Depictions of Fascism and Missteps of the Metaphor in X-Men: Red

x-men red

This essay includes discussions of fascism, the alt-right, Charlottesville, the death of Heather Heyer, The Third Reich, Nazi ideology, and xenophobia.

X-Men: Red is one of my favorite stories to come out in the last few years. It surfaced in a time when I was immensely frustrated with and turned-off by many of the X-Books of the time. Red came out during an intense political moment for me and for the world. This story became my ride-or-die comic, in a period where I found myself submerged in countless activist organizations, both above and below ground. Seeing the way that the team in this book would balance direct-action tactics and institutional navigation was so refreshing and relatable to me, and many of the people I was organizing with at the time. X-Men: Red is a wonderful team, with new faces like Trinary, Gentle (Nezhno), & Gabby Kinney, and some familiar faces like Jean Grey, Storm, Nightcrawler, Wolverine (best Wolverine, Laura Kinney), Gambit, and Namor.

The X-Men: Red team stands in tableau
X-Men:Red #1, Tom Taylor and Mahmud A. Asrar, February 7, 2018, Marvel Comics

In Rosenberg’s Phoenix Resurrection, Jean came back to a very different world. She never saw the Decimation. She never saw the return to Utopia, and the many attacks it endured. She never saw the Phoenix Five, she didn’t see Scott kill Xavier, or the Mutant Revolution lead by Scott, she never saw mutants flee the Terrigen mists. She didn’t see Cyclops die in a cold lab on an empty island, nor his public death at the hands of Black Bolt. All she knows is that she returned to a world that still hates & fears mutants and that there are fewer than there were before. Jean may be aware of these events, telepathically, but there’s a real separation between knowing something on an intellectual level, even being able to empathize with the ones who lived through it, and having your body know and process that trauma. Jean Grey knows trauma, to an extent a lot of lazy writers define her by it, but her body never lived through those specific traumas. In X-Men: Red she is parachuted into a hauntingly familiar world.

Jean Grey displays an tacky amount of cleavage and preaches about the role of ignorance in hatred.
X-Men: Red Annual #1, Tom Taylor & Pascal Alixe, May 30, 2018, Marvel Comics

The story chronologically begins with X-Men: Red Annual #1, the narrative beats of which we will return to shortly. What should be a touching first few pages as Jean begins to reconnect with the world, mourning losses, mending bridges, and reaching out to old friends, is instead a series of unsettling tableau. Pascal Alixe’s art undercuts Taylor’s writing in every panel with embarrassingly graphic depictions of Jean, who returns in her Marvel Girl costume. In Alixe’s hands, this costume develops the deepest V neckline it has seen to date. I so badly wanted to feel the connections to her past that the costume so clearly wanted to draw. It’s not a sexy Jean either. This costume doesn’t tell us anything about Jean’s rebirth or how it’s impacted her navigation of her own sexuality. Instead it’s a tacky and gratuitous excuse to show more cleavage than the green dress has ever given to readers. If we want to talk about depictions in X-Men:Red, we’re off to a troubled start. It feels like X-Men: Red was intended to be an empowering story for Jean, insofar as a cis-het white man could write such a story. And yet, for trade paperback readers, the story launches with such a crude and sexist depiction of the story’s protagonist.

Taylor does something that many X-Writers have not done, which is to directly address real world political events overtly on the page. This is partially because of Marvel’s tendency to only allow white men to tell overtly political stories. When this has been done, it’s done incredibly crudely. Taylor has been open about the real world politics he is responding to in this story. The first issue was released February 7, 2018, so it’s fair to make an assumption that Taylor would be beginning to pitch and write Red in the wake of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, on August 12, 2017.

