Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Oh, What a Rogue


Hello Again

Perhaps there is a disjuncture in the idea of fandom - this being for the moment a discussion of fandom. For its faults fandom remains the difference between living culture and dead lines in an archive. Fandom performs transubstantiation, changing the bare materials of art into something new that exists entirely outside the control of the artist or, it should be noted, the copyright holder. Fandom has become the process by which aesthetic artifacts are transformed into social currency through discourse and action.  

I’ve long bristled at the label of fan, even when young and far less critical in my ardor. There seemed something servile in the notion of fandom, an association enhanced by the industry’s constant baiting of the fanboys themselves throughout the late 80s and 90s. Who signs up for that kind of abuse? A fool, clearly. Of course, that passive aggressive resentment towards audiences is fairly common in the arts. Any number of Hollywood satires or literary farces attest to the noble tradition of biting the hand that feeds, as does Lobo’s denim vest emblazoned across the back with “BITE ME, FANBOY.” 


The dilemma that broke me upon its horns was a conflict between self respect and material reality. I hated being a fan because I knew I was a fan. I knew in that admission lay ownership of a stereotype of self-effacing and uncritical loyalty - undignified loyalty - against which I chafed, and against which frankly I still do. How have I resolved this conflict? To a degree I probably haven’t and never will. But to a larger extant, I think, the conflict is resolved by defining the object of loyalty - of what are you a fan of? Are you a fan of creators or characters, or are you a fan of a brand? I grew up with “Make Mine Marvel,” but grew out of that attitude long before I was ever going to outgrow the comics themselves. 

The problem in a nutshell is that the corporations that own and control the fates of our most beloved fictional characters do not have those characters’ best interests at heart. They have certainly never considered the best interests of creators. This isn’t a new situation, this is how the business has always been run. How all business has always been run since corporations got in the IP business. 


The two most significant events during the twilight of my comic book reading adolescence were the formation of Image Comics in early February of 1992 and the death of Jack Kirby just two years and a week later. The convergence of these two events was the cause of creators’ rights. The narrative that surrounded the Image uprising was simple enough even the early 90s comics press could put it together: generations of pioneers had been hung out to dry - Kirby’s name invoked almost every other breath - so Todd and Rob and Jim were, as Jay might put it, overcharging for what they did to the Cold Crush. Kirby’s death two years later, and after a period of extensive industry carnage, seemed to signal a punctuation mark. The death of a giant to mark the end of an age. 

Were the Image founders completely sincere in their repeated framing of their corporate power move as a blow for creators’ rights in an atomized industry? I believe so. That they turned around - some of them within the year - and replicated something similar to the factory system they had fled is ironic but not perhaps hypocritical. (That two of them would remain intimate parties to Marvel’s corporate deliberations for many years to come is another matter entirely.) They still maintained control of their shit, and everyone else who came to their company retained control over their shit as well. What they did with that control was indicative of their character, whether they wanted to launch a media empire to compete with the one they’d recently left or just wanted the freedom to create independent of oversight. Erik Larsen is still going on Savage Dragon and Jim Lee is still going on covering for Bob Harras. To every man his own heaven. 


My problem was that I took seriously what I read. When I saw what Stan had done to Jack, I couldn’t feel the same way about Stan. How can you forget that? You can’t. But it made sense because these facts were all of a piece, part of a pattern that added up to an entire industry implicated in the miasma of its foundation. It also fit with what my parents told me about the world, who it worked for and how it worked. They did it to Jack, they did it to Steve, they did it to Jerry and Joe and Bill too . . .  I wasn’t even a teenager before I had learned both that the sausage was made by people and that people were the sausage.


So I knew from very young not to be loyal to a brand, because a brand is just a company. Companies don’t deserve loyalty, people do. And furthermore, that loyalty shouldn’t be absolute either, but dependent on respect. Does it matter, you ask, that supporting creators you respect and following characters you love means supporting a company you have, at times, actively despised for their many and various turpitudes? Well, actually, it does. It matters a lot, because I knew I was a hypocrite for continuing to give money to Marvel. I’ve always known that, haven’t had plausible deniability in the matter since I was twelve.  


Fandom has become another kind of identitarianism. The mass loyalty towards Marvel and DC as brands qua brands is a patently destructive phenomenon in that it levels all nuance to achieve binary stasis across mass culture. Very Manichaean on all sides. I believe very strongly that if you love or have ever loved what Marvel does you should be sharply critical of how they do it. Historically and empirically the company has done nothing to earn our trust as readers or consumers.  

Do I love Marvel? No. Do I love many things Marvel owns? Oh yes, a great many. I have found that a profitable disjuncture, inasmuch as I have learned a great deal over the years from worrying the open sore in all its nuance. Profitable as fodder for writing, perhaps, if terrible for the soul.


Trust that I do speak from love, if not a love for the brand. Why else would I be angry?


It’s too easy to drown in bile. Too facile an exit from responsibility. Aren’t we here for something more? 


We are. Let’s talk about love. 


As mentioned earlier, I joined the X-Men right at the outset of an extended absence on Rogue’s part. She was gone. The few times I’d seen her were in passing, or flashback. That was when she had that late 80s ‘do like she personally killed half the ozone layer. Just another super chick with music video hair. (Still hate that late 80s hair for her, incidentally.)


And then I picked up Classic X-Men #44, early January 1990. Same month my dad chopped off part of his hand in a snowblower accident. My first real introduction to Rogue. That issue of Classic reprinted #138 of Uncanny from late 1980, Jean Grey’s funeral - the denouement of the Dark Phoenix Saga, immediately prior to Kitty Pryde joining the main cast. It’s the one where Cyclops is especially lachrymose. I know, really narrows it down. Rogue wouldn’t appear at all for the better part of a year, and wouldn’t join the cast of Uncanny X-Men for a few more years after that. So she’s not in the main story of that issue of Classic, but she is in the backup. 


The first four years of Classic X-Men carried backup features, because every dollar not spent on an X-Men book was a dollar you could spend on Green Lantern. Nobody wanted that. Certainly not if they could entice the most loyal readers in the industry to double dip on stories they’d already read. “Her First & Last,” as such, was a weird pick for an introduction to Rogue. It was a new backup in a reprint book, for one, and a childhood flashback for another. It wasn’t even written by Chris Claremont, but Ann Nocenti. 


Nocenti is one of the most talented people to ever work in comics. We didn’t and don’t deserve her. She didn’t write very many X-Men stories, but the few she put her hand to proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that she understood these characters intimately. Hired by Denny O’Neil in the early 80s and mentored by Mark Gruenwald for her earliest writing and editing jobs, her success is also testament to the measurable ways in which the company became less progressive as the 80s turned into the 90s, and women and people of color found far less purchase than just a few years previous. By 1987 Nocenti eventually earned the coveted cursed chalice of following Frank Miller and “Born Again” on Daredevil. What should have been a suicide mission became a four year run considered by some superior even to Miller’s, if clearly less celebrated. 


(I’m “some,” incidentally.)


I wish I could remember what it felt like to read this story for the first time. I know I read it over and over, because this was one of my favorite issues of Classic. Much of it is flashback and recap about Jean Grey’s life - great for newcomers because it more or less tells you everything you need to know from the book’s first incarnation in the 1960s. You never forget the first time you meet Factor Three. I’ve always loved comics that recap other comics, a strange affectation that comes from appreciating the dense and wonkish reading experience bred by that kind of intertextuality. (Also why I was attracted to medieval literature, incidentally.) I liked learning about the characters almost as much as I liked their actual stories. Took more time to read those comics, and I appreciated that.


