On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the activist, orator and the man once referred to in eulogy by the late Ossie Davis as “Our Shining Black Prince,” El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (most commonly known as Malcolm X), I quite foolishly decide to wade into that whole X-Men analogy thingy. Of course I’ve been warned. Of course I know better. But since when has that stopped me? So then, let’s do this thing.
Black Politics, White Gaze
“Malcolm X is Magneto and Professor X is Dr. King! And mutants are black folk!”
If you were black and grew up in the 80s and 90s reading or watching the X-Men, this line (in some variation) was your mantra. And for good reason. It made your love for the popular Marvel comic book something personal. Yeah most of the characters were white, but you got the symbolism–like African Orisas hiding behind Catholic Saints in those candles in the “ethnic” part of your grocery store. What’s more, it was the best selling point to family and friends on why you were so geeked about the X-Men. And it worked! You converted whole legions of black folk to your love of admantium claws and what-not because the black history tie-in was so obvious. So effortless. So seamless.
Or was it?
In recent years this popular mantra has come under criticism. Mainly, many argue that the notion of the X-Men as part of a Civil Rights allegory, complete with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King as Magneto and Professor Xavier respectfully, is distinctly wrongheaded and problematic. So is that the case? Were my childhood sensibilities somehow off? Was I (and a whole lotta folk I know) seeing things? Creating illusions rather than allusions? (I’m proud of that deft rhyme scheme by the way) Turns out, that like trying to explain to someone why the awesome Dark Phoenix Saga should never, ever, never be misconstrued with whateva the heck they were trying to do in X-Men: the Last Stand (burn it! burn it with fire!)–it’s complicated.
Back in 2011 Steven Padnick at Tor blogs was pretty blunt about where he stood in his article, “Professor X is Not Martin Luther King.” There you go. Padnick argues that Martin Luther King Jr., a peacenik, would never agree with Professor X’s outfitting of a mutant group who believes self-defense is sometimes necessary. Further, Magneto to Padnick is no Malcolm X; any such correlation he asserts, conflates “a monstrous villain with a respected civil rights leader.”
And Padnick finds ready agreement in numerous posts like David Brothers By Any Means back in 2006. In an unauthorized psychoanalysis of the X-Men genre titled Prejudice Lessons from the Xavier Institute Dr. Mikhail Lyubanksy argues near the same, stating that while such analogies are “provacative,” they are “entirely inaccurate.” Lyubanksy states that the real Dr. King never served to “shield whites” from blacks, the way Xavier works to shield humans from mutants. Further, Lyubanksy asserts that to correlate Malcolm X with Magneto is to equate the latter’s “fanatacism and terrorism” with a much more “multilayered” historical figure, which only “serves to reinforce many White fears and stereotypes about African Americans in general and Black Muslims in particular.”
No real quarrel from me here. These arguments make excellent points. Professor X and Magneto are simplistic, reductionist and even stereotyped versions of the historical Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. I also think however that in the end, that is the *entire* point. Because if anyone wants to know where this whole Civil Rights, Black Power, Malcolm & Martin analogy came from–one need look no further than the Marvel franchise and figures intimately tied to the X-Men Universe.
In more than one interview, X-Men creator Stan Lee has referenced Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr as personas for his Magneto/Professor X dichotomy. Or at the least, he has let it go unchallenged when mentioned. Even more muddling, Lee has hinted that the analogy was not direct but may have been subconscious. In a 2000 interview he stated that the X-Men were “a good metaphor for what was happening with the civil rights movement in the country at that time.” Co-creator, the late Jack Kirby, is not known to have ever spoken directly to the issue.
Marvel itself has never outright denied the Malcolm and Martin analogy. After all, being cutting edge and forward-thinking in the 1960s in dealing with real world issues is now enshrined in the brand–the X-Men and Black Panther (both created Lee & Kirby) serving as key examples.
A fitting comparison, this icon of the mythical Wakanda was created actually before the Black Panther Party of Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. The panther symbol may have derived from the preceding Lowndes County Freedom Organization or even the famed WWII 761st black tank battalion the Black Panthers. The original T’Challa in fact isn’t all that political. But he certainly grows into the role over time. Yet it seems almost naive to believe that in the heady moment of Black Power, Kirby and Lee at Marvel were ensconced in some bubble that cut them off from such popular social currents and media imagery. What’s more, there is a way in which fandom can mold a character within the current zeitgeist. Whatever Kirby and Lee’s original intent with Black Panther, for many readers (particularly young black readers of the day) he became entangled with Huey, Bobby and the Afro-sporting, Africa-praising, dashiki wearing, Blaxploitation-watching spirit that imbued the Black Arts Movement and more.
It’s not too far-fetched to see similar dynamics within the X-Men.
