Happy Boxing Day, faithful followers! Welcome back to another edition of Flashback Friday, now with 50% more post-holiday doldrums and half-hearted New Year’s resolutions! In the spirit of all of those empty promises we make to ourselves as the calendar gets ready to flip to a new year, this week I’m taking a look back at writer/director/sleepless wizard Joss Whedon‘s run on the Marvel comic book Astonishing X-Men. In particular, I’ll focus my gaze at how Whedon transformed one of my favorite comic book characters, the mutant leader Scott Summers—Cyclops—into a certified badass.
Back in 2004, Whedon began his work on the title alongside artist John Cassaday, continuing the story begun in writer Grant Morrison’s New X-Men title. The series featured a small core group of X-Men, including team leader Cyclops, Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, Beast, and the White Queen. The book had a strong positive reaction from fans on the whole, chiefly due to Whedon’s spot-on characterization of the X-folk as well as giving all of the members of his chosen group a chance to shine. In addition, Whedon drew on X-tropes from past stories, including extraterrestrial adventures, mutant discrimination, and evolution, putting his unique spin on familiar touchstones.
For me, however, the biggest highlight of the series is that, for my money, Whedon was the first writer to get the character of Cyclops exactly right. In 2013, I had the opportunity to speak at a conference in North Carolina focusing on the works of Joss Whedon called Joss in June assembled the husband-and-wife team of scholars Ensley and Dale Guffey (writers of Wanna Cook?: The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad). During JIJ, I discussed what made Whedon’s transformation of Cyclops, who I contended was a character perpetually stuck in a state of arrested development, so astonishing.
Since his creation in 1963, Cyclops had never been a character who was allowed to properly evolve into a fully-realized, well-rounded person. While I would argue that there is a lot to love about Cyclops, even I’ll admit that I understand why the Internet is so chock-full of polarizing opinions about him, leading folks to either love him or hate him. He’s been alternately depicted as a whiner, a douchebag, an adulterer, an apple-picking boyscout, and, worst of all to some people, not Wolverine. Whedon must have seen some potential in Cyclops, who he admitted was kind of a square, one of the responsible kids. (I’ve always been partial to the responsible kids myself. Leonardo is my favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, after all.)
So how did Whedon accomplish this herculean feat? It’s amazing he was able to do it all, considering what he had to work with. As I said, the X-Man has always been stuck in neutral, in a state of arrested development. He’s never been allowed to revel in his powers, due to the nature of his powers and having to keep them under control with his ruby quartz glasses. From his inception, he was depicted as the team field leader and thus had to be the “most adult” in a sea of teenage peers, while still a teenager himself. As such, it set him up as the X-Men’s resident square, representing the establishment that a lot of kids weren’t too interested in sympathizing with. At the same time, he was a teenager, one who wanted to get the girl—Jean Grey—and make Professor Xavier, his mentor, proud. This ran counter to the maturity angle some past writers wanted to set up. This leads to a muddled character stuck in ambiguity.
In addition to this ineffectual adulthood, X-writers heaped on adversities that neutered Cyclops by the forces around him. Professor Xavier always kept Cyclops on a leash, despite making him team leader. Again, he couldn’t fully control his powers, never realizing his true potential. And, finally, Wolverine was constantly hitting on his girlfriend Jean Grey without any regard to Cyclops. So, if writers want to pull Cyclops out of this neutered state and make him “the adult” of the X-Men, where could they really go from there? Usually by trying to make him “more adult,” which usually entailed making Cyclops a condescending jackass with control issues. Whedon had a problem: How do you make Cyclops a character who acted like an adult to an X-Man who actually was an adult? How do you make Scott Summers evolve into the fully fleshed-out character he was always meant to be?
Whedon, I would argue, used the 25 issues of X-Men he wrote to push Cyclops through the milestones of adolescence and into adulthood. Firstly, he lets Scott hit milestone one, which included accepting his place in the world and adopting his own ideology. He embraces his role as headmaster at the Xavier School for Higher Learning and becomes proactive in making the X-Men a shining beacon in the superhero community to improve their public relations image.
In addition, Whedon pushes Cyclops through another milestone, which included breaking away from parents and other adults and achieving independence. He learns that Professor Xavier subjugated a self-aware Danger Room when it achieved intelligence in order to train his students. He discovers once again that the government can’t be trusted sometimes, as it comes out that some government agencies are developing a mutant “cure.” Rather than walking away and lashing out at the world, Cyclops decides what he feels is the right way to forge ahead in the world apart from other adult centers of authority.
The final milestone Whedon ushers Scott through is acceptance of his body and sexual identity. For years, Cyclops had to wear ruby quartz glasses to control his powers, believing for years that an accident had prevented him from being able to keep his powers at bay. While his ability is a powerful one, this lack of control into adulthood sometimes made the character look weak. During psychic therapy with the White Queen, however, he learns that his lack of control stemmed from a subconscious decision to protect others from his power, acting as a psychic muzzle of sorts. He also finds in the White Queen not an idealized teenage love like he did with Jean Grey, but a full partner who wants Scott to reach his full potential.
By the end of Whedon’s run, Scott Summers is a man who has full control over his powers and his team. While he eventually dons his ruby quartz visor by the end of Whedon’s tale, this time it is a conscious decision. Whedon has done what many thought might be impossible: make Scott Summers into the X-Men’s premiere badass (that is, until writers who followed tinkered with him).
On that note, I welcome your hate mail telling me I’m wrong. Happy New Year and I hope 2015 is fantabulous! And if one of your resolutions involves self-improvement, you could do worse than using Whedon’s Cyclops as a model for that type of evolution. Peace out, kids!