The X-Men as LGBT Champions: From Outcasts to Elites
Picture Credit: Marvel
American superhero comics have never been apolitical. The early adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s cosmic immigrant Superman typically followed journalist Clark Kent as he investigated greedy and duplicitous businessmen who believed they could cheat, steal, and murder with impunity; the climactic scenes where Kent’s invincible alter-ego took them to task must have been immensely gratifying for Action Comics’ Depression-era readership. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Captain America for the sole purpose of socking Nazis and sinking Japanese fleets, and the character was briefly rebranded as “Captain America…Commie Smasher!” when sales of his book dipped after World War II ended. Steve Ditko and Steve Skeates introduced Hawk and Dove as teenage brothers arguing about the Vietnam War. Batman has long been the poster-boy for the right-wing belief that the simple solution to urban crime is to brutalize offenders and hurl them in jail (where they will almost certainly not be reformed). But for decades, the most consistently political mainstream superheroes have been Marvel’s X-Men.
For those who might not be familiar with the comic: its premise is the emergence of a mutated strain of Homo sapiens (Homo superior) whose genetic makeup gives them superhuman abilities. The character Cyclops fires crimson “optic force beams” from his eyes; Wolverine possesses an accelerated “healing factor” that allows him to swiftly recover from virtually any injury, and retractable bone “claws” in his knuckles; Storm can control the weather; and so on. The X-Men began as the project of independently wealthy geneticist Charles Xavier, himself a mutant with the power of telepathy. At a time when the existence of mutants was still widely unknown, Xavier founded his School for Gifted Youngsters, where he trained young mutants to use their gifts in service to the world (usually as vigilante superheroes, since this is a Marvel comic book) under the cover of a selective private school. The X-Men’s adventures typically place them in conflict with “evil mutants,” the most famous of whom is Magneto, the self-declared Master of Magnetism, who can generate and control magnetic fields. As the series goes on, and as the presence of mutants becomes public knowledge, the X-Men also find themselves fending off attacks from anti-mutant militias, mad scientists, and shadowy government agencies. Dedicated to using their gifts in the defense of a world that fears and hates them, the X-Men have long been America’s premiere queer superheroes.
This isn’t groundless fan-theorizing or interpretational overreach. The X-Men debuted and climbed to the top of the sales charts at a time when queer themes and characters were taboo in general-audience media, and LGBT folk could discern an eminently legible cipher for their own experiences in stories of gifted but misunderstood pariahs. At first, most of the analogies were probably incidental. Later on, they became deliberate, though the degree of emphasis was often left to the discretion of a given writer, and the metaphors became perhaps a bit mixed as more LGBT mutant characters filled the books’ pages, explicitly addressing matters to which the narrative could previously only allude.
After superstar writer Jonathan Hickman’s reboot of the comic franchise in 2019, the X-Men are queerer than ever. Cyclops, his spouse Marvel Girl, and Wolverine are now a polycule. Longtime fan-favorite Kate “Kitty” Pryde has been kissing girls. Critics called Leah Williams’ new iteration of spin-off title X-Factor “one of Marvel’s most LGBTQ+ inclusive titles ever,” with a majority of its main cast composed of established gay and bisexual characters. The Hellfire Gala crossover storyline, staged in June 2021, was a parade of beloved characters confidently making the scene in gender-nonconforming haute couture. All of these developments have been handled gracefully and organically. Though some of the current books (and writers) are better or worse than others, X-Men comics on the whole haven’t been so exciting or reached such peaks of quality in over a decade.
Kate “Kitty” Pryde (right) kisses a female tattoo artist
However: if we grant that the ongoing X-Men narrative has been entwined with and informed by LGBT experience and politics in the United States, then present-day X-Men comics may likewise be read as a reflection of the LGBT movement’s political posture six years after it won its crowning victory with the federal recognition of same-sex marriage in 2015. The resulting image isn’t altogether flattering.
When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby debuted The Uncanny X-Men in 1963, they didn’t set out to produce a social justice story. During a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, Lee explained that the creation of the “the strangest teen-team of ‘em all” was precipitated by a simple thought process. He had to account for how his teenaged vigilantes-in-training acquired their powers, and their being born with them was an origin story he hadn’t tried yet. In the first issue, Professor Xavier mentions that his parents had been involved in developing the atomic bomb, implying that Homo superior is, like so many other creatures of contemporaneous science-fiction, a consequence of the nuclear age. The original version of Magento comes onstage not as the separationist Malcolm X to Xavier’s integrationist Martin Luther King, but as a megalomaniacal cult leader who ensures his subordinates’ loyalty through bullying, abuse, and repeated warnings of the mortally dangerous prejudice they’d face should they renege on their pledge of servitude in exchange for sanctuary.
