Professor X: Hero or Zero?

Oct-07-08

It certainly would be difficult to dispute that, when a character has existed for over four decades and has been written by dozens of separate scripters, it can be difficult to keep a consistent character portrayal. There are certainly times when any character may seem slightly off to long time readers, often for a variety of reasons. That being said, there may be no character in the Marvel Universe (and certainly not in the X-Universe) that has been portrayed in a more confusing fashion; sometimes Charles Xavier appears to be a decent, heroic man, and other times he seems to be a manipulative ass. Which is the real Professor X?

The trouble began as early as his third appearance. Xavier seemed to be a good man, and had created a group of mutants to safeguard humanity from evil mutants. He was teaching these teens the normal prep school curriculum, as well as training them in how to use their powers. (Some might consider this to be a morally questionable action; the Professor trained five teenagers in fighting and used them as his private army, a move he would repeat with the New Mutants some years down the road. Some people might be correct.) However, in X-Men #3 (the original series, before they became uncanny) Xavier mused at how much he loved Jean Grey, and mentioned that he would love to tell her, but he couldn’t, since he was confined to a wheelchair. Apparently, the fact that he was her teacher, close to her guardian, had known her since she was eleven, and was easily twenty years older than her did not factor into his decision not to pursue this relationship. Granted, Stan Lee, who was writing the book at the time, never mentioned the attraction again, no doubt realizing he had crossed a line that was better left uncrossed. However, it was printed, and years later other writers would pick up on it and run with it, and it’s still sometimes mentioned today.

Some years later, Xavier again showed his tendency towards cruelty. Sensing an impending attack from an alien race, Xavier decided that he was the only one who could stop it, but also decided that he would need to be isolated so he could work on his preparations without interruption. He got a reformed criminal who could make himself appear as someone else, the Changeling, to assume his place on the team. When the Changeling died in battle, Xavier knew that his students thought him dead, and were devastated by his passing (so devastated that they broke up the team). The only one who knew his secret was Jean Grey, and Xavier swore her to secrecy. It would be some years before Xavier would reveal his existence to his remaining students, which he did only so they could help repel the alien invasion for which he’d been planning. So, not only did he allow those who looked on him as a father figure to believe him dead, but he also saddled Jean with a very weighty secret and would not allow her to lessen her burden by telling anyone, even the man she loved. Not very nice.

In the last few decades, Xavier’s hasn’t stopped his morally questionable deeds. Of course, his most famous example of “Telepaths Behaving Badly” happened when he mind-wiped Magneto, who is one of his oldest friends, leaving said friend a drooling vegetable. Subsequently, Xavier started calling himself Onslaught, and became a major villain in the Marvel Universe. It would later be revealed that some of his behavior was caused by Magneto’s presence in his mind, which became rooted in his psyche when Xavier mind-wiped him, but surely Xavier must claim some of the blame for the villainous actions of Onslaught, if only because mind-wiping his oldest friend was a morally dubious action in the first place. However, the surprises awaiting the X-Men didn’t stop when their mentor and long-time leader tried to kill them; they were just as surprised when they discovered the “Xavier Protocols” which were files authored by Xavier detailing how you could kill each member of the team. This seems ridiculously over the line, putting Xavier on a par with Batman (who did something similar in the DC Universe). Is Xavier truly that ruthless and paranoid?

There are other examples of Xavier doing things that are somewhat morally ambiguous, as well as examples of him being a true hero. Which one is the true Xavier?

Aw, man…I was hoping you were going to do like you did with Jean Grey and document all the times Xavier has been killed and brought back. Or, better yet, all of the times he’s been given back the ability to walk only to become wheelchair-bound a few issues later. Good times.

I’m torn on this one, mainly because I just don’t really like Charles Xavier. I think he’s a bit of a self-serving dick masquerading as some sort of hippie cult leader. Don’t tell anyone, but I think Professor X is secretly a Republican. He’s all about control and forcing a flawed point of view. Regardless of what he publicly states, he’s blatantly for the premise of “might over right.” Why else would he train teenagers in ways that are more strenuous than the Marine Corps? The guy has an axe to grind with humanity, but he’s less genuine about it than Magneto ever was. At least you knew where that maniac stood on a daily basis (until Charles messed with his head).

The big question is: since Xavier is such an Alpha-level telepath and mind-messer, how do we know that he isn’t tweaking everyone’s will at will? He could be tricking every single person in the world every single day. Making people bend to his ideals, forcing others to comply with his way of thinking and generally making a mockery of independent thought are things Professor X could do without even getting out of bed in the morning. It’s a decidedly creepy scenario. Has Marvel ever done a What If? issue about THAT?

That would certainly be amusing, looking at the times Xavier has died and returned, although that’s become so much a cliche of the X-Men (and really, the entire Marvel and DC Universes) that it’s difficult to track all of the instances. It might be much more illuminating to chart how many times the poor man has regained the use of his legs, only to have them destroyed again, putting him back in his wheelchair (or whatever you call his personal conveyance, since he seems to eschew your normal wheelchairs, and the last few futuristic models he has had don’t even have wheels any longer). If Xavier is something of a jerk, maybe he’s just bitter that he can’t seem to walk for any length of time.

Your feelings about his powers are certainly understandable; telepaths are probably the scariest of all superhumans for exactly the reasons you’ve named. I believe that your thoughts have been echoed by certain characters in the Marvel Universe from time to time, and they’ve confronted them head on in a few issues of Ultimate X-Men, where it’s been hinted that Xavier is even more of a manipulative dick than normal. It’s interesting that in the early days of the group, Xavier’s physical condition was obviously intended to offset the incredible powers of his mind. He couldn’t go with the X-Men into battle, and although he followed along with them mentally, he was apparently limited to merely thinking at the team. In fact, his powers were so limited at that time that, when he wanted to mindwipe the Vanisher and the Blob (which he did in issues #2 and 3 of the original X-Men series, respectively), he had to be physically near them. Over the years, his powers expanded, and now he seems to be able to physically affect people no matter where they are in the world. Now, his physical handicap seems to be a pointless condition, inflicted on him merely because that’s how people know him. It’s not like they’ve ever used his inability to walk as a way to express the situations of people who actually are confined to wheelchairs on a day to day basis and it doesn’t affect his ability to be an effective superhuman. So why even bother keeping him crippled?

