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3 lessons social revolutions can learn from 'House of X/Powers of X'

Comic Books

3 lessons social revolutions can learn from ‘House of X/Powers of X’

Mutants have always represented the civil rights movement, so what can the actual movement learn from the X-Men?

We live in a time of great change. That’s probably always true, but with the current socio-political climate feeling more like a powder keg than in any era in recent memory, it’s clear that this is a world open to evolution. It’s in that very spirit of evolution that we revisit the House of X…and the Powers of X, or HoX/PoX as we’ve taken to calling them around these parts.

Jonathan Hickman’s grand redesign of the status quo of Marvel’s merry mutants was a revelatory and sweeping phase shift that brought seemingly the entirety of the mutant race under a single banner and carved out a world of their own. For a marginalized group that has been facing undue prejudice and bigotry for the entirety of its known existence, successfully creating a safe space can seem like a distant fantasy straight out of science fiction — even without an ornate revival ritual that seemingly defeats the very concept of death. Seeing as all of the issues of this series have been very highly touted (it’s gorgeous, engaging and, above all, interesting — something X-Men comics hadn’t been in years), we figured we could use this review as a lens for real life growth.

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For most of their existence the struggles of the X-Men have been a thinly veiled parallel for the civil rights movements of the African-American and LGBTQ communities, so why not turn things around for once? What does this book imply for the slowly turning wheel of change? What kind of lessons can social revolutions take from the House of X?

HoX Apocalypse xavier

Courtesy of Marvel Comics.

The Importance of Solidarity

Though the resurrection protocols are probably the biggest thing to happen in the series, there really isn’t a parallel to be drawn there. The second biggest thing to happen, however, comes in HoX issue #5, when the fledgling nation of Krakoa offers sanctuary and kinship to an assortment of the X-Men’s greatest enemies — notably including their most powerful, and idealistic foe, Apocalypse. The goal of mutant survival has become so paramount that the X-Men are willing to put aside their considerable history with these erstwhile antagonists in the name of progress. The lesson being that a greater good should trump the factionalization of a movement. Separately, all of these people wanted the same thing, yet their bickering and in-fighting ended up hurting their cause more than helping it.

You largely see this issue among political movements as well, particularly on the left, where certain aspects of the movement — though, arguably ideologically aligned — have focused too intently on their differences, creating rifts from what could be a more powerful union. Infighting between centrist Democrats and the liberal left has left them, in many cases, weaker than their united opposition, which largely tends to ignore its own factional differences in favor of an “us vs. them” mentality. By burying grudges and joining hands with groups and individuals with whom they’ve fought for decades, the X-Men have advanced their cause more than countless super battles off the Genoshan coast or tiffs with Avengers ever could. This wouldn’t have been an easy decision (Wolverine, for one, is a vocal opponent of the union), and will likely lead to problems down the road (see the next point), but the message is clear: a united front makes a stronger cause.

House of X X-Men Marvel

Courtesy of Marvel Comics.

Holding Stakeholders Accountable

Of course, just because you are motivated to work with someone whose long-term goals are aligned with your own, it doesn’t obviate them from scrutiny. There are some who will turn a blind eye toward the transgression of an ally, even if they are ardent that the same behavior be punished from the other side, but it’s important that a movement recognize problematic elements within it and act upon it.

There are several examples of this to be found in this trade, but the two most compelling cases deal with Sabretooth and Mystique. In the case of Sabretooth, the feral mutant broke (and inspired) Krakoa’s first law — kill no man — on a reconnaissance mission back in HoX #1. This heinous act inspired the first meeting of the Krakoan high council, which ruled that the nigh-invulnerable Sabretooth would spend his remaining years trapped in a hellish prison beneath the grounds of Krakoa. Creed’s transgression was clear, and though the law had not yet been established when said transgressions were committed, his unrepentant demeanor and consistent threats of further violence made it clear that his continued freedom was a threat to the sanctity of the island nation. Though harsh, it’s hard to argue that Creed’s actions didn’t merit some kind of punishment.

Where things get a little dicier is in Xavier and Magneto’s treatment of Mystique. Though a member of the high council and an invaluable field operative, Mystique only joined the Krakoan movement as a means to an end — offering her devotion in return for the resurrection of her late wife, Destiny. The problem there is that Moira X, traumatized by the events of her second lifetime (as seen in HoX #2), has established that no mutants with precognitive abilities shall be entered into the resurrection protocols — a fact that is seemingly kept secret from the rest of the island’s inhabitants. So what we have here is a conundrum in the voice, face, and heart of a movement wronging one of its participants for selfish gain. This is not an unfamiliar trope, as these abuses of power can be found in everything from organized religion to corporate boardrooms and even protest movements.

The key question posed here, is how to address troubles from the top? Mystique may not be the most sympathetic victim, but is she not due justice? Shouldn’t Magneto and Xavier, despite their lofty positions within the nascent mutant government, bear some punishment for their falsehoods? You won’t get far by gaslighting your allies, and it’s clear that a reckoning for this is inevitable. Though we don’t know when the other shoe will drop, the lesson here is that you ignore issues within a movement at your own peril. The easy answers of little consequence may be simple enough, but when the problems start at the top, how do you respond?

HoX PoX Magneto House of X X-Men Marvel

Courtesy of Marvel Comics.

The Olive Branch and the Bayonet

Yes, I took the title of this section from a Simpsons quote, but it makes sense, I promise. No matter how noble the rallying cry for a social movement may be, it’s inevitable that opposition will eventually pop up. There are, of course, many ways to deal with a hostile force, but you can basically break it down into two camps: diplomacy (the olive branch) or defiance (the bayonet). In HoX/PoX, the mutants have embraced both, and no one epitomizes this ideal better than Magneto. In the opening of the trade,  we see Mags entertain ambassadors from several nations to discuss their involvement in Krakoa’s “Medicine for Sovereignty” exchange. Knowing full well that the “ambassadors” are secretly spies, Magneto’s calm demeanor in the face of these disingenuous negotiators presents a visage of strength but an openness for compassion. Though he is cold to his guests once their true nature is laid bare, he maintains his commitment to the peaceful (if forceful) tenets of the offer Xavier made. 

This speaks to the import of maintaining strength in convictions when dealing with the opposition. Throughout the trade and beyond, we see that nearly all of the X-Men’s interactions with foreign powers (be they countries, scientific organizations, or even a particularly odd group of senior citizens with green thumbs) come in bad faith. Yet the resilience of the mutant race to maintain it’s peaceful ideals while projecting strength is why we as readers admire them regardless. Yes, Krakoa has an organized militia and covert strike teams operating to preserve the sovereignty of their nation and its people, but it is not afraid to approach situations peacefully first. It’s only when diplomacy is not an option that they react with force, and therein lies the lesson. In a fight for an ideal, both elements will be necessary and knowing when to use each is vital to the success of a social movement.

Marvel House of X and Powers of X

Courtesy of Marvel Comics.

Of course, this is all a gross simplification of the actual challenges presented by the actual fight for social movements. There is no simple answer for the best way to achieve change, but of all of the radical ideas at center stage of the House of X/Powers of X trade, a few stand out. Like how a unified force stands together, holds its own members accountable for transgressions, and seeks diplomacy even as it prepares a more ardent defense. Of course, resurrection protocols and flowers that cure all diseases would be pretty great too, but you can’t always get what you want.

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