Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Dream

It was Stan Lee, the spiritual Godfather of Marvel Comics and former head honcho for years and years, who anecdotally gathered his editors around sometime in the 1970s once it looked like the comics industry was here to stay and said 'We no longer need change - we only need the illusion of change' - a philosophy which has carried through mainstream Super Hero comics almost completely undeterred to this day. In the 1960s, especially in the new and blooming Marvel Comics, change was a constant - characters actually aged, their surroundings changed, their premises weren't yet set totally in stone.

Nowadays that kind of change is almost impossible to find - characters have a status quo and almost every great change will eventually revert back to that status quo. Daredevil and Spider-Man may both be publicly unmasked, Steve Rogers can be murdered on the steps of the Capitol, Spidey and Mary Jane can even enjoy a 20 year marriage together - but eventually things revert back to their most classic forms. There's a logic to this - comics are unique in a way that no other industry can boast: characters like Superman or Batman have now been published consistently on a monthly basis for 70 years, and nearly all of their appearances are canonical. In the goal not to alienate both long term and first time readers, these characters enter a sort of cyclical pattern - whereby they constantly change and revert - or the 'illusion of change.' This is especially true once a character reaches a certain degree of popularity or mainstream attention - a small character can be endlessly re-tooled, but once public perception of a character is established you can bet that they'll be back that way one day.

Even harder to change is the actual premise of a strip, the fundamental ideas that govern a specific Super Hero. One of the few lasting changes has been the marriage of Lois and Clark, completely changing the 'Love Triangle' engine that a lot of people felt was the core of Superman's success (Clark loves Lois, Lois loves Supes, Supes wants Lois to love him as Clark). Now, with Lois knowing who Clark is, the nature of Superman's core has changed - Lois is played as Clark's tether to humanity, his true connection to the people of Earth in his times of greatest struggle as an outsider, his greatest source of strength and his greatest weakness, and in a way his embrace of mortality even as a God. Even with this deepening of the character, most of the Superman mythos remains the same: Clark is a mild mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper, kryptonite can kill him, Jimmy Olsen is his goofy pal, Metropolis is his home, etc. All of these elements are intrinsically Superman and even if one changes for a time it will return because that is the satus quo.

Which is why has happened recently and over the years with the X-Men is so fascinating.
In a way it makes sense that a comic book who's premise is based in evolution would be one of the few to slowly but genuinely change past the point of it's original concept and evolve into something I don't think can ever revert back from.

The X-Men's original premise was that Charles Xavier was a mutant with a Dream - a fictional analogue to Martin Luther King. Homo Superior, or 'mutants' had begun to evolve from Homo Sapiens, each blessed and cursed with strange and wondrous powers. More importantly, their very arrival signaled the impending deth knell of the Human species, a prospect that fundamentally scared the crap out of a culture that generally fears and hates what it does not understand. Mutants are considered a menace to society and face termination and camps. Xavier secretly runs a school to train and teach young mutants with an eye towards peaceful co-existence between man and mutant alike - never hating the humans back for their fear, but offering peace as a choice instead. His students become the outlaw group the X-Men, designed to combat the more violent and proactive mutant groups, especially those led by Magneto - Xavier's old friend, a holocaust survivor, and the Malcolm X to Xavier's MLK.

So while there are a ton of other fantastical aspects to the stories, the core of the X-Men is a few things - that Xavier dreams of peaceful coexistence, runs a school to teach young mutants, operates in secret; the world not knowing he is a mutant, and is embroiled in a deep idealogical debate over the nature of evolution with Magneto. The X-Men are taught the moral code of most heroes: not to kill, to act selflessly and with care to man and mutant alike, lead by example. His greatest student is a young man named Scott Summers, or Cyclops, an orphan who looks to Xavier like a father figure. Cyclops is so straight laced that it becomes a character point - some fans see him as lame, but he becomes synonymous with Xavier's dream. Established many times is that Scott is groomed to be Xavier's succesor. Being an X-Man is the only thing Scott knows.

