In 2007, Douglas Wolk’s book Understanding Comics coined the phrase ‘the spandex wall’. That’s what superheroes are to comic books, the ‘public face of the medium’. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is that superheroes have taken over blockbuster movies to such an extent that cinema might now seem like their natural habitat. Which begs the question, as a Guardian headline asked back in April: ‘Why are comics shops closing as superheroes make a mint?’ The article offered no easy answers.
Wolk says that the comic book is a form that ‘intrinsically lends itself’ to superhero stories. It’s often remarked that this is because the special effects they demand only cost as much as their penciller’s and inker’s rates, and it’s even suggested that their hyperbolic dialogue – all gritted-teeth exclamations – began because periods were too difficult to make out due to crude printing processes.
According to superhero academic Will Brooker, longtime Batman writer and editor Dennis O’Neil was describing DC Comics as the ‘R&D division of the entertainment industry’ as far back as 1998,. It’s true that movies plunder comics for characters, plotlines, and imagery – and yet superhero comics remain more conceptual, more revolutionary, and more outrightly strange than anything found in their film adaptations.
Take, for example, Marvel’s mutant heroes, the X-Men. As the last X-Men movie Dark Phoenix (2019) was busy rehashing the same fight scenes as X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X-Men comics were reinventing themselves.
In House of X and Powers of X – two intertwined six-part series written by Jonathan Hickman and drawn by Pepe Larraz, R.B. Silva and Marte Gracia – the X-Men have their own nation, a sentient island called Krakoa, and have bribed and blackmailed most of the world into giving it legal status. It’s a kind of paradise, coloured in greens, pinks, and golds, and it even has its own language telepathically imprinted in the cortex of the mutants the day they arrive.
While House of X mostly takes place in the present, Powers of X leaps forward through time, introducing distant threats and concepts. It’s a joy to see big sci-fi ideas scattered like confetti across every page, and the descriptions read like poetry: ‘the Sinister breeding pits of Mars’, ‘the Human-Machine Monolith’ and a far-flung future library that’s the ‘collective consciousness of mutantdom – a living database of Homo Superior.’
The power of X-Men narratives has always been built on their metaphors. In his book X-Men and the Mutant Metaphor: Race and Gender in the Comic Books, Joseph J Darowski quotes many comics writers explaining how they used persecuted mutants to stand in for ‘others’ – ‘be they racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual.’ Despite the fact Marvel introduced their first openly gay mutant back in 1992, earning praise for its inclusiveness, the movies still relegated queerness to subtext. Sometimes this was even played for laughs. When a young Bobby Drake tells his parents about his ice powers in the movie X2 (2003), they ask him, ‘Have you ever tried not being a mutant?’
And yet metaphor has its limits. The writer preceding Hickman, Matthew Rosenberg, had the character Wolfsbane murdered by a group of men after they discovered she was a mutant. They accused her of trying to ‘trap normal guys’ – a slur overtly echoing real-life transmisogynist murders. The backlash was swift. One site, Women Write About Comics, stated: ‘The trans community doesn’t need another display of coded violence against us; we do not need to be victimized by one of the very pieces of media we consume in an effort to feel understood.’ Rosenberg has since apologised for the scene.
It remains to be seen what metaphors this new run of X-Men comics will present to its audience, although Magneto, the once-villainous Master of Magnetism, gives an intriguing speech in House of X #1. ‘You see, I know how you humans love your symbolism, almost as much as you love your religion,’ he says. ‘And I wanted you – I needed you – to understand … you have new gods now.’ The symbolism in question? He’s giving this speech at a new mutant embassy located in Jerusalem.
In the hands of Hickman, Larraz, Silva and Gracia, the mutant minority is finally claiming its power, and this is terrifying to much of humankind. It promises to flip the X-Men’s structural premise from a tiny minority of mutants, hated and feared, to a majority of humans frightened they’ve been made obsolete. ‘We are the future,’ says Professor Xavier in a telepathic message to the world. ‘An evolutionary inevitability. The Earth’s true inheritors.’
The most satisfying moment here isn’t one born from conflict – it’s a celebration. As the island of Krakoa is opened up as a sanctuary for all mutants – superhero, supervillain, both, or neither – there is an epic, beautifully rendered party sequence. Old friends share drinks; old feuds are ignored; old X-Men love triangles are neatly defused. They listen to mutant music, watch mutant fireworks, and drink mutant wine.
As Danny Fingeroth claims in his book Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society, the X-Men’s status as a ‘found family’ is the metaphor that resonates most in the popular imagination. ‘We may see ourselves as outcasts and freaks,’ he writes, ‘but none of us want to think of ourselves as being truly, frighteningly, alone.’ After the endless strife and torment required to sustain the momentum of decades-long monthly comics, this revelry feels almost radical.
Compared to multimillion-dollar blockbusters, comics are fast, cheap, and disposable. This means comic books can flit like hummingbirds. Hollywood movies, meanwhile, steer like battleships. Superhero comics can try things the movies would never dare, knowing that they can always wave their failures away and start over next month. House of X and Powers of X are perfect examples of superhero stories it’s impossible to imagine taking place with the conservative state of superhero films – and contemporary cinema is poorer for it.