So, I have some further thoughts/epilogue/ramblings about the X-Tinction Agenda tradepaperbacks that I read this spring, but very little ability/motivation to organize them? Sorry about that. I swear I’m doing my best here, in that sometimes the best I can do is to lower my standards so that I post anything at all.
On Insults: There is a scene—a couple of scenes, actually—where the X-Men encounter, for the first time, a Genoshan racial slur: “genejoke.” When the word is directed at her, Rogue says (while also punching the magistrates in the face), “That word sounds like an insult, fella.” Storm reacts similarly: “That word—‘genejoke’—I do not like it.” What Rogue and Storm (and Chris Claremont) understand is that what makes a slur a slur isn’t the word itself, but how the word is used. Storm and Rogue have never heard “genejoke” before landing on Genosha, but they’ve heard “mutie” plenty, and they instinctively know that the words are similar, and are only used by people who think they’re garbage. They would never have patience with the disingenuous people who tell you that you’re just being oversensitive when they call your names because “a faggot is just a bundle of sticks, come on, man, lighten up.” You don’t have to listen to them. You know, and so do Storm and Rogue: an insult is an insult even if you don’t understand the exact word being used.
On Hammer Bay: I forgot to note in either of my previous entries, but Genosha’s capital is described by Claremont as “the most dynamically modern city on earth.” I read this book before the Black Panther movie came out, and I’m not sure where Wakanda was in the Marvel Universe at this time (still hiding behind its lying concealing forcefield?) but I want to note a couple things: One, Hammer Bay, like the United States, has reached its exalted status on the backs of slaves, and any discussion or evaluation of one of those qualities without addressing the other one is kind of a farce. The other is that Wakanda exists (in the Marvel universe, anyway): a dynamically modern society that was never on either side of slavery. Never colonizer or colonized. And I know there’s no real-world analog of Wakanda—yet. But we’re capable of imagining it, right? We accept Wakanda in the Marvel universe. It exists. I just think that, if we can look to science fiction for shit like laser guns and flying cars and then turn those things (or things like them) into reality, surely we can do that with Wakanda too. We can address our past and finally move past it. Surely that’s a possibility, both within the realm of our imaginations and within our abilities as humans.
On Women’s Bodies: Problematic boobage and weirdly long legs and tiny waists have been discussed elsewhere on the Internet, but I just want to point to the President of Genosha here to further my hypothesis that some significant number of comics artists in the 1980s (in this case, Jon Bogdanove) just straight up did not know what women look like.
Please also note that Hodge, the creepy and insane mechanical cyborg whose human head is the only remnant of his previous body, is literally wearing a cardboard cutout of a suit around his neck to try and conceal his monstrous insect-like body behind him. You are totally fooling all of us, dude. Best disguise ever.
This book is, in a way, everything I both love and hate about comics. I love the various personalities of the X-Men (in the first half of the book anyway; after that they start sniping and backbiting each other and it’s like, come on guys, the magistrates are trying to murder and enslave you, maybe prioritize other things just now) and how they work together and kick ass and never leave anyone behind. I love Claremont’s socio-political commentary, in how he translates all these historical and philosophical ideas into a new medium. But I really dislike the 1980s female body as drawn in comics, and I’m not super amped about the extra-bulked up male characters, either.
In this entry: Uncanny X-Men 237 & 238, the second two issues in the X-Tinction Agenda crossover event. Prepare to board the Mutant Train! Written by Chris Claremont, pencilled by Rick Leonardi (237) and Marc Silvestri (238), inked by Terry Austin (237) and Dan Green (238), lettered by Tom Orzechowski, edited by Bob Harris.
When we left off (in issue 236), Rogue (who is being “steered” by Carol Danvers, who has apparently been lying dormant in Rogue’s mind ever since Rogue touched her one time) and Wolverine, who have had their mutant powers stripped from them, are trying to escape from Genosha. To this end, they have stolen a military jet magistrate aircar and are flying away. We open issue 237 over international waters.
Also, I don’t think I said this last time, the Genegineer’s name is Phillip Moreau. His last name is Moreau. Because that’s not symbolic at all. Just kidding it totally is.
Anyway, it transpires (after the Genoshan military boards the stolen aircar) that Wolverine and Rogue/Carol Danvers aren’t on the jet after all. The whole thing was (presumably) a distraction to give Wolvie and Rogue/CD a chance to rescue Madelyne Pryor and Jenny Ransom, who are still prisoners of the magistrates and in danger of having their brains mutilated by our resident wielder of banal evil, Dr. Moreau. We switch scenes to Wolverine, who is lurking on the street watching a documentary propaganda broadcast about the history and goals of Genosha. “Sounds wonderful, sweetheart,” says Wolverine to the television, after listening to a perky red-headed lady wax poetic about Genosha’s iron ore deposits, its low levels of poverty, its status as a contender for the “breadbasket of the world” title, “pity it’s a crock.” He and Rogue/CD observe some magistrate patrolmen pulling petty power trips on a mutate garbageman, and Rogue/CD convinces him to not murder the magistrates with his claws as it would blow their “keep quiet and wait for reinforcements” plan.
