X-Men #1-19 by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, et al (1963-66), Part 1

In a profoundly reactionary society, even a gentle and sincere challenge to the status quo can be read as a significant marker of dissent. When that dissent is expressed in a medium and a form that has been purposefully emasculated so that it supposedly can’t do anything of the sort, the message becomes all the more potentially potent. At the heart of the first 19 issues of X-Men lies a moderate and yet — in the context of the day — challenging set of assumptions about how the America of the age functioned. The very idea of a small community of patriotic mutants hidden away for fear of the distrust and hatred their difference would inevitably inspire is a provocation of sorts in itself. How could the dominant ethos of the time, which expressed a belief in America as the most ethically developed culture of the age, incorporate such a suggestion originating from the cheap seats? No matter how often and successfully such ideas had been used in the fiction of preceding years, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were co-opting this quietly confrontational scenario to charge up a Comics Code Authority-approved super-hero book aimed at children. And for an audience of children to have found such ideas compelling, they would have needed to be able to at least imagine that a society that considered itself inclusive, just, and noble was also capable of being anything but.

That the cast of the X-Men was so profoundly WASP strangely accentuated the message that the Republic was not an inevitably godly and meritocratic endeavour. Instead, Lee and Kirby’s work suggested that America’s insistence upon obedience and conformity could even cause the children of its elite and professional classes to be perniciously defined as the Other. The X-Men’s backstory was only partially filled in at this point, but the reader had already been told that both Professor Xavier and Angel were from privileged backgrounds, while Beast’s father had been a nuclear engineer. None of the X-Men stood as obvious examples of America’s disenfranchised, and yet not only did Lee and Kirby depict the American people as often doubting and loathing them but the prejudice appeared to do nothing but intensify as the series progressed. Throughout this first period in the book’s history, the X-Men were never anything other than the most loyal and self-sacrificing of public servants. Grade A students, nation-serving fighters, respectful and concerned protectors of the common good. Even when Iceman and Beast were seen partaking of coffee in Greenwich’s beatnik-infested Coffee-A-Go-Go, they were clearly bemused if not actively cynical about the studied excess occurring around them. The X-Men always were junior members of the establishment, and feet-painting and improvised performance poetry were very much not their thing.

And yet, despite the fact that they’d come from such privileged positions, the X-Men were, it seemed, doomed to be outsiders simply because of an uncontrollable accident of birth. If even the elite can’t ensure that their children are cherished and valued when they grow up to be something other than the norm, then what hope is there for anyone else who isn’t able, or indeed willing, to fit in?

No matter how the X-Men expressed their love for the Republic in its most unconstructed form, and no matter how often they established their willingness to risk their necks for it, its citizens, media, police, and even members of its academic top-drawer regularly chose to believe the worse of them. The X-Men had first torn into action when Magneto had threatened a military site and attempted to destroy the nation’s missile development programme. It was a mission that, in the context of the day, should have permanently established them as secular saints. Even had the knowledge of it been restricted to the highest ranks of the military and their political bosses, we might expect that the X-Men would have been forever valued and protected by the nation. Similarly, the X-Men’s second adventure had seen them thwarting the Vanisher’s theft of America’s defence secrets, and seen them doing so in cooperation with the powers that be on the White House lawn. What could be more becoming of a loyal and true servant than that?

Yet these examples of secret, life-risking service hadn’t so convinced the State that it’d been motivated to speak out in defence of its mutant citizens when anthropologist Bolivar Trask’s demagoguery kicked off an anti-Homo Superior moral panic. In fact, the reader was shown not a single example of a supportive public word being expressed for America’s mutants throughout Lee and Kirby’s time on the strip. Whatever commitment to equal rights the Camelot regime of the Marvel Universe then held, its public pronouncements appear to have been depressingly familiar in their absence. As such, a cynic might point out that it seems to take the NYPD an incredibly long time to appear at the TV studio where Trask had introduced his mutant-hunting sentinels to the nation. It might be thought that a major operation would have been immediately launched, and yet several issues pass and nothing of substance at all has been organised.

Similarly, none of the four times in which the X-Men are attacked in the streets simply for being mutants seems to bring the slightest response from the police at all. Some citizens, we might begin to suspect, demand a level of protection and service that others don’t. Though it’s incredibly difficult to imagine that such a conclusion was ever Lee and Kirby’s intention, the blatantly unfair treatment of mutants throughout their run sets an enticing context for such an interpretation. X-Men was, in essence, a comic book that encouraged radical interpretations. As such, it certainly seems telling that the sympathy the X-Men later receive during the first Sentinels tale follows the general awareness that the robots threaten the wider society more than Xavier’s students do. Regardless of the praise offered by a single army official in the wake of Trask’s death and the Sentinel’s deactivation, the very suspicion that a mutant’s brawling with a teenager in the streets of New York just two issues later provokes a mob to gather. One fine act might win the X-Men a moment’s grace, it seems, and yet tomorrow, nothing substantial would have changed where anyone but a few converts to their cause are concerned.