Brian Cronin at Comic Book Resources argues that despite Lee’s later claims, the original X-Men of Lee and Kirby did not fit the Civil Rights allegory. He acknowledges however that there was a shift in the X-Men universe towards a social/racial/Martin/Malcolm analogy over the years. In other words, the X-Men as characters do not remain static. Like Black Panther, they have changed and adapted with the time. They are affected by the larger social currents of their day, as new creators and fans imbue them with new perceptions.
What seems agreed upon by many is that the full tilt towards the X-Men’s Martin & Malcolm persona came under writer Chris Claremont, who took over the return of the comic in 1975. The original ran from 1963-1970 and was virtually resurrected by writer Len Wein in May 1975, who introduced a more diverse team in Giant Sized X-Men #1. Wein invited the young Claremont to take over Uncanny X-Men that August in Issue #94. Claremont would continue at the X-Men’s helm for seventeen years, turning it from a barely read comic into one of Marvel’s most popular franchises. Claremont (born in 1950) was one of those young X-Men fans who came of age in the Civil Rights and later Black Power Era. The racial inscriptions in his writings seem hard to miss, and it’s during this time that the Malcolm and Martin analogy became popular to readers of his work.
Under Claremont the larger notions of X-Men facing “racial destruction” at the hands of a hateful humanity came to dominate the X-Men mythos. This is where we get the classics like “Days of Future Past” where the X-Men face a Holocaust type extinction after a virtual “race war.” It’s where the Sentinels turn into a literal mix of the Gestapo and Slave Catchers, and a lot of the X-Men’s deeper political aspirations become grounded.
In keeping up with social issues, in the 1980s Claremont even gives us Genosha–a society modeled on South African apartheid where mutants are enslaved and live their lives as oppressed citizens…located quite purposefully in the X-Men world off the coast of SE Africa. In the end, its citizens are exterminated in a mass genocide. As Claremont himself stated, “The X-Men are hated, feared and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants.
In the 1982 Claremont classic God Loves, Man Kills, the story starts off with the literal lynching of two black mutant children (seriously, they are *lynched*) deploys the words “nigger-lover,” has an anti-mutant hate group called Purifiers modeled blatantly on white supremacists (complete with a type of Celtic Cross symbol) and has Magneto at perhaps his most Malcolm X-esque.
This “racial symbolism” would stamp the X-Men during what many consider its “Golden Age” and influence writers/creators/readers to present day. No wonder that when director Bryan Singer signed on to do the first X-Men movie, he repeatedly gushed in interviews about how this would be a classic tale of the “conflict” between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. To make it blatantly clear, he even has Magneto declaring “By Any Means Necessary” as his final lines in the flick.
So the analogy is certainly not the creation of just fandom. It’s long been part of the franchise, either subtle or blatant. The question often asked is, was this the original intent? But really, does it even matter?
We don’t have Jack Kirby to answer, so Stan Lee’s conflicting statements are what’s left. Perhaps in the end it was just coincidence, as Lee sometimes alludes. But, as with Black Panther, it seems a stretch to think that sitting there in 1963, Lee and Kirby were oblivious to the goings on sweeping the country. And they created a comic book about “difference” and “oppression” wholly divorced from the political/social workings of the day. I find that about as hard to believe as I do that Hegel’s master-slave dialectic wasn’t influenced in great part by the Haitian Revolution. Like Susan-Buck Morss asserts, “Hegel knew”…and I think about the same for Lee and Kirby. They knew.
It could also be that Lee & Kirby only drew in part on the Civil Rights Era, as they also pulled on other histories of oppression. Magneto after all is tormented by the ghosts of Nazi Germany, not Mississippi. And over the years, contemporary issues of discrimination and difference have been imbued within the X-Men universe. Today the analogy often referenced for the X-Men is one of sexual orientation and “othering”–showing once again how malleable the characters are to the spirit of a given age. It may also show how much the Civil Rights era has become a fulcrum on issues of difference in our society–and why so many real life groups have modeled their struggles on this template. These are after all shared histories. In the X-universe, the deadly and very man-made Legacy Virus (which to many fans in 1993 showed analogies to HIV/AIDS) seemed to pull on conspiracies out of both the LGBQT and African-American communities. So it could be that Magneto and Professor X were only partially based on Malcolm and Martin, and that the X-Men are stand-ins for the larger human question of “how do the oppressed deal with their oppression, and how may it affect them in turn?”
