Category Archives: History

People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Summer Special: Anti-Mutant Prejudice in the Superhero Community

Anonymous asked:

Are there any notable examples of anti-mutant prejudice towards the X-Men coming from within the superhero community?

This is a great question!

This gets to the complicated nature of how mutants fit into the Marvel Universe. I’ve always been a vocal proponent of the idea that, far from the mutant metaphor only making sense if it’s in its own little bubble where mutants are the only people with superpowers, the mutant metaphor actually functions better in the context of the Marvel Universe, because it allows you to explore more complicated and more subtle ways that prejudice functions.


While there are plenty of super-villains who have quite blatant anti-mutant prejudice, you don’t tend to get that same kind of overt bigotry towards mutants among super-heroes. Partly, this is because bigotry is a very unheroic character trait, but it also has to do with the way that the way that Marvel historically portrayed the spillover effects of anti-mutant prejudice.

Following in a kind of Niemöllerian logic, it’s almost always the case that groups that hate and fear mutants also end up hating and fearing non-mutant superheroes. Thus, Days of Future Past starts with the Sentinels being turned on mutants, but it ends with the Sentinels wiping out the Avengers and the Fantastic Four too – because the same atavistic fear of “the great replacement” applies to both mutants and mutates. Likewise, the same forces that line up to push through the Mutant Registration Act inevitably end up proposing a Superhuman Registration Act, because once you’ve violated the precepts of equality under the law for one minority group, you establish a precedent to do it to another.


Instead, I would argue what you see in the case of anti-mutant prejudice among superheroes is explorations of liberal prejudice. This takes many different forms: in Civil War, you see Tony Stark insensitively try to wave the bloody shirt of Stamford in the face of a survivor of the Genoshan genocide or Carol playing the good liberal ally but ultimately trying to get mutants to set aside their own struggle in favor of her own political project. (For someone who’s spent a good deal of time working, and living with, the X-Men, occasionally against the interests of the state, Carol does have a tendency to stick her foot in her mouth. Hence in Civil War II, you see Carol essentially goysplaining the dangers of creeping authoritarianism to Magneto.)

In Avengers vs X-Men, you see the Avengers acting like they know the Phoenix Force better than mutants and ultimately prioritizing the safety of mankind over the efforts of mutantkind to reverse their own extinction. This is where the “Avengers are cops” meme in the fandom comes from. (I would argue that Captain America is badly mischaracterized in the latter event – we know which side he’s on when the interests of mutants and the interests of the state come into conflict.)

The common thread here is that anti-mutant prejudice among superheroes emerges as a kind of unthinking, unreflective callousness brought on by a worldview that thinks of humans as the universal default of lived experience – while thinking of mutants as a somewhat annoying special interest group that fixates on their particularist grievances rather than working for what the heroes consider to be the common good.


For a more intimate version of how this plays out, I think the Fantastic Four are a great exploration of how “well-meaning” liberals can massively fuck up when they don’t do the work of examining their own biases. We’ve seen this since the very beginning: in Fantastic Four #21, Kirby goes out of his way to depict uber-WASP Reed Richards blithely assuming that the “free market of ideas” will take care of the Hatemonger, while the subtextually Jewish Ben Grimm knows that the way to deal with a mind-controlling Hitler clone wearing purple Klan robes is deplatforming-by-way-of-clobberin’.

Then later on, we see Reed Richards debate Congress out of passing a Superhuman Registration Act, while saying nothing about the Mutant Registration Act – even though he has a mutant son who is directly threatened by it. (See that adorable blond moppet with the slur scrawled across his face in the fictional advertisement above? That’s Franklin Richards.) This is why I have a crack theory that Franklin’s biological father is actually Namor rather than Reed, which is why Reed so consistently shows a passive-aggressive hostility to his son’s mutancy.


At the same time, Sue also has her blindspots when it comes to mutant rights. In the underrated FF/X miniseries, Susan Storm acts like an understanding and supportive parent to Franklin – right up until someone suggests that Franklin might want to come to Krakoa and explore his mutant identity, at which point she goes full Karen and starts lashing out with her powers. Chip Zdarsky, the writer, explicitly compared Reed and Sue to liberal parents who support gay rights in the abstract until their kid comes out as trans and wants to spend time in LGBT+ spaces.

The Burden of the X-Men’s Cyclops


One of the most striking aspects of Chris Claremont‘s early run on X-Men is the characterization of Cyclops. I want to focus on the first three issues after Giant-Size X-Men and the insight it gives us into the mind of Cyclops. The defining character trait of Cyclops in those early issues is his sense of duty and his commitment to the life of a hero above all else. 

In X-Men #94, the members of the pre-Giant Sized team leave. Angel, Iceman, Havok, Polaris, and Jean Grey decide they have outgrown their role as X-Men and that it’s time to finally graduate from Xavier’s school for gifted youngsters. Cyclops decides to stay with the team, he feels an obligation to the life of a hero, a sense that if he doesn’t lead the X-Men what would happen? What is the cost of failure? 


Cyclops drives the new team hard and himself harder. He puts them through rigorous training to shape them into a well-oiled machine. However, he butts heads with fellow X-Man Thunderbird. Thunderbird is hot-headed and has a desire to prove himself. While the two are arguing they are called away on a mission to stop Count Nefaria from unleashing a nuclear holocaust on the world. During the ensuing events in X-Men #95 Thunderbird dies taking down Nefaria. The X-Men are devastated but no one more than Cyclops.

X-Men #95

Cyclops personally blames himself for Thunderbird’s death. As the X-Men’s leader, he holds himself accountable for the loss. He tortures himself and goes over the events again and again in his head. He holds himself to an unrealistic moral ideal and when he fails he takes it personally. For as hard as he is on the X-Men ultimately he does it because he cares deeply for them. 

It’s become somewhat of a joke in the current Krakoa era of X-Men that Cyclops has a plan for every contingency. Here a similar obsessiveness is present but played much more seriously. He prepares because if the X-Men fail it means death, and the consequences of failure are dire. Cyclops has something almost akin to Catholic guilt. He holds himself up to an unrealistic moral ideal and beats himself up when he inevitably fails to maintain it. But even when he fails Scott Summers doesn’t stop, he needs to still be Cyclops, and he needs to still be a X-Man. Because if not him, who else? Because Cyclops is the X-Men.


Lectures in History: Comics and Cold War America airing on C-Span 3

Comics has come to C-Span 3 with Lectures in History: Comics and Cold War America. Gregory Daddis of San Diego State University teaches a class on comics during the Cold War, and a lecture has been recorded for the channel. The lecture is from September 13, 2022. San Diego State University in California is home to the Center for Comics Studies.

If you missed it’s airing earlier today, it airs on C-Span 3 at 8pm and 11pm tonight. Or you can watch it on demand.

People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 20: The (Mutant) Registration Act(s) Analyzed

In his sixteen-year tenure of the X-line, Chris Claremont put his own spin on the mutant metaphor any number of ways, but one of the longest-lasting and most influential has been the idea of a Mutant Registration Act. In the original Days of Future Past storyline, Claremont first mentions the Mutant Control Act passed by a “rabid anti-mutant candidate…elected president,” as a reaction to the assassination of Senator Robert Kelly.

In this issue, Claremont doesn’t mention what the provisions of the Mutant Control Act were, only that they were struck down by the relatively liberal Burger Court, presumably on 14th Amendment Equal Protection grounds. The Supreme Court’s thwarting of populist overreach unfortunately gives rise to the dark future of Earth-811, as the new president authorized Project Wideawake to send the Sentinels to hunt down mutant-kind, only to find that (once again) the Sentinels decide to accomplish this by conquering humanity and installing an apartheid state to root out carriers of the X-gene from the human population.

