Jun 10 2011 1:45pm

Professor X is Not Martin Luther King

In the wake of X-Men: First Class, there’s something that needs to be said, and repeated.

Professor Xavier is NOT Martin Luther King Jr.

Okay, both have a dream of a better world for their respective repressed minorities, a future where minority and oppressor co-exist as equals, but that’s where the similarities end.

King was a pacifist who refused to use violence, even to defend himself. Professor X, on the other hand, trains his teenage students to be masked freedom fighters who beat the crap out of anyone, human or mutant, who threaten the lives of mutants.

No, Professor X’s belief that mutants have the right, and sometimes the need, to use violence to defend themselves makes him a lot closer to, appropriately enough, Malcolm X.

Which brings up the second point, borrowed from Comics Alliance’s David Brothers: Magneto is NOT Malcolm X.

Magneto is a supervillain, tried and true, which means he has both goals (the enslavement of humanity) and tactics (conquering Manhattan) that are just outside the realm of human understanding, and any comparison to a real person or movement gets ridiculous, if not insulting.

Superheroes tend to be “normal” people in extraordinary situations, so their personalities and philosophies can map onto those of real people. Supervillains, on the other hand, are just crazy.

Of course, that’s the way Magneto is usually portrayed. In X-Men: First Class, Magneto is a much more reasonable person. In fact, there’s one reading of the film where Magneto is the good guy.  His active, mutant pride approach is clearly more admirable than Xavier’s closeted, incremental movements towards equality. And neither approach is really like King’s incredible, non-violent but activist civil rights protests.

It would be an interesting story, I think, if Xavier and his small army of demi-gods met a truly King-esque mutant rights activist, someone who thinks the violent tactics of the X-Men themselves hurt the cause, one who refuses to attack the Sentinels, but rather lays in front of them, absorbs their blows and refuses to budge.

This would be particularly entertaining if said pacifist was the Blob.

Till then, I think it would help everyone’s understanding of the civil rights movements, and of the X-Men, to stop conflating a monstrous villain with a respected civil rights leader, and a very violent man with the American embodiment of peace.

Just saying.

Steven Padnick is a comic book editor. By day.

1. iola
Wow, there are people out there that have really compared them that way? That's not something I've ever thought. If you have, then you need to brush up on your Civil Rights history for sure!
2. tbob
It should be pointed out that non-violence as a political statement only works if your opponent has respect for life or can be made to respect life by outside forces. You can look at Tianamen Square or at Syria today and see what happens when non-violence meets an opponent who has no such respect.
rob mcCathy
3. roblewmac
superpower as metaphor for oppressed minority CAN only go so far CUZ superpoweres make life easier. I am in a wheelchair. If I was prof X i'd give most bus drivers I deal with strokes!
4. Desertpaladin
I'm wondering if you've read the X-men comics before, because you mention that Xavier trains his X-men to "Beat the crap out of anyone, human or mutant, who threaten the lives of mutants" Which is only partially true. Xavier founded the X-men to act as protectors, not just of mutantkind, but also of humankind. Issue 1 has the X-men fighting Magneto to save humans not other mutants. If they were only concerned with protecting mutants why fight Magneto at all, as he has no axe to grind with mutants at all?
Xavier's dream is that by showing humans that there are good mutants out there, those willing to lay down their lives to protect life, human and mutant, humans will accept mutants without hate and prejudice.
5. N. Mamatas
It wouldn't be very interesting if Xavier and Magneto mapped exactly onto King and Malcolm. It's an analogy, not a direct re-enactment of the positions of the two figures. Nor should it be, since mutants don't map directly onto black Americans, but are also applicable to issues of puberty, of generational shifts, of homosexuality (born this way...) etc.

Xavier, in the comics anyway, can end anti-mutant sentiment any time he wants. He's that powerful a telepath that he can rewrite the minds of every person with anti-mutant feelings. He doesn't, as that would be an unacceptable use of force. Further, his X-Men don't use their powers against the humans who oppress them so much as against other mutants, alien and supernatural menaces, robots, etc. They put themselves in harms way, they "the misery of people so clearly that volunteer to suffer in their behalf and put an end to their plight" as King said of his non-violent activists. Black Americans, in the South, were certainly of sufficient numbers to engage in armed rebellion against the US, and such a rebellion could potentially have succeeded in carving out a black state, or an integrated one, etc. But King's movement was explicitly against that type of black nationalism. Force wasn't the answer, he believed. Not because it wouldn't work in the long term—he held out the possibility that it could and would—but because he was aiming for another sort of goal and for shorter-term practical reasons.

