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In X-Men comics, genocide is a devastating and unnecessary plot point

The 2023 Hellfire Gala left some fans wondering why so many mutants had to die — and what that says about them

For the past three years, the X-Men comics franchise has run a major crossover issue called the Hellfire Gala. The event acts as an annual reset for X-Men stories across all of their titles. This year’s gala ushered in a new, dark era for X-Men as the issue featured the anti-mutant group, Orchis, launching an attack that killed thousands of mutants and sent hundreds of thousands of others into exile. The Hellfire Gala ended with what Orchis is calling a “mutant massacre” and kickstarted a new arc called Fall of X. It’s yet another example of genocide as a plot point for a race (mutants) that is supposed to be allegorical for real-life marginalized groups. The trope has become all too frequent and all too painful for real-life marginalized groups who have turned to the X-Men franchise as a means to see themselves in comic books.

Stan Lee created the X-Men in 1963 as an allegory for the Civil Rights Movement. The mutants’ genetics gave them superpowers, but humans without the x-gene hated and feared the mutants for being different. The X-Men was constructed as a superteam that would save the nonmutant world even though it hates and fears them. But also the X-Men comics and its auxiliary titles would become about more than superheroes and their teams. The story would become about an entire race of mutants, many of them just trying to survive in the face of bigotry and state-sanctioned violence. As a Black man in America, I saw myself in those pages. I’m not alone either: look at the Black queer social media accounts of people who make the #XSpoilers hashtag popular every week.

Marvel Comics

But that desire to see ourselves in the X-Men panels has come at an emotional price. Since becoming an X-Men comic book fan in the early 1990s, I’ve read too many acts of genocide. There was the original Mutant Massacre in 1986 where a group of mutants slaughtered homeless mutants who lived in the sewer. There was the destruction of the island of Genosha that killed 16 million mutants in 2001. And in 2005, Scarlet Witch declared, “No More Mutants,” which wiped out nearly all mutant powers from the face of the earth. I could go on. Sure, the mutants eventually bounce back, as most protagonists do, but the victories don’t outweigh the pain it took to get there.

The past few years of X-Men were supposed to be different. Jonathan Hickman took over the lead writing duties in 2019 and reimagined what the series could be. In this iteration, mutants formed their own nation of Krakoa where they were free from persecution, interference and violence. They created their own government, medicines and even religion. Ancient mutants even reverted to their birth names from an extinct language. Krakoa closely paralleled the ideals of separatist movements that ring familiar to some Black folks. An early issue even featured an acknowledgement of the genocides with the declaration “no more” and the revelation that mutants had found a way to resurrect themselves from the dead — a metacommentary on the way mutants have been getting killed off and what seemed like a promise to move beyond those tropes. Krakoa presented a place for mutants to be themselves and for readers to imagine a utopia, particularly for queer characters to express themselves and their relationships. This felt like the new chapter we’d been waiting for. Or at least I hoped it was.

Since then, Thanos’ (yes, that Thanos) honorary grandfather Uranos killed millions of mutants who could not be resurrected — accompanied by images of skulls and bones filling up pages. And then there was the Hellfire Gala. Every year during the gala, mutants vote on who will make up the X-Men team. This year’s gala featured mutants voting on the most diverse team yet — three Black characters, a queer character, and Dazzler, who has been an icon for the LGBT comic book community for decades. But the celebration of such a diverse squad is short lived. On the very next page, the entire team is slaughtered in a particularly gruesome way.

And that’s how the Fall of X, written primarily by Gerry Duggan and Kieron Gillen, began. The rest of the Hellfire Gala comic is merely a series of atrocities: mutants framed for killing humans, mutants themselves killed in cold blood, nearly every mutant presumed dead (thought it’s been since revealed that they’ve all been exiled to a mysterious land), others put in concentration and refugee camps, and mutants blamed for the killings of foreign dignitaries. The issue was a barrage of triggering, unnecessary death and the end of the dream of a sovereign land for a marginalized group.

Superheroes are always facing traumatic devastations. Daredevil has had to face the losses of his father and multiple girlfriends. Batman lost his parents, the second Robin, and his own son. And Spider-Man lost almost everyone he’s ever loved. We are drawn to these characters for their vulnerability and heroics to overcome these moments. But it’s different when the trauma is felt across an entire race, especially one meant to represent some of the people consuming the stories. It’s not just the superhero X-Men team itself that gets waylaid by bigotry. It’s mutants as a whole. And by proxy, the readers. 

For Gillen, who is queer, part of the cyclical nature of the comic industry is the fact that never-ending stories require characters to always be in some sort of turmoil. “You’re not going to get a full-on wish fulfillment story from Marvel Comics unless [the book] gets canceled,” said Gillen, whose book, Immortal X-Men, focuses on Krakoa’s Quiet Council of mutants who established the island’s government. “X-Men can defeat anything. They just can’t avoid being trapped in a second act. The third act means there’s no story. Stories end with the classical story: once upon a time, then happily ever after, and happily ever after means the story ends. We get a happy ending by stopping a story. And the problem with Marvel as an ongoing comics company, especially an ongoing story that’s been going on for 50, 60 years, that’s a lot of second acts. And the way you get the third act for any bit of the X-Men is end the story.”

The Fall of X will of course make way for mutants to get their retribution, if not revenge. The evil Orchis villains will get their comeuppance. But in my history of reading X-Men, the genocides have always outweighed the supposed triumphant outcomes. Because there is no good that can follow genocide that will feel like healing. There is no balm for mass death. Nothing that feels like a hug when we so often see ourselves under the boot of the same omnipresent racist violence we inevitably face as soon as we close our comic books.

The Krakoa era had compelling stories at its fingertips — distrust, creating a new society from scratch, philosophical and supernatural battles for whose vision of mutantkind is the most beneficial to all — that didn’t require this level of mass death. It’s just unfortunate that the lowest hanging fruit of reminding readers that no matter how much we try to find refuge, extinction is lingering at every corner. Even when we try to escape to our imaginations within the pages of a comic book.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.