X-Men #1-19 by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, et al (1963-66), Part 2

In the wake of their first public appearance, the X-Men appear to have been briefly embraced by the American people. Having defeated Magneto’s attempt to seize the U.S. military base of “Cape Citadel”, Cyclops and Iceman subsequently found their hands being blokeishly shaken by construction workers, while Marvel Girl had to rescue the Angel from the attentions of a gaggle of breathless teeny-boppers. (XM#2) Yet the more the X-Men made their presence known on both the national and international stage, the worse their public standing became. Within just over a year of the team’s debut issue, the very sight of them on the streets of New York City would invariably inspire mobs to gather. Hank McCoy’s successful out-of-costume rescue of a young watertower-climbing boy in X-Men #8, for example, resulted not in the freedom of the city, but in an attempted lynching;

Onlooker1: “Did you see how he raced up and down that building … like a human gorilla!”

Onlooker2:- “I’ve heard there are many such mutants in hiding … waiting to take over the world!”

The mob, or the threat of one gathering, was a relatively frequent and disturbing presence in Lee and Kirby’s stories. The Toad’s attempts to pass himself off as a typical-seeming and yet obviously supremely gifted athlete concluded with his being surrounded by dozens of furious spectators, several of whom seemed to be preparing to do him serious physical harm. (X,#5) The notion that the public would inevitably behave badly in the presence of mutants reappears throughout the period, indicating not just that the mutants were at times subject to assault, but that they always had to be aware of how their existence would be responded to. In Enter The Avengers, Professor Xavier’s charges travelled incognito to Europe by ship because they believed there’d be “a panic on board if folks knew the X-Men were amongst them”, while in The Triumph Of Magneto, even relatively sympathetic police officers regarded Cyclops with a suspicion which bordered on fear. (XM#10, #12) Regardless of the X-Men’s behaviour, their presence was at the very least disturbing, and, more typically, the catalyst for riots, as occurred again in Amongst Us Stalk … The Sentinels and And None Shall Survive. (XM#14, #19)

As such, Lee and Kirby offered their young readers the chance to associate their own experiences with the political events of the time. For anyone who’d struggled to conform and yet found themselves unable to do so, or who was simply worried that the process of staying popular was far more complicated than the culture would admit to, the X-Men suggested that the wider world also operated in a way which was similarly irrational, exclusive and unfair. Sympathy for difference and a revulsion for prejudice underpinned the majority of the X-Men’s adventures, an empathy-inspiring concoction which certainly informed a far more consistently progressive, if contradictory, agenda than had previously been found in the super-hero comic. When the Sentinels were shown compelling The Beast to reveal his origins, for example, the reader discovered that Hank McCoy had been persecuted by his peers when growing up simply because he appeared to be physically different to them. With the Sentinels’ purpose being to hunt down and eradicate mutant-kind as a whole, the parallels between prejudice on a personal and a social level were neatly drawn. To be different and hated for being different in the X-Men was a process which constantly haunted the mutants. Every moment of their day was coloured by the consequences of intolerance. Wherever they went, they went in disguise. Whoever they met with, they had to struggle to control the terms in which they were viewed. To anyone who’d ever been bullied, or been disturbed by the sight of bullying occurring, Lee and Kirby’s stories offered a means by which individual experience could be used to inform an understanding of broader political issues.

The autumn of 1965 saw the Sentinels trilogy begin, the most politically outspoken issues of the Lee/Kirby run. In what appears to be an unmistakable pop-comic critique of the witch-hunts of 1950’s America as much as the reactionary social campaigns of the early Sixties, the X-Men find themselves being tracked by an army of privately-developed robots – the Sentinels – designed to “protect” Homo Sapiens from the new race of mutants. The reader is taken so deliberately through the process by which folk devils are defined and moral panics ignited in the first of these three issues that it’s hard to see why X-Men #14-16 haven’t received more attention and respect. After all, in the context of the medium, the sub-genre and the marketplace of the time, they were an undeniably committed, if hardly unambiguously coherent, political statement.

