The term oppressed mages refers to any situation in which characters are systematically marginalized for their supernatural abilities, whether those powers come from spellbooks or mutant genes. When I first wrote about this trope, I mostly stuck to general points rather than going after specific stories. I did that because oppressed mages are remarkably consistent, no matter what form they appear in. Even so, some of my points were more than a little abstract, and it pays to have a concrete example. Fortunately, I didn’t have to look very far before I found House of X.
House of X is an X-Men comic published by Marvel.* The basic premise is that long-time rivals Professor Xavier and Magneto team up to create Krakoa, a nation for mutants and mutants only. This comic has already caused a lot of controversy. Some have rejoiced to see Xavier finally radicalized into realizing that the human oppressors cannot be stopped with kind words. Others see it as the X-Men embracing white nationalism. That’s quite a contrast.
The reason House of X produces such startlingly different reactions is simple: oppressed mages. Marvel has long tried to use mutants as a parallel for various marginalized groups, and it’s always awkward because mutants have superpowers, something actual marginalized people are notably lacking. Today, we look specifically at how that clash of themes affects House of X and why that effect isn’t good.
This isn’t a judgment on House of X’s overall quality. There’s plenty to like in terms of moving dialogue and strong characterization. We’re only looking at how oppressed mages affect the story’s message. Also, Marvel’s full continuity is an unending labyrinth, but in this article we focus exclusively on what’s in this particular series.
Spoiler Notice: House of X and Powers of X
Wakanda or Galt’s Gulch?
For those of you who don’t keep up with Marvel films, Wakanda is a fictional African nation that avoided colonization through secrecy and advanced technology. Most of its history features isolationism, but not without good reason. The European empires were a clear and present danger to Wakanda, so the country’s decision to remain isolated from the world is understandable, if not automatically correct.
By comparison, Galt’s Gulch* is from the objectivist Atlas Shrugged, and it’s the city founded by rich people when they flee from the unwashed masses. Not only were those dirty peasants ungrateful for all the things rich people did for them, but the stinking poors kept trying to enslave their rightful masters by making them pay taxes. How horrid! Clearly, the only option was for the entire upper class to form their own society.
Whether House of X works for you will largely depend on if you see the mutant nation of Krakoa to be more like Wakanda or Galt’s Gulch. Is it a nation that must make the difficult choice of isolating itself in order to survive,* or is it a collection of privileged people who are tired of breathing the same air as the rest of us? Of course, House of X tells us it’s the former, but what does it really show us?
In case it’s not obvious, I’m hardly unbiased here. To my eyes, Krakoa is nothing more than Galt’s Gulch with superstrength and mind reading thrown into the mix. And it’s not just because Wakanda is populated by Black people, who are marginalized in real life, whereas most mutants we see are white. It’s baked into Krakoa’s very DNA along with those superpowered mutant genes. But I don’t expect you to just take my word for it. It’s time to examine exactly why the X-Men don’t work as a parallel for marginalization and oppression, no matter how much Marvel desperately wants to use them that way.
Mutants Are Way Too Strong
In my previous post about oppressed mages, I explained that the first problem with the trope is that mages are hard to oppress, on account of them having supernatural powers and all. There are other problems in the few stories that manage to get past this obstacle, but House of X is not one of those stories. Not even close.
The mutants are so much more powerful than their human adversaries that it’s almost comical. The only way the mutants face any opposition at all is because they use the worst tactics imaginable. For example, early in the comic, Xavier and Magneto find out that the anti-mutant organization Orchis is trying to activate a powerful factory in orbit of the sun.* They find this out from their network of telepaths, so that’s already a major advantage. If the factory comes online, Orchis will use it to produce an army of killer robots to attack Krakoa. It might even result in the creation of a villain named Nimrod,* who the mutants know is a threat to them because they can also see the future.
The mutants quickly put together a team to destroy the factory. It contains some heavy hitters like Cyclops, Wolverine, and Nightcrawler, but they also bring along a mutant whose only power is to fly and a mutant who’s great at infiltrating. Neither of those is going to be much use in a pitched battle aboard an enclosed space station. They notably don’t bring Magneto, whose magnet powers could have ended this whole mission in minutes. The mutants then choose not to destroy the factory from space. Instead, they get close to boarding range so the guards can shoot at them with guns. Supposedly, this is so they can kill fewer humans, but it’s unclear how they thought unleashing Wolverine in close combat would result in a lower body count.
We then find out that the mutants’ various powers now include the ability to resurrect anyone who dies. They can even use this process to duplicate living mutants if they want to. If you’re keeping score, we’ve already seen that the mutants have unparalleled information gathering, can completely dominate their human enemies in battle, and can easily replace any casualties. Oh, and they can also teleport to nearly anywhere in the world using Krakoa’s various portal-gates. Plus several mutants have mind-control abilities. This is before we even get into the thousands of other mutants living on Krakoa and whatever powers they have.
