Re-reading the classic X-Men stories of my youth now that I’m all grown is a strange experience, let me tell you. The mythos looked so epic, so mysterious, so cool back in the halcyon days of fourth grade. Now it just looks like a convoluted, editor-driven series of story-telling mishaps that the X-Books are only now just recovering from and even then it’s baby steps, my friends. The endless waltz of teeny, tiny one-steps forward and back.
The way I’ve coped with my shattered nostalgia is by making a list of things that probably looked like a good idea when they were written, but just seem stupid now.
It was difficult narrowing this list down to six, but I decided to only touch on the popular characters otherwise I’d be writing this list until the day I died.
6. BTW Psylocke is a Ninja Now
Okay, this one is obvious and has long been the subject of much ire within the fan community so I’m not going to waste your time treading the old ground of what a dumb and frankly problematic-on-an-axis-of-race-issues move taking Psylocke’s brain and sticking it in an Asian Ninja was. Other people have done so more eloquently and with less apathy for the character than I could muster. I want to talk about what a bad decision this was just from the standpoint of good writing. I mean - don’t get me wrong. Psylocke sucked and probably needed the dramatic adjustment. Just reading through the character’s wiki page is almost a comedy of errors; a virtually endless slog of character re-inventions that just. Didn’t. Stick. Plucking Betsy out of her body and sticking her in a new one didn’t “”“”work”“”” because it was a good idea; it “”“”worked”“”” (as in “it made the image of the character popular among fans) because they had created an entirely new character and that freed them, mercifully, from the mess they’d made of Betsy trying to get fans to at least pretend to be enthusiastic about her. Yes, Revanche - the tragic, telekenitic ninja with the cool psi-blades and the sketchy past - probably sounded like an amazing character at the time. Pity we couldn’t have had her on the team instead.
See, the problem with Psylocke is that I can’t tell you a thing about her personality. I cannot think of a few concise buzzwords to sum her up on any level beyond the most superficial and this is a problem that the brain-switch subplot only magnified. If you’re going to dramatically change a character that isn’t working, the best way to do it is to find something interesting pre-built into the concept and tweak it. I’ll give you an example:
Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man. What does he do? Well, he’s a guy who makes more of the same guy. Woo hoo. This was not a character that X-writers would touch with a ten foot pole except as background fodder until Peter David was handed X-Factor and a wrapped gift-basket of z-grade nobodies. Here is the tweak that made Jamie interesting: how about instead of just making copies of himself, he makes full genetic duplicates with their own minds and motivations. From this simple re-imagining of a character’s powers spirals out a whole mess of psychological depths and philosophical questions and good story telling opportunities. From this simple re-imagining you’ve now got a character who - despite remaining incredibly obscure - can hold down his own monthly team book. He can hold it down for six years.
So, that Psylocke: what did she have going for her in the first place?
I mean, besides being a telepathic-precog-secret agent-legacy-hero-blinded-and-forced-into-an-unwitting-alliance-with-a-supervilla-
Hold up there, I see some keywords popping out at me in this mess already!
Did you say that she was, for a time, a blind precog. Woah, that’s a load of Oracle tropes thrown out the window without consideration. Hell, even the precog attribute is something we hadn’t seen explored meaningfully in X-Men lore at that point. Her position on the team was almost certainly an attempt to fill the telepath-shaped void that Jean Grey’s absence created, however there’s always been a distinct flavour to Betsy’s powers that distinguish her from the ever widening roster of mutant psychics. The most important of these being that her mind powers were all mind. She didn’t muck around in telekinesis: she was physically weak but capable of getting deep inside someone’s head and mucking it up. There’s a lovely synchronicity between this and her background as a S.T.R.I.K.E. agent that was never really explored to its full extent. There’s been some attempts recently to cast her as a psychic surgeon of sorts lately, although I wouldn’t call the idea anything approaching developed.
My point here is that there were options open to the writers at the time beyond turning Psylocke into an entirely new character. And you know what? If they wanted a sexy ninja on the team that badly, they just should have made a new character who was a sexy ninja and put her on the goddamn team.
5. “But Rogue should be able to FLY! And have SUPER STRENGTH!!!! That’s how it was in that cartoon I liked when I was a kid!!!!”
