Sunday, August 5, 2012

SurVILEvor Island: Cabal

Spit covered Libra as the true Vile Menagerie offered an appropriate send-off for the temporary murderer of J'Onn J'Onzz as he made the walk of shame off SurVILEvor Island. Across the two March Madness competitions to date, Libra had two first round losses to Brimstone and the wizard Diabolu, each by a landslide. Par for this course, Libra garnered only 22% of 18 votes...

Jemm is a problematic character. He was created as a Martian Prince to star in his own mini-series where J'onn J'onzz was to be relegated to the role of semi-adversarial supporting player. Given that this is a Martian Manhunter fan blog, that's a rather treasonous intention. However, DC editors put the kibosh on that, Jemm became a Saturnian, and was then consigned to the scrapheap of history. This leads to a second problem for fans, as Jemm's story was a continuation of Bronze Age Martian lore with only superficial adjustments made. All of the Martian Manhunter stories from 1968-1984 were later expunged from his canon, leaving only Jemm as a touchstone to that fallen continuity. Metaphorically, it made sense for Grant Morrison to use Jemm as a foil for the Alien Atlas amidst his Injustice Gang in 1999, but as conceived by his creators, Jemm was a Christlike figure whose heart bled for the injustices of the world. Barring his becoming the extraterrestrial Ozymandias, the Son of Saturn was almost a better person than J'Onn J'Onzz, so villainy really didn't suit him. The 1998 series got some mileage out of misunderstanding and a 4th wall bending flogging of Jemm for attempting to usurp the Sleuth from Outer Space. Still, things got difficult when Jemm's skewed version of Mar's Bronze Age continuity got dragged into J'Onn's then-Modern Age reinterpretation.

When Saturnians were annexed into Post-Crisis Martian history as enslaved clones who retained the racial strife of their makers, the individual characters from the '80s Jemm mini-series were handled poorly. Part of what defined Jemm as the Saturnian messiah was his being the only person born with the Mark of Jargon, a gemstone of power fused to his forehead unseen since ancient times. Then the story arc "Rings of Saturn" had two other characters running around with them without explanation. With the exception of the exceptionally skilled Koolars and Jemm, Saturnians were basically just humans with extra strength and durability. The Koolars could merge their beings with stationary objects to animate them as extensions of their own bodies. Meanwhile, members of the Red royal family alone had the power of flight, which translated practically into just Jemm and his cousin Jogarr. Finally, Jemm's birthstone allowed him to send and receive empathic energies, as well as concentrate his power to create energy blasts and forcefields. Jemm alone seemed the only Saturnian who could elongate his body at will, but none were ever shown to use this minor application of shapeshifting for something as elaborate as disguise (as Martians are wont to do.)

In the 1998 series, Saturnians were just lesser Martians, with all the basic powers and weaknesses except intangibility. A key plot point of "Rings of Saturn" was that six Saturnians of mixed race merged into a gestalt being called Cabal through shapeshifting. The purpose of Cabal was to kill a mixed race royal couple before they could be married. The plot hole was that the six people within the Cabal had helped to conceive and force the prospect of marriage against the objections of its star couple, and yet were also set on killing the pair to reignite the race war. Wouldn't it be a much shorter path to just start killing one another without all the complex machinations and forced nuptials? Kofi Annan just quit peace negotiations in Syria this week when he realized that despite everyone in the world saying they wanted things sorted out, the only ones doing anything at all were secretly opposed to ending the violently repressive current regime. Peace requires enormous finagling. War only asks for invective and a few willing participants to get the ball rolling. Further, the Cabal was made up of key figures from both races, which I suppose was meant to be ironic, but was just nonsensical. These guys could have simply refused to work together, and if either of their respective royals objected, they could be killed or forced into exile without the elaborate yet deeply flawed plot.

Setting aside what a stupefying train wreck the conspiracy was, it only gets worse if you read the Jemm mini-series and recognize the fundamental changes to the established characters in order to make the plot work. For instance, there was only one royal family in Son of Saturn, and it was made up of Red Saturnians descended from Jargon the Mighty. Besides simple racism, a key motivation for the White Saturnian uprising is that they do not recognize the monarchy nor wish to be ruled by Reds. The Whites were a disparate people united under a military dictatorship by General Synnar. Furthermore, all but a handful of their males died in a Great Holocaust, leaving the White Saturnians as an almost all female warrior race led by Commander Synn.

"Rings" introduces a new character named Johm, whose race is difficult to determine because he was drawn similarly to the Red Saturnian Jogarr and both characters were miscolored throughout the story arc as either Red or White, depending on the given issue. Assuming Johm was White, was he one of the eleven or so surviving males from the mini-series, or were more discovered? Either way, it is unlikely that the amazonian Koolars would submit to the leadership of a male, especially the overseer of the gender-based discrimination, Commander Synn. Of the White half of the Cabal, we have a royal that shouldn't exist, a male who if he did exist shouldn't be a figure of authority, and a misandrist fascist who would never work under either. It doesn't help that Synn was revealed to be a mother at the end of Son of Saturn, echoing the familial strife between the White Queen and Princess, but Synn's child was never mentioned again.

