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Rage and Revolution: Cyclops Was Never The Villain of Bendis Era X-Men

There is an oft-repeated belief that Cyclops was the villain of the Revolution era of X-Men comics—the period mostly written by Brian Michael Bendis that includes Uncanny X-Men volume 4, All New X-Men, and to a lesser extent, Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men. That belief is wrong.

The transition from Gillen X-Men to Bendis X-Men happens by way of one of Marvel’s annual editorially-mandated Summer(s) events, in this case Avengers vs. X-Men. In that crossover, the two teams square off over the impending threat of the Phoenix Force returning to Earth—the X-Men say they’ll handle it, but the Avengers insist (despite evidence) that the X-Men are unable to do so. Things take a turn when Iron Man builds a special gun to shoot the Phoenix, and instead of killing it, splits it into five pieces that are each hosted by a different X-Man. Those five began by using their newfound power in a beneficial way, choosing to repair environmental damage, establish sustainable crops to combat world hunger, etcetera.

Of course, this is altogether too much progress for the persistent present of superhero comics, too much change and not enough illusion of it. As such, the Phoenix Force had to corrupt its hosts, turning them arrogant if not outright evil, and culminating in Cyclops reuniting all five disparate pieces into one, as its singular host. With that power, he killed his father figure, Xavier, on the world stage, before being defeated by the combined might of the X-Men and the Avengers, then incarcerated.

It’s shortly after this that Bendis’ run picks up. In the pages of Uncanny X-Men, Scott is liberated from jail by Magneto, Emma Frost, and Magik, and they become a sort of through-the-looking-glass version of the original X-Men concept; a team dedicated to saving those who hate and fear them. The difference, in this case, is that under Scott’s direction, they mobilize to save newly emerging mutants from a far more aggressive strain of anti-mutant hysteria, in one case literally intercepting police officers attempting to detain a young mutant who hadn’t actually committed a crime.

It’s not a stretch to say that Scott’s stance is more militant. That’s evident in the first issue’s cover, both in the limited color palette and in the disconcerting composition, up to and including prefacing the book’s title with an imperative to join. Add to that the fact that his teammates are two explicitly coded former-and-sometimes-again villains, plus one literal queen of a dimension of demons, and you have a book identity that is built around the very idea of a fight. Because the books of the era are predicated on a schism in the beliefs of various X-Men about the correct path forward, it’s certainly fair to say that Cyclops is the antagonist of the time, especially given that he’s semi-responsible for the death of the character who generally is the authoritative voice in choosing that path. The camps are, largely: Scott and his Uncanny team, operating out of a secret base and rescuing mutant teens, Beast (later Kitty Pryde) and the time-displaced original five X-Men, and Wolverine’s new Jean Grey School for Higher Education, a renamed Xavier School that has reopened to give young mutants a chance to be students and kids instead of paramilitary operatives.

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It’s an interesting balance of moving parts; Scott cares less about pontificating and more about doing the work of saving mutants, soldier that he is. Beast (who already has a couple of genocides under his belt by this point) thinks Scott is out of control and brings their younger, more idealistic selves forward in time in order to convince him, somehow, to correct his path. Wolverine, also an eternal soldier and following an arc that had him unknowingly murdering his own offspring, has grown tired of an environment where kids are consistently traumatized by being forced to fight battles that adults should be handling. Everyone’s convinced that their path is the correct one, that the others are worse than wrong, and everyone’s refusing to compromise in any fashion.

The primary way that we can identify Scott’s role in all of this is through his new design; following the events of AvX, Cyclops debuts a new suit, black-and-red instead of his (and the X-Men’s as a whole) traditional blue-and-gold. Meanwhile, Wolverine is still in the Astonishing-era update of his classic tiger-stripe duds, and Beast remains blue and furry, albeit more ape-like. Marvel Comics have long played with color theory on a conceptual basis; going back to the 1960s, when heroes generally wore the primary colors (or the colors of the American flag) and villains or monsters generally wore purples and greens; they bucked the trend by coloring Hulk according to those conventions despite him being the star of a book. Cyclops’ look is a modern variation on that; we are generally societally conditioned to see a dark blue uniform as some kind of pacifying authority—cops, soldiers, characters like Superman, Captain America, and even traditionally Cyclops himself, you name it. By contrast, black and red are the colors of noir and violence.

