Saturday, February 25, 2012

Study In Evil, Part VI

This will be the last Study In Evil article for a while.  There are two other characters I want to tackle but before I do I want to do some more research on them if possible.  So it may be some weeks before you see another SII.  In the mean time the number of posts may drop off a bit, depending on what other ideas come to mind.

In regards to today's subject, I apologize in advance if I get any facts wrong.  I was well versed in this character some years ago when she was a straight up villain, and I have read her in Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men, and I get a glimpse or two of her on Scans Daily.  So some details may be incorrect.  Who am I speaking of?  Who is the subject of today’s Study In Evil?

Ladies and gentlemen, I speak of Emma Frost, The White Queen.

Emma Frost is a New England Blue Blood, a mutant telepath who was a member of the villainous Hellfire Club.  She first when she attempted to kidnap Kitty Pryde and captured Wolverine, Storm and Colossus in the process.  Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Phoenix, Dazzler (Not an X-Man at the time) and Pryde managed to rescue their captured comrades and Phoenix apparently killed Frost in telepathic combat.1  Frost was not seen again for some twenty issues or so when Kitty was transferred to her school, the Massachusetts Academy.  Frost used a device to switch her mind with Storm’s in order to infiltrate the X-Men and to defeat them from within.  Using Sentinel robots and blindsiding the X-Men, Frost as Storm defeated the team pretty much single handedly.  The Hellfire Club showed up to gloat but they had not counted on Nightcrawler’s girlfriend of being a magic user of some small skill.  She used her power to trick the Club into thinking they had slain Wolverine during a torture session, allowing him an opportunity to blindside their captors.

Meanwhile, Storm escaped capture and kidnapped Kitty, who thought she was still Emma Frost.  Kitty got the better of her during a car accident and tied her up.  Storm managed to convince Kitty who she was by escaping her bonds, bonds Kitty had been taught by Storm to tie.  Still skeptical, Kitty decided to go along with the woman, if anything to see if she was telling the truth.

In the end the X-Men defeated the Hellfire Club again and Frost in Storm’s body almost destroyed upper New York state with powers beyond her understanding.  Storm managed to help calm Frost down and to switch back their bodies.  Frost, defeated, humiliated, agreed to reject Kitty’s enrollment in her school and send her back to Xavier’s.2

Emma Frost next appeared in The New Mutants as the head of her own team of mutant children The Hellions.  Then later she appeared in the Firestar limited series (a character who originally appeared in a cartoon series with Iceman and Spider-Man.).  There it chronicled the story of how Frost attempted to suborn and corrupt Firestar, but she was unsuccessful and the young heroine ultimately joined the New Warriors.

I am going to gloss over a great deal of history here because I do not know it, but the synopsis is Frost’s mutant team, The Hellions, were all killed (save for Thunderbird, who joined Cable’s X-Force and later the X-Men) and Frost wound up having an epiphany of sorts.  She wound up ultimately a teacher at Xavier’s with Banshee, acting as an instructor for Generation X, the nineties’ answer to the New Mutants.  After that team broke up she found herself on Genosha (And don't get me started on the sheer stupidity of Genosha, probably Chris Claremont's dumbest creative decision) during Magneto’s reign and was there when Cassandra Nova flattened the place and killed just about every mutant present.  Frost survived when her secondary mutation, the ability to form a diamond hard surface over her body, kicked in, saving her life.  She joined the X-Men and had an affair with Scott Summers (Cyclops) while he was with Jean Grey.  Today Frost, still in a relationship with Cyclops, is part of his X-Men team, which consists largely of former super villains.

When Frost appeared in the early years she was a strong character: she was a leader of minions, a member of the Hellfire Club, headmistress of her own school and a teacher of mutant children.  In a way she was the anti-Xavier.  She was also nicer to look at, too.  Then her students died and that provided the catalyst for her to ultimately become a good guy.  It was not a sudden transformation and it was largely handled well, especially as we saw she had not entirely changed her ways.  She seduced Cyclops, for example. Okay, granted, seducing Scott Summers was not hard: this is the man who left his wife-who just happened to look like his dead girlfriend-to return to his ex-girlfriend who had just returned from the dead.

Comics, people.

Now this is the part of Frost’s character arc that upsets me, and it has to do with-you guessed it!-retcons.  In New X-Men Grant Morrison wrote Frost claimed the time she faced off against the X-Men had been a period when she was a boozer and a drug user:

So that period when she is a bad ass, capturing half the X-Men and taking on Phoenix?  That point where she is interrogating Storm?

She is a drunk.  The time she switches bodies with Storm and defeats the X-Men almost entirely on her own?


Okay, granted, maybe she is lying to Scott.  Maybe she is shining him on so she does not appear to be so bad.  Only...
Image courtesy of Scans Daily
Worst, according to recent issues of X-Men she claims Sebastian Shaw, the Hellfire Club’s Black King, manipulated her.  So not only was she an alcoholic drug user, she was being controlled by a big, strong, dominating man.  So modern writers decided to take this powerful female villain and ruin all those awesome moments from her past, all those times she had locked horns with the X-Men and New Mutants and claim she was little more than a drunken pawn at the mercy of a man.  Just as bad, her past was further touched upon when it was revealed she started off as a dancer at the Hellfire Club.  So Emma started off as a stripper before becoming head of her family company and headmistress of an acclaimed blue blood boarding school.  A stripper became head of blue blood boarding school.  Was this cheesy exploitation really necessary?

