Thursday, 31 July 2008

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #2: Slim

I mentioned in my article on Professor X that studying his biography for the purposes of writing a piece on him had altered my opinion somewhat. The same is true, at least to an extent, with Scott Summers. With Xavier, my revelation centered on how much less noble and worthy a character he was than the Kool-Aid-drinking devotion of his charges would suggest. With Cyclops, I began to realise that perhaps, just perhaps, the man is a little less insufferably dull than I had previously assumed.

One of the odd things about those first few issues of Uncanny X-Men that represented my initial foray into the world of comics is that I re-read them so many times I can not only draw them from memory, but I can recall large tracts of the letters pages as well. I mention this because my first real experience of Cyclops came, not from seeing him in action (at the time he was more prominent in X-Men), but with a pair of bickering letters (in UXM 323 and 325, just to show how scary-yet-unmarketable my recall powers are) arguing over the exact nature of the eldest Summers brother. The first praised him as the archetypal hero, the square-jawed stiff-lipped bastion of virtue standing as an intractable bulwark against evil. The second lambasted him as chronically uninteresting, so dedicated to doing what was right that there was never real doubt as to his actions, and thus no interest to them, either [1]. What drama is there in watching Cyclops get tempted by, say, an affair with Psylocke, when you know his innate morality and heroism will mean he will never succumb?

I have to admit that for a long while that was exactly how I saw Cyclops too. Here is a character, I thought, to whom interesting things happen, (losing a child to a techno-organic virus and the future, being stalked by an insane Victorian geneticist, having your girlfriend die and turn out to be alive and go mad and die and be revealed to be fake [2]) but whose reactions to those events are completely without interest. Each time our most archetypal of heroically heroic heroes just clenches his jaw a little lighter and walks off into the sunset.

It wasn't until I good few years later, when I finally got round to reading the Age of Apocalypse storyline (which I had missed the end of by all of two months originally), that my opinion began to shift a little. In this reality, Xavier was murdered before he ever began to assemble the X-Men, allowing Apocalypse to make his bid for global domination comparatively uncontested. One of his most faithful lieutenants in his initial war to conquer North America was one Scott Summers. This time Cyclops had devoted his life, not to the service of Charles Xavier, but to Sinister (at that time one of Apocalypse's Horsemen). Despite the mounting evidence of the atrocities committed by Apocalypse against the humans that stood against him, and by both Sinister and Dark Beast during their experiments on those unfortunate mutants trapped in "the pens", he doggedly follows the orders Sinister gives him (the most he bothers to do to help those less fortunate, at least until Sinister leaves, is to facilitate the escape of the occasional prisoner).

That was the moment when I finally understood Cyclops. The all-consuming premise in Scott Summer's life isn't heroism, it's loyalty. And loyalty, of course, is only as virtuous as that which you are loyal to.

Scott's desire, or perhaps even need, to follow another has been clear since his late childhood. Almost immediately after running away from the strange, nightmarish Omaha orphanage where Scott had been raised (a location, in fact, run by Sinister, in an effort to keep tabs on this potentially massively powerful mutant), Scott hooks up with the mutant criminal Jack O' Diamonds, and agrees to help him break into a nuclear facility. Although Scott attempts to minimise the body count in the resulting break-in attempt, the speed with which he acquiesces to Jack (and then to Xavier once he arrives to save the teenage mutant) reveals a deep desire to find someone to believe in, and to follow. At one point in The West Wing, President Bartlett explains the difference between himself and Josh: "I want to be the guy, you want to be the guy the guy relies on". Scott has the same problem. Obviously that doesn't imply that he cannot become authoritative, any more than Josh couldn't, but taking charge is in itself just a means to the end of obeying some other, greater power or cause.

It would perhaps be too pat to suggest that this situation has arisen due to Scott's parent-less childhood, or even that Sinister's manipulations at the orphanage might have deliberately left Scott liable to seek reassurance from authority. Nevertheless, as I mentioned a few days ago, the father-son dynamic between Charles and Scott was obvious from the very beginning, and a dark reflection of that could be seen between Scott and Sinister in the Age of Apocalypse. However, it is not the cause of this dedication that is of real interest, so much as its effects.

Professor X once admits that he chose Cyclops as a code-name only partly because of Summers' coruscating eye-beams. The other reason was the younger man's apparent total singularity of vision. In fact, the link between his mutant power and his dedication has always been strong. On one level, of course, the mere necessity of ensuring his eyes are always either closed or protected by ruby quartz lenses instills an innate sense of responsibility and discipline (though note how differently he deals with that constant burden compared to, for example, Rogue). On another, Cyclops has a number of times refused chances at happiness (in his early years often either with Jean Grey or other women) on the grounds that his powers make romance or any other prolonged exposure to others too great a risk. Not only do his eye-blasts create discipline, they allow him to pretend his devotion to duty is the only course open to him. It's not until the aftermath of his possession by Apocalypse that he is sufficiently shaken to question that formulation (more on this later). This immediately begs the question: why would anyone, however subconsciously, deliberately shackle themselves to duty without any hope of release?

There are two possible answers to this question. The first, and least charitable, is that Cyclops is just a total fucking tool. This admittedly extreme analysis does have some hard evidence behind it. Going back to the Age of Apocalypse one final time, Cyclops response when Sinister tells him he is leaving Factor-X is "If it's something I've done...?" If it's something he's done? How much more egotistical can anyone get? Scott Summers is, and always has been, ludicrously full of himself. Every time Xavier snaps at someone, or there's a problem somewhere in the team, Cyclops is always the first to insist that he must be the one to blame. It's that very specific flavour of egomania that you get when you blend it with the paranoid belief that everything must be your fault. Essentially Summers has a borderline martyr complex and a borderline messiah complex. In fairness to him, he puts a impressive amount of effort into ensuring that he lives up to his overinflated opinion of himself, but then given he's convinced all slip-ups are his responsibility, it's hardly surprising so much work goes into avoiding them.

