How to Understand the X-Men in One Simple Graphic Novel
First, a confession: the Platonic ideal of the X-Men for me has and will always be the 90’s cartoon version (inspired and influenced heavily by the iconic Chris Claremont/Jim Lee run, X-Men: Mutant Genesis). No matter what else I read, see, or what kind of action figures I’ve got (and trust me, there are lots) the X-Men who live in my head are the colourfully costumed team of Cyclops, Wolverine, Jean Grey, Beast, Storm, Rogue, Gambit and Jubilee (yep, even Jubilee…)
My power is failure!
Now despite falling in love with these iterations of the X-Men, I was always conscious (in a hilariously limited pre-Internet age way) of the greater mythology; through assorted comics, books about the X-Men, that awesome arcade game, Wizard and ToyFare magazines, and trading cards, I came to know Colussus, Shadowcat, Nightcrawler, and all the rest (most of whom also showed up in the cartoon) even some who were made-up for the show…
Don’t forget Barkley from Star Trek: The Next Generation! …I mean, Morph!
What I didn’t realize at the time, was that a man named Chris Claremont had essentially defined the X-Men books for all time with his iconic run, including above all else The Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of the Future Past, two stories that still resonate heavily in comic mythology. But ultimately, there is one story that really sums up the greater themes of the X-Men, themes I was absorbing sub-consciously as a kid, but which now read very clearly in the films as well as comics; namely, the X-Men are closeted outcasts trying to save the very people who hate and fear them. This set-up has been used at various times and various writers to handle everything from racism to homophobia (even going so far as to tackle -with decidedly mixed results- AIDS with the mutant Legacy virus story arc; a disease that targets only mutants and affected their ability to produce healthy cells, with both heroes and villains being affected and often hiding their positive status from each other, using terms such as LV Mutants)
Little known fact: Pyro originated the role of Roger in RENT.
So what story sums up all these disparate elements? God Loves, Man Kills is a graphic novel built by Claremont to be the definitive X-Men story, one that would read as true about the nature of these characters and their situation in the future (pretty much now, according to the 80’s original printing) as it did at the time. While the characters have all changed and grown (and died and been revived a bunch of times), this story managed to capture the very essence of the X-Men and as such is required reading for understanding why this particular myth is important. The question is, why?
The basic premise of God Loves, Man Kills has been reintegrated into a variety of mediums, most notably Bryan Singer’s excellent X2: X-Men United: the graphic novel follows the disturbing rise to power of the anti-mutant Reverend William Stryker, who is on a personal crusade to wipe out these ‘abominations’ called mutants. His rhetoric and argument are disturbingly familiar, evoking a lot of the hate spewed by the Westboro Baptist Church about…well, pretty much anything.
Yep, they’re an X-Men villain too.
The basic argument being, since mutants are homo superior rather than homo sapien Styker argues that they are not human and thus deserve no human rights. From the murder of his infant son (who is born a mutant) to the betrayal of his most loyal support when it is revealed that she is a mutant, Stryker is hate and bigotry incarnate, but worse still, he’s popular. In a notable scene early on, Charles Xavier debates Stryker on TV and the X-Men, watching from home, can’t help but note that although Xavier’s arguments are sound, Stryker is calm, charismatic and playing off people’s fear -sound familiar in today’s media? Claremont has given us a villain Wolverine can’t punch, Cyclops can’t blast, and Xavier can’t outsmart. He’s not a super villain, he’s a real life villain, which is perhaps even more terrifying. His defeat at the hands of a regular cop, trying to prevent a murder and a riot, is perfect. An ordinary monster can only be stopped by an ordinary man.
Then he brings the violence. God Loves, Man Kills opens with one of the most poignant and heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever seen in a comic: two children are running, the older one telling his little sister to forget about their mother and to keep running. They make it to a playground before the little boy is shot. Then as the little girl holds her dead brother, with tear-stained cheeks she asks her assailant, “Why?” to which the attacker, part of Stryker’s mutant hit-squad responds by shooting her and saying: “Because you don’t deserve to live.”
The two children are then strung up by swings in the playground with signs around their necks reading “MUTIES” to greet the students coming to school in morning. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think of Matthew Shepard in Laramie (dramatized in The Laramie Project).
And then, Magneto, the arch villain of the X-Men and a Holocaust survivor, finds them and gently brings their bodies down and delivers the respect and horror the event evokes. I’ll be covering Magneto in a few weeks in more depth, but suffice to say that this one moment sums up why Mageneto seeks to rule the earth more than any other: he experienced one genocide and seeks to prevent another by seizing control. This theme runs throughout the book, right up to the grand reveal of Stryker’s final solution, which is to use Xavier’s massive psychic powers to kill every mutant on earth (also used in X2). This is Magneto in fine form, a complicated, sympathetic, and ultimately correct villain, whose only defeat in this book comes from Cyclops reminding him, “We’re humans too.”
