Like any good origin story, I’ve told this one a thousand times: The first comic book I ever read was X-Men #80, the 35th Anniversary issue of America’s most popular comic book series, which, for over three decades, had narrated the lives, loves, and losses of a band of mutant outcasts gifted with extraordinary abilities because of an evolution in their genetic makeup. It was 1998. I was thirteen years old and the cover of this single comic book issue was a young gay boy’s dream: a shiny pink hologram with a tower of dazzling disco-attired superheroes exploding before one’s eyes. Growing up in a queer family, sibling to a gay brother, and bullied to tears on a daily basis for my own exuberant gayness, the words “A team reunited…a dream reborn” emblazoned on that cover spoke to me of the promise and possibility of queer kinship and solidarity in the face of all odds.
Above all, what struck me about that cover was the sheer variety of characters depicted—how could a man of made of steel, an intangible woman, a white haired weather goddess, a butch teen girl with bones sticking out of her skin, and a teleporting blue elf be any kind of team? Who were these people, I wondered, and what kind of dream did they share?
Like so many readers of the X-Men over the decades, no character drew me in more than the weather goddess Storm, a Kenyan immigrant to the U.S., the first black woman superhero in a mainstream comic book, and by the 1990s, the X-Men’s team leader. In that same anniversary issue, at a low point in the team’s battle with an imposter group of X-Men, Storm rallies her bruised and beaten comrades by reminding them that what defines their bond is a set of shared values, a chosen kinship maintained through mutual love and respect, not by force or expectation. With my budding left-wing consciousness on one side, and my attachment to queer family on the other, I fell in love with this fictional mutant goddess and her team: this was the kind of community I longed for. How did it come to be that a thirteen year old Lebanese-American, suburban gay boy found common cause with an orphaned, Kenyan, mutant, immigrant X-Man?
If one were to try and explain this question by turning to recent public debates about superhero comics, we might put forward the answer: “diversity.” Yet this term and its shifting meanings—variety, difference, or representational equality—would have rung false to my thirteen year old ears. It was not simply the fact of Storm’s “diverse” background as Kenyan, immigrant, woman, or mutant that drew me to her, but rather her ethical orientation towards those around her, her response to human and mutant differences, and her familial bond with her fellow X-Men. These were qualities significantly shaped by her distinct differences, but not identical to them. This was not any traditional idea of diversity then, understood as the mere fact that different kinds of people exist. Rather what Storm and the X-Men embodied was true heterogeneity: not merely the fact of many kinds of people but what those people do in relation to their differences. As I became a dedicated comic book fan, I realized that every issue of the X-Men was both an extended meditation on the fact that people are different from one another, and that this reality requires each and every person to forge substantive, meaningful, intelligent responses to those differences.
As a teenage reader, I simply took this fact for granted as part of the pleasures of reading superhero comics. As a scholar years later, I came to realize that the ability to respond to differences and forge meaningful relationships across them was a capacity, a super-power if you will, that comics could train their readers to exercise, an imaginative skill fit for a truly heterogeneous world. It was this realization that led me to write The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics, in which I ask the question: what is it about the visual and narrative capacities of the comic book medium, and the figure of the mutant, cyborg, or “freak” superhero in particular, that has allowed so many readers to develop identification with characters across race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and cultural origin?
Recent public dialogue about the rapidly diversifying ranks of superhero comic books have overwhelmingly celebrated the increased racial, gender, sexual, and religious variety of America’s greatest fictional heroes. Yet every time a news outlet lauds the major comics companies for introducing a gay superhero, or a Pakistani superhero, or a classically male superhero replaced by a powerful woman, the historian in me thinks, “but comics were doing that in 1972, so what’s the big deal now?”
Certainly, one potentially distinct element of today’s push for diversity is the range of “real-world” or identifiable differences comics are willing to name and represent on the comic book page. But in writing The New Mutants, I came to the conclusion that without an underlying democratic ethos or worldview, such real-world differences have little meaning. In The New Mutants, I argue that cultivating egalitarian and democratic responses to differences became the sin qua none of American superhero comics from the 1960s through the early 1990s.
I call this vision a “comic book cosmopolitics,” an ethos of reciprocal, mutually transformative encounters across difference that infused the visual and narrative content of comics for nearly three decades. In the 1960s and 1970s comic book series like the Justice League of America, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men provided readers an exceptionally diverse range of new characters and creative worlds, but most importantly, modeled what it might look like for those characters to bridge divides of race, species, kin and kind for their mutual flourishing and the good of the world. What “doing good for the world” meant or could mean was the question that motivated these characters to engage one another, forge bonds, disagree, and take collective action. Today’s celebratory proclamations about the internal diversity of American comics ignores the fact that by 1984 Marvel Comics alone had Kenyan, Vietnamese, Native American, Russian, American working-class, Jewish, and Catholic superheroes, and even a Pagan Demon sorceress at the helm of one of its main titles.
