By Quentin Lucas
On a Yahoo! News studio in 2014, pillars of shadow enclosed actors Michael Fassbender and Sir Ian McKellen, centering them for the camera, drawing the eye toward the pair like they were the emblem on a superhero’s chest. Soon, the two settled into both their chairs and an easy exchange, volleying interview questions from note cards. The event — a promotion for the actors’ upcoming movie X-Men: Days of Future Past — included quips, discussions about their respective careers and lives, and, ultimately, insights into their shared movie role as one of Marvel Comics’ most notorious and lethal villains: Magneto.
“When people say he’s a villain, I think that’s simplistic,” McKellen said of the mutant who manipulates magnetic fields and crusades against humanity on behalf of his kind. “And in the history of all civil rights movement, and I’ve been involved in the gay civil rights movements, there’s always a divide. There’s always an argument about how we go about making our lives better. Do you do Professor X’s way, which I rather approve of: Standing up for yourself, but explaining yourself, wanting to be a part of society? Or do you rather withdraw and get rather violent as, say, a Malcolm X figure would be?”
“Absolutely,” Michael Fassbender added.
Appearing suddenly, like light at the command of a flipped switch, was a young man who stood before the two actors. Arms akimbo in his oversized zoot suit, pin stripes ran down his body like jet streams through sky. Standing in white leather shoes with white polka dots splashed across the bulging knot of his blue tie, the stranger’s smile felt predatory though the youth in his cheeks belied any ill intentions. “Got a light, homeboy?” the youngster asked, both slicking his red hair back and setting a cigarette between his lips with quick, deft hands.
“Excuse me?” Sir McKellan said, leaning back from the intruder in surprise.
“We’re conducting an interview!” Fassbender chimed in. “Security!”
“My apologies, daddy-o,” the stranger said, nimble hands coasting like birds in flight until they were holding pistols toward the two actors. “I’ll just have your money instead, and your silence.”
Fassbender’s and McKellan’s shoulders slumped. The two craned their heads about sheepishly, looking for an assistant, producer, a member of the crew — anyone — before sighing over their isolation. They then reached into their pockets. McKellen grumbled obscenities about Americans; Fassbender muttered threats of fire and brimstone if he was being pranked. After the stranger collected the wallets, he winked at the two and then quickly walked away with a confident jolt in his step.
Fassbender’s head hung. “Didn’t like his shoes,” he murmured.
“No, not really,” agreed Sir McKellan.
Before another word could be spoken, the clap of footsteps against linoleum rang out. Soon, another man stood before the pair — one who bore an appearance undeniably similar to the brigand who’d just made his getaway. Lanky build, red hair, an almost golden shade of skin, but older — he could have been the thief’s twin if not for the almost certain age difference. Also, his clothes were striking in their conservatism — a solid black suit with matching shoes, a thin black tie, and glasses with black frames. Only his white shirt disrupted the dark patterns. Yet, this man looked even more imposing than the youngster bearing arms, thus the actors held out little hope that they weren’t about to be assailed once more.
“’Rather violent?’” the stranger said, staring down at McKellen. “I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s problem just to avoid violence.[ii]’”
The stranger then turned toward Fassbender, whose jaw hung like a lynched body, and said, “’I am neither a fanatic nor a dreamer. I am a black man who loves peace, and justice, and loves his people.[iii]’”
Then, like a world-weary landloper, the stranger walked off into the blackness that shrouded the studio. The actors twisted in their chairs like trees in a storm to see where he was wandering off to — and perhaps where he came from. Yet, before either Fassbender or McKellen could sit up — to discuss what had just happened, carry on with the interview, or possibly call the police — a third man appeared before them.
