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Book Marx: Ultimate X-Men HC Volume 4

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For years now, the X-Men franchise has ruled the comic book world. In the June solicitations alone, 29 X-Men books are being offered (22 comic books, 3 reprints, and 4 trade paperbacks). The truth is, Wolverine hasn’t been a mysterious loner for years. He’s a brand name, a corporate logo, a superstar guaranteed to increase sales for any book that pictures him on the cover. One out of every eight people in the Marvel universe has mutant abilities, and 42% of them will have their own comic book series within the next two years. The X-Men don’t save lives anymore, they sell product.

But it wasn’t always like that.

Long before Sandman, or Dark Knight, or Watchmen, Marvel released a graphic novel titled “God Loves, Man Kills”. It was written by Chris Claremont at a time when the X-Men were young and everything was still possible. Occasionally the dialogue was clunky and the artwork could have been better but what Claremont accomplished was incredible. He may have coined the phrase “a world that fears and hates them” but in “God Loves”, he showed the world exactly how much those words could cost. 

 “We have done you no harm. Why are you doing this?”

Cyclops and Storm, the past and present leaders of the Uncanny X-Men, were being held in containment units that robbed them of their mutant abilities. Their mentor and inspiration, Charles Xavier, was being mercilessly tortured. When Storm asked William Stryker why he was torturing and killing innocent people, his response was chilling. “Because you exist,” he said, the patient teacher trying to enlighten his dim-witted student, “and that existence is an affront to the Lord.”

It’s an answer that’s all-too-familiar in a world that values condemnation over compassion and fear over understanding but in 1982, it was amazing that any book would deal with such a taboo subject, let alone a comic book. In “God Loves, Man Kills”, Chris Claremont wasn’t afraid to tackle prejudice in all its ugliness.

“Are arbitrary labels more important than the way we live our lives, what we’re supposed to be more important than what we actually are?” Cyclops asked Stryker. He understood what Stryker couldn’t comprehend. God never cared that the people he created were Hispanic or gay or Jewish or mutant. His children were exactly what they were designed to be and only a fool would disparage the complexity of God’s vision. But Stryker was nothing if not a fool.

When he accused Nightcrawler of being a monster, Kitty Pryde immediately jumped to her teammate’s defense. “I hope I can be half the person he is. And if I have to choose between caring for my friend and believing in your god, then I choose my friend!”

Years before it was safe to do so, Claremont made it clear why so many readers fell in love with the X-Men in the first place. Like most of us, the X-Men knew how it felt to be hated, to be ridiculed, to be diminished and belittled but they didn’t hide from the world. They didn’t accept the notion that being different made them unworthy, sinful, or somehow inferior.

Charles Xavier’s goal has remained the same since day one: to live in a world where differences are celebrated, not destroyed. The X-Men might have fantastic powers but that’s never been their real strength. They refuse to let the bad guys win, even when the bad guys carry bibles or pass discriminatory laws or find ever more resourceful ways to proclaim their righteousness while impugning everyone else’s right to exist.

It’s not the power to walk through walls or change flesh to steel or command the winds that makes them heroes. It’s much simpler than that. The X-Men are willing to stand up and say: “No, I don’t believe you. I am beautiful for every single reason that you say I’m not and I refuse to allow your hatred to go unchallenged.” Because they believe in themselves, they give us the power to believe in ourselves.

Twenty-one years after Marvel published Claremont’s seminal masterpiece, Brian Michael Bendis wrote a six-part story called “Blockbuster”. It’s been collected in a beautiful hardcover edition that also includes his follow-up Ultimate X-Men story, “New Mutants”. Marvel has done an exceptional job with their hardback compilations and visually, this is one of the best. David Finch’s breathtaking artwork looks even more impressive when it’s reproduced on gloriously over-sized glossy pages. As an added bonus, the script Bendis wrote when he initially pitched for the Ultimate X-Men series is included, along with the script he wrote for issue 41.

“Blockbuster” is essentially a high-octane summer action movie, with Wolverine being gunned down, chased and tortured for unknown reasons. The story arc features A-list guest stars like Spider-Man and Daredevil and an appearance from the Black Widow reveals intriguing glimpses into Wolverine’s past.  It’s somewhat strange that the X-Men themselves don’t appear for three issues (and when they are featured in the fourth issue, it’s basically a glorified cameo). But Finch’s artwork is gorgeous and Bendis has a major gift for flawless pacing and crackling dialogue, so it’s not a major concern.

