By Holly Raymond
Scott Summers is, historically neither a philosopher nor a theologian. The numinous only seems to be of particular interest to him when he either is god, or is fucking god. Fortunately, through the miracle of serialized superhero comics, both of these conditions have occurred frequently enough to give a clear sense of what each means.
In the 40+ years in the shadows of Chris Claremont, “god” in the context of the X-Men is isometric in many cases, of course, with the Phoenix, the sometimes-destructive, sometimes-generative, sometimes-ambivalently-both-or-neither cosmic raptor, “fire and life incarnate.” In various stories it has reversed death, cracked time open like an egg, enacted mass death without blinking, etc. It’s a potent-ass bird, one which Claremont in particular associated strongly with a Kabbalic understanding of godhead, wisdom, and emancipation. For him, it is a figure of both profound and unruly terror, and ecstatic, liberatory freedom (Alan Davis, one of Claremont’s sharpest collaborators, draws a number of astute connections between the Phoenix and the world devouring Galactus in his 90s Excalibur run). “The fire of the Phoenix burns through lies, you understand?” Jean Grey asks in Grant Morrison and Phil Jimenez’ New X-Men #139. “The gaze of the Phoenix is like an x-ray tearing through every self-deception.” Like Scott’s eyes, it punctures what it touches, leaves things in ruins– but unlike Scott’s eyes, it is omnivorously hungry, not at all shy of its own power.
Jonathan Hickman’s 2015 event miniseries Secret Wars is not an X-Men story but it contains in its first issue one of the most moving conceptualizations of this proxy-romance between Scott and the Phoenix itself. As the world ends, one earth crashing inexorably into another – Avengers business – Scott swoops in from left field, atop a silvery oval container which “hatches” to reveal a glowing golden orb within. “The Phoenix Egg is ready to hatch. There you are, old friend…remember how this feels?”
Scott, posed like Christ and wearing his dead wife’s figurative clothing, emerges from outside of Hickman’s tightly coordinated apocalypse in a blinding corona of light. It’s a strange scene, one that, as compelling and beautiful as it sits on the page, remains somewhat cryptically tangential to the book’s actual plot. As the Phoenix egg hatches, it’s Scott who appears to be reborn, introducing himself as a third factor in Secret Wars’ intricate network of binary oppositions. Each time I read this story I’m struck by the beauty of it. I also find myself asking, each time, what precisely the point of it is. What is it doing here? And what is it telling us about Scott?
Fittingly for the Phoenix – and more specifically, for the post-Morrisonian figuration of the Phoenix as a force which not only emerges from its own ashes, but, through iterative adjustments, a kind of archaeology of canon and genre, ensures that old mistakes don’t get repeated– this raises other questions, and demands a sifting through other stories. What does it mean for the man who is all perception and analysis to deal with the numinous, that which resists objectivity? What is faith like for Scott Summers? And, as might reasonably come up when this sacral bird god is also occasionally his wife, what is it like to have faith in Scott Summers? How do we understand this recognition that Scott and the newborn Phoenix find at the end of the world, a recognition he quite aptly calls love?
This is a question which Grant Morrison turns to periodically throughout their 2001 run on New X-Men, filtered through the soap operatic tensions in Scott and Jean’s marriage. To make a very long story short, Scott spent much of 1999 and 2000 merged with the ancient evil entity Apocalypse – a predicament, we’re led to believe, early 21st century therapists found themselves ill-equipped to help him work through. Temptations loom on either side: Scott entering into a psychic dalliance with psychic antihero Emma Frost, Jean haunted by her long-standing tension with short king Wolverine. Hovering over this is the issue of the Phoenix, with Scott skeptical and a little afraid of Jean’s newfound embrace of her role as fire and life incarnate. This manifests as both a religious and a political issue – Scott urging caution, Jean pushing for an aggressively radical reclamation of mutant otherness. Jean’s strident, proud “We can’t afford to be ashamed anymore” in New X-Men #122 is met with Scott’s nervous trepidation.
