Saturday, 27 November 2010

"We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident": X-Civics 101 No 2: "X-Men: Second Coming" & Political Realism

1. By Way Of An Introduction To A Comment And A Polemic

This piece began when I received one of those not-infrequent comments from someone who, despite the interesting points they have to make, decides to be a touch sneering and patronising in the way they express themselves. I usually simply delete such dismissive contributions (*1); when I began blogging, the estimable Andrew Hickey, from the "Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!" blog, advised me to always make sure that I don't caught in pointless arguments here on TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics, and his advice has served me well. Yet there were bright and worthwhile points in the comment, and the superior air that the writer adopted could well have been an accident of method rather than a deliberate choice to offend. Lord knows I've written what I meant as respectful if playfully written words myself and ended up unwittingly offending others. And so I put aside my normal practise of simply opting out of any possible unpleasantness and began to sketch out an answer in order to discover how I felt about the issues being raised, rather than the tone they were often expressed in.

And in writing a reply for myself, I found that I was producing a companion piece of sorts to the recent blog here on the worrying politics of the "X-Men: Second Coming" collection. But whereas before, in the first "X-Civics 101" piece, I'd tried to rein in my feelings and the force of my opinions, relying on an attempt at humour rather than outrage and a focus more on individual issues rather than an analysis of the meaning of "Second Coming" as a whole, here I found myself giving way to a more emotional and less reasoned approach. Normally, I'd learn what I could from such an experience of writing the first-draft of an off-the-cuff and yet heartfelt reply, and then bin the lot, but I think it might be useful, and perhaps also honest, for me to nail my colours up on the mast here, as it were. Not because it's inherently interesting if I do so, or because my opinions are important in the slightest way whatsoever, but because, I realise, I'm always talking about the ethical content of other people's work, and I ought not to criticise without having at least something of the sense of my political opinions up and available for the shooting at too.

And so I've not edited the first draft of the reply that I wrote with an eye on protecting my statements from all-comers. I've left in my own feelings and my own unjustified stroppiness. I've not edited out the repetition of terms or added qualifying statements to protect my position. There are no supporting quotes or book references. I've simply replied with one apparently unguarded statement of opinion with another.

I have, of course, not printed the name of the chap or chappess who contributed the comment that first inspired this piece. They offered up their ideas for printing in a comment box, not as part of something quite different on the blog proper.

*1:- added later the same day:- on reflection, although the comment is, as Micah puts it below, blunt, it's not as rude as I originally felt. Indeed, the fact that I feel so strongly about these issues may have made me overly sensitive. I'm not sure. It is a dismissive comment with some snotty airs, but it's also bright and engaged. If nothing else, I'm glad it was left because it made me think, and I guess that establishes a point about its worth in an absolute sense before any finer sensibilities come into play.

2. The Unedited Comment Itself

"Not a bad article, however pointing moralistic fingers at the content of political decision making in the X-Men comics misses the point. The philosophy behind all of Scott's decision making is Realpolitik, and that shouldn't be a surprise as that very ideological shift is what they used to visibly mark his difference from Xavier in Messiah Complex (and even from Magneto, who is also an idealist in his own way.) Yes, the X-Men have become separatists as well as nationalists, and yes, their decisions are based on political realism (why in-debt themselves to superheroes whose political interest interests doesn't necessarily align with theirs and whose Civil Wars and Secret Invasion and Dark Reign politics, threaten the X-Men's current goal to stave off extinction). Anyone who didn't think that Emma Frost's ascendancy in the X-Men wouldn't signify realpolitik hasn't mastered the fundamental philosophy of the Hellfire Club. She simply realized that when practising mutant supremacy it helps to have more than four or five mutants at your beck and call. The X-Men have plenty of mutants available and a leader sympathetic to her political views. So when you morally or ethically condemn Cyclops's actions, or Marvel for endorsing them, you misread the current X-Men as a book about "superheroes and role models" instead of it being one where someone, for once in the comic, attempts to step beyond the meager and continually deconstructed "peaceful co-existence" trope that never worked for the comic."

3. And My Response

Hello:- As a politics graduate with 20 more years experience of teaching the subject in one form or another, I think it's probable that I do have a grasp of what realpolitik is. And it's never been a philosophy or practise which advocated snubbing possible and actual sources of assistance which might be accessed to attain a desired end. Quite the contrary, actually. If realpolitik really was the philosophy which motivated the X-Men's leaders during Second Coming, it's one that they either haven't grasped or one which the folks writing the book haven't understood. Realpolitik isn't concerned with attaining one's will without incurring future obligations. (For one thing, any such future obligations could be ignored once the desired end was achieved; that would be realpolitik) Rather, it's a philosophy concerned with attaining one's will, full stop. Whatever works is what gets put to use. And considering that the will of the mutants here was to avoid genocide, their scorning of national, international and superhuman assistance wasn't realpolitik; it was stupidity. It's not "political realism" to alienate support and deter assistance. That's the kind of political realism that characterises the "faith-based" community, the "my way or the highway" brigade in my country as well as yours, and we've seen how well that policy has paid off in the long years since 9/11, have we not?

"Second Coming" isn't based on realpolitik; it's based on the assumption that behaving as a terrorist is completely justifiable and indeed admirable as long as a glorious victory is achieved. That's quite a different premise, and presenting a story that frames Cyclops as a hero for having behaved in such a stupid as well as utterly unprincipled fashion is indeed a "step beyond" the ""peaceful co-existence" trope" you mention. Sadly, it's also a lamentable thing to produce, and I'll return to that point, I think, in a moment.

Secondly, at no point did I suggest that it didn't make sense for the X-Men to have "no more than four or five mutants" at their "beck and call". I mentioned not a whit of complaint about the fact of the size of the mutant forces. What I did criticise was the sense that this super-powered army with their undersea allies could ever constitute a community of victims. The X-Men in "Second Coming" are presented as terrible vulnerable, but that's ridiculous. They're a mighty band of super-powered characters, and they could have accessed all manner of help elsewhere.
But they've been potrayed as self-pitying victims so they can be thrillingly shown committing the profoundly illegal and unethical acts that they do. That they've been terribly hurt by "humans" is undoubted, but that doesn't mean that they've been driven into such a corner that the rule of law is something which oppresses their chances of survival. Cyclops instigates a rule in which the likes of terrorism, assassination, false imprisonment, unconstitutional conscription, and the abuse of minors are portrayed as heroic necessities. Your argument seems to be that mutant terrorism is the method by which the Mutants have succeeded in defining and protecting themselves, and that I should get over it because it works. But it didn't. The X-Men should've sought help and worked together with others to at the very least reduce the threat against them. That would've been realpolitik.

You seem to associate immoral behaviour with realism, as if doing as one will should not only be all of the law, with a small "l", but also be shown to be far superior to any other conventional legal or ethical option. The text of "Second Coming" certainly seems to want us to accept such a proposition. It skips unconvincingly over the possibility that the X-Men could ever have responded to their situation in a conventionally ethical fashion, and instead portrays the world as a vile predatory place with no decency for mutants and then, having fixed its case, expects us to applaud as terrible acts are committed and their perpetrators held up for our admiration.

You also seem contemptuous of my "moralistic fingers". But you're obviously a person who's well-versed in political theory, history and current affairs. You'll have noted that the moral criticisms I made were directed at the profoundly anti-humanist behaviour of Scott Summers, the supposed hero of Second Coming. Detention without trial, torture, assassination, conscription without legal sanction; all of these things are a mark of dictatorship, not practical and realistic politics. I wasn't concerned with these things because they're not nice. My argument was and is that there is a way of doing things according to democratic humanist principles which allows the state to operate without descending into tyranny. For all of its sins, Western democracy permits its citizens to live in a way that's more secure from abuse than under any other political system of scale. Certainly, the modern West is a far better place to live than Cyclops's Utopia is.

Dictatorship by its very nature, despite all the illusions of political realism which apologists for dictatorships always conjure up, inevitably leads to the collapse of human rights, and to the imposition of all those unpleasantnesses and wickednesses which human beings get up to when they're not at least partially constrained by ethical custom and law. Yet "Second Coming" paints us a picture of a society where dictatorship is a marvellously practical and ethical good, and that's what I'm pointing my "moralistic finger" at. Utopia neither works as well as it might nor behaves in any way that any decent-minded democrat might admire. It is, in effect, an inefficient terrorist state, and I don't think that's anything to represent in a heroic light at all.

And just as"Second Coming" isn't truly a book about realpolitik, it's certainly not one that tells us anything of value to do with "separatism" and "nationalism" either, unless you consider that both of these political ideologies have to be expressed in the form of terrorism justified by the rhetoric of the dispossessed. Neither separatism nor nationalism, after all, have to reject the rule of law or humanist principles. And so, no, I don't think it's "moralistic" to point all of this out, and, unless you consider the rule of law to be a bourgeois affectation and democratic government some kind of disposable fancy, I'd be amazed if you didn't think so too. For, quite frankly, if anyone can look at Utopia and see there a political system that doesn't immediately and utterly appall them, then they're either not looking hard enough, or lacking the education to process what they're seeing, or they're neither a democrat or a humanist in the first place.

