(Note: This was mostly written in early November 2018, after the White Privilege Symposium that took place in Denver November 2-3.)
“Words make worlds.” This from poet Dominique Christina, in a YouTube video that I’m watching because I’m hoping to find a piece she performed this weekend, one about the social coercion that the mere threat of violence has on a community. Her talk on Friday was not about words at all, but about the mute spectacle that is Emmett Till in an open coffin, Michael Brown uncovered on a Ferguson street, David Jones hung from a lamp post in a town square in 1872. Darren Wilson didn’t plan to kill Mike Brown that day, but leaving his body out on the street for his neighbors to see? What message was that? What do we hear from Emmett Till, who lives still, a ghostly reminder of What Could Happen To You? Broken black bodies follow Dominique and her son through the world. Another speaker this weekend, Theo Wilson, spoke of the anger and powerlessness that threatens to eat you when you realize how quickly a police officer having a bad day (or, let’s face it, having any kind of day) can ruin your life. He spoke of how many friends he’s had to bury.
If you’re a white person learning to talk about race, maybe you’ve noticed that it’s really hard to get white people to talk about race? But you can play Telephone. When black people talk to me about what it’s like to be black, in the background–especially if you’re listening to a black person talk about racism–there is a white person, talking about race to a black person. Those are the messages I listen for, because that is the behavior I’m trying to undo in myself. It’s easy to have compassion for Emmett Till’s mom. She’s central in the story that’s told about him. But I’m a white woman. I will always be on the other side of this interaction. Emmett Till was not my son. Emmett Till is not my phantom.
My phantom is Carolyn Bryant Donham, who looked at Emmett Till and said, “That boy put his hands on me.” Who shaped whole worlds with those words. She said those words (or something like them) in August 1955, said them again at a murder trial to get two white murderers acquitted, and then said nothing more for sixty years, when she admitted that it wasn’t true, that the boy hadn’t done what she said. In the meantime, Emmett’s mother had died. She never had another son.
My phantom is white women who call the police on black children for doing things like selling bottled water or mowing lawns or playing with a pellet gun in a park. On black adults for doing things like using a barbecue pit, or shopping in Target, or sitting in Starbucks.
A tweet went viral awhile back that goes something like, “I have a new game, especially for other white people. It’s the ‘don’t call the cops’ challenge, and basically you start by not calling the cops, and then continue to not call the cops for the rest of your life.” These days we don’t call up a lynch mob. The police have taken the place of the lynch mob. They pass immediate, deadly judgment every time they roll up on a call. We don’t have to call the local Citizens Council; we call the local police non-emergency number. Who called the police on Tamir Rice? Was he white or black? I have a guess.
It’s not that simple, but also it is. As a woman I have to be able to name threats to my safety. Carolyn Bryant Donham, who named Emmett Till a threat, was physically abused by her husband, who killed Emmett. But it was Emmett, not her husband, who she targeted with her words. It was Emmett, not her husband, who she had power over. It was Emmett, not her husband, that she could name as a threat, and have that statement be believed, and acted upon.
One of the oft-stated reasons for lynching was to protect white women from black men, but it generally wasn’t black men that we needed protecting from. And yet, the power of a white woman to call a white man (whether her local police officer or her local Citizens Council) and say, “This black person is bothering me,” and bring the oppressive machinations of society crashing down on that person’s head, has remained unchanged for the last hundred years.
Words can make worlds. Silence can send messages. But I want to, hope to, need to skip the 1955 words. Skip the sixty silent years. Start, in 2018, with truth that is not imbrued with fear, with words that will not destroy anyone else’s world.
Over at his blog Whatever, John Scalzi (a science fiction writer who I first started following on Twitter and then I started following his blog and then, finally, I started reading his books) has been celebrating 20 years of writing said blog by posting about a different topic every day. As he said on September 1st, “I will pick a topic and then discuss it through the prism of two decades of time, from 1998 through to today.” And I thought, that’s a good idea. I am still searching for the magic button that will get me back to writing every day, or at least regularly (no such button exists, but I’m searching for it anyway), and while I haven’t been writing in the same place, like he has, I have been blogging on and off for almost 20 years. For me, if I look back to 1998 I was still in high school; while Scalzi was in his 20s and professionally established. But it could be fun, and if you can’t write for three straight weeks about yourself, well, I don’t know what to tell you. (Also, yes, it’s September 16th, and yes, I’ve been watching Scalzi post and thinking, “Oh, I really should get on top of this posting thing” every day for the last two weeks.)
I’m allergic to cats, and so don’t have any. The end.
Okay just kidding. But also I have zero thoughts about cats from my high school days. They were not on my radar. When I was a baby and we lived in Louisiana, my family had a grey tabby cat named Peter that I think I have one hazy recollection of. Peter didn’t come with us to Colorado, and I’ve never seen a picture of him, and I honestly don’t know if he was re-homed, or if he ran away, or if we abandoned him, or if a gator got him. Growing up, my family had dogs, two of them: Sandy (a Shetland Sheepdog that we got when I was 6) and Cheyenne (a mutt that we got when I was 10). Sandy was my brother’s, officially, but more or less surrendered to the care of my mom; Cheyenne was mine and I’m pleased to say that I remembered to feed her and bathe her and take her to the vet (and she slept in my room, as opposed to Sandy, who slept in the basement for some reason) until I moved out for college.
The culture of owning dogs has changed a lot since 1998, or at least, my awareness of it has. We never carried bags to pick up dog poo on walks with our dogs, and I have no idea if we were terrible, inconsiderate neighbors or if dog poo bags weren’t a thing back then like they are now. We weren’t very diligent about obedience training them, either, but as they were both pretty low-key dogs, this didn’t have any terrible consequences for us humans or for the dogs. I particularly loved Cheyenne, as she was “my” dog, and when I was in the middle of more than my share of teenage adolescent angst, both my sister and my dog did quite a lot to get me through it, without either of them realizing they were doing so.
