This post is the third and final part of a series on X-Men’s Storm (aka Ororo Munroe) and the relationship of identity and colonialism in three comic books featuring her. In Part One I examined Uncanny X-Men #186, which features the story “Lifedeath.” In it, I began to work out a parallel between Edward Said’s notion of the “textual attitude” and the pedantic adherence to superhero comic book continuity, and how even laudable attempts to develop unique and interesting identity narratives for black superheroes is marred by the gravity of that attitude. In Part Two, I examined “Lifedeath II,” which finds Storm in East Africa struggling to find herself in her motherland, and the story’s creating of a space to imagine the voice of the typically voiceless subaltern subject, even if ultimately the comic continues to fall short of a representation that does not genericize “Africa” as a place. Despite their shortcomings, I still think these two comics are among the best of mainstream comics of the 1980s. In this final post, I am examining Storm #3 (November 2014), written by Greg Pak, with art by Scott Hepburn (pencils and inks), David Baldeon (pencils), Jordi Tarragona (inks) and Rachelle Rosenberg (colors). While not technically part of the “Lifedeath” cycle of stories (there was once going to be a “Lifedeath III,” but when it fell through Barry Windsor-Smith adapted it a non-X-related independent project), the story in Storm #3, “Return of the Goddess,” refers back not only to Ororo’s African origins, but to “Lifedeath II.” As far as I have been able to determine, this is the only story since the two issues in the 1980s I examined in the previous posts to address this time in Storm’s life and those previous stories.
Presumably, Storm spent a lot of time in Africa when she was married to the Black Panther (or maybe not, though I have never read any of those issues I remember them being temporary members of the Fantastic Four). I’ve long had an aversion to that plot line because it seemed to me that ultimately it was more about putting their only two African characters of note together than it ever was about representing something as radical as black love in a genre supported by a white supremacist framework. Regardless, the story in Storm #3 certainly reinforces the notion that Storm has not returned to the site of her recruitment by Professor X back in Giant Size X-Men #1 since it happened.
(Not) “Lifedeath III”
“Return of the Goddess” is a fairly brief and straightforward story that seeks to re-assess Ororo’s role as “a goddess” in that first appearance and address the legacy of colonialism in Africa about as directly as you can expect from a Marvel comic. The story opens with Ororo receiving an anonymous invitation to return to Kenya to check out new technology that is promising to bring “rain to the desert.” She accepts the invitation, knowing full well it could be trap, but feeling a responsibility to return to what Esther, a local woman, calls “the scene of the crime” when Storm arrives at the altar where she once fulfilled the supplications of the people in a time of drought. It is an awkward scene in which Ororo tries to apologize for having taken on the role of goddess for the local people, but the elderly local woman apologizes, too—taking responsibility for enabling that goddess delusion. Esther says, “We all knew you were just a crazy girl. But we needed the rain.”
Esther is depicted like a Maasai woman (semi-nomadic people who inhabit Kenya and Tanzania), though there is never any outright reference to them. Esther’s claim however, that at the time that Ororo played goddess they were “just starting to farm” lines up with efforts of the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments to have them adopt a more sedentary lifestyle in the real world. That said, there is not one depiction of cattle (a crucial aspect of Maasai life and culture) in and around Esther’s village, so perhaps the artists took a visual cue from the Maasai without following through with a richer depiction of their life and culture.
I have to stop here and spend some time with this re-imagined understanding of Ororo’s original X-Men origin, because it strikes me as a fine example of the parallel between comic book continuity and Said’s “textual attitude” that I wrote about in Part One. This need to re-write, re-imagine and ret-con past instances and characters because of problematic aspects of those stories, while likely the only viable approach comic creators and readers have for addressing these past (and ongoing issues) continue to cause problems for characters of color in ways that can still be deeply problematic. So, in order to undo Len Wein writing Ororo as a weather goddess to a tribe of Africans in 1974, in 2014 Greg Pak has to insert the possibility that Ororo was crazy and the people she was helping were exploiting her by letting her play out the role. The requirement of being beholden to the shape of the old stories regardless of their connotations is a severe obstacle to re-imagining and re-writing characters of color that can be free of those old frankly bigoted notions of their lives and cultures and knowledge. Ororo having been “a crazy girl” is little better than the idea that in the 1970s (or if you follow the sliding timeline scale of Marvel comics then some time in the late 90s or early 2000s) a group of people in a world of superheroes and mutants offered animal sacrifices to a living god because they didn’t (and couldn’t) know better. I know that Pak is trying in this issue to address the problematic aspect of Storm’s origin, and I commend him for that, but the textual attitude of serialized shared universe superhero comics makes actually accomplishing that very difficult, and sometimes impossible.
Personally, if I was going to ret-con it, I’d make it an erroneous bigoted memory on the part of Professor X, who, despite whatever real relationship Ororo had with those nameless people, saw it how he imagined it would be: superstitious “primitive” people—true to orientalist form.
The notion of the “primitive” is embedded in the themes of all three issues as they deal with varying degrees with a cultural relationship to technology. In “Lifedeath I” Storm’s loss of her mutant powers undermines her sense of identity, and in “Lifedeath II” her trip to East Africa that serves to re-kindle her sense of self, involves a village of impoverished people who have abandoned their old subsistence way of living for technology provided by outsiders that then became too expensive to maintain, wrenching them from their own identity-establishing roots. In Storm #3, Forge has created a weather-controlling machine that is meant to help “bring rain to the desert” and provide water for these Kenyans’ irrigation lines for agriculture. Despite whatever history has happened between Storm and Forge since the 1980s (which I am not that familiar with) and despite Storm not fully trusting him, she is willing to give him a chance to prove his new dedication to working for the good, as he explains he no longer works for “the government” (I assume he means the American government), but is funded through “foundations, NGOs and [his] own patents.” He needs Storm’s help because he cannot properly calibrate his machine, and by plugging her into it as she goes through the process of slowly building a rain storm he can make sure it works properly. As it stands when he shows it to her, it can either make a tiny ineffectual raincloud or a destructive thunderhead.
