You Humans Love Your Symbolism, Epilogue:

Altruism in House of X / Powers of X

“MUTANTS—feared and hated by the world they have sworn to protect. These are the STRANGEST heroes of all!” These words greeted readers of Uncanny X-Men in an introductory caption-box at the top of the first page of nearly every issue during the famous run by Chris Claremont. In this way, new and old readers alike knew immediately of the inherently altruistic purpose of these super-heroes, a mission statement originally summarized by Charles Xavier all the way back in X-Men #1 by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee: “Here we stay, unsuspected by normal humans, as we learn to use our powers for the benefit of mankind… to help those who would distrust us if they knew of our existence!” Fighting for the good of those who actively see you as their enemy, this principal recalls the words of Jesus, “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).

The righteous have always lived with this reversed double standard. Heroes do good to others, even when no one else does good to them; even when the unrighteous seem to reap all of the rewards and in return, righteousness brings nothing but pain, exhaustion, and grief. Claremont, in an interview, pointed to this aspect of the mutant metaphor as the reason the X-Men enjoyed almost universal acceptance from readers of such various backgrounds: “Because they’re outsiders trying to fit in and getting no credit for all the good that they do but not losing faith in the struggle. Still determined that the goal is worth the effort and the sacrifice. And that has a resonance.”

Hickman touches on this in Xavier’s telepathic speech to the world at the beginning of Chapter 11: House of X #6, “We wanted to save you – and we did, many times – but in return, all you did was stand by while evil men killed our children.” These words are again reminiscent of the call to altruism found in the Bible: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse… Do not repay anyone evil for evil… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:14, 17 & 21).

For the X-Men, this altruistic mission arises out of Xavier’s famous dream for the peaceful coexistence of humans and mutants. Hickman summarizes it quite beautifully, again in the telepathic speech of Xavier in Chapter 11: House of X #6, “You see, all I ever wanted was peace between humans and mutants. All I ever wanted was to love you and for you to love us.” What a wonderful dream, to defeat bigotry and discrimination of all kinds, to live in a world in which everyone accepted everyone else in love and kindness.

But, Hickman’s House of X / Powers of X series reveals a new purpose for the mutants of the world, and it starts with them giving up on this idealized dream. Xavier telepathically explains to the world: “That was my dream – harmony – but you have taught me a harsh lesson: That dream was a lie.” Many have wondered why the creative team always obscures Xavier’s full face (especially his eyes, usually with the Cerebro helmet) in all scenes from the X1 era. Perhaps this is symbolic of Xavier’s disillusionment with his dream.

Sadly, it appears that Xavier and the X-Men have lost their faith in the struggle and no longer believe that the dream of peaceful coexistence is worth the sacrifice. As Cyclops tells the Fantastic Four in Chapter 1: House of X #1: “My family has spent our entire lives being hunted and hated. The world has told me that I was less when I knew I was more. Did you honestly think that we were going to sit around forever and just take it?” So instead of striving for harmony with humankind, Xavier and all the mutants of the world have taken refuge on Krakoa, their island paradise, to live separated and isolated from the rest of humanity.

Retreating to a safe haven, isolated from the evils of the world, this has been a form of religious practice throughout history. Monasteries built by monks and nuns exist in many world religions, a place to escape from worldly distractions or religious intolerance and devote one’s life completely to God. Ironically, although Christian monasteries abound, Jesus himself did not advocate a life separated from the world, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15).

Krakoa is also not the first attempt of mutants to establish an isolated haven away from the hatred of humankind. Interestingly, while still considered a villain, Magneto tried at least twice to do so – first on his space station, Asteroid M, as well as later on the island of Genosha. Both ended in horrible tragedy.

After the genocide on Genosha and, shortly thereafter, the depowering of 99% of the mutant population at the end of the House of M event, the central purpose of any mutant refuge became survival. With presumably only 198 mutant survivors and extinction a very real possibility, Cyclops and the X-Men established an isolationist stronghold on the island of Utopia. Unfortunately, this led further away from the dream of peaceful coexistence with humankind and instead cultivated an increasingly militaristic temper to the X-Men’s missions, coupled with a growing Us vs Them mentality to the story-telling.

Now, on the living island, Krakoa, mutantkind has again retreated to a safe haven, this time using miracle drugs as leverage to ensure that humankind will peacefully leave them alone, thus guaranteeing their survival. As Xavier tells humankind: “In return for making our lives better, we will do the same for you.”