In addition to covering religious and sexual intolerance, Claremont manages to hit the racism issue too, in a series of three perfect panels, in which young Kitty Pride (a closeted mutant and the Jubilee of the 70’s, the young person we’re supposed to identify with…although she’s a helluva lot cooler than Jubilee…) gets in an argument with a fellow dance student who fires off some anti-mutant slurs before calling her a mutant-lover. After her black dance teacher Stevie and Colossus break up the fight, Stevie tells Kitty not to sweat it, that they’re just words; to which the wounded Kitty responds, “Suppose he’d called me a nigger-lover, Stevie? Would you be so damn tolerant then?!!” A few panels later, we have Stevie alone, shaking and crying, admitting to herself that Kitty is right.
This scene kinda floored me; it just beautifully summed up how this series explores issues (much like the unbelievably awesome Battlestar Galactica abortion episode). A racist probably won’t read an anti-racism comic, but a kick-ass story about a guy with built-in claws and another dude who shoots lasers out of his eyes? Hells yes.
Racist Thinking 101: Well, I won’t watch Crash, but this is awesome!
Now, that isn’t to say the comic doesn’t have it’s issues, it does: most notably, the style of comics at the time is very different from what we read now (the team spends a lot of time explaining what their powers are and how they work; think anime-style “My optic blast has stunned him! That will give Colossus enough time to grab him!” “Using my strength, I’ll grab this bad guy, who Cyclops stunned with his optic blast!”) and there’s a hilarious focus on reminding the audience how young these characters are supposed to be (they’re just like us!). It’s not bad writing, by any stretch, it just takes a bit of mental adjustment.
So if like me, you’ve cared about these characters since you saw them fly around the X-Men logo randomly every Saturday morning (or now, late at night, several drinks in on Netflix) this is an incredible window into the very heart of the mythology. It’s also just an incredible story by a master of the franchise and can help fill in that little gap on your soul left by watching the horrendous X3.
God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson
Recommendation: Essential reading. Sums up the entire franchise and the reason this myth is important. Surprisingly relevant today.
Dark Phoenix Saga, the definitive story of the Claremont arc. While this sums up the mythology, Dark Phoenix shook comics to their core and permanently changed the X-Men. I will be covering it in an upcoming post.
Days of the Future Past: Also set to be covered in an upcoming post, this story covers a horrific future where Sentinals have killed most of the X-Men. Think the kickass opening sequence of Terminator 2, but John Conner is Wolverine. Awesome.
X-Men: Mutant Genesis: The end of an era and the beginning of another, this was the end of Claremont’s X-Men run, and the aesthetic picked up by the cartoon. (Anyone else remember when Pizza Hut had an X-Men promotion? They were giving out the first issue of this run. Never ate at Pizza Hut more in my life…)
Battlestar Galactica “The Captain’s Hand” s 2 e 17: An incredible episode that managed to strike at the core of the show’s premise: with the remains of humanity in the 10,000s, the President, a former pro-choice proponent before the war, has to put aside her beliefs to outlaw abortion to save the human race. Rarely does a show manage to use it’s premise to explore an issue in such an interesting way.
X2: The definitive X-Men film, but ultimately hindered by not having a proper follow-up (imagine if Peter Jackson had handed Return of the King over to Michael Bay). The film deals with Colonel William Stryker (Brian ‘I was the original Hannibal Lector’ Cox) using his mutant son to orchestrate a mutant/human war and then kill all mutants. Also lays the groundwork for Dark Phoenix and features the most awesome Nightcrawler scene of all time. Alan Cumming 1, White House 0.
X3: Uh oh, someone told Bret Ratner he could make a movie…pretty much throwing subtly under a bus, X3 is a mess involving important characters (that Cyclops guy I’ve heard about once or twice) getting killed off-screen, Dark Phoenix being Jean Grey in a dress. AN EVIL DRESS! Professor X being a douche for no reason (surprise! I’ve secretly been giving Jean Grey psychic lobotomies this WHOLE TIME!), and about the most generic ‘we didn’t get this hyper specific maneuver right at the beginning of the movie because we didn’t work as a team…but wait, here is the exact circumstance again…only now it works! Yay!’ moment I’ve ever seen. It’s not all bad (Wolverine kills a tonne of people in a forest. Awesome) and has a beautifully sad moment with Xavier-less Magneto as a sad old man playing chess alone in a park, trying to regain his powers. Fantastic. Not sure how these two great scenes managed to sneak in; maybe they were deleted scenes from X2…
X-Men cartoon: Take it with a grain of salt, It can get kinda silly and convoluted, but ultimately, a fantastic microcosm of important X-Men stories and characters. And it’s all on Netflix. Hells yes. Not nearly as coherent or polished as the Bruce Timm, Paul Dini Batman,Superman, Justice League, and Batman Beyond series, but still worth a watch, for the epic theme song, if nothing else.
*Please note, not all images are taken from God Loves, Man Kills