[10 December 2013]
Every compelling character ever conjured has multiple talents and multiple personality traits. The ones with only a few select skills are like janitors and fast food cashiers in that they’re usually forgettable and easily replaceable. Yet at times, the various talents or traits of some characters often goes underutilized or are even forgotten. For any character with decades of backstory, that’s to be expected. However, when certain traits are revisited, it can be both compelling and overdue.
For nearly a decade now, Emma Frost has been the tough, crass, overtly sexy vixen of the X-men. She could easily be a lead woman in a James Bond movie. She could just as easily be a feminist icon that highlights the power of an ambiguous woman not afraid to use her mind and body to get what she wants. But in recent years, so much of her story in recent years has revolved around her essentially replacing the role once held by Jean Grey as the X-men’s top telepath and as Cyclops’s lover. While this has led to some significant development, and at times softening, of her character, it has detracted from some of her other talents that don’t involve her attitude or her bawdy dress sense.
But in Uncanny X-men #14, it’s Emma Frost’s skills as a teacher and educator of young mutants that is most prominently on display. It’s easy for people not obsessed with her attitude and choice of attire to forget that Emma Frost has a passion for teaching. Granted, some of her teaching methods would probably get her blacklisted by nearly every PTA in the world, but there’s no denying her dedication to her students and her passion for doing so. It’s a passion she can do with her clothes on and one she can do effectively. And for once, the romantic sub-plots with Cyclops and her bitter attitude towards Jean Grey are set aside as she delivers a much needed lesson to a new and underdeveloped character in Uncanny X-men, Benjamin Deeds.
It seems every time a new mutant is introduced, they only get as much attention as necessary to support more established characters. Some of them might as well be glorified secretaries for these characters. And Benjamin Deeds is one of those characters who got slightly less than that. He was among the characters that Cyclops recruited when he began his New Xavier School in the early issues of All New X-men. But since then, he has basically been a whiny underachiever who would probably never get higher than a C-minus if he was going to a regular school. Emma Frost is looking to change that and unlike every other teacher Ben has had, she teaches him in a way where underachieving is not an option. It also is clear that him being a teenage boy and Emma being a sexy vixen makes this lesson one he can’t afford to overlook.
The issue began with Benjamin Deeds whining like a kid trying to get out of gym class. Part of the training that Cyclops is giving at the New Xavier School involves learning how to fight with and without mutant powers. But since Ben’s powers have been only loosely defined that of a mutant chameleon, he’s as overmatched as baseball player trying to bat blindfolded. So Emma Frost takes it upon herself to help him develop his mutant powers and use them in various settings that take him from the glitzy casinos of Atlantic City to the hustle and bustle of New York’s financial district. And in the same way an aspiring chef is going to cook a few meals that would get him yelled at by Gordon Ramsey, Ben Deeds struggles with Emma Frost’s lesson.
This struggle and the traits it reveals for both Emma and Ben makes this story personal in a way that has been missing from recent issues of Uncanny X-men. Whereas stories such as X-men Battle of the Atom were very much about the big picture for the X-men, this issue centers around the little picture. It may not be that exciting, seeing Emma Frost teach a confused and whiny young mutant how to be a competent X-man. But it is still an engaging story that resonates on a more personal level. Who hasn’t struggled to learn new skills or dealt with an unusually harsh teacher in the process? While that teacher may not have had the attitude or style as Emma Frost, it offered the kinds of lessons that go beyond the skills and lead to real character development. The only difference in this issue is that Emma Frost still finds a way to look good doing it.
In the end Ben does get to put his skills to good use. However, along the way the extent of those skills are poorly defined. The whole concept of him being a mutant chameleon is not really expanded upon or shown in a way that sets him apart from other shape-shifting characters like Mystique. He does demonstrate one new skill that distinguishes him, but it’s also poorly defined and much harder to show than Emma Frost’s diamond skin or Cyclops’s optic blasts.
In addition, some of the training Emma Frost gives him feels rushed, like a pop quiz on a subject Ben never studied for. But to his credit, he does get a passing grade. He even helps contribute to the bigger picture of Uncanny X-men by contributing to some of the other unresolved stories in the series. It still puts him in some uncomfortable positions where he still comes off as an annoying slacker, but it’s hard not to cheer for him when he succeeds.
There are many lessons to be learned from Uncanny X-men #14. The most important lesson to the underlying theme of the series is that Cyclops and Emma Frost know how to get the most out of their students. In addition, Emma Frost is still a hell of a teacher and one who finds a way to look good in doing everything she does. She may not be the best role model for someone like Benjamin Deeds, but she imparted on him the kinds of skills that will make him a successful X-man. And for a teenage boy with major self-esteem issues, it’s the kind of lesson that he won’t forget.