The figure seemed to be the same man who had just left, except for the tuft of reddish hair growing upon his face. His eyes also looked changed, somehow. They moved about more frequently, as if they asked questions that wouldn’t have occurred to the previous interloper. “I believe in human beings, and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of their color,” the man said. “’The only thing the F.B.I., the C.I.A., or anybody else could ever find me guilty of, was being open-minded. I’m seeking for the truth, and trying to weigh objectively everything on its own merit. I’m against strait-jacketed thinking, and strait-jacketed societies.[iv]”
The Literal Villain
Infusing the animus of the reformed hustler and African-American human rights leader Malcolm X into the mutant villain Magneto “just fit[v],” according to X-Men writer Chris Claremont — a point of view that also applied to any correlation between Martin Luther King Jr and the mutant hero Professor X. And the longevity of Uncanny X-Men would suggest that Claremont was correct. After nearly forty years of storytelling, the world renowned comic about mutants — organisms possessing a genetic trait which furnishes supernatural abilities — swaggered into the new millennium as one of Marvel’s leading sagas, inspiring toys, television shows, cosplay, major motion pictures and, perhaps most importantly of all, new storytellers.
Yet, even in 2008, with almost a half century of storytelling comprising the X-men legend, there still existed hidden niceties within its founding and history. In Marvel Spotlight: Uncanny X-Men 500 Issues Celebration, X-Men co-creator Stan Lee revealed a little known particular about Marvel’s fearsome antagonist:
“I did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He was just trying to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist. He was trying to defend mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly, he decided to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course, but I never thought of him as a villain.”
Acclaimed author George R.R. Martin, an avid fan of comics and Stan Lee as a youth, wrote several letters to Marvel as a teenager, offering both praise and critiques of their stories and characters. In one note, Martin gushes over Lee’s ability to “fit so much action into so few pages,[vi]” demonstrating a zeal for Lee’s work which presently feels germane in light of Lee’s disclosure about Magneto. What tethers George R.R. Martin’s variety of storytelling to Stan Lee’s judgment of Magneto as not being a villain dwells within some of Martin’s most celebrated work — particularly his bloodstained A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series and its televised vassal, HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Martin’s own sprawling extravaganza involves a breadth of despondency, betrayal, and loss that might be passably summated by the viewpoint of one of the story’s more tragic characters, Sansa Stark: “There are no heroes.[vii]”
In 2013, Webster Dictionary, Macmillan Dictionary, the Cambridge Dictionary, and Google all agreed to add some version of the following definition to the word literally: “Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.[viii]” In effect, literally now can be used in reference to an event that is actually happening or in reference to an event that is not actually happening. The phrase, “I am literally dying right now!” connotes everything it is intending to say and absolutely nothing that it is intending to say.
Literally has been modified to be applicable for everything — which has made it, essentially, useful for nothing.
And, perhaps, therein lies the superpower of Malcolm X — as well as his curiously nefarious standing: His refusal to be every American’s hero.
Also curious is that I sometimes view the words hero and villain through an uncertainty which is comparable to that which would fit for literally. And though the concepts of heroism and villainy may have been long ago bastardized by proverbial tropes like “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” my confusion feels a bit more personal. I open my novel and memoir The Magnificent Adventures of QLuke with the following paragraph:
“’Be a good boy now, son,’ the king said. He twisted his sword, Neegus, peeling away the flesh. ‘Die for me. Make the universe a better place.’”
I added the following footnote to this opening scene because of my own deep-seated ambiguity toward the term good and, consequently, its antithesis bad:
“’Be a good boy …’
I know there isn’t an exact science to this, but I’d say that I was a good boy for, mmm, about 15 percent of my childhood – maybe.
I wouldn’t say that I was bad. It’s just that ‘be a good boy, son’ has always felt like an impossible request. Firstly, I’m not too sure that I understand what ‘good’ means. When I was really young, not much older than a toddler, my daddy spanked me for something. My mom says that after it was over, I wiped the tears from my eyes and dared him to do it again.
Was that bad? Was that good? I don’t know. But it was me. My mom once used that story as an example to explain why she thought I was strong. And whether I was strong or not seems easier to decipher than whether I was ever good. Being good always felt synonymous with being right, or worthy, or deserving. Being good comes with rewards. But my conditions of being black, and poor, and fat as a boy meant that, in many circles of life, I would never be right enough, nor worthy enough, nor deserving enough. So ‘good’ always felt elusive.
