“I feel sorry for people who only know comic books through movies,[i]” said the 2015 MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner, National Correspondent for The Atlantic, and writer for Marvel Comics’ Black Panther series, Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Coates spoke candidly about comic books with Abraham Riesman during an interview for Vulture. Along with discussing both their inspirational and escapist properties, Coates venerated the intelligent conversations and emotional satisfaction cocooned within them. And, perhaps most fervently, he championed the inimitability of the medium.
“X-Men [movies] will always disappoint me. [The movies] may have ruined X-Men,” Coates averred.
Doubling as a challenging reality for this essay — and slippery conundrum — is the truth that I don’t love comic books. And though I don’t love them, the conundrum arrives when I admit that I do, nonetheless, enjoy them. But love is often a product of time and investment, and investing in a passion as prodigious as comics is — according to the aforementioned Vulture interview — “daunting even for people who have been reading for years.”
And though I haven’t invested the number of years which might yield a love for comic books, I think I may nonetheless believe in them — maybe.
But this faith in comics prowls cautiously, especially since I don’t read them avidly and because Coates has made a charged but feasibly dead on observation. I believe that our reasons differ, but there have been times when I’ve watched an X-Men movie and responded to the silver screen exploits with an unsettled disposition: Rolling a kernel of popcorn between my fingertips, mulling the contrasting skin tones between myself and whoever is playing Professor Charles Francis Xavier, and wondering, “What the hell were Stan Lee and Jack Kirby thinking?”
The Story behind the X-Men Story
In September of 1963, Marvel Comics launched Stan Lee’s and Jack Kirby’s series Uncanny X-Men, a saga involving subhumans called mutants — organisms possessing a genetic trait which furnishes supernatural abilities. The X-Men function as a consort of superheroes led by the magnanimous Professor Charles Francis Xavier, commonly known as Professor X.
Throughout the more than fifty years of storytelling provided by the series, there have been a raft of meandering conversations regarding what truly inspired its creation — and its personalities. One theory energizes the question which occasionally visits when I watch an X-Men motion picture: There is a widely purported belief that two of the Uncanny X-Men’s leading characters, protagonist Professor X — a telepath who can read and control minds — and antagonist Magneto — a villain with the ability to create and control magnetic fields, were shaped by the histories of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X respectively. A moment when Stan Lee nears substantiating this consideration happened at 2013 Fandomfest in Louisville, Kentucky, where he asserts that he “wanted [the X-Men] to be diverse. The whole underlying principal of the X-Men was to try to be an anti-bigotry story to show there’s good in every person.”
But Chris Claremont, a writer who took over for the X-Men series in 1975, offered a sharper insight vis-à-vis connections to the African-American Civil Rights Movement in a 2011 CNN interview, specifically in regard to his work in the early 70s:
“It was too close. It had only been a few years since the [Martin Luther King and Malcolm X] assassinations. In a way, it seemed like that would be too raw. My resonance to Magneto and Xavier was borne more out of the Holocaust. It was coming face to face with evil, and how do you respond to it? In Magneto’s case it was violence begets violence. In Xavier’s it was the constant attempt to find a better way. As we got distance from the ’60s, the Malcolm X-Martin Luther King-Mandela resonance came into things. It just fit.[ii]”
The Story behind American Stories
The critique of comic books as subliterate childish fancy — failing to truly marry a fantastical take on life to our earthbound existences (as art is often beloved for doing) — is a longstanding one. This viewpoint may be purely scurrilous. But contemplating the possibility of comic books encompassing the drama of the African-American Civil Rights Movement with superhero white men did lead to my conceptualizing the following anecdote:
Martin Luther King Jr and Professor Charles Francis Xavier walk into a bar. King asks the bartender for a realized dream which transforms “the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.[iii]”
Professor Xavier then nods — thinking King’s made a good choice and raising two fingers to indicate that he’ll have the same — before adding that “Any dream worth having is a dream worth fighting for.[iv]”
Then the bartender looks at the two men standing arm in arm before him and asks, “What is this, a joke?”
