Sunday, September 3, 2006

Scott Summers: Reading Between The Lines

I promised myself my first real 'post' / essay was going to be on Scott Summers. So the musings about colorists and what on earth is going on with Greg Land will just have to wait. Scottness! Scottness calls to me.

[Old Eyes vs New Eyes]

It's funny, I didn't used to like Scott when I first got into comics. As a little girl and then as a self absorbed teenager, Scott was just boring. He was internal. That is, he wasn't obvious and all he ever seemed to do was hang around going 'Jean. Jean! Jean? Jeeeeeeaaaan!' A lot of the time I just wanted him to shut the hell up and get to prissily ordering people about already.

Wolverine had claws and a past he wanted to know but didn't want to know. Remy had drama and trauma and a sexy accent. Beast was a wonderful intellectual, and a true friend to anyone willing to befriend him back. Storm (cue the aria) was absolutely kick ass; a personal comic book Mary fricking Poppins. At least to me.

In comics and cartoons it seemed like everyone quickly got who the other characters were, readers/watchers, artists (voice, pencil, cell, color). But Scott, was just always in the background, except when he wasn't. And when he wasn't, he was lying and cheating on one woman, to be with another woman; being the only thing to hold Jean to the physical plane as anchor or distraction depending on how dark she was at the moment; or he was leading the X-men into battle. He was the guy shouting orders.

Thinking of it right now, I almost feel like Scott was the girl. His life revolved around other people and his love relationship to them and when he wasn't in orbit, or being a romantic foil, or being angsty about it all, he was being nurturing via tough love and training. He was being parental via leadership and power utilization on the battle field. Maybe most girls in comics generally don't get the last part , the chance to be leader, but doesn't it seem when I describe him this way that he was made to fade into the background except when needed? That he was a walking plot point? That in fact people haven't known what to do with Scott when he's not in a love triangle? And that's a shame.

I discovered just how much of a shame, because I was lucky enough to find myself in the position of having to play him for an rpg. And being the intense, researching, method-player, geek I am (think method acting), I sat down and studied him.

I borrowed Scott centric book arcs in the trades. I poured the internet for scans. I looked up his history. I wrote down what I remembered from when I was younger. And when it was all done and I was writing up my personal character biography, I realized that looking at Scott through new eyes, adult eyes, revealed a whole new character to me. A character with depth and richness that I'd never really bothered to see before, because it wasn't right there on the surface. Because the writers hadn't been able to, or hadn't bothered or just plain didn't put it up front and in a spotlight. It was like a snow drop; those spring time flowers you're lucky to see if you push aside some of the overgrowth before summer's heavier heat causes them to wilt away and wait another year.

[Scott Summers Is Not A Bastard]

Scott is not a robot. He's not an automaton. He's not a stick in the ass, authority loving, fun sapping, kiss ass, vortex of soul sucking rule following; a tool of the overseer. He's not an old fashioned boyfriend and love interest. He's not a romantic foil. He's not wish fulfillment about the perfect man. And he's sure as hell is not a callous cheating manho! (Let's not even go there) He's not all this despite what the writers have done to him. Despite the saga that is Jean Grey, Phoenix. (And how I feel about her is a whole 'nother essay)

Scott is who he is due to his past, machinations by Sinister, his relationship with Charles Xaiver and in my perhaps unknowledgeable opinion, some really lazy writing. But even that writing and how his internal life is ignored doesn't detract from his potential. Potential, some of which Joss Whedon found in 'Astonishing X-Men'.

[The Beginning]

Scott starts his life out as an ordinary all American boy, with an all American life; with two parents and a younger brother. And then one day on what should have been a simple flight to visit his grandparents (you can chant 'A three hour tour' right about now), he finds his whole world turned upside down.

Imagine being a young boy, a pre-teen, the plane's on fire, your parents sacrifice themselves to keep you and your brother alive. They strap you two together, and put on you the only parachute and shove you out the door. You're falling, in shock, crying even though big boys are supposed to be brave, because your parents are dying right in front of you. And then something burns your cheek or your shoulder. Or your little brother screams, or your eyes realize that not all the fire is on the plane, which is quite possibly exploding in shards and fragments all around you. Your parachute is burning and suddenly you're staring at your own death; at your brother's death. It's all been wasted; this one chance to save you. You've been separated from final moments in your mother and father's arms, from a quick end, for no real reason and the ground is rushing up beneath you...

