The following is a special feature that I wrote for PopMatters.com to commemorate the 50th anniversary of X-men.
What does it mean to be hated and feared for being different?
Minorities throughout history have had to ask this difficult question
and confront the equally difficult answer. Every society in every era
has had minorities of some kind. It can be based on class, race,
ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. But the common
thread for every minority is hatred and fear from those that doesn’t
understand them and at times doesn’t even attempt to. This common human
experience that has spanned the ages is why the X-men have resonated
with audiences after 50 years.
Before the X-men, there had been plenty of superheroes. However,
superheroes at the time rarely reflected the struggles of humanity.
Superheroes were meant to be embodiments of human ideals. They were
defined by their ability to overcome these struggles with power and
resolve that sets them apart from normal humans. This common theme has
been reflected throughout history, long before the era of comic books
and billion dollar blockbuster movies. The epic heroes of mythology,
from Hercules to Gilgamesh, were personifications of human ideals. But
heroes like the X-men focused on a different set of ideals while
confronting the much harsher realities.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the X-men in 1963 and billed them as
“The Strangest Heroes of All.” On the surface, however, they weren’t all
that strange. There was nothing very unique about the powers wielded by
Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Iceman, Beast, and Angel. But one of the key
features that set them apart was their youth. Like Spider-Man, they were
teenagers. They weren’t mature adults dealing with a mature world. They
were five confused teenagers who found out that they were very
different. And because they were different, they would be doomed to a
life of fear and persecution.
The X-men weren’t the first team of teenage superheroes, nor would
they be the last. However, they were the first to tap into that
universal experience of being a young, vulnerable minority. And this
came at a time when minority relations in the United States and
throughout the world were undergoing significant change. It’s no
coincidence that the X-men resonated during a time when the Civil Rights
movement was unfolding. The struggles of minorities were finally being
confronted and today, they’re still being confronted. That’s a big
reason why the X-men have endured for 50 years.
But it is more than just the minority themes that have made the X-men
resonate. It’s easy to forget for many fans that it took a while for
the X-men to become one of the most successful franchises in comic book
history. The original run of Uncanny X-men by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
did not generate a great deal of interest and even faced cancellation at
times. Then Giant Sized X-men #1 came along and a writer named
Christ Claremont took the X-men into a bold new era that solidified
their position in comic book lore.
And it wasn’t enough to just explore the struggles of minorities. The
X-men were pioneers in creating strong, enduring characters that also
happened to be minorities. Characters like Storm, Kitty Pryde, and
Northstar became more than just heroes. They ushered in a wave of
diversity that helped set the X-men apart from other superhero teams.
They weren’t like the Justice League or the Avengers. The added
diversity of the X-men created a team that did more than embody the
struggles of minorities. It created a sense of unity between these
different races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. And almost as much as
their mutant powers, this unity was among the X-men’s greatest strength.
That unity was fueled by the dream of Professor Charles Xavier. From
the very beginning, the X-men were motivated by his dream of peaceful
coexistence between humans and mutants. To the average person, such a
dream seems overly idealistic and unattainable. And no matter how
powerful the X-men were as a team, it seemed they could never achieve
this impossible dream. It seems almost unheroic in a sense. Superman
achieves the impossible all the time and is beloved by the people
despite having power that would otherwise garner fear and hatred. But
the reason Charles Xavier’s dream resonates with the X-men and the
readers isn’t because it’s impossible. It’s because pursuing peace and
understanding is far more difficult than succumbing to hatred in fear.
This hatred and fear has manifested in many daunting threats
throughout the history of the X-men. From killer Sentinels to Magneto’s
Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, they embody this fear and hatred of a
minority and the natural inclination to respond with violence. In many
ways, this is what makes the villains the X-men face every bit as
compelling. Unlike the Joker or Lex Luthor, it’s easy to understand the
motivations of characters like Magneto. Bryan Singer, the director of
the first two X-men movies, compared their differing ideology to that of
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. One seeks peace while the
other seeks to exact vengeance for crimes committed against a minority.
It’s easy to understand both sides and unlike traditional villains, it
can’t be resolved by just throwing someone in jail or killing them.
Over the years, the message of the X-men has evolved. However, the
underlying theme has remained the same. It could still be argued that
mutants are an improper allegory for minorities. Unlike mutants, other
minorities don’t cause mass destruction with telekinesis, optic blasts,
or ice beams. And unlike other minorities, mutants don’t realize how
different they are until adolescence. Puberty itself is already a
dramatic enough transformation, but what mutants experience is far more
chaotic. And that inability to predict or control these powers creates a
legitimate concern. Anyone living in the Marvel universe would rightly
share that concern. However, the X-men remind people in both the real
and fictional world that no matter how chaotic or dangerous these
changes may be, there are still human beings behind these changes.
As a child, my favorite time of day was the hour after school where I
would come home and watch cartoons. And the two cartoons I watched the
most were the Spider-Man and X-men animated series. And one episode of the X-men
cartoon best embodied this message of focusing on the humanity rather
than the superficial traits around them. In Season One, Episode 13, “The
Final Decision,” Bolivar Trask and Senator Robert Kelly are preparing
an army of Sentinels led by Mastermold to protect humanity from the
mutant race. But at one point, Mastermold disobeys its creator when it
tells them, “Mutants are human.” This machine, which is devoid of all
fear and hatred, comes to an inescapable conclusion that humans cannot
or will not confront. No matter how different a mutant is or how
dangerous they may be, they are still human. And because they are human,
they are part of the same world and part of the same struggle.
This moment best reflects the core message of the X-men and that
message is more important today than it has ever been. Regardless of
anyone’s race, gender, class, sexual orientation, or ability, they are
all still human. They live, love, suffer, and die. They have human
parents and human problems. The divisions that people impose on
themselves or others are arbitrary because at the end of the day, we’re
all still human. And we can accomplish much more together than we ever
could on our own.
This is the message that the X-men embody. Charles Xavier’s dream is
as relevant today is it was 50 years ago. They are more than just a team
of superheroes. They do more than just save the world from dangerous
super-villains. They carry out acts of heroism despite the knowledge
that many still hate and fear them. They seek to live peacefully in a
world where so many have rejected them. Without them, it would be too
easy for mutants or minorities of any kind to become alienated and
separate themselves from the world. But the X-men remind everybody that
this world is big enough for everybody. It doesn’t take heroes to
embrace those who are different as human. It only takes a dream and
For 50 years, the X-men have told stories that have inspired
generations of readers. And in the real world, the struggles of
minorities will continue. So long as society remains imperfect and human
beings remain flawed, there will be many struggles for those who are
hated and feared because of their differences. That’s why the core
message of the X-men will always be important. And as the world grows
and faces challenges too big for any one group of people, it is all the
more vital that humanity to come together in understanding rather than
remain divided by fear and hatred.