It’s worth taking a moment to parse the iconography of this populist anti-mutant movement, enshrined in the slogan “America! It’s 1984! Do you know what your children are?” Deliberately evoking the public service announcements that were introduced to back up youth curfews in Los Angeles in the 1960s that asked parents “it’s 10pm: do you know where your children are?,” this line turns the child-centric paranoia of the moral panics of the 1980s like the McMartin day care scandal or the Satanic Panic on their head; instead of children being the threatened object of outside threat, here the children are the subject of threat, the threatening outsider within. Moreover, this line clearly captured the imaginations of Claremont and Marvel editorial, because in X-Men #223 they took the unusual step of reproducing that line in an in-universe advertisement in the issue’s back matter:

This ad is worthy of some close analysis: by displaying an African-American child and an Asian boy alongside two fair-haired white children, the ad’s designers emphasize that mutant status exists on a parallel plane to race. While the mutant metaphor often is used to equate mutancy to real-world minority statuses, here it’s being demonstrated that that metaphor only goes so far. Next, by scrawling the racial slur of “mutie” across the face of an innocent child, the power of anti-mutant bigotry to stir up fear and hatred of even the most innocuous of targets is emphasized. Finally, and most importantly for the purposes of this essay, by having the in-universe commercial be “paid for by citizens in support of The Mutant Registration Act,” the ad’s creators tied together the Mutant Control Act from the dark future of Earth-811 and the Mutant Registration Act introduced by Senator Kelly in the present of the main 616 timeline in the wake of Days of Future Past.

Speaking of which, we see the “Mutant Control Affairs Act” introduced in the final pages of X-Men #181, which features a debate between Senator Kelly and an older, mustachioed Senator. This debate gives us one of the longest discussions of the Mutant Registration Act that Chris Claremont featured in the pages of X-Men.

As we can see from this dialogue, there’s not a lot of detail about concrete provisions of the Mutant Registration Act and, as we’ll see later, this vagueness is a deliberate choice by Claremont to suggest the broad strokes of discrimination while leaving the details up to the individual imagination. We know that Senator Kelly remains as concerned about human supremacy as he was back in Days of Future Past – although the national security angle is new (probably relating to his partnership with the new administration’s Project Wideawake) – and its atomic undertones are oddly reminiscent of Silver Age X-Men. The closest we get to specifics is Senator Phillip’s description of the MRA as not “far removed from legalized slavery.” As I’ll discuss in more detail later in the essay, this seems to be code for provisions relating to a special military draft– reminiscent of how the human supremacist state of Earth-811 used the Hounds to hunt down other mutants – which would have particular resonance only a decade after the end of the Vietnam War.

One piece of specific evidence about the bill that we do get is a half-page panel where John Romita Jr. gives us the title page of the actual legislation:

It’s a particularly ominous sign that the “Mutant Affairs Control Act” is titled as S.1; in both the House and Senate, early numbers in each legislative session are reserved for marquee bills that majority leadership want to highlight as a major priority for that session as a standard bit of legislative public relations. This is an early signal that the Mutant Registration Act will become law despite the best efforts of Senator Phillips and others like him. Another nice little touch is the effort to maintain verisimilitude: the second session of the 98th Congress really did begin on the 23rd of January, 1984, giving the impression that this is all happening in the present – X-Men #181 hit newsstands in early February 1984 – something that Claremont did quite a bit in the days in which Marvel Comics was a bit more “the world outside your window” than sliding timescales.

However, that’s really all we get on the specifics of the Mutant Registration Act. Rather than spend page space laying out the details of fictional legislation, Claremont instead used the Act as a recurring background element that could highlight aspects of characterization and plot development as needed. For example, Claremont used the MRA to emphasize Rachel Summers’ role as a time-traveler from a different future:

As we can see, Claremont is primarily interested in using the Mutant Registration Act as a synecdoche for the dystopian future of Earth-811: in the first panel, Claremont has the news broadcast end the moment as it’s about to describe the “draconian provisions” of the bill, partly because he wants to leave those details up to the reader’s imagination, but mostly because the important thing about this story beat is that the newly-arrived-in-616 Rachel recognizes the proper name of the legislation from her own past, raising the specter that the X-Men’s sacrifice in Days of Future Past failed to avert the Terminator scenario which is inevitably going to come to pass. In the second panel, the psychic impression of Scott Summers merely refers obliquely to “grim bills” without describing what those bills are, because what’s important in this scene is how Rachel associates those bills with a moment of fragile (and ultimately, futile) hope for her childhood, emphasizing the way she feels torn between the hope that the Sentinel takeover has been prevented and the somber realization that this may mean that her birth, and thus her identity as a “real” person, may have been forestalled by the rewriting of the timeline.

More commonly, Claremont used the Mutant Registration Act as a motivating force for plot, animating events across multiple issues, as part of his trademark style of gradually developing stories across years of continuity. In X-Men #158, the pending MRA prompts the X-Men to repent of their days providing information on mutants to the FBI by raiding the Pentagon to purge that data from government computers, thematically drawing a bright line between the more assimilationist politics of the Silver Age X-Men and the more radical direction that Claremont would be taking the book in the 1980s.

While the X-Men are successful in purging their data from Pentagon servers, impeding the efforts of the Federal government to surveil mutant citizens, the resulting melee between the team, Rogue and Mystique, and the U.S military begins the process that sees the X-Men labelled as outlaws by the U.S government – an important transition that Claremont will use to guide the book through the next several years. For example, in #182, Rogue attempts to rescue Colonel Mike Rossi from Hellfire Club double agents on a SHIELD Helicarrier, which gets misinterpreted as an unprovoked assault that prompts an APB[1] from Nick Fury for Rogue’s detention or execution. This then leads to issue #185, where Valerie Cooper and Henry Peter Gyrich – the chief Federal enforcers of the Mutant Registration Act – use the opportunity afforded by the APB to go after Rogue with an experimental weapon designed by Forge that removes mutant powers (inadvertently depowering Storm in the process). In #193, the Hellions provoke an incident at Cheyenne Mountain that leads to a “nation-wide manhunt for the mutants known as the Uncanny X-Men.” In this fashion, the X-Men gradually slide from a standard superhero team (albeit one devoted to protecting a world that hates and fears them) to becoming a group of outlaws, on the run from Federal authorities that is both driven by and acts as further justification for official anti-mutant prejudice.

To the extent that Chris Claremont devoted an entire arc to the Mutant Registration Act, it would come in the 1988 crossover event “Fall of the Mutants.” While the climax of the event is focused on the supernatural – the scheming and intrigue of demons and goddesses, interdimensional portals opening in the skies above Dallas, death and resurrection – one of the major throughlines is the Mutant Registration Act and the Federal government’s efforts to enforce it against the X-Men. It begins with X-Men #206, where the X-Men find themselves the unlikely heroes of San Francisco after having defended the city from Omega Sentinels and the Beyonder. While recuperating from those fights, the X-Men find themselves coming under attack from Freedom Force, a super-powered Federal task force created by Special Assistant to the National Security Advisor Val Cooper[2] to enforce the Mutant Registration Act.

In another sign of how mutant politics were shifting under Claremont’s pen as he moved towards the end of his first decade on the book, Freedom Force was formed out of Mystique’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, so that we have a group of former mutant radicals who once staged terrorist attacks on the U.S Capitol turning quisling to protect themselves from human authorities while the X-Men make the transition from former collaborators with the national security state to fugitives living underground. In the ensuing brawl, the X-Men find themselves firmly on the back foot, thanks in no small part to Freedom Force’s cavalier willingness to inflict collateral damage on residential neighborhoods of San Francisco. Ultimately, our heroes are rescued by the unlikely intervention of the San Francisco Police Department, who act to stop the fighting and the property destruction:

Especially in the contemporary context of the late Eighties, this confrontation between agents of the Federal government – visually if not textually identified as the Reagan Administration in X-Men #201 – and officers of the city of San Francisco had real-world political resonance. At this time, the public perception of pre-tech boom San Francisco was that of a center of left-wing politics and especially a center of the gay rights movement and very much diametrically opposed to Reagan’s conservative politics and his administration’s vocal hostility to the LGBT movement during the AIDS epidemic. Notably, here we see Lieutenant Morrel of the SFPD acting as the voice of civil libertarianism, emphasizing the need for warrants, documentation of presidential pardons, and other accoutrements of due process against Freedom Force’s paramilitary flaunting of constitutional rights.