While they’re in a bar causing a diversion and stealing magistrates’ badges and credentials, Wolvie and Rogue/CD happen upon a drunken Phillip Moreau, washing down his sorrows in a cop bar on the wrong side of town, and getting knocked cold by the off-duty magistrates, who don’t take kindly to him causing a ruckus in their bar. In retaliation, they dump his drunkenly unconscious body on the “mute train,” the commuter train on which mutates ride to their barracks at the end of the day. The magistrates dump Phillip on the train, and Wolverine and Rogue board as well, curious to see what the “mute train” might be.
Meanwhile, out of some kind of…I don’t even know what, the Genegineer has called Mutant 9817—that is, Jenny, his son’s fiancee—to his office. He explains to her that her father falsified the results of her genetic exam, and that she’s a mutant, and as such she much has “a responsibility to the community that bore and nurtured” her to give herself over for “processing” and a lifetime of servitude. “It’s slavery!” cries Jenny, utterly distraught. In fact, Jenny’s lines throughout the whole two-page scene consist of statements like “Why am I here?” “But I tested normal on my genetic exam!” “oh no oh no oh no,” “Why me? It isn’t fair!” “It’s slavery!” “Does Phillip know?” She is in shock, nothing but tears and questions. The bulk of the word balloons (and it’s Chris Claremont, so there are a lot of word balloons) are of the Genegineer, lecture/pleading with Jenny to clear his own conscience, explaining to her why her life is over. At one point, he says, “Believe me, this is as hard for me, as for you.” Somehow I doubt that, Genejerkface. She’s giving up her whole existence because you deem it necessary, and after you buzz on your intercom to have her taken away, you’ll never think about her again. It is objectively, demonstrably, not harder for you. But, in a glorious demonstration of blindness to the consequences of one’s actions, he says it anyway, and he really believes it. He believes that this really is as hard for him as it is for her. He calls it “our sacrifice,” even though he is sacrificing precisely nothing. He believes that slavery is necessary. He believes that the benefits of taking children away from their families and brainwashing them and putting them to labor outweighs whatever momentary discomfort he might feel from his dull, crippled conscience. He does not think that Genosha would survive as the paradise that it is without the brutality and coercion that laces underneath every single inch of the island.
The whole scene is gross. Versions of it happen all the time in the real world, and it’s gross then, too.
The issue ends with Wolverine vowing to “bring this flamin’ country down,” and at this point I can’t say I’m opposed.
Issue 238 opens with a “transcript” of a telepathic interview done on Mutant 9818—aka Madelyne Pryor—immediately before she somehow destroyed the examining team (“torn to bits,” is how it’s described). Exactly what Madelyne did or how is vaguely unclear, but evidently in her own mind she garbs herself in what can only be described as Skimpy Hellfire Goth, and this is totally about female empowerment and not about the 1980s being a boobs guy at all. (There’s probably a whole essay of my mixed feelings in here somewhere, about how I love that Madelyne is smart and brave and fighting back even though she has no conscious access to mutant powers, but also I could never cosplay as her because come on, and also I don’t want to police or judge what another woman decides to put on her body, butakshually Marc Silvestri decided what she would be wearing, and also come on) (being a female with SJW tendencies who also loves comics can be complicated sometimes, and Hellfire Madelyne Pryor and Emma Frost are two of the ones who make it seem complicated).
Furious and/or frightened, the Genegineer storms down to the cells to yell at Madelyne for murdering his interrogation team. In the process, he has the same conversation with Madelyne that he had with Jenny in the last issue, but Madelyne is mature enough and experienced enough to fight back. “What I think and feel and want don’t really matter, do they? I was condemned the moment I arrived here,” she tells Moreau. He tries to feed her the line about how the Genoshan way of life must be protected, and how the mutants on Genosha “want and care for nothing.” “Except freedom,” she says, from where she sits, in her cell, behind bars. “What are you so scared of?” she asks. “If you system’s such a marvel, why not share it with everyone?” He feeds her something about secrecy being Genosha’s strength, a bullshit line that he probably actually believes, but Madelyne’s not having it.
“What is necessary, is done,” says the guard who has escorted Moreau down to the cells.
“Seig heil to you too, sweetie,” Madelyne cuts back.
