Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Underrated/Overlooked: Brian K. Vaughan's Cyclops

As a kid, like everybody my age, I was a fan of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In fitting with my sarcastic, wiseass nature, Raphael was my favorite turtle. On the other end of the spectrum, I hated Leonardo. I went through my biggest anti-authority stage not as a teenager, but around when I was like nine for some reason, which coincided with the height of my TMNT fandom. I couldn't stand straight arrow leader Leo who was always trying to keep the others operating by-the-book and suck up to Splinter. What a dork.

By the time I got into reading comics hardcore, I was more of an honest citizen myself, but I still found Cyclops, the ostensible Leonardo of the X-Men, to be extremely irritating. I could see that there were some inherent things like a unique power and dynamic look that made Cyclops appealing to people like Kiel Phegley, and I knew he had some longevity so obviously there had to have been some quality stories in his past (I would read them years later), but all I saw was the nebbish from the X-Men cartoon who whined to Professor X and got punched in the gut by Wolverine a lot.

Over the course of the past ten years or so, Cyclops has received a lot of character rehabilitation. Unlike some other X-Men, he did not receive that treatment in the "X-Men" movie, as despite being played by the excellent James Marsden, he was once again for the most part just the designated punching bag that made Hugh Jackman's Wolverine look like even more of a badass. But around the same time over in comic book land, Grant Morrison made a concerted effort to provide Scott Summers with a more layers and tap into the same appeal Chris Claremont had hit upon decades earlier.

Still didn't do much for me.

However, in 2001, I decided on a whim to pick up the first issue of a Cyclops limited series written by an unknown named Brian K. Vaughan. My motivation was part because I was getting back into comics and had a voracious appetite for just about anything, part because the art was provided by one of my old favorites, Mark Texeira, and part just because I was curious about what a solo story starring Cyclops would be about given that I didn't see much depth to the character.

That four-part story, entitled "The Odyssey," remains to me the single best take on Scott Summers ever and in my opinion should be mandatory reading for anybody looking to write quality Cyclops stories. Given BKV's rise in popularity and acclaim as well as Cyclops' increased coolness factor of late, I'm disappointed this gem isn't held in higher regard, but I hope even one or two folks who read this will try and track it down.

The plot here isn't overly complicated or revolutionary; on the contrary it's kinda cliched: Cyclops tries to go on vacation and ends up being ambushed by a mysterious new enemy named Ulysses (the parallels to Homer's "Odyssey" are many and obvious, but they are well-used and fun). BKV isn't trying to reinvent the wheel in terms of story, but instead focuses on bringing forward the qualities he sees as Cyclops' strong suits. He places the X-Men's leader in a variety of situations that allow him to show off his smarts and resilience. Vaughan goes out of his way to create obstacles for Cyke that require more than an optic blast to overcome.

Up against hired guns Juggernaut and Black Tom Cassidy, Cyclops doesn't try to prove his bravado like some other heroes might by going after the bigger target, instead he sets ego aside and jeopardizes Tom, the weaker link, in order to gain an edge. When he fights Ulysses, who has the ability to become invisible, in the Savage Land, he runs in front of a T-Rex so the dinosaur can pick up his opponent's scent and lead him him straigt to his foe. In the final showdown with Ulysses' ruby quartz armor-coated goons (and how cool an idea is that?), Cyclops again utilizes his environment and surroundings when his powers aren't available.

Vaughan's Cyclops doesn't whine, he's not insecure and he's not looking to impress anybody. He uses the skills and strategies he has accumulated over years of leading the X-Men and employs them with a calm and collected cool, quoting Sun Tzu while he dispatches his opponents. He's detatched and suave as he executes his plans, coming off like a super-powered James Bond without the charisma. However, BKV makes that lack of charisma work for him as it distances Cyclops for the typical archetype, making him intriguing.

Mark Texeira was a superb choice to illustrate this series as his style is not one I think of when I picture Cyclops, so it helped to shatter any preconceived notions right off the bat. Whereas the stereotype of Scott Summers is squeaky clean to the point of being almost sterile, Tex's art is rough-edged and sexy, which is exactly what was needed here.

Guys like Morrison, Joss Whedon, Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction have all borrowed, knowingly or not, from BKV's take on Cyclops. Today, he's a much cooler character and has built up quite a respectable fanbase that I consider myself among. If you want to see where it all started, X-Men Icons: Cyclops is not an easy trade to find, but it's worth the odyssey.


Jesse T. said...

Thanks for the reminder on this series, Ben ... I never read it but remember copies floating around during my first few weeks at Wizard back in early 2002. I think I was turned off by the Tex art, which I've never been a fan of. Then again, I haven't really looked at his stuff since his Ghost Rider days, so I'm sure he deserves another shot.
You may be familiar with these already, but I highly recommend Vaughan's Chamber mini-series (also under the "X-Men Icons" banner) and his X2: Wolverine one-shot (it was a movie prequel kinda thing). Great stuff, and I don't even particularly like Wolverine or Chamber.

Ben Morse said...

I have long wanted to read the Chamber LS, regarding it as a bit of a companion piece to the Cyclops one, but have never been able to track it down. I will redouble my efforts!

Jesse T. said...

I'll loan you my copies, if you'd like ... you can mail 'em back with my copy of "Body Slam," hahaha...

KP said...

Those Icons series were all pretty well regarded from what I recall. Wasn't there an Iceman one that was done by a manga artist?

Ben Morse said...

Jesse-You'll get Body Slam when I get my Ultimate Warrior DVD, sir! (Also, yes, I would like to borrow Chamber from you)

Kiel-Iceman was written by none other than Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning and the art was actually by Karl Kerschl (Steve Uy did the covers, so that may be where you're getting manga from). Interestingly, despite it being a series by three creators I dig about a character I love, I did not enjoy it.

But yes, the X-Men Icons books were, from what I remember, on the whole pretty good.

Jesse T. said...

Ben, I'm 99 percent sure I mailed your Ultimate Warrior DVD back, like, two years ago. Seriously! I think it was sent in box full of stuff for Rickey to the Wizard address. If it ain't on our shelf, please let me know.
And to keep this conversation X-Men related ... uh, that Mekanix mini-series was terrible.

Ben Morse said...

Oh man, if Rickey lost that DVD...picture every promo the Ultimate Warrior has ever given being perpetrated on him.

It sha'nt be pretty.