At that young an age the thought of unstrapping himself and hoping his brother somehow makes it without his weight doesn't occur to Scott. He's still at an age to be selfish in the face of death. And he's young enough to be stunned still and shocked stupid. None of this isn't something he's ever had to even remotely think about before. And then, suddenly, adrenaline rushing through his body, fight or flight or death, Scott's powers activate incredibly early for a mutant and his force beams slow their fall and churn the snow topped earth into something soft enough that impact won't kill him and his brother immediately.

As defining a moment for a traditional stoic, brooding, need to be in control character if ever there was one, in my opinion at least.

Imagine waking up after the world's gone dark to discover that you've been in a coma. The doctors and nurses tell you to be brave, to push through. They tell you you're young, you can adapt and overcome.They tell you it doesn't matter that you can't remember Mom and Dad and little brother; all of whom are lost now, dead or gone away. You're just so lucky to even be alive.

You're too young to understand magical thinking and blaming yourself and you're far too distracted with recovery; everything gets put on hold until you get better. But then one day you're well enough to leave the hospital, the only place you can remember ever knowing and you're put in an orphanage. You're an orphan.

Maybe times have changed enough to remove the stigma and weight of the word 'orphan'. But being 'alone' and without natural family has shaped Scott in so many ways that it's hard for me not to see him wearing it like a brand beneath his shirt; something he lives with always. To me it defines who he is, what he wants, what he needs and years for and what he fights for.

As a little boy in an orphanage Scott then goes on to try and be normal, to try and be what everyone expects him to be. He tries in fact to be charming enough that some wonderful family will come adopt him. But all his trying comes to nothing.

Why? Because the boogie-man in the basment is real for Scott. Even at that young age someone wants him to be a pawn; someone who was willing to set up shop in an orphanage, trick him into all sorts of experiments, and do their best to isolate Scott from the rest of the world. Essex aka Sinister is everywhere pushing his little mouse through the maze. He's Scott's fellow orphan. He's the doctor at the orphanage. He's the head of the orphanage. When a couple decides they want Scott for their own, Sinister has them killed. Scott never finds out why they didn't come back for him or fill out the paperwork. When a new administrator in the orphanage seems to warm up to Scott and become a likely friend, Essex brainwashes her.

Scott's entire time at the orphanage is under a cloud of not being good enough or welcome enough. People leave him. People are not to be trusted. People only ever want for themselves. There's something wrong with him. And on top of all that he's visibly different. He's marked. He doesn't remember things about his past. He has awful headaches and has to wear funny special glasses.

It's no wonder that Scott would withdraw into himself. That he hides his wounds and needs comes naturally and logically. Never let them see you sweat, is all about being prey in an enviromentment of predators. It's a high stress situation. But Scott doesn't break. He runs away from the orphanage instead. Unfortunately he runs head long into yet another predator. Jack O'Diamonds; a con man, extortionist, would be terrorist.

[Comic Code Says....]

Now this is when I personally think the Comics Code greyed and blurred an area that I believe can easily be read as 'The Days of Young Scott Summers, Poor Little Boy Whore'. But even without thinking about why a grown man would befriend a runaway teen boy before he knew about that boy's abilities. Scott's still a teenager being exploited by a not very good person. A person who thinks holding a nuclear power plant hostage is a good idea. It doesn't matter if Jack wants to use radiation to increase his powers, get money from the government or blow the area to kingdom come. It's a nuclear power plant and that's his plan.

But let's back up a bit to just after Scott runs away so it makes more sense to understand why Scott sticks with Jack O'Diamonds (Jack Winters) despite the exploitation and the beatings. And yes, there were beatings. But like I said, we're backing up.

Imagine being a young boy who's just run away from the only other place he's ever known. The first being a hospital. Out alone and very not street savvy but free. Imagine beginning to relax from the pressure of the environment of the orphanage only to get the stirrings of one of those horrible headaches. You take off your glasses, rub your temples and then.... shafts of force beam streak from your eyes and hit a crane.

