage out on Cyclops’ car and takes off. Jean says that what happened wasn’t Cyclops’ fault, or Wolverine’s, and no Jean: it’s Professor Xavier’s fault, for not sending Gambit. I’m not going to remind you again.

Flashback to two minutes ago! After Morph makes his heroic sacrifice, the X-Men are quickly overwhelmed by Sentinels, and poor Beast gets shoved into an electric fence, which is hard to watch. Remember how Cyclops can easily decapitate Sentinels with his optic blast? Well try to forget that, because he doesn’t even attempt it here. None of the X-Men’s attacks seem to do much in this battle, and in order for this to make sense with the end of the episode, we have to assume they were completely taken by surprise and are off-balance. Either that, or everyone gains about ten levels of power progression after this fight.

When the group decides that all they can do now is run, Wolverine wants to go back for Beast and Morph. Rogue uses her energy-sucking power to stop him, which is…weird. She’s not at all subtle about the fact that she’s about to do it, and Wolverine makes no attempt to fight or evade her. You know what I think? I think he wanted Rogue to stop him. I think he wanted to be able to say that he tried to go back from Beast and Morph without actually doing it. Sneaky Canadian.

I said I didn’t care much about Morph, but seeing Beast be sad makes me sad. Anything that makes Beast sad is intolerable.

Beast gets taken into captivity, where he prays for Morph. It may seem odd that a man of science like Beast is praying, but I think I get where he’s coming from. The only thing Beast can possibly do to help Morph at this point is pray for him, so unless he has solid proof that praying won’t help, that’s what he’s going to do. If Beast has ever gone into depth about his religion in the comics I haven’t read it, but that’s how I like to believe he thinks.

I would complain that Beast is sidelined for the rest of the season due to being captured, but to be honest, the scenes with Beast in jail are some of the best scenes in the entire series, so I’ll live with it. You’ll see what I mean when we get to Episode 3.

We see the President of the United States, and she’s a lady! It’s cool. At first it seems like the president is pleased that the X-Men’s attack on the MCA was foiled (it wasn’t actually foiled, they achieved their mission, but whatever), however we soon learn that a) she’s a smart lady who understands the nuances of the situation and b)she’s committed to cardiovascular health. She wisely tells Gyrich to stop with his MCA nonsense, because it’s only going to lead to more bloodshed.  Honestly, at this point, if you put this woman on the ballot, I would vote for her in a hot second.

Wolverine is playing pool at a crummy bar to try to distract himself from his grief. I’ve always gotten a kick out of how seedy this show makes Westchester County look, by the way. I haven’t been there a whole lot in real life, but whenever I have, it’s seemed like the entire area is ensconced inside a giant Starbucks; it’s a little precious. We hear from Senator Robert Kelly over the bar’s TV, in a nice piece of foreshadowing. They really planned out this season! Cyclops shows up to recruit Wolverine on a revenge mission against the Sentinels, and Wolverine is so turned on by the sound of the word “revenge” that he temporarily suspends his hatred of Cyclops and goes along with it.

“I know you’re mad at me, but in my defense, I’m about to offer you a mission that involves chopping up dozens of robots.”

“This is why I can never stay mad at you, Scott.”

This next part is cool. Cyclops goes to Jubilee’s foster parents, and her Foster-Dad rats him out to Gyrich. It quickly becomes obvious that this is what Cyclops wanted to happen, because he wanted Gyrich to send a Sentinel that the X-Men could then track back to the Sentinel’s home base. This is some pretty clever social engineering on Cyclops’ part, and goes a long way toward showing why he’s the leader. Cyclops easily damages the Sentinel (which apparently he can do when he feels like it), and the team tracks the damaged Sentinel back to Detroit in the Blackbird.

Detroit, inside the Sentinel Skunkworks. Gyrich tells Trask that they’re going to pack up the Sentinel operation and move overseas, now that the President has withdrawn the government’s support of the MCA. I would go on a rant about how hard-working American Sentinel-building jobs are being destroyed, but it seems like Trask is the only one actually building the darned things, so I guess that’s not a concern. You have to give Gyrich credit though: by pulling manufacturing out of Detroit, he’s about 5 years ahead of the curve there. If only Detroit had kept the critical killer-giant-robot industry, things might be very different today.

In the chaos caused by the broken Sentinel returning (apparently losing an arm also fries their guidance system), Jubilee tries to escape. She does a pretty good job of blasting through a metal wall, which seems like it shows off a lot more juice than her powers usually have. Why? Because Gambit is near, of course! Gambit gives Jubilee the courage to fight like a proper X-Man!

NEVER LET GO

What follows is a virtuous ass-whomping, with the X-Men easily taking out about 30 Sentinels. It’s a bit puzzling that they’re so good at fighting the Sentinels now when they sucked at it the first time, but I guess we just have to assume that the X-Men are all full of piss and vinegar now and were ready to engage. Back at the MCA, they were still in “Let’s pull our punches and not harm the puny humans” mode, and that’s why their attacks at that time were so weaksauce; that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

“I can nevah kill these robots properly until I’ve had my coffee in the mornin’! Let’s get ’em all, while I’m still running on French Roast, Sugah.”

One particularly choice moment in the fight involves Cyclops yelling at Jubilee to “duck!,” then he promptly blasts some Sentinels about forty feet above her head. There was no need to duck, is what I’m saying. Another nice moment (this time being serious) involves Wolverine using his claws on a Sentinel with extreme prejudice. Even though we know the Sentinel is a robot and not really alive, it still looks impressively brutal and shows off what Wolverine is about.

And so ends the Detroit Sentinel program; of course it’s going to be resumed in Bangladesh or something like that, but for now, the X-Men enjoy a well-earned victory. Besides, the quality of the foreign-made Sentinels won’t be nearly as good as these patriotic, American-Made Sentinels, so the X-Men’s hardest fight is likely behind them. Vote for X-Men:TAS President in 2020, she’ll bring manufacturing back to America and Make Sentinels Great Again!

Wrap-up time: Jubilee is saying goodbye to her foster parents, now that she knows she belongs with the X-Men. She confesses that the pair are the best foster parents she’s ever had, and uh…let’s all take a moment to appreciate what a scathing indictment of the American foster care system that is. Nevertheless, Jubilee will now call the X-Mansion her home for the next five seasons; beginning of an era.

There’s a moment at the end of the episode where Cyclops asks Jean if he did the right thing back during the battle where Morph was killed and Beast kidnapped, and she replies that he “did what he had to do.” Cyclops, hon, you shouldn’t have been put in that horrible situation in the first place, because you shouldn’t have even been there. If the Professor had only sent Gambit—-

*gets pulled away from the keyboard kicking and screaming*

Okay, let’s bid goodbye to Night of the Sentinels, and I promise that I’ll never mention that Xavier should have sent Gambit again. Probably. Unless it’s highly relevant. Next time: Magneto! Sabretooth! Due Process! Wolverine not understanding the concept of organizational hierarchy! We’ve got some good episodes coming up.

X-Men: TAS, Episode 1: Night of the Sentinels, Part I

Let’s start with a note on format: I’m taking screenshots from the official Marvel DVDs of this series. While I was glad to support the show by buying the official release, these DVDs don’t have much going for them beyond that. The special features are virtually nil. I have all of SheRa: Princess of Power on DVD, and those sets have tons of extras, including episode commentaries, featurettes, and even the entire series bible; my X-Men discs are just kind of sad in comparison. I don’t know what necessitated putting out such a bare-bones release here (maybe some legal restrictions?), but I hope someday, we get something better.

I’m impressed with how this episode has aged overall. The visuals are often too dark and muddy (a problem that plagues much of the show), and the backgrounds are often very perfunctory, even by the standards of the time; the only area where care seems to have been taken with the bg art was Xavier’s mansion. Still, this episode has to introduce 10 different characters, plus the entire world of the X-Men, and does it pretty darn well, all told. It’s also patently ridiculous at times, but the ways in which it’s ridiculous function better as satire than I’m entirely comfortable with.