But is safety and survival the ultimate objective of society? Is this the very purpose of human – or mutantkind? Is the main goal of our existence to guarantee our survival?

Obviously, the extinction of any people, group, or species is a horrible thing, genocide one of the worst crimes imaginable. We should always do whatever is necessary to avoid or avert such tragedies. This, consequently, makes the focus of the X-Men on their own survival at a time when extinction seemed possible, at least understandable. But does that make survival the end all be all, the highest priority in life?

A long-term or eternal perspective reveals survival to be a temporary goal. If the main purpose of your life is to ensure your own longevity or the longevity of those like yourself, then you are going to be disappointed when death eventually comes. There must be something more. And if you are only living to guarantee your own safety and the security of those like yourself, then you are not only focused on a short-term goal, but you are probably ignoring the needs of many others in a selfish pursuit. At the very least, there is no altruism in making your own safety and survival your highest priority.

Furthermore, a typical hero would willingly sacrifice their life in order to save someone else. An ideal hero would even give their life fighting for a righteous cause. The ultimate hero would actually die to save his enemies. And this is what the X-Men used to represent. This recalls the Christian view of Jesus’ sacrifice: “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8).

This, of course, does not imply that a hero should actively seek out a way to sacrifice their own life, a sort of suicide by heroism (although some comic books have explored this idea, too). Still, safety and survival are simply not the top priority of ideal heroes; rather they commit themselves to fighting the good fight (see 1 Timothy 6:12) and seeking out righteousness first (see Matthew 6:33), no matter what the sacrifice.

Shockingly, according to Xavier’s telepathic speech in Chapter 11: House of X #6, mutantkind hopes for more than just safety and survival in establishing a sovereign nation on Krakoa. They are planning for their eventual dominance: “We are the future. An evolutionary inevitability. The Earth’s true inheritors.” Xavier almost taunts the human race by playing on the theme of dreams: “You closed your eyes last night believing this world would be yours forever. That was your dream. And like mine…it was a lie.” This comes surprisingly out of character; it literally goes against Xavier’s own original purpose in creating the X-Men, summarized in Kirby and Lee’s X-Men #1: “Not all [mutants] want to help mankind!… Some hate the human race, and wish to destroy it! Some feel that the mutants should be the real rulers of the earth! It is our job to protect mankind from those… from the evil mutants!

Of course, Xavier and the mutants on Krakoa have pledged with one of their first three laws, “Murder no man,” not to actively cause harm to humankind. And their miracle drugs do promise to extend human life. But they have made perfectly clear, that they expect to eventually take over.

Xavier calling mutantkind, “The Earth’s true inheritors,” alludes to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Jesus’ statement actually references another passage, Psalms 37:10-11, “A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.” This seems to perfectly describe the plans of mutantkind; wait patiently for the humans (the wicked in this analogy) to die off and then enjoy peace and prosperity as rulers of the world.

However, one problem ruins this analogy; Xavier and the mutants have not acted meekly at all. They have actually behaved quite arrogantly throughout this series. Magneto, of course, has been the worst, often placing himself in the role of God. For example, in his famous quote at the end of Chapter 1: House of X #1, “You have new gods now.” Xavier also, especially in the already often quoted speech, shows no signs of humility; he has his own god complex. And even Cyclops’ quote from above, “The world has told me that I was less when I knew I was more,” cannot be called humble. A person of meekness would not consider themselves worthy of dominance over others and would therefore not actively seek or plan for it, even though they may dream of a world finally free from the oppression of the wicked.

The bold move of mutants to step up and actively declare, “We will not take this oppression anymore!” finally freeing themselves from the discrimination they have dealt with all their lives and retreating to a perfect life on an island paradise; this may at first appear to be a praise-worthy victory of the oppressed over their oppressors. However, upon deeper reflection, it unfortunately feels like mutantkind conceding, “Bigotry wins” as they give up on the fight for peaceful coexistence. In a sense, they have relented to all of the racists who tell minorities to “get out and go back to where you came from.”

Nothing in this series symbolizes this better than the Moira retcon. As written in the essay on Chapter 3: House of X #2, before this retcon Moira “was a human completely devoted to the X-Men’s cause; she was the living example that humans and mutants could work together in peaceful coexistence. Now she is just another mutant working toward the advancement of her own species.” Together with this revelation, Moira also brings her hard and cynical truth, “We always lose.” In her previous lives, anti-mutant hatred has, in fact, always led to the complete defeat or even extinction of mutantkind on Earth.