That being said, I must admit that I like Professor X, and I don’t think he’s as bad as recent writers want to portray him. I think that he certainly has done some questionable things, but that’s part of his character. With the power that he possesses, surely anyone would have occasional lapses into morally dubious territory. There’s a scene in the God Loves, Man Kills graphic novel (one of the best X-Men stories ever, and certainly the best of the Marvel Graphic Novel series, which had quite a few strong entries) that I think encapsulates exactly how I see Xavier. In this scene, the battle is won and the X-Men are hanging out with Magneto, who’s reminding them that they’re weak and their more peaceful method of solving problems doesn’t work. Xavier, who was kidnapped and brainwashed through this story, agrees with Magneto, saying that maybe his way really does suck. Cyclops, Storm and the other X-Folks disagree with Xavier, and seeing the support from his students is too much. Xavier breaks down in tears, thanking his students for their faith and support in him and his methods, especially when he lacked that faith in himself.

That’s the Charles Xavier that resonates with me. He’s a man with an incredible power and an incredible responsibility to use that power ethically, and to train the next generation of mutants to use their powers responsibly as well. He’s a flawed man, as we all are, but he’s doing his best. Too many times, writers want to portray him as one thing or the other; he’s either the sweet old teacher, who’s rather above reproach, or he’s the manipulative jackass, willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals. In reality, of course, rarely are people at either end of that spectrum and Xavier shouldn’t be either. I think he’s out there doing his best, and he will sometimes fall, but he’ll get back up again (perhaps a tasteless analogy, considering his physical condition, but it works on the astral plane) and continue to soldier on, doing the best he can.

I dunno. I’m rather indifferent when it comes to portraying subtlety in comics. For me, in order to prove a point or move a story forward, it’s helpful if the characters are somewhat one-dimensional. And I mean that in the best light possible. I don’t expect flat conversations and predictable battles, but I do expect Wolverine to be blunt, I expect Spider-Man to be a smart ass and I expect Captain America to stand up for what’s right. Trying to find this so-called middle ground with Xavier is off-putting. His exterior message is one of “can’t we all just get along” proportions. I’m just not sure if his motivation is backed by his tactics. No one can really say if he’s being honest or just playing everyone like a cheap one-man band.

I agree that the lack of attention to his physical handicap is disappointing. His early appearances worked hard to set up obstacles, showing him as frail but his mind as strong. Over the years, this has been forgotten and it has helped to escalate his out of control powers. The Professor X character has fallen into the same trap as Superman, Batman, Hulk and any number of additional superhero types. The 80s and 90s are predominantly to blame for this over-powering of characters, like ‘roid rage in graphic form. Everyone was so rabid for the knock-down drag-out fight scenes that creators consciously and haphazardly threw aside the built-in limitations in favor of sparks and blood. Imagine how fearful the general populace would be to live in a world of that proliferate magnitude. I would never leave my house for fear of a crushed tank or spaceship landing on my head from thousands of miles away. Hell, I’d want to sleep forever just to avoid being mind controlled or set on fire or thrown into the future from the comfort of my kitchen while trying to make a sandwich.

Seriously. They need to back off with the omniscience. Professor X is a frightening character when taken to the extreme. I’m just not sure there has been enough editorial control exerted on him over the years to justify any sort of trust.

Well, I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying, but I think we’re hitting a few different points here. Allow me to try and sort through them:

Your general comment about one-dimensional heroes is well taken, although I wouldn’t call it one-dimensional. Every character (just as every person) does possess some dominant personality traits. Spider-Man is a smart ass. Batman is grim. Wolverine is a scrapper. It’s just like in real life, when someone might say that someone is sarcastic or someone is meticulous or someone is analytical. That’s a very obvious and apparent personality trait, and I don’t think it’s one-dimensional, nor are those characters one dimensional. That’s just the personality trait most evident. Xavier is a mediator, one who is always trying to find a middle ground. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other facets to his personality, nor that they can’t be shown from time to time. Some of the most interesting Spider-Man stories have been those which show him when he stops cracking jokes, because that’s when you know something is wrong, since it happens so rarely. Along those lines, we shouldn’t see Xavier breaking down often, as he did in the scene I mentioned above, but when it does happen, it underscores the seriousness of the situation. So, in the end, I’m not seeing our positions on that point being so different.

You then mention the escalation of powers, which I agree is a poor choice, as it makes characters difficult to relate to, and also difficult to challenge effectively in combat without staging ridiculously over-the-top cosmic battles (I sometimes wonder if that’s why we encountered so many omnipotent villains in company wide crossovers, such as Thanos with the Infinity Gauntlet and the Beyonder; there was no way anything less could challenge the assembled might of the heroes). However, I would caution against blaming the 80s and 90s, especially when you choose Batman and Superman as examples. Yes, those decades saw an incredible escalation, particularly at Marvel, but DC began escalating Batman and Superman to the ranks of the gods back in the 50s and 60s (they actually depowered Superman to a great degree in the 80s). However, in the end, your point is well taken; the powers many of these heroes have are still amazing things. We don’t need to make them even more powerful to instill a sense of awe. It’s the weaknesses in a character’s power that can make for interesting stories, and force writers to be more creative.

In the end, though, I think I agree with you. Professor X could have used firmer editorial guidance a few times over the years and he is scary when taken to extremes. Would I trust him? I’m not so sure; it would be difficult to ever truly trust a telepath. That being said, just because trust would come slowly, that does not mean he doesn’t deserve it.

