Returning to All Things X
By Andy Frisk
Jul 26, 2011 - 20:53
A good film based upon a comic book franchise, like X-Men: First Class, should accomplish at least two things: it should be a good movie overall in the categories of acting, storytelling, poignancy, and (of course) special effects, and it should reawaken, especially in the lapsed franchise fan, an interest in returning to said movie’s source works, or cause non-comic book readers to be interested in checking out the source works for the first time. This is something that X-Men: First Class accomplished in spades. The dormant X-Fan that this film stoked back to life in me, coupled with my disappointment (to put it lightly) with the DCU reboot of 2011, have reawakened my interest in all things X, so to speak. I haven’t seriously read or been devoted to a X-Title since my first few years of college, and shortly after Chris Claremont ended his X-Men (1991) writing run in the early 1990s. Sadly, Marvel Comics was realizing how profitable all things X were becoming and was about to turn one of the best written and poignant comic book series of all time into a sad parody of itself through overproduction and a focus on quantity vs. quality. The ideals that the X-Men franchise represents though, along with the storytelling potential that the whole institutionalized racism theme that Marvel Comics’ mutants deal with daily, while protecting and serving a world that fears them, is just too good a premise to be allowed to languish in mediocrity, both on film and in print. Again, the brilliant X-Men: First Class has not only captured the imagination of the next generation of intelligent fans, it has returned wayward X-Fans to the fold. How long any of the current X-Titles will be able to hold our attention remains to be seen, but hopefully the foundation of what made the X-Men titles of the 1980s (particularly Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants) so great, and what the film has gotten back to thematically, will be picked up by current X-Writers and woven back into the X-Men’s adventures in a smart and thought provoking way.
Before I began seriously delving into the current state of X-affairs, which can be a big undertaking given the amount of huge back story and history that the franchise has built up over the past 20 years, I took a trip down memory lane and reread some of my most favorite mutant titles and stories. One of my all time favorite X-titles, that coincidentally didn’t even have X in the title was The New Mutants (or as this series is oft referred to now, and will be from here on out within, as New Mutants Classic). Before Chris Claremont returned with mixed results to the X-universe with X-Men: Forever and his poorly received and brief return to Uncanny X-Men, he was considered, hands down, the greatest writer to ever pen the X-Men’s adventures. Even with these missteps, he still is arguably the best at what he did (pun intended) with the X-Men. He turned a series that was languishing in low sales (and reprinting past issues) into the series that will forever influence (and possibly define) mainstream sequential art superhero writing. New Mutants Classic was the type of book that the original X-Men series would have been if Claremont had created the ideas, characters, and concepts behind the X-Men. It was an incredible comic book.
The characters Claremont introduced, such as Sam Guthrie/Cannonball, Dani Moonstar/Mirage, Roberto DaCosta/Sunspot, and Rahne Sinclair/Wolfsbane, were some of the most dynamic and well rounded characters to ever grace a Marvel mutant book. All of the New Mutants had widely ranging ethnic backgrounds (like Claremont’s new X-Men did), and their different world viewpoints often lead to conflict, but more importantly, and more often, tolerance and understanding. Claremont managed to promote tolerance through his characters’ interactions without ever seriously beating his readers over the head by having his characters preach, or by being completely obvious with his intent storytelling wise. I read New Mutants Classic pretty religiously and always marveled (pun not intended) at how Chris Claremont managed to write yet another mutant book that was so good that it at times outshone his work on its sister title, Uncanny X-Men. New Mutants Classic could be a bit soapy (something he often pulled off though without being sappy), but the romantic relationship elements he put into the stories just seemed to enhance the realism of the stories. To contemporary readers of all things X in the Marvel Universe it may come as a surprise, but New Mutants Classic was only the second book to star a group a mutants being published at the time AND DIDN’T star Wolverine, although he was prone to an occasional appearance here and there when the X-Men as a team made a guest appearance. Now with the multiple X-titles pumped out monthly by Marvel Comics, a comic book world where there were just TWO titles starring mutants seems pretty strange, but the two mutant titles were so well written that readers like myself were hooked and cherished every issue like it was the last that we would ever enjoy, even though the next installment was only a month away. Now, the next installment of a Marvel mutant starring book is only, at best, a week away. There is a great deal of quantity as far as mutant titles go now, but the quality definitely leaves something to be desired at times, as mentioned.
Claremont also wrote stories about Marvel’s mutants outside the pages of Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants Classic that continue to influence contemporary comic book writers, their own stories, and their takes on a wide range of characters across the comic book superhero spectrum. Perhaps the best of these was the X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills (1982) graphic novel. God Loves, Man Kills tells the story of the X-Men’s battle against the prejudiced and extreme right wing pandering televangelist William Stryker, his militant and Gestapo like ministry’s paramilitary arm, The Purifiers, and his self professed holy campaign against all mutants. Stryker deems mutants to be non-human in his view of Christian scripture. Therefore they couldn’t have been created in God’s image, meaning, not only that they shouldn’t have any rights under the law as human beings, they shouldn’t even have the right to life. Written during the height of the televangelism craze of the early 1980s, when hell fire and brimstone preachers of the likes of Jimmy Swaggart were swaying millions with their intolerant messages, God Loves, Man Kills is one of the most startling and frightening X-Men stories ever written, to me at least.
