Mar 25, 2009

"...That Hates and Fears Them": The X-Men and South African Apartheid

This is another comic book-based essay I did for school this year. No word on what I got on it yet.

“...That Hates And Fears Them”: The X-Men and South African Apartheid

The X-Men are most familiar to the general public as the leather-clad freedom-fighters of the early-2000s movie trilogy. While these films undoubtedly did wonders for the franchise, they did not do justice to the important thematic elements of the comic book series. The social critique took a back seat to the action movie. Over the course of their almost 50-year history, the X-Men have been used by numerous writers and artists to discuss a variety of social woes. They have acted as black civil rights analogues in the 1960s and have been commentary on the gay rights movement of the modern era. All of this under the guise of spandex-clad superheroes fighting for a finer world. For the comic book reading community in the late 1980s, the X-Men became a symbol of a struggle that engaged the consciousness of the Western world: the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. By examining various aspects of the comic, political, social, and personal, the X-Men of the 1980s can be read as commentary on, and explication of, the struggle of black South Africans against apartheid.

There is always a danger inherent in making a comparison such as this one. The struggle against apartheid was not just politically-charged, but emotionally-charged too. A comparison between fictional superheroes and factual freedom fighters can run the risk of being labelled with belittling a significant, and damaging, historical period. The comic book, for the longest time, has been thought of as a throw-away medium, at least by those outside the community. Such an opinion is helped by the quality of materials involved in producing the comic book, especially the ones of the era being considered. The pages are cheap newsprint, the art is slightly blurry, and the colours relatively dull. This, of course, has to be taken in the context of the time, and modern comics prove that printing technology has advanced a great deal in the last 25 years. Regardless, the average comic in the 1980s cost about 75¢, so was not a treasured repository of social commentary. However, if one looks back at the history of the medium, the comic book has always been an outlet for such commentary.

In the 1940s, not long after the first appearance of the superhero, American comics “reflected...the American public's reaction to the horrors of war in general” (Thomas 6), with figures such as Captain America and the Sub-Mariner joining the struggle against Fascism in World War II. The 1950s brought E.C. Comics with their bleak and graphically violent commentary on the hypocrisy of contemporary American society. This social criticism ended with Dr. Frederic Wertham's call for the U.S. Senate to form “a subcommittee to investigate comics and potential ties to juvenile delinquency” (Ro 52). Even into the 1960s, when the institution of the Comics Code Authority had “cleaned up” the industry, Marvel Comics introduced the X-Men, who became “a fantastical allegory to the then-growing American civil rights movement” (Mallory 47). The 1970s brought the even-more biting social satire and criticism of Steve Gerber's Man-Thing and Howard the Duck. In this light, the supposition that The Uncanny X-Men could be a commentary on the situation in South Africa seems far more plausible, and far less frivolous, than a surface reading might suggest.

Through the early Eighties the stories of the X-Men started to deal with a government that was increasingly hostile to their kind. In The Uncanny X-Men #181, a fictional U.S. Senator named Robert Kelly introduces Federal Bill “S-1 – The Mutant Affairs Control Act” (Claremont, “Tokyo Story” 22). The bill, described by detractors as not “far removed from legalized slavery” (21), sets out the mandate of “licensing [mutants] by the government” (“Dark” 5). Senator Kelly's impetus for the act, which at a later point in the comic book universe's chronology actually passes into law, is that “as a nation and, perhaps, a species -- [we have] to defend ourselves!” (“Tokyo Story” 21). This fictional bill parallels a whole slew of laws undertaken by the governing National Party of South Africa, “laws which define the population as consisting of separate 'races'” (International Defense 15). This distinction of race is interesting in considering the X-Men. While the South African government's proclamation of racial difference is patently ridiculous, such is not the case in the world of the X-Men. The mutants are a different species, one that, while descended from homo sapiens, has specific genetic differences that set them apart. To circumvent the prejudices that can be associated with this biological difference, mutants are depicted in the Marvel universe much the same way that humans are: there are good ones and bad ones, they eat, they sleep, they fall in love, they make mistakes. They are just like the humans who share their world and the people reading their adventures. If a people who are genetically different from humans can be, if not heroes, decent ordinary citizens, then it is ridiculous to separate other humans based solely on the colour of their skin. Such a notion may be obvious to the modern reader, but the point of the depiction in the X-Men comics is to highlight that ridiculousness. It must be remembered that it wasn't until 1985, the year after these stories in The Uncanny X-Men were published, that the United States government started imposing sanctions against South Africa (Thompson 234). The specific parallel for the Mutant Affairs Control Act (M.A.C.A.) are the Pass Laws. While the details of the M.A.C.A. are left nebulous, likely so as not to stifle various writers' interpretation and use of it, the Pass Laws give a chilling idea of what those specifics might be: “they show at a glance whether they [the Africans] have any right to be in a particular area; whether or where they are employed; whether they have paid their taxes” (International Defense 43). Later into the comics' history, the M.A.C.A. is renamed “The Mutant Registration Act,” echoing bluntly the “Population Registration Act” of 1950, that instituted “a register of the population and the issuing of racial identity cards” (16). There is a very specific statement being made by creating this sort of tension in the X-Men's universe. Surely it would be easier for superheroes to act in a world free of hatred and bigotry toward their kind, a world that accepts them as the decent people that they are. It would be easier to function in a society without a prejudicial government constantly checking up on, and limiting the freedoms of, its people, a statement that applies every bit as much to apartheid-era South Africa as it does to the X-Men's United States.

