Friday, March 29, 2013

The Slow Breakdown of the Mutant Metaphor (Op/Ed)

Presenting: The early front-runner for the
most controversial comic of 2013
So, what a mess, right? This one almost flew past me, as I don't follow a lot of comic creators on Twitter. Even after I found out about it, I wasn't sure what was wrong about the scene - from the comic pictured to the left - until it was made pretty clear by other Twitter users. To make matters worse, the writer didn't react well, leading to a big mess.

I'm not really planning to talk about this issue. For one thing, Joe Hughes and Andrew Wheeler have already covered it definitively at Comic Alliance. For two, I'm a straight white male; I don't exactly have anything to add here. It's more about the fact that some seem to fear this damages the metaphor for mutants representing minority struggles.

The trouble is, I think Marvel broke that metaphor a while ago, with this just being the latest hit an already bleeding concept has had to endure.

Not too long after Grant Morrisons New X-Men - a personal favorite of mine - Marvel put out House of M. This, I think, was ground zero. Almost immediately after the "No More Mutants" proclamation, the X-Men shifted to a different mission statement. They were now the endangered species. Survival was the concept at the heart of the team. The X-Men began to resemble an army, not a group of people unfairly prosecuted for their differences.
Ed Brubaker sort of got the ball rolling when he disgraced Xavier in Deadly Genesis, which led to the character losing any influence on the team and losing his purpose. This is important because his entire deal was that he was for peace and acceptance. He was the figure offering a better way, even if it was harder. Now, he was off the team, with many mutants disillusioned regarding him and his message*. It didn't stop there, with most of the questionable moments centering around Cyclops.

The school was trashed again, only this time the X-Men left instead of rebuilding. Education is essentially the root of fixing the problems of the world, but now the X-Men weren't teaching much of anything beyond combat. When someone he doesn't like comes into power and causes problems, Cyclops packs his people up, herds them on an island made of Asteroid M just off the coast of San Francisco and declares them their own nation. The idea of the teenage X-Men being child soldiers is pretty apparent**. Cyclops puts a kill team together to take out the people who could cause mutants the most damage. After a split with half the X-Men, Cyclops named his group the Extinction Team and decides to send the world an ultimatum essentially saying they weren't going to put up with their BS and that they would retaliate if someone even looked at them cross.

Then there's that whole thing about Cyclops being willing to gamble with the planets life over whether a giant fire phoenix will revive the mutant population - even after they know it nuked a planet on its way to Earth - but, uh, that one might not have any implications beyond the fact that Cyclops is kind of a dick.

In fairness, it's not a straight one to one comparison to real life. The X-Men have never been a one to one comparison to any minority group. It's very easy to do great stories without using the racial metaphor at all. But it's a concept embedded in the franchise, meaning that when Marvel greenlit all this, they essentially had the stand-in for minority struggles engage in all of those very questionable acts.

You can see how this might be a problem.

Marvel obviously wants to go back to the well, now that the "endangered species" era is effectively over. Trouble is, how do you really come back from that? I mean, sure, you can do whatever you want in fiction, but how does it work after all that, save a continuity reboot?

But try they will, only trouble being that now we've got a real problem in the dynamic. Cyclops and his group have, to be frank, become a representation of extremists. Even if you think that, in light of Marvel continuity, enough is enough and agree with their position, they are definitely not the good guys here. That leaves Uncanny Avengers to be the other side of the coin. But that is now out the window as well.

So, where's the middle ground here? Cyclops is obviously wrong. People have made it clear Havok is wrong, intentions aside. Not a good situation to have.

Can it be salvaged? Sure. The right writer could theoretically put the house back in order. But the franchise has spent close to ten years slowly breaking the metaphor. It will take a lot of work and even then I'm not sure it can ever be completely fixed. I guess only time will tell.

* And now he's dead - killed by Cyclops - because Marvel couldn't find something to do with the guy who taught peace and understanding.

** Marvel was at least aware of this one; it was central to Schism, where the X-Men split into two groups over it.


  1. The whole situation is fundamentally incoherent because neither the writers, nor Marvel itself, seem to know what they want to say with these characters. On the one hand, it's sensible that they would prefer not to continue to have these characters be oppressed in more "conventional" ways (angry mobs, killer robots, etc.). The metaphor has played itself out in that regard, which is not necessarily an evaluative statement; they've been at it for 50 years, and plot formulas do have a shelf life.

