By Al Kennedy
One of the major selling points of the original run of New Warriors, which has been lost a little in later incarnations, is that it was a series that engaged with social and political issues to a greater extent than most other Marvel books of the time. It was common for the villains to have a valid point to make under their bravado and nefariousness, and the ethical dilemmas that the heroes had to engage with were often key to the resolution of the story. One of the most memorable of these came during a long-running plotline featuring mutant proto-spaceman Vance Astrovik, aka Marvel Boy, and led to an evolution in the character that (unusually for an early-‘90s character makeover) has stood to this day.
First, a bit of background. Vance comes from a family with less than tolerant views of mutants. Vance’s dad, an unrepentant abuser and bigot, had been violently making his thoughts on Vance’s powers known. Eventually, Vance was pushed too far, and in defending his mother from his father’s attacks, he lashed out too hard with his telekinetic abilities and inadvertently caused his father’s death. The series went on to show Vance’s trial, sentencing and imprisonment, which Vance stoically accepted. He largely disappeared from the series for the best part of a year, but when we pick up with him in this issue it’s clear that he’s having as comfortable a time as is possible to have while banged up in the hoosegow.
He has daily sparring sessions with generic supermarket own brand Iron Man wannabes the Guardsmen (where he comfortably beats all of them every day, but doesn’t choose to escape – you get the impression that this is less because he sees life on the lam as more trouble than it’s worth, and more because he has full faith in the justice system to treat him fairly and in a way that he essentially deserves). He gets an audience with the prison’s governor where he’s shown a holographic pep talk from his future alternate self, Major Victory (essentially “what if Topper Harley from Hot Shots was Captain America”). And he gets to spend time without the neural inhibitor device which all prisoners have to wear.
Oh yeah, the neural inhibitor devices. Because the prisoners have a variety of powers, not all of which are well understood by the state, they’re kept in a maximum security set-up which deprives them of basic rights and dignity. Terraformer (a sentient vegetable given life by one-time Human Torch villain Plantman) needs plants to live, but because the prison staff don’t know if he’d use any plant they gave him to try to escape, they just… don’t give him any. The state’s need to avoid any risk from Terraformer is viewed as taking precedence over Terraformer’s need to literally stay alive.
When FF baddie the Wizard leads an uprising among the prisoners, Vance sides with the guards to quell the disturbance, on the basis that he understands the plight of the prisoners and will be best placed to bring matters to a peaceful resolution. There’s some brief hilarity when Scott, one of the Guardsmen, goes off on a paranoid rant about what Terraformer might do if given a small plant: “And if he uses that plant life as an escape route? Or somehow links with trees surrounding the Vault and causes their interlocking root systems to create seismic upheavals?” Yeah Scott! Or what if he makes really big flowers with pollen the size of footballs and kills everyone to death with percussive hayfever? Then you’ll be sorry you gave him the absolute bare minimum of respect and life support!
A brief sidebar here – Terraformer, a living tree, is drawn in a satisfyingly grotesque and goblinoid way by guest penciller E Craig Brasfield, who just four years later would sadly have his art career cut short by an ALS diagnosis. His work can also be seen in contemporary issues of What If…? and Alpha Flight, and he would go on to pencil Vance’s own miniseries in 1994.
The extent to which this story can be used to draw parallels with real-world events is necessarily limited by the fact that the characters whom we see locked up in the Vault are, Vance aside, all full-on supervillains, whom we know have tried to use their powers to harm many innocent people in the past. So the governor’s view – that you can’t just put them in jail cells and hope for the best – does have some logic behind it, though the way he enacts that view is clearly abhorrent.
At the same time, Vance’s position is lukewarm and undeveloped at best. Why can’t the prisoners take the time to get to know my mate Scott, wonders Vance – after all, he just works here! He doesn’t run the prison! I dunno Vance, maybe because he’s complicit in a state exercise in untrammelled brutality and on the page before he tried to shoot a prisoner with a repulsor blast?
It’s a dreadfully mealy-mouthed approach from Vance, who’s concerned with striking a balance between the prison staff and the prisoners as being both kind of right and both kind of wrong, when really the governor’s dehumanising approach, whereby he refers to the prisoners only by their numbers and treats them as objects to be locked in a box, is where almost everything that goes wrong in this issue stems from.
(Admittedly, his ability to recall individual prisoners’ six-digit designations is kind of impressive, but that’s as far as we can really go with complimenting him here.)
Vance’s naivete shines through here – when the Wizard demands that the prisoners be accorded the same basic civil rights as others in the US, Vance says that they’re not like other citizens, they’re convicted criminals. The US justice system, riven with examples of injustice as it is, may not be the best thing for Vance to point to as an indicator of who should or should not be granted basic civil rights, but it’s to Vance’s credit that this issue’s events do start him on the road of questioning what is justice and what is just state action, and the end of this issue all but outright states the other major change for Vance that his time in jail has prompted… that being his change in superhero identity from Marvel Boy to Justice.
This issue also features the early stages of a couple of sub-plots that will be gaining speed in the following few instalments. First, Namorita wakes up from a night of getting spectacularly hammered with a raging hangover. We see later in the issue that she went home with a member of the Poisoned Memories gang (and it should be noted that it’s not clear at all whether their hookup can be treated as completely consensual, given that she doesn’t remember the night before at all), who has stolen her address book. Then, Speedball is effectively blackmailed by greasy spod Carlton LaFroyge into making him a member of the New Warriors under threat of revealing Speedy’s secret identity. Carlton is a jagoff, and we’ll see that in more detail later, but for now he’s just a gently simmering background element.
There are some stumbling blocks here, then, as Vance’s both-sides rhetoric allows the governor to essentially walk back to his office to face no repercussions other than a grudgingly granted promise to allow individual prisoners greater freedoms on the basis of psych evaluations, but it does the job of moving Vance himself, baby step by baby step, from being trusting and obedient to those in authority to being someone who forms his own views on questions of what’s right, what’s wrong, and where justice really lies.
New Warriors #36: “The Scales of Justice”
Writer: Fabian Nicieza
Penciler: E. Craig Brasfield
Inker: Jeff Albrecht
Letterer: Joe Rosen
Colorist: Joe Rosas
Editor: Rob Tokar
Editor-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco
Al Kennedy is a writer and podcaster best known as one half of the House to Astonish podcast. He’s been writing about comics since the turn of the century, originally on nearby cave walls but nowadays more usually online. You can find him on Twitter here.
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