Comics continuity is a mess, but the X-Men are a special case. Making sense of Marvel's mutants means reading several titles, familiarizing yourself with a cast of hundreds and understanding family trees that have to make allowances for time travel, clones and alternate futures. Comics fans who can actually speak coherently about any and all facets of the X-Men are few and far between.
Fortunately, though, those fans are out there, and two of them have probably the most popular comics podcast on the planet. Rachel Edidin and Miles Stokes have immersed themselves in all things X-Men for years and they have podcast -- "Rachel & Miles X-Plain the X-Men" -- devoted themselves to clarifying and explaining the whole convoluted X-Universe to us mere mortals. The two have a repartee that's quick, smart and sharp enough to cut through the massive Gordian Knot that is X-Men continuity. CBR News spoke with the hosts to uncover their podcast's uncanny origin.
For the dozen or so people who read CBR and don't listen to your podcast, what is "Rachel & Miles X-Plain the X-Men"?
Rachel Edidin: We tend to describe it as "it is what it says on the tin." It is literally the two of us explaining the X-Men, talking about continuity, stories and the creative and publishing context of the times when they were coming out.
Miles Stokes: The idea is to have a podcast where people who have been X-Men fans for a long time, [we] remind them of stuff they've forgotten or things they might not have known, and at the same time [the podcast] is accessible to conceivably a new audience -- like people who have only seen the movies or read a few storylines. Our goal is that, in theory, someone could know what was going on in X-Men just from listening to our show. Now, I'm pretty sure no one does that...
Edidin: There are a couple people, actually. A few have written to us and said that they never really read X-Men but that [the podcast] is really fun. A lot of them end up reading it.
Stokes: I feel like those people might have a skewed sense of what actually matters based on the weird stuff that we're obsessed with... To these listeners, [X-Men supporting character] Peter Corbeau is the main character of the Marvel Universe.
Edidin: Isn't he? Don't you mean Super Doctor Astronaut Peter Corbeau?
Stokes: I do, yes.
How did you become involved with the X-Men?
Stokes: Well, these powers manifested when I was about thirteen and it was a really awkward time and suddenly there was this bald telepath talking to my parents...
Edidin: Uh, we did actually go to a school for the gifted whose colors were yellow and blue. There are some layers going on.
Stokes: Some of my earliest memories are X-Men related. My father was a comic book fan from way back to the beginning of the Silver Age. He tells a story about how he got "Fantastic Four" #1 and he cut out all the monsters and taped them to his wall because nobody knew back then... One of the sort of families of comics that he really liked was the X-Men. He was a progressive, he was a hippie, he was kind of an outcast when he was younger and was questioning a lot of his worldview having been raised very religious and falling away from that. X-Men was there waiting for him. He was in the right place and right time for it to work. He would read me X-Men stories as bedtime stories.
One year for Christmas he gave me this giant longbox with his entire X-Men collection. "X-Men," "X-Factor," "New Mutants," everything. And so I started diving into that while watching the X-Men cartoon and reading some of the comics that were coming out when I could get my hands on them.
Edidin: I got into the X-Men significantly later. I had read comics growing up, but mostly really weirdo underground stuff. I got into more mainstream comics in high school and I had some friends who were super, super into Vertigo and got me into those. They'd lend me superhero comics periodically, but it was usually just whatever they were reading on the bus. So, it was just random issues here and there and I had very little sense of what it was. We did watch "X-Men" in Spanish class. It was "Equis-Men"! When we were in college Miles and I moved in together, and at some point [he] started telling me "The Dark Pheonix Saga" as a bedtime story.
Stokes: That was how X-Men had been told to me as a kid, so it made sense.
Edidin: I had seen the first movie, and a couple of summers later we stayed on campus and [his] dad had sent up his whole collection, and that summer I basically mainlined my way through thirty years of X-Men... The way I interact with stuff I'm interested in and stories I'm interested in tends to be very immersive and detail-oriented and granular. Obviously, shared universe superhero comics were just ripe for that.
When the "X-Men" line started in the Silver Age of comics, there were just sixty-six issues of one series -- which was very direct. Then you got into the '70s when Chris Claremont took over as writer, and along came the Wolverine limited series and "New Mutants" in the '80s. As the X-Men branch, into more and more titles, how are you going to organize your podcast?