    So it makes sense that writers have tried something new in order to attempt to move the discourse forward. And in order to shift a discourse like this in a major way, the characters must be removed from the patriarchal/Anglo-centric/heterosexual -- alternative ways of structuring society need to be explored. The writers have presented an alternative in the form of Utopia, but they've managed to do little with that concept to actually shift the discourse.

    The main reason for that, as I see it, goes back to what I originally said about the writers not knowing what they want to say: it's unclear whether we are to root for these characters (in which case we must endorse shockingly overt portrayals of fascism), or condemn them (in which case we must endorse the very patriarchal/Anglo-centric/homophobic norms which these characters are supposed to stand against).

    If not for the controversy on Twitter the other day, it might have been possible to separate the mixed messages of these comics from their creators' views. Now, the two people who write these comics have gone on the public record as being completely ignorant not just to how metaphors work, but also to the ways in which race, homophobia, and the oppression of women continue to function in American society. I can't help but find the idea that two white, heterosexual, and clearly very reactionary men are in control of the one Marvel property perhaps best inherently equipped to deal with the very issues they see so very wrong-headedly.

  2. I understand what you mean about trying to explore it in a new structure, but Utopia was a wrongheaded move, in my opinion. If we accept that the X-Men being a stand-in for minority struggles is a core concept and core appeal, you start to see how it turns into a dangerous idea. Basically, they're having a minority stand-in say "fuck America and fuck trying to change it, we're going to make our own nation". I'm putting that in my own words, of course, but that's the basic idea, only turned to eleven because Superhero comics are nothing if not bombastic. THEN the leader of said minority stand-in tells the world that if they so much as look at them cross, there will be consequences.

    Whether intended or not, they took the metaphor to some troubling places - without, it seems, the readership at large realizing it - and ended up damaging it. See, the thing is... one of the issues of the race metaphor - and one that has had to be glossed over in the discussions just for it to work - is that there's a pretty good reason to fear the mutants. Just one of them springs up with the right power and wants to cause some damage... what are people going to do to stop them? It's not like real life racism where it's harmless differences that causes the hate from worthless racists.

    So then you have your uber powerful minority stand-ins secede, basically, and then threaten.

    Cyclops has long struck me as an absolutely TERRIBLE leader, partly because of choices like this. Instead of trying to foster peace and understanding, there have been times where it almost seemed like his choices were antagonizing. It would never happen in the Marvel Universe proper, because they'd never go to that place, but what was to stop another country from getting really pissed off and dropping bombs? No one save Emma Frost would survive. Warren Ellis actually brought this up in his Astonishing X-Men run, that a villain could blow up their island and that realistically only Armor would survive. I think it was Exogenetic.

    It's getting worse because I'm starting to get a real "Che Guevera" vibe from Cyclops. Che Guevera has, of course, become something of a minor symbol for revolution in pop culture, but he was an awful man who did some awful, awful things. Grant Morrison knew what he was doing when he made the allusions with the whole "Magneto Was Right" thing. I don't think the people in charge realize the can of worms they're opening by applying the whole thing to Cyclops.

    And, like I said, we have Cyclops and his dangerous revolutionary squad on one side and Captain Assimilation on the other. Who the hell do you root for? At this point, the only relatively safe option here is Wolverine and his school, if only because they don't really deal with the racial politics and pick a side, perse.

    I think Remenders heart is in the right place. Clearly he was going for a theme of inclusion there and hit some sour notes I'm sure he didn't intend to. His outburst also seems to have come from a place of anger at being called a racist by the usual bunch on Twitter and he's since apologized. But still, it just makes it seem like, as good a writer as he may be, he's not suited for the job.

    The whole thing is a tangeled mess and I really don't know how the hell they're ever going to save it. I guess it might just be me, though, because I seem to be the only one seeing the implications from the "Endangered Species" eras major events. But for me, at least, they're taking the whole thing to a place they may not be able to salvage it from.