The X-Men are more than an evergreen franchise, they are a part of the American canon. Even with print comics struggling, there is little to no danger of us losing them. If Marvel no longer produces floppies and comics evolve into something else there will still be cartoons, movies, games, and whatever else comes next down the pipeline of technological advancement. In this series of articles, critical analysis has been directed towards failings and gaffes of the franchise with an emphasis on minimizing representational mistakes, common ones at that, in order to protect the legacy of the X-Men and keep the franchise relevant for generations to come. It is not enough to merely avoid critique. There must be progressive ideas textually espoused by the narrative. It is essential that the franchise advance the causes of tolerance, equality, understanding, and love. If there is a place for legitimate activism in superhero comics, it’s the X-Men. If there is a place for the voices of the marginalized and the oppressed in superhero comics, it’s the X-Men.
This is not to suggest that the narrative should be subservient to whatever progressive ideas are in vogue at the time. Good storytelling is, as always, the first commandment. But there is a responsibility for the line, as a whole, to elevate and inform on the conflicts that we have, and to be an active participant in our national and global conversation. It isn’t even a stretch. The construction of the mutant metaphor makes it uniquely suited to discuss minority politics both at home and abroad while at the same time keeping things fun and personally relatable. It should be demanded that the franchise do both. As an ensemble cast piece frequently running half a dozen to a dozen plots at once there is little excuse to fail to both delight and reflect truth.
It is both the privilege and purview of the X-Men to be able to tackle issues in an allegorical fashion, cloaking painful truths behind four-color splendor. X-Factor vol 2 managed to strike this balance surprisingly well. A ‘procedural’ cop drama it focused on two FBI agents on a nebulous ‘Mutant task force’ as they dealt with incidents ranging from domestic terrorism against mutants, undocumented mutant workers, and internal law enforcement corruption. Through the lens of all too human protagonists, we see a fully fleshed out world that allows mutants to stand for anyone. Notably, this series also manages to pass both the Bechdel Test and the Racial Bechdel Test in a single scene, frequently a rarity. The X-Men appear very infrequently in this book, it was an X-Book about humans from the perspective of humans.
But looking at the comics coming out in 2002, it was a good year for mutants in general. X-Factor vol. 2 panned in sales compared to New X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, and X-Treme X-Men, all of which were selling over 70k copies each, the latter two double-shipping. But the book, with no mutants as protagonists and a black female lead, still sold 33k. For perspective that’s more than Iceman sells today, a solo book for one of the original X-Men. Diversity isn’t the demon here, it’s poor business practices and a generally shrinking floppy market. In that same year, there were wacky science fiction plots, intrigue, murderous evangelicals, as well as traditional super-hero fare, nothing was off limits.
Herein lies the blueprint: every month ten or so X-Books come out. There is space for one book to directly address an overarching plot that actually furthers the dream. In order for this to have any impact or accurately depict a minority struggle mutants must again become a statistically relevant percentage of the population. When mutants have their own culture, their own ghettos, that is when options such as ‘procedural cop drama’ or ‘grassroots activism’ open up to quality storytelling. It doesn’t have to be more than half a percent of the population to achieve the setting requirements, but as it stands presently the mutant metaphor is defunct between the involuntary sterilization of present mutants and their incredibly small population.
In addition to bringing relevance back through setting concerns, character concerns can be used to drive drama while bringing back flexibility of storytelling. The current story beat of a deportation scare for mutants really misses the mark when there are actual undocumented immigrants amongst the children of the school. Instead of a powerfully personal story examining the impact that the present administration’s immigration policy might have on the X-Men we have an interrupted Senate hearing. It’s not enough. With direct analysis of intersectionality between mutants and minorities still in its infancy, there is a duty to explore the impact that being both a mutant and other personal identities. Both allegorical and textual representation are important, the former serves the franchise and the latter serves the dream.
It is important that the comics show directly how to navigate advancing the cause of equality. The best way to do this is to allow minority writers a chance to tell their stories. The X-Offices should be by far and away the most diverse group of creators in comics, as writing allegorical stories about race, disability, and sexuality while additionally telling those stories textually demands lived experience. This should be relatively simple as, shocking spoiler, people really love the X-Men franchise. Additionally, artists and writers should be hired on for longer terms in general, regardless of minority status or not. Consistency in a line drives sales and makes the book seem more accessible for longer. It’s no mistake that Claremont’s 15+ years in the franchise led to some of the greatest numbers they have ever seen.
Speaking of Claremont, one of his ideas that has never been truly capitalized on is the idea that being an X-Man is not a permanent state of affairs. In real life over 40 years have passed since Giant Size X-Men, time has changed and grown these characters yet none of them have moved into new phases of their lives willingly. People retire, start families, and finish their degrees. It is unreasonable to not expect the same from our heroes. X-Men should retire to the reserves, extinction teams, administrative positions, and open up new schools.That there have historically only been two schools at a time has never made sense. The New Mutants should have already been the mainline X-Men. The few Generation X survivors are only now assuming the mantle of faculty. Emma’s second Hellions could be TA’s going their undergrad work. Just because a character is no longer an active X-Man doesn’t mean their stories stop, either. Life doesn’t end when you have children, life doesn’t end when you retire.
Most of this centers on increasing the breadth of storytelling, but there must be a call for depth as well. Editorial mandates that compromise the direction and advancement of the characters are anathema to good storytelling. Books becoming derailed by the next ‘This will change everything!’ event is one of the things that drives readers away. Constant extinction events and relaunches have the cost of the very human and very identifiable traits that connect individuals to the X-Men and to good storytelling. There must be touchstones to draw upon, a realness that allows readers to suspend our disbelief for the more exuberant and outlandish storylines. It is the humanity of the characters that draws people to them. When there is no time for lower stakes stories the audience loses touch and no amount of baseball can fix it.
If there is a place for truly human stories told in the superhero genre, it’s the X-Men. If there is a place for characters to grow and change, it’s the X-Men. If there is a place to tell the stories of intersectional identity, it’s the X-Men. If there is a place to prove that comics can be interesting, relevant, heartwarming, and world-changing, it’s the X-Men. That is what makes them unique and special in the pantheon of superhero comics, they have held a mirror to our world and in doing so reflect the chaos and highlight the need for understanding, empathy, and the triumph over bigotry. If the core premise of what keeps the franchise relevant is lost it is no wonder that it should suffer. The mutant metaphor can no longer be treated as optional, it is foundational to franchise success. If there is a place to teach, to give people the tools to enact real change, in comics at all it is the X-Men and wouldn’t that be actual progress towards the dream?