There are so many X-Men out there! You can’t walk round your private island paradise anymore without bumping into twenty mutants. But that raises a question which Shelfdust are going to try and answer! Who is the Best Mutant? We’ll be inviting some of the best writers in comics to argue their case!

By Samantha Puc

CW: The following article contains discussion of fatphobia, forced weight loss, and suicide.

The semi-infamous mutant villain Blob, aka Fred Dukes, was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and first appeared in The X-Men #3 (1964). He’s a freak show attraction in a traveling circus whose body size makes him immovable, in addition to giving him super strength and making him resistant to physical harm. These powers make him more than human, although he doesn’t realize it because he is so regularly belittled for being fat.

Professor Xavier tells Fred he’s actually a mutant, and attempts to incorporate him into the X-Men by bringing him back to the mansion. However, it’s immediately obvious that he won’t fit with the rest of the team. Blob may be a mutant, but he’s also fat, and he’s seemingly been fat his whole life. In response to people gawking at his body in the circus and, ostensibly, gawking at his body wherever and whenever he moves through the world, Fred Dukes has developed an attitude that pushes people away and keeps him safe from their judgment. Blob stands out, whereas the other X-Men are of “acceptable” sizes and mostly conform to western beauty standards. Beast is perhaps the exception, but even his appearance is more acceptable than Blob’s, a super-fat or infini-fat person (depending on how he’s illustrated). 

The other X-Men claim to dislike Fred because he has an attitude, and they bully him. He never gets the chance to change his attitude or try to be good, because the original X-Men see him, judge him, and then refuse to acknowledge that maybe he acts the way he does because he’s literally been put on display for simply having a body that’s different from theirs. In response, Fred returns to the circus, gathers up the other performers, and takes them to attack the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters. Later, he joins the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (and even takes it over at one point).

In almost any version of canon, Fred is bullied for his size, which makes him act out — but the characters also assume he’ll act out because of his size, creating an endless loop wherein he really has no opportunity to Not Be Evil, simply because he’s fat. For example, in the animated series X-Men: Evolution, he has a crush on Jean Grey, but he’s repeatedly spurned and behaves in monstrous ways because of it. The lesson here is twofold: 1) Fat people don’t deserve love, especially from non-fat people, because 2) They are always and inherently bad, no matter what first impressions they may paint. These beliefs are perpetuated ad nauseum both in fiction and in the real world, particularly through moral panics like “the obesity crisis.” Intentional or not, characters like Fred Dukes further unconscious bias in readers and viewers, which is why redeeming his image is such a gargantuan task.

Blob’s first appearance in the comics harkens back to when fat people frequently starred in circus sideshows, because people couldn’t believe that larger bodies were normal. In the 1890s, shows starring fat women were so popular that there were five at Hull Fair, the largest travelling freak show in the UK at that time. Furthermore, the comics indicate that his size is a mutation, which grants him special abilities. Essentially, his power is that he’s Just So Fat that no one can move him or hurt him physically, and if he wants, he can lift huge weights and crush people with his superior strength. Fat activists have decried this character for years, and for good reason: Fred Dukes is a paradigm example of how people view and fear fat bodies, which makes them alienate, scapegoat and actively punish fat people for merely existing.

Furthermore, anytime Blob appears in a story, he’s merely a plot device or a reaction to something happening with the core cast, rather than a character on his own. We know nothing about Fred Dukes as a person, because his interests and fears get swallowed up by his size, This increases the likelihood that readers who see him in a comic, or viewers who see him on screen, will write him off as being aggressively fat and basically evil — uninteresting, unworthy, and incapable of receiving empathy or understanding.

During the House of M storyline, Fred is one of the mutants who is depowered by Scarlet Witch. He abruptly drops hundreds of pounds and loses his powers as a result, inherently tying his fatness to his abilities. Much like fat people in the real world who lose mass amounts of weight very suddenly, Fred’s skin doesn’t shrink to fit his new size. This leaves him with many folds of loose skin that droop from his body, further damaging his mental health after the loss of his powers. He attempts to commit suicide, but is unable to complete the act because the thickness of his skin makes it impossible for him to self-harm to that extent. Eventually, Fred loses his excess skin — likely through surgery, though this is never explained in Marvel canon — and becomes a weight loss guru, though when he reappears in 2014’s Uncanny X-Men #16, he is fat once again and has regained his powers.

There’s a lot to unpack here. First, of course, is the character’s alter-ego: Blob. To a non-fat reader, this single syllable likely conjures images of his mass, including his folds and his wide stance. Although non-fat readers may not realize it, they likely associate all fat bodies with Blob on an unconscious level, which gives them a particular amount of bias toward other fat characters and even real-life fat people. It’s impossible to know what Lee and Kirby were thinking when they created this character and gave him this codename, but it’s fair to assume that the association is intentional, even if they didn’t necessarily mean harm. 