These days, in 2018, I have a lot of dogs but also no dogs. My roommates have two dogs, Maggie and George, who are both wonderful creatures. Maggie goes running with me, and cuddles with me on the couch, and hides from crying babies in my room. George is enormous (he’s a Malamute mix) and hairy and is smart enough to decide if he really wants to listen to you when you ask him to do something. (Maggie understands that if she does what you ask her to, then you will love her, and more than anything Maggie wants you to love her.) So I live with dogs, and they’re great dogs, but they’re not my dogs.
I also (somewhat accidentally) have a dogsitting business, because I told my friends Erin and Tanya that I would dogsit for their Great Danes Scarlett and Luka, and I did a good job so they recommended me to at least half a dozen friends. There’s Toli and Ellie (and Tate); Sketcher, Benedict, and Abigail; Winny and Marty; Chunk and Sally; Frankie and Moby; Callie; and Jude; good dogs all. I also put up a profile on Rover and that got me a few clients, and now I’m out of my house for usually at least 7 days out of the month (one of my normal clients, Marley, I’m usually with for one or two weekends a month). As a dogsitter, I beg of you, please train your dogs to walk nicely on a leash if nothing else (especially if you have more than one of them). I’m used to dogs not listening to commands to sit or come, because I’m not their person, but oh god, if they could only walk on a leash, everything would be wonderful.
I also do catsitting sometimes, but as I said above, I’m allergic to cats so that’s not my favorite (I think I’m not their favorite either, since I don’t let them cuddle me.) It gives me some extra money to put towards my student loans, and some quiet weekends–besides me and my adult roommates, and the dogs, there’s also a 5-year-old and an 18-month-old in the house, who I love dearly but who are also not always very quiet.
I would love, someday, to have a home of my own and a dog of my own. I have had a dog that was truly mine since…about 1998, now that I think about it. I moved out of my parents’ house in 2001, and Cheyenne died a few years after that, and ever since then, I haven’t had a dog of my own. But all these lovely loaner dogs who hang out with me for a few days at a time, not to mention Maggie and George, do a great deal to fill up the dog-shaped hole in my life. Good dogs.
So, I have some further thoughts/epilogue/ramblings about the X-Tinction Agenda tradepaperbacks that I read this spring, but very little ability/motivation to organize them? Sorry about that. I swear I’m doing my best here, in that sometimes the best I can do is to lower my standards so that I post anything at all.
On Insults: There is a scene—a couple of scenes, actually—where the X-Men encounter, for the first time, a Genoshan racial slur: “genejoke.” When the word is directed at her, Rogue says (while also punching the magistrates in the face), “That word sounds like an insult, fella.” Storm reacts similarly: “That word—‘genejoke’—I do not like it.” What Rogue and Storm (and Chris Claremont) understand is that what makes a slur a slur isn’t the word itself, but how the word is used. Storm and Rogue have never heard “genejoke” before landing on Genosha, but they’ve heard “mutie” plenty, and they instinctively know that the words are similar, and are only used by people who think they’re garbage. They would never have patience with the disingenuous people who tell you that you’re just being oversensitive when they call your names because “a faggot is just a bundle of sticks, come on, man, lighten up.” You don’t have to listen to them. You know, and so do Storm and Rogue: an insult is an insult even if you don’t understand the exact word being used.
On Hammer Bay: I forgot to note in either of my previous entries, but Genosha’s capital is described by Claremont as “the most dynamically modern city on earth.” I read this book before the Black Panther movie came out, and I’m not sure where Wakanda was in the Marvel Universe at this time (still hiding behind its lying concealing forcefield?) but I want to note a couple things: One, Hammer Bay, like the United States, has reached its exalted status on the backs of slaves, and any discussion or evaluation of one of those qualities without addressing the other one is kind of a farce. The other is that Wakanda exists (in the Marvel universe, anyway): a dynamically modern society that was never on either side of slavery. Never colonizer or colonized. And I know there’s no real-world analog of Wakanda—yet. But we’re capable of imagining it, right? We accept Wakanda in the Marvel universe. It exists. I just think that, if we can look to science fiction for shit like laser guns and flying cars and then turn those things (or things like them) into reality, surely we can do that with Wakanda too. We can address our past and finally move past it. Surely that’s a possibility, both within the realm of our imaginations and within our abilities as humans.
On Women’s Bodies: Problematic boobage and weirdly long legs and tiny waists have been discussed elsewhere on the Internet, but I just want to point to the President of Genosha here to further my hypothesis that some significant number of comics artists in the 1980s (in this case, Jon Bogdanove) just straight up did not know what women look like.
Please also note that Hodge, the creepy and insane mechanical cyborg whose human head is the only remnant of his previous body, is literally wearing a cardboard cutout of a suit around his neck to try and conceal his monstrous insect-like body behind him. You are totally fooling all of us, dude. Best disguise ever.
This book is, in a way, everything I both love and hate about comics. I love the various personalities of the X-Men (in the first half of the book anyway; after that they start sniping and backbiting each other and it’s like, come on guys, the magistrates are trying to murder and enslave you, maybe prioritize other things just now) and how they work together and kick ass and never leave anyone behind. I love Claremont’s socio-political commentary, in how he translates all these historical and philosophical ideas into a new medium. But I really dislike the 1980s female body as drawn in comics, and I’m not super amped about the extra-bulked up male characters, either.
In this entry: Uncanny X-Men 237 & 238, the second two issues in the X-Tinction Agenda crossover event. Prepare to board the Mutant Train! Written by Chris Claremont, pencilled by Rick Leonardi (237) and Marc Silvestri (238), inked by Terry Austin (237) and Dan Green (238), lettered by Tom Orzechowski, edited by Bob Harris.
When we left off (in issue 236), Rogue (who is being “steered” by Carol Danvers, who has apparently been lying dormant in Rogue’s mind ever since Rogue touched her one time) and Wolverine, who have had their mutant powers stripped from them, are trying to escape from Genosha. To this end, they have stolen a military jet magistrate aircar and are flying away. We open issue 237 over international waters.
Also, I don’t think I said this last time, the Genegineer’s name is Phillip Moreau. His last name is Moreau. Because that’s not symbolic at all. Just kidding it totally is.
