X-Men: Hardbodies, Oddbodies, or Nobodies???

 

The all-new, all-different…X-Men

 

Scott Bukatman’s article “X-Bodies: The Torment of the Mutant Superhero” from 1994 is a perfect distillation of the appeal of the X-Men. His whole premise revolves around how “the body is obsessively centered upon” (49). By this he means that superhero bodies are symbols unto themselves and in the first part of his article discusses the revival of the genre in the early 90s as tied to a revisionist phase of our perception of these bodies. This contrasts with the second part of the article, where he hypothesizes that the superhero’s germination with the publishing of Superman in 1939 owes to the anxiety of mankind in the face of an industrialized society for which his body is insufficiently prepared except, of course, for a super-man who can defy its dehumanizing efforts. The third part of his article affectionately parodies the rise of Image Comics in the early 90s (roughly the same time as the article was published) as a paradoxical amalgamation of aggressively hyper-masculine forms -“…Image heroes have the biggest lats on the planet” (61)-that he compares negatively to bodybuilding and its acculturation into 80s trendsetting: Arnold Schwarzenegger, American Gladiators, et.al. It is the fourth , fifth, and sixth parts that directly concern the X-Men, and that is the emphasis in each section, respectively on bodies perceived as “other,” the limitations and ramifications of the super-powered body, the nature of the superhero team as surrogate family, and the relationship of it all to the reader.

So that’s a quick and cursory summation but what is to be gained from this reading in our studies? Particularly in analyzing the X-Men? Let’s start with individual members of the team.

The first body one should be obsessively centered upon in the X-Men is Prof. Xavier. He’s the most powerful telepath in the world yet his physical form is confined to a wheelchair-the embodiment of brain over brawn. When Jean Grey becomes Phoenix in issue 101, she eclipses her mentor in his own mastery thus creating a weakness in his ego where none had existed before so that he is crippled mentally as well as physically.

The second member is Wolverine, who like his namesake, is the perfect hunter. His unbreakable skeleton and claws, his enhanced senses, and his regenerative power makes him the ultimate soldier-an inversion of Superman in that any damage done to him is immediately repaired while any damage he inflicts is horrific and often fatal. If, as Bukatman suggests, Superman is invulnerable to the emasculation of the industrial society and so becomes the White Knight of our epoch, then Wolverine is a displaced berserker, wielding blades to dispatch gun-toting Hellfire Club mercenaries while rattling off a Dirty Harry-style “Do you feel lucky, punk?” speech that unmans one opponent without a fight in issue 133.

Our third member is Colossus, the obligatory “Strong Guy” whom Bukatman discusses on page 64. Colossus is literally a Man of Steel, the biggest, toughest, strongest member yet also the youngest (until Kitty Pryde appears) and seems to counter Bukatman’s invective about hypermasculinity in that he is loyal and kindhearted with a profound sense of duty to his friends and teammates. In issue 104, a clever plot device pits him against Magneto, a villain who negates Colossus’ power completely and inverts his role on the squad. When he refuses to give up the fight in order to save Storm despite being a liability, the message is not so subtle about what makes a real man.

Nightcrawler is the most obvious character to discuss what makes a body the “other.” His demonic appearance conceals an angelic soul so perhaps no other X-Man serves Bukatman’s assertion that the mutant body is “a categorical mistake” (69) to the point that he is the most “mutant” of any of the team. He is the wrong skin color, his hands and feet are deformed, he is often “invisible,” he has a tail-any marginalized group of people will see themselves in him yet of all the X-Men, he seems to have the most human heart.

The remaining two sections I will address in the presentation but for now, consider these essential questions:

1.How does the X-Men’s status as outsiders mirror the marginalization of minorities from a physical specification?
2.How does Jean Grey’s transformation into the godlike Phoenix seem to refute the standard of hyper-masculinity in contemporary superhero comics?
3.What do the X-Men comics have to say about the notion of family?

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8 thoughts on “X-Men: Hardbodies, Oddbodies, or Nobodies???

  1. Ken, your fandom is permeating every single word of your post (it’s inspiring!) and it’s great that you picked characters and analyzed them individually in conjunction with Bukatman’s article. You could go through all of the characters in a similar way and make the claim. What I find interesting about the article is how it does feel dated in a way. The 90’s drawing style of ridiculous musculature is often parodied (I believe moments of Deadpool 2 explicitly mocked this, particularly Liefeld’s inability to draw feet) and none of Image Comic’s early shared-universe superhero teams are still around (interestingly, Image reinvented itself as a creator-owned haven for mostly non-superhero comics that generally seem as progressive and forward thinking as could be, with few overly muscular men anywhere in their library).

