1001 Variations: Narrative Mutation & Marvel’s Exiles

Editor’s Note: I have hoped that Adrienne Resha would contribute a guest post to The Middle Spaces since I met her at the Mind the Gaps Comics Studies Society conference and heard her fantastic presentation on “The Blue Age” of comics (a project she references in this post). In today’s post Adrienne writes about one of my favorite recent series by one of my favorite current comics writers, Saladin Ahmed, and one of best pencilers in the business, Javier Rodríguez.

Blink arrives in medieval Baghdad

Blink arrives in medieval Baghdad [from Exiles vol. 3, #9 (December 2018)]

In 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman debuted in the pages of Action Comics #1, ushering in a genre distinct from, but in debt to, science fiction: the superhero. With characters like Batman in 1939 and Wonder Woman in 1941, Golden Age (1930s to 1950s) superhero characters functioned as variations on the Superman prototype. Twenty-five years after Superman, during the Silver Age (1950s to 1970s), Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought the X-Men into the Marvel universe. Unlike Superman or Wonder Woman, both born with phenomenal powers, the original five X-Men came into their powers at or around puberty. Not functions of alien or Amazonian genetics, mutants’ powers are caused by variations on human genes. These mutations are simultaneously random and specific. Mutations like telepathy and transmutation are random insofar as they randomly occur in the comics, Jean Gray developing the former and Bobby Drake the latter without any apparent disposition, yet specific insofar as the creators chose certain mutations for certain mutants. Jean Gray (Marvel Girl), Bobby Drake (Iceman), Scott Summers (Cyclops), Warren Worthington III (Angel), and Hank McCoy (Beast) are each variations of the Superman prototype. They are each adaptations.

According to Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation, adaptation is both a product and a process. The former being, as she writes, “an acknowledged transposition of a recognizable other work or works” and the latter being “a creative and an interpretive act of appropriation/salvaging” (8). Following Hutcheon, each of Lee and Kirby’s original X-Men could be understood as adaptations of Golden and Silver Age superheroes who preceded them. Likewise, Uncanny X-Men (1963-1970) could be understood as an adaptation of Action Comics (1938-2011). In X-Men and its stories, readers recognize traits (like powers, costumes, and eventually secret identities) that they might understand to have originated in some way with Superman and Action Comics. They also recognize change over time. “With adaptations,” Hutcheon explains, “we seem to desire the repetition as much as the change” (9). Superhero characters and stories have had to evolve while retaining conventions of the genre, doing the former to attract new readers and the latter to keep old ones. The changes made over time by different creators to sequential narratives are mutations not unlike those that occur endemically in X-Men stories, coded by those creators into the pre-existing DNA of the superhero genre—sometimes with great success, and other times without (a kind of “survival of the fittest”). Narrative mutation, then, is the process of producing new and different, but not all-new or all-different, sequential narrative(s)—that is, new but still recognizable. The comic is itself a mutant. Take for example Saladin Ahmed and Javier Rodríguez’s Exiles (2018-2019). Exiles #9 and #10, in particular, are prime examples of mutation because their DNA is so transparent.

A spin-off X-Men team, the Exiles first appeared in Exiles #1 (August 2001) written by Judd Winick with art by Mike McKone. The original team’s roster included alternate universe versions of veteran X-Men Blink (Clarice Ferguson), Morph, Mimic, and Thunderbird and (then) newer characters like Nocturne (Talia Josephine “T.J.” Wagner) and Magnus Lehnsherr (an alternate reality son of Magneto and Rogue). When Ahmed and Rodríguez (with Álvaro López, Muntsa Vicente, and Joe Caramagna) revived the series in 2018, Blink was the only holdover from the original Exiles. She was also one of only two mutants on the team. However, while most of Ahmed and Rodríguez’s Exiles may not be mutants, they are mutations.

Peggy Carter as an alternate-reality Captain America vs. a Medieval Baghdad version of Black Cat (from Exiles vol. 3, #9)

Besides Blink, most of their Exiles hail from alternate realities that the creators introduced to the Marvel multiverse. The team is made up of Nathaniel “Nate” Richards (Iron Lad), Wolvie (a cartoonish Wolverine), Valkyrie (after the version played by Tessa Thompson in the MCU), and Khan (a postapocalyptic, adult Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel). By issue #9, the Exiles have lost Khan and gained Peggy Carter (Captain America), Becky Barnes (the Bucky to Carter’s Cap), and King (a cowboy T’Challa/Black Panther introduced during Rod Reis’s turn on Exiles with Ahmed for issues #6 and #7). Each of these new characters, like the five original X-Men before them, were created as variations in preexisting DNA: Ahmed and Rodríguez introducing mutations to that which was altered before by other creators. In the specific instances of Valkyrie and Khan, readers might recognize the genetic influence of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok and G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel, respectively. In Exiles #9 and #10, Ahmed and Rodríguez further alter the genre’s DNA by mixing science fiction derivative superheroics with fantasy by way of One Thousand and One Nights.