The thread is picked up again in X-Men #223, where once again the X-Men find themselves in San Francisco, where “people here don’t seem to mind the X-Men’s presence – they consider us heroes.” In this issue, we see Freedom Force expanding by drafting the heroes-turned-murderous-vigilantes Super Sabre, Crimson Commando, and Stonewall. During the ceremony where these three receive their presidential pardon, Destiny receives a vision that Rogue and the “X-Men are going to die!” This prompts Mystique to choose further confrontation with the X-Men on the grounds that if Rogue is arrested under the Mutant Registration Act, she won’t go to her prophesied death in Dallas.

In the next issue, we see Val Cooper and Freedom Force return to San Francisco “hunting for X-Men’s scalps,” posing both a physical and political threat to the countercultural heroes of the City by the Golden Gate. We see this most clearly as Valerie Cooper mounts a press conference in front of a damaged San Francisco hospital to announce the formation of Freedom Force and the passage into law of the “Mutant Special Powers Registration Act.”

This sequence is particularly significant because it introduces the parallel between superpowers and handgun licensing – a real-world political analogy that will be alluring for Marvel creators for decades, as we’ll discuss later. Here, though, the handgun issue is treated as a relatively minor element compared to the broader question of civil liberties, and the extended discussion of whether the “good of society, the defense of the many” takes precedence over the rights of the minority. This is a good example of how the mutability of the mutant metaphor continued during the Claremont years; rather than making a more concrete analogy to a real-world minority as he does in other places (such as in “God Loves, Man Kills”), here the “few” whose rights are being curtailed by the Mutant Registration Act could be any minority facing official discrimination from the “many.”

On the following page, we see the impact of Cooper’s speech on the body politic, as a number of patrons of a San Francisco gym where Rogue is exercising debate the issue:

One of the lesser talked about aspects of Chris Claremont’s writing is the skill with which he can quickly sketch background characters to give a picture of the internal life of the “man on the street.” Here, we see a public divided on their attitudes toward the Mutant Registration Act: one man raises the historical parallel of the Holocaust (a frequent thematic angle in Claremont’s writing) to frame the MRA as a potential genocidal threat. His interlocutor denies the threat, distinguishing between racist threats to “normal folks” and the legitimate oppression of “muties,” again showing how Claremont can turn on a dime between leaning on the parallels to real-world bigotry that the mutant metaphor was based on and pointing out the ways in which in-universe minority politics might fail to intersect.[3]

On the next page, we see a disguised Mystique arrive to clandestinely warn Rogue – a sign that Mystique’s participation in Freedom Force is very much an act of personal survival rather than a sign of an ideological shift, as Mystique is very much using the government to further her own interest – that the X-Men are going to die in Dallas, telling her to leave them so that “you won’t share their fate.” As in any proper tragedy, this warning falls on deaf ears as Rogue refuses to abandon her comrades in arms, choosing instead to go with them to Dallas to confront the threat posed by the Adversary. Before they can make it into Forge’s Eagle Plaza tower and their eventual confrontation with the embodiment of cosmic chaos, the X-Men once again find themselves by Freedom Force and the threat of imprisonment under the Mutant Registration Act:

In addition to providing an excuse for super-heroic fisticuffs, the confrontation gives a rare instance where Claremont provides some insight into what the Mutant Registration Act specifically does – clarifying that the MRA criminalizes using mutant powers rather than “simply being born a mutant.” At the same time, Claremont has Havok immediately question the “credibility” of this statement. After all, the Registration Act already criminalizes mutant citizens by forcing even children[4] to register with the government when their human peers don’t have to. Moreover, many mutants have “always on” powers that they don’t have a choice whether to consciously activate or keep hidden, making Mystique’s distinction between the two as one without a difference.

Through their trademark collaborative use of mutant powers, the X-Men manage to fight their way past Freedom Force and into Eagle Plaza, activating the Adversary’s trap which opens an inter-dimensional portal in the skies above Dallas that begins summoning threats from the prehistoric time of dinosaurs all the way to the Wild West of Texas’ past. Witnessed by real-life NPR reporters Neal Conan and Manoli Weatherell, the X-Men answer the call to defend the world from the supernatural threat pouring through this rip in the night sky above Dallas:

This scene shows the continuation of the X-Men franchise’s fascination with the role played by mass media in the propagation of – or challenge to – popular prejudice and mob panics. Here, Conan and Weatherell act as ideal journalists, challenging the statements of Federal authorities and raising uncomfortable questions about Freedom Force’s role in enforcing the Mutant Registration Act against superheroes presently engaged in self-sacrificing defense of civilian communities. More importantly for the purposes of this essay, they amplify the voices of “outlaw mutants” who are otherwise excluded from the mainstream, allowing them to spread an anti-MRI message directly to a mass audience.

And that’s really where the Mutant Registration Act plot line ends in Claremont’s run, with the X-Men dying to save a world that hates and fears them, only to be reborn by the grace of a goddess figure who grants them invisibility from the technological eyes of the surveillance state and transports them to the Australian Outback where they can continue their lives as outlaw heroes free from the efforts of the U.S government to arrest them. It’s a momentous change of status quo for the X-Men themselves, but as regards the MRA itself, there’s not the kind of climax where the reader sees this vile legislation struck down by the Supreme Court (as happened in the Days of Future Past storyline) or repealed by Congress in light of the X-Men’s actions in Dallas (or X-Factor saving New York City from Apocalypse over in their book).

It’s possible that this is intended to be some kind of statement about the possibilities (or lack thereof) of achieving progress for visible minorities in American society. If that’s the case it’s very much a statement that exists in the absence of the text rather than in its presence, because Claremont will move on to new plots that will explore other angles of the mutant metaphor – as we’ll discuss in future installments of the People’s History of the Marvel Universe.

But just because Chris Claremont had tired of the Mutant Registration Act as a theme doesn’t mean that the Marvel Universe was done with the idea. A year after Claremont concluded the “Fall of the Mutants,” his close friend, colleague, and sometimes collaborator Walt Simonson would take up the concept in Fantastic Four #335-6, a two-issue arc devoted to exploring the political implications of Registration Acts in the Marvel Universe:

In these issues, the Fantastic Four travel to Washington D.C to testify in front of a House committee that is holding hearings on a proposal to enact a Superhuman Registration Act. The bulk of the first issue sees the First Family largely sitting in the audience as a series of witnesses testify in front of the committee for and against the legislation. The first to testify before the committee is a “General Neddington,” who’s there to provide the views of the Pentagon:

Here, Walter Simonson makes explicit what we’ve previously seen only alluded to in Claremont’s and  Louise Simonson’s[5] writing – the purpose of the Superhuman Registration Act is to draft superpowered people into the U.S military, not only to defend the country “in times of crisis” but also to ensure U.S dominance in “the balance of military power in the world.” In another example of how Simonson brings political subtext into text, Simonson also has an unnamed black Congressman bring up the real-world racial disparities in military service in the Vietnam War. This history was very much in living memory in 1989 – after all, the military draft had been ended in 1973 and then re-instated quite recently in 1980, when Jimmy Carter had re-instated the requirement to register with the Selective Service Act as a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As we’ll see later, the politics of the draft were very much on Simonson’s mind here.

