Sunday, 31 July 2011

SpaceSquid vs.The X-Men #40: Askani'Son

You can’t get this far into a series of essays on the X-Men without realising that certain themes keep cropping up time and again. I don’t know whether that’s due to the fundamentally simple nature of the series’ central metaphors (and I in no way intend that as a criticism), or whether I’m just viewing every character through the same narrow lens my own experiences and interests have sculpted. It’s probably a little from Column A, a little from Column B.

Either way, this is not the time to suddenly change direction. We may have touched on (or fully embraced) the subject of nature vs. nature many times over the last few years, but Cable probably exemplifies that conflict better than anyone else. For one thing, there’s the two other versions of him running around the Marvel Universe stirring up trouble - and we’ll get to Stryfe and Nate Grey later - but that's only a fairly minor part of the picture.

As I mentioned during the Panel Talk podcast on the subject, one of the great strengths of the Age of Apocalypse cross-over was in how it allowed us to see how differently our extended company of heroes and villains might turn out had the world they inhabit been very fundamentally changed. Cable offers us the same opportunity. Not because he grows up in a different dimension, but because he grows up in a different time, far into the future, on an Earth also under the tyrannical boot-heel of Apocalypse.

This origin has been known to lead to people comparing Cable to the teams previous time-refugee, Bishop. I can see why being able to summarise both mutants’ early storyline as “X-Man from a crappy future joins present-day team and demands more violence”, but such a sweeping analysis misses a crucial point. Bishop comes from a future which took the vastly numerically superior humans’ desire to oppress – if not eliminate – mutants has been taken to almost its most extreme expression. Cable, in contrast, comes from a world which – like that of the AoA – has seen mutants emerge as the dominant power.

Beyond their temporal displacement, then, the two men really have only one major thing in common: both of them would happily exchange the worlds of their youth for the one of which Xavier dreams.

This desire to see Xavier is proved right is of course heightened by both men having learned to venerate his dream when they were children; Bishop through the tales told to him by his “grandmother”, Cable during the years Scott and Jean spent with him in the future whilst in the bodies of “Slym” and “Red”. That shared education aside, however, expecting Bishop and Cable to work together would not be unlike hoping George III and Napoleon Bonaparte would join forces if they were thrown back to the time of Genghis Khan. Neither ruler would have any interest in letting the Mongols ravage and conquer Europe, but their individual reasons for that are completely different, if not actually mutually contradictory.

The above is obviously an extreme example (especially since George III and Napoleon were actually contemporaries and there was a war between them), but you get the point. Indeed, as was made clear during Messiah Complex and the 25 issue Cable series that followed it, Bishop and Cable do eventually become deadly enemies, precisely because Bishop feels the death of the first new mutant born after M Day is essential to save his future, and Cable considers said death to be potentially disastrous. [1]

Critically, though, Cable makes this decision not based on an extrapolation of what that act could mean for his own time [2], but for what it would mean for the present. Cable, especially in more recent years, has always taken a far greater interest in making his current surroundings a better place. Not because, like Bishop, he is engaging in “temporal terraforming”, but because he genuinely wants to see people doing better right now. His creation of the island of Providence and of taking control of the Republic of Rumekistan are both indications of this, albeit ones that made many people, the X-Men included, more than a little nervous.

So what is it that makes Cable more involved in what is, from his perspective, ancient history? After all, there was still an X-Man alive when Lucas Bishop grew up (even if it was Jubilee), so shouldn’t he be the one with a vested interest in the late 20th/early 21st Century?

The explanation for this comes back to nature/nurture. Let's have a brief history lesson: Cable was born in the present, the son of Cyclops and Madeline Pryor. The latter was a clone of Jean Grey, and Scott married Madeline whilst believing his true love Jean was dead. The distinct ickiness of marrying a woman who literally looks identical to your dead girlfriend is a topic for another time (and Scott hardly helps matters by leaving his wife and son without explanation when he learns Jean has returned [3]). What matters for now is that Nathan’s DNA is a combination of that of Scott and Jean.

However, Nathan - still a baby - becomes infected with a techno-organic virus and sent into the far future, where he can be, if not cured, treated to the point where the disease is merely chronic, rather than fatal. Ultimately, for convoluted reasons, Scott and Jean have their minds installed into two empty bodies in that same far future, allowing them to raise Cable as their son.

This period is important for two reasons. Firstly, it gives Scott and Jean the opportunity to expose the young Nathan to their millennia old philosophy of living in peace. For all that subsequent events forge Nathan into a cold-hearted soldier [4], his exposure to those ideals (and those of Rachel Summers, also in the future and the daughter of Scott and Jean from another time-line – I’m getting a headache just typing this) clearly has some effect, as we'll see.

