X-Men:

Protecting a World that Makes Them Irrelevant

“Protecting a world that hates and fears them.” To any comic fan that statement is almost universally recognized as the thesis statement behind the Marvel super-hero team known as the X-men. It is this idea that has been the driving force behind the X-men narrative for almost 50 years of continuity as they fight for the rights and ethical treatment of their blooming mutant species in a struggle that has been paralleled to the American Civil Rights movement. It is this idea that brought the X-men their relevancy in comics.

Unfortunately the X-men aren’t relevant anymore.

Created in 1963 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-men were a team of heroes formed partly with the purpose of solving a problem creating logical origins for new super-heroes. The solution was the simple concept of “mutants” or individuals born with their powers because of a genetic abnormality (later written to be the next step in human evolution). The X-men were different from other heroes at the time as the ramifications of being of a distinctly different species lead to many racial parallels. The reaction to these powers and to society created a story of young men and women having to come to terms with not only their abilities but with how to survive in a world that did not know how to address mutant kind.

However, one must ask, what makes a mutant? Beyond their genetic definition within the Marvel Universe, what defines them? Why are they hated and feared by humans? Why does the narrative choose to make the X-men martyrs against hatred and bigotry?

The answers these questions are simple. Mutants are born super humans hated because of their powers. Feared because of what makes them special and powerful. Just look at the most powerful beings in the Marvel Universe and you can see how much of a threat these mutants present: Thor, Hulk, Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange and The Sentry for instance… and there you see the problem. Not a single one of those listed are mutants; furthermore, most of the top tier Marvel super humans are not even affiliated with mutants and we revere a good number of them.

You see, in the early years of Marvel’s run with super-hero comics, the ties between characters were tangential and loose at best. The interwoven connection between characters in a consistent universe were not quite as strong, making crossovers between characters a special rarity and not expectancy. This kept the X-men in their own little pocket of the world, separate from the rest of the developing Marvel Universe. This is particularly important to note as, in the Avengers debuted same month that the X-men.

And so the Marvel Universe developed with the Avengers seemingly bridging the gap between characters little by little as they incorporated characters from every Marvel book while the X-men continued to fight for mutant rights. Over time, it seemed like a wall formed between corners of the Marvel Universe which was rarely ever addressed and it was often boiled down to the Avengers seemingly not caring about the mutant plight despite having mutants as part of their team (some of whom are also X-men).

The Secret War crossover event in 1984 demonstrated the separation of the Avengers from the X-men books perfectly when Cyclops and the X-men form their own party separate from the Avengers or the Villains, preferring to stay to themselves as an unaligned party.

Why this need for separation as the Marvel Universe grew? Surely the X-men could benefit from such a unity of continuity, much like the rest of the Marvel Universe did, right?

Wrong.

The reason the X-men tend to stay in their own corner of the Marvel Universe, protecting their kind from the perceived threat of racial intolerance and bigotry against mutant kind, is because the more the X-men interact with the rest of the Marvel Universe the more people question “what makes people hate mutants?”

Simply put, when Beast is fighting alongside the Avengers or when Iceman is being Spider-man’s amazing friend, you realize that these people are no different than any other super-hero aside from the origin of their powers. Mutants have no greater internal culture aside from their own because, until they hit puberty and develop their powers, they look and behave as if they have always been human taking in the cultures and customs of the society they grew up in. The only cultures the mutant kind ever developed were the Morlocks and the mutants of Genosha, because they formed a collective community in a specific environment with their own laws and traditions. The Morlocks were brought together because of a common shame of their abnormal appearance and powers, even among mutants. The Genoshans were an island nation and the fact that they were all mutants is incidental to the development of their culture. The rest of the world’s mutants are simply super-humans raised as people of their given homelands.

Storm is Kenyan.

Nightcrawler is German.

Colossus is Russian.

Wolverine is Canadian.

Each of these people bring their personal cultures with them to the X-men and act as such, making it impossible to distinguish them from any other man or woman with super powers from that nation. In fact, the divide between mutant and super human is so indistinguishable that in the House of M event in 2005, where the Scarlet Witch had manipulated reality into a mutant utopia, Spider-man told the world that he was a mutant instead of a guy who had been bitten by a radioactive spider and everyone believed him. No one questioned this assertion because, without a scan for the X-gene, it appeared that Spider-man was a mutant because it was a logical way to explain how he got his powers.

So what makes a mutant? Why are they feared? It can’t be just their super powers, because having super powers is not something that belongs simply to those with the X-gene and should not be the defining characteristic of a culture or community. In reality, there is no real defining characteristic to what makes the mutant kind besides the fact that they are feared. It could even be further argued that the X-men help create the fear in mutants within their own narrative.

It is a truly frightening idea to consider a segregated group of people deciding that they have the authority to not only keep themselves separate from the rest of the world, but to police all issues that involve peoples with a specific gene. It isn’t like the Eternals, who lived on Earth in the Marvel Universe since the dawn of life on Earth and developed a culture within their own small community, or the rest of the Avengers, who police all parts of the world with the approval of the world governments. The X-men are a self-imposed police force for a specific species of people who depict themselves in a position of persecution.

And when you consider the context of the rest of the Marvel Universe in which the X-men exist, you then realize why their thesis of “protecting a world that fears and hates them” no longer applies. It is a thesis that makes the X-men work in the context of movies and television shows, where the writers can control the expanse of the audience’s vision. “Are there other super humans in this universe?” the audience will ask and in other mediums the writers can say “only in rare cases,” allowing for the fear of those with super powers to continue.