The early issues of Uncanny X-Men make clear that Magneto himself is responsible for the anti-mutant sentiment he cites when trying to recruit new followers; he is not to be understood as a principle-driven (albeit ruthless) idealogue, but as a cynical would-be tyrant. The public is shown to be less afraid of mutants per se than the self-announced “evil mutants” who’ve made the news by stealing nuclear weapons, staging coups in small South American nations, and attempting to sell government secrets to the Soviets. The incensed mobs that occasionally chase the X-Men through the streets less resemble belligerent segregationists or skinheads than the hysterical Cold War paranoiacs whom Rob Serling famously criticizes in the Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”
But even during the book’s early years, we find rudiments of LGBT allegory waiting to be connected and elaborated on. The mutants around whom the stories revolve are an anomalous minority group distinguished not by any phenotypic racial traits or an exotic belief system, but by differences that manifest irrespective of ethnicity, religious background, or economic class. Mutants are shown to usually be capable of blending in with the (conspicuously white) mainstream, provided they remain closeted, keeping their powers a secret. Many mutants don’t really know what they are until meeting Professor Xavier or Magneto; ignorant of the existence of others like them, and fearful of a part of themselves they don’t completely understand, the stories of young mutants learning about and coming to terms with their identity must have struck a chord with gay and lesbian readers who had grown or were growing up during a time when the lack of representation (or even mention) of LGBT people in the media could literally deprive them of a language with which to speak of themselves. After coming out, whether they joined Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters and worked toward earning social acceptance by giving mutants a good name, or threw in with Magneto and his out-and-proud Brotherhood, mutants are virtually always shown living among multigenerational families of choice.
While the dynamic between Professor Xavier and Magneto’s opposing philosophies has been incessantly compared to Martin Luther King’s vision of harmony in diversity and the “black racist” ideology espoused by Malcolm X before his break with the Nation of Islam, it might be more fitting to associate Xavier and his students’ assimilationist politics with pioneering gay activist Frank Kameny and the Mattachine Society of Washington: men and women who merely wanted to live in American society as it presently existed, to have professional careers and participate in civic life without pretending to be heterosexual. Taking a page from the Civil Rights Movement’s tactics, Kameny required that picketers at demonstration events turn out in their Sunday best: men had to wear suits and ties, and women dresses. “Respectability” was the watchword.
The most curious (and certainly coincidental) point of correspondence between Kameny’s Mattachine Society branch and Xavier’s X-Men are the double lives lived and pseudonyms used by its members. Like most of the “homophile” groups that formed in the 1950s, the Mattachine Society of Washington used made-up names in public and internal documentation to shield its middle-class membership from the consequences of being outed as homosexual. (Only Kameny went by his given name; after his career in astronomy was ruined during the Lavender Scare in 1957, he had considerably less to lose than some of his peers.) The young and socially active X-Men, when they’re out on the town, go by the names Bobby, Hank, Jean, Scott, and Warren; when they put on their uniforms and masks, they’re Iceman, Beast, Marvel Girl, Cyclops, and Angel, keeping their “normal” and “queer” lives compartmentalized.
Until 1983, Magneto was exclusively known by that name. His lackeys, too, only went by their noms de guerre: Toad was Toad, the Blob was the Blob, and Mastermind was Mastermind. In these early stories, their lives and mutant identities are fully integrated. (The exceptions are the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, and their being called “Wanda” and “Pietro” in addition to their sobriquets underscores the tenuousness of their reluctant allegiance to Magneto.) In Magneto’s rejection of Xavier’s irenic, integrationist objectives, we might see shades of pre-Stonewall radicals like Leo Laurence, who broke with the “timid, uptight, [and] conservative” homophile group, The Society for Individual Rights, and founded the Committee for Homosexual Freedom (later rebranded as the San Francisco chapter of the Gay Liberation Front). “Don’t hide it,” he implored LGBT readers of the Berkely Barb, and urged collaboration with the Black Panthers, the anti-war movement, and women’s liberation groups. This strain of activist didn’t want permission to be openly gay by showing they could adhere to social norms: they wanted to challenge and remake the norm. After Stonewall, LGBT rights demonstrators more frequently turned out in their Sunday best — their hippie best. Like Magneto’s Brotherhood, they didn’t put on a different set of clothes to accommodate the normies.