Despite her feminine appearance and self-described “neon pink” complexion, when Blink is transported to a medieval Baghdad by the Tallusa device that allows for (and sometimes compels) reality-hopping—she is mistaken for Aladdin. This allows Ahmed and Rodríguez capitalize on prior adaptations of One Thousand and One Nights like Disney’s Aladdin (1992) when they center the story on the adapted character. American readers, at the very least, will likely recognize Aladdin because of Disney’s animated adaptation. The Exiles, in turn, are mistaken for other (and, perhaps, lesser known) characters of One Thousand and One Nights: Nate/genie (the Anglicized form of the Arabic djinn and proper name of the character voiced by Robin Williams), Valkyrie/Ali Baba, and King/Sinbad with Wolvie as his barber. Likewise, other derivatives of Marvel characters already exist in this alternate reality. Stephen Strange and Felicia Hardy appear as, respectively, Hakeem Strange (a sorcerer not unlike Disney’s Jafar) and Black Cat, the leader of the forty thieves. Both, unlike their counterparts in the 616, are Middle Eastern. In contrast, the white Exiles are not given darker complexions and Exiles of color are not made racially ambiguous in order to fit into their setting. They do not belong there. The same might be said for Aladdin. His story isn’t indigenous to One Thousand and One Nights.

Like Ahmed and Rodríguez’s Exiles, Aladdin is a narrative mutant. When One Thousand and One Nights was collected into an Arabic-language manuscript in the Levant in the 1300s, it did not originally include “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp.” “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” were added by French translator Antoine Galland 400 years later. In 2015, the additions of “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba” were attributed to Hanna Diab (who probably adapted them from other stories he’d grown up hearing in Aleppo). “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor” was also added to One Thousand and One Nights, although there is a record of it preexisting the European translations. The English-language translations known in the United States as One Thousand and One Nights and The Arabian Nights are, in fact, adaptations and mutants. They are the former because they meet Hutcheon’s definition—a transcription and translation—and the latter because of the ways in which they have been changed over time by translators and in their telling. In the frame story of One Thousand and One Nights, the diegetic narrator, Shahrazad, recites stories in sequence. “Aladdin,” “Ali Baba,” and “Sinbad” each became stories told by Shahrazad when they were added to the French- and English-language texts. Those texts are narrative mutants. Their creators, their translators in this instance, made changes to an established sequential narrative, producing something neither all-new nor all-different. Despite the additions of “Aladdin,” “Ali Baba,” and “Sinbad,” One Thousand and One Nights remains recognizable. Ahmed and Rodríguez’s Exiles is also a mutant because it is an example of both the superhero genre and One Thousand and One Nights mutating via comics form, although it is not the first example of either. Several characters riffing on One Thousand and One Nights have appeared in the Marvel universe. In March 1981, writer Bill Mantlo and artist Al Milgrom introduced the Arabian Knight in Incredible Hulk #257. In November of 2006, another Arabian Knight, successor to the first, was introduced by writer Christos Gage and artist Mike Perkins in Union Jack #1. In June of that same year a third, unrelated Arabian Knight appeared in Black Panther #15. When Ahmed first started writing for Marvel, he was uninterested in writing a version of Arabian Knight because he did not want to be typecast. Adapting One Thousand and One Nights through Exiles allowed the Arab- and Muslim American Ahmed to adapt the source material, which his grandmother had read to him as a child, without engaging in Orientalist stereotypes perpetuated by characters like the Arabian Knight. Exiles demonstrates the potential of the superhero genre to evolve beyond Orientalist representations of Middle Eastern people and culture. Ahmed and Rodríguez’s mutant does so because it acknowledges and respects its source material.

Abdul Qamar (aka Arabian Knight) from the cover of Ghost Rider vol. 2, #62 (art by Bob Budiansky)

The creative team makes it clear—in both text and image—that their setting is not representative of a contemporary Baghdad or the greater Middle East, and the Exiles are not representative of the culture in which the story takes place. Ahmed’s protagonists aren’t bare-chested, scimitar-wielding, hypermasculine men like Abdul Qamar (Arabian Knight I), nor are they military surplus-wearing, scimitar-wielding, hypermasculine men like Navid Hashim (Arabian Knight II). The former suggests a Middle East suspended in time, while the latter suggests a Middle East preoccupied with war, neither able to progress and both evocative of problematic gender politics, especially in the absence of Arab women. At no point in Marvel’s history has there been an ethnically Middle Eastern Arab superheroine. Characters like Sooraya Qadir (Dust), Faiza Hussain (Excalibur), and Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel/Khan) are all South Asian. Monet St. Croix (M) is North African, but it is unclear as to whether or not she would identify as Arab. The absence of Arab superwomen renders such women invisible, replicating the Orientalist stereotype of subjugated women. The presence of Black Cat, an antihero more often than a hero, in Ahmed and Rodríguez’s alternate reality Baghdad neither remedies this nor makes it worse.

