Race + Comics: On Alex Summers, Apologies, And Assimilation

By Arturo R. García

Alex Summers, a.k.a. Havoc, delivers his team’s mission statement in Marvel Comics’ Uncanny Avengers. Image via ComicsAlliance.com

As a fan of both the X-Men franchise and some of his past work, I’d like to believe the best from writer Rick Remender’s online apology over his mishandling of the recent criticism surrounding his latest issue of Uncanny Avengers.

Unfortunately, regardless of intentions, “sorry” needs to be the first word in these discussions, not the last. And his statements both before and after apologizing don’t engender any more trust in his ability to properly explore the theme his story introduced. Which is a shame.

The issue began with a problematic speech given by former X-Man Alex Summers — aka Havok — at the conclusion of last week’s issue, in which he decries the use of the term Mutant, calling it “divisive,” and “old thinking that serves to further separate us from our fellow man.”

Now, the speech is problematic, but not strictly out of character for Havoc, especially not in his current position. His appointment as head of the Avengers’ “Unity Division,” a squad made up of both mutants and “regular” superheroes, marks his second turn working under federal auspices; years ago he was the leader of a government-sponsored version of X-Factor. And you can argue that as a character, he hasn’t shined any brighter than during that era or the period of time he was written as the leader of the intergalactic adventuring team the Starjammers, which took him away from the fights the other X-Men had to navigate in a “world that fears and hates them.”

Which makes this slam his brother Scott (aka Cyclops) actually ring with a harsh bit of truth:

A more precise way of describing Alex’s journey might be to say that he hasn’t been as invested as his brother or many of the other X-Men in the mutant rights struggle. And that is in part because he has the privilege of being able to pass for a non-metahuman. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. In fact, in the static rhetorical world Marvel has cultivated around the franchise, it represents an opportunity to explore authentically new ground, as Cheryl Lynn Eaton explained.

“Alex’s speech is ridiculous and naïve, but I was impressed at first because it represents a real-life view,” Eaton offered on Twitter. “After all, you could have wandered through CPAC and found a woman or POC giving a similar speech.

Alex Summers, Mutant Conservative? That’s an interesting story. But that’s not how Remender chose to defend it on Twitter, in a series of statements that have since been deleted, including this exchange with Comics Alliance editor-in-chief Joe Hughes:

Or this one:

And the one that seems to have directly prompted his apology:

Here’s how Remender described the back-and-forth to Newsarama:

When I made those Tweets, I wasn’t aware there was greater larger debate on the internet, I had no idea there were honest and thoughtful people taking issue with the story; I was just aware of a few people calling me names, or accusing me of being a racist, on Twitter. And because the language I used was so broad, the response was written like a general, “Anyone who opposes this POV is wrong” and “eat ####.” It was a moment of low impulse control, a careless mistake made in response to hurt feelings. I meant the comment to be sort of goofy, but that’s clearly not how it came across.

Of course, this tweet, also deleted, was not accounted for in the interview:

Even if @GlassJaw02 was one of “those people” telling Remender to “eat ####,” the critiques shown above, as well as this one from Ladies Making Comics, were not inflammatory:

This was Remender’s response:

Remender’s declaration that he didn’t agree with any of the arguments being presented, as well as his dismissal of the analogy presented to him, also butts up against this statement to Newsarama:

Alex represents just one opinion on what it means to be a mutant in today’s world. His speech doesn’t 100 percent reflect my own POV any more than any character I’ve written — Punisher, Archangel, Heath Huston. A writer learns a character over time — you slowly define their POV, you try and get in their head, but they are not you.

So according to Remender, Havok isn’t him, but he didn’t agree with any of the proposed reasons why some readers may have had an issue with that scene. And even while reiterating to interviewer Albert Ching that he “owns and regrets” the “hobo piss” tweet, which this reader very much appreciates, his tone regarding criticism doesn’t jibe with this sentiment:

I love debate and wish I had more time to engage in it, without it we stagnate and become complacent. I appreciate criticism, and I appreciate being shown when I am wrong in order to learn and get better at what I do and the way I think about the world I live it. My intent was not to shut down debate but was instead a poorly executed emotional reaction to some ugly labels being applied to me by strangers.