Leo Lawrence (man behind) exhorting LGBT readers of the Berkeley Barb not to hide their sexuality
The Uncanny X-Men was effectively cancelled in 1970, but lived on in reprints until its “Giant-Size” relaunch in 1975. New writer Chris Claremont, who would remake the X-Men into Marvel’s most valuable property, more deliberately presented the mutant experience as the struggle of a marginalized group for recognition, acceptance, and survival. Claremont wasn’t squeamish about featuring nonwhite, non-American, non-Christian, and non-heterosexual characters (Mystique and Destiny were pretty obviously a loving lesbian couple, even if the name of their love couldn’t be printed), and drew from enough real-world issues to thwart any one particular interpretation of whom the story is really about. His X-Men are any or every persecuted minority, considered in the abstract. By expanding on Magneto as a Jewish holocaust survivor who believed that only a unified assertion of strength could prevent mutants from being victimized, Claremont not only makes him into something more than a one-note supervillain, but links his and Xavier’s ideological differences to the integrationist and separatist currents vying for preeminence in any number of 20th-century social justice movements. Mutant villain teams of the 1980s, like Mystique’s revival of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and the short-lived Alliance of Evil, evoke militant radical groups — and it should come as no surprise that the narrative condemns the politics of uprisings and riots in favor of the X-Men’s “model minority” strategy. American superhero comics are almost uniformly conservative: their heroes exist to uphold and prevent threats to the social order, whether posed by criminals or revolutionaries. The 1988 introduction of the island nation Genosha — a stand-in for South Africa, whose apartheid policies had made it a pariah state — should be read in the same light, as a reminder that superhero comics usually don’t take one political stance or the other unless it is safe to do so.
Kyle Jinadu marries mutant Jean-Paul Beaubier (a.k.a. Northstar) in a 2004 comic
For all the racial justice analogues in X-Men comics, it was the mutants-as-LGBT-folk metaphor that gained traction. During the 1980s, as the AIDS crisis raised the profile of LGBT people in the media and violent crimes motivated by homophobia were on the rise, anti-mutant hysteria became a prominent plot element across the X-Men comics. The introduction of villainous religious fanatics like the Reverend Stryker and the paramilitary group aptly named The Right reflects the politically ascendent New Christian Right’s obsession with quashing the gay rights movement. As Claremont and Louise Simonson introduced a slew of “next generation” characters, episodes in which the teenaged mutants encounter bigoted peers would have been painfully familiar to closeted readers who’d ever had to force a laugh at a homophobic joke.
What finally cinched the status of the X-Men as a crypto-queer narrative was the introduction of the Legacy Virus in a 1993 story by Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza. Before his defeat and (apparent) demise, the villain Stryfe releases an airborne plague which exclusively infects mutants. Once contracted, the disease is invariably fatal. Mutants across the world drop dead, covered in purplish blisters (analogous to the lesions symptomatic of HIV), and the public doesn’t understand why. The fear that the disease could jump from the mutant population and infect baseline humans doesn’t make mutants any more popular.
By the early 1990s, a long-running plotline inspired by an epidemic that was being called “the gay disease” was far less politically fraught— and daring — than it would have been during the outbreak’s early years in the 1980s. But even if the Legacy Virus story came somewhat late, it nevertheless broached the subject of AIDS in a sector of the media that had been ignoring the crisis for well over a decade, even while comic books and cartoons had no compunctions about running stories addressing other topical issues like drug abuse, urban crime, and pollution.
In 1994, the letters page at the back of Uncanny X-Men #317 published a note from a reader whose brother had died of leukemia. He was 19 years old, an avid reader of X-Men comics, and gay. Shortly before he passed, he came out to his sister. Her letter, signed “A Sister who Misses Her Brother,” is printed in full, occupying the entire column. An excerpt:
He was ashamed. It was as if he was confessing a deep sin, needing some kind of absolution so he could die. Despite the other pain he was obviously feeling, I could see the suffering of self-loathing in his face; he hated himself because he was gay. I asked him if he ever loved anyone. He told me he couldn’t. I asked him what he meant by “couldn’t,” but he was unable to put it into any other words than “just couldn’t.” For the first time, I saw my brilliant little brother paralyzed by fear. Of what he was really afraid, I don’t know. Maybe he was afraid of being hated by my parents, burning in Hell, being teased by society or just losing the few friends he had. For reasons I can’t remember, he told me that his sexual orientation was one of the reasons he had always liked the X-Men — because they were mutants, hated and feared by society for just being what they were. I asked him which characters were gay, thinking that after he was gone, maybe I’d learn about my brother through them. He said he didn’t know of any gay characters in the X-Men. It didn’t matter to him, he said. I could see why. He was the blue-furred Beast that people glared at. He was Rogue, afraid to touch other people. He even told me that he was Iceman, bragging to his friends about women that he lusted after, but really insecure deep down inside. Now that he’s gone, I have his comic books.
“[H]e told me that his sexual orientation was one of the reasons he had always liked the X-Men — because they were mutants, hated and feared by society for just being what they were.”
Appreciative letters from LGBT readers thanking the X-Men creative teams for stories that harmonized with aspects of their own lives had appeared in Marvel’s mailbox before, but nothing like this had ever been printed on the letters page — or reproduced in its entirety, taking up the entire column. If nothing else, it shows that the X-Office was taking this feedback to heart. The extent to which it influenced and encouraged writers to integrate more queer-coded stories into the X-books is difficult to gauge from this distance. But whatever the motivation, such narratives proliferated over the next several years.