Now, the new Red government was founded by Jogarr to be a diplomatic republic modeled after those of Earth, and included a president. For some reason, this is replaced by a newly created prime minister for "Rings," and unfortunately Dall looked exactly like Jogarr and John to maximize confusion. However, an elected head would understandably feel undermined by a messianic royal, so his motivation is clear. Jogarr loathed the monarchy, fighting to suppress and exile Jemm, so his involvement in a conspiracy makes sense... except that he also worked toward the wholesale genocide of the White race. It is difficult to believe that he would scheme with Whites in general, but especially not the daughter of his archenemy General Synnar, who was responsible for the Great Holocaust. Finally, there was Prelate Balik, who was created despite it already having been established that the Ghani were the primary religious leaders on Saturn. Balik was initially colored as a White, which still fit the Ghani, but perhaps the Whites had their own religion that went unmentioned previously. However, Balik was colored as a Red for most of the story arc, presumably to balance out the racial formation of Cabal. The religious Saturnians seemed divided between monarchical loyalists and dissenters, so Balik seems consistent with the Ghani there, and perhaps was some sort of pope? He filled out the six member team, and was an opportunist, so there's not an issue there.

Having tried my best to explain the who and why of the Cabal, I can finally reach my point-- that they are made up entirely of Jemm's supporting cast, and their goal is to kill Jemm and his fiance. Besides the bad form of throwing so many important figures in Jemm's universe under the bus for one Martian Manhunter story arc, they're still Jemm's characters. Jemm's cousin and main supporting character for about half of the Son of Saturn mini-series got shot dead off panel while separated from Cabal. Commander Synn, the primary surviving villain of the mini-series, has her mind shattered in a psychic battle with a queen that shouldn't exist. The other participants in the Cabal similarly destroy themselves with only a telepathic nudge from Martian Manhunter and Princess Cha'rissa. Cabal managed to hand J'Onn his butt one time, then imploded on a second encounter with the slightest help from our heroes. How does that make them part of the rogues gallery of J'Onn J'Onzz as individuals, and how could they reform Cabal again with one part dead and the rest perpetually in conflict with one another? Even if they did, these guys all belong to Jemm's Saturn, which strikes me as similar to having the Flash Rogues become recurring Green Lantern villains.

My basic argument is that Cabal never made sense as a construct, took part in a pointlessly complicated but ultimately dumb conspiracy, was made up of ill-conceived constituents, and that the lot of them belong to another hero. While "Rings of Saturn" was a fun story arc, it compromised the integrity of Jemm's solo stories, and did not provide grist for any further Martian Manhunter stories to date. Cabal as a concept might be useful to the Sleuth from Outer Space, but doesn't work in the formation presented as an ongoing concern.


mathematicscore said...

Good points all, but I think Cabal was a significant enough foe, based on the aforementioned butt handing and being the basis for a story arc in MM's title. They certainly also belong in a Jemm rogue's gallery, but still belong in J'onn's.

Diabolu Frank said...

It took me forever to attempt to articulate my issues with Cabal, and while I remain the lone negative vote, I never had much passion for or expectation of ousting the Saturnians. I meh on Cabal overall, so they cab stay or go, but seem poised to stick.

I did finally vote pro-Gorilla Grodd, because I really like and will miss the guy if trends continue to see him out the door. There's a point to all this, though, and the VM should end up stronger for all its evictions...

will_in_chicago said...

I am going to vote no for Cabal, as the character concept is a train wreck. A revised version of Cabal, with your concerns addressed could work, but first J'emm needs to be introduced to the new continuity. As of now, J'Onn's role in the DCnU is up in the air. (The fact that the editors at DC want to move him out of Stormwatch and hopefully do SOMETHING SIGNIFICANT with a character that has been around fro over 50 years.)

I voted for Grodd, as I think that he can be a great contrast to J'Onn, who is a champion of humanity in many ways. Indeed, I think that J'Onn believes in our species more than many of the heroes of the currently dysfunctional Justice League. Grodd, despite being a Flash character, at least makes a lot more sense than Cabal -- who seems to have been assembled with about as much thought as randomly throwing different foods and spices together to hope for a great dish. (If Malefic, Commander Blanx, and Grodd can be compared with fine meals, then Cabal is kind of like mixing anchovies with peanut butter, tabasco sauce, and vanilla ice cream.)

mathematicscore said...

I too voted for Grodd, just because they seem meant for each other.
Flash will always have the connection, but J'onn's supposed to be the stuff in the southern hemisphere, and Gorilla City is clearly there.

Diabolu Frank said...

History aside, I do think Grodd makes more sense as a Martian Manhunter villain on every level than he does a Flash one.