Screen Studies - X-Women

Carolyn Cocca

Carolyn Cocca is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, Economics, and Law at the State University of New York, College at Old Westbury, USA. She is the author of Jailbait: The Politics of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States, and various articles and book chapters about gender and superheroes. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2016


Content Type:

Book chapter


Star Wars

Genres, Movements and Styles:

Action, Science Fiction, Superhero/Comic book cinema

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DOI: 10.5040/9781501316609.0009
Page Range: 121–155

Created “No Such Things as Limits”: The by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, X-Men #1 and its team of teenage “mutants” with special powers hit the newsstands in 1963. It was not much of a hit, unlike its “Silver Age” sister publications at Marvel Comics: Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, and Avengers. While the seeds of X-Men’s future success were sown in that original version, its low sales resulted in its cancellation in 1970. The title’s relaunch in spring 1975 occurred as George Lucas was writing Star Wars, a few months before the launch of Batman Family featuring Congresswoman Barbara Gordon, and not long before Lynda Carter would come to personify Wonder Woman on television. The X-Men’s re-debut—as with Star Wars, Batman Family, and Wonder Woman—would at first have one main female character surrounded by men, just as it did in 1963.

Over time, though, the various X-Men comic series would come to be widely touted for their diversity, for their teams of forged families, and for their “mutant metaphor” that employs prejudice against mutants as a stand-in for all types of discrimination and alienation. This metaphor, imperfect as it is, has been resonant across diverse audiences. Further, it offers the notion that the outcast can find her or his own identity, strength, and community among a group of outcast “others,” who have one trait in common but perhaps not others. Male and female characters of various backgrounds have been added to the X-Men rosters such that there are at least one hundred X-Men.

Quantitatively, though, despite perceptions about the racial, ethnic, and gender diversity of the main cast over time, teams of X-Men have been dominated by white males (Darowski 2014b: 2). On the one hand, this may make the themes of non-discrimination and civil rights more palatable to some. On the other, these themes are more legible when grounded in the realities of racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination.

Qualitatively, there have been prominent female characters and characters of color in the franchise. This chapter focuses on the most popular and longest-running transmedia X-Women—Jean Grey, Storm, Kitty Pryde, Rogue, and Mystique—and the ways in which their portrayals differ over time and across media, particularly through comics stories that were then adapted for television and film. Launched to increasing sales via newsstands in the 1970s and 1980s and written by the same person (Chris Claremont) for almost seventeen years, these characters’ looks, powers, motivations, and personalities display a range of characterizations of girls and women whose centrality and diversity can provide points of entry, identification, and empathy for a wide spectrum of comic readers. Representations of the X-Women from the late 1980s to the 2000s, with new artists and writers and editors, were much different. They were strongly affected by the mutually reinforcing growth of the direct market of comics distribution to local comic shops, the narrowing of the superhero comic audience to a more homogenous group of older males, and the industry’s emphasis on “star” artists known for their hypermuscular male and hypersexualized female characters. While opposition to such portrayals made inroads in the mid-2010s comics, the X-Women’s transitions to animated series and to films have been emblematic of the underrepresentation and stereotyping of female characters in superhero media.

“Second Genesis:” The X-Women in the 1970s and 1980s

In a world that “hated and feared” them and their mutations—the X-Factor in their genetic makeup giving them special powers—the 1963 X-Men as written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby could generally “pass” as nonmutant, or, “normal.” They were all white. Scott Summers/Cyclops wore special glasses to contain his eye blasts, Warren Worthington hid his Angel wings under his clothes, brilliant Henry McCoy just seemed to be oversized and agile rather than a Beast, Bobby Drake the Iceman could change his form back and forth, and pretty redhead Jean Grey’s telekinesis and telepathy were entirely invisible dis/abilities. Their wheelchair-using leader, Professor Charles Xavier, could likewise hide his own extensive mental powers as he trained the teenagers to use theirs for good and for defense against prejudiced humans. Creator Stan Lee originally pitched the gender-neutral name “The Mutants” for the team, but was told by his superiors that the word would not be resonant enough to bring sales. His second idea, the non-gender-neutral but assumed to be inclusive “X-Men,” was approved (Darowski 2014b: 15–16). This chapter will alternately refer to the female characters under study as X-Men and X-Women.