Anyway, enough preamble, time for Night of the Sentinels!

We open with a news report about mutant violence and hysteria, which seemed overblown to me at the time. As a child, while I was aware of racism and bigotry, I thought of those as being largely problems of the past; understanding and acceptance of different types of people had improved within my lifetime, and I had every reason to believe that this was something that would only continue to improve as I got older. I thought that if super-powered mutants ever existed in real life, the response to them would be much calmer than this show portrays, because people have to be smarter than this. On some level, I think I’ve always been a little mad at the world for disappointing me about that, ever since.

“I’m telling ya Lorraine, we shoulda known something was up with that kid when she kept wearing that raincoat even when it wasn’t raining. Now she’s blowing up VCRs, and we can’t tape General Hospital? That was the last straw!”

Jubilee’s foster parents are agonizing over what to do about their mutant foster child, and it’s surprisingly hard-edged. Her mother even asks if the father regrets taking Jubilee in, and whoah…isn’t that the kind of thing you’re never, ever supposed to say as an adoptive parent? Granted, she didn’t know Jubilee was listening, but still, introducing the idea “maybe your adoptive parents don’t actually want you,” seems like a pretty dark place to go right out of the gate. This show is really dark for a kids cartoon, notorious for it actually, but I’m still surprised sometimes at the ways in which it’s dark.

Jubilee whines that she used to be a normal kid, and I wonder if she ever was, really. She was a gamer girl in 1992, and weren’t all girl gamers at that time vilified and harassed constantly? I read it on the internet, it must be true!

Five feet tall, I can believe, but 90 lbs.? Yeah, and I’m Scarlett Johansson, pfft. Someone lied on their Mutant Control Agency paperwork.

We get our first look at the mutant-hunting Sentinels, and by God, are they ridiculous looking. They were terrifying when they were first introduced in Days of Future Past, but that was in the context of the whole world becoming an unbelievably horrific place; seeing a bright red-and-purple giant robot strolling down a suburban street just looks ridiculous. Also ridiculous is the amount of collateral damage Sentinels are authorized to allow while capturing mutants; apparently it’s totally fine to destroy houses while in pursuit of target mutants. Part of me wants to laugh at this, and part of me realizes it’s actually not funny; you mean, ideological zealots don’t care who they hurt or what they destroy in the process of rounding up “dangerous” people? HAHAHAHAH what a huge exaggeration that has no relevance at all to current societal problems!

One tiny little dog does not approve of the giant robot in his neighborhood and hassles the Sentinel; remember this dog, he’ll be important later.

Jubilee takes out her frustrations on some space aliens at an arcade in the mall, and someday, when I watch this show with my daughter, I will probably have to explain what an arcade was. Jubes breaks the machine with her mutant powers, and tries to blow it off by being too cool for school, but naturally it doesn’t work. The arcade owner really should just chill; once the Sony Playstation comes out in a few years, electric-type mutants with poor impulse control are going to be the least of his problems.

“Dude, it was a Robocop cabinet, I did you a favor here.”

Jubilee runs out of the arcade and collides with Rogue and Storm, who were clearly on a shopping spree. In fact, considering the fact that they have about ten packages, I wonder how much of an allowance Xavier gives them for “personal expenses?” Meanwhile, Gambit is introduced flirting with the cashier at a stationary store; this wouldn’t be noteworthy, were it not for the fact that it’s so clear they’re both thinking about knocking boots that it’s actually kind of disturbing. Like, I have seen hentai less sexually charged than this scene between Gambit and this nameless cashier lady.

Sentinel bursts into the mall, causing havok, and captures Jubilee. Rogue and Storm take exception to this, and Storm changes in a flash of lightning from her normal clothes into her X-Men uniform. It bugs me a little bit whenever Storm does this, because it looks too much like magic, and mutant powers are not supposed to be magic. Technically she could be using lightning to incinerate her outside clothes to reveal her uniform underneath, but eh, I still don’t like it. Rogue’s initial response to all the mall shoppers running and screaming for their lives is “Must be sale,” said in a very deadpan way; this is why the entire world loves Rogue.

“Ah keep tellin’ ya Sugah, if you didn’t keep frying your clothes like that, we wouldn’t need to go to the mall once a damn week!”

“As if you don’t LOVE IT.”

“Ah do.”

Rogue and Storm retrieve Jubilee from the Sentinel, which involves Rogue decking it with an escalator, than flying up and punching the snot out of it. Jubilee is amazed that other people have powers more useful than breaking  VCRs, and seems to be somewhat in awe. Rogue eventually sends the Sentinel flying into the card shop where Gambit is busy flirting, nearly nailing him. I’m 90% sure she didn’t mean to do that, but I guess we’ll never know.

The Sentinel blasts Rogue and Storm out of commission for a little while, leaving Jubilee to run into Gambit. He actually catches her in his arms, making this the best thing to happen to Jubilee all day. Granted, her day so far has involved being betrayed by her foster parents, getting yelled at, and getting attacked repeatedly by a giant robot, so it’s kind of a low bar to clear, but still; Gambit has her in a princess carry. You cannot put a dollar price on that.

Suddenly this trip to the mall was not such a bad idea. Now, onward, to Dippin’ Dots!

Unfortunately, the version of this story where Gambit and Jubes have a romantic date at the mall will have to be continued in my fanfiction, because the Sentinel catches up and proceeds to blast the shit out of Gambit. When the Sentinel looks like it’s about to finish Gambit off, Jubilee belts the sentinel with her fireworks power. I like the fact that Jubilee’s first proper use of her powers is done to protect Gambit; that’s my girl.

Dear Sentinel 9872, this scan has revealed insufficient information. Please do a more thorough scan, and send all of your findings to my phone Mutant Control Agency Headquarters.

Jubilee bolts outside and runs into Cyclops, who easily takes out the Sentinel by using his optic blast to sever the Sentinel’s head from its body. Now forget you ever saw him do that, because if you remember, you’re going to spend all of Night of the Sentinels Part II wondering why he doesn’t just do that a few more times, and many Sentinel-related problems could be avoided. Jubilee succumbs to some knock-out gas the Sentinel emitted before its unfortunate decapitation, and blacks out. Scene shift to the Mansion, yaaay. The backgrounds in the mall were just too depressing.

Jubilee wakes up and destroys the lock on her door, since that’s what you do when people rescue you from a rampaging giant robot; break their stuff. She begins sneaking through the mansion, only to run into Beast, doing some kind of experiment. Beast muses aloud that it would be really fascinating if his experiment were to suddenly explode, so Jubilee wisely books it out of there. She then gets a view of Morph, the male character created for this show with Mystique’s shape-shifting power. Hmmph. I feel like I should have a lot to say about Morph, but I’m not sure what that is yet. Maybe I’ll wait until next episode…oh, wait, never mind.

Beast’s Log: –Still no progress creating an anti-dandruff shampoo that doesn’t dry out the scalp. Shampoo +Conditioner hybrid is still years of testing away.

Professor X and Jean appear, with the professor upset that the existence of the X-Men is going to be revealed to the world “like this.” Err, what were you expecting exactly, Charles? Did you expect to send out a press release that said “Today I’m proud to introduce my private militia, the X-Men,” and get favorable media coverage? It was always going to go down like this. Jean realizes that something is amiss, and the Professor puts out an alert that “an intruder” is afoot. Kind of rude to call Jubilee an intruder when she’s a guest, but I understand that it’s important to find her before she hurts herself.

“I always thought the public launch of the X-Men would be a joyous occasion. I had even hoped for…cake.”

“I can bake you a cake, Professor.”

“It’s not the same, Jean.”