Alan Moore has been acclaimed for bringing comic books into mainstream relevance through his innovative storytelling. His reputation as a creative influence was especially — but not exclusively — established after penning The Watchmen, touted by numerous critics as the single greatest graphic novel of all time. Yet, in an interview with Pádraig Ó Méalóid of Slovobooks, the world famous scribe offered the following thought:
“To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence. It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics.[v]”
Conversely, comic book writer Elliot S. Maggin said in the prelude of DC Comics’ Kingdom Come adventure that “Superhero stories — whether their vehicle is through comic books or otherwise — are today the most coherent manifestation of the popular unconscious. They’re stories not about gods, but about how humans wish themselves to be; ought, in fact, to be.”
At first glance, these quotes seem to clash because of their respective temperaments. But they do agree on the fact that superhero stories are popular. Why this is the case is a question that feels too exhaustive for any one essay — instead, necessitating a response diverse enough to address the sundry desires of America’s melting pot society. But legitimizing some of the ingredients in Maggin’s more complimentary outlook is not especially difficult.
A New York Times opinion piece cites the published work of Dr. Raymond Mor, psychologist, and Dr. Keith Oatley, emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, for reporting that people who read fiction “seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective[vi]” — a finding that holds true even after accounting for the possibility that fiction may just be more appealing to empathetic people. And what may compound the importance of Stan Lee’s “anti-bigotry” superhero storytelling is a Psychology Today article asserting that a pluralistic worldview has become a drunk fallen off his stool, humming with whiskey and languishing at the feet of King and Xavier:
“According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third consider it ‘not at all important’ to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it ‘very important.[vii]’”
Moreover, that same Psychology Today article notes a patent decrease in America’s passion for reading:
“According to the National Endowment for the Arts report in 1982, 82% of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; two decades later only 67% did. And more than 40% of Americans under 44 did not read a single book — fiction or nonfiction — over the course of a year.”
It’s snarky of me to say that I hate that my chances of experiencing a racially equitable America may hinge on the American passion for reading — especially as a writer. But I hate that my chances of experiencing a racially equitable America may hinge on the American passion for reading. This is particularly true because of what America has been given to read.
According to a 2015 McClatchy-Marist Poll, only 54 percent of America believes the Civil War was about slavery, compared to 41 percent who do not. This is our reality despite a glut of pronounced evidence to the contrary, such as the following line from Louisiana’s declared casus belli: “The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.[viii]”
The judgment of the dissenting 41 percent reaches far and wide thanks, in some part, to American textbook vendors. Blurring the realities behind American “secession because they don’t want to offend Southern school districts and thereby lose sales[ix]” has become an accepted practice among some publishers, according to a Washington Post op-ed by James W. Loewen, author of the 1996 American Book Award winner, Lies My Teacher Told Me. Jessica Huseman writes in an article for The Atlantic that “black families have become one of the fastest-growing demographics in homeschooling” because “schools also rob black children of the opportunity to learn about their own culture because of a ‘Euro-centric’ world-history curriculum.[x]” And in 2015, publisher McGraw-Hill sustained a public relations blitzkrieg after a student’s mother exposed the company’s referring to American slaves as “workers[xi]” in one of their textbooks.
It is challenging for me to parallel the X-Men comics with educational material. But it is impossible for me to believe that X-Men comics can’t be educational. After all, seeing the world reach a more evolved plateau of existence through storytelling might be the dream that has me walking up to the bar, next to Xavier and King, reaching for my wallet and saying, “Make that three, please.”
I believe in storytelling — thus, I believe in comic books or, at least, I really want to.
Stan Lee was once asked if he ever foresaw his comics being used as educational material:
“I did realize it, but not right away,” Lee explained. “After we had been doing Marvel Comics for the first five or so years, in the late 60s, I started getting mail from school teachers saying ‘we always thought comics were no good for kids, but we find that the kids who read your comics seem to be doing better in English and composition and grammar than the other kids.’ … Comics really are a good aid to getting kids to read more literature, increasing their vocabulary, and making them want to read. Comics are the one type of reading you don’t have to be forced into. If you’re a kid, you want to read them and you enjoy them. You begin to equate enjoyment with reading.[xii]”
What disappoints me about my early scholastic relationship with Martin Luther King Jr’s life is the way it seemed to be used as a buttress against discussing other prominent African Americans. (Seriously, can teachers even whisper the names Dorothy Height or Malcolm X during working hours?) February was often an awkward month — and predictable. And even when King was discussed, facts towered over the story.