    You ask “How does the X-Men’s status as outsiders mirror the marginalization of minorities from a physical specification?”

    Certainly by design (or Claremont’s redesign), the X-Men mutants can be analogous to any minority but I think of Nella Larsen’s Passing (about black women passing for white women in the 1920’s) when I think of your question. Skin color and racially distinct features are easy markers for human beings to spot differences and potentially be racist. Compound that with blue skin or a perpetual need for red sunglasses so your eyes don’t shoot lasers that barbecue flesh. An early moment in the Phoenix comic has Nightcrawler using an ‘image inducer’ to appear ‘normal’ to escape a crash site undetected. The burden of needing to ‘pass’ to just exist and be let alone in a culture is shameful and reflective.

    Also, there’s this: https://www.progressiveboink.com/2012/4/21/2960508/worst-rob-liefeld-drawings

    (The things this guy does to the human body are crazy, bordering on criminal. https://i.somethingawful.com/mjolnir/images/livestock~captain.jpg )

  2. Very informative, Ken. The break down of the characters was especially potent in relation to the article.
    You asked “How does the X-Men’s status as outsiders mirror the marginalization of minorities from a physical specification?” which is something I found very interesting while reading through the comics, especially after our talk on Monday.

    Trevor Noah, a comedian, was on a press tour for his book “Born A Crime” (his experiences growing up in South Africa under apartheid) in which he referred to himself as an outsider: “…and that is, when you are an outsider, you’re always working to see different people’s points of view because the world is never yours. You don’t exist in a space where you ever see yourself as the be all and end all.”*

    The reason I bring this up is because I think the same can be said for our characters in X-Men. They live on the outskirts of society. When they do try and do “normal things”, such as the picnic in Upstate, NY, they have to do it in hiding — the world is never theirs. The X-men’s status mirrors the marginalization of minorities because we have these mutant characters struggling to have a semi-normal life, but can not fit in with the public. They are applauded by society when the save the day (ex. when Kitty is introduced she is starstruck by the group, leads me to believe people know who the X-Men are) but not welcomed for average American activities. When the crew is catching a boat in Scotland after their battle with the Juggernaut, they are refused by the Captain because of what they look like. The group will never be able to exist in a space as their true selves, no matter how many times they (publically)save the world. Is this not how America/white people treats/ed minorities?

    *Not sure if a quote by a comedian is okay for blog post, but I thought it had some relevancy in this convo.

  3. Ken, your post was exceptionally well done! I will attempt to comment on the second question–How does Jean Grey’s transformation into the godlike Phoenix seem to refute the standard of hyper-masculinity in contemporary superhero comics?
    SO, first of all, to me the X-Men screams “we are different!” That was obvious to me in the conversation between Cyclops and Professor Xavier in the very first issue. Cyclops explains, “we can’t mesh into the same kind of team as the original X-Men, because we’re not the same type of people”(12). While it’s obvious that this conversation is about the way the X-men have matured, Cyclops states something important: “we’re not the same type of people.” There it is, stated for all to see. They are different. Different than the norm. If THAT isn’t obvious by the images themselves, Cyclops makes it even clearer.
    This brings me to the treatment of women, most importantly, woman—Phoenix. Well, isn’t she a bad-ass?
    Before she even transforms into Phoenix, she is CLEARLY one of the most powerful X-Men. (The other one being Storm, an African-American woman.) Cyclops is always worrying about keeping her, not the other way around. She is the one who is more aloof. These are big changes from the Superman/Lois Lane relationship. Furthermore, they are both mutants—they are equal. I’ll argue that she is actually more powerful and under the influence of Mastermind, is practically unstoppable, until she breaks her mind control and allows Cyclops to “help.” When she DOES transform, the image on page 111 says it all. She yells “I am fire! And life incarnate!” However, the most telling moment comes just before on page 106, in the bottom right corner, she tells Mastermind, “your power is NOTHING!” What a difference from Wonder Woman who clearly had a plethora of power and always allowed herself to appear weak. This is Phoenix, a new hero, who stands up to a man and says, yeah, hi, you’re weak compared to me and I won’t allow you to think otherwise. She’s revolutionary. (And I won’t even get into the fact that this is coming from a group of people that humans would call “freaks.”