Secondly, it allows us to consider perhaps the most important facets of the nature vs. nurture debate: what is it that determines just how much a son will end up like his father [5]? I have it on good authority that it frequently astonishes parents just how quickly their children grow up, but nowhere is this issue as literal as it is with Cable and Cyclops. Scott witnesses the first several years of Nathan’s life, but the next time he meets his son, Nathan is decades older than him.

This temporal leap-frogging changes the question to be answered. No longer is it “How much will Nathan grow to become like Scott”, it's “How much will these two adults grow to become like each other?”

The answer, as it turns out, is that they’ll meet in the middle. When Cable first arrives at the start of the ‘90s - as a fully-fledged character, that is, rather than a Liefeld pouchpocalypse – Scott is still very much in the shadow of his own surrogate father, determined to do everything the Xavier-approved way until either everyone’s dead or the sun has exploded. Cable can’t quite get behind this idea, because as far as he’s concerned, Xavier is a legend whose methods have been proven to not have worked, at least not long term. Whilst actively setting himself up against Xavier is probably incomprehensible to him (imagine an Englishman like me running into King Arthur: what are the chances I’d tell him to go fuck himself? [6]), Cable is convinced Xavier’s dream is incompatible with Xavier’s methods, and so fashions X-Force into a fighting unit so as to take the war directly to the enemy.

 Cable, on the other hand, has become more invested in the present (as mentioned above), and warmer into the bargain. The calculating mercenary who would shoot a friend to make escape easier is long gone. During Messiah Complex, it is Cable who saves Hope from both the mutant-hating Purifiers and Sinister’s Marauders, and who battles all-comers in his attempts to keep the child unhurt. Not because he knows the child is important to his future – he already knows that future has been re-written following the defeat of Apocalypse during The Twelve storyline at the turn of the century – but because she is important to the here and now, and because she’s an innocent child, who someone needs to protect.

He succeeds in that mission by escaping into the time-stream, a psychotically-obsessed Bishop hard on his heels. Although by the present-day X-Men’s perspective, he is gone for only a few months, Cable’s journey spans well over a decade, allowing for both Hope to become a teenager, and for Cable to fall utterly in love with her, as a father loves his daughter.

Part of that love involves Cable teaching Hope to survive, and she interprets Nathan’s teaching just as he interpreted Scott’s, and Scott interpreted Charles’. In that sense, she is Xavier’s great-granddaughter. That’s an interesting thing to note, because it immediately reminds us of Xavier’s other great-grandchild: Cable’s son, Genesis. Originally named Tyler, Genesis was abducted by followers of the (then believed dead) Apocalypse, and brain-washed into joining their ranks. I haven’t read enough of the relevant comics to know whether Genesis’ abduction might have been prevented if Cable had been less focused on “the big picture”, but it would certainly be pleasing in narrative terms if such was the case.

Even if that isn’t true, though, the larger point still stands. Let’s return to nature vs. nurture one final time, and take a look at Stryfe and Nate Grey. Both are alternate versions of Cable, the former a clone, the latter a genetically-engineered equivalent from the Age of Apocalypse. Stryfe, stolen as a baby by Apocalypse, is a vicious, evil egomaniac. Nate, created by Sinister but raised by Forge, is good-hearted but pointlessly and destructively reckless. Both are free of the TO virus that has defined Cable’s life. Here we reach another central question in our attempt to understand Cable: was it his upbringing at the hands of Slym and Red that made him what he is? Compared to Apocalypse forcing survivalist dogma into Stryfe’s brain, or Forge’s prudent leading Nate Grey to chafe against what he saw as a hyper-cautious, even self-defeating refusal to confront the enemy in any meaningful sense, you can certainly make the case that his parents saved him from a similarly solipsistic path.

I’m not sure that tells the whole story, though. A stronger argument involves the degree of self-control Cable has been forced to learn in order to keep his TO virus in check, but even that isn’t quite right. The true lesson Cable has learned, both from his time as a rebel guerrilla fighting first Apocalypse and then the New Caananites, and from the virus that will kill him in minutes if he relaxes the telekinetic hold he has placed on it, is that there is only ever so much power to go around.

It is this that remains constant as Cable begins to learn to love the people and places he once knew only as legends, if at all. Everything remains an endless series of profit and loss equations, because as much as Xavier and the X-Men might have felt under siege for much of their existence, Cable has experienced the real deal. Indeed, Cyclops’ response to learning that the pathetically small remnants of mutantkind have been targeted for extermination is to follow in his son's footsteps by creating his very own version of X-Force, which is an irony that should be lost on no-one. Scott abandons at least a portion of the methods of his surrogate father, and instead adopts those of his own son.

