X-Men Toys: You Dare Call Those Things- Human?

I can pinpoint the exact moment I fell out of love with the X-Men. I certainly like a fair amount of the things the franchise has produced, but it’s just that, a product, and no one has worked harder to remind readers of that fact than Marvel themselves. The moment that did it for me was the time I learned that they argued against the humanity of their own characters in a court of law.

It goes like this: Imports to the U.S. are governed by what’s called the Harmonized Tariff Schedule (HTS), a set of classifications used to determine at what rate those imports are taxed. For years, the HTS had a set of stipulations on the import of toys that defined them as either “dolls” (figures of specifically human representation) or the more generic “toys” (anything non-human). Stranger still was the decision that dolls would be taxed at nearly double the rate of other toys–12 percent as opposed to 6.8 percent. Marvel, through their subsidiary Toy Biz, had actually been challenging this statute for years, not always getting their way; they once tried to argue that a line of small-scale metal figurines counted as equivalent to tin soldiers, an argument that was rejected by the court.

However, during most of those cases, Marvel hadn’t really had to contend with the public eye on their court proceedings. One was not likely to find a law article in the pages of Wizard, and folks generally don’t go looking for case details like this unless they have a specific reason to. This changed, of course, with the advent and proliferation of internet access; suddenly information that would previously require a couple of solid hours at the library was now available in seconds. Marvel, being as large as they were, had obviously had an internet presence for some time, but they were caught unprepared in 2003.

That year, they won what was to be their last case on the issue. They’d been arguing it for ten years by that point. The case took so long, in fact, that the aforementioned different tax rates had been nullified, rendering the ruling purely retrospective. The argument of Marvel’s attorneys, Sherry Singer and Indie Singh, was that characters, such as the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, were not actually human, specifically that “the figures represent creatures other than humans, and possess features characteristic of non-humans.”

According to the attorneys, one of their earliest and easiest victories using this particular stance was over a toy of Beast, specifically that his name, his fur, and the color of it were all meant to lend themselves to the idea that he was not a human, but a monster. This argument was extended to encompass all of Marvel’s mutant characters; by defining said characters as “mutants” they were specifically eschewing the definition of humanity. In a sense, Marvel contributed to the othering of mutantkind.

Nightcrawler & Stryker, God Loves Man Kills, Marvel Comics, Claremont & Anderson, 1982
God Loves, Man Kills; Marvel Legislates

If you’re at all familiar with the story behind the X-Men, you’re aware that the core concept is that the characters specifically are humans born with a mutated gene and that this mutation is the source of their powers. They are, by this definition, human in the way any real person with webbed toes would be human. That Marvel took to court to specifically argue the opposite was met with quite a lot of backlash; fans felt betrayed, indignant on behalf of these fictional entities and their struggles. How could they not be? It’s plain and made textual many times over that they were meant to be just like any of us. Charles Xavier runs a school. Cecilia Reyes is a doctor who has no interest in being a superhero. When she helps the X-Men, it’s usually an interference in her day-to-day life and not one she appreciates. And so on.

To take these examples further, the fictional country of Genosha was created entirely to deal with the idea of mutant rights in a human society; it is a country built on the backs of mutant slave labor, one where simply being born a mutant invalidates your citizenship and rights. The X-Men franchise had already explored stories with prominent American figures attempting to enforce things like mutant registration, and Genosha took that exploration a step further by presenting a society wherein those things had already been accomplished, specifically highlighting the injustice of such a society.

In 2003, when this verdict came down, Chuck Austen was the writer of the X-Men franchise. He gave a quote to the Wall Street Journal about the ruling, stating directly that it was the opposite of the thing he’d tried to instill in the books. In fact, the flak from the public was so severe that Marvel itself released a statement that their characters “are living, breathing human beings, but humans who have extraordinary abilities…”

Marvel was, in effect, trying to have it both ways; their characters were not human in a way that was taxable, but of course they had to be what the fans wanted them to be or else how were they going to sell product?

For me, it was an eye-opening experience. My relationship with Marvel up to that point had been as a consumer; I had been a child, and they’d done the work to instill in me belief in these characters, their values. Even though I knew that the X-Men were not real, I felt a sort of kinship with them, as I was meant to, bolstered partly by the belief that the company itself cared a great deal about them. In a way, I was right to think so; Marvel does care about the X-Men, but only insomuch as they, and other associated properties, allow Marvel to profit. This case proved a stark highlight of that fact; not only were these characters not real (which I knew), but the company that owned them would say and or do whatever it took to profit off of them, up to and including denying the very concepts they’d put forth.

I should clarify that while I was not a child by the time this ruling came about, I had nonetheless not really begun to think critically about the trappings of my childhood. This ruling was a monumental one in that respect. It solidified the definition of ownership for me, codified it in my mind in a way that I had not understood it in my youth. I could not truly fault Marvel; they were importing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of toys, and cutting the tax rate on those nearly in half is a sensible decision from any viewpoint. That said, the point was made to me. These characters were not my childhood companions; they were things, property, and while my experiences with them may have been personal, they were not mine.

I still love the X-Men, but I’m not in love with them.

Nola Pfau

Nola Pfau

Nola is a bad influence. She can be found on twitter at @nolapfau, where she's usually making bad (really, absolutely terrible) jokes and occasionally sharing adorable pictures of her dog.