“Jean, you’re preaching to the choir,” Scott answers. “I walked through every year of my adolescence with my hands in my pockets and my eyes pointed at my feet. You knew me then; remember how long it took for me to raise my head with pride.”
And yet, in this scene Scott keeps his “strange eyes” fixed figuratively on the ground. For him, the averted gaze signifies a safety trigger (as suggested pointedly in Brian Stelfreeze’s portion of X-Men Unlimited #31, shortly before Morrison’s run begins – “I am a living, breathing weapon. A gun.”) as much as it does humility or insecurity – the head raised with pride a potential signal of aggression. When Jean cuts back with “We have more important things to do than worry about whether our glowing eyes frighten the Republicans,” she’s answering as the Phoenix, not, perhaps, as the partner of a man whose glowing eyes he quite justifiably sees as frightening himself.
To meet the world head on is, for the traumatized and unsteady Scott of early New X-Men, a terrifying gambit. An assertion of himself, a reckoning with an alien and overwhelming world, and yet another soft target to potentially, unwittingly, obliterate at a touch. It’s not shame, so much, that keeps his head down – it’s the weight of his gaze’s awful potential.
By injecting this tension – as well as this frustrated, thwarted grasping towards a more numinous union – into the “happy ending” of Jean and Scott, back together again, they complicate the dynamics of what had already been, even by the standards of serialized superhero comics, an extremely baroque love story. After a classic Silver Age will-they-won’t-they relationship hampered by the shy and hidebound Scott, the two are officially romantically involved by the time Chris Claremont takes over Uncanny X-Men in 1975.
In keeping with the free-wheeling, collegiate tone of mid-70s Marvel, Claremont is happy to write the pair as adults: people with their own lives, their own goals, who happen to happily intertwine at certain intervals. This comes to an end when Jean dies using her psychic abilities to save her team-mates’ lives in a plummeting space-station, only to seemingly be resurrected by the Phoenix Force and granted unprecedented levels of power. As this power continues to grow, so does her sense of narrative agency, her divergence from the trajectory of superhero adventures and closed-circuit dramas, culminating in her corruption and death in the much-lauded “Dark Phoenix Saga” of 1980.
While the successive 40-ish years of Scott and Jean as a vexed pair are riddled with deaths, revivals, fakeouts, clones (including the tragic and baroque story of Madelyne Pryor, a kind of inverted critique of Jean’s narrative instrumentalization), time travel, and time travel children, writers between Claremont and Morrison tended to default to a nostalgic retrospective view of the Jean (or Phoenix-masquerading-as-Jean) that exists in between her “first death” and the Dark Phoenix’s sacrifice on the moon.
Particularly iconic – and germane to this essay – is the scene in Uncanny X-Men #132 in which Scott and Jean finally consummate their relationship on a scenic New Mexico butte (with rich enough friends you can have sex anywhere, I guess). Scott, uneasy and tense about Jean’s increasing powers, and her increasingly casual use of those powers, is put to ease when Jean does the previously impossible: using her telekinesis, she dams the violent flood of his eyes, and permits the open and reciprocal gaze that had been denied them since 1963.
“Open your eyes, Scott. Nothing will happen”: for Scott, the fantasy of having nothing happen in pursuance of his attention holds tremendous allure. His power, which he harbors anxiously and unwillingly, is held in abeyance by the god-like willpower of his lover. “Good” and “nothing” slink in hand and hand as he falls silent, falling pliantly into Jean’s arms, his absolute trust in her ability to disarm his eyes matched by her own newfound and alien self-assurance. He finally finds himself able to have sex with Jean, but only on the Phoenix’s terms, the two blending into one figure as the “Cyclops”-nature of Scott, the ever-imminent threat of his eyes, is figuratively absorbed and neutralized.
