Monday, 28 July 2008

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #1: Baldie

Since Uncanny X-Men has finally hit the big 500, I thought it was an opportune moment to start an irregular series of articles looking at the X-Men themselves, in chronological order. Obviously this means starting with their creator, Charles Francis Xavier.

(Note that I'm a bit behind the curve at the minute, having only read as far as August 2007. So if anyone happens to know that Xavier has currently become a space-crab or a transvestite or something, then keep it to your damn selves, alright?)

One of the strangest things that struck me whilst I was thinking about how to write an article on the founder of the X-Men is just how much I dislike the man in question. To many fans of the comic (probably almost all of them, in fact) Xavier's dream represents the perfect ideal of human society. Surely, irrespective of the fact that super-powered mutants are fictional, that dream is something to champion, and to respect, however far from fruition it may seem.

The problem, of course, is that one should never confuse the dream with the dreamer.

Well, that's our problem, anyhow. Xavier's problem is many-faceted, though likely it all stems from more or less the same place, namely that it is a terrible mistake to confuse dedication with intractability.

In order to understand Xavier, you need to consider his childhood. As a boy his father died in an accidental nuclear detonation. His mother Sharon then began a relationship with his father's former lab partner Kurt Marko, who to all appearances was interested only in the wealth of Charles' family. Both he and his unruly teenage son Cain moved in to Xavier mansion in Westchester. This new relationship quickly turned sour, driving Sharon into alcoholism, which may have caused, or at least contributed, to her death. At this point, with his powers either weak or not yet in existence, there was nothing Xavier could do but watch.

Soon, though, he began to realise he could not only read the minds of others, but control them as well. Given that, one would assume Charles could easily have protected himself once Kurt crossed the line into the full-blown physical abuse of his charges, but he never did. Later in life he confessed to his step-brother that this was due to the feelings of guilt he had suffered at the time for knowing that Kurt preferred him to Cain. That may well be true, up to a point, but there is another possibility, namely that even at that young age Charles had fallen into a rigid pattern of behaviour that has trapped him his whole life, as surely as his wheelchair has.

The issue with Xavier is that, whilst he is many things, and capable of being many more, the most obvious analogy that comes to mind when considering him is that of a perpetually ticking bomb. Or perhaps a geyser, since a bomb, generally speaking, will only go off once, and Xavier's eruptions are a recurring, though not common, occurrence. It might well be better for everyone concerned if they were common, of course, since that might make things safer on everyone else, but I'm beginning to get ahead of myself. Xavier is not yet born.

The alien Shi'ar believe that every person has what they call a Mummudrai, an exact spiritual opposite. Xavier's misfortune was for his Mummadrai to be his twin sister, Cassandra, a creature capable of radiating of such unbelievable evil that Xavier attempted to strangle her whilst they still shared a womb. This led to Cassandra being apparently stillborn, though this later turned out to be untrue. This was his first eruption. Without the layers of philosophy and stoicism and empathy that Xavier constantly wraps around himself, he gave in to his basest instinct, kill to protect.

By the time of his beatings at the hands of Kurt Marko, things had changed. Xavier had already begun to realise that having power does not automatically grant the right to use it. Spiderman's line about great responsibility applies even more to Professor X than the Wall-Crawler himself; since it is far easier to decide under what circumstances one should swing a fist or shoot a web than it is to know when it's OK to fool around with another person's brain. Realising this, Charles chose not to lift a finger to help himself against his step-father, but more crucially, he allowed Cain to suffer as well. His justifications now in place (justifications that may in fact be have been direct counters to the failings of his step-father), Charles took the moral high ground.

By the time the X-Men had formed, of course, Xavier was far happier about fiddling around in the synapses of others. Not just super-villains, either, Hank McCoy almost quits the X-Men in disgust the day he joins when he discovers Xavier has wiped him from the memory of several other people, in order to keep his identity a secret. More than one villain (including Cain in his new form as The Juggernaut) has their memory wiped to prevent discovery. All of this is done in the name of protecting the X-Men (Hank himself would be likely to receive this treatment had he carried through on his threat to leave [1]). The most generous reading of this change is that Xavier will act to protect his charges but not his step-brother because the X-Men are his responsibility [2]. When all else fails, Charles steps in and does what has to be done.

