Author Archives: Dani Kinney

Bury Me Furiously: Death of X and The AIDS Epidemic

Death of X #3 cover
Death of X #3 Cover by Aaron Kuder. Written by Charles Soule, Published November 02, 2016, Marvel Comics

I take this discourse on with utter admiration for those who fought to break the silence surrounding the AIDS crisis, some of whom I’ve been honored enough to know, and be mentored by. 

Content Warnings: Police Brutality, Images of Tear Gas, White Supremacy, Transphobia, Workplace Discrimination, AIDS & HIV, Homophobia, Ronald Reagan, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and, Rayshard Brooks.

“…out of love and rage.”

I’ve been thinking about how the structures of power that we place our trust in are designed to leave us to die. Amidst a global pandemic, we’ve lost many communal assumptions about the security and protection we should expect from “our government”, though many marginalized folks have seen the cracks for ages. It’s not the first time that the United States government has left thousands to die from a virus though. Nor is it the first time that a virus has been then inappropriately politicized by the established right. Marvel’s Death of X (2016) is a comic mini-series that revealed for readers the events that catalyzed a protracted conflict between the Inhumans and the X-Men that defined the books of its time. 

Death of X presents mutants with yet another extinction-level threat, the Terrigen mists, which are both garden of Eden and the grim reaper. This series is not shy about establishing a juxtaposition between Inhuman prosperity and propagation at the cost of mutant annihilation. It’s baked into the art, the dialogue, and even page layouts. In Death of X, mutants aren’t fighting for dominance over the Inhumans, they aren’t even explicitly fighting the Inhumans in this series, they are textually fighting against extinction itself. This isn’t an attempt to vilify the Inhumans or to suggest that the Inhumans don’t deserve to have their story told or see their culture thrive, but it’s simply an untenable and indefensible model of prosperity if it involves the destruction of the mutant race. 

Death of X #4, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, November 23, 2016, Marvel Comics

The imagery of the Terrigen cloud itself feels more politically charged in the summer of 2020 than it did in 2016. The sight of a pale, toxic cloud, rolling over the entire planet, carries an entirely new association for me. It feels like a haunting nod to the world right outside our window, as protests continue to erupt in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and, Rayshard Brooks. While the conversation on how Black communities are asymmetrically subjected to police brutality & murder may be new to some, I want to acknowledge that these are only four of the most recent losses in a long line of deaths that continue to shake Black Communities. 

Tear gas rises above as protesters face off with police during a demonstration outside the White House over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police in Washington, DC, on May 31, 2020. Photo by Samuel Corum AFP

Racist violence is baked into the very DNA of the Amerikkkan police, which grew out of slave-patrols. Now, rallying behind the strength and dedication of the Black Lives Matter movement, many are engaged in a nation-wide protest of white supremacy and police brutality and the intrinsic connections between the two. Nearly every social media platform seems to be flooded with images of protesters, taking to the streets to stand against the history of racist, police brutality, and the white-supremacist government that perpetuates and accelerates this violence and injustice. A massive amount of these images show protesters engulfed in massive clouds of pale tear gas, deployed by militarized police forces, which is known to be lethal, as well as an abortifacient. My implicit image of the streets is no longer full of cars or bicycles but consumed by a cloud of pale toxic gas. The Terrigen cloud now feels tied to the cruel and oppressive police-state we have always lived within. The Terrigen Mists are not only a direct threat to mutants’ lives, but are also a controlling element in how they navigate public spaces. Like the many clouds of tear gas that roll throughout our street, Terrigen Clouds determine who, when, where, and how a person can navigate the world. Mutants have to live in certain places, they need to restrict their travel, Terrigen-proof bunkers are built by the privileged elites; every aspect of public mutant life is impacted by their presence.

A protester tries to talk the police back amid tear gas in downtown Atlanta, Sunday, May 31, 2020. Ben Gray Atlanta Journal

“A Silent War”

Demonstrators from the organization ACT UP protest in front of the headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA opened up access to experimental drugs soon after.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Death of X  is a story that for me, has been transformed into an allegory for the AIDs and HIV epidemic, and the fierce battle against the institutions who allowed the virus to wreak havoc on marginalized communities. It’s certainly an unexpected interpretation of the story, given that there have been previous attempts to tell similar stories through the use of the Legacy Virus. I could go on for another 2000 words discussing how often the use of the subtextual virus falls shorter than the typical mutant metaphor tends to. But this isn’t that kind of essay. This is my attempt to share some of the internal transformations that this series has taken on for me. This is not an assertion of the hermeneutical veracity of my interpretation, but perhaps an opportunity to provide another facet to your own.

The “ACT-UP” movement, was a “ …diverse, non-partisan group of individuals, united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” ACT UP played a crucial role in breaking public and institutional silence surrounding AIDs and HIV, in the process likely saved thousands of lives. At a time where the dominant systems of power wanted to either ignore this epidemic or falsely politicize the virus to support their own bigotry (not much has changed) ACT-UP (short for AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) led the fight for survival.

Death of X opens with a team of mutants led by Scott Summers, Emma Frost, and Magick, investigating a disturbing distress call from Muir Island, sent by Jamie Madrox. What the reader and the X-Men both quickly learn is that Muir Island has become a graveyard. They stumble upon an abandoned research facility and a dead mutant. It’s not long until the team discovers a mass grave just down the hill from the research facility, filled with the corpses of Jamie Madrox. It’s here that Scott and Emma learn that the Terrigen Mists, the cloud that essentially (re)births an Inhuman, catalyzing the manifestation of their abilities, is deadly to mutants. From this point on Muir Island becomes a geo-political flashpoint for the mutant struggle in this story. Aside from being the base of operations for the Uncanny X-Men throughout the story, Muir Island becomes a place of mourning, a place of loss, as it transforms quite literally into a graveyard. There are a few panels in both the first and second issues that show this quite literally. 

Death of X #1, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, October 5, 2016, Marvel Comics

In the first issue, we confront truly grim images such as a landscape covered by piles of Jamie Madrox’s corpses, who has succumbed to the M-Pox virus. We literally see the landscape of Muir Island itself, covered in death. In the second issue, we see mutants traveling from far and wide to pay their respects to fallen mutants laid to rest in unmarked graves. The somber visual of this pilgrimage to Muir Island, to mourn fallen friends, family, and comrades feel conceptually and visually evocative of Hart Island. Some may be familiar with Hart Island from the second season of FX’s POSE, (season 2, episode 1) when Praytell (Billy Porter) and Blanca Evangelista (MJ Rodriguez) travel to a stark, remote island to pay respects to a friend and lover who died of HIV related pneumonia. The episode accurately depicts Hart Island as it was; a remote island where hundreds of New Yorkers who died of AIDS and HIV related causes were isolated and buried if their bodies were unclaimed or if a burial could not be afforded. 

Hart Island from “Pose” season two (image via FX)
Death of X #2, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, October 19, 2016, Marvel Comics

In 1985, the first 17 bodies were interred in a quarantined location at the southernmost tip of Hart Island. As nonsensical as it may sound, each body was buried in an individual 14-foot deep grave for fear that the disease could “contaminate the other corpses”. Soon after, bodies were buried in mass graves, as the AIDS epidemic reached new heights in the city. The stigma associated with AIDS and the stigma surrounding queerness of the time left many patients prone to being estranged from loved ones, often leading to their burial on Hart Island. Although the precise number remains unknown, it’s estimated that the number of AIDS burials on Hart Island could reach into the thousands, making it perhaps the single largest burial ground in the country for people with AIDS. Tragically, a trip to Hart Island was not nearly as simple as it’s depicted in POSE. It was only in 2015, after a class-action lawsuit, that Hart Island “opened” for public visitation of the gravesites themselves, which was not possible prior. And visitation is still contingent on navigating demoralizing and labyrinthine procedures to arrange for passage of the ferries.

NY Post Archive Photo. Hart Island. June 14, 1979. Photo New York Post staff Frank Leonardo.

The queer community didn’t choose this dreary, remote island to become a part of our history. We didn’t choose this island to become a reminder of our perceived disposability but an oppressive cishet world. Violent institutional neglect on the part of our country’s political elites and the US health-care system forced the queer community to make this island a grim part of our collective history. Mutants too will forever associate Muir Island with a period of tremendous loss and turmoil for their community. And in both cases, this personal, mournful visitation takes place amidst a much larger conflict against the institutions that continue to allow the virus to claim more and more lives. 

In the comics, it’s the Inhumans [specifically Medusa and the royals] that allow the Terrigen Cloud to put the mutants of the world at risk. In the real world, it was the negligent and torpid non-response of the homophobic Raegan-era, including Raegan himself who continued to ignore the countless deaths for which he was responsible. It wasn’t until September 1985, four years after the crisis began, that Reagan first publicly mentioned AIDS. But by then, AIDS was already a full-blown epidemic. In truth, US health officials were aware of the AIDS virus, its method of transference, and the nature of the virus’s impact on the body, by late Spring of 1981, when the first “official case” of AIDS was “reported” on June 5, 1981. But the virus existed on the global stage in 1920 and had made the jump to the US by 1970 when cases first began to emerge. But because the virus was largely affecting a “convenient” population, resources were not committed to studying the virus until 1978, and it was only in the fall of 1982 that the CDC released its first definition of the AIDS virus. 

The CDC itself estimated that at the time of this definition’s release, it was likely that 42,000 people had already been living with AIDS and HIV, with an expectancy to see approximately 20,000 new cases within the year. Of course, this definition of AIDS and HIV initially defined the virus as a “syndrome”; a confluence of multiple symptoms and tertiary health impacts, as they were observed in AMAB people (assigned male at birth). For this reason, HIV positive AFAB people were not able to access the same drugs, the same healthcare, the same disability support, and the same social security support, because the definition prevented them from being diagnosed with the virus that they had in an official sense.

Beyond silence in the media, erasure around discussing AIDS was evident during press conferences and among government officials at the time. At a White House press briefing on October 15, 1982, when questioned by right-wing journalist Lester Kinsolving, Raegan’s Press Secretary Larry Speakes went on a cruel string of banter together, referring to the virus as “the gay plague”. By the time that Raegan publicly addressed the virus in 1987, approximately 27,000 people had already died. This weaponized inaction and misinformation resulted in the approximate 40,000 deaths that occurred between 1981 and 1987. It’s because of that many refer to the AIDS epidemic as a genocide, which is defined as defined as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”, killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, and/or, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part to the group. 

