It's easy to dismiss comic books. Certainly as I was growing up, they were seen as a childish form of entertainment best grown out of quickly. If you were ten and reading comics, nothing was amiss. If you were twenty and still reading them, you could expect some eye-rolling at your expense. And this attitude was reflected in how other forms of media treated comic books. Saturday morning cartoon versions took comic book stories and characters and wrote them "down" for an even younger audience, and the few stabs made at them in cinema and television were "camped up" to make them palatable for adults, as if the material was too light weight to be treated seriously. But all of this began to change, and change in a big way, at the turn of the 20th century, largely thanks to the cinema adaptation of one of the best-selling comics in American history; Marvel Comics' X-Men. The success of the first X-Men film in 2000 was instrumental in Hollywood's modern love affair with the comic book, showing that if the material was treated with respect, and presented by top-notch writers, directors, and actors, then comic book adaptations had powerful stories to tell. Stories even adults could appreciate.
The X-Men were a perfect place for Hollywood to start. For those who aren't familiar with the series, the X-Men comic appeared in 1963 and has been running, continually, for nearly fifty years. It centers around the idea of "mutants," human beings who carry a gene which produces some sort of mutation that usually erupts and expresses itself during adolescence. These mutations grant some sort of super-power--the ability to read minds, walk through walls, or fly--but are often uncontrollable, come with a side-effect, or cause a disfiguring transformation in the individual's appearance. Mutants are a very small percentage of the population, but are widely hated and feared for a variety of reasons. They might look freakish, be a danger to themselves and others, or just be so "different" as to make others uncomfortable. There are also uncomfortable implications surrounding them...as homo sapiens came along and replaced Neanderthal man, many believe that the mutants (or "homo superior") are here to replace man.
From the very start, the X-Men saga blended comic book action with very real social issues. Appearing in the civil rights era, over the decades the mutants would be used to explore racism, the treatment of minorities in society, and even gay and lesbian issues. Mutants were the subject of military experiments, used as slave labor in foreign countries, and even targeted to be rounded up, labeled, and detained by conservative politicians in the United States. Most were forced into hiding, with mutant adolescents running away from home or hiding in "the closet."
In response, two opposing poles or forces arose. One was Professor Charles Xavier, a mutant who believed humans and mutant kind could peacefully co-exist. His opponent (and old friend) was Eric Lensherr, better known by his name Magneto. A Jew who had watched his family die in Nazi concentration camps, Eric had seen first hand how humanity treats minorities, and believed that co-existence would never be possible. Magneto formed a team of mutant terrorists to apply force to human society and push for mutant rights. Appalled by his violent methods, Xavier formed his own team, the X-Men, to oppose them.
In those early years, Xavier and Magneto reflected the approaches to African American civil rights as championed by Dr. King and Malcolm X, but as the decades passed the X-Men continually introduced new story lines to comment on current affairs. While the world watched South Africa struggle with Apartheid, the comic created the South African nation of Genosha, which became a global power built on a mutant slave class. When AIDS first appeared and fire-breathing pastors called it a "gay plague," the comic introduced the Legacy virus, a disease that killed mutants. In 1982 they made waves with "God Loves, Man Kills," a story about a minister preaching against mutants and a commentary on growing religious intolerance. Even the movies continued this theme. In the midst of the American debates on homosexuality and whether or not it could be cured, the third film created a plot of the government devising a cure for mutation. As a gay man, when a young mutant character asks "Is it true, they can cure us now?", and older mutant leader Storm replies "No they can't cure you because there is nothing wrong with you," I nearly stood up and cheered.
The X-Men are on my mind again because I recently started reading Ultimate X-Men, a series that ran from 2001 to 2009 and is conveniently available in 20 trade paperback editions (check out the first volume here). Catching up with fifty years of storylines and characters is daunting for newcomers, so Ultimate X-Men was a "reboot" of the story, modernizing and condensing what had gone before. It is a different take on the characters, and there are enough twists that a long-time fan will find new surprises, but it is ideal for new readers to enjoy the X-Men and get a taste of what the comic is all about.
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