How many times have the X-Men died? The outcast team of mutant superheroes, whose stories have been ongoing in Marvel Comics for over fifty-five years, has through time travel created a multiverse of alternate futures in which their deaths are predetermined. In one future, they are hunted by the federal government, wanted posters pasted on dystopian brick walls, their faces marked “Slain” or “Apprehended.” Those captured are neutralized with power-dampening collars and sent to concentration camps, where they unsuccessfully attempt a rebellion that leads to their destruction by the Sentinels, giant robots with weapons in their palms. In another future, the “Age of Apocalypse,” the X-Men simply do not exist. The characters are instead warring factions whose power creates a conundrum: what to do with the humans not born superior, like them? The ensuing civil war leaves few mutants, or humans, standing. And if we forget the future and look at the ways the X-Men die in the continuous timeline we’ve been following all this time, they have been blown up in a high-rise while the world watches on TV; they have been blown up in a school bus; they have been crucified on their own front lawn; they have succumbed to a virus that only they can catch; and they have died of a poison only toxic to them. Across the years, nearly all of the main characters who have made up the X-Men have been killed at least once. Like the oppressed they represent, the X-Men’s death is foretold.

But like oppression, the X-Men are still with us. Defined by their mantra, “To protect a world that hates and fears them,” the team redefined the superhero comic in the early 1960s, expanding its repertoire of genres, from soap opera to space opera to body horror to speculative fiction, in a diverse pastiche of unstable forms used, in this case, to explore “otherness.” It is fitting that a comic book story that takes prejudice as its subject would find its setting in a school: academia being an agonistic way out of class-, gender-, and race-based discrimination for many “gifted” people. Of course, Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, the “special” academy where young mutants are recruited and trained to master their extraordinary powers, could also be seen as a paramilitary revolutionary cell training a generation of child soldiers for a coming race war. In any case, otherness, it seems, is a subject particularly suited to comics. The medium can show us the others to identify with—“us” being the deeply “othered” nerds who read such things. If DC Comics’ Justice League provides mythic bodies as surrogates for the nation (in the iconic figures of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, among others), and Marvel Comics’ the Avengers brand bodies with powers siphoned from capitalism (think of Iron Man’s seemingly limitless access to machine technology), then the X-Men can be seen as bare lives whose marked bodies band together to survive the onslaught of those forces. How could you not identify?

The X-Men, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, first appeared in 1963, the students of wheelchair-bound telepath Professor X. Instead of a convoluted mélange of conflicting origin stories, they all shared one: they were mutants, the “next step in human evolution,” born with a mysterious X-gene that manifested outré abilities with uneven use values. Cyclops had to wear a visor or else his eyes would shoot red blasts at whatever he looked at; Beast had big feet and hands; Iceman could turn into a snowman; Marvel Girl could set the table with her mind. White kids with strained relationships with their parents, the X-Men were prep schoolers who, by virtue of the fact that they were born different (even from each other), shared an alienation from the hostile society into which they were attempting to integrate. Their mandate was to fight so-called evil mutants, such as the loutish Blob or the inconsistent Mimic, in order to convince the larger society to accept them. The primary antagonist to this plan was Magneto—an exceptionally powerful master of ill-defined “magnetism”—whose Brotherhood of Evil Mutants proposed a reversal, in which the disempowered use their superpowers to subjugate their oppressors, a bigoted humanity. It has been largely accepted that the early X-Men’s mutancy served as a metaphor for the Jewishness of their creators, however latent this conceptualizing may have been for Lee (given name: Lieber) and Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg). Lee and Kirby were churning out a “house of ideas” and did not spend all that much on this one, which had flagging sales and didn’t seem to stick.

After a spotty publication history, the X-Men returned in 1975, when writer Len Wein teamed up with the visionary artist Dave Cockrum to reimagine the “Uncanny” whiteness of the original team as an international, interracial explosion of “All-New, All-Different”–ness. The new cast was composed of weather-controlling Storm (a Black woman from Kenya, with white hair!), acrobatic Nightcrawler (covered in blue with a tail and from Bavaria!), and metallic Colossus (from the USSR during the Cold War!), not to mention the more stereotypical Apache Thunderbird, Japanese Sunfire, and Irish Banshee. “Small world” tokenism aside, these new X-Men nonetheless put pressure on the following concept: If mutants can be anyone, why was the previous generation all-white, all-American? This generation of X-Men, newly immigrated to the United States, was emblazoned in bold colors, not limited to their costumes. Cockrum drew the new group hurtling toward the viewer on the cover of Giant-Size X-Men #1, astonished expressions on the faces of the original team, here made into a surface the new group was ripping apart. In the 1970s, the X-Men could begin to reflect, and represent, the multiculturalism that their creators were experiencing in the streets of New York City, and just as American society at large began to reorient its self-image toward a kind of contested inclusivity, the X-Men became a space in superhero comics where those themes were readily available to explore. Of interest is the effect this diversifying of the group had on the aforementioned Jean Grey, a.k.a. Marvel Girl, who soon evolved from a meek telepath and budding telekinetic into a fully self-actualized if doomed (but oft revived) Phoenix, a feminist awakening echoing the shifts in women’s political power of the time. Cyclops, whose eyes were a weaponized disability, now found himself confronted with his own (white cis male) privilege, unable to cope with his girlfriend’s transformation into a cosmic god. And soon, the team was joined by intangible teenage genius Kitty Pryde, whose Jewishness was not metaphorical. Racial and cultural difference was no longer communicated exclusively in code.

