UNCANNY X-WEEK, DAY 4: The Tenacity of the CockroachPosted: June 28, 2012
It’s easy enough to come up with a list of terrible X-Men by using obscure, unloved superheroes. Newsarama did one recently and all of the usual suspects were there: omnilinguist Cypher, bone-encrusted Marrow, the slug-slinging behemoth called Maggot. Frankly, I think it’s too easy to pick on the neglected children of the Marvel Comics braintrust. Anyone can pull out a random 1990s X-Men issue and discover a rich vein of terrible characters.
No, what interests me are the superheroes that somehow survive and prosper despite how awful they are. I’ve limited myself to only popular, durable heroes – all of the following characters are well-represented across media and well-loved by the X-Men fandom. Some appeal to the readers’ basest urges. Some endure only because the comics industry is an ourboros, compulsively gorging on its own ass end, so anything old enough is deemed sacrosanct. But for whatever reason, these are all characters who have been elevated to the upper echelons of the franchise despite being being dull, offensive, inconsistent, derivative or vague.
I confess I’d love it if this post provoked any other X-Men fans who maybe reading. I am a little ashamed to admit that, while I recognize the need for geek solidarity, I take tremendous sadistic pleasure in irritating my brothers and sisters. Nerd controversy is sweet to me; I am a nerd vampire, the suffering of others pleases me, their tears nourish and sustain.
Gentle giant, knight in shining carapace: that makes him a 2-dimensional character, right? He looks tough but he’s actually a softie? Except Colossus has a history of anger issues and mental instability that suggests, under the sensitive artist under the tough metal exterior, he actually is a big angry jerk. Does that make him 3-dimensional? Or (because he’s secretly exactly what he appears to be) just 1.5?
Colossus is a little dull, sure, but that’s not the reason for his inclusion on this list. Nope, it’s his profoundly creepy relationship with Kitty Pryde. He was 19, she 13 when they met, and although they didn’t seal the deal until everything was technically legal I’m sure the comics’ tender depiction of their flirtation has inspired countless message-board denfenses of pederasty. Eventually he beat up one of Kitty’s other paramours – scary in real life, scarier when the vengeful ex is a two-ton genetic abomination with steel cable tendons. Child groomer with anger management problems– why he a superhero, exactly?
He’s an alcoholic. He frequently uses “saints and beggorah!” as an exclamation. He owns an ancestral castle, called “Cassidy Keep,” that is infested by actual, magical, knee-high Leprechauns. He has sonic scream powers and is named after a wailing Irish mythological spirit, which might be okay, except that mythical Banshees are always female. He’s basically a walking ‘Oirish stereotype, which could be forgivable, except that all of the stereotyped traits they’ve given him are incredibly lame – why isn’t he James Joyce or Flann O’Brien or something?
5. The Scarlet Witch
It’s not that she’s inherently awful (although she arguably suffers from the same lack of personality that plagues female heroes like Jean and Storm). But take a look at her Wikipedia bio, assuming you don’t value your free time/sanity too much. She’s Magneto’s daughter with “chaos magick” powers (if you’re spelling “magic” with a “K” and you aren’t 13 or Grant Morrison you’re already in trouble) who was raised by a genetically engineered cow-woman named Bova, joined the Avengers, fell in love with a robot, had two demon babies, went insane, and finally rewrote reality. Twice.
The Scarlet Witch everything wrong about the X-Men in the Marvel Comics shared universe, where the presence of other sci-fi and fantasy concepts (magic, super-science, aliens) waters down their potency. She’s everything wrong with shared-universe continuity, where characters with vague superpowers are hijacked to impose blatant editorial fiats. And most of what’s wrong with the industry’s depiction of women, who are allowed to be daughters/mothers/sisters/wives, or sex symbols, or go crazy, or all of the above, but don’t have consistent personalities or superpowers. Plus she’s a witch and her real name is Wanda. That’s lame even for Stan Lee.
I’m sticking these two together not only because of their soporific on-and-off relationship, but because they suffer from the same conceptual problems. They’re both adjuncts to existing characters with similar powers but far more interesting personalities – Havok is Cyclops’ punkass plasma-blasting brother, Polaris was recently confirmed to be Magneto’s daughter. And aside from their derivative backstories and superpowers, there’s just nothing else there, no hook or personality quirk beyond “how do I sort out my complicated feelings towards my estranged family member?” Havok’s a little better, with his daffy Neil Adams bullseye Zentai suit and his talent for riling Cyclops up… but not by much. And the fact that these assholes are still hanging around Peter David’s X-Factor (which has a total of 12 team members) is a demonstration of the X-office’s compulsive hoarding of any and all mutants, no matter how superfluous.
2. Professor X
Professor X is creepy. It’s in his DNA as a character. He’s an impotent bald man who dresses up teenagers in form-fitting spandex and sometimes makes them do stuff with his mind-control bondage powers. This is ignoring that, in the very first issues of the comics, he is tormented by his attraction to his nubile protégé Jean Grey. Patrick Stewart has it right: try to imagine this creeper but in the real world. I shudder.
And as a student of disability studies, I’m a little troubled by the depiction of Xavier’s handicap. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, in her excellent essay “The Politics of Staring,” identifies four primary ways the able-bodied stereotype the disabled, and the Professor has one foot in the Pathetic (he’s so old and useless…) and the Exotic (…but he has awesome psychic powers that compensate for his freakish impairment!). There are surely excellent stories to be told examining disabilities through the metaphor of mutation. Professor X has thus far been involved in none of them.
But the worst thing about Professor X is that he kills stories. This goes back to Kirby and Lee’s X-Men #2, when the X-Men spend the better part of an issue fighting a teleporting terrorist called Vanisher – only for Professor X to think the villain into an amnesiac stupor over the last few pages, nullifying the team’s efforts. There’s no reason this jackass can’t brainwash anyone at will, rendering Storm and Phoenix and the others completely superfluous. As a result, he’s highly susceptible to being knocked out or packed away on intergalactic vacations.
And he’s boring, too! Xavier was a saint for most of his run in the comics, and recent writers (Brubaker, Whedon) have taken to giving him slightly more sinister motives. Really, can you blame them? Who wouldn’t want to see this smug douche knocked off of his gilded wheelchair?
But Professor X still isn’t the worst X-Men character.
Psylocke is the worst. She fights crime in a swimsuit and high heels and legbands. She has a convoluted history as a British aristocrat magically resurrected in the body of a Japanese ninja assassin (Psylocke has died and come back more times than the woman who’s actually called Phoenix). She has unnecessary connections to non-mutant Marvel characters (her brother is Captain Britain who is like Captain America but British and magical). She’s shuffled through a confusing sequence of superpowers including psychic butterflies, psychic blasts, psychic knives, and psychic katanas. Her codename is a pair of arbitrary syllables and her secret identity is “Betsy Braddock.”
And finally, to state the obvious: Psylocke is a psychic purple-haired Japanese assassin with British accent and wearing a swimsuit. They only way she could embody more nerd fetishes would be if she were also a cat person from Avatar. (Never look up “Psylocke” on Google on a work computer, even with safe search on, because Psylocke is intrinsically not work-safe).
Psylocke sucks and she has no personality and I cannot hate her because apathy is not hate. But every problem demonstrated by other characters on this list (no personality, convoluted history, dumb costume, vague powers, ethnic stereotypes, creepy sexuality) has somehow been squeezed into this vapid cipher of a superhero, the same way her ridiculous tits and ass are somehow shoved into her purple pleather fetish suit. Psylocke is the worst X-Man, no question.
TOMORROW: Uncanny X-Week wraps up as we roll through the top 5 best X-Men characters.