Imagine watching it begin to fall onto unsuspecting pedestrians many stories below and your fright forcing up another beam, this one obliterating the piece of falling machinery. Imagine wondering how you did that. Wondering what you did. All the while a crowd of angry, frightened, confused adults start to converge on you and accuse you of trying to kill them all.

Scott's very first foray into the outside world and he's marked as a terrorist and has to run away from a mob. Yet another group of individuals thinking he's the problem. In reality they might fe failed adults, a mindless mob. But to a young boy running away from them, they're the villagers with pitchforks and he's Frankenstien's frustrated monster. It's yet another circumstance of being different.

But he doesn't get away clean. No, he gets caught by the police who treat him like a delinquent. What's the first thing that gets done with a punk who's known to have run away from an orphanage and who's a possible suspect against a group of angry tax, paying citizens? Someone takes the punk's sunglasses off. Cue Scott effectively blasting a hole through a police station! And of course running away again.

And where does he run? Right into the 'arms' of Jack O'Diamonds. Who, unlike Sinister, knows how to manipulate young boys. Jack's a physically abusive S.O.B. He knows how to make Scott feel as if there's a chance that Scott can do the right thing. That in fact Scott does occasionally do the right thing and is not a mistake or a freak and that Scott can be rewarded for it. But when it's not the right thing, Scott gets hit. A lot.

Now this was back in the days where a grown man beating on a teenage boy was ok in comics, even if just on this side of risky. But to me it's subtly coded for a whole lot more. If Scott had been a girl in that sort of situation, depending on Jack for food, shelter and protection they just couldn't have done it at all. A panel of Jack backhanding 'Scarlett' would read like a young female prostitute being disciplined by her pimp. And I don't think the comparison is unfair, because Scott is so dependent and so realistic about Jack's moods and abuses that he helps take part in a raid on a nuclear power plant. Remember, I mentioned Jack's 'genius' earlier? Nuclear Power Plant. Where thins go BOOM and glow.

Scott's forced to attack helpless people, certain that if he doesn't stun them with his blasts, Jack will shoot them or something worse. Scott's become a delinquent terrorist and Jack's minion. He may not be being pimped for his body, but he sure as heck is being used for Jack's pleasure.

[And then MosesXavier said onto the people...]

Today I'm talking about what Charles Xavier did to Scott Summers. Because being Xavier's pawn does play into how Scott grows up and what he becomes. But one of these days I'll talk about the pros and cons of starting up a private army to combat your boyfriend's private army while you both try to convince the rest of the human race that you're each individually sensible enough to make decisions for them. Because I think that will explain my views on Xaiver and how that shapes my views on Scott.

Like a bolt of lightening out of the blue, Charles shows up at the plant because he's been tracking Scott since the manifestation of his powers with the crane. (Apparently taking his own sweet time to so so). And he offers Scott sanctuary.

Charles offers Scott another way and says he'll take him away from people like Jack and that he won't have to be afraid anymore. He outlines his dream of mutant cooperation and a mutant strike force who'll do first response in emergencies. Peaceful co-existence, without having to take over nuclear power plants.

(I happen to believe Charles also says something along the lines of 'And I can make that pesky child fugitive thing disappear too'. Because how else can it be explained why Charles is able to swoop in and have Scott as his ward when there's an orphanage bulletin (missing child), likely a police bulletin (terrorist actions) and I'm sure some of those guards at the power plant would have remembered something before an Xavier class whammy.)

So Scott says yes to Xavier. Who wouldn't? Older man who wants to take over nuclear power plants and harm people vs older man who says he doesn't want to harm people. Also, in my personal opinion, older man who doesn't have to touch Scott in order to try to be close to him. Xavier can seem sincere by projecting it right into Scott's mind. Seeming kindness and familial intimacy without any physical affection to decipher. What young, on the run, mutant gene empowered boy wouldn't leap at the chance to leave the beatings (and possibly bad touch) behind him.

