X-Men: Equality and social responsibility

In 1993, I began reading comics while in the fourth grade. I had picked up two issues in particular Spider-Man: Revenge of The Sinister Six Part 6 and Uncanny X-Men #298.

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While I thrilled over the epic cast of heroes and villains featured in the Spider-Man comic, I was even more enthralled with the X-Men story. I enjoyed the tension between Gambit and Bishop in a Danger Room sequence where both team up against Archangel. I was intrigued by a grizzled Professor Xavier holed up in his darkened study, framed by a wall of television monitors. But what grabbed me most was the part of the story where the X-Men save a group of school children from Magneto’s Acolytes. The job of the Acolytes was to secure a mutant child while murdering the other human children; “cleansing” them from the gene pool.

The story was intense and dealt with themes both social and political; topics I had never experienced before in anything I was reading at the time. I was hooked. The X-Men were dealing with acceptance and prejudice and how those two ideas inform the world of religion and politics. Magneto’s Acolytes were clearly terrorists who wanted supremacy, not equality. Senator Robert Kelly was a malicious politician convincing a frightened public that the actions of a few dictate punishment for all. And the X-Men, well, they just want a better world. Even my young brain could pick out what was happening, and it was far more complicated that the all-out brawl happening in Spider-Man.

The world that these mutants lived in didn’t seem like it was all that different from mine and what’s more, it’s still isn’t that different. When a child reads a story where their favorite characters are persecuted, it has an effect on them. Even now I think Uncanny X-Men #298 taught me more awareness and citizenship than the Boy Scouts* ever did.

I’ve been a comic reader since that X-Men story, and while other comics and characters have pulled my attention one way or another, the X-Men have always been firmly entrenched in my heart and mind. They gave me my first taste of socially relevant science fiction, which would later lead the way to the works of H.G. Wells and Ray Bradbury. Xavier and his students showed me a world that was a sometimes a grim reflection of my own, but also offered hope.

The X-Men existed as a family made up of beings from around the globe, of different ethnicities and genders, living and working together in the hopes that someday they would eventually be accepted. The team consisted of instructors and leaders, both male and female, ready to do whatever it took to stand up for what was right and ensure the safety of their teammates. It could be a grim world but also one I was in awe of.

Marvels X-Men

Uncanny X-Men premiered in 1963, the same year that civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver his “I have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It can’t be a coincidence that a comic book dedicated to the standing up for social equality premiered during the turbulent 1960s. The X-Men were born out of the era when much needed change was being called for in the United States of America. Looking back, there’s no doubt why the characters works so well in the context of social commentary, they were made for it. Because of this, writers of the X-Men have always felt free to use the character to address touchy issues and social injustice.

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With Chris Claremont’s God Loves, Man Kills we see the character of William Stryker, a soldier and Reverend, using spiritual beliefs as an excuse for murder. Including religiously affiliated characters Nightcrawler (Catholic) and Kitty Pryde (Jewish), gives the reader parallels to draw between faith and spiritual extremism. This was also the first comic I ever read that used the “N” word. The context was right, but its use still floored me.

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The storyline of Days of Future Past shows us a war-torn future where mutants are hunted down and placed in internment camps, and all who resist are killed. This storyline echoes the nationalist fervor and fear created in Nazi Germany against the Jewish population of Europe; a very real history that the rest of the world is still aware of.

The Legacy Virus

The “Legacy Virus” storyline calls back the epidemic and fear of AIDS in the 70s and 80s in the gay community and in the public at large. Even as the X-Men fight against prejudice and terrorism, they have to watch while friends and family are being destroyed from the inside out by a mutant killing virus. What’s worse, the news of this virus is used by political and religious extremists as evidence that the mutants are unnatural and being punished.

Even as the X-Men serve as a hyped up reflection of our own society, they also present an ideal for which to strive: A future where beings can live together bound by tolerance and understanding. This hope for the future is perhaps best represented by the fact that the X-Men are based out of a school. Though the school serves as a training facility for mutants learning to use their powers in a safe environment, the students also get a well rounded education in math, science and literature. Xavier’s school is the perfect metaphor through which to deliver the theme that education is the antidote for fear and ignorance.

While I enjoy the simple heroics of spandex clad heroes, it works better for me when those characters and stories have something important to say. The X-Men left an imprint on me when I was young and formed how I see the world. The merry mutants stand as an allegory for inclusion regardless of appearance, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief or country of origin. At Xavier’s School, all are welcome.

The popular saying amongst adult Harry Potter fans is “I’m still waiting for my owl.” I can understand that, I’m still waiting for my acceptance letter to Xavier’s. I’m too old now to be a student, but maybe they have a grad program.

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*For some reason all I can remember is soap carving and selling shitty popcorn, until I was eventually bullied out by Eagle Scouts.

About author

Robert Walker
Robert Walker 152 posts

Rob Walker is a writer and filmmaker in Colorado, and is creator of the comedy web series Victorian Cut-out Theatre. He loves horror films and comic books (American Vampire, Jonah Hex, The Flash, Planetary). Rob has been a Sherlockian since the age of ten, is a Dark Tower junky and believes that Indiana Jones is the greatest cinematic hero ever created. You can follow him on twitter at: @timidwerewolf and see his other writings and videos at robwalkerfilms.com