In her zeal to get away, Jubilee accidentally crashes a Danger Room session meant for Gambit and Wolverine, which is definitely not something you want to be in the middle of without superhuman agility. Gambit tries to get her to safety, but he has Wolverine to deal with, who’s still oblivious to Jubes’ presence. Interesting choice to introduce Wolvie over halfway through the episode, by the way; you would think they would have put him front and center. Since Jubilee doesn’t know yet that the Danger Room is for training, and Wolverine is only pretending to beat up Gambit, she blasts Wolverine with her fireworks, sending him flying. Apparently, whenever Jubilee is protecting Gambit, her mutant powers increase by about 50%; that’s a girl with her priorities straight.

“Hah hah Wolverine, you just got beat up by a 90 pound girl!”

“You really believe she’s only 90 pounds, Bub? And I thought I was the one who just hit my head.”

Storm takes Jubilee outside for a heart-to-heart about who the X-Men are. Jubes is less than enthused about being taken to Xavier’s School for the Gifted, pointing out that “gifted” is a euphemism. That’s a really politically loaded comment that I’m afraid to touch, and I don’t mind admitting it. Storm tries to console Jubilee about her situation, but Jubes gets her bitch mode on for some reason and points out that the people at the mansion seem a little old for school, like they might have been left back because they failed. Wow! Is that how you treat someone who just rescued you, kiddo? I like you, but you pick all the wrong times to get vicious.

Storm then does a gratuitous display of her powers, allegedly to show Jubilee the importance of learning to control your abilities, but mostly to get back at Jubes for being a snotty little brat; no one would hold it against her.

“How big an allowance does Professor Xavier give you if you join the X-Men?”

“It’s $200 a week. In 1992 dollars.”

“WHERE DO I SIGN?”

Inside, everyone gathers in the war room, planning their next move. Wolverine asks if anyone’s called Jubes’ parents, and it’s important that he’s the one to ask that; when he finds out that they haven’t heard back from her family, he effectively becomes her parent, right then and there. All you need to do to get on Wolvie’s good side forever is blast him in the spleen with some explosive energy, he respects that sort of thing. Professor Xavier has somehow hacked information out of the disembodied Sentinel head (don’t ask), and found out that the Sentinel had Jubes’ information because it had access to her profile from the Mutant Control Agency.

The gang then discusses what the MCA is, and I feel like I need to quote this:

Cyclops: Professor Xavier, could the government be plotting against mutants?”

Xavier: No; the Mutant Control Agency is a private organization with occasional support from the government.

….

…Wow, what a critically important distinction, Professor. I’m sure Cyclops feels so much better now. Of course, it’s a little rich that anyone’s surprised that an organization called “The Mutant Control Agency” has an interest in controlling mutants, but that’s one of those things we just have to shrug off. It would make a lot more sense if it were called The Mutant Outreach Program or something, but we gotta make some allowances for this being a kids cartoon.

While the X-Men are all busy discussing the MCA and its “hidden” agenda, Jubilee hops a bus to go see her foster parents. Great security there, X-Men, but I guess hacking that giant Sentinel head was pretty distracting. Gyrich from the MCA is asking Jubes’ parents about her friends, curious if the X-Men are among them, but they claim not to know about Jubes friends because she’s only been with them “a year.”

Your kid has lived with you for an entire year, and you still don’t know who any of her friends are? What the hell is wrong with you people? I know I’m supposed to have some sympathy for these folks, being caught in a dangerous situation they were totally unprepared for, but damn, are they making it hard to care about them. Jubilee then promptly gets captured by the Sentinels, because without Gambit there to motivate her, her powers are still weaksauce.

Back at the mansion, Professor X comes up with a plan to sneak into the Mutant Control Agency and destroy their files, so that hundreds of mutants will get their anonymity back and hopefully be safe from the Sentinels. Gambit suggests doing it himself, and hey, that’s a great idea! And no, I’m not just saying that because I obviously want to marry him like his character. Gambit is a professional thief; getting in and out of places without being seen is his specialty. Even if the Sentinels were to show up, he’d pull some ruse to distract them and then get away, the other thing he’s really good at.

But no, Professor Xavier decides that for a stealth breaking-and-entry mission, he does not want the free services of the best thief in the known world, but instead wants a team of Beast, Wolverine, Morph, and Storm; Storm, the woman who cannot go five feet without announcing her presence. You know, Cyclops is going to get hammered later for how this mission goes south, but really, this was all the Professor’s fault from the very beginning; he put lives in danger the minute he refused to send in the best qualified person.

I think the implication is supposed to be that Xavier doesn’t full trust Gambit yet, whereas he does trust the others, but still; stupid, stupid decision.

Cyclops confronts the professor about his concerns about the mission, namely that attacking a civilian organization is not the way to teach people that mutants are not to be feared. It’s really interesting that we’re already getting this schism between Cyclops in the Professor this early on, although it’s never fuly developed here the way it is in the comics. The Professor really has no response to Cyclops, so he cops out with “we have no choice,” and leaves it at that. I kind of feel like all of Professor X’s terrible decisions in the entire series were front-loaded into this one episode, because I don’t think I’d remember him as fondly if he were normally like this.

“Look, all I’m saying is, if you want people to learn to like us and even trust us, this is not the way. This is not how we win hearts and minds.”

“That’s an excellent point, Scott. My well-reasoned counterpoint to that is that I am the boss of you, and you will do what I say.”

The crew finally catches on to the fact that Jubilee is missing, and Wolverine decides to go after her, despite the fact that he’s just been assigned the MCA mission. Cyclops and Wolverine have power struggle/testosterone spewing competition, then Wolvie storms off; if you make taking a shot every time this happens part of your X-Men:TAS drinking game, you’ll probably have a very good time, but that’ll be the end of your liver.

Mission time! For some reason, everybody’s tagging along on this mission (except Jean and Prof. X) even though only Wolverine, Storm, Beast and Morph are supposed to go inside. En route to the MCA complex, the group has an interesting discussion about what makes mutants the way they are. One of Beast’s suggestions is “television!” which is delightfully meta; see, it’s a good thing this program that you’re watching is teaching you how to deal with being a mutant, because it might be turning you into one. Discussions like this, by the way, are what put this show a cut above typical action cartoon fare, at least in my mind.

Wolverine catches up with the rest of the team, having lost Jubilee’s trail. He sheepishly says that he “got bit by a dog, too,” and AHA! Remember that little dog from the beginning of the episode, the one who was hassling the Sentinel like “stay way from my house, dude!” That dog bit Wolverine, apex predator; canine has balls of steel. Great guard dog, 14/10.

You know who has really good night vision and wouldn’t need to use binoculars to scope the joint out? GAMBIT.

Storm whips up some clouds to lower visibility (I guess she has her uses), and the guys head into the complex. There’s an interesting little bit where Morph gets thrown over the fence, then uses his shapeshifting power to impersonate a guard and take him out. What’s neat is when Morph copies the guard’s appearance, he also copies the weapon the guard is using, then uses said weapon to shoot the guard. Then when he shifts back, the weapon disappears.

This is interesting to comics geeks because this isn’t how Mystique’s shape-shifting works; she can copy anything, but it’s cosmetic when it comes to devices that people may be carrying. If Morph can make his copied objects functional, that actually makes his powerset more like a cross between Multiple Man and Mystique, but he’s going to die in about ten minutes, so I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

Storm electrocutes a guard (nice job being gentle on the puny humans there, team), and Wolverine uses his claws to destroy the door inside. Beast already lifted the key from one of the guards, meaning there was no need to destroy the door, but look; Wolverine needs an excuse to use his claws on something. It’s actually a bit of a problem for this show that Wolverine is constantly brandishing his claws but can’t do much with them, because if he used them on a person, things would very rapidly get too bloody for the Y-7 rating.

“I can’t decide which one I love more; nineteenth-century poetry, or assault and battery.”