Stokes: That's something that we've talked a lot about and that's something only recently where we've had to pick a direction, where "New Mutants" starts. What we've settled on -- and I do want to emphasize that this is for now, it might change -- is basically covering things with the same degree of detail as when it was just "Uncanny X-Men"... I think our initial goal was to only cover the highlights, but what I'm finding at least is [that] I'm really enjoying this deep, thorough dives into continuity. Yes, it does mean that the podcast will go on for a ridiculous amount of time until we catch up with ourselves -- our video reviews of current books -- but I think there's something to be gained with most of what comes out [even if it's] "well, here's something the Marvel Universe learned to never spend time on again."
Edidin: What we do and spend time on is very much tied to our interest. We don't answer to an editor. We don't answer to anyone but our listeners and each other. I'm thinking of an episode we just did where we read a book and really didn't want to talk about it that much.
Stokes: Which one was that?
Edidin: "Dazzler: The Movie." There wasn't a lot to say. At the same time, we looked at this little miniseries by a writer we'd never read and was universally dismissed as irrelevant and we both loved it. ["Beauty and the Beast" by Ann Nocenti and Don Perlin] is a total weird, outlier series and terrific fun.
Stokes: I think that's one of the things I enjoy about such deep coverage -- being able to expose listeners to things they never would have heard about or read.
Edidin: Our gloss was my idea. [Miles] originally wanted to do an issue an episode.
Oh my God.
Stokes: I don't know what I was thinking. Once, I was a fool. I am very glad you told me I was wrong.
Just to be clear, you guys are planning on reading ALL of the X-Books?
Edidin: At least for now. We're being pedantic about what counts as an X-Book.
Stokes: Exactly. For example we didn't read the "Dazzler" series...
Edidin: We probably will eventually.
Stokes: It's sort of relevant, but there are so many sort of relevant books and that would make the focus really broad. If there's a book with a character who's just a mutant, that's not enough for us. We want things that impact core X-Men continuity.
Edidin: We're probably not going to cover, for example, every Wolverine series that's come out... The way we put it in the first episode was that X-Books, for our purposes, are centered around the team X-Men, or affiliate teams, or characters whose prime affiliation is with the X-Men and whose affiliation informs the series.
Stokes: Are you wording a Wish spell there? That's very specific.
Edidin: In terms of nit-picky-ness of people on the other end, I might as well be. We'll cover Namor stuff as it intersects with X-Books, but not Namor solo. Ditto Dazzler. The solo "Cyclops" series we covered because he's my favorite and because he's so strongly associated with the X-Men, even though it has nothing to do with the X-Men. Ultimately our definition is tautological: What we treat as X-Books are the things we decide are X-Books.
How do you put an episode together? What's your process?
Edidin: In deciding what to cover we look at where we are chronologically and what breaks up pretty neatly into story arcs -- that we can talk about, not just recap. Something that we've talked about a lot is that this is "Rachel & Miles X-Plain the X-Men" not "Rachel & Miles Recap the X-Men." And, what we can reasonably talk about for an hour or so.
Stokes: Bearing in mind continuity, a lot of the time [we] work in episodes here and there that are a miniseries or a special that was going on at the time, or just something that's relevant to what was going on at the time.
Edidin: Or something that's relevant to what's going on now. We had Greg Rucka on when the "Cyclops" series was starting.
Stokes: Once we choose what the episode is going to be, we announce it in the preceding episode and we read the material, take notes as we read, talk about what we liked, what we didn't, and come up with an outline of stuff we want to hit that's a combination of story beats that we want to cover and commentary we want to have.
Edidin: We record Saturday afternoons and every Saturday morning we take our notes, take our comics, go out to breakfast and then we come home and write the outline. We write pretty tight outlines. None of it is scripted except for the cold opens. They're very fast and usually under a minute long and there's a huge amount of information in them. Having them go smoothly is important. From that, it's basically just an outline so we can follow along relative to how much time we have and not look stuff up. We tend to be a pretty data-heavy.
