Mutants Are Metaphor

Sometimes it takes a controversy to make you think (and tweet, argue and blog) about why superheroes and their monthly adventures have such an affect on you. This has been happening in my brain since "Uncanny Avengers" #5 was released last Wednesday and as I have voraciously consumed every article and Twitter feed pertaining to the topic. 

This isn't going to be another article dissecting the intentions and ramifications of the speech Rick Remender had Havok deliver. There are plenty of them out there, and if for some amazing reason you managed to avoid the entire thing -- I admire you. I mean, yes, you should definitely go read the more well-written think pieces, because the integration vs. assimilation topic is one that is incredibly relevant in today's political climate (remember all that stuff going on with the Supreme Court last week?). If anything, this whole mess led to a lot of civilized discourse, which is great. 

It also upset me more than a bus full of Orson Scott Cards running over a rollicking pack of pug puppies.

Late last Thursday night, as I caught up on the various Twitter arguments and blogs, consumed all at once rather than over the course of hours or days (not the smartest decision), I hit a weird sense of stress and depression. Stresspression? Yeah, these are just comics, but there's something about the X-Men that hits a chord with me more so than any other group of fictional characters. Having Havok's speech being debated during a two-day gay rights marathon in the Supreme Court meant that I couldn't even run to comics to hide from the inequality being forced on me by parts of my own country.

Things have calmed down. Viewpoints were clarified. Tweets were deleted. Apologies were made. This isn't to say that problems were permanently solved, but the overwhelming upset-itude I felt a week ago has gone away and I again feel like I can continue reading "Uncanny Avengers" without feeling guilty. I was overjoyed and relieved to read Remender's thoughts on the subject delivered in over 140 character chunks.

So what's left? What's left is my faith in the X-Men and my belief that they are an unwavering and universal metaphor for every human being on Earth, ready to be related to in deep and viscerally emotional ways. Over my twenty years as an X-Men fan, I've related to the X-Men in two different ways.

I initially responded to the X-Men as an incredibly lonely third grader with a severe bowl cut and way too many neon colored tracksuits. My reaction to the X-Men wasn't as deliberate as noticing my own social shortcomings and deciding to relate to a group of persecuted super heroes. The first season of Fox's "X-Men" featured code names and costumes that put G.I. Joe to shame, giant robots, catch phrases galore and elaborate action scenes. It was impossible for every 8 year old in America to resist Marvel's mutants. But I know I responded deeply to the show's political undertones and the property's central metaphor, because I didn't ditch the X-Men for whatever the next hot thing was. 

I instead related to it and retreated into it. Yes, I spent a lot of time in a fantasyland wherein I was a student at Xavier's School For Gifted Youngsters. As my hobby persisted and I became a typical, awkward middle schooler, I began to relate to the X-Men as the outsiders they were and the outsider I felt I was. My attachment to X-Force definitely has roots in this era of my life; of all of the '90s X-Teams, they felt the most like friends who grew alongside each other and had each other's backs. Yep, if I had had friends as a kid, "X-Force" might not be my favorite comic book!

While I related to the X-Men as a homebody kid, I related to them in a totally different way as an adult. When I came out during my senior year of college, a lot of things suddenly made more sense to me. It was like a film's twist ending where I was suddenly aware of what previous plot points in my life meant. The X-Men became even closer to my heart, after I had pushed them away during Grant Morrison's overt X-Men-as-LGBT era. I could recognize a lot of secret shame as a closeted homosexual in my distaste for Morrison's portrayal of mutant subculture. I seriously thought mutants shouldn't through their genetic difference in my face, much in the same way people very close to me would later thank me for not being "too gay" around them (not cool, by the way).

I know that as a kid reading X-Men comics, I longed for that sense of camaraderie (even though it came hand-in-hand with fighting Stryfe's Dark Riders). But now I knew why I didn't go ga-ga over the Joe Jusko's Psylocke card in the first Marvel Masterpieces series. I now related to Rahne Sinclair's religion-based loathing of her mutant powers as depicted in Chris Claremont's 1980's "New Mutants." I also realized the subtle lessons X-Men comics had been teaching me over the years, lessons that I'm convinced kept me from succumbing to an ultra-conservative thought process that would have made accepting my sexuality an even bigger doozy than it was. Those lessons were found in X-Men comics because of the concept's central metaphor.

I read Professor Xavier's speech in "Uncanny X-Men" #294, where Scott Lobdell wrote, "Each of us, man, woman, black, Hispanic, Jew, Asian, Native American, homosexual, mutant, everyone underneath all the words...we are related." I remember that being probably the first time I had read the word homosexual, and I definitely remember being confused about the angry letters that followed.

I was floored when, just two years later, a mutant named Dennis Hogan was beaten to death by a group of bigoted humans in the pages of "X-Men: Prime." The story was not at all subtle and is disgustingly appropriate to modern readers since incidents of gay bashing and bullying still make headlines today.

Scott Lobdell devoted a lot of attention on Iceman, whose father was not outwardly accepting of his son's mutant powers. In fact, the first time I ever read the word "bigot" was in an issue of Lobdell's "Uncanny X-Men." Just flipping through "Uncanny" #340 right now, where Graydon Creed has Iceman's father beaten nearly to death because he won't give up information on his son, gets me choked up. Lobdell somehow captured the exact feelings I had after coming out to my parents. That incredibly stressful event in my life was echoed years earlier in a comic book, a comic book that I relate to on a deep level.

That's why people were upset about the "m-word" fiasco.

The X-Men by their very nature pull out our own insecurities and fears. The X-Men comics take things that ill-intentioned people tell us to be ashamed of and turn them around, telling us to have pride in our differences. The X-Men tell us to wear bright colors so as to not slip into the background, find like-minded individuals, be the best person you can be in spite of those that hate and fear you. No, that's not the only way to interact with the X-Men (art is totes subjective), but it's how a lot of people interact with the X-Men. And this is how I interact with the X-Men.

Thankfully the need for the X-Men to champion the rights for all minorities has lessened. Before the last decade, the LGBT community had nothing but metaphorical stories to relate to because the cultural climate would not allow for mainstream superhero comics to have out characters. That's changed. Comic books now tell stories about gay characters without having to hide behind metaphors. That doesn't mean that I have to stop looking to the X-Men for metaphorical representation; after all, mutants are still factually a minority in the Marvel Universe. It does mean that I can now enjoy stories about characters and their actual sexuality, and not a mutant-based placeholder. Both types of stories are important, and both are critical to furthering tolerance. Discussions about the issues in these issues are equally important, and that's something good that's come out of "Uncanny Avengers" #5.

Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre show Left Handed Radio: The Sequel Machine. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).

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