As far as I'm concerned, there are democratic and humanist principles that aren't negotiable. We don't kidnap people, we don't falsely imprison them, and we don't torture them. We don't assassinate our enemies in the name of political or practical expediency. We don't deny co-operation, scorn help and then act horribly because help isn't coming, and we don't behave as terrorists do because that makes us terrorists ourselves. We certainly don't read books which unambiguously portray terrorist tyrants as heroes and regard it as an unimportant matter which should be passed off without comment. Honestly, at what point did our culture become so complacent that we can read a celebration of unethical behaviour which closes with the miraculous birth of lovely little superpowered babies, an ending which emotionally justifies every vile thing that's gone before, and not think; "Hang on, there's something rotten here"?

For there was no attempt to present alternative points of view to those of Cyclops which were given at the least equal weight and glamour to his. No, it was the brutes and the tyrants who were presented as the battle-turning heroes who counted for the most in "Second Coming", and that makes the book a profoundly anti-democratic tract, by chance or design, though I do subscribe to the cock-up theory where this book is concerned.

These aren't just "moral" points I'm making, as if a "moral" point was by its very nature an unrealistic distraction from practical politics. The rule of law and democracy aren't systems based on fey liberal, weak-kneeded principles. They are systems founded on supremely practical morals, which if respected and protected help preserve the body politic from collapsing into dictatorship. And dictatorship, as no-one needs telling, is always a very bad idea in every possible way, unless you're the dictator or a crony, of course.

The rule of law isn't a "moral". It's an expression of a host of practical principles which underlie a class of political system which serves its citizens better than any other in history. Regretfully, such democratic systems and the principles upon which they're built are currently being undermined in so many worrying ways, including through a blizzard of ignorant fictions in a variety of popular mediums.

As for the idea that the X-Men isn't a book about "super-heroes and role models", well, you've quite defeated me there. It's surely a comic that full of characters who dress like superheroes, who have powers like superheroes, who have the legitimacy with their audience that's granted to superheroes and who exist in a superheroic universe. If the X-Men isn't about superheroes, then I'd suggest that Marvel move it to its own universe, strip it of costumes and codenames and powers and see how many readers turn up to read it.

And ALL stories are about role models. That's how fiction works. We study each other's lives, fictional or not, and we compare ourselves to what we find there. The degree to which the role models in fiction influence us is something else I spent five years studying and twenty years teaching, and I'm well aware that democracy won't fall just because Cyclops and his merry mutants are portrayed as heroic terrorists. But that doesn't mean that such a portrayal is defensible, and as part of a wall of media product that heaps scorn on the ideals and practise of humanism and democracy, "Second Coming" is just one more example of the drip-drip-drip of political immorality which can't help but undermine that which so many generations of folks have fought so hard for.

And if you're not offended by a book that portrays such an anti-democratic stance as heroic, then the real question is why not? Seriously. How could these things not matter to you? I can understand berating modern democracies for not being representative enough, or humane enough. I can understand being frustrated and indeed furious with all their manifest short-comings and failures. But the fact of Marvel pushing hundreds and hundreds of pages with this message into the marketplace is surely something to care about. If it were an accident on Marvel's part, as it must have been, then it needs debating so that Marvel don't make the same

mistake again. (After all, Marvel isn't really wanting to be saying that terrorism is the heroic way for minorities to defend their interests even when all other alternatives haven't been pursued, is it?) And if it wasn't an accident, then Marvel should be challenged on the matter. They have the right to print whatever material they see fit, and I happily spend a fair proportion of my limited income on their products. But my loyalty to their brand is tempered by my absolute commitment to the business of being a democrat. It's something that really matters, matters more than just about anything else, and if you think that's "moralistic", then this isn't the blog for you on any level at all.

So, let's not worry about the X-Men know being about realpolitik, unless it's about how the practical utility of that concept can be undermined by incompetence and ignorance. And let's not have any more of this sneering, for that's what it was, at the "morals" I was discussing in the piece you responded to and in my words above too. Yes, the morality underpinning the existence of the modern democratic state is indeed sacred to me, but the practical business of protecting individuals from the capriciousness of power is more sacred yet. And I for one am bloody weary of a West that seems so very decadent that it thinks it can ignore the absolute value of these issues in the name of being ... well, what? Practical? Knowing? Sophisticated? Playful? Entertaining?

That we've stopped even being offended by the idea of superheroes behaving as these X-Men do is a deeply worrying matter. It's a reflection of a far greater and far more serious problem, an assault through self-interest and ignorance upon the very idea that human rights and the democratic state as we know them are anything more than a great "liberal/leftist" indulgence and, indeed, evil. Comics may not be able to solve that problem, but those that produce them could at least not contribute to the apparently-casual and yet in-practise systematic undermining of the principles which, for whatever their practical limitations, offer the best and only hope for a decent future we have.

When superheroes, including clearly abused children, are shown maiming, torturing, kidnapping, assassinating others as part of a deliberate policy on the part of the characters involved, then it's not the icing on the cake of a story or the addition of some some thrilling but unimportant grit used to add a daring touch of real-world issues. It certainly isn't so when the tale is told in the way "Second Coming" is. It is, of course. a terrifically productive thing to present superheroes behaving appallingly in the form of satire or irony, as broad and obvious comedy or even in the guise of wonderfully bad taste. But this is none of those things. "Second Coming" presents tyranny and terrorism, assassination and an abuse of care to the vulnerable, the violation of the rule of law and a host of other pernicious practises as HEROIC and undeniably NECESSARY.

And when that's done, it should be discussed and condemned. These things are more than important. They are all that keep us from the wolves. They're sacred, and we undermine them in the way that "Second Coming" does at our great peril.

An unfashionable opinion, of course, and expressed in an unfashionably sincere manner, but there it is. For if we can't take democracy and the rule of law seriously, then what is there left to be serious about?



  1. While reading this I realized something that had been mulling around in my brain since I read Second Coming in singles months ago.

    Both you and your commenter (whose comment I didn't find terribly snide or offensive, but instead simply blunt) are right. The X-Men have forsaken allies and help in favor of reactionary isolationism. However keep in mind two things:

    First, remember that earlier in the series, when it ran under the Manifest Destiny banner, they did reach out to local authorities and certain super heroes only to be faced by a hostile political climate and attacks on them by the government and the very superheroes they had attempted to build diplomatic relations with. It is understandable if shortsighted that they refused to trust the same players even when a new administration rolled around.

    Second, they have found allies in other corners of the Marvel Universe. Namor is an alien superpower in and of himself, as well as a mutant with a similar victimized view of his and his people's place in the world and Atlantis is perhaps the largest, most powerful and most ignored nation on that earth. By the beginning of Second Coming the X-Men are in fact basically a client state of Atlantis, an analog Isreal to Namor's United States.

    Which leads me to believe that the moral and logical inconsistencies I'd noticed when I first read Second Coming and that I'd half heartedly wondered about ever since while reading XBooks that mostly ignored what seemed to me to be significant changes in the moral and political outlook of the X-Men as a group stem from one source.

    Your commenter is right. The XBooks new stance on many issues is an attempted embrace of realpolitik and moral relativism as a step away from the idealistic stances of mutantkind's two, opposing ex-leaders. Pointing moralistic fingers (no matter how fully deserved they are) at these characters glosses over this point in favor of outrage.

    And you are right. The current writers of the X-Men probably don't understand realpolitik or even politics in general, which is why instead of dispassionate political maneuvering we are being given the morally myopic platitudes real world nations trot out to justify their latest shortsighted, ill advised, and/or illegal actions. Its either that, or the writers know what they're doing and are gleefully asking us to root for the terrorists.

  2. Colin, after reading your eloquent defence of decency and morality ( those deeply unfashionable terms ) I wanted to stand up and cheer!

    It also reminded me why I don't read X-Men comics any more :-)

    Keep up the great work!

  3. Hello Micah:- the points you make are excellent, and well-expressed too. You're right, for example, to discuss the X-Men reaching out for help, but it was a cursory and unconvincing process, was it not? They made no substantial attempt to engage in any depth and with any force with the media or the political system; it was incredibly unconvincing and, perhaps worse, uninspiring. I look to the X-books to increase my willingness to engage with the world and attend to its problems. I don't want a book dealing with prejudice to giving out the single message that politics are useless and force and seperatism the way ahead. And in addition, I was utterly unconvinced by the conflicts that were shown between mutants and superheroes.

    The Atlantis situation is a fascinating one, isn't it? There are so many possible readings and so many problems for the concept Utopia with its American citizens in American waters, or there are if the X-Office wants to change tack and pay attention to the real-world too. That could be fascinating as a plot, but so far all we've really had is Namor as an unconvincing follower of Cyclops. But given that Atlantis is on the X-Men's side, it's remarkable that all those undersea warriors weren't to be seen in the final punchups.

    I've been thinking about those parallels with Israel myself. And I believe I referred to them either in the first X-Civics piece or the comments. But I do hope that hasn't been the inspiration, because that would mean that some terrible things are being implied about some of the peoples involved in that conflict, and in a profoundly imprecise and ill-informed way too.

    You know, I've found your comment quite inspiring, and I love how you've squared the circle of how the comment and my reply can be related to each other. However, I would say that the "moralising finger" - which I feaered would come back to point at me!!! - was in my opinion appropriately aimed. Arguing that realpolitik is a valid principle to ground a comic book in without understanding either the principles at hand or referencing ethical concerns will inevitably bring that damnable finger into play. I understand this might sound awful, but I'm weary of the endless march of ideas such as "our might makes right", "expediancy justifies immorality", and "your principles equal weakness while ours are sensible and godly". It's not at all the comment-maker that I'm so disappointed at; it's, as I said, a culture that seems to have forgotten how incredibly precious democracy and humanism are. We keep chipping away at the premises that democracy is based on while our representatives keep chipping away at the public's respect for them and bad things will inevitably happen.

