Marvel's most popular superhero team reflects the real life Civil Rights fight.
Picture this: A race of people who are cast out by the mainstream because of the way they were born, look, or their culture. Those who oppose their existence wish to use them for their own selfish ends, while others simply want them all dead. Among the oppressed number there rises several factions of opposing views. One faction would like to show the rest of mankind that they are not to be feared and hated, but simply wish to be left alone to live their lives as a part of society in peace and harmony. Those of an opposing viewpoint would like nothing more than to rise up and defend themselves against those who hate and fear them, shaking off the chains of oppression and marginalization by any means necessary.
Unfortunately, there are many ethnic and racial minorities across the globe who have had an ongoing dialectic of the sort mentioned above amid their ranks. Some have had this argument for centuries. As an African-American male, that exchange reminds me of the ongoing discussions regarding the descendants of slaves in America and their struggle for inclusion as full members in the grand democratic experiment. Through all the pomp and fury we simply wish to be left alone to live our lives without any more Catch-22’s like the prison industrial complex, poverty pimps, predatory lending practices, drug wars, demagoguery and a list of other things.
This all relates to the Marvel Universe of mutants born with a genetic trait called an X-gene. It allows them to develop superhuman abilities such as flight, matter manipulation, energy projection, telekinesis and teleportation among other attributes. Because of these traits many are hunted down and lynched simply for being born with the X-gene. The racism and hatred they faced in their fictional world is similar to that faced by African-Americans.
No idea is formed in a complete vacuum. For every creator of film, television show, poem or, in this instance, comic book – the artist formed their creation by pulling inspiration from what they knew of the world. The X-Men and concept of mutants were crafted by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in 1963 with the introduction of “X-Men” #1.
The 60s were a turbulent time in America with the Civil Rights struggle nearly 10 years in motion. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a year off. And it is clear these characters were inspired by the turbulent times in which Lee and Kirby lived. During a 2000 interview with the UK news outlet The Guardian, Lee talks about his reasoning behind creating mutants and the overall story arc of the X-Men.
“I couldn't have everybody bitten by a radioactive spider or zapped with gamma rays, and it occurred to me that if I just said that they were mutants, it would make it easy. Then it occurred to me that instead of them just being heroes that everybody admired, what if I made other people fear and suspect and actually hate them because they were different? I loved that idea; it not only made them different, but it was a good metaphor for what was happening with the civil rights movement in the country at that time.”
The non-violent philosophy incorporated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, as well as the self-improvement philosophy of Booker T. Washington, can be found in the X-Men’s teacher and benefactor Dr. Charles Xavier, affectionately known as Professor X. This is telling as well considering that followers of the Nation of Islam. Effective players on the Civil Rights stage in the 60s, they used “X” to replace the American names with which they were born.
Another Civil Rights/X-Men similarity is that mutants fought their enemies literally and via the court systems and legislation, as well. The primary antagonist for the X-Men from the very first issue was Magneto, Leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. He was a former ally of Xavier’s who decided that mutants should not have to run and hide from human persecution, but should rise up and conquer the world for the sake of self-preservation. What’s even more telling is Malcolm X preached many of the same tenets that Magneto spoke of regarding self-defense, with the obvious difference being Malcolm X didn’t want to rule the world.
Another telling fact about what inspired Magneto was that he was a Jew who saw his mother killed in a Nazi concentration camp. He spent several years there as well before being liberated at the end of World War II. Although it was all fiction, part of the readability of the X-Men was how the characters were clearly shaped by the cold, real world.
The upcoming film X-Men: Days of Future Past is actually taken from the popular 1980 storyline in “Uncanny X-Men” #141-142 of the same name. In the comic book, an event occurs in the future that sparks intense anti-mutant hysteria that ultimately results in the United States government creating the mutant-hunting robot Sentinels. These begin rounding up all mutants and placing them in internment camps, systematically exterminating any mutant or human who resists. They also decide that the best way to protect humanity is to conquer them as well.
Concentration camps and systematic extermination are things of every racial minority’s worst nightmare. Every black person I know has at least one crazy uncle who will swear to the existence of one anti-ethnic plan or another. But there are many historical occurrences in which racial and ethnic minorities were placed in concentration camps. If these themes translate well to the big screen I would be quite pleased.
To this day, Marvel Comics continues to use the X-Men to push the boundaries of acceptances with characters from all races, cultures, genders and sexual orientation featured among their pages. Comic books will never change the world in and of themselves, but they could easily spark the minds of children who yearn to. They did so for me. And I am almost certain the fires of justice that burn within the bellies of millions of people around the world were sparked by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the illustrated trials and tribulations of the Uncanny X-Men.