In the 1995 one-shot X-Men Prime, written by Lobdell and Nicieza, a group of bigoted humans surround and beat a young mutant to death by the roadside at night — a horrific reenactment of any number of hate crimes suffered by LGBT victims who outed themselves to the wrong people. A 2003 story during Chuck Austen’s Uncanny X-Men run begins with the ghastly tableau of several characters crucified and left to die on the lawn of the Xavier Institute by members of the Church of Humanity; around one of their necks hangs a sign that reads “Evolution is not the will of God.” American readers at the time would have been reminded of Matthew Shepherd’s shocking murder five years earlier, and of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, one of the most dogged and vile homophobic groups in the United States. A year later, Joss Whedon began his Astonishing X-Men with a story about the invention of a genetic “cure” for mutants. The research firm responsible for its development is furiously confronted by mutants insisting there’s nothing about them that needs curing, while others, whose most desperate wish is to be accepted by mainstream society, queue in the street to receive it. Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir’s 2003-4 New Mutants series (the second X-book to go by that title) introduces a slew of new students to the Xavier Academy, many of whom are estranged from (or have been disowned by) their parents because of their mutations. In 2009, after the X-Men’s move to San Francisco under writer Matt Fraction, the flashpoint for a pivotal event in the series is a spate of street protests and riots between supporters and opponents of Proposition X, a proposed ballot initiative to restrict mutants from breeding — a bald allusion to California’s Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban that passed in 2008.
Mutants line up to receive a “cure” for their mutations
The Proposition X story is unprecedented. The confidence with which a superhero comic book, even one with a long history of wading into the politics of difference, could denounce a specific present-day political event under the thinnest veil of allegory speaks to a sea change in public opinion on LGBT issues. At the time of Uncanny X-Men #509’s (where Proposition X is first mentioned) publication date, six states had legalized gay marriage; New Jersey allowed for “civil unions,” while New York recognized same-sex marriages performed elsewhere (though they still couldn’t be performed in the state itself). 10 years earlier, nowhere in the United States was gay marriage explicitly legal or recognized by state agencies. Proposition 8 passed by a margin of 5% of the vote; its enactment the following day was answered by mass protests, candlelight vigils, and boycotts, none of which were restricted to California. Meanwhile, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — the Department of Defense policy which allowed LGB folk to serve in the military, provided they remained closeted — was straining and cracking under pressure. Among Barack Obama’s campaign promises was a pledge to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and voters expected him to deliver.
This tidal shift was the result of a focused activism that had reembraced Kameny’s brand of gay advocacy. Energized by Stonewall and contact with the New Left, the LGBT movement was guided throughout the 1970s by its “Magneto” wing, which favored confrontation and separatism, and did the important work of increasing LGBT visibility and amplifying their voices. The AIDS crisis gradually brought the assimilationist, incrementalistic “Xavier” faction back to the fore. Altogether reshaping society was always a tall order, even when the movement’s members weren’t contending with a lethal virus which 44% of Americans believed might be “God’s judgement for immoral sexual behavior.”
Energized by Stonewall and contact with the New Left, the LGBT movement was guided throughout the 1970s by its “Magneto” wing, which favored confrontation and separatism.
Organized activists began to follow the strategy outlined by Marshall K. Kirk and Erastes Pill in a 1987 issue of the gay interest magazine Guide, which emphatically prescribes respectability politics: dress well, be polite and humble, underscore loving relationships with families and partners, represent the gay man and lesbian woman as the average Joe and Jane, etc. Kirk and Pill urge against self-portrayals of the gay community as “aggressive challengers” and the use of sexual imagery in messaging campaigns: the goal is to change the way the typical heterosexual American views his homosexual countrymen by appealing to universalist values. “Time may be running out,” they warn, “The AIDS epidemic is sparking anger and fear in the heartland of straight America. As the virus leaks out of homosexual circles and into the rest of society, we need have no illusions about who is receiving the blame. The ten years ahead may decide for the next forty whether gays claim their liberty and equality or are driven back, once again, as America’s caste of detested untouchables.”
Apart from ending the HIV/AIDS crisis and reforming public perceptions of LGBT people, the movement committed itself to achieving definite political objectives: protecting queer people from workplace discrimination, decriminalizing same-sex intercourse, allowing them to openly serve in the military, and granting same-sex couples the right to marry.
Internally, the debate between the suits and the sluts raged on. Many LGBT activists and intellectuals saw gay marriage as the wrong answer to the right question: rather than fight for inclusion in a failing institution for straight couples, this contingent argued, we ought to develop alternatives better suited for our own relationships — which are fundamentally different from the heterosexual breeding pair and nuclear family. Instead of concerning ourselves with earning the “privilege” to serve openly in the military, we should be working against American imperialism and the military industrial complex. And after spending decades developing our own culture, why the hell should we demean ourselves by trying to prove we can conform and behave within a mainstream that doesn’t share our values?
