Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men

164 – This Is the Mutant Revolution: Live at Rose City Comic Con

Art by David Wynne. Wanna buy the original? Drop him a line!

In which Jay and Miles finally sit down for an in-depth discussion of the political weight of superheroes and what the X-Men mean to us in America’s current political climate.

Correction: In the episode, we said that Kyle Yount produced this one. In actuality, Kyle recorded the episode and Kurt Loyd produced it. Sorry, Kurt!

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  1. I do wish we’d see more actual politics in X-Men comics. I want a member of the team to openly run for office. How about a mutant mayor for Salem Centre?

    One of my favourite X-Men runs is the Morrison run, and a large part of that is how political it was. It really explored the mutant metaphor, in a way that is so much more interesting than just Sentinels and Purifiers. He really got into what it means to be a minority. There was mutant culture. There were the U-Men, engaging in mutant cultural appropriation.

    The Morrison Era had that slip into other books, too. I remember an arc of (I think) UXM where Chamber was dating a pop star, and it turned out she was using him to firther her career, garnering controversy while getting points for being so accepting of mutants. There was also District X, and I would LOVE for a book similar to that to be brought back. A book about a few neighbourhoods in New York, full of mutants. And it wouldn’t be about big epic action, it would be about more personal dramas. The mundane injustices of being part of a marginalized group. That would be so much more compelling, to me, than yet another attack by the Purifiers.

    I suspect my love of the X-Men is probably a part of why I care so much about diversity. Like Miles, I’m a cishet able-bodied neurotypical (as far as I know, anyway, I’ve never been tested) white male. So I’m very well-represented. And yet, I’ve always felt drawn to the X-Men. So I think the fact that I was drawn to a group who is marginalized made me a lot more empathetic to people from marginalized groups, and better able to listen to what they say about the problems they face in society.

    And I will agree that Ms. Marvel is amazing.

    I absolutely agree that “Political Correctness” is bullshit. I tend to think of it as “Personal Consideration,” instead. Because that’s really what it comes down to.

    Assuming no one else has pointed it out yet, Misty Knight debuted January 1975. So, a little earlier than Storm, but not by much, and Misty was still basically human, cybernetic arm notwithstanding.

    On the trans characters question: Marvel’s three most prominent trans characters are Tong, from FF, Koi Boi (who’s not actually explicitly stated on-panel as trans), from Unbeatable Squirrel, and Sera, from Angela.

    So you didn’t get into it here, but I feel “mutants are a bad metaphor” argument that some people make should be addressed, given the premise of this panel. People argue that, because mutants actually are dangerous, the metaphor doesn’t work. But the thing is, people already use examples of “dangerous” individuals to discriminate against groups. Gay men are still not allowed to donate blood, because of the “threat” of HIV/AIDS, even though it’s really easy to screen for that now. The existence of a small number of Muslim terrorists is used to justify things like the Muslim ban. Every time an unarmed black guy gets shot by the police, the defence is that the victim COULD have been dangerous so the cop was justified in getting scared. So, the fact that some people from marginalized groups can be dangerous – because any group has members that can be dangerous – is always used to justify discrimination, oppression and marginalization. So, yeah, that definitely relates to the mutants-as-minority metaphor.

    1. Yes so much to the last paragraph. I think it was the Michael Brown shooter testimony wherein the cop made Brown sound almost super-human in his strength and ability to withstand force. Whatever the killing was (it’s sad that there’s been so much I can’t keep them straight), I remember reading early Bendis’s X-Men at the time where the police where freaking out at hte mere presence of a new mutant and thinking how – even if black Americans don’t have dangerous superpowers – they are sadly treated too often by the authorities with force as if they did.

    2. Re: the “mutants are a bad metaphor because powers” argument. I think that’s a case where, to be generous, people are importing in a different objection than the one that they’re ostensibly expressing.

      Because, umm, metaphors in general are based identifying two things that share only some features and are otherwise different. If I say that someone was a lion in battle, I do not mean that the person had tawny fur and claws, and it’s not a sensible objection to say that s/he did not, or that s/he did not appear in wildlife documentaries with David Attenborough breathlessly narrating the brutal death of wildebeest.

      But it can be useful to think about what the differences are doing. Powers do a few different things (off the top of my head). One that I’d emphasize is that they make mutants less constrained in their choices than real minorities. This helps take a lot of the practical objections to radical actions off the table and redirect the question towards moral considerations.

      Powers also help a readership which, historically, was conceived of as white and male identify with this particular minority without dissonance. This is especially true in the Silver Age, when the X-Men are WASPy and upper-middle-class even by the standards of Silver Age comics. (Take the powers away, and what you have is a idealized school story fantasy about how great elite private education is, one that manages to make actual school stories, like the traditional British one, seem dark and gritty. Note the absence of bullying, usually a staple of school stories.) But even since the ’70s revival, X-Men comics notoriously have difficulty dealing with prejudice against minorities except via the mutant metaphor. I.e., this aspect of what the powers are doing is not automatically a good thing. There are some really problematic things in here, but this is already a ridiculously long comment…

      But – it’s really obvious but also really important – the main thing that the powers (along with the costumes, codenames, etc.) do is make this a superhero comic. The X-Men are about a metaphor for prejudice within the conventions of that particular genre.