Rodríguez’s Exiles are, to the reader at least, visually distinct from the characters of One Thousand and One Nights for whom they are mistaken, and so, despite being recognized as characters from Shahrazad’s stories, the Exiles cannot be accused of appropriating their fashion, which often stands in for ethnicity and culture. They aren’t dressed like citizens of medieval Iraq. (Unfortunately, the cover to Exiles vol. 3, #9 by David Nakayama deviates from this distinction). In addition to the Tallus and a choker, Blink wears a belted leotard under a jacket with coattails and thigh-high socks in cavalier boots, all different shades of green. Nate wears his Iron Lad armor with and without his helmet. Valkyrie wears her own Asgardian armor, Becky Barnes and Peggy Carter keep their WWII uniforms, and King looks more like a cowboy (which he is) than a sailor. Wolvie—a character that looks and acts like he stepped out of an issue of What If? that imagines the X-Men as Muppet Babies—would stick out in a contemporary Iraq, much less the mythical/mystical/medieval Baghdad in which Exiles #9 and #10 are set. It is important that the Exiles are distinct in appearance because they are not meant to be representations of the people whose stories are being told through them.

The Exiles are visually distinct from the characters in this version of 1001 Arabian Nights (from left to right, Wolvie, Valkyrie, King, Becky, TJ, Blink, Peggy Carter and Iron Lad – Black Cat has her back to the reader and Hakeem Strange is visible in the center through Blink’s legs). (from Exiles vol. 3, #10)

Separated from the rest of her team, Blink is the first to appear to the reader. After being mistaken for Aladdin and kicked out of their home by his mother, Blink begins to wander through the city. Baghdad natives Moussa and Ox, believing that she is Aladdin, approach her and pick a fight. Blink easily outmaneuvers them using her mutant ability of teleportation and, in doing so, catches the eye of Hakeem Strange. Strange promptly recruits Blink and leads her into the desert. There, he brings forth a cave and, not being able to enter himself, directs Blink to enter and retrieve a certain magic lamp. Blink rubs the lamp, unintentionally releasing Nate from it. Strange, believing that he has been betrayed by Blink, seals her in the cave with Nate and a monster not unlike the Spider-Man villain Rhino. For anyone familiar with either “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” or Disney’s Aladdin, this sequence is clearly an adaptation of Aladdin’s story and it is also a narrative mutation of Marvel’s canon. Ahmed and Rodríguez produce a somewhat-new and somewhat-different story using characters whose very existence relies on archetypes within the Marvel canon popularly known as the 616. Blink first appeared in that canon in Uncanny X-Men #317 (October 1994). Blink was mutated once when she appeared in the crossover event Age of Apocalypse (1995-1996) and then mutated again when that iteration appeared in Exiles (2001-2008). The combination of Blink with Aladdin in Exiles (2018-2019) is yet another mutation.

KIng and Wolvie as Sinbad and his barber face giant blue cyclopses with visors referencing Scott Summers’s from the X-Men (from Exiles #9)

In another example, Valkyrie is a mutation not just of Tessa Thompson’s character but also of the blonde-haired, blue eyed Defenders-mainstay Valkyrie, co-created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema. Whereas Blink and Nate are mistaken for Aladdin and a genie, Valkyrie and Becky are mistaken for Ali Baba and his wife. Valkyrie and Becky wander through a forest until they come upon Peggy duking it out with Black Cat. With the assistance of her forty thieves, Black Cat manages to trap Peggy and Valkyrie and kidnap Becky. Meanwhile, King and Wolvie are shown in the captain’s quarters of a ship approaching a beach. After coming ashore, giant cyclopes—brilliantly modeled after the X-Men’s own Scott Summers—attack King, Wolvie, and Sinbad’s crew. They retreat to the ship’s tender as the ship itself was destroyed by the cyclopes’ optic blasts, only to land on a sea monster mistaken for an island. The comic then shifts between each of the three stories: Blink/Aladdin, Valkyrie/Ali Baba, and King/Sinbad until they are finally reunited. Shortly after they come together, they are transported once more by the Tallus, this time to a palace where Blink is reunited with Nocturne (“T.J.”) who, like the other Exiles, has been mistaken for character from One Thousand and One Nights, despite looking like herself: Shahrazad. There, at the end of issue #9, the Exiles and the reader are introduced to the supervillain of this universe: Caliph Doom. Caliph Doom is a mutation of the Fantastic Four’s archenemy Dr. Victor Von Doom. Like Hakeem Strange and Black Cat, Caliph Doom is a part of the universe in which he appears. He is Shahrayar to T.J’s Shahrazad. She is the narrator of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad’s stories, and she has been telling them to Caliph Doom over the course of Exiles #9 and #10.

