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Sunday, July 26, 2015 

2 Grantland columns about 2 X-Men

A writer for Grantland wrote two articles over a year ago about Gambit and Cyclops, one where he may not have laid out his criticism correctly, and the second where he defends the other character. Here's the first one, where he's disappointed with Channing Tatum's choice:
Cocksure without being arrogant, centered but never self-serious, Tatum just radiates good-dude-ness, and it’s hard to begrudge him his chance to give the old superhero-franchise money tree a few shakes. The problem isn’t Tatum. The problem is Gambit. The problem is that Gambit Is. The. Worst.
No, the problem is/was that Gambit has been the most poorly scripted X-Man introduced in the 1990s. How come he didn't append that to the end of the sentence? You cannot blame an imaginary character for the faults of the writers, one of which the reporter does at least have the audacity to mention:
He first appeared in two X-Men comics published in the summer of 1990, and was one of the last major X-characters introduced by longtime Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont before Claremont’s departure from Marvel Comics in 1991. Over the course of his 16-year run on the X-books, Claremont had imbued each member of his sprawling cast of mutant heroes with a degree of weight and dimension that was rare for mainstream comics. But Claremont never quite got around to fleshing Gambit out before he left the book, which meant the version of the character handed off to subsequent writers was essentially just a collection of Claremontian tics and borrowed notions — an accent and an attitude, wrapped in a trench coat inspired by the one Christopher Lambert wears to hide his sword in Highlander. He eventually acquired a government name — Remy LeBeau — and a convoluted backstory, including an estranged wife and a dark past involving X-Men villain Mister Sinister, but as a character he’s never become more than a collection of cool-guy tics.
Yeah, I can agree on that last bit. That was indeed the problem with what little traits Claremont applied for starters to the character. And Claremont did do a slapdash job on his part. But why leave out the successive writers like Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza, the main writers on the flagship X-books during that decade? They were the ones who came up with all that convolution, like being a refugee from two warring gangs with very simplistic names - Thieves and Assassins Guilds, the former whom Gambit was originally part of, and the latter being the mainstay of his estranged wife, Bella Donna Boudreaux. Lobdell/Nicieza were also the ones who wrote the embarassing "revelation" that Gambit indirectly led to the Morlock Massacre, a storyline that should not have been. Again, Lobdell/Nicieza are allowed to get away with their worst writing through the simple step of not mentioning them at all. Gambit didn't "acquire" the additional components; it was the later writers like the above twosome who had the stupid idea of conceiving those fiascos. Why is it so hard to let the world know who these phonies are by just telling the world that they existed and explaining in depth what was wrong with most of their work? Lobdell's own work on Excalibur following the departure of Claremont and Alan Davis was pretty tedious too, yet nobody has the audacity of bringing that up either. (By the way, what do they mean by a "government" name? His last name is just the French way of saying "the lover".)
He was utterly superfluous from the beginning, an edgy Wolverine figure shoehorned into a team that already had a pretty good edgy Wolverine figure in Wolverine. At one point early on, we saw him fight Wolverine to a standstill in the Danger Room while Wolverine’s protégé Jubilee cried in the control booth. It was supposed to establish him as someone not to be trifled with. Even at 13 I understood this to be bullshit.

A word about the trench coat: It’s really long. Totally practical for a master thief who engages in a lot of hand-to-hand combat. He wears fuschia body armor underneath it. He speaks in phonetic-Cajun dat’s-dem-dere dialogue, like someone making fun of Dr. John. He calls men homme or mon ami. He calls women “mam’zelle” and chere, and this inevitably causes women to swoon over him, since one of his superpowers is an almost irresistible charm. People write fan fiction about his relationship with Rogue, who can’t touch anyone for fear of draining their energy; you can tell it’s fan fiction because nobody ever notices that Remy is a smarmy creep.
Well no argument about the costume and personality traits, but it's still the fault of Claremont and his successors for going to extremes making him "cool" for the sake of it, and for rendering him a smarmy creep in their scripts. Similarly, it's also artist Jim Lee's fault for conceiving such a crummy costume. And if the columnist really feels so badly about Gambit, why doesn't he ask for a repair job? Did he actually want Gambit to turn out so badly? Some can argue Wolverine's early dialogue and personality traits in the late 70s weren't so great, but then, Claremont and Byrne started making improvements so that readers would find him more appealing. That this is not even considered by the reporter is honestly mystifying.

