The Politics of the X-Men: The X-Men #2 & 3 (1963)

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Sorry for the long hiatus, personal and professional obligations have occupied my time of late. Jumping back in with the Politics of the X-Men series that I began back in January. Since it’s been a while, here’s the full intro to the series again…

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, the series continues with, The X-Men #2 & #3, from 1963.

Issues 2 and 3 of the original X-Men series downplay the politics significantly from the first issue, despite the White House appearing on the cover of issue 2 and the lawn in front of the building serving as the setting of the issue’s climactic battle. The Vanisher, the second opponent the X-Men face, steals the “continental defense plans” from the military and attempts to blackmail the government into giving him $10 million for the plans. Hilariously, he demands that his $10 million be “tax free,” as if the IRS is powerful enough in 1963 to tax even the money a supervillian steals. In these early issues, the X-Men are working directly with the FBI, having a personal contact with Special Agent Fred Duncan. The two side exchange technology as well, with the X-Men giving Duncan a mental transmitter so he can talk directly to Professor X and the government lending the X-Men the use of a special “convertiplane.”

In these stories, you can start to see a shift in the public sentiment about mutants. Early in issue 2, the X-Men save some construction workers from a falling wall and are greeted as heroes and receive the kind of public adoration that you would more associate with someone like Super-man. But it isn’t long before both the media and the public are singing a different tune. After the team loses a public battle to the Vanisher, the newspaper blares a headline about their failure and an assembled crowd starts calling them phonies and questioning the reasoning for the X-Men having secret identities. Fear and mistrust start to grow. This is pushed further by the villians in these issues, the Vanisher and the Blog, both of whom seek to stir up hysteria and fear of mutants in order to advance their own criminal ends. Notably, the “evil” mutants in these early issues are much more concerned about getting rich and gaining power than they are about any other agenda.

In the 2000s, a big theme in X-Men comics was the fall of Professor X and questions about his manipulation of other people for his own ends using his powers. The X-Men are betrayed upon learning about the Professor’s heavy-handed tactics and willingness to use his powers in seemingly unetical ways to achieve his ends. This is seen as a shocking development and as something completely out of the character we’ve come to expect of the Professor. But a reading of these early issues shows that Professor X always used those methods. Like in issue 1, Xavier here is a demanding taskmaster — at one point giving Iceman a “demerit” simply for speaking out of turn — and the way he lords his power and authority over the X-Men is difficult to differentiate from the methods the Blob uses to coerce his henchmen into doing his bidding.

More disturbingly, Professor X crosses a line in the final resolution of the Blob conflict. Upon first discovering the Blob’s presence, he has the X-Men invite Blob to the mansion, revealing both his own identity and the whereabouts and existance of the X-Men. In his arrogance, Xavier never imagines that the Blob would reject his invitation to become an X-Man. But now the Blob knows the X-Men’s secrets. Xavier’s solution — a solution necessitated by his own careless behavior and not based on any wrong-doing by the Blog — is to capture him and wipe his mind free of associated memories. And unlike Will Smith’s character in Men In Black, no one seems to question or care that a midewipe could possibly have negative effects on the Blob’s brain or personality

Professor X’s influence is far from solely negative, though. Much of his interaction with the X-Men is a strong argument in favor of education and training as the ultimate goals one can pursue. Along with the concept of teamwork, Xavier pushes these ideals onto his students as if they were the most important lessons he could pass on to them. The X-Men are unable to defeat either the Vanisher or the Blob, because they haven’t learned enough, haven’t studied or trained hard enough and don’t work together well enough (yet). You can also see the Professor’s influence on the morality the young male members of the team evidence in chances where they could use their powers or celebrity to obtain benefits from society that others can’t get. Beast grabs a ride on the roof of a train at one point, but makes sure to buy a ticket first. Iceman and Cyclops hitch a ride with an ice cream vendor, but pay him in advance for the ride (although the youthful Iceman can’t help but snag a few frozen treats during the trip).