With writer Chris Claremont at the helm, the series’ popularity grew, spawning spin-offs such as The New Mutants (1983–91), about a younger and more specifically multicultural student body, and X-Factor (1986–98), which depicted the complicated lives of the aging original team. Joined by a host of talented cartoonists including John Byrne, Terry Austin, Paul Smith, Bill Sienkewicz, Art Adams, Walt Simonson, and John Romita Jr., as well as influential editors and writers Louise Simonson and Ann Nocenti, the creative team built an entire X-world, with few connections to the larger Marvel Universe. The one constant: the X-Men were hated and feared because they were different, and they had to deal with that, as well their fellow teammates and their differences, all the time. While mutancy is the primary factor in bringing these collectives together, the X-gene is not always present: in the building of the world, Claremont and company introduced defective clones, rebellious aliens, and ambivalent supernatural entities into the ranks. Feeling different was enough to make one identify and bond with other “others,” a supposition that began to suggest, if not actualize, the inclusion of sexuality into this constellation of differences. Reading old issues of X-Men from the first Claremont era (1975–91), it is clear that there is a queer subtext to many of the relations of the characters, including but not limited to Cypher and Warlock’s techno-organic merging into a single being in The New Mutants and the long-term relationship of villainesses Mystique and Destiny. Not-so-subtle hints lead to a prevalent fandom head canon surrounding the relationships of Kitty and Magik, Storm and Phoenix, Kitty and Storm, Storm and Rogue, and Storm in general, particularly when she trades in her flowing goddess gear for a Mohawk and leather jeans, thereby taking on some of the iconic cultural accoutrements of butch lesbian identity. But like race before it, homosexuality in the era of the Comics Code was unrepresentable, even if the culture wars of the 1980s colored all the X-Men’s exploits with a queer tinge.

The success of the comic reached a high point in 1991, when a relaunched X-Men #1 by Claremont and artist Jim Lee sold enough copies to become the Guinness Book of World Records “Best Selling Comic Book of All Time.” In 1992, the animated hit X-Men premiered on Fox Kids, a cartoon that hewed closely to the story lines in the comics. The X-Men became increasingly baroque in this period, introducing characters such as Cajun thief Gambit, gun-toting Black time cop Bishop, and one-eyed, cyber-armed Cable (Cyclops’s son from the future!), whose overstuffed backstories, overblown powers, and overadorned costumes festooned the steroidal übermenschen drawn by artists such as Lee, Wilce Portacio, and Rob Liefeld. This expanded mutant body of the 1990s suggested a shift from mutant-as-outcast to mutant-as-outlier, from picked-on wimp to aggrieved alpha. New teams were introduced to explore these bodily themes. The flamboyant X-Force (1991–2001), by Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza, fetishized prosthetic cyborg limbs and other weaponized technological appendages attached to an androgynous muscularity that engorged both the male and female characters. The counter to this was the disturbing, grunge-inflected Generation X (1994–2001), by Scott Lobdell and Chris Bachalo, a meditation on the body’s lack of integrity. Characters such as Chamber, Husk, and Skin all pointed to body-as-container, a form that could explode, rip, and stretch, mostly uncontrollably. The protagonist of both the animated series and Generation X was Jubilee, a Chinese American teenage “mall rat” who commented on these excesses of the Clinton years with a sassy, sour jouissance that exploded from her word balloons just like the nuclear fireworks that exploded from her hands.

And that’s also when the queer characters started to appear, beginning in 1992 with the Quebecois mutant Northstar’s declaration, “I am gay!” in another spin-off book, Alpha Flight (1983–94), about Canadian superheroes. Northstar would later join the X-Men, and in 2004, he married his partner, the African American human Kyle (in Astonishing X-Men #51, written by Marjorie Liu). The ceremony was attended by mutants from both sides of the Canada–United States border, but because their marriage was not legal in the US at that time, Northstar then faced deportation, putting a strain on the couple. During this period, several new queer characters were introduced, such as the lizard boy Anole, the gem-skinned daughter of hip-hop producers Bling, and the bisexual, mixed-race miscreant Daken. But what is most striking is that queerness was always with the X-Men, and with the desublimation of queer desire, readers of the various books saw a series of comings out: Karma from The New Mutants, always asexual before, became a lesbian, and Rictor and Shatterstar, from X-Force, whose relationship was always confusingly close in that book, became boyfriends in a relaunched X-Factor (2005–13). Most surprisingly, Iceman, from the original team, was outed by telepathic Jean Grey, in All-New X-Men #40 (2015), by Brian Michael Bendis and Mahmud Asrar. With this, the character’s five decades of failed heterosexual relationships were retconned, or rewritten from the perspective of the present, into a repressed homosexuality. Iceman has since starred in solo titles, the first gay Marvel Comics superhero to headline an ongoing series (2017–18). Iceman’s latest self-titled miniseries (2018–19), also by Sina Grace, introduced nonbinary mutant Madin, along with the first drag queen mutant, Shade (who has since inspired real-life drag queens, such as RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Nina Bonina Brown, to dress up as her). In the relaunched Generation X of 2017, by Christina Strain and Amilcar Pinna, Jubilee, now a single mom, becomes the teacher of a mostly queer-identified group of Generation Z students at the Xavier Institute, a cohort whose powers had little use in combat but served as great metaphors for sexuality, intimacy, coming out, and growing up.