He also leaves out how, as worthless as most writing at Marvel is today, they did publish some stories in recent years where Rogue finally gained proper control of her skin-to-skin siphoning power. But if he's hinting at how the writers limited creativity by pairing Rogue 99 percent exclusively with Gambit, I can agree it was a pretty cheap move they made, that led to little more than tales about the twosome agonizing tiresomely. Just a pathetic excuse for not introducing a new, non-mutant boyfriend for Rogue who could help her overcome the problems she had, mentally or otherwise, that made it so difficult to attain control over her siphoning power.

Now, here's the second article about Cyclops, and if he's being straight with us, this is eyebrow raising:
Earlier this month, I wrote a thing about the X-Men character Gambit, of whom I am not a fan. I knew exactly what I was doing when I did this, but I definitely underestimated precisely how many hornets were in that nest. Turns out the Cajun Puss in Boots of the Marvel Universe has a posse, and they don’t take libel lying down. The outrage storm lasted only about three hours, but it was a pretty bracing three hours. Among other less-nice things, I was accused of being motivated by sexual jealousy of a fictional character and angrily told to “STICK TO SPORTS,” both of which were firsts.

That you can make a lot of real people angry by disrespecting a made-up person on the Internet is not news. But I did learn one interesting thing from GambitGate: There are a lot of people out there who really, really hate Cyclops. Whenever anybody suggested an alternative candidate for Worst X-Man of All Time instead of just calling me an idiot, they all nominated Scott Summers, and they all phrased it in the form of a question: What about Cyclops? It was as if I’d left “fire ants” off a list of the worst kinds of ants. One commenter scornfully wrote, “I bet Cyclops is your favorite X-Man.” Then she made fun of my author photo.
First off, it may not be the worst thing one could do by acting hostile to a fictional character. But it's still ridiculous to fault a fictional character rather than the writers, and the reporter didn't do a satisfying job of taking the scripters to task for their botches. Lambasting fictional characters for stuff that isn't their fault is little more than classic projection, heaping what you really meant for the real-life writers onto the characters, yet it only enables said writers to get away with their shoddy efforts. Especially if you don't make clear that some men and women behind the scenes have to shoulder the blame.

However, in his defense, I will say that any Gambit fan who damned Cyclops royally blew their efforts to defend a fictional character. It's already apparent they don't want any improvements made for Gambit (some fandom in that case!), but if they think Cyclops is badly written, they clearly don't want any for him either. Some way to argue logic by turning it all into a grudge match.
...Team Gambit was right about one thing. I’m not a particularly big James Marsden fan, but I am a Cyclops fan.

I know I’m by no means alone in this. Tumblr is full of people who ride hard for Cyclops (or long to see Cyclops ridden hard by Wolverine, because it’s Tumblr). But even there, it’s a defensive kind of love. It’s hatred’s flip side. This is partly because few comic-book characters have ever given their haters more to hate. Despite being a handsome white male who’s lived most of his life in a mansion, Cyclops is prone to bouts of self-pity and furniture-blasting rage. He’s almost never without a cosplayably hot love interest, and yet he’s constantly moping over his past relationships. He’s devoted his entire life to leadership, and yet entire universe-shaking crossover events have been born of his poor decision-making.
Oh for crying out loud! Crossovers are not spawned from a fictional character. Nor was Scott's self-pity and angry fitting. That was all the makings of countless writers beginning with creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and later Claremont/Byrne. If he's got a beef with that, I should think he'd know where to lay it at. But I guess he doesn't, so neither side of this argument ends up any better than the other.
[...] More recently, with the mutant race teetering on the brink of extinction, Scott’s been forced to make some decidedly unsuperheroic moves. He’s sanctioned a secret black-ops strike team to preemptively neutralize threats to mutantkind, and fought a war with the Avengers to protect a potential mutant messiah, which led to him murdering Charles Xavier while possessed by the Phoenix Force. (“He’s always getting possessed, that guy,” former X-Men writer Grant Morrison mused in 2012. “Maybe he likes it.”) Now largely stripped of his mutant powers, he’s currently either an underground revolutionary or a terrorist, depending whom you ask.
I hope that if I ask the guy who wrote this piece, he'll admit this was a case of a fictional character mired in awful writing, which indeed it was. All the fault of trolling scripters like Brian Bendis, who only wound up sinking Marvel's universe further into quicksand. And just look at that, even Morrison couldn't resist making sleazy, cynical comments putting down a fictional character yet offering no criticism of the editors or other writers involved.
To put it in TV terms, Scott was a Jack Shephard (pissy, uptight, martyr-ish leader) and has now become a Walter White — a Difficult Man in black-and-yellow spandex who’ll do whatever it takes to protect his (extended, mutant) family, even if it costs him his soul. Oh, and I almost forgot: After years of being tormented by phantoms of his various deceased red-haired ex-girlfriends, he finally broke the streak by having a “psychic affair” with Emma Frost, a former X-villain who’s tried to murder him a bunch of times. They got together for real after Jean Grey’s second death; that it was probably the healthiest adult relationship he’s ever been in says a lot.

That he’s finally turned antihero isn’t surprising; the weird part is that it took him this long to snap. (Or maybe not. Scott wears special ruby-quartz goggles to contain the force-beam that would otherwise be constantly shooting out of his eyes — even his mutant powers are linked to repression.) From the very beginning — in X-Men no. 1, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, published by Marvel in September 1963, the same month as the first issue of Avengers — he’s the group’s designated killjoy, a teenager mouthing adult platitudes. During a training exercise, when Iceman hurls a bowling ball at the Beast and almost hits Professor X instead, it’s Scott who reads them the riot act: “That kind of horseplay isn’t funny!” Six pages into his first appearance in comics, his fate as a character was sealed. From then on — with notable exceptions, like the stubbly tough-guy Cyclops in Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men — writers unsure of what else to do with Scott would portray him as a humorless prig with the mutant power to kill everybody else’s buzz.
Despite acknowledging the existence of writers in real life, he still gives more signs the reporter isn't making a convincing effort to say whether he thinks old-to-new stories are splendidly or badly written. What, did he actually want Cyclops to "snap"? What really bothers me is how he can't even clearly say whether he thinks all this should be done at Jean Grey's expense, and why she had to perish a second time, and can't be her own agency. He's also not accurate when he gets around to describing the 1975 revival for X-Men:
That first issue was a Reader’s Digest version of 1975’s Giant-Size X-Men special, in which Cyclops puts together a new, racially and geographically diverse X-Men team — including Wolverine, Colossus, and Storm — to rescue the old ’60s X-Men, who’ve been captured by a living island called Krakoa. [...]
Umm, that's not quite so. Prof. Xavier put them together after he traveled to their different regions to recruit them. The part about the history of Madelyne Pryor, a clone of Jean, is more interesting though:
[...] In 1986, by editorial fiat, Jean Grey was resurrected — it turned out the Jean who’d become Dark Phoenix and died was actually a duplicate host-body created by the Phoenix Force, and the Avengers had found the real Jean asleep in a cocoon at the bottom of Jamaica Bay, just off Long Island. The X-books were a license to print money, and Marvel had decided to reunite the original X-Men lineup in a new title called X-Factor, written by Louise Simonson — not Claremont, who was positive that Cyclops leaving his wife and infant son alone in Alaska to run around with Jean Grey again was a dick move readers would never forgive.

He wasn’t wrong; to this day, people enumerating the reasons Cyclops sucks never fail to mention the fact that he straight Billy Crudup–ed his wife and newborn kid the minute his old girlfriend turned up alive. Eventually, Marvel contrived an elaborate crossover event called “Inferno,” in which Madelyne was revealed as a clone created by X-Factor’s nemesis Mister Sinister and became the “Goblyn Queen” of an army of demons that proceeded to take control of New York, giving X-Factor and the X-Men no choice but to team up and take her out. There was no other way to resolve the moral quagmire Scott’s life had become: He’d technically cheated on the not-technically-dead Jean with a fake Jean created by the Phoenix Force, then married a Jean look-alike, then effectively left her for the real, resurrected Jean, who was still in love with Scott but also a little jealous because he’d been with two women who looked exactly like her, one of whom was a goddess. I remember actually finding all of this romantic, which says a lot about how comics can ruin your life.
First off, yes, I do think the forced abandonment of Madelyne was sloppy theater-of-the-absurd storytelling that could've been avoided. At worst, it only made clear Jean Grey was not being brought back as her own agency, but rather, as Cyclops' sidekick. If they had to reunite Scott and Jean, what could've been done instead of depicting him dumping Madelyne (and later showing her turning into a Goblyn Queen) was to establish that Madelyne's organs as a clone were deteriorating, and she was dying of natural causes. That would've made any return to be with Jean a lot easier to accept, and even offered everyone an example of a character who didn't die from villain's fire or while turned into an outright villain. Of course, there's still the problem with Pryor's son later being turned into Cable...

But anybody who throws all the blame upon the non-existent Scott is making themselves look like a nutcase. The blame must be laid at the feet of Jim Shooter, because he was the one who wanted it all done for commercial reasons, and Claremont will have to shoulder some too. Cyclops is nothing more than a fictional victim of real life sloppy writing and editorial mandates. I don't mind the idea of absolving Jean of the Phoenix's horrors. I just don't see why they had to set such a poor example with how they handle their female cast. Next, the reporter says the following about Scott:
[...] He lives with failure more than any other superhero, and when his mistakes come back to haunt him, it’s usually in the form of somebody who wants to kill the X-Men. He spent a big chunk of his life striving to further Professor Xavier’s dream of coexistence between humans and mutants, but it didn’t work; now he’s gone militant, and that doesn’t seem to be working either.
Of course not, and that's because of all the modern writers who don't seem to know what to do with him. Now that I think of it, we the audience - and that includes the reporter - may have some blame to shoulder too if we don't know what he should be portrayed as, or can't accept a decent effort like what first began in the Silver Age.
Of course Wolverine is cooler than Cyclops. But that’s because he’s a child’s idea of a tough-guy adult. Cyclops lives in a screwed-up world largely of his own making, the way an actual adult does. Wolverine’s the badass we want to be; Cyclops is closer to what we actually are, and maybe he’s too close to be truly likable. Wolverine is a loner who’s found the courage to care about a surrogate family, whereas Cyclops is never quite at home. Scott has assumed a string of different roles — student, husband, father, superhero, mutant civil-rights crusader, terrorist, guy fused with Apocalypse inside the body of the Living Monolith — without ever actually finding one that fits him. The only thing he’s ever been good at is leading the X-Men, and if you really start breaking down his record, he hasn’t actually been great at that, either. Whedon once nailed Scott’s struggle as a “struggle against mediocrity,” which is just about the most human motivation I can imagine for a superhero — or a human. I don’t know — maybe you’re the best there is at what you do. But I relate to Cyclops because I live every day with the knowledge that I’m not.
Funny thing is that he doesn't seem to thank the writers who portrayed Scott as a polite type of guy. I honestly think Lee/Kirby's starting portrayal was acceptable enough, and it's a shame how a certain segment in modern times only wants heroes who're portrayed as "badasses", to the point where they'd take over the asylum and only do things their way. But it's still ridiculous to say Wolverine's "cooler" than Cyke, because that risks falling back on the same kind of rivalry mindsets that were mutated by Secret Wars. Besides, it's talent of the assigned writers that makes a character "cool", not the weapons or personality. It's how those are handled by writers that does.

And not everybody truly wants to be Wolverine. Some could feel better if they were like Cyclops.

So there's another example of somebody who almost makes logical arguments about fictional characters, yet only succeeds in dampening them. And, from what he says in the second, his detractors did no better than he. It's almost like some comics stories themselves where the villains manage to get away in the end, until the next time the heroes meet and battle them.

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About me

  • I'm Avi Green
  • From Jerusalem, Israel
  • I was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. I also enjoyed reading a lot of comics when I was young, the first being Fantastic Four. I maintain a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy in facts. I like to think of myself as a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. I don't expect to be perfect at the job, but I do my best.
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