Apart from the normally accepted cheesy exploitation.

Perhaps writers felt a character who joined the X-Men could not be Evil.  This is a crock.  Magneto had tried killing the X-Men a couple times and he had not only been responsible for sinking a Soviet nuclear submarine and killing it’s crew, he also committed an act of mass murder by causing  volcano to erupt in a Russian city!  And this is a guy who ultimately replaced Xavier in running his school.  Rogue had tried killing X-Men in the past and joined the team (I will not include Sabertooth as he never reformed).  Neither of these characters had their pasts white-washed to make them better heroes.  So why Emma?

Perhaps the writers and editors felt Emma’s motivations as a super villain were not sufficient to warrant her transformation to the side of good?  If you look at Rogue she was written a sympathetic character; she was from a broken home, adopted by Mystique, unable to control her powers.  Any bad acts could be ascribed to poor parenting and a lack of choices (And she ultimately made the right choice, coming to Xavier’s when it was obvious Mystique was not going to solve her problems.).  Magneto is a tragic figure whose motives were at least noble.  But Emma?  Thirst for power, plain and simple.  There is nothing noble or excusable about her actions…until some writer or editor decided to make her some tragic figure, a person deserving sympathy.

But Tom, you may say.  What is wrong with making what appears to be a two dimensional villain and giving her some depth?   Nothing.  Nothing at all.  But it is all in the execution.  Take for example Elphaba from the musical Wicked:

Going strictly by the movie The Wizard of Oz (because I have not read Baum's books) the Wicked Witch is a pretty simple character; there is nothing to her beyond a simple revenge story (Granted, actress Margaret Hamilton did a stellar job.).   But the musical (I will not touch upon the book as I only got half way through it; I stopped at the part with the sex show where someone got strapped to a tiger.) Elphaba is given an interesting back story as well as motivation beyond simple revenge.  Above all else, Elphaba was not re-written as being weak.  This does not mean I think one witch is superior to the other.  I am simply saying when the writers of the musical gave The Wicked Witch an origin they did a wonderful job.

I liked Emma as a scheming manipulative bitch who came to see the light in the wake of terrible tragedy.  I liked the fact that in many ways Emma had not changed.  But to take all those villainous accomplishments and water them down by claiming she had been a manipulated drunk cheapens her.  Frost was an awesome villain!  At least, she was before some hack got to her.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, I find unacceptable.

So, what have we learned?

Sometimes a little is enough.  By that I am talking about a villain's back story.  Remember this guy?

Now remember this guy?

Or worse, this guy?

I'll bet most of you really did not need to see Darth Vader's origin, did you?  Darth Vader was much cooler when his past was mentioned but not given an in-depth study.  Darth Vader is now much less awesome now that I saw Jake Lloyd and Haden Christensen wreck him under George Lucas' direction.

Damn, I knew all that venom I managed to avoid delving into last week was going to come out somewhere.

Back to Emma.  Frost's past was not needed.  Knowing she was an upper class New Englander who simply knew she was better than everyone else due to breeding and genetics was enough.

Do not destroy awesome characters through retcons!  Seriously, keep them strong.  If they do awesome things do not re-write history to undo them or cast them in an unflattering light.  If they do something magnificently villainous do not claim later on they were drunk at the time or under the influence of someone else or that was some evil doppelganger or robot (Something that happens all too often in comics, sadly.).  That just cheapens them.  The only exception I can think of, maybe, is when they apparently die and then you can claim they are a clone or robot.  But even this could be dangerously annoying for players to deal with if it is done too often.  Once I suppose might be all right, but a recurring character that never dies?  Few things will annoy players more.
Do not make retcons that do not hold up under scrutiny.  I am not against retcons if they are done well.  For example, the revelation that Magneto was Jewish and a concentration camp survivor were outstanding additions to his character and did not contradict anything we already knew about him.  But Frost’s alcoholism does not hold up for me.  For example, when Storm is in Frost’s body wouldn’t she have noticed her alcohol addiction?  Wouldn’t she had felt need for a drink over the twenty four hours or so she was in her body?  And could Frost as a telepath effectively use her powers if she keeps impairing her higher brain functions with booze?  It makes no sense!

There is nothing wrong with simple motivations.  Sure, your villains can be motivated by religious fanaticism or a desire to make the universe a better place regardless of how many little people get crushed.  But there is nothing wrong with straightforward greed and lust for power.  Just because the motivations are simple it does not necessarily follow the characters have to be two dimensional.  Remember The Wicked Witch?  She was just bad, there did not need to be anything else to make the movie great.

Next time you make a bad guy and revisit them and you feel you want to tweak them, "improve them", take a moment and reconsider.  Is he/she fine the way she is?  Do they really need that detailed back story or a retconned alteration of their goals and motivations?  Or are they fine just the way they are?

1 X-Men 129-131
2 X-Men 151-152

No comments:

Post a Comment