We switch to Wolverine and Rogue/Carol Danvers, who have ended up in the mutant barracks (the end of the line of the mutant train that they boarded the previous night), which—though none of them have seen it before—is a rude awakening to Phillip Moreau, and nothing new to Wolvie and R/CD. Phillip is having the realization that my dad had when he was a kid in the 1950s in Louisiana: that the people that he saw cleaning houses and doing menial labor went somewhere at the end of the day, and that sometimes the places they went weren’t very fancy, or very nice.
“Tell me something, boy,” Wolverine asks him, “Where’d you think the mutants went at night, after they quit work?”
“Home, I guess. Same as anyone.” (But for Phillip, who has a very narrow field of experience, “home” has a very narrow definition.)
“Live and learn, kiddo,” Rogue/Carol tells him. “Welcome to the Mutant Settlement Zone. A prison, by any other name.”
“Like keeps to like, that’s what I was always taught,” says Phillip, really thinking about what he’d been taught for maybe the first time in his life. “The mutes–sorry, mutants, no offense–they naturally preferred the company of their own kind. Their own way of life, their own place. Is that so wrong?”
“You tell us,” Wolverine replies.
Rogue/Carol says (and I’m truncating this a bit), “You never wondered about the uniforms mutants wear?…[It] makes the slaves easily identifiable, then guarantees a social environment wherein they’re almost totally isolated. If no one befriends them, no one can feel sorry for them. Effectively, they become extensions of their jobs–perceived not as people any longer but organic machines. And who cares what happens to machines?”
When I first read this, it made me think (as it was probably supposed to make me think) of slavery, and segregation, and Jim Crow. But as I was reading it again and writing this essay, it made me think of retail workers and cashiers. And sure, that comparison is a little shallow, a little low stakes. But who thinks about where a cashier goes at the end of the day, and what kind of life she can buy with her $10/hr? Who thinks about the folks in the agriculture supply chain who pick our food and work in our slaughterhouses? How isolated is a community of transient farmworkers from your daily life? (If it’s anything like my daily life, they might as well live across an ocean.) What’s the separation that’s happening today—and not organic separation, either, not like “Oh I live far away from Irish people in Irelend” separation, remember that the Genoshan power structure keeps the lives of the mutates a secret on purpose—that keeps you from seeing the people around you as people?
I do know this, though—in my experience, increasing my knowledge of an issue or a country or a culture or a person, when I hear from those people themselves, has already brought me closer to human empathy. Never further away. If the knowledge you gain hardens your heart, then you might be doing something wrong. There’s a Ta-Nahesi Coates quote that I can’t find right now, about how slavery was only ever “acceptable” if you didn’t ask black people what they thought. Phillip, basically, has finally opened his ears to the idea that the mutants might have different ideas about this whole system than the magistrates do. His father, even though multiple mutants and his own son try to tell him what it’s like out there, refuses to hear.
Back to the story…
Wolverine, Rogue/Carol, and Phillip are found at the mutant barracks and arrested and brought back to Hammer Bay, the capital city, and to Phillip’s father (and the guard captain, whose name I don’t think has been mentioned). Phillip immediately confronts his father about what he’s seen and how horrifying he found it. “I’ve seen the camp, Dad, it’s a prison! Why hasn’t the country been told?! Why won’t you level with the people about the regime you force the mutants to live under?! Those mutants are Genoshans, too, just like us—They deserve the same benefits, the same chance for happiness and success the rest of us accept as a right!” Phillip is basically a baby ally, truth and justice bright in his mind, sure that if only everyone else could see what he’s seen, they would all be just as horrified as him. I appreciate that Phillip has basically had one hell of a 24 hours (at this time yesterday, remember, he was out for a run and happened upon his girlfriend’s family being arrested), so I really shouldn’t judge what kind of ally he might turn out to be, but he’s also doing the annoying this of jumping on a social issue only after it’s affected him personally. I guess any reason is a good enough reason as long as it gets the kid in the fight, but if other humans could do this a little less, I think we would aggravate each other a lot less.
The Genegineer repeats his argument about how it’s for the good of all Genosha that mutants are enslaved, and about preserving the Genoshans’ peculiar way of life, and then asks—as his son asked at the barracks, though he doesn’t know that—“Is that so wrong?”
Wolverine, tellingly, answers the question differently this time: “If you haveta ask, bub…there’s no point in answerin’.”
Side point: “I’ve been a slave,” Wolverine tells the captain of the guard, who is basically telling Phillip to shut the hell up until he knows better than her what’s what, “Didn’t much care for it.”
“That will change,” the captain tells Wolverine. “When Wipeout’s erased all memory of your old life–oh yes, he does that too–and the Genegineer’s established a new one, I guarantee you’ll love it.”