      This is where I get to the “importing in objections different from the ostensible one” bit. I think the objection here is, as you say, “Mutants actually are dangerous ” and therefore the non-powered majority would be justified in taking actions to control them – in the real world.

      But we don’t worry about that sort of thing in superhero comics in general. It doesn’t have the same moral implications, but this is very similar to arguing that Reed Richards inventing superscience devices all the time should have changed the way that people live. Superhero comics are based on “artificially” intruding powers into real-world situations without worrying about the fact that doesn’t “make sense.”

      This is not to say that I don’t think that you’re also right that it speaks to fear of minorities. But one has to be a bit careful there, because the objection, as I understand it, is that with mutants, the fear is justified and that this is precisely where the problem lies – because it means that the metaphor is suggesting that the police officer was right to be afraid and that minorities really are a threat.

      I’d argue that the X-Men require one, as the price of entry, to set that aside, like the lion’s tawny fur and claws, and that this is a reason why it matters that the X-Men are a variant of superheroes, because it places them in a genre where the reader is accustomed to set aside “real-world” objections as the price of entry in general.

      Part of why this objection comes up a lot, I think, that the X-Men owe a lot to the recurrent theme in traditional SF prose fiction of exploring how society reacts and develops in response to the sudden appearance of super-powered people (often with psychic powers). (I suspect that Lee’s line that he was tired of having to think up origin stories is well, a classic Lee version of the truth, shall we say. Kirby read extensively in science-fiction and often drew on it for his influences.) That tends to cue the traditional SF reader’s response of asking “What would really happen?” instead of the normal superhero reader’s response of “I will just accept this situation as a given and ask how the character’s choices work within this context.”

  2. This talk of politics reminds me of one of my favorite X-Force issues where Sam brings up the “closed fist” approach of Magneto or “open palm” approach of Xavier:

    “Nothing you say is untrue, Sam. Although it is ia bit simplistic.”

    “No more simplistic than your dream, is it? Or Magneto’s separation theories. Or Cable’s Get ’em before they get you attitude? Nothin’s as simple as y’all want to make it! We’ve already learned that much! Now the next step’s seein’ what we do with what you taught us.”

    “it can all be boiled down to simple questions, Sam–will you walk the path of violence or salvation? Disruption or unity? The closed hand or the open fist?

    “Funny, you should bring that up, sir.”

    “Here’s mah closed fist, Professor. It can be used the way Cable taught us–ta hit–ta pound–ways you say you don’t agree with, right?

    “But it can also be used ta warm and ta support…ta protect! As for the peaceful approach of the open hand–well that can be used to hurt, as well.”

    That’s how I see our role in resistance these days. We can be the fist that protects, as well as the open hand that fights back.

    1. Doesn’t Sam demonstrate that last point by using his open hand to slap Prof X in the face? Or am I misremembering/fantasising?

  3. I fucking LOVE you guys. As a cis het white dude from a lower middle class background I’m totally here for the “paper windows”. Thanks to books like the X-Men I’ve learned that it doesn’t MATTER if you’re a gay, French-Canadian super-speedster or devout Catholic Scottish werewolf, a bipolar woman with green hair or a “person who throws bones from out their body for some reason”. Everyone has value and everyone should be judged on what they do, not merely if they’re blue furred or red haired or black skinned or a techno-organic teenager from outer space.

    And it astonishes me that people can read these books and NOT take that lesson away. Even someone as ubiquitous as Cable (and cliché ridden as Stryfe) teaches us that a person can be two very different people and be legitimately good or bad depending on only a few changes.

    Don’t change, Jay and Miles, unless you feel that’s where your life is headed and then change, cos we trust you to make the right decisions for you!

    And feel free (at least from my pov) to get political more often. You described a hero as someone using whatever “powers” or opportunities they have to do good, to BE good, and I’d point to your place as having a successful podcast to maybe be a position of power that you can use to steer at least a couple of minds towards the light. But only so much as you are comfortable doing so. Each of us have different levels of arrestability, as you said.

    1. I believe they were a character from the 2003 Mystique series, but I don’t remember much in the way of detail – does anyone know more specifics?

      1. I couldn’t make it out either, but do they mean Quiet Man? I’m also not finding anything on them actually being trans, just body hopping.

        And after typing that, I’m saddened at how common a phrase “just body hopping” really is in X-Men.

        1. Hi, I was the audience member who answered. I said that it was the Mystique solo series which included an actual trans woman who Mystique sympathized with, but also contained some icky stuff. The Quiet Man would be the icky stuff. I was pretty uncomfortable with that. But in an earlier issue, there is a real, human trans woman who Mystique helps out – although her situation is addressed in less-than-accurate language. I hope I wasn’t out of line in bringing it up then, but it really is the only example of a real trans person in an X-Comic that I am aware of.

