Re-publishing a lost article from 2003.
Recently an art professor friend and I were talking about art and storytelling. The touchstone of the conversation was a quote from Clifford Geertz, a Harvard Professor of Anthropology: “Art is the story that people tell themselves about themselves.” Geertz’s comment was in reference to ritualized, cultural traditions of Bali where he was living.
Exactly what does this point have to do with mutants and the X-Men? I’m getting to that.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The X-Men in 1963, and theatrically billed them as “The Strangest Teens of All!” As Jewish men, it was natural to draw upon their own life experiences in creating the foundation which became the mythos of the X-Men: outsiders trying to co-exist with others in a society largely not their own. Lee and Kirby spun stories of intolerance and persecution, but also of survival.
Now, the notion of “outsiders” is broad and can be applied to any marginalized group within a society. It comes as no surprise then that after the revival of the X-Men in 1975 (which featured an extremely culturally-diverse team) and the advances made by the post-Stonewall Gay Rights Movement, that closeted teenagers and adults related to the outsider status of the X-Men as they began to discover themselves. The “mutant equals outsider” metaphor resonated strongly, and was co-opted to become “mutant equals gay.”
How could it not, when you considered these facts: Mutant traits first appear during puberty; Mutants are often alienated by their families and friends; Humans are fearful and intolerant of mutants; Many mutants, like gay people, are able to pass for “normal”; The Legacy Virus is the comic book analog of the AIDS pandemic, just as mutant registration recalls the ultra conservative cries of the 1980s to quarantine people with AIDS; Mutants may think they’re the only one “like this” until they come across other mutants and, like LGBT folk, create their own families of choice to forge their own sense of place in the world.