“No one’s asking you to decide, Bub.”

The inside team encounters a laser trap. Beast quotes nineteenth-century poet Coventry Patmore, of all people, then uses his agility to disarm the trap. I’m curious what went on behind-the-scenes here; who on the staff was a big enough fan of Coventry Patmore to include his poetry in an episode of X-Men, but was still okay with Beast’s dismissive quip “A minor poet for a minor obstacle,”? Maybe someone had to read Patmore in college and this was their revenge? In any case, it’s delightfully incongruous with the rest of the episode, like about 50% of everything Beast does.

Outside, Cyclops is worrying how the inside team is doing, wishing he had some way of keeping tabs on what they were doing. Gee, if only there were someone on the team who had the power to keep everyone in constant telepathic contact, that would be mighty convenient. Come to think of it, aren’t there two people with telepathic abilities, both of whom stayed home for no apparent reason? At some point, you have to wonder if Professor X is trying to sabotage this mission.

Morph says “It looks like clear sailing from here,” so of course a bunch of gun-toting guards are just waiting to ambush the X-Men. This is why I’m not too broken up about Morph’s imminent death, by the way; who but a moron tempts fate like that? Plus, he teased Gambit not once but twice during this episode, and that’s not acceptable.

Storm opens the door, enemies await on the other side, and we’re done with this episode! Next time, we’ll see the conclusion of this storyline, and commiserate a little more about how everything bad that has ever happened is actually Professor Xavier’s fault.

 

Blogging X-Men: The Animated Series

X-Men: The Animated Series is not anime, and even the most vocal proponents of widening the definition of the term would not label it as such. It’s an American cartoon, and arguably doesn’t belong on a blog called Otakusphere, which is mostly about anime most of the time. However, X-Men:TAS was kind of like my gateway drug to everything otaku: discovering the X-Men cartoon led to a passion for American comics, which led to a passion for anime and manga, which led to me becoming…well, me. If I hadn’t become a huge X-Men fan at the age of 11, chances are I would be a vastly different person today.

Maybe I would be a better person. I mean, maybe if I hadn’t wasted so much time with cartoons, comics and anime, I could have become a doctor, found a cure for cancer, and already gone down in history as one of the most important people to have ever lived. Maybe I should be pissed as hell at the X-Men for keeping me from sundry achievements in medicine, astronomy, or theoretical physics. Instead, I became the kind of person who writes thousands of words about cartoons on the internet, and I think I should probably just go with that at this point.

I tried to have my cake and eat it too by blogging the 2011 X-Men anime; it was anime and X-Men at the same time, score! Unfortunately, it was a pretty terrible show. Still, I was probably harder on it than I should have been because I was mad at it for the unforgivable crime of not being the X-Men show I really wanted to write about. So I apologize, X-Men anime; you were kind of bad, but I could have been nicer to you.

Now I want to cut the nonsense and go through my childhood obsession show episode by episode, which I think I’ve really wanted to do for a long time without consciously thinking about it. This will probably be like my Tomb Raider project, something I dip into from time to time when I’m taking a break from anime.

Let’s start by going down the cast list before diving into the show proper, so I don’t drag the individual episode posts off-topic by waxing poetic about certain characters. It’s funny that I think of this roster as being the “classic” X-Men line-up, when it’s really not at all; in fact, to comic fans at the time, this team probably seemed like a slap in the face. Where were X-Men stalwarts like Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Kitty Pryde? Why was Gambit included, when he was only created about ten minutes before the show aired? Even so, for better or for worse, I’ll always think of this team as my X-Men.

Cyclops

Character created: 1963

Power(s): Constant beam of concussive energy issuing from his eyes.

Voice Actor: Norm Spencer

At the time, I didn’t care much for Cyclops; he was just a boring authority figure. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate him. He’s usually a competent leader, but suffers from the deep-seated fear that if he ever screws up, Professor X might just drop him back in the orphanage where he found him.  He loves the professor as a father figure, but on another level he resents the hell out of him; on the show, he never seems to realize this. In the comics, he absolutely did.

The comics-version of Cyclops is one of the few characters who went through genuine character development, without said development being constantly compromised by resetting him back to the status quo. Cyclops, towards the end of his life, had changed dramatically from the person he was introduced as. Unfortunately, he’d changed into a person I didn’t like at all, but that doesn’t take away from the achievement that he was a Marvel Comics character who actually (and believably) changed as a person due to his experiences. He’s dead now in the comics, but his entire character arc represents a singular achievement; until they inevitably revive him and screw it all up again, that is.

It’s nostalgic to see this innocent version of Cyclops, basically a big Boy Scout troop leader who’s trying so hard to please his adoptive father and his girlfriend that he can’t see that he’s grinding himself down in the process. In the world of the animated series, Cyclops seems to agree with the Professor’s principles, whereas in the comics (I almost said “real life”), he finds that he doesn’t. In a way that makes Cyclops problem more subtle on the show than it was on the page; the problem isn’t the ideas he’s being forced to represent, its the fact that he never was given a choice in the first place.

Wolverine

Character Created: 1975

Power(s): Enhanced agility and senses, super-accelerated healing, claws protruding from hands; skeleton bonded with super-strong metal, which is not a natural power but the result of tampering by Those Evil Government Types.

Voice Actor: Cal Dodd

Another character who’s grown on me tremendously over the years. At the time, it bugged me that Wolverine was so obviously the star and we were all supposed to like him; it annoyed me how much screentime he got, and I wished everyone else would get equal time in the sun. I didn’t really care for his gruff attitude, and I thought that having knives come out the back of your hands was a boring superpower; to be fair, it still is.

Once you crack the Wolverine code, and realize that Logan is the most sensitive of all the X-Men– even moreso than teenaged Jubilee– then he suddenly becomes much more interesting. He’s been deeply scarred by losing practically everyone he’s ever cared about, but his memory has been so tampered with over time that he’s not even sure who those people were. He’s always mourning someone, but he doesn’t always know who it is. Both in the comics and on the show, Wolverine’s stories have tackled surprisingly complex themes about identity; if you as a person are the sum of all your previous actions, how can you even know who you are if memory is fallible?

I think the X-Men movies to date missed a lot of opportunities to take advantage of the strengths of the comics, but one area where they absolutely succeeded was with Wolverine: casting, attitude, etc. And Logan is one of the best superhero films ever made, to the point of not feeling like a superhero film at all. Wolverine’s cinema presence is having an odd effect on me though; I never found cartoon Wolverine attractive in the slightest, but now that I associate him with Hugh Jackman, I’m finding early ’90s Wolverine to be oddly sexy, and it’s weird. I really need this to stop, because everyone and their Mom knows that Gambit is supposed to be the sexy one.

Rogue

Character Created: 1981

Power(s): “Life-sucking” touch that sucks out other people’s strength, memory, and superpowers, either temporarily or permanently; flight, super-strength and near-invincibility have been permanently stolen from Carol Danvers, AKA Ms. Marvel.

Voice Actor: Lenore Zann

Everyone loves Rogue. You can tell even the animators loved Rogue, because whenever she’s onscreen, the art quality seems to go up by about 30 percent. Everything about the show will look dull and kind of muddy, then Rogue flies into the room, all crisp linework, and suddenly, it almost looks like an anime.

Rogue was my favorite character for a long time, even though as a kid, I really didn’t understand the nature of her problem. I remember thinking it was weird that she complains that her power doesn’t allow her to touch anyone, whereas she touches people all the time; that’s what her gloves are for! It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that Rogue’s real problem was that she couldn’t have intimacy. I guess this is what happens when you discover X-Men before you discover sex.

