Of all the superheroes ever created, Stan Lee’s X-Men have the greatest ties to societal issues. Created in 1963, the X-Men were imagined as outcasts and shunned by their societies. A stark contrast to the decades of superheroes that had preceded them, most of whom were graciously accepted by their fictional worlds the moment they stepped onto the scene. Even the dark and brooding Batman was a colorful costumed crimefighter who happily strolled down daylight streets in that age.
So the idea of heroes who were hated by the people they were sworn to protect was quite the change. Lee tapped into something that no other hero had done. Not even Spider-Man, who he had created the previous year. These were characters who were different at their very core. The X-Men are mutants, born different than the rest of the world. Whether they are given extraordinary powers or strange appearances, they are hated for being “weird” and off-putting to those who do not understand.
And whether it was obvious to readers at the time, the X-Men were directly linked to both society-wide issues of the age and the daily struggles that teenagers face growing up and finding themselves. This was 1963 after all. The Civil Rights Movement was forcing change to happen, fighting against personal, governmental, and institutional racism. The Chicano Movement and American Indian Movement were also underway, along with feminism and LGBT rights gaining greater momentum than ever.
While the X-Men may not have caused any real world victories, they were a vital aspect of what society was being shaped into at the time. Every decade has fictional characters, publications, and films that are direct reflections of the times. Superman and Captain America were at their peaks during World War II, fighting alongside the Allies against Nazi Germany. Easy Rider captured the hippie movement and drug culture in 1969. Comic characters like The Punisher and Wolverine reflected society’s increasing focus on violence and crime during the 1980’s and early ‘90s. The list goes on and on.
So if the X-Men were crafted as representations of society’s issues during the early 1960’s, what are they today?
Rebirth Like The Phoenix
You may not know this, but The Uncanny X-Men, the superhero team’s only publication at the time, was cancelled in 1970 with issue #66. The comic continue to limp on to issue #93 by reprinting old stories, a move that would never happen today.
What happened to this societally-pivotal book that led to the stories stopping? A variety of problems. Boring characters, a lack of real ideas, and just a generally poor direction. Maybe The X-Men were not as relevant any more. Maybe, like their comic book world, they were too strange to ever be fully accepted.
In any case, the X-Men were gone.
Until writer Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum decided to revamp and reintroduce the team in 1975 with Giant-Size X-Men #1. This standalone issue brought back the mutant team in a big way. While they were still comprised of mutants who have been shunned by society, yet still want to protect the world, they took on a decidedly international constitution.
As a setup to the new direction, the old X-Men had been captured and Professor Charles Xavier was forced to create a new band of X-Men to rescue them. These characters, either brand new or only briefly introduced before, hailed from around the globe: Colossus (Soviet Union), Storm (Kenya), Nightcrawler (West Germany), Thunder Bird (Apache Nation), and, of course, Wolverine (Canada).
The new team represented a kind of cultural awareness that was sorely lacking in comics at the time. Now, being a person who didn’t fit in with the world wasn’t just a United States-based, white-centered problem. People all over the world were facing these issues. And as the series progressed, the team confronted issues across the world, as well as throughout the universe.
And really, it was this revamped team that led The X-Men to become some of the biggest comic book characters of all time. The series has been continually published since then, even becoming its own type of miniature comics line within Marvel Comics itself. But that is not to say the books have been without issue or have not needed continual reinvention.
The Ups and Downs of Marvel’s Mighty Mutants
The 1980’s saw the X-Men go in about as many directions as a superhero team possibly could. The decade not only started with one of the team’s greatest stories of all time, The Dark Phoenix Saga, but also had Days of Future Past and God Loves, Man Kills, all of which have been used for the live action X-Men films. Not only that, but Wolverine became a breakout character. Whether that is a good thing or not is up to your opinion on a character that eventually became featured in dozens of books every month in order to get fans to buy as many comics as possible.
But if The X-Men are reflection of their times, then the 1990’s were all about incomprehensible narratives, terrible ideas, horrible fashion, and a focus on style over meaning in life. So yes, The X-Men are a pretty accurate barometer for society. Even though this was the time when The X-Men and their many members were at the height of their popularity, selling millions of copies of comics every month and beating out the likes of Batman and Superman, few of these stories will ever be remembered for their quality.
In the time since, the X-Men have gone through drastic changes, each with some tie to society. Ideas of terrorism led to a much more focused and grounded team. No more colorful spandex, all black leather and tactical missions. Global catastrophes were echoed with the Decimationstoryline, where millions of mutants lost their powers, leaving only about 300 mutants in the entire world. Political strife and a country at war with itself were reflected in Schism, where the X-Men split between Wolverine, who became more of a teacher, and Cyclops, who eventually became a terrorist.
If The X-Men are meant to reflect the modern world and even its potential future, then the team must be subject to constant reinvention and turmoil. Just like our real world.
Finding Meaning in Mutants
People will not be able to relate to every superhero. Many find Superman stiff and boring, or Batman too dark and brooding, or Spider-Man too light and jokey. But the X-Men are meant to connect to the parts of us that feel not only unique and special, but out of place and broken. Even the most morally upright and inspiring members of the mutant team have their issues and struggles.
It’s even more telling that the villains that have continually fought against the team have become members at some point or another. Whether mutants embrace the light or the darkness, they are still people shunned by the world for something that they could not choose for themselves. Take a look at both heroes and villains and see how you may relate.
- Wolverine (Enhanced healing and retractable claws) – Rage issues and self-loathing
- Magneto (Master of magnetism) – Hatred of humankind due to childhood trauma in concentration camps
- Cyclops (Optic blasts) – Control issues leading to violent rebellion
- Sabretooth (Enhanced healing and claws) – Sociopathic tendencies due to childhood abuse
- Beast (Animal-like physiology) – Extreme self-consciousness and self-doubt
- Juggernaut (Superhuman strength and durability) – Violence and fraternal hatred from childhood trauma
- Deadpool (Extreme healing factor) – Memory issues, self-hatred, and mental trauma
- Jean Grey (Telepathy and telekinesis) – A tendency to die a lot
- Nightcrawler (Teleportation) – Self-consciousness and religious tribulations due to devil-like appearance
- Mystique (Shapeshifting) – Constantly changing allegiances due to lifetime of near-death survival
- Professor X (Telepathy) – Savior complex and a tendency to be a total jerk
- Jubilee (Pyrotechnic explosions) – Abandonment issues and a rebellious streak
- Rogue (Power absorption) – Relationship issues and multiple personalities
It’s no wonder that The X-Men have been embraced by so many different groups over the years. The LGBT community can relate to hatred over being born a certain way that others do not understand. Homophobia and mutant hatred aren’t much different (as seen by X2’s line, “Have you ever tried not being a mutant?”). Teenagers going through bodily changes can relate to the sudden onset of mutation. It most often occurs during the teenage years and puberty. Anyone discriminated against because of skin color, sex, nationality, or any other feature that is in the minority can find something in The X-Men as a whole, or a member of their very large ranks.
And as long as there is prejudice in the world, and let’s face it, it’s not going away, The X-Men will be relevant. But remember, the things that make you different make you special. You may not be able to control the weather or rapidly heal from any wound, but you can take what makes you unique and use it to make the world a better place.