What was I thinking when I read “Her First & Last” for the first time? Perhaps I didn’t think anything. I just remembered it. Remembered every beat of this strange, sad story. Returning to it for this essay proved a shock, because while I remembered the story vividly I know I couldn’t at the time have articulated why it meant so much to me. It hit me now as if I was reading it for the first time. How the fuck do we process these things, if something as significant as the reason I like my favorite character was a secret my pubescent self buried close to their heart and forgot about? How is it possible to have remembered a story but forgot the impact crater it left?


The original impulse behind wanting to reread Claremont’s X-Men was actually social. By early 2020 I had been through a period of prolonged intense seclusion while maintaining what was more or less my “day job” of taking care of my parents for the State of California. (I haven’t had a day off from round the clock care of my dad for . . . over a year and a half? Is that right? That can’t be right.) This was during the first stages of pandemic, mind you, so I wasn’t entering seclusion at that point so much as merely confirming an additional period of seclusion. From my perspective the world was finally joining me. As such I wanted to read something I could talk about with someone else. Wasn’t that always part of the appeal? Everyone read it because everyone read it. 


If you’ve ever read anything of mine you know I’ve been - well, how do we put it? Estranged from myself. Emotionally speaking. I’m used to being surprised when I go back by the strength of an emotional reaction in hindsight. But I wasn’t expecting, nor was I in any way ready for, the absolute tsunami of subconscious bullshit that poured out of my brain when I started poking the box marked “X-Men Feelz.” 


It was certainly a surprise to me that where was such a box, even if in hindsight it makes complete sense. Perhaps you have such a box yourself, whether you know it or like to admit it. Or, hell, maybe you revel in it. There was just so much water under the bridge, you know. In so many ways. For both me and for the comics industry, my life and the lives of the X-Men. Easy to pack it all away. Couldn’t efface the bond, try as I’d like.  


Because we did have that bond. I say “we” because there’s a good chance if you care enough to read these words you share it too - a feeling as if perhaps these weird characters were just a little bit more than the next schmucks on the shelf, in some intangible way. And that achievement, building a stable of players vivid and durable enough to carry on a full thirty years and counting past the master’s first leave-taking . . . well. That kind of achievement lingers with a body.


Oh yeah, thirty years - did you notice? Thirty years this summer from the end of the Claremont run. As of this writing. 


Just because he left didn’t make us stop loving the characters. And Marvel knew that. They knew they had us by the short hairs and weren’t about to let go. If they didn’t know before the Image founders left - if there had been any doubt whatsoever about the solid commercial appeal of the franchise in Claremont’s wake - it was shelved once they realized the shambling zombie books they pushed out with spit and bailing wire through the lean years of the early 90s still sold well, if never better, than the books they published when they gave a fuck. But well enough in the moment to mask the general downward trend of an industry wide slide.

The lesson was, if we bought X-Cutioner’s Song we’d buy anything. 

So of course the books kept getting worse, as the company kept getting worse. Enthusiasm generated by periodic signs of life - Joe Madureira’s extraordinarily influential run, the still-beloved Age of Apocalypse - invariably led to further disappointment. Then after the turn of the century and a decade of Harras-led strip-mining the books shifted into different gears under new management. They caromed down the next decade through a sequence of ill-advised decisions that left me feeling, when I checked in, as if I simply did not recognize the characters anymore. It wasn’t just one bad story or unintended consequence of an editorial mandate, it wasn’t one bad run or even a number of them. There were still decent, occasionally good books published. Just like always, the books were good when they hired good people to do them and weren’t worth wrapping fish when they didn’t. But every new creator good and bad was still stuck dealing with the same roulette wheel of editorially mandated new directions since the turn of the century, new directions that sometimes left very little room for individual characters to express the kind of agency they need to thrive. OK, this month we’re on a rock outside San Francisco Bay . . . 


Do you see why I lost touch? Why I began to harbor grave suspicions that the men (only ever men since the early 90s) in charge of Marvel misunderstood the X-Men on a fundamental level, characters and metaphor alike? Even as I continued to read out of habit, even long after my only real excuse (not illegitimate but perhaps unsatisfactory) was professional? I never felt quite so estranged from the rest of the Marvel line. But with the mutants I lost the plot. By the time we hit the second decade of the millennium . . . AvX, the motherfucking Bendis years (shudder) . . . I had no problem tapping out for a while. Still don’t know how the Original Five got home, I’m assuming they were probably killed by the Scourge first. Justice is served! 


It’s worth pointing out that it’s natural to lose touch with these things. Most people do let things go as they get older. Some people always get left behind when the new thing that used to be the old thing just isn’t their thing. It happens. Part of growing up is realizing that leaving things behind sometimes just means making room for something new in your life.

But they just kept nagging at me, the X-Men. It seemed more, I don’t know, personal. Maybe that feeling of incompleteness was only ever the phantom pain of the original Claremont run being so violently terminated. When I arrived it was almost over. There was also the added injury of seeing these intimately familiar characters bowdlerized by rabid misogynists in real time as we paid for the privilege. That sense of loss, of estrangement from something important, that hurt. That hurt went into the same closet as all the other feelings of shame and self-loathing that I am stuck carrying from a lifetime of dealing with an industry that advertises its contempt for both its readership and its creators on a daily basis. It’s the latter I can’t forgive. Because I know I’m indicted as well. When will the hurting stop? Perhaps when we are no longer rent by the moral disjuncture of continuing to support companies who do not deserve our respect. 


Of course . . . that closet was only one closet in the rather large haunted house that is my brain. There were so many other traumas, serious traumas, far more personally injurious than mere hypocrisy or missed stories. There were other closets.  

Rereading these stories has been profoundly disconcerting to me because I’ve been surprised by the depth of my connection to these characters - and one character in specific. Rogue was always my favorite even through periods when I actively avoided the series for long stretches. That’s why Carey’s X-Men Legacy was the book that really brought me back to the franchise even as I didn’t really dig the books’ overall direction. It’s the closest we’ve ever gotten to a Rogue solo series, even if it was still ultimately about her dealing with X-Men shit. It was always the first book I read. Legacy is my favorite non-Claremont X-Men run, and how I rediscovered Rogue as an adult after years of unspoken resentment from being burnt through the 90s. They made me hate my favorite character, putting her through one terrible storyline after another. I mean, come on, people. Joseph. (I’ve filled and am still filling in some of the gaps from the years I missed, but Extreme X-Men is a bit like laudanum in that too much in one sitting will probably kill you. We’ll get there. Baby steps. We’ll do it together and it won’t be so hard.)


It’s embarrassing for me to acknowledge how deeply it affected me to reread the old stories - the first run of Rogue stories in Uncanny, specifically, but also dipping into later series. I didn’t remember how much she meant to me. As simple as that.


Because, when you get down to it - I’ve never had a bond with a fictional character as strong as Rogue. I’ve being reading comics since before I could read. I spent a total of ten years studying literature in undergrad and graduate school. I’ve known lots of characters. I’ve felt connections with lots of characters, just like most people. I’ve spent a lot of time writing about these connections, but also about what I perceived as my own problems relating viscerally, emotionally to fictional characters. I’m uncomfortable with any kind of parasocial relationship. Like Rogue I’m a profoundly lonely person, and have developed a sensitivity to whether or not friendships are real or simply a figment of my imagination, having been stung too often by not being able to tell the difference. It strikes me that devotion to a fictional character is about the most abject kind of parasocial relationship of all. Not even a real person, literal lines on paper.

Perhaps I’m just picking nits because on some level I’m deeply embarrassed about the whole thing. Estranged from myself. Isn’t that what I’m trying to do with my own writing, create some kind of emotional connection with people through my words? What rank hypocrisy. 

