MCI misdemeanors and felonies
BONUS POST: Thanks to Markku Tuovinen and his May pledge at the Doctor Xaos Patreon! Jared Sorensen once cogently explained why dungeons have doors: so the player-characters can break them down. Think about it; if you didn’t want them to do it, then you would have just put a wall there. Mind control in superhero comics is precisely the same in its purpose: so a hero can shake it off. Fully or just enough to resist doing the one single dastardly thing on which the villain’s plan hinges, either way.
I reluctantly admit that this purpose for a mind-control incident (MCI), when properly conceived and applied, isn’t so bad. It should include some initial jiggery-pokery to demonstrate the power of the control, showing there’s something to shake off, when it matters. A page or two of the hero lurching about or standing stiffly, sure, and of course, hitting a teammate – once – does the trick, and as Marvel characters are always misunderstanding, resenting, and sometimes hitting each other anyway, without MCIs, no biggie. But of course, followed by shaking it off in the crunch, perhaps with self-help group style encouragement (“You can do it!”), or because someone strategizes a
saving throw brief reprieve for you, or with some helpful detail like thick skin or closing your eyes, which doesn’t work for anyone without a hero hat.
I don’t enjoy it much, but I get it. It’s like a villain rant, or a few extra punches and “arrghhs” during a fight. It’s filler genre stuff, but who am I to criticize, speaking as a fan of gratuitous multi-panel acid flashbacks in my superhero comics. Different strokes: I want lizards and warping eyeballs especially for no reason at all, you want the villain to say, “Impossible! No one can resist Cybertroid Dominatio– unnhh!” I won’t make fun of yours if you don’t make fun of mine.
But if, while enthralled or whatever we call it this time, the hero really does the big thing the villain wants and, which the hero doesn’t, then one or more of the following is the case.
- The character is not a solid hero after all, and can safely be relegated to beta status in story roles, publication, and later appearances.
- If the character is ordinarily a hero, say in his or her own title, then his or her appearance of the moment becomes the hero-equivalent of a doombot without even the justification of an actual robot being involved, and will quickly be forgotten.
- And another option to be discussed later.
Case study for the first two points: Fantastic Four #167-170, a series of issues I read with deep and abiding intensity, off the rack one by one. Suffice to say that Ben Grimm is human’d (again), and moping about it, as Reed hires Luke Cage to be his replacement.
… including beating up Sue Richards in extended, panel by panel detail, with her young son present. I couldn’t find the middle one of this three-page sequence which I suppose is for the better. It’s the low-water mark for Cage in Marvel history, as strangely, he describes himself as harboring the potential to “lash out” if criticized and then, when mind-controlled by the Puppet Master, well …
You know my appreciation for Luke Cage. I read that issue with my jaw sagging open. It’s the single most appalling racist content I’d ever seen in a Marvel comic; please don’t miss the “spring cleaning” remark, the apparent relish with which he “batters down her resistance,” and her reference to “when he’s like this.” I don’t think it’s out-and-out bigotry so much as a time of clashing concepts in individual heads, for instance Susan does immediately understand that he’s being externally controlled. (I am unhappy to have to write about Thomas’ work in this way. He wrote so many of my favorite comics and brought a lot of solid politics into them, and I’ll have tons to say about those, but this was a misstep, and truth about it matters.)
But don’t let that by itself distract you from the MCI, or rather, I’m posting this to show how the MCI is employed as the superhero version of marginalizing a character. It’s the vehicle for showing what a not-Ben Cage is. Specifically: later, at the climax of the story, he still cannot shake off the control.
Now for the third option in my list:
- The ability cannot properly be described as a character’s power, but instead is a special item ordinarily housed in the author’s rectum, but which has been temporarily removed and utilized in order to make XYZ happen in the pages of this story. XYZ comes in two flavors: Catholic, in which the hero feels guilty for doing something that isn’t his or her fault; or Protestant, in which the hero feels dirty for doing something he or she was inclined to do but ordinarily suppresses.
Chris Claremont’s stories often … aw man, this is gonna take years and years of blogging to begin to grasp this writer’s curious focus on MCI – oh hey! (Jef Willemsen, this is my awed salute) (clickmeisters, something’s funny about the link, so when you get there, click on the lead panel to get to the posts)
My small contribution to that topic is the queasy notion that in these stories, total mental/emotional domination, with its range of complicity on the part of the victim, is a grounded state. That all the other kind-of boring stuff, you know, like family and kin hassles, ethical conundrums, (real) ethnic discrimination, war and energy crisis, any of that stuff … really ought to be tossed aside or used as lead-ins to get into the MCI bubble as quickly as possible, to wallow there as much as possible, and once it’s over, not to leave it in there, but instead to see it influence as many ongoing interactions and relationships as possible. Specifically, women who have spectacular experiences, often implicitly or explicitly orgasmic, under others’ control (whether people or abstract entities) and then are guilty, violent, and unbalanced about it. And also specifically, the distinct lack of said orgasmic release when there’s sex and romance without that control involved.
It’s a stretch for me. I think I can see room here for something interesting … all kinds of stuff about “you can do whatever you want if you only submit wholly,” but I don’t get the appeal of jumping into the self-enclosed powers-tautology to fetishize it. Why not go for it as a story component without mind control at all? Vanilla MCI only for me, thanks.
Here’s why I’m so boring about it. MCI is almost unique among plot elements (time-travel being a close runner-up), in that it’s completely tautological, as it can only be about itself. It cannot be used as a story event in the same category as “these two guys run into one another right at the height of their respective plans,” or “this person dislikes the freakishness of his transformed body but gives up a chance at normality to fight evil.” Nothing else goes in there, and nothing comes out. When it’s harmless color, you get mind-controlled to shake it off, and you shake it off because you’re mind-controlled. Or if it’s wholly de-heroizing, then the hero comes out reduced to nothing, having been infused, basically, with nothing, which I think is depressing at best (see above). Or if it’s a strange device to provoke conflicted feelings about agency, at least as far as I’m concerned, then it stalls because … well, you can’t be an agent when you had no agency.
I’m not talking about realism at all. I’m saying that a person whose heart has been replaced by a nuclear furnace has problems which are remarkably grounded, not least the political point that he or she is now a thinking, autonomously-acting WMD, but that a person whose entire mental and emotional volition is subject to someone else’s whim such that the word control applies, does not have any such problems. Readable and relevant conflict requires agency, so MCI’s cause-and-effect is wholly kept within an encapsulated narrative bubble which, until it’s over, excludes any and all other story-relevant content. Keep the bubble brief and irrelevant, and it works fine, good at most for a one-off issue.
Lee and Kirby, considered as an authorial unit, understood this perfectly. Why look, here’s their Puppet Master story, in which a fellow is controlled by the dastardly bald man and forced to attack the Fantastic Four.
Does Namor go through the initial jiggery-pokery, so I can see how controlled he is? Why yes. And what does he do when it comes time to kill them at the controller’s behest? Shock! The Sub-Mariner finds it in himself to resist the command!
There, that’s all I need to see about MCI in superhero comics.
Next: Kim Yale
Posted on May 5, 2015, in Storytalk, Vulgar speculation and tagged BDSM, Chris Claremont, Fantastic Four, Jack Kirby, Jared Sorensen, Jean Grey, Jef Willemsen, Luke Cage, Mind Control Incident (MCI), Namor the Sub-Mariner, orgasm, Puppet Master, racism, Roy Thomas, Stan Lee, tautology, X-Men. Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.