Full Page: A young mutant is harassed by a mob of bigots carrying tikki torches
X-Men: Red #3, Tom Taylor & Mahmud A. Asrar, April 11, 2018, Marvel Comics

In X-Men:Red #3, there’s a scene in Louisiana that depicts an anti-mutant march sometime in the afternoon. One of them is depicted in a red trucker hat, which calls to mind the image of the red “MAGA” hat. Beyond this visual nod, the march participants are all carrying tiki-torches, much like the fascists who marched through Charlottesville the evening before the “Unite the Right” rally, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” It’s a haunting image, whose inclusion expands the pedagogy of the mutant-metaphor, directly challenging the phrase “the mutant-metaphor isn’t 1:1”. This phrase though has become a bit of a dog-whistle in recent discourses surrounding certain current events in continuity, being deployed to invalidate and gaslight queer and trans readers who see their experiences reflected on the page. And while there are limits of the mutant-metaphor they do not exist in a way that allows bigots to deploy those limits to erase queer & trans readings of the text.

Fascists with torches are shown screaming.
Unite the Right rally, Samuel Corum, Getty Images

This depiction draws readers’ minds to the rally in Charlottesville, but feels decontextualized from the politics and current events that frames the rally in our minds. This intensely traumatic event becomes a short scene, only about 3 pages long and borrows imagery so intensely linked to the tragic death of Heather Heyer. I’m not saying that this imagery should never be referenced, but the way that this scene escalates is really tone-deaf. Gambit eventually shows up, pushing back against these bigots, provoking the members of the anti-mutant march.

A Crowd of bigots part as a large truck emerges.
X-Men:Red #3, Tom Taylor Mahmud A. Asrar, April 11, 2018, Marvel Comics

If the image of the torches wasn’t enough the next few panels took it to the next level. A panel depicts the crowd parting, as a car barrels down the street. Given the previous few pages’ allusions to the Unite the Right rally, it’s easy to compare this image to that of James Alex Fields driving a Dodge Challenger through a crowd of counter-protesters at the same rally, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 28 others. Gambit (and incidentally Cara, who is the one who ends up dying) fulfills the role of the counter-protesters here. Although the car stops and a man emerges, a young woman still dies at the end of this scene. There are some exceptional points to be made for the way in which this scene addresses the rising wave of fascist violence in the United States, particularly in the months surrounding this book’s release. It attempts to move the mutant-metaphor out of the realm of the theoretical or pedagogical, or at least pushes it closer to our own world by a non-trivial margin. Ultimately though, with a cis-het white passing man writing the story, the plane never gets off the runway. It challenges readers to make deeper connections between their entertainment and the world they’re living in. Doing that can have real power. There is so much media available today that normalizes hate. This story, and the use of these images and situations work inversely. These images allow our entertainment to occasionally teach us something real about our world. If readers can connect these images to real life, and learn from it, maybe they continue to do so as they revisit old stories and embrace new ones.

A bigoted new anchor spews hate while a new update plays at the bottom of the screen. The update reads: " on both sides, anti-mutant groups emboldened by..."
X-Men:Red #1, Tom Taylor and Mahmud A. Asrar, February 7, 2018, Marvel Comics

In-world media representations play a major role in how the readers evaluate the plot. A major narrative catalyst is a misrepresentation of the murder of a political official outside of a hearing, by Cassandra Nova. Taylor is asking readers to challenge our inherent trust in the media we take in, to be more thoughtful and critical of it. The two news anchors in the story bicker throughout the book, with one advocating for a more nuanced interpretation of the events of the book while the other engages in fear-mongering and misinformation. They represent a large section of the discourse that is likely evolving in readers’ minds while the plot unfolds. But the bottoms of these panels are interesting too. The first line we see is “ …quote,  On both sides. Anti-mutant Groups emboldened by…” These words are staggeringly similar to words our own fascist president used in his response to the tragic events of Charlottesville, stating there is “blame on both sides“. Trump paints Nazis as “fine people,” emboldening white-supremacists. We’ll later see marquis lines reading, “insurance companies unwilling to cover mutations…”, “bill proposing enhanced screening of mutants entering the country…”, “Poland signs law calling for detainment of all mutants”.  These lines are ripped from many of our own headlines.Unlike mutants though, marginalized people are not set to have their own mythical island nation anytime soon.