King chose non-violence partially in contraposition to a claim that violence should be pursued because it could work. "Arguments that the American Negro is a part of a world which is two-thirds colored and that there will come a day when the oppressed people of color will rise together to throw off the yoke of white oppression are at least fifty years away from being relevant. There is no colored nation, including China, which now shows even the potential of leading a revolution of color in any international proportion," he explained.

Malcolm and others made arguments that did reference the idea of a world of color or of the uprising of the Global South/Third World/however one might like to put it, to deal definitively with the issue of white suprmacism. Malcolm once said, "It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negroes simply a racial conflict of Black against white, or a purely American problem. Rather we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the
oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter."

Magneto is the same way—mutants are individually more powerful than humans and as their numbers increase, they can be organized to confront humanity directly, now, and successfully.

That's why the comparisons are made, not because Xavier is perfectly non-violent.
rob mcCathy
6. roblewmac
It's better to stick to movies. In the COMIC prof X has been written all over the map.
Naomi dePlume
Interesting points, good arguements, but (if I'm allowed to be super shallow)... Can I get that Magneto Was Right graphic on a shirt?

(Perferably a woman's baby doll style with 3/4 sleeves)

pretty please?
8. Tzwolf
Does that make Magneto more of an Eldridge Cleaver?
rob mcCathy
9. roblewmac
yeah remember in the comic WOLVERINE has a higher body count than Magneto. AND Wolverine spend more time with humans than ANY mutant.
10. John R. Ellis
Actually, in the original X-Men issues, the purpose of the X-Men had absolutely ZERO to do with anything even vaguely resembling "teaching mutants to use violence to defend themselves".

They used their powers to defeat "evil" mutants who threatened the status quo. Period.

The whole "Civil Rights" thing didn't really feature until much, MUCH later, and even then it was mostly just used to add the occasional spice to a fairly typical super-hero book. It was a few more years or so before they actually tried to experiment with moral complexity.

Just sayin'.
rob mcCathy
11. roblewmac
John good point! In fact i've always thougt "they're MUTANTS!!" was really just a way around writting origins. and Magneto being so linked to the x-men was just a way for their best bad guy to show up more often than Doom in FF.
That said "anti-mutant stuff starts in uh..issuse 11? With Sentenals.
12. John R. Ellis
Add to that the fact that the earliest depiction of Magneto was of an unambigiously EVIL man, with absolutely NO redeeming features.

Until Claremont began revising and retooling the book post Silver Age, he barely even seemed human, much less sympathetic.
Paul Howard
13. DrakBibliophile
Yep, Magneto was evil in the comics at first (and for some time).

Not only was he of the "Mutants shall rule" school, he was of the "I Am The Master" school.

Nobody including his "Brothehood of Evil Mutants" were to question his Commands.

IMO when people talk about the X-Men comics being like the "civil rights movements" or the "gay rights movement", they ignore that the most powerful known Mutant was an outright evil SOB.

Fear Mutants?

When Magneto is around, fearing Mutants was very reasonable.
rob mcCathy
14. roblewmac
Yeah but there Was that speech in 4 where talks about "my higher purpose" Basicly when he started Magneto was Doom with better powers and less backstory.
ps sorry about all the typos!
ps 2 of course the X-men are not a good metaphor for Gay rights. You know any gay people who can lift a bus? (smirk)
will shetterly
15. willshetterly
Excellent point about Professor X mapping onto Malcolm X, not MLK. Of course the metaphor is imperfect, but their position in 1963 was the same: leave my people in peace, and know that we're prepared to meet violence with violence.

The analogy gets shaky after that, when Malcolm became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. That's the fellow Nick quotes above, the man who left the Nation of Islam and began to criticize capitalism.

As for Magneto, yes, it depends on who is writing him, but he's much closer to Elijah Muhammad. Magneto's early beliefs about homo sapiens map fairly well onto NOI comments about white devils. But Magneto also had a strong streak of fascism in him, too, with his belief in the superior man. Mutants are a rich metaphor.

Though Lee and Kirby weren't subtle artists and weren't working in a subtle medium, I do think they knew the implications of writing about outcasts. For one thing, they were both Jews. And, at the time, Marvel was far more supportive of civil rights and the feminist movement than DC.