The story begins with the rabble-rousing Dr. Bolivar Trask – “one of our greatest anthropologists” – announcing to the press that mutants “are mankind’s most deadly enemy!”. “Within minutes, the nation’s presses go into action …”, which indicated something of a lack of faith on Lee and Kirby’s part where the fourth estate’s powers of ethical restraint, let alone fact-checking, were concerned. “Mutant Menace!” exclaims the headline on the front of the “Daily Globe”, which also runs a series of “artist’s interpretations” of a slavery-evoking, B-Movie future showing white Americans toiling under the whips of Homo Superior overseers. From there, anti-mutant prejudice began to intensify into hysteria. As Xavier debates Trask on TV, strangers speculate on whether the X-Men’s secret leader is “a communist” or “one of them right-wingers”, which grounds the confrontation in the kneejerk partisanship of the period, while a mob rounds on Scott Summers after he’d unfortunately blown a hole in a taxi-cab roof;

Cabdriver: “Stop ‘im, somebody! He’s one o’ them Muties Trask’s been warnin’ us about!”

Onlooker1: “Who is he? What is he? What did he do?”

Onlooker2: “What’s the difference? He’s a mutant! Get ‘im!”

There’s a distinct bias here where it comes to the response of the better sort, who watch the debate at home with their admittedly boisterous children. By comparison, the less-temperate masses rage at one another on the street when there’s no mutants in sight for them to be chasing and beating. The less apparently affluent are also presented as the ones who use the explicitly racist term “mutie”. (People of colour, and indeed of anything but the broadest whitestream identity, are of course entirely absent from the tale’s text, if not, of course, its sub-text.) Yet, regardless of the class differences which their story presented, Lee and Kirby appeared adamant that the American people were fundamentally untrustworthy when it came to respecting the rights of their fellow citizens. No one beyond Xavier himself was shown speaking up for the mutants, and no one was portrayed as being willing to intervene to protect their freedoms either. If such a tale had been published just a few years earlier, the undeniable parallels with McCarthy’s quasi-fascism, for example, would have made the Sentinels trilogy a lightning rod for right-wing criticism. (Lee and Kirby would have run the risk in the first half of the Fifties of being associated with the party of the Reds had it been published back then.) Whatever disenfranchised American minority the reader cared to associate with the mutants in these stories, the parallels to everyday life in the Republic of 1965 were general enough to be obvious and specific enough to provoke a measure of thought and sympathy. “Beware the fanatic!” runs Lee’s closing caption, “Too often his cure is deadlier by far than the evil he denounces.” (XM#16) In that, it seemed at first glance as if the Sentinels trilogy might be a tale which sat entirely comfortably with radical criticisms of the Republic in the period.

Yet something of why the story hasn’t always convinced as a key example of comics liberalism, if not something far more daring, can be seen in the text of that concluding caption. Lee and Kirby’s work may have been radical in terms of the children’s comics of the day, but it still mostly stood as a relatively moderate proposition in the broader context of the last half of 1965. Indeed, the undeniably principled aspects of the Sentinels trilogy came enmeshed with a host of far more fundamentally conservative values. Even the tale’s central antagonist Trask finally repents of his prejudice and sacrifices his life after the X-Men prove themselves to him, which suggests that prejudice is just an example of extreme misjudgement which might be reversed with a weight of affirmative evidence. And when Lee closed the tale with his statement that the fanatic’s “cure” could be more deadly than “the evil he denounces”, he was still disturbingly using the word “evil” to describe mutants, and thereby, those groups in society which had been the target of scapegoaters. Quite what Lee meant by this particular choice of words is of course impossible to deduce. Yet whether this was a carelessness, or an expression of a fundamentally conciliatory attitude towards the established order, or even an attempt to moderate how these issues of the X-Men might be read by potential right-wing censors, the result was a partial neutering of what otherwise might have been a genuinely provocative text. Yes, Lee seems to be suggesting in the grand climax of his tale, that which appears different actually does pose a threat, and yet those who’d insist that civil liberties must be suspended to fight that threat are “too often” an even worse danger.

Two problems, then. Firstly, Lee appeared to be suggesting, in contradiction to many other aspects of his X-Men tales, that mutants were in part at least to blame for the hatred which so afflicted them. Secondly, he seemed to be arguing that there have been times when the “fanatics” solution for the perceived problems posed by despised groups have actually worked.

