Comics’ default position on diversity seems to be one of avoidance – a position that’s perfectly summed up by the Scarlet Witch’s memorable phrase, ‘No more mutants’. Those three words might also suggest the best way forward; let’s stop talking in metaphors and put the actual minorities in comics, to tell their own stories.Andrew Wheeler has written an interesting series of columns in which he tackles how mainstream comics (i.e. Marvel and DC) have attempted to deal with the issues of racial prejudice, sexual inequality, and dubious minority representations. It's a informative survey of the seemingly arbitrary and incoherent editorial decisions that publishers make in order to preserve continuity. These topics inevitably induce a fair degree of defensiveness amongst fans, which isn't always a good thing. But the "No more mutants" sentiment is a good place to start.
- Andrew Wheeler
I don't currently follow the inner workings of most mainstream titles, particularly the X-books. So I really can't tell how this latest mutant massacre differs from other past massacres. But Andrew does briefly touch on one thing about the X-Men that's bugged me for a long time now - While the mutants are clearly an oppressed minority, in themselves they are an incomplete metaphor for "race". The X-Men comics traditionally viewed race from a mainly negative perspective, which was one of discrimination and resentment. Mutants were either hunted-down and rounded-up, recalling genocidal campaigns. Or they were lynched, echoing more contemporary events from within the country.
What was missing in these portrayals was a preestablished culture. If people are going to insist that mutants are a metaphor for real-world racial politics, then the lack of an ancient tradition is a pretty big omission. But the mutants started out as a blank slate. As a group they didn't have their own archaic customs, norms, myths, art or science. They didn't have their own alternate history that was being suppressed by a more powerful culture. As an ethnic group, they're still spankin' brand new. They started out in the comic pages being vaguely defined by a popular misinterpretation of science (the X-gene and the effects of radiation), but were unable to counteract it with any kind of long-standing, internally generated cultural identity. The claim that mutants are the next step in human evolution makes them an imperfect analog for the ground-level concerns of real-world ethnic minorities. And if I recall correctly, the core members of the X-Men were already brought up within mainstream America. They were simply denied by widespread prejudice from openly integrating into it. So it's no surprise that they were downright miserable a lot of the time (That and living lives that were a never-ending soap opera). But not exactly the same as of people being discriminated for coming from an alien background. If the X-Men were ever a suitable metaphor for any particular group of people, it would be for the series' own devoted young fanbase during its meteoric rise.
Of course, it's not unrealistic to expect any group ostracized for whatever reasons to form their own counter-culture at some point. The tentative beginnings could arguably be traced to arch-villain Magneto's separatist ideas, and accelerated to its logical conclusion during Grant Morrison's run. But I guess that's all being undone now in the name of bringing the X-Men back to their roots. As Andrew quotes editor-in-chief Joe Quesada: "...we ended up with a mutant island where there were over six million of them, and every time you’d turn a page, you’d see a mutant on every corner. We even had ‘Mutant Town’. So, one of the things that we wanted to do was put the genie back in the bottle.”
None of this is meant to imply that Joe or anyone working in mainstream superhero comics is racist, or sexist. But it does serve as one example of how working with decades-old legacy characters, while being beholden to older modes of expression, can sometimes make it harder for creators and readers who want to explore new and possibly fertile ground proscribed by genre convention, fastidious fandom, or protective intellectual property owners.
Or perhaps Marvel's merry band of misfits are just no longer the optimal vehicle to drive a relevant discussion on race and diversity, if they were ever one at all.