Still, whatever the original intent in 1963, the X-Men’s relationship to the Civil Rights/Black Protest era certainly became firmly established later on–especially by younger writers like Claremont, whose lens of oppression lay mostly in America’s black/white racial turmoil. Cronin in fact argues that Lee’s claims to the Martin and Malcolm analogy are his way of taking credit for the popularity of the Claremont era, thus allowing the comic to have one seamless continuation from start to present day. As recent as the 2011 X-Men movie First Class, the stars of the film were referencing the Martin and Malcolm duality, as reported in the April 26 edition of the LA Times:
‘X-Men: First Class’ star: MLK and Malcolm X influenced our story
How’s this for unexpected territory in a superhero film: “X-Men: First Class” not only uses the Kennedy years, the Civil Rights movement and the Cuban Missile Crisis as a backdrop for its retro tale, the movie’s story of two massively powerful mutants who struggle against bitter prejudice was directly informed by the complicated lives of Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“It came up early on in the rehearsal period and that was the path we took,” says Michael Fassbender, who stars as the emotionally scarred Erik Lehnsherr, who will become the militant mutant known as Magneto. “These two brilliant minds coming together and their views aren’t that different on some key things. As you watch them you know that if their understanding, ability and intelligence could somehow come together it would be really special. But the split is what makes them even more interesting and tragic.”
And here we come to what may be the crux of the matter: the perceptions of Martin and Malcolm in the minds of white society and how they fit within the larger American memory.
Again, the criticisms that Magneto and Professor X hardly behave like Malcolm and Martin are quite valid. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are certainly not the one-dimensional characters portrayed in the X-Men. Most notably, Malcolm X is not really comparable to a figure twisted by past wrongs into a villain who leads a “Brotherhood of Evil.” The notion of Martin Luther King Jr. as a “dreamer” also manages to entrap his complexity within one moment (and one speech) in time. The question is, why have comic creators (perhaps Stan Lee; more assuredly Chris Claremont; definitely later movie directors and actors) found it so easy to think of both historical figures in those reductionist terms?
It may have to do with many of us taking a modern liberal reading of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as static, unchanging and universal. This however is hardly the case. Martin Luther King Jr. during his life wasn’t a universally revered icon. Even in the north, he was viewed as a troublemaker and a nuisance by much of the mainstream press. Both Newsweek and TIME only covered the Montgomery boycott belatedly, and even then reported more on the ways in which white Southerners were being inconvenienced. During the historic events in Birmingham, many in media blamed King for stoking violence and placing children in harm’s way of dogs and fire hoses. President Kennedy himself found King’s activism at times troublesome for his own domestic agenda, sending Robert Kennedy at one point to urge against the March on Washington. Jacqueline Kennedy was even more blunt, in personal recordings calling King “phony” and “tricky”, and claiming, “I just can’t see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking, you know, that man’s terrible.”
It was not until after the March on Washington that magazines like TIME changed their tune, nominating the man they once ignored as Man of the Year–a love affair that fell apart dramatically after King spoke out against the Vietnam War. Despite the rehabilitation of the Civil Rights Movement in popular American memory today, King and black protests as a whole were hardly popular to many whites of the day:
Malcolm X to much of the press was indeed a villain incarnate. Starting in 1959 with Chris Wallace’s CBS expose “The Hate that Hate Produced,” Malcolm X was painted as a racist radical with a hatred of whites. Even after his break with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was depicted as a fanatic, at best a sensational firebrand whose provocative words sold papers and brought in audiences. J. Fred MacDonald in his 1992 book Blacks and White TV: African-Americans in Television Since 1948, noted that, “except for a few black-hosted programs long after his assassination in 1965, television… portrayed Malcolm X as a hate-filled, racist radical.”
These one-dimensional portrayals became part of popular American ideas of both men. Following his death, Martin was re-shaped into an American hero, his more radical anti-war and anti-poverty side omitted in favor of an eternal “dreamer.” Re-imagined as well was the myth of his mass acceptance, with his lengthy FBI file almost deleted from public memory. To complete his sainthood however, he required a foil–which was found conveniently in Malcolm X. Contrasting the two men in very one-dimensional terms become common, in both popular culture and education: the integrationist versus the separatist; a message of love versus a message of hate.
It was the more radical activists and academics who rescued Martin and Malcolm from this simplistic binary fate. In the late 1980s thru early 1990s, Malcolm X found resurgence as a hero among black youth culture–especially Hip Hop, where his speeches laced songs and his face appeared on t-shirts and posters. For these admirers, the points of convergence between Martin and Malcolm were more important than their differences. Spike Lee’s use of the photo of their embrace in 1989’s Do the Right Thing (the product of a mere chance encounter), became the ultimate symbol of this reconciliation. By the time of Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic Malcolm X, a more nuanced interpretation of the radical leader had filtered into popular society. The culmination of this transformation came in 1999, when the US Postal Service–in an act of mind-boggling co-option–unveiled a postage stamp of Malcolm X. To think, just a decade earlier Public Enemy had declared in “Fight the Power” that “none of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”
Professor X and Magneto are indeed faulty and inaccurate portrayals of Martin and Malcolm; but at the same time they may be *truthful* portrayals of how American society has long perceived both men. Why would anyone assume that Stan Lee or Chris Claremont, who grew up in the era of these one-dimensional portrayals, would have more nuanced modern ideas? Even the most recent present day filmmakers haven’t caught up. The question here is then, what do such problematic analogies say about popular analyses of the wide spectrum of black political thought, namely black radicalism? How do we view that part of our history, with all the implications of race it holds, in our national memory? And why are we more comfortable with simple binary dichotomies than nuanced complexity?
