By Holly Raymond
Scott Summers sees an ass and is unmoved. New X-Men #142 is a story about passivity. It’s a story about looking but not touching, and not even wanting to touch. Scott Summers, dejected and on his way to drunk, stares at a stripper psychically disguised as his wife’s evil, possessed dominatrix persona from the 1970s.
The story does not, in any real sense, move much beyond that, which is precisely how Scott would have it. He spends much of the issue resolutely refusing to do things– to be a superhero, to be an X-Man, to go home and untangle the woeful domestic mess he left behind between his wife and his lover– and ultimately only gets roped into action passed out and dragged bodily into the next issue. Morrison asks us what would happen if the man defined by his rigorous, almost flagillistic sense of purpose and self-control just said no? If he simply opted out, like Melville’s Bartleby, from making decisions, from the burdens of agency? What if, Morrison asks, he just kind of sat there moping?
Cyclops’ mutant power, famously, is the ability to shoot beams of pinkish-red concussive force from his eyes, which, without the help of his ruby quartz glasses, emanate constantly and destructively, an untrammeled and acephalous (and on-the-nose) exercise of the gaze-as-weapon. For Scott, the circuit between perceiving and acting is instantaneous, much to his near-constant dismay. Seeing is doing, whether he likes it or not– a consequence not only of his mutant gene, but of the genre he finds himself inhabiting.
The normative model of superhero masculinity is predicated on action, as evident all the way back in… Action Comics #1, with its dynamically staged depiction of a guy chucking a car. Superheroic men lift, dash, zoom, blast, soar, etc., while superheroic women notoriously tended, in the first few decades of the medium, towards more passive powers amenable to standing out of harms way in prim, composed tableus (force fields, intangibility, telekinesis, and so on). Where does this leave Scott, whose tremendous destructive capabilities are unleashed with a careless flick of the eyes, or a turn of the head? New X-Men #142 suggests a linkage between the ways in which Scott’s abdication of agency is intimately, physically mapped onto an aversion of gaze, and the ways in which his character pushes back on how the superhero comic imagines power and masculinity.
I think it’s in part this tension that has made Scott such an appealing figure to queer fans and creators since his stint under the pen of Chris Claremont. It’s telling that Morrison, who came out as nonbinary and genderqueer in 2020, frames this issue, their most sustained examination of Scott’s psychology, as a crisis in heterosexual masculine sociality. The club is dingy and lit with a seedy moist red. The management and clientele seem almost entirely comprised of run-down, haggard looking classic villains (the cravat-wearing super-dandy Sebastian Shaw, the feral Sabretooth), too tired to even pick a fight. The shine has come off the apple. Everyone looks as if they’re here only in lieu of anywhere else to go. Everyone is complaining about women, who are, aside from the dancers and the bathroom pin-ups, absent from the story.
Cyclops’ gaze destroys everything it touches– this is both his most profound fear and nominally that which makes him valuable to the X-Men and to the grammar of the superhero story. In New X-Men this plays out as a gesture both cruel and ineffectual, as the stripper’s attempts to hold Scott’s attention, to capture his gaze, are rebuffed, as she offers him precisely what he isn’t interested in– control, command, power.
Scott goes on to glumly dissect the pretense of seduction between them, imagining the girl’s life offstage, her college tuition, the cozy sweater she’ll change into when her shift is done, the boyfriend kept at a remove from the performance. Whether or not Scott’s read of the situation is correct, it’s remarkably callous– an abrasive slamming of the brakes on an interaction rooted in a mutual misapprehension. The dancer, perhaps quite reasonably, assumes that the man in front of her is looking to perform a kind of power that he lacks in the real world.