Mutants Can Use Tech Too
The closest House of X comes to explaining how the seemingly all-powerful mutants might be oppressed by regular humans is through the use of technology. Orchis already has access to Sentinels, and one of their goals is to create even more powerful robots and AI with which to crush the pesky mutants. And while it is technically possible that a powerful enough robot army could defeat Krakoa’s mutants, no ever seems to consider that mutants could build a robot army too.
This is a basic failure common to oppressed mages stories. Storytellers assume that supernatural characters would be less likely to use technology, but that doesn’t hold up. A gun is just as useful to someone who can fly or teleport. In fact, the mutants would probably be better at making Sentinels than Orchis. In just this comic, there’s a mutant whose power is being really good at building machines. His name is Forge, and while it’s not clear if he considers himself part of Krakoa, he does build part of their resurrection machine for them, so he’d probably help if they asked.
Even without Forge, we know many mutants are incredibly rich. They could use that money to finance the creation of their own Sentinel army. That would put the mutants on an even footing with their enemies, and the mutants would still have their powers to fall back on. Who do you think wins in a fight: a robot army led by normal humans, or a robot army led by psychics who can teleport?
Of course, not all the rich mutants would want to make their own armies, but that still leaves plenty of soft options at their disposal. Xavier is able to produce a slew of miracle drugs overnight, which he uses as leverage to make other countries recognize Krakoa as a sovereign nation. While that’s exactly what I’d expect someone in Xavier’s position to do, it raises the question of why he never thought to do this before. Even without the idea of an independent mutant nation, Xavier could be using his vast resources to hire PR firms, back pro-mutant candidates, and lobby the mutant cause in the halls of power.
Being a Mutant Is Awesome
Once we get past the questions of money and superpowers, we have to examine the root cause of why House of X thinks mutants would be oppressed so badly that they need their own country where no humans are allowed. This comic goes beyond the general “humans fear what’s different” and gives us a more specific reason: within a few decades, mutants will outnumber regular humans on Earth.
The explanation for why is super confusing, but we’ll accept it for now. This is eerily similar to the white supremacist “Great Replacement” idea,* except in House of X’s world, it’s a reality. Normally, taking a hate group’s fantasy and making it real in your story would be pretty problematic, but that doesn’t even matter in House of X, because the idea of humans being replaced doesn’t work.
In order for mutants to replace humans, they would need to be different groups. But they aren’t. Mutants are clearly also human; they just have some special abilities. Most mutants don’t even look any different from baseline humans. So really, House of X is telling us that within a few decades, the majority of humans will have superpowers. It’s really difficult to imagine anyone getting riled up over that. Might as well have a comic about how Olympic athletes are having too many babies and within a few generations, most of the population will be capable of competing in international sporting events.
To be completely fair, I’ve heard that in recent years, Marvel has actually added mutants whose genes don’t manifest as a superpower but as a useless mutation. This would be similar to the Wild Cards concept of aces and jokers. In that setting, aces are mutants with actual superpowers, while jokers only have a visible difference like green skin, extra toes, red eyes, etc. Some characters are a mix of both.
In that context, it would be more believable for humans to irrationally fear an increase in the mutant population, though then we’d be back at the problem of making the Great Replacement real. However, the concept of jokers doesn’t make it into House of X. All the mutants we see or hear about have superpowers. A few of them like Beast and Toad also look different, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone who doesn’t get a major advantage from their x-gene.
Humans Are Envious and Ungrateful
Until now, we’ve looked at issues that are common to all oppressed mage stories. But House of X goes even further, and this is where Krakoa really starts to feel like Galt’s Gulch. You see, the problem with humans isn’t just that they hate mutants – it’s that they don’t appreciate mutants enough.
This first comes up when Xavier goes to visit Namor the Submariner.* Namor declines the invitation to join Krakoa, but he does grace Xavier with a speech about how humans are just the worst because they’re so jealous of all the superpowers mutants have. This is a strange choice considering that earlier we were supposed to believe that humans were freaked out by the idea that their children might have superpowers soon, but that’s what we’re told.
It’s always possible Namor is supposed to be wrong – he is sometimes a villain after all – but Xavier doesn’t make any attempt to correct him. Later, when Xavier announces Krakoa to the world, he makes a point of how ungrateful humans are for all the times the X-Men saved them from various threats. Never mind that at least some of those threats came from other mutants.
The idea of humans being envious of and ungrateful to their betters sounds like it was ripped directly from Atlas Shrugged. How dare those dirty humans not appreciate everything we’ve done for them, the freeloaders? Next, they’ll be demanding universal health care! This further degrades the idea that Krakoa is some triumph by a marginalized group seeking justice.