And maybe it was just because I was aware of the civil rights movement then, but as a third-grader in '63, I understood that the X-Men was a series about how you should treat everyone as your equal, no matter how different they might seem.
16. Alexander K.
I'd love to see more posts like this on Tor.

Just, sayin'.
rob mcCathy
18. roblewmac
no no prof X and Green Lanten two heroes you are pretty sure never pay for it.
will shetterly
19. willshetterly
A PS to my post at 15: I don't mean to knock DC. The Doom Patrol came out at the same time as the X-Men, and it also said a lot about prejudice. Though there was a difference: The point of the X-Men was that they were born different. The Doom Patrol's metaphor was what some people call ableism today: they were all the victims of freak accidents, and only Elasti-Girl could pass unnoticed in society.

Hmm. Elasti-Girl's nom-de-do-gooding was sexist, but her powers were far more kick-butt than the original incarnations of Marvel Girl and Invisible Girl. I think I could argue that Marvel was ahead on racial issues, while DC was ahead on feminist ones.
20. John R. Ellis
Except, Lee has admitted that he created the X-Men not to make a statement about being "born different" but because he was burnt out on thinking up origins. And the X-Men initially weren't written as outcasts, but as the "Good mutants who protect us from the EVIL ones." Really! This was their paradigm in the Silver Age.

It should be noted that even when writers like Thomas and Englehart began to add that "metaphor" spice to stories featuring, say, the Scarlet Witch falling in love with a sentient android, "evil" mutants (especially Magneto) were still treated as completely corrupt, vicious baddies, nothing more.

As I said before, thank goodness for Claremont and retroactive characterization, eh? *grin*
will shetterly
21. willshetterly
John, maybe that's what he said, but that's not what I read. Sometimes a metaphor is richer than its creator knows. Didn't humanity fear mutants from the beginning because they were different? Didn't Xavier give them a place that was a refuge, a "separate but equal" place?

Sure, baddies were bad, but that was just how baddies were written in the early '60s.

Total agreement that Len Wein and especially Chris Claremont took something drawn in very broad strokes and made it grand.
22. Dr. Thanatos
You are right that Prof X is not MLK and Magneto is not Malcolm X.

The correct analogy is to David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, respectively.

Not that these things are open to personal interpretation, obviously...
23. Dr. Thanatos
On reflection, and given that Magneto never truly renounced his terrorist approach, Vladimir Jabotinsky would be a better stand-in than Menachem Begin. My apologies to all historians out there...
24. MorningStar
The comparisons made to MLKJr. and MX are just generalizations for the non-adamant historians out there. Your article is in fact quite wrong on a couple accounts. Desertpaladin and N.Mamatas display that fully well.
will shetterly
25. willshetterly
Morningstar, I gotta disagree. Addressing the folks you cite:

Desertpaladin, anyone who doesn't want to be ruled by a brutal tyrant would have wanted to stop the Magneto who appeared in X-Men #1. Xavier always seemed to have a strong democratic streak to me--and a streak of pride that wouldn't let him bow his head to a tyrant. Also, self-interest applies: Magneto makes mutants look bad, so the best way to make humans judge mutants as individuals is to stop him.

Nick, King and his followers put themselves in harm's way and did not fight back when they were attacked. That ain't Professor X and his gang.

But Malcolm X maps onto Professor X much more neatly; he believed in self-defence and in defending others. Once he became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, he said, "I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being, neither white, black, brown nor red. When you are dealing with humanity as one family, there's no question of integration or intermarriage. It's just one human being marrying another human being, or one human being living around and with another human being."

That doesn't sound like Magneto to me.
28. John R. Ellis
"Didn't humanity fear mutants from the beginning because they were different?"

No more or no worse than they did Spider-Man.

The X-Men in the Silver Age were not treated as glorified celebrities like the Fantastic Four, but they were treated considerably better than, say the Hulk was.

They were no more outcasts than every non-FF Marvel hero of the era was. Even the Avengers regularly got mistrusted and mistreated/labeled villains/etc. But there wasn't even the vaguest attempt to portray this as a racial metaphor. It was just Lee's "Humanity stinks and doesn't appreciate its true heroes" stuff he infused almost every Marvel Comic of the era with.

It definitely did become a dominant element later on. I've read those early stories, though. Own some of them. It's really nothing different from anything else Marvel put out.
will shetterly
29. willshetterly
John, I gotta disagree, 'cause I was eight and I got the metaphor. Mutants were feared. That was why the X-Men had secret identities.