What distinguished these earlier figures from their contemporary counterparts are the seemingly endless dialogues and struggles they engaged to negotiate, respond to, rethink, and do something with their differences as a matter of changing the world. It was this negotiation within the context of characters’ actual diversity that allowed readers like me, and thousands more, to identify with a vast range of people who were, at least on the surface, radically unlike us.
In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, “That Oxymoron, The Asian Comic Superhero,” columnist Umapagan Ampikaipakan makes the counterintuitive claim that the push for racial diversity in contemporary superhero characters, rather than reflect the progressive evolution of the superhero, might actually “dilute” the fundamental purpose of the figure to function as a universal fantasy of belonging. The more specific or particular the superhero gets, he suggests, the less the character speaks to all kinds of readers.
As a child growing up in Kuala Lampur, Ampikaipakan explains that even thousands of miles away from U.S. culture, he found himself identifying with the misfit and freak Spider-Man. It didn’t matter that Spider-Man and so many of the superheroes in the Marvel Universe were white. Rather it was the message these comics carried about the value of being a freak or an outcast that translated across both actual and virtual distance.
In the face of much public celebration of comic book diversity, Ampikaipakan’s argument is compelling because it refuses a reductive understanding of identity politics, namely that seeing oneself or one’s own particular identity reflected back in any given character is the only possible way that one can feel invested in a them or their creative world. This argument is both undoubtedly correct, yet severely misguided.
The mistake Ampikaipakan makes is not to claim that readers have the capacity to identify with a range of characters regardless of their social identity, but in his failure to stress that it is difference and distinction itself that has made the superhero such a durable fantasy to so many readers globally, not the figure’s empty universality or the flexibility of whiteness to accommodate a variety of identifications. The fact that superheroes highlight (rather than overlook) the social, cultural, and biological differences that shape humankind, that makes identifying with them possible—this is why one superhero is never enough. Superheroes proliferate because no matter how many there are, they can never quite capture the true heterogeneity of everyday life. The attempt to do so is what keeps us reading.
We should not settle for the mere representation of more diverse characters, as though the very existence of a female Pakistani Ms. Marvel alone were an act of anti-racism, or anti-sexism; these latter categories describe not a representation or image, but an ethos, a worldview and way of life—this ethos is what Ampikaipakan was drawn to in reading Spider-Man. It was an underlying ideal of celebrating outcasts, misfits, and freaks—a democratic investment in all who did not fit into the model of “normal” American citizenship—that defined Marvel Comics in the 1960s and 1970s, and that shaped readers’ relationship to characters like Spider-Man and his universe of mutant, alien, and superhuman friends, all of whom we grew to love because of their particularities, differences, and distinctions, not their imagined universality. As readers, we must demand that the depiction of more diverse characters be motivated by an ethos attentive to human heterogeneity, its problems and possibilities; these character must be placed into dynamic exchange with the world around them, rather than merely making us feel good that some more of us are now included every once in a while.
Take for example the dramatic creative decision by writer Matt Fraction to relocate the X-Men from their long-standing home at the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning in Westchester, Massachusetts, to San Francisco in 2008. With this momentous move to one of America’s most recognized gay holy lands, it seemed as though the X-Men series had finally made explicit its long-standing symbolic association between mutation as a fictional category of difference, and gayness, as a lived form of minority identity; and yet, in the handful of years that the X-Men resided in San Francisco between 2008 and 2012—where they lived as billionaire jet-setters buying property in the Marin headlands at the height of a national recession no less—never once did they address the city’s massive housing crisis, increasing rates of violence towards the city’s queer and minority populations, or the shifting status of HIV. Did the X-Men even deign to go to a gay club in their five years in the Golden Gate city? Did the team’s one putatively “out” character Northstar claim any solidarity with the city’s queer community? I’m afraid not.
The series capitalized on its symbolic gesture of solidarity with minorities, queers, and misfits, but it jettisoned its earlier substantive engagement with the problem of difference: back in 1979, when Storm visited the slums of Harlem and witnessed the reality of youth homelessness and drug abuse, she was forced to contend with the realities of inner-city African American life from the perspective of a Kenyan immigrant who experiences blackness differently than African Americans and the working poor; and in the early 1990s, with the invention of the fictional mutant disease the Legacy Virus, the X-Men series used fantasy to address the AIDS crisis by thinking through the kinds of solidarities mutants and humans would have to develop to respond to a genetic disease ravaging the mutant population.
