The Curious Relationship of Race in X-Men: A Look at Black Mutants

Black Mutants
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Passing . . .

Since its inception, the core theme of the X-Men mythos has revolved around tolerance, resistance, and acceptance. Boasting a large enough mythos of characters and conflicts to maintain its own universe inside of Marvel cannon, the X-Men is the only series I’ve followed almost consistently since 1992 with only gaps of when the stories became too wayward for my tastes. Since the team’s debut in 1963, the social commentary of oppressed groups and their relationship to a dominant, aggressive society has been the crux of the book. Only recently, following the events of Jonathan Hickman’s House of X/Powers of X relaunch, did the mutants find themselves at a vantage point of peace where they have a nation, language, and economic commodities of their own. Still grand in concept and design, the struggle of X-Men lore remains the tension between homo superior and homo sapien. Over the course of time, this conflict stands as an evolving parable for intolerance in our society – race, religion, orientation, and all silly human forms of separation. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the series debuted in the same year that white nationalists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Medgar Evers was assassinated, and Martin Luther King delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C. The conflict at the heart of the X-Men is more than allegorical to people of color in an aggressive, reactionary society.

Within the ranks of the X-Men themselves, however, one would notice a similar trend. Even amongst the outcasts and the hated, the primary X-Men lore has revolved around the soap-operatic exploits of a chosen few Caucasian heroes who occupy a lot of space and self-importance because they can well…pass for human.  Of course, this is a loaded idea, immediately sparking connections to racial stratification systems inherited by Western European colonial structures. Colorism is but the child of racism, and the privilege of passing as both human and white in the context of X-Men is made apparent in a moment taken from this year’s Uncanny X-Men# 22 (Legacy#644): 

Black Mutants

Dani Moonstar, a First Nations American and original member of the New Mutants, speaks for those who have never quite taken the spotlight in the X-Men, those who are not accepted or pushed to the forefront, but somehow the first to die.  Consider the case of the first Indigenous X-Man John Proudstar, aka Thunderbird, who was introduced in 1975’s Giant Size X-Men #1. The character did not last long, however, as he was killed off immediately after his debut. He was deemed redundant with Wolverine’s persona, and so he was sacrificed for dramatic effect.  Many of the X-folk of color reflect the same problematic handling in regards to their agency as characters, their dramatic “fridging,” and a growing whitewashing in their color renderings. Make no mistake, this piece aims to place no blame on talented creators; however, the aim is to shine a light on the inherited bias that lies within embracing cultural blind spots.

Storm

This is Storm. Kenyan woman. African goddess. Omega-level mutant. She has led numerous teams of her own, became the first field leader of the X-Men after Cyclops, and without her mutant powers became the de facto leader of the Morlocks after defeating Callisto in battle.

Black Mutants
Dave Cockrum’s Original Storm Design

Iconic among heroes of color and women, Storm stands as one of the recognizable and popular X-Men. While Storm showed great prominence in the stories of the ’80s and ’90s, her time in the forefront has wavered in the past decade.  Aside from some brushes with Stormbreaker and reborn deification, Storm has had very little character development in recent X-Men stories. Most recently, she has become little more than a supporting player in such series as X-Men Gold, X-Men Red, and now, The Marauders.  Playing consigliere to Kitty (now Kate) Pryde and Jean Grey is too humble of a role for a woman whose only equal is the Black Panther himself.

This is not Storm.

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from “Marauders #1”

Now, to add insult to injury, not only is Storm falling into the background of X-Men comics, but she may be suffering from vitiligo (someone check on Sunspot!). Either that or the colorists at Marvel really need stick to a stricter color guide to maintain the continuity and integrity of their characters.  Just hope they don’t “Fresh Prince mom-swap” Storm on us and pretend we don’t notice.

Bishop

The time-displaced mutant known as Lucas Bishop has some great character and plot highlights in the character’s existence. He played crucial roles in the X-Ecutioner’s Song, Age of Apocalypse, Messiah Complex, and the Messiah War.  He even featured in some limited series such as X.S.E., District X, and his own limited series.  His associations with the X-Men have also been orbital at best, even when positioned as a key member of the team.  Second only to Storm, Bishop is the most visible of the characters of color on the team. In the massive cast of the X-Men, however, he has often relegated to a one-note role that is often indistinguishable from Cable. With a past just as rich as Wolverine or Cyclops, Bishop Lucas has so many more stories that can be told. The world needs another Shard and Bishop story at least. We’ve seen enough of the cranky, paranoid, mean muggin Bishop. Balance is always needed.