Rogue with Ms. Marvel’s power set - and, indeed, the fact that Rogue was capable of absorbing a person as completely as she did Carol - was not a bad idea but man, that shit stuck around for too fucking long. That shit stuck around long enough that it became a millstone around the character’s neck. It stuck around so long that even seasoned readers associated it with her over her actual mutant powers. It stuck around so long that it gave the writers an excuse to basically put Rogue’s character development on hold for like, fifteen goddamn years.
Because see, Rogue’s power being deadly and uncontrollable is a great metaphor for budding sexuality and growing up being ~scary~, especially for young women and especially for a character like Rogue who had a vivacious personality and a penchant for badboys. But the problem with metaphors for teenage experience is that they just don’t work when you’re asking us to believe that a character is adult enough to be leading her own team. The uncontrollable nature of Rogue’s powers grounded her in girlhood for about six years too long. When she finally did grow up, the various dilemmas that seemed so dire and melodramatic back in the wind-swept panels of Jim Lee’s most classic work began to feel exhaustive and trite, especially when Rogue herself had finally outgrown any soul-searching on the matter and instead settled into a state of long-suffering irritation over it.
When the writers finally did attempt to retool her powers, their first instinct seemed to be making the problem of her being untouchable even worse, going so far as to have her contract a virus that caused her skin to kill at even the briefest contact. It wasn’t until well into Carey’s run - in fucking 2009 - that Rogue finally lost all her previous bells and whistles and no longer drains people against her will. Wow.
And you know what? Character development moves on. It moves on brilliantly. Rogue carried the adjective-less X-Title/Legacy for years! She’s getting put on an Avengers team! She’s still a formidable combatant! Who would have thought!
“Yeah, okay Jenn”, I’m sure you’re saying at this point, “That’s a fair point but why can’t she do all that while still being able to fly and have super strength?”
I liked it when Rogue was a bruiser as well. There was something really gratifying to me when I was a kid that one of the strongest X-Men was a sassy but sweet-mouthed Southern Belle. There was a nice contrast between her vulnerable personality and her invulnerable power-set. It’s what we’re used to. But it was, as I said in the first paragraph, an excuse to let the larger narrative arc of her actual power-set sit in hibernation indefinitely. It let her participate in action-oriented story arcs without the writers having to think about how her absorption powers would work on the battlefield. It gave them an easy out because even though Rogue’s powers were “unusable”, she still had powers she could use. Lazy, lazy, lazy.
Additionally, the long-term mishandling of Rogue’s arc also nearly ruined another character in a two-for-one deal of “characters I love in a pairing I ship getting ruined by their proximity to one another”. Let’s talk about that asshole .
4. “For now, Gambit walks on the side of angels.”
Does this look like a man you can trust?
I’m just saying, I wouldn’t let that motherfucker in my house okay? I wouldn’t let him in, but he’d get in anyway because this is not a trustworthy man. Sure, there is something to be said about characters who defy the expectations of the visual tropes they appear to slot into, but Gambit was not one of these characters. Gambit is a character who should have turned out to be just as crooked as he looked.
And oh, I don’t mean forever. I like the character a lot (this is an under-statement). I love who the character is now: humbled, world-weary and made honest by his mistakes, a street-wise mentor figure, dedicated to the dream quite sincerely because he’s someone who never believed he deserved it. What a great direction for the character! Would it be even better if it had been earned????
For those of you who don’t know the story here, Gambit was originally created to be a villain… ish. He saved Storm’s life, joined the X-Men, carved himself a nice little niche in the core 90’s lineup (even earning himself a spot in the animated series) and then a time-traveler named Bishop showed up and almost spoiled it by telling everyone that very soon, Gambit was going to get the X-Men all killed by way of nefarious (but?? possibly?? coerced??) betrayal. Okay, the time traveler from the future bit is a little hokey (but that’s X-Men for you; kids from apocalyptic futures are always jumping back and forth across time and space), but otherwise this is a solid plot. More importantly, it was a plot that had been in the works in one form or the other since Gambit’s inception.
Unfortunately, editorial decided that Gambit was waaaay too popular a character to waste by throwing him away in a mere double cross, so Scott Lobdell was left to come up with an alternate answer to the question of “Who betrays the X-Men?”