The slow dissolution of their marriage over the course of Morrison’s story, and the eventual, amicable cosmic divorce they undergo at the end of the rapturous Here Comes Tomorrow, signal their eventual mutual understanding that the interpersonal dance they’re engaged in is a proxy negotiation. It’s a quintessentially Morrisonian structure, psychological realism reeling in and out from a flickering allegorical core – as Jean Grey and Scott Summers, mutants and spouses, grow distant, become mutually incomprehensible, and drift, in their individual ways, towards their own discrete futures, the Phoenix hews ever more passionately to its earthly partner – the mono-fixational eye, the Cyclops.
The dead matter and dross that the Phoenix burns away in great waves is punctured neatly and tidily by the Cyclops’ eye, lending focus and direction where the Phoenix casts itself about omnidirectionally and omnivorously. Both extinguish without regard to moral or ethical considerations, both pierce through, theoretically, to a higher truth beyond what’s immediately seen. The Phoenix simply has fewer hang-ups about it, although Morrison, as humane as they are gnostically inclined, never blames Scott for turning from this germinal revelation in panic and terror. As their legal, physical wedding disintegrates – first through Scott’s unfaithfulness, then through Jean’s death at the hands of a Kick-addicted pseudo-Magneto – the alchemical wedding of Phoenix and Cyclops, Morrison’s mystical masculine and feminine, is consummated as time unspools itself, the Phoenix rebirths the dead future from its caul, and Scott, finally, assertively sees his way beyond the rote loop of dystopian X-Men stories and seizes the happiness in front of him, in the person of Emma Frost.
This suggestive tether between Scott’s ambivalent relationship with his destructive vision and the prophetic, illusion-burning debt of the Phoenix lingered long after Morrison exited the franchise. See, notably, the long and perhaps misguided 2012 crossover event Avengers vs. X-Men in which Scott is the last of four new Phoenix hosts to run roughshod (and kind of aimlessly) over the Earth with his godlike powers. Disappointingly, this story – a work of committee spearheaded by [four?] different writers – casts the Phoenix Force as a kind of ecstatic, addictive supervillain generator. Beneath the thin veneer of “burn it all down and start again” messianic verve, the Phoenix Five are formulaic cosmic megalomaniacs, backstabbing each other, putting crab legs on wheels, and drinking human blood telepathically as they plot their next vaguely motivated misdeed.
Except for Scott that is – who, finally, reignites the then-stifled x-gene across the planet in a last paroxysm of cosmic power. “I’m happy to spend what remains of my life paying for my crimes,” he admits at the end of Kieron Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men #19, “But I’d do it all again.” Alone and alienated, having broken catastrophically up with Emma, Scott, in chains, gets his moment of triumph. Union with the Phoenix made him into a monster, Avengers vs. X-Men insists. It also, Gillen suggests, gave him what he always craved; a unity of desire and action.
If Avengers vs. X-Men takes a long time to say a little bit about Scott Summers, Secret Wars #1 packs a great deal into a single taut sequence. Again, Scott exists on the margins of this story, the culmination of Jonathan Hickman’s years-long tenure on both the Fantastic Four and the Avengers franchises. It is a story about the universe ending, and stubborn men being unable to see a way out without bloodshed and despair. Issue #1 ends with a grim post-script; an all-white final page, reading, simply, “The Marvel Universe, 1961-2015,” and below that, a bit bathetically, “The Ultimate Universe, 2000-2015.” “I hope…” laments Reed Richards in a caption just prior, “I believe… in nothing.”