Anyway, it transpires (after the Genoshan military boards the stolen aircar) that Wolverine and Rogue/Carol Danvers aren’t on the jet after all. The whole thing was (presumably) a distraction to give Wolvie and Rogue/CD a chance to rescue Madelyne Pryor and Jenny Ransom, who are still prisoners of the magistrates and in danger of having their brains mutilated by our resident wielder of banal evil, Dr. Moreau. We switch scenes to Wolverine, who is lurking on the street watching a documentary propaganda broadcast about the history and goals of Genosha. “Sounds wonderful, sweetheart,” says Wolverine to the television, after listening to a perky red-headed lady wax poetic about Genosha’s iron ore deposits, its low levels of poverty, its status as a contender for the “breadbasket of the world” title, “pity it’s a crock.” He and Rogue/CD observe some magistrate patrolmen pulling petty power trips on a mutate garbageman, and Rogue/CD convinces him to not murder the magistrates with his claws as it would blow their “keep quiet and wait for reinforcements” plan.
While they’re in a bar causing a diversion and stealing magistrates’ badges and credentials, Wolvie and Rogue/CD happen upon a drunken Phillip Moreau, washing down his sorrows in a cop bar on the wrong side of town, and getting knocked cold by the off-duty magistrates, who don’t take kindly to him causing a ruckus in their bar. In retaliation, they dump his drunkenly unconscious body on the “mute train,” the commuter train on which mutates ride to their barracks at the end of the day. The magistrates dump Phillip on the train, and Wolverine and Rogue board as well, curious to see what the “mute train” might be.
Meanwhile, out of some kind of…I don’t even know what, the Genegineer has called Mutant 9817—that is, Jenny, his son’s fiancee—to his office. He explains to her that her father falsified the results of her genetic exam, and that she’s a mutant, and as such she much has “a responsibility to the community that bore and nurtured” her to give herself over for “processing” and a lifetime of servitude. “It’s slavery!” cries Jenny, utterly distraught. In fact, Jenny’s lines throughout the whole two-page scene consist of statements like “Why am I here?” “But I tested normal on my genetic exam!” “oh no oh no oh no,” “Why me? It isn’t fair!” “It’s slavery!” “Does Phillip know?” She is in shock, nothing but tears and questions. The bulk of the word balloons (and it’s Chris Claremont, so there are a lot of word balloons) are of the Genegineer, lecture/pleading with Jenny to clear his own conscience, explaining to her why her life is over. At one point, he says, “Believe me, this is as hard for me, as for you.” Somehow I doubt that, Genejerkface. She’s giving up her whole existence because you deem it necessary, and after you buzz on your intercom to have her taken away, you’ll never think about her again. It is objectively, demonstrably, not harder for you. But, in a glorious demonstration of blindness to the consequences of one’s actions, he says it anyway, and he really believes it. He believes that this really is as hard for him as it is for her. He calls it “our sacrifice,” even though he is sacrificing precisely nothing. He believes that slavery is necessary. He believes that the benefits of taking children away from their families and brainwashing them and putting them to labor outweighs whatever momentary discomfort he might feel from his dull, crippled conscience. He does not think that Genosha would survive as the paradise that it is without the brutality and coercion that laces underneath every single inch of the island.
The whole scene is gross. Versions of it happen all the time in the real world, and it’s gross then, too.
The issue ends with Wolverine vowing to “bring this flamin’ country down,” and at this point I can’t say I’m opposed.
Issue 238 opens with a “transcript” of a telepathic interview done on Mutant 9818—aka Madelyne Pryor—immediately before she somehow destroyed the examining team (“torn to bits,” is how it’s described). Exactly what Madelyne did or how is vaguely unclear, but evidently in her own mind she garbs herself in what can only be described as Skimpy Hellfire Goth, and this is totally about female empowerment and not about the 1980s being a boobs guy at all. (There’s probably a whole essay of my mixed feelings in here somewhere, about how I love that Madelyne is smart and brave and fighting back even though she has no conscious access to mutant powers, but also I could never cosplay as her because come on, and also I don’t want to police or judge what another woman decides to put on her body, butakshually Marc Silvestri decided what she would be wearing, and also come on) (being a female with SJW tendencies who also loves comics can be complicated sometimes, and Hellfire Madelyne Pryor and Emma Frost are two of the ones who make it seem complicated).
Furious and/or frightened, the Genegineer storms down to the cells to yell at Madelyne for murdering his interrogation team. In the process, he has the same conversation with Madelyne that he had with Jenny in the last issue, but Madelyne is mature enough and experienced enough to fight back. “What I think and feel and want don’t really matter, do they? I was condemned the moment I arrived here,” she tells Moreau. He tries to feed her the line about how the Genoshan way of life must be protected, and how the mutants on Genosha “want and care for nothing.” “Except freedom,” she says, from where she sits, in her cell, behind bars. “What are you so scared of?” she asks. “If you system’s such a marvel, why not share it with everyone?” He feeds her something about secrecy being Genosha’s strength, a bullshit line that he probably actually believes, but Madelyne’s not having it.
“What is necessary, is done,” says the guard who has escorted Moreau down to the cells.
“Seig heil to you too, sweetie,” Madelyne cuts back.
We switch to Wolverine and Rogue/Carol Danvers, who have ended up in the mutant barracks (the end of the line of the mutant train that they boarded the previous night), which—though none of them have seen it before—is a rude awakening to Phillip Moreau, and nothing new to Wolvie and R/CD. Phillip is having the realization that my dad had when he was a kid in the 1950s in Louisiana: that the people that he saw cleaning houses and doing menial labor went somewhere at the end of the day, and that sometimes the places they went weren’t very fancy, or very nice.
“Tell me something, boy,” Wolverine asks him, “Where’d you think the mutants went at night, after they quit work?”
“Home, I guess. Same as anyone.” (But for Phillip, who has a very narrow field of experience, “home” has a very narrow definition.)
“Live and learn, kiddo,” Rogue/Carol tells him. “Welcome to the Mutant Settlement Zone. A prison, by any other name.”
