As much as it is an idea that has become incredibly hard to accept, and despite very obvious evidence stating otherwise, fiction is not based off ideas formed in a vacuum. Today, one might visit any forum, subreddit or YouTube channel and find endless people complaining about how entertainment and media “have PC agenda” while making a show like Orange is The New Black, or a female led show such like Jessica Jones, or suddenly making Muslim heroes. Of course, this opinion is a direct result of ignoring the history and influences of many pop culture icons in the last century, ranging from Star Trek, to the Jewish icon Superman, to African American superheroes created in late 60s, and how pop culture has always integrated social commentary into itself. However, right now, I want to really talk about one of the most blatant and obvious human rights allegory in pop culture, the X-Men.
It should be stated from the beginning that over the last 50 years, the characters have obviously gone through a lot of change. Many times, the fictional characters themselves were a reductionist, simplistic version of the political leaders and events the series draws from, although, the more important point here, is the influence.
The X-Men were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963, amidst the rising tension of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, a year before the Civil Rights act was passed. The premise was simple: people born with superpowers, known as mutants, were discriminated against and feared by humans for being different. Themes of diversity and race are incredibly relevant in these X-Men books. Lee and Kirby introduced Professor Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto, supposedly based on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X respectively, with the mutants representing the African-American community at that time. While fighting aliens, criminals and other mutants, the consistent theme of these books was fighting the prejudice of fellow humans seeking to oppress mutants. While Charles opted for a peaceful, diplomatic method or cooperating and making humans get over their fear, Magneto took a more defensive and violent approach against discrimination, not unlike their inspirations.
“Xavier’s dream,” as it is often referred to in the story, of peaceful co-existence is a direct reference to MLK’s iconic “I have a dream” speech. Interestingly, Magneto was not considered a villain by Stan Lee, at least during his early years. Lee said, “I did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He was just trying to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist. He was trying to defend mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly, he decided to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course, but I never thought of him as a villain.” Of course, Magneto, a Holocaust survivor and a product of anti-semitism, can easily be declared nothing less than a terrorist in years to come, while Xavier becomes a manipulative, self-righteous mastermind hiding behind a veil of ethics. This isn’t necessarily how they were originally conceived, but they become equally important political narratives for the future to come.
Some argue that the X-Men do not fit into the list of examples of Civil Rights allegory, which might be barely true for the early issues, beyond the early premise of prejudice. Hell, I will throw in a bone here, and accept that the closest to making people understand the problems of other races was having a team of white people fighting, which is both problematic and maybe the only way to not have parents burn comics in public, thanks to a certain Dr. Wertham. But the criticisms were soon set to change completely, going beyond just active movements in America. In 1975, Chris Claremont took over, and he not only pushed the Malcolm X/Martin Luther King Jr. dynamics consciously, he carried a diverse X-Men team featuring a Canadian, a Kenyan, a Russian, and more. Claremont made the hate of humanity for mutants a staple in X-Men mythos and in much serious ways, some still being unparalleled in terms of storytelling. Claremont gave us stories like Days of Future Past, a dystopian future where Sentinels turn into a mix of Gestapo and Slave Catchers, and this is where things actually got grounded. He just didn’t stop there. In the 80s, we got Genosha, a society based on South African apartheid where mutants were enslaved and living as oppressed citizens, very boldly, and almost tauntingly, set in South East Africa. Obviously, it eventually ends up as disaster zone after a mass genocide by the Sentinels (read ‘radicals’), ringing true to the horrors of the holocaust. In 1982, in God Loves, Man Kills, the story literally starts with two black mutant kids being lynched, by a group called the Purifiers. A commentary on religion and white supremacists, we get to the closest Magneto has ever been to Malcolm X, and it’s upsetting to fully understand where Magneto comes from, especially when it makes sense.
The X-Men went on to cover AIDS in the form of legacy virus. It went on to discuss the aspect of “treating” queer people in Whedon’s run. It consciously became a part of the narrative of the LGBT Rights movement and Black Power movement before that. Bryan Singer’s first two movies show us a promise of experiencing the same results, put on screen – as Bobby’s mother asks him if he tried not being a mutant – before reducing the franchise to an action set piece in later installments. The entire subtext of people discovering how they are different during their teenage years, their struggles and pain, and how the X-Men represent the survivors of identity crisis form a huge part of the narrative that was so carefully constructed by the writers. There have also been instances where mutants have killed themselves because they were unable to come to terms with their biology. Most women in X-Men comics challenge conformity – Mystique is essentially a representation of gender-fluid people, and it is not limited to her transformation powers. Emma Frost owns her sexuality. Dazzler is probably comic’s most famous drag performer.
Whether Lee and Kirby intentionally drew from the Civil Rights movement is up in the air. No one can answer that, and no one wants to answer that. Lee would be rather contradictory about it from time to time – although he stated it is indeed a Civil Rights allegory – while Kirby is not with us anymore. However, there is no denying that it does draw from it, even if not consciously. It’s a fact, not an opinion, that Chris Claremont purposefully cemented these bits as a staple of X-Men mythos during his historic run. What Lee and Claremont made out of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., while one-dimensional, was how the world was looking at them. X-Men is not about Wolverine, X-Men is about people.
The 60s were incredibly turbulent times for America, and political commentary was an everyday thing. These things evolved into international icons and entertainment for decades to come, and if people think these books have agenda, it is a time to proudly agree to it. It’s very easy to live in a bubble of comfort and deny that these problems are common; it’s equally easy to deny that fiction always had political commentary. As bad as things can get for readers, they still have to rely on relating to characters by metaphors and not inclusion, because others are insecure of their own position as heroes when this happens. People denied problems before, and they are doing it again. If all of us are looking up to the same heroes, and some are constantly denying what they want to tell us, or engage in the process of understanding or even debating it after understanding it, there is one thing we know for sure: the problem doesn’t lie with the characters, books, sales, or the writers.
Written by Masoom Rana Dewan