Taylor is very intentionally asking readers to approach these and other headlines like them with the same critical eye that he is training those same readers to develop. This is a heavy lift for comics, which have historically never engaged in political discourse. However for a comic that is largely aimed at white cisgender, heterosexual men, it’s ambitious. Taylor is capitalizing on the trust and devotion readers place in comics to continuously use these moments to normalize a new form of discourse. As we’ve learned from the ComicsGate Movement, this wasn’t a perfect process and certainly missed some folks, though I watched so many well intended but ultimately unsafe white liberals become radicalized by the 11 issues this series. While he didn’t quite stick the landing, Taylor permanently shifted the consciousness of much of the X-readership, for the better.

InX-Men Red: Annual #1,Jean makes a stop by the Xavier Institute, located in Central Park. While there, Jean and Nightcrawler are verbally attacked by a hot-dog throwing bigot. Jean’s response more or less establishes the tonal style guide for Jean Grey throughout this series. Jean is depicted as powerful, but restrained, laying out the beginning of her ideological response to mutant-phobia; ignorance and fear breed hate. A lot of Jean’s dialogue in this scene sounds like twitter platitudes: “You’re worried you are what you hate”, “ignorance is never an excuse for hatred”, etc. They aren’t really addressing the larger concerns that should be present in the scene. Jean doesn’t have to confront her aggressor with the same risks that many marginalized people do; she navigates the situation with absolute control and privilege because of her gifts. In the real world, we aren’t that lucky. The person she is talking to offers no rebuttal, there’s no threat of escalation.  We don’t see Jean engaged in the types of protracted debates that would normally follow that kind of confrontation, nor do we see Jean have to calculate the potential for violent retaliation that may follow.

This framing of hate and ignorance will be carried throughout the story. This is both the book’s greatest triumph and its biggest blind spot. As a strength, the book deftly addresses the way larger institutions prey on communities plagued with under-funding, poor educational resources, and saturated with misinformation. It’s well founded that the right’s biggest appeal is its accessibility. Far-right and alt-right organizations’ biggest tools are the ignorance of others and misinformation. They listen to your problems, hand you an easy-to-read one-sheet or easy headline about how it’s the fault of marginalized and oppressed groups, and then urge you to tell a friend. The left on the other-hand is often weighed down by lethargic devotion to pedagogy and theory, among many other forms of internal gate-keeping.

The team of X-Men Red assembles in a tableau as Jean says " we're going to weaponize the truth".
X-Men:Red #5, Tom Taylor and Mahmud A. Asrar, June 6, 2018, Marvel Comics

Throughout Red,we will see Jean employ tactics like “weaponizing the truth” as she says inX-Men:Red #5.It’s a common tactic favored by many radical-left organizations, most notably groups like Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement (NYC) and Redneck Revolt (formerly John Brown Gun Club), who work to disseminate accessible information into typically susceptible communities, to help shield members of these communities against the misinformation of the right. Consistently throughout the series, Jean is doing work to connect the minds of bigots to the minds of the marginalized people they are compelled to hate. For superhero comics, this is not a safe move. This story shows so few fights between the heroes and the antagonists. Instead, we see Jean actively work to develop a legitimate political discourse surrounding mutant liberation. Ultimately, this choice to perpetuate and instill empathy will be how she beats the series’s big bad, Cassandra Nova.

In #4 the plot point emerges that nanites are implanting hate in people’s minds. Trinary explains how the tech inside the “sentinites” infecting the minds of humans, is developed by an “analytics companies” that used social media to play on “fears and biases” to “implant mistrust and hate”. Here is where the analogy Taylor is building begins to fail; he characterizes hate as something that individuals aren’t responsible for. People suddenly are not responsible for their hatred; it was something done to them, something implanted into them by these shadowy institutions of “truly evil people.” This mixed with a few lines of about “a little drop of dopamine” getting released whenever somebody makes or likes a hate-filled post, create a pretty messy structural understanding how all of these threads come together. Taylor is on to something for sure: Esoteric online communities of the right create a feedback loop, and often various tendrils of this loop emerge and break into more above board social media platforms. Groups like Cambridge Analytica have used predatory and weaponized data collection to directly impact the results of major electoral proceeding. But we can feel Taylor inching this analysis a little beyond its scope, which will make it a little messier every time we see an escalation of the analysis.