“Not hardly,” says Wolverine, “I’ll die first.” When I first read this, I thought Wolvie was just making a Wolvie threat (and the captain and the magistrates present certainly hear it that way), but it also occurs to me that Wolverine is seriously injured, and if Wipeout fails to restore his healing factor, Wolverine really will die. I felt really cool about reading the dialogue this way until I got to the next page and Wolverine made explicit text out of the subtext.
Just as Wolverine is basically making a suicide bid for freedom, the rest of the X-Men arrive, literally blowing the doors off the place, and in short order rescue Madelyne Pryor, a mutant baby who was also in the prison (oh hey, look who else throws babies into prisons!), and Jenny Ransome, who is looking much more muscular but who hasn’t had her mind wiped yet. Rogue/Carol takes Wipeout hostage, and Psylocke uses him to restore Wolverine’s healing factor. Wolverine and Phillip briefly disagree over whether they should burn Genosha to the ground or give the Genoshans a chance to mend their ways. Storm goes with Phillip’s way, though with the added threat to the Genegineer and the magistrates that if they don’t listen to Phillip, she’s not opposed to taking the Wolverine Option at a future date. They explode the Hammer Bay Citadel to emphasize the point.
“My son, I beg you—consider what you’re doing!” says the Genegineer. “You’ll destroy everything we’ve worked lifetimes here in Genosha to build!”
“But, Dad, if the mutants aren’t free, then maybe what you’ve built isn’t worth saving,” says Phillip, looking a little sad. He goes through the portal off Genosha with the X-Men, seeking asylum for himself and Jenny in America.
And they all lived happily ever after.
The trade paperback continues, though it skips ahead to issue 270 for Further Genoshan Adventures. I’m not sure if I’ll continue forward; the latter adventures are decidedly more boom-pow-bam and less Claremontian Discourse On Justice, and my own analysis consists more of being annoyed by Wolfsbane and how Rob Liefeld can’t draw feet. So it might be funny but probably wouldn’t be that interesting. I dunno. Maybe I’ll write something else and post it in less than two months!
In this entry: Uncanny X-Men #235 & 236, first two issues in the X-tinction Agenda crossover event (the most ambitious crossover event in history! or something). Written by Chris Claremont; penciled by Rick Leonardi (235) and Marc Silvestri (236); inked by P. Craig Russell (235) and Dan Green (236); colored by Glynis Oliver (235) and Petra Scotese (236); lettered by Tom Orzechowski (235 & 236); and edited by Bob Harras.
Caution! Spoilers ahoy.
Welcome to Genosha.
My comics knowledge, as I’ve said elsewhere, is kinda spotty, at least compared to my true comic nerd friends. I get most of my comics from the public library, so I’m subject to the whims of availability and purchasing departments and waiting lists. But I know that I like Chris Claremont, so when I happened upon a TPB at the library called X-Tinction Agenda collecting several stories–from Uncanny X-Men, New Mutants, and X-Factor, published between 1983 and 1988–centering around the island nation of Genosha, I checked it out.
Guys, it’s so good. And even though it was published thirty years ago, parts of it are so relevant to our current political situation. So I figured I’d talk about it.
Uncanny X-Men #235: Welcome to Genosha.
Random thing, before we even start on the plot: The picture that dominates the first page is a sign that says: “Welcome to Genosha. A Green and Pleasant Land of Hope and Opportunity where the Watchword is Freedom.” “Green and pleasant land” is a line from a William Blake poem that is also a very famous and common British hymn and a sort of alternative national anthem for England. It evokes Britain as a sort of paradise, a place where lions can lie down with lambs and lovely rabbits frolic through the idyllic grasses. Under this sign, with its buzzwords of peace and prosperity, crouches a fugitive, a mutant who is trying to smuggle his child away from a life of slavery. The overarching theme of this entire story arc, underneath its blams and pows, is about the rot and corruption and cruelty that exist underneath the patina of wealth and prosperity, and you can see all of that on this one page if you look hard enough.
We start out by getting into the middle of a story that doesn’t involve the X-Men—a blonde man with a Sylvester Stallone-ian build, carrying a baby, has vaulted into a restricted area of an airport runway. “See those lights?” he tells the baby. “For people like us…that’s where true freedom lies.” He’s trying to smuggle the baby off the island, and he succeeds, but loses his own life in the process. There’s so much that could be talked about, pointed at, even in just these first few pages. Like a present-day Mexican, or Syrian, or Somalian, or Rohingya, or Palestinian—people will always cross barbed wire and guns if they think it’ll lead to a better chance for their kids. “I’ll miss you, baby boy,” he tells the young one. “You be brave.” Then the magistrates (Genoshan secret military police force charged with corralling and punishing mutants) are on top of him. He takes out one of their armored vehicles before they shoot him down, and as he dies, he watches the plane with the small stowaway take off and fly away. The magistrates, thinking that he was trying to escape himself, don’t even realize at first that a mutant has escaped their clutches.