Four years later, in The Uncanny X-Men #235, the team and its readership are introduced to the ultra-modern island country of Genosha. “Located off the East African coast, midway between Madagascar and the Seychelles” (Claremont, “Who's Human” 6), this seemingly idyllic nation harbours the dark secret of being maintained by an oppressed class of servile mutants. At this point in the comic, the parallels between the X-Men's fiction and South Africa's reality become quite blatant. By placing the island nation geographically outside the United States, and close to South Africa, the attention of the readers is drawn away from a “what if?” scenario in their own country, to a depiction of what is happening elsewhere in the world. There is further reference to draconian law in the case of a young Genoshan human who finds out his fiancée is “gene-positive.” She is condemned as a mutant and, “know[ing] the law,” he is informed that there will be “no engagement” (“Busting Loose” 25). This references the Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act in South Africa that outlawed “[m]arriage between whites and members of any of the black groups, [as well as] sexual intercourse between them” (International Defense 16). A further legal reflection is the establishment of the “Mutant Settlement Zone” (Claremont, “Revolution” 13). This mutant homeland in the barren north, an enforced geographical segregation, parallels the Group Areas Act of 1980, that forced the labouring class into a substantially smaller amount of land than the ruling whites (International Defense 18). Aside from legal analogues, there are also comparisons to the South African law-makers. Leonard Thompson describes apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd thus: “In private life he was charming; in public affairs, dogmatic, intolerant, domineering, and xenophobic” (189). Dr. Moreau (an ironic moniker, to say the least) is the Genegineer on Genosha. He is the man responsible for the control and maintenance of the country's apartheid-like state. When introduced, he is shown as a kind older man working in his garden, and he expresses regret for being pulled away from his son by work (Claremont, “Busting Loose” 7-8). Later, his true colours fly as he describes the oppressed mutants as “our most valuable resource, to be husbanded and utilized for the good of us all” (“Revolution” 19). The kindly facade crumbles even further as Moreau chooses the secrecy and safety of his corrupt regime over the life of his own son (20). Dogmatic, intolerant, domineering, and xenophobic indeed. The comparisons continue apace. Each mutant is forced to wear a uniform that is bonded to their skin, one that, as Rogue of the X-Men points out, “[m]akes the slaves easily identifiable, then guarantees a social environment wherein they're almost totally isolated” (14). This practice takes a society that is predominantly white and creates visual separateness that echoes the separateness of skin colour in South Africa. The marking of mutants also includes the tattooing of a number, somewhat ridiculously, emblazoned across their foreheads. This dehumanizing practice brings the commentary on South Africa in line with that most atrocious of 20th century evils: Nazi Germany. If nothing else had before, this comparison, this link of unthinkably cruel regimes, neatly sums up the opinion of apartheid expressed in the X-Men comics over the years between the introduction of the M.A.C.A. and the fall of Genosha, not long after the real-life fall of apartheid in South Africa .