To some Americans, this may all have seemed to be a notably unfair way of treating the X-Men and their fellow mutants. To others, it might just have appeared to reflect the everyday truth of their lives or the lives of individuals and communities that they were aware of. In this, the X-Men were part of the strain of Marvel super-heroes whose very existence challenged the idea of America as an entirely tolerant and compassionate society. The Fantastic Four had been labelled at first as outsiders and had all-too-often found themselves divided by the stresses caused by their metamorphoses. Despite his many achievements, Spider-Man was hated for his unconforming distinctiveness and persecuted by the media. The Hulk was, after his Frankensteinesque start, a perpetual victim despite Banner’s best intentions, forever persecuted for his own undeserved helplessness. There were, it seemed, blameless and well-intentioned citizens that America simply didn’t want to value or even attempt to understand, as they might less challenging, more orthodox civilians. Set against that developing tradition were the first incarnations of the likes of Thor, Iron Man, the Wasp, Captain America, and Giant Man, who’d been accepted and admired by society from the off. If there was little logic in why the Avengers were so adored when their peers were so often not, then there might just be little immediate sense either to a child wondering why this strata or that in their own experience should be loved or loathed.

Lee and Kirby’s collaboration on X-Men suggested that there really were good people who wouldn’t ever be valued for themselves. In doing so, they also implied, and sometimes stated, that parents couldn’t cope with the truth of what their children were really like, that schools weren’t up to the task of nurturing the dissimilar, that the citizenry were quick to surrender to the mob’s mentality, that the police couldn’t be relied upon to support the innocent, and that the State itself had little interest, if any at all, in looking after its own. At times, during the conspicuously anti-McCarthy conclusion of X-Men #16, these points were established with considerable, if untypical, force. (The second part of this piece – published here a week from today — will discuss the Sentinels Trilogy, amongst other aspects of the run, and its clearly principled, forceful message.) Less than a decade before, the comics industry had been gutted of its capacity to carry anything more than the slightest trace of a challenge to authority in the wake of Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency.  Now, in perhaps the most radical of all of Marvel’s first-wave super-books, a mixture of an utterly committed love for America in Lee and Kirby’s work had been combined with a powerful suggestion that the home of the brave and the free was anything but for at least some of its people. At a time where some of Marvel’s comics were strikingly conservative, and where the politics of Iron Man, for example, could be characterized by Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs as “vicious jingoism,” the X-Men pursued a conspicuously questioning, if never strident and doctrinaire, agenda. Not an ideal way of presenting such highly-charged political truths by the standards of later ages, perhaps, but an ingenious and principled one all the same.

Despite their ranks containing not a single example of a socially disadvantaged group beyond the lone female berth occupied by the distinctly middle-class Jean Grey, Lee and Kirby’s X-Men worked to express a dissatisfaction with the status quo that could broadly express the interests of the excluded. In the absence of a single obvious marker of a progressive polemic, and with the most apparently conventional cast, the comic worked, if its readers were open to the suggestion as a sentimental critique wrapped up in the tropes of the super-hero comic. Why, the comic kept demanding, aren’t we being good to everyone? To express a wish that the X-Men’s ranks might have contained a far more challenging collection of social representations would be to ignore both the all-too-real restraints of the time and the virtues offered by the idiosyncratic way in which the book seemed to support the status quo while also querying its values. In the context of 1963-66, X-Men was grappling with fundamental issues in a strange and engaging form.

As such, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the ranks of the X-Men’s enemies often contained representations of groups that were commonly regarded as being both potentially unruly and untrustworthy. The X-Men’s foes, it often seemed, hailed from the same periphery-of-society types that have ever peopled the ranks of the villains of pulp fiction. There was the Blob, an obscenely obese thug associated with a traveling circus, and Unus, a quite literally slippery and corrupt wrestler. Both were proletarian hucksters motivated by nothing other than greed. Indeed, none of the X-Men’s opponents were given a credible reason to be challenging America’s interests and laws. The Vanisher was a traitorous crook with a court composed of New York City’s petty thieves, Magneto a vicious psychopath seeking the maximum advantage for himself while traveling under the flag of mutant rights. If Lee and Kirby were seeking to suggest that America could and should be considerably more tolerant of difference, they were also never obviously keen to be seen suggesting that the nation itself needed revolutionary reform.

If America did need change, then Lee and Kirby’s X-Men run appeared to argue that all that would be needed was for the nation to live up to its own ideals. America didn’t need to be more like anywhere else, which would’ve been a frankly heretical and combustible ideal, but it did need to be more like America. And so, as soon as Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch saw through the manipulative Magneto and accepted the world-view of the X-Men, their status within the book immediately changed — regardless of their many crimes — to that of heroic American super-heroes. To be American was, it seemed, nothing more or less a reflection of being a good citizen. Even Bolivar Trask, who’d effectively enabled a robotic coup against the State, ended up as something of a hero as well as rather unfortunately dead, since he’d learned to accept that “all men should be regarded as equal,” their wings and eye-beams and very big feet not-withstanding. The standard for what was and what wasn’t acceptable, as argued in X-Men, was always to remain a largely conventional matter, with the area of contention being the degree to which the State’s respect and protection was owed to all, rather than just some of, its members.

To be continued.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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