SCENE CHANGE. The reds and blacks of the airport security lights and murder switch to oranges and yellows of the bright Australian sun. The Genoshans have sent the magistrates after the escaped baby, who is a mutant, and therefore (according to Genoshan law) not allowed to be a free person. They have lured Jenny Ransome (an escaped adult Genoshan mutant) to their location, hoping to quietly kidnap her back to Genosha, but unfortunately (for them) Jenny is accompanied by Madelyne Pryor, X-Man, clone, and close enough to a mutant that the differences are academic.
The Press Gang magistrates are an odd bunch, and I will freely admit that maybe this is one of those things that is explained in an issue of the X-Men that I’ve never read. They have special abilities, and seem to be either mutants or augmented humans, but they also hate and fear mutants as all Genoshans do. It’s unclear if the Press Gang are brainwashed into service (though in a different way than the general “mutate” population), or if they chose joining the Magistrates over going through the mutate process. They may be a sort of mutant Judenrat. I’m honestly not sure.
Over and over again, Genosha exhibits this slaver’s mindset doublespeak–they hate and fear mutants, even the mutants hate and fear mutants, but they’re happy to use them for their own ends to make Genosha a prosperous nation. Mutants are a danger. Mutants are also the reason why Genosha is prosperous. The future of Genosha depends on Genoshans never realizing or acknowledging this fact.
Pipeline, one of the Press Gang Magistrates, has the ability to reduce humans to “binary electronic impulses” and send them across his “phone link” for near-instant transport to Genosha. The phone link can transport humans but not their clothing for reasons that comic nerds tell me are perfectly obvious and logical and has nothing to do with wanting to see naked mutants. Pipeline zaps both Jenny Ransome and Madelyne Pryor back to Genosha, which of course brings the X-Men into it when Madelyne doesn’t come home. The adventure is on. Like, full splash page of a battle on.
Uncanny X-Men #236: “Busting Loose!”
At the end of #235, Jenny Ransome and Madelyne Pryor were zapped via “telephone link” from Australia to Genosha, as were Rogue and Wolverine when they were caught trying to track Madelyne and Jenny. Which is how we end up with Naked Wolverine and Naked Rogue taking on a whole squadron of magistrates.
About halfway through the issue, though, the story starts to depart from the usual comic POWs and ZAMs and SNIKTs and veer into Chris Claremont-ian holy-shit-metaphors territory. We cut away from Wolverine and Rogue (who have just lost the battle by virtue of having their mutant abilities wiped out by a vaguely clerical-looking Genoshan mutant named Wipeout) to suburban Genosha where a high-level civil servant, the Genegineer, has been pulled away from his Saturday gardening and plans with his teenage son Phillip to go deal with the general crisis that is the X-Men show up naked on your doorstep. (The Genegineer is in charge of administering the medical/biological alterations to mutants to turn them into powerful but mindless slaves.) You can see, in a small but telling interaction, just where general Genoshan population—through the lens of Phillip—is in terms of human-mutant relations: a flying car, taking off from Phillip’s yard, has damaged the lawn and some of the garden. Phillip offhandedly says to an approaching mutate, “Fix it, will ya, boy?” He doesn’t stick around to see if the mutate does so, or to thank him, or tell him he did a good job. He just walks away, both garden and mutate gone from his mind. (Which leads me to wonder, why is Phillip’s dad gardening at all, when they have a mutate who can do it faster and better?)
And now, back to Wolverine and Rogue, who have been captured and imprisoned.
So, here’s a thing that maybe says more about my obtuseness and lack of reading comprehension than anything else, but it wasn’t until I read these panels that I realized what a stunning metaphor Rogue’s mutant powers are for trauma. I mean, in these two panels, the two jailers who are speaking think that Rogue is reacting solely to being manhandled (and in a way she is, because thanks to Wipeout she didn’t absorb any magistrate psyches), but what they—and we (sorry, spoilers)—don’t know yet is that Wipeout’s attack combined with the Magistrates’ capture of her has basically unleashed all the psyches that Rogue has buried in her brain. But that’s…that’s what trauma is. A ghost of an experience, taking up space in your brain, and rising up at the most inconvenient times to make a time traveler out of your adrenal system and convince you that you’re back in that spot. Rogue has dozens and dozens of psyches inside her brain, and generally she can keep them at bay, but every now and again they rise up and incapacitate her. And they can do this without the original person knowing, or being aware, or even remembering what they did to get into her brain in the first place (see also, Kevin Spacey “not remembering” what he did to Anthony Rupp, and how what was so formulative for Rupp was not even a blip in Spacey’s mental story of his life). Ghosts, man. Ghosts and trauma.