Death of X #1, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, October 5, 2016, Marvel Comics

The level of inaction on the part of the Inhumans is certainly several measures less negligent than the Raegan administration, though still worth examining. The comparisons to Raegan are rooted in an evaluation of how figures in positions of power, by their inactivity, can do harm. It would be negligent though to ignore the fact that across this series, Medusa does take steps to attempt to support the mutants, but they’re ultimately plagued by a privileging of Inhuman interests over mutant safety. Far from simply slow-moving, Medusa proposed to Black Bolt in private that they must also begin to consider “how they might win” a war with the X-Men. Make no mistake, for Medusa Inhuman prosperity, is only ever just over the fence from Inhuman supremacy throughout this and some of the ensuing stories. If pushed, she would rather fight the X-Men than compromise the Terrigen Mists. Medusa is first and foremost, considering what is in the best interest of the Inhuman people. It never occurs to her to eliminate the mist, but instead to move the mutants, placing the responsibility on the mutants to not be where the cloud is, rather than taking responsibility for the toxicity of the cloud. The onus is not on the mutants to evade the cloud, the onus should be on Medusa to remove the threat. 

Readers may not have access to the histories of the ACT-UP movement (which are sadly out of the mainstream historical pedagogy) but they can look at this and other X-Men stories to see the way that the Inhumans, or S.H.I.E.L.D., or the Avengers have looked the other way when it comes to the suffering of mutants. That’s a role that stories have always played in our lives, especially during formative periods of our development, to instill values within us that we may not be able to access otherwise. In this case, it’s planting the seeds that may grow into a more rigorous critique of the dominant structures of power that are purported to protect and support us.

“Everytime a shell explodes…”

“ …living with aids is like living through a war which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches. Everytime a shell explodes you look around and you discover that you’ve lost more of your friends but nobody else notices, it isn’t happening to them.

Vito Russo Speech, May 7 1988, Protest at the state capitol in Albany NY 
Death of X #1, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, October 5, 2016, Marvel Comics

Issue 1 of Death of X establishes a juxtaposition between mutant death and the celebration of inhuman prosperity. On one page we see the X-Men stumble upon the horrors of Muir Island and on the next we watch the Inhumans celebrate the Terrigen Cloud as it passes through Japan. In later issues we watch the ranks of the Inhumans grow by minor numbers while we watch droves of mutants being buried on Muir Island. We see one new Inhuman, Daisuke emerge from a pod while countless mutants are buried. This oppositional relationship is in the DNA of the text. It’s this corollary that has led some fans to also interpret the terrigen mists as a metaphor for white-supremacy and/or the violence, erasure, and destruction of culture inherent in colonization. Despite the violence of the story, it feels quiet in a way. The story feels isolating, walling off the mutants from the rest of the world, almost in an attempt to hide their struggle from the world. It’s the kind of silent genocide that ACT-UP organizer Vito Russo’s quote is getting at, a silence that the ACT-UP movements fought so hard to break. 

Perhaps the most accessible manifestation of this work is in ACT-UP’s famous “ Silence=Death” poster, which has gone on to define the iconography of queer liberation to this day. ACT-UP’s mission was to break the silence surrounding the AIDS epidemic. They weaponized the truth against an otherwise unaware and complacent public, whose ignorance opened the door for a bigoted government to deny those affected by AIDS & HIV the resources they needed. 

Getty Images Archive, Bettmann

I’d like to focus on two particular events, where ACT-UP broke the membrane of mainstream ignorance, forcing their plight to be witnessed by the world. The first is a die-in protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on December 10, 1989. The action itself was multifaceted, with over 4,000 members of ACT-UP and the WHAM! (Women’s Health Action Mobilization) demonstrating outside of St. Patrick’s, while a smaller contingent of activists entered the church, appearing to members of the church’s congregation and in one or two cases posing as church volunteers. Their larger goal was to highlight the struggles of those living with HIV and AIDS at a time when the government, religious, and public health leaders remained lethargic and ignorant in their response to the epidemic. Activists targeted the church particularly Cardinal John O’Connor for preach abstinence instead of the safe-sex use of condoms while the epidemic ran rampant, and for his insistence that homosexuality was a sin. 

A protester is carried away during an ACT-UP Stop the Church direct action at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on December 10th, 1989. Photography © Brian Palmer

In the middle of mass service protesters staged their die-in, leading chants ranging from “Act Up, Fight Back, Fight AIDS!” to the famed, succinct and visceral cries “ Stop Killing Us!”, while protesters disguised as members of the clergy handed out ACT UP leaflets disguised as mass-pamphlets, providing church-goers with information debunking the lies being perpetuated by church leadership ( John O’Connor) and the government. Some activists cuffed themselves to pews and others lie on the ground, prostrated across the aisle. This is probably among the most famous of the ACT-UP actions, as it was concisely emblematic of their overall mission, to disrupt the quiet status quo that was painting over the thousands of deaths at the hands of this virus.

The second action is known as the Day of Desperation, which began on the evening of January 22, 1991, and continued throughout January 23, 1991. This action was designed to target every aspect of public life in New York City, making the plight and suffering of those with AIDS and those with loved ones with AIDS impossible to ignore. The goal was to ensure that no matter where a New Yorker was or what they did, they could not avoid confronting this grim reality any longer. The “Day of Desperation” as a protracted series of political actions began the night of the 22nd, although the “Day of Desperation” as a is typically said to have taken place on January 23rd. It technically began when activists invaded PBS and CBS Evening News broadcasts on the night of the 22nd. During this action, activists ran into the camera-line and shouted “AIDS is news! Fight aids, not Arabs!”. These invasions of live news were simultaneous disruptions of the public consciousness and breaking the silence surrounding the AIDS epidemic. It was nearly impossible to ignore as once it had aired, as the story was subsequently picked up and reported across a wide range of news outlets within minutes in some cases. This became an international disruption of the public consciousness in less time than the commercial break that followed. This action alone resonates along the same line as Scott/Emma’s telepathic message to the world at the end of the first issue. Which we’ll refer back to shortly.

On the 23rd, the “Day of Desperation” officially* begins with a morning “demo” begins on Wall St. and more than 2000 protesters marched with coffins that were delivered to City, State & Federal officials responsible for perpetuating the AIDS epidemic. An action at the State Office building in Harlem demanded an end to the City homeless shelter system. The housing Committee joins “Stand Up Harlem”, “Emmaus House” and various Harlem religious leaders in protesting the lack of housing and services for people with HIV. A march goes down Martin Luther King Blvd, to the State office building, carrying coffins to a demonstration occurring at the plaza. At 5:07 pm, Grand Central Station was the setting for a spectacular and massive act of civil disobedience as ACT UP took over the station. A banner announcing “One AIDS Death Every Eight Minutes” was hung over the arrivals board. 

These two particular ACT-UP actions are just a few of the many protests and civil disobedience employed in their mission to break the “business as usual” narrative of mainstream society and force the world at large to come to terms with this silent genocide. This mission folds into the sort of telepathic interruption that Emma Frost employs at the end of the first issue of Death of X. The goal is not an overt declaration of war, it’s instead bringing a silent genocide into the forefront of the public consciousness, which would much rather turn a blind eye to the deaths of the mutants, much as the US public & government would have preferred to just let millions die of the AIDS virus. Much like the day of desperation and its inaugural CBS disruption, regardless of who and where you were, you were going to be forced to confront this harsh reality. Emma’s acts can show us the value of an activist tactic that dates back to the Civil Rights Era, to take over the platforms of social-dissemination in order forefront a political struggle that is otherwise being erased in those spaces. There’s of course variance between the two, but it provides a roadmap for the viability of tactics of disruption and deconstruction of access and visibility as strategies of political dissent. 

“Bury Me Furiously”

Death of X #4, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, November 23, 2016, Marvel Comics

Death of X is a story about loss, and burying your dead mid-battle, and how you find the strength to carry on the fight for however long you can. Emma and Scott play out a tragedy that became a heartbreaking norm during the AIDS epidemic, as activists embattled in the fight against this virus and the oppressive structures that allowed it to kill thousands, lost their lives, their lovers, friends, and family to the very disease they were fighting. Emma and Scott’s story is borrowed, stolen even from the many thousands of real people whose relationships were torn apart by the AIDS virus. Emma and Scott’s story will never adequately stand-in for those real experiences, nor should they be expected to. That’s not always the role of the stories we consume, to recount events 1:1, but to repackage their lessons and to make them accessible in the media that we consume. The stories we consume exist for us to unpack deep and complex social and ethical issues through the safety of fiction. They exist for us to relate our own experience to, to feel seen, to inspire, and to repackage events to make them more accessible outside of their normal contexts. 

Allegory is never a substitute for explicit representation and  X-Men stories have a history of skating by on subtext and fan-interpretation, failing to depict the real identities & experiences that the metaphor stands-in for. It’s worth noting that stories about mutants who are explicitly HIV positive and/or have the AIDS virus were rendered impossible by notorious fuck-up Chuck Austen, who “confirmed” in Uncanny X-Men #421 & #427, that mutants are incapable of contracting the AIDS virus. This is yet another example of stories that borrow from the struggles and trauma of queer and trans people for the sake of driving their stories but fail to provide explicit representation for our identities. It’s a trend that’s certainly not exclusive to Austen and is more endemic in cape-comics as a medium (see events like Rosenberg’s flagrant misappropriation and recapitulation of anti-trans slurs and “trans-panic” acts of violence).

Death of X #4, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, November 23, 2016, Marvel Comics

This series arguably pivots on a third act twist that fundamentally recontextualizes Scott and Emma’s story as one not purely about survival, but also about loss. In the final pages of Death of X, the reader alongside Havok (Scott’s brother) learns the truth about the death of Scott Summers. You see, Scott didn’t die in a stand-off against Medusa and Black Bolt. For the sake of accurately and honestly characterizing Black Bolt & Medusa, we should note that  Medusa and Black Bolt made their choices under the impression that Scott really would die then & there. Therefore, from an ethical observation of the situation, Black Bolt still did kill Scott Summers. In “reality” though, Scott died in issue #1. He died unceremoniously and without warning in the arms of his lover, after asking for “help” for possibly the first time (see Cyclops’ defiant declaration that he’s fine in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary). The love of Emma’s life, [who as she says at Scott’s funeral on Muir Island was “…the only man I ever wanted to give a damn about me…”,] dies of the very virus that they will be fighting against. 