    I can't believe either that the X-Office is really thinking about the sub-text of what it's doing. If it did, it wouldn't release Second Coming, which is complete in itself and quite awful in its meaning. If Marvel was acting consciously, there'd be at the least alot more ambiguity and doubt in the book.

    Great comment! Thank you very much.

  4. Hello cerebus660:- and thank you for your kind words. I'm afraid I'm so close to what I wrote that all I can do is shudder at what I've written and wish I'd not made such a hash of it. But I'm tremedously relieved that it had some small virtue too. My best to you.

    But we should be wanting to pick up the X-Men, shouldn't we? That's the book that should be walking the hard road between high principles and low expediency and inspiring us as it goes. We should be as excited about a new X-Men comic as I recall being for the Claremont/Byrne/Austin issues, the Thomas/Adams run and the Morrison/Quietly stories too.

  5. @Colin: Thank you for your response, not to mention posting such an interesting and personal piece in the first place. I rarely comment on blogs, mainly because there's often very little to respond too, and so any points I made I only had reason to express because you gave me something to think about.

    In fact, I think I may even go so far as to state that I wish I could express myself with your decisiveness, because I fear I may have buried the lead.

    The X-Men have outright stated that they are now acting in a morally relativistic manner, and that they have little use for silly human ideas like democracy. They've rejected both the all or nothing approach of Magneto and the peaceful compromise of Xavier, instead choosing to become a collective state based on the single brutal principle of at-all-costs survival. If they are doing that stupidly and unethically by spurning allies and trampling the individual rights of both their own and their enemies, one can't really blame them.

    After all, if one looks at the grand narrative of Marvel comics in the past half-decade it seems to say nothing if not that democracy serves only to divide. From the flaming straw-men of Civil War, to the Initiative, Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, and now and perhaps even more damning the good natured whitewashing of the current Heroic Age the message of comics seems to be that individuals can be good but when they attempt political action it serves only to dice them into rage filled camps, serve as a kitchen for mistrust brewed by sinister forces, or even worse, put the wrong man in charge.

    Comics tell us that diplomacy is a fundamentally broken thing. Democracy is a social poison best dealt with by ignoring it and instead focusing on individuals practicing black and white moral dualism. "They are bad and we are good. How we are good, how we keep each other good, and how we decide what good is don't matter, only that we know that The Other is not. And that we hit them with our fists."

    Is it any wonder then that the X-Men reject this in favor of dictatorship?

  6. I'm a long-time lurker and admirer, and a first-time poster. This is arguably the finest comics blog there is.

    I have some sympathy with what your ill-mannered correspondent said, but ultimately I think you answered him perfectly adequately when you said in your original post: 'If there is a message that's been created deliberately rather than by chance in a Marvel Comic, if the X-Men office really is arguing that torture and assassination is a necessary and rather noble business, then Marvel can at least knowingly support such a brave stance and be forewarned about what might be coming in terms of criticism.'

    As far as I'm concerned, there are two separate problems with the comic being discussed. The first is the wrecking of fine characters with a noble history, which has happened before and will happen again. I often find myself wishing that the Marvel universe could undergo a proper, full-scale, DC-style 'crisis' to lance the boil of such problems, instead of oscillating madly between preserving the status quo and shaking things up to keep them interesting.

    The second problem, and the one you've grappled with, is the politics and morality of the comic. From my perspective, the problem isn't so much that these are reprehensible - I'm happy to entertain the questioning of morality from first principles, both in fact and in fiction - but that they're incoherent and undeservedly smug.

    Even someone who did (to use your words) 'consider the rule of law to be a bourgeois affectation and democratic government some kind of disposable fancy' would have grounds on which to criticise this comic.

    Alex S

  7. Hi, just wanted to say hi as I have just encountered your blog, and have spent the last hour strolling through bits and pieces, but when I got to this 'x civics 101 no 2' piece, and the all star superman/ year one superman blogs- wow, please, please, please, keep it up, thoughtful and insightful stuff that is deeply appreciated!


  8. Hello Micah:- that's a fascinating comment. You're right to point out that much of Marvel's events have acted to seem to diminish the worth of collective action and democratic principles. That's of course because, script-wise, grand events are more dramatic if all hope is lost and only the super-heroes can save us. My response to that sense that the MU is evidence of political failure is to note how that world keeps working despite all this incredible havoc. Through Secret Invasion and Civil War, nations rebuild themselves and individuals look after each other. If there weren’t extremely durable and efficient political structures in place on Marvel-Earth, everyday life could never maintain itself. After all, there's a limit to what superheroes can do to rebuild and maintain the detail of typical human activity! In fact, the typical individual and the various communities of Marvel-America must be remarkable! The people of the MU must be so incredibly resilient and inventive and admirable to keep their spirits up and their world functioning; no other explanation can explain how their world keeps turning.

    And so I think that by this evidence in the background of the stories of the MU, the X-Men have missed the point. There must be a fantastic reservoir of strong and determined socially-minded humans out there in the MU. The mutant heroes may feel that all hope is lost, but that's because they're lost to victimhood and so separated from the world that they see only their own troubles. It's the same process that retarded their engagement with the world during Manifest Destiny and Second Coming. As I say, the end of the world may always be striking the MU, and it may seem that politics always makes things worse to the cape'n'powers brigade, but underneath, folks of all different politics are keeping the battered world turning, and doing far far more than that too. Marvel Earth is marked by social and technological developments as well as anti-mutant riots, by communities holding together in the face of Hell-on-Earth as well as genocidal minorities, by all the capable and invisible typical individuals that we just don't see in Second Coming who’s obvious achievements show that politics bloody well does work. Otherwise, the MU would be characterized by nothing by fascism and despair, tyranny and social inertia; and it isn't. Quite the opposite. Look in the background and everyday life is propering. That’s remarkable! It's another example of how the direction the front-of-book stories take often ignore the society that obviously exists behind the Kirby krackles and grand fist-fights.

    You're right to say that far too often the message is about political failure; the other, we’re told, will kill you if you don't get them first; we're good and powerful and yet we're victims; we’re justified, indeed obligated, to break the law; and so on.

    But the X-Men, in rejecting the achievements of the typical people who are doing so well in holding Marvel Earth together, are showing themselves to be self-obsessed children. If the USA can pick itself up and get back to close- to-normal functioning within a year of the Skrull invasion, then there's more to the nation and it's people than a few noble superheroes rebuilding NYC.

    Your point is a fine one. The X-Men look at the headline super-powered conflicts and miss the wonders of the ordinary, flawed-but-wonderful individuals. It's no wonder they've opted for tyranny and terrorism, but tellingly enough, all those 350 million Americans who've fought and survived through one crisis after another haven't.

    I find that as inspiring as I find the X-Men reprehensible. And I'd not have thought about it in that way without your comment. Thank you!

  9. Hello Alex S:- it's a pleasure to hear from you, it really is, and thank you for engaging with the ideas expressed above in such a generous spirit. You raise some very good points. For example, I too have no problem with work that questions morality, as you say, from first principles. But that's not what these X-Men books do; they start off in terms of what's printed with the assumption that politics don't work but terrorism does, extend that to glorify terrorism as heroism, and continue to pile one immorality upon another until the X-Men can do anything that's awful at all and still come out garlanded as heroes. It's those incoherent and smug ideas you refer to driving the narrative out into places that no comic book should go without its creators THINKING alot more about what's being said.

    It would be fantastic to see these ideas really discussed. It would've been brilliant to see The Beast rejecting immorality and building a coalition of sympathetic groups and heroes to stand against the corruption of Utopia itself. I'm with you that it's hard to see how the moral toxicity pumped into Cyclops and Wolverine and co can ever be neutralised; but a well-considered narrative could have arranged for that to be avoided even as the issues at hand were properly debated.

    But, in a comment which was full of fine points, your last one really did make me think. You're so right! Even, for example, a real out-there practitioner of realpolitik could object to Second Coming, because it makes realpolitik look like an absurdly extreme and foolhardy business. And that really does tell a truth. Thank you for helping me understand that in a far clearer way.

  10. Hello Dave:- thank you for your kind words and I'm glad you've found material of some worth here. Please feel free to stroll around, and I hope that whatever time you spend in this blog feels worth your while.

  11. That was brilliant.

    The comic - and many other X-Men comics in recent years - do indicate that the peaceful co-existence plan just does not work and never will. Problem is, if you outright say that isn't possible and the heroes aren't working for that end anymore, you're not doing the X-Men anymore: you're doing Strontium Dog. Everything has to change to fit this new focus and it would have to stay changed; the X-Men can't go back to the old style afterwards, babies or no babies, because you've just told everyone the old X-Men don't work and never could. Throwing out the "peaceful co-existence" motive should be the final X-Men story (a downbeat and cynical ending, but still an ending) or a transition to something new.

    - Charles RB

  12. Hello Charles:- thank you for your supportive words. I tried something I've not done before here, and something I'm really not sure I'll ever do again, which is try to write without a measure of artifice. It feels unformed and underwritten, but I guess it's heartfelt, and I do have a rule that if I write a piece, I have to publish it, even if I fear the worst. And so your words are very much appreciated.