This is when Martin Luther King Jr was born.
This is when Martin Luther King Jr died.
We don’t talk about why Martin Luther King Jr died.
I was definitely the child who would’ve enjoyed the discussion about whether King actually did smoke marijuana to alleviate stress, or why US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy seemed in favor of both the Civil Rights Movement and J. Edgar Hoover surveilling its leader. As a teenager, yes, I probably would’ve wanted to learn about the sex controversies as well — and yes, likely for the wrong reasons. But I would have also wanted to hear the story about how before King died, his final breath was labored toward musician Ben Branch:
“Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.[xiii]”
The science behind storytelling reveals that when merely presented with facts, two areas of our brain engage: The Wernicke and Broca areas, used chiefly for language processing. Conversely, when we tell stories, the sensory, motor, olfactory, visual, and auditory cortexes are all also subject to activation. Stories galvanize us comprehensively. And though the line between what’s happening in a book and what’s happening in our lives remains evident to our conscious — this is not entirely so for our neurology.
“My neck ached from the constant angling but I really wanted to see the stage. Then when a baritone ‘I have a dream!’ vibrated from the speakers and tickled my ear canal, I couldn’t feel the neck pain anymore. All I could feel was my heartbeat quicken.”
Read that previous paragraph of fiction in silence and your auditory cortex might react as though someone is actually telling you his dream.
I want to believe in X-Men comics for a number of reasons — some pedagogical, some sociological, some personal. But I don’t know if I can, how deeply I can — or if I even should. But, at the very least, at first glance, the idea that King and X inspired such an impressive epic — true or not — does offer some comfort. There lies an entrancing gleam within the thought that our lives can extend beyond the expiration date of our bodies. I can almost smile at the notion that two black Americans — reviled for the audacity of their existences — still found a way into the lives of millions of people who might’ve otherwise rejected them without exception.
And yet, the mere propensity for rejection that Martin and Malcolm endured throughout their lives is why the concept of the X-Men having roots in the Civil Rights Movement leaves me unsettled when I watch its movies, or read the occasional comic. I feel an urge to protect them from the same threat they lived and died protecting me from: The savageries of white supremacy. The potential for a misrepresentation of their character. The mendacities and cognitive biases which keep American racism alive and, perhaps even in this case, profitable.
What if selling comic books about two white men battling through the world, their adventures founded on the heroism and escapades of two black men, is the closest White America presently stands to being able to honestly discuss the harrowing experiences of Black America — or any other marginalized community? What if this is the closest that America comes to viewing Martin Luther King Jr as a superhero, and not just a token, a scarecrow propped up during Black History Month to shoo away White America’s most notorious boogie man: Its racist legacy.
A Fictional Story: Mutatis Mutandis
“I guess one of the great agonies of life is that we are constantly trying to finish that which is unfinishable,[xiv]” Reverend King says, wondering if he’s ready for another round as he lines up his cue stick. “This one’s going in the corner.”
“Want me to order the drinks now?” Professor Xavier suggests.
“Come on, man! Don’t do that,” King replies, standing up from the pool table.
“Reading my mind about getting more drinks.”
“Apologies. It’s a fault. A personality flaw.[xv]”
“Well, we all have them,” King then says
The civil rights leader doesn’t look at Professor Xavier when he speaks to him, instead noticing a woman at the bar, soft creamy calves pouring out of her green skirt, crossed against each other as she sips her cocktail. “What’s been the hardest part for you in all this?” he then asks with the gaze holding.
“The fear. When I was young, normal people feared me, distrusted me! I realized the human race is not yet ready to accept those with extra powers. So I decided to build a haven … a school for X-men![xvi]” the professor answers, then angling his face toward the scent of Cohiba cigar smoke. “The place is starting to fill up.”
“Building a school. I like that,” King says, turning from the woman and bobbing to the James Brown screaming from the jukebox. “I like that a lot actually because intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.[xvii]”
“What’s been your motivation?” the professor asks.