In the end, the X-men are heroes that are often affiliated and compared to the civil rights movement which is an irrelevant concept within the context of their own shared universe. If they are feared for their power, then all super humans should be feared for the same way; if the Avengers are praised as heroes, then so should the X-men and vice versa. You can’t have the two remain separate within the same universe without creating a narrative contrivance. If the X-men wish to survive in concept they need to evolve beyond their roots as a mutant exclusive group. After all, mutants are supposed to be the next step in evolution, so why can’t their concept evolve too?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chance Thulin is a Missouri State University graduate of English marching on the forefronts of pop culture. He writes in hopes to spread the meanings and interpretations of comic books, graphic novels, and film to the masses. He is a dedicated fan of good fiction, and subscribes to both unconventional and profound writers such as Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison. For several years, Chance Thulin has trained his analytical eye towards the mountains of material published by the market powerhouses, Marvel and DC, soldiering through while appreciating diamonds in the rough as well as the more prominent names in the industry. And he really really really likes Superman.

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3 Comments

  1. Chance, thanks for the article. I always enjoy starting a day off with a new article from Sequart.

    First, I was wondering if you can elaborate a bit more on the statement you made toward the end of the article:

    “In the end, the X-men are heroes that are often affiliated and compared to the civil rights movement which is an irrelevant concept within the context of their own shared universe.”

    I’m not entirely sure I see how the Civil Rights movement is an irrelevant concept within the Marvel Universe. Considering the context surrounding Marvel’s rise to prominence during the 1960s (which included the introduction and development of nearly every major franchise superhero today), I’m not sure one can so readily divorce this concept from the source material.

    I tend to ascribe to the popular notion of the X-Men (in part) serving as an allegory for the racial tensions within the U.S. during the time they first hit the comics scene. As you point out, there is really on fundamental difference between them and their homo sapien counterparts prior to the onset of puberty. In the years following the manifestation of their mutant abilities, there is still little difference between these mutants and many other superheroes (I would argue heroes such as the Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, and Spider-Man are mutants, having their biological makeup mutated by radiation… but that’s another argument altogether). This generally parallels the points made by activists during the Civil Rights era that, regardless of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, etc, we were all human beings at our core. The differences from one race to another are not so fundamental as they are often made out, and I think you highlight this point between the Avengers and the X-Men.

    But taking race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other sort of qualifier into account when viewing the X-Men helps bridge the relativity concern you raise–at least for me it does. When you raise the concern over the X-Men’s self-appointed nature to right the wrongs of a society of which they are not a part, this makes sense if we view them as superheroic Civil Rights activists. If we wonder why it is they are often feel the allure (and submit to it at times) of separatism, we need only look at the separatist movements within the different communities who have felt the oppressive treatment of a dominant majority. Why should they want to be a part of a society that looks at them as outcasts? Why shouldn’t they defend themselves (with force if need be) from further incursions by the majority against their people?

    I do think that if we look at the X-Men out of the context from which they arose, their motivations can seem confusing and far less relevant to real world readers. But again, I’m not sure we really can responsibly de-contextualize a source (New Critics, now’s the time to attack me!-). I hope this makes sense–I am operating well-below my normal coffee intake levels, and others at Sequart know the results of my posts when this happens :)

  2. Well, teens are always complaining about how everybody hates them, and in most cases that’s not really true, is it? When you see (even adult) mutants as teenagers, things start to make more sense.

    The problem, like you mentioned, is the “universe” mentality that affects fans and pros. The big question: where are the Avengers when Galactus show up? It makes sense, but it’s the kind of thinking that led to events.

    And now everybody has superpowers (Flash Thompson, Betty Ross, etc.) and we lost the reaction of regular people, which was a big part of superhero comics. There was a reason for secret identity. And we could relate to that because we (at least thought we) had to lie to our parents, and there was the question of first love (how to approach this girl?) or all the doubts we had in our teen years. How much can we reveal of ourselves? Teens feel that they’re not “normal”. But that’s a little lost when everybody around our hero is exactly like him/her.

    The Marvel universe grew too big for the X-Men. Hell, it grew too big for me.

    But can you still write a story about a mutant kid being beaten or even killed just because s/he is a mutant? Yeah, unfortunately. It would still make much sense in our universe.

  3. Ben Marton says:

    I am often surprised at how rarely this ‘wood for the trees’ argument is raised. However, I believe there is one simple observation absent from this article that calls into question the ‘no longer relevant’ assertion, and that is the one made in terms of the oft-used ‘neanderthal/cro-magnon’ analogy.

    Surely, if it is understood or assumed by many non-mutants that homo-superior, by dint of their genetically ‘evolved’ status, represent the looming threat of Darwinian apocalypse for ‘regular folks,’ then this would mark them out as significantly more of an existential threat than, say, a lab-bred super soldier or a hammer-wielding alien? Joe Six-Pack may disdain steroid-taking athletes, but generally speaking he does not want to lynch them. But that impurity that is born in the blood and bred in the bone? To the more knuckle-dragging class of bigot, that represents a big scary future; change bad. Change hurt. Muties as sexually-transmitted pandemic.

    Nope, sorry; I believe I will stick with ‘relevant’ just a little while longer.

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