Tag Archives: x-men

X-Studies

Without too much preamble I’m going to jump right in. I spend a lot of time thinking about X-Men. This won’t come as a big surprise to those of you who are familiar with the blog. On this particular occasion a discussion between a friend and I inspired a digression into how the television incarnations of the X-Men (the primary gateway into the franchise for many of its current fans) have dealt with certain issues of women and gender. I feel this is a relevant inquiry given the social justice theme implicit in so much of the X-universe. I’m going to be limiting my scope to X-Men Evolution and the 90’s X-Men, as those are the two series I have the most experience with and which I think are the closest reference for most of my readers. There isn’t really a thesis statement binding these observations together, more just an interesting series of conversational points.

First up, X-Men Evolution.

Evolution

Not as well regarded by some fans for various character reinterpretations and being a little heavy on the teen drama, Evolution was ultimately a kind of return to classic formula. The idea of Xavier’s as a school for outcast youth was a central idea of the comics for years, but had not been strongly represented in the media up to that point in time. Given that conceit, I’m going to focus on the three female protagonists among the student characters (excluding the adults and the antagonists for the moment). Jean Grey, Rogue, and Kitty Pryde.

Jean Grey is easily one of the most self-possessed students at the school, male or female. She is an archetypal overachiever that seems to excel at everything she puts her mind to, academically, athletically, and socially. Also by far the most secure in her own identity and in her sexuality, being in an emotionally committed relationship with Scott. In many ways this is made easier for her by her mutant abilities. They are active rather passive powers. Telekinesis granting her a profound level of physical agency and telepathy allowing her to sidestep many of the uncertainties that plague normal adolescents.

Rogue on the other hand is arguable the least so of the student characters. She is a loner who is perpetually stymied in her ability to assert herself. Her mutant life-draining power effectively erects a barrier between herself and those around her, robbing her of both physical agency and interpersonal intimacy. Because of this she is withdrawn from others and any time there is an attempt to emerge from her shell there exists the possibility that she will be punished for it, as over the course of series she is on several occasions.

Kitty Pryde is an interesting counter example to both of them. Her ability to phase through matter is not the boon to self-assertion that it is for Jean Grey, but neither does it impede her as it does for Rogue. What it does grant her however is a means by which to escape from the perilous situations of life, adolescence, and emerging identity that Jean glides through and Rogue is trapped by. She has access to a level of unspoken security that allows her to take chances and make mistakes.

Then, there’s X-Men.

X-Men

This one is a little more complicated, in that its relationship with gender politics is rather problematic. It has a variety of classically empowered female protagonists, but the show has this weird tendency of subtly undermining them and reminding us of their vulnerability in a way that rarely becomes a problem for the male characters.

Jean Grey seems to have much less overall presence in this incarnation, often almost acting as a prop for her teammates.  She also repeatedly finds herself overwhelmed by some great telepathic force and swooning into the arms of Scott. When she is finally in a situation where she is unbridled from these constraints by the Phoenix Force it results in a threat to the entire galaxy (and a brief stint in the Hellfire Club wearing black leather if subtly isn’t your thing).

Rogue has significantly more physical agency in this series than in Evolution, owing to her additional powers of flight, super-strength, and invulnerability. Accordingly she is much more assertive in her personality and even rather flirtatious, nearly a polar opposite of her other portrayal. That being the case she is on several occasions incapacitated by her own life-draining ability, or herself becomes a liability, finding herself overwhelmed by the act of touching another (often male) character.

Storm really needs no introduction, her goddess archetype is almost an image of power personified. Still though she seems to be neutralized with uncommon frequency, often in such a way that reinforces a kind of submissive status (such as through her claustrophobia). I’m going to gloss over Jubilee in this analysis, since in my judgment she isn’t really written as a female character and more as the kid sidekick, however there are still other characters of note.

Morph is a rather interesting case, being much less lantern-jawed than the other X-Men and having an ability of physical and even gender fluidity. The only other character in the series with this ability is Mystique, practically a self-evident primer on dangerous boundary-crossing femme fatales. Morph is placed directly into the fridge, only to be removed as an on-again-off-again antagonist whose moral confusion seems to dovetail with his cis-confusion.

Also noteworthy is Professor Xavier. Like Morph he lacks the strong physical character of the other male protagonists, needing to be carried out of danger and otherwise rescued on a number of occasions. Throughout the series his role is often that of both father and mother figure, and like Jean he has a tendency to swoon following some psychic intercession. This scene, now familiar to approximately everyone on the internet, is essentially one in which Xavier’s lack of physical agency is culminated, largely helpless to act even in defense of another while his step-brother the Juggernaut and eventually Gladiator overpower the situation with brute force.

