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Remembering Professor Charles Xavier, The Man Behind the X

Cyclops, possessed by the Phoenix Force, killed Professor Charles Xavier last month in Avengers vs. X-Men #11, possibly one of comics’ most significant deaths. The amazingly popular X-Men starred in 1991’s X-Men #1, the best-selling comic book of all time, and several movies and animated series since. Their founder’s demise will yield consequences, not just for the characters, but for countless fans as well.

Professor Xavier put the “X” in “X-Men,” and the tone and spirit of that team’s stories will be changed irrevocably without him.

His death signals the end of the X-Men’s halcyon days, which hooked many of us on the characters to begin with. Those were the days when, no matter what happened to our mutant heroes, they wound up back at the mansion (or somewhere), safe at home as one happy dysfunctional family. You felt good knowing that the X-Men, at their core, weren’t just about surviving oppression; they were about the union that comes from surviving together, and a strident undercurrent of community shined through. They fought for a world that hated and feared them, and we bonded with them the way they bonded with each other.

The Professor’s death represents a tonal shift in the X-Men’s purpose away from that period, and from stories that thrilled many of us when we were younger and more idealistic.

Murder rarely lasts in comics, so it’s possible he’ll return in spite of Marvel’s statements to the contrary. He’s died and returned before, and hell, he’s a telepath. Who’s to say his mind isn’t floating around in someone else’s body or as some kind of psychic ghost? (Besides, if there’s any power set that lends itself to survival after the physical body’s gone, it’s the mental one.)

But if Marvel makes this one last, the X-Men are in for an attitude adjustment that will change their identity, and it will be an interesting requiem for a man whose singular vision empowered one of the most creatively successful teams in superhero history.

Living in a Fatherless World

Sure, the Professor vanished before over the years, but never completely. His previous deaths weren’t permanent, and if he was away with Shi’ar or something, you knew he’d be back. But if this recent death is the real deal, the X-Men really are on their own, and reality is bittersweet. The Professor was like your parents: No matter how old or independent you grow, they’re always around, even if you don’t need them anymore or live in their house. It’s only when they die that you are truly alone, even if they supported you and taught you how to live without them. You’re strong enough to go on, but you’re not too strong for the sadness.

That made Professor Xavier different from other team leaders and mentors, and that’s why he resonated so uniquely with readers. The Avengers, Justice League, and Teen Titans have leaders, but those people aren’t members’ parents too. Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Black Widow respect Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man, but those men didn’t raise them. Green Arrow, Hawkman, and Booster Gold weren’t maligned, insecure teenagers whom Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman took in. And Robin, who’s often in the same age group as his fellow Titans, is like a brother or team captain to them, not a father.

Consequently Charles Xavier, with his expansive estate full of young people who had nowhere else to go and few grown-ups fit to handle them, embodied something special. If it’s true that people live vicariously through stories they read or watch, then X-Men tales made the audience want to live, learn, and be loved in an environment where others struggled the way they did. Readers felt safe under the stewardship of a benevolent professor who wanted what was best for them.

The Saint Who’s Sinned… Quite Often

The Professor had his good points, but he wasn’t without fault.

In fact, his transgressions are serious, depending on your sensibilities:

  • It was revealed in 1960s stories that he was in love with his student Jean Grey, even though she was a teenager when he was in his 40s or 50s at the time (this plot thread was largely ignored over the years, and it may have been retconned away or forgotten about);
  • His professional missteps continued. When he was younger, he had an unethical sexual relationship with his patient Gabrielle Haller;
  • He’s often seemed less interested in the care and well-being of their son David Haller, aka Legion, than he’s been with that of the X-Men, none of whom are his flesh and blood; and
  • He’s warped minds and memories repeatedly without consent, including forcing the X-Men to forget about the deaths and disappearances of teammates at the hands of Krakoa the living island, revealed in the Deadly Genesis stories of 2005 and 2006.

But the big question is, do these transgressions tarnish his legacy as a force for good?

It’s hard to say. That whole I-love-Jean thing is kinda skeevy, but most writers pretend it never happened (thank goodness), so it’s debatable these days if it’s Marvel Universe canon. And memory wiping the X-Men to make them forget that Krakoa killed some of them? TOTAL retcon to create drama, even though it was arguably out-of-character and made poor Charles look bad in the process. You can give him a pass for that if you’re forgiving, because what really happened was, Marvel sacrificed his integrity to sell books (which no serialized character is immune to, no matter how revered). It’s mainly the Gabrielle Haller / Legion stuff that sticks like a thorn in the Professor’s semi-pristine side, and it’s a pretty big thorn.

You can probably think of other dastardly deeds to pin on him, but, like most parents who disappoint their children, that doesn’t mean he didn’t give others love and security. The Professor nurtured several superheroes in a way no other mainstream Marvel or DC character has in such a large number.

The Future of the X

The Professor’s death signals the end of the X-Men’s golden era, at least when it comes to their mission statement. He preached tolerance and advocated for unity between the oppressors and the oppressed, and that wish defined the X-Men for decades.

But it’s a legacy the X-Men may have abandoned years ago. The character hadn’t occupied the spiritual leader role since 2007, circa Messiah Complex, and his perspective on the X-Men’s place in the world had possibly grown obsolete. For the better part of 10 years, the team hasn’t been written as superheroes protecting a world that hates and fears them; it’s been written as a small country of victims fighting against a world trying to wipe them out.

 

 

It’s no coincidence that Marvel ushered the Professor out of the picture right around the time when the X-Men started camping out on an island nation thousands of miles, both literally and figuratively, from the stately mansion they occupied previously. Cyclops took the mutant leader role, and then he fought Wolverine for it, and Marvel conveniently wrote the Professor out of the action the whole time. He returned from storyline limbo to be killed off in Avengers vs. X-Men so the “kids” could captain the ship through turbulent waters without him.

Consequently, thousands — perhaps millions — of fans may regard his death with a collective “meh.” The Professor’s role in the Marvel Universe was to help young mutants develop into adults, so if many them are now grown, who needs him? In fictional storytelling, when a character’s not needed anymore, that usually means death, so who cares, right?

Several will, starting with the X-Men themselves. Marvel bigwig Axel Alonso himself told Newsarama that the Professor’s passing will have “a ripple effect across the Marvel Universe,” and the ripples will undoubtedly shake his students the strongest. His absence will evoke powerful emotions from the X-Men, driving story for years to come.

But for the readers, his death won’t just give us interesting X-Men tales to read; it’ll prompt us to remember a part of our own lives more fondly. When we were younger, and the world was simpler, it was wonderful to read lovely tales of outcasts who were metaphors for those of us who felt different from everyone around us. We wanted to be those boys and girls with special powers, great adventures, and who earned respect at a school we wish we had… and it all started with a telepath named Charles Xavier.

So here’s to Professor X, comics’ most prolific father. You’ll be missed if you’re truly gone, and may your unconditional love guide the X-Men for the rest of their lives, no matter what they face, just like it comforted us no matter what we faced in ours.

About the author

Hilton Collins

Loves all things science fiction and fantasy, and if he had to choose between video games, comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. Check out his blog at www.superheroesareawesome.com. Twitter: @HiltonCollins

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