Death of X #4, Jeff Lemire, Charles Soule, and Aaron Kuder, November 23, 2016, Marvel Comics

Throughout the rest of the story, the Scott we see is a living monument to the man Emma loved, one defined by her admiration for his tenacity and his uncompromising devotion to the mutant cause. “Scott” becomes a source of strength for Emma, tackling the conversations that she can’t bring herself to have and making the choices that she cannot.  Her characterization of Scott’s tenacity escalates commensurately to Emma’s increasing exhaustion & desperation. She deploys Scott in her weakest moments, drawing the strength he gave her to quite literally handle the challenges in her path. She projects everything onto this “Scott’, even her insecurities regarding Jean surface during his final speech claim he “lost the only person I ever cared for.”  We see “Scott” play out the very moment that Emma comes to terms with his passing, as “Scott” says “ I’m gone. All that’s left is the idea of me. But here’s the nice thing…ideas never die.” 

Scott’s death, like many deaths at the hands of the AIDS virus, was unexpected and unceremonious. Living with AIDS was like “living with a time-bomb but never knowing where the timer is”. It was a cruel reality, you could look healthy as can be one day, and then by the end of the week, they could have passed from the virus. You had to live with the constant looming knowledge that any moment, the virus could claim your life or somebody you cared for. It is a tragic and human story, within a larger battle for the survival of an entire community. The series is not gentle about the comparison and juxtaposition of mutant suffering, with the celebration and prosperity of the Inhumans. It’s the type of framing that comes to mind whenever people refer to “the 80s” as this monolithic era defined by synthesizers, bright colors, big hair, Flock of Seagulls, shoulder pads, members-only jackets, and angsty teen movies. Mainstream pop-culture formulates an image of the 80s as something exciting and kitschy, but for many, the 80’s are a reminder of when our government allowed a virus to kill tens of thousands from marginalized communities, while the world looked the other way. The flashy pop-culture image of the 80s & 90s sits in stark contrast to the silent death of the AIDS epidemic.

Death of X is an Emma Frost story, and I don’t know if we say that enough. It’s the pregnant pause before a heavy and profound punctuation mark on what I consider to be one of Marvel’s strongest relationships. And it’s not the end of Emma’s hurt; she will go on lead a full-scale assault on the Inhumans, yes in the name of all mutants, but deep down she’ll partly be seeking retribution for Scott’s deaths. Within this series at least Emma hopes to give Scott a “fitting death”, ensuring that his death “means something”. Emma’s public memorial is almost a eulogy, both displaying her rage & sorrow and instilling into this living memorial the very political message that his life was devoted to. I can’t help but draw parallels to the many political funerals organized by ACT-UP

David Wojnarowicz’s famous jacket, Act-Up Archives

These actions themselves are often associated with a specific quote by artist and activist David Wojnarowicz, which captures the desperation, love, and rage at work both in these political funerals, and in Emma’s actions.

“I imagine what it would be like if, each time a lover, friend or stranger died of this disease, their friends, lovers or neighbors would take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to washington d.c. and blast through the gates of the white house and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps.”

DAVID WOJNAROWICZ

It’s a famous quote that is often seen presented within a longer speech by Mark Lowe Fisher. Towards the end of the speech, there’s a specific line that best summarizes the impact of these memorials:

“I want my death to be as strong a statement as my life continues to be. I want my own funeral to be fierce and defiant, to make the public statement that my death from AIDS is a form of political assassination.”

Mark Lowe Fisher [Nov 17, 1953 – Oct 29, 1992]
Wednesday, July 29, 1992 8 p.m. , David Wojnarowicz’s Memorial Procession

The goals of these political funerals are so complex and varied that distilling them into something pithy feels ultimately reductive. In a general sense though, they were a simultaneous attempt to pay honor to a beloved individual while using the visibility of their corpse, this unshakably real consequence of the AIDS virus, as a viscerally politicizing image. You see, like Emma, ACT-UP realized that you could maintain a balance between a loving memorial and political action. ACT UP is known to have orchestrated a number of these “political funerals”, which ranged from processions down the streets of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington DC with real caskets, filled with real bodies, to the cathartic scattering of ashes onto the White House lawn.

sA political funeral for Steve Michael was held on Thursday, June 4, 1998 in front of the White House.

Among the first of these actions was a memorial procession for the body of David Wojnarowicz himself on Wednesday, July 29, 1992 8 p.m. at the intersection of 12th Street & 2nd Avenue [NYC]. From there, including the “White House Ashes Action” of October 11, 1992, ACT-UP accounts for a total of official seven political funerals. It’s notable though, that the exact estimates of how many individuals’ ashes were scattered on October 11, make the exact number of public memorials to victims of AIDs and HIV and governmental neglect, harder to estimate. Aside from the individuals whose ashes were scattered and whose bodies were carried down city streets, many more members of these actions carried banners, signs, and even constructed tombstones for loved ones who were lost to this virus. 

No death has any more value because of its visibility, but there is power in crafting a public memorial to your loved-ones, whom you lost as a consequence of a silent war that the world would rather ignore. The government and the American public alike wanted to ignore this virus, and so ACT-UP made sure this wasn’t possible. They carried their beloved dead through city streets, they scattered the ashes of the people they held dear on the front lawn of the very government that was killing them. They wanted to use these beloved bodies to shake the public and possibly the government out of ignorance and complacency, revealing the grim and human cost of the virus, and the government’s torpid response. 

Closing

I’ve re-written the coda of this piece once a day for  two weeks straight. If you’re expecting that to be a set up for a pithy yet nuanced conclusion to this work, I’m here to disappoint. There is so much to say in closing out this essay. 

I want to recognize the tendency to disproportionately credit ACT-UP with revolutionizing models of socio-political dissent, but ACT-UP drew an immense amount of their tactics and method from the Civil Rights Era. Without the creativity, dedication, and courage of BIPOC activists, ACT UP would not be possible. Not to mention that ACT UP was plagued by internal racism, transphobia, and misogyny that is often painted over and ignored. As much value as there is in recognizing the hard work and dedication of the movement, it was born out of a rage that came from the entitlement of white, cisgender, men and this entitlement would play a major role in the groups’ disillusionment. It’s a reality that is only briefly alluded to at the end of Jimm Hubbard and Sarah Schulman’s documentary, “ United in Anger: A History of ACT UP”. The group’s ferocity would wane, affinity groups would split off and form other organizations such as Housing Works, fighting for equity and access at the intersection of HIV/AIDS and houselessness. And it was the intense concentration of action in the 80s and 90s led to greater public health resources in the US, as well as directly lead to the focussed research that would develop preventative measures such as PrEP and treatment regimens like HAART (HIV & AIDS Anti-Retro-Viral).

I think this story is worth exploring solely for the unexpectedly nuanced characterization of Emma Frost. In a lot of ways, it doesn’t even feel like a superhero comic. It’s grounded and messy, characters make relatable, messy choices with major consequences on the world within which they live. It’s a story about a fight spent entirely on-the-ropes. It’s a story about how you process trauma without the space being held to do so. For that reason, I think it maps to desperate moments of our history such as the AIDS epidemic, to societies built on oppression & violence, and to pandemics.


As a trans person, (who began writing this on June 14, 2020) my interpretation of this story has continued to transform yet again. Only days prior to beginning this essay, amidst a pandemic, the Tr*mp administration finalized a ruling that could effectively strip LGBTQIA2+ people of their health-care rights and protections, placing trans people at greater risk of health care discrimination within a healthcare system already riddled with barriers to care for trans people. This extends well beyond just potentially cutting us off from live-saving gender-affirming related care; all forms of health-care could be refused to queer and trans people, which has grave ramifications for the healthy & safety of our community. 

The US healthcare system is already nightmarish for trans people to navigate, but without the minimal protections that we were afforded by Section 1557 of the ACA, many millions of trans people in the US will likely be refused care, left to die, refused care, and lose coverage for gender-affirmative care. This is but one of the many attacks made against the LGBTQIA2+ community, by the Tr*mp administration. With little time to fully process this attack, we brace for yet another. Just over the horizon, a few days from today  June 14, 2020) the Supreme Court will rule on the case of Aimee Stephens, which will have a massive impact on the employment and workplace rights of trans people in the US. We’re preparing for the horrific possibility that SCOTUS may de-facto legalize discrimination against trans people in the workplace. 

Update: On June 15, 2020, SCOTUS released a decision in the case of BOSTOCK v. CLAYTON COUNTY, GEORGIA which states “: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII. Pp. 4–33.” I hesitate to call this a “victory” though; these are basic human rights that should never have been the subject of months of deliberation. It’s disturbing that we have to celebrate keeping rights we should never have feared losing.

Death of X  has become a hauntingly adequate allegory for my feelings of helplessness, walking off the wounds of the last attack, as I brace myself to take the next punch. It feels like I’m living between the two terrigen clouds. It feels like a heteronormative society upheld by the royals, is somewhere on the next page dancing over the trans graves that continue to be dug. It feels like each and every trans body will become fertilizer for somebody else’s prosperity. As I write this, I know that the trans community is not alone in feeling this fear, nor is this the first time the LGBTQIA2+ community has felt this level of dread.

Beyond Utopia: Exploring Krakoan Justice

House of X #3
House of X #3 by Jonathan Hickman and Pepe Larraz, August 28, 2019, Marvel Comics

The Paradigm and the Shift

Krakoa has proposed a radical new vision of a mutant society, but in its hasty formation, it has also planted the seeds of it’s very undoing. I’d like to examine both the successes and failures of Krakoa’s model of justice and along the way explore some models of justice and community protection of our own world. There will be moments of alignment and moment of dissonance, both of which are infinitely fascinating in their own right.

