From the beginning, Marvel’s mutant X-Men have served as an allegory for the “Other,” for that which was different, for those who were outcast, feared, or misunderstood.
Released with the backdrop of the tumultuous Civil Rights Movement of 1960s America, the X-Men showed a Marvel Universe in which the common prejudices of our reality’s mankind such as color and creed were thankfully less common, but replaced instead by a schism between ordinary humans and mutants born with fantastic, extraordinary abilities.
Playing the role of Marvel’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was Professor Charles Xavier, a mutant himself, who had formed the X-Men to support his own dream of mutant-human coexistence, and to prepare them to combat those mutants who believed in no such happy ending.
Even Xavier’s ideological nemesis, Magneto, for all of his wanton acts of violence, was played as sympathetic , having spent his youth in a Nazi camp during World War II, and readers could understand, even without endorsing, his more hardline attitude towards humanity.
It was not always easy to see the real life parallels in the comics while watching the soap opera type storylines unfold and brightly attired superheroes in battle against equally striking villains, but the X-Men’s mission was always one of acceptance, with its members feared just for being born differently than the majority.
But the X-Men were never just symbolic of one segment of the population and mutantkind came to represent all oppressed peoples.
Before long, as black Americans gained the long awaited rights to vote and continued to make great strides towards equality, the X-Men’s struggle became in many ways a symbol for the plight of homosexuals as well.
For years, mainstream comic companies were unable, due to the Comics Code Authority, to have openly homosexual characters, but that changed in 1992 when after years of merely intimating the character’s sexual orientation, Northstar, in Alpha Flight #106, exclaimed loudly and proudly in no uncertain language, “I am gay!”
For the first time, the formerly taboo themes of homosexuality were openly expressed in mainstream comics and it is no surprise that the first character to carry the banner was a mutant, a member of the Marvel Universe’s most misunderstood subgroup, putting mutants once again at the forefront of social commentary.
Not long after, the villain, Stryfe, unleashed the Legacy Virus, a bioweapon that initially targeted only mutants, giving humans another reason to fear them and echoing the sentiments of the dawn of AIDS in America.
Once the Legacy Virus affected the human Moira MacTaggart, more mainstream attention came about and more scientists began to work on a cure, much the way funding and research for AIDS increased exponential once it was found that AIDS could affect heterosexuals just as easily.
With the Scarlet Witch wishing the mutant gene out of existence in House of M #7, the mutant population found itself an endangered species, one currently all but self ghettoized on Utopia, a small island near San Francisco, ironically built from the remnants of the headquarters of Magneto himself.
After a very public battle against anti-mutant hate groups during Second Coming, the X-Men garnered the spotlight and a ringing endorsement from the United States President.
Their growing acceptance in America in many ways reflects the changing attitudes of many segments of the population with regards to gay marriage and military service, but also has some of the same lingering animosities.
While they may have support from the White House, they also remain apart from the rest of the nation, many even continuing to hide who they are out of fear.
But though it is odd for older readers to see the X-Men’s struggle for acceptance to be nearing an end, and though oppression still sadly remains, there is a positive message there that no group will have to remain in the shadows forever.
In every parallel world the X-Men have seen, those where mutants and humans refused to coexist were rife with turmoil and bloodshed, and you have to believe that’s no coincidence.
So the next time someone tells you, “Comics are just for kids,” remind them of how this artform so often imitates life, how beneath the time travel and optic blasts and resurrected clones of alternate universe cosmic beings, lies a message that is just as pertinent now as it was when the X-Men debuted in 1963—no positive future can come of a nation divided and that while we have come so far as a people, we still have so much farther to go…