Because Cyclops knows that mutants can’t survive by their old methods. There are too few of them, and too many threats. The enemy needs to be neutralised before they can gather to strike. They must be taken down one by one. Because there is only so much power to go around.

As ironies go, that one is distinctly bleak. No father ever wishes his son to experience the worst and most miserable trials of their past, and no son would either, should they end up in Cable’s position. There is, however, a happy ending to this story, at least in a sense. We already knew from watching Cable keep Hope alive in the future, at the cost of multiple serious and even potentially fatal injuries, that Cable considers Hope's life more important than his own. Indeed, it is he himself who first gives her that name, both as a reminder of the wife he lost, and because he is certain that she represents a quality his life has been desperately short of for as long as he can remember.

It’s this hope that keeps him going, even as it seems to become more and more clear that Hope herself might not have any powers that could even be referred to as useful, let alone able to reverse out of the dire straits mutantkind now finds itself in. There is almost nothing about Hope that objectively makes her worth removing of Scott’s best soldiers from the battlefield. Cable is simply working from his father’s hope, and his own. It’s the opposite of everything he’s ever been taught, and ever practised – risk a powerful asset to defend a seemingly worthless one.

 Ultimately this fundamental change in an old soldier leads not only to him meeting his son’s stance, but passing it, heading back down the axis that ends in Xavier’s dream. Trapped in the future alongside without Hope as Second Coming draws to a close, with no way back without the necessary robots on-hand to navigate the time-stream, Cable does the only thing he can.

 He lets go.

There is only so much power to go around, so he gives up everything he has left in the name of hope. He surrenders to the TO virus, allowing him to exist as a machine for just long enough to see Hope home.

The virus kills him, of course, that's what it was always meant to do, so many decades before. He says nothing as his disease finally, completely consumes him.  He simply looks at Hope, and smiles.

 Not everyone is going to agree with my definition of a happy ending, perhaps.  What you have to realise here though is that Cable got what he wanted, and he got what he needed.  He laid the ghost of his insane son to rest, by raising a beautiful and caring daughter in the most difficult circumstances imaginable.  He found a way to balance the casual violence and overwhelming darkness of his youth with the both the unshakable moral stance of his father's younger years, and the agonizing unwilling pragmatism of his later life.

And, in the end, he gave his life to save his daughter, and for a cause he believed in.  What career soldier and devoted parent could ask for more?

Still, more is what he gets.  As the dust settles on the battlefield, Cyclops disbands X-Force.  Wolverine is aghast at the decision (indeed, he re-forms the team without Scott's knowledge), but then he can't see the situation through Scott's eyes.  Cable created X-Force because he couldn't bring himself to agree with Xavier's methods.  Scott reformed the team when he lost hope that they could survive any other way. In effect, Scott chose his son's approach, instead of his "father's".

In his last act, however, Cable demonstrated just how far he had embraced Xavier's dream.  You cannot carve hope out of bloody violence. You can survive that way, but that isn't the same thing at all.  In the end, it took Cable's death to remind Scott of that. Cable originally took his codename as a way of referencing how he linked both past and future, but as we look back over his long, hard life, we see that he linked far more than that.  He lived offering us protection, and died giving us Hope.

Rest in peace, Nathan Christopher Charles Summers.

Next time around, we investigate probably the world’s only Native American Valkyrie, and discuss how one can cope when you stop giving other people nightmares, and start living your own instead.

 [1] There was a play on this in the quite excellent X-Men cartoon of the ‘90s, in which Bishop and Cable are both desperately trying to achieve precisely opposite goals in order to improve their own time-lines. It worked particularly well because it undercut Bishop’s standard “I have seen what happens and therefore know better” by gazumping him with a time-traveller from further into the future.  "I bet you bitches still can't power your cars with your own piss, huh?"

[2] This was another difference between Bishop and Cable. Bishop’s home time is less than a century after the X-Men are formed, and before any number of global catastrophes cast their shrouds over history. That means Bishop can say things like “This girl has to die to save millions of people in sixty years.” Cable is basically limited to saying “Apocalypse? Fuck that guy!”

 [3] In fairness, it’s made pretty clear that Scott is confused and trying to work things out – it’s not really his fault his wife and child are almost immediately secretly abducted whilst he’s trying to get his head together.

 [4] Given how hideously he was originally written by Rob Liefeld – who at one point had Cable shoot his own comrade in the back so as to avoid him being used as a hostage – it’s amazing Cable has managed to amount to anything at all.