Like it or not, respectability politics gets results — especially when the objective isn’t to nudge prevailing opinion in one direction or the other, but to actually invert it. The idea that gays and lesbians wanted to enlist in the armed forces and serve their country helped sway moderates and conservatives. Presenting same-sex relationships as equivalent to their heterosexual counterparts in terms of the love, commitment, and responsibility shared between partners aroused the sympathy of a public that began to suspect it was misinformed about the alleged deviance of homosexuals. The assimilationists declared that gays and lesbians were patriotic Americans, good neighbors, diligent employees, loyal soldiers, reliable civil servants, and loving parents who could provide safe and stable households for children, and the American middle became persuaded of these facts.
Seven years after the passage of California’s Proposition 8 (and six after it was struck down in a Federal District Court decision), the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges made the right of same-sex couples to marry and raise children the law of the land. (Would Reagan appointee Justice Anthony Kennedy have ruled as he did if it wasn’t for the dramatic change in public opinion over the previous three decades? It stands to reason he might have joined the conservative justices and upheld the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans.) Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell had been repealed three years earlier, and the state “sodomy” laws that had been used to criminalize same-sex intercourse had been invalidated by the Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas nearly a decade ago. By the end of the 2010s, it was becoming clear that the fight for gay rights in the United States had been won. There was (and is) still work to be done, sure — like securing federal protections against employment discrimination — but the tide had obviously turned.
The White House illuminated in rainbow colors in celebration of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges in June 2015 (Picture Credit: Ted Eytan)
“The Struggle for Gay Rights Is Over,” wrote James Kirchick in a 2019 essay, published in The Atlantic as part of a collection of essays commemorating the 50-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots:
Consider…the top priority item for the gay-rights movement today: the congressional “Equality Act.” This measure adds “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the classes protected against discrimination by the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. As it remains legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people in employment, housing, and public accommodation in nearly 30 states, the Equality Act would rectify state-level disparities in antidiscrimination statutes. With 69 percent of Americans telling pollsters that they would support a federal nondiscrimination law protecting LGBTQ people, such a measure is long overdue.
But is it even necessary? Gay people today do not face anything like the state-sanctioned terror inflicted upon African Americans during the 1950s and ’60s, when the major Civil Rights Acts were passed. And unlike the disparity between African Americans and whites a half century ago (or today, for that matter), gays economically outperform heterosexuals. A 2017 study conducted by two Vanderbilt University economists reports that gay men earn 10 percent more on average than their straight peers. (Researchers have long identified a similar trend among lesbians.) HRC’s Corporate Equality Index, which tracks LGBTQ inclusiveness among the country’s leading employers, reports that 609 companies earned a 100 percent rating in 2018. (Only 13 companies won this honor in 2002.) And while some businesses may discriminate against LGBTQ people in hiring, their numbers are dwindling and they regularly face pressure campaigns to change their practices.
The superfluity of the Equality Act is a controversial proposition (to say the least), but can we otherwise say Kirchick doesn’t have a point? A centrist gay man, Pete Buttigieg, ran for president in the 2020 election, and his sexual orientation was a non-issue. Homophobic slurs have (rightly) become as taboo as racial epithets. Professional-class parents boast about taking their kids to Drag Queen Story Time at libraries and bookstores. Even the organizations trying to secure exemptions for equal treatment on religious grounds are aware they have little leverage left to wield, and can only plead for a compromise. Certainly, there are still individual bigots, organized hate groups, and regions where homosexuality and gender nonconformity are still viewed in a negative light — but when 70% of the country supports same-sex marriage (representing an uptick of almost 50 percentage points since 1996), it stands to reason that they’ve become fewer and farther between. Gay is normal.
Pete Buttigieg campaigning for president with his husband, Chasten, in August 2019
At this point, X-Men comics, long praised as a source of comfort and strength for LGBT folk, began to fall out of sync. The X-Men mythos requires that the heroes’ fight for acceptance and integration be an uphill one. If the world ceased to hate and fear mutants, a major premise of the books would be negated. While the real-world group that had long been a source of inspiration for X-Men characters and stories achieved a series of monumental successes, Marvel’s mutants slogged on through pyrrhic victory after pyrrhic victory.
In 2019, Marvel brought on Jonathan Hickman to revamp the X-Men comic line, and he turned the franchise on its head. Xavier and Magneto collaborated to found a paradisical mutant ethnostate on the living island Krakoa in the South Pacific. All mutants are welcome, regardless of past affiliations or crimes. The fledging nation uses Krakoa’s unique flora in the production of cutting-edge biotech with miraculous applications for any walk of civilized life. A creative fusion of mutant powers and technology has actually made mutants effectively immortal. If a Krakoan mutant dies, they’re resurrected with all but their most recent memories intact.