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Angel & Iceman: Best Friends Forever

Oct-06-08

Do you think Bobby Drake and Warren Worthington wrote the typical messages in their Xavier Institute yearbooks? You know, all of those “have a great summer” lines and “remember that time we gave Cyclops a wedgie?” quips. I would conclude that they did, indeed. Why is that? Well, for the simple reason that the two of them seem to be inseparable in the Marvel Universe. So what makes these two heroes such tight teammates?

Let’s try to find some answers, shall we? Angel and Iceman made their first appearances in X-Men #1 way back in September 1963. Since that time, you rarely see one without the other. They remained on the original X-Men team through issue #94 in August 1975. My first inclination would be to say that they were so used to being teammates, that when the first incarnation of the X-Men split, Angel and Iceman thought it would be best to continue on together. Beast was too cool for school and had already left to join the Avengers. Cyclops stuck around to lead the new team. And Jean Grey was too busy being killed and reborn for nearly 12 years to be bothered by any sort of continuity.

Being post-teen mutants in the swinging 70’s must’ve been too much for Warren and Bobby, so they decided to take a cross-country trip to Los Angeles and join the most disparate group of comic book weirdos ever assembled (since trumped by nearly every Defenders gathering ever). Until January 1978, they were members of The Champions. Evidently, writer Tony Isabella wanted The Champions to be just Angel and Iceman, but editorial intervention brought in Black Widow, Hercules and Ghost Rider (and later, Darkstar…with Black Goliath and Jack of Hearts waiting in the wings). Aside from the completely obvious pairing of two mutants with a Russian spy, a Greek demigod, and a flaming demon on a motorcycle, The Champions was most noteworthy for having the team face off against Swarm, the Nazi beekeeper. That was good stuff.

Times must have been tough after that powerhouse group disbanded. For the next couple of years, Angel and Iceman make scattered appearances, primarily in a few issues of Spectacular Spider-Man , Marvel Two-in-One and What If? And, while Iceman was busy on his big television debut in Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, Angel had a recurring role in early Dazzler issues.

Angel & Iceman somehow dragged themselves out of character purgatory and dove headfirst into the eighth circle of Marvel hell, the Defenders. In October 1983, they joined their fellow former X-Man Beast in the New Defenders (Beast having joined up with the non-group after his run with the Avengers). I don’t have the issue in front of me, so I can only assume that Bobby and Warren agreed to come aboard after a conversation with Beast that involved a lot of crying and begging on his part. I don’t know. Maybe they lost a bet? That seems likely.

When that group broke up for good in February 1986, the duo came together with their Xavier Institute alumni to form the original X-Factor. Yes, they were saved from falling back into obscurity by becoming mutant hunters. See, X-Factor (aside from unbelievably bringing Jean Grey back to life and facilitating Cyclops leaving his wife and newborn child) was set up on the basis of reverse psychology. They “hunted” mutants, but were secretly mutants themselves and only “hunted” other mutants in order to save them from persecution. Shh! Don’t tell anyone.

Of course, realizing that calling yourselves mutant hunters was probably bad PR for mutants in general, they soon abandoned that premise and were promptly taken over by the government who quite enjoyed the mutant hunting notion. By this time, the main catalyst for keeping the original X-Men from rejoining the flock (Magneto as leader) had been removed and Angel & Iceman were free to return to the fold. Oddly enough, the two of them continue to come and go together from the X-Men pretty much up through present day.

Are they just good friends? Are they MORE than friends? Is it something about their powers that work well together? Is Bobby Drake really shallow and just hanging out with Warren Worthington because he’s rich? Is Angel sticking close to Bobby because his powers are cooler and make up for Angel’s inadequacies?

There HAS to be an underlying theme here!

It’s interesting that you bring these two up as a couple, since there were rumors swirling in the late 90s and early 00’s that Iceman was gay. That would have supplied an interesting reason for why he hung out with Angel so much; he had an unrequited crush on our winged mutant. However, Marvel, no doubt feeling that one gay mutant was more than enough, quashed these rumors pretty quickly, and started trying to give Iceman feelings for any woman he came in contact with, which always struck me as being incredibly forced and uncomfortable. I’m not saying I think Iceman is gay, as much as I’m saying that having a crush on every girl he met had never been his thing before, and trying to shoehorn it into his personality now just didn’t seem to work.

In the end, I think these two have a nice little bromance going and they certainly have spent more time together than any other mutant duo I can name, except for Cyclops and Jean or Havok and Polaris, which isn’t really helping their claims of being no more than a bromance. Iceman, we may remember, actually did try to break up the Angel/Iceman bromance with an actual romance; when Polaris was first introduced, her boyfriend was Iceman, and the two were rather inseparable. Well, inseparable for all of about ten issues, until Havok was introduced. His golden hair, chiseled features and Summers boy ability to have women fall all over him quickly seduced Polaris, and she left a very hurt and angry Iceman to chase after a man who couldn’t control his powers, and could emit mortal blasts of concussive force at any time. Polaris wasn’t too bright in her early appearances.

It is interesting that Iceman and Angel have ended up together so often. If one reads the early issues of the X-Men, when they appeared together, or even the issues of X-Factor in which they starred, they don’t tend to pal around much. Both of those books almost always paired Iceman off with the Beast; they were the Scooby and Shaggy of the mutant set. I would consider Angel the Daphne of the group (some might think Jean should have that position, but I would argue no; after all, Daphne is useless, which fits Angel, Jean has red hair, just like Velma, and in the end, Angel is prettier than Jean), and we all know that Daphne never runs around with Scooby and Shaggy. Indeed, Angel usually spent time with Cyclops and Jean, especially in the early issues of the title, when Stan Lee and subsequent writers were desperately trying to create some tension in the Cyclops/Jean relationship by making us think that Angel might sweep Jean away before Cyclops got his chance. Sadly, it’s difficult to build that tension, since it was obvious that Jean had no romantic interest in Angel by her thought balloons, so unless Angel was going to kidnap her and force her to marry him at gunpoint, the reader could be confident that Jean and Cyclops would eventually be together.

