Mutants have faced prejudice throughout the history of the X-Men. They have been head to head with political activists, terrorists, and bigots – but what happens when the government turns on them, too?
This comic book compilation tells a story in which the American Government initiates the protocol Operation: Zero Tolerance. Its primary function: To hunt mutants. This arc, written in 1997, evolves the mutant-hunting Sentinel program to the next level. This is more than just robots arresting mutants; it’s beyond mutants registering that they have superpowers to face additional prejudice. This is live or die by the hands of the government, based on a person’s genetics, and it’s dark as hell.
The last time I had read this arc was when it was originally released in single issues on the shelves of comic book stores. Reading it again over 20 years later in one connected story reminded me that despite how cartoon-like illustrations of comic books were in the ’90s, the writing could still tell a very horrifying tale.
We meet the villain, Bastion, a man hyper-focused on systematically killing mutants. Anyone systemically trying to wipe out any class of humans is already a terrifying problem. At his disposal are hundreds of new Sentinels, but these are not the goofy, clunky purple robots from before, oh no. These are far more real. These new Sentinels look completely human, until they reveal they are mutant-killing machines. There is something very Battlestar Galactica about these new robots, and they place our favorite mutants into a mindset where they are forced to choose whether or not they can trust humans.
The events of this story takes place directly after Xavier had merged with Onslaught, which had caused mass hysteria around the world, especially for the X-Men. They are already in a fragile place, and yet they are immediately forced to face mutant-hating robots looking to systematically wipe them off the face of the planet.
Things are dire as the story opens with Jubilee, captured and bound to a machine implemented by Bastion to implant horrifying images of her teammates dying. Despite the torture she is enduring, Jubilee continuously reminds herself that what she is seeing is not real. She doesn’t miss a beat in insulting Bastion in response to this trauma. She had reconciled that she would not tell him anything, and would die fighting to protect her teammates.
The amount of trauma Jubilee sustains is morbidly astonishing, yet she does not give up the fight. For those of you out there who think Jubilee is lame, understand that she is a tough and badass member of the X-Men. Her capture continues on for most of this book, until she finds a method to escape Bastion’s disgusting methods of torture. She and Logan are finally able to reunite in an incredibly touching and beautiful moment.
Jubilee is not the only one suffering at the hands of her captor. Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Jean Grey and Cannonball are also captured and tortured by Bastion. Even after their escape, they find a town full of good-hearted citizens who then turn on the X-Men as they shift into horrifying robotic monsters. Bastion even goes as far as to put a bomb made of nanomites into Cyclops’ heart, which Cecilia has to surgically remove from his body.
Speaking of which, this is Dr. Cecilia Reyes’ introduction to the X-Men. She is a mutant who can create force-fields around her body, although in this story she is hiding her power from everyone in order to live a simple life.
Cecilia is a very strong character in this story. She is tough and overly annoyed with being pulled into the X-Men’s chaotic lives of political activism. She responds to everyone with snark and sarcasm, but deep down, she is breaking inside. After a Sentinel reveals that she is a mutant and tries to eradicate her, Cecilia loses everything she worked hard for in her life. No more putting her medical degree to use at the hospital, no more going home after a double shift at work, no more normal life. She rejects the notion of even joining the X-Men for almost the entirety of the story.
Despite her tough exterior, there is a beautiful moment where Cecilia finally reaches the X-Mansion and finds that it had been completely ransacked. She steps outside alone where she breaks down, as she realizes that the only thing that had been keeping her moving throughout this ordeal was one thing: hope — and she didn’t have it anymore. Luckily, the rest of the X-Men arrive with bomb-Cyclops which requires the medical expertise of Cecilia. This introduces her to the X-Men, and ultimately gives her the hope to continue on with her new life.
In contrast to Cecilia, who has entered this dark new world where she must hide from those who are hunting her, is Marrow. She is a mutant who has crawled out of the Morlock tunnels below New York City to hunt the humans who had hunted her. Marrow is angry and incredibly over the top with lines you would expect to find in a teenage goth’s diary.
“This ain’t your safe little upworlder dream anymore, pretty-pretty. This is the reality of your birthright. Pain. Death. War. Toughen up and deal with it.”Marrow
Pitting Marrow with Cecilia presents a compelling new dynamic. Marrow, who is so disgusted with the mistreatment of mutants by humans, has taken it upon herself to hunt those who hunt her, and Cecilia who does not want to be involved with any mutant politics and would rather blend in with humans to live a normal life.
Rising above everyone is Iceman, who despite his wise-cracking jokes and goofy exterior, quickly learns that he may be the only X-Man left to fight. Aided by the help of Cecilia and Marrow, Iceman ultimately is the one who has the end battle with Bastion. Bastion gives a long speech about how mutants are an abomination that cannot live in peace with humans, and therefore mutants must be exterminated. And despite his constant slew of jokes and goofy demeanor, Bobby responds:
“Any nation is made up of people… of individuals. Those individuals have rights and responsibilities and lives that they are willing to fight and die for! Unfortunately for you, some of those individuals are mutants! Do you see the irony of all this – That it’s come down to you and me?”Iceman
“But before you started Operation: Zero Tolerance, I was home taking care of my father… A man who was nearly beaten to death by Creed’s goons because he dared to stand up for his family! That’s the part of this you and every other hate monger never got. Me, Cylops, Beast, Dr. Reyes, Storm – None of us are X-Men because we want to be… We are X-Men because someone has to stand up to people like you – And anyone else who thinks terrorizing or terminating mutants or humans or anybody is the right thing to do! We’re only here because you’re trying to destroy us. Almost funny.”Iceman
These are incredibly wise words coming from Iceman. Not only do they ring true for mutants, but they ring true for anyone in the real world who has faced prejudice and has had to fight for their basic human rights.
This right here summarizes the X-Men in its entirety, their purpose, and the symbolism that make these characters relatable to us who are constantly fighting the good fight to be treated with equality and basic humanity in our real world.
This is also a turning point for Senator Kelly, a character famous within the X-Men universe for condemning and ostracizing mutants. Kelly comes to the realization that this death hunt not only makes mutants targets, but it also puts humans at risk. If he allows people to condemn fellow citizens based on what is in their genetics, then he is giving up their civil rights as Americans – and once when that line is crossed, who will be targeted next?
The politics of this story are heavy, relatable and very real. While there are several touching moments throughout the series — such as Wolverine relating to the humans who have been forced by the government to become mutant hunting cyborgs, or Cable having to say goodbye to his team which had been completely dismantled after the government began their hunt for mutants — the base of this story focuses in on a very real politic:
People fight for their basic rights because somebody decided to take them away from them in the first place.