Okay, so, back to our young lad Phillip, who is out for a run when he sees that a squad of magistrates have descended on his neighbor’s house and arrested the family of a government minister (including their daughter who is, we will learn, young Phillip’s fiancée). One of the magistrates threatens to club Phillip with his baton when Phillip tries to intervene, then does an abrupt 180 when he finds out how powerful Phillip’s father is. He’s apologetic and fawning, begging Phillip not to tell his father that a lowly magistrate stepped so far out of line. On an immediate level, he’s asking Phillip not to tell his father, because then the Magistrate will get fired. But really, what he’s asking of Phillip—what the whole interaction is about—is reminding Phillip of who he is, where he’s from, what his class is. In Genoshan society, if Phillip isn’t siding with the humans, then he’s siding with the mutants, and the magistrates are there to enforce that divide and make sure it remains. Sympathy for mutants is a dangerous emotion. What’s at stake here is not just the whims of some cops, but all of Genoshan society. If the subtext isn’t obvious enough, Claremont throws in that most notorious of excuses for the benign perpetuation of evil into the narrative waters— “I was only following orders,” the magistrate tells Phillip. Nothing personal. I was only following orders when I arrested your girlfriend and sent her off to get her genetically altered into a mind-altered slave. I didn’t create this system, I’m just living in it. I just need to feed my family and I’m only following orders.
And I mean, that’s how you know you’re in power, even if you feel like a small and powerless element of much larger social mechanisms. When what is, for you, just one of your basic daily duties that you hardly think about is also the most deeply, elementally personal thing to someone else–their body, their identity, their very existence. People who are in power, who are removed from the consequences of their actions, can have profound impacts on those below them without ever meeting or thinking about what they’re doing and why. The Magistrate is just following orders. The mutant is just existing. Even the Genegineer, with all his power, frames his actions as “necessary”—not as choices. Jenny Ransome has a “duty” to serve Genosha as a mindless, altered mutate. The Genegineer has the duty to turn her into the slave that Genosha needs. And Phillip is learning, is about to learn, that his action–or his inaction–will have profound consequences.
Next time: Who’s human? All aboard the mutant train.
I’m near the younger end of my cousins. I have four cousins younger than me, and twelve that are older, so when I was a kid and we went back to Louisiana to visit them, I was almost always one of the youngest ones there. So sometimes, while my parents talked with their siblings, I ended up doing not-entirely-age-appropriate stuff to entertain myself. Like when I was seven or eight and ended up in my cousin Daniel’s bedroom digging through his X-Men and Spider-Man comics and reading them. I didn’t know anything about the X-Men canon. It was in the middle of Chris Claremont’s epic run on the series, and a lot of it went over my head, but a lot of it settled in my subconscious, and planted seeds in my memory. I certainly learned the names of Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, and Jean Grey. When Fox started airing the X-Men animated show in 1992, I was all over that shit like white on rice. The universe became clearer, and I started reading X-Men comics more regularly (but still pretty piecemeal, since I didn’t have access to a comic book shop) and assembling the universe in my head. The X-Men and the Evil Brotherhood of Mutants. Sentinels. Senator Kelly. William Stryker.
(Note: It was a mystery to me what X-Men story I had read first, because all I had was a memory of a single panel: of Nightcrawler lying unconscious and bleeding from his ears while the other X-Men stand over him in concern and a vague understanding of mutants as an oppressed minority rather than a crew of superheroes. It wasn’t until recently that I read God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and realized that that was the comic I had read decades earlier at my cousin’s).
Early on in the Fox series, there’s a plotline in which two scientists discover a “cure” for mutantism. I forget how the X-Men find out about it, but they do, and their reactions all fit their personalities and personal histories. Wolverine immediately sees it as a tool to eliminate mutants’ powers and neutralize the perceived threat of mutantkind; Rogue, not so much. As one of the mutants whose powers are both an ability and a curse, Rogue (as well as Beast) tend to be the most ambivalent about their mutations, and tempted by the idea of a cure. Peaceful, optimistic Charles Xavier disagrees with the very premise. “Don’t say ‘cure,’ Moira. Being a mutant isn’t a disease. It’s something you’re born with,” he tells Moira McTaggert, one of the scientists. (This is the same plot line that Joss Whedon would handle for his run writing the Astonishing X-Men comics in 2005). It is, basically, the neurodiversity argument, only written in 1992 for a grade school-level audience.
