I’ve been threatening to devote a whole IN YOUR FACE JAM to the oft-maligned and nearly-forgotten X-Man Maggott for a while now, and I think I’ve finally come up with an actual Big Point inside of which to Trojan Horse his defense. The latest episode of a podcast I co-host, Matt & Brett Love Comics, was built around the question “if you could bring back a dead, missing, or misused character, who would it be?” Maggott was of course on my list, because I love to meet people’s expectations, but it made me realize a larger truth that I firmly believe.
Every character can be a great character.
There’s a belief in some corners of comic book fandom that there are actually bad characters, characters so poisonous that not even the most talented writer could make them work. People write off new books based solely on what fictional character is contained within, instead of the merit of the actual creative minds making the book happen. Sure, some characters are shakier than others; heck, some even have mutant powers that involve a sentient, insectoid digestive system. But when you think about it objectively, the people in charge of actually creating the stories matter way more than the characters themselves. They’re fictional characters that bend to the will of whoever guides them. The only thing that stands between a character and success is the limitations of the creator’s imagination.
Superman is a character that I have previously expressed a lack of enthusiasm for. I have been the exact kind of fan that I just kinda criticized. I’ve resisted reading Superman comics in the past just because I decided, rather arbitrarily, that he was boring. I thought the same thing about Captain America as a kid, until Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s political thriller and espionage-tinged take changed my mind. Why couldn’t the same thing happen with Superman? So what if my perceived notion of Superman didn’t thrill me? I owe it to myself to read good stories first, regardless of the characters involved.
“Superman: Birthright” and “Superman: Secret Identity” did a lot to change my mind. At some point while reading both of those miniseries, I formed my own opinion of who Superman is, one not clouded by my previous “too powerful/so boring” non-opinion. Superman’s the guy that does what’s right no matter what; he’s the guy that will save you because he can; he’s dependable, he’s unwavering, he’s a force for the greater good of all mankind over all else. I knew that before, but it didn’t click with me until I read stories by creators I love (Mark Waid, Stuart Immonen, etc.). Now when I watch “Man of Steel” trailers, part of me actually gets excited. I now have a version of Superman that I personally enjoy, and it’s one that I hope I can see on-screen. Just four months ago I wouldn’t have thought that possible.
Without even mentioning Maggott (which I promise, Maggott-heads, we’re getting there — also, that’s the worst name for a group of fans, ever), I can rattle off a bunch of characters that I would say were catapulted into importance and fan adoration because of the work of one creator. Was Emma Frost on anyone’s radar before Grant Morrison placed her at the forefront of “New X-Men”? Prior to that, she was the reformed-yet-edgy co-lead of “Generation X,” a comic that struggled to find its footing after losing creators Scott Lobdell and Chris Bachalo. Morrison took her, found what made her tick, and told stories that made her work in the biggest comic of the time. Emma Frost hasn’t left the Marvel Comics A-List since then. She just needed a writer to give her exposure.
Going a bit further back, Wolverine wasn’t exactly anyone’s favorite character when he first appeared. He was a throwaway Hulk villain who was adopted into the X-Men. He wore all yellow and had a bad attitude, a weird mask that was thankfully altered, and goofy looking claws. The letters pages from those mid-’70s issues of “Uncanny X-Men” are filled with cries from the readers to kill him off or kick him out. It really wasn’t until John Byrne, a fellow Canadian, hopped on the book that he got really fleshed out. Chris Claremont and Byrne believed in him and they made him work. Now he’s not just Wolverine, he’s Wolverine. He just needed creators to stick with him even when the fans wouldn’t.
Going back even further (yes, further away from Maggott; we’re coming back around soon, I promise), one of Marvel’s founding characters was an absolute mess. The Hulk, who debuted only after the Fantastic Four and Hank Pym, made absolutely no sense when he first appeared. He was unique, yeah, because he was a sci-fi monster thrown into superhero plots. But the creators behind him had no idea what to do with him. His changes first occurred at night and then were inexplicably triggered by gamma rays. The Hulk was treated as a separate character from Banner and spoke in complete sentences. The Hulk’s powers changed wildly between issues; he even flew for an issue. The Hulk was a mishmash of ideas thrown together without any thought applied to how they would work as a whole. Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four didn’t have this problem, but the Hulk did. Eventually, the character would get a firm set of rules established, like anger triggering his transformations, and writers like Peter David would use this setup to explore psychological issues that plague humankind. The Hulk just needed creators to establish rules with him.