From Cold War politics and the legacy of the Vietnam War, Simonson takes up another of Claremont’s themes – namely, the parallel between Registration and the licensing of firearms:

Building off what was a passing reference in Claremont’s work, Simonson puts the analogy of gun control front-and-center by having an NRA spokesman testify before the committee. (Simonson shows his research by paraphrasing the National Rifle Association’s catchphrase that “if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.”) Here, the NRA are an interested party because they believe that the 2nd Amendment’s right to bear arms applies to superpowers as well as firearms. By extension, the NRA sees a Federal attempt to register superpowered Americans as the “first step on the road to an eventual ban on superpowers” – and logically fears that the same thing might happen to gun owners – just as the real-world NRA catastrophizes modest efforts at gun control as mass confiscation.

Having a notably partisan conservative organization like the NRA testify on behalf of the Fantastic Four must have produced a certain amount of tension for both Simonson himself and Marvel as a whole, given the historic tendency of its creative workforce towards somewhere between the center-left and the left (depending on which generation of creators one is talking about). A good deal of – as the People’s History of the Marvel Universe has demonstrated, inaccurate – ink has been spilled about the supposedly inherently fascistic politics of superhero comics, but the more accurate label is that vigilantism has been part of superhero comics’ DNA from the beginning. If a superhero is anything else, they are ultimately a costumed adventurer who steps outside of their everyday life that’s sanctioned by society in order to exercise powers that are normally monopolized by governments. To an extent, there remains something of an uncomfortable parallelism between the NRA’s “good guy with a gun” mythologizing around crime and the tradition of costumed crimefighters.  Simonson vocalizes the tension he’s feeling through Ben Grimm, the Lower East Side-born Jewish superhero who more than any other character symbolizes the cultural and political wellspring from which Jack Kirby’s decidedly left-wing approach to superheroism always drew inspiration. For the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing, having to be on the same side as the NRA is a “revoltin’ development” – which gives a certain amount of consolation to liberal readers.

After these two witnesses have set out the real-world political implications of the Superhuman Registration Act, Simonson dives into the in-universe politics, and in the process establishes a vital link between his SRA and Claremont’s Mutant Registration Act by using a character who just so happens to straddle the divide between the X-line and the broader Marvel Universe:

Contrary to what many writers in both fandom and academic circles have argued, Gyrich’s testimony demonstrates how the mutant metaphor works best in the broader context of the Marvel Universe. Henry Peter Gyrich opposing the registration of super-humans while supporting the registration of mutants (presumably a sign that he’s adopted the party line after the events of X-Men #176) is not only a perfect example of the hypocrisy and irrational double-standards inherent to bigotry, but also a straightforward statement of that prejudice. To Gyrich, it is unacceptable for the Federal government to register super-powered humans because they are “entitled to the equal protection of the law,” but acceptable for the Federal government to do the exact same thing to super-powered mutants, because they’re not human in his eyes and therefore aren’t entitled to constitutional rights under the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment.

In discussing the concept of a law “restricting a limited section of the nation’s population,” Simonson shows an impressive level of research for a superhero comic. When Gyrich responds to questioning the constitutionality of the Superhuman Registration Act by bringing up the example of women not having to register with the Selective Service System, he’s actually referring to what was then very recent developments in constitutional law. While the draft was ended in 1973 due to its deep unpopularity in the midst of the Vietnam War – which we’ve already seen very much on Simonson’s mind – this state of affairs would only continue for a few years. In a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter re-established the draft in 1980. During the Congressional debates over the re-authorization of the draft, the issue of whether women would be subject to registration was raised, in light of the ongoing national debate over the Equal Rights Amendment and the broader acceptance of the principle that gender discrimination was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. A year later, in Rostker v. Goldberg, the Supreme Court was asked to rule on this point when a group of draft resisters challenged the draft on the grounds of gender discrimination, ruling 6-3 that the Selective Service System’s male-only registration could stand because of the armed service’s bans on women serving in combat roles.[6]

Finally, Henry Peter Gyrich’s testimony makes it very clear that both the Mutant and Superhuman Registration Acts’ purpose is to put superpowered beings under government control, so that they can be used as agents of oppression. While he speaks of “super-human individuals or groups of an altruistic nature” being merely “persuaded to aid the government in tracking down and registering any individuals or groups who refused to comply,” Simonson throws doubt on the voluntary nature of this assistance, implying that superheroes would be forced into service under the Superhuman Registration Act’s conscription clause. More troubling, Gyrich demonstrates a consistent inconsistency as a supposed conservative who’s concerned about the rights of the individual opposed to the interests of the state when he opposes the extension of “the same constitutional guarantees that the police must follow” to these new federal agents. In a display that again echoes the real-world stance of “law and order” conservatives on police brutality, Gyrich sees any limitations on both superpowered federal agents or human police officers as “tying the hands of law enforcement” and “aid[ing] the criminal element.” By implication then, the Superhuman Registration Act would lead to a lawless paramilitary force completely unanswerable to any authority other than a “human czar” of “a bureau of superhuman affairs” – much in the same way that Freedom Force demonstrated a complete disregard for civil liberties while enforcing the Mutant Registration Act.

In between fist-fighting supervillains who’ve showed up in trench coats and fedoras to infiltrate the Congressional hearing, the Fantastic Four get their chance to testify against the Superhuman Registration Act. Their arguments come from a number of different political angles – Sue Storm talks about wanting to ensure that her son grows up in a free country, Johnny Storm points to the practical impossibilities of registering “Dr. Doom or Annihilus,” and good liberal Ben Grimm decries the contrast between the ease with which “crooks can go out and buy assault rifles” and the proposed restrictions on the superheroes who try to stop them. As we might expect from the FF, though, the majority of page space is given to Reed Richards, who delivers a filibuster-worthy speech that spans issue #335 and #336. Mister Fantastic presents many arguments against the Superhuman Registration Act – one of the more troubling one being that non-superheroes lack the ability to second guess split-second decision making by experienced superheroes, which echoes uncomfortably with defenses of police shootings – but the one that ultimately convinces the Congressional committee to shelve the SRA is a perfect blend of politics and superhero science-fantasy:

Ultimately, what gets the Congressional committee to shelve the Superhuman Registration Act is an argument centered on the impossibility of defining who is a super-human and who isn’t – because people’s abilities and genetic heritage vary so much from individual to individual, an arbitrary cutoff like a “variation of greater than, say, 15% from the norm” would sweep up many false positives, such that the discriminatory impact of the SRA would be felt by Congressmen themselves. Taken together, Claremont and Simonson’s work is a classic case of a slippery slope argument applied to civil liberties – the denial of the rights of any minority becoming a precedent that creates a precedent for further authoritarian encroachment onto the rights of increasingly larger segments of the population, eventually ending in a general tyranny.

This all must sound eerily familiar to people who were reading Marvel comics circa 2006, when Mike Millar was handed the reins to a line-wide crossover in Marvel’s Civil War, which likewise centered on the Federal government passing a Superhuman Registration Act. Despite the several decades between the work of Claremont and Simonson and that of Millar, there’s more than a little bit of thematic and rhetorical overlap between them: we see similar analogies to gun control and the draft, similar debates about individual agency and vigilantism versus collective security and democratic legitimacy, and even similar mentions of the Mutant Registration Act as a model for official discrimination that’s still floating around out there in the Marvel Universe, still on the statute books ready to be picked up by forces in power.

When it comes to the political stance taken by the creators, however, we see a clear difference. Both Claremont and Simonson make it quite clear that registration is an unjust act of oppression that exists for the protagonists to struggle against. By contrast, putative leftist Mark Millar was so convinced of the correctness of the Pro-Registration side of the debate that, in the development process, he swapped the position of Captain America and Iron Man as leaders of the opposing camps. Millar’s logic was that Marvel couldn’t maintain the “choose a side” fan engagement that would be key to the crossover’s success, because it would be self-evidently obvious to everyone that the Pro-Registration side was right if it was led by a pillar of moral authority like Steve Rogers. (Full disclosure: I’m basing my claim for this on my memory of having read that the swap happened during development, but I can’t find the article that I originally read. Feel free to disregard this point.)

