Tuesday, 17 August 2010

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #34: The Ex-External

It has been noted more than once that it can be difficult for anyone to replicate the feelings they experienced the very first time they fell in love. There is something about that initial explosion of feeling that renders it unique and unrepeatable, no matter how unwisely it was embarked upon or how miserably it all fell apart. Montgomery Scott once remarked that the same is true of the first starship you serve on as chief engineer,

Obviously, I've never been chief engineer of a ship, star-borne or otherwise [1], so I can't comment. I do think, however, that the phenomenon often extends to long-running TV shows and comics (and even the more extensive film series, like Bond). There's something about the writers and characters that dominate the era you first encounter that make them special to you, entirely independently of how the period is viewed by more seasoned hands.

So it is with the X-Men output of the mid '90s. As many have documented, and as I have discussed before, many long-time readers are rather less than enamoured with this particular slice of mutant history. For me, though, it will always remain my "in". Moreover, those genetic anomalies who were serving at the time I first joined their adventures, persuaded by the excellent X-Men cartoon to pick up a shiny copy of UXM #323, will always remain "my" team. Storm and Wolverine, Archangel and Psylocke, Rogue, Gambit, Ice-Man, Bishop, Cyclops and Jean Grey, with Professor X to lead them.

All of those characters, I have discussed before. There was also a newcomer amongst the ranks, though. One mutant given the rank of X-Man at the exact same time I began to follow their story: Cannonball. He was not new to the X-Universe, any more than I was new to reading comics (though it had been a couple of years since I had picked one up, ever since I had lost patience with the slow pace and lacklustre ideas and art of the X-Files title), but we both took our first faltering steps into the world of the X-Men together.

Again, my uneducated view of Cannonball clashed with that held by those more knowledgeable in the ways of this fictional world. To me, Sam's nervousness, self-confidence issues and almost puppy-dog like desire to please made perfect sense for someone who has been suddenly thrust into the front lines with the world's best known and (depending on who you ask) most well-respected mutant team. For those who knew more of the early life of Samuel Guthrie, however, his sudden reduction to a shaky, unsure neophyte was ridiculous. "He spent years in X-Force" they told me (not that I had more than the dimmest idea of what that was at the time). "He served under Cable, mutant ball-breaker extraordinaire", they opined (Cable was from the future and had a gun; that was the limit of my knowledge, though in later years of course I learned that that was also the limit of Rob Liefeld's conception of characterisation). "He hasn't lacked self-confidence for ages".

I can see why it would piss older fans off when characters they care about take sudden left-turns in their development, or seem to have cast aside years - or even decades - of development. Hell, it's certainly happened to me enough times (witness Alan Davies' treatment of Marrow, or Chuck Austen's near-total destruction of Polaris). With Sam, though, even almost two decades on, and having read through a great deal of his earlier adventures (not including X-Force, naturally, I might be an obsessive completist, but I'm not a total idiot), the sudden change I was just too late to miss the first time round actually makes total sense.

This is all about the fathers.

It seems almost redundant to point out how much of the X-Universe boils down to difficulties with one's paternal parent. Sure, it's true. Xavier's father died when he was young, and his step-father was a cruel brute of a man. Scott's dad abandoned him on Earth. Iceman's old man was a vicious bigot. Wolverine once had no idea who his father is, but Sabertooth spent some time trying to claim the title, presumably in an attempt to fuck with his nemesis' mind as much as humanly possible. But whilst the history of Xavier's students is littered with deep-seated paternal issues, that's just a feature of drama in general. Lost was obsessed with the father/son dynamic. The West Wing dabbled far more than a little. Though the scales are tipping, fiction - or at least television and especially comics - is still somewhat male-heavy, and the two things a man is most likely to write about is women, and fathers.

Of course, show me a story about an absent and/or failed father, and I'll show you a surrogate father figure. Further, you can lay good odds on it being a two-way street, too; the vast majority of surrogate fathers are looking for surrogate sons themselves. Everyone is looking for something they lost, one way or another. Like I said, that's just what drama is.