What did we get instead?
Well, honey, when a Mutant Terrorist and a Deceptive but Generally Well-Meaning Old Professor love each other very much sometimes things get really complicated and their consciousness merge and… uh… ???
Onslaught wasn’t just a stupid decision in terms of delivering a satisfying answer to the whole hanging Bishop plot thread, it was also a stupid decision in terms of giving Marvel an excuse to let fucking Rob Liefeld draw Captain America. The Onslaught arc placed Prof. X as the “X-Traitor” - a revelation that doesn’t even make sense given what we know because how would history forget the X-Men being killed by a giant reality-altering monster villain who killed like, all of the Avengers?? And what would future-Gambit (who Bishop was partly raised by) gain by keeping this a secret? I mean, even if the traitor hadn’t been Gambit, there’s some logic in him not exposing the identity of a person who had been a close friend of his. That’s a very personal betrayal. Onslaught was….. Onslaught wasn’t even actually Professor X. Certainly no one behaved like Professor X had betrayed them directly. Hell, the Onslaught arc is barely a footnote on the man’s wikipedia page.
But this is not a rant about Onslaught.
This is a rant about how Gambit should have betrayed the X-Men and having him remain un-questionably loyal even through the most turbulent arcs of the 90’s was a poor character choice that continues to cripple his characterization to this day.
The Onslaught reveal came in issue #54 of adjective-less X-Men. Not even ten issues earlier in X-Men #45, we are privy to a conversation between Gambit and Mr. Sinister that strongly suggests that Gambit is soon going to betray the team. This tells us that the decision was made relatively quickly and it shows, because after Onslaught, the X-Writers had no idea what to do with the character. This is where his romance with Rogue went from deliciously chunky but oddly endearing schlock to an endless (and honestly tiring) re-treading of relationship barriers that didn’t even make sense anymore. This is where he got left in Antarctica for a few months and was… possessed by a… green mist/ghost lady??? (over ten years later and I still don’t understand that subplot). He had a mostly passable but not great solo series that… didn’t really do anything to make the Thieves Guild stuff more compelling.
Furthermore, every single high point the X-writers have tried to hit with Gambit in the past fourteen years have essentially been attempts to re-capture and actualize the essence and potential that the traitor arc had. Gambit’s trial in Antarctica (in which the X-Men find out that he had a generous hand in Morlock Massacre and kick him off the team) was almost an apology to the fans for not following through on the promise of darkness inherent in the character. Gambit signing up with Apocalypse (however good his intentions may have been) and becoming the Horseman of Death for a brief period of time was a literal traitor arc that suffered both from awful writing (was it Milligan or Austen on the book at the time? TRICK QUESTION WHO CARES THEY WERE BOTH AWFUL) but also from “too little too late” syndrome. Most recent AU re-tellings of the X-Men mythos such as Ultimate X-Men and X-Men: Evolution seem to have gotten the memo and just cut out the middleman, introducing Gambit as a villain (or at least as a morally grey character with no clear allegiances) upfront.
Long story short, there is a reason that writers don’t like to use Gambit and there is a reason he’s become a joke to the fans and no, it’s not because he’s a prime example of the ~extreme 90’s~ and people smartened up eventually. There are more ~extreme~ characters with way dumber shticks who have been in constant use and who writers have made honest attempts to salvage over this guy (C A B L E). Gambit is a character who never achieved narrative catharsis. His character was never taken to the logical end point of any of his development and the chance has long since passed to put it right. Gambit is a character tailor-made for a long, bloody redemption arc and while elements of this trope have always been present in stories concerning him, the writers never really worked to break the reader’s trust in him or give the readers a good reason to believe that he needed redemption. He was already a reformed scoundrel when he met Storm, but the writers played a long-game of hot and cold with the fans over where his loyalties lied that ended in a place diametrically opposed to how the character had been written up until that point.
Also Onslaught is just about the dumbest thing I have ever read in Superhero comics, and I read that one JT Krull abomination where Roy Harper used a dead cat as a weapon.
NEXT TIME: Join me as I talk about Scott Summers. I talk about Scott Summers for a very… long…. time……..