July 16, 2007

Mutants, civil rights and fundamentalism

As a big comics buff back in the 70s and 80s, I recently picked up a couple "Essential" editions (Marvel's way of cheaply reprinting classic issues en masse in one collection) of 1980s X-Men issues. Included in the #4 collection was a graphic novel from 1982 titled "God Loves, Man Kills." Graphic novels were printed to allow creators to be ... well, a little more graphic than normal comics. The opening sequence of this issue witnesses two young mutant children being murdered in cold blood merely ... because they are mutants.

As I delved into the story, it became evident that this issue was the clear inspiration for the second "X-Men" movie, "X-2: X-Men United." The main bad guy is a powerful charismatic preacher named William Stryker who leads a visceral anti-mutant crusade across America. In "X-2," Stryker is a powerful government agent who leads a clandestine force against mutantkind. Check out the other similarities:

  • In the novel, Stryker is shown to have fathered a mutant child, which he summarily kills. In "X-2," Stryker has a mutant son, but his mental powers have been "put to use" by the government.
  • Professor Xavier is captured by Stryker's agents in the novel and subjected to hallucinogenic torture. Ditto the movie, but the illusions originate from Stryker's son's mental powers, and Xavier isn't so much tortured as he's picked for vital information.
  • Magneto, the X-Men's deadliest enemy, joins forces with the mutant team against Stryker. This also occured in the film (hence the "United" in the title) but included other "evil" mutants besides just Magneto.

Reverend Stryker, in the novel's climax, is eventually shot and killed by a regular cop -- because the rev had his own pistol pointed at Kitty Pryde (the girl who can walk through walls and who saw her most screen time in the third film, "X-3: The Last Stand") and was about to fire. What follows is the typical Chris Claremont (longtime X-Men writer) philosophizing about what "course" mutants should take to protect themselves, with Professor X advocating peaceful co-existence and Magneto pushing for dominance and control.

A few days after reading the story I was intrigued by the inclusion at the end of this Essential collection of Chris Claremont's remembrances while writing "God Loves ..." To me, it shows that Claremont is your typical liberal -- liberals which now (still?) clearly dominate Marvel today. He writes:

So here we are in the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan is president and a wave of creative Conservatism is sweeping the nation, pitched as a backlash from the Heartland to the unpatriotic and hedonistic attitudes and mores of the 60s and 70s. According to them, the country was returning to bedrock, traditional values and beliefs, both political and moral. Leading that charge ... were a coterie of TV evangelists, trumpeting their born-again, fundamentalist vision of the Bible across the national airwaves.

For me, this story grew out of a time where voices of casual intolerance were very much abroad in the land, where espousing views that stood apart from what was considered the "mainstream" could have serious and lasting consequences.

Pardon me, but WHAAAAAAT?? I know, I know, I shouldn't be surprised, really. Claremont is all too typical of many liberals who feel the Reagan era was Hades incarnate on Earth. But still, consider that line: "... where espousing views that stood apart from what was considered the 'mainstream' could have serious and lasting consequences." For example, cretins like Jerry Falwell frequently denounced gays and the "gay" lifestyle. According to Claremont, if one "espoused views" contrary to Falwell's -- like gays should have all the same basic civil rights as every other American -- there could be "serious and lasting consequences"! Like what, for instance? That you could be in danger of receiving William Stryker-like treatment at the end of a gun barrel? Please. I don't think Claremont actually believes that, but I'd really like to know what he means. I personally recall the 1980s cultural debate being quite vigorous, and the only "serious and lasting consequences" anyone "suffered" was mere verbal criticism. Claremont was obviously just engaging in unnecessary hyperbole because, unfortunately for him and other 60s lefties, the "pendulum had swung the other way" in the 80s. As if one needs more proof, Claremont makes the eye-rolling statement that, during the 80s,

Other faiths, other branches of the same faith, sounded as if they were being dismissed, which carried disturbing echoes of the growing fundamentalist movement that was sweeping the Islamic world.

If there was ever one comparison that should cause one to guffaw, it's the above. And to be fair to Claremont, he clarifies that it "seemed" that way to him and that "to his ears" it sounded that way. But many others are fervent in this belief -- that there's no difference between fundamentalist Christians here in the US and fundamentalist Muslims in the mid-east. Personally, I abhor fundamentalism of any stripe, but to posit this "no difference" claim is just daffy. If you really need for me to spell it out for you (like these lunkheads do), you might consider asking your doctor for a prescription to reality pills.

The X-Men -- and mutants in general -- have long been Marvel's metaphor for the dispossessed, disenfranchised, and oppressed. Until recently (with the massive "Civil War" epic), one item had been frequently and conveniently brushed aside in the mutant debate: That these "oppressed" citizens often had abilities to cause incredible -- and widespread -- destruction. Clearly, guys like William Stryker go to extremes in addressing the situation. But it always seemed to me that there was lacking that "moderate" voice -- that sensical viewpoint that bridged concern for civil liberties with that of the general security of the American public. Consider the first "X-Men" film: In one of the flick's first sequences, we see [X-Man] Jean Grey arguing with Senator Robert Kelly about possible registration of mutants. Kelly makes an analogy to possessing and registering firearms, whereupon Grey retorts that we don't require registration for people to live. She's right, of course, but would we so require such if super-powered mutants actually existed? It is easy for you to sit behind your computer, act all morally superior and say "No way, man! That is a clear violation of civil rights and inherently immoral." But, of course, if a dude like Magneto (and his allies) were out there randomly causing widespread havoc because of his own hatred of homo sapiens, you'd probably have second thoughts!