Accountability and justice are among the most complex ideas to navigate in the new Krakoan paradigm. Because of the way that comic-books as a medium frame the morality of the characters in them, it’s unfair to look at their actions through the same moral lens with which we assess our world. With roughly 40 years of continuity, comic-book characters have constantly changed hands from one writer to another, leading to countless departures in characterization  & rebranding, due to a writer’s biases and editorial campaigns. Fans themselves also hold biases for certain characters who have come to more strongly align with one particular reading of the mutant-metaphor or another. For example, Jewish readers may be more protective of Magneto or Kate Pryde, Romani readers will be more protective of Scarlet Witch, queer & trans readers may be more protective of Mystique (lacking explicitly trans characters) and chaos-lesbians would take a bullet for Magik. Because of what some of these characters have come to mean to fans from marginalized groups, their past transgressions can at times be overlooked. All of this leads to characters with immensely complex, at times contradictory, and unresolved histories that complicate any attempt to weigh the morality of any single character. It’s why for mutants, in particular, the semiotics of “hero-villain” taxonomy feels entirely ill-fitting.

House of X #5
House of X #5 by Jonathan Hickman and Pepe Larraz, September 18, 2019, Marvel Comics

House of X forever recontextualized the mutant-metaphor, breaking the status-quo for mutant communities and recontextualizing all previous relationships and conflicts, by bringing both “hero” and “villain” together under a single banner (House of X #5), defined by mutant solidarity. When antagonists like Exodus, Apocalypse, Sinister, and Sebastian Shaw showed up on Krakoa, discourse began about who did and did not belong in the new mutant utopia. To some extent, this same discourse continues to this day, and it’s likely that it will continue on for some time. House of X #5 forced fans and characters alike to quickly adjust to this recontextualization in service of a revolutionary vision, without the space on the page needed for characters to work through their past conflicts and abuses. This rapid formation of a mutant nation raised a great many questions and while it may have radically changed the mutant mise en politique, the haste at which it was constructed left many toxic elements of the past unresolved.

Radical community building requires an equally radical approach to resolving conflict and healing broken bonds within the community, which we have not seen. Enter restorative justice.

Restorative Justice 

Restorative justice is a model of community-protection that focuses on rebuilding the interpersonal & community relationships destroyed and/or damaged by crimes. In framing restorative justice in a way that maps to Krakoa, I’ll just say “abuses’ or “transgressions” since, with only three actual laws and no codified rights, most transgressions on Krakoa wouldn’t technically be crimes. Many propose the model as an alternative to the prison-industrial-complex because of the focus it maintains on the rights of the offender, rather than dehumanizing them. The model is built upon three major spokes:

  1. the healing, protection, empowerment, and support of the victim,
  2. the healing of community relationships destroyed by the transgression and
  3. the rehabilitation & reintegration of the abuser into the community.

The process is generally conducted by the community to ensure that the results and the path to achieving them are in the best interest of the affected community. But the community privileges the victims’ needs, recognizing that an outcome can only truly benefit the community if it empowers the victim/s. Advocates of the model recognize that it can’t eliminate 100% of crime, though that would be welcomed if it were possible. The goal instead is to break cycles of abuse and injustice and therefore create safer more sustainable communities.

Restorative justice frames crime as more than a transgression of the law– it causes harm to people, relationships, and the community which the model aims to heal. The process can take many forms but at its core are facilitated meetings between victim and abuser. The goal of these meetings for the victim is healing & resolution and for offenders, it’s accountability and understanding the damage they’ve done. It requires a neutral mediator to first ensure the safety of the victim and to ensure all negotiations are equitable, preventing social power dynamics from influencing the decisions made. For example, a telepath like Emma Frost would mediate for Wanda Maximoff and somebody impacted by The Decimation, such as Melody Guthrie. This oversight ensures that if the conversation got too heated, that Wanda could not use her powers to influence the outcome or threaten the victim.

The model embraces a form of accountability that rises from within the abuser rather than be imposed onto them. They’re empowered to recognize the damage caused by their actions through a variety of empathy mapping practices and accountability meetings with the victim. Informed accountability aims to break cycles of abuse and empowers the offender to take greater agency in their own rehabilitation. This also builds empathy which in many cases breaks the cycle of violence, preventing relapses. Concretizing paths towards reconciliation is critical in repairing community bonds. Reintegration can be facilitated in many ways, but one of the most common is through community service programs, where reformed offenders are given the chance to not only repair broken community bonds but also to contribute to the growth of the community at large. Another such program for reformed-offenders is serving as mentors for individuals who are currently working through the process, functioning like a sponsor within the AA model. If reintegration is not possible, the goal should be rehabilitation to ensure they do not perpetuate this form of harm in other communities.

The model is far from perfect though and it hasn’t been tested on a scale needed to make it viable enough for many to consider replacing the prison-industrial complex. Beyond that, restorative justice presupposes a cooperative offender, but the model’s ideology breaks down if offenders are recalcitrant, unrepentant, or non-cooperative. It’s immediately undermined whenever it has to deal with repeat offenders and is strained further if the victim/s remains consistent. There are some transgressions that this model at times fails to appropriately address due to the severity of the offense such as assault, rape, murder, hate crimes, etc. And repeat offenders whose transgressions fall on this severe end of the spectrum can greatly challenge faith in the model’s efficacy. Some argue that the model’s idealism can put the community at risk again by reintegrating the offender. Until we see the model used on a larger enough scale, most of the criticism of the model remains speculative for the moment. In the context of applying the model to Krakoa, many of these concerns would be valid, along with considerations of how the model would be further strained by reality warpers or telepaths for example.

Krakoan Justice

Krakoa is what you get if you took the restorative justice model and skipped all the work to get to the goal of reintegrating abusers into your society. It’s the form of privileged idealism we’ve come to expect from Xavier. It’s also great storytelling for exactly those reasons.

The justice system of Krakoa is still largely undefined, and in their current form, Krakoa’s laws make space for gross injustice and abuse, in part because there’s only three of them. Krakoa also does not have codified the rights for its citizens, making finding justice and building equity a moving target. The only forms of accountability we’ve seen so far are an infinite abyss or getting put on the mutant Suicide Squad. Outside of these two instances abusers go free from accountability, holding some of the highest seats of authority. In some cases, this places them in close proximity to their victims or gives them authority over their victims. Again, interesting story-telling, but a bad way to run a nation.

For the reasons I mentioned previously regarding how the medium of comic-books problematizes these considerations, I’m not discussing who is and isn’t redeemable. Many also conflate “redemption” with “absolution”, making those considerations feel even more fraught. But there are individuals whose past offenses make them questionable choices to sit on The Quiet Council, Krakoa’s sole body of authority and legislation. The council is actually composed of a number of current & reformed “villains”, and folks who have certainly “done some shit.” 

Xavier, Magneto, and Emma (who fall into the latter category mentioned above) have each undergone periods of characterization that range from outright villain to morally dubious. Magneto has a history of large scale anti-human violence some of which could be seen as self-defense or preemptive strikes against bigoted humans. But there are also actions that are harder to justify like threatening earth with nuclear missiles from Asteroid M. He is also known to be incredibly manipulative of his fellow mutants. Xavier has done his share of brainwashing, sexualizing his students, knowingly enslaving a sentient being [Danger], erasing memories, building a “theoretical” database on how to kill all of his students[ the Xavier Protocols], endangering the lives of children, and violated countless ethical boundaries while treating Gabrielle Haller. Emma has a history of working against the X-Men, but much of this is wrapped up into her association with the Hellfire Club, and it’s reasonable to attribute some of those actions to the abuse she suffered at the hands of members of the Club such as Sebastian Shaw, who also sits on the council. She’s also known for questionable practices when it comes to mentoring her students.

It is important to note that of these three, only Emma and Magneto are referred to as “reformed-villains”. Charles is not considered a “former-villain” largely because of the nature of publication history. The idea that Charles is a “good-guy” was fed to readers from the beginning, therefore he’s implicitly framed as such. If you were to explain his transgressions to a stranger without the context of his name or establishing him as a hero, they’d likely not even bat an eye at considering him a villain. I’ve done this, and never have I received push back on the label. This is yet another symptom of the way that the medium of comic books continues to frame the morality of characters. At any rate, though, all three are no longer considered to be villains.

The Council does include some explicitly villainous figures. One such figure is Sinister, who has a history of manipulation, abuse, and violence that should exclude him from holding such a position of power. One of the major offenses that should preclude him from holding a seat of authority is his orchestration of the Morlock Massacre. Sinister is responsible for the destruction of hundreds of lives, but because he possesses something that Xavier wants, his genetic archives, Xavier ignores the damage he’s done for his own gain. As a result, Sinister is given power over the very community that he previously attacked. Morlocks don’t even live on Krakoa but in a habitat somewhere in Arizona. Whether this is an empowered choice or not is unclear. Did they choose not to live on Krakoa? Or did they specifically choose not to live alongside their abuser, Sinister? Needless to say, in restorative justice models, you don’t put a violent abuser on the single body of authority within a community and give them further social & institutional power over their victims, while you force his victims to live outside of the community-proper.

X-Men: Black Emma Frost
X-Men Black: Emma Frost by Leah Williams & Chris Bachalo, October 31, 2018, Marvel Comics

Sebastian Shaw’s inclusion on the council is troubling as well. With his history of abuse and manipulation of both Jean and Emma, who are forced to sit on the council with him, he too should not be permitted to hold such a seat of authority. We learn in X-Men Black: Emma Frost that Shaw also abused and exploited a number of underaged girls “employed” by the Hellfire Club. Shaw has long been an avatar for anarcho-capitalist ideology, a “radical” offshoot of capitalism that focuses on individual and decentralized wealth through participating in unregulated “free” markets. To put it plainly, Shaw is a monster whose sole impulse is self-interest with no allegiances of value. He constantly demonstrates a disregard for mutant identity, throwing mutant-kind under the bus for his own gain. Shaw’s behavior after stepping onto Krakoa represents one of the ills that restorative justice models aim to address, the cycle of abuse left unchecked. With the resources afforded to him by his seat on the Council Shaw wastes no time in conspiring to destabilize Krakoan infrastructure. In fewer than nine issues of Marauders, readers watch Shaw install his own agents into seats of authority [two of which are literal Nazis] and they watch him undermine Krakoan pharmaceutical-trade by disseminating faulty Krakoan drugs to bad-jacket Krakoa. Shaw collaborates with Hominus Verendi, hires X-Cutioner & Hatemonger to attack the Marauders, establishes ties with the Russian Ambassador responsible for developing power-dampening technology, and conspires with Verendi on a plot to use the Yellowjacket Probe to provide various anti-mutant parties with direct intelligence on Krakoa. Not to mention that Shaw murdered Kate Pryde.

