For 60 years, X-Men comics have tackled themes of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and more

Racism. Homophobia. AIDS. Anti-Semitism. Socialism. Prejudice. Puberty.

These subjects aren’t your typical fodder for comic books, but for the past 60 years, these kinds of themes have been at the heart of Marvel’s mutant superhero squad, the X-Men.

Partially born out of laziness (yes, really), the X-Men have become an integral part of the Marvel universe, and their comics have been a place where boundaries have been pushed and diversity embraced.

No other heroes have represented the underdogs, misfits and outsiders quite like the X-Men — and it’s helped make the mutants one of the most cherished teams in the Marvel stable.

A group of young men and women standing outside.

X-Men: First Class, one of the most highly regarded film adaptations of the comics.(Supplied: 20th Century Fox)

Laziness, the other mother of invention

In 1963, Stan Lee was on a roll.

Along with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, the Marvel comic book writer had created an astonishing line-up of superheroes in less than two years, including The Fantastic Four, Ant-Man, The Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, The Wasp, and Dr Strange.

Stan Lee poses for a photograph taken in the late 1960s.

Stan Lee poses for a photograph taken in the late 1960s.(Twitter: Stan Lee)

But after the hugely popular debut of The Fantastic Four in November 1961, Lee and his Marvel colleagues were pedalling like crazy to keep up with demand and create new superheroes.

Lee in particular was finding it increasingly difficult to come up with character origin stories.

“I was bored with cosmic rays and gamma rays and radioactivity and I was running out of things, and I figured, ‘What if they’re just mutants?'” he told director and comic book fan Kevin Smith, in an interview.

“It was a cop-out. Look how easy it is — you want somebody who can walk through walls? He was born that way — he’s a mutant!

“That was done out of laziness.”

But Lee’s laziness proved to be an opportunity for a richer level of storytelling not seen in the pages of his other superheroes’ comics, such as Iron Man and the Fantastic Four.

The front cover of Uncanny X-Men 1963 comic.

The front cover of the first X-Men comic, released in September 1963.(Supplied: Marvel)

“I thought it might be fun to get an analogy with the way some people are picked on by bigots,” Lee explained in the DVD extras for the animated anthology, X-Men: Legend of Wolverine.

“Here are characters that are going to look different, who are going to have certain strange powers — what if the human race is afraid of them, hates them perhaps, and [persecutes] them, torments them?

“Suddenly, I became really fascinated by this because I could see there was such a parallel between things that were happening in society and these stories that we were trying to write.”

The dawn of a new era

Lee and artist Jack Kirby created the X-Men against the backdrop of the American civil rights movement, with the first issue appearing in September 1963, and it didn’t take long for themes of prejudice to seep into the comic.

“When I was young, normal people feared me, distrusted me,” X-Men leader Professor X tells new recruit Jean Grey in the very first issue.

“I realised the human race is not yet ready to accept those with extra powers.”

In issue #4, villainous mutant Magneto suggests that humans would kill all mutants if they could, purely because they were different, while in issue #5, a mutant athlete is attacked by a crowd at an athletics carnival due to his record-breaking sporting prowess.

A panel from an X-Men comic featuring Magneto talking to Quicksilver.

Magneto tells Quicksilver humans will “kill us if they could” in a panel from X-Men #4.(Supplied: Marvel)

But the exploits of the original X-Men line-up — Professor X, Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, Angel, and Marvel Girl AKA Jean Grey — never quite took off like The Fantastic Four or Spider-man, and by December 1970, the series was effectively done, with Marvel reprinting old stories instead of spending time and money on new ones.

The title languished until 1975, when British-born writer Chris Claremont helped kick off a new era for the X-Men, with a fresh, more multicultural line-up including a Kenyan-American (Storm) and a native American, as well as mutants from Russia (Colossus), Japan (Sunfire), and Germany (Nightcrawler).

The team also featured a certain indestructible, cigar-chomping, claw-sprouting Canadian named Wolverine, who first appeared in a Hulk comic years earlier, and would ultimately become the most famous mutant of all.