And maybe it is true. In this fallen world, there will always exist some aspect of bigotry and hatred. The current cultural climate of polarization adds to the feeling that the sides are drifting further apart, rather than coming closer together. But does the fact that this world will never be completely perfect mean that we should just give up on the dream of trying to make it better? Does knowing that there will always be at least some bigots in the world mean that we should never try to live in peaceful coexistence with anyone different than ourselves?

History has shown that segregation and isolation do not solve the problem of bigotry, but rather exacerbate it. Separated from one another, the false and discriminatory ideology of both sides can take a stronger hold and develop further out of control. This polarizes the sides even more, leading to an Us vs. Them mentality at its most extreme. We already see this in Prof. X and Magneto at the end of this series. They know their actions will bring strong resistance from bigoted humans and they are preparing for war. On the final two pages of this series, Magneto declares, “Let them try to stop us this time,” to which Xavier replies, “Yes…Let them try,” an ominous and telling way for Hickman to close out this book.

One could also make the case that mutantkind is now guilty of reverse discrimination. As first discussed in the essay on Chapter 1: House of X #1, “Paradise is, in fact, isolationist and exclusive.” Mutants now have access to paradise, along with the power to decide who may enter. And they have segregated humans outside. As Magneto tells a group of human delegates in Chapter 1: House of X #1, “The island, you see, is ours. And ours alone. Man is not welcome there.” In a sad change of fate, mutants not only have given up on fighting against bigotry, they have now seemingly become a part of it.

The onset of Hickman’s tenure as “Head of X” promised to bring revolutionary changes to the X-Men, but no one seemed prepared for quite how drastic or exactly in what direction he would alter the X-Men’s status quo. No longer are they heroes sworn to protect a world that hates and fears them. No longer do the X-Men dream of peaceful coexistence, integration, reconciliation, or meaningful relationships with humankind. Yes, these goals are lofty, maybe even ideal and utopian. A hero’s mission is always altruistic and difficult. And so, for now, mutantkind has given up on this ideal dream, believing it will always lead to failure.

Does this make Hickman’s X-Men bad? Well, he has definitely removed their altruism, that quality which made us readers look up to them as true heroes. We are justified in questioning, whether their new purpose is morally righteous. In this way, we have lost that, which Claremont thought was the reason for such resonance among such a diverse readership (see the quote near the beginning of this essay). But the overwhelmingly positive response to Hickman’s Dawn of X suggests that this story has resonated in its own way. What this says about our current state as a society is a question for another time.

One also cannot deny how well-crafted the House of X / Powers of X series is. The questionable morality of the X-Men’s new status quo does not make the storytelling any less compelling. Hickman has built an incredible narrative, with surprising and far-reaching concepts revealed in every issue, on almost every page. Larraz, Silva, and Gracia have brought this world to life in stunning images, giving us glimpses of a paradise, an apocalypse, the final state of human evolution, and the resurrection of both body and soul. As readers, we have been drawn into this world, wondering with anticipation how Hickman will further develop all these new ideas as he leads us to his endgame.

And one gets the feeling that Hickman has a specific endgame in mind; he has said so in interviews. He must be keenly aware of how far he has brought Prof. X and the rest of the X-Men away from the heroic dream of peaceful coexistence and their altruistic mission to protect a world that hates and fears them, replacing these ideals with the resignation imbedded in Moira’s cynical truth, “We always lose.” Perhaps he has a heroic journey in mind that will reverse this course in the end. After all, Hickman’s Avengers run also started with the pessimistic fact, “Everything dies,” but he ended with the equally true, but much more hopeful, “Everything lives.” Maybe Hickman’s X-Men run will also finish with a more optimistic perspective, replacing Moira’s depressing truth, “We [mutants] always lose,” with a hopeful, “We [everyone] will win together.”

Note: All biblical quotes are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version NIV, Copyright 2011 by Biblica, Inc.

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David L Canham (@BBelafat) grew up in Arizona watching X-Men: the Animated Series and reading mostly X-Men and Spider-Man comics of the 90s. After a Bachelor’s Degree in Physics with Minors in Math and Religious Studies from the University of Arizona, he received a doctorate in Physics from the University of Bonn in Germany. He now teaches Physics and Math at the junior high and high school level in northern Germany, where he lives with his family. He still loves comics; especially the ones that make him ask deep questions.

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