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.
The triumphal return, both of my Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ listening series, and of the Bosstones themselves. The album was released in 2007, and coincided with the return of the Bosstones from a three-year hiatus and of the Hometown Throwdown (which was suspended during said hiatus). I associate this album with a lot of happiness.
First up is “This List,” one of three original songs on the album (the rest are b-sides), which is about the current wars that the US was (and still is, sigh) fighting at the time. Bush #2 was still president, and if I recall correctly, it was also around the time of the troop surge and the re-taking of Fallujah and the whole war feeling like a mire we would never get out of. (This is also roughly around the time that the band the Street Dogs started to gain national punk prominence, in no small part to the leadership of Mike McColgan and his vocal support for vets and against the war). Dicky Barrett talks directly to GWB in this song, and it does feel more immediate than a lot of other anti-war songs I know. Maybe because it’s so specific and because it was a war I was so aware of and living adjacent to and watching and following. I mean, it’s one thing to hear the Clash sing about the Falkland Islands. It’s another to hear the Bosstones sing a song to the current president about the current war and telling him to go to hell.
Next up is “The Meaning,” a b-side from Pay Attention, and is up there as one of my favorite Bosstones songs overall (b-side or not). It’s got the sort of rapid-patter rhyming from Dicky that I love, and also it’s about the creative process, which I can relate to a good bit. Also, I love the line, “You don’t have to know the meaning, just know that there is meaning in what is being said to you.” I suspect Dicky meant it towards the fans (like me) who tend to ask him to explain this song or that song, but it also reminds me something that my mom—whether she knew it or not—was pretty good at when I was a teenager. I did a lot of shit as a teenager that my parents didn’t understand, chose career paths (or resisted career paths) they I’m pretty sure they didn’t understand. But my mom was better than my dad at recognizing when something was important to me, and that mattered more to her than her need to understand just what the hell I was doing. It was important to me, and that was good enough.
Also I love the guitar noise in this song. I guess it’s the wah pedal? Whow-whow.
“What’s in you, out of you, remember we love you, we’ve gotta go but you should know that we’ll be thinking of you.”
Third song! “Don’t Worry Desmond Dekker”! Instant fucking classic. Always makes me think of Boston and the Hometown Throwdown. Also one of the three new songs. Has the power to make me cry when I hear it live. “And I, I can hear laughter. It stays with me after all this time. And I, I’ve still got your records, the Clash and the Selecter. Don’t worry, Desmond Dekker’s doing fine.” (“Except he’s not,” as Joe Sirois says, “Because he’s dead.”) It’s about time and friendship and the good and bad ways relationships evolve. Hey there, 737, I’m thinking about you and the Buckminster Hotel and I’m going to get to see you all in a little over a month and it’ll be great. I know I’m not the biggest party animal but I fucking love you guys and want to give you hugs.
“From the dirt up to the sky, and we climbed up to the sky, and carried on the only way we can. Laugh on and live, learn how to forgive, what we have could be as good as what we get. If you’ve forgot, now I’ve still got what you gave to me way back when we first met.”
I’ve still got what the Bosstones gave me. Laughter and new friends and more music than I could listen to in my lifetime. Validation as an imperfect person trying to muddle her way through the world. Trips to Boston and walks in the snow and the best goddamn hot chocolate I’ve ever had in my life.
“To California” is a b-side that I’m pretty sure was never released before Medium Rare came out (unlike “The Meaning,” which is on the vinyl release of Pay Attention). According to Wikipedia it was recorded during the Jackknife to a Swan sessions in 2002. It’s the story of a guy who decides—impulsively?—to move to California to uh…make money, I guess. “Just like a modern 49er.” He only makes it as far as Atlantic City, though, so he is not successful at his goals. And then he stows away on a train. I love how the horns and the guitar work together in this song. I feel like there should be more songs about people make impulsive, complicated decisions with poor planning and low success rates.
“The One With the Woes All Over It.” Full of “whoa whoa whoas” in the chorus because what’s better than acoustic puns? About what happens when it all ends, and why it ends, and what happened to lead up to it. This isn’t a song that I relate hugely to my own life (it’s another of Dicky’s super-specific songs that’s clearly about one person’s experience), but I enjoy it all the same.
