Hi, all. This is the Shack House’s first column. Every Thursday, you’re going to get an op-ed of my thoughts on movies, television shows, comics and even music. This being my first shot out of the gate, let’s tackle comic books.
I’ve been reading and collecting comic books since I was 9 years old. Growing up, as far as major publishers went, we readers had only two choices back then: DC Comics or Marvel Comics. This was the early 1990s when DC actually held a tight reign over the big screen superhero flicks (albeit, with only Batman, while Marvel had next to nothing). As far as comic book sales went, Marvel left DC in the dust. Marvel titles from 1991, such as X-Force and X-Men validated that notion with record breaking sales (the inaugural issue of the latter title remains the best-selling comic book to this day).
At that age, I fell in love with X-Men. The characters, for the most part, were mutants, meaning they’re humans born with genes that give them superhuman abilities (unlike Spider-Man or the Hulk who gained their powers through scientific accidents). The costumes, superpowers, trading card collections and the animated series that aired on FOX are what did it for me. I developed a hunger to learn everything I could about this comic book series, so much so that my peers were quick to either deride me as “obsessed with X-Men” or laud me as the “X-Men dictionary”. From adolescence to adulthood, my understanding of X-Men as an allegory for prejudice grew exponentially. For years, the book was not just a superhero soap opera, but also a commentary on race relations, religion, outcasts, and sexual orientation (fairly recently). That focus is part and parcel the reason for the sales, critical acclaim, and its appeal to folks like me. But in recent times, the title focuses less and less on the fact that mutants are a persecuted minority.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were two men who grew up in impoverished Jewish neighborhoods in New York City. They started X-Men in 1963, at a time when the Civil Rights Movement was moving full-throttle. On the surface, the book was another superhero series. Looking closer, it was a sign of the times. Although Stan Lee has stated that the reason that he created ‘mutants’ was to forego an origin story, he also stated mutants would be misunderstood which is why the first five X-Men were teens. He said that no one feels more misunderstood than a teen. Later writers would expound upon those themes, especially in the 1980s when scribe Chris Claremont wrote the book. During his 16-year tenure as the sole writer, he added new mutant characters with human elements to them, along with bringing the Civil Rights angle to the book’s forefront. Claremont’s influence became embedded in future X-Men writers like Scott Lobdell, Fabian Nicieza, Grant Morrison, Joss Whedon and even an established scribe like Peter David. And while the focus on X-Men and its spinoff books are less concerned with fear of the ‘mutant menace,’ a brief overview of pertinent X-Men storylines can help us understand how we arrived to its present:
X-Men: Days of Future Past
(Occurred in Uncanny X-Men #141-142, Jan-Feb. 1981)
This was one of those ‘change our future by changing the past stories. Written in 1981, it takes place in a possible future in 2013. A U.S. Senator is killed by mutants, subsequently all mutants get blamed. In retaliation, the government calls for an army of Sentinels (experimental robots programmed to hunt mutants). The robots eventually establish martial law and take control of the United States. They kill every mutant they can find and herd the survivors into concentration camps. The dystopian aspect of this story contains Orwellian elements, with the Sentinels and their camps serving as references to the Holocaust and Hitler’s gestapo police. This two-issue storyline was significant as it displayed the inevitable conclusion of humanity’s fear and misunderstanding of the mutant population.
X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills
(Occurred in Marvel Graphic Novel #5, Nov. 1982)
This standalone storyline resulted in the X-Men teaming up with their arch-nemesis (and sometimes ally) Magneto to fight against a militant mutant-hater whose public persona is that of an evangelist. Reverend William Stryker leads a world-renowned evangelical organization that serves as a front for his group of murderous religious zealots. Stryker uses his Christian faith to justify his hatred for mutants. Claremont humanized Stryker as a character, but didn’t make him a sympathetic figure. In Stryker, the institution of religion was incorporated into the theme of mutant persecution.
(Occurred in New Mutants #45, Nov. 1986)
A single issue in which a character is used as a plot device sounds cheap, but the end result encapsulated the themes of bullying and labeling within the X-Universe. Larry Bodine, a teenage mutant with the power to create solid light sculptures, lives in fear of being outed as a mutant. His schoolmates continuously prank call him with threatening knowledge of his secret (in reality, they have no idea that Larry’s a mutant. They were just idiot teens having fun) that eventually leads to his suicide. His brief association with the X-Man Kitty Pryde (and the New Mutants, the X-Men’s junior team) bore a eulogy that I think should’ve received more attention for its honest message.
