The Under-Canny Scott Lobdell

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January 1, 2014 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

For those of us who read X-Men, we know that Chris Claremont is the gold standard for which we judge every other writer who has come after him (including himself on his many subsequent returns).  We also know that no one will ever take the mantle of “Best X-Men writer” away from him due to his long tenure as writer and the sheer depth of his characterizations and plotting abilities.  Besides a few shining examples such as Grant Morrison’s New X-Men and Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, no writer has come close to either the longevity or the magnitude of Claremont’s initial 16 year run.  After Claremont stepped down in 1991, Scott Lobdell, a relative unknown at the time, had the unenviable task of trying to follow up on Claremont’s unprecedented run.

Reviews for Lobdells’s run on Uncanny X-Men have been evenly mixed between people who think that he was a worthy successor to Claremont, to those who think that Lobdell singlehandedly ruined the franchise.[1]  The truth, as with most things, lies in the middle.  Scott Lobdell was a talented writer who understood the franchise and the characters, but he was the beneficiary of everything Claremont had done before him.  People were reading X-Men because of what Claremont had done, not because of what later writers were doing.  That’s why within two years of his departure X-Men sales began to plummet.[2]  While these facts are true, I think Lobdell is also forced to go down with the sinking ship that was the X-Men franchise in the mid-90s, a little more than he should have.  After all it was Bob Harras who ruined the X-Men.  Then he was promoted.  And then he ruined Marvel….they went bankrupt.

Before X-Men was crushed under its own superfluous girth, but after Lobdell had gotten his feel for the characters lays the golden era of Lobdell’s run.  While not on par with Chris Claremont’s golden era, this was the point in which Lobdell genuinely infused the franchise with a new sense of direction and purpose.  It was also during this period where he had his most creative independence as it was after the Image X-odus, and before Harras began acting like Napoleon Bonaparte around the X-offices.  Uncanny X-Men 297-310, remains the truest, and as a result best, block of Lobdell’s run.  It’s really the only time where readers get the feeling that he was doing what he actually wanted to do, free from editorial mandates and annual crossovers that currently pollute the franchise.

Every great run on ­an X-title is centered on a main character; this is the character that serves as the focal point of their run, even if they aren’t consistently the main character, they are the most important to their run as a whole.  For Claremont, the main character wasn’t Wolverine or Shadowcat; it was Storm.  Under his tenure Storm became the leader of the team, lost her powers, shepherded the team through their darkest time, was rendered into a child, turned into a slave, and then reformed the team after they had disbanded.  Grant Morrison’s main character was Cyclops, and Mike Carey’s main character was Rogue.  Joe Casey didn’t have a main character, and that’s why his run sucked.

Lobdell, for those 14 issues at least, did something that no writer had ever done before him, and that was to make Charles Xavier the main character of the title.  Within the span of those issues Xavier was temporarily healed of his paralysis only to fall again, bear witness to the mutant equivalent of the HIV virus kill one of his students, withstand the defection of Colossus, wiped Mangeto’s mind, and watch two X-Men get married, amongst many other things.  Before his run, we’d mostly seen Xavier as the benevolent teacher, the father figure.  After his run, later writers sought to humanize him by turning Xavier into a two-faced scumbag.  But for a brief, and refreshing respite, Xavier was shown as a man, a man who had made mistakes he felt he had to atone for, and as a man who felt he had to sacrifice his own desires for the greater good.  He made mistakes, yes, but he tried to become better from them.  He had very real desires and for the first time we got to see the weight that his self-suppression had on himself.

Unlike other writers, Lobdell lived and died by Professor Xavier.  Stories like “For What I’ve Done” (Uncanny 304) and “When the Tigers Come at Night” (Uncanny 309) demonstrate Lobdell’s mastery of the character by underscoring the obvious that went unnoticed for so long.  Issue 304 illustrates the cost of the dream of mutant/human integration onto someone else, while issuer 309 illuminates Xavier’s past to show the cost that his idealism and dreams have wrought on his own life.  Because of her involvement with the X-Men Illyana Rasputin was killed by the legacy virus, the first such student to die under Xavier’s tutelage, and because of his dedication to the betterment of society, he had to let Amelia Voght go, and with her his last chance at finding love.

Lobdell’s run was all about deconstructing Xavier after he had returned from space.  Instead of focusing on the role of activist or school teacher as had been done in the past, Lobdell chose to focus on Xavier as a flawed saint; someone who has made mistakes but tries desperately to rectify them.  When he took control of Amelia Voght’s mind to prevent her from leaving him, he immediately regretted that decision and allowed her to leave him, but more importantly he allowed her to hate him because he believed that he deserved that anger and hate.  When he shut down Magneto’s mind, it was as a final gamble, after he had exhausted all other options, as Magneto had just ripped Wolverine’s skeleton out.  He knew that for the sake of the world, he had to get blood on his hands, and so he was willing to damn himself to prevent Magneto from killing millions of more people.  Even the jealousy he felt for Jean Grey and Scott Summers was a feeling he knew to be selfish.  He wanted them to be happy, but languished when he realized that he’d never find that same happiness with anyone else.  All of his mistakes and all of his flaws he understood to be just that.  He never tried to justify himself or his actions when he knew they were wrong.  And unlike Magneto, it is this recognition of guilt that ultimately makes him morally better than Magneto.

From events such as brain washing his love, to destroying someone’s mind, to stealing from the government, Xavier understood that these were all terrible things to have done.  But he never tried to justify them, in fact he blamed himself incessantly for committing these acts.  That’s what made Lobdell’s take on Charles Xavier so fresh; he portrayed him as a flawed saint, someone who had made mistakes, and continues to do so, but at the same time tries with all his might to atone for them.  A hero isn’t someone who merely does good; a hero is someone who does good in spite of their own shortcomings and flaws.  For all the grievances people have with the latter half of Lodbell’s run, there was a time when he accomplished something special on the title, paramount of which was to show to readers that even though Xavier might be a hero or a saint, he is first and foremost a man.  What makes him a hero is the lengths he went to overcome his own limitations and flaws.  Besides Mike Carey, no writer has done this more tactfully or effectively than Scott Lobdell.

[1] Clearly these people have never heard of Bob Harras or Chuck Austen.

[2] According to Mark Waid, who had absolutely nothing to do with the franchise, by the time Claremont left the franchise Uncanny X-Men was outselling something like 3x the market average, two years later it was only outselling the market average by 1.5x.  Remember this was the early 90s where comics were selling hundreds of thousands of copies on a regular basis.


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