Marauders #6
Marauders #6 by Gerry Duggan, Mario Del Pennino, and Matteo Lolli, January 22, 2020, Marvel Comics

In failing to hold Shaw accountable and giving him a position of power, Xavier has given him the resources to not only fundamentally undermine Krakoa’s diplomatic presence on the world’s stage but to also murder its citizens. Xavier’s ignorance is nothing new, but the choice to provide Shaw and Sinister with seats on The Quiet Council has set in motion the potential undoing of Krakoan society at large. Again, this is really good story-telling but a really bad way to run a nation.

Incarceration: The Metaphor & Beyond

One of the only examples we have of “mutant justice” so far, is the “trial” of Sabretooth. Sabertooth, of course, is on trial for breaking one of their three laws, “ Kill no man”. Only he didn’t break this law, because the law was established only after the violence in question took place. This is referred to as an “ex post facto” law, which retroactively changes the legal ramifications of an action, which many nations regard as a violation of individual rights. In fact, many countries’ human-rights codifications explicitly prohibit this form of legal action, such as the African Charter on Human and People’s Right which specifies in Article 2, Paragraph 7 that

…no one may be condemned for an act or omission which did not constitute a legally punishable offense at the time it was committed. No penalty may be inflicted for an offense for which no provision was made at the time it was committed.

House of X #3
House of X #3 by Jonathan Hickman and Pepe Larraz, August 28, 2019, Marvel Comics

In the US Articles 25 & 26 of the American Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man* , codify a citizen’s “right to be tried by pre-existing laws”. A number of nations have constitutional or equivalent prohibitions of ex post facto criminal trial including Brazil (5th Article, section XXXVI of the Brazilian Constitution), Canada (paragraph 11(g) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms), Germany (Article 103 of German Basic Law), India (Article 20(1) of the Indian Constitution, Iran (Article 169, Chp. 11 of Iran’s Constitution), Italy (Article 25, paragraph 2 of Italian Constitution), Japan (Article 39 of Japan’s constitution), Pakistan (Article 12 of the constitution of Pakistan), Spain ( Article 9.3 of the Spanish Constitution), and South-Africa (Section 35(3) of the South African Bill of Rights).

Since all mutants are Krakoan citizens & cannot be tried by human courts (House of X #3) and since at the time of the mission in question Krakoa had no established laws, there was no jurisdiction to which Sabretooth was subject to that prohibited his actions. That doesn’t excuse his actions on a moral level, but given the dynamics of his citizenship and Krakoa’s lack of codified laws at the time, he is not legally guilty of any crime. This makes his trial definitively” ex post facto”, which again many consider to be a violation of individual rights. It’s also critical to accurately contextualize Sabretooth’s actions; he was sent on this mission by Xavier, placing him in a situation primed for violent interactions with militarized human forces of a known anti-mutant organization. And if you can put somebody on trial “ex post facto” for killing humans, half of the council should also be placed on trial on the same grounds. We haven’t even mentioned that he was tried and sentenced without representation, without testimony or any ability to plead his case.

House of X #1
House of X #1 by Jonathan Hickman and Pepe Larraz, July 24, 2019, Marvel Comics

The viewer arrives at the mission in question in media-res, it’s possible that Sabretooth isn’t the only mutant to take a human life and perhaps the humans instigated violence, causing Sabretooth to fight back in self-defense. Considering the mission involved gathering intelligence for a military campaign, and that Mystique, Sabretooth, and Toad were under attack, Sabretooth’s actions could be argued to be acts of self-defense to one degree or another. So, not only can you not hold Sabretooth accountable to laws that didn’t exist at the time of the actions they prohibit, but given the context of Sabretooth’s involvement in this particular mission, the defense could make a reasonable case for Sabretooth’s actions to either lessen the sentence or have the trial thrown out.  At least that much is true of a nation that has a due process legal system, which Krakoa does not.

Of all the things to retroactively put Sabretooth on trial for, this doesn’t even feel as narratively satisfying as it should have. Sabertooth has a long history of victimizing & attacking countless members of the X-Men with a fixation on the women of the team. He was also a member of the original Marauders team. Perhaps it would feel more like justice if the offense he was tried for had a deeper hook into this history. For a better look at Sabretooth’s complex history of violence and attempts at “rehabilitation”, check out the work of Sara Century. There’ve been periods of detainment and attempted rehabilitation in the past, and in the last 10 years we’ve seen him take a place on teams alongside the X-Men such as in Uncanny X-Men: Superior (2016-17), including some of his previous victims.

House of X #6
House of X #6 by Jonathan Hickman and Pepe Larraz, October 2, 2019, Marvel Comics

Sabretooth’s consistent lack of remorse and history of abuse should preclude him from taking part in larger Krakoa society, but I disagree with throwing anybody into a waking void indefinitely. Sabertooth is taken from human custody only to be placed in far worse conditions humans may have placed him in. Let’s look at Xavier’s exact words, just after passing the sentence of “exile” in House of X #6; “Alive but immobile. Aware, but unable to act on it. How long…? Forever.” This type of punishment is a radically more cruel form of solitary confinement, which is already known to have an immensely damaging impact on the victim’s physical & mental health. Solitary confinement has been studied rigorously by neuroscientists, who’ve found that even with less than a year of forced isolation victims experience loss of navigational-reasoning, memory loss, loss of temporal reasoning, develop a form of face-blindness, long term sensory avoidance behaviors, CPTSD & PTSD, loss of reading comprehension, loss of fine motors skills, loss of some gross motor skills and much more. 

This form of confinement also causes the hippocampus [the portion of your brain that regulates learning & pattern recognition ] to shrink while the amygdala [ which mediates fear, anxiety, & stress ] increases in activity. In studies of victims of 10-20 years of isolation, it was observed that the brain significantly slowed the process of creating new neurons; even as little as two months in solitary can cause a 20% reduction in neuron creation. You should be able to extrapolate what happens over the course of 20+ years such as was done to Robert King, who spent 29 years in solitary confinement. It’s estimated that in the US there are an estimated 80,000 men  (a disproportionate of that number being African American men serving in solitary confinement. Solitary Confinement exceeding 3 months is associated with a 26% increased risk of premature death, stemming from an out of control stress response resulting in higher cortisol levels, increased blood pressure and inflammation. Extensive forced isolation and sensory deprivation have been proven to cause permanent and long term damage to the mind of the victim which is the reason many regard it to be a form of torture. This is why a wave of activism, led by Robert King and his legal team to utilize the 8th amendment [prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment] to abolish the use of solitary confinement.

Comics, like all fiction can help us build empathy, but at the same time it can normalize otherwise cruel forms of treatment. Because of the way that the things media normalizes can spill-over into how we interpret our own world, it’s critical to acknowledge that what the council did to Sabretooth is not humane and that the members of the council who made that choice are complicit in torture & violations of individual rights. Sabretooth’s last breaths, before being swallowed by the void, were a promise of future violence. Clearly absolute sensory-deprivation & isolation in an abyss will do nothing to break the cycle of violence. It’s hard to imagine the idealism of restorative justice’s reform and rehabilitation working for Sabretooth but such an extremely cruel form of imprisonment is not only dehumanizing & torturous, but it’s also unlikely to prove effective. I believe firmly that for all the resources available to the X-men that they could devise forms of accountability that do not constitute torture.

Raising Hell

Hellions #1
Hellions #1 by Zeb Wells, Stephen Segovia, and David Curiel, March 25, 2020, Marvel Comics

Why do concepts like Hellions and Suicide-Squad appeal to us so much? I think many of us long for redemption; to not be judged by our worst choices or our weakest moments. For many, a reformed villain is a godsend; if these people can absorb an entire planet, kidnaps elected officials, or throw the planet of its axis, and still be given another chance, we feel like we stand a chance of overcoming our own mistakes. The Hellions aren’t villains, though some of them may look like it from the surface. Some of them are just looking for a place to be, some need to be looked after, some need an outlet, while others just need to atone. Empath and Scalphunter (I will continue to refer to him by his name John Greycrow, because I think “Scalphunter” is a wildly insensitive name for an American Indigenous character ) are characters whose story demonstrates one aspect of the restorative justice model that we’ve already discussed; reform through community service.

John Greycrow has a history of working for & against the X-Men but he’s largely known for his involvement in the Morlock Massacre. Greycrow certainly took lives, but as the result of his employment by Sinister. This by no means excuses him or assuages him of his accountability or atonement, but it changes the nature of his offense and his rehabilitation. He’s a hired gun, where Sinister is the hateful mastermind. Greycrow has also lived much of his life in a cycle of violence that he cannot escape, which Sinister points out to the council in Hellions #1.

When Greycrow was “executed” for attacking his fellow soldiers in World War II, there’s an ambiguity surrounding what incited his attack. Considering the way American Indigenous people were treated in and out of the military at the time, it’s entirely possible that his violence was in reaction to mistreatment and abuse from other soldiers. At a time where children were still being stolen off of reservations, indigenous histories were being erased culturally and in the education system, Greycrow was drafted into a war to fight for the country that was destroying his culture and his history. This isn’t the reason he became a mercenary nor am I establishing the two experiences in a deterministic relationship, but it could certainly build up a current of rage within an individual, which needs an outlet. Having settled on Krakoa though, Greycrow is given the opportunity to escape the cycle of violence.