So of course I wish I could go back and ask myself, circa 1990 - what are you thinking about this story? Do you see yourself? Does that make you uncomfortable - why? 


What’s it actually about, “Her First & Last?” Well, it’s about Rogue as a kid - on the cusp of being a teen, after her powers first manifested. It’s not Cody’s story - although, I should mention even as I intend to punt the question, the actual circumstances of Rogue’s childhood years are kind of fraught. Continuity-wise, that is. There’s some dispute because different writers working from Claremont’s template have differed on various details, including whether or not she lived with Mystique before her powers manifested. Some of the comics that purport to answer these comics were written by Scott Lobdell, to add injury to insult. 

In any event, this isn’t Cody’s story, this is Freddy’s story. Who’s Freddy? No one, really. Some neighborhood kid Rogue liked to play with. She already knew what her powers did and was already wearing tights and long sleeved shirts that covered every inch of skin. But not yet fully aware what all that really meant. It’s a simple story, really, and a familiar one: Freddy keeps trying to kiss Rogue. Obviously doesn’t take no for an answer. Finally he gets his wish and its more than he bargained for.


It’s not a story about something happening to her, however, or even about poor Freddy. It’s a story about bad decisions. 


What was I thinking when I read this story for the first time? Did I understand it? Most likely no. What was I thinking? Probably nothing too profound. I was a kid.


So here’s Rogue, young and happy, with the biggest smile of her life. Rogue doesn’t always smile a lot. She smiles when she’s flying, probably because that’s the only time she doesn’t have to worry about hurting anyone. Riding on the handlebars is the closest she can get to that freedom, for the moment. 




The art here is provided by Kieron Dwyer, with inks by Hilary Barta. This is a great combo - Dwyer’s loose, cartoony figures and broadly expressive faces naturally fit with Barta’s supple line. So much can be expressed simply through the variable thickness of a single mark on a character’s face.  


Look at Dwyer’s body language for young Rogue throughout the story. Loose and limber, in motion - above all, comfortable in her own body as only a kid can be. She still hasn’t quite internalized the degree to which growing older means saying goodbye to that easy comfort with herself, for her more than anyone else.

But here, in these opening panels, you can’t help but think of Berkeley Breathed. The Bloom County gang spent lots of time crashing into dandelion fields. Breathed always had a much more expressive line than he needed to, given the limitations against which he very vocally chafed. He was a better draftsman than he gave himself credit. 

Even given her fending off Freddy’s awkward adolescent advances - certainly exacerbated by her own willfully ignorant persistence in hanging out with a guy who clearly wants to kiss her - it’s all more or less normal. One might even say idyllic. She clearly wants to kiss him too, is the thing. She just doesn’t quite understand how to square that circle between must and can’t. 


I mean, can you blame her? Lots of people die never knowing the difference. It’s a hard thing to accept that the unique circumstances of your life will entail different consequences from those suffered by your peers, especially at a tender age. It sets you apart to know that you are different, especially when the difference is invisible. It makes you old before your time. 


Enter Mystique.  

As a point of principle I avoid referring to Mystique as Rogue’s mother. Mystique was a terrorist who kidnapped an orphan for the express purpose of grooming said orphan to be a terrorist. Like every narcissist Mystique’s purported love is coldly self-serving and purely transactional. Regardless of what their creator may have intended, Rogue dodged a bullet in never having that parentage confirmed (in continuity). What she actually did end up with in terms of parentage wasn’t much better, mind, but that’s another day and another headache. 


Mystique is, during Claremont’s tenure, a mostly ineffectual mole in the Pentagon whose greatest achievement was figuring out how to get the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants on the government payroll. (I have also always assumed she embezzled a great deal of money.) She does things for only two reasons: to suit her own selfish goals and because Destiny said so. That’s it. She has no agenda beyond “survival” and “my wife” (Borat voce) and to that extent what little she does in the direction of benefit to mutantkind is purely self-serving, more or less along the lines of well, I don’t want to die in a concentration camp in ten years so I guess I should probably assassinate this guy, because my wife tells me there’s a cause and effect somewhere or other. I believe everything my wife tells me. Who is Mystique, after all, but a Wife Guy gone horribly, horribly wrong? After said wife dies does she not immediately descend into rank sociopathy? QED!!!


Mystique finds Rogue blowing dandelions in the front yard and we can see, immediately - the story is not subtle about showing us - that Mystique means Rogue harm. She is explicitly framed as a threat, cold ivory hand reaching in from outside the panel to disturb the idyll with the touch.

The dialogue through this sequence seems intentionally stilted and awkward, like any young teenager yelling at her parents - “I can too have boys! I can have what every normal girl can have!” Of course, Rogue probably shouldn’t be playing with boys, at least not like that. That’s the worst part: it’s not like Mystique is wrong. She’s also a coolly manipulative piece of shit who doesn’t know how to do anything but immediately try to turn Rogue’s pain into a weapon for her own use: “Your power is special,” she says, “It can be used to help us.” 

Note the exchange immediately after Rogue leaves. Destiny counsels Mystique that, essentially, she will come to regret treating someone she ostensibly loves like a means to an end. Despite being precognitive Destiny is also almost always an ineffectual nag. To be fair, Destiny had to live with the fact that she premiered two months after Madame Web (Amazing Spider-Man #210, November 1980 vs Uncanny X-Men #141, January 1981), meaning she was more or less the Garfield to Madame Web’s Heathcliff. The elderly blind precognitive woman X-Men villain was always going to be more popular than the the elderly blind precognitive woman Spider-Man supporting character, but true heads will always know who came first. (Score another for Denny O’Neil, who this essay isn’t even about, but who created Madame Web with John Romita, Jr., in addition to discovering Ann Nocenti.)

Rogue runs away from Mystique, heading for a meet-up with Freddy. She needs to play, have a good time, be with people her own age - but she’s also stuck. She can’t move on. Because that’s precisely the age, right there, twelve or so, when playing kids tend to segregate along more rigid gender lines, going through the early rites of man and womanhood that transpire in social spaces across the world. Simple as apple pie . . . 

But that’s not Rogue. She doesn’t get to develop anymore beyond this point in time. And she can’t just keep playing on the tire swing with Freddy. He doesn’t know that, to be fair. He doesn’t know the last dork to pull this trick got put into a coma for the rest of his life. 

And this is the difference, right here. She knew what was going to happen and she did it anyway. 

Look now, with me, at those two panels of Rogue’s face in the bottom row. No narrative boxes, no thought bubbles - just a few lines on a face to indicate the most fateful deliberation of her life to date. Look at that first panel - eyes fixed on the middle distance, every muscle in her face clenched. She’s running over the dilemma in her mind. So much story expressed through so little. 

Then she gets a dare and it’s all over. You can see from the look on her eyes, she remembers - wait a minute, I have the upper hand. I have no reason to be afraid of him and I don’t back down from anyone. Whether she realizes it or not it’s in that moment that she is most like her putative guardian - that’s Mystique’s logic, merely to take as she wishes and be damned with the consequences for anyone else. 

But it’s done. In a moment it’s over. She experiences everything he ever was or, truly, would ever be, and leaves him slumped over unconscious.


Rogue absorbs all of Freddy’s memories over the course of two full pages, narrative collages framing the central image of Rogue hanging upside down on a rope swing and in profile. The glow of young attraction is flipped in an instant to violence. Intentional hurt. Violation. “He would have told her these stories slowly, naturally, in time,” the captions tell us, “and she would have revealed herself, slowly, to him . . . but Rogue will never know the pleasure of that journey.” 