Like depictions of Wonder Woman in the 1950s and 1960s, a time of emphasis on binary gender roles and on female inferiority and domesticity, lone female Jean Grey conformed to traditional stereotypes of women. She tended to faint when she overtaxed herself by using her powers (as did her contemporary Susan Storm in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four). She cooked (1964, #6), acted as nurse to injured teammates (1965, #13), redesigned the team’s new individualized uniforms (1967, #39), and went undercover as a model (1968, #46–48). Just about all of the male characters seemed to flirt with her and/or have feelings for her from the first issue, including her much-older mentor Xavier, and her at-first-unspoken love for teammate Scott Summers would come to define her character for years. Her telepathic abilities were at first somewhat blocked by Xavier because he assumed she could not control them. Each of these elements highlighted her femininity and the traits assumed to go along with that femininity—fashion-oriented, positioned in relation to men, assumed to be unable to control her power.

At the same time, though, it was clear that Jean was, or had the potential to be, the strongest of the team. Xavier did eventually unblock her telepathic powers and teach her how to use them. She was the only one on the team whom Xavier trusted with information about an upcoming alien invasion, and with the knowledge that he had not in fact died while the others thought that he had (1968–70, #41–65). But this incarnation of the series was canceled. It would be relaunched shortly due to a top-down corporate idea on how Marvel comics might increase their profits.

Marvel’s then-editor-in-chief Roy Thomas says that given declining domestic sales, “the idea of a revived ‘international’ X-Men was my idea in 1974, after the company’s president, Al Landau, suggested that it would be good to create a group of heroes from different countries we sold comic[s] to” (Darowski 2014a: 39). The narrative premise was that the original team of five was captured and required rescue, so Professor Xavier would recruit new members from around the world. Thomas stepped down as editor-in-chief not long after, and initial writer Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum’s new characters did not really represent the countries to which Landau referred.

The new international cast would bring diversity to the franchise: Ororo Munroe/Storm, from Kenya; Logan/Wolverine, from Canada; Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler, from Germany; Piotr Rasputin/Colossus, from the Soviet Union; Sean Cassidy/Banshee, from Ireland; Shiro Yoshida/Sunfire, from Japan; and John Proudstar/Thunderbird, from an Apache reservation in Arizona. Because these last two left the team immediately (one through choice, the other through death), and Scott Summers/Cyclops from the old team joined the new team, the new X-Men remained mostly male, white, and unmarked by their mutations. Even Nightcrawler, who was blue, could use an “image inducer” to appear as he chose, and he often chose Errol Flynn. In some ways, Storm’s status as the only black character in an environment in which her race is rarely called out puts her in the camp of “white heroes in black face” who “have little or no reference to a sustaining black family, a viable black community, continuity within black history or black culture, and the character is represented as black in color only while operating in an all-white cultural context or world view” (Ghee 2013: 232).

In other ways, Storm’s blackness being unmentioned was groundbreaking, standing in for hope for a “postracial” future society in which such categories are immaterial. This black woman, in 1975, is a core member and sometimes leader of a team of superheroes. Under writer Chris Claremont, who would helm the series and its first spin-offs for the next sixteen years to come, the new team was grounded in noting its differences from “mainstream” American society. This was happening elsewhere in comics at the time through such characters as Sam Wilson/Falcon, Luke Cage/Power Man, Misty Knight, Colleen Wing, and John Stewart/Green Lantern, as well as through new storylines that were more socially relevant and engaged with civil rights movements of the times (Fawaz 2011: 355–56). Claremont and artist Dave Cockrum, as well as later artists John Byrne, Paul Smith, John Romita, Jr., and Barry Windsor-Smith (all white males), presented “radical identities and radical bodies.” Together, the African American female leader Storm, the muscular and gentle Russian-accented Colossus, the animalistic short and hairy Wolverine, and the blue and staunchly Catholic Nightcrawler were a “punkish evolution from the milquetoast first class, and a rebellious rejection to conformity. To read an X-Men comic after 1975 was to read about empowerment through otherness” (Wheeler 2014a).