At their least effective and most confused, Lee and Kirby’s X-Men stories seem to suggest that it’s in large part the responsibility of the mutants to prove that they’re good Americans. Though the X-Men are entirely blameless when it comes to the matter of being exemplary citizens of the Nation, the only method which they’re shown having access to in order to fight for their civil rights is self-sacrifice in service of the public good. Even as Lee and Kirby’s work clearly deplores bigotry in all its forms, there’s no mention at all of any structural reasons for the anti-mutant prejudice beyond one example of the press being all-too-quick to listen to an “expert’s” fears about a supposed coming war between Homo Superior and Homo Sapien. Instead of suggesting that discrimination is a social fact which serves the interests of profoundly powerful groups, and in the absence of the expectation that the state has to be a – if not the – major player in policing bigoted behaviour, the X-Men are reduced to attempting to win Americans over one by one through good and dangerous deeds.

In short, the excluded had to persevere in heroic self-sacrifice in order to convince the majority that they too deserved the rights which their persecutors regarded as inalienable. The government and its institutions, education and the law, the various armed wings of the state; none of these aspects of society were up for criticising, and so none of them were shown as being particularly relevant where discrimination was concerned. The X-Men, it seemed, were not only incredibly badly treated, but on their own too. Indeed, they weren’t even publically supported by the likes of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, who surely could have made more of an effort to stand by their despised comrades. Prejudice, it seems, is a matter for its victims to deal with. For all that the comic undoubtedly raised the issue of prejudice in a time in which comics rarely did anything of the sort, the lack of a rigorous ideology underlying the strip inevitably compromised the comic’s meaning. As the months and years passed, what had begun as a gently subversive comic gradually became one which presented the same basic problem and unconvincing solution over and over again. The socially critical messages became familiar with repetition, while the more conservative aspects of the comic’s politics similarly became reinforced.

It’s an impression of how intolerance has to be fought that’s backed up by the generous support which an Army General gives to Xavier in And None Shall Survive, as the two of them meet at the ruin of the defeated Sentinel’s base (XM#17);

“There’ll be some mighty red faces from now on, Professor! All those who called the X-Men menaces to society will have a lot of apologizing to do! In fact, I used to fear their power, until I saw how they risked their lives to help all of us!”

The X-Men, it seems, had overcome the General’s fear by risking limbs and life in fighting a menace so fearfully dangerous that it threatened the freedom of the whole of mankind. That seems to be a remarkably high bar when it comes to the process of qualifying as a deserving citizen, although it did at times work for the X-Men when it came to winning over their doubters one by one. Even Trask himself, who after all had created a private army of mechanical beings designed to entirely subvert the Constitution, finally concluded that the X-Men meant humanity no harm. In doing so, he sacrificed his life to bring to an end the existence of his Sentinels, an act which appears to suggest that all would be fine if only the X-Men could bravely establish their good intentions with each and every member of the Marvel Universe. As such, where the X-Men won friends, they did so not because they’d claimed their rights as individual citizens, but because they’d been recognised as conforming to other’s entirely unfair expectations of what an acceptable member of society who’s also a mutant should be like.

Even in these brief moments of tolerance, they weren’t being accepted for themselves, and for their individual character and social diversity, but for the degree to which they’d proven themselves conforming and useful. What these issues never directly suggested was, firstly, that it was every citizens’ responsibility to stand up for the rights of their fellows, and, secondly, that the state in all its various forms had the obligation of maintaining the rule of law.

With the X-Men themselves wanting nothing more radical than to be recognised as the good and undemanding WASP citizens which they actually were, the comic succeeded in combining a challenging message – everyone should be treated equally and some Americans are not- with a deeply conservative one too. American society could be vicious and saturated with prejudice, these X-Men tales appeared to imply, and yet America herself in terms of her institutions and laws appeared beyond challenging. Furthermore, it was a clearly understandable fear rather than anything more irrational or hateful or self-interested which appeared to drive anti-mutant sentiment, and the mutants could combat that, to a lesser or greater degree, through insanely dangerous service to a population who at best seemed to doubt and distrust them. It’s an argument which really does appear to suggest at times that it’s up to the outsider to prove themselves to their persecutors, and it presumes that the latter are going to be open to the convincing. It also suggests that racism, for all that it’s deeply unpleasant and unnecessary, is an understandable response to a threatening presence, which comes worryingly close to blaming the victims for their victimhood. Though the small mutant population of the time undoubtedly contained a significant percentage of impossibly dangerous and even thoroughly unpleasant individuals, Homo Sapiens itself could hardly claim to be a species characterised only by sunny, light-giving individuals. (Indeed, there were already far more socially-threatening super-villains of typical human stock than there were “evil” mutants in play in these years.)

