Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Maddening Mystery of Madam Medusa!

If we're to believe the events of an X-Men story published in the fall of 2008, then two classic Fantastic Four issues will need to have that story inserted between them in order to put into perspective a mystery that began at that time and spanned no less than forty-three years.

The period in question covers the exit of Madam Medusa from the ranks of the Frightful Four, as she apparently renounces her criminal lifestyle and rejoins the Inhuman royal family. And "apparently" is about all we have to go on in that respect, since writer Stan Lee's intent to use Medusa as a link to the introduction of the Inhumans effectively bulldozes over any accountability that Medusa would need to address as far as being an outlaw who remains at large after her three partners in crime were captured by the FF. Lee manages to wipe Medusa's slate clean, with just about everyone; the FF, instead of 'cuffing her when she resurfaces and hauling her to the police, are instead swept up in the mystery of the Inhumans, with the disaster of the "Great Barrier" that later seals off their refuge in the Himalayas providing the time for readers to become used to Medusa in her new role (well, that and a fresh appearance in the pages of Spider-Man), while the Inhumans, who assigned Gorgon to relentlessly pursue her, don't even question her on her reasons for joining a criminal band, instead seemingly content with her return.  (See the 1990 story by Lou Mougin and Richard Howell to clear up at least a few of these gaps.)

The only people who do still remember Medusa are her erstwhile and currently incarcerated partners in the Frightful Four, who for obvious reasons are very interested in her disappearing act.

But long after Medusa's unexplained departure from crime has been covered in dust, as the character continued on as one of the Inhumans (even joining as a member of the Fantastic Four for a time--how's that for smudging over her criminal past?), it looks as if writer Jeff Parker is willing to take a stab at filling in the missing pieces of this puzzle--and in the 2007 X-Men First Class title which supplements the early adventures of the original X-Men while they're still students at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, the X-Men encounter the stolen anti-grav ship which Medusa escaped in following that final battle in the Baxter Building, and move to disable it when it flies haphazardly near a local airport and becomes a menace to air traffic. Though once it's been brought to ground, the team may have a different menace on their hands.

It's interesting how often comics will add a flourish to a character's title of "Madam" by choosing to use the French version of the word, "Madame," which generally refers to a woman who's married. The only Marvel character for whom the title might apply would be Madame Natasha, the Black Widow, who was once married to the Red Guardian. It's unlikely that Moondragon, in her guise as Madame MacEvil, would have claimed either French ancestry or marital status, though we don't know enough about Madame Syn to draw any such conclusions.

As for Medusa, she's none too pleased about having been virtually accused of being a "woman driver," so it takes the X-Men a little time to defuse the situation.

As we can see, Parker glosses over a few points of interest in order to move this story forward. Had Medusa actually have had her day in court, the prosecution would have had a field day in rebutting her rather creative way of papering over her past actions with the Frightful Four. For one thing, her assertion that attacking the Fantastic Four constituted no crime; attacking anyone with malice is a crime, particularly when it involves attempted murder, kidnapping, unauthorized medical procedures, breaking and entering--and, gosh, how about detonating a Q-bomb in proximity to your victims? Further, while Medusa has no prior criminal record like her three ex-partners, she still has a criminal record, however she chooses to obscure it by attempting such a feeble comparison. She would even later admit to her criminal status when she's coerced to rejoin the Frightful Four.

As far as her reasons for joining with the Wizard, we would probably call "hogwash" on her professed intent of only seeking answers about herself, given how eagerly she threw in with a known criminal and embraced a life of crime. But as we'll discover, she warrants a little slack cut her way on this point.

Knowing Medusa as we do at this stage (at least, as we think we do), our first instinct would be to suspect that she's playing for time--telling the X-Men what she thinks they might want to hear, in order to lower their guard until she can turn the situation to her advantage. She even goes over the top a little--after all, how better to gain the trust of a band of hidden mutants than to imply that you might be a mutant yourself? So the fact that the X-Men have lowered their guard so quickly is a little surprising; nevertheless, Medusa is given the benefit of the doubt, and Xavier begins his examination of her.

Almost imperceptibly, Parker appears to have made an adjustment to Medusa's reason for joining the Wizard--from being curious as to her origins, to ensuring she would have allies against some perceived threat to her, which we can conclude to be Gordon's search for her. It would imply that Gorgon had been searching for her well before she came into contact with the Wizard, which doesn't really make sense when you look back at the period in question. The impression writer Stan Lee gave us of Gorgon at the time was that he was a most determined, relentless, and dogged pursuer, forcing Medusa to scurry under any rock (or into any Corvette Stingray jump-seat) she could find to escape him; yet being a member of the Frightful Four is about as high-profile as you could get, which makes his absence during such a period all the more conspicuous. It makes sense for Medusa to be unconcerned about his pursuit at the time, given that she hadn't yet specifically identified the threat--but why would Gorgon pause, or otherwise lay low? He wouldn't have cared one whit about going up against (and kicking his way through) the Wizard and his two partners in order to get to Medusa.