A few early letter writers specifically praised the “international” and “multi-ethnic” nature of the new cast; others focused on race and gender. Such letters are generally chosen by the editors and sometimes by the writers, and those chosen and the editorial responses to them may also serve to shore up or defend a creative team’s vision (see, e.g., Pustz 1999, McAllister, Sewell, and Gordon 2001, Gordon 2012). Claremont has said that each issue netted about 100–150 letters which he indeed read, and described his approach to them as, “If they liked it, that’s wonderful, if they don’t like it, why don’t they like it, tell me why, and I try to take that and use it and find a way to tell the story better” (MIT 2009). One fan wrote,

I thought it highly unlikely that all the “good” mutants were Caucasians. . . . An international and interracial team is a great step forward. As a young black woman, I am particularly interested in Ororo. I wonder how Chris [Claremont] will handle her relationship with a group of white males. . . . I hope Chris avoids the cliché of domineering and super-strong black women. (Marilyn Brogdon, #103)

Others were concerned the comic wasn’t feminist enough: “By far the most dynamic member of the new X-Men is the sensational Storm. . . . I’m all in favor of your continuing to put this powerful lady in a more dominant position.” This same letter writer also criticized the treatment of another female character, Lorna Dane/Polaris, whom he felt was written as too dependent on her male partner. He went so far as to ask if the writer “had ever heard of the women’s movement?” (Daniel Raskio, #99). Editor Marv Wolfman responded,

Claremont has indeed heard of the women’s movement and he believes in many of their goals. But where in their manifesto does it say that a woman cannot feel complete or fulfilled by being with a man she loves. . . . Isn’t that the ultimate goal of all these People Liberation movements: to give every person—regardless of race, creed, or sex—the right to be whatever he or she wants to be, and not play a role imposed on them by the society around them?

The new creative team on X-Men apparently saw itself as grounded in civil rights movements of the time and sought to cultivate a similar readership.

Over time, the new characters and the soon-to-be-introduced Kitty Pryde and Rogue (among others) would forge alliances grounded at first in the shared nature of their mutant outsider status. Later, these bonds would deepen into friendships, family ties, and romantic relationships as well. Not unlike Wonder Woman, Batgirl and Birds of Prey, and Star Wars, the stories are strongest when they have more than one woman, and when they focused on the characters’ love, compassion, and care as enmeshed with their heroism. The characters do disagree, but clearly support and love one another in a variety of ordinary and extraordinary situations. Indeed, many letter writers note the friendships and noncompetitiveness of the female characters in particular as strong points. One wrote, “This seems to be the only Marvel comic that is free of sexual stereotype or bias. The women do not act like men. They are not aggressively, or defensively, feminist. They are not sex objects, or cowards, or perpetual hostages. Instead, you have made them individuals, and I heartily approve” (Elizabeth Holden, #136). The main female characters are characterized in the comics as powerful, smart, and independent albeit imperfect agents who, each in her own way, is feminist and queer. Each is also somewhat bound by stereotypes of gender, race, sexuality, and class.

Storm and Jean: The sisterhood of the Wind-Rider and the Phoenix

Ororo Munroe/Storm is not only the first female team leader in superhero comics, but also the first black team leader (Darowski 2014b: 78). She was born in the United States to a Kenyan witch-priestess-princess mother and an African American photojournalist father, and grew up in Egypt. Professor Xavier finds her in midair, with her hair swirling around her and over her breasts, her only clothing a flowing loincloth, “She soars aloft like an ebon bird. . . . She is happy here—only truly happy here among the elements” (Len Wein and Dave Cockrum 1975, Giant Size X-Men #1). She is a beautiful, powerful, black African woman using her powers to end drought in Kenya, unbound by Western norms of clothing. The scene becomes unnerving when the white male American Xavier disabuses her of the notion that she is a goddess and informs her that she is a mutant who should leave her cause and her country to help his cause in his country: “I offer you a world—and people who may fear you, hate you—but who need you nonetheless.” She is presented as exotic, but also conforms to Anglo-European “ideal” beauty in a combination both rare and associated with whites: blue eyes and a thin nose; long, full, straight white hair which can be read as platinum blonde; a small waist and hourglassed figure (see Patton 2006). Stromberg notes that in black-and-white reproduction one might not recognize the character as “black” (2003: 171). Indeed, in the large black-and-white reprint series called “Marvel Essentials,” this is the case.