She lands and the narration relates her thoughts:

Rogue sees his unconscious form and cries. For her to know someone is to rip his mind out, possess it, spit it out again. This is not, and never will be, love. Not for Rogue. A kiss is not a gentle thing . . . She cries for a long time, mourning the normal life she’ll never have.


Have you ever had to do that - kill a part of yourself in order to live? 


This is why Rogue is different, even from the rest of the X-Men. In order to survive she had to disassociate herself from her emotions. That’s a living hell. To realize, from a young age, not just that you are different, but that you are different in a way that will dictate the shape of your life, limit your horizons, prevent you from ever experiencing so much of what we consider “normal” life. To be granted at such a tender age not just that knowledge but the additional perspective granted by her powers - the kind of interpersonal perspective and emotional awareness granted by her powers sets her apart. Already at that age she knows more than anyone around her about seeing the world through other peoples’ eyes. Even Mystique and Destiny, for all their prowess. But when knowing precedes understanding people get trapped, traumatized premature brains held in rotting cages stifled by perpetual arrested development.

We get stuck sometimes at the point where we have to protect ourselves. That fits Rogue to a “T”: wise beyond her years in some respects but childishly naive in a few crucial ways. She doesn’t know how to protect herself from people who would never dream of putting her interests before theirs. As such her life from this point spins out of her control entirely. She returns home that afternoon and volunteers straight away for whatever dangerous mission Mystique was intending a twelve or thirteen year old girl to be able to accomplish.

The next time we see Rogue in continuity she’s punching Captain America through a wall in Avengers Annual #10. She has become precisely what Mystique wanted her to be: someone who could turn off the part of herself that felt any remorse in order to strike out at the world at the behest of someone else. A weapon. 

And we saw where that got her. Driven mad from isolation, loneliness, touch starved, gaslit about the color of the sky by Mystique, so painfully jealous of the rest of the world she became a Dazzler villain out of spite . . . look. I’ve given Spider-Woman “the business” more than once for having a less-than-stellar rogue’s gallery, but the fact is that she has a rogue’s gallery - and a sizable one - whereas Dazzler had . . . 

. . . uh, well, there was Rogue, obviously . . . Enchantress? didn’t she fight Terrax? . . . Robert Christgau? Marvel Unlimited doesn’t want me to know. 

Rock bottom looks different for everyone. Rogue’s rock bottom was trying to kill Dazzler. Now, the person I really feel bad for in all this is Dazzler. That’s gotta hurt, to know your one time arch villain - who only ever tried to kill you in the first place because she was extraordinarily depressed - is a better superhero than you ever were by an order of magnitude. Well. That’s just got to sting. 


As much as I like the X-Men in many ways, I’m also critical of the premise. I don’t think it means the same things it used to, and I don’t even know if it ever really meant what it was imputed to mean. I’m not here to gainsay what anyone else feels about the books, but to attest for my own purposes that the books’ greatest strength is their characters. When you can hear those characters it still works. When the writers and editors lean on high concept status quo upheavals that deterministically funnel every character into the same situations, the stories can lean repetitive. When the characters don’t have enough freedom to make their own bad choices they become just like all the other long underwear types who do things out of custom. Only, y’know, with more weird conceptual baggage of the type that keeps them from doing actual fun superhero stuff a lot of the time. 

“Her First & Last” underlines the degree to which Rogue as a character is a problematic addition to the franchise. Her powers are harmful, not just in the wrong hands or without training. She usually can’t live anything resembling a normal life - the status quo may change periodically, but to permanently get rid of the limitation on touch would hurt her as much as being able to change at will would hurt The Thing. Her powers are a tremendous burden and carry the risk of potentially debilitating trauma almost every time she uses them. This makes her uniquely vulnerable, but also - and for this discussion, just as important - it’s what makes her an interesting character. 

Lots of real-life disabilities and diseases are mutations too, after all. The books are often ill-equipped to deal with mutants whose fantastic powers resemble more harmful disabilities, even though plenty of characters exist who could possibly fit that bill. (Rockslide and Glob Herman, I’m sorry you have no junk. That must be profoundly disconcerting.) I mean, perhaps the point should be stated directly: if the limitations placed on Rogue’s life by her powers aren’t a disability I don’t know what is. Does Krakoa have disability accommodations? I’ve still only read a bit, maybe it does. 

Plus, of course, there’s the bipolar disorder, a boring old real world disability exacerbated and inflamed by her powers and decades of trauma, clearly defined in the cycles of her violent antisocial behavior. Another thing we share: anger management issues. Like me, the adrenaline from anger makes her manic. She was manic a lot. Bipolars who live like that burn out like candles - cf. DMX RIP. In an early flashback (Uncanny X-Men #203), she describes the thought process behind trying to murder Carol Danvers by throwing her unconscious body off the Golden Gate Bridge: 

Ah was so wired from the fight, ah didn’t know really what had happened - ‘cept that, somehow, she’d made me crazy. Ah thought, by gettin’ rid of her, once an’ for all - by destroyin’ her body as ah had her mind - ah’d silence the voices, the screams, the pain, the rage inside my own head.

Notice the slippage there? She starts by saying that absorbing Carol’s mind made her crazy, but then ends by indicating that somehow during the course of the fight Carol becomes identified with all “the voices, the screams, the pain, the rage” she was already suffering. As a result of years and years spent in denial, using violence and adrenaline to self-medicate, scarred by lack of treatment for mental illness and lack of accommodation for disability, constantly disassociating because of around-the-clock gaslighting at the hands of a paranoid narcissist, she arrives at adulthood barely functional. 

So, follow me here: Mystique finds a troubled and desperate young mutant and trains her to be a terrorist. Rogue teaches herself to get by no matter how much it hurts, no matter how much it costs to mask her own feelings. It works for a time until, well, she loses her shit entirely and tries to kill the Dazzler. Multiple times. Finally she breaks free from years of brainwashing and - in a rare lucid moment between manic fugues spent trying to kill women on whom she had become psychosexually fixated - arrives on the doorstop of her enemies to beg for help with her inherently destructive powers. Help which is granted, even despite vocal objections from most of the team. 

(Usually not mentioned that one catalyst for her change of heart was a fight with ROM where she absorbed a spark of the Spaceknight’s inherent kindness and nobility. Better than lithium!)

That should be a good story, but somehow I can’t help but thinking that the next part matters too, the part where the kid who just made the first tentative steps in the direction of some kind of treatment for her severe mental illness was then handed a thick three-ring binder labeled “People Who Will Want to Kill You Now That You Are an X-Man.” It’s a strange list, basically just a couple inches of loose leaf pages from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Master Edition. You know, the one where everyone’s holding up their capes to show off dat ass tho. Biggest entry by far is the Appendix entitled “Chucksies’ Whoopsies,” a catalog of Charles’ personal errors in judgment which might at any moment come back to kill someone. It’s got lots of handwritten notes and some Post It’s sticking out because the information is very fluid.  

I’m not saying the business model is fundamentally flawed but I am saying Charles Xavier never met a personal problem he couldn’t solve by raising a private militia of troubled teens. Maybe not such a great idea to index an entire civil rights movement to the mercurial whims of a rich WASP. I tend to like the books the better the further away he is from the story. For a number of reasons, not least of which being he has objectively terrible personal judgment. What is the value of a father figure who is almost always wrong and what’s more a bellicose prick? Who will, and please be advised I’m about to use some “spicy language” to indicate my contempt, abandon his charges at a moments’ notice to go hang out with space bird strange? Like he did in issue #200 of Uncanny?