Regardless, it falls to Xavier to pierce the veil and get to the root of Medusa's past. Unfortunately, what he's able to uncover only adds to the mystery.

Normally we would attribute Xavier's out-of-the-blue "illness" as a device the writer might use to curb the ability of the planet's foremost telepath in uncovering the whole mystery and presenting it to us before the story is ready to have it presented. And while there might be some truth to that, we'll discover that Xavier's difficulty is due to another factor that's effectively thrown his scan "off the trail," as it were.

We can, however, address the notion that "Madam Medusa," while admittedly not a bad "gang name," was limited to her status in the Frightful Four.  On the contrary, the name was in existence before she had a gang--in fact, before she had even met the Wizard.

But, speaking of the Wizard, Medusa is about to find that her past isn't as easy to shake off as she'd hoped, as her former partner shows up to reclaim her--whether she's willing to come or, as we'll more revealingly see, even if she's not.

And so the Wizard is returned to prison, though there are some loose ends that the story unfortunately cannot tie up due to Medusa's prior commitments in the 1965-66 FF stories. For instance, we have to presume that Medusa, free of the Wizard's influence, now becomes more aware of Gorgon, which might explain her abrupt departure off-panel; and her experience with the Wizard's device might also explain why she continues to feel the need to escape Gorgon's pursuit, at least at first. It also seems that the haughty persona of "Madam" Medusa still lingers to an extent:

Unfortunately, closing the circle for Medusa so that she returns comfortably to continuity clashes with the progress she's made with the X-Men--though if we make the effort, we can find ways to explain the discrepancies. As an example, thanks to the evidence that Xavier has uncovered regarding the Wizard, Medusa has an invaluable opportunity to clear her name with the authorities, yet nevertheless chooses to remain a fugitive. (Possible answer: A pressing urge to escape the pursuit of Gorgon. Perhaps Xavier later stepped in and acted on her behalf.) Also, she appeared to have found a place for herself with the X-Men, even rushing to change into one of their uniforms and fight at their side--why not consider formalizing her status with them? She may have discovered the Wizard's duplicity, but her status as to whether or not she's a mutant remains unclear. And if she's suddenly overcome with her fear of Gorgon, she now has the allies that she once hoped the Frightful Four would be. (Possible answer: She's opting for going underground, to be on the safe side.)

All things considered, this "untold story" is really not a bad effort by Parker to shore up what proved to be a confusing oversight by Lee in choosing Medusa to play a key role in the unfolding saga of the Inhumans and establishing a new direction for the character. Again, forty-three years after the fact, it's a bit late in the game to bother with plugging that hole--but as we've seen, the circumstances easily support a full story, as opposed to a series of detailed flashbacks which might have taken place in earlier, more relevant stories. I might have preferred a more serious treatment of the issue, as the light, humorous style of the mostly good-natured X-Men First Class title might not have provided the dramatic feel that it needed to have; but the story does serve as a nice footnote to an unresolved piece of Marvel history.

X-Men First Class #15

Script: Jeff Parker
Pencils: Karl Kesel
Inks: Val Staples
Letterer: Nate Piekos


NorRad said...

Parker's Madame Medusa story "confirms" what I suspected about Medusa's association with the Frightful Four for some time. Medusa's "evil-to-good" transformation makes no sense unless some form of mind-control was involved in making her "evil" in the first place. Simply saying that she joined the Wizard's group because she had amnesia at the time just doesn't cut it. Would amnesia alone cause an essentially good person (as Medusa was later revealed to be) to help a gang of criminals in their efforts to MURDER four good people (five if you count Alicia Masters)? If you read those early Frightful Four stories, "Madame" Medusa appears to have no qualms about being a party to murder. She even seem to take pleasure in doing so. That's why I always figured that, if Medusa wasn't really evil, the Wizard must have used some version of his Id Machine to control her and twist her mind just as he did with the Thing.

NorRad said...

Things I found amusing in this story:
Iceman calling the Human Torch "the loser version of me." You can just imagine how the Torch would have reacted to that.
Jean trying to use her telekinetic powers to "animate" her own hair like Medusa. Jean, like most super-heroines, isn't usually used as a source of humor.
BTW, given their size difference, Medusa shouldn't be able to wear Jean's costume. Medusa is supposed to be 5'11" and 130 lbs., whereas Jean is 5'6" and 110 lbs. Even Jean's boots would be too tight for Medusa's feet. It would be like having Nicole Kidman try to put on Jennifer Aniston's clothes and shoes. Can't be done.

Comicsfan said...

Nice observations, NorRad! As for Medusa's X-Man uniform, Ms. Kidman (who probably doesn't need to raid the closets of other women anyway) might have had success with Ms. Aniston's clothes if the latter's wardrobe were made of unstable molecules, which seem to make their way from team to team and which have been used in the past to explain a number of such discrepancies. (Though, honestly, I can't see someone like Goliath being able to suit up in the uniform of a 6-foot Avenger. That would be, forgive the expression, stretching things.)

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