Green Day: Inferiority CompleX: Being Scott SummersA column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Kelvin Green
There are great character concepts that are evocative and full of story potential, the type of characters who grab the public attention and refuse to let go; and there are naff ones, knocked out quickly to fulfill a role in a story, one-dimensional and entertaining in their sheer conceptual ineptitude*. And then there's Cyclops, leader of the X-Men, morally upright executor of Xavier's dream, and quite possibly the most boring superhero ever. No one denies his competence as a leader, or his skills as a fighter, or his worth as a friend and colleague, but he will always be the dull one in the X-Men.
In one way, Cyclops' ice cold tediousness is quite a clever bit of characterisation. He has to maintain elaborate and careful control over his dangerous eye beams in order to avoid widespread destruction and injury, and this control has been extended in a more general way to his personality and his relationships with others. Cyclops has lived in fear of unintentionally hurting others for so long that he has become quite repressed and reserved as a result. That said, his situation is quite different to that of the Hulk, where Bruce Banner has become torment personified, and thus quite interesting as an examination of a tortured personality; no, Scott has internalised it all so much that he has no outward personality traits at all beyond an unstoppable tsunami of grey ennui.
Regarding that power, and Scott's attempts to control it; I'm bespectacled myself, and I don't feel there's anything negative in wearing them (beyond one's eyes being broken, of course), but I can't deny that glasses have an association with both the nerd and the bore. It hardly bolsters Cyclops' image when, while his peers wear powered armour, or wield mystical hammers and indestructible shields, his trademark bit of kit is a set of specs.
It doesn't help that Cyclops is surrounded by characters who, by their very existence, somehow belittle him. By all rights, Scott should be the dynamic centre, the Cliff Huxtable, of the X-Men, but even in the early days, he was pushed aside by Xavier's force of personality and was bumped down to the role of "devoted schoolboy," which is not exactly the most dramatic and interesting of possible character arcs. The next most natural development for Cyclops would be for him to rebel against Xavier's authority** and develop a more rogueish aspect. Alas, Havok got in there first, turning up in a heroic role compatible with the X-Men's goals, but also being a bit rougher around the edges and rubbing all the uppity types the wrong way. To add insult to injury, he was then revealed to be Cyclops' brother through the traditional X-Men plot twist of everyone being related to everyone else, the implication being that the cloying dullness isn't a Summers family trait; it's just Scott who spends his weekends ironing his underpants.
And then there's Wolverine. A joke character brought in from The Incredible Hulk, he nonetheless somehow managed to immediately overshadow Cyclops, despite being a full nine inches shorter and Canadian. Scott's infant son came back from The Boarding School of the Future™ as a grizzled cyborg war hero with a vendetta against an immortal clown, which while absurd***, is nonetheless more interesting than his dear old Dad's resume. And speaking of fathers, Cyclops has long struggled with issues resulting from his Dad's abandonment of the family. Given Scott's personality in general, one suspects it's less that he feels betrayed and abandoned by Corsair's decision to leave his children, but rather he's consumed by jealousy because his idea of a fun night in is to trade stories about Soviet-era central heating systems, while his Dad went off to be a chuffing space pirate****.
Overshadowed by his male peers, Cyclops also tends to find himself dominated, and occasionally emasculated, by the women in his life. His colleague Storm is a stronger, more decisive leader, proving this by beating Cyclops up despite having lost her powers, and his more personal relationships seem to follow the same trend. The alleged love of his life, Jean Grey, apparently prefers dying numerous horrible deaths to being married to Scott, and when she's not doing that, she's running off to Wolverine, because short and hairy is better than tall and boring. Scott's current squeeze, Emma Frost, essentially bullied him into their relationship, and while that says interesting things about her personality, it doesn't do much for him. Yet, despite all this, the women do flock to Cyclops. Is it because he's so dull, so controlled, that he's a safe bet?
The usual fix for writers attempting to deal with the Cyclops Personality Void™ is to make him act like a complete nutbar, figuring that if he's more deadly dull than a month-long washing machine salesmen's conference, then the logical step is to abandon that character completely and veer in a blatantly contradictory direction. This is frequently conveyed through Scott getting a bit angry and depressed in the manner of a My Chemical Romance fan, and closing Xavier's school "forever." There's also usually a bit of "Faith" era George Michael stubble as a bit of visual shorthand to show how edgy he is*****. Crazy! Sometimes it's thrown even further out of loop, and you get situations like Scott deciding that it's a really good idea to dress some maniacs up in black leather and send them out to murder people. The end result is a character who, over his decades-long history, has swung wildly between deadly dull and vaguely psychotic, implying some sort of bipolar disorder, and making one of Marvel's top heroes come across like a nascent Hannibal Lecter.
Even the successful X-Men films didn't know what to do with Cyclops, so left him out of most of the first and second movies, and killed him offscreen in the third. Moreover, The Curse of Cyclops has, like something from a Poe story, attached itself to actor James Marsden, as even his non-X-Men film roles are consistently overshadowed by the other male characters and invariably end up losing the girl.
Even facing such an uphill struggle with the character, some writers do manage to get it right and turn Summers' complete greyness into a strength. Grant Morrison, for example, portrayed Cyclops' complete lack of personality as a kind of lunatic calm, a cold, Zen-like approach to things that makes him a disastrous choice for a night out, but pretty good to have around when Sentinels are stomping about trying to vapourise everything in sight. That said, there are only so many situations in which such calm collection is useful and/or interesting, and in thirty-odd years of X-Men comics they've probably exhausted most, if not all of them. What's left is a character whose actions show him to be a hero, but whose personality, or rather lack of, shows him to be the superheroic equivalent of Bill Pullman.
* You've seen them. They're usually introduced in splash pages, accompanied by captions displaying their probably randomly-generated names, and they usually appear in Chris Claremont comics.
** Although given recent retcons in Astonishing X-Men and The Illuminati, such dissent would probably end with Scott being shot in the kneecaps and buried alive in concrete in Xavier's basement.
*** It was the 1990's. All comics were like this then.
**** It was the 1970's. All comics were like this then.
***** Wolverine is hairy. Everyone likes Wolverine. Ergo, everyone likes hairiness.