What makes the X-Men so culturally relevant is the idea of mutant as the minority, easily accessible to any group who has been hated or feared. The camps in Days of Future Past are reminiscent of Concentration Camps during the Holocaust, the rounding up and registration of mutant Americans like Japanese internment camps. Prop X, a law written to keep mutants from breeding is the Marvel U analogy to Prop 8. Gay, Jewish, Black, White, Straight, Asian, what have you - all of us have likely been persecuted at one point because of what we are and the X-Men stand as a spandexed point of unity to that shared experience. Because of that the X-Men have been one of the few comics to embrace a diverse cast - the first major change in the comic being the '70s when they went from a classic whitebread quintent to a more adult lineup featuring a German (Nightcrawler), Canadian (Wolverine), African (Storm), Irishman (Banshee), Native American (Thunderbird), Russian (Colossus), Japanse (Sunfire), and soon a Jew (Shadowcat). Even with this radical cast expansion the school remained the same. And of course, Scott led them unwavering into the field.

But the basic tenets of the X-Men have actually completely changed now, and in a deep and profound way. Whether it be a response to the changes of society or the evolution of the story, Xavier's dream is no longer the guiding force of the X-Men as a group and I truly believe we have moved so far past that original concept that things will never fully revert.

The X-Men comic and what it represents has truly evolved and in the world of mainstream comics that is amazing.

One of the key moments of this was Grant Morrison's 'outing' of Professor X to the world at large as a mutant. Suddenly the school was no longer a secret, and that was a total game changer in the premise of the storytelling. Taking the Homosexual metaphor that True Blood has also been playing with - once the X-Men were out of the closet, there is no going back. That would be an insult to the very audience supporting the comic. Scott Summers took on the headmaster role of the school after being posessed by and released from the ultimate evil and was no longer the straight forward boy scout he used to be - carrying on a telepathic affair with the White Queen. 16 million mutants were massacred by Sentinels in Genosha - showing that mutants were no longer a minority in the way they had always been, but capable of populating a country the size of Israel. And Charles Xavier was revealed to have been manipulative in ways only hinted at before - including Xavier hiding the existence of Scott's younger brother Gabriel and how he almost killed him - creating a seismic schism between teacher and student.

Then Marvel pulled the coup de gras - in an attempt to make mutants more unique and less prevalent, with a magic word they rid the entire Marvel U of every mutant but 200. Mutants are no longer the inheritors of the earth - they are a dying species hell bent on survival at any cost. Forget the dream - there is no school anymore, Xavier has been completely replaced as the X-Men's leader. Scott Summers is no longer a teacher or the leader of a team - he is the spokesperson for an entire people, like Moses before him. Settled in San Francisco, America's cradle of acceptance, Scott has gone from student to President/General/Ambassador/Savior. The man who wouldn't kill now has a secret Wetworks team he sends to take hits out on mutant and human foes alike. He operates on the political level against the government of the United States and sees his people as an army.

It's actually rather startling to see how a concept to born and bred in the '60s, that gained entirely new success with it's diversity in the '70s, and was the example of absolute excess in the '90s has come to perfectly capture the fears of our generation, in the post-modern and technical age. Who has time for dreams when the Government is telling you how to breed? (or marry?)

Scott Summers is the new face of the X-Men, and while Xavier will still live on the margins, I don't see us ever going back.

The dream is dead.
Embrace change.


B.Graham said...

wow I didn't know any of this... and I think I like X-Men even more now for it. Great post.

Blogden Nash said...

Brilliant post Jason. Really, your analysis is intelligent and insightful, but I'm afraid I can't agree with you. We will ALWAYS go back. Like you said Spider-Man was married for 20 YEARS before Joe Q found a way to send him back to the 60s. The second X-Men sales start to sag a little bit, the second the next X-Men writer decides he really loves Polaris or some other depowered mutant,editorial will step in and say, "What the franchise needs is a return to basic, a return to the core of what the X-Men is all about," and Dr.Strange will reverse the Scarlet Witch's spell. Suddenly we will be back in Westchester, beck in the school, with Xavier in a wheelchair and a living empowered Magneto will be there to fight them.It may not happen this year, or even in the next decade, but it WILL happen.

Blogden Nash said...

Oh, and Jean is coming back too.

lonestar said...

I like when Jason posts about comic books because it saves me the trouble of reading them. For serious. This post has increased my productivity by at least 10%

Damo said...

Thanks for catching me up on about 10 years of Marvel Universe, J! Now lend me the important ones, I want details! (I have your DC stuff, and yes, I liked it. Still can't believe the Green Lantern ISN'T lame, like at all.)