Hugh Jackman poses as Wolverine.

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in a scene from the movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine, released 2009.(Supplied: IMDB/20th Century Fox)

Suddenly, the X-Men were a melting pot of races, nationalities and religions, and themes that were only hinted at during Lee’s initial run began to come to the fore.

The Israeli connection

Under Claremont’s stewardship, X-Men mentor Professor X and chief villain Magneto became two sides of the same coin — the former fighting for mutant acceptance by defending humanity, and the latter lashing out at humans in retribution for their prejudice.

This would lead some commentators to liken them to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X respectively, though, as Claremont told Empire magazine in 2016, that was not his intention.

“[That comparison] is totally valid, but for me, being an immigrant white, to make that analogy felt incredibly presumptuous,” he explained.

An older men poses at a speaking engagement.

Chris Claremont wrote X-Men comics for 16 years.(Supplied: Luigi Novi/Wikimedia Commons)

Instead, he was inspired by two months he spent in Israel working on a kibbutz (a communal settlement) in 1970.

For Claremont, Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion was a truer inspiration for Professor X, while terrorist-turned-Nobel Peace Prize-winner Menachem Begin (Israel’s sixth PM) was the source for Magneto, who went from villain to anti-hero over Claremont’s run.

Claremont’s time in Israel also informed his re-writing of Magneto’s backstory, turning him from power-hungry supervillain to Holocaust survivor.

“[Working] on a kibbutz … affected me on levels that I hadn’t anticipated, working on a daily basis with people who were actual survivors of the Holocaust,” Claremont said.

Claremont’s writing of women characters was also influenced by the country’s compulsory military service for all citizens.

“There is nothing so disconcerting as sitting on a bus and having a young lady walk on with an Uzi flung over her shoulder,” he told Empire.

“In 1970, you weren’t used to seeing someone you might ask out on a date packing hardware.

“So it’s taking that realisation and applying it to the fictional reality of the X-Men and seeing where it leads.”

Mystique with blue face and red hair and yellow eyes

Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique in X-Men: Dark Phoenix.(Supplied: IMDB/20th Century Fox)

The result was a run of strong female characters unlike anything Marvel had seen before — Storm, Kitty Pride, Rogue, Mystique, a reborn Jean Grey, and the villainous Emma Frost.

Bigger ideas

Through the 70s and 80s, Claremont took those strong characters and gave them weighty themes to match.

Metaphors about racism were drawn, with the creation of a number of mutant-hating groups, including firebrand preacher William Stryker’s Purifiers, who also featured in the 1982 graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, which explored religious extremism.

The much-loved Days of Future Past storyline in 1981 imagined a Holocaust-like future for mutants, who were hunted down and killed or locked in concentration camps.

A drawing of dozens of superheroes posting together.

The X-Men have been one of Marvel’s most interesting teams since they began 60 years ago.(Supplied: Marvel)

In the 90s, the Legacy Virus story arc introduced a disease that killed only mutants, leading to reviewers calling it an AIDS allegory.

Then screenwriter/director Joss Whedon’s mid-2000s run on X-Men introduced a mutant “cure”, which was seen by many as analogous to so-called “gay conversion therapy”, and the misguided notion that homosexuality was something that needed to be cured.

Members of the X-Men line-up have often been members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Northstar, one of the first openly gay superheroes in American comics, debuted in an X-Men comic, while versions of popular characters Iceman, Psylocke, Mystique and Colossus have come out as gay or bisexual over the years.

The importance of being X

Arts and culture critic and X-Men enthusiast Cassie Tongue said Marvel’s mutants and their real-world analogies were “hugely important” in the world of comics.

“These are the representatives of anyone who doesn’t quite align with society’s standards or values, and they have a commitment to fighting for the underdog,” Tongue said.

The mutant heroes Cyclops, Beast, Iceman and Angel, led by Professor X, in the X-Men's 1963 comic debut.

