Let’s start here – I love the X-Men. How can I not? Many of their titles toped my reading list as a kid and, growing up in the nineties, it was impossible to watch Saturday morning cartoons (back when they were still a thing…sigh) without X-Men: The Animated Series being a staple. I loved that show. And that theme song! My brother David can conjure up an amazing rendition of the theme on his electric guitar. But even without David’s prompting I could never forget that song. It’s forever stamped in my mind. The X-Men were a big part of my life as a kid. And I loved them. I still love the X-Men today, in two very distinct ways.
I’m not alone in my love of the X-Men. It’s safe to say the X-Men’s popularity alone is keeping them on the comic shelves today. Since the MCU blossomed and became an unstoppable box office juggernaut, there has been a not-so-subtle move on Marvel’s end to build synergy between the comic world and their movie world. We now have an Agents of SHIELD comic. Tony Stark sounds an awful lot like Robert Downey Jr. There’s another Civil War happening…just in time to run alongside the film version. I have no problem with any of this. I think it makes sense. If someone is excited about a movie it’s only natural they’d want to see those characters in more adventures in the pages of the comics. And Marvel would naturally be pleased at the prospect of making a little more money off of higher comic sales. So it’s a nice nod to fans and good business sense that Marvel obliges.
But this has not happened without casualties. In the nineties, on the verge of bankruptcy, Marvel sold off the film rights to many of their most popular characters. That’s how Spider-Man ended up at Sony while the X-Men and the Fantastic Four became Fox properties. A fan pleasing (and major corporate money making) deal has finally allowed Spidey to swing into the MCU proper, and take his place alongside Iron Man, Captain America, and all the rest. But Fox is another matter. They won’t let the properties revert back to Marvel nor do they appear eager (no matter how much Hugh Jackman lobbied) to forge some sort of deal like Sony did. So Marvel’s countered by pulling the Fox properties out of the spotlight. For the first time in Marvel’s history there is no Fantastic Four comic being published. And the X-Men, while still very much a thing, have been shuffled from center stage to make room for the Inhumans – a smaller contingent inside the Marvel Universe that (for a time at least) seemed primed to become the MCU stand-in for mutants.
All of these business issues aside, no matter what corporation holds the film rights, we still need our mutants. The X-Men are something very, very important to the world of comics. And they’ve always been very special to me, hence my love of the team and the title.
The first reason I love the X-Men is, quite simply, because they’re fun comic books. I remember regularly reading X-Men, The Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine, X-Man, and X-Force every month as a kid and sampling from all the other X-titles based on who was on the team at the time or what the story was. To this day, “Age of Apocalypse” remains my ALL-TIME favorite crossover/storyline. To see the X-Men thrust into a dystopian future without Charles Xavier, where Apocalypse rules and nothing was as it should be was captivating. I’m sure I’ve read this entire saga – from start to finish – more than any other in my comic reading history. In fact, it’s possible the seeds of my adult interest in the artistic possibilities of dystopia were sown here.
And the characters! The X-Men always seemed so dynamic, so interesting. Wolverine will always be one of my favorite superheroes. He’s just so…cool. That is admittedly a juvenile and unimaginative way of describing him but he is so damn cool. As a kid, I’d often pretend to be Wolverine when we’d play superheroes. I’ve also spent a lot of time in my adult life thinking, “If only I had razor sharp, retractable claws and a mutant healing factor…” What exactly I’d do with those attributes is never really clear in my fantasies. Still, I can’t imagine it not making life unequivocally better.
Of course Wolverine was my favorite (followed by Nate Grey, the X-Man (the “Age of Apocalypse” version of Cable)) but I enjoyed the whole eclectic, dysfunctional bunch. I loved Angel and Psylocke, Gambit and Rogue, Beast, Storm, of course Cyclops and Jean Grey – for some reason the X-Men just had a way enticing my imagination unlike all the other teams that filled the comic shelves when I was young (save the Fantastic Four).
The second reason I love the X-Men is because of what they represent. You see, the X-Men have become cultural touchstones for us. They are different from other superheroes. While Spider-Man gained his powers from an accident and Iron Man built a suit from his own ingenuity, the X-Men are born with their powers. They are born different and because of that, the world hates and fears them. The X-Men have been used since their inception as a stand-in for the outcasts in society exploring issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like. From stories about a “mutant cure” (exploring abortion through the discussion of what mutants have the right to do with their own body) to things like mutant registration (mirroring the Holocaust with the threat of ghettos and concentration camps), the X-Men are often used to illustrate troubling yet important social issues. To quote Chris Claremont from his introduction to the ground-breaking graphic novel X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, “Mutants in the Marvel Universe have always stood as a metaphor for the underclass, the outsiders, they represent the ultimate minority.”
As our culture shifts its focus (and unfounded hate), again and again, on who among us need be ostracized, judged, and excluded, the X-Men’s relevance remains. Who they represent shifts with the times. They are always those society rejects.
As long as inequality remains, we need the X-Men to serve as a thorn in our side and a reminder that those we persecute, those we judge and reject, are just as important as everyone else. The X-Men do all the things regular superheroes do. They protect us from aliens, monsters, demons, viruses, and all manner of super villains…all while wrestling with finding their place in a world that rejects them. They are far from deficient, just different.
I’ve written before of the mythic importance of being able to identify with comic characters, that for them to be able to teach and instruct us, we must be able to see ourselves in them. The more people who can connect with comic book superheroes, the better they can do their job and act as mythic guides. So those who are judged according to their race, gender, sexual orientation, personality, interests, etc. find their place with the X-Men. The X-Men understand where they are coming from, and they show them how to go forward and help a world that can be so callous towards them. And for those who are lucky enough not to be forced to live on the margins of society, the X-Men present some important questions that must be wrestled with, if we only allow them to work in our mind and in our heart.
Reading the X-Men we are forced to ask, how do we treat those who are on the margins of society? What do we do to the poor, the sick, the sinful, or those pushed to the outside due to their race, gender, or sexual orientation? I don’t think we, as a culture, can overstate the importance of asking those questions. Too often we are comfortable just ignoring (at best) and mercilessly demonizing (at worst) the people we judge as “other.” But the X-Men books, when they are performing at their highest potential, force us to reconsider our preconceived notions. And when they do it’s the epitome of the second reason I love the X-Men.
Ironically enough, being a Fox property and being excluded from the MCU has pushed the X-Men to a sort of fringe in the Marvel Universe again. The fans still love their exploits. But there is a distance you can feel between the mutants and Marvel’s marketing department. Business tensions aside, it doesn’t affect what the X-Men are. They have always been a fun and exciting comic book. It also doesn’t affect who they are. The X-Men are the group that should remind us the voiceless have a voice we need listen to and we should judge ourselves by what we do to the least among us. No matter what else happens to the X-Men in the grand scheme of things, they’ll always have my love and respect for that.