Not exactly mission accomplished:

As for that “larger conversation,” let’s look at some of the long-form criticism directed at Remender:

  • ComicsBeat: “The idea that ‘mutant’ is an ‘m-word’ is comprehensively wrong. The idea that equality is reached via erasing differences is wrong. And the message this scene puts across is that minorities – for, of course, mutancy in the Marvel Universe is used as a metaphor for the struggles of persecuted minorities round the world, be they of a different sexual orientation, gender, race, religion – should want to become invisible and fit into their surroundings. It’s a message that minorities should feel ashamed of who they are, and seek to become, quote ‘normalised’.”
  • Joshy207: “Imagine if a single gay man or woman who barely anyone has heard of takes to a podium after being appointed spokesperson of the LGBTQ community by a group of people with a track record of being 99% heterosexual (in this case, the Avengers) and declares: “stop calling us gay, or homosexual”? Yes, people in the LGBTQ community are human, and yes people outside of the community are human too, and yes we are equal: but to deny that the community exists comes across as an attempt at assimilation, not equality.”
  • Comics Alliance: “There is an implication in Havok’s speech that ‘mutant’ is a slur, ‘the “m” word,’ — which, whether the writer intended for it to or not, very obviously draws parallels to the n-word — but it’s the word mutants use to describe themselves. It can be used pejoratively — as can ‘gay,’ ‘girl,’ ‘black,’ ‘Jew’ — but it’s still the definitive linguistic presentation of a minority identity. Even if ‘mutant’ were a slur beyond reclamation, Havok presents no alternative language. The movement away from the terms ‘negro’ and ‘colored’ to identifiers like ‘African-American’ wasn’t about rejecting labels. It was about rejecting the labels forced upon you and choosing your own. But when a reporter asks Havok what he wants to be called, he says, ‘How about Alex?’ The speech leaves us to believe that Havok doesn’t want there to be any word that describes his minority identity. He’s not saying that he’s not just a mutant, but that ‘mutant’ is not among the things he wants to admit to being. That’s not a message of inclusion. That’s a message of assimilation. That’s a message of erasure.”

None of these critiques have been addressed by Remender, by Marvel — editor-in-chief Axel Alonzo has seemingly said nothing regarding the issue, at least on Twitter — and not by Wolverine & The X-Men writer Jason Aaron:

“Mutant and Proud” shirt sold by Marvel. Image via superherostuff.com

This position would be easier to explain if the company hadn’t spent literally decades mining and appropriating rhetoric surrounding a multitude of communities. A few examples: the references to Charles Xavier’s “dream” of mutants and humans co-existing; the forced dichotomy between cooperation and militancy as the only two viewpoints aired related to mutant rights, first with Xavier and Magneto, and later with Wolverine and Cyclops as the respective spokesmen; the team’s 2008 move to San Francisco as a “sanctuary city;” the company’s decision to sell shirts that literally say, Mutant and Proud.

And it’s interesting to hear Aaron denying any link to the LGBT community less than a year after this statement from Alonzo regarding the wedding of Northstar:

When gay marriage became legal in New York State, it raised obvious questions since most of our heroes reside in New York State. Northstar is the first openly gay character in comics and he’s been in a long-term relationship with his partner Kyle so the big question was – how would this change his relationship? … Our comics are always best when they respond to and reflect developments in the real world. We’ve been doing that for decades, and this is just the latest expression of that.

It’s also worth mentioning that none of this is an indictment of Aaron’s and Remender’s writing ability; on the contrary, Remender’s work on Uncanny X-Force, particularly “The Dark Angel Saga,” will be properly regarded as recommended reading years from now. But that is a different kind of story than the one he’s presenting in Uncanny. And while he does seem to get that, he hasn’t expressed any hints that he’s done the research to help that along. The contrast between these two paragraphs from the Newsarama interview are particularly striking:

The beauty of the mutant metaphor is that it’s so inclusive — there are so many ways a person can relate to it. The mistake, I think, is to apply your own personal metaphor onto it and assume everyone else sees it the same way or that your version applies more than someone else’s. Everyone sees the mutants as themselves. Everyone.