Iceman and Angel both have tried to separate themselves; they’ve both had limited series and one-shots, and as I’ve mentioned before, Iceman even went back to college and became a Certified Public Accountant. Surprisingly, this career does not appear to have held his interest. Apparently, he preferred dealing with Magneto over dealing with the IRS.

I don’t believe their powers are incredibly compatible, and they don’t seem to complement each other much in that regard. Of course, as we’ve noted, except when he had the metal wings created by Apocalypse, Angel is basically worthless. In 1963, as I’ve also mentioned before, most of Marvel’s heroes (except for Thor and the Hulk) were much weaker; the whole Marvel Universe was probably a 1/3 of the power that it is today. Over the years, both heroes and villains got stronger, and where the ability to fly was relatively unique and interesting in 1963, by the mid-80s almost everyone in the Marvel Universe could fly, even Aunt May (that time she became the herald of Galactus). Upgrading Angel to Archangel and giving him metal wings was a very necessary way of keeping the character relevant, but it has sadly been reversed, and he is now useless once more. Certainly, as I’ve said before, the personality is more important than the power, but when your power is the ability to flutter around the villains, smacking at them with your little pink fists, you become difficult to write, and generally frustrating to read about. Hey, I liked Cypher of the New Mutants too, but the ability to understand languages earned him a grave before he was out of his teens.

I’m sure the real reason that Iceman and Angel so often find themselves on teams together is because someone in Marvel editorial feels that, by placing them both on a team, you can get some of the magic of the original X-Men. This is also highly absurd, as the original X-Men had no magic; if they had, their book would not have been bimonthly and they wouldn’t have been in reprints for two years in the 70s. Still, putting either Iceman or Angel on a team means nothing, and conjures up no images. Putting them together makes one think of the original mutants, and that means something. Storywise though, it also makes a certain amount of sense. If you’re launching a new venture, surely you’re more comfortable with an old friend at your side. Since the original X-Men were rather insular and didn’t mix much with the rest of the Marvel Universe (much like the current X-Men, come to think of it) Angel and Icemen don’t have a lot of friends beyond their immediate teammates, and the original X-Men class certainly shares a bond that would be hard to break. I would imagine that it’s this very sense of camaraderie that keeps these two close through thick and thin.

I agree with you for the most part. I’m trying to recall any significant romances that either Angel or Iceman have had in their documented existences. Iceman had a fling with Opal Tanaka, who ended up leaving him for a former villain. He dated Lorna Dane on and off over the years. And he flirted with Havok’s nurse Annie for a bit. Angel has done slightly better for himself, pursuing both Jean Grey and Dazzler, bagging Candy Southern during the Champions years, hooking up with Psylocke later on, becoming close with a police officer as Archangel and even having an implied fling with the much younger Paige Guthrie.

Angel has always come across as being above everyone else around him (perhaps that’s a subliminal reference to his angelic name and abilities). He was a superhero on his own before being located by Xavier. He helped house and fund both the Champions and the Defenders for some time. And he supposedly left the X-Men for a while because he thought Wolverine was a “brute.” Seems pretty metrosexual to me.

Bobby plays like more of a hanger-on. He’s younger than Warren and probably more unsure of himself and his place in the world. At the same time, he’s also more laid back and easy to get along with. Iceman, as you’ve noted, has palled around with Beast and is friendly with Spider-Man.

I, for one, was completely horrified when Angel lost his wings. And then, when Apocalypse turned him into Archangel, I was pretty ticked off. It wasn’t so much that they had messed with one of my favorite characters, it was that they used that lame villain to do it. I can’t stand Apocalypse. Archangel’s metal wings seemed like a pure 90’s thing to me. And they were out of place for such a grounded character whose entire identity was originally based around trying to hide his wings and then learning to live with them. Man, the writers really put him through the ringer emotionally during those years too. His wings are cut off and replaced, he watches his girlfirend be killed, then he has to deal with Apocalypse. Poor guy.

His lack of significant power doesn’t bother me. He just has to be used as more of a tactical weapon than a powerful one. And he has his purpose…he flies up high and looks at stuff. Whee! Plus, I think his newly revealed secondary mutation of having “healing blood” is much more in line with the angel imagery.

As far as the idea of constantly placing Angel and Iceman on teams together, I think there is some resonance for readers. Sure, the beginning publishing history of the X-Men is laughable at best, but over the years the characters have become rather iconic. There are worse things that Marvel has done than trying to build a team around a few original mutants (*cough*Spider-Clone*cough*). Hell, there wasn’t any other common thread holding the Champions together, was there? And the Defenders actually started to feel like a team when Beast was leading a group that included a couple former teammates and friends.

Honestly, it’s weird for me to think of Iceman and Angel in separate lights. They’ve been side-by-side for so long that one without the other just seems odd. I was completely taken aback when Iceman was on TV with Spider-Man. It just didn’t make sense (not to mention how much better the show would have been with Iceman AND Angel). And the few runs where Warren worked in tandem with the Avengers just felt awkward to me. I remember being excited to see Angel and then feeling dirty after reading the issues…like I just witnessed something I shouldn’t have. Of course, those weren’t the best years for the Avengers either.

Maybe this entire history is why I suggested we set Bobby and Warren up as leaders of the X-Men. The two characters have been ingrained in my brain as a permanent team. Man and man, side-by-side. Two former schoolboys sticking up for each other through thick and thin. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


Jean Grey: Rising like a Phoenix…again and again and again….

Oct-02-08

So, we’ve made our first small push into the world of the X-Men, and what have we learned? We’ve learned that Peter David writes some of the best mutant books around, we’ve learned that Jason hasn’t read too many stories featuring Nightcrawler, and we’ve learned that just that short stint into the X-World gave me a headache. The sad thing about that last statement is that the concept of the X-Men and the mutant world is a solid one. The oppressed minority is never a theme that will grow out of date or become less relevant (sadly) and it will always resonate with readers. Unfortunately, over the years Marvel’s Merry Mutants have become so horribly enmeshed in a convoluted and hard to follow continuity that sometimes trying to figure out where a certain character stands can be difficult for the casual reader (and sometimes it’s hard for the devoted reader). As a case in point, let’s examine the poster child for screwed up continuity….Jean Grey.