Imagine being a young boy, almost a man, with no hope for a future. You've been lied to and manipulated all your life. Sometimes you let it happen because you needed to survive. Sometimes you didn't even know it was happening until the end, or until you were told. People have betrayed you, misunderstood you, chased you, hit you, hurt you, been scared of you. And then here comes a man who's calm. Who doesn't seem to be hiding the violent rages and the demands and the want for instant obedience. Here's someone who isn't scared of you or shamed of you. And all they want is for you to help them realize something that sounds like a noble ideal. And if that ideal came true, maybe no other kid would have to go through what you went through. And even before that ideal goes through you can help other kids reach this man, find him, talk to him, be trained by him, feel calmed by him.

So there Scott is, in Xavier's hands. Xavier who can mold minds, erase memories, get people to do his will without even having to take a deep breath, far less break a sweat. (After all, Jack Winter just disappears, doesn't he. Poof, no more pesky abuser.) But Xavier doesn't even have to that with Scott, because Scott is eager to please. The mansion is large, the meals are good, Xavier's a cripple; and everything's dead below the waist as far as a teenage boy with a shady past is concerned.

Scott becomes a believer, hook line and sinker. David Caresh didn't need mental powers to convince people to be his followers in Waco and Xavier really didn't need to use his mental abilities to keep Scott at his side or send Scott out to hunt down other young mutants. Xavier wants a soldier, Scott becomes a soldier. Scott becomes the best soldier he can be. Here's his chance, underneath all the training to have that normal life; to be that normal boy. And if at the heart of it, he's still just a dream realized for some one else, at least Charles gives him time to try and be himself., whatever or whoever that might be.

[The Wicked Web]

There's a weird triangle that develops between Jean, Xavier and Scott; wherein Xavier doesn't seem to want Scott distracted. Scott wants to be with Jean. Jean just wants to be a normal girl. And Xavier has plans for Jean, plans that might well include himself.

But more important than Jean herself is what she represents. She's normalcy. She's a girl a guy could have. She's adulthood. She's Scott wanting something for himself even if he doesn't know how to go about it. And she's also someone who can slip past Scott's defensives; his front, his mental barriers; and see and speak to the real man beneath. She's a possible second person who won't be afraid. But most importantly she wouldn't / doesn't want anything from Scott, but Scott.

Scott's set apart from the small group Xavier collects. He came first. He's trained, first. He becomes team leader. He helped recruit the others. And he has absolutely no idea how to relate to people his own age, far less how to relate to people with similar struggles. (Scott wears a geeky bow-tie while Jean gets to wear minis, that says something right there)

Scott's not flirtatious or funny. He's not the brain. He's not the pretty girl. He's the boy who trains and trains so he won't disappoint Xavier, so he won't have to leave and so he never comes close to even accidentally harming anyone ever again. Scott retreats behind the facade of 'The Leader' or 'Xavier's pet' and everyone else carves out a niche for themselves in the group.

Imagine hearing these other teenagers talk about school and family and friends. Imagine that all you know is the pecking order of the orphanage, constant isolation, Jack Winter's fists and Xavier's cool praise. Imagine also knowing from the very start how destructive your power is; remembering the crane and the nuclear plant. The others can joke around. If they forget themselves the worst that might happen is something gets frozen, or broken, or levitates. Though Jean, if her power is close to Xavier's might understand. Jean's felt scared about what she might do and who she is. Imagine being drawn to that, and the fact that she's a pretty girl, and smart and she pays attention to you.

[The Hedge Is Made of Cardboard ]

The problem I think with all this is that after Scott's set up, to be the good guy, to be the leader and to be the one who thinks of others first, there are years and years and years where nothing much gets done with him. And by that I mean, 'And So Begins The Saga of Jean and Scott'. And it's Jean who gets all the character details, all the minutia.

That's what I mean about how growing up Scott was 'the girl' and 'the background character'. He was defined through Jean. He was defined through his love of Jean, him wanting Jean, him defying Xavier for Jean, him finally asking her to marry him, and then the whole horrid debacle that was Phoenix and Jean's death and Maddie Pryor and that marriage and the baby and Scott leaving Maddie to go back to Jean. And...

Heck, Maddie evolves. She becomes the Goblin Queen. She has motivations of love, jealousy, hate, wanting a family, wanting a normal life, wanting not to be a construct, wanting to feel real. Even her revenge stretches out beyond Scott to encompass all the X-men and to want to go against Sinister himself.