Yeah, I know. He had reasons. Bet they were good reasons, too. He had to buy a pack of smokes on Chandilar. At least the book gets better once he’s not there to piss all over everyone’s Frosted Flakes. 

I don’t have a lot of patience for father figures, I guess you could say. The X-Men as a franchise is stuffed to the gills with father figures working out their father issues by raising private militias, often of literal children. I know it’s the premise, but I don’t really believe in leaders. If you don’t believe in leaders it’s a problematic premise. The Avengers operate as more or less a democracy, with team leaders elected and major decisions made as a group - the JLA and the Legion work on the same principle. The X-Men, bless their hearts, huddle around and wait for one of three people to tell them what to do: the serial liar who was also Onslaught, the guy who left his wife twice - and that’s two different wives - in the most abjectly humiliating ways he could imagine, or Storm. I mean, maybe I’m exaggerating a trifle. But as organizations go the team is rigidly hierarchical in a way other teams seem to actively strive against. Can’t shake the basic association with the schoolhouse chain of command.

And I ask you, is this a good environment for Rogue? After all she’s been through? 

Now, if you’re an astute reader you might be expecting me to loop back at some point to a glancing comment a made towards the beginning of the essay, about my dad’s accident back in 1990. But for these purposes the individual circumstances of that accident are besides the point - the point in this case being not one trauma but many. Accidents and incidents from throughout childhood and subsequent years that ring in memory like tinnitus, even as more benign surrounding memories and associations fade. Once you start turning off parts of yourself, you don’t really get to choose after a while what gets turned off. The circuit box got permanently jammed after a lifetime’s worth of weird and traumatic shit, years spent learning to disassociate from the material circumstances of my life, from the onslaught of mental illness and gender dysphoria, and, fuck, various kinds of neuroatypicality just sprinkled around on top like chocolate chips. Well! You know what that does to a body. Driven mad from isolation, loneliness, touch starved, surrounded by people who didn’t necessarily have your best interests at heart . . . 

What was I thinking when I read this story for the first time? Did I understand it? Most likely no. What was I thinking? Probably nothing too profound. I think at the time I thought Dwyer’s young Rogue was the cutest girl I’d ever seen in the world. My whole life I’ve fallen in love with girls for looking just a bit like that.

There’s no way I could have understood at the time why the story would mean so much to me so many years after the fact, looking back with three decades experience in the painful consequences of that kind of self-repression. For Rogue, as for me, what seemed such a simple decision in the context of the story is far more fateful in light of the next miserable period of her life, years spent killing the best parts of her because they were the parts that hurt the most. In the process she became the worst possible version of herself. It’s a hard thing to be a kid and realize, to grasp on some obscure level even if distinctly, that you’re different than other kids, and you’re not necessarily different because you’re special but because for the rest of your life the conflicts within your head are always going to seem just a little bit more vivid than the conflicts outside your head. Not something everyone can or wants to understand, especially if you barely do yourself. 

Other people have a way of picking up on stuff like that. Rogue masks it well, better than I do. “Rogue has a way with men,” we hear repeated in various formulations through her history. All because she’s a tiny bit aloof, somewhat distracted, and definitely impatient. Of course, the fact that’s she’s a stunner doesn’t hurt. But it’s her attitude. Generally disinterested. Drives men wild. Even though it’s just Rogue being Rogue. Always something on her mind, even if she mostly keeps her own counsel. Always feels alone in a crowd.

There’s a disjuncture in the idea of fandom, for me, because disassociating myself from my genuine love from these characters - specifically Rogue - was nothing more than collateral damage from a decades’-long war against my own mental health. Just another inconsequential memory. A fraction of a thought. 

But not every memory resurfaced singes the brain with the uncanny recognition through time of myself. The disjuncture is with me, my discomfort with the vulnerability required as an entrance to fandom, a problem I’ve written about for years and come no closer to exsanguination. Letting go of critical detachment, professional or academic, is still not easy. What is fandom but a public profession of love, and what is a public profession of love but an admission of vulnerability? Exposure of a soft underbelly, the one missing scale? 

What else am I trying to do but maintain a safe distance so as to avoid being hurt again? 

Running into Rogue again like this, taking the time to catch up with an old friend - well, you know how it is. I guess we’ve both been through the wringer - started strong, ran into some bumpy patches because of bad writing, acted dependably out of character for years at a time. Did the best with the cards we were dealt. After some forty years still all potential and poor execution. Just two more neurotic burnt out xennials who took a wrong turn in the 90s and spent the next decades trying to find the person they could have been. Ravishingly banal, when you put it like that. The great wisdom of middle age is that every day not spent trying to kill the Dazzler is a triumph. Simple as apple pie.

Speaking of forty years - 2021 is Rogue’s fortieth anniversary. Do you know who hasn’t acknowledged that, so far as Google is able to reveal? Marvel Comics. Maybe something bigger is coming down the pike for the fall? Perhaps a line of variant covers with Rogue’s costumes through the years drawn by her greatest artists? I mean, come on, it’s right there. This shouldn’t be so hard. 

Weird to think my writing a book about her is more than Marvel’s done yet. You did figure out that’s what we’re doing here, right? 

Thanks for reading the first two chapters of my book about Rogue. She means the world to me.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Oh, What A Rogue

Rogue #1


I Got No Clue What They Want to do With You

So how then are we even to live, now, in this bold world of terrible wonder? 

And what more remains to be said after twenty five years on the subject of Rogue’s first solo book, a four issue miniseries from 1995? There are a lot of numbers in the previous sentence - like, for instance, twenty five years. Feel old? Rogue premiered in 1981. Took fourteen years from her first appearance in Avengers Annual #10 for her to get her first solo series. Her next came in 2001, another four issue mini. Feel old? In 2004 she was granted her first and only ongoing solo series. It lasted a polite year. Her next starring role was fourteen years later as a wife.

These facts hint at a much larger truism: X-Men don’t do solo series. There’s one obvious exception (barring Cable, who was only much later made an X-Man), and it’s the exception that proves the rule because everyone liked the guy so much fans would probably have rioted had they not eventually caved and made the guy a headliner. Claremont didn’t really want to do it. Uncanny X-Men was a tightly plotted book that didn’t leave the characters room for random side adventures. It was never supposed to be a franchise, it was supposed to be a story. But popular demand in this instance meant constructing a new world from scratch for a guy who was never designed to be anything other than a franchise player. Soon enough that guy had entire alternate lives in exotic places like Japan, Madripoor, and, er, Canada. Eventually he was even on other teams. The fans would have rioted were he not. 

Now, it would be a lie to say that Wolverine was the only X-Man to ever get a real solo push. There’ve been a number of attempts, some sincere, many half-hearted. Cable was another case of the company bowing to genuine demand, and again it sold well enough that they had to eventually give him stuff like his own rogues’ gallery and supporting characters. Gambit has had a few attempts, too, over the decades. But more often than not these series ended up doing one or both of two kinds of maintenance, either of the character’s origin or a main book sideplot. Often but not exclusively the same thing. Very much designed to get people who already read Uncanny X-Men excited for more or less the same thing with a slightly different emphasis. A tried and true tradition stemming back to all the earliest spinoffs: here’s more of what you like, but not quite the same.