Further leaning into this is the selection of artist; Chris Bachalo has a history with X-Men and also with presenting humanoid figurework in various degrees of monstrousness. His Cyclops (above) is a man for whom the nickname “Slim” makes sense, tall, lanky, with costume lines that enhance that. Still, Cyclops has worn a lot of different costumes over the years, so on the surface, a new suit is nothing new, except for perhaps the most divisive update to his identity. Gone is the traditional bulky visor over his eyes, replaced instead by a mask that contains the same functionality in a sleeker fashion, resulting in a large red X over his face.

It’s a powerful symbol, not least because as the man who ended Xavier’s life, wearing the letter that indicates both Xavier and his entire cause is both ballsy and a clear definitive statement. In a time when again, Beast and Wolverine are both looking largely traditional, Cyclops’ outfit says “I am the future of mutantkind. I AM the X-Men.” The black and red of it echoes that—those have always been the colors of the X-Men emblem itself, even as the costumes were blue and gold. They’re colors of violence, as I said, but they’re also the colors of the cause itself, instead of the cause’s soldiers. He’s declaring his allegiance to mutants not just in his actions, in his team affiliations and rhetoric, but in his very identity as a mutant.

This thread is carried forward in the HoXPoX era by some major alterations to his design; first, while Bachalo’s costume details remain, his new suit is differing shades of blue. Whereas red is generally a warm color, one associated with anger, blue is the opposite; it’s cool and calming. Additionally, the red X mask is gone, replaced by his traditional visor now that Xavier is once again alive and has taken the X over his face instead. The messaging is clever here; the cooler colors say “I’m calmer now,” the visor says “I’m happy to let others lead, but the costume detail says “I’m still that Cyclops, the one who started a revolution.” The Revolution and HoXPoX suits are statements in a continuing conversation.

That’s borne out in the dialogue too; much has been made of the panel where he addresses the Fantastic Four in House of X #1, and his stance is generally the exact same as his Bendis-era one: Scott’s here for mutants, end of story, and he’ll fight anyone he has to in order to protect them. The difference this time around is that Xavier and the entire rest of the mutant population on Earth are on the same page.

As such, while there’s a semi-common assertion that Cyclops is the villain of the Bendis era, I’m inclined to wholly and categorically reject that line of thought. It’s established text that mutants are a marginalized population, even if they are not necessarily a perfect metaphor for marginalization in real life.

Additionally, the X-Men function best when their powers are thematic in nature; less successful runs forget that truism, but when it’s invoked it’s devastatingly effective as a storytelling device. Consider Kitty Pryde at the time of her creation; textually the X-Men’s viewpoint character, meant to be a surrogate set of eyes for the reader within the story. So too do her phasing powers render her insubstantial, incorporeal, immaterial; any of us could imagine literally stepping into her shoes while she’s still in them, and thus she could be any of us.

Similarly, Cyclops’ power is simplistic enough; he fires destructive force beams from his eyes. But it’s the way his personality has shaped around that power that makes him interesting. Causes love a leader who looks unimpeachable, one with clear eyes. Cyclops subverts that by nature of his power and the disability that they create for him; people cannot look him directly in the eyes, categorically. The closest they can come is if he is wearing glasses instead of his visors, but even those have the chilling, depersonalized effect of, say, a highway patrolman sporting reflective aviator lenses (I suspect this is part of why fans often refer to him as being a cop, when he’s anything but). On top of that is the way that Cyclops was taught to use his powers. He doesn’t just fire his beams directly, although that is always an option. He is a literal genius at spatial geometry, able to calculate ricocheting trajectories in motion, on the fly. This is the subtler side of his power—he can literally see all the angles.

That’s an ability that not only makes him an effective planner, it’s also something that lends credence to his stance when he announces himself as the future of mutantkind. If there is a path forward, Scott can see it, even if no one else can.

Nola Pfau:

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  • Cyclops was never the villain, but Marvel does not know what to do with the character either...

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