Krakoa has been keeping its resurrection procedure a secret, but is happy to sell its cure-all medicines to any country that enters into diplomatic relations with it. Demand for the drugs has made Krakoa an upstart on the international stage, and it isn’t shy about wielding its clout. Krakoa bullies diplomats and world leaders, has used telepathic chicanery to have its citizens granted diplomatic immunity across the globe, once covertly destroyed a Central American nation in order to secure its biotech monopoly, and recently terraformed Mars, populating it with mutants and declaring it the capital of the Solar System. Speaking as a leader of Krakoa, Magneto has pronounced mutants as the world’s new gods — and Xavier has come around to his way of thinking. When announcing Krakoa to the world, he bluntly states that mutants will replace Homo sapiens, whether humanity likes it or not. Mutantkind has begun building its empire.
Magneto’s new approach to humanity, as one of the founders of Krakoa
It may be a coincidence — call it synchronicity — that the X-Men, the longtime image of the LGBT position in the United States through a comic mirror darkly, have adapted themselves so suitably to the moment.
“Now that it possesses cultural and political power,” wrote Kirchick, “the gay-rights movement is reverting to the control of its radical element…responsible leaders (including many of the moderate and conservative gays who played an unsung role in the movement’s success) have retired from the fight, clearing the field for the sort of culture-war topics roiling the left at large.”
Kirchick recounts attending the LGBTQ Task Force’s annual Creating Change conference in 2018 and being puzzled by the panels: “‘Elephant in the Waiting Room: Self-Love, Health, Queering Fat Acceptance’ was the title of one workshop. ‘The Politics of Colony and Post-hurricane Politics in PR and USVI’ was another. Most puzzling for a gathering ostensibly dedicated to the political interests of people discriminated against because of their same-sex attraction was the discussion simply titled ‘Asexuals.’”
Andrew Sullivan, a conservative gay author and persona non grata with the movement’s current iteration, wrote in 2020 (“When Is It Time to Claim Victory in the Gay Rights Struggle?”): “white gay men are often seen as the oppressors, and not part of the ‘queer’ movement, unless they agree to defer entirely to intersectional politics and acknowledge their white cis privilege.” Sullivan has many faults and blind spots (I cannot take completely seriously a cheerleader for the 2003 invasion of Iraq), but the results of a Google search for “white gay men problem” bear out his observation.
The “Xavier” wing of LGBT activism, having succeeded in its goals, withdrew from the field, and the “Magneto” strain took over. NGOs, student groups, and journals formerly concerned with the civil rights of same-sex attracted people have pivoted towards esoteric gender politics and adversarial race polemics. In doing so, they have become an integral constituent of the so-called “woke movement” (America’s next great cultural export, wrote Bloomberg columnist Tyler Cowen), whose rhetorical excesses and illiberal tendencies have been documented fairly extensively elsewhere — but I’d still like to cite one recent example.
The “Xavier” wing of LGBT activism, having succeeded in its goals, withdrew from the field, and the “Magneto” strain took over.
In October, Netflix employees staged a walkout and street demonstration protesting their employer’s release of a stand-up comedy special by alleged transphobe Dave Chapelle. A YouTube comedian (one Vito Gesualdi) arrived on the scene as a waggish counterprotestor, holding up a sign saying “jokes are funny.” Let’s not lionize him: he was there as a troll, and no matter how you feel about his defense of free speech in comedy, he’s definitely at least a little obnoxious. But during the altercation that was bound to ensue, somebody tore the “jokes are funny” sign from its post, leaving him holding a stick. “He’s got a weapon!” yelled the same man who tore the sign away; it’s hard to believe this wasn’t done with the intention of provoking the crowd to rush Gesualdi, or making him a target for security or law enforcement. A minute or two later, a female protestor pushes through the group to shake a tambourine in Gesualdi’s face and chant “Repent, motherfucker! Repent, motherfucker!”
These are not the actions of a movement that believes it must negotiate from a position of vulnerability, or has any interest in persuasion or compromise. It knows it’s winning the culture war, and wields clout and institutional power the likes of which LGBT activists four decades ago could scarcely have dreamed; it’s happy to go on pressing its advantage.
Krakoa is the perfect separatist power fantasy for the “woke” political tribe: a queer commune that doesn’t have to care what the outside world thinks of it, and is eminently capable of exerting a nonreciprocal influence beyond its borders. Hickman establishes early on that Krakoa’s populace takes what would have before seemed like a somewhat excessive (even chauvinistic) pride in its mutant identity, and no longer desires to assimilate or to live with humanity: instead, the nation uses a mixture of hard and soft power to compel the rest of the world to get with its program. Among the younger citizens, “human” is no longer a mutant supremacist byword for “oppressive majority,” but a synonym for ignorance, insipidity, and backwardness — not unlike what “straight white cis male,” “white woman,” or even “white gay man” have come to connote in the discourse of some “woke”/queer spaces. Their leaders justify the use of heavy-handed tactics and shows of force with the claim that mutants are constantly imperiled by an outgroup with whom there is no possibility of integration or reconciliation — which is more or less the same explanation for why dissenters from the new “progressive” orthodoxy deserve online harassment, assault, vandalism, and summary firings.
