Thursday, September 6, 2012
In Defense of Cyclops
Cyclops, Scott Summers, has always been my favorite member of the X-Men. There was a time in the 90s when everyone was all about Wolverine, Gambit, and Bishop; and me? Cyclops.While in recent years he has gotten a higher profile and a better rep, thanks to top writers like Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon really liking the character and putting him out as not just field leader of the X-Men but as the leader of a mutant nation, he is still a character that I find people often misunderstand. Especially with Avengers Vs. X-Men, and the latter half painting him very much with the villain brush, I wanted to go back, talk about the good aspects of the character, and highlight a few of my favorite Cyclops stories.
Most characters who are the leaders of their respective teams have certain traits that make them stand out from the crowd and the team, aside from their leadership. Mr. Fantastic is the world's smartest man. Captain America is the noble, selfless hero who stands for America. Nightwing is looking to get out from under Batman's shadow. But Cyclops's defining characteristic is that he is the leader of the X-Men, both from a literary standpoint and in the way the character is written to think about himself. What this does is make the majority of Cyclops stories depend on the X-Men being there for him to lead, or struggle against. While there can be solo Cyclops stories, and they can be good stories (and I'll discuss a few of them later), when a character is known as the leader of a team, it kind of hamstrings him as a solo character. I think this has been part of the problem with readers views of Cyclops over the years, as readers see him as dull and predictable. He needs to be dependable, since that's what he's been built to do.
This is not to say that being the leader of the team as the defining character is a bad thing. It makes for a very interesting dynamic when with the X-Men. Cyclops has a specific relationship with his teammates because what he does is lead the team. The classic adversarial relationship with Wolverine would not be as powerful if Cyclops didn't believe holding the X-Men, and in recent years the entire mutant race, together was what he had to do. In recent years, Cyclops has sacrificed close friendships because of this drive, and that adds a depth to the character that is more than just him being a stiff, totalitarian ass.
Now, I've also seen comments that other than being stiff and dull as a character, Cyclops is so flawed that he is unlikable. I can see two major character flaws in him, and I think those actually make for a very interesting character. The first is his almost crippling self doubt. Over the years, Cyclops has been portrayed as never feeling he was good enough, or living up to Xavier's dream. That struggle is truly part of the character, and would require a major shift in the character. This actually happened after "Messiah Complex" and a lot of the voices that were against a wishy washy Cyclops now pointed out that he was too driven and focused, to the point of obsession and insanity, or at least fascism. In X-Men: Legacy #260, Mike Carey (who wrote a great Cyclops, and who I wish wrote him more) wrote a scene where Rogue talks to Cyclops about leaving Utopia for Westchester. She points out that, to push the self doubt down, he had to sort of choose a stance that all his decisions were right, and to not doubt himself at all. While not a good character trait, it's something different, which there's not many X characters who have gone through that kind of change.
Cyclops's other major fault is, well, that he has a really bad track record with women. There's no real defense here. There's something in the way he's been written over the years that doesn't allow him to be single, and has him hopping from one woman to another, desperate for love. Most stories away from the X-Men have Scott teamed with his long time love, Jean Grey, but with Jean's fairly casual relationship with life, and her recurring visits with death, there's been plenty of room for Scott to play the field. And boy has he ever. Every time he thinks Jean Grey is dead, or she actually is, he immediately hooks up with someone else. When he thought she died in the Savage Land, he got together with Colleen Wing fast. After she died in The Dark Phoenix Saga, he was hanging out with Lee Forrester almost immediately. And after her, he was single for less than two years real time before he met Madelyne Pryor. And the least said about marrying the clone of your dead ex-girlfriend the better. Then there's the return of Jean, the marriage, and the whole Emma Frost thing. This strikes me almost a tragic flaw territory, this need to be loved, and can easily be linked psychologically to the fact that he was raised in an orphanage run by an insane, immortal mad scientist, and thus having abandonment issues. Ah, yes, Comics, Everybody! (There's no comic strip for Cyclops in this collection of weird character histories, but there probably should be)
Now, I want to actually talk very specifically about the Utopia-era Cyclops, and the current Avengers Vs. X-Men series. These are the stories, and the responses that have made me want to write something defending Cyclops's actions. When Scott took over the X-Men, moved them out to an island, and kind of declared himself ruler of said island, it raised some eyebrows. And his more militaristic stance is uncomfortable at times. I do see Wolverine's point, that kids should be allowed to be kids. But Cyclops also has a valid point, that these kids need to be able to defend themselves, since so many of their friends are, well, dead. And I feel the comparisons to Magneto are invalid. Cyclops never once declared himself and mutants above humanity. He never tried to cut Utopia off from the mainland. He was trying to create a refuge, but not a prison (well except for the prisoners, but they were pretty much all mutant criminals). He also sent teams out into San Francisco to try to help the city. Magneto sat around at a Brotherhood meeting and said, "OK, Toad and Blob, it's your turn to go out and watch over Mount Wundagore's human population." Cyclops was doing things far more hardnosed than many superheroes do, no arguement, but he never was a supervillain. I will add, though, to acknowledge a fault, that calling your squad of heavy hotters the Extinction Team is probably a little more threatening than you need.