Growing up in a very religious household, some members of my family (I was only around 8 or 9 years old at the time) were totally taken with some of these televangelists, the aforementioned Swaggart being the main one viewed in our home. Already worrying myself with things beyond my concern at that young age, I silently disagreed with Swaggart’s swagger and pompousness, not to mention the majority of his message. He frightened the hell out me though with his apocalyptic preaching. These were the renewed days of the Cold War as well, and atomic annihilation was also on many people’s minds at the time. Films such as The Day After (1983) and Threads (1984) were not only horrifying, they were quite likely scenarios, or so many people (myself included) believed. To my young mind, Stryker and Swaggart’s apocalyptic rhetoric and personas merged and Swaggart became a villain, much to my horror. He just seemed so much like Stryker in some ways. Stryker was obviously full of much more hate and prejudice, and therefore was definitely more fictionally evil than Swaggart was realistically. Also, Stryker wanted to kill some of my favorite superheroes! I never did hear Swaggart call for open warfare on anyone, beyond an engagement in “spiritual warfare.” Luckily, the Swaggart phase ran its course in my home, and thought processes turned back to the rational, but I’m still glad to this day that some of my family members never read God Loves, Man Kills at the time.
God Loves, Man Kills is one of those rare stories that remain as relevant today as it was almost 30 years ago. Even more interestingly, God Love, Man Kills’ plot can be translated into any real world time period's setting outside its own and still remain thematically relevant. For example, take quotes like “Take Stryker’s remark about mutants not bein’ human to its ultimate an’ we’ve no rights under the law” by Wolverine and replace the word “mutant” with any oppressed minority over the course of human history such as black, immigrant, Jew, or homosexual, and one can see the point I’m driving at here. The same goes for Cyclops’ statement, “It isn’t The Purifiers who are dangerous, but the man himself. His beliefs. His ideas. If we don’t stand up to those—here and now—then all we’ve done is delay an inevitable holocaust.” Replace “The Purifiers” with white supremacists, the Taliban, or Westboro Baptist Church and again the point makes itself.
Chris Claremont wasn’t the only X-scribe to dive headfirst into social, political, and human rights issues in his tales about Marvel Comics’ allegorical stand in for oppressed minorities. The original, 1963 published X-Men comic book, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, utilized these themes as well. Granted, Lee and Kirby’s X-Men stories’ social consciousness wasn’t as quite obvious as it was on the surface of Claremont’s God Loves Man Kills, but it was present nonetheless. In the second issue of X-Men (1963), Prof. Xavier is showcased as the hero who defeats the evil Vanisher at the end of the issue. Much is made about Xavier being a “weak human” obviously referring to his being in a wheelchair, but Xavier saves the day, remarking “Always remember my X-Men! The greatest power on Earth is the magnificent power we all of us possess…the power of the human brain!” Granted, Xavier has vast psionic powers, but the allegory of mind over matter, or condition, is easily discerned. In the very first issue of X-Men (1963), the idea of a super villain who isn’t motivated by greed, or by a desire to politically dominate the world because of his power hungry (and rather adolescent) ego, but is motivated by what can only be described as a fascistic and racist ideology, was introduced to the X-Men’s story, and to the Marvel Universe at large. Magneto, whose story would in later years be greatly deepened philosophically, sought to separate, rank, and dominate humanity along racial lines whereas Xavier battled prejudice and injustice while championing integration.
The battle between Xavier and Magneto’s philosophies, which is oft referred to as an allegorical representation of the battle between the philosophies of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was established in this inaugural issue alongside the X-Men as a superhero team, concept, and comic book. Lee and Kirby would also address political fear mongering as well in X-Men (1963) #8 when they have Hank McCoy/Beast and Bobby Drake/Iceman narrowly escape a mob riled up by anti-mutant (read anti-Communist) hysteria:
“Did you see how he raced up and down that building…like a human gorilla! I’ve heard there are many such mutants in hiding…waiting to take over the world! Did you see how he ran past us like he was afraid of us…like he knew he’s our enemy! He probably saved that did just to throw us off guard…to make us think mutants aren’t dangerous! But he can’t fool us! C’mon…Let’s get im, before he loses himself in the crowd!”
…scream some bystanders in response to Beast’s rescue of a young boy in perilous danger. Much like Senator McCarthy railed against Communists he said were hiding amongst the ranks of the Hollywood establishment or the more liberal members of Congress, these bystanders are riled by similarly vile propaganda. Lee and Kirby were far from conceding that there weren’t evil mutants out there though. Like evil mutants, there were most likely some Communist spies somewhere in America in the 1950s and 1960s, but not under every rock. Innocent men and women could be blacklisted and have their lives ruined by having a false label slapped on them, or for that matter for reading a “questionable” book, because of fear mongering rhetoric (something we still see some of our learned politicians suffer from today). Hank McCoy and Bobby Drake suffered this fate. The X-Men weren’t all work and no play though in their battle against prejudice. After all they were college kids. Lee and Kirby had them hanging out in Bohemian Greenwich Village, visiting jazz clubs, and listening to spoken word poetry in X-Men (1963) #7. The Bohemian youths, when the get a peek at Beast’s monstrous feet, totally dig him and celebrate his uniqueness. It’s was a very subtle, comical, yet poignant statement on Lee and Kirby’s part. Sure, they were trying to attract more college age kid readers as Marvel Comics’ books were popular with the age group, but here were noble superheroes hanging out in the hotbeds of counterculture society and being accepted more there than in mainstream society. The allegory here speaks for itself.
So, looking back on all of the great and thought provoking X-Men stories that have been written over the years, which fortunately do outweigh the boring and trite ones that have been written, while taking a trip down memory lane through some of my most cherished X-Men stories, I realized that I missed regularly reading the Merry Marvel Mutants’ stories as much as I missed my mind expanding college days. Like any good fiction designed to alter the status quo, the X-Men’s stories really are timeless tales because we always need to be reminded to be on guard against the evils of the past…and present. We also need to be reminded that we should hold on to a piece of that joyous, youthful, and at times (like Xavier’s Dream) slightly naïve outlook on life, even if you’re years beyond your rebel rousing college days.
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