Mutant utopia Krakoa
Hickman clearly intended for these developments to be read with some apprehension and a sense of ambivalence — and that’s what made his run so interesting. As happy as we are to see Marvel’s perpetually oppressed minority group finally reverse its fortunes, we’re also meant to feel uncomfortable about Krakoa’s exercises in realpolitik, its adoption of somewhat cultish customs, and the credo of racial manifest destiny motivating its leaders. If we find ourselves sometimes thinking back to that famous line from The Dark Knight — “you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain” — it’s because Hickman wants us to.
As happy as we are to see Marvel’s perpetually oppressed minority group finally reverse its fortunes, we’re also meant to feel uncomfortable about Krakoa.
But Hickman wasn’t the only author working on the X-Men line, and some of his collaborators don’t necessarily share his sense of the moral ambiguity within the Krakoa project. (Rumors persist that his being overruled on various matters by the rest of the team played a role in his decision to step down less than two years after assuming the mantle of “Head of X.”) Reading some of his peers’ comics, you’d get the impression that they want us to root for identitarianism and cultural revanchism — and maybe we are. After all, both have been in fashion lately.
Two of the Krakoa-era titles have been particularly revealing: X-Corp and Children of the Atom.
Tini Howard’s X-Corp (which was suddenly and quietly cancelled after five issues) is about the creation and management of a Krakoan technology firm run by a wealthy clique of legacy X-characters. The purpose of X-Corp (slogan: “We’re Simply Superior”) is evidently to prove that, in addition to everything else, mutants can beat humans at capitalism, too, using the advantage of their unique resources to corner more international markets and sell more products to a global population which they’ve come to see as a lot of barbarians for whom they’re not responsible. If we’re still reading the comics as queer allegory, there exists few better encapsulations of the leftist critique of “woke” capitalism. The problem, the narrative implies, isn’t the rapacity of multinational corporations, their propensity for acting towards the short-term gain of the few rather than the long-term public good, or the growing obscenity of the wealth gap, but the fact that mutants don’t have a sufficiently large stake in the game.
Vita Ayala’s Children of the Atom limited series, meanwhile, introduces a group of high school friends united by their fanlike obsession with mutants. Using salvaged alien technology that gives them superpowers, they take on vigilante alter-egos inspired by familiar X-Men, and fight crime posing as mutants. Their owning up to the fact that they’re not mutants and apologizing to the X-Men for taking on identities that aren’t theirs can easily be read as wag of the finger at people who take on queer identities without actually experiencing same-sex attraction, experience gender dysphoria, etc. — and to criticize the recent phenomenon of “queer trending” is to acknowledge that queer has indeed become trendy. After the Children of the Atom are lightly reprimanded for misleading everyone, Storm extends an invitation to one of their number, Carmen — who, it turns out, actually is a mutant. While her friends have to finish high school, take out student loans, contend with the labor market, live in a polluted city, and reconcile themselves to the fact of their mortality, Carmen is entitled to leave the United States and live on Krakoa, the magical post-scarcity island paradise, where she never has to get a job, can take day trips to Mars, and can live forever if she wants. She obviously chooses to bid her friends adieu — she can visit them in New York, but Krakoan law forbids them from setting foot on the island — and readers are asked to be thrilled for everybody involved. (I hope this isn’t what we’re really talking about when we talk about “equity.”)
The X-Men losing the plot makes a fitting analog for a political project whose original purpose was to secure for LGBT people the right to participate in society without being treated as second-class citizens on the basis of their sexual orientation, and has since taken up such essential and noble causes as seeing that gendered terminology (like “woman” or “male”) be removed from medical literature, paradoxically reifying essentialist sex stereotypes in the name of subverting them, advising people to examine and amend their “genital preferences,” and blacklisting dissidents. Having already won its major battles, and unable to demobilize on its domestic front — after all, “things are a lot better for us in this country than they used to be” isn’t a message that inspires donors to open their wallets or generates clicks — the LGBT activism complex has allowed itself to be integrated into the general “woke” movement and repurposed as the tool of an essentially conservative ideology that entrenches capitalism’s “war of all against all” status quo.
German theorist Peter Sloterdijk observed that the conversion of Constantine didn’t Christianize the Roman Empire, but imperialized Christianity. Similarly, the adoption of identitarian sexuality/gender politics by the social elite (as an ingredient of the heterogenous ideological cocktail of “wokeness”) has made the discourse of an ostensibly radical coalition into the patois of the professional-managerial and rentier classes, who, lacking any convincing justification for their social parasitism, have resorted to moralism. Being able to keep abreast of the ever-evolving terminology and ritual signifiers of piety signals one’s worthiness for inclusion or retention in a position above the hoi polloi of the service sector and manual labor. We wouldn’t be incorrect to call it a mark of privilege. Conscientiously using neologisms like “Latinx,” “sex worker,” and “BIPOC,” and specifying your pronouns in your Twitter/Instagram/TikTok bio, and other such shibboleths shows people that you’re educated, enlightened, and progressive – a member of the elite class.