The animated series version of Rogue has a bit of a problem though, because she’s much, much more open to using her life-sucking power than she is in the comics. This changes the nature of the character a bit, because it’s hard to believe that she deeply hates her superpower when she uses it all the time. The problem is, if she didn’t use it, then the audience wouldn’t really know who Rogue is supposed to be. I think Rogue’s issues, and her moral issues with stealing other people’s powers and memories, were on the cusp of being too dark for a kids show to deal with. They tried admirably though, as the Ms. Marvel flashback episode demonstrates.

One thing that used to really bug me as a kid was that Rogue would always get thrown around, run over by trucks, etc., just because she was the only one who could survive that kind of punishment. I hated seeing my favorite girl get pummeled just to show off how strong the enemy was. It still kind of bugs me, but now I understand that one of the reason that happens is that Rogue intentionally takes hits for the rest of the team; at the time, it seemed like all the villains were just being really mean to her. Stop throwing Rogue into things, meanies! What has she ever done to you? Besides possibly stolen your memories and powers, that is?

Storm

Character Created: 1975

Power(s): Ability to manipulate the weather, which manifests as wind-riding (flight), throwing lightning, making snow, and doing basically whatever the writer can think of that is even vaguely weather-related.

Voice Actors: Iona Morris, later Alison Sealy-Smith

There are almost as many versions of Storm as there are comic books published. You have original, Earth-Mother Storm, Saavy Thief Storm, Megalomaniac Storm, Competent Leader Storm, Vicious Brawler Storm, etc. She’s a character who’s gone through a lot of changes over her publishing history, but with much less consistency than Cyclops. When Chris Claremont was writing her back in the ’80s, she had a definitive personality; ever since then, every writer has put their own spin on her. You never really know what you’re going to get with Storm these days.

Almost by necessity, the cartoon goes with the most boring version of Storm; naive, Earth-Mother Storm. This is because if she was shown as being as smart and competent a field leader as she often is in the comics, then she’d be taking over Cyclops’ role. Plus, her backstory– the stuff that makes up the core of Storm’s personality– actually was too dark for the cartoon to deal with. We’ll get to this in more detail in episode 4, but basically, we got a severely watered-down version of Storm on this show because the real one just wouldn’t have worked on a program rated Y-7.

Even Storm’s skin color is toned down; on the show, she could pass for a white woman who just got back from Hawaii and has a great tan. It was a little bit of a shock when I read the comics and realized that Storm was actually black. From our modern perspective, it’s  appalling that they changed Storm’s character design to make her more appealing to white people, but I think it’s better to shrug this off as a bad decision and let it go; it was 25 years ago. We have enough to worry about with racial representation in today’s programming.

Even with all these limitations, the TV character still has some charm. I love when she gets snarky, because it’s such a contrast to her typically grandiose way of speaking. But it wasn’t until I read the comics that I realized why Storm was actually an interesting character, as opposed to a boring character with interesting powers.

Beast

Character Created: 1963

Power(s): Enhanced agility, with enlarged hands and feet. Technically his blue fur and ape-like appearance isn’t a mutation, but let’s not get into that. Also genius-level intellect, although it’s never been clear if that should really count as a mutation.

Voice Actor: George Buza

One part mad scientist, one part Frankenstein’s monster, one part loopy English professor who really wants you to do well on the exam; I love this version of Beast, full-stop. He’s like a blast of pure joy whenever he’s on screen. In the comics they tried to give him this existential angst, and it was usually more annoying than interesting. Even on the show, he still had a dark, brooding side, but they didn’t overplay it the way they did in the comics.

What’s really fun about going back to this show as an adult is getting all the literary references centered around Beast that went completely over my head as a kid. One thing that sticks out in my mind is when Rogue and Gambit go to visit him in prison during Season One, they bring him a copy of You Can’t Go Home Again, to which Beast responds “Thomas Wolfe; an old friend.” Any old friend of Thomas Wolfe’s is a friend of mine!

As much as I like the character, I find I have very little to say about him in this incarnation; he’s just wonderful. Wonderful things are self-evidently wonderful, you don’t really have to explain it.

Gambit

Character Created: 1990

Power(s): Ability to kinetically charge objects so they’ll explode, enhanced agility, some kind of hypnotic tomfoolery that the show wisely ignored completely.

Voice Actors: Chris Potter, later Tony Daniels

I’m going to break with protocol and give away a closely-guarded secret here. If you know any female, any woman at all, who was on the cusp of puberty in 1992, she was in love with Gambit. Like, if you gave her a form and asked her to fill in her sexuality, if she’s being honest she would ignore the boxes for “straight” and “gay” and add a box called “Gambit,” then check that box three times.

I didn’t have relationships until relatively late in life, and up to this point, I have allowed people to believe it was because my standards were very high; in reality, the reason why I didn’t date for so many years was because I never ran into anyone who looked sufficiently like Gambit to make it worth the bother.

Why was I so into Gambit? Why were so many of the girls I knew into Gambit? I think it’s because he’s kind of like the archetype of the mysterious, handsome guy who knows a lot of stuff you don’t know. Adults often find his character grating for just that reason, but when you’re 11, you’ve never seen that kind of character before, it’s still exciting to you.

Gambit was another character where the show wasn’t able to explore his darker aspects, but unlike Storm, I think this actually worked in his favor, making the cartoon version the superior incarnation of the character. The trick with Gambit is he’s supposed to have some really dark stuff in his past, and oh, if only the X-Men knew what it was, they’d be forced to kick him out in disgust. But the moment you reveal that stuff, if it really is dark and sinister, he stops being viable as a hero; if it’s not dark enough, then the audience feels lied to. The comics successfully threaded this needle until about 1995, then after that most of what they did with Gambit was just embarrassing. Even now, most writers have no clue what to do with him.

A part of me will always love Gambit the way he appears here, An 11-Year-Old Girl’s Introduction to Sex. I have changed over time, and am no longer strictly Gambit-sexual (I also found a place in my heart for Squall Leonhart from Final Fantasy VIII), but this cartoon character with an odd obsession with playing cards and the color pink will always be my first love…I mean, my first cartoon crush. Same thing?

Jubilee

Character Created: 1989

Power(s): Ability to discharge brightly-colored energy from her hands that functions similarly to Cyclops’ eye lasers. Ability to make ’90s slang sound even more cringeworthy and painful than it actually was at the time. Ability to be a brat.

Voice Actor: Alyson Court

If Wolverine was the obvious star, Jubilee was the obvious Point-of-View character for the young audience, and I resented her for it. It was so obvious that I was supposed to relate to Jubilee, when I vastly preferred Rogue, Gambit, or Beast. I think her dialogue, peppered liberally with early-90’s slang, sounded incredibly dated even at the time, but that could just be my memory playing tricks on me.

That said, Jubilee has a lot going for her as a character. She took over the role that Kitty Pryde had in the ’80s as the X-Men’s resident teen sidekick, but while Kitty had to be annoyingly perfect at just about everything (at least to me), Jubilee is refreshingly average. She’s not supposed to be gorgeous, or brilliant, or particularly powerful as a mutant, but she knows what she wants and goes after it with considerable aplomb. She also has about zero tolerance for bullshit, something not true of the more romantic Kitty; as an orphan on the streets, she had it rough way before she found out she was a mutant.

Like Storm, Jubilee was basically turned white for the cartoon; you would never know that she was supposed to be Chinese. However, unlike Storm, this was true of Jubilee in the comics until pretty recently, so at least it was consistent.

Right now I kind of feel bad for Jubilee, because she’s been a horrendously abused character. First she was kicked off the X-Men on to a satellite team where she didn’t really belong, then she did nothing for about a decade, then she lost her powers, then she got turned into a vampire (seriously, a vampire), and God knows what else. I think they restored Jubilee to normal recently (meaning, she no longer drinks blood and is back to shooting fireworks out of her hands), but to say she’s been through the ringer would be an understatement.

