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Astrojive: Professor X, RIP (Again)

Musings on the murder of a Marvel mutant mainstay

September is Issue #0 month at DC, meaning that the revamped New 52 universe, which started up in media res five years in, has finally offered some glimpses of How It All Began. Which is to say, the Secret Origins of the characters.

By and large, I didn’t care for the #0 issues I read. I’m a tough sell when it comes to retelling origins. Rarely do they add anything of substance to one’s understanding of the Crimson Plunger (Who He Is and How He Came to Be!), and just how many times should I be expected to plunk down cold hard cash to watch Krypton blow up or Joe Chill gun down Thomas and Martha Wayne in Crime Alley?

Fortunately, over at Marvel, things have been a little more interesting. The Avengers vs. X-Men miniseries has been lackluster overall, but it finally upped its game by offering something that, like the tweaked and retold origin, has become a comics staple: The death of a major character. Possessed by the Phoenix Force, Cyclops blew away Professor Charles Francis Xavier.

(If you’ve been reading Astrojive for a while, you may recall that some months back, I confidently predicted the Beast would be the major character to meet his end in AvX. Sue me.)

If you’re a comics fan, your kneejerk reaction is probably to assume Professor X will get better, and quite possibly soon. After all, superheroes rarely stay dead. When Thor died at the end of Fear Itself, the last Marvel big event, he was up and around again immediately (admittedly, stuck in an unpleasant version of the afterlife for a couple issues, but back in action nonetheless.)

Professor X himself has come back from the dead twice already (once when Grotesk seemingly killed him and once when the Brood did it for real.) And if that weren’t enough to increase the odds of a speedy recovery, Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy have both portrayed him on screen in recent years, thus raising his profile.

Still, don’t be surprised if Professor X stays croaked for a while. Because comic book creators have tried to get rid of him over and over again through the life of the X-Men franchise.

When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the X-Men, Cyclops, Iceman, the Beast, the Angel and Marvel Girl were callow teenagers and needed an older mentor to train and guide them. But when they grew up, and other adult characters like Wolverine and Banshee joined the team, it worked less well from a storytelling standpoint to have a commander telepathically directing them all from a distance. Logically, they shouldn’t have needed the prompting, and it undercut the idea that they were competent badass heroes.

The comics sometimes tried to solve this problem by fixing Professor X’s legs and sending him up to the front lines to go toe-to-toe with evil himself. Unfortunately, this didn’t work well because telepathy and mind control aren’t good powers for a superhero. If they function at all, they shut down the villains quickly, thus eliminating the necessity for the superpowered mayhem the audience wants.

Eventually, Marvel always ended up shoving the poor professor back in the wheel- or hover-chair, probably because the creators figured that if he made for a boring conventional hero, they might as well work with the most poignant and iconic version of him.

But as I suggested previously, the moment often came when they decided they’d rather not work with him at all. Thus, over the course of his career, he fell in love with the alien Empress Lilandra of the Shi’ar and went to live in outer space and also experienced crises of confidence and left the X-Men for some protracted self-flagellating "me" time. Anything to get wise old Dad out of the picture and see what happened when the more dynamic, sexier characters called the shots.

So there are good reasons for the storytellers at Marvel to bench Professor X. But how should the other Marvel characters feel about this death?

The professor was a respected figure who aided the superhero community at large on many occasions, so it’s a safe bet the other heroes mourn his passing. But some of them may also remember that Charles Xavier wasn’t altogether saintly. In the earliest X-Men comics, when Jean Grey was his teenage student, he had a secret lech for her, which I trust we can all agree is pervy. He could be Machiavellian and manipulative, sometimes to the point of tampering with people’s memories.

In fact, he had an actual Mr. Hyde-like dark side that got up to shenanigans on occasion, most notably when it merged with Magneto’s dark side (slash fans, insert homoerotic subtext here) to form the world-threatening menace Onslaught. So if you’re a sharp, calculating guy like Reed Richards or Tony Stark, you might be thinking that maybe Professor X’s demise wasn’t completely bad, just mostly.

For the sake of the world, let’s hope Reed, Tony, Dr. Strange, Namor and Captain America (the other guardians of one or another of the Infinity Gems) also recall Professor X was the keeper of the Mind Gem. In retrospect, you’d think a genius of Charles Xavier’s caliber might figure that with a godlike entity like the Phoenix threatening the whole world, it was time to carry that bad boy into battle with him. But since he didn’t, his colleagues need to go retrieve it before some supervillain gets his mitts on it.

Finally, how should we readers think about this particular death? Was it good storytelling? Does it do a good job of setting up compelling stories still to come?

I give it a C. There’s some real tragedy in Cyclops killing his own beloved surrogate father, and assuming that he himself survives (there’s still one issue of AvX to go), it may be interesting to see how he deals with the resulting guilt.

But the fact that Cyke was the Phoenix when he pulled the trigger undercuts that significantly. This is becoming a recurring Marvel strategy. They want the shock value of showing a hero doing something awful. But they don’t want to diminish his good-guy stature, so they stipulate that he was possessed at the time. They did it with Daredevil in Shadowland, and here it is again.

I understand wanting to hedge their bets. But fans come in predisposed to take the "death" of a long-established superpowered character lightly, and if the story then indicates the killer superhero wasn’t responsible for his actions, that further dilutes any emotional impact the event might otherwise have had.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to contrast Professor X’s demise with another death that happened in a Marvel title this month. In Winter Soldier, the Black Widow, brainwashed into believing herself a Soviet spy once more, killed SHIELD agent Jasper Sitwell, and despite the similarities between the two situations, Sitwell’s death delivered far more of an emotional punch.

For two reasons: Sitwell was a minor non-powered, non-costumed character, so we don’t assume he’ll inevitably bounce back. And while the Widow, like Cyclops, was operating under mind control, there’s a difference between human brainwashing technology and a planet-eating cosmic entity like the Phoenix Force. We readers likely won’t hold the Widow culpable, but we’ll empathize with her as she anguishes that she, a trained operative and superhero, should have been able to resist the conditioning. Whereas when Cyclops imagines that he should have been able to shake off the Phoenix’s influence, we’re apt to grow impatient. Because we know there was no way, and he ought to know it, too.

My biggest criticism of the confrontation between Cyclops and Professor X, though, is not that it failed to mine all the potential for drama but that it neglected the potential for comedy. Although AvX strangely neglects to mention it, the professor himself once wielded the powers of the Phoenix, and during that interlude, the universe knew him as…Bald Phoenix! What a shame that Marvel didn’t work in a way to show us that version of the character one more time!

About the Author

Richard Lee Byers is the author of more than 30 fantasy and horror novels, including a number set in the Forgotten Realms universe. Look for his eBook supehero series The Impostor, his eBook collection The Q Word and Other Stories, and all the rest of his work on Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Follow him on Twitter (@rleebyers), friend him on Facebook, and add him to your Circles on Google+. Follow his blog here.
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