“Illegally entering a sovereign nation to break out a political prisoner isn’t exactly the best follow-up to murdering an ambassador.”
“The sentinels are us.”
Twelve issues of Jean Grey becoming a world power.
Since its inception, Tom Taylor and an array of visual artists’ X-Men Red (cover title), aka The Hate Machine (story title), has generated more than a few discussions and op-eds about viral ideas, terrorism, indoctrination, media saturation, bigotry, and fault. One formerly esteemed news site suggested that international attacks are “domestic terrorism,” and that American domestic terrorist is somehow a racist middle eastern caricature from a Breitbart panic. Another website’s piece, explored how media, from talking heads on television to calculating but naturalistic memes on social media get inside our heads and play on our weakest spots to make us hate. The mix of real nations being manipulated or voluntarily being terrible, and fictional nations, such as Wakanda, has sat uneasily with some. I would like to think I am not the first person to notice how many of the primary characters in this comic have been “dead,” and resurrected, or that the fictional nations are the ones primarily being untouchable by viral hate, and supporting the heroes, here.
It’s a dense book that does not feel at all restricted. Artist, Mahmud Asrar, spent the entire first issue making sure the main character, team founder and leader, Jean Grey, stands or sits higher than every other character in every single panel. If they are taller, she is farther in the foreground. If they have dominating body language or visual style, she is cropped larger than them in relative panels. Jean Grey, like her ideas and her goals, is big.
And, we want to be Grey. None of us aspire to the villain of the piece, who is petty and shortsighted and essentially stamping her feet like a toddler in a way that will cause global war and genocide. Nor, do we desire to see ourselves as the real life nations in the comic, as the Britain, United States, or Poland who can be manipulated, pushed into badness by lies, anger, finance and social expectation. We want to be Wakanda, Atlantis, the underdog fictional minority whose narrative state is to always be the fictional underdog minority.
When the op-ed writer noted above failed to understand that American domestic terrorist is first and foremost defined as terrorism by Americans enacted in the United States, I believe it is because they want to be Jean Grey, framed for a murder by a telepath, not abusive police who simply choose to be abusive, or news presenters acting out for ratings and because something incredibly sick has been fostered in their heart. The bad must be them, over there.
Just as many of the main characters have been dead before, most of them have done themselves damage, before, even if it is damage easily waved off as someone else’s fault. Jean Grey has been ridden by the cosmic spirit called the Phoenix before, more than once. The Black Panther has lost his title as King of Wakanda do to what amounts to ego. Namor is made of self-destructive impulses, flexing, and confidence. Nightcrawler’s low key anxiety is legendary. Trinary’s first feat as a mutant, was never not going to land her in jail. Gabby and her big sister both use hubris and diving headfirst to downplay the exceptional trauma of their young lives. Gentle subconsciously inflicts pain and shame on himself simply for being who he is, because his parents and neighbors made him feel that is the way it should be. Series’ villain, Cassandra Nova, is literally the gendered agglomeration of ugliness from someone else’s mind, given legs and the illusion of freewill.
These X-Men are the heroes, but they are heroes in part because they are a reflex reaction against worse destructive forces. And, because they try to be better than they have been in their past.
Early on, there is a pair of talking heads who will follow us through the series, commenting against one another for television broadcast, a stock right-winger and a stock liberal. And, here is where Red feels less constrictive but is still very tight: That liberal voice is introduced to us immediately after a mutant makes a point of his three-fingered hand still being a hand, as he tries to save someone’s life, with her defining, “human,” for her cohost and the cameras, as “ten fingers, ten toes.”
We have bigotries and default assumptions we do not realize. And, when we do realize, often we immediately make excuses. “That’s the outlier, though.” “I was thinking of normal people.” “Fiancees aren’t forever.” “The Phoenix made me do that.” Excuses that may be half-true, maybe even more, but that can also mask our genuine responsibility for our actions and beliefs.
In Red, the X-Men paint up a sentinel and use mutant powers to soothe it into working for them, but the underlying and persistent truth is that the sentinel is an engine to murder mutants. But, what would be the alternative? At what point does the underlying threat outweigh the good achievable by redirecting the strength that gives that threat its dread potency?
This repurposing of the sentinel is what Cassandra Nova is doing with humans, of course, and with mutants. With people. And, to a lesser degree, it is what her psychic counterpart, our team leader, Jean Grey does when she manipulates someone into believing they are ordering coffee and not giving away state secrets or puts a violent protest to sleep. It is what the news does when it misinforms and confuses an audience trained from birth to trust in the objectivity and passion of the newspeople. What we do when we vent, when we share, when we cajole and edit facts and occurrences to fit narratives that support and ease things for us, in our own shortsighted and inevitably selfish lives. Hypocrisy and counterbalance are the mustard and catsup of life’s hotdog. Just because you put onions or chiles on top of the mustard and catsup, or you prefer a pickle, does not mean that the majority of dogs out there are dressed in yellow and red.
So, are we the domestic terrorist? I damn well hope not. Don’t be.
I am literally telling you, Don’t be.
But, we enable the machines. We participate in the maintenance, lubrication, directing, and application of the machinery of terrorism, of hate and violence. Sometimes, that is our choice, sometimes it is our training, and occasionally, we have had it forced upon us. It is important that we can at least try to distinguish when it is from within us or outside of us that these impulses and directives come. And, to admit when it is a mixture of both.
Reading X-Men Red and deciding you are Wakanda, not America, feels real good. To be the exiles, even, in Wakanda, Attilan, or Atlantis. But, those exiles brought their head bugs with them, their mental infections and infestations, and those are not all fantasy or superpowers. We, real people in the real world, have head bugs, too. And, we take them with us when we go elsewhere. We bring head bugs the way invasive and exploratory forces throughout human history have brought head bugs and physical illnesses, to which indigenous populations may have no protection, no immunity. For one of us to go to Wakanda, would be to be our home nation inside Wakanda, like a sliver in a lion’s paw or a bullet a half inch from the temple and two inches in.
Wakanda, itself, has far more open borders than some rhetoric would imply. The same issues that the King of Wakanda flew in the Fantastic Four for the first time, he also flew in a pianist from another nation to play a concert. Wakanda takes in refugees from its neighbors. Wakanda is also rife with bigotry against those neighbors, has spousal abuse, has petty crime, a cult of ignorance and intellectual elitists. When the X-Men move to Atlantis, they are housed outside the nation in the ruins of a neighboring ghost town.
The X-Men bring in fantastical mini sentinels and psychic juju to seeming-utopias, to fantasy lands, in Red, but they also bring in their colonialist histories, their social histories and nationalist assumptions. So, would we. Not terrorism, but it is a danger, it can be terrorist in its achievements. And, we have to watch for that, in our own lives, if we travel abroad or visit the next town over, or when we are in the grocery store or at the gas station, the library, the local elementary school. How do we use our influence? Our power? What are we bringing in, and what do we spread?