    Your analysis is as always absolutely on the nose; this IS a rejection of the old X-men and their various integrationist ideals. Worse yet, it's based on the principle that people with different identities simply can't live together. I think this is a very poor thing to be arguing, even as I've had my problems with the political correctnesses that have often come along with such a belief. Yes, groups with different identities can struggle to get along, but there's enough of a mass of data to show that it can be done to consider the current X-Men as being a wholly inaccurate as well as an immoral example. I'm not asking for anything so banal as a "we can all love each other" story line. I don't believe in such over-simplified rubbish. But I do believe that cooperation can bear significant fruit and that hard work can make apparently-impossible social mixes work and flourish. After all, the alternative is what exactly?

    I suspect that the X-Men will be moving to a new status quo, and probably a more positive one too. But the problem is that there are these collections out which make such wretched arguments. If a comic book contained just one racist scene, we'd expect the creators to deal with the problem in that book, or in the very near future, to put the problem into context and to make sure that no comfort or inspiration was lent to bigots. But are we to assume that the pro-terrorist, anti-democratic agenda of the X-Men is to be explained and made acceptable over a period of years? Nope. You wouldn't present an act of prejudice - sexism, racism, homophobia - and then say "I'll clear up the meaning of that in a year or two's time". If it's serious, then it needs sorting straight away. At the very least, the reader has to get some signs that the immorality on the page isn't to be taken as heroic.

    Unless, as you say, the series is ending and a rather bleak ending is being presented. But what ending could be worse than this anyway? Dying in a blaze of glory would be sad, but this? This is horrible, the victory of the bigots over the X-Men so that the X-Men become effectively the very thing they set out to challenge.

  13. You're right that the sorts of ideas 'Second Coming' throws around in a superficial way could have been far better addressed.

    The 'one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter' theme has been explored to great effect in sci-fi shows such as the recently reimagined 'Battlestar Galactica' and, long before that, 'Blake's 7', without descending into crassness. One could be generous to 'Second Coming' and say that those shows have greater latitude than the shared Marvel universe and its intricate history allow, but that doesn't then give Marvel creators license to throw amorality, immorality or alternative morality into their titles and hope either that nobody will notice or that the moral framework speaks for itself. (As I'm sure you were conveying when you chose the title of this blog post, the Declaration of Independence helpfully sets out the truths that it asserts speak for themselves, despite or rather because of that very assertion!)

    I'm interested in your frequent references to victimhood, which I think are very perceptive. Realpolitik and dwelling on victimhood don't really seem to me to go together, except in the cynical sense that characterising oneself as the victim could make for effective propaganda (although it could just as easily backfire). Even the concept of an 'existential threat' to one's people doesn't seem to me to convey victimhood as much as it conveys a need for resilience.

    Furthermore, an emphasis on victimhood seems to me to detract from both idealist considerations (in this case, a vision of how mutantkind could and should flourish) and more pragmatic considerations (how best to pursue the interests of mutantkind).

    I thought that one of the most interesting takes on victimhood in the X-books was the set-up that the original X-Factor had back in the 80s, when they were a mutant team masquerading as mutant hunters. Maintaining a facade like that is cunning and takes real dedication. Also, it carries risks - if you maintain your cover story too well, might you inadvertently exacerbate anti-mutant sentiment? I doubt that the Cyclops of the present loses much sleep over such questions - where once his name described both his powers and his clarity of thought, now it seems to convey myopia.

    Alex S

  14. Hello Alex:- yours in one of those comments in which comments are expressed so well that I worry I've got nothing to add except "Yes!" and "I quite agree!". I fear I'll just end up as a chorus in this reply, but that in itself tells a truth about how much I agree with what you've said.

    Firstly, yes, you're so right, it's better to leave politics entirely alone rather than clever and imprecise. Of course, there's no such thing as a text with no politics, but trying to discuss contentious issues and doing so ineptly is often far worse than simply chugging along in the mainstream of unchallenged opinion. If a set of creators are going to deal with concepts such as terrorism and the failure of democracy, then they HAVE to do so in a way that's not flippant or shallow. Second Coming is, for example, a book that it's actually impossible to regard as a responsible or admirable political tract at all. It manages the double trick of being both stupid and objectionable; I really could have admired it if it had been well-thought through, even if I disagreed with it. But to be daft and repellent; well, that's silliness and someone at Marvel just needs to say "HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT THIS?"

    That's a fantastic paragraph about victimhood. I have a line or two in my notes about the fact that the appearance of victimihood could be a valuable political tool in the hands of a politician practising realpolitik, but, as you say so well, it doesn't sit well with the myth of competence that we're supposed to accept for Cyclops - the "futurist"!!!!! - because for all his bright ideas, he's not noticed he and his people aren't victims at all. There's a world of difference between being oppressed and being a victim. If you're a victim, your oppressors have won.

    Which is of course what's happened to the X-Men.

    The problem with that initial X-Factor set-up was that it did indeed, if memory serves, often end up seeming as if the mutants were doing the anti-mutant’s job for them in so many ways. In places it worked, but with the purpose you discuss in your letter and a greater degree of control, it could've been a fascinating book.

    For all that most people tune out at the mention of the word "politics", most interesting books have a clear and interesting political agenda. The whole Marvel revolution of the Sixties, for example, was infused with a scepticism, a humanism, which meant that those books ended up standing in opposition to the status quo, for all of Stan Lee's liberal conservatism. And I don't think that it's an accident that most dull, unengaging books have a complete absence of any political content except a tacit acceptance of the status quo. The very presence of politics generates ideas and a sense that the imaginary world isn't so different from the real one.

    Of course, that brings with it so many problems. What politics can a company afford to support and to what degree? But that at least would be a discussion and an awareness of what’s happening. At the moment, accidents are happening and it just doesn't look very good at all because of that.

  15. Saucer of milk for Mr Smith.

    I kid, I kid...

    A fine post, Colin, and you shouldn't be reticent in proffering an opinion when you clearly show the work to support your conclusions. As for the tone, I think that's an organic result of any kind of firmly held opinion. Stewart Lee joked that the last taboo in entertainment is not "being able to make jokes about rape" but "being seen to attempt to do something sincerely (and well)" and this may arguably be correct of criticism of entertainment (and criticism of criticism of entertainment) in these internet climes, but you have little to be embarrassed about here.

    Perhaps there is no real political motive behind Second Coming - perhaps the writers have writ large that - as you point out - the X-Men's policy is an isolationist one and a chap shouldn't spend too much time alone as it gives him funny ideas. I mean look at Cyclops' stubble - the man can't be trusted to shave himself but he should be trusted with a death squad and a military force plopped three miles off the coast of America? It's rum sauce, that kind of thinking.

    As for Charles' point that the X-Men can never go back to the old X-Men premise if they commit to saying that the old premise could never work, surely this ignores the good old fashioned bald-faced cheek of comic book reset buttons utilized for everything from dismemberment to death to weddings? Comic book audiences in North America are shrinking and aging and Second Coming is a symptom of a market that caters first and foremost to that group's need to see their characters 'move forward and grow' beyond the very concepts that made them read those books in the first place. Short-sighted, certainly, but nothing that can't be solved with a pact with the devil or Cyclops waking up one morning and thinking "I was probably wrong about that" and then giving a boring speech in which he proclaims a Brand New Brightest Day or a Heroic Age for the X-Men in which things will be completely different and new for at least the next five months.

  16. Hello Mr Brigonos:- you'd almost think that last sentence was a touch of satire, but it was how things were actually worked out, wasn't it? And I'm sure I read, perhaps on the Marvel digital site, a story of Cyclops getting presented to the President and being given a medal too. Or was that a fever-dream caused by having read Second Coming so many times? I mean, writing this, I keep thinking "That can't be true", but I'd swear I'd read or read of such a scene.

    It's certainly worth quoting from the origin page for the X-Men in the Heroic Age TPB I'm writing about;

    "Professor X ... teaches them how to use their powers ... so they may battle against mutant terrorists who seek to conquer humanity. Xavier's students prove mutants deserve equal rights thanks to their heroic example as the X-Men"

    It's another example of someone just not knowing their politics. You can't "prove" that ANY group deserves equal rights via any kind of heroic example. Human rights can't be earned; human beings are considered to possess them by the very fact of being human. You can no more earn them than you can decline to accept them. Perhaps the writer of that piece was trying to say that the heroism of the X-Men helped to convince a skeptical and even prejudiced general public that human rights should be extended to mutants, or that their example showed how very human the mutants were.

    There's some confused thinking about some serious matters going on, Mr B.

    I do appreciate your kind words. Thank you, and I'll take that saucer of milk too. And that's a fascinating Stewart Lee quote, it really does throw a light on a culture that knows how to discuss anything while lacking the knowledge of how and why to care about the most precious of values.

    I know! I'll change the world by moaning on about values in superhero comic books!!!

  17. "surely this ignores the good old fashioned bald-faced cheek of comic book reset buttons utilized for everything from dismemberment to death to weddings?"

    Well, yeah, but that's my point: they'd have to press a reset button and completely erase things to do it, because they've poisoned their own well that much. The great cosmic reset button is a sign of failure.

    And it doesn't mean the audience will play along - One More Day still gets stick and that was three years ago now! Marvel's had to go back to the whole thing to try & give everyone to shut up, and IIRC got Mary Jane to go "yes, Peter, date the new love interest", a sign the marriage was still casting a shadow.

    - Charles RB

  18. "Xavier's students prove mutants deserve equal rights thanks to their heroic example as the X-Men"

    That's a creepy way of phrasing it.