In Stan Lee’s defense, he always stated he originally intended Magneto not to be a villain–though that’s where the comic eventually took him. Over the years Chris Claremont also makes Magneto a more complex character, who from time to time forms alliances with Xavier’s X-Men to fight against the greater oppression mutants face. For a while, Magneto shifts from villain to perhaps good guy, finally arriving at anti-hero. It was almost as if through Magneto, Claremont was trying to figure out his own conflicting views of Malcolm, black radicalism and oppression–spilling those musings onto the pages of his comic books. And it was this mix of contradictions, binary conflicts and sometimes brilliant, but too often ham-fisted, attempts at race analysis that young fans like myself readily devoured.
Over at the blog Musliem Reverie, the analogy of Martin and Malcolm to Professor X and Magneto is skewered with well-made points that are hard to disagree with. And blogger Orion Martin cuts to the chase on the whole thing and asks why the need for all the “symbolism” and run-around in tackling the race issue so obvious in the X-Men? Martin lays it all bare on the table and asks directly, What If the X-Men Were Black?
As a black kid growing up, I was both fascinated yet put off by the whole analogy. It was a mental minefield that I had to wade through with each reading. On the one hand, I was ecstatic that these two icons were part of a comic book I so enjoyed. When and where else was I going to see Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and issues of race so obviously on display? It drew me to the comic and made me an X-fan for life. I even stuck around after that whole House of M, Wanda Maximoff, “No More Mutants,” fiasco. I mean, what the entire f—??
On the other hand, there was never a time I wasn’t troubled by the one-dimensional portrayals. This wasn’t the Malcolm or Martin I knew. Nor were these realistic portrayals of the Civil Rights or Black Power Movements. They were someone else’s caricatures, some twisted, just off-kilter version of history that did not speak with my voice. It was someone else’s voice, a bit of racial ventriloquism–only in tights and with superpowers. But what was I to do? This was the speculative world that I was presented with. I could discard it completely or I could try to deal with it. So as with so much else in genre, I merely re-imagined and reinterpreted things to suit my own psyche. I found myself often rooting for Magneto, and having lots of empathy for his point-of-view. Even when he was made out to be the bad guy, I found a way to take his side. He had damn good cause to not trust humans. He was mutant and proud! And I understood exactly why he wanted to create a separatist haven on some far-off asteroid. For me “Magneto was right” long before it became a slogan.
There wasn’t too much contradiction in Professor X as Dr. King having a defense force like the X-Men for me, because he was never the simple “dreamer” of popular depictions in my mind. The Dr. King I knew, as journalist Charles Cobb has recently pointed out, at one time (early on) carried a gun and was protected by a cadre of folk who did the same. He at once preached non-violence, but also knew quite well “That nonviolent stuff’ll get you killed.”
Like Spike Lee and others who tried to find commonality between Martin and Malcolm (even if at times forced), the story lines I enjoyed most were when both mutant icons had to join forces to ward off some greater threat. My villain was never Magneto–it was Sentinels, Purifiers and a larger world out to oppress, enslave, marginalize and destroy mutant kind. I knew that world and that history all too well.
So in the end, of course Martin and Malcolm aren’t Professor X and Magneto. But heck, Martin and Malcolm in the popular memory of America aren’t themselves either. Nor are the Civil Rights or Black Power Movements that shaped so much of America. They’ve always been something else, something cartoonish, made-up, refitted and half-remembered. When someone (usually black) gives us anything more daring, it tends to make lots of people uncomfortable. Exhibit A: Director Ava DuVernay‘s Oscar-snubbed Selma, with a strong, forceful King, a cameo by a nuanced Malcolm X, a watered-down LBJ and nary a white-savior in sight. When we start accepting more realistic visions in our real life understanding, perhaps it will filter on down to the comic books–which only reflect us in turn. But for now the X-Men universe is the one we got, because it’s the one we’ve made. And with all its possibilities, illuminations and glaring faults, it’s perhaps one of the best lens to examine our own very real perceptions.
*This post can probably be read in conjunction with a prior blog on Race and Comic Books.