Even though I wasn’t fond of her initially, it’s nice to see Jubes here as she was meant to be: energetic, bratty, and really excited about being part of a superhero team. To me, the most interesting thing about Jubilee is the fact that Wolverine was (and is) a much better father to her than he ever was to any of his actual children, but this show takes place before Wolverine’s kids were invented, so we’ll have to put that aside for now.

Jean Grey

Character Created: 1963

Powers: Telekinesis and Telepathy. Ability to become a giant, invincible firebird flying in space, but that may be from an alien possessing her, or maybe it was really her all along? It’s complicated.

Voice Actor: Catherine Disher

It has recently come to my attention that I have no clue who Jean Grey is.

On this show, she’s very feminine and altruistic; definitely the Mom of the team. However, for most of her character’s history, she wasn’t like this in the comics. When Stan and Jack invented her in the ’60s, she was Stan Lee’s typical “pretty girl” character; practically indistinguishable from Sue Storm or any of Lee’s other female creations. When Claremont reinvented her in the ’70s, it was as a fiery redhead, with special emphasis on the “fiery” part. The character died in 1980, then after she was revived years later, writers tried to write her kind of like Claremont had written her, only a little less fiery. (At least, that’s what I think; to be completely honest, I haven’t read the early issues of X-Factor yet.)

In the early 2000’s, written by Grant Morrison, she was a brainy, aggressive genius, who was very interesting but seemed to come out of nowhere. Then she died again, and they’ve since brought her back, as recently as a few months ago. I have no idea what her personality is like now, because I’m not buying X-Men Red: it’s not happening, Marvel.

I’m kind of fond of the motherly, calm version of Jean we get on the show, even if she’s not really consistent with her comic counterpart, because at least I know who she’s supposed to be. Towards the end of the show they tried to play up the “fiery redhead” angle a little more, and it mostly just felt forced. TAS Jean is like your Mom, or rather like a mom on a 1950’s sitcom, and trying to give her an edge just doesn’t work.

One thing to note about Jean is that her Jim Lee-designed costume made the worst transition from page to screen. Her ’90s outfit was just some strange aerobics-type getup, but when Jim Lee was drawing the X-Men, everyone looked so damned gorgeous it didn’t even matter what they were wearing. On the show it just looked dumb, even when it was on-model, which wasn’t often.

Professor X

Character Created: 1963

Power(s): Extremely powerful telepathy. Technically has the ability to use mind control, although he never does it because if he did, the X-Men would have no enemies and it would be a very boring series.

Voice Actor: Cedric Smith

Just like TAS Gambit and Beast are my preferred versions of those characters, the cartoon Professor Xavier will always be the real professor to me. As much as I enjoyed Patrick Stewart’s portrayal of the character (especially in Logan), I felt like his Xavier never quite escaped the shadow of Captain Picard. When I think “Professor X,” I hear Cedric Smith’s voice.

A lot of the character’s appeal can be pinned on Smith’s performance, which was serious and intense without quite crossing the line to sounding pompous; well, okay, sometimes he sounded pompous, but I’m pretty sure it was intentional. But I think the cartoon distilled what was good about Xavier without getting caught up in his domineering, paternalistic baggage. He was commanding, and a father figure, but generally always seemed like a nicer person to me than his comic counterpart.

What was really striking to me (though I only realized this recently), is how much of his dialogue on the show takes the form of questions. Xavier is supposed to be very intelligent, but sometimes his arrogance undermines this; on the show, he had the humility to always know how much he didn’t know. I wish his comic version was as perceptive.

In the name of “progress,” the comics have ditched Xavier and his dream of human-mutant peace; I think that was a terrible mistake. I have no interest in a group of paramilitary fighters with superpowers who grumble about how “naive” Xavier was with his dream of coexistence; I get enough ideological terrorists in the real world, thanks.

Where the X-Men are concerned, my happy place will always be a relatively small team, holed up in a nice mansion in Westchester County, with Professor Xavier at the helm. If I think the X-Men were more likable and interesting in this incarnation than they are currently, it’s undoubtedly part nostalgia, but it’s not only that. To me, for all it’s flaws– often hokey dialogue, limited animation and all– this show really captured what the X-Men are supposed to be about. I wish they were still like this, but if I can’t have that, at least I’ll always have this show.

Next time I feel like writing a silly amount of words about the X-Men, we’ll tackle the pilot episode of the series, and how you know a kids cartoon means business when they kill off a character in Episode 1.

My First Comic Book Store Experience

There’s been some talk lately about how comic stores have been “historically” unwelcoming of women. Normally I would post the tweet of a person who said this, but whenever I do that sort of thing, I get a few of their friends yelling at me that I’m “being mean” for continuing a dialogue that was started in a public forum, and I don’t want people yelling at me today, so whatever. In any case, the idea that “women are made uncomfortable in comic stores” is something of an old chestnut in the realm of geek-shaming, so it really doesn’t matter who happened to say it today.

This idea is completely at odds with my own experience, which doesn’t mean anything in and of itself; Just because I had, and continue to have, mostly good experiences in comic stores does not mean that all women necessarily do, and vice versa. In fact, my one, anecdotal story really doesn’t have any value, other than the fact that it’s my personal story, and I don’t feel like I’ve seen a lot of that. How many times have you seen a woman say “This is what happened the first time I went into a comic store?”, and talk about what actually happened? It could just be me, but I never see those stories; it’s always seems to be taken as an article of faith that “comic stores are creepy, amirite?”

So here’s one story of what happened when one woman, or young girl in this case, went into a comic book store for the first time, just for posterity.

*************************************************************************

I was 11 years old, and I was obsessed with X-Men. The Saturday Morning cartoon wasn’t enough to sate my mutant cravings, so I decided it was time to seek out these strange things I’d heard of called “comic books.” I think I had been dimly aware that comics existed for a while, but it wasn’t until X-Men that I suddenly felt a need to know more.

My mom went with me to a comic book/toy store in a local shopping center. Standing behind the counter was a petite, 30-something brunette lady with a friendly smile; thinking back, she probably looked close to the way I do now, only I doubt my smile is as warm. A little nervous, I asked if they had any X-Men comics, and she cheerfully recommended several titles to me, and answered some of my questions, which I don’t remember, but I know I had some.

My mom, never one to miss an opportunity to make things awkward, asked “Is it unusual for a girl to like comics?” The lady laughed and said that some of the store’s regular customers were women who worked at Grumman nearby (this was before they merged with Northrup and became Northrup Grumman– hahahah DATING MYSELF HERE), and women reading comics was not uncommon anymore, if it ever was. My Mom was mollified, I walked out with some issues of X-Men Adventures, and everyone was happy.

The brunette woman who had been there that day co-owned the shop with her husband, and on return visits, it was usually the husband that was there. The sight of him didn’t fill me with the same warm-and-friendly feeling that his wife did, but he was still perfectly nice and was happy to answer any of my questions about comics. So began a period where, on Saturdays, my Mom would drop a friend and I off at the shopping center, with $10 to pay for lunch. If I had any money left after lunch, I went and bought comics. Amusingly, I thought I was supposed to give the change from lunch back to my Mom, so I used to hide my comics in my room like they were stolen booty. I only found out later that my Mom didn’t actually care that I was spending maybe $4 a week on comics, which was an amazing relief at the time.

This store was my first exposure to back issue bins, which were kind of overwhelming and a little bit scary at the time; the whole comics world seemed so huge, and I had maybe $3.50 from my Mom on alternate weekends, and it just seemed like I would never know all of this extensive comic lore that cool people knew. Nevertheless, I found it interesting flipping through those stacks and stacks of comics, imagining the day when I could get a job and buy them all. One day, I happened to find this issue:

SHE’S BACK, BITCHES!!!!

