Back in 1963, a comic book guy named Charles Xavier rolled around in his wheelchair and wrote the book on “differently abled.” As what his creator Stan Lee dubbed a Mutant – a blanket label with a scope ranging from chesty telepaths to five-assed monkeys – Professor X led a crusade for equality that was unprecedented in comic book history. Lee’s intention in this landmark title was to mirror the current struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, with Xavier filling the role of Martin Luther King Jr. and his friend and nemesis Magneto playing the reactionary side of Malcolm X. Throughout its history, through its great and not-so-great story arcs, the mutants have held a unique status of being dyed in the wool heroes who don’t quite get along with those they protect. (An argument could be made for Batman being the forerunner of outcast heroes, but then again, why is he in the Justice League – and why was he played by Adam West?) As opposed to the cheers heard at the end of most Golden Age comics, the X-men are as often as not pelted with bottles and run out of town by mobs and killer robots. The obvious reason why is because they’re different, other, freaks.
This ongoing theme of bigotry and nobility in spite of it has resonated with the public, and has made the X-men one of the top comic franchises in history, and for good reason. But there has always been a problem with the series, one which has grown more obvious in recent years as storylines in the Marvel Universe have grown more Orwellian.
Let’s start at the beginning. Our pal Chuck operates his team of young superheroes within the veneer of an academy for “Gifted Youngsters.” Now, we all know what gifted means in this case; Chuck’s running a safe haven for mutants, where they can feel safe and learn to control their powers, when they’re not rising (en masse, it seems) to save the world and make it more tolerant. Much is made of Xavier’s King-like dream of peace between mutants and non-mutants.
So here’s the problem. Why doesn’t Chuck teach non-mutants? In reality, any norms who show up on campus are, here, the freaks. You’d think that making a mutant school open to non-mutants would be a significant step toward unity and reconciliation. Nope. Instead, this school is insular and, ultimately, a defensive construct. With all the bastards trying to kill Chuckie and the Gang, walling up like this is partially justified. Nonetheless, making a school that preaches tolerance mutants-only throws the baby out with the bathwater, denies normies the opportunity to mingle with the freaks and realize that they’re not all that bad. Wasn’t integration a crucial aspect of the Civil Rights Movement? The X-men could have faced a George Wallace-like villain who stood in front of the X-Mansion, refusing to let non-mutants in. Would have been a blast.
I’ll give you a nerd catch-up on the present. In recent storylines, the mutants have suffered mass genocide at the hands of giant robots, after which the not quite dead Magneto became a Che Guevara t-shirt. His daughter went crazy, created an alternate Happyland where Magneto rules, but then all-but erased mutants, leaving less than 200 on the planet. It’s here where the X-men (who, of course, emerge unscathed) become their most insular and paranoid, dropping almost all greater altruism in favor of keeping the laser beam dodo alive. The team’s heroism becomes more narrow and embattled, focused solely upon events’ effects upon its own people. While this isn’t totally out of line, there’s more than a little persecution complex bigotry here, which ruins the original dream of peace and harmony.
This is a problem caused by the taking of sides, of tribalism, of a social Selfish Gene Theory.
The saying which comes to mind in explaining this is, appropriately enough, an Arab proverb: “Me against my brother, my brother and I against our cousin, and my brother, cousin, and I against the stranger.” As humans following (mostly invented) differences, each person finds their cultural niche, their side, which fulfills both the need to belong and the need to have enemies. The person as individual and the urge for self-preservation are obscured and replaced with delusions of serving the greater good, turning saints into monsters and martyrs.
We’re seeing this play out in Gaza, where Israel and Palestine are abusing eons of history to mandate their current savagery against each other. We’ve seen it play out in our politics, where the two-party system has created an either/or, top/down mentality. We see it in the selective acknowledgment of atrocities perpetuated throughout the globe. We see it in the absurdity of asserting that an all-loving God would have a chosen people. We see it every time someone brings any form of social category into play. A friend and I once agreed that, should the current forms of bigotry someday come to an end, humans will simply move on to hating each other based on what entertainment one consumes.
A life defined by social categories and mass-market ideals is one lacking in vitality. It’s alright to be selfish; self is critical, original, the vendor of hope. Bratty entitlement and greed are different, equally as dangerous as factioning. But each life is lived alone. In this, the only sides that matter are inside and outside. The balance between determines everything.