T.J./Shahrazad’s own story is elaborated upon in Exiles #10. Like the Shahrazad of One Thousand and One Nights, T.J. is married to the king, although not of her own volition. In the frame story of One Thousand and One Nights, King Shahrayar was betrayed by his first wife, who he executes. Shahrayar, consequently, seeks revenge against all women by marrying a new bride each night and killing her each morning. Shahrazad takes it upon herself to stop Shahrayar. She marries him and, depending on which adaptation is being read, delays her execution by telling the stories of characters like Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad. One thousand and one nights later, Shahrazad redeems Shahrayar. But, of the stories from One Thousand and One Nights that Ahmed and Rodríguez adapt, they change Shahrazad’s the most.

Exiles #10 opens with the Exiles facing off against Caliph Doom and his doombots. The heroes temporarily retreat to an oasis where they are reunited with Hakeem Strange and Black Cat. Strange and Black Cat quickly become allies with the Exiles against the greater threat of Caliph Doom and return to face him and his newly acquired djinn, Mephisto. In Marvel’s 616 canon, Mephisto is responsible for the death of Doom’s mother. Here, too, the djinn Mephisto is responsible for her death. When Mephisto offers to free her soul in return for Doom’s own freedom, Doom consents, but not before he says to T.J., “Wise Shahrazad, your stories could not cure my evil. But through them I can at least imagine what a more just ruler might do.” From One Thousand and One Nights, Ahmed and Rodríguez adapt fables meant to invoke and impart morals in some of the same ways that superhero comics have since Action Comics #1. But superhero comics aren’t just fables, they’re speculative fiction: they allow creators and readers to imagine alternative power structures. These comics, especially those made by creators of marginalized identities during the contemporary period—defined by social media and the digitization of comic books—that I have termed the Blue Age (2010s to present), aren’t just about good versus evil. They imagine what might happen if power was more evenly distributed. Exiles, in particular, is about power: not just mutant abilities but systemic power, especially if one reads team books as arguments for collective action, but that’s a topic for another essay. Exiles is a narrative mutant because in it there is as much evidence of where it comes from as there is evidence that the superhero genre is evolving.

Caliph Doom cedes control of his domain to T.J. having learned something of justice from her stories in the role of Shahrazad [from Exiles vol. 3, #10 (January 2019)]

Ahmed and Rodríguez’s Exiles, exemplified here by issues #9 and #10, makes plain the influence of fifty years of Marvel comics and One Thousand and One Nights as genetic material.  Their characters and the stories that they tell—adaptations after Hutcheon—might be familiar to old readers, but they offer something new and different to prospective readers. Changes made by the creators occur randomly within the context of the story itself—not unlike the mutations assigned to the X-Men by Lee and Kirby and so many other creators since 1963. These narrative mutations, from which my theory of mutation takes its name, result in mutants: texts that demonstrate the ways in which sequential narrative might still evolve. Comics like Exiles have reimagined superheroes as something other than predominantly white, cisgender men privileged with great power and burdened with great responsibility. They acknowledge that history and have provided readers with the kind of repetition that has been a staple of superhero comics since the Golden Age, yet they’ve introduced as much, if not more, change. Ahmed and Rodríguez’s Exiles are a team predominantly made up of women, led by a woman of color. Although the series ended after only 12 issues, the characters that they mutated belong to the Marvel multiverse as much as Jean Gray, Bobby Drake, Scott Summers, Warren Worthington III, or Hank McCoy. They might even appear alongside these characters (or their own mutations) someday. Narrative mutation—changes made to sequential narrative—resulting in mutants—comics and characters that are new and different—allow us to imagine where the superhero genre might go: that we might see more people of marginalized identities with power, and that their stories might be told by people like them.

Adrienne Resha is a Ph.D. student in the American Studies Program at the College of William & Mary. Her research interests include Arab and Muslim representation in American popular media, the superhero genre, and (new) media theory. She can be found online at her website, adrienneresha.com, or on Twitter @AdrienneResha.

4 thoughts on “1001 Variations: Narrative Mutation & Marvel’s Exiles

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