Political and social themes aside, it is also pertinent to consider the more personal parallels between the X-Men and the anti-apartheid movement. This connection is best explored through fictionalized reflections on apartheid, as fiction can be seen as an emotional reaction to a historical event. The comparison is less concrete, more an implicit connection, but there is a specific theme that links these two disparate fictions: enclosure. Gcina Mhlope's “The Toilet” explores the forced enclosure a black woman in South Africa must endure in order to work and support herself. To escape detection by the white ruling class, she is “locked in [her] sister's room so that the Madam” (Mhlope 117) will not discover her presence. Once employed, the narrator finds herself needing to hide out in a public toilet until she can “sneak into the house again without the white people seeing [her]” (118). This picture of enclosure and hiding has been a staple of the X-Men stories since their inception. In the 1980s, the main X-Men series had a companion comic called The New Mutants. This series traced the adventures of a teen-aged group of mutants, dealing not only with the rights issues of the elder X-Men, but also the problems of puberty and growing up. Issue #45 tells the tale of Larry Bodine who, as a result of being a mutant, ends up killing himself rather than risking discovery. Prior to his suicide, it is revealed that the boy practices his power (the ability to create sculptures out of light, a non-combative and beautiful power) only in his room, locked away from the outside world (Claremont, “Foolin'” 14). At the story's end Kitty Pryde, one of the X-Men, wonders about being accepted by humans and asks, “how can we [be accepted] if we keep hiding.../...behind masks and secret identities and the walls of our school?” (23). Both in the fictional universe and in the real one, enclosure becomes a survival mechanism, perhaps one that all oppressed peoples adopt in one way or another.

The Uncanny X-Men joins a long tradition of social commentary and protest comics with its treatment of apartheid in the 1980s. The deliberate social and political critiques, coupled with the perhaps coincidental thematic similarities with apartheid fiction, give the series a far greater depth than has historically been attributed to the mainstream comic book medium. Of course, having presented such an argument, one is always left with the question of why this reading of this text is an important one, the question of “So what?” To step briefly out of the academic tone, while I was researching this paper, I was struck by the dearth of information pertaining to the reaction of the West to the apartheid state in South Africa. At the time, it was a “cause célèbre” engendering movie star outcries and protest concerts, as well as the myriad political boycotts and sanctions levied against the government. There is certainly plenty of information about what happened, but as I stated in the previous section, fiction can be utilized to discuss how people react emotionally to what happened. Perhaps it is not only important to remember what occurred in history in order to not repeat it, but to remember how that period of history made us feel. This essay demonstrates the anger and revulsion that one small segment of the population felt over South African apartheid.

Works Cited

Note: The citations for individual comic books are based on an article online found at It is a work in progress, as there is no official MLA guide for citing comic books.

Claremont, Chris (w), Jackson Guice (p), and Kyle Baker (i). “We Were Only Foolin'.” The New Mutants #45 (Nov. 1986), Marvel Comics.

---, Rick Leonardi (p), and Terry Austin (i). “Who's Human?” The Uncanny X-Men #237 (Early Nov. 1988), Marvel Comics.

---, John Romita, jr. (p), and Dan Green (i). “Tokyo Story.” The Uncanny X-Men #181 (May 1984), Marvel Comics.

---, Marc Silvestri (p), and Dan Green (i). “Busting Loose!” The Uncanny X-Men #236 (Late October 1986), Marvel Comics.

---,---,---. “Gonna Be A Revolution.” The Uncanny X-Men #238 (Late Nov. 1988), Marvel Comics.

---, ---, and Bob Wiacek (i). “The Dark before the Dawn.” The Uncanny X-Men #224 ( December 1987), Marvel Comics.

International Defense and Aid Fund for Southern Africa. Apartheid: The Facts. Kent: A.G. Bishop & Sons, 1983.

Mallory, Michael. X-Men: The Characters and Their Universe. Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 2006.

Mhlope, Gcina. “The Toilet.” Being Here: Modern Short Stories from Southern Africa. Comp. R. Malan. David Phillips Publishers, 1996. 117-23.

Ro, Ronin. Tales to Astonish. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004.

Thomas, Roy. “Marvel's Most Timely Heroes.” The Golden Age of Marvel Comics. Ed. Tom Brevoort. New York: Marvel Comics, 1997. 4-8.

Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

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