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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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!