The X-Men were created for two primary reasons. One was because Stan Lee needed another superhero team and was feeling kind of lazy, so he threw up his hands and said, “You know what? They were just born that way!” The other was as a at-times heavy-handed anti-racism allegory. The year was 1963, and the Civil Rights Movement was heating things up across the country. Younger readers of comic books could be taught a lesson on tolerance, and comics were a good medium for that, so here were the X-Men, mutants who were feared and hated by non-mutants for the crime of being born different. But the X-Men were good and defended regular folks against the evil mutants of the world, in an attempt to prove that not all mutants were evil.
Even given the sliding scale of Marvel time, where everything outside Captain America and the Invaders’ exploits during World War II depicted in a Marvel Comic (barring the upcoming Secret Wars) has taken place over a roughly 12 year time period, the X-Men really suck at their task of promoting tolerance.
Now, let’s be fair: racism has always existed and it probably always will. Human beings if nothing else will continue to create reasons to hate each other, sometimes to the point of violence, and stereotyping people is a handy way to keep from seeing other people as real human beings. Even today there are folks who will stereotype others based on often artificial barriers like race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, economic class, party affiliation, religion, and any other difference that may or may not exist and will continue to do so until the end of time.
On their end, Marvel’s superheroes are often people for whom superpowers tend to have adverse side effects, even if said side effects are mostly of a more serious social order than the average Silver Age DC hero whose biggest problem was getting their girlfriends to love them in their everyday guise and not as their superhero alter ego.
Now, it does make a certain amount of sense for some heroes to be distrusted in the Marvel Universe. Spider-Man gets powers from an animal my wife freaks out and demands me to kill should she spot one inside. The Hulk routinely causes untold amounts of property damage every time Bruce Banner stubs his toe. Namor flooded New York City once back in the 40s. And many mutants lack either control of their powers, or are pretty freaky looking.
But this is the same universe where the most beloved heroes are arguably the Fantastic Four, and one of their members is a pile of living rocks.
How exactly does that work?
Kurt Busiek gave the best explanation I’ve ever seen in one issue of Marvels where narrator Phil Sheldon explains that even for someone like Ben Grimm, he got his powers in an accident, so he, in a sense, earned them. Mutants don’t have that benefit. That same mini-series, probably that same issue, had a panel of the teenage X-Men as drawn by Alex Ross, standing in shadows, lit only by the light of Cyclops’ visor, and looking like the freaks Sheldon assumed they were.
Another comic I can recall that gave that impression well was an issue of What If…? asking “What if Storm remained a thief?” The Storm-less X-Men burst into the apartment of Storm’s friend and mentor looking for an artifact. The mentor, an older man, hides in a trunk before they come in. Through the keyhole he sees Cyclops’ face, Nightcrawler’s tail, and Colossus’ armored leg. Then Wolverine looks through the keyhole to taunt the old guy by telling the others there’s nothing there of any consequence.
But if mutants can be scary, and people will always hate others for stupid reasons, why am I claiming the X-Men suck at their jobs?
Because the level of hatred directed at mutants in the pages of X-Men comics seems to be way bigger than it should be.
Consider if you will a basic truth about human beings, namely that the more something becomes commonplace, the less people are likely to actually see it as a problem. Take interracial dating as an example. The 1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner depicted a white girl engaged to a black man, but outside of a flirty opening scene in an airport during the credits, you wouldn’t know they were really all that into each other for most of the movie. She’s gaga over him, but he’s quiet and reserved. He’s also Sidney Pointer, perennial Coolest Man In The Room any time he’s onscreen, but he keeps his distance. They kiss exactly once, at the end of the opening credits, as seen in the rearview mirror of a taxicab. The reaction of the driver suggests he is shocked.
Now consider how today interracial couples are no big deal in much of this country.
Same with gay marriage, or homosexuality in general. Both are a lot more tolerated by the greater American society than they used to be. True, neither are universally accepted, and interracial love is still a problem for a lot of people, but the greater culture seems to have finally decided its not worth getting upset about. The culture has moved on to hating on other things.
Even the Civil Rights issues prominent during the X-Men’s earliest publication dates have changed. We still have racism, but it’s a lot harder to justify denying people the vote due to the color of their skin than it used to be. We’ve found new ways to hate on people, and new people to hate on. That much is not going to change.
So, why is it the X-Men have yet to make any progress at all on the whole anti-mutant hatred felt by so many people in the Marvel Universe? Why is there still a market for Sentinels? Mutants, some of them even former X-Men, have served with the Avengers. The mutant population has exploded since the X-Men first appeared. It is more and more likely the average person knows a mutant on an everyday basis and sees they’re just like everyone else, which is usually the first step towards tolerance. Grant Morrison suggested during his X-Men run that there are normal people who aspire to be mutants, that he called the U-Men, who attempt to gain powers through, well, let’s just call it involuntary postmortem mutant organ donation. Why is that not more of a thing? Why are mutants still being hated on so badly?
It must be comics logic that says people should be hating more on this:
Than on this: