Graphic Novel Review

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A benchmark story in the X-Men's recurring theme of mutant bigotry

By Jason Henderson     July 06, 2000

In a quiet Connecticut town, two children, a girl and a boy, run from their house in the middle of the night. Their parents have been slain before their eyes, and now they run, without thinking, to the grounds of their elementary school. Their parents' killers, paramilitary soldiers with rifles and night scopes, are pursuing them. And just when you think they're being hunted because they're black (I suppose it could happen in Connecticut), the soldiers catch up to them, call them 'Muties,' and shoot the children dead.

This was the beginning of the first X-Men Graphic Novel, published back in 1982, a chilling, violent little tale of fear and loathing in the Marvel Universe. The opening salvo of infanticide is a cue that you're in for something more serious and even a little grander than we were used to in the X-Men at the time. Up until then, although anti-mutant hysteria had always been a theme of the series, stories had more recently run to themes of power and responsibility, played out against a cosmic, sci-fi influenced backdrop. In God Loves, Man Kills, Claremont yanked the stick and brought X-Men crashing to the earth-- an earth that wasn't pretty, and that our heroes weren't really making any prettier.

First on the scene at the site of the children's slaying is none other than Magneto, here played as a noble, older man awash in grief and guilt as he lowers the bodies. The children have been hung from a swingset by the swing chains, a 'Mutie' placard suspended from the boy's throat. Magneto, an arch-villain for all we knew, actually echoes Superman: 'And for all my vaunted powers, I was unable to save them.'

Of course this is Chris Claremont at his most manipulative and over-wrought, but in the confines of a graphic novel--literally, here, a novella broken up into chapters--he manages to tell a sensitive tale that at times rises above its cartoonish trappings and feels like a story of people. People who can shoot optic blasts from their eyes and turn into solid steel, granted, but people nevertheless.

Luckily that's Claremont's whole trick with the X-Men. Claremont was the first to tacitly acknowledge that the X-Men, like most superheroes, are a freakish lot who would frighten normal folk, as would the Hulk or Iron Man, frankly. (Imagine the Silver Surfer at the Galleria, and freakish seems about right.) So Claremont, spring-boarding off what creator Stan Lee had started, seized that freakishness and turned it into the lynchpin of the X-Men concept. More than any other series, the X-Men exist in a part of the Marvel Universe that's so much like our own that it's very dangerous to be a five-foot-tall blue elf and still call yourself a human.

This thesis of fish so dangerously out of water fills God Loves, Man Kills, which benefits from existing apart from normal continuity in that Claremont can tell a confined tale with as much adult candor as he sees fit. The catalyst in the story is the right Reverend William Stryker, a television evangelist whose whole 'Stryker Crusade' is built around the denunciation of the Mutants, who have only appeared on the national scene recently. Armed with biblical hatred of witchcraft and devil's work, Stryker greatly distrusts the exotic powers of the X-Men. And like Jerry Falwell, who still had a lot of support when (at about the time of the book's writing) he declared AIDS 'the punishment of God,' Stryker is pretty smooth.

In an early scene, Stryker appears on 'Nightline' in a debate with Charles Xavier, champion of mutant rights. And Cyclops nails the truth in his commentary: 'Charles speaks to the people's ideals. Stryker speaks to their fears.' And when you think about it, Stryker is right to be afraid. When he asks Charles pointedly, 'How is the normal man to defend himself?' there's no ready answer. The answer doesn't seem to be summary execution, but there are many in Claremont's universe who argue Stryker's methods but embrace his thesis.

Claremont tips the scales a bit by again falling on the very oddness of the X-Men. Even Professor X is a scary, austere guy, and he comes off badly on TV against the smooth, sensitive-seeming Stryker. Stryker is a master rhetorician, able to begin gently and bring an audience to a fever pitch. If there's a mutant like him, a mutant politician, as it were, it's not Professor X. It might be Magneto, but don't do us any favors. Professor X fails on television before a mass audience, Nixon to Stryker's Kennedy.

Stryker has a comic-book plan, in the end, which involves using Professor X as an 'ultimate weapon' against the mutants. This is still comics, so you have to accept a bit of melodrama. And the delivery works, in that Xavier must be first brainwashed, in one of those now-familiar 'brainwashing illusions from Hell' sequences.'

But what makes God Loves, Man Kills stand out is it's believability. I like the details, such as Wolverine coming across the scene of an accident and saying, 'I've staged more 'n a few such 'accidents' in my day, boy, and this has a'l the earmarks.' I like Kitty Pryde's fury at a black teacher who scolds her for not tolerating anti-mutant slurs: 'If he had called me a 'nigger-lover,' would you be so damn tolerant?' I like Stryker answering Cyclops' ham-fisted insistence that mutants are 'human:' Stryker points at Nightcrawler and says, 'You call that thing human?'

Well, yes, but only because this is X-Men, where the theme is always tolerance. In any other world we'd call him a Blue Diablo, or whatever, and leave it at that. No matter how grotesque or absurd their powers and bodies, the mutants are human because they must be to serve the thesis. The whole story is still comic book sci-fi, which means cars and buildings are destroyed on whim, but Claremont's spin is that these actions are still shocking, and only make the world fear the X-Men more. It's a sleight of hand in which Claremont writes in two world's at once: by being comic heroes who operate under comic-book conventions, the X-Men make their own lives all the harder.

Trade Paperback from Marvel. Written by Chris Claremont. Art by Brent Eric Anderson.


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