Here is where I think we can see the broader cultural impact of 9/11 on the politics of the Marvel Universe: on paper, a story in which a horrific tragedy is turned into a rhetorical bludgeon in order to justify the radical transformation of the status quo, and in which the Superhuman Registration Act, like the Patriot Act, becomes a mechanism for the destruction of civil liberties all the way up to indefinite detention without trial in black site prisons, would seem to be a powerful critique of the War on Terror. But while the creators who were brought in to write the tie-in issues did advance that kind of criticism, Millar’s main event book continued to present the actions of Tony Stark and Reed Richards as the wise decisions of enlightened futurists that was making the United States a safer, happier place – culminating in the thuddingly obvious visual symbolism of Captain America getting tackled by a group of NYC first responders at the height of his duel with Iron Man.

So after all of that, what is a Registration Act? Beyond the specific details of fictional legislation that obsess a public policy nerd like me, I think we can think of it as a kind of narrative mirror that comic book writers can hold up to see the world around them and the place that their genre has in it. At the same time, it’s not a device that should be used cavalierly as an excuse to bang action figures together; the way that it conjures allusions to real-world politics make it far too charged for that.   

[1] All-points bulletin.

[2] Valerie Cooper is introduced in X-Men #176, where she leads a White House briefing on the national security threat posed by mutants like Magneto. While Cooper touches on the biological metaphor of the Cro-Magnon and the Neanderthal, she pivots from there to discuss the mutant threat from the perspective of international relations. As Valerie sees it, the existence of mutants means that “the virtual monopoly of super-beings…once enjoyed by the United States no longer exists.” Because of the willingness of the Soviet Union to recruit mutants into the Soviet Super-Soldiers, she argues that “mutants pose a clear and present danger to our country.”

Surprisingly, Henry Peter Gyrich (last seen heading up Project Wideawake, the Federal initiative to recreate the Sentinel program) challenges Cooper’s proposal to “fight fire with fire, counter[ing] foreign mutants with some of their own” on the grounds that Federal recruitment of mutants into the armed services would convince Magneto that his fears that “out of greed, humanity will use mutants – enslave them – and then, out of fear, destroy them” are coming to pass, risking an escalating confrontation with the Master of Magnetism.

While this scene predates the Mutant Registration Act, it’s nonetheless an important bit of context for understanding the goals and mechanisms of the MRA. While the main X-Men book itself doesn’t make mention of the Mutant Registration Act involving the forced conscription of mutants outside of Senator Phillip’s vague analogy to slavery, we do get an important clue in X-Factor #33. In that issue, the group of mutant supervillains known as the Alliance of Evil go on a rampage in front of Trish Tilby’s television cameras in order to protest their arrest and imprisonment under the Mutant Registration Act. Specifically, the Alliance of Evil mentions that they refuse to join “Uncle Sam’s mutant army” – implying that one of the major aspects of the MRA is to use forced registration, surveillance, and the threat of imprisonment to draft mutants into becoming unwilling soldiers in the national security state.

[3] Similarly, in X-Men #223, Claremont breaks away from the main action of the book to show an interlude in a Queens bar where a white working-class character defends himself against charges of anti-mutant racism by pointing to his close friendship with a black working-class character, arguing that “we ain’t the same color, but we’re still people.” By contrast (he explains), mutants are inhuman freaks who should be euthanized at birth by their own parents to prevent an “abomination” from walking the streets. In this instance, Claremont is arguing that anti-mutant prejudice exists at right angles to anti-black racial prejudice – something of a departure from his stance in “God Loves, Man Kills.”

[4] See X-Factor #33.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Interestingly, this constitutional position has continued to this day, despite the U.S military having eliminated gender restrictions on combat duty in 2015. In 2019, a District Court judge ruled against the Selective Service System under the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, only to be overruled by the Fifth Circuit, which held that only the Supreme Court could overturn its own ruling in Rostker. Only last year, the Supreme Court declined to review the ruling, although three justices wrote that the draft likely was now unconstitutional.

People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 19: The Racial Problematics of “Snap Wilson”

As discussed last time, starting in Captain America and the Falcon #120, various Marvel writers[1] made a good deal of use out of the Falcon’s secret identity as Sam Wilson, social worker – Stan Lee used it as a vehicle for stories about youth problems, organized crime, and urban unrest (albeit ones that ended with costumed superheroes getting into punch-ups with similarly-attired supervillains), while Steve Englehart and Alan Weiss used it as a pretext to have Captain America and the Falcon investigate abuse in America’s prisons and encounter the Queen of the Werewolves.[2]

This changes in Captain America and the Falcon #186, where (in a follow-up to the original story that introduced Sam Wilson) the Red Skull reveals that everything we knew about Sam Wilson was a lie:

These four panels are worthy of some in-depth textual analysis. In the first, we see the young and innocent Sam Wilson on the rooftops of Harlem, complete with a thematic association between birds and freedom that we’ll later see embodied in his relationship with his falcon Redwing. (In future issues, this part of his backstory will be retconned to add in tragic violent crime-related deaths for both his mother and father that will inspire his vigilantism.) In the second, we see Wilson heading to Florida (like a lot of New Yorkers in the winter) only to be confronted with the specter of rural bigotry in Dade County, in a scene straight out of the shock ending of Easy Rider. By the third panel, we see that the experience has hardened our hero, and by the time that he gets to Los Angeles he’s learned to “get by” in the worlds of both street crime (as symbolized by the small crowd of black men standing on the corner) and organized crime (as symbolized by the white hand coming out of the car window). In the fourth panel, the transformation of Sam Wilson into “Snap” Wilson is complete – he’s now an L.A-based gangster complete with mob connections, a pimped-out Cadillac with vanity license plates, and some of the 70’s wildest fashions.

As we learn about on the next page, rather than arriving on the island of forbidden love as part of a vacation-turned-resistance-movement, “Snap” Wilson crash-landed on the island after attempting to hijack a small plane containing a “fortune” (presumably of drugs, given that the plane was returning from a trip to Latin America) belonging to the “Big Man,” his L.A-based crime boss.

More significantly, we learn that the social Sam Wilson that readers thought they knew was a creation of the Red Skull, a fiction specifically designed to appeal to Steve Rogers’ liberal values:

Steve Englehart, John Warner, and Frank Robbins had to lean heavily on the Cosmic Cube’s, well…cosmic powers here, because this is quite a retcon. Above and beyond the psychological impact on Wilson himself, the creative team had to explain how it was that we’ve seen Sam Wilson at work as a social worker – we’ve even seen his office with clients in it! – and it would be particularly odd for the Cube to somehow have also altered the memories of the entire “Social Admin” Department of New York City so that someone without official hiring paperwork or credentials would be given office space, a salary, and a caseload for several years.

This being a superhero comic, the retcon is then used by the Red Skull (once again using mind control) to pit the Falcon against Captain America in a lose-lose fight to the death. Naturally, Captain America triumphs and destroys the Red Skull’s HYDRA base, only for the Skull himself to flee to fight another day. Rather than resolving neatly in one issue like earlier “Cap goes evil” storylines, the dangling plot thread of “Snap” Wilson and the dueling backstories continues to dominate the book for the next several issues.

For example, in Captain America and the Falcon #189, Tony Isabella and Frank Robbins have Captain America once more fight Sam Wilson in a dubious SHIELD experiment to prove which is the real personality.

After a bunch of illusionary shenanigans, the Falcon snaps out of his “schizophrenic” state to reveal that, in fact, it is “Snap” Wilson who was the true personality and Sam Wilson who was the fake.