When the X-Men do appear on the scene, however, the roller coaster ride turns extremely dark and troubling. One of them kills two men in a sequence that is both chilling and awesome. Four people are slaughtered in front of the entire group but it’s Storm, in a subtle nod to “God Loves, Man Kills”, that asks the inevitable question that opens a door most people prefer to keep hidden.

“Why were they attacking Logan?”

“What did you think was going to happen?” said the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who’s come to clean up their mess, amazed at her naiveté. “You guys went on a world tour!! You strutted it out there!! You put him on a magazine cover! You think the world was going to hold hands, hug and do a sing-along?”

“For every person you won over, five guys clenched their cheeks together in such utter hatred for you that they dedicated their lives to destroying yours.”

Obviously, Brian Michael Bendis wanted to entertain readers with an exciting, action-packed story line but it wasn’t his only goal. His decision to revisit Claremont’s masterpiece becomes clear in his second arc.

“New Mutants” introduces Warren Worthington, an introverted child who knows just how much his abnormality disgusts his parents. Moments after Charles Xavier brings him to meet the rest of his students, Rogue questions his existence. “It’s biblical,” she declares, overwhelmed by Warren’s beautiful wings and Nightcrawler’s demonic appearance. “Why isn’t anyone even acknowledging how bizarre it is that we are livin’ with angels and devils?”

It’s an eye-opening moment. Rogue sees a stranger with wings and assumes he must be an angel (an idea Bendis examines in greater depth once Warren’s presence is revealed to the press). It’s understandable to a degree but then Rogue compares Nightcrawler to Satan, even though she knows he’s a wondrous soul. It’s sad to realize that sometimes even the good guys are prejudiced.

Later, Warren runs away from the school. Storm finds him sitting on a cliff overlooking the ocean. “I don’t think I want any part of the circus you people are making of your lives,” he tells her. “It’s just noise and bedlam and I don’t do well in that kind of situation.”

“You know what we get to do?” Storm says. “We get to look people in the eye and say, ‘Listen, I’m a mutant. I’m not a good person or a bad person. I’m just a person. And really, the only thing even remotely special about me is that I would fight, hard, for your right to be different. I would. Mutant, human. Don’t matter. You don’t like me? You don’t know me. I scare you? Well, I’m just a mutant. I’m not a disease. I’m me.’”

Bendis understands what makes the X-Men so special. He knows that now, more than ever, we need to remember that bigotry might be a fact of life but that doesn’t mean it should go unchallenged.

Eventually we meet Emma Frost, an innocent schoolteacher from Chicago who doesn’t believe that “mutants should set themselves up as a police force. Violence begets nothing but violence.” Working with the President of the United States, Emma gathers a group of “new” mutants who will serve as role models for the world  A press conference is held on the steps of the Capitol and a new age of education and compassion is set to begin.

But before Emma can speak, her students are attacked by a Sentinel programmed to kill them. One of the children dies before her eyes and she learns firsthand the sad lesson that the X-Men have already faced: too often, hatred is stronger than truth. Once the X-Men successfully defeat the Sentinel, a government agent runs over to Emma Frost to see if she’s okay. “No!!” she screams at him, as her tears baptize the corpse of a boy who believed she could change the world. “Get away from me, human!!”

It’s a moment that lingers on long after the page is turned and the book is closed.

Prejudice has nothing to do with logic. There is no compassion in mindless judgment and there is no courage in hiding behind twisted interpretations of religious propaganda. When people decide that God’s message is a mirror image of their own bigotry, the world becomes a very scary place indeed.

Twenty-three years ago, Chris Claremont taught us what being a hero really means. Silence is easy but as Cyclops said before confronting the evangelist who tried to kill him, “I’m not running. It isn’t the Purifiers who are dangerous but the man himself. His beliefs. His ideas. If we don’t stand up to those - here and now - then all we’ve done is delay an inevitable holocaust.” A hero fights for what is right, not what is safe.

It’s nice that some twenty years later, Brian Michael Bendis reminds us of that fact. Maybe it’s too late for the X-Men to be anything but merchandise; cartoon characters defined more by their powers than by their souls. Maybe the time has passed when a group of mutant superheroes could teach people the true definition of strength. But maybe not.

We have to believe the good guys will eventually win. Maybe hope is a futile path to follow but it’s the only one that shines and today, just like twenty-three years ago, it’s the only one that matters.

- Tommy Marx

 

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