“Like keeps to like, that’s what I was always taught,” says Phillip, really thinking about what he’d been taught for maybe the first time in his life. “The mutes–sorry, mutants, no offense–they naturally preferred the company of their own kind. Their own way of life, their own place. Is that so wrong?”
“You tell us,” Wolverine replies.
Rogue/Carol says (and I’m truncating this a bit), “You never wondered about the uniforms mutants wear?…[It] makes the slaves easily identifiable, then guarantees a social environment wherein they’re almost totally isolated. If no one befriends them, no one can feel sorry for them. Effectively, they become extensions of their jobs–perceived not as people any longer but organic machines. And who cares what happens to machines?”
When I first read this, it made me think (as it was probably supposed to make me think) of slavery, and segregation, and Jim Crow. But as I was reading it again and writing this essay, it made me think of retail workers and cashiers. And sure, that comparison is a little shallow, a little low stakes. But who thinks about where a cashier goes at the end of the day, and what kind of life she can buy with her $10/hr? Who thinks about the folks in the agriculture supply chain who pick our food and work in our slaughterhouses? How isolated is a community of transient farmworkers from your daily life? (If it’s anything like my daily life, they might as well live across an ocean.) What’s the separation that’s happening today—and not organic separation, either, not like “Oh I live far away from Irish people in Irelend” separation, remember that the Genoshan power structure keeps the lives of the mutates a secret on purpose—that keeps you from seeing the people around you as people?
I do know this, though—in my experience, increasing my knowledge of an issue or a country or a culture or a person, when I hear from those people themselves, has already brought me closer to human empathy. Never further away. If the knowledge you gain hardens your heart, then you might be doing something wrong. There’s a Ta-Nahesi Coates quote that I can’t find right now, about how slavery was only ever “acceptable” if you didn’t ask black people what they thought. Phillip, basically, has finally opened his ears to the idea that the mutants might have different ideas about this whole system than the magistrates do. His father, even though multiple mutants and his own son try to tell him what it’s like out there, refuses to hear.
Back to the story…
Wolverine, Rogue/Carol, and Phillip are found at the mutant barracks and arrested and brought back to Hammer Bay, the capital city, and to Phillip’s father (and the guard captain, whose name I don’t think has been mentioned). Phillip immediately confronts his father about what he’s seen and how horrifying he found it. “I’ve seen the camp, Dad, it’s a prison! Why hasn’t the country been told?! Why won’t you level with the people about the regime you force the mutants to live under?! Those mutants are Genoshans, too, just like us—They deserve the same benefits, the same chance for happiness and success the rest of us accept as a right!” Phillip is basically a baby ally, truth and justice bright in his mind, sure that if only everyone else could see what he’s seen, they would all be just as horrified as him. I appreciate that Phillip has basically had one hell of a 24 hours (at this time yesterday, remember, he was out for a run and happened upon his girlfriend’s family being arrested), so I really shouldn’t judge what kind of ally he might turn out to be, but he’s also doing the annoying this of jumping on a social issue only after it’s affected him personally. I guess any reason is a good enough reason as long as it gets the kid in the fight, but if other humans could do this a little less, I think we would aggravate each other a lot less.
The Genegineer repeats his argument about how it’s for the good of all Genosha that mutants are enslaved, and about preserving the Genoshans’ peculiar way of life, and then asks—as his son asked at the barracks, though he doesn’t know that—“Is that so wrong?”
Wolverine, tellingly, answers the question differently this time: “If you haveta ask, bub…there’s no point in answerin’.”
Side point: “I’ve been a slave,” Wolverine tells the captain of the guard, who is basically telling Phillip to shut the hell up until he knows better than her what’s what, “Didn’t much care for it.”
“That will change,” the captain tells Wolverine. “When Wipeout’s erased all memory of your old life–oh yes, he does that too–and the Genegineer’s established a new one, I guarantee you’ll love it.”
“Not hardly,” says Wolverine, “I’ll die first.” When I first read this, I thought Wolvie was just making a Wolvie threat (and the captain and the magistrates present certainly hear it that way), but it also occurs to me that Wolverine is seriously injured, and if Wipeout fails to restore his healing factor, Wolverine really will die. I felt really cool about reading the dialogue this way until I got to the next page and Wolverine made explicit text out of the subtext.
Just as Wolverine is basically making a suicide bid for freedom, the rest of the X-Men arrive, literally blowing the doors off the place, and in short order rescue Madelyne Pryor, a mutant baby who was also in the prison (oh hey, look who else throws babies into prisons!), and Jenny Ransome, who is looking much more muscular but who hasn’t had her mind wiped yet. Rogue/Carol takes Wipeout hostage, and Psylocke uses him to restore Wolverine’s healing factor. Wolverine and Phillip briefly disagree over whether they should burn Genosha to the ground or give the Genoshans a chance to mend their ways. Storm goes with Phillip’s way, though with the added threat to the Genegineer and the magistrates that if they don’t listen to Phillip, she’s not opposed to taking the Wolverine Option at a future date. They explode the Hammer Bay Citadel to emphasize the point.
“My son, I beg you—consider what you’re doing!” says the Genegineer. “You’ll destroy everything we’ve worked lifetimes here in Genosha to build!”
“But, Dad, if the mutants aren’t free, then maybe what you’ve built isn’t worth saving,” says Phillip, looking a little sad. He goes through the portal off Genosha with the X-Men, seeking asylum for himself and Jenny in America.
And they all lived happily ever after.
The trade paperback continues, though it skips ahead to issue 270 for Further Genoshan Adventures. I’m not sure if I’ll continue forward; the latter adventures are decidedly more boom-pow-bam and less Claremontian Discourse On Justice, and my own analysis consists more of being annoyed by Wolfsbane and how Rob Liefeld can’t draw feet. So it might be funny but probably wouldn’t be that interesting. I dunno. Maybe I’ll write something else and post it in less than two months!