I think it’s fitting that Reed’s nihilism emerges from grief, as the spaceship-ark bearing him and a handful of his allies beyond the end of everything tragically jettisons his own family. The Phoenix Scott, too, is a figure of mourning – both here and in AvX – an act, in a sense, of draping himself in the majesty of the messianically dead Jean Grey. If Reed’s grief in these pages putrefies into a loss of hope in any future, Scott’s is a literal act of rebirth and renewal, an egg hatching, a man changed. Scott, his familiar two-dimensional visor transformed into a long X (an element of Chris Bachalo’s redesign, which re-centered Scott as a political revolutionary) can finally see beyond the despair and hopelessness of the story he finds himself in. He revises the genre he lives in by perceiving past it and through it. He embraces, at long last, the “strange eyes” his wife once urged him not to be ashamed of. As the other, non-mutant heroes smuggling themselves away from the dying universe frame the end of the issue as the end of the story, Scott, teleporting into their midst, sees past this decoy ending, past the logic of the cliffhanger, towards an iterative cycle of starts and re-starts:
Secret Wars is, again, not Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men story, but it does give a taste of where his eventual work on that franchise would lean: towards the unsettlingly crisp, uncannily lucid, messianic gaze beyond the presumed logic of its own medium. And here, as in his post-House of X/Powers of X mutant writing, Cyclops largely functions as his strange eyes, the host through which the mutant world coheres – a lens, tellingly, with an unswerving faith in its own direction and purpose. Hickman, like Morrison, reads in Cyclops’ reinvention as a charismatic political and cultural leader a love story between a nervous young man and the god-bird that set its attention upon him.
Unlike the glibly belligerent Phoenix of AvX, the divinity of the Phoenix for Morrison and Hickman is less about fireballs and explosions, and more about new modes of seeing, modes attuned to peer through and beyond rote despair and resignation. The Phoenix, incarnated in Jean, spends the duration of New X-Men desperately urging her husband to raise his head, to see in a way that embodies the utopian clinamen of Morrison’s mutant metaphor– that is, as a vehicle for growth. It’s through this, again very Morrisonian synthesis of mysticism and genre savviness that Scott attains his true super-power: a mode of vision that sees beyond the binaristic and the vulgarly “possible” and into new ways of acting, thinking, and existing in a narrative. A super-power which Hickman literalizes in Secret Wars and carries through into his 2019 X-Men work– a hard-won reconciliation between Scott, the visionary mode, and his mutant sight.
Hickman is here, as ever, a syncretic reader of superhero continuity, less interested in pruning than in synthesizing. He has, furthermore, set the blueprint for the Cyclops of 2022 – happier, prouder, reconciled to a degree in his nervous contradictions, and inching ever closer to explicit textual queerness (he and Logan are in a polyamorous relationship with Jean, with teasing hints that they’ve put aside their own former feud for the occasional fling as well).
This is not, I hope I’ve argued, totally out of the blue. Rather, at various stages in Scott’s publication history, queer authors have honed in on him as a lively vehicle for explorations of how gender, performance, and self-fashioning function in a superhero narrative. From Grant Morrison’s depiction of Scott’s long dark night of masculinity as the site of crisis, to Jay Edidin’s moving engagements with Scott as a sort of probing, curious inspiration for his own trans masculinity, Scott’s vexed relationship with his powers and his mingled attraction and repulsion from the ethical injunction to look clearly is limned as part and parcel with a struggle to define and embody himself as a politicized body in the world 0 the esoteric union with the Phoenix signifying both a divinely androgynous mingling of gendered aspects as well a reconciliation between thought and action, abstraction and the materially and immediately present.
The consistent argument from Morrison onwards has been, broadly, that to perceive one’s world with clarity and conviction is a precondition to be able to live and act in one’s world with clarity and conviction – Scott’s gradual emancipation from the averted gaze, the unexamined world, proceeds in tandem with his evolution as a charismatic leader fully removed from the shadow of his mentor, Xavier and the conceptualization of his strange eyes as a burden and not, as he comes to embrace them, as an instrument of emancipatory power.
New X-Men #154: Rescue and Emergency
Written by Grant Morrison
Pencilled by Marc Silvestri
Inked by Joe Weems
Coloured by Steve Firchow, Beth Sotelo, John Starr and Brian Buccellato
Lettered by Rus Wooton
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 here, or on her site here.
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