An Emma Frost Salon
by Ken Kneisel
Welcome back to White Queen Wednesday, gentle reader. This week I will discuss the X-Men Origins: Emma Frost one-shot that was released last week. There are several different elements that make up this origin issue. Some of which I quite liked, some I found interesting in their own way and some I could frankly do without. This issue provoked a very strong and powerful reaction in me, from visceral revulsion to delight. There is a lot to discuss, so let’s get started right away!
I think the cover is quite lovely. I like the suggestion of movement with her cape and hair and the contrast between her hard expression and the softness of her silky garments and pale alabaster skin. There is no cover artist credited in this issue, but STORM tells me his name is Benjamin.
On the first page we are immediately confronted with an Emma who seems uncharacteristically timid and unsure of herself. Not at all like the cool aloof Emma I’m familiar with, who would have strode onto that stage with her head held high as if she owned the place.
What is the Hellfire Cabaret? This is the first I have heard of it, and it’s not made entirely clear in this issue whether it is meant to be an entertainment room within the Hellfire Club itself, some sleazier subsidiary or something altogether different. Whatever it is meant to be, it doesn’t feel like the Hellfire Club, that notorious playground for the obscenely wealthy. It just comes off cheap and greasy, like some sketchy dive bar or truck stop. For one thing, a heckler asks for his money back. Can you imagine there even being a cover charge at the Hellfire Club in the first place? I certainly cannot.
The characterization of Emma in these pages also feels very off to me, and an unexplained reversal of what has been revealed before. In this page from Grant Morrison & Phil Jimenez’s New X-Men #139, where we first learned that Emma started out as a dancer at the Hellfire Club to begin the ascent that would eventually gain her the role of White Queen, Emma was shown to use her powers proactively to cloud the minds of the Council of the Chosen who ran the Hellfire Club at the time in order to manipulate them into letting her dance there.
However, here we are presented with a clumsy Emma who is painfully uncertain of herself and defensive, using her powers reactively to lash out at a crowd of drunken simpletons because they were mean to her. Emma doesn’t need to prove herself to these degenerates so it’s embarrassing to see her throw such an undignified tantrum in reaction to their boorish taunts.
I will confess to a complete ignorance of the entire Emma Frost solo series which explored her early years, a condition I will likely rectify soon, so the childhood scenes were mostly inoffensive if a little rote and cliche. But I was charmed by nerdy young precocious ugly duckling Emma.
It was a little strange to see Professor Charles Xavier and his associate Moira MacTaggert attempt to recruit young Emma into his school for gifted youngsters, considering we’ve already seen a similar scene play out in a short story from X-Men: Deadly Genesis #5 where Emma didn’t appear to recognize either of them from this earlier meeting. But it is interesting to see that Xavier was so aggressive in pursuing Emma for his school that he tried to recruit her twice. I’m assuming this earlier overture was made when Professor X was initially assembling his first team of young mutants, so it’s also interesting to imagine how differently things might have played out had young Emma accepted Xavier’s offer and become the team telepath instead of Jean Grey, or perhaps even in addition to Jean!
And now we come to what I feel was the most distasteful element in this retelling of Emma’s origin, the shocking insertion of a cycle of abuse that began with Emma’s inexplicably psychopathic ranting lunatic father knocking her across the floor and culminated with Sebastian Shaw, the Black King of the Hellfire Club, slamming Emma’s face into a table for entering his mind without permission. The aftermath of this brutal violence is even more disappointing and regrettable, as Shaw grabs Emma and starts kissing her then Emma begins passionately kissing him back. It seems this is how Emma and Shaw began their partnership that would leave the old order dead and rocket them to the top of the Hellfire Club. This is an ugly bit of business, and it just feels unnecessary to me. There is already plenty of drama layered into Emma’s rich history to draw from without clumsily inserting a crude and cliche abused woman scenario.
