Ruby Nation

Ruby Nation
Ruby Nation: The Webcomic

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Joss Whedon, Cyclops, and Overcoming Brain Damage Through Willpower

Joss Whedon, accomplished writer of television, films, comics, and online musicals, has a lot to say about issues of identity. The good news is that he offers a genuinely unique perspective, and openly addresses identity politics ( particularly gender and sexuality ) in pop cultural spaces where others blissfully ignore them. The bad news is that his messages, as expressed by his ensemble casts of sci-fi anti-heroes, don't always succeed. Then again, this is another product of Whedon's constant experimenting; he'll follow Buffy Season Five with Buffy Season Six.

When Joss Whedon took on writing the X-Men with his artistic collaborator John Cassaday, it seemed as though he would be exploring identity issues thoroughly-- given how Marvel mutants have been used as a metaphor for any group to ever experience systemic oppression, this would give him ready-made tools to tell those sorts of stories. As it turned out, he and Cassaday preferred to tell their own version of the " classic " X-Men formula, which tends to put them on various sci-fi " vacation " adventures instead of dealing with their race's problems. But there was one disability-themed issue that was brought up by the text-- and then tossed aside in the final act, not to be picked up by his successors.

The question Whedon raised was; why can't Cyclops control his eye beams? Was it because of head trauma, or was it really because of a psychological block from childhood?

As anyone who has read/watched an X-Men story for a five minute interval knows, Scott " Cyclops " Summers' life has been one big conga line of tragedy and despair. Not only did he grow up in an orphanage, after his parents " died "* in a plane crash and his brother was adopted instead of him, but Scott's mutant powers manifested as force blasts that poured out of his eyes, unable to be contained except by his eyelids or his " ruby quartz "** eyewear. At times it has been suggested that Scott's mutant power would naturally have been something he could control, were it not for the head injury he sustained in that fateful plane crash. So, aside from the occasional plot deus ex machina temporarily healing his skull, Scott remains unable to control his optic blasts, and lives in a state of constant self-control and emotional repression.

What Whedon did was have his morally ambiguous new girlfriend/former enemy Emma Frost give Scott a psychic " therapy session ", where Scott was taken on a tour through his many insecurities and traumas, and was confronted with the truth about his lack of power control-- at some point in his childhood, Scott subconsciously decided to make his optic blasts uncontrollable, so he would be forced to stay constantly vigilant. At that point, Cyclops decides to make another choice, and switches his power to " Off "-- for most of the second half of Whedon's story, he's basically a regular human in an X-Men jacket, his eyes even returning to their natural brown instead of a red glow.

There are two ways to view this story; one, that Whedon had Scott really deconstruct why his abilities are such a convenient curse, and another, that Whedon is equating real physical brain damage with a psychological problem you can just " snap out of ". The latter would be a problem if it were a real person's medical history being misrepresented, instead of a fictional superhero with a science-defying power*** who's been around in 47 years of stories that often contradict each other and keep him from aging past 29. As it stands, I can accept that Scott's lack of control is due to deep-seated PTSD instead of brain injury, not only because I don't want to bother with the rigors of making it fit or not within continuity, but because it's " all in your head " doesn't make it any less real or painful. However, the deconstruction would only work if it was part of an ongoing story where Cyclops further learns about how to master his powers and his emotions alike.

Since Whedon was only writing the X-Men for two years' worth of stories****, he did not take Scott much further on the journey. No, what Whedon did-- which is the really troubling part-- is show that ultimately Scott could control his optic blasts without completely shutting them off, but all this amounts to is a surprise attack against an unsuspecting bad guy. As he explains to Emma later, it is possible for him to control his power, but it takes a tremendous amount of willpower, and too taxing despite the " clarity " he feels.

So what we have is not that Scott is unable to control his blasts because of physical disability or mental illness; the problem is that he can control his power, but it's just very hard and not worth the strain. Are we supposed to infer that Scott is now content having force beams that can smash a tank constantly pouring out of his eyes, held back only by gaudy red eyewear? Is it that he's too weak and/or lazy to want total control, despite his entire life being one desperate attempt to hold onto what little order he can find? Or is the message that Scott has accepted that there's an aspect to him that he can't control, and has found piece with it?

Whatever Whedon was trying to say with this story, it doesn't matter-- it's never come up again, and Scott's still forced to wear his mask 24/7. And since Whedon didn't really go deep enough into the issue to allow for any well-founded interpretation, it's just another interesting failure for the man's catalog*****, the exploration of trauma and recovery reduced to another ill-conceived sci-fi sub-plot.