(Occurred in Uncanny X-Men #210-213, Oct. 1986 – Jan. 1987)
A group of mutant assassins known as the Marauders systematically decimate an NYC community of underground fellow mutants called the Morlocks. While the reasons behind the massacre were not initially presented, several retcons later established that the massacre of the Morlocks was the result of them potentially polluting the mutant gene pool due to genetic alterations (alterations brought about by unauthorized usage of genetic techniques originally conceived by the Marauders boss, Mr. Sinister). Looking back on this storyline now, one can construe the killings as analogous to Black-on-Black crime or even the Rwanda genocide.
(First appeared in Uncanny X-Men #235, Oct. 1988)
Off the coast of East Africa is an island called Genosha. Known as a green and pleasant land, Genosha was free from racial strife and bore an economy that was the envy of the world. Unknown to the rest of the world, Genosha’s economic prosperity was built on the backs of its mutant population. Their government placed it’s latent and active mutant citizens through a complex process that rendered them docile and servile, using their powers as slaves for the government. Clearly an allegory for South African Apartheid and slavery, Genosha was revisited by various writers over the years until scribe Grant Morrison did the unthinkable and had the robotic Sentinels destroy the entire island, which at the time boasted the largest mutant population in the world.
(Ran from 1993 to 2001)
At a time when the notion of homosexual Caucasian males being the sole carriers of the AIDS virus was gradually being dispelled, the idea of a virus that affected only the mutant population didn’t seem out of place. Introduced into the mutant population by the crazed mutant terrorist known as Stryfe, the airborne Legacy Virus infected only mutants at first: Giving them extreme flu-like symptoms, painful lesions, and augmented their powers uncontrollably until finally death. Close to a decade after its introduction, it had mutated to infect humans and was finally cured in Uncanny X-Men #390. While the tally of victims of this disease almost came together as something of a mutant variation of the AIDS quilt, those deaths were rendered meaningless when Editor-In-Chiefs within Marvel allowed liberal use of the concept of resurrection.
(Occurred in X-Factor #77-78, Apr.-May 1992)
The Tucker Research Clinic provided tests for women to determine whether their unborn children are likely to become mutants. The man who created the clinic, Dr. Tucker, was close to furthering the process to completely halt mutations in-utero. A terrorist organization, the Mutant Liberation Front, came to destroy the clinic and the doctor. While they succeeded in the latter, the mutant super-team X-Factor drove them off and one member destroyed the research herself. It was also intimated that Dr. Tucker may have been the father of one of the members of the mutant terrorist group. Written by Peter David, this two-part storyline opened this reader up to the idea that prejudice can be applied even to fetuses.
(Various issues throughout the 1980’s)
When Chris Claremont wrote Uncanny X-Men and the spinoff titles in the 1980s, I noticed that he tended to create superheroine characters that could hold their own without being reduced to the damsel-in-distress archetype. Apart from the fact that the women were able to engage in physical combat as good as their male counterparts, they were also more powerful and more versatile in the usage of their powers than the men. In X-Men, you have heroines like Rogue (who can fly, is super-strong, nigh indestructible and can suck the life out of you with a kiss); Dazzler (who turns sound into different forms of light, including lasers and solid holograms) and Storm (who can control the weather). The gender difference culminated in Uncanny X-Men #201, in which Cyclops battled a powerless Storm one-on-one in a Danger Room sequence to determine which one of them would lead the X-Men and who would have to take a hike. Claremont made it believable in the way Storm beat Scott Summers without having had any powers at time. Of course, Claremont was forced to retcon this storyline some 40 issues later, but let’s just take that event for what it was, eh?
In recent times, the X-Men have taken residence in San Francisco which is supposedly the epicenter of homosexual culture in America. Prior to that, writers like Joss Whedon and Grant Morrison introduced new spins on mutant-human relations. With Morrison, he turned Magneto into a Che Guevara-type (complete with a t-shirt) and introduced a designer drug called “Kick” (which gave mutant-wannabe humans mutant powers temporarily). Whedon created a story in which a chemical formula is designed to reverse genetic mutations. More than that, he explored the moral implications of choosing whether or not to remain a mutant. Now, the message seems to have gotten lost. Mutants seem to have gained more acceptance from humanity since the X-Men moved to San Francisco and writers have attempted to downplay that aspect of the book by engaging the characters in company-wide crossovers the have no ultimate payoff for readers (Avengers vs. X-Men, anyone?). Also, the aforementioned acceptance and relocation has led to some homosexual readers to believe that the X-Men characters are an allegory for solely homosexuality. With the social flash-flood in recent years over gay rights, it’s become somewhat trendy to positively weigh in on this issue. I understand why some would view X-Men as such. But, applying it to just one persecuted minority completely overlooks the message of the book itself. And without that fear of the misunderstood (which could be anyone), the franchise becomes just another superhero book. Which it is.
All images courtesy of the Marvel Entertainment Group.