Hellions #1
Hellions #1 by Zeb Wells, Stephen Segovia, and David Curiel, March 25, 2020, Marvel Comics

On the anniversary of the Mutant Massacre, Greycrow is attacked by a band of Morlocks (Hellions #1). He doesn’t argue, he just gets up and prepares to defend himself to some degree and when the council accuses him of attacking the Morlocks, Greycrow makes no attempt to clarify that the Morlocks instigated the violence. The scene reads as him recognizing that he had this coming, showing him begin to more thoughtfully grapple with the role he played in the massacre. It also shows him protecting the Morlocks in question, putting him on a path towards atonement. Krakoa’s resurrection protocols present greater potential for Greycrow’s ability to reconcile with his past victims. This is one of the things that genuinely excites me about the series and its potential. Not only is it providing more nuanced ways of looking at purportedly villainous characters by making space for these individuals to have their own histories and trauma acknowledged, but it’s also creating opportunities for resolution that are unprecedented in our world.

Recognizing that for the moment it’s unsustainable for Greycrow and the Morlocks to freely cohabitate, the council assigns him to the Hellions. Many restorative justice models incorporate these forms of community service into the reintegration/rehabilitation process. Sometimes this takes form in community clean-ups, or programs like Philadelphia Mural Arts’ Guild Project. The goal is to allow the individual to contribute to the growth of the community that their transgressions have damaged. In doing so, they build faith with the community, can work to atone for their actions, and can acquire new skills and experiences that the individual can draw on to enhance the reintegration process.

Hellions also shows how the restorative justice model can provide more nuanced strategies for addressing how issues of class, education, ability, and neurodiversity can be contributing factors to some offenses. Relevant to the mutant metaphor, this is an idea which we see manifest in The Quiet Council’s approach to the actions of Empath, a former member of the Hellions. Sometimes, the restorative justice model embraces models of harm reduction. If we can’t get this individual to cease a certain behavior, then it’s in their best interest and the best interest of the community to find a safe outlet for them, in respect to narcotics these are called safe-consumption sites and they provide a safe environment, intended to reduce unsafe & unclean usage conditions as well as to prevent lethal overdoses. The Hellions provide just such an opportunity.

Hellions #1
Hellions #1 by Zeb Wells, Stephen Segovia, and David Curiel, March 25, 2020, Marvel Comics

As a result of his mutation, Empath’s mind has developed using “bad data” to quote a data-page from Hellions #1. Rather than being a sociopath who was given powers, as is noted on a data page in Hellions #1, his mutation created sociopathic tendencies. While this doesn’t excuse his abuses or the damage he’s done, if he isn’t able to understand the consequences and impact of his actions, you can’t hold him accountable in the same way you could a neurotypical person. His mutation inherently prevents him from building the same neurological empathy maps that neurotypicals develop to help avoid doing harm to others in the future. If you push over your friend on the playground, your friend may bleed and cry out in pain. For some, this builds a cause-effect mapping in the mind and you’re able to anticipate that pushing over another person will likely have the same effect. But what if, from a young age, you were able to control and manipulate others to not only not crying or expressing pain, but you could manipulate them into thanking you for it. 

Hellions #1
Hellions #1 by Zeb Wells, Stephen Segovia, and David Curiel, March 25, 2020, Marvel Comics

On the data page, Empath is labeled “sociopathic” but in truth, his eroded sense of empathy leaves him somewhere between “sociopathy” and “psychopathy”, both of which are diagnostically known as “Antisocial Personality Disorders” (APDs) in the 5th edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders. The two terms are so heavily stigmatized in society because of the way that the media we consume has perpetuated the myth that both are 1.) Interchangeable and 2.) inherently prone to violence. This is largely due to the frequency at which lazy writers attribute a villain/protagonist’s actions to being a “sociopath” or “psychopath” when they need a one-word fix for their poor characterization. While there are cases of individuals with APDs who become violent, it’s a smaller number than we’re led to believe. From what we’re told about the effect his mutation has had on his mind, and what can be understood about the brain of individuals with psychopathy, it’s most accurate to describe Empath as psychopathic rather than sociopathic. While the two have some overlap, Empath’s eroded sense of “right and wrong” stems from his brain’s inability to emotionally & intellectually process and connect the consequences of his actions, which is most consistent with the pseudo diagnosis of “psychopathy”.

Because Empath is unable to recognize the damage he has done over time, he will likely continue to do harm without any awareness. He’s likely unaware that his manipulation of others is abusive, cruel, and invasive leading to an obstructed sense of “moral cognition”, or the neurological coding that dictates “right and wrong” decision making in our minds. This proposes a really interesting framing for mental health and mutant-justice. It’s a terrific example of how Krakoa continues to reframe parts of the continuity that we’ve written off. You can’t look at Empath’s past transgressions the same way after this page. Accountability means something different if you are neurologically wired in a way that prevents you from seeing the harm you do.

Appropriately, Krakoan leadership recognizes that the same measures of accountability used for neurotypicals, not only wouldn’t be effective for Empath but would not be appropriate either. He’s given an outlet and given a place on Krakoa that neither ignores his transgression nor demonizes him for his neurodiversity. In this sense, Krakoa is arguably embracing a social model of disability & neurodivergence to inform their justice model as well a model of harm reduction.

House of X #6
House of X #6 by Jonathan Hickman and Pepe Larraz, October 2, 2019, Marvel Comics

Looking at Krakoa’s failures and successes can help us to learn many lessons about the ways we navigate our own communities. It’s not just a matter of fan-analysis or a thought experiment about mutant-politics. This isn’t just a story, these situations happen within our communities on a regular basis; abusers hold seats of authority over victims, individuals are unfairly tried and subject to cruel & dehumanizing “punishment’, cycles of violence can go unbroken, and people commit offense after offense without understanding the consequences of their actions. Krakoa shows us what happens when abusers go unchecked and at the same time, there can be moments of nuance where communities seek out ways to break cycles of violence by embracing more holistic and humane models of justice.

Recognizing the reality of these situations can also deeply enhance our experiences in engaging with these stories, deepening our sense of nuance and empathy. Understanding just how flawed Krakoa is doesn’t take away from the story that’s being told. If anything, it underscores just how interesting Krakoa is a storytelling device. Krakoa is deeply, almost tragically flawed in some ways, and in other ways, it embraces some truly radical forms of community building. It’s that balance that has made the stories coming out since House of X #1 so much more memorable and engaging and have allowed the fanbase to explore aspects of the mutant metaphor that had gone largely unexamined until now.

Hold Fast: The Marauders and the Anti-Fascist Model

Pyro in the Marauders
Marauders #6, January 22, 2020, by Gerry Duggan, Matteo Lolli, Mario Del Pennino, & Erick Arciniega

Resistance, Reclamation, and the Red-Queen of Anti-fascism

What does it mean for marginalized communities to resist oppression and protect themselves and their kin when the governments of the world leave them behind? [A totally theoretical question, in no way relevant to the world we live in] Marauders asks this question, consistently expanding on the complexities of Krakoa’s role on the world’s political stage.

Having spent years working in multiple above and below ground anti-fascist/anti-racist organizations and affinity-groups, I love X-Books like Marauders, that acknowledge the complexities of revolutionary struggle, telling a story of an autonomous cell of mutants, using tactical violence and property damage, to carry out direct-action operations to defend their community. For this reason, Marauders can help readers approach the stigmatized political ethos of anti-fascism. I don’t expect you to walk away with a full understanding of the history and strategies of anti-fascism. For a more holistic account of the history and political validity of anti-fascism, I suggest Mark Bray’s, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist and Robert Paxton’s Anatomy of Fascism.

Anti-fascism or autonomous anti-fascism [as it’s known outside the US, where political discourse can sustain a multifaceted definition of anti-fascism] is an illiberal politics of cultural self-defense, necessitated by the inaction of a corrupt state-apparatus, utilizing historic & emergent methods of protest and direct-action. It’s a single aspect of larger strategies of resistance to white supremacy, not a discrete political ideology. Anti-fascists organize in autonomous cells, collectives, or affinity groups without traceable ties to larger organizations of the left. They reject the liberal formula for opposing fascism; debating fascists in the “marketplace of ideas” or trusting the police to counteract fascist violence. History shows that parliamentary government is not a barrier to fascism, in fact, it’s historically a red carpet. Police, who historically began as slave-patrollers, often share membership with white-supremacist groups and have given birth to reactionary movements like “Blue Lives Matter”. Not to mention they are constantly emboldened by our president’s calls for increased levels of violence.

The series/team’s title is a reference to a group of mercenaries, who Sinister hired to wipe out the Morlocks. Kate chose this name to distance what they’re doing from the X-Men but It’s also an act of reclamation, as Callisto herself notes in Marauders #7. They take a name tied to their own pain and use it in the fight against their oppressors. There are numerous leftist organizations whose names are reclamations, like Trigger Warning, Philly’s Dyke March, the SHARPs, and Redneck Revolt come to mind. This is also seen in revolutionary aesthetics like the pink/purple triangle, used by Nazis to identify queer people, which was reclaimed in the 1980s & 90s by many organizations working in AIDS & HIV advocacy and is used by queer anti-fascist affinity groups to this day. It’s worth noting, that there is a meta-complexity in “reclamation” in comic books. Because these characters are not autonomous and self-aware, they themselves can’t reclaim certain things in the way we in the real world can [ which is still an intense and complex path to navigate]. What I think works here, is that everything is textual. Kate isn’t reclaiming a slur from our world, like naming a non-binary character Snowflake and their twin Safe-Space. Kate is a character, within a constructed world, reclaiming a term specifically located within the confines and context of that constructed world.

X-Men #4, January 01, 2020, by Jonathan Hickman, Leinil Francis Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, & Sunny Gho

The Marauders play a vital role in the safety of mutants of the 616, providing an alternate model of resistance to anti-mutant oppression, a model of resistance that larger structures of mutant governance cannot engage in. In X-Men #4 we see what happens when the X-Men do participate in larger institutions of economic and political governance, specifically the Davos World Economic Forum; the theme, “Globalization for a New Age: How to Secure and Maintain a Cohesive & Sustainable World.” It’s important to remember that by this time, there’s already been one successful attempt on Xavier’s life. Although they toast to peace, yet another assassination attempt unfolds. It’s easily dealt with, but one of the first attempts Krakoa made to participate in global politics is still met with violence. It’s clear that Krakoa cannot trust human structures of governance to achieve justice and equity.