    - Charles RB

  19. Hello Charles:- I agree with Mr B that the continuity reboot is something that publishers seem to feel they can resort to. I agree with you, and I suspecy Mr B would agree, that with each reboot, the original appeal of the product is weakened unless it's a fantastic recasting. I recall when I first noticed this, with the Legion of Super-Heroes; after awhile, these just weren't the folks I'd grown up with and I couldn't care. I wanted to, but I could. Grant Morrison's trick of creating a Batman that incorporates all other Batmen is surely a fine alternative.

    But the well is indeed poisoned for the X-Men, or at least characters like Cyclops and Wolverine, and you're right:- there are few if any options that could be taken to put to rights what's been done without a whitewash being undertaken.

    I can think of one way and one only that could allow those characters to stay in the monthly books and yet put right what they've done. And that's one of the few good ideas I've ever had for solving seemingly-impossible plot-holes and I'm going to put it away along with my top-secret solutions to all the daftness built into the original Battlestar Galatica. I tell you, Charles, these ideas are goldust .....

    Finally, that IS a creepy way of phrasing it. But not as creepy as the fact that the origin says the X-Men's mission was to battle mutant terrorists. Surely that should have been that their mission was to BE mutant terrorists?

  20. A very good point is made with your quotes from the trades, Col, and "battle mutant terrorists" in itself highlights some confusion in the brand identity: if coming at things as an adult the first question would be "who appointed them to do so?" If coming at it as a child who sees the bright costumes and code names and thinking they're doing it off their own bat, doesn't that make them superheroes and invalidate the isolationist rogue state slant of recent times by dint of the superhero's rationale being essentially a selfless and altruistic one? At the very least that phrasing makes them sound like vigilantes and thus little more than a punctual lynch mob, but either way this Dystopia place doesn't hold up to scrutiny very well.

    I think Marvel want to pitch these books at the adults who represent 99.9 percent of the current market, but find themselves hamstrung by the very nature of their product which is clearly aimed at children - albeit children of all ages - which they more or less admit with the phrasing they use in condensing the X-Men concept. Of course, the decades of cartoons, videogames, comics and movies aimed at children arguably set this precedent and lead to... ohhhh, I don't know - a billion-dollar entertainment corporation dedicated to children acquiring Marvel for its child-friendly properties?

    Confusion and muddy waters seem the norm here rather than a malicious desire to undermine western societal values, so possibly these comics are railing against their 'child friendly' status but can't jump directly to being 'adult' because that isn't how growth works - it's a gradual process with many stages and what we're seeing with the gore and supposed 'political maturity' of Second Coming is a stage of adolescence where the franchise is rebelling against the view that it is still a child by drawing skulls and naked ladies over its school books while discovering Iron Maiden/Manowar and growing unconvincing stubble (in Cyclops' case, this last point is a literal one).
    X-Men as a franchise wants to be seen to be adult but it's stuck with certain raw materials and possibly X23 is the best example of how far it will go to overcompensate: introduced in a cartoon show as little more than a clone angry at her own lack of identity, she was later introduced into the comics as a murderous self-harming child prostitute with a history of physical and mental abuse who for some reason still dresses like a dancer in a Kanye West video.
    Seriously - where do you even start?

    Charles: admittedly One More Day is still getting stick, but this is not the fault of the admittedly awful story or the Reset Button, it is the fault of editorial for not committing to the reset. They keep coming back to the marriage rather than move forward, bringing out miniseries that explain minutiae of continuity revisions and having characters comment on how things used to be, so they can hardly complain about the fandom not shutting up about it when they keep setting the precedent. Better for them to simply stop piling hay on the nag and get on with the business of telling new stories, but that doesn't seem to be how they want to go about doing things.

  21. Well said, sir. So much worthy of comment, but let me reiterate one of your points: Even leaving moral issues aside for the moment--Torture is still a bad idea because its practice in the real world makes things worse *for its perpetrators*, not better.

    I suppose Cyclops could wake up in bed and find it was all a dream, or else make a reference like "Anti-mutant hysteria has been going on since the days of the Agnew administration," to signal that it's all an alternate-Earth story. That wouldn't cut it, though, unless the story was first extended in a way that showed more realistically how the consequences of his choices would come back to roost.

    Unlikely, given that no one at Marvel seems to think there's any need for a course-correction. And that, again, makes me despair. Who does Marvel imagine its audience to be, for this story to get published?


  22. The interesting bit of X-Men #1 is Xavier bluntly states that "evil mutants" will be trying to enslave humanity with their powers and the X-Men's mission is to stop them - this is an early version, the full-on "hated and feared" stuff hadn't come in yet, but it does basically indicate humanity is right to be scared. A lot of mutants really do want to enslave humanity - and, in those early issues, without provocation! - and the X-Men's mission is primarily to clean up mutantkind's own mess. That puts a more ambigious spin on the Sentinels, doesn't it...

    re reboots: Transformers has grown strong and harty on reboots, but always total reboots: outside of the basic premise, nothing was the same up to and including the cast (Prime is usually a constant but he's it). And that does well. But the specific reboots in the comics of the 1980s cast and continuity, that doesn't do well and fan apathy can be seen setting in for IDW. The problem with reboots is they're trying to get back to some abritrary Point When Things Where Good, when maybe things would be okay if they did a Julius Schwartz-style reboot ("now the Atom is a scientist who shrinks!"). That means chucking out the continuity but hey, if you want to reboot...

    - Charles RB

  23. Hello Brigonos:- there IS a contradiction there, isn't there, at the heart of the traditional view of the X-Men. There was a Government agent who worked with the mutants at the beginning, but to my knowledge the USA never told Xavier that he and his kids could pop out and fight terrorism as they saw fit. It could well be seen that today's X-Men are just an extension of the arrogance underlying that first take on the characters, but neither take would be particularly admirable; an organised masked para-military or a small nation of terrorists. Not-thought-through.

    I'd love to investigate your hypothesis to find out how Marvel sees the nature of the audience it's aiming at.Who is this stuff aimed at? Because the editorial staff in the X-Office are top-notch by all reports, and the creators, from Fraction to Carey, are grand professionals too.

    It has to be the cock-up theory that's wheeled out to explain all this, hasn't it?

    "Seriously - where do you even start?" Well, by accepting that abused children aren't frontline superheroes, I'd think, although that might mean you couldn't make money off them until you'd at least dealt with the issues associated their pasts.

    One More Day? I read the most recent sequel to it, where Mary Jane is given a chance to have Peter back and chickens out .... Seriously, where do you start?

  24. Hello Mikesensei:- you're quite right, of course. There are several key practical objections to torture too; it doesn't work and as you say it merely enrages the opposition and alienates the neutrals. For anyone obsessed with realpolitik, I'd think that would be a fine starting point.

    I too am baffled by why Marvel would be publishing these stories. I remain convinced that the only solution an outsider might suggest is to get some bod in from academia to advise folks on the politics of their work. One of the weaknesses of democracy is that folks tend to assume that if they've got a vote, they know what politics involves, just as some people assume that owning a car means they're a good driver. It's no shame not to have a knowledge of social sciences any more than it is not to be great at maths or science. But someone in the system to help out on these issues could only help, for all that it'd be another level of management. I suppose that would seem like censorship, but I'm not advocating limiting free speech so much as making sure what's said is meant and said well.

  25. Hello Charles:- of course you're right about the threat that Magneto and his fellow brutes - oh, er, I mean, citizens of Utopia - have consistently posed to the world. I've never been convinced that "humanity" were wrong to fear what mutants could do, but I am of course convinced that blind prejudice and violence were always nasty-minded solutions. But the states of Marvel-Earth would HAVE to be investing in weaponry in order to defend themselves against super-powered threats; imagine North Korea with an X-Men of their own. It's not politically incorrect to fear North Korea, with a basketcase leadership and a brainwashed citizenry, and Sentinels might well be a legitimate weapons strategy. Of course, only as part of America's arsenal and not according to that lunatic Trask's agenda.

    I'm coming round to the idea that while reboots are always an option, they should be avoided at all costs. The solution, of course, is better editors and writers. Easy to say of course ...

  26. As per my previous comment on your last X-Men article, I would now like to announce that Cyclops is Thomas Paine, that often misunderstood by those who are tragically literal author of 'Common Sense', calling for among other things a justified violent upheaval and secession from the British Commonwealth.

    As such, the X-Men is currently in line with that most American of historical ideologies - the rationally justified revolution, or in modern parlance 'terrorism'.

    From it's beginnings in the 60's the book has always flirted with notions of private militias, being outlaws - they even forged an extra-terrestial alliance with the Shi'ar Empire, receiving technology and, as Jean Grey noted in New X-Men, the ability to go off-world whenever things got tough.

    Let us not forget that Xavier chose a racist terrorist to take command of his young charges when he was mortally wounded. Magneto's stewardship of the New Mutants laid the groundwork for Cable's command (and latterly the black ops wetwork of X-Force under Cyclops/Wolverine).

    Through this perspective I would argue there has been a consistent approach to the X-Men, who for all their talk in the past of co-existence have heavily relied on secret missions, the induction of child soldiers and associations with known mass murderers.

  27. Hello Emmet:- gosh, tread lightly, mate! You're talking to a bloke that goes and waves at the Thomas Paine statue in Thetford once a year and buys a cheap postcard of him from the little museum nearby!

    Mind you, for a bloke that wrote "Common Sense", Paine could be fantastically lacking in the same quality. The whole wishful-thinking aspect of his involvement in the French Revolution was a grand triumph of hope over common sense.