Storm is the best example. She’s had a number of miniseries over the years, precious few attempts at something more. None of them sold for beans, despite the genuine enthusiasm creators bring to a legitimately underserved character. They didn’t sell at least partially because these series have been largely devoted to - and have the reputation as being devoted to - maintenance. Despite the best of intentions of many, many people, no one has figured out how to tell a Storm story. Storm has been around for forty five years but her own stories are still X-Men stories in all but name, dealing with shit from her main book. “Lifedeath” could have been a miniseries but it wasn’t. Left to her own devices and without the crutch of working on origins or sideplots Storm is kind of inert. Not because she’s a bad character, or that she couldn’t be a solo star - but no one’s yet been able to sell her on her own. Perhaps she was too central to the book for too long for her to stick in peoples’ minds as anything else. Perhaps striking off in a new direction for new adventures couldn’t help but feel forced. Not every character has to be a solo star, mind. Ensemble players are important. A lot of the X-Men are ensemble players, either by intention or accident. Maybe Storm tries real hard not to do superhero stuff on her days off. 

In any event I know what Wolverine does on his day off. He’s got a whole Santa’s list of shit to get up to and people on whom to make stabby when he’s not being something for someone else. Which maybe wasn’t the case when they first started telling Wolverine solo stories, which tended for a good many years towards repetitive use of generic gangsters, terrorists, and ninjas. It certainly is now that he’s got a whole shelf of bad guys and supporting character with no connection to the X-Men. 

Rogue #2

Where does this leave Rogue, our putative subject? 

You didn’t expect me to actually . . . begin at the beginning, did you? Silly rabbit. You knew what you were getting when you clicked on the link. 

Anyway. The first Rogue series was less a product of genuine groundswell of demand than Marvel’s desire to increase the size of their line and squeeze out competition during a market contraction. That’s what Marvel does, and what they have always done: regard the comic book market as finite terrain to be conquered by suffocating the competition off the racks. Racks which were then actively disappearing, as most grocery stores had figured out comics are a finicky line that sells poorly under the absolute best of circumstances. In boom times Marvel sells more comics than the other guys by pushing the other guys off the racks, and in bust times they sell more comics than the other guys by pushing the other guys out of business. 

What does it all mean? Rogue is pretty much my favorite comic book character. She wasn’t really, however, when I was a kid - I happened to start reading X-Men right when she got written out of the main story for a couple years. Think about that! One of the franchise’s marquee characters, gone through the dang old Siege Perilous and disappeared for what seemed like an eternity but was really a little less than a year and a half. During that span every other letter on the letters’ page seemed to ask about Rogue. She was a presence.

She returned in issue #269 after having disappeared in #247, which - owing to the yearly switch to biweekly shipping for the summer months - covered about fourteen months in real-world time. early Summer 1989 to late Summer 1990. Even after her memorable return in the Savage Land, she didn’t reunite with the main team until Spring of the next year, during the Muir Isle saga that serves as Claremont’s last hurrah on the series (barring the inevitable slightly less beloved returns, plural). By the time the deck was reshuffled for X-Men #1 in Summer of 1991 she was in her iconic yellow & green bodysuit with the bomber jacket. 

Now, we should be up front about this, because I respect you too much to lie to you: I am a true blue fan of Rogue but I am not a fan of Rogue & Gambit. By the time I really got to see Rogue in real time - not, that is, in the pages of Classic X-Men, which was soon to be running her first run of Paul Smith appearances from the early 80s - she was sort of Different. Than she had been. I dunno, cuddly? The sharp edges were gone. Internal conflict and mental illness were deemphasized, owing to the fact that not everyone picked up on Claremont’s extremely obvious subtext. Neither did most of his successors possess a fraction of his insight into either human psychology, nor the art and skill of exploring these complex topics in superhero comics. Nor frankly did they care. Rogue was hanging around the mansion cooking up gumbo for Remy, now. This is also the version of the character who the world met on Saturday mornings, more or less. Streamlined. Her emotional state was a lot less messy. And by now her standard plotlines were either boyfriend or origin related - because of course a woman’s world is all about romance and family obligations. Of course. 

I’ve been rereading the Claremont run recently - taking my time, reading all the spinoffs and crossovers along the way, even the ones I never bothered with. (Even Kitty Pryde & Wolverine for the very first time and for that, dear reader, I deserve a medal.) By the mid 80s there were already a fair amount of books, just considering what Claremont personally wrote. Progress is slow, I’m taking my time in order to not get burned out. It’s a good project to fit into spare moments and the occasional free hour or three, pretty much the extent of my leisure time these past years since I’ve been taking care of my parents. 

On a whim I decided to skip around a bit, simply because I get a bit impatient reading about X-Men who aren’t Rogue, and the fact is that regardless of how much you or I might wish otherwise there are characters besides Rogue in the book who might want panel time. I remembered buying the first Rogue series as it came out, I wanna say I got that one right at the grocery store in town which was still in the last gasp of pretending comics sold, probably because there was still at least one person who still bought comics there every week. But I didn’t remember anything about it, other than who drew it, Mike Wieringo.

Interesting factoid: this series was Wieringo’s first work for Marvel. Coming off a hot run on The Flash

- HA! “Hot run on The Flash!” That’s a keeper. See, this is what I missed. I missed you guys. Come on, everyone in for a big ol’ hug - 

- coming off a hot run on The Flash, Wieringo stopped by Marvel for Rogue before heading back across town for Robin. In hindsight you really want something as significant as Mike Wieringo’s first Marvel work to be good. To be something worthy of such a giant taken from us absurdly, shockingly early. He’s even being inked by Terry Austin - Terry Fuckin Austin! I can’t imagine there’s a bigger rush for any artist drawing the X-Men than being inked by Terry Fuckin Austin - and your first time up, no less. 

But then I opened the book and saw the reason why I didn’t remember anything about it: this was actually kind of terrible. For reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with Wieringo, I should add, and actually kind of make you resent him being wasted on such a nothing. The fact is that there is no reason why Mike Wieringo drawing Rogue has to be bad. I would go so far as to say you’d have to work hard to fuck up that combo. You’d have to get up pretty early in the morning indeed.

So let’s start at the beginning, with a great shot of Rogue in her natural element and doing what she loves best, that is, giving the business to the US military.  

Rogue Splash page

So far so good, right? Clear sailing! Now, let me just take a big sip out of my mug before reading the credit box,  


Ahhhhh, shit. Well, there you go. 

I have read many Howard Mackie comics. Did I seek them out because he wrote them? I did not. He wrote a metric ton of Spider-Man and X-Men comics. Why did he write them? Did he enjoy writing them? What can one even say about Mackie at this late remove? He is a man who knew how to write stories, stories that were composed of sequences of events depicted in a set order. This can be said, certainly. Often his stories featured characters and plots, sometimes even fight scenes. There was even a brief period in the late 90s where he wrote both flagship Spider-Man titles. He wrote hundreds and hundreds of comics which I read because of the name on the cover and not the names in the credit box, and that is why I am going to hell when I die. Because doing that is part of how we find ourselves with this problem in the first place. 

That credit box tells a whole story in and of itself. An entire epoch. 

The first few pages of the first issue are probably the best passages of the series, because Rogue is smiling and laughing at army guys. Completely emasculating the Top Gun dudes, everything short of chopping a cucumber in half with a cigar cutter. Fun even if it’s, you know, a carbon copy of an earlier scene from JRJR’s run on Uncanny. 


Kissing a plane

The problem here, in a nutshell, is that this really isn’t a story about Rogue. It looks like one, maybe, in that she’s ostensibly the protagonist. But brass tacks what’s it about? Well. Hmmm. How to put this . . . basically Gambit’s ex-wife hates Rogue and kidnaps Rogue’s catatonic childhood friend Cody. You know, he what was rendered comatose after one kiss from the most beautiful girl in the world. What a way to die! Sign me up. 