“You know,” King starts, “actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don’t plan to run for any political office. I don’t plan to do anything but remain a preacher. And what I’m doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man.[xviii]”
Professor Xavier lines up to take his shot but hesitates. “This stick is crooked,” he says, looking at the sequential images of heroes on the bar’s walls. A few seconds pass before the woman in the green skirt walks up to his side, a new cue stick in her hand.
“Thanks so much,” Xavier offers, exchanging sticks without bothering to look at the woman and lining up his next shot.
She smiles and winks at King before mechanically walking back to her stool.
“Mind control?” King asks.
The professor nods.
“You weren’t wrong,” the preacher says. “You have a personality flaw.”
“Well, we all have them,” echoes Xavier. “She certainly caught your eye.”
“She reminds me of someone,” King admits, “the daughter of a German immigrant. I had to steal her away from one of the professors at school but we eventually got to the point of talking marriage. In the end, though, we were just the right kind of people who met during the wrong kind of time.[xix]”
King reaches into his pocket and retrieves a pack of cigarettes.
“For me, it was Amelia,[xx]” Xavier tells King. “’Right kind of people who met during the wrong kind of time’ does fit. But at least she helped me with my depression — after I lost the use of my legs, I mean.”
“Yeah, melancholy feelings. Lord Jesus, I’ve had my share of those.” King drags hard on the cigarette and smoke flies out of his mouth like a dream in his throat’s been burnt to ash. When Ben Branch’s Take My Hand Precious Lord suddenly comes pouring out of the jukebox, his frown fades some.
“You’re starting to think we’ve got more in common than you originally believed?” Xavier asks.
“No. But thanks for not reading my mind,” King says, leaning into the table’s green felt, angling to knock down the eight ball and calling out the pocket with a nod of his head. Striking the cue ball well and knowing the game is over before the ball sinks, he cranes his head toward the drawings of heroes on the bar’s wall, paying singular attention to the dead ones while his shot drops in the pocket. “Game. Malcolm and Erik still coming?”
“Yes,” Professor Xavier says, looking at the picture of Martin Luther King Jr on the wall. “How do you think they did with your image?”
King finishes the last of his drink and stares at the sequential pictures.
“It all depends on what they intended to do with the image, I suppose,” he says. “And, in regard to your earlier question, I was thinking that how alike we are, or are not, might not make much difference, Charles. We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.[xxi]”
A Love Story
Sometimes I wonder in which direction “the boat” is headed.
Coexistence has long been perceived as the uniting theme between the character Professor Charles Francis Xavier and the civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr — especially since their apparent opposites, Magneto and Malcolm X, have been couched as separationists. The school through which Xavier endeavors to facilitate coexistence — originally known as Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters — sports the Latin phrase Mutatis Mutandis as its motto, meaning “that having been changed which had to be changed” or more traditionally, “with the necessary changes.”
Additionally, coexistence in both cases refers to an oppressive and oppressed share of society coming to an accord — non-mutants and mutants, white Americans and black Americans (though King’s overall philosophy was more inclusive than that.) And yet, I flinch at the idea of coexistence happening within the construct of “necessary changes” because often — if not always — the oppressor determines the changes. Indeed, a glaring imbalance of power in America is why Malcolm X presented himself as a separationist — which necessitates an absolute divorce from America, whereas segregation entails a division of people who are nevertheless kept under one sovereign body.
Marvel is noted — and sometimes notorious — for running varied storylines for the same character, at times consecutively, and has recently become even more ambitious in that pursuit of multiverse storytelling. Presently, I’m not sure if Professor X is a hero, a villain, dead, alive, cloned or some amalgam of the aforementioned possibilities. I only understand that commercial interests and a need for flexibility in storytelling often compel these creative decisions.
I mention this, not because — as a black storyteller — I wonder how creatively capable Marvel is at encompassing the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr with Professor X. Rather, I say this as a black human whose existence in America rivals attrition warfare — and wonders how the intricacies of a comic book character whose been sourced from Martin Luther King Jr affect that warfare. I say this because a reader might take in the varied adventures of Professor X, one of Marvel’s most popular creations, and ponder what those adventures say about how likely or unlikely she is to not merely coexist in America, but to one day actually feel loved by America.
