Who Gets To Be A Superhero? Race And Identity In Comics

Fiction Week

The X-Men comic franchise has proven remarkably sturdy in the half-century since its launch. They’ve spawned dozens of animated series and four major Hollywood films with a fifth due out this summer. A big part of that is due to its central premise — a minority of superpowered humans called mutants are discriminated against by their government and fellow citizens — which has functioned as a sci-fi allegory for everything from the civil rights movement to the AIDS crisis.

“The X-Men are hated, feared and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants,” Chris Claremont, a longtime X-Men writer once said. “So what we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry and prejudice.”

In many stories, those themes are underlined and circled using language from the real world. The X-Men’s leader, Charles Xavier, and Magneto, his nemesis, are on opposite sides of an ideological debate over whether they should try to integrate with humans or not. They’re referred to by writers and fans explicitly as analogs to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. In the firstsecond X-Men movie, a teenager revealed that he was a mutant to his parents in a scene that was framed as a kind of coming out. (“Have you ever tried…not being a mutant?” his mother asks.)

But an artist named Orion Martin noted that the X-Men comics have on the receiving end of much real-life discrimination: the main lineup in the X-Men team has been mostly straight, white dudes. Martin nodded to the work of Neil Shyminsky, an academic who’s written about the X-Men’s complicated relationship with real-life racism:

[He] argues persuasively that playing out civil rights-related struggles with an all-white cast allows the white male audience of the comics to appropriate the struggles of marginalized peoples … “While its stated mission is to promote the acceptance of minorities of all kinds, X-Men has not only failed to adequately redress issues of inequality – it actually reinforces inequality.”

So Martin decided to reimagine them, recoloring some famous panels so that the main characters are brown — a gimmick that changes the subtext and stakes for the X-people.

In the new re-imagining, Wolverine, known for “his snarling, predatory aggression” becomes “a stereotype of angry black men.” My Code Switch teammate Matt Thompson, who didn’t have a much previous knowledge of the Emma Frost character, said the as black and as white underscored how hypersexualized her portrayal is.

But the remixing also drew attention to the ways that metaphor doesn’t work, and some of the other ways race informs comic characterizations and fandom. So we decided to pick the brains of some serious, thoughtful geeks.

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