While Storm is the first major black superheroine, she and those to come such as Vixen, Pantha, and the Black Panther Shuri are “explicitly associated with exoticized notions of Africa, nature, noble savagery and a variety of dark continent themes” (Brown 2013: 134; see also Fawaz 2011: 371). Her emotional control is closely linked to her weather control. If she’s upset, the weather gets more extreme. This positions her as yet another female for whom both emotion and power control are issues. Likewise, her body is accentuated by her costume, designed by Xavier, which is like a cross between a one piece bathing suit and a bikini, a cape, and thigh-high boots with holes cut out across the top. To be fair, Colossus’ costume, unusual for a male character, is very similar in shape to Storm’s and shows a similar amount of skin. But his form emphasizes his musculature while hers emphasizes her curves. The serial nature and long-term run of X-Men comics has allowed for Storm’s character to be individualized and made complex, but her introduction is highly stereotyped. Her gender and race are highlighted, and would be more accentuated on covers than in the interior panels.

Storm does not, however, suffer from many of the “recurring formulas” applied to black superheroes: “weak emulation of Blaxploitation film formula, names that proclaim race as identity, costumes that disguise it, and conceptual ties to established white heroes calculated to achieve the legitimacy of second best” (Svitavsky 2013: 154). She doesn’t embody other common stereotypes of black women, such as the asexual caretaking mammy, the hypersexualized jezebel, the emasculating Sapphire, or other variants of angry (and/or sassy) black woman (Gray 1975; hooks 1992; Tyree 2013; West 2008). True, her costume was taken from a design by artist Dave Cockrum for a discarded superhero idea of a black woman named the Black Cat who wore a bell around her neck and could indeed turn into a cat. That idea relied much more on stereotypical animalistic notions of black women and their sexuality, not uncommon with other female superheroes such as Vixen and Pantha mentioned above. But here, the Black Cat costume was merged with another discarded idea of a male character who could manipulate the weather, named Typhoon (Claremont et al. 2013). Storm’s power set, in other words, was not originally conceived as “female.”

The centrality of Storm’s character and the high visibility of her race and gender challenge notions of who can be a superhero. The white male Scott refers to the black female Storm as his equal (#154), an idea no doubt still uncomfortable for many readers in the early 1980s, but welcome to many others as well. The two are shown as supportive of one another, and not infrequently hugging, even as they are something of rivals for leadership of the team. Somewhat similar to Wonder Woman, Storm’s particular variety of character traits constructs her as a figure of aspiration for those totally unlike her in terms of demographics, who could admire her for a number of reasons while recognizing her difference (see, e.g., Brown 2013, Stuller 2010, Inness 1998, Gibson 2015). The character provides a point of representation and identification not only to women and girls (particularly women and girls of color), but also to others who feel or are forced to feel marginalized due to gender, race, sexuality, etc.

Storm and Jean Grey’s close friendship challenges racial boundaries as well. Shortly after Storm’s arrival, original X-Man Jean returned, this time with much more power—the power of the “Phoenix Force.” Despite their outward differences, the two characters become very close. Jean volunteers to pilot a space shuttle back to earth while keeping the others safe from deadly radiation that will kill her. All of the men try to talk her out of it by berating her, making her feel worse. Upon Jean’s request (“Not you too, Ororo, I couldn’t bear it”), Storm says merely, “May the gods protect you” as the two cry and hug, and Jean thanks her (Claremont and Cockrum 1976, #100). When the shuttle crash-lands in water and Jean does not immediately emerge, the team assumes that she has given her life to save them. But then, she flies up out of the water, “Hear me, X-Men! No longer am I the woman you knew! I am fire! And life incarnate! Now and forever—I am PHOENIX!” (Claremont and Cockrum 1976, #101). At the time it seemed an interstellar force had merged with Jean, or had possessed her in some way.

But even the Phoenix Force is not all-powerful, as Jean discovers. She needs her friends to save the universe. A scene similar to that in issue #100 encapsulates both characters:

Jean:  I don’t have the strength!
Storm:  You need an anchor in this cosmic maelstrom, Jean. I will be that anchor.
Jean:  No, Storm, the “anchor” you offer is your life force!
Storm:  It is my life to give my friend.

Storm holds out her brown hand and Jean takes it with her white one. The hands dominate the panel (Claremont and John Byrne 1977, #108). With the love of Storm and the other X-Men, with teamwork across demographic “boundaries,” worlds are saved. This type of power-sharing and support, common in this era of X-Men, subverts a more stereotypically “masculine” lone-wolf style of heroism and is similar to that in some Wonder Woman comics, in Birds of Prey, in some Star Wars novels, and in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (see Chapter 5), in particular.