“So Many Ways.” God, I love this song. It was released as the b-side for a single back in the day (by which I mean, 1997 or thereabouts). The guitar is so good. Dicky’s vocals are so good. The lyrics are so good. This is one of those songs that finds its way into a lot of little cracks in my life. It’s not like, ohmygod, I can relate this song to this one big experience I’ve had. Instead, I relate this song to hundreds of little moments and choices that happen all the time. It’s always just below the surface. “There’s so many ways to do this, so many ways I must pick one.” Like you’ve got all these paths in front of you, and several of them might be successful, but when you pick one, the others disappear. “So many ways, I need someone to tell me what it would take to do this. And it’s out there, hell it must be, help me I no longer trust me.”
I no longer trust me. For a guy that I think of as confident, who has clearly made at least a few good decisions in his life and been a success, Dicky talks a lot about not trusting himself. He sings a lot about his own faults. I could probably learn something about giving voice to those doubts without (seemingly) letting them eat my life.
“A Reason to Toast” is another song from the Jackknife era. There’s definitely at least two versions of this song floating around. It’s a song about…toasting. Like what you do at Thanksgiving or at a wedding. And wherever else people raise glasses? You can write about literally anything in this world, kids. Anything can be a song. (That’s its own kind of creative confidence, really, to write a song about celebrating, and channeling those thoughts of celebration into…toasts.) Why are all of you writing songs about girls and loss of girls and how much you love girls and you never want to leave girls when you could be writing about raising glasses in a toast.
“Who’s Foolin’ Who.” This song was on a comp in the late ’90s that I had. Give me a minute and I’ll think of it. It was all ska. It also had the Pilfers on it, which is how I got into the Pilfers, and a Smooths song, which is how I got into the Smooths. “Sure the whole world might be fooled, make sure no one’s foolin’ you.” Fun, bouncy, but slightly nostalgic horns. Dammit what’s the compilation. I could look it up but I don’t want to. It was volumes 3&4 of a comp, the first of which also had the Bosstones on it but came out in like 1990. MASHIN UP THE NATION. Damn straight. That’s it. Such a good comp. If you ever see that floating around on ebay, grab it. I can’t imagine it’s still in print.
“Katie.” About…Dicky’s ex-wife? Ex-girlfriend? Ex-friend? About walking away from someone who has hurt you, someone who sucks up all your energy and just isn’t worth it anymore. Fits thematically with “Over the Eggshells” on Pay Attention (though I don’t actually recall when this song was written/recorded) (edit: I just checked Wikipedia and apparently it was recorded during the Jackknife sessions). About wrapping yourself up in some armor, pulling away from someone that’s hurt you, turning your back, and walking away. A song about self-care, oddly. I take reminders from wherever I can about how it’s actually okay to protect myself.
“This Time of Year.” If anything can get me thinking of a flashing wall of Santas, a stage covered in Christmas lights, pinning myself to the rail in front of the stage, standing in the cold outside for hours…it’s this song. It’s about how December isn’t just about Christmas and holidays and presents and whatever. December is Throwdown time. I can see the stage at the HOB in my head. I’ve got a smile on my face. I’m going to see my friends soon. “This time of year, it gets me and it never lets me act like I don’t care. This time’s my favorite time of year because all of us are here together.” I’ve been saving up for Throwdown since January. And it’s almost here. All of us will be here together. The Bosstones will play this song. And many other songs. And I’ll see my friends. And there will be beer and pizza and friends.
“Chocolate Pudding” is not, as appearances would lead you to believe, a cover song. The Bosstones wrote it, and it’s one of the few songs not sung by Dicky (on lead vocals here is Tim Burton, one of the sax players). Pre-hiatus, this was one of the rarest songs to hear them play live, though I’ve heard it enough post-hiatus that I think some of the shine has worn off. Also, kids, you can write songs about anything. Including chocolate pudding.
Years ago, I made my sister a mix tape of songs that I did not hate (she likes Destiny’s Child and Miley Cyrus and Brittany Spears and car rides with the two of us were not the easiest, from a radio standpoint), and I put this song on it. My sister will now just randomly start singing this song. I am so proud to have gotten my sister to like a Bosstones song (at the time that I made the mix she was really into those snack pack pudding cups). And now we have some common ground. Not over eating pudding (I don’t like pudding that much), but over listening to songs about it.
