By Jason McCall
Imagine a world separated by bigotry. A world where different factions of society choose to alienate others based on characteristics they have no control over. This was all too real for members of the African-American community 50 years ago.
The Civil Rights Movement of 1964 is a crucial part of our own history — and for comic book history as well. After all, at the same time leaders like Malcolm X. were fighting for social change comic books were telling a similar story with the X-Men.
When Stan Lee first created the idea for the X-Men his intentions were less about talking about social issues.
“I had already done The Fantastic Four, and I had done Spider-Man, and I had done The Hulk. And I was looking for something else to do, and I thought The Fantastic Four was kind of successful, so I would do another group. But as you probably know the toughest thing is to figure out where does a superhero get his or her power from. I mean how many people can be bitten by radioactive spiders, or zonked by gamma rays, or cosmic rays. And I don’t know that much about rays. I had run out of rays. So I was really stymied, and then inspiration hit. I realized I’m gonna take the cowardly way out. If I say that my heroes are mutants, and they were just born that way, I don’t have to explain anything! I don’t have to use radioactivity, they’re born that way! That’s it, take it or leave it!”
I always get a kick out of hearing Lee act so humble about his creative process, but the truth is that he broke boundaries with the story he chose to tell. After all, he was crafting a story that a large percentage of audiences could relate to on a deep emotional level.
It wasn’t until a panel in 2013 that Lee admitted the real cause behind creating the mutant heroes.
“No no, I want- I wanted them to be diverse. The whole underlying principle of the X-Men was to try to be an anti-bigotry story.”
Along with an amazing concept, the parallels between the X-Men and the civil rights movement go beyond just a similar storyline.
In fact the character of Professor Charles Xavier, the leader of the mutants, is recognized as a composite character based on his pacifist and self-improvement philosophies — ideals expressed by civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Booker T. Washington.
The X-Men themselves mirror in many ways the beliefs that King and his followers had toward instituting social change in America through peaceful activism.
Meanwhile, the characters of Magneto and the Brotherhood are often compared to another well-known civil rights activist group, The Black Panthers, a group who believes in the same ideologies as their peaceful counterparts but are willing to take things a step further.
If that isn’t enough to make a you a believer then just look at the name that Lee chose for his comic book heroes: The X-Men. It may just sound like a catchy title to some, but it honors the fact that in the ‘60s many leaders in the social cause for African Americans were Islamic. These individuals chose to replace their given American names with the letter “X.”
Although the civil rights era was 50 years ago there is still a lot of work to be done for equality among all races, genders and sexual orientations. Thankfully, both past-and-future generations will get to look toward Lee’s and Jack Kirby’s classic team of mutants for inspiration.
From the Other Side of Radio, this is Jason McCall with Hero Worship, reminding you that not every hero needs a cape.