I was an awkward punker kid raised in the city. At age 13, I moved to a very small town in Arizona, where I spent years being picked on, beaten up and made fun of, before finally running away from home at 16 and moving back to the city. I related to mutants because they were always up against the wall with no friends and they took no crap. I was this quiet kid no one liked because I dressed weird, wasn’t into the same stuff and proudly read comic books, I took endless shit for being who I was. So I identified with the mutants on that level.

Remender had previously discussed the latter point in an interview with Comic Book Queers (NSFW – language, slurs) in which he talked about being the victim of homophobic slurs because of his appearance. That experience is horrible, and Remender should be commended for the empathy this has given him.

But, it is not beyond the pale to suggest that, if he were a cis-hetero 13-year-old in Arizona today, he would be less susceptible to being asked to provide his “papers” by suspicious police; he would not be directly affected if the state enacts legislature that is openly transphobic;  and as a U.S.-born citizen, he would have less of a problem getting a drivers’ license than the children of undocumented immigrants, even if they currently have a two-year federal visa. So while Remender is asking people to remember others’ interpretations of the X-Men, he seemingly isn’t taking anybody else’s experiences into account while writing them. That doesn’t make him prejudiced, and it doesn’t make him an optimist. It places limits on his perspective. It marks him as privileged, instead of Alex Summers.

And, while I personally want him to continue as Uncanny’s writer — let’s be clear; nobody, anywhere, has called for his ouster — the current approach doesn’t bode well for his story, regardless of his intentions. Worse yet, it’s a wasted opportunity in the making for himself and the other creative teams working on the franchise: Now more than ever, there are resources that can be called upon, online and off, to make Alex’s journey back to relevance resonate. Because his viewpoint isn’t just one that happens to conflict with his brother’s. It’s one that actual people hold because of things that have actually happened to them. To not even attempt to learn about those makes this, indeed, “just another comic book.” And empty platitudes don’t lend themselves to a monthly $2.99 investment, let alone the promise of acting as a beacon of empathy for readers looking for it.

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  • EvilMonkeyPope

    I blame Stan Lee. In creating an ever-expanding subset of characters that gained powers from a natural mutation, he decided to take the easy way out by just labelling them mutants. All characters used the phrase mutant as an objective descriptor. Lee didn’t bother putting any thought into whether an oppressed minority would be so nonchalant about being labelled mutants (or why they’d name their team the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants). I get the impression that humans coined the term in-universe. While fictional
    civil rights advocates like Xavier & Magneto have used the term regularly it doesn’t mean the term is inoffensive, just socially convenient. Because Lee’s stories started things off, subsequent writers continued the tradition to the point where it’s almost etched in stone.

    While mutie is the more creative slur, you don’t really need a slur when the general termniolgy is mutant. (Personally, I think mutie is less offensive because “ie” makes words sound more adorable.) It’s a term that already does most of the work for xenophobes. Even when mutants talk about mutant rights, it makes listeners think of abberations. It’s like getting your enemy to implicitly admit that they’re wrong. While someone like Magneto would co-opt the term against his oppressors, most people would feel pretty lousy about being objectively referred to as mutants every day. If a group is labelled as being mutants, that’s going to make a big portion of the population think if the mutants are wiped out or prevented from breeding that future generations of humans will go back to being born normal. It’s a misleading term because a X-Gene isn’t a merely a fluke but is a global phenomenon. Mutant implies a short-term error rather than something society should plan for over the long-term. Dealing with mutant powers is hard enough without the built-in xenophobia. If the mutants population ever exceeds the human population, mutant would also become an obsolete descriptor.

    If Stan Lee had just picked a neutral term for mutant characters to call themselves, Havok’s speech wouldn’t have irritated so many readers. For example, DC calls its mutants metahumans & that could correlate with why its Earth is generally less xenophobic. Homo superior may sound classier but it’s taxonomically incorrect since humans & mutants can breed viable offspring. It also shifts the negative self-esteem from mutants to humans rather than equalizing it. Mutants could call themselves “Natural Superhumans” because the other superhumans cheated to get their powers. Instead of using an existing term with linguistic baggage, I think Lee should have invented an entirely one (especially for trademark & copyright purposes). I’d vote for something like wermpodiles. That way Havok could’ve said something like “I find the word mutant offensive. Although I am a wermpodile, I’d prefer you think of me as a person first & foremost.”