  4. Ken, to answer your third question; I would say that X-Men effectively shows how your family is not necessarily your biological contributors and associates, rather your family can be what YOU choose it to be. That’s a powerful statement especially for adolescents. I was 11 when the X-Men cartoon came out in the 90’s and what I gravitated towards was that these outsiders had created a cohesive family unit. It wasn’t without it’s dysfunction (ahem…Wolverine I am looking at you), but it showed me that being something outside of the norm wasn’t something that necessarily had to isolate you; in fact, it could be empowering. As a kid, and as someone who really didn’t fit into either of my family’s cultural dynamics, it really stuck with me.

  5. The X-Men are very popular in discussions of any minority groups or groups that have been oppressed at one point or another. The mutants are marginalized in society, despite their powers being just as fantastic as their other super-hero counterparts, but apparently (in the comic book world) the origins or their powers are what alienate them from other humans and what instill fear of mutants — with a biological origin to their powers (as opposed to accidents, science, magic, etc.), there’s a fear that surrounds the mutants that reminds me of the anxieties Victorian society had concerning Darwin’s theories of evolution.

    In drawing connections to today’s minority groups, the X-Men are not only outsiders as mutants, but they are each still a particular nationality; Colossus is Russian (or Ruskie if you’re Wolverine), Storm is Black, Banshee is Irish, etc. There are moments within the Masterworks collection that explicitly play on these non-mutant differences between the team members and tensions are not relieved simply because of their membership as an X-Man; however, they are able to always come together as a team when they needed to (sometimes they’ll have to go through some typical comic-book in-fighting first, and then Colossus will launch Wolverine in a rehearsed move).

    I think the costume has a lot to do with the physicality of their fringe-status as outsiders too — they’re bright and colorful and really cause them to stand out. They’re each individualized through the costumes as well, as opposed to the uniform costumes we see when the X-Men are attacked by a manifestation of the original X-Men team. I think this is important since they maintain unity despite not only individualized powers and personalities, but also unique costumes (reminds me of some of our first readings with Superman).

    I think this also is closely related to family since the “family” that is formed is through their bond as mutants — but also also as mutants that protect the innocent, unlike Magneto and his brotherhood. Professor Xavier is obviously the patriarch of the “family”, but he seems more concerned with uniformity rather than individuality. He tends to chastise the X-Men when they show personal concerns, or when Cyclops worries about Jean Grey rather than reinforcing the X-Men trapped in Black Tom’s trap in Ireland. Reading Bukatman made me read Professor X in a new way: he writes, “[S]till, the corporation, the fraternity, the secret clubhouse, and the playground all provide alternative concepts of home and family” (57). That being said, he also emphasizes the trend away from an individual hero to a unit of heroes, like the way war also shifts (in terms of the role of a soldier as part of a unit). He quotes Theweleit: “[W]arriors no longer did battle individually but as parts of the new combat machine…a new unified concentration of energy by means of the consolidation of a number of warriors into one deindividualized and mechanized unit” (56). I feel that Professor Xavier is striving for this “deindividualized unit” within the X-Men, in his insistence that the needs of the group outweigh the needs of the individual. Indeed there are moments when the X-Men are battling a foe (like Black Tom and the Juggernaut or the pseudo-original X-Men) and do not recognize victory until they function as a unit or group.

    I just realized how rambling that post was and I apologize! lol

  6. Ken, wonderful analysis. I would say that besides the examples of certain mutants looking notably different (like Nightcrawler) I would say that there is also the feeling of displacement felt by the X-men themselves. Non-mutants would fixate on how their physical talents were not “earned” by them, but rather they were born with them by a stroke of luck. There is an element of jealousy with that, because non-mutants might feel that they missed out on true physical power. Minorities are often stereotyped by racists as having innate physical abilities that they didn’t “earn”. Often this is said about NBA players, which is 70% comprised of black players. There’s that racist line of thinking of, “of course you’re good at [sport] you’re [race believed to be good at sport]!” and that this supports their view of an unjust world.

    It also kind of feeds into an inferiority complex. Non-mutants feel that they missed out on being special and are now forced to witness others excel in the world with their gifts, and fixate only on that. In that same way, racists in the real world feel inferiority towards other races over preconceived notions of innate talents of races. This fixation in both scenarios leads to mutants and marginalized races to being dismissed as “having broken the rules” or “being lucky”.

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