* ( As any X-Fan knows, they didn't really die, but I try to keep the backstory minimal in these essays. With the X-Men, this is a Herculean endeavor. )
** ( Why ruby quartz? Co-creator Stan Lee thought it sounded cool. Things like this make the literary reader of pop culture increasingly self-conscious about their analysis. )
*** ( According to one of the Marvel handbooks, he doesn't have eyes so much as portals to another dimension that unleash energy, with a psychic field allowing him the experience of sight, or some such. I don't think he'd have a normal human brain structure to begin with if this is the case. )
**** ( Due to delays, it took twice that long. I'm pointing it out here before it's inevitably derided by someone else. )
***** ( Which also includes Willow going from curious about sexuality to a stereotypical self-proclaimed Wicca Lesbian, Spike struggling to prove that he can be good without a soul only to get one himself and void the discussion, and pretty much every episode of Dollhouse on a conceptual level. )


  1. In slight fairness to Whedon, he wasn't the first to float this idea in some form: during Inferno, Sinister shuts off Scott's powers with a "mental block," which Scott eventually overcomes by force of will for the big finale in X-Factor #34. (This may be part of why later stories claimed that defeat was a false one staged by Sinister, but there's little to suggest it was intended as such at the time of publication.)

  2. I think Whedon wanted to have this as a permanent change, but Marvel wanted to keep Cyclops with his traditional limitations, so they made him change it back at the last minute. But who knows?

  3. "Or is the message that Scott has accepted that there's an aspect to him that he can't control, and has found piece with it?"

    That's the general vibe I got from the story, but it got lost in the shuffle of the story's conclusion. And, of course, no one else did anything with the idea.

    Granted, this would hardly be the worst thing done with Cyclops lately...

  4. Grant Morrison floated it in a manner even closer to Whedon, where he gave HIMSELF a mental block during Assault on Weapon Plus, due to his guilt over cheating on Jean. Once Scott became ready to tap into his repressed rage, his beams came back all over Magneto's face.

    It's really hard to get worked up over this in context of Scott's current role, since infinitely worse things have been done to him in the past two years, but it seems like Whedon should have known that this kind of character development tends to be immediately scrapped by the next writer. Which is why my reading trajectory continues to shift towards creator-owned adventure comics...

  5. Clearly, there are lot of what-ifs in trying to firgure out what the decsionmaking process was in terms of Whedon and Cyclops's control of his powers. Having Marvel change things at the last minute wouldn't have ben the first time one of the Big Two got cold feet pretty quickly after making a major change in a character.

    But ultimately, it's what happened in the books that's of concern, and I think the point here about the lack of follow-up of the emotional consequences of Scott's discovery is a a very smart and important one. It's about the sloppy handling of a major character, but also about the missed opportunity and the waste of having issues like trauma and illness get delved into and then dropped. Especially in light of the potential for this storyline to have opened up Scott more as a person, it is a REAL missed opportunity. Many if not most X-Men books that feature Cyclops, despite how much face-time Wolverine might get, have Scott as a main focus in their character-oriented sub-plots. And I often find him the character I like the least, mostly because he's grouchy, always "troubled," is often defined by not much more than the guilt and stress over the various things he feels responsible for, and I think hasn't laughed in ten years. this was a chance to really do something with him and the ball was dropped.

  6. Thank you for commenting on my blog, Jim. ( Jim Higgins is a former editor writer at DC, current instructor at Cal Arts, my art teacher at Meltdown Comics' in-store workshop, and will be on TruTV's Conspiracy Theory as an expert, this WEd. January 13 at 10pm. )

    Cyclops seems to be extremely popular with X-Men writers in recent years, despite ( or because of ) the fact that all those stories deal with how screwed up he is, how fractured his tastes in relationships are, and how little a life he has outside the X-Men. I can definitely see why writers like Morrison, Whedon, and Fraction would want to deconstruct him, but they never really go through with reconstructing him, other than to put him at the same place he was ( except obsessed with a bleach blonde telepath instead of a redheaded one ).

    What I would like to see is him ( and by extension Emma Frost ) get retired for a few years, so the books can focus on the other X-Men.

  7. Not being a frequent X-Men reader, I'm probably not best placed to comment, but I do enjoy how that book can be read with regard to disability themes. Cyclops is my least favourite X-men character generally anyway, but I am a Whedon fan. He can drop the ball sometimes - I have not read any of his X-men stories, but I have followed all of Buffy and Angel and his Buffy season 8 comics. Generally there is an issue with continuity in comics across the board - often writers start with an arc which is forgotten the next arc (Iron Man is a good example, so is ASM and Batman) - it can be frustrating for readers but I think we just have to accept it as the fluid nature of the genre we love.
    Still enjoying the blog - keep up the good work :)