Jean is again the focus of perhaps the most beloved X-Men story, Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s “Dark Phoenix Saga” (1980, #129–38). The combination of her merging with/possession by the Phoenix Force and her manipulation by telepathic villains causes her to lose control and alternately fight against and revel in her newfound power. Her struggle for emotional control can be read as grounded in stereotypical femininity and intimately tied to her sexual awakening, through her revealing villain-influenced dress and through her finally consummating her relationship with Scott Summers/Cyclops (#132).[2] It is not until a 2010s comic series (Avengers vs. X-Men) that men possessed by the Phoenix Force become similarly corrupted by its absolute power, removing gender as a variable.[3] Jean’s love for Scott and her friends help her to fight against it, but she commits genocide by eating a star and thereby wipes out the lives of millions. Here the “mutant metaphor” for civil rights struggles does not work well. Socially marginalized and discriminated against groups may feel “threatening” to those in power, but their real-life “threat” does not tend to involve the power to wipe out a planet in one stroke. Scott pleads with Jean, “You can’t kill us because you love us and we love you” (#136). All of the X-Men stand with her as she is put on trial for her crimes. Storm laments that Jean is “beloved sister [she] never had and the X-Men her family” (#137). Jean wants them to kill her but they won’t, so after professing her love for Scott, she makes the decision again to sacrifice herself to save the universe from her power. Unlike the last time she did this, in 1976–77s “Phoenix Saga,” this time she does not come back to life within the story arc.

Jean’s death was mandated by Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, who felt Jean’s genocide required consequences. Editor Jim Salicrup and artist John Byrne did not want the character to die because they thought of her as possessed and therefore not at fault. Writer Chris Claremont wrote and Byrne drew a draft in which Jean got depowered like so many female characters before and after her. He had planned for a future issue in which Magneto would kidnap Jean and offer her the power of the Phoenix, which she would refuse and thus “prove her own heroism.” Phoenix: The Untold Story from April 1984 contains the first draft of the story (as well as a conversation about it between the four men noted above), in which the X-Men lose the battle and Jean undergoes a “psychic lobotomy” to “excise those parts of her brain which relate to her mutant abilities.” Wolverine protests. Cyclops allows it. The process occurs and Jean collapses. But this version wasn’t published. Jean’s death at the end of the published story was dictated from the top-down by Shooter.

The number of letters received for issue #137 was, according to the creators, more than for any other issue. A few full letter columns were devoted to “Dark Phoenix.” Some letters had poetry, some said the issue made them cry, and a few said “thank you.” Some echoed concerns that had been voiced about twenty issues previous, when after Jean/Phoenix saved the universe, her powers seemed to be curtailed. Fan Brenda Robnett had written (in #117),

I was SO EXCITED by the creation of Phoenix. At long last a POWERFUL super hero and a woman at that! . . . Her magnificent powers saved the entire universe! . . . And then it started. The gradual deterioration of Phoenix’s power . . . . Why can’t Marvel have at least one super heroine worthy of the name??? . . . They are what you make them.

The editors asked readers for their responses to this letter. Some agreed with it and some did not. Editor Roger Stern responded to all of them, “Would we have chopped Phoenix’s powers if she was a man. . . . The answer is yes!” A letter writer similarly accused the “Dark Phoenix” authors,

I bet if Phoenix had been a man, you guys would have wrote in the story that he was emotionally strong enough to control his power. However, since Jean was a woman, you guys killed her off! Dr. Don Blake didn’t become mad with power when he became Thor, so I don’t see why Jean couldn’t handle her power boost! (April Curry, #139)

Granted, these fans did not know of “the untold story.” But their sensitivity to the stereotype of female characters being depowered or characterized as more emotional and weaker than male characters is not unwarranted. Overall, most letter writers were passionately positive about the story, showing how invested they had become in the character of Jean.