    • Greg_G

      There is really nothing wrong with the term mutant as I see it used in X-Men. Genetic mutation (http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook/mutationsanddisorders/genemutation) is why humans exist in the first place and not still crawling along the seabed in single cell form (you could say then that all lifeforms on Earth are mutants). The importance of Stan Lee labeling the X-Men mutants is that – unlike those metahumans in DC comics – it gave a rational, tangible, and humanist explanation for the existence of their powers. The advantages that this gives Marvel in terms of storytelling include not having to rely on the overdone Christ allegory (Superman), alien/God explanation (Superman again, Wonder Woman), or random vat of chemical bestows power shortcut (The Flash; and even Spiderman illustrates that Marvel is prone to relying on this trope). It also mirrored our increasing awareness at the time of the impact of genetics and heredity on our lives. We can relate to these characters because their powers come from the same process that all of our defining characteristics do – genetics (they were “born that way” so to speak). We don’t relate to the Supermen of comics so much as sit in awe of them, generally for the things that they can do that we could only dream of. If mutant is then used as a slur by characters in that universe it is because those characters see it as something to fear, which reflects our world in that we often fear what we don’t understand. And I would argue that “mutie” would be toeing the line of being offensive since infantilizing is often a method used to diminish people (calling black folks “boy” or “son,” calling women “girl” or “sweetheart” or “babe”).

  • Downtown Morgan Brown

    Here’s one of the articles that made people think/realize Remender has inserted himself into the story through Havok: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=41594 It was not forgotten, and is another reason people chose to engage Remender directly over what Havok was saying.

  • http://twitter.com/TheParableMan Jeremy Pierce

    I think it’s less like the N-word and more like the view that we shouldn’t use race-language at all, that terms like ‘Asian’ or ‘black’ are inherently negative themselves. That’s certainly a view that’s out there, and it’s not entirely coming from conservatives. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Naomi Zack are hardly conservative, and they’re the main proponents of views like this in the philosophy of race. Certainly a number of radical feminists have argued that there’s no such thing as a woman, that it’s a social construction that ought to be done away with entirely. The more radical right and left tend to favor views like this, and it’s not really just the extremes on both sides of the American political spectrum either. Eliminativism about identity-forming terms is basically an expression of what lies behind the color-blind mentality, which is basically a mainstream view in American politics. I think it’s very much misguided, and I wouldn’t defend either his Twitter behavior or some of the things he said in his defense, but I think it’s entirely reasonable to have a character in the comics representing that sort of point of view about mutants. It makes sense that some mutants, including influential ones, might end up with a view along these lines, and merely portraying it is not wrong, even if the view itself is misguided. It’s not as if all the other characters just agree with the character about this.

    • Greg_G

      I agree with everything you said here. I would add, though, that Remender would be well served to present an opposing point of view in the storyline, one that explains why the ideal of a “colorblind” society is unrealistic and ultimately misguided. Equality does not come from pretending not to see race, gender, or sexuality but from the acceptance and celebration of those qualities that make us different. By presenting Havok’s view as unchallenged, Remender is giving it the authority of absolute truth – one that couldn’t or shouldn’t be questioned.

    • keeks

      Well it’s no surprise that a mutant lie Havok, who has absolutely no external indicators of the mutant gene, would say something like this. He perhaps has a great deal of control over his abilities and can blend seamlessly into “normal” society unlike other mutants who look different and require enhancements or a great deal more effort to hone in their abilities. It’s misguided that his view should represent all mutants. But since he has this relative privilege it’s a reality that can work just fine for him, if he ignores how others feel and experience being a mutant.

      • EvilMonkeyPope

        Originally Havok didn’t have control over his powers. He had to wear a containment suit at all times to prevent himself from randomly blasting people & things with energy.