Two things happened to me recently that dovetailed in an odd way: first, I broke my arm in a bicycle accident; second, I picked up volumes 1-6 of Marvel’s Essential X-Men books for a very reasonable price. The upshot of the first event was that I had to have a metal plate and screws attached to hold the broken bone together, with the result that when I travel by air (as I do fairly often for my job) I now have to budget an extra half-hour or so at the airport to explain that, yes, it’s the metal plate in my arm that’s setting off the metal detector. Because I am a smartass, it immediately occurred to me that if I were a suicide bomber what I really ought to do is get a sympathetic doctor to implant a bomb in my arm in such a way that it looked like an orthopedic plate; then I could have a good laugh with the security people, get on the plane and blow it up at my leisure. (I had a similar thought back when they were hunting Saddam Hussein and there was a story about a guy in southern Iraq who was always being mistaken for him; what Hussein should have done, I thought, was pretend to be that guy — “Yeah, I get that all the time.”)
Which brings us to the X-Men, because I hadn’t realized until I read from Giant-Size X-Men #1 to around issue 200 all in a row just how much the whole “persecuted mutants” business was Claremont’s idea. (And by the way, how hard is it to imagine that back in the day the Defenders got four Giant-Size specials, while the X-Men only got one?) Sure, the original run had the Sentinels, but their creator was portrayed as a basically crazy guy, not a garden-variety bigot; more to the point, there was little sense in the original comics that the average man on the street was anti-mutant. Nor is that the case in the early issues of Claremont’s run: in their very first adventure they’re called to defend Cheyenne Mountain in place of the Avengers (the general in charge remarks that he doesn’t trust them, but he still lets them go to it) and a few issues later a fairly big deal is made out of just how high Professor X’s security clearance is, the upshot of both being that the X-Men are still very much a part of the establishment. (When Cyclops identifies himself to the general his dialogue could just as easily come from Captain America.) For some time after that the X-Men have pretty generic superhero adventures, encountering demons, aliens and leprechauns (don’t ask; for the love of God, don’t ask) until the storyline that forms the basis of the whole rest of Claremont’s run, the justly famous “Days of Future Past.” (As an aside, Claremont clearly just loved to sound profound by putting antonyms together; for a less successful example, see “Lifedeath.”) Though what most people remember from that story is the scenes of various X-Men being killed, the element that matters most thematically is the introduction of the Mutant Registration Act, which was originally going to be introduced in memory of Senator Kelly, a politician the X-Men failed to save from assassination, but which Kelly was able to introduce himself when they saved him thanks to some handy-dandy time travel. From then on anti-mutant sentiment becomes a predominant motif in the book, with both harmless Professor X and cute-as-a-button Kitty Pryde being “mutant-bashed” and practically every non-mutant character uttering some sort of anti-mutant slur. The Mutant Registration Act stands a symbol of that attitude, with support for it standing as a handy identifier for bigots.
Which brings us back to airport security. Because if you think about it for a moment it becomes clear that something like the Mutant Registration Act would be absolutely necessary. Imagine standing in line at the airport and knowing that some of the people around you might be able to project energy beams, or bend metal, or mind-control the pilot; that they might not be fully able to control their powers; and that these people had a documented history of fighting other people like them in public places. Would you feel confident about getting on a plane? (I’ll bet the airlines were Senator Kelly’s biggest contributors.)
The X-Men series is often described as being a metaphor for the oppression of minorities, but when looked at it this way it becomes clear that the metaphor doesn’t stand up: if superhuman mutants really existed society would have a legitimate reason to fear or at least be wary of them, something that has never been true of any oppressed minority.
But if the metaphor that’s supposed to be at the heart of the series doesn’t work, why has the comic been so successful? Because the X-Men don’t represent oppressed minorities, they represent oppressed teenagers. (This may also explain why comic books about characters who are actually part of oppressed minorities generally fail to sell.) Nobody feels more persecuted than teenagers, especially the nerdy, white, middle-class teenagers who have traditionally been the main audience for comics. In the hyper-dramatic world of the teenager, breaking up with your girlfriend (or, more likely, being turned down for a date) has the same emotional impact as your fiancee being disintegrated on the Moon, and being hunted by giant robots is exactly equivalent to being told to buy something or get out.