Monday, May 19, 2014

X-MEN: PRISONER X - May 1998 (Part One)


Chapters 1-4
Written by Ann Nocenti

Summary:  Wolverine enters a club, planning on a peaceful night, but finds himself drawn into a fight over a pool game.  When he’s stabbed in the melee, Wolverine releases his claws and goes into a berserker fury.  Meanwhile, Phoenix, Rogue, and Storm have dinner.  On their walk home, they stop an attempted rape.  One of the culprits quickly organizes an anti-mutant mob.  Phoenix clouds their minds and the heroes escape.  At the mansion, Beast examines a new video game from Spiral Ink.  Elsewhere, Gambit talks a teenager out of suicide.  Suspicious of a video game the teen has been playing, Gambit buys the disc from him.  After Gambit leaves, the teen’s demeanor changes and he jumps off a building.

Continuity Notes:  
  • Longshot, identified only as “Prisoner X” at this point, is a prisoner at an orbital prison called UltraMax Rock.  MAXROX TV is filming him for what appears to be a reality show, Live from Death Row, which will culminate with his live on-air execution.
  • A rebel DJ is broadcasting information from Mojoverse that Longshot is picking up with a direct connection to his brain.  The DJ is quickly killed by Mojo’s men.
  • Phoenix says that Cyclops has been on Muir Island, “for so long,” with no further explanation given.

I Love the ‘90s:  The Spiral Ink video games are the latest in virtual reality technology, which we were all lead to believe would be the future of entertainment in 1998.

Review:  Ann Nocenti returns to Longshot and the Mojoverse with this novel, after many years without the promised follow-up to her initial Longshot miniseries.  It’s unlikely this is the story she had in mind for that Longshot series that Arthur Adams never started, if only because the pet themes she’s playing with here didn’t really show up in her late ‘80s work.  She did touch on American defense spending briefly in Daredevil, but I don’t recall a fascination with the psychology of incarceration, or her criticizing violent and nihilistic pop culture back in those days.  (By the late ‘90s, Nocenti was the editor of Prison Life Magazine, which is amazingly something that exists.)  

The opening of the novel is mainly focused on introducing the X-Men through a series of vignettes, each one devoted to summarizing a character’s internal conflicts or speaking to the franchise’s larger issues of prejudice and fear.  Nocenti has a strong handle on the cast, so even if these are clearly intro scenes, there’s enough depth and sympathy for the characters to entertain even the most jaded X-fan.  Wolverine fights to keep his inner animal in check while defending a Rasta from racist pool sharks, Rogue curses herself for not bothering to pick up her gloves before going out with her teammates, and Gambit spends a night alone, thinking back to his justifications for being a thief.  The X-Ladies also muse on the inherent dishonesty in having duel identities, an idea that occasionally appears in Nocenti’s superhero work.  

An early pattern emerges of the heroes expressing empathy for criminals; Wolverine compares his own demeanor to that of the recently paroled Rasta, Gambit thinks back on his previous rationales for stealing from rich people (not surprising in a Nocenti story, Gambit viewed himself as a class warrior), and Rogue is in for a shock when her skin makes contact with an attempted rapist.  She’s utterly repulsed by his view of women, yet finds herself reliving his life of dehumanizing abuse and incarceration.  Rogue considers him utterly repellant, but can’t deny his humanity.  Just how “human” a society can be allowed to view convicted criminals is a question Nocenti has to address when covering this topic.  Is a civilization judged by the mercy or the punishment it doles out?  Is “humane” treatment of prisoners, however that could be defined, an insult to their victims?  I suspect Steve Ditko is on one side and Nocenti is on the other.

The politics of this novel are divided between the prison issue and Nocenti’s critique of pop culture, with an odd attempt early on to tie the issues together.  She presents a somewhat strained theory that networks romanticize violence in order to keep the public afraid…which leaves us home alone in front of the television, consuming mindless advertising, and so paranoid we refuse to question any of the government’s massive defense spending.  How about “If it bleeds, it leads” -- the traditional justification for the media taking local crime stories and making them national gossip fodder.  I doubt there’s a conspiracy between the Department of Defense and whoever produces those idiotic Lifetime movies.  (Mother, May I Sleep with Danger…In Order to Distract You from the Inordinate Amount of GDP Spent on Redundant Defense Programs?) Pointing out that America spends an excessive amount of money on building and expanding prisons is probably a legitimate starting point for a story, but she’s approaching the issue from a strange angle.  

Fortunately, Nocenti isn’t being overly preachy at this point, the early chapters are actually well-balanced between X-Men character work and the societal commentary, and her view of where American culture was heading in the late ‘90s isn’t far off from reality.  Beast is shocked that these virtual reality games reward you for killing people in blue uniforms; people that almost resemble police officers.  This is years before every adolescent in America has a Grand Theft Auto game hidden in his bedroom.  Her send-up of reality shows, written when the concept barely existed, also doesn’t seem too outrageous today.  Allowing Nocenti to explore pet political issues and engage in media parody could be a dodgy proposition, but thankfully these elements aren’t overshadowing the novel as an X-Men story yet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow! I just bought this book within the past month. I'm a fan of Nocenti's comic work, and I just discovered she had this X-Men novel, so I had to buy it.
It certainly wasn't bad.
Maybe more comments from me on the novel after you finish reviewing it.

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