I’ve mentioned here that I’m a bit of an X-Men fan. Well, this week, my namesake, Charles Xavier, the character who founded the X-Men, died. This was front page of the Guardian news, much like the recent stunts of killing Captain America, Ultimate Peter Parker, and the recent snog between Batman & Wonder Woman.
The reaction from the fandom was a massive shrug. Why is that? Well, old Charlie X has died multiple times. Hells, most people in comics have died, and the constant use of the trope has diminished the deaths of any characters, as illustrated here, by the wonderful Max Landis.
The recent crossover, “Fear Itself” claimed to be a classic crossover and turned out to be a lot of punching big monsters without most of the joy which that should bring. The themes were admirable. The ‘trinity’ of Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man and Thor, all lost things, people had their worst fears come true. Iron Man had to sacrifice his years of sobriety to access Odin’s workshop. Bucky Cap (the replacement while Steve Rogers Captain America was briefly dead) was killed, driving the real Captain to despair. Thor died, because people don’t know what to do with Thor half the time. The “Bucky Cap” came back from the dead the next month, apparently his death was part of some plot, but who cares? In the series Fear Itself, his death had meaning to Captain America and then when that short term usage was over, he could be brought back. Thor died to give us a sense of stakes, and was replaced for a couple of months by… someone. No one knew, no one cared, because of course Thor would return.
And that’s the sad thing, these days death is such an overused comic trope that the lasting effects are often boiled down to a handful of issues. Hawkman & Hawkgirl died in issue one of Blackest Night, only to be resurrected in issue seven. It’s becoming narrative shorthand for “ohhh shit, the stakes are really high now!” but without the boldness to bench part of a company’s marketable intellectual properties.
So what does this mean about the recent death of Professor X and the reaction to it? I thought we could look at previous uses of specifically HIS deaths, their ‘solutions’ and what it meant for the series, for the long game.
(UNCANNY) X-MEN #41 – DEATH BY… AHEM… “GROTESK” (1968)
Professor X died all the way back when there was one comic and a handful of characters. He and a villain called Grotesk were crushed under rubble and died.
This death didn’t last long, but it affected the group, making them break up and go their own ways. We got to see what they were like when they were bereft, without the school, trying to get by in a real world which we’d heard for 41 issues hated and feared them.
When that storyline was over, it was revealed that Changeling (Morph for X-Men Animated Series fans) had disguised himself as the Professor in part of a ploy against the Z’Nox. The drama didn’t last long, but given the pacing of stories back then, it still felt like it hit for long enough with the characters.
UNCANNY X-MEN #167 – DEATH BY BECOMING AN ALIEN QUEEN (1983)
One of the more tedious parts of my beloved X-Men is whenever they go into space. Barring the Dark Phoenix Saga, it can often get overblown and unnecessary. In this case, an Alien-inspired Chris Claremont wrote a story where the X-Men and the Shi’ar alien race met the Brood, who lay eggs in people, then they metamorphose into more Brood. They act all mind controlled first and then their bodies shift permanently. Everyone got taken over, Wolverine’s body expelled his egg, they got better, but when they reached Earth, Professor X had been taken over with a Brood Queen!
Professor X was killed and placed into a clone body made with Shi’ar technology. And it was pretty much as offhand as that sentence. Yeah. They just did that, then he went through space for years, leaving MAGNETO to look after his children. All because of his lizard/bird space princess girlfriend and newfound ability to walk. Be pleased this isn’t a “The Many Cripplings of Charles Xavier”.
X-MEN #41 – DEATH BY TIME PARADOX (1995)
This was an odd one. Back in the days before internet spoilers and the companies leaking news to the press to try and drum up sales, the Legion Quest was a total surprise.
Professor X is a badass pimp. He’s been in relationships with scientist/housemaid Moira MacTaggart, alien queen Lilandra Neramari, mutant terrorist Amelia Vought And holocaust survivor Gabrielle Haller. His son with the latter, David Charles Haller, aka Legion, is a multiple-personality sufferer with several psychic powers depending on which personality’s in the lead. He was in a coma for a while, woke up with only one personality and a plan. He would go back in time, kill Magneto and the world would be a lovely place. Brilliant.
Bishop, Psylocke, Cable and Storm went back in time to stop him, didn’t really help, and in the end Professor X saved his best friend at the cost of his life. As he never had the son who killed him, never founded the X-Men, never did anything after that point, time broke.
The Age of Apocalypse was a fantastic idea and showed the repercussions for a world without Charles Xavier. The dramatic beat was so good that it would be aped in House of M (2005) and in Age of X (2011). Apparently if Xavier died in the past, a lot of crazy things would have happened. Sadly this rarely happens with the present day ‘deaths’ of Xavier. After four months of every single X-title being set in an alternate present, they reverted back to normal. The repercussions are felt to this day, with Nate “X-Man” Gray, an evil Beast, a villain tactfully renamed from Holocaust to Nemesis, and Sugar Man, all as additions to the normal universe. Oh, and Blink, who went from scared girl who was fridged to kickass teleporter. And Morph, occasionally. And Sabretooth. And a recent ongoing comic. You get the drift. Marvel are still pretty chuffed about this one.
