For a franchise that’s meant to be at the heart of the Marvel universe, Marvel’s editors seem to spend a lot of time promising that the X-Men aren’t in danger of permanently disappearing. However you can see where people get that idea from reading Extraordinary X-Men #1, the mutant race’s first chapter in the All-New, All-Different Marvel relaunch. After surviving Secret Wars, the only thing in store for the X-Men appears to be further threats to their existence. No rest for the next step in human evolution, eh?
While Marvel cynics are likely to argue that this latest attempt to wipe out the mutant race is more to do with franchise movie rights than creative direction, the X-Men have been going through the proverbial ringer for quite a while now. Between the Scarlet Witch depowering millions of mutants on M-Day to the Death of Charles Xavier, the troubling return of the Phoenix and Cyclops becoming a terrorist revolutionary, the last ten years have seen mutants face more extinction threats than they’ve had hot dinners.
Moving forward to the present, the mutant race now find themselves at the peril of the Terrigen mists—a global gas cloud that bestows superpowers to those with the dormant Inhuman gene, as featured in All-New Inhumans. Although the Terrigen mists grant Inhumans powers, it is revealed in Extraordinary X-Men that the cloud is in fact poisoning and sterilising mutants as well as contributing to a condition dubbed ‘M-Pox’ by mankind, who are more terrified of mutants than ever. Sound familiar?
Marvel’s bizarre obsession with repeatedly threatening the X-Men’s absolute extinction seems an odd editorial choice, especially as the franchise has long drawn inspiration directly from the social issues affecting real-world minority groups. From the team’s initial creation during the racial tension of 1960s America to storylines such as the Legacy Virus (AIDS crisis), the independence of Genosha led by Magneto (post-apartheid South Africa), and a controversial mutant cure (LGBT conversion therapy), the X-Men franchise has rarely shied away from exploring the realities of being a cultural minority.
This established dialogue with diversity makes Extraordinary X-Men’s focus on the renewed threat of mutant annihilation all the more peculiar. Even worse than that, it feels like a re-tread. While Storm’s opening monologue about how her people have never faced more dire circumstances should make the reader empathise with the mutant cause, instead you feel yourself interjecting, “But what about the last extinction threat? M-Day? Schism? The Phoenix? Were they not quite as dire in hindsight?”
If there was ever any doubt, Marvel’s ongoing Secret Wars event series has reminded mainstream comic book fans that higher narrative stakes don’t automatically create a more rewarding story. Even worse, the more often you place the X-Men in jeopardy—only for them to, again, triumph at some abstract terrible cost—the more readers are reminded that the mutants can survive just about anything. Perhaps that’s meant to be an affirming sentiment, but instead, it only serves to undermine the narrative peril of the next extinction-level threat. The X-Men will undoubtedly survive this latest threat to their very existence; I’m just not necessarily that excited to find out how this time.
It’s time for the X-Men to tell smaller stories. Luckily, with a franchise this broad and rich in scope, that covers just about any stories below the “we’re all going to die” line. That space is where the X-Men are still rife with narrative potential. When Marvel can move beyond the abstract risk of the mutant race dying out completely—when the risk of extinction is lifted—then the X-Men will have the opportunity and obligation to face the question of what quality of life their people deserve. Those are the kind of issues facing real world minority groups in Western society today, not mass extinction from a great puff of smoke. The mutant identity is still the perfect lens through which to analyze social issues affecting minorities, and we still need it to do so. Desperately.
It’s the opportunity to have a mainstream audience consider real cultural issues in a fantastical context. Fantasy and science fiction genres allow us to distance or decontextualise real social issues in order to interrogate assumptions, offer alternatives and identify radical solutions. Marvel’s new Captain America: Sam Wilson series is a single example of the potential for fantasy to stir the proverbial pot and get people talking about important social issues. (And if you can piss off Fox News, you’re doing something right in my book.)
Today’s society has plenty of issues for the X-Men to explore, just as history has always provided rich material for the series. The X-Men is the perfect narrative lens through which to discuss the reality of a world in which some face a disproportionate threat of institutional prejudice simply because of who they are. It’s the medium for queer readers to face the cultural contradiction that sees them campaigning for marriage equality in progressive countries while fellow LGBT citizens in other parts of the world are imprisoned or murdered for being who they are.
Obviously, having more diverse writers helps you tell more diverse stories (I’m never one to ignore an opportunity to encourage Marvel to widen its talent pool), but historically, straight white male creators have managed to tell incredibly diverse stories through the X-Men. If Stan Lee, Chris Claremont and John Byrne managed to produce the kinds of diverse storylines that made X-Men a pioneering franchise, then yet another “they’re all going to die” storyline simply won’t cut the mustard, Marvel editorial.
It’s the time to for the X-Men to once again engage with issues of class, gender, race, sexuality and what it means to be a privileged person in the world today. And that privilege part is key—while the X-Men are conventionally portrayed as outcasts, comparatively little attention has been paid to how the X-Men must enjoy significant privilege amongst their own people.
Obviously powerful, largely safe from social violence, and often able to “pass” if they so choose, the X-Men have tasked themselves with protecting all of mutantkind but must inevitably struggle to identify with “regular” mutants and their problems. The X-Men don’t live everyday lives, after all; they’re superheroes, but everyday people in the Marvel universe have to deal with the fallout of also being mutants.
Think of the cultural persecution suffered by Muslims in the Western world within the last 15 years and then multiply that by the X-Men’s rogues’ gallery. What are the consequences of living as an “out” mutant in a human community? Are the X-Men your heroes or the reason you’re scared to go outside by yourself after dark? How do you cope with being a superhero when you see first-hand that your actions are endangering those you’ve sworn to protect?
That’s a story so full of personal challenges and social contradictions that the thought of yet another “the mutant race is going to die” narrative practically bores me to tears. These are topics that the X-Men were created to deal with but inevitably struggle to key into while they’re dealing with the third extinction event in the last ten years. Perhaps once the Terrigen mists have finally lifted, Marvel editorial and Extraordinary X-Men’s creative team will be able to find the storyline that the mutant race is well overdue.