These stories continue the theme of the person who is “different” than the mainstream of society being more than meets the eye and being in some ways superior to the “normal” citizens. Professor X — for the first time explicitly referred to as being in a wheelchair — saves the day in both issues after his younger, more physically powerful students fail to defeat their opponents. The Vanisher, in particular ridicules Professor X as “defenseless,” right before Xavier defeats him using only his mind. In a scene I’m not sure how to feel about, Xavier also secretly reveals to the reader that he is in love with Marvel Girl, an inappropriate teacher-student relationship that seems to have developed very quickly from nowhere, but complains that he can’t tell her how he feels because he’s confined to a wheelchair. As someone who isn’t disabled, I don’t know if this shoud be interpreted as a veiled insult towards the disabled or simply the depiction of a feeling that people in wheelchairs frequently face and identify with.

In a strange moment that I don’t think is carried through in later X-Men stories, Marvel Girl says that she can tell that the Vanisher is a true mutant because she can “feel it” and “sense it.” This doesn’t appear to be a part of her power set at any later point. It’s a casual remark that I don’t think is repeated in subsequent issues, but it almost seems to be a mutant verson of a “gaydar,” where members of the group instinctively recognize other members of the group. It’s obvious that Stan Lee had no concept of a gaydar in 1963 and I’ve seen no indication that he was consciously writing any gay metaphor this early on, but it is an interesting coincidence.

The gender politics of the X-Men continue to be complicated. It’s easy to see why the early Marvel comics didn’t attract a lot of female readers. In these two issues, Marvel Girl is referred to, by her teammates, as a fair damsel, beautiful, little lady and as gorgeous (numerous times) and is called a cute tomato by the Blob. The attitudes of villains and heroes in their attitudes towards Jean aren’t all that different. The one compliment she is given that isn’t about her appearance or gender comes from one of the Blobs thugs who says she fights like an army. She gets in on the act herself, by referring to other women as “chickadees.” She also says, at one point, she feels faint from using her powers. It may be well and fine that her powers weaken her after she uses them, but it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that the word “faint,” with its gendered history, isn’t applied to the male characters when the use of their powers weakens them. The worst line of issue 3 comes when Beast refers to a circus gorilla he fights as someone who reminds him of his last blind date.

A number of times Jean is treated like the sterotypical damsel in distress. In issue 2, Cyclops has to save her during what seems to be a harmless training exercise, to which she proclaims “what would I have done without you.” The Blob also makes an advance on her where he roughly grabs her arm and Cyclops blasts the soon-to-be-villain in order to get him to let her go. The worst moment in the two issues is an incident where Jean is apparently offered up to the X-Men’s male members as a prize to whoever gets dressed the quickest — the winner gets to escort her on the team’s mission. Angel wins the “contest” by kidnapping her and flying her away before the others can get ther. She goes along with Warren, despite the fact that she had only moments earlier asked Scott to be her escort. Iceman then says that Angel “stole” her from under their noses, as if she was property to be obtained or won — a contest that Professor X himself seems to be competing in as well.

Jean is also set up as the arbiter of traditional moral values. When the blonde-haired playboy Angel goes in public, he is swarmed by young women as if he were a member of the Beatles. Marvel Girl rescues him from the women, whose attentions he seemed completely at ease with, saying that he can’t act like that, “he’s an X-Man.” She saves him from his own teenage hormones and from his own immorality. One can sense a hint of stereotypical female jealousy in the action as well.

Before you go thinking that Stan Lee’s writing is totally anti-woman, though, it’s clear that Lee is setting Jean up as the most powerful member of the group. One could easily be forgiving of the attitudes of the other X-Men towards Marvel Girl as accurate depictions of what teenage boys in 1963 were like when they interacted with attractive young females. That summation is easier to support when you notice that Lee is clearly showing Jean as smarter, more mature and more powerful than the other X-Men (not counting Xavier, who rarely accompanies them in the field). After the other X-Men are easily routed by villains, Jean’s powers are shown as able to best deal with the threat they face and she is the one who is able to free her captured male teammates so they can defeat the Blob. Sure, she has to be instructed on how to do it by the Professor, but she is a student and one gets the impression that she will easily pick up on the strategies that the Professor is teaching her and soon outpace his ability to instruct her.

(Previously: X-Men #1)