From its inception, the X-Men franchise has always explored the twin themes of xenophobia and coexistence. Between these two dispositions runs the entire gamut of means by which a majority and minority group, whose natural inclinations are mutual fear and hatred, may seek to resolve their differences.
Through the metaphor of mutants, Marvel has explored much of the xenophobic side of that spectrum in the last 54 years. There was a time not too long ago that this dynamic had begun to feel forced and played out. Morrison’s run on “New X-Men” seemed the perfect capstone to its running commentary on race relations in America, and through subplots such as the integration of the Xavier Institute hinted at the kind of stories the franchise could focus on in the future, reflective of the post-racial landscape in which we now lived.
Instead, the edge of extinction storyline begun in “House of M” and persisting through to the end of “Avengers vs. X-Men” resulted in a near decade-long slog of increasing irrelevance for Marvel’s merry band of mutants.
Academia and Media Obsessed Us All with Race
What changed was not the quality of X-titles being published after that. They remained rough but for the occasional diamond such as “Uncanny Avengers” (an X-title, despite the Avengers branding). Rather, the reemergence of racial antagonism eroded the progress towards a post-racial society which a few short years earlier had seemingly already arrived.
Academia and the mass media once more fanned into flames the last sparks of interpersonal racism; the former through the proliferation of critical methods of interpretation which assume (and entrench) racial division, and the latter—whether shouted by mainstream outlets or echoed throughout social media—through histrionic coverage of any and all violence with even the appearance of racial motivation. From this, a non-Hegalian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and anti-antithesis spiraled outward, and instead of any synthesis in sight, sees increasing political balkanization across racial lines.
In response to the abovementioned violence and assuming the aforementioned critical lens, groups such as #BlackLivesMatter gained immediate prominence, which fueled the growth of the Alt-Right, which itself resulted in the rise of Antifa and the Alt-Left (a coalition of minority identarian interest groups whose political positions mirror oppositely the white nationalism of the Alt-Right). It is in this current milieu that the X-Men’s condemnation of xenophobia and calls for coexistence find renewed relevance.
The comics industry has neither been ignorant of nor a passive player in such social upheaval. Circa 2011 it evidenced a total paradigm shift, transitioning from the Modern Age to the Postmodern Age of Comics. Whereas in the Modern Age each publisher assumed the reader’s primary investment was in an overarching cape opera, with the individual heroes mere windows into more wondrous worlds, in the Postmodern Age heroes are not windows but mirrors, each a reflection of a particular group of readers the publisher is targeting.
But with every distinct demographic group receiving increased representation—e.g., blacks with Sam Wilson as Captain America, gays through young Iceman being outed, Latinos through Miles Morales as Spider-man, Muslims through Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, and women with Carol Danvers’ promotion to Captain Marvel—mutants as a metaphor for all minorities lost much of its sublimity.
Focus On Each Person as an Individual, Not a Category
Nevertheless, there exists a need, not merely for that metaphor, but for the thesis of the X-Men: condemning fear and hatred for the “Other,” whether one finds oneself in the majority or minority; and the call for not merely representation, but coexistence and cooperation. Xavier’s Dream—like Martin Luther King Jr.’s, on which it was modelled—is radically individualist. Any call to judge a person not on his or her skin color or chromosomes but on his or her character necessarily puts the emphasis not on demographics but individuals.
I truly believe this philosophy of individualism to be the best remedy for healing racial divisions and the most effective means of working towards (even if never perfectly achieving) the ideal of a post-racial society.
I also believe it’s the reason we’ll not see a truly great X-Men run again for quite some time. After all, who in the industry today responsible for creating the stories of Xavier’s men still believe in Xavier’s dream? Excepting only Grant Morrison and Rick Remender, whose past work speaks for itself on the matter, I’m hard-pressed to name a single current comic creator who could integrate those themes of individualism and coexistence with the clarity and deftness they deserve.
For Now, Xavier’s Dream Is But a Memory
Last week’s “Astonishing X-Men #1” by Charles Soule and Jim Chueng is perhaps the best comic fans can hope for in the current climate awash with identity politics in that it avoids such altogether, focusing instead on the individual relationships between the characters. The banter between the gentlemen thieves Gambit and Fantomex evidences a budding bromance that could rival the fan-favorite forbidden love between the former and their teammate Rogue.
Likewise, the latter finds himself in a love triangle with Psylocke and Angel reminiscent of the classic Cyclopes-Jean Grey-Wolverine dynamic. And Wolverine, or Logan these days, is set up to be played against Bishop, as both are time-travelers bent on preventing their respective futures. It is a genuinely impressive introductory issue; it’s fun superhero fare with a compelling cast who are all well written, with an intriguing enough premise that readers will return for issue No. 2.
It’s a great generic superhero comic, but not a great X-Men comic, lacking the very raison d’être behind the X-Men’s existence. Truly great art—including not merely fine art, but commercial art including even comics—is a refraction, through the lens of the physical creation, of the very Form of the Good itself, its spectral bands evidencing Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in equal measures. Morrison’s “New X-Men” once achieved this to a degree, as did Rick Remender’s “Uncanny Avengers.”
As decent stories for their own sake, Marvel’s modern X-Men comics may yet evidence a small portion of pulchritude, but they long lost their likelihood to speak truth and instruct moral improvement on the matter of peaceful race relations founded on individual dignity. Perhaps one day once more Xavier’s men can forward Xavier’s Dream in the Marvel Universe and our own, but likely not until the Postmodern Age of Comics comes to a close.