‘Watchmen’ Is a Revolution — So Why Are the X-Men Still Afraid of Blackness?
The show is an unflinching reminder that a comic book can do more than simply feel like it speaks to my experience.
When I was six years old, I bought a VHS tape of the early-’90s cartoon X-Men: The Animated Series. At the beginning of the tape, Stan Lee discussed the Marvel mutants he’d created as being a stand-in for the civil rights movement of the ’60s. Professor X represented Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of nonviolent protest, fighting for acceptance from a group of people who hates and fears him; his nemesis Magneto, who fought for mutant separatism and supremacy, played the Malcolm X-shaped foil to that vision.
At least, I think that’s what happened. Memory being what it is, I can’t prove to you that he actually said this. While people have pointed to the obvious analogy for decades, there’s little to suggest that Lee ever acknowledged it. Not that it matters: since the X-Men came to mainstream popularity in the ’80s, writers and fans alike have treated the franchise as an allegory for the way marginalized people — namely Black folks — are treated in America. That’s part of the reason the X-Men franchise has been my favorite in all of comics.
But addressing racism symbolically can never replace actual reckoning with what America does to Black folks. X-Men, both in comics and movies, continues to fail to do so directly. Now, though, it has a new role model to guide the way. HBO’s Watchmen, in the thick of its debut season, serves as a necessary reminder that comic-book tales of heroism and justice can be more than a metaphor — that race and American history can, and should, be tackled head-on.
Every superhero origin story starts with trauma. A kid in Gotham City watching his parents murdered in front of him, a scientist caught in an explosion of gamma radiation, a high school kid bitten by a spider before inadvertently allowing his uncle to be killed. These stories are about the ways that trauma transforms us into our best selves.