But I understand the request of being ‘good.’ I make it often myself because I want control, and comfort. I want my lovers to never lie and always be faithful while knowing that the truth can be awful and promises of monogamy don’t magically remove human fallibility. To me, the request for goodness feels like a request for safety or compliance, not a request to be daring, or original, or necessarily even honest because these are qualities that change the world. And change can be wonderfully dangerous.
So, in true hypocrisy, or perhaps just human complexity, I, like the king here, want the tranquility of ‘good,’ but like the prince, I sometimes think the idea of ‘good’ is bullshit used to quell the riots that live inside and make us truly alive and interesting.”
The term good is certainly not as amorphous as literally. Its usefulness is still beyond questioning, especially with regard to some of the most pressing concerns of our modern society. Consider the following:
“… a beautiful, tousle-haired boy with a gentle demeanor, soulful brown eyes and the kind of shy, laid-back manner that ‘made him that dude you could always just vibe with,’ one friend says. He had been a captain of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin wrestling team for two years and a promising student. He was also ‘just a normal American kid,’ as his friends described him, who liked soccer, hip-hop, girls; obsessed over The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones; and smoked a copious amount of weed.[ix]”
The preceding passage comes from Rolling Stone’s 2013 article “Jahar’s World,” an account of the life — and an attempt at comprehending the motives — of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the sole living perpetrator of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing where three people died and approximately 264 were injured. The anguish of those who knew Tsarnaev — and the frustration compacted within the reality that the line between good and evil is sometimes too thin, if not just checkered — may have been best expressed by Tsarnaev’s former wrestling coach, Peter Payack, who suffered hearing loss from the bombing:
“I felt like a bullet went through my heart. To think that a kid we mentored and loved like a son could have been responsible for all this death. It was beyond shocking. It was like an alternative reality.”
To be sure, one of the great qualities embedded within traditional comic book fare is that it immortalizes a topic which at times, for the human soul, becomes too devastating or just too commonplace for a heartfelt examination: The dance between good and evil, and all of its correlating questions which ultimately seek to understand where one element begins and the other ends.
How does a mutant “trying to defend mutants” become a villain?
How does a “gentle” classmate become a homicidal terrorist?
How does a cocky hustler in a zoot suit become one of America’s leading human rights activists?
Malcolm X: Not the “Villain” We Deserve, But the “Villain” We Need
My relationship with comic book heroism has been a modest but intimate affair. Childhood amusements often included sketching my own characters and imagining their roles alongside well-known heroes — the last one that I can still remember being a brownish figure whose physical abilities were directly tied to his emotional state, essentially making him the Emotional Hulk. For a while, I preferred drawing popular superheroes from the books I read but eventually lost interest. Once I learned how to draw a generic white man’s face and muscular body, sketching many of the heroes became rote.
All that was left to enjoy was alternating the colors and logos of the uniforms.
The breakup with sketching came about via boredom, not racial pride. But nostalgia does sadden me some when I contemplate how two of my favorite comic book characters were white men, and likely so because of the dearth of any other options. Nevertheless, I found myself relating to Spiderman mightily, particularly because he was nimble and flexible and, most importantly, mortal — capable of both maneuvering through a hostile world and eluding death. More than any other comic book character — my inner child still feels like Peter Parker might have a chance at understanding me.
Conversely, while Spiderman’s mortality made him accessible, Superman’s indestructability left me feeling aspirational. The freedom of flight. The invincibility — especially as a child growing up in an American inner city — against gunfire. I never looked at Superman as a Christ figure, but I took comfort in the idea of him — in the idea of safety being an attainable thing, even in a dangerous world.
When I reflect on those young moments — comic books and a flashlight under a blanket — I recall that, at its core, all heroism does is meet a need. Thus, all villainy does is refuse a need. And our needs are intoxicating torments. Though an object might not be present, when you need an object it almost becomes present. Its value and weight are felt within your dreams of it; its absence multiplies your love for it — thus making it all the more real and at hand. To need a thing is to have it so close to you — as if you were the front of the world and that thing is the back, catapulting you into a swirling existence where your increasing desire for that object only seems to increase its elusiveness.