And I don’t like the way Emma says she was “reduced to being a stripper.” When Emma left home, it was the independent act of a rebellious individual. She said she decided to start at the bottom. Nobody forced her to, it was her decision. Although it was not spelled out at the time precisely why she took the job as a dancer at the Hellfire Club, the way I personally interpreted the situation was that she knew exactly what the Hellfire Club was all about and thought taking a job as a dancer there would be a good way to get her foot in the door and eventually work her way to the upper echelons of power. I don’t like the characterization of her taking the job out of desperation and a lack of any other marketable skills. This does not feel authentically Emma to me at all. To suggest that Emma had no life skills is a joke. If nothing else, she was a master manipulator. And that’s a big if, considering she owned and ran a successful corporation and devised all manner of machines to identify mutants and augment their powers or even swap minds.
It’s true Emma has some serious daddy issues and complicated relationships with men, but especially when she started out as a villain she was always shown manipulating them or clouding their minds or otherwise making them see and do what she wanted them to. Emma never allowed herself to be victimized or controlled or exploited by anyone. The writer has got the relationship between Emma and Sebastian Shaw entirely backwards. It was Emma who manipulated Shaw and let him think he was in charge. And it was Shaw who misread Emma’s desire for a brilliant ruthless father substitute as love, not the other way around.
It could be that this is meant to illustrate the hardships that Emma had to endure and overcome during her time with the Hellfire Club, but it is still disappointing and depressing because by all accounts Emma stayed with Shaw and never left him until the bitter end when she fell into a coma after the Sentinel attack that left many of her Hellions dead.
I don’t like this interpretation of Emma as a helpless puppet being beaten and buffeted around by all the powerful men in her life with no will or determination of her own. This absolves Emma of any personal culpability or responsibility for her career as a villain, but it also has the unfortunate side effect of robbing her of much of her motivation and self-determination as well.
I especially don’t like the way Emma has been reduced from Shaw’s perceived equal to his underling or plaything. This retcon makes Emma seem more pitiful than inspirational. I don’t want to sympathize with Emma because she’s been treated so shabbily and is just fatalistically perpetuating the cycle of abuse, I want to be inspired by her powerful determination and indomitable will or devotion to her students.
I am bothered by the way Emma says she does not know what possessed her to kiss Shaw, that she is not self-aware enough to recognize what motivates her to do the things she does, especially something so seemingly incongruous as making out with the man who just slammed her face into a table. I am also disturbed by the scene of Shaw buttoning Emma’s cape as if she were a child or doll with no will of her own.
My intention is not to blame the victim, but rather to assert that Emma is noone’s victim. Certainly not the weak-willed victim we see here with no drive or direction of her own until a man comes along to beat some into her.
It might seem strange for me to say this about a character whose career as a villain was largely defined by skimpy lingerie and telepathic torture, but this unsubtle introduction of child abuse and abused wife syndrome elements into Emma’s background just feels really base and crass. Almost too blunt and raw, a coarsening of the once subtle racial and social cultural metaphors of the X-Men into something more akin to a Lifetime television movie or an information pamphlet about how to identify domestic violence.
It was nice to see the Hellions again though. They only ever really appeared in just over a dozen or so comics when they were still alive, so any chance to see them even in flashback is always a rare treat.
In closing, I would like to share with you an excerpt from an email sent to me by my co-worker Farouz on this subject after we’d been discussing it. Our conversations really helped crystallize my concerns about this issue, and I feel like she sums it up best.
“I felt moved to complete my thought on the feminist thing that I brought up: A true feminist recognizes and endorses the fact that it is the individual woman’s perogative to own and use her resources (body and looks included) in any manner which she so chooses. It is the woman who decides. That seems to me to be the operative principle in regards to Emma and the great power she possess’. Emma is the quintessential feminist, having chosen both villany and heroine-ism, HERSELF. She’s a badass because she does whatever SHE wants to do, no one controls her (right??? excepting that one body swap issue!).”
Well said, Farouz!
I appreciate you joining me for this difficult White Queen Wednesday, gentle reader. I trust that if you read this issue yourself then it might have provoked some reaction in you as well. If so then please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below, because there is plenty to talk about. Until next week!