In this entry: Uncanny X-Men #235 & 236, first two issues in the X-tinction Agenda crossover event (the most ambitious crossover event in history! or something). Written by Chris Claremont; penciled by Rick Leonardi (235) and Marc Silvestri (236); inked by P. Craig Russell (235) and Dan Green (236); colored by Glynis Oliver (235) and Petra Scotese (236); lettered by Tom Orzechowski (235 & 236); and edited by Bob Harras.
Caution! Spoilers ahoy.
Welcome to Genosha.
My comics knowledge, as I’ve said elsewhere, is kinda spotty, at least compared to my true comic nerd friends. I get most of my comics from the public library, so I’m subject to the whims of availability and purchasing departments and waiting lists. But I know that I like Chris Claremont, so when I happened upon a TPB at the library called X-Tinction Agenda collecting several stories–from Uncanny X-Men, New Mutants, and X-Factor, published between 1983 and 1988–centering around the island nation of Genosha, I checked it out.
Guys, it’s so good. And even though it was published thirty years ago, parts of it are so relevant to our current political situation. So I figured I’d talk about it.
Uncanny X-Men #235: Welcome to Genosha.
Random thing, before we even start on the plot: The picture that dominates the first page is a sign that says: “Welcome to Genosha. A Green and Pleasant Land of Hope and Opportunity where the Watchword is Freedom.” “Green and pleasant land” is a line from a William Blake poem that is also a very famous and common British hymn and a sort of alternative national anthem for England. It evokes Britain as a sort of paradise, a place where lions can lie down with lambs and lovely rabbits frolic through the idyllic grasses. Under this sign, with its buzzwords of peace and prosperity, crouches a fugitive, a mutant who is trying to smuggle his child away from a life of slavery. The overarching theme of this entire story arc, underneath its blams and pows, is about the rot and corruption and cruelty that exist underneath the patina of wealth and prosperity, and you can see all of that on this one page if you look hard enough.
We start out by getting into the middle of a story that doesn’t involve the X-Men—a blonde man with a Sylvester Stallone-ian build, carrying a baby, has vaulted into a restricted area of an airport runway. “See those lights?” he tells the baby. “For people like us…that’s where true freedom lies.” He’s trying to smuggle the baby off the island, and he succeeds, but loses his own life in the process. There’s so much that could be talked about, pointed at, even in just these first few pages. Like a present-day Mexican, or Syrian, or Somalian, or Rohingya, or Palestinian—people will always cross barbed wire and guns if they think it’ll lead to a better chance for their kids. “I’ll miss you, baby boy,” he tells the young one. “You be brave.” Then the magistrates (Genoshan secret military police force charged with corralling and punishing mutants) are on top of him. He takes out one of their armored vehicles before they shoot him down, and as he dies, he watches the plane with the small stowaway take off and fly away. The magistrates, thinking that he was trying to escape himself, don’t even realize at first that a mutant has escaped their clutches.
SCENE CHANGE. The reds and blacks of the airport security lights and murder switch to oranges and yellows of the bright Australian sun. The Genoshans have sent the magistrates after the escaped baby, who is a mutant, and therefore (according to Genoshan law) not allowed to be a free person. They have lured Jenny Ransome (an escaped adult Genoshan mutant) to their location, hoping to quietly kidnap her back to Genosha, but unfortunately (for them) Jenny is accompanied by Madelyne Pryor, X-Man, clone, and close enough to a mutant that the differences are academic.
The Press Gang magistrates are an odd bunch, and I will freely admit that maybe this is one of those things that is explained in an issue of the X-Men that I’ve never read. They have special abilities, and seem to be either mutants or augmented humans, but they also hate and fear mutants as all Genoshans do. It’s unclear if the Press Gang are brainwashed into service (though in a different way than the general “mutate” population), or if they chose joining the Magistrates over going through the mutate process. They may be a sort of mutant Judenrat. I’m honestly not sure.
Over and over again, Genosha exhibits this slaver’s mindset doublespeak–they hate and fear mutants, even the mutants hate and fear mutants, but they’re happy to use them for their own ends to make Genosha a prosperous nation. Mutants are a danger. Mutants are also the reason why Genosha is prosperous. The future of Genosha depends on Genoshans never realizing or acknowledging this fact.
Pipeline, one of the Press Gang Magistrates, has the ability to reduce humans to “binary electronic impulses” and send them across his “phone link” for near-instant transport to Genosha. The phone link can transport humans but not their clothing for reasons that comic nerds tell me are perfectly obvious and logical and has nothing to do with wanting to see naked mutants. Pipeline zaps both Jenny Ransome and Madelyne Pryor back to Genosha, which of course brings the X-Men into it when Madelyne doesn’t come home. The adventure is on. Like, full splash page of a battle on.
Uncanny X-Men #236: “Busting Loose!”
At the end of #235, Jenny Ransome and Madelyne Pryor were zapped via “telephone link” from Australia to Genosha, as were Rogue and Wolverine when they were caught trying to track Madelyne and Jenny. Which is how we end up with Naked Wolverine and Naked Rogue taking on a whole squadron of magistrates.
About halfway through the issue, though, the story starts to depart from the usual comic POWs and ZAMs and SNIKTs and veer into Chris Claremont-ian holy-shit-metaphors territory. We cut away from Wolverine and Rogue (who have just lost the battle by virtue of having their mutant abilities wiped out by a vaguely clerical-looking Genoshan mutant named Wipeout) to suburban Genosha where a high-level civil servant, the Genegineer, has been pulled away from his Saturday gardening and plans with his teenage son Phillip to go deal with the general crisis that is the X-Men show up naked on your doorstep. (The Genegineer is in charge of administering the medical/biological alterations to mutants to turn them into powerful but mindless slaves.) You can see, in a small but telling interaction, just where general Genoshan population—through the lens of Phillip—is in terms of human-mutant relations: a flying car, taking off from Phillip’s yard, has damaged the lawn and some of the garden. Phillip offhandedly says to an approaching mutate, “Fix it, will ya, boy?” He doesn’t stick around to see if the mutate does so, or to thank him, or tell him he did a good job. He just walks away, both garden and mutate gone from his mind. (Which leads me to wonder, why is Phillip’s dad gardening at all, when they have a mutate who can do it faster and better?)