Scott in fact is desperate to temporarily cede that power– but in snapping back reiterates precisely the kind of power he fears, namely, the power of his gaze to penetrate and lacerate. He punctures the benign illusion in front of him (Sebastian Shaw later confirms that the women performing at the club are psychics capable of veiling themselves in any form their clients desire) and lashes out at a woman only tangentially involved with his various woes.“It’s just your job to create a fantasy…” he charges, “…and all we’re really sharing here is some weird financial translation […]”
She seems unbothered. What itches at Scott as false or phantasmal is, to her, just life. A job, a client, one of a series of men who come through and drink and stare and leave. Throughout the issue, unheeded by our protagonist, she keeps on dancing, still draped in the illusion of Jean Grey in her black Hellfire leathers. Cyclops doesn’t see it. His line of sight, a pink slit cased in gold, swells to fill the pane as it tilts slightly, breaking contact with the women, then fades to black.
What is it that Scott is trying not to see? What obligation or disclosure is he avoiding? Later in the issue, in a conversation with his team-mate Logan, aka Wolverine, we get a hint of the fractures in his marriage to Jean Grey and the wild appeal of Emma Frost, the anti-hero with whom he’d been having a telepathic affair.
There’s a narcissism here– a thrill in being seen with no pressures or expectations. To be the object of someone else’s scrutiny and desire, the person looked at rather than the person looking. For Scott, to “just let go” is to relinquish the onus of interpretation and give someone else the power of being the gazing, analyzing, ogling subject. To be passive. Within the social milieu of this issue, women exist to be looked at (dismissively, as with Scott and the dancer, or with nostalgic detachment, as with Wolverine the the urinal pin-up he briefly speaks at during a mid-issue piss), men exist to look, to assess, and then to act on their assessment.
It’s curious that in his attempts to escape the normatively masculinized role assigned to him as a superhero, Scott flees to this hyper-masculine, explicitly misogynistic space. It is even more curious that in this space, he is tacitly feminized by the ways the other men in the story orient themselves around him. He is leered at, talked down to, harshly and unsparingly assessed by strangers– in other words, the men of the Hellfire Club treat Scott in the way countless women have been treated in spaces like this. The Club might be overwhelmingly homosocial, but it is also overwhelmingly straight in its poetics of seeing. Scott’s deliberate dive into abjection is a peculiarly gendered one, in which he is immersed in masculinity but set conspicuously apart from it (early in the issue, Sabretooth sticks his scrutinizing face into Scott’s prim glass of sparkling wine and snarls, “What kind of a gay drink is that?”)
Morrison’s broader thesis in New X-Men is about rebirth through recontextualization, of arranging old pieces in new ways. It’s about seeing one’s universe freshly– a kind of pragmatic phoenix consciousness that, they success, is equally accessible to the reader at home as it is to their mutant heroes, a strikingly nitty-gritty note in Morrison’s occasionally gnostically abstract oeuvre. Again and again, Jean urges Scott to not only look in new ways, but to embrace looking itself as his special prerogative. Again and again, Scott fails, bringing him here, in issue #142, to his low-point, stubbornly oblivious not only to the phenomenal world in front of him but the numinous world beyond him: the world of the Phoenix, of his terrifying prophet-wife.
In a previous issue, #122, as Scott cautiously warns Jean against what seems, to him, to be a rash leaning into her power, her cosmic, eschatological potential, she firmly prods him once more to pay attention:
Yet to ask Scott to embrace his “strange eyes,” in essence to come out in celebration of his uncanny, falsity-destroying gaze, is, at that point, a vain exercise. Morrison’s final accounting of those strange eyes unfolds elsewhere– Scott will see the better world to come, a hard-earned epistemological leap won through a crucible of grief and loss. But #142 is the story of the low point before his third-act turn. It is, like innumerable Cyclops stories before it, about the terrible gaze that fails him, and which he fails in return.
New X-Men #142: Brimstone & Whiskey
Written by Grant Morrison
Pencilled by Chris Bachalo
Inked by Tim Townsend
Coloured by Chris Chuckry
Lettered by Chris Eliopoulos
Holly Raymond is a writer and teacher living in Vermont with her wife and dog. She holds an MFA and a PhD from Temple University, with a focus on gay ghosts and the people who did their typing for them, and is the author of Mall is Lost (Adjunct Press, 2019) and Heaven’s Wish to Destroy All Minds (woe eroa, 2020), with work also appearing in the Lambda-nominated We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics. Find her on twitter or instagram @goblin_gavotte, or on her site here.
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