Tony Isabella, Bill Mantlo, and Frank Robbins would return to (and in their own words “bring to a close the end of an epic”) plot in issue #191, in which “Snap” Wilson is put on trial in Los Angeles County Court for the “importation and sale of illegal narcotics”: 

The Falcon is only saved from prison when, in a bid to prevent him from turning state’s witness against his former mob associates, the “Big Man” of Los Angeles hires, of all the many Marvel villains-for-hire, the Stilt-Man to attack the courthouse and assassinate the Falcon before he can testify. As one might guess, the ensuing action allows the Falcon to demonstrate his heroism to the judge, leading to a suspended sentence of parole (with Nick Fury of SHIELD standing in as his parole officer), thus demonstrating the fairness and mercy of the American court system when dealing with black defendants up on drugs charges in the first wave of Nixon’s War on Drugs.

The racial politics of this retcon are bizarre to say the least. The new “Snap” Wilson behaves like a quite different character than the one readers had known for sixty-nine issues: he’s more aggressive and violent both in interpersonal communication and combat, he uses stereotypical “jive” slang, and he’s far more cynical about white America and white institutions – an interesting departure for a character previously given to attempts at “cooling down” racial tensions. One could see it as an extrapolation of the “talker” versus “fighter” dynamic between Sam Wilson, social worker, and the vigilante known as the Falcon, if not for the charged nature of “Snap” Wilson’s gangster origin.

Two potential explanations for this change suggest themselves. The first is that we need to see this in the context of Marvel chasing the trend of blaxploitation, more prominently seen in the creation of the characters Luke Cage and Blade at around the same time. A streetwise gangster simply fits into the rather narrow schema of the blaxploitation genre better than a social worker out of a prestige “problem” film. However, Captain America and the Falcon was an established comic rather than a newer, more speculative venture like Power Man, and more importantly it was the comic of their flagship “flag suit” character, which tends to come with higher visibility and tighter editorial control within the company.

The second explanation, and one that has a certain amount of plausibility given that Cap #186 was authored by noted liberal Steve Englehart (just coming off of having Captain America go up against Richard Nixon), is that the retcon was prompted by a weird white liberal guilt trip that judo-flipped its way into being accidentally racist. Sam Wilson, as originally envisioned by Stan Lee, was an “articulate,” clean-cut, politically moderate black professional. It may have been argued at the time that the character of the Falcon was a paternalistically condescending bit of outreach to the black community from a bunch of white middle aged middle class folks at Marvel.  By contrast, a more “street” character, as we’ve already said more evocative of popular trends in black culture, who challenges the white establishment more consistently than before, may have been seen as a more “authentic” portrait of black masculinity in the 1970s. If so, it’s a very strange train of thought where an attempt to be racially sensitive boomerangs back around to being back-handedly racist.

The problem with this line of political logic is the question of representation. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an individual character having a backstory of coming from the “mean streets” of crime, but when you’re dealing with a situation in which there are very few characters of color in Marvel comics (especially back in the 1970s when the main struggle within Marvel was over introducing racial “firsts”), aspects of those characters become less individualized and more archetypal. When most if not all of Marvel’s black characters at the time came from “the street,” it starts to send a message that, according to Marvel creative and editorial (again, staffed almost entirely by white men), the “street” is where black characters come from. This becomes problematic when it means that having a black character with a different background – like, for example, a professional social worker – is seen as less “realistic” than an ex-hood.

So much for the “epic” of “Snap” Wilson. I know there are going to be some in the fandom who will say that, given the realities of a serial medium produced monthly over the course of almost fifty years by a variety of creative and editorial teams of varying levels of ability and care for the material, you’re going to get some bad stories worked in there. These stories – if left unchecked – can warp characters out of being usable recurring intellectual property, which is why retcons aren’t always a bad thing because they can right a sinking ship in the wake of a particularly ill-thought-out or poorly executed creative turn.

This is why, when we talk about the impact of a given story in comics, we can’t just talk about the aesthetic merit of a given panel or page or comic, but its longevity – did a given story have an enduring impression on the book and the larger Marvel Universe, or was it a flash in the pan that was swiftly cleaned up by the next team to work on the book?

The answer to that question is why the “Snap” Wilson retcon is such a big deal: it lasted for forty years, putting it up there as one of the longest-lasting retcons in Marvel history. It was the status quo when Steve Englehart left the book, it was the status quo when Jack Kirby returned to both write and draw the book (more on that in a future issue), it was the status quo for Mark Gruenwald’s classic run in the 80s, and it was the status quo for Ed Brubaker’s run that set the terms for the MCU Captain America films.

It wouldn’t change until 2015, when as part of the Avengers NOW! event[3] Sam Wilson was promoted to the role of Captain America for the first time (although not the first time that he’d worn the uniform) – a creative and editorial decision that would ultimately give rise to the Disney+ Falcon and Winter Soldier show. In All-New Captain America #3, intending to discredit as well as kill the new Captain America, Sin (the Red Skull’s daughter) and HYDRA engages in information warfare by releasing to the public the sordid details of “Snap” Wilson’s past:

To a significant extent, Remender designs All-New Captain America #3 to be in dialogue with Englehart’s Captain America and the Falcon #186 – no less than three pages out of the book are devoted to a beat-for-beat reproduction of the story of the Red Skull using the Cosmic Cube to re-write Sam Wilson’s backstory, for example. The major difference is that, rather than staying in a mind-controlled silent stupor while Steve Rogers plays the interlocutor to the Red Skull, here Sam Wilson is allowed to speak and he challenges Sin’s characterization of his past as a “liar, thug, and gangster” as “lies.” (Remender does his own editorializing by characterizing the “Snap Wilson” backstory as a “smear campaign” and presenting Sin as clearly an unreliable narrator given to monologuing about the victors rewriting history to suit their interests.)

In foiling both Sin’s smear campaign and (somewhat more importantly) her bomb plot, Sam Wilson defiantly asserts a brand-new status quo for his own backstory:

While Rick Remender is a writer whose politics I haven’t always agreed with – only two years before this issue, Remender had written Uncanny Avengers #5, which featured the now-infamous “M word” speech, and then reacted extremely poorly to criticism over how this speech handled the topic of minority identities and the mutant metaphor – I think he was on the right track in this case.

As I’ve suggested above in discussing the question of representation, “ex-gangster from the mean streets” was already something of a “tired stereotype” back in 1975, and it was only more of one in 2015 when you consider the increase in the raw numbers of African-American characters in big two comics, given how many of those new characters had been given “street” backgrounds themselves. By contrast, there is something innovative about a social worker backstory not just from the perspective of African-American characters but superheroes in general: whereas most heroes with secret identities are cops, private detectives, reporters (because those professions involve being “nosy” and thus lend themselves to story hooks involving investigations), or scientists (which lends itself to super-science story hooks), there really aren’t that many heroes who belong to one of the “caring” professions. As we discussed back in Week 18, social workers have a unique perspective on social phenomena, while still giving rise to sixty issues worth of story hooks.

Ultimately, however, the question of whether a given character’s backstory is innovative or stereotypical is rather subjective. Which is why the subjectivity of the creative and editorial teams matters – and why it mattered that for so long that the teams working on Captain America and the Falcon were all-white (as well-meaning as they might have been). Had there been more diversity in the room at the time, black creators might have been able to push back on the “Snap” Wilson retcon from the beginning instead of having to wait forty years for a white creator to decide it wasn’t all right.  

[1] Between Cap #120 and #186, there wasn’t a regular artist on the book on issues covering Sam Wilson as a social worker: artists ranged from Gene Colan on #120 and 134 to John Romita Sr. on #139 to Sal Buscema on #149 to Alan Weiss and John Romita Sr. on #164.

[2] A story notable for being the first but by no means the last time that CapWolf became a part of Marvel Comics. More on that in a future issue of People’s History of the Marvel Universe.

[3] Itself a continuation of the All-New Marvel NOW! event from 2013, which itself was a continuation of Marvel NOW! from 2012, but which shouldn’t be confused with All-New, All-Different Marvel which would launch later in 2015, eventually giving rise to the Secret Empire event. Needless to say, Marvel editorial hasn’t exactly made things easier for comics historians in their naming conventions in recent years.