As the first writer (and later editor) after the 1975 relaunch Len Wein recounted this pivotal moment in X-Men publication history, “The circulation of X-Men #137 tripled. . . . Suddenly, the X-Men went from a solid mid-level title to the bestselling title in the line, outstripping even such stalwarts as Spider-Man” (2006: 4–5). Available figures bear out these assertions. In 1980, before the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” the number of single issues sold through “dealers, carriers, street vendors, and counter sales” nearest to the company’s date of filing this paperwork was 163,000 (#131). Months after the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” in 1981, the number was 274,000 (#156); by 1983, it was 337,000 (#182); by 1985, 445,000 (#205). These figures do not include the burgeoning direct market sales, which were probably about 10–15 percent of these figures at the time in the mid-1980s.[4] To be clear, X-Men’s sales increased via the first type of distribution method for comics: newsstands that were accessible to a wide range of people. The high sales generally allowed creators leeway in plotting and characterization. Claremont introduced new characters and for the most part, expanded upon and pushed the limits of the X-Men’s “otherness.” His two female editors during this time period, first Louise Simonson and then Ann Nocenti (who was also editing Star Wars), were both influential in and supportive of the writer and his strong female characters.

Storm and Kitty, Mystique and Rogue: Queer families, fluid sexuality, and team leadership

In short order, Storm would lead the team and two new and long-running female characters would join, Kitty and Rogue. A new female villain would become similarly prominent and popular as well, Mystique. The team at this point was more or less balanced in terms of gender, a subversive rarity then and still in the 2010s. A letter writer comments on Storm’s new leadership role, as well as on the creative team’s approach to its female characters, “Storm is the logical candidate for team leader, partly because she’s the coolest and brightest X-Man left . . . but mostly because of your history of feminism” (Dr. Phillip Kott, #143). Storm’s leadership role, as noted, made her the first African American team leader and the first female team leader (and by extension, the first African American female team leader) in comics. Her only peer on the team is the white male Wolverine and she does not hesitate to pull rank on him: “I am leader of the X-Men. While that is so you will use your claws as I command. No other time.” When he responds, “I wouldn’t take that from Cyclops,” she counters, “You will take it from me.” He gives in, “All right, Storm” (Claremont and Byrne 1981, #142). Years later, Scott returns and fights her for leadership. Wolverine merely says, “My money’s on the lady” (Claremont and Rick Leonardi 1986, #201). Even though she has no powers at that time, Storm still defeats him and her role as leader is cemented.

Storm’s lack of a close female friend in this time period shifts her role more to that of a mother. One of the strengths of the X-Men universe is in its queer families: its diverse characters who are not related through a “traditional” and nuclear patriarchal structure, but rather, who choose each other as family based on mutual love and support. Storm refers to Nightcrawler and Colossus as her little brothers, and her matriarchy extends when they recruit Kitty Pryde, a petite Jewish brunette teen who can make herself intangible to “phase” through solid objects. Many letter writers praised the new character, particularly her awkwardness, ordinariness, innocence, intelligence, passion, and spunk. To one of them, writer Chris Claremont responded, “You were one of the many—heck, why be modest—the multitude of fans who applauded the debut of Ms. Katherine “Kitty” Pryde of Deerfield, IL. [Artist John Byrne] and I figured we were creating a pretty nifty character, but we never counted on the incredible—completely favorable—response she generated. Whew!!” (#135). Her coloring and body type are much closer to the contemporaneous Princess Leia than that of any of the adult superwomen, such that she “extends the field of what powerful superheroines look and act like” (Galvan 2014: 47). She was a precursor to the younger and more petite Batgirl and Buffy the Vampire Slayer of the 1990s–2000s (see Chapters 2 and 5). Her frequent costume changes are a source of comic relief and underscore her youth. When Xavier tries to put her on a team (the New Mutants) with those closer to her age, a full-page panel of Kitty points at the reader yelling, “Professor Xavier is a jerk!” (Claremont and Paul Smith 1983, #168). Her bravery, passion, and cunning in the face of danger puts her on an equal footing with the other X-Men and Xavier relents, in a move applauded by multiple letter writers.

