Saturday, September 14, 2013

Review: X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills

Review X-Men God Loves Man Kills Chris Claremont Brent Anderson Colossus Cyclops Nightcrawler Wolverine Cover Marvel Premiere Classic Hardcover hc original graphic novel ogn comic book
Writer: Chris Claremont
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 [1971], Walking Tall [1973]) and the “paranoid conspiracy” film (The Conversation [1974], All the President’s Men [1976]), 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.


  1. Wow, great review! I would LOVE to see all of the Neal Adams pages. Claremont was really striving to do something more at this time, even in the core title. By the time that Paul Smith was on the title the characters served as a strong gay metaphor for the day, i.e. you are hated and feared, you are only safe with your own kind, why do they hate us, so on and so forth.
    You know what's REALLY sad? That comics are more about crossovers and 3-D covers these days than they are about telling compelling, though provoking superhero stories.

  2. Thanks, Kris. The most recent edition of this book includes the work Adams completed before leaving the project, and it's beautiful!

    It really is interesting to see Claremont's emerging social consciousness here, sans the melodrama that had a tendency to bog down some of his longer story arcs in Uncanny. Exceptions like Claremont aside, though, it's possible to draw a pretty direct line between the conservative shift in late-'70s narrative art and the hollowness of so many of today's most popular narratives (both in comics and in other media). Things could always change, of course, but there's definitely a reason you don't see many mainstream comics mentioned in the industry's annual awards announcements.

  3. I think that it's a case of the lowest common denominator, low hanging fruit. No one wants controversy unless they manufacture it themselves. Creatives were less concerned with career longevity than they were with making a statement, even within the framework of mainstream entertainment (comics, movies, music, etc). The most mainstream movie of the early '70s had more edge than many so-called "indie" Fox Searchlight films do today.

    You are correct about the conservative vibe of the '80s. Cars became WAY more conservative in terms of design, even. Look at a 1983 Camaro vs. a 1976 Camaro. The edges and aggressive styling were sawed off. Music also became homogenized, while anything with any sense of adventure was split off and ghettoized (in terms of mainstream acceptance) into subgenres (Heavy Metal, Punk Rock, the emerging College Rock of the day). While music fans today consider it a badge of honor to like something "underground", real underground music of the '60s and '70s had a chance of making a statement to the masses. That was dangerous to the powers that be. Music today is innocuous. The boldest band stands little chance of any mass success because the structure is so firmly in place. Sadly, I do not believe that we will ever go back to artistic yet accessible mainstream entertainment. The fact that everything is corporate controlled certainly doesn't help...

  4. I'm confused as to why Rupert Murdoch's FOX studios would make X-MEN movies... It goes against FOX networks bias.