In Cannonball's case, the loss is entirely literal; his father Thomas Guthrie passes away when Sam is sixteen; a victim of the coal-dust that fills the mine Thomas slaved in all his life. His father's ugly, undignified death thrusts Sam into the role of patriarch, as breadwinner for his mother and his veritable horde of siblings. He does this not out of necessity - Sam hardly lacks for brains and has already won a college scholarship - but out of duty, a sense so strong that he immediately begins work in the very mine that killed his father.

In this sense, Sam has already acquired metaphorical children; the younger members of clan Guthrie. We see this, years later, in the way he treats those junior Guthries lucky (or unfortunate) enough to develop mutant powers and head to Xavier's - all overbearing protection and hard-headed authoritarianism. It is difficult in the extreme to reconcile Cannonball + siblings with Cannonball + X-Men, but then that's the point. By simultaneously becoming an alternative father and looking for one of his own, Cannonball forms the final link in a very long chain.

It is impossible to fully understand Sam without recognising how far back the chain really goes. As it happens, it stretches all the way back to the beginning, to Almagordo and Doctor Brian Xavier, one of the first experts on mutant biology, who showed a distinct tendency to treat his son like a case-study, right up until the point he came down with an unfortunate case of nuclear-blast-to-the-face. Thus does Charles Xavier (who you may have heard of) lose his father, before watching in horror as his mother first marries Brian's former colleague and all-round vicious motherfucker (thus rendering the metaphorical literal), and then first turns to alcohol, and then passes away.

This, needless to say, is not good news for Charles. Whomever he turns to for the paternal influence lacking in Kurt "Never Knowlingly Gave A Child An Insufficient Beating" Marko, I am not sure; perhaps history does not recall it at all. What matters, though, is that he not only loses his father, but also his son, who develops in his teens into the lunatic time-bomb Legion, an MPD basket-case Charles is forced to view as a threat first, and his offspring second.

I doubt anyone reading this needs me to tell them who becomes Charles's surrogate son. And, true to form, Cyclops is searching for a replacement father, since his own Dad is first believed dead and then revealed to be a little too busy detonating spaceships and shagging interstellar foxes (and I mean that in the most literal sense possible) to check up on poor old Scott and Alex. Scott is the next link in the chain. The next step in the vicious cycle. Inevitably, then, he loses his own son Nathan, this time to a combination of demonic interference and a weird futuristic pestilence that results in the boy being taken into the far future.

This is where it gets complicated. Scott needs a surrogate son, to replace Nathan. Bizarrely - though of course that's a deeply relative label where comics are concerned - Scott's alternative to Nathan is Nathan, thanks to Cyclops and Phoenix travelling to the far future to raise Scott's child whilst inhabiting alternative bodies (and if anyone is starting to develop a continuity headache, I don't blame you). This arrangement can only last so long, though, and the next time Scott sees his son, he is fully grown, older than himself, and going by the name Cable. And Cable, of course, has his own problems with his son, the insane villain Genesis.

Here, at last, we can return to Sam. When he first arrives at the mansion, his pseudo-father is Professor X, and Sam panics under the pressure. He eventually learns to find his feet, only for Xavier to be replaced by Magneto. That goes badly at first as well - albeit for very different reasons (in fairness, being casually murdered and resurrected by a godlike alien entity is a damn good reason for a certain malaise, and Sam is far from being the only victim in that regard). Eventually he ends up under Cable's influence, and whilst I haven't read through that particular era (remember: Liefeld), if that didn't lead to a new wobble of self-confidence, it can only be because the writer handling him was too grotesquely incompetent to understand what was going on (did I mention Liefeld?).

There is a chain from Charles Xavier to Cyclops to Cable to Samuel Guthrie. What makes Cannonball unique is not simply that he exists at the end of that chain (even if he sees his siblings as his children in some sense, they most certainly do not return the feeling; Husk and Icarus can both attest to that), it's that at various times he's been thrust into the surrogate son role with all three father figures that exist earlier in the chain. And when that happens, every time (at least it damn well should be every time, and anyone who ever attempts to offer counter-evidence using Liefeld's scribblings is completely insane; see also "Shatterstar, Obvious Homosexuality Of") he is thrown backwards into the same stumbling, second-guessing clumsy bumbler. Because that's just how it goes. He has a new father to impress; one who has no reason whatsoever to be impressed, and impressing your father is the only thing that matters to more sons than you can imagine. It doesn't matter if it's been done before, it doesn't even matter if it's been done with the same man, a change of father means a change of outlook; returning to Xavier is no easier than meeting him in the first place. Our nebulous "long-time fans" might have been angry at what I saw in my first encounter with UXM, but to decry it as contrary to Sam's nature is very much to miss the point.

