Every now and again, it happens. In a moment of unspeakable horror, a hero turns bad. Heroes watch in horror as the man they once knew as a friend and colleague betrays them, sometimes committing unspeakable atrocities.
And then you have the opposite: a moment when a villain begins a path of redemption, allying with the heroes they have so often fought. And this is what has just happened: as a consequence of ‘AXIS’, Victor Creed – the savage Sabretooth – has actually become an Avenger.
Done well, these are some of the most powerful stories a comic-book writer can pen. Today, I’m going to cast my eyes to a handful of examples, and ask a simple question: how do you write the about-turn well?
The first example of the betrayal is the one that stands throughout X-Men history. Chris Claremont had transformed Jean Grey into the near-all-powerful cosmic entity Phoenix, aiming to give the X-Men a ‘Thor level’ hero of their own. But then he began a subtle and prolonged arc in which Jean’s mind was meddled with and she began to succumb to insanity. Finally, breathtakingly, Jean was transformed into Dark Phoenix, and consumed a very star-system in her insatiable hunger.
Jean Grey, that most powerful and iconic of heroes, had been manipulated. Little by little, we had seen her character begin to break under the strain of Mastermind’s illusions. Sure, retcons have since been applied to this story – more retcons, perhaps, than in any other part of X-history – but imagine you were reading this for the first time. This was Jean Grey, one of the original five X-Men, beloved of Scott Summers, and she had consumed a star!
The question, of course, was where to go next. Claremont had planned for Jean to be stripped of her powers, but his boss Jim Shooter felt that wasn’t enough of a consequence for such a monumental act. Instead, Jean sacrificed herself to prevent the Dark Phoenix being unleashed once again.
This is one way to pull it off: step-by-step open the hero to manipulation, tempt them with the enormity of their own power, and then transform them. The story was made epic precisely because of the scale of Jean’s power, and the emotion was raw because of the decades of emotional connection readers had with her.
Now let me give you another example, this one from the 1990s: Colossus. For me, this was the equivalent of Jean – Jean’s fall was historical, a known element, whereas Colossus’ betrayal was shocking. I had always had a strong connection to Colossus, the man of nobility with a skin of osmium steel. And then, little by little, the tragedies began to mount, and their weight rested upon his shoulders.
Bad enough his brother Mikhail’s insanity led to his suicide; then, on a visit to Russia, Colossus’ parents too were slaughtered. But most horrific of all was the heart-wrenching death of Illyana Rasputin, a death of innocence that shattered Colossus’ hope. Magneto intruded in Illyana’s funeral, and as battle raged, Colossus made his choice. He could no longer believe in Xavier’s Dream – he could no longer hope – and so he lashed out, choosing to join the Acolytes.
These were true heroes, and they truly fell. Their actions, in different ways, defined their eras; one fell due to manipulation, the other due to the terrible pressure of heroism. But how do you write the reverse?
Well, you do it with equal care. There is one immortal example in X-Men canon, and her name is Emma Frost. Despite various attempts to airbrush her past, Emma Frost debuted as a true villain, an absolute nightmare for the X-Men – and one of the nastiest villains around. In a sense, she was the antithesis to Charles Xavier; the psionic who abused her power, who mentored young mutants in ways we’d really rather they didn’t learn. In Joss Whedon’s run, he memorably had Kitty declare to Emma that she learned what evil looked like early on – evil bore the face of Emma Frost.
And then, in the early 1990s, Emma’s Hellions were slaughtered and she was left in a coma. Awakening, she was badly shaken by the experience, and doubted the choices she had made in the past. In this fragile state, a helping hand from Banshee was gratefully received, and she soon wound up co-headmaster of the Massachusetts Academy, running the Generation X team. Morrison kind of forgot her character development through this period when he brought her into the X-Men fold, but the fact remained that she’d been operating on the side of the angels for some years.
As the years passed, of course, Emma became Cyclops’ partner, and one of the most significant players in the modern X-Men.
This is how you transition a character. You do it with care, you do it with elegance, and you do it in such a way as to make you believe they’re true to themselves. And this is why I couldn’t stand ‘AXIS’, incidentally, with its’ ‘magic spell’ inversion effect. And this is why Sabretooth becoming an Avenger seriously doesn’t work. We’ve tried redeeming Sabretooth before, when he was a prisoner of the X-Men in the ‘90s (he even played a key role in the formation of Generation X!). And back then, it worked. Because there was an arc, because there was characterisation, because there was progression and build-up. Whereas the current plot basically feels like a gimmick.
Whether you’re turning a good guy bad, or making a bad guy your newest hero, one thing is for sure: a magic spell just doesn’t cut it.