In today’s comic book pages, is there a single X-Man with HIV? Now that Iceman is out of the closet, will he go on PrEP, the HIV prophylactic? And as a former lady’s man, will his sexual health be an issue at stake in the series? The likelihood that Bobby Drake’s gayness will either be treated substantively, or have a meaningful effect on the social fabric of the Marvel Universe seems very low in today’s creative environment, where the mere “outing” of characters as exceptionally diverse in their identities is presupposed as an act of social benevolence on the part of writers and artists.
My point here, is not that superhero comics need greater realism in their storytelling or should be more “true to life.” Rather, superhero comics are one place where fantasy and creative worldmaking can run up against the specificities of our everyday lives, so that “real life” is presented to us anew or opened up to other possibilities. Mutation and gayness, for instance, are not the same thing. But they resonate in surprising ways.
The imagined category of mutation sheds light on the workings of a real-world social identity like gayness, or blackness, but it also reveals the limits of analogy because all of these categories are never quite identical. The ability to distinguish between the places where differences overlap and where they don’t is a political skill that fantasy can help us develop. It demands we not only see where solidarity can be forged, but also figure out what to do when sameness no longer holds true, or our differences overwhelm the ability to forge meaningful bonds.
What I was doing that summer day when I read my first issue of the X-Men was figuring something out not only about myself, but about my relationship to the world around me as someone who fundamentally understood that I was different, but didn’t yet know how to respond to being different. This is the true gift that superhero comics have given to American culture in the 20th century, but it is a creative offering increasingly taken from our grasp.
When Marvel Comics reached a creative level of near maximum mutant heterogeneity in the X-Men series around 2005—a moment of incredible promise when mutants no longer appeared as minorities but a significant portion of the human population—Marvel spun out a barrage of storylines from “E is for Extinction” to “House of M” that depicted the mass slaughter of the majority of the world’s mutants by members of their own kind. The X-Men have been living in the shadow of genocide ever since: shot down by ever-more efficient mutant killing robots, murdered and harvested for their organs, nearly eliminated from history by time-traveling mutant hunters, and now subject to M-Pox, another genetic disease threatening to wipe out the mutant race. In a sense, Marvel could not face the complexities of the world it had created, and decided to obliterate it instead: in so doing, fantasy truly became a reflection of our violent post-9/11 reality.
Contrast the exuberant, bubble-gum pink cover of the first X-Men comic book I ever read, with the most recent issue I picked up: in the renumbered Uncanny X-Men #1 (2013) written by Brian Michael Bendis, the cover presents us a picture of mutants at war. There is a revolution afoot, but it is lead by a single male figure, the famed character Cyclops reaching out to the reader from the center of the page with his army of followers, merely black and white outlines in the background. That army is composed of some of the most complex characters to ever grace the pages of the X-Men series, yet here they have been flattened to ghosts haunting the background of the X-Men’s former dream.
The X-Men now appear as a leather-clad, armored military unit, not a high-flying, exuberant, queer menagerie. At the center, Cyclops’ hand reaches out to us not in a gesture of solidarity but as a claw, perhaps ready to grip our throats. In this new chapter of the X-Men’s history, mutants are presented as divided over the right path towards the preservation of the mutant race. But instead of rich, textured disagreements the characters appear merely as ideologues spouting flat and rigid political manifestos. There is no space for genuine debate, or loyalty amidst disagreement, or even the notion that more than one dream could exist side by side among companions. As Alex Segade has recently argued in a brilliant Art Forum article on the X-Men’s decades long mutant mythology, the recent introduction of increasingly “diverse” cast members to the series has come at extraordinary costs, including the mass deaths of entire swathes of mutants round the world.
In the X-Men, fantasy—that realm meant to transport us to a different world—has become the ground for narrating the collapse of all visions of hope, social transformation, or egalitarian action: in Bendis’ epic narrative the original five teenage members of the X-Men are teleported to the present only to see that their youthful dreams of peaceful relations between human and mutant kind have resulted in death, destruction, and seemingly endless violence.
When I recently caught up on Bendis’ X-Men plot about time traveling mutant teenagers, it made me wonder what my thirteen year old self would have thought about his future had these been the comic book issues he first encountered in the summer of 1998. But I’m lucky they weren’t. In the face of the kinds of violence and death-dealing that recent comics present, I remember that there are other uses for fantasy, because it was the X-Men series itself that first showed me it was possible. Today, as years of reading, thinking, and writing about superhero comics come together with the publication of The New Mutants, I look back at that first cover image of X-Men #80 with a mix of longing and hope: I wonder now how a team can be reunited, and how new dreams can be born.
Ramzi Fawaz is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics (NYU Press, 2016).