On Comic Books, Literature, and Growing Up

This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.

– Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

I read comics a lot when I was a kid, and it worried my mom. Not because she was overly conservative or disapproving of gratuitous violence, but because she was worried about the fantasy involved with super heros. I distinctly remember her asking if I was disappointed with my life because life wasn’t anything like comic books. It took me a long time to think up an honest answer and, if I’m honest now, I’d admit I’m still not sure.

I started re-reading comics, specifically old trade paperbacks of late 70’s X-men, earlier this year. It’s a really great run, largely written by Chris Claremont, featuring stories like “Days of Future Past” and the return of The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. In fact, I’d argue that those comics helped to legitimize the X-Men as a title and set the stage to make them the fanboy favorite they are today. Of course, a large part of that is due to Claremont’s most recognized contribution to Marvel: The Dark Phoenix Saga.

Basically, there was this insanely powerful cosmic entity called “The Phoenix Force.” It came to Earth and gave Jean Grey godlike powers. She was alright until the power drove her insane and she destroyed a couple of planets. The Dark Phoenix Saga  takes place during Uncanny X-Men issues 129 – 138. Where nine comics may not seem like a lot, you’ve got to understand that most comics are serialized monthly. That manes The Dark Phoenix Saga lasted for 9 months, resulting in the death of one of Marvel’s most well liked characters.

It was a big deal, because nothing like that had ever really been done before. Claremont was, in my opinion, the first comic writer to successfully employ foreshadowing. As a duel literature and comic nerd, reading The Dark Phoenix Saga changed me. 

Since Claremont’s run on Uncanny X-Men, Marvel has implemented yearly “big events” that usually include a cross over among all of their existing titles. This year, Marvel decided to pit their two biggest super hero teams, The X-men and The Avengers, against one another. Basically, in 2004, during the House of M event, the x gene that produces mutants was removed from human evolution and the existing number of mutants was reduced to 200, putting them on the brink of extinction. The X-Men are kind of known for being outcasts and, as mutants, this change in the Marvel universe made them an even more-under under dog.

Avengers v. X-men opens with the Phoenix Force returning to Earth. The Avengers want to stop it, because of that whole “Dark Phoenix” thing, while Cyclops (the X-Men’s assumed leader) wants to accept it, as he sees the force as a way to save mutan kind. It’s a pretty clever device, being that any comics fan can relate to both sides of the argument, likely having allegiances with both teams of super heros.

I’m going to try and avoid the temptation to completely nerd out on the series, because that’s not my intention, however I think it’s completely insane that Avengers V. X-Men is a story line that not only completes a story arc that is over 8 years old, but that the main tension comes from a story arch that is almost 30 years old. This is why major title comics are great.

Near the middle of Avengers V. X-men, The Phoenix Force is split, and inhabits five X-men at the same time. Listed among the “Phoenix Five” is Cyclops. He’s a very interesting character.

As I mentioned earlier, he is currently the leader of the X-Men and, as such, the spokesperson for the entirety of the mutant race. This is a natural evolution for his character, as his first appearance was in X-Men #1, as a team lead under Professor X.

Cyclops has always been portrayed as a boy scout, this goody two-shoes who always follows the rules. It’s endearing if not, at times, annoying. In the original Phoenix Saga, Cyclops is faced with the reality of Jean Grey’s death who, by the way, is the woman he loves. It’s heart wrenching, because there is a pause across several issues in which the reader knows Jean Grey has to die, even though Cyclops hasn’t quite put that together.

Since House of M, Marvel has done a lot to change Cyclops’ character. Where he begins as a moral compass, he evolves into a morally compromised and reluctant leader. This comes to a head in Avengers V X-men, where we watch Cyclops slowly corrupt into his own terrifying version of The Dark Phoenix.

That’s whats so interesting. The story of Cyclops, his character development over the past 30 years, is that of a good man turning evil. Sure, it’s a traditional literature archetype, but it’s also an effective comic book narrative.

I won’t lie, it’s hard to read, but I think it illustrates something important. I started reading comics when Cyclops was still a young and idealistic hero. I remember thinking I’d be a comic book artist when I grew up, or a cartoonist, or an animator. I saw myself as a twenty-something who was thinner and more put together, independent and married and maybe even a father. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret the decisions I’ve made or that my life wasn’t the thing I envisioned it to be when I was 12, but there’s a correlation that I think is universal.

Cyclops grew up into something he didn’t want, a leader of a race of nigh-extinct freaks. He became a thing he didn’t want to be, a thing he didn’t like and, at times, a thing he hated. I can relate to those feelings, I think we all can. Wether or not the writers at Marvel intended to, they ended up exploring a very primal and very natural part of being a human. Aside from Avengers V X-men‘s generally disconnected story, inconsistant art, and insufficient dialogue, the plot itself ties in with a larger story arch that comic nerds have been following for decades. I think that means something, I think that’s important.

My mom was afraid that I’d be unhappy with life because it could never live up to the fantasy of comics. While I don’t have super powers and I don’t fight crime, I think I can say that my life does live up to the precedent set by comics. What I love about comic books is not the absurd fantasy, but rather the normal people who have to deal with those fantasies on a grotesque level. It’s very “Flannery O’Connor.” I relate to Cyclops, not because he can shoot lazers out of his eyes, but because he grew up to be something he didn’t expect.

My name is David Pemberton, and I am a nerd.

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3 thoughts on “On Comic Books, Literature, and Growing Up

  1. Claremont is by far one of my favorites. I did a “top 15” graphic novels ever blog and I debated for a while about putting some of his work on the list but ultimately decided I couldn’t just because I didn’t feel they worked well enough as stand alone collections if you had no previous information at all beforehand.

    I would however disagree with you on the foreshadowing thing. Stan Lee used the technique in a lot of his writing, Spiderman’s origin story being one example, though what I will say is that Claremont definitely employed it more masterfully. Maybe even better than anyone before him.

    Also, I don’t know what the rest of the collection you were reading was, though I’m pretty sure the “Dark Phoenix Saga” and “Days of Future Past” started in 1980, just FYI. Not to be a nit-picking geek. But that is what I am after all.

    Great article. Love and rainbows.

    • I agree, none of Claremont’s work really fits together as a graphic novel, but I love his run on X-Men. And yeah, I suppose you’re right about Stan Lee using foreshadowing earlier, but I guess I was trying to get at the grand scale in which Claremont put it together.

      Also, I was reading “X-Men Essentials” volume 2, which predates the original Phoenix saga in the late 70s. Have you been keeping up with Marvel? They’re about to re-title a lot of books. I think I’m going to read Uncanny Avengers, Uncanny X-Force, All New X-Men, and Savage Wolverine. Not sure if any of them will be good or not, I was actually pretty disappointed with AvX. Claremont used to write so much text into his comics…

      • I haven’t really read much since all the “Ultimate” series came out years ago. It seems like Marvel reinvents everything every few years. Sometimes it’s awesome, but usually it seems to fall on its face. All I usually end up reading is what people recommend to me these day. It’s easier than sifting through the lame stuff.

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