Marauders #1 establishes the team’s two objectives. The first, to bring Krakoan drugs to countries without “legitimate” trade agreements with Krakoa, prioritizing Nations who need it most. In Marauders #2 we see Kate liberating a shipment that Shaw diverted from a nation in Africa who can’t take Krakoa’s deal publicly as it may start a civil war. The second objective is to liberate mutants being held against their will.

To an extent, the Marauders travel by sea because Kate Pryde can’t use Krakoa’s gates, but as Emma Frost states in Marauders #1 this is “…an opportunity”. In House of X, it’s observed that Krakoa’s gates have a military capability to move forces any distance instantaneously. Humanity implicitly sees the gates as a threat. This is why in some places they’re policed, making it difficult to utilize them to support mutants refugees. That’s where the Marauders come in, operating within the gaps between larger Krakoa’s politics and the rest of the world, through which the most vulnerable of mutants will fall. Revolutionary struggle is complex; at times necessitating open conflict, such as the ongoing Hong Kong Protests, the Ferguson Riots, the J20 Protests, the Warsaw rebellion, the Battle of Cable Street. Revolutionary struggle can also be immensely complex though, requiring less overt forms of resistance. In the new paradigm, mutants have the upper hand, but only the mutants living there and on the world’s political stage, Krakoa can only do so much to help them.

Building Power in the Gaps

There’s certainly a complexity to the various political parallels to navigate on Krakoa. X-Force, a covert-ops/CIA analog, establishes its own surveillance state within Krakoa. We’re spoon-fed that reading by the text itself and marketing. In X-Force #7 we learn Beast is investigating methods of surveillance with Forge, using sound-absorbent stone and placing objects made of this substance around the globe. This is certainly one way to read their actions. Although it’s easy to pass judgment on some of Beast’s recent actions, I would politely challenge that interpretation along with anti-fascist framing. Sometimes resistance is ugly; sometimes when they go low and you go high, they take out your legs from beneath you. Beast’s actions throughout X-Force, have been in the grey, but that is much of what it feels like to be involved in anti-fascist organizing. Sometimes protecting your community isn’t squeaky clean. While this is not me condoning some of Beast’s more questionable choices, this is me saying it should take much more for us to condemn them.

onepeoplesproject.com

But surveillance doesn’t always just serve the state. Surveillance & data-collection can be used to protect marginalized communities. In my years of “organizing”, I’ve encountered and partnered with multiple organizations that did just that, dedicated to observation, surveillance, and consolidation of data regarding the personnel, operations, and whereabouts of known fascists, neo-nazis, and abusers. Sometimes organizations come along, like the One People’s Project, [ founded in 2000 ] by Daryl Lamont Jenkins, whose sole mission is to prove “ hate has consequences”. Through OPP’s “Community Watch” project, they’ve created regional databases of known fascist organizations and personalities, to ensure they cannot use anonymity or opacity as tools in their rampage against marginalized communities. Countless times the information provided by these groups is used to make split-second safety decisions regarding the presence of known instigators and agitators, violent abusers within the community, and to anticipate and intervene in potentially dangerous fascist actions.

Krakoa itself is a unique composite of various modes of social-governance. On the one hand, there’s a radicality of Krakoa that stretches beyond a socialist model, leaning into an almost anarcho-syndicalist model. I see this mostly in the way that Krakoa’s exports of various drugs become a foothold for further economic and political power. These drugs become economic leverage on the global scale, much in the way that anarcho-syndicalist models utilize the power of the worker. There are also parallels to the way that mutant identity itself, rooted in Krakoa, becomes surrogate for the role of the union as a sort of consolidation and point of focus for work-power. Krakoan also represents a semi-liberal state apparatus, though without even a symbolic democratic element given the nature of the Quiet Council’s structure and formation. Krakoa is best understood as a combination of Monarchy and Oligarchy. The Monarch [Charles] establishes a puppet Oligarchy [The Quiet Council], which he assumes a major role on. Charles often makes major choices unilaterally, without consulting the council. This council was not elected and contains members such as Sinister, responsible for the genocide of the Morlocks and Sebastian Shaw a serial abuser.

Marauders #1, October 23, 2020 by Gerry Duggan, Matteo Lolli, & Federico Blee

The Marauders embody the anti-fascist slogan “outside and within”; both a part of these larger structures of power and yet operating entirely outside of them at times, both with and without the blessing of Krakoa’s elites. Anti-fascism isn’t all about bandanas and brick-throwing, so I’d like to return to the first mission of The Marauders, to distribute Krakoan drugs to vulnerable communities. This idea of “outside and within” is not just how The Marauders engage in acts of resistance, it also impacts how they provide radical forms of aid to others.

When it comes to providing much-needed material aid to vulnerable communities, there many examples of such work within anti-fascist organizing for us to turn to. And this aspect of anti-fascist organizing is very similar to the first objective of the Marauders that we’ve discussed, and that is to provide Krakoan medications to vulnerable communities. An example that many on the left may already be familiar with is the “Food not Bombs” movement, popularized by many anarchist and anti-fascist communities. The goal of which is to consistently host soup kitchens, food drives, and community potlucks within under-resourced communities. While not all members of FnB also do anti-fascist work, there is a significant overlap between the two. There are many other organizations dedicated to this type of work. Much like the Marauders, anti-fascists serve as both swords and shields to the communities they place themselves within.

Marauders #6, January 22, 2020, by Gerry Duggan, Matteo Lolli, Mario Del Pennino, & Erick Arciniega

In issues #5, #6, & #7 it becomes clear that Sebastian Shaw has formed alliances with Verendi. Like many anti-fascist organizations, the Marauders deal with the never-ending struggle of sectarian in-fighting. While it never gets as heated as Democratic-Socialists drowning members of anarcho-communist affinity groups in the ocean, a sizeable amount of time and energy is spent vying for new footholds of power when the focus should be on fighting oppression. Shaw’s plot to kill Kate, his choices of who he appoints as Black Bishop and Black Knights, and his constant attempts to undermine Emma, are all very similar to how some organizations on the left squabble and feud over things like, membership, titles, and power.

From  Jackboots to Pinstripes

We’re introduced to a group named “Homines Verendi”. “Homines” translates from Latin into “ people/mankind”, in this context, it means human. “Verendi” is the masculine, vocative & nominative conjugation of the Latin, “verendum”, meaning “awe-inspiring”. The title alone paints Verendi as a human-supremacist organization, evocative of many “pinstripe fascist” white-supremacist groups, like the Proud Boys. The Proud Boys have over time made them the darlings of the established right, unlike many groups of the alt-right. In fact, the Proud Boys’ notable assault [2018] on counter-protestors in Manhattan, happened at all because of an invitation of members of the Metropolitan Republican Club, a mainstream Republican organization.

Marauders #6, January 22, 2020, by Gerry Duggan, Matteo Lolli, Mario Del Pennino, & Erick Arciniega

Verendi and Proud Boys share aesthetics of class, building a “legitimate” image that contrasts the “messy” aesthetics of the left. Like famously punchable Nazi, Richard Spencer they present themselves as well-groomed, and well-dressed “intellectuals”, endearing themselves to far-right elites. As Emily Gorcenski states in her profile on the fascist group,Compared to the white supremacists they march alongside, Proud Boys enjoy comfortable proximity to the Conservative Mainstream”. Even at protests, they appear in collared shirts, cufflinks, and styled hair. They fit right in, rubbing shoulders with politicians and billionaires, masking their continued reactionary violence. According to their own official publications, two of four spokes of membership to the group require acts of violence. Their founder Gavin McInnes has openly referred to his group as “gang” on multiple occasions, defending members’ senseless violence. In March 2017, Proud Boy Kyle Chapman was photographed beating a counter-protester over the head with a 2×4, earning him a role in the alt-right mythology, “Based Stickman”. He went on to form the “Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights”, which McInnes refers to as the “military wing” of the Proud Boys on his twitter.

Gavin McInnes and members of the Proud Boys, Photo Credit: Stephanie Keith, Getty Images

More recently, fascists like the Proud Boys, Richard Spencer, Baked Alaska, Gavin McInnes, Jason Kessler, and their ilk have attempted to rebrand referring to themselves as the “alt-right“. It’s a clever bit of branding for sure, “violence fringe fascists” doesn’t quite seem too palatable. The alt-right, on the other hand, sounds like a contingent of principled youngsters who land a little further to the right of most party republicans. It’s a name that washes over their hate, their violence, and the overtly fascist goals they hold.

A common misunderstanding of fascism, as Robert Paxton points out, is the neo-liberal Western interpretation of fascism as a form of extreme “evil”, forced onto societies by a single evil individual. Fascist power comes from their ability to co-opt, manipulate, and navigate established institutions of power, while still assaulting marginalized communities at the street-level. Respectability politics allows them to systematically acquire and consolidate power, through entirely “legitimate” means. Mussolini’s march on Rome was a mere spectacle legitimizing his prior invitation to form a government. Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 failed miserably; it was only when President Hindenburg appointed him chancellor that he was able to seize and consolidate power, along with parliaments Enabling Act that granted him complete power. The US elected flavor-blasted garbage pile Donald Trump, and we may do it again.

“Wear a sheet get beat!”

Black Lives Matter Organizer in ” black bloc”, Photo Credit: It’s Going Down

The Marauders’ first mission is reactionary, much like a lot of anti-fascist organizing. This is not to say that anti-fascist politics are reactionary, but that they quite literally react to fascists. When a threat emerges, they rise to meet it, popularized in the Antifa slogan “ Anywhere they go, we go!”. In issue #1 Iceman discovers that on the other side of a less active gate, the Russian military has established a blockade around the gateway, which may be evocative of continued travel bans instated by the flavor-blasted bowl of bird shit, Donald Trump. Kate, Iceman, and Storm see vulnerable mutant refugees being policed and their rights denied, so they intervene. Their violence is never an escalation, but always proportionate. They fight to disarm and de-escalate. The Russian military is the one who escalates. The Marauders’ use of violence is tactical, measured, and defensive. We see a mission like this again in Marauders #4, when the team liberates a group of younger mutants trapped by their country’s naval forces. By issue #5, the Marauders have brought many dozens of mutants refugees home to Krakoa. Have real-world anti-fascists ever gone to bat for refugees?

