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Talking Frankly: the mutant metaphor and Franklin Richards

Why the mutant identity matters in superhero comics.

X-Men fans have been living in relative harmony with the rest of Marvel, as of late. It was almost inevitable that something would come up and disturb the peace. This time, the controversy has centered on one of Marvel’s most powerful heroes — Franklin Richards. Yet the debates over Franklin are much more than mere fan squabbles. They represent a wider discourse on the place of identity in the superhero genre.

Last month, in Fantastic Four #26, it was revealed that Franklin was not a mutant, but had instead been unintentionally “faking” his identity the entire time. Writer of the series, Dan Slott, was heavily criticized on social media for this narrative decision. Many noted that not only did this directive fly in the face of years of canon, but added problematic elements to the arc of Franklin so far.

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Franklin Richards

Courtesy of Marvel.

Comic universes are prone to frequent continuity changes. Slott was not breaking convention when he shifted the status-quo of a key character. However, every alteration in comic canon, no matter how seemingly innocuous, carries signification. From their inception, superhero comics have been popularized as modern symbols for justice and morality. Superheroes are ultimately representative of a multiplicity of narratives that express the citizen’s place in society at any given time—what it means to be good, what our relation is to law and authority, and so on. One of the definitive examples of the symbolic nature of the comic hero is Captain America. Cap’s relation to his country and title has varied greatly over his 80-year history—from patriotic soldier to enemy of the state and onwards.

The representative nature of superheroes is both pronounced and subverted by Marvel’s X-Men franchise, and the mutant identity that the team is formed around. The X-Men is, ultimately, a narrative exploration of the place of “the other” in modern society. The title began as a series that rather clumsily put together Cold War discourse and race politics. From the ’70s onwards, X-Men often took a more nuanced approach to identity, doing more to explore the lived experience of “otherness” in the face of an oppressive authority.  Certainly, the fictional mutant species does not hold up as a solid or straight-forward analogy for any real-world subjectivized identity. Rather, it has taken on representational meaning of numerous experiences of “otherness” through the years— whether that be the civil rights movement or the struggle of the queer community during the AIDS crisis. Unlike titles such as Batman or The Avengers, which largely explore the experience of the normative citizen, X-Men have a sustained status of existing outside the peripheries of civic recognition.

Talking Frankly: the mutant metaphor and Franklin Richards

Courtesy of Marvel.

It is the symbolic status of mutation that makes Slott’s removal of identity so controversial. It marks not only a change in canon but the eradication of meaning. Indeed, this is not the first time Marvel have taken away the mutant label from one of their characters. Among those who have had their mutant-card revoked are the Maximoff twins and Squirrel Girl. Not only are these retcons frustrating, but they subtract major narrative elements from character history. If the use of the mutant metaphor is a discursive act of decentring the “superhero,” retracting it essentially places the character in question under a normative lens.

For Franklin Richards, this transformation of meaning has unsettling implications. Recently, through the vehicle of the mutant symbol, Franklin’s story arc has been decidedly queer. Chip Zdarsky’s and Terry Dobson’s X-Men/Fantastic Four mini-series explored how Franklin consolidated his allegiance to his celebrated team of family members on the one hand, and the revolutionary mutant island of Krakoa on the other. His search for belonging outside a family that doesn’t understand his individual experience highly resonates with many queer folks. Slott’s decision to then reveal that Franklin has been “faking” his mutation is highly problematic. It merges too close with accusations that members of the queer community—particularly trans people—are “pretending” to exist as something they are not. The storyline ultimately validates this perspective, without recognizing it is even there.

Talking Frankly: the mutant metaphor and Franklin Richards

Courtesy of Marvel.

This year, titles under X-Men franchise have embraced and celebrated the mutant symbol as a metaphor for “otherness.” Krakoa’s status as an independent and radical mutant nation shows how, under the right writers, the X-Men can be used as a subversive break in the superhero genre. However, too often creators misunderstand or straight out ignore the meaning behind mutation. When Dan Slott retconned Franklin Richard’s identity, he erased and defiled an inherently queer narrative. Slott’s decision shows that comic books are in dire need of a more diverse team of creatives, who can understand and explore the representative nature of superheroes. Perhaps it is time for Marvel to begin to rectify the status of former mutants, and finally embrace what the mutant symbol represents.

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