I cannot really speak to the portrayals present in Wolverine and the X-Men as my exposure to the series has been very limited. It is a question worth asking though as the multimedia faces of the X-Men brand are ultimately gateways into its universe, and each end inevitably informs the other. With the interrogation of equality forming the X-Men’s philosophical core, it stands to reason that one should explore whether the branches of its creative continuum succeed at living up to these ideas. The answer to any one of these questions does not form an immutable verdict over the whole, rather it points out a new direction for these ideas to travel. Only by engaging with the weaknesses of a thesis does it become stronger, and the same is true of the X-Men.

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Uncanny

I’ve always loved the X-Men. From the first time I saw the Jim Lee-inspired cartoon on Saturday morning I was hooked. It only helped matters that my mother was categorically opposed to the gritty rock and roll violence it outwardly portrayed and forbid me from viewing it. It just made me want to know more, so every chance I got I sucked up X-Men media. As I watched it though (when I got the chance to), I could tell even at that age that there was something else going on in the show. The way that the invented dirty word “mutie” got thrown around, an otherwise goofy sounding epithet that nonetheless dripped with a kind of malice I had never encountered in my young experience. Villains had certainly called people nasty names before, but this word I could tell was something far more sinister. It ‘sounded’ degrading, demeaning, dehumanizing. It made me uncomfortable, but it also drew me in. I cared about what was going on in the show, not just in the fights full of fireworks and laserbeams, but about that word and what it meant. In short, I came for the superheroes but stayed for the social commentary.

That said, I’ve only occasionally followed the X-Men comic books. I’ve read them in fits and bursts over the course of my life, floating in and out of their rather labyrinthine continuity. The last time I was a good and proper X-fan was about ten years ago when I was reading Grant Morrison’s New X-Men and Chris Claremont’s X-treme X-Men.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both of these series had an excellent authorial pedigree but are frequently met with mixed reactions from fans. You either love or hate New X-Men (unless you’re me, I prefer to compartmentalize my effusions of adoration or bile to specific arcs within the run), and while Claremont is a storied X-bard his run on X-treme is considered by most to be largely forgettable. I enjoyed both immensely however. Morrison recast the conflict in X-Men in a radical way, and spelunked in the mythology’s underlying foundations. He didn’t so much rock the boat as put it on a theme park water ride. The twists and rapids are thrilling, but sooner or later someone is going to wet. While Morrison’s grandiosity was on the micro level, Claremont’s was decidedly macro. Bringing his trademark bombast to the title, Claremont directed sweeping adventures and introduced colorful new players and personalities to the X-verse. It wasn’t so much brain-candy as grandma’s family recipe brain-sweets. The calories are just as empty, but they’re made with art, love, and special ingredients. Ironically, the biggest complaint I’ve heard about both titles is that Morrison did too much while Claremont did too little. Morrison the upstart played rough with toys that weren’t his and alienated some fans, while Claremont the veteran for all his style didn’t take ‘enough’ risks and left fans yawning. Personally, I found each title to be the perfect compliment to the other. When I needed a break from all the heady stuff about evolution, free will, and identity going on in New X-Men, I could flip open X-treme Xmen and watch my guys fistfight with some totally sweet aliens. Conversely, when I felt like I needed something a little more substantial to go with my spandex, New X-Men was there to rock my socks.

Recently I’ve decided to go once more unto the breach and start properly following the ole’ X-dudes again. To this end I am picking up the two main books in the current line, Keiron Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men and Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men.

Jason Aaron was my foremost attraction to the latter title. I’m already a fan of his from his work on Scalped (which incidentally is the hottest shit since sliced bread and will likely be the subject of my next post), and I know I can expect good things. While not familiar with Gillen,what I hear is good, and if nothing else I feel like I should grab both to get the big picture (or at least as big as I can get without also investing in all the other sundry X-titles that I’ve not yet and probably won’t commit to). Both titles are spinning off of the recent big event in X continuity, entitled Schism. I haven’t sunk my teeth into that one yet, but I probably will once it comes out in trade book form and I have enough of the cliff notes to not be lost. The main thing that came of it was the splitting of the X-Men into two teams, their respective stories being chronicled in the two series I have mentioned previously. This setup is superficially similar to team split that occurred with New and X-treme Xmen, and honestly that makes it seem like a good entry point to reintroduce myself the the X-mythos.

From what I’ve read so far my feelings have proven correct. In fact, I feel like Uncanny and Wolverine share very much the same relationship as the old New and X-treme titles. Uncanny X-Men is all about the shaky future of the mutant species along with the uneasy alliances and difficult choices which have to be made to safeguard against its extinction. Wolverine by contrast has the team fighting off a siege of Frankensteins (plural, you read that right) and is generally colorful and unabashedly fun. Both do what they do well and I feel compliment the other better for it. Uncanny features a more eclectic roster than we’re used to, but its shakes up the dynamics in a way I’m excited to see more of. Wolverine features many of the older characters, particularly those who used to be in more of the “kid” roles such as Iceman and Kitty Pride, at last taking their place as adults and instructors in their own right to a new generation. If you’ve ever been an X-Man (or Woman) in your life, now is a great time to rejoin the team.

Now, Xcelsior!

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