In which Professor Xavier goes through a long journey of the mind, chasing his own past and trying to dodge the darker moments of his time as the most powerful psychic in the world. Remembering his relationship with Amelia Voght, he looks back at one of his most unforgivable abuses of power.
The most important part of Uncanny X-Men #309 is that it’s intended to make Xavier feel sympathetic but flawed, and to add some humanity onto the sometimes distant leader of the X-Men. What it intends, however, and what it ultimately achieves are two completely different things, because this issue essentially proves to be the absolute turning point for Xavier which led him into years of depiction as a callous, cruel, and corrupted influence on mutantkind.
Set just after he is forced to turn off Magneto’s mind, the majority of the issue is a dream wherein Xavier talks to his subconscious (itself taking the form of Magneto, in an actually fairly conscious decision) about other times when he has used his power in ways which took agency away from other people and turned them against him. This starts by reevaluating his childhood and arguing that his stepfather’s abuse against his mother led him into a lifetime of trying to ‘protect’ women, which is a charitable interpretation of his time around them in the comics to this point.
Writer Scott Lobdell mentions several women in Xavier’s past, but all of them were more damaged by Xavier than protected – and in fact, his presence could certainly be seen as a possessive one rather than one even initially interested in nurturing. Lobdell is scathing here, which is the only way you can be within this narrative, but his approach inadvertently makes Xavier into an out-and-out villain rather than his seeming intent of making him seem morally complex. The comic wants to portray an Xavier who is coming to terms with his past and moving forward – instead it only gives us the revelation of how terrifying and evil Xavier has actually been all this time.
Xavier doesn’t get called out for the damage he’s previously allowed or caused within this issue – although it will come round on him eventually, a few years later, as newer writers step in with a little more social awareness and more understanding of the manipulative aspects of the character – as instead the issue stops off on some of his worst moments and then jogs on. Xavier has functionally killed his friend Magneto at this point, but this issue glosses over it surprisingly quickly to establish childhood trauma as the reason why the adult Xavier acts so possessively towards Voght, and arguably then towards Jean. And Voght herself stands out as an obvious allusion towards Xavier’s eventual teacher-pupil relationship with Jean. Comics aren’t subtle enough to introduce a red-head in the past who isn’t meant to be contrasted against a red-head in the present.
Voght’s story is horrifying, reading it. She’s a nurse who treats Xavier after he was injured by Lucifer and left unable to walk again. Falling in love with her as she treats him, he discovers she’s a mutant and eventually she then finds out about his powers too. He withholds from her whilst taking in everything she is, creating a one-sided relationship where he offers very little in return for her affection. When they decide to set up the X-Men together, she balks at the idea and walks out of the mansion just before X-Men #1 starts. Xavier, in a panic, uses his powers to restrain her for a second, before letting her go.
It’s a moment which doesn’t get pointed out as being definitive, but it really feels like a definitive moment for the character. It should have led to Xavier being tarnished in the same way that Hank Pym is for fans – but instead it’s been strangely shrugged-off by history. I think that’s because Voght isn’t around for anybody to see what Xavier did: she clears off and the X-Men don’t find out about her. We get shown that Xavier has the capacity to do all the things he’s criticised Magneto for, and some level of the intent, but the only perspective we get to sit with is that of Xavier himself. He shows us this, through his subconscious, and uses it as a teaching moment for himself which time has shown he’ll forget and repeat.
What’s really notable, reading the issue now, is how it tries a last-minute pivot in which Jean wakes up Xavier and Lobdell attempts to use her as a way to create sympathy for the Professor. As the character who is arguably most dedicated to her mentor of anyone, and who rarely turns against him despite evidence she probably should, Jean’s role as ‘heart’ of the team has rarely been so blatantly used in an effort to make people empathise with someone else. Xavier’s big moment at the end is to tell Jean that she should “love” Scott, which feels as emotionally manipulative as any psychic suggestion he could have used on her.
“Know Thy Enemy” brings a figment of Magneto to take on Xavier, and the reader is meant to assume that the Professor is his own worst enemy. But he’s not, really, is he? Lobdell takes Xavier and makes him irredeemable, but doesn’t realise what he’s done and thinks this can all be washed away with a few nice words from Jean Grey. Xavier hasn’t developed from anything he’s learnt in the dream, but has instead only offered an illusion of change – illusions, it seems, being his greatest quality.
The X-Men are always knocked down so they can be rebuilt, but what the issue misjudges is that it isn’t Xavier being knocked down here – it’s the women around him. Amelia Voght comes out as a compelling, disappointingly underwritten character as a result of the issue. Xavier comes out as the villain pretending he’s got good in him. You can see now why other writers used this as the foundation to sweep him out the X-Men, because it’s not something he should be able to come back from.
Uncanny X-Men #309 “”…When the Tigers Come at Night!”
Written by Scott Lobdell
Pencilled by John Romita Jr
Inked by Dan Green and Jon Holdredge
Lettered by Chris Eliopoulos
Coloured by Steve Buccellato