Perhaps it is the madness of need which inspires our lofty titles like hero and villain for those who affect our needs.
The needs of Magneto — who conquers for the sake of his ego, the advancement of his kind, and the degradation of his enemies — may have been most neatly expressed when he declared, “I? I am power! Men call me Magneto![x]”
And perhaps the most insightful grasp of Malcolm X’s needs never came to light until his was extinguished, when actor Ossie Davis eulogized him, calling Malcolm “our manhood, our living black manhood[xi]” — which might’ve been Malcolm’s ultimate offense, leaving him without his life as well as a national holiday just as it left Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice without a future, for daring to one day commit that offense.
Ossie Davis, who had also served as the master of ceremonies at the 1963 March on Washington, carried a rare social status. He was received and able to operate within camps that reflected the ideologies of both the militant Malcolm X and the nonviolent Martin Luther King Jr As a result, Davis bore an eclectic interpretation of the two Civil Rights leaders — including an appreciation for Malcolm’s advocacy and talent for “connecting with people out in the street, drug addicts, criminals, and hustlers — folks outside the middle class, people that Dr. King certainly couldn’t relate to.”
Davis goes on to say that “Malcolm was an expert on the damage that slavery and racism had done to the black man’s image of himself. He was equally expert in what had to be done to remedy the egregious lack of self-esteem. He knew it would take more than civil rights legislation, jobs, and education to really save the black man. And he knew that none of the traditional organizations that serviced black folk, such as black churches, colleges, sororities and fraternities, the NAACP, the Urban League, were capable of doing what needed to be done. He felt, as did some of us, that to ask a man who had already been beaten up and beaten down to be nonviolent was only to change black pathology into another religion.[xii]”
As a man who felt both crushed by “Plymouth Rock” and compelled to undo that injustice “by any means necessary,” Malcolm’s approach to meeting his need “aroused fear and hatred in the white man,” according to frequent New York Times journalist M.S. Handler — whom Malcolm had purportedly believed lacked “the usual prejudices[xiii]” about black people. “Because in him the white man sensed an implacable foe who could not be had for any price — a man unreservedly committed to the cause of liberating the black man.[xiv]”
To wed Malcolm’s bellicose nature to a comic book villain does not baffle — and, perhaps, doesn’t even bother. Even in the world beyond comic book panels, Malcolm was vilified — as was his supposed contrast, Martin Luther King Jr — and all but smirked in the face of such derision. A New York City police commissioner once described Malcolm as “another self-proclaimed ‘leader’ [who] openly advocates bloodshed and armed revolt and sneers at the sincere efforts of reasonable men to resolve the problems of equal rights by proper, peaceful and legitimate means.”
In response, Malcolm offered gratitude, saying “The greatest compliment anyone can pay me is to say I’m irresponsible, because by being responsible they mean Negroes who are responsible to white authorities — Negro Uncle Toms.[xv]”
As is the case with any challenge to the status quo, a newly met need will often heighten the possibility of conflict. An inspired mutant revolution spreading throughout a human world intent on maintaining its prominence. Black Americans attending Ivy League institutions throughout a white America intent on maintaining its prominence.
But even one who considers Malcolm X a hero would be forced to assess the usefulness of conflict — and how the benefits of a met need measure up against the costs. Even Malcolm had to do this when a sex scandal involving his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, for whom he was a megaphone, teetered on the edge of becoming a national humiliation. And when Malcolm’s need for black liberation came with the cost of an increasingly hostile separation between him and the Nation of Islam, it wearied him to the point of alarming those among his inner circle.
In comic books, the hero is more often than not simple enough to recognize. And we accept that because in comic books, the lines are drawn. But in life, there is no line between good and evil, no horrific scarring to unequivocally identify the lunatic plotting world domination. There are merely people — who often provide both our best and worst moments, sometimes simultaneously. And along those lines, it was merely a person who met Malcolm X at a low point — a white man — and functioned as a hero by acknowledging Malcolm’s own heroism, telling him that he was earnestly addressing the need of a truly afflicted portion of society.
