“The X-Men are hated, feared, and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry, and prejudice.” – Chris Claremont (1982)
Stan Lee, the co-creator of the X-Men, didn’t originally plot the book as a metaphor for minority treatment in post-war America. He wanted another hero team like the Fantastic Four and by his own admission was tired of devising ways that heroes got their powers. Lee thought it would be easier to have heroes born with their powers and only saw the parallels between marginalized groups in 1960s America and mutants after X-Men was up and running.
Charles Xavier and his ideological counter-point Magneto are often compared to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Like Xavier, MLK had a dream of peaceful coexistence and pushed for integration, whereas Malcolm X’s message was one of separatism and violence in self defence. Though an ideological counterpoint to Xavier’s X-Men, Magneto was a costumed terrorist who ran with a group of known villains calling themselves “The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.” Poor branding strategy or lack of subtlety? Even accounting for the cheesiness of the era, the racial analogy feels neutered under the greater context of the Marvel-616.
Why would the common citizen hate and fear the X-Men and not the Avengers? If Spider-Man’s DNA was mutated by a radioactive spider bite what makes him less threatening to the public than a man with feathered wings? How is it that the property damaging (and green) Hulk is often seen with more dignity and respect than Hank McCoy? While bigotry never really makes sense this feels like contextual logic over primal human nature.
It wasn’t until Claremont’s seminal God Loves Man Kills that the racial themes were analyzed in ways more dynamic than bystanders yelling “Mutie” as an epithet. It opens with the lynching of mutant children and concludes with a human officer shooting a bigot to save the life of a mutant. The excellence of the story and its meta commentary aside, it’s telling that it took nineteen years from their introduction for the X-Men to tackle bigotry in anything more than broad brush strokes.
To this day mutantkind is presented as a catch-all for minority issues. You can regularly hear the mutant metaphor being described in virtuous tones on comics podcasts, and while there is something to be said for representation the mutant metaphor itself is lacking in versatility. Being a mutant is not the same as being trans, queer, muslim, or a POC. Those societal, economic, and personal challenges extend beyond being chased by angry mobs or slurs. Mutants have never been disallowed public bathrooms or had to fight to get an accurate birth certificate.
If we move away from the ethnocentric zionism of mutants living in a society that hates and fears them, what we find at the core of X-Men is a day-to-day view of what it means to be unconventional. To possess gifts or abilities that aren’t generally understood and finding kinship with like-minded peers who embrace the weird and wonderful. Xavier’s vision may be firmly rooted in social equity, but we read the comics themselves for the mutants and the emotional ups and downs they experience as relationships within their tribe of weirdos change and evolve.
This is a franchise known more for its convoluted history, temporary deaths, emotional affairs, poor retcons, and strange power sets than its billing as an analogue for real-life bigotry. And that isn’t a shortcoming. X-Men is a rich tapestry of character development focused on what it means to be a person when you’re unlike other people. To fight for what you believe in regardless of the hand you’ve been dealt. To survive the experience. No unaccepting parent, bigoted political smear campaign, or extinction event is going to eclipse that personal struggle.