There's a brief scene in X-Men #54, just before Onslaught breaks loose, and all Hell with him, that Sam confesses to Cyclops that Xavier has just metaphorically beaten the crap out of him. Scott immediately knows what to say - he's been there, after all, he's higher up the chain - and confesses he too has been on the end of one of Xavier's verbal slap-downs. If this isn't the exact moment that Sam's loyalties shift, that Scott becomes his next new "father", then it must have happened pretty soon after (of course, Xavier going crazy and attempting to destroy the world probably has something to do with it).

This, then, is the way to understand Cannonball, especially in recent days. As Scott has found it within himself to become Xavier, Sam has found it within himself to become Scott. The good son, and the good soldier, though I suspect that Cannonball, like Cyclops before him, would struggle to understand the difference. The comparison is not entirely fair. Scott had the advantage of never having to switch his surrogate father (Cyclops pretty much imprinted onto Professor X like a baby duckling), but there's more besides. Xavier's stoicism might make him a good role model, and an examplar of his dream (right up until he freaked the fuck out, obviously), but it also makes him a lousy parent. I have some experience of the way those abused as children deal with becoming parents themselves, and whilst I would never claim to be an expert, I find must that is familiar in the way Xavier deals with Scott. It's all brain, no heart. All evaluation and no passion, because Charles can conceive of passion only as violence and loss (Magneto can hardly have helped in that regard, along with Xavier's momentary lapse of control that led to him briefly seizing the mind of his former lover, Amelia Voight).

All too often, these things get passed down through the generations, and so Scott is little better. As Emma Frost has often pointed out, he's basically an expressionless outer shell struggling to contain a roiling, seething mass of repressed emotion just beneath the surface - in direct contrast to his actual father, and his hot-headed brother. Cable is perhaps less robotic (which is ironic, given half is body has been conquered by a techno-organic violence), but he's still so focused on the mission that other considerations are entirely ignored.

Sam, it turns out, is more than the latest iteration. He is the goal. In him, at last, the desire to do his duty, to fight for the dream and his friends, are balanced with his other passions. Even whilst he has one eye on the whole board, on the long game, he can process the personal (though admittedly on occasion he needs Dani Moonstar to beat it in to him). The very first thing I ever saw anyone say to Cannonball was this: "Hanging out with Cable has toughened you up... you got guts." And when Wolverine tells you you've got guts, you believe it. What's just as important, though, is that Logan's comment came about in the midst of a confrontation in which Cannonball was refusing to let him hurt a defenceless Sabertooth. Partially because he had been tasked to protect the quiescent Creed, no doubt, but also partially because of how important his charge was to his girlfriend Boomer. His loyalty and tenacity ultimately stretches decades into the future, where (in one time line at least) he gives his life willingly to save to save Cable, one of his replacement fathers, and Hope, the child who in a very real sense is the daughter of all mutant-kind. [2]

In short, for all Cyclops insists that there is no reason to believe mutant-kind's next leader need be Sam, it cannot be ignored that each iteration in this strange, bitter-sweet process is producing someone more balanced, more stable, and is doing so without sacrificing anything. If you like, the primary dynasty of the X-Men is mutating, finding new and better forms. Readying itself for tomorrow. Just as Charles, and perhaps Brian before him, had always dreamed.

If he can avoid fucking it up.

Next time: we consider the relevancy of the centuries-old nature vs nurture debate when it is applied to a man who is the clone of an unbalanced, massively powerful mutant, and was raised by a lunatic tyrant who was sexually attracted to the man who bears your DNA.

[1] I once piloted a motorboat which had three speeds, only two of which involved any actual motion, and only one of those was forwards. I'm guessing that doesn't count.

[2] In the process, of course, he proves once and for all that Cannonball is not the immortal he was briefly and pointlessly labelled as back in the early '90s, by someone going by the name "Rob Liefeld".

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