Bethany W Pope
It’s extremely rare for a run of a mainstream comic to result in a story with as much philosophical complexity and clarity of vision as Tom Taylor’s (shamefully abbreviated) X-Men: Red. Because the author set out to tell ‘the best X-Men story’ he could, and because he managed (somehow) to gain something close to free-reign from editorial (as well as having the good luck of being paired with some truly remarkable artists; most notably Mahmud Asrar) the end result was not only the best continuous X-Man story of the decade, but something which will (in time) surpass Whedon’s revolutionary run on Astonishing in terms of fan-regard. In this article, I am going to pick (a little) at the weave of the story in an effort to isolate and reveal a few of the integral threads which form the weft of the narrative.
The central thesis of these eleven issues is that the act of compassion is a more powerful tool than the most brutally cinematic superpower. Empathy is the thing which slaughters fear. Looking at your enemy and seeing a person, woven through with hopes and loves, fears, the usual mixture of frailties, transforms disparate (possibly violent) mobs into a functional community by revealing that there is no ‘us versus them’. There’s only ‘us’. The X-Men are the perfect superhero group to make this point, because their entire existence is predicated on the phrase ‘protecting a world which fears and hates them’. The X-Men have always represented the struggle that othered groups (racial minorities, religious minorities, women, members of the LGBTQIA community) have faced when trying to live in function in a world that is slanted, dramatically, in favor of straight, white (American) men. Such a group is a necessary force in the current, fractured, geo-political climate.
The world needs a message of hope and unity in a time when real children (mostly brown) are being locked in cages at the border of America. And Western audiences, who are either complacent in their ignorance or else furious at their own seeming impotence, need to understand the ways in which their outlook, their opinions are being manipulated so that their complacency is undisturbed and their hatreds are intentionally focused against highly specified targets. Allegory has always been a gentle way to deliver a clear shot of truth, and the technique has functioned perfectly in this series. There are many viable entrances to this analysis, but let’s start with the most accessible. Let’s start with the characters. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll focus on four.
In this run, Taylor assembled a team which was primarily composed of characters who are valued for their empathy and capacity for forgiveness. Over the decades, Jean Grey has been many things. Most recently, she was dead. Again. But before that, she was one of the most powerful telepaths on the planet. She has inhabited or seen into countless consciousnesses and she has developed near-limitless patience. She isn’t a saint. She still gets frustrated. When she met a bigot in front of the Mansion on her first day back from the dead, her initial reaction was anger. But then she looked inside of him and saw that (like most bigots) he was projecting the disgust that he felt for himself onto the outside world (it’s easier to fight the ‘monsters’ outside than the darkness within) and she treated him with compassion — checking in on him after their confrontation in order to insure that he did not bring himself to harm.
This trait of Jean’s (not just solving the immediate crisis but tracing the problem to its roots) was one of the most revolutionary points of the run. Later on, when Trinary has cured a man who murdered a mutant while possessed by a Sentinite, Nightcrawler teleports the man’s distraught father in to comfort him and Jean promises that the X-Men will be there to testify in his defence — because he is as much a victim of this hatred as the woman he murdered.
Speaking of Nightcrawler, it is no mistake that Taylor picked the most forgiving X-Man to serve as Jean’s councilor and second-in-command. Kurt Wagner has been a victim of violent prejudice all his life, and he has chosen to meet the hatred which has battered him with patience, kindness, and swashbuckling charm. There’s a reason that he’s the person that Jean showed her revolutionary vision to first. It’s telling that his first response is to offer to support her in whatever way he can. This is a man who has every reason to hate the world which has repeatedly rejected him and who chooses, instead, to fight to make it better. He answers a physical assault (with a hotdog, but still) with a joke and when a child is frightened of him, he laughs and offers her his hand.
This is a man who listens when a woman has a really good idea. He doesn’t claim it as his own. He doesn’t belittle her or try to dominate her. He asks, ‘How can I serve?’ And, since he is Jean’s friend (speaking with love and an absolute absence of hostility) he can hold her morally accountable for her actions, as he does when he suspects her of using her abilities to interfere with the soldier’s free will.
Nightcrawler might often be the least powerful mutant in the room, but he is often the person with the most moral character.
Trinary, a new addition to the team, made up the third corner of this central trinity. She’s a young woman from India who was kidnapped for using her technopathic abilities to transfer funds from the top 1% of the population (who happened to be male) to the lowest earners (who were, surprise surprise, uniformly female). Aside from being a marvelous, witty character in her own right, Trinary represents the intersectionality that is necessary to embrace if we are to move forward as a species. It’s not just racism that we have to fight. It’s racism which feeds into (and is fed) by sexism. Jean doesn’t ask Trinary to deny the pain that she has been made to feel as a woman of color in order to serve her goal. The women work together to fight both problems at the same time, because they share the same root. Homophobia is a byproduct of the artificial hierarchy of sexism. Nationalism springs, in part, from the insecurities of patriarchy.
It is not enough simply to isolate the villain and punch them in the head. You have to identify and alter the systems which allowed that villain to come into existence in the first place.