Jean Grey comforts a man in a hospital bed. The man has just killed a young woman.
X-Men: Red #5, Tom Taylor and Mahmud A. Asrar, Jun 6, 2018, Marvel Comics

Two issues after the Louisiana incident, Gambit goes to the hospital where the gunman now is being held to interrogate him, and waiting already in the room is Jean and her team. In this hospital scene, they reveal that the gunman had a sentinite is his head. This hate-fueled murder is apparently the result of these sentinites controlling his mind. Trinary shuts it off and suddenly his hate is gone, his empathy returns. He’s no longer accountable, Jean even tells him that they’ll come back to defend him. Taylor frames this violent act as the result of mind control, thus removing any accountability for his actions. This is the man whose acts of violence draw intense connections to the death of Heather Heyer. By revealing that this man was being controlled all along makes the previous use of the imagery of #3 even more problematic. The thematic link between sentinites and the way that propaganda can be used to influence behavior is easy to see. However, it’s a crude and overly idealistic framing of very real forms of violence that marginalized groups deal with every day.

InX-Men: Red #6, Jean says “We need to find the chief architect of this hate…”. Hate is framed as something that only a single evil individual is responsible for, the result of one evil person’s choices. This narrative has incorrectly been applied when discussing The Third Reich. In this framing, all of the atrocities that were carried by The Third Reich, by members of the Nazi party, and by Nazi-sympathetic civilians, are result of the influence of a small number of “truly evil men.” Given the visual references of Cassandra Nova’s costume to the uniforms worn by officials of The Third Reich, these types of parallels become magnified.

Cassandra Nova walks toward the frame holding a gun, dressed like a fascist
X-Men:Red #4, Tom Taylor and Mahmud A. Asrar, May 16, 2018, Marvel Comics

Cassandra Nova’s outfit draws clear allusions to fascist imagery. While this pulls on many conventions of depictions of fascism and colonizing officials, the one that this story specifically draws my mind to is the Sturmabteilung (SA), often called the Brownshirts. I won’t include images of that here, however if you look them up, you find striking similarities between Cassandra Nova’s outfit and the uniforms of the SA. Because of the way that the text sets up Cassandra Nova, matched with these visual clues she becomes the avatar of fascism itself in this story.

Cassandra Nova falls to her feet as she comes to terms with what she has done.
X-Men:Red #11, Tom Taylor & Mahmud A. Asrar, December 12, 2018, Marvel Comics

In issue#11, they eventually beat Cassandra Nova by having wonder child Gabby Kinney “implant” a reverse engineered Sentinite into her brain…which forces her to be empathetic. Just like that, she’s empathetic and remorseful, framing empathy as something that just has to be installed. This gives the impression that anybody who is hateful is simply “without empathy” and if only it could be installed, they’d be better. Jean attributes Cassandra Nova’s hate to having been “put together wrong,” which is a strange line that could even be read as framing her hate as an issue of mental health.This also neglects the impact that Charle’s action had on her early development. It’s certainly easy to see what Taylor’s aiming at; an analysis that looks critically at the way victims of abuse can become locked in toxic cycles of abuse that breed hate. In this case, we’re looking at the way so much of Nova’s overarching hate form mutants, grew from her hatred of Charles Xavier.

Taylor fails to construct a thorough analysis of fascism. Evil does not arise from a vacuum and then brainwash everybody else into being hateful. Throughout this story, Taylor attributes hate and fascist violence to the manipulations of Cassandra Nova. Her sentinites are implied to have “implanted hate” into the minds of millions. Taylor is reacting to his environment without a critical or historic lens, nor lived experience. Rather than look at the root causes of fascism, the way in which it co-opts institutions and systematically builds power and consolidates that power, Taylor attributes it all to Cassandra Nova. This is a critical misstep. Taylor’s depictions are reactionary, ahistorical, and fail to grapple with the reality of fascist growth in the US. What could have been a really thoughtful analysis of rising fascism in the US is deflated by a single narrative choice.