Somehow, it gets even worse. Later in the comic, we flash forward to the far future. In this section, we’re told that the final triumph of humans over mutants comes when humans discover how to grant themselves superpowers through genetic engineering. It really does come down to humans wanting the powers that mutants have. I don’t know how we’re supposed to square this with the idea of humans being scared that they’ll get superpowers from the increasing number of x-genes, but here we are.
Mutants Are Not a Distinct Culture
Mutants may not actually be a good parallel for marginalized groups, but that doesn’t mean they don’t try to act like one. In House of X, we’re introduced to the concept of “mutant names,” which coincidentally happen to also be the character’s superhero/villain names. Don’t call her Emma Frost, that’s her human name! It’s White Queen, thank you very much.
This is clearly “inspired” by the way people of color sometimes choose a name for themselves that honors their heritage. This is a complicated subject, but the short version is that for a long time, white people have forced names on those they subjugated, particularly Black slaves and Native Americans. This was a way of severing people from their cultures, to dehumanize them, to force greater assimilation, or all of the above.
Most of the characters in House of X have nothing akin to that kind of history. They were born to human families and were part of human culture. There is no older mutant culture from which they were cut off. This could get hazy around the subject of Genosha, a nation with an extremely complicated backstory where mutants were used as a parallel for apartheid, but it’s a moot point, as none of the major characters seem to be from Genosha as far as I can tell.
When the mostly white Krakoans talk about “mutant names” and getting in touch with their culture, they sound like privileged posers pretending to be oppressed for the thrill of it. Using the language of actual marginalized causes in a fictional setting is always risky, but at the very least, storytellers should try to make sure that language fits their scenario.
Krakoa Appears Super Evil
If you came to House of X with no previous knowledge of the X-Men, you would almost certainly think the Krakoan mutants are supposed to be villains. The island seems more cult than nation-state, including a ritual where newly resurrected mutants need to stand naked in front of a crowd and go through a formal recognition process. Did I mention the naked mutants are also covered in goop from the resurrection process? Also, Krakoa doesn’t have prisons because those are unjust. Instead they put criminals inside a magic tree for indefinite solitary confinement, so that’s nice.*
More important for our purposes is how the mutants interact with humans. Namely, mutants rule and humans drool. Every interaction between the two is full of references to how mutants are the new gods now and humans better be grateful they aren’t destroyed immediately. Magneto explicitly says that humans should have wiped mutants out “when they had the chance,” and no one bothers to correct him. Krakoa’s ruling council is full of super villains and mass murderers, which Xavier justifies by saying the island needs to be for all mutants.
The only way to view Krakoa as anything other than a new stronghold for evil is to completely buy into the idea that mutants are an oppressed minority. That way, their god complex and obvious loathing of humans can be chalked up to the frustrations of a marginalized group that can finally say what they’re feeling without fear of reprisal. Adding super villains to the Krakoan government is also more acceptable in this scenario, as we can imagine they need the likes of Apocalypse and Mr. Sinister to defend themselves against their human neighbors.
But there are two problems with viewing Krakoa through this lens. First, it’s really hard to see the mutants as an oppressed minority, what with all their superpowers and endless resources. If you can get past that, you reach the second problem: it’s not great to portray oppressed groups as eager to become the oppressors.
Like the Great Replacement, this narrative is common among actual bigots, particularly white supremacists. They have this idea that if we privileged people ever take our boots off marginalized people’s necks, soon we’ll be the ones suffering from oppression. This idea isn’t true, but that doesn’t matter to the people that believe in it. They’re convinced that all of human interaction is a zero-sum game where their group is either the conquered or the conquerors, and validating their worldview isn’t a great look.
Of course, this is still early days for Krakoa. Maybe in future comics, things will settle down and we’ll find out all the talk of being new gods didn’t amount to anything. Or maybe the more ethical mutants will realize that their new country is founded on the concept of superpowered supremacy and do something about it. All I can say is that in this comic, Krakoa’s status as both a home for a downtrodden minority and also a rising threat to humanity is sending seriously mixed messages.
Is it possible for mutants to ditch their oppressed-mage baggage and function as the oppression parallel that Marvel so desperately wants? Probably, but they’d have to go through some major changes. The story would have to focus on mutants who either have no superpower at all or whose power at least comes with a major drawback. Then it would have to acknowledge the difference between these mutants and characters like Magneto and Xavier, whose power affords them a ridiculous amount of privilege. Marvel would also have to think hard about the messages it’s sending when it portrays the Great Replacement theory as real. Until then, we can expect to keep seeing comparisons between the X-Men and real-life bigotry like white supremacy and objectivism. That’s just what happens when you add mages to an oppression metaphor and expect everything to work out the same.
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