Photo by Kimson Doan

Why has Marvel Comics done Jubilee so dirty?

Dear readers,

Today’s question comes from Taylor in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

“Dear Steven, why did Marvel do Jubilee dirty like that? Who hurt them?”

Those of you who know me well know that I used to blog pretty extensively on the topic of comic books, so I am always hesitant to talk too much on that topic here. After all, it’s a pretty dense and inaccessible world at times. But today Taylor has posed a question with enough urgency that I think it’s worth reflecting on with a character most people have some familiarity with.

Ultimately, there is no definitive reason that I can find from interviews on why she’s been treated the way she has. If I had to guess, it’s because no really knows what to do with Jubilee. Because of this misunderstanding, Jubilee becomes a recognizable and expendable character in a landscape that prides itself on stories with consequences, where the consequences can’t be too severe for the characters that make money.

Origins

Let’s first talk about Jubilee’s origins, because I think that reflects a lot about who her character is, what kind of potential there was, and the ways that the ball was dropped in her narrative.

Jubilation Lee was first introduced in Uncanny X-Men 244, in 1989. It was a weird time for the X-men as a team. In the previous year’s “Fall of the Mutants” storyline, the X-Men appeared to very publicly die in Dallas, Texas. Ultimately, they were brought back to life by Roma (the daughter of Merlyn…don’t ask) and made invisible to everything but the naked eye. The X-Men set up shop in the Australian outback and let everyone else believe they were still dead. I believe Chris Claremont had a lot of plans set up, but his departure from the X-Men titles in 1991 never let us see the long game.

In UXM 244, the X-ladies decided to go on a shopping spree. This was the late 80s, after all. So off they went to Beverly Hills! This is still during the time when they were presumed dead, so I’m not sure why this was a good idea. But they go, and they run into this young mutant girl at the mall, blow some stuff up, and the rest is history.

Uncanny X-Men #244 by Chris Claremont and Marc Silvestri

It’s easy to look back on Jubilee and think “What? Why?”, but she really was a product of her time. Her style, her mannerisms, and interests were what teenagers were actually into in 1989. Who wasn’t going to the mall, playing arcade games, and eating chili fries? At the core, the X-Men story was always a story about awkward teenagers learning to excel despite their differences.

But by 1990, the teenagers had grown up. Cyclops was a tested leader (though a terrible one), Jean Grey had died, and even young Kitty Pride had been through enough where she wasn’t a kid anymore. So this teen girl who had more power than she realized was presented to readers as a point-of-view character to represent the teens of 90s.

A Diversity Problem

Comics have always had a problem with diversity. Most characters were created by white men to appeal to white men. The industry has made a few steps forward (particularly Marvel with the introduction of fan-favorite Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, Falcon/Captain America, and even full-figured Squirrel Girl), but in 1989, there wasn’t a lot of variation on comic shelves that weren’t stereotypes or over-sexualized.

Whether or not X-Men writer Chris Claremont was fully aware and intentional in this regard when crafting his stories, it’s hard to say. The fact remains that his tenure at Marvel was one full of some of the most iconic stories featuring strong, female characters. Claremont’s work with Storm was particularly formative to her character, and by the time we reach the Australian Outback, the core X-Men team was a 4/3 split favoring women (though all but Storm were white).

So with the introduction of Jubilee, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, we’re provided with a central Asian American character. Prior to her introduction, there were very few Asian heroes in Marvel comics, or even Asian characters at all who were not gross stereotypes. Later that year, Claremont would would have Psylocke swap bodies with a Japanese assassin, but that’s another misguided story for another day.

Jubilee by Jim Lee

Jubilee launches the potential for a new POV character, and potentially allows us to explore what it means to be a Chinese teenager in the 90s.

Identity

Jean Kim developed the theory of Asian American Identity Development to help understand the way in which East Asian people would create and understand their identity in the United States.