I could talk about Laura Kinney and the fact that she is literally rebuilding her humanity from the wreckage of trauma, or Gentle, who is one of the most powerful beings on the planet but who limits himself, in an agonizing way, because he is afraid of causing pain to others. I could talk, endlessly, about the constant font of limitless joy that is Gabby, but if I did so this already long article would gain another page or so of blather. So, instead, I will talk (for a while) about the fourth major character in this series. Cassandra Nova.
Cassandra is the inverted twin of Charles Xavier. Her brother slaughtered her in the womb (supposedly sensing her evil, but that’s a dubious philosophical argument for a later date) and she rebuilt herself from nothing, using only her will. But there’s a problem. Cassandra built herself with something missing. She has no capacity for empathy. There’s nothing in her heart but a sucking fear of her own essential nothingness. And her response to this existential terror (one which is shared by many traumatized people) is to prove her reality by eliminating the lives of another group of people. She must be real, if she can cause such destruction. Superpowers aside, this is a realistic response to massive trauma. A boy who spent his childhood being raped by his mother’s lover asserts his sense of self, his sense of power, by victimizing another child because he must be real, he must be valid if he can generate a visible physical response in someone else. It’s a hell of a lot easier to strike at the ‘monsters’ in the outside world than it is to face your inner darkness.
In the end, of course, Cassandra is defeated. But while she does take more than a few punches to the head (and one which lands, literally, inside of her skull) she is finally beaten by an internal change. The X-Men teach her empathy. They force her to feel the fact that other lives are as valid and real as her own. And the power of that revelation humanizes the monster. It brings her to tears.
Of course, Cassandra was not the only villain in this book. She was merely the most obvious, the most overt. She never would have gotten anywhere with her plan if the cracks were not already showing in the foundations of the world.
The real enemies are the twinned forces of flawed social hierarchies and fear. One product of white patriarchy is that the social systems which enforce it are dependant on maintaining a rigid social hierarchy which places straight white men at the top with all of the other races, sexualities, and genders occupying rigidly defined boxes that form the pyramid beneath it. There might be an illusion of social mobility, but for the most part any threat of change, any individual who starts picking at a wall or testing the struts of the structure, is treated with fear. The power of the people at the top is, in reality, extremely fragile. A firm wind could knock it over. So all change is feared.
Such systems are easier to maintain within tightly controlled boarders. They tend to collapse (or at least start teetering) when communities open up to the idea of globalization. So Nationalism is, inherently, a product of racist white patriarchy. This is especially visible in historical cases (such as Apartheid South Africa) and it’s also in the sociological DNA of Americans who walk around wearing MAGA hats and their across-the-pond brethren who scream Britain First slogans at Polish immigrants. It’s also true that the loudest voices supporting the patriarchy are often people who have, themselves, been brutalized by the very systems that they are supporting. White women pushed Trump into power. Working-class Brits, mostly white, voted for Brexit. These are people who have been fed the lie that the reason the system isn’t working is because of all those ‘others’ out there, making all that frightening noise.
And that brings me to the most fascinating part of Taylor’s series. The role of the media.
Almost every issue is punctuated with scenes from the media. The first few feature a Fox-News-Style screaming head, blasting anti-mutant rhetoric which was intended to generate a sense of fear in his viewers. The results are instances of (implicitly condoned) violence against an already oppressed minority group in which mobs of white men chant racist slogans while wielding tiki torches. Each instance of mob violence encourages the man on the television to scream louder. When the media shifts (when the fearful white man is replaced by a woman of color who can provide a different perspective — one which is not motivated by the fear of loss of personal status) the feedback loop is broken and the violence outside begins to peter out.
The limited, isolated view which is fostered by network news is not the only target of the comic. The feedback loop of social media is also explored as one of the factors contributing to the rise of anti-mutant hate in the book. Algorithms target vulnerable audiences and bombard them with fake news stories which were designed to generate fear. These are (charmingly) combated in the text by Gabby finding and sharing feel-good stories which humanize the groups who are being built up as objects of terror. Tribalism is a large part of the problem, here. Racism and Nationalism are tribalism writ large: the idea that only those we ‘know’, those who look and think exactly like we do, are human, when the real problem is our own sense of insecurity. It is easier, by far, to fight the ‘monsters’ we project onto the outer world than it is to shine a light into our inner darkness.
In the end, the strength of this team, the strength of this writing, is the knowledge that the boundaries between us are artificial. We are diverse, yes. We are various — in body, in gender, in race. We have differences that can (and should) be allowed to contribute to our splendor. But the only real enemy we face is not out there in the world. It’s the darkness within us. It’s in those rooms in our heads where we tremble to go. It’s the fear that we are, in reality, absolutely powerless.
Once that fear is gone (and we can, with love, eliminate it) all that’s left is the knowledge that, together, we can build a better world.
That’s the thesis of this series, and it was absolutely perfect.
It’s what the X-Men are all about.
It’s About Ethics in Comic Book Journalism: The Politics of X-Men: Red
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