For readers wondering what this build-up to Maggott is all about, let me explain Maggott. He was created by Scott Lobdell and Joe Madureira as part of a new grouping of X-Men that would join the team after 1997’s big “Operation: Zero Tolerance” event. Unfortunately, both Lobdell and Madureira left “Uncanny X-Men” pretty soon after Maggott’s debut, meaning that the character was already missing dedicated creators. This is why Maggott’s appearance as a blue-skinned and buff rogue in “Uncanny” #345 differed a lot from the wiry and not-blue Maggott that would join the team in “X-Men” #70. So, yep, just like the Hulk, he was also without rules.
Maggott’s powers are a little wonky, but writer Joe Kelly, who inherited the character, did a lot of heavy lifting to make them work. Maggott’s digestive system is actually two slug-like creatures (named Eeny and Meany) that exit his body through his stomach cavity and consume whatever’s in their path. Their consumption sends energy back to Maggott, giving him enhanced strength, musculature and stamina. Yes, it’s weird, but before you judge, remember that Alan Moore revealed that Swamp Thing grew weird sex potatoes on his body.
Kelly also gave him a distinct personality. Maggott was a cocky, suave smooth-talker who had absolutely no right to be one. He was Han Solo, if Han Solo was scrawny, had weird hair and a tummy full of mutant slugs. Other mutants would mask their gross power or physical inadequacies, staying hidden or quiet. Maggott did the opposite. He had bravado. When Juggernaut threatened to rampage through the X-Mansion five minutes after Maggott arrived, Maggott stuck up for the X-Men. He tried to fight Juggernaut with his little slugs! It didn’t work, of course, but he had courage.
In addition to that courage, he also possessed a deep sadness similar to the kind that provided Nightcrawler, Rogue and Wolfbsane with great material. Of course that sadness also became a burden on those aforementioned characters, and Kelly did a lot to rid Maggott of his needless mystery and moody inclinations. In his short run, Kelly cleared up Maggott’s forced history with Magneto and had him open up about his traumatic origin to Wolverine. Kelly wisely realized that the character didn’t need to wallow in self-pity; he made Maggott evolve and grow.
So Joe Kelly gave Maggott’s powers some rules and did dedicated work to make him a well-rounded character. But what Joe Kelly wanted to write turned out to be counter to what Marvel wanted. Marvel wanted high action, but Kelly wrote character-driven stories where the X-Men fought each other more than villains. Marvel wanted classic X-Men like Nightcrawler, Kitty Pryde and Colossus back in the mix; Joe Kelly had newbies Maggott, Marrow and Cecilia Reyes clashing with Cannonball and vets like Storm and Wolverine. Marvel wanted the X-Men to be as high-tech as their peers over in the Avengers, but Joe Kelly had the X-Men living in a bare bones X-Mansion that had been stripped of everything including its carpet and wallpaper. That run only lasted from “X-Men” #70-79. Everything weird and potentially memorable that Kelly was working towards, including making Maggott a viable character, was tossed aside in time for the X-Men’s big 35th anniversary event.
Maggott was shuffled over to “Generation X,” where writer Jay Faerber gave him a guest spot before sending him on his way. He showed up years later in “Weapon X,” only to be killed off in a mutant concentration camp storyline. He’s become a joke, which makes sense considering that a character as crazy as Maggott was an X-Man for ten months in the late ’90s. But what if the Hulk never got another shot at an ongoing after his first series was canceled after six issues? Wouldn’t he have become a weird anomaly in Marvel’s past? What was so special about pre-X-Men Wolverine? What if he never got that iconic Claremont and Frank Miller miniseries in the early ’80s?
I gave Superman a shot, resulting in me enjoying the character for the first time. I’ve learned that there’s no real reason to write off any character. Any character can work given the right setting and creative team. If an oddball character like Maggott can work just fine for one brief moment in time, then any character can.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).