“Since I had been a Muslim, this was the first time any white people really got to me in a personal way,” Malcolm said of the moment. “I could tell that some of them were really honest and sincere. One of these, whose name I won’t call — he might lose his job — said, ‘Malcolm X, the whites need your voice worse than the Negroes.’”
The Hate that Hate Produced
In The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration, Dr. Mikhail Lyubanksy postulates that “Magneto, for the most part, is more focused on world domination than on mutant rights … This supposed representation of Malcolm X is not only historically inaccurate but actually serves to reinforce many White fears and stereotypes about African Americans in general and Black Muslims in particular.[xvi]”
I agree with Dr. Lyubanksy’s point.
I am also indifferent to Dr. Lyubanksy’s point.
“White fears and stereotypes about African Americans in general and Black Muslims in particular” are already well reinforced — and have been for all of my life. As a consequence, learning that the hero Professor X might have been an analogy for Martin Luther King Jr provoked, at some point, my disapproval — because of the perpetual inability of America’s mainstream storyteller’s to connect to the experiences of black people. Conversely, upon learning that the villain Magneto might have been an analogy for Malcolm X, I, at some point, became indifferent because of a familiar reality: the perpetual inability of America’s mainstream storyteller’s to connect to the experiences of black people.
My fears cautioned that King would surely be further watered down by a comic book, transmuted into a gentle paternal figure with a dream — as was usually the case in school, during February of course — not the multilayered intellectual who declared that “over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the … Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.[xvii]”
Moreover, Malcolm X being interpreted as a villain is as clichéd a trope as boy-meets-girl. In his 1992 book Black and White TV: African-Americans in Television Since 1948, author J. Fred McDonald writes that “except for a few black-hosted programs long after his assassination in 1965, television … portrayed Malcolm X as a hate-filled, racist radical.”
The contrast between the public portrayal of Malcolm by major media outlets and the actual details of his life feels best explored by Manning Marable in his Pulitzer Prize winning Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention:
“Malcolm always assumed an approachable and intimate outward style, yet also held something in reserve. These layers of personality were even expressed as a series of different names, some of which he created, while others were bestowed upon him: Malcolm Little, Homeboy, Jack Carlton, Detroit Red, Big Red, Satan, Malachi Shabazz, Malik Shabazz, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. No single personality ever captured him fully. In this sense, his narrative is a brilliant series of reinventions, ‘Malcolm X’ being just the best known.
Like a great method actor, Malcolm drew generously from his background, so that over time the distance between actual events and the public telling of them widened. After his death, other distortions — embellishments by devoted followers, friends, family members, and opponents — turned his life into a legend. Malcolm was fascinating to many whites in a sensual, animalistic way, and journalists who regularly covered his speeches picked up a subdued yet unmistakable sexual subtext.”
A story from Malcolm X’s autobiography complements the provocative revelation of journalists sniffing out an “unmistakable sexual subtext” in his speeches — and perhaps also contextualizes the hysteria which drove the constant misrepresentation of his character. In the beginning of chapter 15, Malcolm discusses the copious mail he’d receive from around the country — 95 percent of it coming from white Americans. The conversations found within the correspondence subsequently led Malcolm to a, perchance, equally provocative conclusion. With the impending wrath of God destroying America being the first, “the white man’s second most pervading dread was his image of the black man entering the body of the white woman.”
- Both were orphaned.
* Magneto’s parents and sister were murdered at Auschwitz by Nazis.
* On September 28, 1931, when he was only six, Malcolm’s father was killed, his right leg crushed and his left snatched away by a streetcar, leaving him to bleed to death. Foul play was likely the cause. Additionally, on January 31, 1939, Malcom, then 13, lost his mother, Louise, to the Kalamazoo State Hospital. She had been declared insane — largely due to the struggle of raising eight children as a single black woman during Depression Era America. She remained committed at the dilapidated institution until only two years before Malcom’s assassination[xx].
- Both troubled the military.