Jean Grey hovers above the world.
X-Men: Red #1, Tom Taylor & Mahmud A. Asrar, February 7, 2018, Marvel Comics

There is a page in the first issue where, to get a “new perspective” on the situation at hand, Jean quite literally hovers above the world she is trying to understand. This one page serves as a locus of so many misgivings I have about the point of view from which the book was written. Jean’s new perspective is abstracted and detached, rather than holistic and hands-on. Jean literally places herself above the world she is trying to change, setting herself apart from the mutants of the world. She sets herself above their suffering, obscuring the structures of oppression that are responsible; it’s Jean distancing herself from the reality of the world she lives in. She can see the oppressive world, but this vantage point is not sufficient to understand the lived experiences and hardships of the people suffering below, the people who can’t just fly away from it all. Because of this lack of specificity, Jean’s approach to these issues is as broad and vague as the overall message of the book.”

Taylor is a cishet white/white-passing man, talking about forms of oppression he will never understand. His analysis of fascism is entirely facile. He writes scenes where Jean shares a vague vision of the future that are clearly not thought out in any way as we never see and learn few details about. It’s just implied to be wonderful and revolutionary. Like Jean, Taylor is attempting to tackle topics he doesn’t fully understand, and a result comes to “resolutions” that are ultimately substance-less. He hovers above them and every depiction and representation is formed from that abstracted vantage point. This ultimately whyX-Men: Red fails to stick the landing. Taylor takes big swings in this story, but with his eyes closed, which leaves us ultimately unfulfilled.

2 thoughts on “Depictions of Fascism and Missteps of the Metaphor in X-Men: Red

  1. I look to X-men Red issue 7 where Tom Taylor has Jean Grey say to the public "if you ‘re watching this and you feel your hatred for mutants has been increasing … " to show that the story wasn’t blaming Cassandra Nova for all the hatred or creating the hatred. When I read this run originally and when I re-read it I didn’t get the idea that Cassandra was creating bias and hatred out of nothing or that her sentinels were completing responsible. She was increasing or escalating the bias that people already had and some to extreme effect (with family members trying to physically harm other family members).

    I get what this essayist is attempting and I agree with parts but I think the essayist makes several missteps by misreading the work (which a lot of people have done including the Zach Jenkins guy on twitter). Taylor does have Jean say that most people are good and that is probably still true. We see horrible stuff on the news daily, we see negative comments on the internet (sometimes by bad people but sometimes by decent people who just let loose on the web). I work in the criminal justice system I see people who society easily throws away as defines as bad people but I see their humanity even if some are accused or plead guilty to violent crimes. Some people can see our common humanity even in those we collectively deem "’monsters".

    The final issue did seem weaker than the start with Jean’s big ideas and I do think that was definitely a weakness. Jean’s vague dream was also a weakness so those points I agree with. The rest I feel like the author both misread and mischaracterized the work which is unfortunate especially when it will have an impact on an impressionable fandom.

  2. Great analysis. I wanted to love this book so much. Jean Grey is my favorite superhero, and I adored Taylor’s run on Wolverine with Laura. But I found myself frustrated by many of the same metaphorical breakdowns you describe here, as well as the suggestion in the first issue of a “Mutant nation” with no geography or shared culture to make that concept make sense.

    Right from there, I could see that the book wanted to grapple with real world parallels that it didn’t know how to fully translate. This was one of the many times I wished Marvel would recognize that the X-line needs to be given more often to writers who aren’t cishet straight white men (and I’m speaking as one myself, and as a writer who would love to write these characters more than just about any others), just as they’ve finally started making an effort to give books about women and POC to people who have lived those experiences.

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