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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, June 13, 2011


PLOT-SUMMARY of "To Build a Fire" (story: Louise Simonson; art: Jon J. Muth) : The team known as "the New Mutants" is only seen for a few panels before the beginning of the story proper, essentially a tale of two characters playing off one another. One is Amara (super-name "Magma"), a refugee from said group who has recently joined forces with the Hellions, another collection of superpowered teens who are rivals to the New Mutants. The other main character is one of the Hellions, Manuel (super-name "Empath"), whose importance in the story is highlighted by an opening fight-scene. In a battle-training session all six Hellions pit their powers against those of Amara. Her volcanic-fire powers prove superior to all of them, until Manuel enters the fight, using his empathic powers to make Amara profess love for him. She breaks his spell and starts to flee the room, only to be stopped by the White Queen, leader of the Hellions. White Queen gives Amara a letter from her father, which states that Amara must return to her home in Nova Roma, a Roman colony situated in the Amazon rainforests. Since White Queen wants Amara to return to the States, she sends along Manuel, instructing the empath to use his powers on Amara's father so that he'll allow Amara to return. A storm forces the plane carrying Amara and Manuel to crash in the rainforest, where they must make their way to civilization. Manuel encourages Amara to create a volcanic fire to serve as a beacon to rescue-parties; Amara refuses (ostensibly) because the fire might devastate the jungle. The vicissitudes of jungle survival and the teenagers' passionate feelings toward each other eventually lead Amara to unleash her power. Her father's search-party finds the two of them, but not before a bond has formed between the super-teens.

MYTH-ANALYSIS: It would be easy to mistake "To Build a Fire" (a title beholden to that of a Jack London short story about survival) as no more than one among dozens of Tortured Teen Romance stories produced for Marvel Comics' prolific line of mutant-superhero features. What elevates the Simonson-Muth story from simple melodrama to myth is its emphasis upon the psychological power-plays that make up "the war between men and women."

Some of the traditional roles of men and women in this kind of survival-story are reversed. Often in stories dealing with a man and woman striving to survive against nature, the man possesses both raw power and experience in dealing with the elements, while the woman, usually an overcivilized female, must be educated in the ways of savage nature-- often prefiguring her initiation into sexuality as well.

Here, Amara's mutant power is far more forceful than that of Manuel, whose persuasive power over emotions is stereotypically "female." In addition, Manuel is a city-boy who is revulsed by the dangers of the jungle, while Amara has had ample experience with the jungle's ways. She is even identified with the Amazon jungle, saying that at one point she lived in the wild "as an Amazon," apart from her residence in civilized Nova Roma. During their trek toward civilization, she's the one who finds edible food and fights off two wild beasts that attack Manuel, so that she assumes the "male" role in the relationship.

Nonetheless, the possibility that Manuel might dominate Amara psychically-- even if he cannot do so physically-- remains an ever-present threat, even if it's ambiguous as to whether he ever does really try to do so. After the initial battle-scene, White Queen tells Manuel that she's aware that Amara broke Manuel's spell because he didn't go "all out." At the same time, the Queen also tells Manuel that she's detected him exerting some "subtle influence" over Amara, though Manuel never admits doing so, nor states his reasons for so doing.

Later, in the scene when the plane is about to crash, Amara starts to panic. Manuel threatens her with domination: "Will I have to take you over, to make you calm?" She screams "no" even as the plane crashes into a lake, but despite her moment of defiance Manuel then takes on the role of the male rescuer, hauling her out of the lake to safe ground.

However, after that Manuel's male ego takes a beating. He proposes that she create a fiery volcano in the earth to serve as a beacon, but she refuses, wary of starting a runaway fire. He disparages the "trackless wastes" of the jungle and its "screaming monkeys," and Amara defends the jungle as her home. He threatens for a second time to dominate her to make her do his bidding, and her response is perversely fascinating:

"Go on! Try! Coward! Afraid of little monkeys! I should let you do it-- and leave you to burn up in the conflagration!"

By 1988 it has become a common Marvel-Comics trope-- perhaps pioneered by Chris Claremont-- to equate psychic-power dominance with the act of physical rape. Thus we have Amara apparently goading Manuel to commit an act of psychic rape on her, for which he would then be punished by the unleashing of her power. Not surprisingly, Manuel doesn't accept the challenge.

They bed down in the jungle, and "several silent, angry hours later," Amara again gets to assume a male role. While thinking angry thoughts about Manuel, she hears him moan, thinks him a coward again, and then chastises herself for forgetting that he rescued her from the plane. She turns to see a vampire bat sucking Manuel's blood and chases it away. He resents her superiority over him but she does use her power to make a bigger campfire to keep away other animals-- a partial concession to his earlier demand.

She gathers fruit for his breakfast the next day and tells him to watch out for animals when he goes to use the jungle john. Manuel sees a flower and fantasizes himself in the more traditional male role: "Tarzan pay for breakfast! Bring Jane pretty flower for her pretty hair!" But he arouses a jaguar, and again Amara comes to rescue, driving it away with a spear (and curiously declining to use her fire-powers against the beast). However, Amara takes a deep leg-wound from the creature.

At this point the psychological power-plays come out in full force. Manuel, though clearly worried about Amara's wound, tries again to manipulate her into doing his will, first indirectly, by observing that "it's almost as if you don't want us to be rescued." Amara drops the bomb that she really doesn't want to go home because her father plans to marry her to a stranger. Manuel naturally doesn't accept that as a good reason for hanging out in the jungle. Again the threat of mind-rape arises, complete with Manuel looming over Amara in the attitude of a genuine rapist: "Signal our need willingly... or I'll make you!" She responds with a backhand punch, but he tackles her and this time seems to exert his full power over her. However, she not only does create a mini-volcano, but also does something he doesn't demand: kissing him full on the mouth. Amusingly, he shouts "No" when she kisses him, mirroring the "No" she cries out in earlier scenes. The volcano does set the forest ablaze and the two teens flee to the river, Amara apparently forgetting her earlier threat to let him burn. A short time later Amara's father and his soldiers, responding to the earth-tremors, find the castaways.

Simonson and Muth never spell out Amara's motives for the Big Smooch. That the two teenagers have some passion for one another, perhaps encouraged by Manuel's mental influence, goes without saying. But the significance of the kiss goes beond that, for Amara's osculatory addition suggests that her apparent submission may actually be an empowering act. Possibly she makes the volcano not because he forces her, but because he's genuinely concerned for her welfare, not just his own, as he was when he made the threat earlier.

In addition, Amara's self-identification with the rainforest, though not stressed, follows the mythic motif by which femininity is equated with the earth and growing things. If Amara's character and the forest are one, then Manuel's casual demand that she should risk burning down her home, her other self, would be closer to an act of rape than any of his often faltering attempts at psychic dominance. And certainly there's more than a little female empowerment in the exchange they have just before the smooch:

MANUEL: "I want to save you! I can feel how afraid you are!"

AMARA: "How I feel is my business! How I handle what I feel-- is my responsibility."

It's not exactly as ringing as "with great power there comes great responsibility," but it's pretty damn resonant just the same.

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