Jean Grey was introduced in 1963 as one of the five original X-Men. Given the name of Marvel Girl, she was telekinetic. She and Cyclops were dancing around a relationship, and would eventually become romantically involved, a romance that would last for more than four decades. Marvel immediately began to confuse Jean’s origin by claiming, after she had already existed for some years, that she was not just telekinetic; she was also telepathic. Plus, she’d known Professor X for years before joining the team. Um. Ok. Well, that was never shown in her early appearances, but no worries. We’re comics fans, and we can roll with these things. Jean left the X-Men when the series was revived from obscurity in the mid-70s, but she continued to make guest appearances in the title, and was unlucky enough to be guesting when the Sentinels came calling. Along with other members of the team, she was kidnapped to outer space. On the return trip (after the Sentinels had been defeated), Jean piloted the space shuttle back to Earth through a radiation storm, while the other members of the team stayed safely in some shielded pods. Sadly, the radiation was too strong, and poor Jean died when the ship crashed into the Hudson River.

Her first death lasted less than an issue; she was back pages after expiring, now calling herself Phoenix, and with powers far beyond those of mortal mutants. She made even more appearances in the title as Phoenix, but her power levels began to grow to truly cosmic levels, and after going a tad mad and destroying an entire planet, she committed suicide to protect those who she loved from her own out of control powers and emotions. Oooh, death #2. This one was going to last a little longer. Five years, to be precise.

However, while Jean was dead, she wasn’t forgotten. Cyclops met another woman who looked exactly like Jean. Her name was Madelyne Pryor, and while Cyclops could never completely forget about Jean, he began to fall in love with Madelyne. They got married, and Madelyne got pregnant. Everything looked rosy. Then Jean returned.

Yes, during a routine emergency, the Avengers found a life support pod in the Hudson River. With some help from the Fantastic Four, they cracked this baby open and found….Jean Grey! But wait…wasn’t she dead? Well, not as dead as you might think. It turns out that Jean Grey had never been Phoenix. In reality, the Phoenix was a cosmic force, who had put Jean in suspended animation and had taken her place. Jean had never destroyed an entire planet. That was all the Phoenix Force. Jean was now free and clear of the guilt, but wait…she no longer had telepathic powers. She was only telekinetic again. But she was back. She didn’t want to rejoin the X-Men, who at that time were associating with Magneto, who felt that he could be a good guy if he just ran around with a giant ‘M’ painted on his costume, so she convinced the original X-Men to form a new group: X-Factor.

The idiocy which was the original X-Factor is fodder for another column, but I do want to digress for a minute: This is where it became clear that Cyclops is a jerk. When Cyclops finds out that Jean has returned to life, he abandons his wife and UNBORN CHILD and immediately runs to her side. He comes back shortly after his son is born, but stays for a very short period of time and leaves again. This would be a slimy enough move if he told Madelyne that he was divorcing her, but he doesn’t even do that; he simply leaves, with not so much as a “Dear Madelyne” note. Wolverine wasn’t kidding in the first X-Men movie when he called him a dick.

It’s then revealed that Madelyne looks so much like Jean because Madelyne is actually a clone of Jean, created by the villainous Mr. Sinister (who is villainous because it’s hard to be a hero when your name is Mr. Sinister). Madelyne suddenly has super powers, begins calling herself The Goblin Queen, and fights Jean to the death. Madelyne dies, but not without revealing that (and I must quote Wikipedia for this, since even though I’ve read the bloody issues, I still don’t know what happened) “the piece of Jean’s consciousness that had merged with the Phoenix Force (which had migrated into Madelyne Pryor upon the death of the Phoenix) returned to Jean, granting her all the memories of both Madelyne and the Dark Phoenix. Jean now also contained a spark of the Phoenix Force but would later expel it while helping an alien world fend off a Celestial.” Thank you Wikipedia. So, Madelyne is dead, there’s only one Jean Grey again and even though she’d never been Phoenix, she now remembered it like she had been, and had a sliver of cosmic power in her. And, even though she’d never been her own clone, Madelyne, she remembered that too as if she had been. Oh, and somewhere in there she regained her telepathic powers. Also, somewhere in here, I began drinking heavily.

Jean and Scott now plan to raise the baby that Scott and Madelyne had, since Jean, with Madelyne’s memory, considers it her baby as well. Of course, they don’t have much of an opportunity to raise the child, before it’s infected with a technovirus by the villain Apocalypse, and they have to send it to the future to be cured, where it will also be raised and will grow to become the hero Cable, who will come back in time as an adult. He’ll actually come back in time twice, coming back again some years later in a younger incarnation calling himself X-Man. Jean tries to deal with parenting both of these people, but it’s difficult when they’re almost as old as she is. Of course, she should be used to it since a daughter from YET ANOTHER future timeline that had already come back to the past, when Jean was originally dead, and had called herself Phoenix, and had joined the X-Men. Jean met her a few times after she returned to life, and the meetings were often awkward, as any meeting with your child from an alternate reality would be. I’m sure we can all relate.

Who wants aspirin?

So, Scott and Jean finally get married. For a honeymoon, they go to the future, where they get to raise the son that they sent to the future years ago and who would become Cable. They spend years in the future, but she doesn’t actually age because she’s inhabiting someone else’s body at the time. So, she does get to raise her son…well, Madelyne’s son, but it’s almost like her own. So, everything is hunky-dory in Jean-land and things can get back to a semblance of normality, right? Well, not quite. Cyclops, proving he’s just as much a dick now as he was when he deserted his wife and infant son, starts having an affair with Emma Frost, a former villain who tried to kill Jean on numerous occasions. The two women aren’t too friendly, since when Sentinels killed Jean a few years before (the third time Jean died) she had projected her mind into Emma’s comatose form. Not surprisingly, Emma was never happy about this, and even less surprisingly, Jean eventually returned to life in her own body. Anyhoo, Cyclops explains to his wife that he and Emma only screwed around on the mental plane, not in reality, so it doesn’t count. Jean’s not sure she agrees, and the marriage isn’t doing well.

