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What About Us?: An Essay on Marvel’s X-Men and Their Unending Search for Social Justice

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What about us?  This has been the mantra, the slogan, the clarion call to arms that has always aroused a marginalized group of people into action.  From the beginnings of the Zionist movement that led to the creation of Israel, to the ratification of the 19th amendment, to the protracted struggles of the Kurdish people, all it takes to rouse up a victimized population against further injustice are those three simple words: “What about us?”.  Today’s social media has given rise to a new wave of social justice movements which can reach a much larger audience than ever before.  And because of this intersection of politics and technology, the plights of all different peoples are being exposed like never before.  The movements that highlight the continued marginalization of Black Americans, the jarring social inequalities facing women, and the plight of the LGBT community have never had as much social momentum behind them as they do now because of the widespread publicity created by social media.

Since all this exposure has been generated, there’s been a call to action to try and remedy discriminatory or prejudiced-based practices.  The recent Supreme Court case which essentially legalized same-sex marriage, and the whole #BlackLiveMatter movement are all examples of steps being taken to rectify these practices which marginalize specific groups of people.  Regardless of political stance or personal feelings on these controversial topics, this is the reality that we live in.  And with the main Marvel universe being a supposed reflection of our reality, there’s one question that still lingers within Earth-616: What about mutants?

Almost from the very moment they were introduced, mutants were feared and hated by the rest of society for their destructive power, occasionally inhuman appearance, and generally misunderstood existence.  Having been created in the midst of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, it’s no secret to say that the mutants originally served as a metaphor for race relations.  Obviously that allegory has expanded over the years to include essentially every persecuted or discriminated group under the sun from Jewish people to LGBT people to the handicapped, and so on and so forth.  It also isn’t a coincidence that some of the most memorable X-Men: Storm, Rogue, Shadowcat, and Phoenix are all women.  Again, in an attempt to break the pre-established mold of straight, white, male superheroes, it was the X-Men franchise that spearheaded this charge.  In an attempt to convey the diversified world that we live in, Marvel put the onus on the X-Men to display a heterogeneous team consisting of people from different countries, representing different races, practicing different religions.  The all-new, all-different X-Men, the most visibly diverse team of X-Men, included Storm, the very first black female superhero in North American comics.  Again, this should come as no surprise that a comic book franchise tied so closely to diversity and the persecution of the different would be the perfect platform to actually display the realistic world in which we live.  But through it all, the one thing that remained a constant throughout the franchise’s first 40 years of existence is that things never really got better for mutants.

The best thing that Grant Morrison ever did for the X-Men franchise wasn’t creating Cassandra Nova, or Xorn, or even killing off Jean Grey.  Morrison actually succeeded in establishing a mutant sub-culture, and introduced a softening of the intolerance plaguing mutants since 1963.  This was so critical because it was an accurate reflection of modern society.  Intolerances eventually weaken and prejudices eventually dissipate, and finally mutants were beginning to be accepted by society at large.  For the first time, there were mutant bands, designers, clubs, and a broader, more positive national conversation on mutants.  Things weren’t the same anymore because society had progressed.  Mutants were no longer the enemy; they became a part of society, and therefore accepted by society.  Mutants started off as the enemy because they weren’t understood, then they forged their own alternative, counterculture, and as happens to every counterculture movement, be it hippies, grunge, or hipsters, it eventually becomes absorbed by the mainstream, thus gaining acceptance as the norm.

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This was the angle that Morrison was playing at as he slowly forged the integration of mutant society into mainstream society.  The X-Men, and by extension, mutants at large would win acceptance and tolerance the exact same way in which other disenfranchised groups of people did: by implementing themselves into society, thereby dispelling the notion that they were the “Other”, or outsiders, something to be feared and hated.  Just by existing and continuing to exist and preach for equality is how civil rights were won for blacks, and how women gained the right to vote.  In society, especially one that yearns to be as fundamentally egalitarian as ours in America, every persecuted group has their chance to gain justice and the right to use their rights.  For the X-Men, this was what Grant Morrison had intended, and this was how they were going to gain their justice—through social acceptance.  Mainstream mutant culture wasn’t scary or threatening, they were their own people with their own distinct sub-culture, just like ANY other group of people.  As such, they should be treated like any other group of people.  What Morrison was saying, was that it no longer mattered if they could read minds, or control metal, or fly; as long as mutants acted like human beings, and authenticated themselves as human beings, and not these big, scary, threatening ideas or stereotypes, they would win acceptance and understanding from the rest of the world.

And then M-Day happened, and Marvel’s mutants were officially put on the endangered species list because Joe Quesada had a mad-on for them.  The trends across Marvel comics following M-Day (a completely ill-conceived and weak idea to begin with) was to depict mutants as being even more feared and hated than ever before.  After the reduction of the mutant races to about 200 mutants (the remaining 200 mutants were of course the most popular ones), the mutant race was even more threatened and besieged than ever before.  Enemies now redoubled in their efforts to attack and exterminate them.  After making such noticeable social strides and gaining acceptance and tolerance from the rest of the world under Morrison’s run, one year after he left New X-Men, Marvel reverted the X-Men back to the lazy and worn out status quo.  All the realism and social commentary injected by Grant Morrison into the X-Men franchise had been undone just so editor-in-chief Joe Quesada could keep a 40 year old status quo alive, long after its relevancy had expired.  It didn’t make sense on a multitude of levels to revert the mutants back to that status quo of being hated and feared after they were just beginning to make the world a better place for mutants.