I think it’s this storyline (and others like it), rather the ones that deal with a planet in danger or intergalactic space war, that drew me to the X-Men. Pretty early on, I picked up on threads that I translated into the X-Men being code for people with disabilities. One of the earliest questions that I remember being asked about my sister (besides “What’s wrong with her?” and “What’s it like having a sister with Down’s?”) had to do with whether I would change her if I could. Magically suck the extra chromosome out of every single one of her body’s cells. I don’t remember how young I was when I first heard about the high abortion rates for fetuses with Down’s, but it’s been in my head since at least middle school. And even though I never witnessed people being cruel to my sister, I did witness neurotypical classmates of mine being cruel to disabled kids at my school, and being mocking in general of anyone in special ed or remedial classes. It became really easy, in my head, to equate “Do mutants have the right to exist?” and “Do people with disabilities have the right to exist?” To see “retard” and “mutie” as linguistic cousins. The fear and hostility that mutants experience when they interact with regular Homo sapiens sometimes feels familiar when I hear people talk about people with disabilities. The parallel ran so deep in my head that I was honestly surprised when I got to high school and college and started talking about the X-Men with other people and realized that for them, the parallel was between straight people and queer people, or white people and people of color. That there might be many parallels had honestly never occurred to me, so deep and solid was my understanding that “mutant” was code for “disabled.” (This was before I read Chris Claremont’s statement that for him, mutants could stand in for any outsider population. In the introduction to the trade paperback version of God Loves, Man Kills, Claremont says, “Mutants in the Marvel Universe have always stood as a metaphor for the underclass, the outsiders; they represent the ultimate minority.”)
It crystallized slowly for me, over the course of years. Not all–or even most–storylines have to do with mutaphobia, after all. The X-Men fight against Magneto and fight against the Shi’ar (and fight with the Shi’ar), and there’s the Phoenix Saga and numerous interpersonal dramas and secondary mutations and all that. To read the X-Men is to get to know them from the inside first, their individual histories, their powers, how they feel about those powers, their flaws and foibles, their courage and tenacity, their creativity at solving (or blasting through) problems. You know the X-Men as individuals, make friends with them, and as the stories pile up it slips your mind that the rest of the comic universe world doesn’t see them as individuals, but as a blanket population. You don’t always have to be aware of the fact that a small but significant percentage of the non-mutant population hates mutants, fears them, and wants them dead.
I came to knowledge of my sister’s disability in much the same way. I was three–almost four–when she was born, so I didn’t have any concept of what Down syndrome was. She was just an eating, pooping, crying (and eventually giggling) machine. Your basic human baby. By the end of elementary school (when she would’ve been around seven and me around eleven), I had a pretty good handle on the definition of Down syndrome, but I had an even better knowledge of my sister. I knew how much she loved Barbie and Full House and that cheese was a fundamental dietary building block. I knew her love and her smiles and her stubbornness. I knew how much she was distressed by bees (and flies that might be bees) and automatic garage doors and anybody crying. I knew her. It’s hard to put all that aside and look at my sister from an outsider’s point of view and remember that there’s people who think that my sister is a waste of space. That she’s stupid. That she’s a burden on society and/or my family and that she shouldn’t exist. And there’s people out there who don’t think those things, but who are happy to tell me such things over the Internet because they know it’ll get to me.
I truly believe my sister is a gifted person, though not in the academic way that most people think of when they label kids “gifted.” Her gifts are of a more abstract sort: a deep and instinctive knowledge of chesed, of loving-kindness, of human joy. But the same genetic error that gave her those gifts also gets in the way, too. Gets in the way of her desire to live independently and have more friends. Gets in the way of my family’s desire that she live with economic stability and a reasonable amount of personal safety. Would she welcome the chance for a cure? I honestly don’t know. Like Rogue, her extra chromosome is both a gift and a curse. She can do many amazing things, but also misses out on a lot of opportunities that are easily available to “normals.”
It wasn’t until much, much later that I realized the other parallel. The angry one.
Because people with disabilities get abused at disturbingly, shockingly, unacceptably high rates in modern America. And every time I see it, in the news or wherever, it makes the muscles in my arms harden, and I stop breathing, and start looking for something to hit. Of course there’s never anything to hit. In those moments, though, I wish I was the mutant Pyro, so I could literally set the world on fire. In Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, when Dr. Rao announces a cure for the “mutant disease” on television, Wolverine’s claws come out and he can’t retract them. “She called us a disease. Do you know how that feels?” he says.
Yeah, Logan. I think I do, at least a little bit.
I would set the whole world on fire. I understand Magneto’s fury in the face of human intolerance and bigotry, and why he’s given up on humans and on Charles Xavier’s idealism. Xavier wants to teach people tolerance and compassion, but that is the long fucking way around the problem, and in the meantime people are straight up fucking dying and why do I have to talk to you about not calling people retards when those same people are getting murdered? I don’t have time for that bullshit. It would be so much easier, so much more satisfying, to just throw cars at people and silence them.
