Welcome to the X-Roulette! Shelfdust’s Patreon backers are asked to pick a number at random – and now I’m going to write about whichever corresponding issue of “X-Men/Uncanny X-Men” they chose! This issue was picked by Patreon backer Dave Bartos, who chose number 367 for the roulette – so it’s a Magneto War you’re wanting, eh?
By Steve Morris
If X-Men readers know one thing, it’s this: there’s always another team of evil mutants out there. From the Marauders to the Hellions to the Neo to the Nasty Boys, one constant for the X-Men is that if they’re trying to get something done, there’ll be a team of oddly-titled mutants who want to stop them for some reason or another.
It makes sense overall. If the X-Men only ever fought humans, then you’d end up with a faintly dull-looking action series. “The humans hate us!” “well let’s use our overwhelmingly more powerful mutant abilities to defeat them” etc etc. There’s only so many times you can watch a Purifier try and pull a machine gun on Jean Grey, after all. By putting other superpowered characters to fight against, you get a more dynamic fight sequence (never underestimate the importance of a background rando who can shoot energy blasts) and you get to create a little friction amongst mutants as a community.
Sure, the mutant metaphor is consistently on shaky ground, but bringing other mutants with different belief systems into the mix does allow for an element of shading, and offers something a little more complex to the books. At the start of the current Hellions series, for example, the former Marauders are conspicuously not on Krakoa, given their prior involvement in the Mutant Massacre which killed many of the current inhabitants of the island. Without any of those characters having individual, well, character, they do still collectively hold a personality which means we know politically that by default they can’t be politely slotted into mutant utopia.
That’s a really fascinating idea! If we force the mutant metaphor into being about queerness, for example – it’s not like every single person who identifies as queer is going to have the same idea or interest in what their identity means. There are differences in experience, and differences in perception, which keep certain groups apart from one another. The goal of mutants can be seen as “we don’t want to be hated and feared anymore” – but just as is the case for queer people living in the world today, there’s no one answer which everybody subscribes towards.
Samantha Puc recently wrote an article about Blob for Shelfdust which argues very convincingly that the “Brotherhood of Evil Mutants” would nowadays be viewed as the protagonists for any Disney+ or Amazon Prime TV series. You have a ragtag group of characters who have come together despite their differences, and generally celebrate their unique backgrounds. the fat character Blob, who is shamed by other characters for his weight, is rarely targeted for fatphobia by his colleagues, for example. The team are often led by Destiny and Mystique, two queer characters. Compare that to the original five X-Men – five white kids who are trained by their older and ethically dubious headmaster into becoming a private army. Which team would Pixar make into the heroes if they made a film about the X-Men?
So sometimes having different teams of mutants can really drive the idealistic differences between different marginalised groups, and the ways they work with or against one another in what might be perceived as a common goal. At the same time you do also get the opposite: a team who have a combined personality, rather than separate and authentic individual identities. Not everyone can be Blob or Mystique.
In Uncanny X-Men #367, which is part of a “Magneto War” storyline, the X-Men are fighting off one of the least interesting rival mutant teams: the Acolytes. Despite having some characters who have in the past had a personality (Frenzy, most clearly), this group are usually depicted simply as “The Magneto Fans”, treating Magno-Grandpa like he’s a God and following his every word, even if they don’t tend to understand it. The Acolytes are the platonic ideal of the dull rival mutant group, being made up of around eight members so none of them can ever really have time to stand out or demonstrate real personality traits. That way we can identify more with the general do-gooding of the X-Men characters we know well and understand, and the rival mutants can blend together into a general “enemy” form.
I’ve never even heard of half these characters before reading this issue, and I’ve read quite a lot of X-Men comics. When did they bring in a white-skinned Indian character called “Vindaloo”, for example? Who are “Kamal” or “Kath”? In the end it really doesn’t matter, because all they’re needed for is the obligatory fight scene at the end. But at the same time… this really does matter, because we should be able to see personality within any mutant character. In Hellions right now, the character formerly of the Marauders called “Scalphunter” has been redeveloped by the creative team, taking away the offensive codename he had and rebuilding his existing character traits to round him into a stronger character – and it’s made him one of the standout personalities of the comic. At some point, the comics are really going to need to dedicate that same kind of attention to “Vindaloo”, because that surely can’t be allowed to remain an active thing.
It’s a downside of being a background character. Magneto needs to be built up to be a threat aside from his incredible power-set, so the X-Comics decided to give him a group of mutants dedicated to his cause. What a shame, then, that the majority of those characters have never been allowed to be as richly painted as Magneto himself, one of the most complexly-drawn characters in X-Men history. The Acolytes are simply his fanbase, and although it gives him minions who can fight the X-Men, it weakens his ideology that none of his followers have picked up anything he’s monologued about over the years. They follow him just because, when it could be so fascinating to really get an insight into rival lines of logic.
After all, nobody ever said that Xavier’s dream was objectively the correct way for mutants to move forwards. It’s simply that they are the leads of the series, and so their opinion is the default one which is projected towards readers. There are many people out there now who’d say that Magneto’s aggressive approach is more effective in changing minds than Xavier’s passive “show how nice you are” approach – but because these mutants never get to be individuals, we never get to hear their arguments.
The Krakoan era is fascinating because it is starting to try and work on these rival arguments. Again, the main “Krakoa is great” opinion is the one we see by default… but characters like the Acolytes or Marauders or Dark Riders or Freedom Force or, I dunno, the Upstarts – how much wider the world could be if we could see them as more than as fodder for Storm’s next burst of lightning?
Uncanny X-Men 367: Disturbing Behavior
Plot: Alan Davis
Script: Fabian Nicieza
Artist: Leinil Francis Yu
Inkers: John Livesay and Dexter Vines
Letterer: Richard Starkings
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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I’m mildly fascinated with comic book cannon-fodder teams, I really enjoy when one of them comes back around and gets some actual backstory