* Magneto’s first official act of villainy involved attacking the fictional United States Military base Cape Citadel in Florida, though he was eventually thwarted by the X-Men.
* Malcolm was declared “mentally disqualified for military service” after informing draft board officials that he’d like to be sent down south to “organize them nigger soldiers … steal us some guns, and kill [some] crackers.[xxi]”
- Both were intimidating.
* Knowing that an earthquake was inbound for San Francisco, Magneto used his ability to control magnetic fields to stabilize the entire area, saving countless lives and sparing San Francisco untold volumes of structural damage. The public relations outcome however was mixed, with many citizens grateful for his help and many believing that he was one man with too much power.[xxii]
* In 1957, when Brother Hinton Johnson of Harlem’s Temple 7 — which Malcolm led — was attacked by police officers, resulting in a split skull, Malcolm, with 50 men from his mosque holding a formation outside the station, confronted the police. After successfully negotiating medical care for Johnson, Malcolm and his supporters then followed the ambulance carrying Johnson to the hospital, all the while amassing an increasingly irate crowd of demonstrators — creating a daunting situation for the uneasy local authorities. In total, nearly 4,000 people arrived at the impromptu protest.
With a mere hand signal from Malcolm, the 50 men from the temple dispersed. Afterward, the angry crowd did as well. In the aftermath, one of the police officers told the New York Amsterdam News that “No one man should have that much power.[xxiii]”
- Both experienced deep remorse.
* During a battle, Magneto nearly killed a mutant named Kitty Pride — a young girl. Realizing that he had come close to murdering someone who was barely a legitimate threat, and someone he should be protecting instead — that he’d become as hateful as the Nazis who murdered his family and people — he relented and walked away from the battle.[xxiv]
* An account from Malcom’s autobiography reads as the following:
“I never will forget one little blonde co-ed after I had spoken at her New England college. She must have caught the next plane behind that one I took to New York. She found the Muslim restaurant in Harlem. I just happened to be there when she came in. Her clothes, her carriage, her accent, all showed Deep South white breeding and money.
Anyway, I’d never seen anyone I ever spoke before more affected than this little white college girl. She demanded, right up in my face, ‘Don’t you believe there are any good white people?’
I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I told her, ‘People’s deeds I believe in, Miss, not their words.’
‘What can I do?’ she exclaimed.
I told her, ‘Nothing.’
An excerpt from a conversation between Malcolm X and photojournalist Gordon Parks, February 19, 1965 — two days before his assassination:
“’Brother,’ he said finally, ‘remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant — the one who wanted to help the Muslims and the whites get together — and I told her there wasn’t a ghost of a chance and she went away crying?’
‘Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping Black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then — like all [Black] Muslims — I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years.[xxvi]’”
Truthfully, none of these proposed similarities concern me. Other than being kind of cool and serviceable as fuel for lighthearted discussions about plotline theories, my affection for comics doesn’t run as deeply as it once did. If I had learned of any credible links between Malcolm X and Magneto while I was a kid under a blanket with a stack of new issues and a flashlight, I might’ve smiled exuberantly enough to leave a cramp in my face — or frowned powerfully enough to do the same.
And, perhaps, this internal conflict is what’s been weighing upon me as I write this essay.
On April 3, 1964, Malcolm X gave a speech entitled The Ballot or the Bullet, in which he said, “I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream — I see an American nightmare.[xxvii]”
Three years later, on May 8, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr conducted an interview with NBC correspondent Sander Vanocur. During their conversation, King said, in reference to his illustrious I Have a Dream speech, “I must confess that that dream that I had that day has, at many points, turned into a nightmare.[xxviii]”
The heroism of Malcolm and Martin lies in their efforts toward transforming the American Nightmare into the American Dream, which would, hopefully, one day become the American Reality. Neither of their approaches precludes my attaching the lofty title of hero. In fact, for Malcolm and Martin, there were moments when their discordant philosophies had folded into each other so seamlessly they almost appeared to be one and the same. This has also been true of Professor X and Magneto who’ve effectively switched or shared the roles of antagonist and protagonist on several occasions — during the winding road of more than 50 years of X-Men adventures.
