By David Canham
So this is where the mutant metaphor truly began – yet while I write this more than 40 years later, the media are engrossed in discussing to just what extent our current US President is racist. It’s a debate that has been escalated by the tragic shooting deaths of over 20 people, with more injured, at the hands of a hate-fueled crazy man; a crazy white man, who wanted to kill as many immigrants as possible. How can it be, that we seem to need the message of peaceful co-existence and acceptance of all people now, even more than when Giant-Size X-Men #1 by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum first came out in 1975?
Yes, I know that the X-Men were originally created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee back in 1963. And there were certainly aspects of (or maybe more appropriately, attempts at) the mutant metaphor in the original run of X-Men: the human villains of that time built violent weapons of hate in the robotic Sentinels and Professor X was always preaching to his chosen students about fighting to defend a world that hated and feared them. But, let’s be honest… the original X-Men could best be described as a group of attractive white suburban youth, led by their wealthy white teacher. (For the sake of full disclosure: I could myself best be described as a white upper-middle class suburban male.) Even after adding Havok and Polaris, the only physical feature which could be considered different was Lorna’s green hair. Sure, Angel had wings, but they actually made him look more attractive – transcendent even. The original X-Men could easily hide their mutations and the bigoted world would have no idea that these were members of the powerfully evolved group which should be so adamantly hated and feared.
No, the mutant metaphor first became real with the all-new, all-different X-Men. This group personifies the oppressed and hated minority in ways that cannot be disguised, and the creators do not attempt to hide their intent in making this one of the central themes of their relaunched book. Len Wein states it about as clearly as possible in the third panel of the first page of actual story, in fact. Kurt Wagner, a gentle-spirited German man, born with a demonic appearance (complete with pointed tail) is chased by an angry mob, bent on killing him. Upon being called a monster, he thinks to himself, “Monster, is it? The fools! It is they who are the monsters – they with their mindless prejudices!”
From there we are introduced to an ill-tempered Canadian (who has no respect for authority); a formerly villainous Irishman (with a strong accent); a black woman with wild white hair (who first appears as a nearly nude weather-goddess); an arrogant Japanese man (who openly dislikes Western culture) and a hard-working, pure-hearted Russian farmer (and this during the Cold War). The only US American introduced is a proud Apache (who absolutely hates the white-man).
The creators obviously took their time thinking through, plotting and developing every aspect of this book. Cockrum’s layouts are incredible. (Just check out the single-page origin story of Krakoa below, or Prof. X’s telepathic battle!) There is a neat structure to the overall plot, separated into four clearly distinguishable chapters. The pacing is nearly perfect, with the exception of a somewhat clunky third chapter. Even potential plot-holes are resolved (How did Nightcrawler survive in the past? How do they all speak English?) with the efficiency of one or two lines, which actually add to the overall concept, rather than slow-down the narrative. And it is an exciting narrative, the tension building and building to the physics-defying climax.
Just as the diverse backgrounds of these new X-Men give the mutant metaphor a physical dimension, the complexity of the characters themselves and their resulting interactions with each other bring depth and truth out of this metaphor. Each new character is given a distinguished personality as Dave Cockrum’s wonderful designs provide each with an easily recognizable look and feel. And we don’t have only heroic qualities in this new X-Men team. Wolverine, Sunfire and Thunderbird are basically prideful, selfish jerks. When all the new members come together, it’s emphasized again and again, that they are not (yet) a team; they don’t even really like each other.
The natural tension between such diverse personalities leads to conflicts within the team; making each scene more compelling. Sunfire decides to leave the team upon hearing what the mission is, refusing to risk his life for a group of people he doesn’t really know, even if they are “fellow” mutants. He does come back, but refuses to reveal his reasons. Cyclops’ leadership is openly and routinely disrespected through the sarcasm of Thunderbird, Wolverine and Sunfire. Thunderbird jokes that arguing is par for the course with this group.
And they continually call each other by insulting, derogatory, racist names. Cyclops is called “One-Eye”; Storm is referred to as “Sister”; Thunderbird named “Geronimo”; and upon his return, Sunfire is called “the Jap”. In an act of intentional provocation, Sunfire insistently calls Nightcrawler “misfit”. Sunfire’s relentless verbal mistreatment prompts Nightcrawler to respond, “I begin to think the mutant community is no more hospitable than the human… eh?” It’s a sentiment shared earlier by Storm. After Sunfire initially abandons the team, she declares her dislike of the first taste of mutant camaraderie. Thunderbird jokes that they haven’t come together due to mutual admiration.
This then is the sad truth within the mutant metaphor revealed to us in Giant-Size X-Men #1. It would be much easier to stand in judgment of “them”, whoever “they” may be, if they were the only ones being hateful to “us”. Unfortunately, when we take a look at ourselves, we find that we aren’t much better. Just listen to the language that pervades our daily social and political discussion. Personally, reading this issue I feel I need to take a step back and take a good long look at the comments I’m making; listen to the words I’ve been using; recognize the prejudice, the bigotry, within myself. I’m not sure this is the message that Len Wein and Dave Cockrum were aiming at, but it’s the one that I’m taking with me: Judge not, that ye not be judged.
Giant-Size X-Men #1 – Deadly Genesis
Published by Marvel Comics in 1975
Written by Len Wein
Drawn by Dave Cockrum
Inked by Peter Iro
Coloured by Glynis Wein
Lettered by John Constanza
This is David’s first piece of critical writing about comics, which he sent across to us after being inspired by the “top 100 comics” list we ran on the site in 2018. For more from David, you can follow him on Twitter here!
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