    I think you're right that the X-Office would have us see Cyclops as modern fusion of Paine and Washington, amongst others. I think Thomas, if caught at a lucid moment, might be off and writing a pamphlet about you, however; violence and secession he certainly was for, but false imprisonment within the context of a democratic state practising the rule of law? Assassination? Tyranny? A complete lack of debate about anything but the most minor details of policy? I think Thomas would be a-railing against your analogy.

    But boy do you help illuminate the problem with the X-Men, because in order for Cyclops and Utopia to have any legitimacy, America must be a dictatorship itself. And that means that for the X-Men to "work" in the terms of their actions up to the end of Second Coming, America has to be an awful place, a country so depraved that resistance to its state is not only justified, but mandatory.

    But this is all window-dressing of course. The fundamental qualities of a massively flawed modern democracy - but still a democracy! - are therefore magnified through a comicbook lens until the distortion of is so extreme that Scott Summers is a hero and his methods heroic.

    I do like the perspective you adopt. There has been that ridiculous and even rather offensive contradiction to the X-Men, the youthful para-military operating without state sanction. And it's one that, as you say, successive generations of writers have pursued because they're not thinking, or because they're thinking without a demanding enough political and moral context. They've complicated and compromised the X-Men's position to absurdity, and as a consequence to a state of moral collapse. The figure of the superhero is a hard one to produce in such a way as it doesn't speak of the state's incompetence if not active evil; by not being aware of this, the writers of the X-Men, with their as you say "child soldiers" and "associations with known mass murderers", have ended up saying things that surely no-one intended.

    But what can you do when the GOSH-WOW-SUPERHERO factor is so important than more substantial matters go unconsidered? Magneto as a head of the mutant school? Magneto as a prominent and heroic citizen of Utopia? X-Force with X-23 off killing people? GOSH-WOW-SUPERHEROES!

  28. "Hello Emmet:- gosh, tread lightly, mate! You're talking to a bloke that goes and waves at the Thomas Paine statue in Thetford once a year and buys a cheap postcard of him from the little museum nearby!"

    Ah well as I mentioned at the beginning of my comment, there are some who take Paine's writing (at their own convenience) very literally. The Tea Party, for example. I wrote about Common Sense for my blog just recently ( and was struck by what I see as its relevance to your discussion of the X-Men with regard to the current political subtext.

    To whit, why is Paine seeking to justify, using Enlightenment principles, violence against the British crown? His case is eminently practical. America is too big and too far away to be ruled so arbitrarily by King George. Beneath the appeals to God and patriotism, his argument revolves around the cost of independence versus being ruled by a profligate British Empire.

    So what is Cyclops' case? Well here's a point. Under the US constitution mutants are afforded no protection by law.

    'All men are created equal..' but mutants are not men! The X-Men represent an entirely new species, one that has witnessed Sentinels, Project Wideawake and The Friends of Humanity. Nominally American mutants are citizens, but no constitutional amendment has been presented to recognize their status. Nor will there be, because that would remove the central tenet of the X-Men franchise. From the beginning it has been made clear that not only are they outside the law as vigilantes (teenage ones at that), they are outside the human species itself. Xavier and Magneto discuss Homo Superior as a neologism in the first few issues of the book.

    In choosing that name for their species, have they not both judged homo sapiens as lesser, as well as seperate from them?

    Utopia/Nation X features the X-Men set up their own sovereign state outside of America. In that move Cyclops sought out the one thing not available to them, defence under the law. They are not American, they are mutants, just as the revolutionaries of the War of Independence rejected being British.

    Now have I mounted this defence as I am convinced of its merit. Not entirely. Personally I suspect the current storyline is a joke being played on us by Fraction and (notably) British writers such as Carey, Milligan etc. Grant Morrison tried to fashion a progressive, forward looking take on mutantcy. Guess what, it didn't take. So here we have a plunge into that most local of American ideologies, one that perhaps we Europeans don't really understand. A profound mistrust of authority, of government, that is rooted in this historical antagonism against the former colonial rulers identified by Paine. My hope is that this is part referral to that most heroic of American tropes - the revolutionary, as well as a satire of sorts (what happens when the revolutionary rejects America?).

    When I first read the X-Men back in the 80s Claremont set them outside the bounds of the law, hiding from pursuers both legal and criminal in an assortment of dens and secret bases.

    Now the book asserts that human laws no longer apply to them. 'Magneto was Right'.

  29. Emmet:- a reply will be up later today. I usually don't publish comments from folks kind enough to send them until I have an answer, but despite myself, my planned answer has turned into a damn essay, which nobody in the world needs, so I'll whittle it down later. What I will say is what an fascinating comment the above was!

  30. All in good fun sir. What can I say, your method of discussion has inspired me (even if I am facetious).

  31. Hello Emmet: what a privilege it is, in the very best sense of the word, to be wandering around Waitrose picking up the Splendid Wife's shopping and thinking about using Paine to refute Paine. My thanks to you.

    I don't know how I missed your discussion of Paine, but I've put that to rights. And of course if anyone is reading this, and doesn't know your blog, they should head over to a-book-a-day-until-I-can-stay. The purpose of the blog allied with the quality of the content will reward the visit.

    Now, how to match Paine with Paine? Well, I think the best thing to do is to look at the physical circumstances of the mutants. They have not only Utopia and its many and powerful mutants as its effective citizens, but also the allied Kingdom of Atlantis under the waves all around them. If they do believe themselves to be oppressed, then how do they go about serving the cause of freedom in a way that's consistent with a general reading of Paine.

    Well, the purpose of the state is to deny tyranny, to empower folks to live as best they can while pursuing the greatest measure of freedom. The Tea Party would have kittens to note that Paine's state is one responsible for helping to mitigate the existence and degree of poverty, for example, but Paine’s state is more than a night watchman. And yet it's primary responsibility is to protect the individual from terror. Finally, one key purpose of a just state is to through its example inspire other peoples to rise up and create virtuous states of their own.

    So, Utopia would have to be a democracy. Resistance to tyranny, which is the only justification for the X-Men rebelling against the civil authority, would need to be both formal and cast in a form that inspired other down-pressed peoples. Cyclops could therefore be a military leader with some freedom of action, but under political oversight, and that oversight would have to be organised under the auspices of a parliament and the rule of law. A constitution, independent courts, transparent laws, limits on power; Paine would demand them all, even under conditions of wartime. (None of the Founding Fathers or the likes of Paine were ever up for torture, if I recall my history, even during the worst of the War.)

    Oh, dear. Utopia is a tyranny. Paine would immediately be against it. And Atlantis is a tyranny. Ops! Paine would be against that too.

    Furthermore, Utopia isn't even a state in any formal sense. It isn't a grand example because it hasn't declared political freedom. It's no example at all. For the X-Men want their cake and they want to gorge on it too. So they constantly cross between the USA and back, breaking its laws in manifestly serious ways, and yet returning to their state-within-astate, where they break America's laws again. Our Thomas would have nothing but contempt for that. If America's a tyranny, and the X-Men have land above and beneath the sea to secceed, and if they have the power to do so, and if they can inspire the oppressed elsewhere, including in America, to follow their example; well, independence it is.

    Finally, Paine was appalled by torture and any arbitrary expression of power separated from law. Utopia is founded upon detention without rights - from Prof X, I believe, to the X-Prisoners - assassination, indiscriminate violence and so and on.

    cont in part II!;

  32. cont;

    I love the playfulness of your ideas, both in their intellectual content and in the way you bowl the googly with them. But, playing with as straight a bat as I can, I think Paine, unless he was caught in one of his "I want to see freedom so I'll see freedom" moods, would be horrified by Utopia. The X-Men want to be treated as citizens while behaving as terrorists, and our Thomas, who knew tyranny even from his days growing up just a few dozen miles down the road from where I type this, would spot that immediately.

    THERE'S the showdown I want to see; Thomas Paine versus Scott Summers. No eye-blasts and don't let Paine near the alehouse beforehand. I'd pay to read it.

    Of course, as you say, the issue now is does the USA really deny the mutants human rights? Doers the lack of a Constitutional Amendment specific to mutants deny them access to the various and many legal measures designed to protect American citizens. And that's where a legal challenge was surely launched and won years ago in the MU's USA. America's laws were once, at both local and national level, designed to define "citizen" as white. Those laws have long since been wiped out. The principle of citizen as being an individual born in the land of the free or accepted as such surely establishes the mutants rights. After all, humanity is full of mutations; folks with third nipples and six toes. There's no law could define mutation as Un-American or Un-Human in such a way as it couldn't be used against pretty much everyone, to one degree or another. We all carry mutations within us and we're all the product of mutations. No, I think it's the LACK of a constitutional amendment stating that mutants AREN’T human that counts here, I would imagine. And if I've missed such a thing, well, that's even dafter than a man who can fire energy bolts through his eyes. It couldn’t stand as a law for five minutes, and it really would bring about a superhero civil war too, and quite rightly, unlike the last one!

    Last thought; if human laws no longer apply to mutants, and if Cyclop's state/no-state ignores both statute law and long established ethical standards, then what principles underlie Utopia. They can only be those founded on the principle of might-makes-right. May I reintroduce my old friend Thomas Paine at this juncture?

  33. Emmet and Colin, I'd argue that mutants are clearly 'men', or rather 'humans', in the sense that applies when discussing rights and freedoms.

