I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

My Favorite Marvel: Cyclops

In the last few years, the only thing I ever hear people say about Cyclops / Scott Summers is how much they hate him. It's almost become a refrain to say, "I think his superpower is whining." And believe me, I think Cyclops has made some iffy decisions in the past: cheating on Madelyne Pryor with the newly resurrected Jean Grey, abandoning his child, cheating on Jean Grey telepathically with Emma Frost. The list could probably go on and on. I've started this post - the first of my new column called "My Favorite Marvel" - with all the reasons you shouldn't like Cyclops so that we can just get them off of our chests. And feel free to add more reasons in the comments section. But the fact of the matter is that I think Cyclops is possibly one of the absolute best characters ever created by Marvel comics.

I can understand why there's a climate of hatred for Cyclops right now. Most of the comic book critics of today were children when the X-Men cartoon was on air on Saturday mornings from 1992 to 1997. Cyclops was always goofy-looking and uncool, sometimes a dick, sometimes a whiny little boy. The X-Men film franchise did nothing to alleviate this image. Instead they presented Cyclops as a jealous little man who feared that the main character Wolverine might take away the one good thing in his life, Jean Grey. I think a lot of people are going to respond that these are accurate depictions of the Cyclops that was created in X-Men #1 by Stan Lee, and to some degree they are right. But there is depth to that Cyclops. If he's a dick, if he whines, it is connected to other things. I think that the television program and movies have taken Cyclops out of the context of his struggles. And any of us taken out of the context of our struggles is going to be at best a flat character and at worst a hated character.

I think that Cyclops, if you follow his story from X-Men #1 until the current day, is one of the characters that people can relate to the most. Whereas Superman and Green Lantern are nearly omnipotent and full of courage and all of the best of impulses, Cyclops is first and foremost a broken man, both literally and figuratively. When young Scott Summers had to parachute from a plane that his father was piloting before it crashed, he hit his head on a rock. For years Cyclops experienced a lack of control of his mutant ability (force beams shot from his eyes) as a result of the resulting concussion. Of course, Emma Frost suggests in Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men that the lack of control is psychological, but I'm not certain if that explanation has remained canon. This accident is what I mean when I say that Cyclops is literally broken. As for figuratively broken, Cyclops has no lack of psychological disorders. He certainly has abandonment issues and trust issues that just continue to compound as his family members disappear, his loved ones die, and his heroes betray him. In the end, Cyclops can be summed up in the way we imagine Professor Charles Xavier first found him, as an orphan who can't stop a deadly force from erupting from his face (let's not ignore the pregnant metaphor here about ugliness in teenager culture). He doesn't trust his own worth and he fears his true self. Everyone abandons him, and perhaps rightly so: he might kill them with his mutant powers otherwise, and who could deal with that kind of guilt.

Though I've just mentioned that Cyclops was an orphan, one of the best things about Scott Summers is that he has one of the most developed families in both the Marvel and DC universes. His father is a man named Christopher Summers. An air force major, Christopher piloted a plane with his wife Katherine Ann and two children Scott and Alex which came under attack by a then unknown alien race called the Shi'Ar. Christopher was able to get his children out of the craft before he and his wife were abducted. Scott and Alex are a couple of the most important mutants, both solar powered. While we know Scott became Cyclops and lead several X-groups, his little brother Alex became Havok, one of the first mutants to join the X-Men after the formation of the original group. Alex has the power to funnel cosmic energy into force beams that emanate mostly from his fists, and he took command of X-Factor after his brother left the team. Later it was revealed that Major Christopher Summers survived the plane crash and became a space pirate named Corsair. He surrounded himself with a completely different kind of family after the death of Katherine Ann called the Starjammers. In a really troubling storyline called X-Men: Deadly Genesis it is revealed that Katherine Ann was pregnant with a third child when she was killed, that the Shi'Ar removed the child from her dead body, and turned the resulting child into a slave. This child, named Gabriel Summers, would return to Earth, where Xavier sent him on a mission that should have killed him. Awakening from his near-death, Gabriel became the murderous villain Vulcan, and honestly I think that he's one of the best X-Men villains in recent history.

Of course, we know even more about Scott than his immediate family. In the 1980s, we meet Scott's grandparents. They own a shipping company in Alaska. In the limited series The Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix, Scott and Jean travel to 19th century England and meet Scott's first American ancestor, a boy named Daniel who adopts the surname Summers at Ellis Island. Furthermore, various children of Scott Summers and Jean Grey, Nathan Christopher Charles Summers (Cable), Nate Grey (X-Man), Rachel Anne Summers (Phoenix), appear from various different timelines. In the X-Men cartoon we even see that Cable has a son named Tyler. Scott's family populates a great deal of space and time in the Marvel Universe.

There is another family, however, that Scott Summers claims a close affinity with, the X-Men, with Professor Charles Xavier as his surrogate father. When Scott was an orphan in desperate need of help controlling his abilities, Xavier appeared to him, offered him a home, and offered him a way to become something other than a devastating weapon. I cried when I watched the series finale of the X-Men animated series because Xavier, on his deathbed, claimed Scott as his son in a really emotional way. And Scott, for years, has played the dutiful son. He's taken on the X-Men as his responsibility through some terrible times and done everything in his power to keep Xavier's dream alive even in the most intolerable times. It's been suggested in the Ultimate universe that Xavier may have been mentally influencing his students to stay in the X-Men, and in the regular Marvel universe that Xavier manipulated Scott through his love for Jean Grey. Furthermore, after it was revealed that Xavier sent Scott's brother Gabe on a suicide mission and then wiped Scott's memory of the event, the connection between Xavier and Scott was essentially severed.

This brings into focus perhaps one of the most important characteristics of Cyclops that makes him such a fantastic character, the balance of leadership and loneliness. Regardless of his reasons for becoming the leader of the X-Men, I believe that he has done a great job, showing care and dedication. The reason we might think he's a dick is because he is committed not to being everybody's best friend, but to making sure that these mutants who are feared and hated by society have what it takes to survive. And not only to survive, to battle those who stand in the way of peace, who would enslave the human race. In some ways Cyclops is the Batman of the group, the one who will always sacrifice happiness for the good of his X-family. I relate to Cyclops in much the same way I relate to Jack Shephard from LOST. Both characters find themselves thrown into positions of leadership. That leadership alone is enough to alienate them from fellow mutants, let alone the fact that Scott's father was kind of a deadbeat, his mother and wife Jean were killed, all of his loves were occasionally evil, his mentor committed a heinous crime against his mind, and his children all tell stories of a horrific future that he cannot stop from happening.

Cyclops is rough around the edges. He is occasionally crazy. Everything in his life turns from hopeful to terrible. But he takes up responsibility not only for his family or his team, nor only for Homo sapiens superior. He takes responsibility for all life on this planet and often on others. Cyclops carries Xaviers banner of peace between humans and mutants with a vehemence that will never be seen by another. He might not be the guy that you want to sit and have a beer with, but he's probably one of the most important individuals in the universe, one of the best developed characters, and one of the most realistic examples of how these powers can change a person. He is a leader, regardless of what stands in his way. He's one of my favorite Marvel characters, possibly the first in my heart.

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