I was entranced. My favorite character, Rogue, fighting some kind of terrifying zombie creature? OMG so cool! I kept looking for stories about Rogue, and I always seemed to end up with issues about Jubilee finding herself, or some crap.  I wanted to find out how Rogue was going to get out of this jam so badly, and the fact that the cover art was kind of scary and grizzly only made it more appealing; it felt like reading this comic would be an initiation into a fascinating, dangerous adult world.

Sadly, the back issue was marked up to $8, which put it out of my price range. I remember begging my Mom to let me buy it, who said something like “Wait until you’re making $20 bucks a weekend babysitting, then you can buy expensive comics.” Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait that long– I don’t remember exactly, but I think I scrounged up some birthday money or something to buy Uncanny X-Men #269. I think the issue had been marked up too high (even during the speculator boom), but I will say that I got my money’s worth out of it; I copied practically every Jim Lee illustration in the entire comic. When I expressed interest in drawing comics, the guy at the store special-ordered How to Draw Comics The Marvel Way for me, which I devoured. I never really did learn to draw comics The Marvel Way, but I did learn how much I loved drawing.

Unfortunately, this was during the ’90s speculator boom, and barely a year after I’d first started buying comics, the crash came. A huge number of comic stores closed, including my store. I went on to frequent other stores over the years, all staffed by guys who were always encouraging my interest in comics without crossing the line into being patronizing…which, looking back on it now, is a pretty difficult balance to hold. I’m amazed I happened to luck into several people who could do that.

I’ve really only had one “bad” experience in a comic book store, and it was kind of questionable whether it had anything to do with me. At one store in Buffalo, the guy at the register seemed kind of dismissive of me when I was buying my comics, but he didn’t say or do anything specific, so for all I know, he could have just been in a bad mood that day (and to be fair, virtually no one in Buffalo is in a good mood, with good reason. Try living in Buffalo, you’ll see what I mean.)

I’ve drifted in and out of buying American comics since then, largely because I lost interest in X-Men and other titles I used to love (which is a topic for another day.) Lately though, I’ve started reading some comics again, and my local store is pretty cool. They have a big kids section, and I’ve gotten some children’s books for my daughter there, as well as gifts for other people’s kids. Plus, the owner is a family man, so he’s understanding on those occasions when I’ve had to come into the store toting a stroller with a cranky toddler. Sometimes his kids hang out in the store, reading My Little Pony and generally being adorable.

So…yeah. If comic stores have “historically” been hostile to women, this was a period in history I never experienced. I’m not saying it never happened, and there aren’t women who had legitimately bad experiences. The Simpson’s Comic Book Guy may be a stereotype, but it was inspired by something; some people like that surely exist. I’m not trying to invalidate anyone else’s experience.

What I am saying, is this: please don’t erase me from comics history. Please don’t pretend like all girls and women faced animosity when entering so-called “geek spaces”, when it’s simply not true. It’s unfair to the genuinely nice men and women who ran most of the stores I frequented, and it’s unfair to me as an individual. If I say “I’ve always had a good time in comic stores,” because it happens to be true, I shouldn’t be accused of lying, or other nefarious intent.

Is my comic store story any more important than anyone else’s? No. But it isn’t any less important, either.

X-Men and The Fake Comics Diversity War

Some people think a female Wolverine is a cheap gimmick; this would be a more important concern if original-recipe Wolverine didn’t start out as a cheap gimmick too.

If you’re not a regular reader of American comics, you may not know that die-hards on all sides have been waging a ferocious culture war over them for the past several years. One side says that old, crusty comic book fans just can’t handle women and minorities taking over the roles of beloved superheroes, and these regressive, bigoted people need to either (preferably) die out, or get with the times; the other side says that a lot of the so-called “diversity” in modern comics is a cynical sales ploy used to deflect criticism from lazy, uninspired writing. They’re both right to a certain extent (in the same way that a stopped clock is still going to be right some of the time), but more importantly, they’re both kind of delusional.

But that’s not special; nonsensical arguments over pop culture that take place primarily on the internet are a dime a dozen. No, what makes this particular kerfuffle interesting to me is that it seems to take place in some kind of alternate universe where X-Men comics never existed. Now, considering the fact that Marvel has done basically everything to kill that franchise outside of taking it back behind the barn and shooting it, you may not believe this, but at one time, the X-Men were the most popular superheroes in the entire world; yet if you acknowledge that, the argument for not one but BOTH SIDES of this argument falls apart in pretty spectacular fashion. As tiresome as I find the “You’re a bigot!” “No, you’re the REAL bigot!” arguments, I have to admit to some fascination with this opportunistic, selective memory regarding comic book history…or, more bluntly, how can you ignore the evidence that’s right in your face?

Let’s examine the “Diversity is used as a cynical marketing ploy, and that just sucks,” side first.

Diversity for Diversity’s Sake…is Good?

The pushback against more diverse character types in comics is not about hatred of women and minorities…in most cases. (I mean sure, you can find a small group of legitimate bigots for whom that is the issue, but that’s a subject for another day.) No, the pushback is how diversity is shamelessly used as both carrot and stick for readers. Example: GenericHero, who has been portrayed as male for 40 years, suddenly passes the torch to a female successor. Marketing goes crazy: “It’s GenericHero, like you’ve never seen HER before! Forget everything you ever knew about GenericHero, it’s a new era of Ass-Kicking!” Every ad for this “event” features heroic pin-ups of GenericHero looking hella awesome, complete with her sexy (but not TOO sexy) redesigned-yet-classic costume, and from all the hype, you’d think this was the biggest thing to ever happen to comic books since Batman decided to put on a cape.

Then the new comic with GenericHero debuts, and the character does exactly the same boring shit he/she has been doing for the last 30 years; the only difference is that she often makes snide comments about how the bad guys underestimate her now because she’s a woman (or if the writers want to be REALLY edgy, they might insert a comment that vaguely alludes to the fact that she has a menstrual cycle.) When readers complain, “This is not the revolution of GenericHero that we were promised,” the answer from the creative team is invariably “Shut up, you just can’t handle the fact that there are women in comics now, you pathetic, basement-dwelling misogynists!” Then comic fans go “Umm, excuse me?”, and sales plummet. Then industry pundits say “Sales of GenericHero plummet since the mantle was taken up by a woman; indisputable proof that comic book readers CANNOT HANDLE CHANGE!” Rinse and repeat with the next costumed hero.

God, it’s tiresome.

Anyway, so we can all agree that Diversity for the sake of Diversity, or Diversity used as a mercenary selling point, doesn’t work, right? It’s always forced, and boring, and never as good as if the writers had just focused on the traditional char…..

…Oh, right. Uncanny X-Men happened. Diversity For the Sake of Diversity can actually be awesome when done right.

Make no mistake, the 1975 relaunch of the “All-New, All-Different” X-Men started out as tokenism at its finest. “Look, there’s a Native American! And a Black Woman! And a Russian, and a German, and a Japanese Guy! There’s even a Canadian named ‘Wolverine,’ because wolverines are from Canada!” Seriously, the entire concept behind Wolverine’s initial character was “let’s have a Canadian superhero, because we don’t have one yet;” then when the character failed to become popular immediately, the only thing that kept him from being written out of the book was the fact that the one Canadian who worked for Marvel lobbied for him. The only thing missing from Giant-Sized X-Men #1 was a giant sticker that said “Look How Progressive This Comic Book Is! Do We Get A Gold Star????”

If things had continued in this vein, it would probably have been a pretty cringeworthy comic, and sometimes it was (See: Banshee the Irishman and his literal castle full of leprechauns.) But writer Chris Claremont took these created-via-checklist characters and did something interesting with just about all of them. Instead of being a stereotypical Earth Mother type, it turned out that Storm’s “all-loving African Goddess” shtick was a lie she told herself to escape from the horrors of her past, and when she let go of that role, she wasn’t sure she liked the person she was underneath. Nightcrawler explored religious guilt while still being charming and swashbuckling, and never committing the cardinal sin of becoming humorless. Soviet-born Colossus struggled with life in America for reasons having little to do with his superhero identity, especially when he started to have feelings for a young Jewish girl with a vastly different upbringing. And of course, Wolverine’s character went on to explore all these huge themes that have made the character one of the pillars of the genre: the nature of violence, which victimizes even its perpetrators; the role that memory, which is fallible, plays in identity; the concept of Logan as a sort of quintessential war veteran, suffering a kind of ongoing PTSD that never gets better, because there’s always another war.