    The ancient Greeks had two words for 'life' - 'zoe' and 'bios'. The former is a strictly biological category, in whose terms 'human' life can only be a property of Homo sapiens. But the latter is a category that embodies the characteristics that distinguish humans from mere animals - sociability (in a sense that goes beyond mere fraternising in groups), political being, and moral reasoning.

    In the latter sense, the mutants of the Marvel universe are clearly humans and should be treated as such. The same goes, counter-intuitively, for any sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrials who visit us.

    Alex S

  34. Hello Alex:- that's a fantastic point! Thank you very much. I'm off to do some follow-up reading, and should I refer to what you've said in future, as I suspect I shall. I'll be absolutely sure to give the credit to the person who deserves it.

    My best to you!

  35. It is a very interesting notion, but try this thought experiment.

    If a Neanderthal was discovered alive, today, would 'it', have human rights? Or would we examine this specimen of a defunct species to determine how it survived until the present day, without seeking consent?

    Morrison of course addresses this with his 'extinction gene' idea - neanderthals are to homo sapiens as present day humans are to mutants. He has Cyclops make the interesting comment that they have been dressing up as superhumans to make the public comfortable with their existence.

    I think this underlines the crux of the above article's issue with mutant isolationism/seccession. Superheroes fight crime, they represent an idea of justice, or a vision of a possible future.

    The X-Men don't. They are fighting to protect their species. They have fought against the enslavement of mutants (Genosha), genocide (Genosha again!) and the alteration of their genome (M-Day, Quesada's attempt to forcibly correct the course of the titles away from superheroics to issues relating to mutant culture, evolution etc.) Then there was a mutant concentration camp - Neverland - on American soil. Gee thanks for that entirely appropriate addition to the canon Frank Tieri.

    All of which has handed the mutants on Utopia a nice casus belli.

  36. No worries Colin.

    I should add that not everyone would interpret/apply the terms 'zoe' and 'bios' as I do. Some would argue that to do so is ahistorical, and would prefer to use the terms simply to distinguish between life in general and a person's specific life. But as someone who thinks humans are pretty special, and would therefore prefer to make hypothetical reasoning non-humans 'honorary humans' than to make 'humanity' a relative concept, I stand my ground!

    Alex S

  37. Hello Emmet:- er, can I bring my mate Thomas Paine in on this? No? But I can use Paine to defend me against anything except Edmund Burke and his beady Whiggish eye....

    Ah, well. I love how you're created an aboslutely convincing and self-consistent path through the madnesses of the X-Men's history. I may disagree with your reading, because - and here I put my hand in the air and issue a loud mea culpe! - I prefer another, but that doesn't mean yours can be challenged. It exists as absolutely valid in its own right, although why anyone would want to follow such a path in telling the X-Men's story - I know you're neither responsible for your sources or the modern book! - is beyond me. But it's a lovely case for explaining, while never excusing, the mutant's world view.

    My response to your presentation to me of my furrowed brow perhaps-ancestor is similarly based on preference rather than logic or realism; of course he deserves human rights, as well as deserving because of his lower IQ and different abilities our duty of care. But there lies my moral problem with the X-Men. My problem with modern society, as I fear you well know, is that its so familiar with the veneer of demcracy that it neither celebrates the system's virtues nor indeed understands what those factors are. I also believe that the superhero genre - as I've of course written about before, sorry - is a perfect vehicle to combat this in some small way. Indeed, my argument has always been that superheroes - and those characters who look and act like superheroes - actually draw their power as characters from their relationship with democracy. And so I don't want comics that preach anti-democratic messages. I don't. I think democracy is somewhat wounded and, indeed, even if wasn't, it's something to be cherished. If it's going to questioned and other systems discussed, as of course must happen, the process has to be an informed one that's not there for cheap entertainment. Otherwise we end up in Hyper-reality - the post-modern concept, of course, not Morrison's DC conceit - and there's no way back from there.

    And so, regardless of it making perfect sense in terms of cannon, and boy but you've established that, I choose a different cannon that jibes with own values. I don't see a contradiction between Morrison and Wheedon's stance that the X-Men play heroes to win over the public. As long as they're serving what my values see as decency, I'm up for their right to sell themselves in the marketplace of image and idea as they see fit.

    Look, you've forced me back to the defence of both honest men and knaves; "I think" because "I believe". Have you no shame?

  38. Hello Alex:- Your comment reminded me of days at York University many years ago studying Aristotle's justifications for slavery and the arguments and terms he used to justify it. But if the big A can apply language and logic to justify his own point of view, then we certainly can too. It's ground worth standing on.

  39. Colin, many thanks. As indicated above, I only stumbled upon this course of argument in order to engage with the language of your post. It is this manner of debate that brings me back to your blog again and again.

    Keep up the good work!

  40. Hello Emmet:- and the same to you. Between a book a day and writing your impressions and judgements of it up, I'm amazed you get the time to drop in here, but you are certainly always welcome.

    Hey. I'm sitting here setting the video to record the cricket that's beginning in your nation in just 90 minutes time or so. Outside here the roads are a sheet of ice and it's so dark and cold sound doesn't seem to make it off the ground. Am I the only one that finds it remarkable that you're actually in the early morning land where today's Test will occur, and that we swop these comments with each other from day to night and back again?

    I'm sorry, but it still feels not unlike science fiction to me.

  41. "He has Cyclops make the interesting comment that they have been dressing up as superhumans to make the public comfortable with their existence."

    And I only just _now_ realise that Sublime's "Super-Sentinels" plan, where Weapon Plus' murder machines are going to pretend to be the Justice League to make humans comfortable with genocide, wasn't just Morrison being clever by analysing the genre - he was being even cleverer than that, Weapon Plus is being the mirror image to the X-Men's traditional position.

    (I may be wrong here, but this is the writer who crafted scenes to make sense the first time, make a new kind of sense when "Xorn" was revealed, a third when Sublime was explained, and sometimes a genre critique sense too. I wouldn't put such an intention past him.)

    - Charles RB

  42. Charles, I struggled with the Morrison X-Men issues after the first year. Some of that was a feeling that Morrison was acting out his own wishes for his own life through Scott, Emma and Jean. Any man that can make the JLA cool could have made Jean cool too, but, as Mr Morrison himself him would say, comics are made for reinvention; Jean will be back soon!

    But I KNOW that I want to go back and read the whole series from beginning to end. And based on what you've written here, then I'll have to read it again! A good book length guide to the New X-Men would find a market in my neck of the woods.

  43. I'm just destroying your disposable income in these comments ;)

    - Charles RB

  44. Yes, but you ARE Charles, you ARE ..... :)

  45. Colin, first time commentator, but I have to say I enjoyed both of these very in-depth articles highlighting the fundamental problems that are at the root of "X-Nation" and "Messiah Complex," which I believe perfectly illustrate that, as of right now, the X-Men franchise has become utterly broken. And I think the cause can be easily traceable back to "House of M" and Marvel EIC Joe Quesada's mandate that mutants in the Marvel Universe had to be a minority again.

    Granted, he may have had a point that having millions of mutants around the world, in terms of the narrative, risked making them seem less unique and undermined the metaphor of them being a minority. However, by having the entire worldwide population be reduced to 200 or so (coincidentally, leaving the more recognizable mutants with their powers intact), the concept of the X-Men protecting a fearful and prejudiced humanity from evil mutants was no longer workable simply because there was hardly any evil mutants left.

    Thus ever since then, Marvel has been changing the X-Men's status quo every year, which have all been variations of "every mutant is now a X-Man living together in some isolated community from the rest of the world." No longer was the X-Men about "protecting others not like themselves," or "trying to find peaceful co-existence with non-mutants;" now it was all about "survival of the fittest" and "us vs. them." The X-Men adopted the ideology of separatist instead of one of co-operation, becoming closer to the ideology of Magneto (who is now part Cyclops' inner circle) moreso than Charles Xavier (who is all but absent)--an ideology that is in complete anathema to what the series was supposed to be about. Is it any wonder, then, why readers have been gradually become disillusioned and turning away from these comics.

    Mike McNulty

  46. Hello Mike!:- thank you for popping in and leaving such a thought-inspiring comment. It's very much appreciated.

    There's a long scholarly article to be written on the various influences which have led to the X-Men's current plight, but I can't imagine that your point wouldn't be right there at the top of its contents when it's written. I'd not thought back as far as House Of M in the context you have, and I'm glad you've said what you have. It's a really good point indeed! There's hardly any evil mutants left, and "good" and "evil" mutants might be endlessly thrown together as "golly! gee! wow!" story ideas until all moral meaning starts to become so confused its not ambigious but deeply worrying.

    It's that seperatism and the assumption that seperatism justifies any action which so alienates me. I totally agree. The X-Men have gone from being a group of characters who, when I was a boy in the Sixties, I could imagine stepping in and helping if I walked down the wrong street and ran into the wrong gang. Now, I don't think they'd notice if the modern-day equivilant of a young me stumbled into such trouble; we're just humans, after all, and they've got better things to do. And of course, I'm not suggesting that the X-Men were about saving young Scots lads learning to survive in London, but I am saying that they were role models and imaginary companions. I mind not comic books becoming different, more edgy, more daring. I mind characters being uprooted so far from an acceptable moral context that they actually become so fundamentally anti-democratic and anti-humane. I'm just no good at appaluding assassination teams in this context at all.

    Thanks for making me think about that issue of mutant numbers and where the process of reducing those numbers leads. My best to you!

