DISCOURSE DISH: Marvel’s Mutants, Allegory, and the Anxiety of ‘X’

This week, I’m taking a brief break from my usual Discourse Dish subject matter.  I know I’ve made my name with this column primarily in talking about DC Discourse, but this week, we’re hopping the aisle.  This week, with Death of X on the horizon, I want to talk about mutants.

Specifically, I want to talk about being an X-Men fan in a climate of constant anxiety.

X-Men fans pretty much operate in a constant state of ‘the sky is falling.’  For the most part, it makes sense.  After all, Marvel’s treatment of the X-Men in this millennium includes a lot of anxiety-inducing decisions.  From M-Day to the Terrigen Mists, the X-Men keep facing existential, species-level threats.

This reflects powerfully in the X-Men fandom’s response to pretty much any mutant news.  Every announcement made since I joined the fandom in 2014, the fandom has met with unmitigated pronouncements of doom and despair.

At first, I would respond to these pronouncements by saying they didn’t make any sense.  “Wait for it!” I would say, “The book comes out six months from now!”

I still trusted that the story would make sense later.  When it came down to it, I still trusted Marvel’s ability to tell a good mutant story.

I don’t trust Marvel anymore.

When it comes down to it, I know exactly why the X-Men fandom is full of pronouncements of doom.  Most of the time, the worst does come to pass.  A lot of the time, it seems to come out of Marvel preferencing the teams they own the movie rights to over the X-Men.

But dear god, does it make fandom a difficult place to be.  A constant reminder that the story, fundamentally, does not care about us.

I mean by this that Marvel on the whole fails to realize what it does when it constantly pits the X-Men up against existential, genocide-level threats.  Marvel fails to realize how much of the X-Men’s audience consists of people who relate to the X-Men on an allegorical level.

By consistently pushing the X-Men up against the wall, Marvel creates an abnormal level of anxiety in its audience.  Fans who see themselves either outright or allegorically reflected in the X-Men, and in mutants as a whole, can’t use the X-Men for escapism the way that we could in earlier eras.

When I read a Silver Age X-Men story, the X-Men aren’t fighting to stay alive.  Stories like the Dark Phoenix Saga got to focus on the characters and their personal growth dealing with something other than survival.

But it seems that since M-Day, the focus has shifted to those survival stories.  Sometimes that works — the trauma narratives post-M-Day were phenomenal at times — but now, a decade after M-Day, it doesn’t work anymore.

Personally, I’m exhausted by the existential threats.  My favorite X-book right now is All-New X-Men specifically because it doesn’t play into that narrative.

By deviating from that focus on survival, All-New X-Men allows for other stories to be told.  Idie Okonkwo gets to confront the doctrine that convinced her of her own monstrosity.  Hank McCoy makes some of his older self’s mistakes.  Teenage Bobby Drake flirts with boys and panics about the constant process of coming out.  Evan meets his genetic donor before that kid became Apocalypse.  These stories can exist in major part because these kids don’t get mixed up in the Terrigen Mists plotline.

When I read All-New X-Men, I get the escapism I’m looking for in a superhero story.  The allegory still exists — the Inhumans/Mutants conflict still looms in the background, and mutants never stop being mutants — but it feels real instead of overwhelming.

As an LGBT person, I’m lucky enough to live in a country that, for the most part, only passively wants me dead.  As such, I have room to exist outside that risk of death.  I can confront my religious background, have relationships, and a million other things.

I miss the days when I could say the same about the X-Men as a whole, even though they came long before I was part of the fandom.

Additionally, Marvel’s focus on rehashing survival narrative with mutantkind prevents real engagement with the allegory.  An astonishing number of potential stories get lost when you focus on existential threats.  If the X-Men existed in a world that only passively wanted them dead, there are a million beautifully nuanced stories you can tell there.

Stories like Idie’s, where religion convinced her she was a monster.  Or stories like teen Bobby’s, where having one marginalized identity made him afraid of owning up to having another.  These stories shimmer with complexity, with human reality.

Of course, a complex story requires more nuanced forethought.  When dealing with an allegory, particularly, writers would have to engage with other people’s experiences.  Writers would have to write outside of their comfort zone, which, I know, is hard.

But wouldn’t it be worth it, on an artistic level, and on a social-consciousness level?

The X-Men come originally from a desire to tell a socially-conscious allegorical story.  I think maybe the writers responsible for multi-title and longterm plotting need to reexamine that core principle and ask themselves if they’re upholding that.

In the meantime, I hope the fandom keeps withstanding the anxiety we exist within.  We deserve better than this.

I can only hope that someday soon, we’ll get it.


Murphy Leigh

Murphy is a vaguely femininish malady who spends most of their time worshipping at the altars of Lois Lane, Chloe Sullivan, Jean Grey, and Wanda Maximoff. Their first confirmable event-memory is Princess Leia at the start of A New Hope. Has more in common with Lex Luthor than Lex Luthor would probably like to admit.

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