Things never have the chance to get sorted out. Jean is on a spaceflight with Wolverine and they are being pulled toward the sun. Perhaps Jean should stay the hell off spaceships? In any case, Wolverine kills Jean so she doesn’t die when they go into the sun, because being stabbed through the heart with bone claws is so much more enjoyable then being incinerated. Death #4. To the surprise of no one, Jean returns to life, again manifesting the Phoenix Force which makes no sense, since she was never Phoenix in the first place! Arrrgh! I hate these stupid writers! Why can’t they keep their bloody stories straight!? This sort of thing is the reason that…..

Sorry. (Keep it together John. You’re almost there. Deep breaths.) Ahem. So, Jean is alive for the fourth time, and returns to Earth, where she fights Magneto, who kills her for the fifth time. This happened four years ago, and she’s stayed dead so far, but anyone who thinks that this one is going to stick needs to go back to Remedial Comics and read some more Marvel comics.

I’ve just re-read that, and it still makes no sense to me. What really bothers me is that I like Jean Grey; I think she has interesting powers, and I think she’s an interesting character, when she’s not being crushed under the weight of her own ridiculously convoluted backstory (and I’ve actually simplified things and also left out some minor deaths and story points). If the X-Titles can do this to one of the founding members of the X-Men, it becomes obvious why so many people have problems following their titles.

What say you? Does Jean have potential? Do you agree that she’s been ridiculously mishandled? Is there even anyway to save a character this badly mangled?

Holy crap.

Yeah. Should we go back to talking about the Avengers?

No, no, this is good. I mean, really it’s awful, but in a good way. You never realize how ridiculous a lot of this sounds until you see it written out in a completely biased way. Wikipedia gives a solid history of the character, but they don’t delve into the laugh-out-loud horror and nonsense implied in such a backstory.

I agree that Jean Grey used to be an interesting character. And, even though I’m usually completely against the soap opera aspects in the X-Men canon, her frustrating love triangle with Cyclops and Wolverine was inspired. Of course, as you’ve pointed out, they never really handled Cyclops’s side of it very well. What a lousy double standard.

Sadly, the only thing I can think to do (since she will inevitably return at some point) is to give her some sort of brain injury. Honestly, if we’re going to embrace all the daytime mantras for these characters, we might as well incorporate some memory loss. I’d take it a step further and actually give her a physical blow to the head that cuts off some of her exaggerated powers, makes her forget her past with Scott and all the weird alterna-kids, and maybe even forces her to absentmindedly drool a bit. Ooh, maybe even give her an eyepatch. Eyepatches are cool.

Seriously though, Jean became highly inconceivable once her powers and abilities ballooned out of control. The twisted relationship she shared with Scott was completely unbelievable. And the Cable-Nate Summers-Rachel Summers-Madelyn Pryor-Phoenix stuff just makes my cerebellum bleed. I has head asplode!

Jean Grey was great as a cute telekinetic girl, sort of naive and sheltered, who grew up to be a stalwart supporter of a dedicated cause. I have a weakness for redheads, so I always wanted her to be useful. Most of the time I was disappointed. And it’s strange to say that the X-world isn’t really that much different without her around.

That said, she is the only female founding member of a fairly significant part of Marvel’s history and should be restored to a position worthy of such status. I was only half joking when I suggested memory loss. If she were to forget who she was, what she was able to do, and what she meant to people, I think her character could be regrown in a positive way. It would be a natural catalyst to dampen her powers. It would also allow us to explore other relationships with her, which would then cause reactions in her former friends and lovers. And it would add an innocence back to the character which has been sorely lacking. I mean, really, I think you become pretty complacent with things after your third or fourth death. Or so I’ve heard.

So yeah, I’m actually advocating a swift blow to the head. How does that feel?

I think you may be on to something. There’s no real way to fix Jean’s backstory; any fix that I can think of would just complicate her history even more and that’s the last thing she needs. I think the best thing to do when she returns (and we all know she will) would be to just ignore the past, and the only way that the character can ignore it is if she doesn’t remember it. Whether that actually involves the Blob smacking her on the head and giving her amnesia, or more likely, Jean returning from the dead with the amnesia already in place, that’s the best way to go.

As for reducing her powers, I don’t mind the telepathy (although I don’t think it’s integral to the character), but they truly have to divorce her from the Phoenix concept once and for all. It was a great plot, and the original story is a classic, but it’s done now, and it’s time to move on. Keep her power levels down to more average levels, and instead of focusing on whether or not she’s going to go cosmic again and start destroying planets, focus on her personality.

That brings us to her love life, and yes, let’s move her beyond Cyclops. That ship has sailed, and Cyclops is obviously over her. I’d love to see them actually explore the Wolverine angle. Of course, Marvel has teased it for years, but I think they’re afraid to let Wolverine get close to a female. I’d love to see what would happen if Wolverine began to get close to Jean; especially a more innocent Jean. It could be interesting for both characters. Not that Wolverine is the only option; let Jean play the field a little. I’m not saying she should sleep with any guy with an X on their costume, but let her date a little and see what’s out there. Since her first appearance in 1963 she’s been stuck on Cyclops, who’s treated her horribly. It would be interesting to see her with anyone else. (It also might be interesting to see Cyclops’ reaction to Jean dating other men. Would he finally get jealous? Would other characters put him in his place, by relating his past missteps in the romance department?)

So, Jean comes back, as we know she will, and she has amnesia, allowing the character to begin in as fresh a way as possible. I like it.

Yes, yes! I was more or less angling for the amnesia angle. My favorite resurrections have always been the mysterious ones. And what’s more mysterious than when the character herself doesn’t even know what happened? I say they stumble upon her lying nearly unconscious out in some barren desert. She gets nursed back to health, eventually regains some of her powers (I guess I don’t mind the telepathy. I just hate when the power levels are so crazy.) and maybe even falls in love with…Angel or Iceman? How awkward would that be for everyone involved? Cyclops would probably instantly pine for her, which could end up backfiring easily as she gets turned off by his constant whining and attention. Teach that jerk a lesson.

