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?