I am both interested in and indifferent toward the notion of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr inspiring the X-Men’s Magneto and Professor X for the same reason: The heroic quality of stories.
I am interested because if the connection between the men and the characters is real, I would want that story to be told well — and to witness in the “American as apple pie” medium of bold comic art and, sometimes, cheesy comic dialogue the actuality that though both died while America still proffered a nightmare, the way Malcolm and Martin lived still gives hope for dreams. A story like that would rescue me from a bit of the anguish that comes with living while black in America.
And yet I am indifferent because American storytelling has repeatedly validated James Baldwin’s 1955 contention that “the Negro in America does not really exist except in the darkness of our minds[xxix]” — a moldy example supporting Baldwin being that, of the 3200 published, there were only 93 new children’s books about black people in 2013[xxx] — or approximately 3 percent of all that American publishing had to offer.
Thus, verily, I am also indifferent because of America’s indifference to my need for heroes. Subsequently, the onus is mine to wrestle the adventures of the actual and mighty American heroes Malcolm and Martin to my chest — by any means necessary. And perhaps this is a wonderful thing. “Paradise unearned is but a land of shadows!” said Marvel’s superheroic Silver Surfer[xxxi].
All that I am certain of is my curiosity regarding what might have inspired Uncanny X-Men — which has compelled my striving to earn a paradise of clarity. And, as a consequence, this odyssey for answers has managed to amplify my gratitude toward both Malcolm and Martin. Because, no matter what new adventures their individual histories might or might not have sired, I’ve come to accept that no analogy of their respective stories could ever rescue me in the same way their actual stories already have.
I have come to accept that though the blanket, flashlight, and stack of new comic book issues have dwindled down to memory and childhood nostalgia, I will never outgrow my need for heroes. And I have come to appreciate Malcolm not only for being a hero, but for choosing to be my hero — especially because his brand of heroism meant looking like a villain even today to much of an America which fails to comprehend his story.
Earlier, I wrote that “In comic books, the hero is more often than not simple enough to recognize. And we accept that because in comic books, the lines are drawn.” The irony of this statement is that if Malcolm X committed any American sin, supplied any reason for an American medium like Marvel, or any other, to paint him a villain, it was his brazen acknowledgment of the lines which have defined America — lines comprised of an “Us versus Them” DNA which has left black life in America akin to unarmed citizens hemorrhaging in the streets thanks to American justice, thanks to America’s congenital social diseases.
Malcolm’s life thundered with the conviction that America does not love black people, does not deserve black people, and that black people should leave this place. A peculiar form of patriotism but one nonetheless as he took America for what it was. Sometimes one’s most American moment is waving the Star-Spangled Banner; sometimes it is using that banner to bandage the wounds America has inflicted. Malcolm could no more escape his American heritage than I could, could no more deny the country which shaped his soul than he could deny the bones which shaped his body.
And yet, just as Magneto wanted Genosha for his mutants, an independent haven where his kind could be safe, could be loved, and could just be — Malcolm wanted a nation where black people were no longer being taught to hate themselves.
I wonder why such an act, such an ambitious reaction to the sober-minded acknowledgment of American hostilities has been received with longstanding vitriol. Is it because if Black America actually did pack its bags and shuffle off to a new land, the void would mean America losing a crucial part of itself? Or would the void instead mean America discovering a crucial part of itself — discovering the lines which have been here all along, and discovering that they don’t always draw our heroes the way that we think they should?
Quentin Lucas looks at writing like this: Taking an idea out of his head and successfully putting it in yours in a way that matters, and somehow adds value to your life. Even if that means you hated something he wrote so much that you have to tell someone, use it as an icebreaker with somebody you’re attracted to and fall in love — or bed — and his mission still gets accomplished. He wouldn’t say he writes about “black issues.” But he does love being black and he does have issues. So sometimes it comes out that way. You can learn more at QLuke.com.
[xvii] Letter From a Birmingham Jail, 1963