It’s Not Heat Vision: Why Scott Summers Always Left Me Cold
Who is Scott Summers? It’s a question that until Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men I didn’t care to answer. Scott reminded me too much of the people who’d ignored me at school, never the bullies, but the ones complicit with their silence. The kind who see themselves as better than every other person in exactly the same situation. As a disabled teenager learning to live in an abled world, I resented Scott’s desperation to hide who he was and what he could do. I couldn’t help but find something sinister about trying to be the most normal mutant in a room full of them.
X-Men was undoubtedly the comic that made the most impact on me as a child. It was the first book whose characters I fell in love with, hated, and cried with. I’ve carried the book with me through my defining life moments. From Claremont’s quintessential 17-year run to Mike Carey’s reimagining, through Grant Morrison’s seminal New X-Men (which changed our perceptions of many of the characters that we thought we knew forever), to my now absolute favourite X-Men tale, Michael Walsh and Max Bemis’ X-Men: Worst X-Man Ever. Though I now have many more beloved titles that hold up far better on rereads and ended up meaning more to me personally, it would be hard for me to argue that any series has had more of a long-term impact on me as a reader.
One of X-Men’s biggest strengths has always been its diverse character roster, which it really began to establish following 1975’s Giant-Size X-Men #1. Planned originally as a way to expand Marvel’s varied global audience, Giant-Size X-Men created a roster of international superheroes who came together under the guardianship of Charles Xavier at his School For Gifted Youngsters. Yet, out of all of these wonderful, unique, and complex characters, the focus still often fell to Stan Lee’s favourite X-Man, Xavier’s golden boy, and the first person recruited to that very special school: Scott Summers.
The most boring and self-righteous of the X-roster, Scott suffers from the classic problem of being an avatar character. A straight, white, able-bodied male who the assumed readership can relate to, or transfer themselves onto, to enable themselves to be part of the story. This is a problem rife throughout the history of contemporary storytelling and is why very often the main characters in blockbusters (and make no mistake, X-Men was one of the original blockbuster comic books; X-Men #1 by Claremont and Lee still holds the record for biggest ever selling issue at 8.2 million copies, smashing the previous record of around 5 million of X-Force #1) often find themselves with sidekicks and friends who are far more cool and quotable than they could ever be.
For example, fans of Star Wars aren’t arguing over whether Luke shot first, and you’re more likely to call someone a nerfherder than find yourself quoting a sad Mary Sue moping around in a forest. In fact, Luke’s personality–whiny teenager who hates his dad–is less a character description and more an outline of a demographic. Within the walls of Hogwarts, it’s rare that you’ll find many people singing the praises of the titular character or dedicating love and care to Harry’s every line. These characters are created to be a space for male viewers to join the story, to live in it. To become the special one, the one who was important all along no matter what everyone else may have told you. X-Men’s special snowflake is and always has been Scott Summers.
Created in 1963 by Kirby and Lee, Scott was your typical all-American boy. Stan Lee often spoke of Scott as a man tortured by a lack of control over his powers, though focusing on Scott’s trauma over that of the other X-Men often made no sense. Scott is white, he is able-bodied, and his mutation didn’t observably alter him, meaning he could easily blend in and pretend to be a “normal” human. The decision to put the onus of drama on this specific character’s pain and journey throughout the books shows that the X-Men’s attempted civil rights analogy leaves a lot to be desired. Due to these choices, Scott has often felt like an unnecessary distraction from characters and plots that deserve more time and a bigger platform. A jock in a school of misfits who somehow always manages to center himself in whatever crisis occurs.
After the groundbreaking and critically acclaimed Dark Phoenix Saga in 1980, Uncanny X-Men was the biggest selling book in comics. Chris Claremont took this opportunity to have Scott leave the X-Men, and the next decade–over a hundred issues–spawned some of the most in-depth and creative of the X-tales. Finally, other mutants could take the forefront. Following closely on heels of the Dark Phoenix Saga, teenage mutant Kitty Pryde took on a leading role in the seminal Days Of Future Past. With Scott gone and only appearing as a secondary cast member in the present, Storm soon became the anchor, taking up the mantle that Xavier and Scott had taken on before her as she became the leader of the X-Men. Until Jim Lee’s X-Men #1 relaunch merged X-Factor with Claremont’s core cast, the X-Men stayed relatively Scott free and thrived for it.
So these books established that the X-Men could not only work but flourish without their tortured male protagonist. For years I was sure that this meant Scott was completely superfluous until I read two books that made me realise that Scott isn’t necessarily the problem; it’s the men who were writing him and continuing to center his barely thought out and inauthentic “trauma.” Discovering these runs made me wonder what Scott could add as part of an X-Team if he had always been a balanced member of the strong ensemble book that X-Men can and should be.
Grant Morrison’s New X-Men is a quiet hurricane of a book, a comic that moves you in every moment, from the smallest most purposeful space between words to Frank Quitely’s art (which is just as astounding on every reread) to the nuanced character work which formed a huge part of my changing perception of Scott. Morrison paints Scott as a flawed and broken man who embarks on a psychic affair with the telepathic Emma Frost. This representation of Scott as a human who happens to be a mutant was a revelation to me. It read like an impossible blend of classic action and art house movie, making me empathise with this man who for so long had either been unrealistically flawless or desperately self-indulgent in his pain.
Mike Carey has had more than one lauded X-Men run, but the one that helped me to see Scott as more than the cookie-cutter caricature he’d always seemed to be was Age of X. It’s an alt-universe story that imagines a post-apocalyptic world in which Xavier had never created the X-Men or founded his institute. After meeting our other wordly X-Men struggling to stay alive in this new reality, we come across Scott as we have never seen him before. In this reality he is Basilisk, a killing machine tortured and trapped by the villain Arcade on Alcatraz. His only role in life is to kill others like him, including his brother Havok. This is Stan Lee’s “man tortured by his power’s strength” on steroids. This is every worry that Scott ever had come to fruition. This is the side of Scott that I needed to see so I could finally begin to understand his fear of who he might have become if he ever did lose control of his powers.
These two comics enabled me to to finally see the potential that Scott has as a character and to begin to understand that within the X-verse he could truly have been a necessity this entire time. This is not to take away from all of my listed problems. See, Scott is a character who when used correctly and written well becomes a vital part of the team, an everyman who is equally as lost as any of us could find ourselves in his situation. The problem is the focus that was put upon him. Is Scott a good second or third tier character? Yes. One who can enter a situation and be the “straight man” to our ragtag group of diverse mutants? He can be. The problem is that for so long he was cast as the protagonist and emotional center in a story that was meant to represent systematic oppression, the focus of a group with far more worthy and interesting characters. So now my query is not whether Scott is a worthwhile member of the team; it’s how creators utilize him to enable the advancement of other characters whose stories are far more important and necessary to tell.