When he’s depowered and thus loses the weight, he’s seemingly done what thin people want fat people to do; however, the weight disappears so abruptly that he still looks “wrong,” keeping him alienated for his appearance. Fred Dukes’ entire existence is predicated on being fat, which in the Marvel Universe is a moral failing — and that makes it hard to “redeem” him, primarily because there’s nothing to redeem.

That doesn’t mean creators haven’t tried.

In the 2019 Age of X-Man: X-Tremists mini-series, written by Leah Williams, penciled by Georges Jeanty, inked by Roberto Poggi, colored by Jim Charalampidis, and lettered by Clayton Cowles, Fred Dukes is part of a team attempting to enforce a worldwide ban on love. It’s a rough read for multiple reasons, not least of which is that the X-Tremists team is composed of people whose ability to give and receive love is illegal or controversial in the actual world, and now they must take that away from others in this alternate universe. Fred’s position on this team seems out of place at first, though of course everything in the Age of X-Man event is out of place in some way. That’s the point. Upon further reflection, however, his role in this mini-series is perfect. No one wants to love the big fat bully, right? Except they do, and Williams does such an excellent job scripting Fred Dukes in this story that it’s painful to think of how the character is presented outside of it.

As written by Williams, Fred is a strong-willed and dedicated team player who wants to follow the rules as they’ve been presented to him. In his off hours, he reads voraciously, memorizes poetry, and drinks tea. He’s careful about how he phrases things and he has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about body image and processing his feelings about himself. Although his out-of-uniform interactions are centered on Betsy, who’s figuring out her own stuff, Fred — or Freddy, as he’s more affectionately called here — has a life. Fifty-five years after his debut, Fred Dukes is finally viewed as a person, and not just a thing — and it’s in an alternate universe mini-series that ultimately has no bearing on the overall events of the comics. Ouch.

Age of X-Man: X-Tremists also highlights how difficult it is to redeem a character like Blob, who shouldn’t have to be redeemed in the first place. From his creation, he was placed in a villain-shaped box and forced through the particular hell of existing in a fat body, without the benefit of a fat liberation movement or even someone with a #bodyposi hashtag in their social media bio to placate him with talk of self-love and acceptance. In the main Marvel Universe, Fred Dukes doesn’t get the chance to process how he moves through the world, or why the world doesn’t accept him. Like other mutants, he’s hated because he’s different — but of course, as is always the case with the mutant metaphor, Fred also experiences intersecting oppression because he’s fat, which is never really explored. Mutant or no, fat people are deeply despised by the population at large.

It’s difficult to say whether Fred Dukes would still be a villain if he wasn’t fat, because plenty of villains in the Marvel Universe are non-fat and terrible. However, his fatness makes it impossible for him to be anything but a villain, because of how creators have depicted him since his debut. Williams is the first to actively give Fred the opportunity to explore, experience, and process his feelings about his body, his actions, his relationships, and how those parts of his life connect. Unfortunately, the character growth doesn’t really stick because of the timeline issue. Fred reappears in X-Factor, as a bartender on Krakoa who seems to just be living his life, but it’s impossible to know whether he’ll ever get the spotlight again, or if he’ll be allowed to continue unpacking decades of trauma. This further demonstrates how impossible it is for a fat character who’s been deemed a villain to ever be allowed to grow or change or become one of the good guys. From the moment they do or say something cruel, readers write them off as being just another mean fatty. 

But if Fred Dukes were allowed to be a fat mutant who isn’t evil, he could easily take the crown of best mutant. There’s so much actual history behind this character and so much to explore; he could change minds and hearts and maybe, just maybe, make readers feel something other than hatred or fear or disgust for a fat person. Should Williams’ version of the character be allowed to exist more fully in Marvel canon (which appears may be the case, given his background appearances on Krakoa so far), maybe that can still happen — but it has to be done in a way that acknowledges and dismantles his past, and the fatphobia that informs it. Blob isn’t the best mutant — but he could be, if fatness wasn’t so violently despised.

 

Age of X-Man: X-Tremists #3
Writer: Leah Williams
Artist: Georges Jeanty
Inker: Roberto Poggi
Colourist: Jim Charalampidis

Letterer: Clayton Cowles

 

Samantha Puc (she/her) is an essayist and culture critic whose work has been featured on Bitch Media, them., The Beat, The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. She mostly writes intersectional pop culture analysis with a particular focus on representation of LGBTQ and fat characters in fiction. Samantha is the co-creator and editor-in-chief of Fatventure Mag, an outdoors zine for fat folks who are into being active, but not into toxic weight-loss culture. She is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree at The New School, and she lives in Brooklyn with her cats. Find her on Twitter here!

 

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