Kim’s framework consists of:

  • Ethnic Awareness
  • White Identification
  • Awakening to Social/Political consciousness
  • Redirection
  • Incorporation

When we first meet Jubilee, her character in many ways represents the stage of white identification. Despite having a direct connection to Chinese culture, Jubilee presents herself in a way that casts it off. This is a stage of assimilation, of minimizing differences from her white peers. Jubilee wants to be like other teenagers of the 90s in Beverly Hills, those obsessed with things like malls, arcade games, and chili fries.

But after Claremont leaves the X-Men, writers begin to falter on what to do with Jubilee. I won’t say that wasn’t written appropriately because she wasn’t written by a Chinese American woman, but the fact she was almost strictly written by white men probably didn’t help. Often slated as a sidekick, her characterization, and ethnic portrayal began to vary widely.

Left to Right: Jubilee from X-Men: The Animated Series, Jubilee by Chris Bachalo, Heather McComb as a very caucasian Jubilee in the Generation X made-for-TV movie

At best, artists didn’t understand the importance of Jubilee’s Asian identity. At worst, editorial decisions were made for commercial marketability. This seems particularly the case in the ill-fated Generation X movie.

New Directions

In the world of the comics, Jubilee stays with the X-Men for a while, but then leaves to attend Banshee and Emma Frost’s Massachusetts Academy as a member of Generation X. In this book, Jubilee shines. Scott Lobdell and Chris Bachalo have some opportunity to develop Jubilee as an individual working with a team of her peers, instead of the little kid tagging along very inappropriately during paramilitary attacks on government installations. Unfortunately, due to low sales and over-saturation of mutant books, Generation X was cancelled. Jubilee goes to the X-Corps, which is disbanded, to the X-Men, to a cancelled solo book, more sidekicking, and then eventually finds herself a victim of the events of theHouse of M” event.

In this event, Scarlett Witch uses her abilities to wish away all but about 300 mutants. Of course all mutants couldn’t be de-powered. After all, how would Marvel continue to sell X-Men comics? But someone you know and maybe like needs to feel the consequences. Enter Jubilee.

After losing her powers, Jubilee gets a suit that gives her new powers, and she joins the New Warriors as Wondra. But alas, as is the Jubilee story, her tenure in that story is not meant to be. Jubilee again floats in the ether until another event came along with plans to resurrect her.

Curse of the Mutants

So now we need to talk about vampires. Having the X-Men fight vampires might seem a bit out of left field, but there’s precedence. Marvel published a number of horror titles in the early 70s, including Tomb of Dracula. Even though they mostly stuck to their own books, these characters did exist in the Marvel universe. In fact, Dracula has been trying to turn Storm into a vampire since 1982. And of course we’re all familiar with Wesley Snipes, the vampire vampire hunter. So it’s not unfounded. It makes sense that vampires would want to create a race of super-vampires by turning mutants. It’s about as logical as these things could possibly be.

Again, it comes down to consequences. Someone needs to be turned, but it couldn’t possibly be a main character. And we probably don’t need a mutant vampire, but oh! “What about Jubilee? People like Jubilee right? People have been complaining at conventions that they want her in more stuff! They’ll love it!”

And so Jubilee becomes a vampire, I guess.

And then she stole and adopted a baby from China, who was the carrier of a sentient, world-conquering alien bacterium that could control machinery (again, don’t ask.)

Jubilee will be appearing in the upcoming X-Men:Apocalypse film. How she will be handled remains to be seen.

Jubilee by Terry and Rachel Dodson (cover to X-men #13)

Does a mall babe eat chili fries?

In the end, just like the answer to one of the great questions posed by Jubilee in the animated series, “does a mall babe eat chili fries?”, I don’t really know. I don’t think that Marvel ever intended to do her dirty. In fact, I think there were some really high hopes for her character’s legacy. I just think they didn’t try hard enough, they didn’t understand her enough, and didn’t see her as important enough.

But in a serial, soap-operatic world where nothing ever changes, Jubilee continues to change and evolve. And that’s something, isn’t it?

TTYL,

Steven

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