And now, back to Wolverine and Rogue, who have been captured and imprisoned.
So, here’s a thing that maybe says more about my obtuseness and lack of reading comprehension than anything else, but it wasn’t until I read these panels that I realized what a stunning metaphor Rogue’s mutant powers are for trauma. I mean, in these two panels, the two jailers who are speaking think that Rogue is reacting solely to being manhandled (and in a way she is, because thanks to Wipeout she didn’t absorb any magistrate psyches), but what they—and we (sorry, spoilers)—don’t know yet is that Wipeout’s attack combined with the Magistrates’ capture of her has basically unleashed all the psyches that Rogue has buried in her brain. But that’s…that’s what trauma is. A ghost of an experience, taking up space in your brain, and rising up at the most inconvenient times to make a time traveler out of your adrenal system and convince you that you’re back in that spot. Rogue has dozens and dozens of psyches inside her brain, and generally she can keep them at bay, but every now and again they rise up and incapacitate her. And they can do this without the original person knowing, or being aware, or even remembering what they did to get into her brain in the first place (see also, Kevin Spacey “not remembering” what he did to Anthony Rupp, and how what was so formulative for Rupp was not even a blip in Spacey’s mental story of his life). Ghosts, man. Ghosts and trauma.
Okay, so, back to our young lad Phillip, who is out for a run when he sees that a squad of magistrates have descended on his neighbor’s house and arrested the family of a government minister (including their daughter who is, we will learn, young Phillip’s fiancée). One of the magistrates threatens to club Phillip with his baton when Phillip tries to intervene, then does an abrupt 180 when he finds out how powerful Phillip’s father is. He’s apologetic and fawning, begging Phillip not to tell his father that a lowly magistrate stepped so far out of line. On an immediate level, he’s asking Phillip not to tell his father, because then the Magistrate will get fired. But really, what he’s asking of Phillip—what the whole interaction is about—is reminding Phillip of who he is, where he’s from, what his class is. In Genoshan society, if Phillip isn’t siding with the humans, then he’s siding with the mutants, and the magistrates are there to enforce that divide and make sure it remains. Sympathy for mutants is a dangerous emotion. What’s at stake here is not just the whims of some cops, but all of Genoshan society. If the subtext isn’t obvious enough, Claremont throws in that most notorious of excuses for the benign perpetuation of evil into the narrative waters— “I was only following orders,” the magistrate tells Phillip. Nothing personal. I was only following orders when I arrested your girlfriend and sent her off to get her genetically altered into a mind-altered slave. I didn’t create this system, I’m just living in it. I just need to feed my family and I’m only following orders.
And I mean, that’s how you know you’re in power, even if you feel like a small and powerless element of much larger social mechanisms. When what is, for you, just one of your basic daily duties that you hardly think about is also the most deeply, elementally personal thing to someone else–their body, their identity, their very existence. People who are in power, who are removed from the consequences of their actions, can have profound impacts on those below them without ever meeting or thinking about what they’re doing and why. The Magistrate is just following orders. The mutant is just existing. Even the Genegineer, with all his power, frames his actions as “necessary”—not as choices. Jenny Ransome has a “duty” to serve Genosha as a mindless, altered mutate. The Genegineer has the duty to turn her into the slave that Genosha needs. And Phillip is learning, is about to learn, that his action–or his inaction–will have profound consequences.
Next time: Who’s human? All aboard the mutant train.
A writer I follow, Chuck Wendig, often posts Flash Fiction challenges on his blog on Fridays. I got this one from a January post, so I can’t submit a link to it in his comments as he says to do, but I’m posting it here anyway because fuck writer’s block. Since Wendig is mostly a science fiction author, I decided to try writing a science fiction-y story.
Morning routines should be routine. Even when you’ve got a chronic, potentially life-threatening illness, there are certain things that just always happen, and a morning routine is one of those things. Even if–especially if–your chronic, potentially life-threatening illness is kept in check by (among other things) a neural net of brain implants in your cerebellum and temporal lobe that keep you breathing, blinking, standing, walking, talking.
Wake up, coffee, toast, update neural software, brush teeth, shower, get dressed, make lunch for later.
That is my routine. Every morning.
I like routine.
And then one day. Just some stupid regular Tuesday.
Wake up, coffee, toast, update–
stutter stutter stutter blank
Wake up, coffee–but there’s already coffee. I already made coffee but I have to make coffee again.
Coffee, toast, up–
circle circle circle circle blank
No, brain, I already made coffee, why are we making coff–
Some corner of my brain knows that this is not the routine but I can’t–
coffee toaste up–
blue blue blue blue
I am crying now. Coffee toast coffee toast what was wrong why can’t I stop–
(My writing life is still slow. Which is why this is being posted a week after everyone else posted their Harry Potter reminisces.)
I work in a public library, which means I have frequent (and frequently random) conversations with customers about books and local politics and the idiocy of computers. Yesterday, a customer came up to me and started telling me that Harry Potter was 20 years old and all about her Harry Potter memories (she did this with no introduction or conversation opener whatsoever; just walked up to me while I was shelving holds and started chattering at me about Harry Potter). So that was basically how I celebrated the week, which is (in some small way) in keeping with my relationship with Harry Potter for the last 20 years.
I started reading the Harry Potter series in 2000. I remember because I read it on a road trip with my family, our last big trip as a family because I was graduating high school and my brother was graduating college and moving to Seattle. I started working at a bookstore the next year, and for the last three books (which came out in 2003, 2005, and 2007), I worked the Harry Potter release parties. When the Deathly Hallows came out, I was also working at a public library; I got to stay late the night before the release date and process the holds so that they would be ready for customers first thing in the morning. In short: I have been a part of getting the Harry Potter books into people’s hands for almost as long as I’ve been reading them, and in a lot of ways, this is fundamental to why I find them important books, and what they mean to me, beyond just being a fun and enjoyable story.