Blink

Blink is one of my all-time favorite characters, but her first appearance was actually her death in Uncanny X-Men#317 during the “Phalanx Covenant.” In true narrative fashion, the woman of color is sacrificed for the emotional arc of the white majority.  It was months later, however, when the character re-appeared as a member of Magneto’s team in the Age of Apocalypse title Astonishing X-Men that she came into her own.  When normal continuity resumed 6 months later, Blink resonated more than any of the characters from the AoA continuity, and eventually, the character returned with multiple volumes of Exiles, a reality hopping title, and her own limited series. Born Clarice Ferguson Fong with a mixed Afro-Chinese Bahamian immigrant background, Blink is also technically a descendant of Apocalypse…so she’s got that going for her.

Synch

This is the most memorable introductory panel to any mutant character I can recall. For me, being a 12-year-old kid in St. Louis and opening this issue was a crazy feedback loop. Much like Hollywood, the Marvel universe keeps to its terrain – lots of NYC and then sprinkle in your Wakanda, Atlantis, or Madripoor. St.Louis, however, was always less than fictional – it was just absent.  Everett “Synch” Thomas in a St. Louis Blues shirt being surrounded by armed police in 1994 spoke more truth to the plight of mutants in color more than any space Cyclops or Magneto could ever make. The page was drawn in 1994, but has any year afterward been any different?

Although Synch died in the pages of Generation X while sacrificing himself to save human children, and later resurrected in a morbid turn as part of Selene’s undead mutant army, better days lie ahead for a man whose powers are basically the same as the later introduced Hope Summers. Thanks for the powers of The Five and the newfound mutant homeland Krakoa, our man is back amongst the living.  Can he get a team roster spot though?

Dr. Reyes


Dr. Reyes appeared on the scene in a strange time for the X-Men series. Following the departure of Chris Claremont and subsequently Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza, the twin series – Uncanny X-Men and X-Men – a revolving door of writers held the reins until Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run. Mark Waid, Alan Davis (writing and drawing), Joe Kelly, and Steve T. Seagle had a few interesting tales in their tenures, and even introducing some questionable new characters (Marrow…and um, Maggott). One good deed, however, was the introduction of Dr. Cecelia Reyes, a Bronx-born doctor first introduced in the “Operation: Zero Toleration” storyline.  While so many of Marvel’s narrative take place in New York City, it took the X-Men a little over 30 years to find a brown woman mutant from the Bronx. Better late than never.

Jazz

Jazz…is…well…Jazz is problematic and embarrassing. Remember when I said I had some gaps in reading X-Men. One of them was around this strange time when a blue-skinned mutant who so happened to be an aspiring rapper and a drug dealer appeared on the scene in 2004’s District X.  He was killed, however, when one of this teammates crafted a Voodoo Doll of him that was choked with a power cable.  Jazz’s only apparent powers were his blue skin and sub-mediocre skills on the mic.  You almost feel like this character was created as a dare to see who could create the most worthless, and subtly offensive, mutant.

Not Quite the End

In a series where discrimination, intolerance, and civil rights are intertwined into the spine of the mythos, it is a curious thing to find so many instances of whitewashing of rosters, and sometimes, even the character’s complexion.  As the relaunched Dawn of X  unfolds with a wider diversity of creators (Bryan Hill, Tini Howard, Leah Williams, and Vita Ayala thus far), hopefully, the wider range of perspectives and experiences will bring more genuine and truly universal tales.  We all love the Summers clan, but they take up more space than a marathon of Friends.

Don’t think I forgot about Trinary, Mirage, Gentle, Karma, Skin, Psylocke/Kwannon, and all the other beautiful mutants of the rainbow. I’ll take a look at the other X-folks of color in the next editorial.

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  • Jon-Carlos Evans is a Berlin based filmmaker, audiovisual artist and writer. He holds a B.A. in Film Production from Webster University-St.Louis and a MFA in Media Arts Production from the City College of New York. Under his musical alias Klaas von Karlos, Evans is also is the founder of experimental-electronic collective ReVerse Bullets and creative director of the GLITCH performance series/music label. As Klaas von Karlos, he is also a member of music projects BIINDS, Naked Sweatshop, and Divan Rouge

  • Show Comments

  • Walter Johnson

    THANK YOU!!!!!!! I knew I wasn’t crazy, about them making Storm look lighter! Much respect to this article. Hopefully the MCU pays attention to how much diversity is involved in the x-men mythos and adds more mutants of color, and not just one or two

  • Anne Gray

    Have you read Nnedi Okorafor’s Shuri comics?

    I’m interested to know your take on the representation of Storm there.

  • Jack

    THANK YOU FOR THIS!!! I am super excited to see what else you have in store. I am tired of arguing that X/Magneto – MLK/Malcolm thing……its not real.

    Also I thought the dialogue in House/Powers was Black AF, coming from a liberation perspective. Thank you again for your research and insight. I look forward for whats next.

  • Justin Peniston

    Doesn’t take long to get to the core of why I’m not an X-Men fan, does it? It’s the same reason I’m not trying to watch Carnaval Row; I don’t need stories made to help white people feel like they can be minorities too! If you’re gonna do these kinds of stories, then you need to put some people of color at the center of them.

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