It is fun -- and interesting -- to have such a debate, and I am currently working on an article dealing with just this subject (as an afterword to the aforementioned "Civil War") for a comics online fan magazine. In doing research for the article, I discovered that the words of The Comics Reporterís Tom Spurgeon speak to this topic quite well (my emphasis):

When I was a kid I liked it when Captain America saw a high government official commit suicide. I thought that was way deep, man. But I never go there when thinking about Watergate. While ["Civil War" author] Mark Millar's Captain America and I may both worry about civil rights and the dispensation of power in the United States, the moment this leads Cap to take out a battalion of Secret Agents to buttress his point he's kind of lost to me as a potential partner-in-ideology.

Now, maybe Mark Millar will be the first writer to use the specific metaphor he has at his disposal to say something insightful and constructive about those issues, but I suspect that as in the past the real world comparisons exist primarily to flatter the entertainment value of the superhero comic, not so much to say anything that isn't, well, kind of dumbassed. The same way that the X-Men or similar series can only go so far when speaking to identity and outsider issues before people begin to realize shooting raybeams from your eyes really is different enough from sexual or racial identity to kind of limit any insight to be gained, I can't imagine a point of view emerging from Civil War that isn't constrained or made foolish by these characters' very specific fantasy identities.

Indeed. If you can't see a difference between, say, having misgivings about your neighbor merely because he is black, and your neighbor because he sometimes inadvertantly projects beams of concussive force from his nostrils which, at their weakest, hit like a Mack truck moving at 60 mph, then you have problems!

Lastly, I wonder what liberal Chris Claremont thinks about [the previously mentioned] gun control. If he believes that there should be severe restrictions on firearms (or that they should be banned outright), yet feels that super-powered mutants (or humans) should have the right to roam freely with no restrictions whatsoever, then he is a hypocrite of the highest order.

Related: Comics and Politics; Just As I Write; Comics and Politics Again; Mark Millar Still Hates America; Spider-Man Vs. The Bush Administration; Erik Larsen: Yet Another Comics Guy Who's Out There.

Posted by Hube at July 16, 2007 11:25 AM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

Other faiths, other branches of the same faith, sounded as if they were being dismissed,

It's funny he writes this, because the "culture wars" of the 80s did much to bring together Catholics, Protestants, and traditional Jews, to defend traditional morality. Far from sectarian strife, the 80s were the start of a ecumenical political movement that continues today.

Posted by: Paul Smith Jr at July 16, 2007 11:50 AM


I have to admit to being frustrated with my inability to post comments on mu.nu sites, but your post on Mutants and Civil Rights was great.

I just wanted to focus on a side point. You noted how the graphic novel became the movie. I noticed something similar between ST:TMP and ST:TNG.

Riker replaced Decker. And the empathetic Betazed replaced the empathetic Deltan. It's not quite the same thing but I suppose that Riker and Troi somehow evolved from the pair of Decker and Ilia.

Posted by: Soccer Dad at July 16, 2007 01:14 PM

My guess is that the "oppression" Chris Claremont waxes nostalgically over was actually just conservatives (finally) countering the standard line of liberal pap in the marketplace of ideas. At about this time, conservatives began to emerge from the sewers the liberal elites had consigned them to following Watergate (thinking they would never have to hear from us again). Reagan's muscular defense of conservative prinicpals, coupled with the emergence of the talk radio channel (Rush) gave an "answer" to the self-aggrandizing "monologue" of the liberal world view...which good liberals, unaccustomed to any push-back whatsoever, immeditately (and to this day) classified as "prosecution" or "oppression".

I think in their mind, their views are simply "right", and any challenge to them is equated with an attack, censorship, intimidation, or any of the other victimizing buzz words they're so fond of using.

Posted by: Mark Engblom at July 16, 2007 02:04 PM

Interestingly enough, we conservatives didn't try to outlaw opposing viewpoints by labeling them as "harassment" or "hate speech", while the "freedom-loving" liberals have done all thy can to impose dire consequences on those who dare to disagree with them.

After all, advocate the murder of the President or a conservative talk-radio host and you are a liberal hero -- call a Democrat presidential candidate a "faggot" and you are evil incarnate.

Posted by: Rhymes With Right at July 16, 2007 03:20 PM

As a typical liberal I can tell you that George W Bush makes Reagan look like FDR.

Posted by: jason330 at July 16, 2007 04:14 PM

Actually, the free-spending, big-government loving Bush is alot closer to FDR than Reagan ever was. Plus, there's that whole detention of Japanese Americans thing that liberals would no doubt love to link to Guantanamo.

Posted by: Mark Engblom at July 16, 2007 04:36 PM