Beyond poor storytelling, the decision to have mutants thrust back into a world that fears and hates them is also unrealistic, because as Chuck Klosterman rightfully postulates: “The future always wins”.  Change and progressivism will always win out over stagnation and idleness.  That’s why segregation and apartheid were rescinded, and why the 19th amendment was passed.  Progress happens.  It happens most frequently in a society that cultivates and accepts progress more readily than cultures that do not.  Poll taxes are now unconstitutional, gays are openly accepted into the military, a Jewish state has been established, and hate groups like the KKK no longer have any real influence over society.  These are all examples of progress and acceptance of formally discriminated groups of people.

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Even in an instance where there is a reversal back towards discrimination, like the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, progress reasserts itself and acceptance eventually wins through.  The Supreme Court decision of Korematsu v. United States, while not officially overturned, has been maligned by all three branches of government as being unconstitutional.  Although it doesn’t erase the memory or replace the racial motivation behind the decision, in 1988m Congress compensated the survivors of the internment camps with $20,000, signifying that in forcing these innocent Americans from their homes and placing them in camps, the United States government made a mistake.  So even when rights are taken away, in an otherwise free society, attempts are made later on to try and rectify those decisions which left a targeted group of people victimized.

If the mutants had begun to slowly integrate themselves into mainstream society, thereby dismantling the prejudice and discrimination that held them back, then there’s no realistic way that society would abruptly change course and antagonize them again.  The way mutants were treated post M-Day would be akin to the South Africa reinstituting apartheid, or Germany legalizing the swastika.  No culture ever really turns away from progressivism, and that’s what made the treatment of mutants all the more insulting to fans, post M-Day.  Under Grant Morrison, there was this aura of change, that a new, realistic status quo was being developed, one that accurately reflected the real world, but also one that had undercurrents of social change.  Just as mutants had been used as a metaphor for any discriminated or persecuted group in the past, in the early 00s, they were being used as a metaphor for a formally persecuted group of peoplem who were beginning to gain acceptance by their surrounding culture.  It was similar to the Harlem Renaissance, or the desegregation of the MLB. Change was happening within the X-Men franchise, and it was a change that was based on actual historical precedent.  Under Morrison, for the first time in over a decade, the X-Men were being used as a conductor of social electricity.  The X-Men mattered again because the books were saying something, and reflecting a new status quo, one that articulated the continuous and evolving plight of gaining acceptance.

If Marvel was afraid of that change, and feared that the X-Men would no longer have any purpose if mutants weren’t being hunted to extinction anymore, they shouldn’t have looked any further than the world around us.  We live in a world where the fight for equality doesn’t end with a legislature.  If that were true then Trayvon Martin would still be alive.  If that were true, women would earn as much as men do and would not have to tolerate catcalling assholes on the streets.  If that were true, there wouldn’t be any world leaders publicly and actively calling for the destruction of Israel.  Equality is one of the few entities in life that’s both a destination and a journey, and by the time Morrison left the X-Men franchise, it looked like the mutants were finally off the treadmill and about to embark on that journey.

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The fight for equality and acceptance isn’t something that can be won overnight.  The 19th Amendment was a step in the right direction, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 were a step in the right direction, but these weren’t omnipotent solutions to discrimination.  Equality is something that has to be expanded and sustained over time.  It’s not really a quantitative trait as much as it is a qualitative one.  Having the X-Men, and mutants in general, now struggle with the responsibility of broadening the scope of their general acceptance would have been an interesting direction, especially now, given the wave of social justice movements sweeping across the country.  It seems that every discriminated group is now fighting to broaden the scope of equality, instead of merely fighting for an initial course of action.  For example, there’s no longer a stigma about women in the work force, now the next step in equal pay.  One foot is already through the door, and Marvel should have reflected this with their merry mutants.

But instead, and possibly to spite 20th Century Fox, Marvel is literally removing the mutants from Earth and segregating them from the rest of the Marvel Universe.  Again, Marvel is removing their in-house metaphor for any discriminated and disenfranchised group of people because no one likes them anymore.  This is the WORST message that Marvel could send, especially using the X-Men as the springboard for this message.  What it seems like they’re saying is “When the fight for equality gets too tough, just say ‘Fuck it!’ and go somewhere else where your existence doesn’t offend people”.

The recent revelation that Inhuman Terrigen mist is lethal to mutants, reeks of an editorial mandate and adds further fuel to the fire regarding Marvel’s recent distaste for the X-Men franchise.  This act of segregation, due to the fact that the world is now (literally) deadly to mutants not only is a blatant attempt to sequester the franchise and put it into an isolated corner of the Marvel Universe, but it also spits in the face of everything the franchise is supposed to stand for.  Very few comic books have ever managed to reflect our culture, or make such poignant social commentary as the X-Men franchise has.  After all, the ethos of the franchise is that of change and acceptance.  For decades, mutants were used as a sort of universal metaphor for anyone or any group of people who were abused, discriminated against, or persecuted by society.  With this recent wave of social justice movements sweeping through our society at such a torrid pace, it’s clear that the X-Men are just as relevant and necessary as they’ve ever been.  But instead of continuing the fight for justice and equality, Marvel would rather have the X-Men cut their losses and throw in the towel.  It just goes to show that art doesn’t always imitate real life…even when it should.


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