Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The value of X people.

I had a conversation about the X-Men this evening that reminded me that I haven't posted anything here since February. They're probably the most popular super team franchise ever and they have a movie out right now, a movie that I haven't seen yet, so few spoilers, please, so they seem as good a place to start as any.The X-Men are mutants sworn to protect a world that blah blah blah-blah, you all know it by now. Let it be clear. I love the X-Men. Despite some of the things I will say throughout the rest of the post, the X-Men remain one of my favorite ideas to come out of superhero comics. Still I have some issues with the X-Men franchise itself, as well as some of the ways it's been presented and perceived over the years.

One of my main problems with the comics is the way that mutants, as a metaphor, have been used. You know the whole thing where mutants represent racial, sexual, social minorities? Despite its popularity with fans, and in the face of many of the series' best known writers overt use of this metaphor, I don't buy it. If this metaphor has given you succor in your own struggles with feeling different, as I know it has for many, I don't mean to sell short your interpretation of the X-Men, but I have some trouble getting behind it for a few reasons. The primary reason is that fear of various social minorities in real life is irrational, fear of mutants in the Marvel Universe is actually kind of rational. A gay person can't blow my house down just by looking at it; a black person can't walk around inside my mind to learn any personal secrets I might have; a Jewish person can't grow footlong claws, making them an instant killing machine. (Except for Mossad agents, who I have been assured have all these and many more powers at their disposal.) I think it sells short both the X-Men's metaphorical potential and the very real problems faced by actual members of minority communities to equate mutants too explicitly with these specific issues.

My preferred take on the X-Men revolves around a different reason that non-powered humans might hate and fear mutants. Lots of other super powered beings exist in the Marvel Universe without evoking the kind of fear that mutants do. To me, the most interesting possible reason for this is that other powered people (Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, etc.) are flukes that only happen every once in awhile. Up until the 'Decimation' event following the 'House of M' storyline, new mutants could come from anywhere for almost no reason. Some don't necessarily like this, saying that a flaw in the X-Men concept is that Mutantness is a somewhat lazy way to get around coming up with an origin story. While I concede that that is probably part of the reason Stan Lee used the concept, I don't remember reading anywhere one way or the other, I also assert that whatever the authorial intent, the lack of origin for mutant powers actually works to the X-Men's thematic benefit. It works well with this idea that mutants can come from anywhere. The most compelling reason for the public to fear mutants is that they represent the new model person. Eventually the mutant population will overtake the 'normal' human population and that will be that for the human race, without a single violent act necessary on any mutant's part. Kurt Busiek chooses to focus on this aspect of mutant prejudice in the second part of his great "Marvels" series. Grant Morrison also positioned the X-Men and mutants in general as the people of tomorrow during his run on "New X-Men."

The motives of the most popular X-Men villains often imply that fear of the way the passage of time shapes and changes social/technological/familial/governmental dynamics is one of the themes at the heart of the X-Men concept. Did you ever notice that most X-Men villains are people/aliens/robots/etc. who are either afraid of what the future holds, and as a result want to control it completely (Sentinels, Magneto, various anti-mutant bigot folks) or can't let go of the past and wish to restore the old ways (Apocalypse, Juggernaut, the Hellfire Club)?
It's all a big game of "Who does the future belong to?"
In fact, the main way that the X-Men differ from many of their adversaries is that they are capable of overcoming their fear of an unknown future and resist being anchored by the circumstances of their pasts.

For me the X-Men work best, not when they explicitly represent a mainstream society's non-acceptance of the different, but when they represent the, not unrelated, fear felt when a society looks at the upcoming generation and can't recognize or reconcile that those people are going to be running society one day. That's why a school setting. That's why a focus on what the future will be like. X-Men is at it's best when it's about standing up to the forces that say that the next generation is incapable of owning the future because they are too different, too weird compared to what came before and showing those forces that they are wrong.What better use is there for unbreakable claws and irresistible vision than carving a clean path to the yet to come.

I'm thinking about writing up some of my thoughts on specific X-Men characters, heroes and villains in the style of Mindless Ones' Rogue's Reviews for Batman and Spider-Man villains. If there's a specific character you'd like to read my take on, don't hesitate to ask. (Cyclops, Wolverine, Jean Grey and the villains mentioned above are shoe-ins, so maybe some folks a little more obscure.)


  1. Interesting. I hadn't thought of the X-men like this. I'll be passing this along to a friend of mine.

    I would like to hear your thoughts of Wolverine. And, professor X.

  2. I'm thinking about doing Professor X first, then maybe Cyclops and Wolverine as a joint essay. It might be a little bit though, as there's other non X-folks stuff I want to write about.

  3. Just write a list and break it up with some other topics you'd like to take on. I always value your take on comics. What about an entry about iZombie?

  4. Oh, and my friend really liked this. This is the theme he's been trying to do for our X-men TV show fan-project. I thought X-men: Fear the Future would be a good name for it. Obvious, but cool.

  5. Enjoyed the article.
    I'm not sure I would call real life fears of minorities any less rational than what I see in the comics...being replaced by someone more evolved, or better in mutantland; cheaper, stronger, more numerous, or more educated in real life (e.g. workplace); being destroyed by an eye-beam mishap vs being destroyed by a terrorist attack. Maybe the "real" fears , in many cases boiling down to a question of survival, are quite rational. but the reactions to them, the blanket applications of ugliness to an entire ethnicity or behavioral minority, rarely are.