In other circumstances, that might well be admirable. In this specific case, there are two problems with Charles' methods. The first is that "when all else fails" is a somewhat nebulous concept: how many must fall on the field before Xavier deigns to intervene. On several occasions X-Men could most certainly have died while Xavier weighed up the value in acting (Wolverine's treatment at the hands of Magneto during Fatal Attractions is one example, another is Jean Grey's death at the hands of "Xorn"/"Magneto"/whomever). The second issue is that the nature of Xavier's powers means that any action he can take is a violation. There are no half measures, he either roots around in your brain, or he just leaves you be as you pummel his precious students into the ground.

This second problem lies at the heart of what makes Xavier who he is. Every direct action he takes seems to either slide him that little bit closer to damnation, or cost him catastrophically in some other way. Doing his duty by accepting the draft into the Korean War (in which he excelled at search and rescue, the first hint of his dedication to the cause which would eventually dominate his life) cost him the love of his life, Moira Kinross (later McTaggert). Defeating the Shadow King was a temporary victory at best, and attempting to foil Lucifer's plans cost him the use of his legs. Not long afterwards, his brief (and self-aborted) attempt to mentally compel Amelia Voight to stay with him as he formed the X-Men led to her hating him for years, and endless bitter self-recrimination on his part.

Faced with these failures and moral grey areas, it is hardly surprising that Charles retreated into a strategy of inactivity wherever possible. By that I don't just mean in the direct use of his telepathy against others, it eventually seemed to permeate every aspect of his existence. Doubtless his shattered legs played a part here too, being unable to respond physically already forced him to accept any number of limitations upon his life. The added voluntary restrictions upon his mental powers reduced him to the role he presumably found himself best suited to in any case, that of guide and teacher (again, it's hardly surprising that Xavier spent the war rescuing allies rather than fighting enemies). Even in this role, however, Xavier's unwillingness to take action caused problems. Whilst his dream was always clear, his hopes for the conduct of his X-Men never in doubt, Xavier never actually particularly punished his students for stepping out of line. An abrasive lecture was the worst they were liable to face, which may have been enough for his original set of five teenagers, but hardly likely to sway the older and more headstrong later additions to the team. Essentially, Xavier was all carrot; no stick. On top of this, the X-Men found themselves more and more on the defensive, reacting to external threats rather than taking action themselves, a state of affairs that exists until Bishop arrives from the future (Archangel suggests that it took a vision of eighty years in the future for Xavier to realise his vision had to be actively fought for, and not just simply defended).

This lack of flexibility has cost Xavier more than once. On several occasions it has led to confrontations over his leadership style as various X-Men (often Cyclops) attempt to persuade him that the world has changed, and that they must change with it. Perhaps fearing that to change their reality would lead to them changing his dream, though, Xavier resists change at every turn. He carries this through to his personal life, desperately trying to resist becoming too close to any one given person (most obviously Jean Grey), even though he often seems a father figure to some of his students (Cyclops especially, Summers status as an orphan and Charles' loss of his own father creating exactly the right sort of setting for such a relationship). Even when he finally does allow someone in, Lilandra for example, they are ultimately pushed away in favour of his duty.

In truth, though, there is reason to question whether or not Xavier really understands the nature of "duty" at all. His commitment means that he is willing to step up to any role the universe requires him to take, but that is only half the battle. The other part requires you turn down those roles that conflict with your current duties. Xavier abandons the X-Men to help his wife save her kingdom, only to abandon her in turn once the war begins to turn in her favour. He leaves the X-Men to help the mutant Skrulls of Cadre K, only to cut them loose the moment he senses his X-Men once more require his aid. Rather than change tactics, he simply changes roles, perhaps hoping that by hopping from one battle to another, he need never face his failures in the conflicts before. Even if that were more than a forlorn hope, of course, it hardly matters, his heart lies with Earth and the X-Men, which makes his constant forays into other conflicts all the more objectionable.

So, refusing to change, refusing to open up [3], unable to see a need for an authoritarian role without immediately attempting to fill it, Charles spends his entire life drowning by degrees. Shattered legs and questionable abilities and fear of self-analysis combine to shut out any hope of outlet. Xavier becomes a pressure-cooker, doomed to explode, recharge, and explode. At one point his errant dark thoughts gained sentience and terrorise the Microverse. Shutting down Magneto's brain is one perfect example (and again, it took the near-death of Wolverine to spur him into doing it), an action that then led to him losing control to his dark side again several years later and almost exterminating the human race entirely as Onslaught a few years later. His guilt over this immediately led to him allowing himself to be put in custody, and for him to deliberately avoid the restoration of his powers, lost in the wake of the Onslaught crisis. In fact, each time he erupts, he takes responsibility, but not action to stop it happening again. Whilst his despair occasionally forces him to question his dream, or even temporarily abandon it, it never occurs to him that methodology can change whilst intent remains constant. That whilst the ends do not always justify the means, one can alter one without automatically affecting the other.