Kitty, as a young, headstrong, but physically unthreatening female character is often used by Claremont (and later writers) to state subtext in a seemingly “innocent” way. At their first conversation, Kitty says, “We got black kids in my school, Ororo, but none of them look like you. I mean, you know, white hair an’ blue eyes??” Storm smiles, “So far as I know Kitty, I am one of a kind” (Claremont and Byrne 1980, #129). This not only establishes Kitty’s curiosity and bluntness, but also calls attention to Storm’s appearance, reminding us that a dark-skinned, Anglo-European-featured black woman leads the generally white X-Men. Another set of panels calls attention to Storm’s race as well, in the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” At this time, Storm’s nose is generally drawn to appear thin, similar to Jean’s, with two smudged dots rather close together just above her lips. Her long straight hair flows down around her cape. But when Jean, manipulated by others, sees the world as it was in the eighteenth century, she sees Storm as her “slave”: Storm’s nose is wider, with more of a horizontal wavy line for nostrils and some definition on the sides. Her hair is bound in a scarf and her neck and shoulders are exposed rather than caped. The differences are clear in John Byrne (penciler) and Terry Austin (inker)’s adjacent panels (1980, #133). The change in features could conform to some readers’ associations with blackness, or could confront them. Here, too, the “mutant metaphor” as an analogue to other civil rights concerns cannot cover the ways in which intersectional discrimination occurs: Storm is perceived by Jean much differently from three white males, even though all four are mutants.

Race comes up directly in the dialogue, again with Kitty, in 1982’s graphic novel, God Loves Man Kills by Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson. Kitty is immediately and unreservedly close not only to Storm but also to her dance teacher Stevie Hunter, again displaying skin color as no barrier to the relationships. Stevie, who is dark-skinned and has her hair in small cornrows, chides Kitty for having punched a kid who called her a “mutie-lover.” The furious Kitty responds, “Suppose he’d called me a nigger-lover, Stevie?! Would you be so damn tolerant then?!!” The question positions mutation as a civil rights issue akin to that of the struggle against racial discrimination, although as noted the parallels are not perfect. Indeed, Kitty not infrequently speechifies about discrimination, often using blacks and Jews as examples.[5] She dresses down the anti-mutant crusader in God Loves Man Kills who points at blue, tailed Nightcrawler and asks, “You dare call that thing human?!” Kitty responds, praising the mutant around whom she herself initially felt uncomfortable due to his appearance, “More human than you! Nightcrawler’s generous and kind and decent! . . . I hope I can be half the person he is, and if I have to choose between caring for my friend and believing in your god, then I choose my friend!” She is almost shot for these words, but saved by a policeman. Claremont has been clear that this story was grounded in 1980s backlash, much of it constructed as “Christian” and “heartland,” to the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s (Claremont et al. 2011). The story plays out, more directly than most X-Men stories, the clash between tolerance and intolerance and the costs of the latter.

The “mutant metaphor” was resonant with readers. One wrote,

I am a gay white male . . . the mutant-hatred that is becoming so prevalent in the Marvel Universe has existed in our own world in various guises. . . . To say that I identified is extreme understatement. I’m sure that . . . a black, an Italian American or Asian-American could have read the same thing and had the same reaction. . . . The issues you deal with in your stories are important ones. (name withheld, #214)

Another wrote about Nightcrawler,

Because my hands and feet are mis-shaped and I wear an artificial limb I can no more pass for “normal” than Kurt. . . . Like Kurt, and sometimes with or through him, I discover that it truly is better to be a whole “me” than “normal.” . . . He’s a terrific reminder of the ultimate truth [that] “freaks” and “normals” share at heart one common human experience. . . . There aren’t too many characters—in books, comics, movies, or elsewhere—that us real-life “misfits” can look onto to form or celebrate positive images of ourselves. . . . Thank you [for] your terrific example that different can be good—excellent, in fact! (Carolyn Amos, #149)

Editor Louise Simonson responded, “If ever we at Marvel . . . need a reason for doing what we do . . . this letter is it.” Rising sales, coupled with a supportive editor, allowed the creative team to keep doing what they were doing.

The story “Days of Future Past” (Claremont and Byrne 1981, #141–42)[6] also plays out the mutant metaphor, and like the “Phoenix Saga,” the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” and God Loves Man Kills would be adapted to film. The future Kitty is sent back in time into her present self in order to prevent an assassination of a political figure that results in a dystopian future. Her older self is married to Colossus and working with Storm, Wolverine, and the heretofore unseen Rachel Summers in a fascistic future brought about by humans’ fear of (and politicians’ capitalization on the fear of) mutants. “In [Kitty’s] hands lies the fate of mutantkind, of humanity, of the earth itself. Failure is unthinkable, yet success may well be impossible, for she seeks to change history” (#141).[7] This story also introduces the blue shapeshifter Mystique who leads the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, consisting of her female partner Destiny as well as male mutants Pyro, Avalanche, and the Blob. They square off against the Storm-led X-Men, with Kitty pushing Destiny’s bullet off course such that the assassination is averted. The female characters are the leaders and the stars of this story, as is true of the two Phoenix story arcs. When the four stories mentioned above were adapted into the 2000s–10s X-Men films, in each case, the centrality and nuance of the all of the female characters as written in the late 1970s-early 1980s—notable in comparison to all of the other superwomen discussed thus far from the same time period—would be lost.