“Is It?” I love this song. It’s another b-side from the Let’s Face It era. I got it on a CD single, either “Rascal King” or “The Impression That I Get.” It’s about getting all that you wanted…and having that not be everything you hoped for. Joe Sirois has some awesome drum playing in this song. I’m not a drummer, so I don’t even know what the fuck he’s doing or if it’s good compared to other drummers, but I like everything he’s doing here.
Now that I think about it, and now that I’m trying to write about them, I’m realizing that lots of these b-sides have a weird personal feeling to them. I only ever listened to them in my car, usually by myself (my friends did not share my taste in music). The Bosstones didn’t play them live back then. They’re not songs that I ever shared with anyone, not the way that I share the experience of hearing “Devil’s Night Out” live with 2,000 other people, or the way that so many of us Bosstones fans can relate to hearing “Impression” on the radio or on MTV and having that change our lives. A lot of these songs–like “Is It,” like “Storm Hit” (which is not on this album but is an amazing song), like “The Meaning”—feel like they’re just between me and the Bosstones. The fact that a lot of them are demos, a little more raw, a little less layered from a production standpoint, helps with that feeling.
“Thank You For the Records.” A slow song, or at least one that starts slow, as final Bosstones tracks seem to do these last few albums. I don’t know who Dicky is singing “to” in this song—who he’s thanking—but when I sing along, I’m thanking him. I’m thanking the Bosstones.
Thank you for the records.
Thank you for the shows.
Thank you for the music.
Thank you for the friends.
Thank you for the standard you set, how you seem to treat each other and how I know you treat us fans.
Thank you for introducing me to this world of ska and punk and all of the beautiful people who are also here.
Thank you for your generosity.
Thank you for your humor.
Thank you for taking every possible opportunity to take a shit on Spin Magazine.
Thank you for all the wisdom and the common sense.
This is another flash fiction story from a Chuck Wendig flash fiction challenge, which he apparently posted in 2015 and I happened upon it in 2016 or something and thought it was current so I wrote half of a thing, and then finished it in 2017. Here’s the thing. Note that I read basically no space opera/military sci fi/battles in space thing, so please do not write to me telling me that I got space opera wrong. Also, because this is the internet, the grammar error in the first sentence is deliberate and I’m not fixing it.
Me and my platoon strapped ourselves into our seats and snapped our face masks in place. Hyperdrive jumps are liable to get bumpy on exit and re-entry, so we all checked to see that the barf bags were handy, and each of us hoped that we wouldn’t be the one who had to use one (and then get roundly mocked for it).
The commander and the pilot were up front, programming the hyperdrive. I put my head back and tried to go to sleep. They’d sounded Reveille hours before the usual roll out, ordered us to ready for maneuvers. Nobody, not even the commander, had been told of the mission beforehand. The element of surprise was vital, we were told. No leaks. Surprise attack. We’d storm their shores and end the war. We weren’t the first to trip off to battle, just the next wave. Commander said he’d have orders when we came out of hyperspace.
We all bit down, the pilot engaged the hyperdrive, all of our insides lurched backwards and then caught up. The ship went dark, and all that all of us felt was eerie nothingness for an unknown period of time.
And then–lurch, shudder, and an alarming cracking noise from elsewhere in the ship–we were out of hyperspace. We braced ourselves, unbuckling from our harnesses and going for our guns, sure that we were dropping into a firefight and were about to go out the gangway.
We looked sideways at each other, out of power and out of knowledge, just dumb stupid soldiers who didn’t know what to do if they weren’t fighting.
We could hear the commander cursing at the pilot, double checking coordinates. We waited.
And then, we were descending, entering atmosphere, watching the sky change color, become something recognizable as sky. We were ordered to shelve our weapons. The ship landed, the hatch opened, the air hissed outward. We exited the ship by the gangway, blinking in the bright light. It didn’t look like we were going to die today after all.
The commander pointed towards the…well, off toward some direction on the compass, anyway where he could see the rooftops of a town, maybe two klicks away. We formed up and fell into step. Nobody said anything. Nobody knew (except the commander) if we were deserters, if we were lost. Just that, so far at least, we didn’t seem to be dying today.
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.