I know it’s a cop out, but a permanent sort of amnesia is a great way to reboot relationships and personalities and all the rest. Bring back Jean, but make her a blank slate!


Batman’s Bad Men (And Women)!

Jun-23-08

We’ve threatened to do it before and this time we’re following through on it. It’s DC time at “Meanwhile…Comics!” After realizing that the Young Justice post we did a while back has remained our most popular item (which is interesting in itself, since it’s the only post that didn’t offer any true solutions to the questions it raised, but I digress) and seeing that the new Batman film will hit the streets in less than four weeks, we’re dedicating all of our posts until then to the Dark Knight himself.

Today’s entry is similar in scope to the YJ post in that it’s just going to give an overview, mention some discrepancies, and most likely just kind of fizzle out at the end without a resolution or even a feasible recap. That’s the way we roll, playa. We’re award-nominated now. We have to keep it real.

So bring on the bad guys!

Of all the popular comic book characters in modern times, none has a more recognizable rogues gallery than Batman. Sure, the Spider-Man movies have shone the spotlight on a few of Spidey’s most popular foes, but no one outside of the nine circles of fandom would know The Jackal or be able to identify The Chameleon in a lineup (even trickier considering his abilities). Batman’s villains owe a lot to the media…from toys to films to television to lunchboxes to cartoons to party favors…in making them as everyday as they are. I don’t know a single person who couldn’t name these four ne’er-do-wells:

Bif. Bam. Pow. Sigh.

Let’s just jump into this from left to right, then we’ll hit some of the second-tier baddies.

The Penguin: A dude with trick umbrellas and henchmen with bird-based nicknames. Intriguing. I always thought that Penguin was pretty lame and he was made even worse by Tim Burton who turned him into a flippered weirdo who looked like Danny DeVito. Oh, wait, that was Danny DeVito, wasn’t it? Blah. Anyway, steps have been taken on the comics side of things to turn Mr. Oswald Cobblepot into a serious businessman/nightclub owner/smuggler. That makes a lot more sense to me. No one’s going to take a tiny fat guy with an umbrella and an avian fixation seriously as a “dangerous” villain, but he can pull off the criminal mastermind role quite well.

The Riddler: Most of my exposure to this clown comes from various cartoon series and revolves around his incessant need to not-so-cryptically telegraph his evil plans to Batman right before he tries to pull them off. Plus he dresses in a bright green, question mark-covered leotard, which is not a good thing. In the comics, he has “gone straight” and become a sort of detective in his own capacity. Again, a good turn as far as I’m concerned. There are enough horrible villains out there whose only goal is to get captured again and again. At least the Riddler keeps things interesting by making you think he’s trying to help you.

Catwoman: Never my favorite threat, she works much better as someone who travels in the gray areas of the system. Nowadays, she’s more or less on the hero side of things anyway.

The Joker: Wow. The most overused villain in all of comics. The fact that he has done so much over the years and yet has gotten no true punishment out of it just seems to reinforce the limits on superheroes in the public eye. I get it. He’s crazy. Big deal. Batman should just slit his throat and dump him in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Who’s going to miss this loser? Writers have pigeonholed him so badly that there’s no way to identify with him anymore. There’s no inner conflict, no rationality, no pathos for the bad guy. He just does stuff with no rhyme or reason…intermittently a purely crazy, bloodthirsty bastard and then a goofy sad sack who can’t seem to catch a break. I care less about The Joker than I do about Hypno-Hustler (well, that’s not really fair since I really like Hypno-Hustler even though I shouldn’t).

So, the Big Four are easily identifiable, but are they archenemy-worthy? I don’t think so. I think they’ve been used too much to have any relevance anymore. But that is up for discussion, as always.

Next, I’m going to give a short rundown of the other nuisances in Batman’s sphere of influence:

Mr. Freeze: A frozen guy who’s ticked off because he caused his own wife’s death.

Ra’s Al Ghul: Leader of the League of Assassins who can regenerate himself

Scarecrow: He dresses in hay and burlap and uses fear toxin to creep people out.

Bane: A walking stack of steroids who once broke Batman’s back.

Two-Face: Horribly scarred (physically and mentally) former district attorney with an odd sense of ethics.

Mad Hatter: A quite insane scientist who can mesmerize people with various hats (what is it with hypnotic headgear in comic books?).

Poison Ivy: Can control plants and manipulate toxins to help control others (what is it with weird forms of mind control in comic books?).

Harley Quinn: Joker’s most famous sidekick and Poison Ivy’s best buddy.

Clayface: A big pile of…uh…clay that can change his appearance

Calendar Man: A semi-retarded dude who commits crimes based on various dates. Why?

Black Mask: The first truly interesting Batman villain in years, he is a Gotham City crime boss with an eye towards total domination of the city.

Hush: Lame villain created just to throw everyone off during what was quickly becoming a horrible storyline.

Killer Croc: A giant reptile/human hybrid who lives in the sewer and likes to eat people.

Man-Bat: Right. He’s a man who can become a giant bat for reasons never truly understandable.

Ventriloquist and Scarface: A timid man with a tiny wooden puppet who thinks he’s a gangster.

Calculator: Used to wear a costume with a giant keypad on the front of it. When no one would stop laughing, he decided to become a villainous information broker, the yin to Oracle’s yang.

Ah, some of these losers make me yearn for the heady, campy TV days of Egghead, King Tut and Lola Lasagne. Let’s all dance the Batusi and talk about the good and the bad in Batman’s rogues gallery, shall we?