All the while there's not much delved into about Scott. What kind of man he is that he'd do the things he's done.. How does he feel about betrayal? The young boy I've charted from the death of his parents onwards would seem the type to want something solid. He would seem the type to always want to be dependable and to have someone to depend on. I would think he'd always wanted someone who could touch him without making it feel overt and forced and overwhelming. And that he's wanted someone to share things with, perhaps even the burden of leadership.

But not only did I grow up never seeing that happen between him and Jean, or him and Maddie. But I never saw long arcs of the type of quiet friendship he and Storm, for example, could have, based on their similar levels of control, leadership and emotional restraint.

When I first began to look at Scott differently, I realized that in all the throw away moments done while the writers were progressing some one else's story, were details about Scott Summers becoming a man. The foundation is there, the bricks are there and it would be so easy.

Imagine being a young man who's fallen in love, who's lost that love, tragically, horrifically and then finds her apparent twin right at the hardest point of his grief, when it's hit denial and seems stuck. Imagine being a young man without day to day interpersonal skills or any real introspection letting yourself fall and cling to this copy of the person you love; your first love returned to you. Imagine wanting her back so badly, and wanting a normal life so badly that you marry her, and have a child with her and quit the cause and the institution that have been your life since you were in your late teens. Now there's no way this love will be harmed. There will be no crazy attacks, no missions, no prejudice, just a nice normal family living nice normal days.

But then you find out that while you've been living this fantasy, your real love was alive and trapped somewhere and your team's been suffering. Imagine the dual guilt. Imagine returning to that team, to that 'love' and throwing yourself into everything to make up for the lapse you've had in being the good soldier. Imagine taking huge effort to drown out any thoughts or emotions in work and nothing but work, until your wife has to show up and remind you that life has consequences and that there are other people involved in your denial. And that no matter how much you wished people had talked you out of it, or that you'd listened to them, you have responsibilities now.

Did Scott feel resentful? Did he feel depressed? Was he confused and naturally torn between two women he loved? Or was he daily facing the fact that what he'd had with Madelyne was a pipe dream? And now the pipe was empty.

[My Boy]
There's a scene in Joss Wheadon's run of Astonishing X-men, where a Sentinel has crawled up the lawn to the Institute and Scott is pissed off to be facing one of these things again. He's pissed off that it's invading his home! He tells everyone to get behind him, whips off his visor and blasts the thing like half a mile (it looks like), through trees and making a great big furrow in the earth. The panel of the blast is one solid block of red. And then Wolverine says something along the lines of 'Just when I can't remember why that guy's team leader, he goes and does something like this'

That's Scott defending his home, defending his mission, dealing with his anger and frustration without the love triangle (Wolverine is strictly there as someone who respects Scott.) That's Scott the team leader, the heir apparent to the noble ideal. He's in charge, he's passionate he's real,. And it's made all the more beautiful for me, because the damn Sentinel is a distraction and the main plot is all about the Danger Room being sentient, so that Scott's being a leader in a normal (for the X-men) day. It's not an issue devoted to showing him as flawed and honorable and solidly fleshed out. It's two or three pages among twenty two that crystallizes everything about him. Where he's come from, what he's done, what he's learned and where he's going.

I read that and I thought 'Ahh, Scott. That's my boy.'

If Scott comes across as a bastard, it's because writers thought the easiest thing to do with him is make him one. If he comes across as cold, it's because they're juggling other characters and they need 'The Leader' to step in and say a few words before the adventure takes off again. It doesn't take much to round him out. And sometimes the writers do try and you have to look for it. It might have been in the art direction of him reaching out physically to someone. It might be in a panel where he holds someone's gaze.

But there's something there that's more than 'That Guy Wolverine Should So Totally Ass Kick For Jean'.

Recently, there was a Scott / Emma relationship. But now Emma's reportedly evil again and her getting close to Scott was part of a plot to undermine, corrupt and destroy. Scott was part of a larger plot about Mutant Hierarchy.

I'm guessing that when I find myself reading about that, I'll be looking for the little cues that let me know how Scott's feeling about someone having betrayed him yet again and whether or not even telepaths are off limits for those he dares let see more of him. I'll be looking and I hope Joss isn't the only writer who'll give me what I want.

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