So why is Gambit’s ex-wife Belladonna kidnapping Rogue’s people? Well, you see, it’s like this: Rogue had been around for fourteen years at this point and never once received the opportunity to headline a series. Finally, when Marvel was at the height of the panic mode market flooding that immediately preceded - and I mean, immediately by only a matter of months - a good chunk of the company being laid off, they deigned to give Rogue a mini. And then when they finally relented to give the sensational character find of 1981 her own series - in 1995! - it was devoted primarily to swimming these Augean waters:


Now, it should be noted again that they were on solid ground with lots of precedent in crafting a solo mini that was essentially just a spinoff of a smaller subplot from the main book. That’s what these kinds of series were, and had been since Claremont invented the spin-off mini way back in the day. It’s what the fans expected. Did you read that page? Rogue isn’t mentioned once. It’s a story about her boyfriend’s bullshit that just happens to have her name on it. But few at the time were going to complain or even notice because, you know, it looked nice. Even if no one cared about the Externals or Candra or - fucking shudder - the goddamn Tithe Collector, they bought it because it was a part of the story. Because of the name on the cover and not the names in the credit box.

Since we’re being completely honest here: it’s not like they weren’t also on solid ground in devoting her first solo series to her relationship with Gambit. The reason why they pushed the relationship so hard and for so long - long past where I’d argue both characters were hurt - was that it was popular. It was on the cartoon! I was and probably remain in the minority in thinking this. For a lot of fans Rogue & Gambit is Rogue. I’m sorry for that. I really do feel as if we’re talking about two characters. She’s not the same person when she’s with him.

After Claremont left, the X-Men lost their rudder and forward momentum. The period immediately following his absence perhaps represents the books’ nadir, at least in terms of writing. I like to think of it as the “sitting around the X-Mansion waiting for X-Men stuff to happen” period. (Which immediately precedes the “let’s all yell about doctrine!” era that is then followed by the lengthy “oh god we are tapped out, flailing, loopy, hiring people off Craigslist” interregnum, a period I’d argue only really ends with Claremont II.) Rogue suffers more than most from this period because she loses a great deal of autonomy and no small amount of confidence. Then after years cosplaying Bad Moonlighting with Gambit they tried to kill the relationship in the worst possible way (by revealing he was, er, complicit in a genocide), then saddled her with Joseph 


and honestly it was somewhere around there I started to lose grip on what was going on. I held on because Alan Davis came back for a bit but boy howdy were those strange comics of which I remember almost nothing at this late date. Except that I bailed when it was revealed Apocalypse had been a little old guy inside a big suit this whole time? Is that still canon? 

Left well before Claremont II. Came back for Morrison but, hey, guess who Morrison didn’t apparently give two shits about? Given how much all those characters were . . . well, let’s be polite and say “altered” - by the events of Morrison’s run, I suppose we should be thankful he never realized the true value of what he held in his hands when handed the keys to the franchise. By then Rogue was once again back with Claremont, in the pages of Extreme X-Men

No one knows what happened in Extreme X-Men. No light has ever escaped, although scientists working at the LIGO gravitational wave detector hope to soon verify the existence of Sovereign Seven

Anyway. I should stress that it’s not even that I dislike Gambit. On the contrary, I remember Gambit from before he even met Rogue, and he started great. He was a fun character when he was bopping around the Southeast with “Stormy.” There’s a big opening on the stands for a distaff Catwoman type - think about it, great archetype that is completely underserved in comics. You can’t always tell fun Gambit stories, though, because the guy’s got a lot of baggage. By which I mean all of the continuity involved in this series. Can’t exactly galavant around the globe being an irresponsible cad when you’re a happily married man, or when your ex is still actively trying to kill everyone you know. 

Because - can I just say? All the things that could make Gambit a great character make him a terrible boyfriend. They would have both been better served by keeping separate and maintaining a flirty banter thing. As it is, they are a great example of a relationship where two seemingly cool people just end up sapping all the life from each other. He could be fun, but his most famous stories aren’t fun. It’s stuff like dealing with his ex, or making a deal with Apocalypse (like a whiny little shit). Not that people haven’t tried. Doesn’t seem to take. 

Don’t get me started here. I never liked the relationship. From the very beginning of the courtship I knew who he was, recognized the type from a mile off: the kind of weaselly pest who falls for a woman and then becomes absolutely relentless in the face of repeated and clear refusals. That’s something media tells us is supposed to be charming, is supposed to be a sure fire recipe for romantic success, but which is in actuality one of the biggest red flags in the universe.

Another giant red flag? How about when you’re just starting to get interested with someone, like, say, in the very first days of a flirtation, and then their ex-wife shows up and tries to kill you. Would that count as a red flag? Because that happened. It turned out that his ex-wife was affiliated with something called the “Assassin’s Guild.” And Rogue, God bless her, looked at that situation and said, yes, I want the dirty Cajun man who was previous married to the Kate Gosselin of Murder, this is the absolute best I can ever do. Despite being by common consent among the most beautiful women on the planet, this right here is the tallest shelf for which I am ever going to reach.

And to be fair, it’s not like Remy doesn’t love Rogue. We see this very clearly here, in a scene following Cody being kidnapped and Rogue taking off to save him. Plainly, his concern for his girlfriend in her moment of crisis is strong enough to inspire him to stop chatting up other women on the way down to save his girlfriend from his homicidal ex-wife:

Gambit is an asshole

Perhaps Rogue goes to Cyclops for romantic advice: “What d’ya think, Slim? Do you see any red flags?” she asks. To which he replies, “no, I don’t see any red flags at all.” 

So, eh. The story occurs. Events transpire. Rogue makes her way down to confront Belladonna. On her way, it must be noted in passing, she consults a genuine magical negro: 

Tropes ahoy

Oh, and before we move on, I should point out I gasped when I ran across this outfit: 

Bad clothes

I had an instant Proustian recollection of the mid 90s, when this was the state issued uniform of every young woman in the country. Seriously. You can practically hear the opening strains “I’ll Make Love to You” coming out of the headphones attached to their Discman.


She loses her powers and has to fight Belladonna. She gets stabbed but still pulls out the W. Of course she does. She’s Rogue. Now, it’s worth noting that if this had been the Rogue of 1985 this would have been a much shorter comic that would have ended with Belladonna spitting out half her teeth and possibly losing part of her spleen. But, you know. 1995 was a bit of a dippy drip but she still got shit done when she had to. 

Key to Rogue’s character, in my eye, is the fact that she actually doesn’t benefit all that much from being an X-Man. On the contrary, after a certain point I think the X-Men represent an unhealthy family dynamic for many members. Rogue came to the team for one specific reason - to get help with her powers, in order to try to be able to live a normal life, or some semblance of one. Well, she didn’t really get that. It’s actually kind of a recurring theme for the character, that being an X-Man takes a toll, she gives a lot more than she gets and she needs time away to recharge her batteries. Alone among latter day X-writers Mike Carey understood two very true things: that the X-Men as a concept work best as Rogue’s supporting characters, but that being on the team isn’t actually very good for Rogue. Like, at all. 

She broke free from one charismatic narcissistic leader just to fall into the lap of another (and then had a lot of sex with a third, because she’s Rogue and Rogue does whatever she wants). She managed to outgrow having surrounded herself with charismatic cult leaders without becoming a charismatic cult leader herself - apparently a real workplace hazard for X-Men? Did all this while also having regularly scheduled psychotic breakdowns.

But the best they could think to do with Rogue in the early 90s was to give her a boyfriend. And it’s not like that would have been bad on its own if it hadn’t become, you know, her entire character. Boyfriends are fine. When boyfriends new and old are all you got to talk about, however, you need a new writer.