There is no doubt in my mind that Batman has the richest cast of characters in all of comicdom. There’s the plethora of villains that populate Gotham City (and really, who can blame the occassional psychologist or author who extends the theory that there are so many whackos in Gotham City because of Batman himself….no other city has this many freaks running around in it!), and there’s also his good guy friends (who shan’t be discussed until another post). I also think you touched upon something very important; Batman’s cast has probably seen more public exposure through various forms of media than any other comic character I can name. Even more interesting is how often the movie, cartoon or television version will begin to overwrite the original comics version. A lot of these characters have evolved considerably thanks to the fine work of some talented individuals in non-comics media (I am particularly looking at everyone involved in Batman: The Animated Series, which was one of the best super-hero portrayals anywhere, anytime, anyhow).

I think that the Big Four that you mentioned all deserve their own posts. Goodness knows the Joker does. I’d like to take a stand here on the Joker and say this for public consumption. I. HATE. THE. JOKER. He used to be an interesting character, but, as you said, he has been horribly overused, and his continued existence snaps my extension of disbelief faster than Tobias Whale sitting on wicker furniture. The fact that Gordon or one of the Gotham City cops didn’t pop a cap in his ass after No Man’s Land is one of the stupidest….at least Harvey Bullock would have……grrraaarrgh! This will be a post closer to the movie. Count on it.

As for some of the other villains you mention, they’re an interesting bunch. At least, they can be. Mr. Freeze is undoubtedly my favorite….when he’s being written for the aforementioned Animated Series. Somehow, he never translates as well into the comics. I think one of the problems with Mr. Freeze is that he’s powerful. If you look at Batman’s Rogues Gallery, these are not very powerful villains; they’re mostly normal humans with a couple of gimmicks. Perhaps the most physically powerful of them, Killer Croc, is also an idiot, and that balances out. But Freeze is powerful and smart and I think that makes him stand out amongst the other rogues. He should be the star of the galaxy, but he’s not. And why is that his power’s fault? Well, it seems that many writers delve further into the psyches of the non-powerful Rogues, probably because the hideously scarred psyche is what makes Batman’s foes interesting. With Freeze, they have this cool power they can play with, and that seems to be what they focus on. Perhaps, without that power, they’d focus a little more on the tragic nature of the character. Of all Batman’s foes, I think Freeze may ultimately be the saddest and the one that the reader can empathize with the most; Freeze wasn’t evil, but he saw someone he loved die and was himself horribly injured in an accident, and that’s pushed him to the edge.

I don’t want to spend too much time on any one villain, and I just talked about Freeze more than I probably should, but let me hit a few other baddies real quick. I think that Batman’s main foe should be Two-Face. He has the most interesting backstory, the fact that he was both Batman’s and Gordon’s friend is unique to him as a villain, and the fact that there is some good in him also brings him to the forefront. Too many people want to write Two-Face stories where they forget about the fact that he was once very close to Batman and Gordon. For a time, he was closer to them than anyone else. He must have knowledge about them he could use against them; why hasn’t he used it? Like Freeze, he’s also a tragic character, and that doesn’t get played up enough; this was a man who had a good life, and it was stripped away from him because of an evil man. I’d play with that a little more.

Harley Quinn is wonderful, and I love seeing her, especially be herself. Keep her away from the Joker! (Have I mentioned my hatred of that character?) She doesn’t need the Joker to be interesting, and is actually much more fascinating when she’s got her own plans and is calling the shots her own way, rather than when she is playing sycophant to the most overused villain in comics. Ugh.

Clayface is another one I’d like to talk about. Batman tends to veer toward horror stories (or, at the very least, grisly, moody and spooky noir stories) and Clayface would be perfect there. Again, however, he seems to be a victim of his power, as everyone wants to write about the guy who can change his shape. Whoopdee-doo. Let’s go back to the original Clayface, Basil Karlo, a horror film actor who goes insane. You could do some very spooky stories with him; the shape changing could be a nice complement, rather than the star of the show. Scarecrow is another character that would fit well in the moodier stories, but they kind of need to figure out how to use him. He was very well done in the No Man’s Land stories (and really, savor those words, as I will likely never type them again), being used as what he is; a student of psychology, who knows how to twist people mentally to do what he wants. Then, Jeph Loeb used him in Hush and he was some crazy nursery rhyme spouting schmoe. What the hell? Scarecrow is a brilliant college professor, and can be quite spooky. Let’s give the guy his due.

Finally, one more quick note….I find the Ventriloquist both fascinating, very cool, and utterly ridiculous. I really like the idea of someone with a split personality finding an outlet for that personality through a ventriloquist’s dummy. That’s great! What a neat idea….that never seems to work. Seriously, this character always hits me as being silly and I find it difficult to believe any serious criminal would work for this man. I know most of the Bat-foes are crazy, but he takes the cake! Could there be potential here….just maybe..

So, do we break these characters down into separate posts, because I think we could do most of them justice, or do we lump them together in a few posts? Or do we just discuss them all right here, because there’s plenty of potential with these crazies!

Interesting…I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Freeze from the cartoons too. And the Snow storyline from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight retold his origin in a clear and clean way (with amazing art from the late, great Seth Fisher). I agree that, aside from B:TAS, no one has really paid attention to the anguish in his life.

I like Scarecrow too, but I prefer Mad Hatter. I think he was used brilliantly by Gail Simone in her Secret Six run. Plus, he’s quite freakin’ insane…more so than the Joker, I think. There’s a certain level of creepiness to his ramblings and random crimes (not to mention the subtle notes of pedophilia). He reaches for the unexpected immediately and I find that completely readable.

I don’t know much about Clayface in the comics. Harley Quinn is a phenomenon in her own right by the fact that the animated series made her the character she is today. You don’t often see that kind of transition. And Two-Face has his moments, but it’s hard for me to get the ridiculous Tommy Lee Jones take out of my head.

If you have nothing else to say in this intro post, I believe we can start breaking some of these villains out in their own entries and see what we can do with them. I’d like to tackle Mad Hatter. You’re free to start with Clayface, Two-Face, Ventriloquist, Scarecrow or Mr. Freeze. Then, together we can spout our hatred for The Joker. That’s seven villains ripe for revamps…and you know how I love the number seven!