Comics

The Legacy of Uncanny X-men

After 50 years, the Uncanny X-men reflect a message and a struggle that is still as relevant as ever.

What does it mean to be hated and feared for being different? Minorities throughout history have had to ask this difficult question and confront the equally difficult answer. Every society in every era has had minorities of some kind. It can be based on class, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. But the common thread for every minority is hatred and fear from those that doesn’t understand them and at times doesn’t even attempt to. This common human experience that has spanned the ages is why the X-men have resonated with audiences after 50 years.

Before the X-men, there had been plenty of superheroes. However, superheroes at the time rarely reflected the struggles of humanity. Superheroes were meant to be embodiments of human ideals. They were defined by their ability to overcome these struggles with power and resolve that sets them apart from normal humans. This common theme has been reflected throughout history, long before the era of comic books and billion dollar blockbuster movies. The epic heroes of mythology, from Hercules to Gilgamesh, were personifications of human ideals. But heroes like the X-men focused on a different set of ideals while confronting the much harsher realities.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the X-men in 1963 and billed them as “The Strangest Heroes of All.” On the surface, however, they weren’t all that strange. There was nothing very unique about the powers wielded by Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Iceman, Beast, and Angel. But one of the key features that set them apart was their youth. Like Spider-Man, they were teenagers. They weren’t mature adults dealing with a mature world. They were five confused teenagers who found out that they were very different. And because they were different, they would be doomed to a life of fear and persecution.

The X-men weren’t the first team of teenage superheroes, nor would they be the last. However, they were the first to tap into that universal experience of being a young, vulnerable minority. And this came at a time when minority relations in the United States and throughout the world were undergoing significant change. It’s no coincidence that the X-men resonated during a time when the Civil Rights movement was unfolding. The struggles of minorities were finally being confronted and today, they’re still being confronted. That’s a big reason why the X-men have endured for 50 years.

But it is more than just the minority themes that have made the X-men resonate. It’s easy to forget for many fans that it took a while for the X-men to become one of the most successful franchises in comic book history. The original run of Uncanny X-men by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did not generate a great deal of interest and even faced cancellation at times. Then Giant Sized X-men #1 came along and a writer named Christ Claremont took the X-men into a bold new era that solidified their position in comic book lore.

And it wasn’t enough to just explore the struggles of minorities. The X-men were pioneers in creating strong, enduring characters that also happened to be minorities. Characters like Storm, Kitty Pryde, and Northstar became more than just heroes. They ushered in a wave of diversity that helped set the X-men apart from other superhero teams. They weren’t like the Justice League or the Avengers. The added diversity of the X-men created a team that did more than embody the struggles of minorities. It created a sense of unity between these different races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. And almost as much as their mutant powers, this unity was among the X-men’s greatest strength.

That unity was fueled by the dream of Professor Charles Xavier. From the very beginning, the X-men were motivated by his dream of peaceful coexistence between humans and mutants. To the average person, such a dream seems overly idealistic and unattainable. And no matter how powerful the X-men were as a team, it seemed they could never achieve this impossible dream. It seems almost unheroic in a sense. Superman achieves the impossible all the time and is beloved by the people despite having power that would otherwise garner fear and hatred. But the reason Charles Xavier’s dream resonates with the X-men and the readers isn’t because it’s impossible. It’s because pursuing peace and understanding is far more difficult than succumbing to hatred in fear.

This hatred and fear has manifested in many daunting threats throughout the history of the X-men. From killer Sentinels to Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, they embody this fear and hatred of a minority and the natural inclination to respond with violence. In many ways, this is what makes the villains the X-men face every bit as compelling. Unlike the Joker or Lex Luthor, it’s easy to understand the motivations of characters like Magneto. Bryan Singer, the director of the first two X-men movies, compared their differing ideology to that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. One seeks peace while the other seeks to exact vengeance for crimes committed against a minority. It’s easy to understand both sides and unlike traditional villains, it can’t be resolved by just throwing someone in jail or killing them.

Over the years, the message of the X-men has evolved. However, the underlying theme has remained the same. It could still be argued that mutants are an improper allegory for minorities. Unlike mutants, other minorities don’t cause mass destruction with telekinesis, optic blasts, or ice beams. And unlike other minorities, mutants don’t realize how different they are until adolescence. Puberty itself is already a dramatic enough transformation, but what mutants experience is far more chaotic. And that inability to predict or control these powers creates a legitimate concern. Anyone living in the Marvel universe would rightly share that concern. However, the X-men remind people in both the real and fictional world that no matter how chaotic or dangerous these changes may be, there are still human beings behind these changes.

As a child, my favorite time of day was the hour after school where I would come home and watch cartoons. And the two cartoons I watched the most were the Spider-Man and X-men animated series. And one episode of the X-men cartoon best embodied this message of focusing on the humanity rather than the superficial traits around them. In Season One, Episode 13, “The Final Decision,” Bolivar Trask and Senator Robert Kelly are preparing an army of Sentinels led by Mastermold to protect humanity from the mutant race. But at one point, Mastermold disobeys its creator when it tells them, “Mutants are human.” This machine, which is devoid of all fear and hatred, comes to an inescapable conclusion that humans cannot or will not confront. No matter how different a mutant is or how dangerous they may be, they are still human. And because they are human, they are part of the same world and part of the same struggle.

This moment best reflects the core message of the X-men and that message is more important today than it has ever been. Regardless of anyone’s race, gender, class, sexual orientation, or ability, they are all still human. They live, love, suffer, and die. They have human parents and human problems. The divisions that people impose on themselves or others are arbitrary because at the end of the day, we’re all still human. And we can accomplish much more together than we ever could on our own.

This is the message that the X-men embody. Charles Xavier’s dream is as relevant today is it was 50 years ago. They are more than just a team of superheroes. They do more than just save the world from dangerous super-villains. They carry out acts of heroism despite the knowledge that many still hate and fear them. They seek to live peacefully in a world where so many have rejected them. Without them, it would be too easy for mutants or minorities of any kind to become alienated and separate themselves from the world. But the X-men remind everybody that this world is big enough for everybody. It doesn’t take heroes to embrace those who are different as human. It only takes a dream and inspiration.

For 50 years, the X-men have told stories that have inspired generations of readers. And in the real world, the struggles of minorities will continue. So long as society remains imperfect and human beings remain flawed, there will be many struggles for those who are hated and feared because of their differences. That’s why the core message of the X-men will always be important. And as the world grows and faces challenges too big for any one group of people, it is all the more vital that humanity to come together in understanding rather than remain divided by fear and hatred.

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