The X-Men Should Deal With Social Issues, Not Perpetual Annihilation

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.

Extraordinary X-Men

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.

Extraordinary X-Men

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.

Extraordinary X-Men

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.

– This article was originally published on The Mary Sue on November 13th 2015, based on an earlier review on The Rainbow Hub. You can find the original editorial here and review here.

‘So are comic books still sexist…?’: A Brief Introduction

As fun as they are to read, I really love talking about comic books. From favourite heroes and classic storylines to the finer points of adaptation, talking about comics is a chance to scratch my literature analysis itch without losing the other person ten seconds into the conversation because – unlike contradictory French philosophy – most people have some kind of opinion on Thor. (Even if it’s just that he’s dreamy.)

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‘Whosoever Holds This Hammer’: Thor’s Female Successor and Evolving Legacies in Comics

We all have friends that we consider specialists on certain topics. These are generally the people that we turn to if we are struggling to understand a particular problem, from fixing iPhones to flustered tourists wailing in Mandarin. As became apparent following the recent announcement that a new character will be lifting Thor’s hammer and calling it her own, apparently my friends see me as their specialist in comic books and gender theory. Since news broke, I’ve found myself having to explain the news and its implications over and over again. It’s been a fun few weeks.

Given that there’s still a little bit of confusion (or transphobia, feel free to decide for yourself) regarding the matter I figured that a blog post explaining precisely what has been announced could save me some time and hopefully shed some light on exactly why Thor is now a woman but still called Thor (as opposed to She-Thor, Thorita or Betty.)

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How I Met Your Daddy: HBO’s Looking and Queering the Sitcom

In the pilot episode of HBO’s newest show Looking, Jonathan Groff’s character Patrick struggles through one of the oldest sitcom tropes: the ill-fated first date. Traversing the typical subjects of past relationships, career struggles and the uncertainties of wine bar appetisers, Patrick’s incompatible companion soon decides to bail without even the good manners to split the bill evenly. (Not classy, cheapskates of the world.) However Looking gives this well-worn depiction of the single life a noticeable twist: both characters are gay men.

While claiming that non-heterosexual romance doesn’t prominently feature on modern television may sound laughable to modern audiences, it’s a reality many queer viewers have come to accept without even realising. LGBT representation in modern media is undeniably progressive in 2014; shows such as Glee, Modern Family and Brooklyn Nine-Nine all feature queer characters and narratives as part of the fabric of modern life. However, all these shows seem to promote inclusion with a catch: gay characters can be get screen time as long as they don’t act on their sexual desires.

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‘Flame on!’: Minority Superheroes and Privileged Comic Book Readers

Last month, the comic book community discovered the casting details for an upcoming big-budget superhero movie adaption. (I guess there must have been a Y in the day.) Following plans to relaunch the Fantastic Four movie franchise, FOX revealed that team member Johnny Storm would be portrayed by African-American actor Michael B. Jordan in a race-blind casting for the Human Torch. So far, so Hollywood.

However, the backlash against news of a Black Human Torch from certain sections of the fan community quickly proved to be so vicious that the catchphrase ‘FLAME ON!’ suddenly took on a whole new (somewhat racially dubious) meaning. This indignation from predominantly white, heterosexual, male fans both represents an intriguing point in the cultural evolution of comic books from fringe texts to mass media products and raises the question of the cultural ownership of geek culture; to whom exactly do superheroes belong?

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‘It’s just a naked woman!’: Social Media and Music Industry Sexism

While I have little personal experience to back up the theory, I sometimes get the impression that being a woman in the music industry might not be the easiest job in the world. For, despite recent scientific advances in the important areas of space exploration, nuclear power and vegan ‘bacon’, no one seems to have solved the secret to being a rock star and a girl at the same time. From having to deal with inevitably doomed romantic entanglements to being endlessly reminded by the media that you’re morbidly obese because you’re bigger than an XXS, writing a memorable hook for your latest song appears to be the least of most female musician’s problems.

On top of all that, women in music also seem to enjoy the convenient double standard of always being the fall guy for shitty situations. (Or fall girl, rather.) From Yoko to Miley, the world of music has taught us that if something’s gone tits up then it’s usually easiest to blame the person with the tits. (And definitely not the middle-aged man dressed like Beetlejuice that she’s grinding into.)

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I Want Your Love: Queer Cinema & Straight Expectations

The following article discusses queer cinema and the context of gay pornography so, surprisingly, mentions dicks here and there. Just a heads up, Mum.

Last week I went to the Cineworld Glasgow to see I Want Your Love, a 2012 queer film following in the ‘porn with a story’ dynamic of films such as Shortbus. The decision of the cinema to screen such a film was rather surprising to me, given how pornography at large and gays enjoying themselves aren’t two of the most conventional themes in mainstream cinema, but luckily my brief optimism in the arts was crushed when I got to the ticket desk.

‘Hi could I have a ticket for I Want Your Love at 9:00 please?’ I figure this is a perfectly normal request at, of all places, a cinema.

The female cashier’s face drops into a grim expression at the mere mention of the movie. She slowly leans forward towards me, practically mounting the desk, and asks in a low voice that suggests I’ve asked her for a family ticket to Baby Murder 4 in 3D!, ‘Well do you know what the film’s about?’

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