This was stuff that really hadn’t been explored in comics, and rocketed the comic to a completely unexpected level of popularity; instead of being an oddity, UXM became the standard against which other comics were judged, rightly or wrongly. And it all happened because Claremont made good use of the “Diversity First” concept he was given; taking the opportunity to tell stories that hadn’t been told, couldn’t be told, with someone like Spider-Man. The promise of all-new, all-different stories wasn’t a marketing ploy, because the stories actually were new…and that’s something that’s much easier to do when you’re starting from a different place than you were before. Diversity, whether you want to tag it with the label “forced” or otherwise, can be a great jumping off point for creativity.

So the argument “Forced Diversity Never Works,” is somewhat undermined by the fact that, historically, it can work. And as to whether or not it’s cynical…how do you even judge that? “Let’s call the Canadian character Wolverine because wolverines are from Canada and it’s a new gimmick,” sounds pretty cynical, not to mention simplistic, but look at what writers have done with that character; look what James Mangold did with the film Logan, earlier this year. Just because someone has the gall to be cynical enough to hope that something catches eyes and makes money, that doesn’t mean it necessarily has to be thematically cynical. It doesn’t mean anything, really. If a great story comes from a cynical place, it’s still a great story; if a bad story comes from an idealistic place, the best you can say is “Well, at least your heart was in the right place, dear.”

Old Comic Fans Can’t Handle Diversity, Except When They Do

Okay, so we’re all on board that diversity in comics is awesome, right? No, we still have to worry about those old, regressive comics fans, who think a character named “Iron Man” should probably be a man and not a fifteen-year-old girl. These old fossils just can’t handle women, particularly minority women, in positions of power, and all of their arguments about so-called “forced writing” and “cynical marketing” are just a smoke screen for their hate! They just want to go back to the bad old times when superhero comics were predominantly WHITE and MALE and–

In this issue: Strong black woman beats up white men because they are dumb and totally deserve it.

In this issue: Strong black woman demands the return of her superpowers from brilliant Native American engineer/shaman, because that’s just how the ’80s rolled in superhero comics.

…Oh, right, the time when Uncanny X-Men was the best-selling comic in the world was during the time when it was led by Storm, who happened to have no superpowers at the time; having lost her powers, she was leading the team with a combination of street smarts and pure chutzpah. I’m confused: are these crusty old comics fans who can’t handle minority women in the spotlight, the same comics fans who were buying Uncanny X-Men in droves during the ’80s? Or were these different fans? Considering the fact that UXM was the best-selling comic, if readers had a huge aversion to minority women in positions of power, they had a really funny way of showing it.

it’s almost like readers accept diversity without comment when diversity leads to characters they love and stories they feel invested in, and only have a problem with it when the diversity itself is used as a stand-in for telling a decent story. So the argument was never really about diversity in the first place, but about the fact that many, if not most, American Superhero comics have been fundamentally directionless for decades and need a new raison d’être if they’re ever going to be worthwhile again. What we hear over and over again, bleated as though from a group of sheep, is “Diversity this, Diversity that, grrrr!”, when what we could be talking about is “What role does the superhero comic serve now in the age of immersive videogames, where you can really feel like you have superpowers? What can a superhero comic do to remain vibrant beyond serving as mere fodder for the summer movie franchises that have all but replaced it in popular culture?” These, to me, at least, are interesting questions. “How many of the people who loved Storm in the ’80s have become misogynist bigots since then?” is not an interesting question.

An admission: yes, I’m basing a lot of this on the one-time popularity of UXM, which was only one comic among many. That said, it was not only the best-selling comic, it was essentially the flagship title of the entire industry for many years; it was the comic people gave to their friends to get them into comics. While UXM may have only been one title, I don’t think you can brush it aside as an exception when it was seen as not just a good comic, but the standard to be emulated. How can we act like “Old” comic fans are the problem, when the most popular comic from decades ago was filled with all of the things they supposedly aren’t progressive enough to handle today? How can we act like all sales-driven diversity initiatives are bad when they gave us Wolverine, which led to Hugh Jackman as Wolverine? It boggles the mind.

TLDR: This whole fight over diversity in comics is a total sham. Yes, some bigots exist among comics fandom, and yes, some writers use gender and racial diversity as a shield to deflect criticism of otherwise poor writing; both of these facts are largely irrelevant to what the medium is and where it’s going.

Sketchblog: Gambit (X-Men)

Gambit

Look guys, I drew a guy! An actual guy!

Hot on the heels of my relative success with cute little Jean Grey, I tried to draw a cute little Gambit; he did not come out anywhere near as cute. That said, at least this sketch has some personality. I’ve always thought the idea behind Gambit’s card-throwing gimmick is really clever, because it gives you lots of stuff to draw–with all the cards flying everywhere with their trails of glowing energy and whatnot. He’s a character who’s just really suited to the medium he was created in, which may be a reason why he’s been mostly ignored by the movies.

This definitely looks a little off-kilter though…I think I just need more practice drawing guys. And cartoony things. And everything. I really like drawing X-Men fanart though, so I’ll probably do more of it– who knows, give me enough time and I may have a downright X-Men doujin going on here.

Sketchblog: Jean Grey (X-Men)

 

JeanGrey 001On Twitter, Peter Simetti, president of Alterna Comics, has been posting a bunch of sketches lately, including many of the X-Men. That made me think, “Hey, I like the X-Men and I draw pictures, lemme get in on some of that!”

So I drew Jean Grey, she of the ridiculous aerobics costume and terrible codename. Her ’90s outfit was pretty much the worst example of costume design from that era, but I love it because I grew up with it, so THERE! I’m just happy I drew something cartoony that seems to have worked; lately whenever I try to go cartoony instead of detailed, it just looks bad.

However, if you are not that into the cartoony-ness and would rather see some over-rendered nonsense, click through for a sketch I don’t like as much! There are also boobs. Continue reading Sketchblog: Jean Grey (X-Men)

X-Men Episode 12: Friendship is Indeed Magic

At last, Madhouse has found something it's good at: Creating perfect romance novel covers. Coming soon to a Barnes and Noble near you: "The Powerful Mutant Warrior and His Coy Teen Mistress," brought to you by Harlequin Books and Superhero Anime Partners.

Summary: As usual, the X-Men are incredibly slow on the uptake figuring out what’s going on in terms of the foe they’re fighting- guys, reality warping power means your reality will be warped. As I predicted (not that it was much of a feat), Hisako saves the world through the power of friendship, Jean’s conveniently omnipotent, and Takeo’s last wish is to make sure that his psychopath of a mother doesn’t get what’s coming to her. On the plus side, Hisako totally feels up Cyclops, making it a pretty good day to be Hisako. Continue reading X-Men Episode 12: Friendship is Indeed Magic

X-Men Episode 11: Yui is a Moron

Somewhere out there, someone was excited to see Wolverine go berserker. Not me, or you, or probably anyone you know, but...someone. Surely.

Summary: The X-Men defeat their opponents, including Mash, the Unlimited Semen Works guy (FINALLY), Professor X gets his bacon saved by Jean’s sultry disembodied voice again, and Mastermind may have had the worst plan to take over the world ever. Since #12 is already out as I write this, I’m going to kind of gloss over this episode and just comment on the major plot holes- it really doesn’t merit any more attention than that.

Continue reading X-Men Episode 11: Yui is a Moron