X-MEN #207 – DEATH BY TIME COP (2008)
Professor X had been a bit surplus to requirements around this time, with Cyclops far more in the leader role, but always acting as the surrogate son when Xavier was in the room. A lot of big event crossovers demand a blood sacrifice (Hawkeye in Avengers Disassembled, BuckyCap and Thor in Fear Itself, the New Warriors & Black Goliath in Civil War, Nightcrawler in Second Coming). It’s got to the point that Comics Alliance have often run the odds on who would die in a crossover.
Messiah Complex was about a mutant baby being born, even though mutants could no longer be created in the Marvel Universe. Good mutants, evil mutants and hate groups all wanted to get the child for their own reasons. The X-Men saved the day, but in seeing that the baby represented his potential future coming true, time cop Lucas Bishop (a mutant sent back in time to stop someone killing the X-Men) tried to kill the baby. It was a pretty sudden heel-turn and Professor Xavier ended up shot in the head instead. Cable abducted the baby and teleported to the future, Bishop chased after him, and the X-Men seemed to disband.
The X-Men took two months to get themselves back into full gear and move to San Francisco under Cyclops’ control. For Professor X, it was a week or two before he came back. He was saved from his near-death experience, but with his memories jumbled up so the remnants of Magneto’s Acolytes could control him. They failed and he went around the country in X-Men, (redubbed X-Men Legacy), putting right all the things he’d promised and never did. He helped Wolverine with his memories, cured Rogue’s touch problems, reconciled with Juggernaut (until he needed to go evil again).
Professor X was relevant in this title, but when the baton passed to Rogue, he became a background character who registered as slightly less interesting than Magneto, also a supporting cast member by this point. Cyclops was fully in charge and the Professor didn’t want to override that. When Cyclops and Wolverine fell out, Xavier sided with Wolverine and provided exactly the same level of input. Even his school was now “The Jean Grey School” instead of the “Xavier School”.
So those are his deaths, the times he’s been thought to be dead or actually dead (not being infected with a virus or on death’s door).
Still using Professor X, here is an example of how to take a character off the table, how to make them inactive, without damaging a company’s intellectual property and allowing you to bring it back without annoying everyone:
ONSLAUGHT: MARVEL UNIVERSE (1996) & OPERATION ZERO TOLERANCE (1997)
Onslaught was another great Professor X idea, and a simple one: make Professor Charles Francis Xavier evil. There were always elements of it: he trained children to be soldiers, he was in love with Jean Grey when she was a young teenager (you don’t believe me? Well look here), he had destroyed the mind of his enemy, he’d worked out protocols about how to murder any member of the X-Men if they went rogue. Professor X planned to MURDER the X-Men. That’s amazing and horrible. Batman did the same sort of thing years later, but he’s not a passive bald schoolteacher in a wheelchair.
Onslaught was, of course, stopped. The event comic sacrifice this time was ALL the Avengers and Fantastic Four (for a year). Professor X was jailed for his actions and locked in a telepathy-proof cell.
The X-Men had to adapt and learn to live not only without the Professor, but with the government keeping a much closer eye on them. His actions and absence had a massive effect on all the characters from the Marvel Universe. He was given the choice to return and didn’t, not until he felt he’d earned the right to. Marvel didn’t have to kill him, then bring him back.
None of this is including the time he wore leather and a headband as Morlock Professor X, nearly got killed by a techno-organic virus by a clone of a future version of Cyclops’ son (who is technically related to him by marriage, but I won’t get into that here), the time he was kidnapped and replaced with an evil robot, the time he was kidnapped by Norman Osborn and imitated by Mystique, or Bald Phoenix. Yes. BALD PHOENIX.
Or the time he fake died in the Ultimate Comics Universe and then real died, a bit later, too.
DEATH IS NOT THE ONLY ANSWER
Of all these Professor X deaths, the Age of Apocalypse one is the most lasting. It was a sacrifice for an ‘event comic’ much like Avengers VS X-Men and Messiah Complex, so it’s not that dying in an event comic makes the death hollow.
The most legitimate death was the X-Men #42 death at Grotesk’s hands, as the cast treated it like he had properly died. They went away, made new identities and spent several issues affected by it. Even Magneto was sad to see his enemy (and former friend) die.
The Brood death and Messiah Complex deaths are the most annoying. Nothing is accomplished, they are undone instantly and there are no repercussions. Death isn’t even a stake here, it’s a simple bullet point on the list of events, and it deadens us to the drama of an actual death.
The recent death of Professor Xavier needs to last for at least a few years. It needs to resonate with the Marvel Universe. Professor X has no place in the stories, as AVX #11 writer, Brian Michael Bendis has stated. I’m a firm believer of getting rid of a character if they have no more stories to tell. Professor X is in this boat. Jean Grey’s death became a resonant point for the characters, permanently changing them in ways which affected the multimedia concept of X-Men (Cyclops and Emma Frost were paired up in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in Wolverine & The X-Men and the X-Men anime). We’re all emotionally deadened to the death of Professor X as it’s happened, so we need to be proven wrong. I’ve shown here that comic deaths can work, even with eventual resurrections. Removing them without killing them can serve the same purposes. Killing them in one event only to bring them back the next month is really, really lazy.
As far as Professor Charles Francis Xavier goes, for now, we can just hope for the best, and sadly for him, that means him staying dead, preferably for at about a decade, until he becomes relevant again.