Perhaps it didn’t occur to anyone that Rogue’s last solo adventure in the Savage Land - you know, the one where she’s having lots of sex with Magneto - was effectively a “back door pilot” for a Rogue solo book that was probably never even a consideration. I’d argue that by that point, 1990 or so, she was better positioned after a decade or so of existence than Wolverine was at the equivalent point in his career, when he got spun out for his first mini. Perhaps I’m the only person in the world who thinks so, which is a perfectly reasonable assertion. She could have joined the Avengers a lot earlier than she did - although, considering who was writing Avengers by the mid-90s, it’s probably for the best she didn’t.

This is a new one ...

So where does that leave us? As I said, the credit box tells a whole story in and of itself. 

That story begins not in 1995 but 1984. That was the year Bob Harras and Howard Mackie both began at Marvel as Assistant Editors - Harras under Ralph Macchio, Mackie under Mark Gruenwald. Mackie stepped away from editorial to freelance full-time in 1991. He had no shortage of work for the subsequent decade. 

Harras eventually became editor of Uncanny X-Men and all its subsidiaries, then the most popular books in the industry. Jim Shooter left the company in 1987. After Tom DeFalco took the reigns as Editor in Chief there commenced the first stirrings of a years-long power struggle between the books’ main writer and their upstart artists, with Harras stuck in the ostensible middle. Harras alone was left standing at the X-office after this period of turmoil. DeFalco for all his virtues simply wasn’t the imposing figure Shooter had been, able to ride herd over creative whim and editorial fiat alike by force of personality, for better or for worse. By 1993 with Shooter long gone, DeFalco more or less sympathetic, and neither Claremont nor the Image founders left, no one remained to impede Harras’ vision regarding the necessary and ruthless expansion of the franchise. 

It should be noted Harras remained on good terms with the Image boys, by the way. They all made money together, for a long time to come. 

Rogue was created by Claremont and Michael Golden in 1981 and served as one of the team’s mainstays for most of the 80s. He developed the character considerably, from a troubled and unpredictable powerhouse with only a very brittle mastery of her own moods, to someone far more measured, confident, and powerful (if still extraordinarily impatient). Perhaps Claremont ran out of ideas after a while, as he tended with characters who were written out for extended periods, and as was more or less healthy for the book. She still had a recognizable character arc and grew enormously.

And then he was gone. Whatever peculiar alchemy Claremont used to breathe life into these smudges of ink on newsprint left with him. It was the voices, you see, the voices of those characters that lived primarily in his head but whose adventures he occasionally recounted for the rest of us. When he left those voices left with him. Vivid characters were replaced with standardized characterization. Occasionally in the years since I’ve heard those voices, or echoes again - but never as consistently, as holistically.

Rogue is a tough one in that regard. Her most popular characterization, I have always thought, was considerably out of character. And I don’t think anyone else has quite captured her timbre besides Carey. Sometimes she seems like an actor reading lines from a script, but to be fair most of them do if you stick with it long enough. 

In 1991 the X-Books relaunched with new, decidedly static status quos. Claremont wrote the first three issues of the adjectiveless X-Men before getting the fuck out of Dodge. His last act with Rogue was, essentially, her return to the fold. Then she got a new costume, a spot on the roster of the Blue Team, and Relationship Drama. The fans loved it. That’s a wrap, right? 

The first Rogue miniseries shipped in early 1995, which just happened to be the same month that the Age of Apocalypse began. In a period of widespread and remorseless contraction across the industry, defined by painful attrition among retailers, publishers, and readers alike, the alternate universe crossover was a hit. Not just a hit, mind you - a franchise-defining monster. (The shadow of which blockbuster success was soon to eat them alive, but that’s another essay.) When the company fell apart by the middle of the year, it was practically inevitable that the attempted restructuring would replicate Harras’ model, which meant separating each editorial group into independent fiefdoms to be run more or less autonomously from the other. From this it was practically inevitable that the ensuing collapse would leave Harras, once again, in charge of everything.

Best panel in the entire series

Mike Wieringo wasn’t the only DC mainstay who crossed the street to do work for the X-office. Harras certainly wasn’t unique in actively trying to poach talent from the competition - that’s part of an editor’s job, more or less, within reason. What was unique was the rate at which his office repulsed talented creators from elsewhere in the industry. Wieringo did a handful of assignments for Marvel through the end of the 90s but only one more X-Men assignment, 1998’s X-Men 1/2. Wieringo’s Flash collaborator Mark Waid had a very similar reaction when he very briefly wrote for the franchise around the same time. From comments made by a range of creators, from Waid and Peter David through even to disaffected X-office regulars like Fabian Nicieza, it doesn’t seem like it was a very fun place to work if you weren’t one of the handful of men who actually decided what was going to happen in any of the books. People were treated poorly. 

And what does this way of making comics get you? It gets you comics like Rogue, featuring characters everybody loves being drawn by some of the best artists in the industry, starring in poorly told stories conceived and executed in the most cynical manner possible, and plugged so intimately into so baroque a continuity as to be more or less unintelligible six months after being printed. It was the same kind of package that Claremont had pioneered only, you know . . . without his understanding of what did and did not justify the readers’ time and patience. Nothing kills a franchise faster than immaterial spinoffs. It reads as plainly mercenary despite the excellent art. Within just a couple years of Harras taking over the EIC position almost everything Marvel published was leaning in this direction. It is in this context - and only this context - that Joe Quesada could ever have been considered wise, but he was certainly wise inasmuch as he recognized when he took over the company at the fin de siecle that the best way to make comics was the opposite of how Bob Harras made them. 

Wieringo died in 2007 of heart problems, aged only forty four. Shockingly close to my age now. He was really good at drawing Rogue, I wish he’d drawn the character for fifty issues. Rogue was edited by Lisa Patrick. She started at Marvel in the early 90s, worked as Harras’ assistant. She has no credits past 1995. I don’t have to look to know why she lost her job. Dana Moreshead moved on from coloring to eventually became the company’s Director of Creative Services & Special Projects, before leaving for to work as Stan Lee Media’s Vice President of Creative Services and Brand Management, a position I’m sure he still holds today. 

So how then are we even to live, now, with full and terrible knowledge of what we have lost? 

The loss can’t be quantified. Mark Gruenwald died in 1996, from an undiagnosed heart problem that was almost certainly exacerbated by the stress of his last years at the company he loved, as he saw it systematically hollowed out by the true heirs of Martin Goodman. He never got to write for Mike Wieringo, which seems like something that really should have happened. They just passed each other in the hall, turned out. Maybe they caught up later.  

The loss extends from the tragic to the relatively trivial - from lives derailed by lost careers to something as slight a sin as bad comic books. Every bad comic could have been good. Every piece of shit hacked out by lifers could have been a rookie’s breakthrough or a veteran’s masterpiece. How many good comics did we lose? How many great characters? How many new cash cows for multinational corporations, even, have we lost because people were treated like shit and left, or couldn’t even find the door? Incalculable. 

And that leaves us, ultimately, back with Rogue. There’s no reason this had to be bad, but it was. The version of the character we meet in these pages is simply less competent, less capable, less complex. Less interesting. The Rogue who Claremont created didn’t shortchange herself. She learned self-respect which was subsequently taken from her. She deserved so much better than she got. 

Ultimately I can’t get past the part where their “romance” was premised on the notion that creeps who repeatedly violate explicit boundaries of consent to get what they want are really quite endearing if you give them a chance. I guess that just wasn’t a red flag for anyone else in the office. 

It was all right there, on the page. If we had only seen. 

Rogue getting ready to hit something