We, however, may have outgrown the need for a “mutant metaphor,” as survival for minoritarian subjects is now at odds with such coding, the struggle having morphed into a crisis of political representation. In the movie Deadpool 2, the eponymous lead (first appearance: New Mutants #98, 1991) spits out a line about the datedness of this “metaphor for civil rights.” Deadpool was right, though not for the reasons he might think. It is not because “civil rights” is resolved but because of the urgency we now have in confronting the racism of a system that elected a white supremacist demagogue president, backed by an evangelical cartoon villain vice president straight out of the classic graphic novel X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills (1982). While the powers the mutants possess still carry metaphorical potential, the metaphorical “identity” has become as repressive as identity in the real world. The X-Men’s mutations have become a metonym for difference, part of the larger potential of “otherness.” The metaphor served when we couldn’t talk about ourselves.

So… what do we mean when we say “X-Men”? The X is a signifier without signified, an always incomplete sign that complicates, and potentially negates, whatever it’s attached to. The X-Men could be read as “not men.” Surely, one of their greatest contributions has been women characters: Storm, Rogue, Emma Frost, and Psylocke among the most popular in contemporary fandom. But the X also stands in for the shifting political positions of these “not men” within a system that continually attempts to subjugate, control, and kill them. This has resulted in a destabilization of the fundamental binary of comics: hero versus villain. Magneto, whose separatism marked him as evil when he first appeared, now finds his radicalism linked to his history as a Holocaust survivor and has since become an ambivalent protagonist. This deconstruction has gone both ways, with “heroes” such as Phoenix, Cyclops, and Professor X all committing a variety of atrocities, while long-term bad guys like Mystique and Sabertooth have saved the day more than once. Perhaps this collapse of moral absolutism is most clearly articulated in the claw-brandishing antihero Wolverine. With his endless capacity to heal, Wolverine nonetheless carries the emotional wounds of mutant-phobia under his skin, and his reproduction of trauma, enacted through homicide, is instrumental in the project of deconstructing the very idea of the superhero. Like Wolverine’s body, which gets taken apart only to regrow, deconstruction continues to be one of the X-Men’s most enduring legacies.

The 2019 “X-Men Disassembled” story line in The Uncanny X-Men deconstructs the mutant as a stand-in for the oppressed when a messiah called X-Man uses his powers to erase organized religion, resurrect extinct species, and create world peace. Produced collaboratively by writers Ed Brisson, Kelly Thompson, and Matthew Rosenberg and artists Mahmud Asrar, Adriano Di Benedetto, Yildiray Cinar, R. B. Silva, Rochelle Rosenberg, and Pere Perez, the collective talent behind this comic book making echoes its enormous cast, co-led by Jean Grey, Storm, and Armor, who represents a bloc of dissident X-kids. The would-be savior X-Man is Nate Grey, Jean’s omnipotent adult son from an alternate timeline; the action is framed by a philosophical debate between mother and son about the ethics of psychically eradicating prejudice. In the end, X-Man concludes the X-Men are a crucial part of the cycle of oppression and blasts them into oblivion—or so it seems! Announcements accompanying this event tease the “Age of X-Man” (2019), a slew of new titles taking place in a utopian universe where mutants run a perfect world. Orwell’s 1984 (1949), referenced in the “Days of Future Past” story line (The Uncanny X-Men #141–42, 1981), is set aside for Huxley’s Brave New World (1929). The makers of X-Men are set to reimagine these posthuman others as empowered world leaders.

And as I am writing this, Wolverine is also going through his umpteenth resurrection in current continuity, after spending a few years dead. In tracing what X-Men could mean as a “keyword,” I have looked at five decades of storytelling, character development, and world-building, and yet like the X in the name, I find it difficult to fix. The X-Men are an uncanny entanglement, contiguous with the exhausting debates around race and racism that characterize our time. Society demands oppression, and the X-Men, whether victims or perpetrators, will die again and again. For now, it appears the X-Men will keep coming back, but I wish they didn’t have to.

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