I was a reader, all through my childhood. It was one of the things that made me weird in school. I was never teased for it, I was never ostracized just because I was a reader, but I was definitely the kid that maxed out all the reading lists, got in trouble for reading in class, read while I was walking home from school, fucked up the curve on writing assignments because I read so much that my writing skill just followed right along. The other kids just acknowledged that this was a thing that I did. When I started reading Harry Potter (well past the magical formulating years of reader-hood when one book drops into your life and changes you), it was just another book, another fun story. This was also before social media; certainly before I was on the Internet with any regularity, before fandom became the behemoth it is today. Those early years of Harry Potter, maybe even up to the first book release party, I certainly knew that Harry Potter was popular, but it wasn’t the sort of thing it is now–where people discuss and bond over it.
It was the book release parties where I got to see the fandom for the first time, and more importantly, got to see something that I think adults who grow up reading (and who were often the “weird kid who reads” in their class at school) always want to see more of: kids who are fucking excited about books. Weird Reader Kids, all over the place, all in one bookstore, instead of scattered from classroom to classroom. Kids up past their bedtime, getting chocolate frogs and butterbeer from the bookstore coffee shop. Kids dressed up in wizard robes. Kids waiting in line for hours. Kids getting handed their books at midnight, and then sprinting for the door to get to their parents’ cars to get back home so they can start reading.
They were late nights, after the book release parties, when me and my coworkers would be at work until the wee hours of the morning cleaning up the remnants of chocolate milks and fire whiskies and double espressos that the parents needed to stay up. Cookie crumbs and pastry wrappers. Dirty coffee mugs and plates. I didn’t care. I loved it. I wanted to make books exciting and fun for these kids in a way that I never got to experience.
The movies kept the community going, I think, in between books, and then after the books were done. The movies pulled in a lot of people who weren’t Weird Reader kids, and even though I haven’t seen most of them since they were in theaters, they broadened and cemented the fandom. I went to a couple movie release nights and they were much the same mix of fun, overwhelming, noisy nerddom as the book releases. And by then, the books had been around long enough that older siblings were indoctrinating younger siblings. Livejournal was a thing. Tumblr started to exist. Fan fiction started leaking out of its previously-ironclad hinterlands. And Harry truly stepped out of the books and into our heads.
Even though I don’t actively participate in the fandom that much, so much of that fandom is what Harry Potter is for me. I don’t write fanfic or cosplay or draw fan art or even really get into long discussions with people online. I like the books. I like the stories. But really, what I love–what I adore–is that this books are so huge, took over so much of the culture. And maybe the kids who read during class feel a little less weird these days than they did when I was young. Maybe they can talk about Harry with their classmates, as well as in online forums. I don’t know exactly when nerdy fandom went from a thing that only happened at Comic Cons to a thing that happened all over the internet; it seemed fully fledged and omnipresent by the time I happened upon it. But I’m really happy that this is a thing in the world that exists, even though I only ever observe it from the sidelines.
At some point (and I resisted doing this for a long time because I hate having to give my email address to things because then everyone sends you email) (Also, come on, I’m an adult, I don’t need Sorting, I am too old, sniff sniff), I went over to Pottermore and got myself Sorted. It was…weirdly emotional, and resonant, and flattering, when I got Sorted into Hufflepuff. So, here’s me:
Wand: Willow wood w/dragon heartstring
PS. Also, one thing I discovered in the week it took me to write this: Harry Potter might be 20, but “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls is apparently 21 this week, and that makes me feel old in a way that Harry Potter does not.
I’ve been reading accounts of what’s happening in Syria on Twitter and this person’s tweets stood out to me because they sound like poetry, in the best and worst and most heartbreaking way. They can be found @AmalHanano and wrote all of these words. I just re-typed them.
Don’t worry. Soon images and videos will stop coming out of #Aleppo. We will stop bombarding you with our gruesome images and horrific stories.
Soon #Aleppo will fade to darkness. Soon you’ll hear only one story once more. You’ll no longer be “confused” on what’s going on in #Syria.
Soon you will be told a simply narrative of a secular government with a westernized president who was fighting terrorists. And finally won.
They will say, we only killed the bad ones. They will say, the rest love us. They will show you a sea of flags and deafening chants. And say,
“Do you see now? We told you.” And you will say, “Now we understand.” And you will know nothing.
When the videos and images stop coming out of Syria, you should be terrified. It means that public genocide has become private once more.
We know what it’s like to live in silence. In darkness. With our truth buried within us. We will slowly learn to go back to that existence.
But don’t think we will ever forget these years. When people paid with their blood to speak their truth. You should never forget either.
“You have to know what the stereotypes are in order to avoid those stereotypes.” –Jonathan Green, Visual Director for 2016 Porgy and Bess revival
I’ve been listening to The West Wing Weekly, a podcast in which the two hosts watch one episode of the West Wing each week and discuss it. (Side note: If you like political drama at all, The West Wing is totally worth your time.) The hosts are Josh Malina (who also starred in the show starting in the…fourth season?) and Hrishikesh Hirway, who also hosts the podcast Song Exploder, and they regularly bring in former castmates and writers to talk about their experiences on the show. One of the people they talked to during the first season was Janel Moloney, who played Donatella Moss, Josh Lyman’s secretary. And she said something that got me thinking.
Basically, from day one, one of the things that Janel put into Donna’s character as a primary motivating factor was the idea that Donna was in love with Josh. Episode directors independently came to the same conclusion early on and planted the seeds of Josh’s love for Donna, but for most of the series, these feelings were only ever implied, not acted upon. And Janel noted (almost casually) that even though she knew that Donna was in love with Josh, she was not eager to have that story play out, because as soon as it did, Donna would lose a lot of avenues for where her character could go. If Donna and Josh started dating, that would be the end of Donna’s story, because she would have to quit her job, and of course Janel would lose her job too. Later (after Janel became a cast member, instead of just a recurring character), the character of Donna got new arcs and grew a lot as a person. But early on? Dating Josh (the most obvious storyline that basically everyone wanted) was the worst possible thing that could happen to Donna.
Sharon Lawrence, who played ADA Sylvia Costas on the 1990s police drama NYPD Blue (which is also totally worth your time), said something similar. She was cast in the pilot, in what was not supposed to be a recurring role (kind of like Janel Moloney, now that I think about it), but was brought back as a recurring character and potential love interest for Detective Andy Sipowicz, and eventually became a cast member. And I love Sylvia Costas the character. She’s smart, she’s outspoken, she doesn’t let anyone push her around. She faces her fears and doesn’t let them rule her life. She’s one of the few female characters in a male-dominated show (and a female professional in a male-dominated profession), and she’s this wonderful shining light of femininity and strength. But once she married Andy Sipowicz–and especially after they had a baby–she faded away. As Ms. Lawrence put it, the mystery of her character was basically solved by her marriage to Sipowicz, and there wasn’t much place else for her to go, so she was written out. (I hope I’m remembering what she said correctly, it was an interview that she did for a DVD extra for one of the NYPD Blue DVD sets, which doesn’t seem to have made it to YouTube). Her femininity, her female-ness as a character, worked against her, even though they told a story for her that millions of women have experienced: Sylvia had a baby and then went back to work, and then wrestled with her desire to stay home with her kid instead, and eventually decided to do that, before going back to work as an ADA much later. And that’s something that a lot of parents (moms and dads) struggle with, and it was nice to see it depicted on screen. But it was also a shame to lose such a wonderful character.
By contrast, Jill Kirkendole, a female detective on NYPD Blue, was a mom from the beginning, and a love interest to basically no one (she dated a male ADA character for awhile but I don’t remember that being a primary arc of the show, just something that was sort of happening in the background). From her very first case in the squad, her experience as a mother was something that informed her work as a detective, gave her an ability to read people and understand them. Gave them a way to understand her, too, when she was trying to get information out of somebody. Her experience as a mom informed her work as a detective in a way that Greg Medavoy’s status as a dad never seemed to inform his. She also made friends with another female member on the squad (Diane Russell) and that allowed for some female energy and Bechdel-passing episodes.
It’s one of the things you don’t think about in stories until you’ve seen and read a lot of stories: The bones of so many stories are the same, and the beauty shows up in the way that they’re told. And sometimes it’s just the nature of the stories, the nature of narrative. Joseph Campbell has examined this to an extensive degree in books like The Hero With A Thousand Faces. I remember learning in high school about the seven different types of stories (man vs man, man vs world, man vs self…I forget the other types). There’s a certain amount of same-ness, or of parallel-ness, that’s unavoidable. But then there’s the same-ness that’s bad and unhelpful. Why are so many brown-skinned characters terrorists? Why are so many black male characters drug dealers? Why are so many white women mothers? Why do so many fantasy books take place in a feudal English Tolkien-esque landscape?
Representation matters, as I’ve heard over and over on the internet. And it does. There are so many different stories being lived right now, so many people having so many different lives. They all deserve to be a story, to tell their story, to see their story (in one way or another) represented in popular media, whether that’s a television show or a comic or a novel or a video game or a history book. Our capacity to speak for ourselves is enhanced when we see characters who go first, who speak our stories for us, who validate our existence and experience. But in the obverse, our capacity to empathize is enhanced by knowing another person’s story. This is to say, diverse stories don’t just matter to marginalized people who need more stories like theirs. Speaking as a white person, reading stories about and essays by and tweets of people of color has helped me alter my perspective enormously when it comes to the question of racism and race in the United States. Were those stories written for me? No, not always. Maybe almost never. But art and stories make eavesdroppers of all of us, and Junot Diaz and NK Jemisin have taught me things that I never would have had occasion to know otherwise.
The thing about representation is, for me at least, it’s almost never an obvious thing. Maybe this is because I can find stories that are close enough to me to get by; maybe it’s because I tend to be a little oblivious to subtleties. But you go through life, not necessarily cognizant of what you’re missing, until someone smarter than you comes along and shows you this character, and you didn’t realize how badly you needed to see this thing that you didn’t know existed. Who knew I needed somebody like Amy Farrah-Fowler on The Big Bang Theory? (At least up until she started falling in love with Sheldon, at which point I lost interest in the entire series.) Who knew how badly I wanted to meet Jessica Jones, before she arrived? Certainly not me. Why have I been so fixated on needing a Black Widow movie? I’m not even entirely sure, but apparently there’s a gap in my life that only Scarlett Johansson can fill.
I’m tired of female characters who stop being on television the minute they become mothers. I’m tired of female characters whose primary story arc is falling in love with the leading dude. One of the reasons why I love The West Wing is the fact that it largely resisted those tropes for most of its run, and as a result, many of the female characters from the first season survived all the way to the last. As I try to get back into writing my own fiction, I don’t know how much I’ll fall into these tropes myself because of failures of imagination and empathy, or how much I’ll be able to dodge them just because I’m a different person writing different stuff. Nobody wants to think that they’re writing stereotypes, and yet somehow our collective artistic unconscious ends up full of stereotypes. Sometimes we don’t even know they’re stereotypes until someone cracks them open, like an egg, and reveals they’re hollow.
One of the things that has repeatedly come up for me recently is the stories of the people left behind by violence. One of my friends reposted something written by one of a teacher at the school that Terence Crutcher’s child goes to (Crutcher is one of the black men killed by police recently). The effects that this child’s father’s death is having, not just on his daughter, but on the whole school regardless of how well they knew Mr. Crutcher. How does a group of kids make sense of such a thing?
And then I listened to a podcast of an Australian radio show that told the story of a woman investigating her family history, particularly that of her grandmother, who died from a botched abortion in the 1930s. And for all the political discussions we have about abortions and the women who get them, we don’t (on either side of the debate) talk enough about the women who get them and why. About the consequences of losing your mother that way. About the consequences of knowing this thing about your family, this thing that you may never be able to say out loud to other people.There’s so many ripples of pain in the world that we never ever talk about.
I wanted to share, at least, the Third Coast podcast show. It’s worth listening to. It’s hard to listen to, but it’s worth listening to. You can find it on iTunes or some other podcasting service to download it, or you can stream it here.