The Politics of the X-Men: The X-Men #1 (1963)
There is a popular “series” of semi-scholarly books that take a look at science or philosophy and popular culture icons, from Seinfeld and Philosophy to The Science of the X-Men, a whole library of books looking at the connections between real academic disciplines and the television, movies and comic books we love has been written. I love the concept and, as a political scientist, I’ve long thought the series should move into my discipline as well. And, since I write at a comics blog and I’ve long been a fan of the political content of the X-Men, I’d begin a series here that takes a look at the politics of the X-Men, starting with their origins in the early 1960s and working my way forward to the present.
This series, which will appear approximately once a week, will be, by necessity, looking at books written many years ago through the lens of the present. And my definition of “politics” here will be very broad, encompassing more than just government and elections, but also extending to race, gender, sexuality, war and other related topics. You’ll be able to figure out my own politics pretty easily simply by the topics I discuss, but since the X-Men comics over the years have often had a leftist slant, the discussion would’ve headed in that direction in any eventuality. Without further ado, here’s the first issue, The X-Men #1, from 1963.
Most people who have read the X-Men recognize that one of the key themes in the series is that the characters are outsiders, feared and mistrusted by the society that they have sworn themselves to protect. This is seen as many different metaphors at different times, race and homosexuality being amongst them. Those ideas can certainly be seen here in the very beginning, even if they aren’t necessarily conscious choices.
But the first take on outsider status is that of Professor Charles Xavier himself, who is someone unclearly depicted in the first issue as disabled. He never walks and never leaves his chair, but he isn’t yet shown in the wheelchair that would become his signature. Comic book superheroes are generally given some kind of weakness in order to make the stories more interesting and in order to put them in more peril, making their eventual victory more exciting. Professor X, who has maybe the greatest mind on the planet thus is bound to a wheelchair. This serves the purpose of adding tension to the X-Men’s battles, since their most powerful member is prohibited from appearing on the battlefield. But this is also one of the great moments in popular culture in terms of portraying people with disabilities as capable members of society. Not is the disabled character the leader of the group, he’s its most powerful member.
The race metaphor jumps right out at you in this issue. It’s explicitly referenced numerous times as the key conflict between Magneto, the issue’s villain, and humans is a racial one. Magneto is homo superior and he wants to rule over Homo sapiens. His goal is to instigate a full-scale race war that he intends to win and take control of the planet. Professor X notes the difference as well, but he chooses to instead go the academic route and teach both his students and the world at large that mutants aren’t a threat and that they can coexist peacefully. Many have pointed to this dichotomy over the years as analogous to the different approaches taken by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X (although somewhat ironically, Professor X is analogous to King, not the similarly named Malcolm X). It isn’t quite that developed here, but you can see the roots of it. And it’s clear that Magneto isn’t the only mutant to have leanings in the more strident direction, as Angel makes a comment about how he can accomplish a task that Homo sapiens certainly can’t. Professor X quickly rebukes him, though, warning him of overconfidence. Xavier is also a stern and unforgiving taskmaster here, pushing his students to be better than anyone else and pushing them to go beyond their current skill levels in somewhat harsh ways. It is interesting to note, though, that race is only a metaphor here, as there are no black characters.
Similarly, there are no direct references to homosexuality in the issue (and probably no intentional references, either), but it’s clear that the metaphor is represented in the first issue as well. Professor X’s solution for mutants is to set up the school in the middle of the “normal” humans and to have his students pretend to be something they are not. Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters is the world’s biggest representation of the figurative “closet” that gay people often hide themselves in. The metaphor becomes more obvious later, as the fear and mistrust of mutants becomes a bigger plot point. Here they are more of a curiosity when they are visible and they stay “unsuspected,” in Xavier’s words, while at the school. In a very apt scene for the LGBT parallel, Angel, when not in costume, has to bind his wings and hide them under his clothes so he can “pass” as a “normal” human being. Once he gets the opportunity to be himself, he makes a direct reference to spreading his wings and flying.
The issue has a much more explicit connection to Cold War propaganda and the battle between the east and west, the Communists and the Americans. Other than the mutants, the only other characters in the issue are American soldiers and employees of NASA, an explicit reference to the space race that was in full swing at the time. Magneto, whose costume’s primary color is red, is a mass-scale terrorist who takes control of a military base and launches missiles at domestic targets, a “Red Scare”-type fear if ever there was one. He’s even willing to eliminate members of his own race to achieve his goals. The Cold War references are not all implicit, either, as in one passage, the missiles that Magneto is taking control of are referred to as “democracy’s silent sentinels.” I wonder if Stan Lee got a kickback from the government for that line. There is also a clear representation of American youthfulness and love of freedom vs. Soviet-style totalitarian authority. Xavier’s teaching and leadership is much harsher and strict that it will be in later years and the youngest X-man, Iceman, makes light of it by dressing up like a snowman. Yet he’s still able to handle a sneak attack from the Beast (this takes place during a training session). He’s young, free and fun and he can still handle whatever the “enemy” throws at him.
The most complicated aspect of this issue’s politics is gender. On the surface there is a lot of language here that would make most modern women and feminists cringe. The only woman in the comic, Jean Gray, is referred to as a “doll” or a “living doll” three times by her teammates, who also make numerous references to her appearance, although nothing too explicit, more comments like “she was poured into that uniform.” The uniform in question, by the way, is shapely but functional and in no way resembles the modern stripper-style clothes that would be common for women superheroes — Gray effectively wears the same clothes as her teammates. The other X-Men also make comments like she has “the power to make man’s heart beat faster” and call her “little lady.” Professor X gets in on the game, too, by announcing her to the other students as “a most attractive young lady” and calling her “my child.” Obviously, he doesn’t make reference to any of the male students’ physical appearance or refer to them as children.
Other depictions are even worse. After she puts on her uniform, we are told that she is “absorbed with her reflection in the full-length mirror” and makes a pop culture reference to Christian Dior, the only such reference in the comic. Disturbingly, Beast, Iceman and Angel are peeping in on her in the dressing room. Beast also attempts to give her an innocent, but unwanted kiss. Gray manages to give as good as she gets, though, and refers to the other men in the comic, except Professor X, as boys or otherwise belittles them (in a very “proper” manner, of course), and she repeatedly uses her powers to avoid her new teammates attempts to treat her as a helpless “lady.” She also shows that she is more powerful than any of them by casually tossing the beast around and stopping a missile with a mere thought. I’m of a mixed mind about this portrayal and what it says about women, but, hey, it was Stan Lee in 1963, so it’s not like we should be expecting the height of feminist thought.