Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Uncanny X-Men 9, originally released July 31st, 2013.
Drew: Earlier this year, I became addicted to Radiolab, NPR’s quirky show about science and the philosophical repercussions of that science. The show is fascinating, but is also maddeningly self-referential — the hosts will often refer to massive concepts and conclusions from episodes that aired years before. The one that has come up the most often is the idea that your sense of self — the thing that makes you you — is basically the story you tell yourself about your life. That is to say, it isn’t how you look, how you spend your time, what you value, or even the company you keep — what you are is the narrative you believe about your life. Uncanny X-Men 9 finds Brian Michael Bendis examining every single one of his theories, as our new mutants (and a few old ones) struggle to get a handle on their own identities.
The issue opens with Dazzler attempting to pump Fabio (you know, Goldballs) for information about Scott Summers. Unfortunately, Fabio’s family isn’t so cool with uninvited guests, forcing S.H.I.E.L.D. to take Fabio back to the helicarrier. More unfortunately, Scott et al. come to Fabio’s rescue, stranding Maria Hill on a beach somewhere, and shaming Dazzler for being a traitor to her people. As if that wasn’t enough, Dazzler is then drugged and replaced by Mystique, fresh off of her visit to All-New X-Men.
This issue is fairly light, plot-wise, but packs in a ton of character work — all of which again focuses on identity. The first scene alone finds Dazzler and the Medina family fighting over Fabio’s identity — is he a mutant or isn’t he? — while also finding some time to have Dazzler lose control of her own identity.
But are we the labels people put on us, or anything else people perceive us to be? The frustration both Fabio and Alison show in this scene suggests that this definition might be just a bit off of the mark.
Meanwhile, back at the New Xavier School for the Gifted, the new recruits are snoozing through their training. This prompts David, the newest X-Man, to show off his vehicle-controlling abilities. A simple “who you are is what you do” definition, though it’s simplicity is complicated when one of the Stepford sisters shows up with a new cut- and dye-job. The other sisters freak out about it the way only teenage girls could freak out about a haircut, clearly placing a great deal of their identity in how they look. Bendis never really offers a rebuttal to either of these arguments — in fact, Irma seems to relish the attention her new look gets from Triage — but instead simply moves on to the more interesting identity issues.
Tied up on the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, Fabio finally has an opportunity to assert his own version of what happened, effectively asserting his own identity.
His next line, “You kidnapped me,” is the real zinger. Fabio may not have known where his allegiances were when the X-Men dropped him off, but his narrative — that is, his identity — finally cohered when Alison showed up and took him from his home. He’s an X-Man now, and he’s not going to turn over any information that will lead to his people.
The notion of the X-Men as someone’s “people” comes up again when the Uncanny X-Men encounter Alison on the helicarrier. At first, they expect her to join them, but when she doesn’t, they see it as a supreme betrayal, even going so far as to call her “the Uncle Tom of the mutants,” which seems kind of harsh — like, all of Scott’s friends are also on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s side. To Alison’s credit, she gets a good one in, calling Scott the Sirhan Sirhan of the mutants, which is actually shockingly apt. What’s interesting here is that it pushes the definition of identity beyond just what you tell yourself to potentially take into account what others tell you. I’m not sure Alison thinks of herself as an Uncle Tom, but you can bet those words meant something to her.
The capper is the final scene, where Mystique effectively usurps Alison’s identity, but Bendis had already made his point quite clear by then. Identity is an important issue for adolescents — especially minorities — and I think this issue captures that urgency and uncertainty beautifully. I still have some problems — especially with Chris Bachalo’s continued skew-a-random-layout-by-fifteen-degrees affectation — but I thought this issue was the best of the run. If nothing else, it made me care about a character I had already come to know as “Goldballs.” That’s got to count for something, right?
Patrick: Sure, that counts for a good deal. This series has always had more “who?”s per page than just about anything else I read. It’s tricky enough keeping tabs on the a whole bucket of existing mutants (ranging from the ultra-mainstream Cyclops to the pretty obscure Magik), but Bendis gleefully adds new mutants to that bucket constantly. I know I’ve been hurting for a little definition to those newbies for a while — it’s just so much easier to get behind a character that doesn’t have decades of unfamiliar publishing history behind them. Y’know, like as far as Goldballs is concerned, I’m on the same page as someone that fancies themselves an X-Men X-pert. And as much fun as an excuse for ignorance is, it’s much more fun to actually have insight into the character.
Drew, I love this read that all of these scenes meditate on the nature of identity — specifically of how much control any one person has over their identity. You kinda brushed it off as teenage girl nonsense, but I’m absolutely enamored with the scene of Irma showing off her new hair. The Stepford Sisters are fucking weird — Grant Morrison created them, if that gives any context. Trying to catch up on their history is a maddening ordeal, and none of the internetting I’ve done in the name of understanding them has resulted in much. The one conclusion that I keep coming to is that they are all Emma Frost clones, and they pride themselves on being scary, unfeeling copies of each other. Or maybe “pride” is the wrong word: they simply are the same. Bendis finds a way to turn what is essentially one character into three and it all starts with Irma’s desire to be different. Sure, it doesn’t sit well with her sisters — I love that Bachalo (credited as both artist and colorist) fills the background of their reaction shots with solid red color. Incidentally, that’s as mad as anyone gets in this issue (and that includes Fabio’s step-dad, who pointed a gun a Dazzler).
There’s also a fun little Easter Egg Bendis’ choice of Irma to be the first Sister to break rank. Back when there were five Sisters, their initials spelled out the word “SPICE” (presumably, the second ingredient in good little girls), but Morrison never got around to articulating Irma’s name in the text. So another writer came along later and named her “Mindee,” without knowing that he’d fucked up some dumb acronym. Matt Fraction later fixed this — naming the character “Irma” and relegating “Mindee” to nickname status. But there’s a meta way in which Irma had already broken rank with her sisters, at least temporarily.
I don’t have a specific question or observation or anything, but I do want to talk a little bit about Mystique. She has this weird effect on narratives that she appears in: basically, you can’t trust anything you see. More than any other shapeshifter I can think of*, Mystique seems to delight in creating the illusion that she is someone else. She doesn’t have any tells that give away that experience is fraudulent. I’m never quite sure how much we’re supposed to be surprised by the oh-so-common reveal: “that was really Mystique all along.” I find it especially hard to know how to react to it in this issue — Dazzler spends roughly one page with Coulson before the creative team lets us know that that’s not really him. It ends up being mystery-in-miniature, which is less fun than it sounds. What do you guys think? Would it have been more fun not to know why Coulson had knocked her out by issue’s end? Or is it a relief not to have to speculate on that, only to have the answer come next month that “he” didn’t? But if we’re just supposed to know that’s Mystique, why don’t we see it from the get-go? We could just as easily see Mystique turn in to Coulson before the scene starts. That sounds like me giving story notes, but I’m genuinely curious how people feel about these Mystique-reveals.
*How weird is it that I can actually assemble a list of fictional shapeshifters in my head AND that I know enough about their personalities to know that Mystique is the most passionate about creating the experience of interacting with that person? Strange times we live in.
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