Saturday, September 14, 2013
Artist: Brent Anderson
Collects: Marvel Graphic Novel #5: God Loves, Man Kills (1982)
Published: Marvel, 2011; $19.99 (HC), $14.99 (TPB)
The collapse of America’s confidence in public institutions in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate set the stage for a corresponding shift in American genres. Within the crime genre alone, the early and mid-1970s saw the emergence of several new subgenres in film, including the “vigilante revenge” film (Billy Jack , Walking Tall ) and the “paranoid conspiracy” film (The Conversation , All the President’s Men ), as well as the transformation of more traditional subgenres, such as the film noir. In The Long Goodbye (1973), for example, the detective Philip Marlowe – a character previously portrayed by an even-headed Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946) – is reimagined as a bumbling wiseass virtually incapable of putting two and two together. On the whole, genre narratives of the time displayed a largely pessimistic attitude toward state institutions, which were depicted as naive and ineffective, if not wholly corrupt.
By the late 1970s, however, the New Left’s failure to effect any real social change – as evidenced by the fizzling of the movements for black, female, homosexual, and labor rights – had resulted in a renewed public desire for strong leaders and institutions. That wish came to fruition as economic (and thus political) power shifted to the union-free South, leading ultimately to the election of a right-wing president at the decade’s turn. Among the many institutions restored to power in the era of Reagan was organized religion – which, although not state-sponsored, gained unprecedented political power in the 1980s as organizations like the Moral Majority attempted, for the first time, to legislate the moral dictates of the Christian Right beyond the borders of the Sunbelt.
As quickly as American genres had adjusted to the cultural shift of the early 1970s, so they conformed by the decade’s end to the triumph of social and political conservatism. Fantasy genres such as science fiction, in particular, lost their political edge as blockbusters like Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Superman (1978) came to define the mass entertainment landscape. What was true for the American cinema held for mainstream superhero comics as well, which by 1980 had all but abandoned the social and political undercurrents that had once defined such Stan Lee/Jack Kirby creations as the X-Men.
Chris Claremont’s graphic novel X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, originally published in 1982, is a superbly articulated comment on this shift in political power and ideology. It is remarkable, as well, for the fierceness with which it launches itself against the intense conservatism of its time, producing what remains an incredibly radical message for a mainstream superhero comic. The book pulls few punches in its portrayal of a hateful televangelist, William Stryker, who believes that mutants are genetic affronts to God – beings with, in his words, “no right to live.” The parallels between Stryker’s views toward mutants and those of the real-life Jerry Falwell toward homosexuals are impossible to ignore. Furthermore, Claremont’s setting of Stryker’s headquarters within the World Trade Center aligns the villain – and the evangelical right, by association – not with religious devotion or moral teaching, but with the corporate concerns of big business.
When Stryker sets his target on the X-Men, the team goes down without much of a fight. In a single stroke, Stryker’s radicalized followers kidnap Professor Xavier, Cyclops, and Storm, leaving the rest of the team to believe the three were killed in a seemingly random accident. While they eventually learn the truth, it is only when Magneto, their archenemy, arrives to help that they make any real headway. This is one of the first stories by Claremont to depict Magneto not as a megalomaniac, but as a man whose system of ideals has been thought out just as clearly as Xavier’s. Originally, the character was actually meant to die in God Loves, Man Kills (the original artist, Neal Adams, even drew the story pages), but Magneto’s role was de-emphasized in the final version – a decision that works strongly in the book’s favor.
Before the story is through, two more characters – Kitty Pryde and Colossus’s sister, Illyana – are captured by Stryker’s forces. The team’s relative ineptitude throughout the story (after all, have the X-Men not dealt with greater threats than a few zealots with guns before?) recalls, in many ways, that of the incompetent protagonists of 1970s genre narratives – the sort of characters Thomas Elsaesser has described as “unmotivated heroes.” With the addition of a superpower or two, it’s safe to say that the Philip Marlowe of The Long Goodbye would be right at home on this team.
The consistent inability of the X-Men to measure up to Stryker and his forces is underlined most obviously in the story’s conclusion, when it is not a super-powered mutant who saves the day, but a non-powered human with a gun. Although the book ends with the X-Men engaging Stryker in a televised debate about the hypocrisy of his views, their efforts fail: it is finally a nameless police officer, tired of Stryker’s rhetoric, who guns the man down in his own megachurch. The suggestion that social change can only be effected by the average American who “wakes up” and “strikes back,” so to speak, is surprisingly radical for a superhero comic, especially for one published at the height of Reaganite conservatism.
According to Claremont, God Loves, Man Kills was essentially written as a treatise on racial tolerance – there is even an early scene in which the slur “mutie” is passionately compared to the N-word – but today, as mentioned earlier, it resonates even more strongly as a comment on the continuing struggle for gay rights in America. Its ethos is all the more admirable for its adherence to that particular brand of political pessimism espoused by 1970s genre narratives, an attitude which had all but disappeared from popular entertainment by the time of the book’s publication in 1982. That it remains so relevant more than thirty years later is, on the one hand, a sad testament to the state of modern society; on the other, though, it serves as a welcome reminder that even popular forms and genres carry the potential to advocate for social justice.