People’s History of the Marvel Universe, WandaVision Special: The Difficult question of Jewish and Romani Representation

The following is originally a Tumblr post from a couple years back (as you can see from some of the contemporary references) that I held back from publishing because I wanted to have a Roma sensitivity reader take a look at it first, and then never got around to finishing when other things came up despite their very kind assistance. However, the popularity of WandaVision brought back some pre-existing discourse around Elizabeth Olsen’s casting as a non-Romani actress and Joss Whedon and pre-Feige Marvel executives’ decision to reimagine Wanda and Pietro Maximoff as radicalized Sokovian nationalists rather than Romani.

This reminded me of the unfinished post I’d written about the difficult question of Romani representation in comics rooted in problematic decisions made during Marvel’s Silver Age and its particular relationship to subtextual Judaism in the work of assimilated Jewish creators. So after the break, I’ve posted an edited and elaborated version of my original post.

One comics related question, Victor von Doom is Roma, a poor Roma in his origin at that, but he has “Von” in his title? Is it that Lee-Kirby never consulted the Almanach de Gotha, a reference to Erich von Stroheim (who was after all a Jewish haberdasher who passed himself as a aristo in hollywood and popularized the “von” concept)? But more importantly how does Doom being a proud Roma with a fake Junker aristo name work as a concept? Is Doom appropriating the Nazi-aristocratic culture?

Ok…this is a tricky topic, because I really don’t want to undercut any of the people pushing for better Roma representation in comics, especially with everything going on with Secret Empire and Peter Alan David’s rant at NYCC. However, Silver Age (and later) comics creators hadn’t usually done much cultural research with regard to the Romani, and tended to base their portrayals in the kind of tropes set out by Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Universal Pictures’ Wolfman films. These tropes tended to traffic in both Romantic exoticism and anti-Romani stereotypes, and (as I’ll explain when I get into some examples) were used by Marvel creators in a way that arguably involved ethnic erasure, which raises questions about how we think about these characters as positive or negative representation.

To answer the original Tumblr ask, with Victor Von Doom, honestly I think the process didn’t go much further than: repeated Vs sound good and while Doom makes no sense as a last name that would exist in reality, there’s the repeated D’s of Doctor Doom, and “von” sounds Junkerish and (thanks to American propaganda from WWI and WWII) we all know the Junkers are bad guys – without any real reference to the sociocultural meanings of European naming conventions and ethnicities.[1] Then Stan Lee and Jack Kirby probably moved on from a name to the character concept of Victor Von Doom as a tyrant (in the original Greek sense of the term) who overthrew the traditional order; why would Victor hate the old order, well he was persecuted, what’s a group that’s persecuted, Romani are persecuted, so go with that. In Von Doom’s case, things get even more problematic, because von Doom’s Romani heritage was used as a way to explain why Doctor Doom has mastery over magi as well as super-science:

Where I think things become even more complicated is when we get to characters like Magneto, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver. Because whereas Romani identity probably wasn’t a major element of the character creation process for Von Doom, here I feel like Romani was used as a background as a way to bring up Nazi racial ideology and the Holocaust without explicitly labeling anyone as Jewish. Despite the fact that Magneto, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver’s creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were Jewish and had (Jack more so than Stan) progressive anti-Nazi politics, there was still something of a tendency in pop culture of that era to keep Jewishness subtextual to which the original generation of comics creators was no exception – something that is explored in excellent detail in Abraham Riesman’s True Believer.

Thus, it wasn’t until the Bronze Age of comics where a younger generation of Jewish creators like Chris Claremont took over the franchise that Magneto was revealed to be Jewish. As a result, some awkward retconning took place, such that Erik Lensherr (or Magnus or Max Eisenhardt) now had escaped Auschwitz and joined a Romani caravan, where he met Magda and then fathered Wanda and Pietro and then left. Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t Romani of Jewish faith or people of mixed Jewish/Romani ethnicity, but given that what little use of Romani cultural identifiers there is in these cases – which generally boils down to the stereotypical caravans of painted wagons, men wearing vests, and an ill-defined state of persecution – makes no reference to the Zhutane Roma, I don’t think that’s what Lee and Kirby were going for.

Rather, I think creators reached for Romani backgrounds because these creators thought that Roma shared tropes associated with European Jews – Eastern European origins, oppressed minority status, an “otherized” cultural difference from the perceived mainstream – so that they could stand in for Jewish, without running into the problems with either management or the consuming public that Jewishness was believed to run afoul of, while adding exoticized elements that might move more sales units.

And it’s this assumed sameness and safeness I have a problem with, because embedded in there is an assumption that Romani aren’t a real living people and culture, that they are instead a stock trope of fairytales and Gothic horror and thus can be used as a costume, whereas Jews are a real people and culture and thus it would be inappropriate or bad business to depict them directly.

That’s always stuck in my craw when it comes to some of these characters because I’ve never been quite sure whether Erik, Pietro, and Wanda are really supposed to be Romani representation or whether these characters are Jews in Romani-face. Making it all the more complicated is the fact that Marvel doesn’t seem to be comfortable with the situation either; hence the large number of retcons that have taken place that revolve around Wanda and Pietro’s parentage and Magneto’s own ethnic heritage. Are Wanda and Pietro ethnically Romani, or merely adopted? Are they the biological children of Magneto or not, and what does that mean for their Jewish identity? Is Magneto himself a Jew from Warsaw or a Sinti Romani from Gdansk? It all depends on when and which creators one asks.

This uncertainty, however, leaves some significant questions unresolved: is it better, given the fact that almost no minority-group representation in comics (Silver Age or no) is that good to begin with, to have bad representation or none at all? How do we deal with situations in which members of one minority group are appropriating the culture of another to smuggle their own experience into the dominant narrative?

In the end, I think that it can never be satisfying for either Jews or Romani to have one group play-acting as the other – but the real issue is that neither should have to settle for that simply because there’s so little representation for either group that the two groups find themselves fighting over scraps. The answer is that comics companies need to commit to more robust representation both in quantity and quality, such that we don’t have characters having to shoulder the entire weight of being “the” representation for an entire group, let alone more than one.

[1] The Junker class were hereditary landed nobility in Prussia (more specifically from the north-eastern regions of Prussia) who had something of a lock on military and administrative positions, first within the Kingdom of Prussia and then within the German Empire of 1871-1918. The Junkers tended to be actively pro-monarchist and anti-democratic, and bitterly hostile to both free-market liberalism and Socialism, and because of their dominance within the German Army became stock figures (think buzz cuts, monocles, and dueling scars) of German militarism in both WWI and WWII. More to the point, a Junker would always have the noble title of “von” in their last names, no Romani would ever have been allowed the honorific under the pre-Weimar monarchies, and the Junkers were generally pretty hostile to Romani in much the same way that they tended to be hostile to German and Polish Jews.    

Workers of the world! Here’s a list of comics to celebrate your Labor Day

Ah, the pleasures of having Labor Day off to celebrate work. It’s a contradiction as old as time, where honoring work means taking a (well-deserved and utterly necessary) break from it. After all, most workers have jobs that go year-round and the daily grind does take a toll. A day off is the least that can be afforded to them.

Recognition is the other thing we should doling out in industrial quantities during this federal holiday. As such, comic books are filled with stories about the fruits of labor, both in a literal and a politically figurative sense. Be it by actually exploring the hardships of being a worker to acknowledging the monumental task that is organizing movements in support of them, labor is central to the motivations behind some of comic’s best stories.

Here’s a short list of comics that either directly or indirectly showcase the roles workers play in keeping life and society functional. These comics dive headfirst into the specifics of what ‘putting in the work’ means, recognizing that everything that’s done in the service of others usually rests on human struggles both painful and exhausting. The comics below give workers their time in the spotlight so we can appreciate just how much it takes to go out and keep the world turning.