Now, on to Avengers Vs. X-Men. I haven't written much about the series since, frankly, I haven't been enjoying it all that much, although some of the titles crossing over into it have been great. But I want to point out some things. The general response on-line I have seen recently is that Cyclops started it, he should have just listened to Captain America to begin with, and now that he's all Phoenix powered, he's been a Dark Phoenix in waiting all along.
Firstly, I don't see how Cyclops started this whole mess. He might have fired the first literal shot, but Captain America showed up with a Helicarrier full of every Avenger under the sun. He pretty much went in there not willing to really talk about anything. He had been told by Wolverine that Cyclops wouldn't hand over the person he believes was the savior of all mutant kind, and who also happens to be his granddaughter, just because Cap says the Phoenix is coming. I think no one has really addressed Cyclops's emotional ties to Hope, which I find odd. This girl was raised by his son, who had to make a similar choice that he himself did. His son died to save her. Maybe part of what's going on here is him not wanting to believe everything Cable died for was in vain, which is why he's been so protective of her from the beginning. And sure, Cable came back right before this, and was a little crazy, but the Avengers were pretty hard on everyone there too. And it's not like the Avengers have a great history protecting mutants. Scarlet Witch went bad on their watch, and remember how that ended? No More Mutants. And the Avengers work for the US government, who never tried to create an army of giant robots with the sole purpose of destroying mutants. Oh, wait, yes they did. I don't know if I'd trust them either.
Now, yes, I can't argue that by the last issue of Avengers Vs. X-Men, the Phoenix force hasn't started to corrupt Cyclops. But before that, what had he done? He saved the world. There's a sort of conceit that is accepted as part of superhero comics, that when you have characters with such powers, they can't just fix things, because then there's not much of a story. You'd have a Marvel universe with everyone wearing unstable molecule clothes and driving around in repulsor cars. But when a character is presented with these kind of powers, and does something good with them, like feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and the like, there's nothing inherently evil there. The only dictum Cyclops seemed to lay down to the UN and the world was, "Don't build any more weapons." Frankly, does anyone think the world would be a worse place if everyone had to lay down their guns? His decision to send the X-Men after the Avengers, not to kill them, but to take them off the board until things were right with the world, is harsh, and does have the same problems that Cap showing up ready to fight does. But they continued to come in and try to take Hope. Eventually, she did want to go, and he wouldn't let her, and that is the slippery slope of Phoenix-powered crazy that has been part of the last third of Avengers Vs. X-Men, but you could easily argue he was provoked by the Avengers continually not wanting to talk and just coming in guns blazing over and over.
I've spent most of this piece defending Cyclops against things I've read that say what a lousy character he is, or what a villain he is, but I haven't said what I really like about him. I think that a character who is dependable, who is capable and competent, is something to be looked well on. I think, despite the whole mess with Madelyne Pryor, Cyclops does love his family, no matter how time tossed or alternate universe related they might be. I think he's tough, and a good leader. Also, for all the mistakes he made pre-Utopia, he owned up to them and tried to make amends. These are all traits that make a good man, and an interesting character to read about.
As I close this out, I want to give a quick rundown of some of my favorite Cyclops stories, ones that might makes some naysayers look at him twice.
The Dark Phoenix Saga- This is one everyone has read, but look at the Cyclops aspect of the story. This is a guy who is willing to do anything to save the woman he loves.
Endgame- This was the original X-Factor's final battle with Apocalypse. In it, Scott leads the team to defeat their deadliest foe, and to save his son, Nathan, who has been kidnapped by the villain. In the end, although the good guys beat Apocalypse, they don't win. Scott is presented with a choice: send his son to the far future to save him from the techno-organic virus that he has been infected with, or keep him here and see him probably die. The choice is heartbreaking, and powerful one for Scott. Sadly, this has never been collected
The Wedding of Cyclops and Phoenix- This is just a great story, where you get to see Scott interact with his fellow X-Men, especially the other originals and Professor X, see him and Jean happy, and get one of those great superhero wedding stories. Marvel is going to be releasing a trade pretty soon of all the stories leading up to the issue and the wedding itself, and it's worth picking up.
Adventures of Cyclops & Phoenix/Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix- Two time travel stories, the first features Cyclops and Jean Grey in the distant future, raising a young Cable, the son Cyclops sent into the future. Again, this is a good family story, of Scott raising his son, and living for 14 years as a family in the future. The second story has Scott and Jean displaced to the past and witnessing the birth of Mister Sinister, the villain who has dogged his life since he was a young child. Cyclops actively chooses to try to redeem the nascent Sinister, to save Nathaniel Essex from becoming the monster he would, instead of just killing him. Trades for this story are out of print, but you can still find them, or the back issues at shops or cons.
Unstoppable- The final arc of Joss Whedon's run on Astonishing X-Men, this is the story that completes the evolution started in Grant Morrison's run (a good Cyclops run, but not one with any stand out issue. Still, you should read it). Cyclops, finally, if briefly, in control of his powers, leads the team to an alien world, and six X-Men, one agent of SWORD, and a few rebels, pretty much defeat the whole culture. While Colossus and Kitty get a good spotlight in here as well, I love Scott's leadership, and the interplay between him and current love interest Emma Frost. This is collected in it's own trade, plus in the Whedon omnibus.