Its been over a month, huh? Well that’s grad school for you. I’ve still be writing about and making video games, but all of that needs to wait for awhile as I wait for certain projects to finish up and schedules to be put together. So in the mean time, I’m going to do some more writing about other art forms, and in particular how I like to engage with them playfully.
Why do super heroes matter? I find super hero stories interesting because, at their core, they are about exploring real emotions and personalities through completely fantastical, often nonsensical, experiences and events. I’ve written about Superman before, and how he represents the humanistic ideal that truth, beauty and power don’t have to corrupt and that we can all be great if we allow ourselves to be. All great super heroes represent some kind of ideal or struggle like that. Spiderman is about a selfish, lonely teen desperately trying to become an adult. The Hulk is about the fear of being a monster set against the joy of not being afraid to express every emotion and sensation. These concepts are all explored through metaphors that, when looked at in isolation, are some of the most ridiculous ideas imaginable (a boy tries to establish himself as a man by hiding his face behind a wrestling costume and fighting science goblins), and yet somehow that very ridiculousness allows the character and psychological studies to become heightened.
Of course, the sad truth is that most super hero comics are not very good. I’d even go as far as to say that in general, the concepts and implied character studies themselves are more interesting than the results. When they work, they can be amazing, but when they fail they can devolve into masturbatory nonsense. Sometimes we enjoy them because we as invested readers are willing to put effort in to making these serialized comics and their convoluted continuity mean something.
There are several characters who embody their own, very interesting archetypes who sadly almost never get to actually explore those in their own comics. I want to spend a few posts writing about a few characters who I feel are phenomenally interesting and have a great deal of story telling potential, despite the awkward truth that they’ve had very few good comics to their name. Today I want to talk about Cyclops of the X-Men.
Poor Cyclops. No one likes Cyclops. Which, of course, makes him incredibly likable. Cyclops is an orphan (his father was kidnapped by aliens and became a space pirate who bonks a cat/skunk-woman instead of looking for his lost son) and grew up in an especially harsh, Dickensian orphanage. His powers manifested in his teens, and they mean that whenever he opens his eyes he projects a battering-ram of raw energy. If he ever fails to remain vigilant, his eyes could slip open and destroy a city block or knock someone’s head clean off their shoulders. So obviously he has trouble relaxing.
Once his powers appeared, he was taken in by Professor Charles Xavier, a pacifist genetic activist who controls minds, knows your every fear and secret, and trains children to be paramilitary organization. This is the closest thing Cyclops has to a father. He is trained to be Xavier’s perfect student, the poster child for an entire species. If he ever fails to remain vigilant, he could slip up and ruin all human-mutant relations or he could have a bad thought and his father-figure would instantly know and be disappointed. So obviously he has trouble relaxing.
He fell in love with another telepath, who eventually turned out to be an avatar for the cosmic entity of life and death itself. She died, got better, and everyone in the universe pretty much decided that she was the perfect, ideal white, cis, straight woman. All his teammates have creepy fixations on her and make a big deal about how they can’t believe she lowers herself to be with him. Also she is just as good, if not better, at knowing his every thought than Xavier. So if he ever fails to remain vigilant, she might know that he doubts himself, or worse doubts that she is perfect, and she’ll instantly know and might start hating him. She eventually died again (for good this time), and he got involved with yet another super-powerful telepath that everyone considers out of his league. So obviously, he has trouble relaxing.
Is it any wonder Cyclops is such a joyless stiff? To make matters worse, no one in the universe gives him any credit whatsoever. He succeeds? Well of course he did, he’s the poster-mutant and its expected. He fails? FUCK YOU CYCLOPS, WHAT A FAILURE YOU ARE. Super heroes in the Marvel universe all have teams and whatnot, but the truth is that their world is more about friends and networking than what species you are or what uniform you wear. I can count the number of characters that I would describe as Cyclops’ friend rather than teammate on one hand. That is why Wolverine can repeatedly attempt to murder children, Tony Stark can build an illegal prison in a dimension that drives people crazy and shove people in there without trial, Professor Xavier can rob people of free will and destroy memories, and all of them get forgiven almost instantly, but Cyclops will never, ever be forgiven for anything. The Marvel super heroes are a club who, at their worst, honestly care more about each other than they do the larger ideals of justice or the betterment of humankind. Cyclops’ real failure is that, for all his faults, he truly believes in those ideals and assumes everyone else is on board as well by default.
Recently Cyclops has been more interesting than he has been in a decade or more because some writers finally decided to do something with that idea. Cyclops was possessed by the same Phoenix Force of pure cosmic life and death that once possessed his wife. While possessed, he brought renewable energy to the world, created sustainable farms in starving countries, dismantled the world’s nuclear and chemical arsenals and generally did good work. Who opposed him every step of the way? The Avengers and two of the only X-Men I would call his friends. Of course, eventually the Phoenix Force drove him mad, because that is what cosmic forces do, and he had to be stopped, but the key point is that the super heroes were trying to kill him LONG before the cosmic force went bad (and arguably, it only went bad because the Avengers kept trying to destroy it and kill its hosts). The rest of the world didn’t fail to notice.
Tony Stark has the technology to end world hunger overnight, but he never will. Professor Xavier could end every genocide with a thought, but he never will. SHIELD could end global warming in countless ways, but never will. Even Spiderman or Daredevil or Wolverine could do significantly more than just punch or stab costumed bank robbers, but never will. Why? Well because logically that would either mean an end to super hero stories as we know them or make the Marvel universe even more alien from our own and the creators don’t want that. But the fact remains that in theory they COULD, so it is safe to assume that maybe they just don’t care.
The super heroes were never friends with Cyclops, and so as far as they care they have no reason to forgive him. But the rest of the world? They saw someone with super powers actually CHANGE things. So now Cyclops has finally said, “you know what? Fuck this” and left the cape and cowl-set behind to become a radical super-activist (or “terrorist” depending on your point of view) and the majority of the world LOVES him for it. The super heroes want to stop him at all cost, and cannot get why he is popular with the masses. Don’t they know how BORING he was? How UPTIGHT? How can they not cheer for the much more friendly and COOL government stooges who refuse to share their technology or gifts and constantly destroy huge sections of the country in their private disputes?
So now we have the man who could never relax, who never fit in, who was always held to a standard he could never reach and then condemned when he failed to reach it, and he is finally doing what he wants to do. He can finally choose to define himself rather than let others decide who he needs to be. He can finally even choose to relax if he decides to, and the rest of the world will support him in doing so! He’s found a larger world beyond the super heroes, and he likes it. So the question is, can he overcome his habits? How will he define himself? Can he deal with this new-found freedom maturely or will he end up becoming a selfish, entitled creep? How will the superheroes in their sheltered worlds deal with this new unavoidable reality? This is interesting comics, and it is a shame that it will all be undone sooner than later and we’ll be back to the boring status quo.