            1. It . . . it gets worse when the Quiet Man shows up. This part is at least sympathetic. IDK what the author was thinking with the Quiet Man parts.

              1. Let me prefix this by saying I genuinely mean no offence and do want to be educated. I am a white, heterosexual male in my late twenties living in a small, wealthy village in rural England. I know I sit in the sweetest of sweet spots for privellege in 2017. Can someone please explain to me what specifically is problematic about the panels linked to as I know I could do easily use some of the language their and if it could be considered ignorant or offensive is sooner avoid that. Obviously people can only speak for themselves but I would find it helpful if that’s not too stupid to ask

                1. The problem is the scene continually calls the character a man. The woman says she’s “not a lady” yet. And then Sheppard calls her a guy. But regardless of any surgery taken, regardless of whether transition has started or not, a trans woman is a woman, a trans man is a man. The woman in the scene was a woman. She needed money to make her body closer to what it should be, but she was still a woman.

                  1. Ah, I didn’t even pick up on that. I only scanned Shepard’s dialogue truth be told, I was looking through prior to this. Yeah, I get that. Cool, thanks for clarifying.

  4. *sigh* Feels. Torn. Is there such a thing as an audio paper window? Once again, I’m too weird for the normal kids, and too normal for the weird kids. Kidding (kind of), but beginning my 5th decade on the planet I didn’t think I’d still feel like I did in high school. But when you guys put so much passion into what we all care so much about, you really have created a family, and you can’t always choose your family members, right?

    1. Wow. Emo moment. Sorry to have gone all Forget-Me-Not on you guys. When you feel like you’ve found a family, and then a couple years in you’re told you can’t be a member of the family, but you can stand over there and say you support us since our fight for unity isn’t the one you thought it was. I mean, I get it. I guess. Kinda makes me the Stevie Hunter of the group. My struggles are not yours, so I’m not on the team. And I’m OK with that. At least I’m still a supporting character.

      1. I’m two drinks in to my first pre-NYCC night, so all disclaimers present, but:

        I don’t know, man. We all have different struggles – and for me, as Captain Privilege in a lot of ways, those struggles are more minor than those of some – but at the same time, we X-Fans – and we J&MXPtXM folks, both creators and listeners – have always felt like part of the same team to me. Yes, our challenges are different, our experiences are different – but we care about a lot of the same stuff and have trouble with a lot of the same things, and we support one another. To me, that means our differences unite us. Like the X-Men, you know?

        1. I should have expected no less.

          You’ve got a big heart, man. Thank you.

          You like liking things, and that includes people.

  5. Good Boy in the latest Great Lakes Avengers series has a complicated sexuality that I don’t know the proper terminology for. They’re a female furry that literally turns into a male wolf fursona. This is not some kind of crude joke character, I hasten to add, though the whole comic is of course lighthearted. I think the title’s cancelled, but hopefully the character gets picked up and used elsewhere, where it might all be explored in more depth.

  6. Fucking thank you for that bit about the MLK vs Malcolm X dichotomy. Every time someone brings it up I feel like I’m going even madder than when people talk about Jean like she’s dying and resurrecting constantly.

  7. On the discussion of “mutant” often replacing all other minority statuses (I’m sure I phrased that poorly), I thought I would ask if you’ve read Black Panther & The Crew #2 by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Yona Harvey. That issue has a wonderful moment where Storm explicitly talks about how she identifies as both a black woman and a mutant. It’s not necessarily touched on in any great detail, but the story as a whole explores what being black means to Ororo. It’s not an X-Book, but it’s something that’s not explored enough (particularly in a way that’s not the “African goddess” thing).

    1. I would love to have Yona Harvey write a Storm solo series. That issue of BP & The Crew was great, and I’d love to see what Harvey would do with Storm on an ongoing basis.

  8. Loved this so much. Been having so many discussions lately on comic book comments section with people who don’t want to think let alone debate that this was a breath of fresh air. Recently had someone commenting about race and identity and he raised X-Men and I could only throw it back in his face

    ‘…the staple of what X-Men comics have been about for the majority of their run: a minority group of people bound together despite or because of external prejudices who have a purpose tied to but well beyond defying those stereotypes put on them. Give the stories a read, you may like some of them. There’s explosions and robots too so if you want you can always just look at the pictures’

    Refreshing to hear sanity on this podcast.

  9. Just wanted to say thank you for sticking to your policy of “stay out of current politics during normal episodes”. I vehemently disagree with Jay’s theoretical framework and actually had to cool down a bit before writing this, but that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the podcast. Keep up the good work!

  10. I just discovered this podcast a month or so ago, and I’m blazing my way through it in order (quick fan gush: you two are amazing! I love you both!).

    I wanted to comment about the “paper mirror” and “paper window” references to seeing yourself (or into someone’s perspective) through the X-Men. That is such a perfect way to describe it, so amazingly put, and I plan on using those terms repeatedly in my future!

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