The Syrian Civil War [2011] catalyzed the largest influx of refugees that Europe has seen since the displacement caused by WW II. In 2015, 1.3 million refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere fled to Europe, in 2016, another 350,000. At least 4,812 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2016 alone. With this influx came a rise in nationalism & xenophobia. Despite the fact that economic experts stated firmly that the refugees had not caused a notable increase in poverty or crime, nationalism fomented into violence. As Georg Pazderski of the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland himself admitted, “perception is reality,…our citizens feel unwell and insecure“. This is another way that fascism solidifies power, providing easy answers to the anxieties of the middle and lower classes, jettisoning their explicitly racist trappings for dog-whistles about “scarcity” and “security”.

In the following October, nationalists attempted to burn down a refugee camp near Bostock. By July 2015, matters escalated further forcing anti-fascists mobilized to defend a refugee tent city from neo-nazi attacks in Dresden. One month later, the conflict reached a breaking point. On the evening of August 20, 2015, an attempt was made to burn down the refugee center. The next day, buses carrying 250 refugees into Heidenau (outside of Dresden ) were blocked by a thousand members of the neo-nazi National Democratic Party and anti-immigrant locals. Several hundred anti-fascists responded to a call to defend the refugees in what had quickly become a matter of life and death. Dressed in black and black bloc, they waited out in front of the tent city to defend the refugee populations from “nationalists” with bricks, bottles, firecrackers. A large number of refugees even join the black-bloc to defend the encampment.

In issues #5 & #6, a major clash plays out between Verendi and the Marauders, which reveals the synergy between various fascist organizations & mobilizations. Verendi has conspired to incite violence in the streets of Madripoor. Verendi has invaded “legitimate” political structures and demonstrated their flexibility to work outside of them. In issue #6, we learn that the Russian ambassador from House of X has a deal with Verendi, to exchange the intel gathered by the “yellowjacket” probe, for her supply of power-dampening technology, both in the suits that we saw in earlier issues and future generations of weapons. In issue #6, we also learn that they’ve made an arrangement made with the ambassador of Madripoor, Donald Pierce while simultaneously working outside of governmental structures, hiring fringe fascists like the Hate-Monger and the X-Cutioner to kill Kate and the Marauders, characters with long histories of ant-mutant violence. Their designs alone evoke explicitly fascist images like Klu Klux Klan hoods, which is even more vile when you consider the origin of Hate-Monger as a clone of Hitler himself. X-Cutioner, on the other hand, is a “former fed”, drawing on the familiar trend of ranking government officials having ties to the Klan and other white-supremacist organizations.

Marauders #6, January 22, 2020, by Gerry Duggan, Matteo Lolli, Mario Del Pennino, & Erick Arciniega

For a bisexual, Jewish woman to face these two is an intense challenge, one many anti-fascists and activists from marginalized groups face; putting your body on the line, in direct opposition with those who wish you harm. In the context of the comic, they’ve been hired to kill Kate. In real life, it gets much blurrier, but at times members of marginalized groups have been injured and killed during protests or actions where they stand against their oppressors. This is why even though Donald Pierce and Chen Zhao claim diplomatic immunity, Kate doesn’t get hung up on bureaucratic international diplomacy. Kate recognizes them as oppressors, intending to harm her and her community. She doesn’t take this to the floor of the UN or try to beat Hate-Monger in the “marketplace of ideas”. She fights them where they can’t hide behind the shield of civility politics, and that’s exactly what anti-fascists do.

On the night of February 1, 2017, former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopolous, was set to speak at UC Berkeley. He’d become a major celebrity of the `alt-right, using his identity as a gay immigrant to mitigate his racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, transphobia, and promotion of rape culture. Students demanded the lecture be canceled when Berkeley officials announced that Yiannopoulos planned to “publicly name undocumented students,” much as he outed trans students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who were then harassed and assaulted. Shortly before Yiannopoulos’s speech, anti-fascists arrived at the demonstration and launched a quick but intense escalation effort. What weeks of advocacy, petitions, and “reasoned debate” couldn’t accomplish was achieved in 15 minutes. The event was canceled. Undocumented students stated that lives had been saved, as far-right students had made threats on social media regarding the students to be exposed.

Clashes like this catapulted Antifa into the spotlight. Despite a complete lack of historical or theoretical knowledge or awareness, pundits incorrectly concluded that anti-fascism was a greater threat to free speech than fascism itself because they refuse to provide an unchallenged platform for hate-speech. Pinstripe fascists leverage “free speech” to appeal to a mainstream sense of decorum—which they capitalize on to spread their hate. That position incorrectly asserts that anti-fascism is the only threat to an otherwise pristine state of free speech, safe-guarded by the government. The government already restricts speech. It restricts false advertisements, libel, and advertisements for tobacco products and alcohol. The government prosecutes incitement of violence, protects copyrights, and limits where pornographic images can be shown.

Journalists are regularly arrested and assault by police at protests. Trump’s White House restricts access to oppositional reporters. This is why the US only ranked #43 on the World Press Freedom Ranking in 2017 and fell to #48 in 2019. It’s why witnesses in critical trials against the police end up dead, an improbable distance from their home for some weed. It’s why the man who filmed police murder Eric Garner was the one who ended up in jail, while the killer cops remained free. In the 1960-70s J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI created COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) to shut down social movements through the spread of disinformation, bad-jacketing, infiltration, and even killing prominent members of the Black Panther Party, such as Fred Hampton. Which you can read about in the appropriately titled Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther. 

What a Trans Sensitivity Reader Would Have Said to the Writers of New Warriors

New Warriors

When I saw that a non-binary character was being introduced by Marvel in the upcoming New Warriors  I was elated. When I saw that they were panderingly color-swapped with their sibling, playing on conservative gender coding between pink and blue, I was trepidatiously excited. Sure, they meant well. They didn’t realize that by engaging in the semiotics of gender and color; boy=blue and pink=girl that their subsequent inversion of these semiotics may implicitly unravel the work being done in representing a non-binary character. Then I got to their names and assumed that it was all some kind of fever dream.

I think it’s admirable that a cis white writer wanted to create a trans character, specifically a trans person of color. So much of our current comics status quo is cisnormative. Especially House of X, Powers of X, and Dawn of X; runs known for incorporating big status quo shifts and radical ideation. On that note, it’s admirable again to not consistently force writers like Leah Williams and Vita Ayala to become these monolithic creators, tasked with making up for the lack of trans representation that has gone on for over 30 years. Daniel Kibblesmith’s attempt to take on some of this responsibility is definitely commendable, though ultimately doesn’t deliver on the promise.

The characters’ names and their origin in New Warriors fails to hit the mark in so many ways. But it’s also important to recognize that they’re really the first to give us a character who is canonically trans at launch, rather than making it subtext or speculative, or read it post facto. Largely trans representation in comics has been within margins of magical transitions, post-facto applications, shapeshifters, fan theory, and subtext. It’s commendable for a writer to come out of the gate with a character who is unquestionably trans before the first issue even drops.

Snowflake and Safespace

To write characters with names like Snowflake and Safespace is being pitched to us as attempts at reclamation. That’s definitely ground to stand on, but more akin to a thin layer of ice, in early April; destabilizing by the second. The trouble here is that it’s not reclamation really. Reclamation is a matter of an autonomous and informed contingent or individual who sets about to take a slur used against them and to recontextualize it. A common use example is “queer”, which has risen to occlude terms like ” gay” “lesbian” and “bi”, for a variety of equally complex and valid reasons. But these characters [ Snowflake and Safespace] are not autonomous individuals. They are specifically constructed characters, that serve as an extension of the writer’s biases and ideas. They can’t reclaim anything, because they are not autonomous. They are in a sense puppets for the creative team. A puppet cannot reclaim a slur. Nor is that slur one that the creators own and hold. From the use of the two terms as names, in the context that they’re used, it’s also clear they don’t understand the terms and their impact. So the reclamation just falls apart on contact with any level of scrutiny. Constructed characters cannot make autonomous decisions, therefore they cannot reclaim anything.

In confluence with all of this, I put my sensitivity reader hat on and ask the litmus test question, 

If this was the first time a person heard of  “non-binary” as a gender experience, is this what you would want them to see. The reason that I ask this question of writers, is because in a drought of positive representation (specifically in a conservative proving grounds like marvel comics ) it very well may be. It takes so much contextualization for even Marvel insiders and long time fans to even give those name choices the benefit of the doubt, so imagine what outsiders will think about it.

There is something to be observed that nearly all the NB folks I know think this was a bad idea.

And then there’s the Comicsgate crew, who will absolutely use this as ammunition in their campaign of regressive and oppressive ideology through comics and comic adjacent spaces.

It ultimately could go wrong in thousands of ways, and really does not good. So with no benefits to the community, it really comes down to the writer thought it would be cool, and either didn’t hire a sensitivity reader or did, and ignored their feedback.

When taking these two names “ Snowflake” and “Safespace” on their own, it’s an incredibly insensitive and insulting decision. When you combine these names tertiary issues like their peer, Screentime’s power coming from “internet gas, it sounds as if Vox Day or EVS wrote the characters, not “a progressive” comics writer. Trans folks already are constantly having their immersion in social media and online communities by conservatives a way to “explain “ their trans identity. Gen Z and Millennials in particular face the invalidating and bigoted idea that “the internet made them trans”. So, what good does “ experimental internet gas” do for the trans community that Snowflake should represent?

And that’s the big question, what good does this do? As a sensitivity reader, a question I always ask of writers in this position; “What good does this do?” especially in contrast to potential harm. In this case, I see no potential for good, but plenty of potential for harm. 

For those watching, this not how you create positive and empowering representation. Creators who want to represent underserved communities should know better than to try to “reclaim” harmful terms that have been used against those very communities. I think it’s important to celebrate the attempt being made but to also have an honest conversation about the missteps. It does no good for us to excuse this by saying that since “Kibblesmith is a progressive and an ally” we should just appreciate the attempt. We have to recognize that future creators will follow the example set here, and this will continue to be used against trans and non-binary folks, rather than making us feel seen.

I wish I could feel optimistic. I wish that a new non-binary character in a Marvel book was something I was eagerly writing about in joy, rather than trying to channel my disappointment and rage.