Cyclops, Iceman, the Angel and the Beast, led by Professor X, in the X-Men’s 1963 comic debut.(Supplied: Marvel)

“Often superheroes are on the right side of popular favour, they tend to be on the right side of the police and the government, and they tend to fit into these structural systems of oppression that exist in the world.

“But when you have a superhero team that fights in opposition to the structural powers that oppress people, what you’re starting to see is an example of resistance … and you start to get the sense that just fighting to maintain the status quo is perhaps not the best thing that we can do.

“Maybe [for superheroes] to build a better world, just stamping out crime is not necessarily the best place to stop — maybe the best place to stop is equity for everybody.”

Tongue said X-Men’s 60-year history meant writers who grew up reading the comic and feeling seen, or impressed by its themes, had taken them further in recent decades.

A woman poses in front of a bookshelf.

Cassie Tongue says the X-Men are “hugely important” for their diversity and representation.(Supplied: Cassie Tongue)

“I think that’s what’s really interesting about comics being these ongoing, multi-decade storylines is that you end up with these new generations of writers who are influenced, not just by what’s on the page, but by how people have received it for decades,” she said.

While X-Men comics haven’t always been perfect in their attempts to tackle themes typically explored by “serious literature”, Tongue said the mutant storylines were often welcomed by those who identified as outsiders.

“Speaking personally, I found the comics when I was really coming to terms with my queer identity,” she said.

“So even these things that were just gestured at, or were clumsy, or were potentially actually quite offensive … what they were doing was establishing room … for queerness, or for taking some pride in these other identities.”

She said for people looking for something to cling on to, “even if it’s not the best or greatest politically … it does mean something to you”.

“The X-Men have really been the place where anyone can see themselves, even if it’s not explicitly named, even if it’s a bit of a stretch … there is room for you,” she said.

“The difference between the other [Marvel] superhero teams [is that they are] colleagues or they’re families — but the X-Men is a community that makes itself a family.

A comic book drawing of two men about to be married.

Mutant superhero Northstar (right) married his partner Kyle Jinadu in Astonishing X-Men in 2012.(Supplied: Marvel)

“There’s that sense of finding a place in the world … [and] that gives you hope that you will also find your people.”

Mutant success

Despite dying a quiet death by unpopularity in the early 70s, X-Men grew to become Marvel’s biggest-selling comic by the start of the 80s.

From that point, it splintered off into multiple titles, and a revamp of the series at the peak of its popularity in 1991 led to the release of a new X-Men #1 comic.

It sold in excess of 3 million issues, making it the biggest selling comic book of all time.

The X-juggernaut has spawned more than 12,000 comics written over the past 60 years, selling more than 260 million issues, and making it the second-biggest Marvel property behind Spider-man, and the fourth overall behind DC’s Batman and Superman.

image of ryan reynolds as deadpool hands over his mouth in shock

Deadpool, who was created in the 90s, has become one of Marvel’s best-known mutants.(Supplied: 20th Century Fox)

There have been 13 live-action X-Men movies, which have helped make characters such as Wolverine, Deadpool and Jean Grey household names.

The first X-Men film in 2000 is even credited with kickstarting the current superhero movie craze, earning almost $300m at the box office, and scoring an 82 per cent rating on critic aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

Today, X-Men fans are eagerly awaiting a new big screen era for the mutants.

Disney’s purchase of 20th Century Fox in 2019 means the X-Men can finally be integrated into the gargantuan film franchise that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

There have already been hints in the Doctor Strange in the Multiverse Of Madness film, and the Disney+ TV series Ms Marvel.

But the first real MCU foray for the X-Men will be Deadpool 3, which sees Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman returning as Deadpool and Wolverine respectively.

How exactly Reynolds’s irreverent “Merc With The Mouth” will break down the walls between the X-Men universe and the MCU remains to be seen.

But fans are bracing for it to kickstart the next phase of the biggest film franchise in the world, and to give the mutants a new burst of popularity, 60 years on from their “lazy” creation.

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