When it was my own sister that got hurt, it didn’t feel like enough. Her getting hurt by somebody else felt like the end point of a long chain of dealing with the stupidity and apathy of “normals” and the inevitable vulnerability and invisibility that disabled people experience because of it. There had been decades of people asking, in so many words, “Why does your sister exist?” And then someone came along and decided that she existed to be his victim. He picked a vulnerable, invisible person, and he did it on purpose, because he knew he could get away with it. He thought she wouldn’t fight back. And he was largely right, because how do you teach somebody to defend herself when her default setting is that everyone is her friend?
And that is when I understand the anger that allows Magneto to channel enough power to lift an entire football stadium into the air.
That is when I understand the Scarlet Witch’s anger and desperation when she says, “No more mutants.”
That is when I understand Pyro throwing fireballs, because that’s what I would do, that’s what I wanted to do, to set the whole fucking world on fire for leaving my sister helpless and invisible and vulnerable to somebody who decided to hurt her.
I want to incinerate the world. I want claws like Wolverine’s. Because that’s the biggest thing that X-Men in the Marvel Universe have going for them, that’s their trump card. They can do astonishing things. Uncanny things. Amazing things. They can save the world when no one else can. And that’s a really good argument in favor of their right to exist. When all else fails, when morals and ethics and human compassion fails, mutant usefulness is still there. My sister, and people like her, aren’t stupendous. They aren’t awe-inspiring. They do not astonish, unless you’re willing to examine something quieter and more subtle than telekinesis. Given the chance, much as I like to imagine myself as one of Xavier’s noble X-Men, I’m probably closer to one of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. More interested in defending, in fighting, than explaining. At least where my sister is concerned. Because it makes me so, so angry, the way this world treats the most vulnerable people in it.
But there’s this: I think Magneto feels very alone. At least, on days when I want to blow up the world, that’s how I feel: like nobody cares about this–either not enough or not at all–except me. And if their apathy was neutral, it wouldn’t matter. But apathy isn’t neutral. In the vacuum of apathy, people like my sister get hurt. They die. They’re left all alone. And that is when I have to go for a walk and calm down until I can hear the Charles Xavier voice in my head again. The one that insists that normal humans are worth teaching. The one that believes that humans and mutants can co-exist. The one who would never commit genocide, even though he has the mental power to make everyone’s brains ooze out of their earholes. I remind myself that I’m not alone. That there’s a lot of people–and not just in my family, either–who love my sister, who want to help her, and who are helping her.
My sister loves me. And I love her. She never gives up trying to do anything you ask her to do. There is nothing on this earth that could shake her faith in me. And maybe that makes me selfish, to want to keep that. Almost certainly it is. No more selfish than keeping her around because she’s the only one powerful enough to fight the Brood, but hey. We haven’t had much luck with convincing the world that the ability to love is enough of a utility to exist in a capitalistic society.
Sometimes I think about Ian McKellan (who is, as far as I’m concerned, Magneto’s alter ego) and the fact that, despite dealing with homophobia on a personal and professional level his whole life, he has not himself turned into a supervillian. The fact that, in spite of all they’ve been put through, oppressed minorities in this country (whether it’s disabled folks, LGBTQ folks, mentally ill folks, people of color, etc etc) have, without exception, never turned into evil supervillians. (I know I’m generalizing here, but keep in mind that this is what I tell myself in order to not let my heart get eaten by a murderous rage that burns with the heat of a thousand suns and cut me some slack.) Sure, there’s warlords in Africa and drug cartels in Mexico and Kim Jung-un in North Korea, and they cause enormous amounts of heartache and human damage, but they’re not exactly on the world-endangering level of Dr. Doom or the Red Skull. From a power and world domination standpoint, Barack Obama is the closest thing we have to a supervillain. Maybe Donald Trump. From the oppressed minority contingent, we don’t get Magneto. We get Martin Luther King, Jr.; a human of intelligence and courage that we certainly did not ask for, let alone deserve, but are so fortunate to have had in our midst. We get Helen Keller and Harvey Milk and Nelson Mandela. Bayard Rustin and Vincent Harding and Temple Grandin. Artists like Toni Morrison, Leslie Feinberg, Maya Angelou, Jeremy Brett. We get the beautiful people that I know from the progressive/leftist/anarchist organizing community in Denver, who have taught me about putting love into action and validating and standing up for yourself and others. We get community groups like the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement and the AIDS Quilt and the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. And that’s just in this past century. The world is full of thousands and thousands of heroes that we don’t deserve, and often don’t recognize while we have them among us. And that is the truly amazing, awe-inspiring, human superpower: The fact that, in the face of oppression and systematic violence and apathy, more often than not, humans choose to love and hope. They default to trying to teach other humans to be better. The fact that we have as many heroes as we do should send us all to our knees.
Thousands of Charles Xaviers walking among us, disguised as regular people. I like that.