X Marks The Ghetto: Schism Re-illustrates Marvel’s Mutant Problem

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.

  • gwhiz

    Absolute genius, and one of my bigger gripes with the status quo. To be fair, I think the “put upon minority goes to the most accepting city in the US” idea was one of the smartest no brainers I’ve ever seen. I wish I’d thought o of it. A lot of Fractions ideas with the X-Men were clever and some of the characters he integrated into the story were great (Dazzler, Northstar, Namor and Magneto? Whats not to like) but a ton of other potentially interesting characters make throwaway appearences, just to be reminded the X-men have become a community. It would have been incredibly better served editorially to create a book/series that simply dealt with the civilian mutants who were trying to make a go of life in San Fransisco, or at the very least deal with the day to day issues of running a mutant nation (the West Wing X-Men style)… but nothing came of it. 

    Schism has proven to be a much better read than I’d expected, what with the Hellfire Kids Club being slowly developed and particularly vile little characters in their own right. (Funny how a young black kid being the sole heir of a multi-generational slave trading organization can make  me instantly despise him). Idie is a particularly endearing, utterly self loathing character, and one that has a very interesting voice as far as minority identity is concerned. I hope to see a lot more of her, and more importantly hope her arc towards self acceptance/worth gets the “screentime” it deserves. 

    And you’re 100% right, between the youngest characters like Hope’s disciples, the young X-Men, and the other unsung characters need higher profiles. When it came to Uncanny’s flagship “all hands on deck” inclusion and its aims at showcasing the X-nation, it was more tell, not show. And its the only really glaring oversight I can say hurts the past year or two of stories (besides Necrosha…but nobody should count that). 

  • Keith

    It would be the opposite for the other outcasts known as the inhumans during their cosmic adventures, annihilation, “war of kings” and “the thanos imperative”. I actually liked the cosmic marvel arcs better than what’s been happening on earth 616. X-men are not what they use to be been reading stuff from the 70′s and 80′s.

  • http://tariq-kamal.livejournal.com/ Tariq Kamal

    It’s kind of funny, but I did a catalogue of who the X-Men kept fighting, and it always boiled down to a Group of Noble But Ineffectual Mutants fighting a Straw-Man Argument. The Straw-Man Argument could either be The Ironic Nazi, The Dude Who Holds On To The Theories Of Social Darwinism For Over Several Thousand Years, The Feral Youth or The Decadent Amoral Special People.

    And it’s kind of telling that yeah, mutants in the Marvel Universe never really had connections outside of their rather circumscribed universe. Even in the 90s, with the sprawling “diversity” — because you don’t get to call yourself diverse when your minority characters tended towards parody — it was very clear what books belonged in the Marvel Mutant Universe and what belonged… everywhere else.

    Seriously, you’d think that if mutants were such a big deal that they’d have more impact in the Marvel Universe. But they don’t, not really. Or else you’d have seen more nuance to Xavier’s position than “teh hyumanz are alwayz afred of whut they no unnerstand, letz kill dem!”

  • Anonymous

    I see what you’re saying but the X-Men haven’t been what you want them to be for a VERY long time and don’t think they ever will be. The mutants were never really integrated into the Marvel Universe.  There were times when the X-Men took the Avengers to task for only coming to the X-Men when they needed support/help but never really showing up during mutant crises.  

    It’s a shame that the editorial potential of “No More Mutants” was never realized and we just reverted back to status quo.

  • http://profiles.google.com/robinmargolis Robin Margolis

    Right on so many counts..  It’s funny how Marvel, which rightfully deserved a fair amount credit for the resonance of the mutant metaphor, has very rarely extended the metaphor in more meaningful ways. As they strive for a more inclusive Marvel universe, you can’t help but wonder why they didn’t go so much further with one of the main places they got it right originally (and where they are less burdened by remaining loyal to characters who are as white as you’d expect of the eras they emerged from). I do miss the days of the 90s sprawling soap opera x-universe if only because there were so many more characters who were from all over the world and many different backgrounds…

    On a side note, Ultimate universe is ahead of the game on this front too. Mutants do show up as characters in the other story-lines, with Kitty Pride mourning Peter Parker in part because he was an ally to mutants and someone who actively stood up against prejudice.