But I agree no one began to push the metaphor until the '70s.

Hmm. Now I want to reread those first issues and see how much eight-year-old Will was projecting, based on his knowledge of the civil rights struggle. Could be I protest too much.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
30. tnh
I'm with you, Steven. I can't imagine either Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X founding an organization called the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

The fact that I can't imagine anyone non-ironically naming their organization the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants* has nothing to do with it.

*Unless they're a rock band.
Michael Ikeda
31. mikeda

Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

Obviously Magneto is related to Bad Horse...
33. Jabari Anderson
Lee and Kirby were encased in a budding political narrative that went on to global proportions. The North Vietnamese accredited the black nationalist movement for inspiration of the Tet Offensive. If "the enemy" were inspired by black political America, what of American musicians/poets/writers/artists who are the ambassadors of American culture?

This is an issue of the Civil Rights ideology vs Black Power ideology. Martin and Malcolm are not the catalysts nor the embodiment of those ideologies but rather archetypes. They had similiar objectives but different tactics in achieving them. Just as Professor X and Magneto have similiar objectives, but different tactics in achieving them. This is the crux of their polarized relationship, not the nuances of whether or not Professor X and Martin Luther both used skim milk in their Fruit Loops.

John Lennon said, "You have to be more politically aware in a day and age like this. It's almost impossible to close your eyes to it."
To deny that our atmosphere had/has little influence on people, especially ARTISTS, is to exist in a literalist's confined reductive reality.

Art deals in metaphor and analogy. Ofcoarse Professor X was not an identical replica of Martin Luther King. That "fi" part on the end of "sci" stands for FICTION.

I'm not going to buy a comic of some guy that can shoot optic beams from his eyeballs, powerful enough to flatten a mountain, just to see him holding a "FREE XAVIER" picket sign while passing out pamplets highlighting mutant community service projects.

Doesn't it make sense that if superpowers meet the pages of a comic, no matter how peaceful the hero may be, that perhaps a few "KAPOW's" or "BAM's" or "KABOOM's" might come with your purchase? Martin/Malcolm are nothing more than tropes for these narratives. Don't get your super-undies all bunched up.
34. Kemit
This articale is not true.They actually both were inspired by Martin luther King and Malcolm X that is actually pretty well documented just got to do a little research. That is also what makes comics and films so great because they use allegory and metaphor to get you to undertand an argument that you may usually be against.....the movie Avatar kind of does the same thing James Cameron went on record and said the Navi are really the North Vietnamese, Native Americans, or the people of Iraq. As others have said Lee and Kirby were inspired by the Civil Rights Movement as well as their own background as Jews. X-Men First class actually has Mystique say "I'm a Mutant and proud" this can be immediately recognized by any student of the Black Power Movement as "I'm Black and I'm proud".....or how about when Magneto was in the plastic prison in the first movie and says "By Any Means Necessary" everyone knows that this is Malcolm X's favorite phrase....honestly using allegory the way Arthur Miller did with the Crucible is brillaint because it opens up peoples minds to causes that they never sympathized with. The most conservative person will say they hated The Civil Rights Movement and support States Rights or that they supported the Vietnam War as a war against Communism (which it was not)...and then they turn around and say in the same sentence they love the movie the X-Men and Avatar!
35. Xman
Malcolm x = Proffesor X
Elijah muhammed/Farrahkhan = Magneto (most likely farrakhan)
36. @LawlessReggae
You really shouldn't base your opinions on a terrible movie. You should try read a comic once in a while. Professor Xavier was inspired by Martin Luthor King. Xavier defended humanity even though they hated him, he wanted to lived in peace with humanity and would never give up that dream. Magneto is obviously Malcim X, he employs the any means neccessary tactic. No Matter what they do Xavier would rather die than go to war with humanity
37. Kehn
Steven Padnick, you sir, need to do your research properly. I've been watching and reading X men cartoons and comics for yeaaaars before the movies came out. The movies don't even show anything compared to the comics. The Story of the X men/mutants struggle is CLEARLY inspired by the civil rights movement. Stan lee himself said the x men were meant to address issues of racism and bigotry. Listen for yourself.

The issue of violence present in an action comic is because...IT IS AN ACTION COMIC -_-
No need to explain the similarities betweeen Xavier/magneto and MLK/Malcom X. Its clear. You dont expect these characters to be an exact depiction of the other. this is what happens when a certain figure inspires a certain creation.

And P.S. The first X men issue was created in 1963. Go figure.

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