Greg Pak uses the calibration scene as a way for Ororo and Forge to hash out their past, but the real conflict of the story is between Esther’s son, Noah and Forge about using the machine itself. While Forge promises that he is just giving the villagers the tools to help them survive, and “When it’s ready…the controller will belong to [them] not [him],” once the machine is calibrated he “locks off the [machine’s] upper range.” When Forge says to Noah, “The machine’s a little too powerful right now and you don’t need anything more than a gentle rain,” Noah objects. “You said you’d give us the tools and we’d decide how to use them.” He then tries to force Forge to leave the machine how it is and menaces the machine-making mutant with a hoe. It is then that Storm destroys the machine with a bolt of lightning. In echo of what we learned about Mjnari and Shani’s village back in Uncanny X-Men #198, Storm asks what would have happened when the machine broke down after Forge leaves, or “if the climate changes faster than expected and the trickle of water…is not enough” or when some neighboring warlord comes looking to steal the technology, or Noah becomes drunk with the power of the machine? Storm’s response to this seems like a well-reasoned approach to these possibilities. “I’m no goddess. I don’t know the answers. But maybe by the time [Forge and Noah] rebuild the machine you’ll have figured it out together.” She then privately instructs Forge to take a year rebuilding it (even though it should only take about a month). Her point here is that no solution to the problems of drought and politics and power and outside intervention is going to come without a collaboration of people working closely together, coming to know each other and the technology and its consequences, rather than counting on a machine to fix the imbricated social and political contingencies. As Storm says to Forge, “You’re not just fixing machines.”
As I suggested above, Pak does a commendable job of trying to address the orientalist notions wrapped up in Storm’s origins. He divorces her from her “goddess” identity and the arrogance, aloofness and superstition that goes along with it. As in the story of “Lifedeath II” (which is reduced here to a one-panel, three-caption reference that gives the reader no sense of the weight of that story), there exists a moment in the incoherent tapestry of X-Men continuity for Ororo to uphold a responsibility to her adopted people and her African origin, but despite her promise to return and check in on Forge’s progress and how things develop, as superhero comic readers we know that this kind of concern will always be secondary. In fact, the placing of this story in a low-selling Storm solo book, rather than in the flagship title as was done in the 80s suggests a lower tolerance in the mainstream for even considering how these issues intersect with Marvel’s narratives.
Hepburn and Baldeon’s art does not hold a candle to Barry Windsor-Smith’s work. There is nothing visually that gives this story something distinctive that tells the reader that this story is special and matters. Furthermore, I find the depiction of Noah a little disturbing. He is drawn with exaggerated and evil features (look above when he confronts Forge and compare his face to how Forge’s is depicted). The underbite, the shadowed face, the furrowed brow, his posture combine to verge on caricature. The chastened, but still resentful look he wears when Storm admonishes them both does nothing to make Noah seem anything more than narrative pawn of the writer. He is no Shani.
In addition, despite its excellent composition, I can’t help but roll my eyes at David Yardin’s cover for the issue that depicts Storm in a way that focuses on her ass. She is standing looking to the right, but somehow her rear end is facing directly at the reader. Forge gets to sit and look poignantly at the horizon. Storm can only do that if she has butt pointed towards the ostensibly straight male reader. The tall sinewy and muscular Storm of Barry Windsor-Smith from the “Lifedeath” stories that challenges the ideas of what a female superhero’s body is supposed to look like rather than reinforce them, and a visual callback to that depiction would have helped create a sense of continuity between those older stories and this one in terms of how the art worked to make room for a story outside of the usual X-Men narrative conflagration
There has been some promise in the Storm series. In issues #6, #7 and #8 there is a story arc involving Storm arrested by the FBI and crowds of mostly people of color gathering to protest outside of where she is held. The cover of issue #7 even depicts her in handcuffs and being escorted by police at a time when in places like New York City and Ferguson, MO people were out in the street protesting the frequent unlawful targeting of black and brown folks and the police brutality and murder with impunity of the same at the hands of the people we are meant to trust with our protection. There is a possibility for the character of Storm to be a productive post-colonial figure in the Marvel Universe, both metaphorically and explicitly. There is a possibility in the way the X-Men have always stood in superficially for the subaltern to take up those causes and their complexity and disjunctures more directly, but in some ways things seem worse not better for black folks in comics. However awkwardly Marvel and DC once handled black characters like Black Goliath and Black Lightning, or had Jon Stewart use his role as Green Lantern to address inequality on his home planet, at least those comics tried to address those issues, actually talked about race in a way that could challenge the white superhero status. These days Sam Wilson can become Captain America and instead of using that as a way to critique the facile notion of a post-racial America in the way that Steve Englehart once used Captain America to respond to Watergate, we get Rick “hobo piss” Remender’s hackneyed work, and a retro series called Captain America: White that no one at Marvel seemed to think might be problematic.
Storm has been one of my favorite superheroes since I read my first issue of X-Men back in the early 1980s, and in spending so much time with the three issues I covered in this series the love of her character was renewed, as I came to more deeply appreciate what these stories are trying to do, but ultimately, like so many other superhero comics, they are also mostly reminders of how much further we have to go.