[5] Or how a daughter ends up like her mother, of course.

[6] Well, OK, pretty high, especially if he wants me to fight evil knights rather than get my mead on. I guess you’ll have to imagine an Englishman not quite like me.

Fast forward to the late ‘00s, though, and things are very different. Scott is now fundamentally disillusioned with his surrogate father, mainly over Xavier wiping Scott's memory of four X-Men who were killed or lost on Scott’s watch. This, combined with the events of M-Day reducing mutants to something like 0.01% of their former population, leads to Scott becoming far more militant, pragmatic and, frankly, cold.


Anonymous said...

Okay, first of all , allow me to say that 80% of this article touches me deeply, I'm One that loves all A of these Summers kids (even though Nate is more of an artificial creature , that was bred in a bottle, kinda like Cell from DBZ...)
The biggest problem with Nathan is that he has always been denied his rightful place in the A-list. When I read what Weinberg intended to do to clean the fuck up of the Twelve, my jaw dropped. And then when I saw the BS they pulled to fuck him over ... PFEH!

As far as Cable fans are concerned, the Cable that we know and love that grew so much under Nicieza's hands in Cable and Deadpool (how come you don't mention him? He's far more important than the plot device called Hope!) died in X-Men 200. The Cable that has shown up in Messiah Complex (what a POS) and the subsequent Cable title is a shell of his former self. We have no idea of his motivations, no idea how he knows about the future of this baby, and none of the plot threads that were left dangling in Cable and Deadpool at the end of issue #42 have been addressed. Cable has gone back to being a time-travelling gun-toter no so different than he was in the Liefeld days and I had almost forgotten about those dark times.

Peace. I thereby shall thereby write a fanfic to clean all the BS the BFQ did to spit on Cable & Apocalypse fans...


SpaceSquid said...

I didn't mention Cable & Deadpool purely because I haven't read it. Which I realise is probably a mistake.

Indeed, almost all my contact with Cable has come directly from his appearances within UXM. So, for instance, I'm not particularly bothered about the way Davis used him in wrapping up The Twelve (I have my problems with that story overall, but not so much with Nathan in particular).

And while I wouldn't necessarily argue that the Cable of the most recent eponymous series bears little resemblence to earlier incarnations (you're right, I think, that he's spent far too long as a b-list character, which almost invariably leads to frustratingly inconsistent characterisation), I really don't see the similarity to his original appearances. The idea of a former ruler of two separate countries throwing it all away to guard a single child because she might bring about a better future? That's a pretty powerful idea, and it's at least arguable that it's still more powerful because he doesn't have a cast-iron (or even corrugated cardboard) reason for that belief.

Anonymous said...

Joy ! An answer !

Actually the sad part with most x-men comics since M-day, I found myself rooting for the villains, who at least were still honest people about their motivations.
I mean in Messiah war, I was glad to see his Stryfeness back, but lord did I want him to slaughter Whoreverine's stabby squad hellraiser style.

Well Cable's character is not all that inconsistent. In fact The all-time best Nathan is the Weinberg take...Nicieza's is close second since he had far more time with the character & his entourage. Davis ruined BOTH Apocalypse & Cable's potential epic battle (the cartoon did it right dammit! guess , like so many writersn he was too busy wanking over Magneto...) considering the excellent set-up Joe Casey was building in his Cable run with his understanding of Apocalypse's personna & M-O....Loeb (pre Hack Pack, I know shocking),Robinson & Tieri used him in a good way, playing his strategist side ,his will to fight the good fight & using his supporting cast in a good way.Duane S's take is mediocre to me...better than Tischmann's BS soldier X stuff & WORLDS beyond what Morrison did to his daddy.
Now Wolverine is FAR more inconsistent but that's another story

Well I'd like to add my pretentiously biased opinion on the x_men cartoons

& here's my , shall I say, Perez-esque piece Try to guess which character is which.

(apologies for the presence of Longshot & Mojo but, don't worry they 're on the exiles corner since along Nate Grey , the mutant shaman & world's most powerful hobo, they are far better as off-worlders....)
Thanks again Mr Space Squid


SpaceSquid said...

I'm ashamed to admit that I've read almost none of the Cable appearances you've mentioned (I have a few Cable issues from the mid '90s, but that's about it).

I think this is why the SS v X series has slowed down so much (though not stopped, I'm toying with approaches for the Mirage essay as we speak); a lot of the '00s recruits came from elsewhere in the Marvel Universe, which means there's often a huge amount of backstory of which I know very little.