The “woke” movement, such as it is, is a useful idiot for capitalism, waging class warfare under the guise of culture war. The mutual acrimony between Rust Belt conservatives who insist on the material reality of biological sex and nonbinary urban baristas laden with student debt precludes any possibility of them recognizing that they share common political interests. Both groups are beleaguered by low wages, unaffordable healthcare, and precarious employment, and would better advance their interests through collaboration rather than antagonism (even though the urban baristas might identify less with the working class than as temporarily embarrassed professional specialists or culture producers). Exacerbating the problem is the paranoid fire and brimstone of the right-wing media bubble, the condescending smugness of the liberal media bubble, and the United States’ ostensibly “left-wing” political groups that use academic/professional-class catechisms as a litmus test for membership. This is by design: the lower classes of the cities and hinterlands are all bamboozled into throwing their support behind politicos purporting to represent their respective tribes, and who demonstrate an aptitude for embarrassing their ideological foes, but do nothing to materially improve the lives of anyone but themselves as they rake in advertising revenue, book royalties, donations, and corporate speaking fees. The X-Men writers who are less ambivalent about the Krakoa era seem to expect that their readers are under the spell of the culture war (Twitter/TikTok is a hell of a drug) and invested in the success of the winning side.
But I wonder what happens when the pendulum reaches the end of its arc and begins to swing in reverse.
Eventually, the X-Men comics will revert back to their more recognizable status quo as a school and sanctuary for mutant superheroes-in-training. After deviating far enough from their original template, American superhero comics tend to abruptly snap back. By my count, the X-Men have already done it no fewer than three times. That’s just how things work in the industry. In the wake of Hickman’s departure, his successors are already incrementally papering-over the contradictions that characterized his reinvention of the X-Men as the story of an ambitious ethnostate and its founders, who must make moral compromises to acquire power and hold on to it. If the comics grow bland and readers lose interest, the X-Men’s return to the United States, advertised as a “back to basics” realignment, will come sooner than later.
But it’s a damn comic book. It doesn’t really matter.
I’m old enough to remember when the Religious Right in the United States seemed unassailable. In reality, it was slowly hoisting itself by its own petard. After a string of political victories in the 1970s and 1980s when they were buoyed by voters convinced of America’s social and moral decay, emboldened Christian fundamentalists waged campaigns to ban the teaching of evolution in high school biology classes, vociferated about such gateways to satanism as Harry Potter books and Magic: The Gathering cards, and openly espoused a “Biblical worldview” in which the Rapture, not climate change, was on the horizon. Every time stories about bombed abortion clinics or women getting harassed by mobs outside of Planned Parenthood appeared in the media, viewers saw the Religious Right’s fingerprints. As the gay rights movement turned a corner, the Republican lawmakers who didn’t give an inch on the issue came across as calloused and nasty. Overestimating the masses’ support and tolerance for its cultural program, Christian conservatism suffered a backlash that it was completely unprepared for. In the 2010s, their shrinking influence forced them to pervert what few scruples they could ever have been said to possess by throwing their support behind Donald Trump. Had they made a peep about his questionable commitment to Christian values or his being a twice-divorced rake who cheated on his current wife with a porn star, they’d have been shouted down by their own congregants. They overplayed their hand, their relevance is dwindling, and millennials and Zoomers in particular find them disgusting.
The “woke” movement, a conflation of racial, sexual, and gendered identitarian politics, risks making the same mistake. Like the Religious Right, it has arrogated to itself the role of society’s moralistic hall monitor, and dabbles in quackery and pseudoscience. Its language and politics are increasingly associated with powerful institutions with which people are losing patience as the economic divide widens, and its confrontational swagger and sanctimony aren’t helping it win more converts — especially not beyond its reliable supporters in the academy, the media, and the email-job caste. If public opinion turns hard against the woke bloc — and on the contingent of LGBT activists and idealogues that form a crucial part of its core — we risk seeing the necessary and legitimate gains won by the gay rights movement reversed de facto, if not de jure. Only a couple decades ago, the strength of the Religious Right was such that it was hard to imagine the federal recognition of gay marriage in any foreseeable future. The “woke” coalition could conceivably find itself in a similar position of retreat — and given social media’s acceleration of the culture war, it might happen sooner than it expects. I don’t relish the thought. Contrary to current belief, disagreement does not equal ill-will. If and when the X-Men go back to being outnumbered, marginalized, and vulnerable, it would be a tragedy if that premise once again lends itself so perfectly to allegories of contemporary queer experience.