Labor Day Comics

1. Trashed, written and illustrated by Derf Backderf

This book can best be described as a sobering love letter to one of the most underappreciated and openly repudiated jobs known to humankind: garbage collection. Following Backderf’s critically-acclaimed My Best Friend Dahmer, Trashed is based on the author’s time as a sanitation worker himself, surrounded by other workers just as enthused about collecting trash as he was (which wasn’t a whole lot). The inner workings of sanitation are presented through a combination of autobiographical anecdotes and well-researched facts and data that reveal just how complex, dangerous, and even clumsy picking up and storing trash can be. It’s a funny but scary look at how sanitation can save the world while also turn it into a ticking time bomb.

Damage Control

2. Damage Control, originally created by Dwayne McDuffie (W) and Ernie Colón (A)

A superhero’s job is to save the day, crumbling infrastructure be damned. With them, though, comes a unique concern for property damage, mostly focused on the inevitability of mass destruction. In comes a company solely dedicated to cleaning up after extinction-level battles and then putting the pieces back together called Damage Control. In essence, this Marvel comic is about unsung heroes. It’s about doing essential work knowing there’s no glory waiting at the end of it (much like Trashed, in some respects). McDuffie’s scripts are a masterclass on chaos and property politics, but it’s Colón’s attention to detail amidst the chaos that sets this story apart. The original series (there are a total of 4 series published) takes to a kind of MAD Magazine-style approach to comedy with visual gags and crude humor leading the charge, but it’s all well-orchestrated and it makes for reading that rewards those who scan comics pages whole multiple times.

Labor Day Comics

3. She-Hulk: Law and Disorder, written by Charles Soule and illustrated by Javier Pulido

At a glance, Soule and Pulido’s She-Hulk gives the impression of being a kind of ‘slice of life’ story about a superhero that chooses law as her preferred battleground. The book, however, is about so much more, and it might have more in common with Damage Control than an actual legal drama. She-Hulk takes the anger-filled superhero and turns her into a working-class woman that’s trying (and struggling) to make her own legal services business work. She puts it all together from the ground up but is immediately confronted with the hardships of balancing work, heroics, and the semblance of a personal life on an even keel. One of the greatest, and most entertaining, aspects of the comic lies in the formation of the character’s legal practice and how at odds it can be being both a superhero and a normal person with other interests. It dives deep into the complications of working multiple jobs, but it shows an appreciation for those who lead their lives under that predicament. Soule and Pulido create a story that supports and applauds those who undertake the task of holding several jobs at once, honoring the sacrifice it requires of one’s self to survive it.

Labor Day Comics
Ex Machina

4. Ex Machina, written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Tony Harris

While aggressively political and metaphorical, Ex Machina does something few other stories on governmental responsibility manage to achieve: make the role of an elected official look and feel like a real job. The story follows Mitchel Hundred, a man that renounces his superhero persona to become mayor of New York city. After only managing to save one of the Twin Towers during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hundred realizes he can do more good as an elected official rather than as a superhero. Vaughan and Harris take full advantage of this setup to go beyond political speeches and discourse to get Hundred’s hands dirty with the real act of running a government. Hundred has to address the legality of surveillance in times of crisis, protocols for public demonstrations, controversial content in city museums, infrastructure, and police freedoms all while controlling the urge to use his still functioning superpowers to speed the process up. As is the case in She-Hulk, Hundred also attempts (with few successes) to balance his personal life with the job. Problem is, the job demands too much of his time, hence the temptation to use his powers. Ex Machina is a stark reminder that being an elected official actually means holding down a job with real consequences attached to it, something many politicians seem to have lost sight of.

Gotham Central

5. Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty, written by Ed Brubaker & Greg Rucka and illustrated by Michael Lark

The profession of law enforcement is under serious scrutiny at the present moment, and rightfully so, but it’s still a job certain men and women take on despite the complexities of outdated and dysfunctional practices that are in desperate need of revision. And that’s on top of the racial problems that have shaped its many, many systems. However, there are those who do take the job seriously and work hard to ‘protect and serve’ with the best of intentions under the law. Gotham Central prioritizes this viewpoint, focusing the cops and detectives that work in Batman’s Gotham City. Without the resources or the exceptions afforded to the Dark Knight, the GCPD is still tasked with responding to criminal activity, regardless of whether it’s of the supervillain type or not. Main characters René Montoya, Crispus Allen, Marcus Driver, and “Josie Mac” MacDonald, among others, are divided into day and night shifts in a city that is in a constant flux of crime. The job takes its toll on a personal level and there’s an emphasis on how much one gives in the line of duty, but there’s also an appreciation of honest cops walking the line in the face of overwhelming police corruption and abuse. It’s a complicated and sometimes contradictory read, but it makes no excuses while confronting the damning inconsistencies of the job.

Labor Day comics
Wooblies!: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World

6. Wooblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World, edited by Peter Buhle & Nicole Schulman

The Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, has a wild and exuberant history, to say the least, which makes it the ideal subject for comic book storytelling. The IWW was created in Chicago, Illinois in 1905 as a union for marginalized workers led by Marxist principles. Miners, lumber workers, immigrant workers, indigenous workers, non-white workers, severely underrepresented female workers, and workers all over that had no rights or protections saw in the IWW as the means to fight towards better working conditions. Wooblies! (alluding to the nickname given to the members of the union) enlists the talents of cartoonists such as Peter Kuper, Harvey Pekar, Trina Robbins, Sharon Rudahl, Sue Coe, Carlos Cortez, among others to tell the story of how forgotten and underrepresented workers rose up against the odds to gain the rights and respect owed to them. The anthology has a very underground ‘comix’ feel to it, but it’s allegorical and metaphorical inclinations do a better job of capturing labor struggles better than a traditional story ever could. This might be the quintessential Labor Day reading right here.

Workers, laborers, holders of jobs, these comics honor your contributions, your efforts, and the near impossible feats you pull off. Read and relax, but overall, enjoy your hard-earned Labor Day holiday.

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.”


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. 


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.

People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Week 18: The Social Worker and the COP

When we last left our heroes, Captain America and the Falcon had returned to New York City after liberating a Caribbean island from Nazis and once again foiling the Red Skull’s Cosmic Cube machinations. Upon their return in #120, the question became what the status quo would be for the new partnership in their new environment.

(Pictured: two bros just broing around, casually shirtless.
It’s not like they do this all the time or anything.)

The new status quo would take a few issues to show up, but starting with #139, for almost two years – two years which saw Captain America and the Falcon handed off from Stan Lee[1] to Steve Englehart (by way of Gary Friedrich and Gerry Conway)[2] – Cap writers went back to one of the oldest scenarios in comics.

By night, Captain America and the Falcon would patrol New York City as vigilante superheroes. By day, they would adopt civilian identities that spoke to their ideas of civic engagement: Sam Wilson returned to his job as a social worker, Steve Rogers took up a new job as a cop. Both worked the Harlem beat.[3]

These are their stories.  

A People’s History of the Marvel Universe, Primary Special: Krakoan Economics

(This is wildly out-of-order, but if you follow me on Twitter or Tumblr, you’ll know that these ideas are running around in my brain, and the only way to get them to stop is to write them up.)

There have been many x-cellent analyses of House of X/Powers of X and Dawn of X from many different perspectives – from nationalism and nation-states to queer and disability theory and the politics of “safe spaces” – but one relatively unexplored dimension is economics and economic policy. As Spencer Ackerman points out, while Jonathan Hickman may be familiar to many Marvel fans as the writer of Fantastic Four and Avengers, he’s also the author of Black Monday Murders, which presented economic theory and high finance as black magick. (Wait, wrong Image series.)

Is Hickman et al’s interest in economic topics just style and symbolism, or is there content to Krakoan economics? Do we have a mutant economic policy to go along with our mutant language for a mutant culture and a mutant nation-state?

« Older Entries