  47. Dear Colin,

    Hello, this is the formerly named 'Stuff You Need' here with a name change to my regular handle. I've been continuing to follow your work with interest, but I have been troubled by your work on the X-Men (and now 'Kingdom Come'). As an adherent of the civil liberties writer Glenn Greenwald (consider by many to be a left extremist himself), I suspect you and I have similar views on democracy and the rule of law. I am ashamed by the direction of my country following 9/11 and the unfortunate continuation of Bush's anti-civil liberties practices by the Obama administration. But in reading on your condemnation of Cyclops and Utopia for potentially similar actions, I have had to reflect on why I enjoyed those books and did not find such actions as objectionable as you.

    I think it comes down to History and Knowledge. The reason I believe in the rule of law and that effect of Guantanamo is to decay that and America's standing, is because humans always have an imperfect grasp or understanding of the history and knowledge of any situation. If humans were omniscient, then criminal law would be a very different beast; since we are not, we have courts to adjudicate guilt and (in many countries) the accused is allowed to defend themselves. The idea that 'false imprisonment' is destructive to democracy is borne out of the thinking that it is abhorrent to unjustly take away someone's freedom. The unjustness is borne from our imperfect knowledge - we can accuse someone, but in many instances we do not know the full or true circumstances, do not know if they even committed the crime; so from there we get the statement "Better that ten guilty men go free, than one innocent man be imprisoned." There is no doubt the Obama administration is currently making a mockery of this standard by having a tiered system of justice where those detainees they are certain they can convict are tried in civilian court, those they are shakier on in terms of evidence and standing, they try in military court, and those they don't think they could ever convict are not brought to trial at all. This is upsetting because it violates the supposedly American value of not sacrificing our laws in times of fear for expediences' sake as well as because so many of the detainees have been released without any charges (again, the imperfect knowledge).

    Turning to Utopia then, your claim that the secret prisons therein are rife with false imprisonment rang false to me, even though it has all the similarities of Guantanamo. I think the reason is because we have perfect knowledge of the history of all the prisoners and their crimes. Sebastian Shaw and the rest are guilty of their crimes. We know this because we saw it - we read it. We, the reader occupy that omniscient position that it is impossible for us to have in real life. Thus, it is easy thing to say they are justly imprisoned, with the view that justice does not flow simply because twelve men have judged the accused, but that justice requires such judgment when knowledge is imperfect - when knowledge is perfect, such judgment is foregone.


  48. (con't)

    I said it was an "easy thing" above deliberately because I realize that does not automatically make it 'right' (as often the easy thing is the wrong thing). But I think that can give an eye towards who Marvel is making these books for. To me they appear as escapes from the current awfulness and failures of the world and the US and other Western governments perpetrating the same violations as the X-Men. In the real world, such actions are performed in a state of imperfect knowledge, in the Marvel universe it is the opposite. It is therefore possible for me to say, if we could read the book about all the actions detainees have performed, their stories, etc, justice would be far simpler to administer.

    In this view, I recognize you are operating from the point of view of a person on the ground in the MU, while I am viewing it as a reader. I also recognize that the 'escapist fantasy' I see could also be used as an example to bulwark the actions taken by governments in the real world and furthermore warp those younger readers who do not already have my particular take on civil liberties.

    Anyways, thank you for writing such long, involved posts - sorry it takes me awhile to respond, and I hope my reaction makes sense.


    - kalyarn

  49. Hello kalyarn:- and how splendid it is to hear from you again. I hope you’re well! Please never feel you need to apologise for such a well-reasoned and heartfelt response. I think it’s absolutely right for a polemic such as mine to receive such a fine and disagreeing response. I may object occasionally to folks who leap into a disagreement without thinking and/or using their good manners. But what you’ve written is exactly what any blogger should feel privileged to find in their comment box. Thank you.

    My problem is responding to your points is that doing so would often involve me simply repeating what I said in the piece. By that I mean not that you’re ignoring what I’ve said, because of course you’re not. But rather you’ve considered my points and responded with your own counters. To simply say BUT I SAID is to be damn rude. You certainly get what I said! I don’t need to repeat it. So if I don’t reply to a point, it’s not because I don’t think it’s of value, but because your point can only be countered by what I’ve already said.

    (I certainly couldn’t mind of you and I DID have different stances on civil rights, kalyarn, but it is irrationally pleasing to read what you’ve written and know that we stand on the same ground where “real-world” issues are concerned!)

    My objection to imprisonment without trial is that human beings can’t be trusted to operate outside the checks and balances of law. That’s one of the fundamental principles of democratic government. The state checks our own stupidity, cruelty, arrogance and so on. Without the law, we’re nothing. And yet psychology and sociology tell us that most people believe they can often spot a criminal, and that they know what guilt is, and their instincts allow them to intuitively know who’s “bad”. I’m sure we agree. But my objection to it in the X-Men is that the practise is used to support the virtue of Cyclops. He is virtuous because he KNOWS who is guilty and he is virtuous and better than the state ever could be because he can ACT. This means that the story emotionally celebrates and reinforces the often-unrecognised prejudices that I mentioned above. The last thing our culture needs is a media who presents the practises of dictatorships as badges of virtue. I worry greatly about how the media has gradually shifted over the past few decades towards a situation where the likes of torture and false imprisonment do regularly appear as a mark of how the lone hero is better than society at looking after our rights.


  50. cont from the above;

    Now, we could of course say that Cyclops is a mutant with access to telepaths and experience denied to the courts. He therefore knows who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. He is in effective a god, above suspicion, above self-interest; he KNOWS. I object to that for the fact that human beings aren’t so. They are remarkably ungodly. And so I don’t care if fiction presents me with figures who know. That’s so far removed from my life and from the issues which concern my society that I feel they’re both uninteresting and offensive. Certainly, I have no interest in a character who can judge others without any limitations. That short-circuits one of the key issues of what it is to be human; learning how to discover the truth or a version of it about others.

    But there’s also the key matter that knowing of someone’s guilt doesn’t qualify an individual to knowing what to do next. A detective isn’t a judge isn’t a prison officer. Just because Cyclops may have knowledge of certain crimes doesn’t know that he is the best judge of how to presume. I can believe in a man who can shoot eye-beams out of his eyes, but a man who can detect, prove, sentence and imprison another is quite beyond my understanding. As well as, again, feeding into the prejudice that crime is just a matter of tracking down the bad guys and dealing with them in the manner of a vigilante.

    Now I think the point you make about Marvel’s output being something of a source of solace to Americans is FASCINATING. I can’t speak to it because we both need to know what the creators intent – or, actually, we don’t do we? If that’s how the work effects the reader, then that’s what counts. It’s a really intriguing idea. But again, it’s a dangerous business. I think America dealt well with Vietnam through some intense books and movie which challenged their audience to not sink into denial. I don’t think that “feel-good” books about catastrophic screw-ups is a good idea.

    And here my point would be that the faith-based staff of the last President of your union fed off these ideas such as torture works and is necessary, everyone is like us really, violence works, and so on and was clearly motivated by a naïve and ignorant vision of the world. (Our PM was the same.) The figure of Cyclops stands for so many of those thoughtless qualities which I would have thought are the last thing any one ought to seek solace in. Comforting, but lethal. (I don’t say this to imply that I feel the latest President is some kind of symbol of virtue.)


  51. But I very much take your point that folks should be trusted to see through this material and enjoy it for fun. And yet you too agree that some folks won’t be able to do this. What’s the solution? Well, certainly not censorship! I suspect that doing what we’re doing here is a tiny slither of a democratic duty; just talking about these things helps everyone involved think clearer. I know my reply here isn’t clear enough, but I’ll sleep on it and things will be a little clearer in my mind, I’ve no doubt.

    What else? Well, if Marvel are going to produce escapist and reactionary fantasies, then they ought to produce the opposite too! That would be fair. If Marvel knows that the X-Men is going to celebrate such ideas, then perhaps X-Factor might present a quite different and opposing take.

    I hope the above pays an appropriate response to your ideas. I do agree that comic-book reality isn’t the same as the real-world. I know that perfect knowledge can be portrayed as possible there. And I know that readers are capable of reading material and not being corrupted by it. I accept all those points.

    I just feel that the issues involved carry more weight. But that’s opinion and nothing else. And I’m very pleased to discuss such issues with you.

    I tell you something that I would like to see; I'd like to find out that an few of those imprisoned by the X-Men aren't who they seem to be. Perhaps they might be shape-changers brain-washed onto thinking they're the likes of Shaw. Now, that would open up the X-Men into a discussion of the issues rather than a celebration of prejudices.

    My best to you, sir! Thank you for making me think about this. I fear my response is nowhere near the value of your comment, but it’s well meant, I assure you.

  52. Colin, the most recent comments on this post and your replies to them lead me to believe that the website was invented for you!

    Alex S

  53. Hello Alex:- oh, gosh, that's a good piece of blogging, isn't it, by which I mean, all of it.

    I feel that I can give up my scratchings here and leave the proper bloggers to do the job, mate. Seriously. It's a great blog and I recommend it highly. I'll put a link to it in my favourites box.

  54. Hello Colin, I've been at it again. While reviewing Kieron Gillen's first issue of Uncanny X-Men's second volume, I couldn't help but be reminded of our conversation here a year ago -

    Gosh has it been that long?

  55. Hello Emmet:- That's quite a shock! It really is. How can it possibly be a year since we discussed this book?

    Seriously. How come?

    Thank you for the steer. I'm off to read your piece. I was planning to discuss the same book on Friday over here, but I suspect you're about to pre-empt whatever I might say.

    Can't wait!