Today’s installment in the recurring “Why Chris Claremont’s run on Uncanny X-Men was so groundbreaking”: The mutants-as-oppressed-minority metaphor, and why it works!
Lots of writers — both before Claremont and after — got the concept of “mutants as stand-in for an actual oppressed minority,” but they were also really clumsy about it. Re-reading Claremont’s run, where he’s pushing boundaries in a way that is genuinely uncomfortable, and then jumping over to Scott Lobdell’s (who followed him on the series), it’s a night-and-day difference. Claremont made sure that the metaphor was always a metaphor — that he may be using the word “mutant,” but he meant the much uglier words that people use.
In Lobdell’s hands, that distinction was lost — there’s this scene at the beginning of his run where he has Professor Xavier giving a speech about race, and you could almost believe that the writer actually thinks mutants are being oppressed in the real world. It’s — weird.
But I digress. The thing that makes Claremont’s use of language in these panels up there work — and I recognize that it may not work for everyone — is that he intrinsically ties all of these real-world groups to mutants, not the other way around. So if you’re a kid reading X-Men and you keep reading about how anti-mutant hate is this horrible prejudice that is destroying the lives of your favorite characters, and then he has Kitty Pryde say, “Yeah, and the words ‘nigger’ and ‘faggot’ are just as bad,” it sends a message. And that message isn’t, “Man, this imaginary race has it really bad!”A lesser writer would have traded on existing prejudices in order to make the struggles of the X-Men seem more real (as Lobdell, who actually was a very good writer in a lot of ways, did); Claremont traded on the X-Men to give his readers things to think about.
But it goes beyond the mutant-as-metaphor thing. It’s true that in the main Uncanny X-Men title, Claremont’s record of inclusiveness isn’t exactly inspiring — of the 7 heroes he created to join the team, only two (Forge and Jubilee) are characters of color (note: a character with white parents who has blue skin doesn’t count as “of color”). He did much better on New Mutants, where a full half of the team was made up of non-white characters. But what he did get right is that he treated his non-white characters with respect.
Claremont’s run included a number of American Indian characters — Forge, Mirage, and Thunderbird — and they’re never portrayed as characters from the same monolithic culture, or stereotypes of that culture. Forge is Tsitsistas Cheyenne, but he lives in a skyscraper, fought in Vietnam, and is the most technologically competent character in the series; Dani Moonstar is Sutaio Cheyenne, and she’s as happy at the mall as she is with her horses; even Thunderbird (the second one), who is described as an “Apache warrior” throughout the series, has friends and interests that are broader than simply his ethnicity. (Contrast that with Marvel marrying off Storm and the Black Panther, saying that they knew each other as kids because they’re both “from Africa.”)
Claremont wasn’t perfect on race issues, by any means. Nobody is. He could have included a lot more characters of color on the main team (the series was 25 years old, and Claremont had left the book, before the X-Men got their first black man); had a weird tendency to turn existing white characters, like Psylocke, Sharon Friedlander, and Tom Corsi, into characters of color by magic instead of creating ones who were actually part of the culture; and he could get preachy and strain his metaphor, sometimes. But he was a hell of a lot more effective at writing thoughtfully about race in X-Men than anyone else working in his medium at the time.