By Arturo R. García
For me, the aura around Marvel’s X-Men franchise took a hit this year, thanks to the raceFAIL that derailed the otherwise enjoyable X-Men: First Class. After all, playing up a group of heroes as surrogates for the marginalized when they’re almost entirely white, cis-hetero folks was more far-fetched than any bit of sci-fi on the screen.
There’s something similarly problematic undercutting this year’s big story in the X-Men comic books, Schism. Much like First Class, Schism isn’t a bad superhero story so far, per se, but its’ focus on the team’s internal politics only highlights how Marvel’s creative process has done “too good” of a job of marginalizing mutantkind, both as a collection of characters and as any kind of representation of diversity.
Spoilers for Schism and other X-stories under the cut.
As Schism #3 hits stores today, here’s where we stand: bad stuff is happening, and mutants are getting blamed for it. Again. This time around, it’s an attack on a peace conference by Kid Omega, previously left brain-dead but now reconstituted and looking like the telepathic, telekinetic lovechild of Alfred E. Newman and John Lydon. Of course, there’s outside forces manipulating the conflict, and in issue #2 last month, we saw the X-Men attempting to defuse some of the chaos, protecting a world that hates and fears them, as usual.
But the Kid and the crisis are just window dressing; the actual hook for the story is, this is The One Where The X-Men Take A Break. Like, split up – at least for the next big story arc – into camps led by Cyclops and Wolverine. The problem is, where the team goes, now seemingly all of mutantkind goes with it.
Part of that problem came about via canon: in the conclusion to the House of M crossover six years ago, the Scarlet Witch cast a spell that drained the powers of millions of mutants, leaving just 198 mutants at the time worldwide. In the years since, most of that remaining population has followed the X-Men to the San Francisco area.
But Marvel as a company has to be held responsible for the other part of this issue. Even before House of M, when mutants were flourishing, the company’s desire or ability to present many compelling mutant characters – good or bad – outside of the X-circle was, at best, severely lacking.
Aside from Peter David’s success with X-Factor and past miniseries like NYX and District X, most mutant involvement outside of the team’s old home in Westchester County has been limited to supporting roles in other superhero books: The Beast and Sub-Mariner have been part of various Avengers squads over the years; in the 1980s, most of the original X-Men briefly found their way into teams like the original X-Factor or the Defenders; and Marvel, it turns out, gave us a Lady Gaga-like character 30 years too early, when Dazzler had her own solo series. (Why was she able to put on such a great light show at her concerts? Baby, she was born that way!)
But we never met, say, a relatively-super-fast courier in the New York depicted in Amazing Spider-Man. Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson never hired a legal assistant with an extra-eidetic memory in Daredevil. Mutants have been part of Marvel’s world, but never really in it, unless they were either engaging in terrorism against “normal” humans, or part of anti-terrorism factions. And what should have been a pivotal moment – Storm’s becoming Queen of Wakanda when she married the Black Panther – has been all but completely de-emphasized. How, exactly, is an internationally-recognized diplomat not even a write-in candidate for leadership of the X-Men, not to mention one who once kicked Cyclops’ ass for the job?
Meanwhile, even if the X-Men have, in canon, been mostly welcomed in San Francisco, we still haven’t actually seen any of the other 190-plus mutants who joined them out west do … well, much of anything. There’s no mutants shown running for office, or covering the team for a local paper or television station, running a business, or even dating a member of the team. Cyclops, we’re told, is leading them, but we don’t know anything about them.
Instead, Schism will eventually ask us to care whether Cyclops or Wolverine represent them in front of the world. It’s an easy call to make: neither one should – they’re professional superheroes, and they’re enjoyable, believable characters in those roles. But, as no character in Schism has much bothered to point out, neither of them is a diplomat or statesman like the team’s original leader, Charles Xavier. And though Xavier is sure to show up in Schism before it’s all said and done, Marvel hasn’t given readers a figure to succeed him, or even emerge as a positive voice for mutants who would rather spend their time not fighting in spandex. That level of editorial neglect is galling, even if it benefits the X-Men “brand.”
It can’t be enough for “some of our favorite characters” to be mutants; at some point, Marvel needs to start letting its’ mutants be actual characters. First Class should have reaffirmed to Marvel that centering a story around Civil Rights Era terminology carries much more weight than any of Stan Lee’s good-natured fanfare. And though Schism can still be a decent superhero story, it’s probably missed its’ chance to be anything more than that; in fact, having to “choose” between two white guys’ as the Leader of the Oppressed threatens to make it look just as dated as the movie, without the excuse of being a period piece.