Because, according to King, “Love,” not coexistence, “is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
Coexistence is easy, evidenced by the fact that five years before his assassination, white men viewed the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr and his peers as great storytelling material. Though they may have never met, Martin Luther King Jr coexisted with these men and it mattered. Additionally, the concept of two white men standing in as proxies for the lives and times of two black Americans exemplifies well America’s historic brand of coexistence. The end of segregation was merely the end of a symptom. Meanwhile, love, not coexistence, remains America’s Gordian knot — a reality which has even blemished American storytelling.
America does not love people who look like me. Perhaps this is because to do so would mean committing to a sizeable investment. The African-American Civil Rights Movement substantiates, if nothing else, the prodigiousness of the collective black American soul. Its complexions. Its complications. Its comprehensiveness. For some, it is merely less herculean to enjoy us rather than love us — which possibly boils much of the effectiveness of American white supremacy down to apathy rather than animosity.
A succinct example might involve surveying companies who piggybacked on the summer of 2015’s rap beef between Drake and Meek Mill to promote their brands — and then researching that list of companies for any commentary on police brutality, or activity surrounding the Black Lives Matter initiative. Conversely, I wonder if America even loves its white population as deluding such an extensive swath of people with the falsehood of superiority is to afflict them as well. And this reality of white supremacy, causing cultures living at odds with each other to still sink in tandem, illustrates how tragically, but effectively, we in America do coexist but do not love.
Often, love is all we need but is too much to ask for — until the moment arrives when love finally becomes too little to accept. The moment does come when the pursuit of love becomes you on your back, bleeding away and trying to fix an impossible situation. The moment does come when the pursuit of love feels painfully close to trying to soften death’s sting with Take My Hand, Precious Lord, and hoping that when your friend Ben Branch plays it for the people soon to learn of your eternal departure, he remembers to “play it real pretty.”
And perhaps it is the bitterness of that moment which creates a Malcolm X.
Though I don’t love them, I very much enjoy comic books, and Marvel’s in particular lately as the company has worked to diversify its character list. This is true even despite my persistent need to question the seemingly virtuous motives of a company because of its deeply entrenched roots within American storytelling. This is also especially true when America’s publishing industry touts a demographic of approximately 89 percent white people[xxii].
Perhaps any changes toward diversity in the world of storytelling happen because, as author Mira Jacob avows in her article I Gave a Speech about Race to the Publishing Industry and No One Heard Me, truly “white Americans can care about more than just themselves.” Or, perchance, pragmatism is the motivation, because, as Jacob also stresses, publishers ignore storytellers of color at their “own peril — to the industry’s peril.[xxiii]”
The cynic in me chooses the latter motive because necessity is often the mother of invention.
But the storyteller in me is still a believer that love matters too much to disregard. Perhaps the inclusion of love into the storytelling industry is too idyllic of a notion. Nevertheless, I still believe in stories as conduits of love, even when knotted within the calamity of a non-violent hero’s assassination — and living while black in America has made that love all the more essential.
I feel sorry for people who only know stories as anything other than agents of love.
[iii] I Have a Dream, 1963
[xiii] Born Black in the USA, John Jordan, p. 58
[xiv] The Preacher King: Martin Luther King Jr, and the Word that Moved America by Richard Lischer, p.222, sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church
[xv] X-Men Legacy #216
[xvi] X-Men #1, 1963
[xvii] The Purpose of Education: January/February 1947
[xviii] Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool. Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church. Chicago, Illinois, August 27, 1967
[xix] Martin Luther King Jr, by Marshall Frady, p.21-22
[xx] First appearance, X-Men #300 (1993)
[xxi] In this quote, Dr. King is apparently paraphrasing President Calvin Coolidge, who in an address, entitled “Toleration and Liberalism,” to the American Legion Convention at Omaha on Oct. 6, 1925, said: “No matter by what various crafts we came here, we are all now in the same boat.” See Coolidge’s Foundations of the Republic (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1926), p. 298