Without grasping this, Xavier dooms himself to repeat the same cycle. Following the funeral of what was believed to be Magneto after his violent attack upon New York, Polaris faced Xavier with the possibility that perhaps he and Magneto might not be so different after all. She proves her point by goading Charles into a righteous fury over his total belief that his way is the right one. Wolverine immediately acknowledges Polaris' success in demonstrating her argument, but what no-one seems to notice is just how easy it was to wind Xavier up into a rage. The geyser erupts again, only for glacial composure to return moments later, along with yet another commitment to stay the course and follow his dream unaltered. The more things change, the more he stays the same. The graver the situation, the greater the denial and the repression, the more dangerous the inevitable eruption: a vicious cycle that has on occasion likely done more damage than Magneto could ever hope to achieve (as Xavier himself acknowledges after the hideously costly defeat of Onslaught)

On the other hand, there are some obvious distinctions between Magneto and Xavier, albeit not necessarily in the way that Charles might like. Whilst their goals are obviously very different, what is more interesting is their variations, not just in approach, but in the consistency of those goals. Whilst Xavier is constant in his desire to see humans and mutants live together peacefully, Magneto's desire to see mutants safe from harm leads to plan as disparate as annihilating humanity, dominating them, or even escaping them entirely by populating island nations or orbital facilities. Whilst Magneto's specific interpretation of his own vision may vary from year to year, he is always resolute in taking any necessary action to achieve it. In short, it is his ends that vary, the means then just taking shape around it, rather than Xavier insisting that both ends and means remain static if at all possible (or sometimes even if it isn't). Magneto is fluidity where Xavier is rigidity and, just like their respective dreams, reality is almost certainly somewhere in between.

In conclusion, then, Charles Xavier's faith in his (unquestionably laudable) dream is so frightening, so all-consuming, so wrapped up in the mistakes and trials of his childhood and beyond, that he cannot bear to change direction even slightly, in case in doing so he finds himself walking toward a different goal. When he does alter his trajectory, it is either voluntary and either temporary and/or ultimately self-defeating, or it is forced on him by the limits of his own humanity, at which point the cost is frequently devastating. In short, until Professor X learns to be comfortable with small, conscious alterations to his life, he will forever be at the mercy of the violent, shattering changes forced upon him by the most powerful subconscious mind on the planet.

Next time: why Cyclops isn't necessarily as boring as you think he is, though only by a bit.

Update: thanks to Jamie for pointing out the phantom asterisks. I can't remember what I wanted to say there, so I've removed them.

[1] The revelations regarding Darwin and Vulcan also demonstrated that Xavier is prepared to wipe the memories of his X-Men if he thinks the greater good will be served. On this occasion, of course, like with so many others, it ended in disaster.

[2] There is a less charitable possibility that Charles didn't really consider his bad-tempered bully of a step-brother worthy of salvation-by-mindfuck. In fairness, even this line of argument has to deal with the fact that Cain was, even as a teenager, strong enough to overcome his father, had he not allowed himself to be beaten out of self-loathing.

[3] The man spends each Christmas Eve with the photos of dead X-Men, for God's sake. That's just not right.


jamie said...

Very interesting reading. There is one set of asterisks that doesn't seem to lead anywhere though.

How come this appears under Monday on your blog? It wasn't there yesterday...

SpaceSquid said...

There is? I shall check. I didn't have time to fully proof-read last night, since I was late for, well, eating.

I started writing it on Monday, so when I uploaded it yesterday it cunningly inserted itself there.

jamie said...

Ah, the wonders of technology...

SpaceSquid said...

nThere is no need to fear it, Jamie. Though one day soon it shall become our master, technology will be a benevolent overlord that will lead us into a new life.

Anonymous said...

You know I may be late but your article are quite interesting !
Seriously though, I would have offed Pr Baldhead at the end of Onslaught (SO many things could have improved that saga, DAAAMn if they just had more balls goddammit !)
I know I'm being biased, but I Refuse to recognise Cas... the fetus that crawled from the sewer as even existing.

This is how I see Chuck's little head...