Stokes: A lot of times as we record, a lot of the content comes in there for the first time. Some of the jokes and references are in the outline, but a lot are just come from us riffing off each other as we go, cracking each other up and focusing way too much on individual stupid little concepts.
Edidin: Yeah. Our weird obsession with bit characters arose entirely organically.
How much of you guys in front of the microphones is performance, and how much is you being yourselves?
Edidin: I would say that what you hear on the mics -- and in this interview -- is more curation than performance. The way we talk about the X-Men on the air is very much the way we talk about the X-Men to our friends over drinks and that's what started the podcast. It was basically that happening a lot and people saying, "you should do a podcast." We are pretty private about our personal lives in the context of the podcast. The Rachel and Miles who exist in the podcast overlap significantly with the Rachel and Miles in whose living room you're doing this interview, but not entirely, and that's something that we're fairly careful of. We're also aware of podcast canon, like how I always wear sunglasses, which isn't really true in real life.
Stokes: I do feel like the Miles on the show is essentially me, just dialed up a notch.
Edidin: Yeah. The Rachel who's on the show is very much me, but a very specific part of me. That's something I'm more used to thinking about. I'm used to writing for an audience and navigating public visibility. This is the first time [Miles] has really been on the Internet at large.
Stokes: I actually didn't know what a computer was before we started this podcast. I was in a cave being raised by Sasquatch.
Edidin: You know what I mean!
Stokes: That's actually very true. It's been a strange and surreal experience going from someone with no public presence whatsoever... to somebody people in a bunch of different countries know by voice. Somebody recognized me by voice at a party once.
Edidin: Someone recognized us on the street once.
Stokes: I don't think I'm ever going to get over it. I still giggle like a little kid every time I see someone doing fan art of one of my stupid jokes... I kinda like that it's always exciting and surprising.
I want to ask you guys about the central metaphor of X-Men, with mutants as a metaphor for a marginalized group. According to you, how well or not well does that metaphor work?
Edidin: It's terrible! It ignores intersectionality. If you take mutants as a metaphor for race, you ignore that there are mutants who deal with actual racism. Ditto sexual orientation, etc. This is something that Darryl Ayo has written about before, and I will refer back to that infinitely.
Mutants are really dangerous, and mutants are explicitly and actually dangerous in a lot of the ways that we were artificially conditioned (and by "we" I mean members of majority groups, especially white people) to see minority populations, and when we do that, that is incorrect. That is a result of social programming. And most young black men cannot level buildings with lasers shot from their eyes.
Given the way that that conditioned fear is used to justify murders in our society... Equating minority and marginalized groups to a metaphor in which their analogs are actually, actively dangerous is, I think, incredibly wrong-headed. I agree that it can start people thinking and asking interesting questions, but treating it as a direct metaphor... creates more problems than it solves.
Stokes: That being said, though... I think where the mutant metaphor really does work is for making readers who haven't thought about these topics... think about things in a more open-minded way than before. By seeing these characters whom you really like and respect be oppressed by this world that they're not doing anything bad toward, that can get people thinking... While I'll certainly agree that as a direct metaphor it certainly falls down, as food for thought... it can a actually be a really positive thing.
Edidin: Would it be accurate to say that it works as a motif but not as a metaphor?
Stokes: I think that's a good way of putting it. I grew up with commie, pinko, leftist, tree-hugger parents, and I was reading this book that spoke to a part of me that I don't know would have come forth had I not been reading X-Men. I think a lot of my political views can be traced to this comic.
Edidin: I feel like there is a metaphor that is closer to apt than most of them, and as far as I know, it's never come up in X-Men, and that is social versus medical models of disability. This is, again, a wildly imperfect metaphor, but in terms of way the X-Men interact with society, about passing or not, and about access, and access as it relates to reasonable accommodation... That makes so much sense to me, and not something that I think has been done in-universe... And movement toward radical inclusion as opposed to acceptance.
Stokes: You keep asking us serious questions, people are going to think the podcast is more than just a bunch of dick jokes.
Edidin: We talk about this stuff on the podcast all the time!
Stokes: But we also have a lot of dick jokes.
Edidin: Dick jokes and radical social models of disability! Rachel & Miles X-Plain the X-Men!