And perhaps even his dedication to excellence isn't quite as laudable as it may seem. The other possibility I mentioned is simply that Scott is absolutely terrified of ending up on either side of disappointment. By tying himself to duty, by constantly putting his own needs aside for the good of the dream, he can both avoid Professor X becoming disappointed in him (and thus Xavier questioning his belief in Scott), and he can ensure that he's never in a position to be let down by anyone else. It was difficult enough to drag him into the relationship with Jean Grey, especially considering how devoted he clearly was to her [3]. Attempts at other romances when Jean was thought dead were just as fraught; the only woman really to break through was Madelyne Prior, who looked exactly like Jean and found herself abandoned when her look-alike was found in Jamaica Bay [4]. Again, look how Scott thinks of his powers. They're useful enough to guarantee he can live up to his duties in his desire for a proud father-figure to tell him how great he is, and they're dangerous enough to mean he can shun any situation he is afraid of by pretending that his condition is the problem. Cyclops apes the behaviour pattern he sees in Xavier, refusing to deal with or even recognise the emotions swirling round his head. This might not lead to the planet-frying temper tantrums of his mentor, but this repression still takes its toll, gradually making him more insular, more cold, and more contained. He admits to Storm after the first "death" of Jean Grey that he feels nothing at the loss, and later suggests this was a deliberate tactic to prevent him going insane with grief.

In the light of all this, having Apocalypse co-opt his body might actually have had some positive effect (at quite some cost, of course), allowing as it did an outpouring of negative emotion. The Scott Summers that emerged from the control of En Sabah Nur was no more obviously warm than before, but the experience had taught him that his previous attempts to wall himself off with duty and devotion was foolish and dangerous. The resulting problems with his marriage and psychic dalliance with Emma Frost was the inevitable result of a man determined to start pursuing his desires instead of performing a function. The way he went about that was hardly worthy of praise, but the intent itself represented a step forward [5], as to did his decision to start up a real relationship with Emma after Jean died again (in fact, whilst many of his colleagues were sickened that the relationship began so soon after Jean had passed on, in an odd way Scott is to be commended for not wasting another few months with needless tortured staring into the middle distance).

So, like I said, Cyclops isn't quite as dull as he always seemed. His stoicism and loyalty may have made him very predictable for much of the time we have known him, but the strange psychological twists and turns it has taken him to get so dependable are worthy of some consideration, especially now that Scott is making a conscious effort to overcome them.

Next time: Iceman reminds us that it's never easy growing up, especially in comic books and over a forty year period.

[1] The letter also made an interesting analogy: Cyclops is to Gambit as Luke Skywalker is to Han Solo. In each case the do-gooding incorruptible white-hat is far, far less interesting than the wise-cracking rogue who is dragged into the fight unwillingly, and might give up or even switch sides if they ever see the benefit. Personally I really like this comparison, although I do think it might be a bit unfair on Skywalker. Mind you, both he and Summers both have fathers that are a dozen times more awesome than their sons.

[2] And then the real one show up again only to die and be reborn and die again and be reborn again (I think that's where we're up to.)

[3] It's worth noting that an argument over how to deal with Jean/the Phoenix was the one of the only times Cyclops deliberately went against Xavier's wishes (at least until the whole Vulcan/Krakoa debacle came to light). It's also worth noting that eventually the relationship between Scott and Jean seemed to become one more duty for Scott to perform.

[4] With their child, no less. Scott apparently at least partially shares Xavier's problem of biting off more responsibilities than he can chew, although in fairness thinking one's duty has ended due to exceptionally violent death is a pretty good excuse.

[5] Ironically, of course, this new commitment to thinking beyond the next mission almost led to Sublime conquering the world in the mid twenty-second century, but then no plan of self-improvement is entirely flawless.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The first, and least charitable, is that Cyclops is just a total fucking tool

Weeellll, the real Cyclops (TAS, Evolution, 90's version may be a law-giver who does not show much emotion but he 's deep down someone who cares for his teammates & sees them as family.
If you want to talk about the Morrison version & onwards however... We're in for a hell of one my most venomous rant about one of the most overrated, horrid & putrid pieces of fiction I ever got to read...Kill him, don't kill him, it doesn't really matter at this point. The character is trashed the same way Spidey is.

Cyclops is to Gambit as Luke Skywalker is to Han Solo.

YES, YES!Whoever said that NAILED IT! The main concept of Scott (& by extension Jean) is that he IS NOT COOL ! What makes him unique is that he is a designated adult, that's his role in the dynamic of the team

Scott apparently at least partially shares Xavier's problem of biting off more responsibilities than he can chew,

Funny thing about Inferno is that Scott actually tried to call Maddie but "OH CONVINIENCE! TOUGH LUCK" she was away fleeing from the Marauders . It's for him what the death of Jason Todd was to Batman, his biggest fuck-up that was one of the main factors for Maddie's tragic demise & mental breakdown (yes, I'm someone who sees Madelyne as the real victim of her father the Victorian fan of Rob Zombie...)

& another thing, his relationship with Jean is a true-blood great one
& I 'll defend that claim to the grave!