Tuesday, May 20, 2014

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

Chapters 5-9
Written by Ann Nocenti

Summary:  Gambit returns to the mansion with the suspicious video game.  He arrives in time to see Rogue’s response to the “Prisoner X” television commercial.  Rogue immediately recognizes Longshot, igniting Gambit’s jealousy.  After the X-Men devise a plan to enter UltraMax Rock, Rogue and Gambit have a lovers’ quarrel.  Storm and Phoenix stop the fight, and Beast announces that he’s created a false identity for Rogue, who will infiltrate UltraMax as a counselor.  Meanwhile, the Rasta introduces himself to Wolverine as DJ Bone.  Bone claims that UltraMax is imprisoning mutants and teenagers, including his son Miles.  Wolverine visits Miles’ bedroom with Bone.  At UltraMax, Longshot is planning a prison revolt.  Spiral watches him plot with his fellow inmate, Ricochet Rita.  Later, Mojo tasks Spiral with finding a rat within the prison.

Continuity Notes:  
  • According to Storm, both Cyclops and Professor X are working on “a project” at Muir Island with Excalibur.
  • Ricochet Rita is a character from the initial Longshot miniseries.  She’s destined to become Spiral in the future, as confirmed in the (best forgotten) 1992 X-annual crossover “Shattershot.”
  • Major Domo, Mojo's servant robot, is posing as UltraMax’s warden.  Mojo is in a hidden section, experimenting on teenagers, including Miles.  The teenagers that can beat the Spiral Ink games are teleported to UltraMax, while the others are left suicidal.
  • Gambit acts as if he hasn’t met Longshot, although Gambit was with the team that rescued Longshot from Mojo in X-Men #10-11.

I Love the ‘90s:  DJ Bone claims the United States has “enemy deprivation” following the end of the Cold War, so defense contractors are now promoting the war on drugs and mutants to justify new prisons.  This novel was published a few months before Al-Qaeda bombed US embassies in August 1998.  Simultaneously, the attacks on the USS Cole, Pentagon, and World Trade Center were already in the planning stages.

Review:  And now we get the lectures.  Almost all of Chapter Six is devoted to DJ Bone (“DJ” because he tried to run a pirate radio program inside prison) giving a sermon about the horrors of the modern American penal system.  Wolverine is allowed to play devil’s advocate, but even the narration acknowledges that Wolverine essentially agrees with Bone and is only presenting the opposing view to rile him up.  Nocenti can present an argument, but she’s yet to define what exactly she means by “rehabilitation” and doesn’t seem to offer any specific ways to make the current system better.  She's obviously inspired by real life cases of people serving outrageous sentences for selling marijuana, but it strains crediblity a bit to believe that Bone has spent fifteen years in prison for selling pot, apparently as his first offense, and that he was one of the numerous low-level drug dealers that now occupy the federal UltraMax Space Prison.  I’m willing to listen to the argument that the government spends far too much money imprisoning such a large percentage of the population, but don’t tell me that weed dealers are going to be shipped into outer space, even in the fictional Marvel Universe.  The best utilization of political themes comes later in this section, as we learn the ACLU once complained that the UltraMax prisoners’ freedom of speech was being repressed.  Mojo responded by giving them their own television station, which is now a huge hit.

The plot goes into a few more illogical detours during this section of the novel, apparently for the sake of inserting some action scenes.  Gambit and Rogue get into an argument due to Gambit’s jealousy of Longshot, which is fair enough, but it’s hard to justify Gambit abruptly making the fight physical.  DJ Bone also has a sudden flash of violence when he attacks Wolverine for not investigating his son’s disappearance fast enough for his liking.  The story establishes that Bone has been using his son’s VR game, which is a fair enough rationalization for his fragile mental state, but why is Gambit suddenly violent?  He’s only held one of the discs; he hasn’t actually played any of the games.  (Gambit, as we all know, prefers Solitaire…unless he got somebody to play wit’.)  It’s certainly possible that Gambit’s change in demeanor is an intentional plot point, but why do the X-Men seem so nonchalant about Gambit suddenly striking his girlfriend?  In fairness, she’s literally built like a tank and can’t be hurt, but the scene still feels strange.

What’s frustrating is that if you ignore that fight scene, Nocenti presents some of the strongest characterization Gambit’s received at this point.  Nocenti paints Gambit as a loner that’s desperate to belong, who’s still hurt by the X-Men’s willingness to believe Bishop’s accusation that he’s a traitor.  The team knows by now that Gambit’s innocent, but he isn’t willing to forget the years of suspicion.  This is a characterization point that was oddly ignored following the conclusion of the X-traitor subplot (most of the storylines during and after “Onslaught” were a mess, of course), so it’s nice to see it here.  And, even if the continuity doesn’t quite work out, Nocenti also deserves some credit for acknowledging that Gambit probably isn’t going to like Longshot very much.  (As far as I know, Gambit’s never been given an opinion on Longshot before.)  Longshot is supposed to be a genetically bred matinee idol that any woman would fall in love with, so it’s probably not comforting to know that your girlfriend was once in a love triangle with the guy.  Before Rogue leaves on her mission, Gambit gives Rogue a passionate speech about just how much he trusts her, a soliloquy the narrator assures us is a lie.

Finally, there’s a great conversation between Storm and Gambit that does a lot to establish his role as an X-Man.  Storm tells Gambit the story of Galahad and Lancelot, telling Gambit that she respects his heroism for the same reason she admired Lancelot more than the born-pure Galahad -- Lancelot fought his instincts and worked hard to become a hero.  Just imagine, a scene that develops Gambit’s character that doesn’t devolve into more self-pity, and even recognizes his long-forgotten friendship with Storm.  How often did that happen in the ‘90s?

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