As a result, Lee and Kirby’s stories were undoubtedly good-hearted and well-meaning and inspiring, but they could never get to grips with the issues they were discussing in a way which did anything other than mention that bigotry existed and good acts might mitigate its effects. The loathing for intolerance was pronounced, the sympathy for the oppressed marked. But as for where that intolerance had come from, and the functions that it served, and the way in which it might be challenged in any real-world sense, nothing was mentioned.

And yet, neither Lee or Kirby evidently believed that good acts alone would be enough, or at least, not in the short-term. No matter how cautious and timid some parts of their argument appeared at times to be, both creators were obviously appalled by the nation’s treatment of many of its citizens and never imagined that such would be easy to do away with. Even in the wake of the General’s praise of the X-Men’s efforts to suppress the Sentinels, for example, Xavier was still shown counselling his students to protect their secret identities from the military and the police with “extreme caution”. (XM#17) The Professor was obviously not convinced that all the various state servants who’d been ordered to help the X-Men were supporters of equal rights. Similarly, Lee’s first and last X-Men script without Kirby’s presence saw yet another mob gathering in response to the sight of two mutants quarrelling in a New York street. (XM#19) Whatever credit the X-Men had won in defeating Trask’s Sentinels, it obviously hadn’t begun to eradicate the everyday level of anti-mutant prejudice in the Marvel Universe. If Lee, with or without Kirby, wasn’t going to be producing a comic which dealt with bigotry in anything more than a passionate and yet ideology-free, conflict-averse manner, then he and the book’s co-creators were obviously still keen to raise social concerns which the superhero book had simply never been concerned with on an issue-to-issue basis like this before.

It was surely inevitable that these stories would often be marked by considerable contradictions. To expect Marvel to have launched a coherent, ideologically-informed critique of social exclusionism in a kid’s comic of the period would be a self-evidently ludicrous expectation. To note the limitations in how Lee and Kirby discussed prejudice in the X-Men isn’t to suggest that their stories weren’t both inspiring and, in the context of particularly the first few years of the comic’s existence, somewhat daring. But it is to suggest that the X-Men’s creators quickly locked themselves into a way of presenting social problems which was repetitive, unsatisfying and politically nervous. The X-Men could neither make any significant headway against the labelling which so afflicted them, and nor could their adventures be varied so as to touch upon any of the more contentious explanations for why prejudice existed and how it might be fought. Whenever the issue was raised, the mutants simply ran straight into bigotry, did their best to prove their good intentions, and then, having converted perhaps a few individuals, repeated the experience. For all their undoubted virtues, the first 19 issues of the X-Men under Lee and Kirby often felt as if the same basic story was being re-told, and that’s because the same basic themes and outcomes often were being put into play over and over again.

Was Lee being careful to keep his criticisms of America as limited as possible even as he and his collaborators were pointing out significant flaws in the Republic? It would certainly be understandable that men who’d seen the industry almost destroyed by a combination of reactionary public campaigns and quasi-fascist politicking in the 50s would be treading cautiously. To attack the morals and behaviour of Americans using the metaphor of mutant rights was in some ways daring enough. To directly suggest that the Government and the great powers of the nation were in any way complicit with such prejudice may well have been considered a bridge too far. Even if Lee saw the society of the time in any such a progressive way, the reasons for his being cautious as well as principled in his scripts were compelling. With even the first inter-racial kiss on television still several years away, the mid-Sixties were anything but a heyday for liberal and radical sentiments in the mass media. As such, the press could be portrayed in The X-Men on occasion as impulsively unfair, influential private individuals might play the roles of demagogues, the people could be shown to be easily led and fearful and even vicious, but Washington itself and the status quo of the day which it presided over were all beyond the naming, let alone the discussing. It was a strange line that these X-Men issues walked, with the suggestion that so much of the nation was at best prejudiced and uncaring qualified by a lack of criticism where anything of the explanation for that bigotry was concerned.

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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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