Mystique is like Storm in a number of ways. Both are team leaders, both are nonwhite although Mystique can appear with any skin tone and features she chooses, both are queer mother figures, and both have been written and read as interested in male as well as female partners. Mystique’s long-term partner in the comics is Destiny, a precognitive and blind mutant also known as Irene Adler, the nemesis of Sherlock Holmes. It is made clear that the two together adopt future X-Man Rogue as a young girl and raise her. Rogue refers to them later as “my mothers” (Marjorie Liu and Mike Perkins 2012, Astonishing X-Men #51). Destiny describes Mystique as, “my dearest friend [whom] I have loved from the moment we’ve met” (Claremont and Marc Silvestri 1989, Uncanny X-Men #254). But she was not Mystique’s only partner and Rogue was not Mystique’s only child. At one point she was married to a man and had an affair with a male demon, and the X-Man Nightcrawler was the result. This is hinted at early on when he first sees her and says, “Your skin—your eyes . . . we are so alike!” (Claremont and Byrne 1981, #142). Given that Mystique is a shape shifter who can and has taken on female and male forms, longtime X-Men writer Chris Claremont had plans to make her Nightcrawler’s father and Destiny his mother, but this did not happen due to his leaving the title (Byrne 2005). Still, in the comics “she is a transgressive character, a villain/woman/lesbian/mother/shapeshifter who destabilizes the binary oppositions of the superhero universe” (Murray 2011: 59).

Unlike Storm, Mystique’s mothering is usually portrayed as suspect, intertwining her transgressiveness with her “bad” parenting. She apparently threw Nightcrawler over a waterfall to save herself (and, perhaps, him) from fearful and angry townspeople. And although she clearly loves Rogue, she groomed her to be ruthless and villainous and cannot accept that Rogue leaves her and goes to the X-Men. Rogue does so mainly because she feels she is losing her mind, having absorbed Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel’s powers and some of her personality as well (Claremont and Michael Golden 1981, Avengers Annual #10, discussed in more detail in Chapter 6). The experience was “a physical and psychic trauma that scarred both women” that left Carol for dead and Rogue feeling “crazy” (Claremont and Cockrum 1982, #158). These first glimpses of Rogue show her with angry eyebrows along with white-streaked, short, sharp hair. She initially fights the X-Men, but goes to them for help when she feels Carol’s personality is taking over her own, “Ah tried t’make Mystique understand . . . . Ah love her, Professor—she’s been like a mom to me—but ah knew she was wrong. . . . You’re my only hope” (Claremont and Walt Simonson 1983, #171). None of the X-Men trust Rogue. Carol, who had been with the X-Men for a short time, punches her into outer space and leaves angrily. But Xavier is willing to give Rogue a chance. In short order, she proves herself by saving Wolverine’s fiancée and Storm, thinking “Too bad you ain’t awake t’ see this rescue, Storm. If ah was the evil mutant you still believe me t’ be, ah’d’a let you go splat all over the floor” (Claremont, Smith, and John Romita Jr. 1983, #175). She becomes a mainstay of the book, as do Mystique’s not infrequent and usually misguided attempts to win back Rogue’s primary loyalty. By this point drawn by Walt Simonson (husband of editor Louise Simonson), Paul Smith, and John Romita Jr. as a hero, the angles of Rogue’s facial features and her hair are softer. She looks younger and friendlier. By the 1990s, she will be a fan favorite, drawn with huge hair and an ultra-curvy body.

While Mystique’s gender fluidity is quite literal, as she is a shape shifter who can take on the form of any human, Storm’s can be read through her dress and relationships and behaviors. Storm’s romantic life is multifaceted and complicated in the comics. The first time she really seems to be taken with someone is with female Japanese ronin Yukio. Fans have certainly read into the relationship between Storm and Yukio since the 1980s, with some asserting their meeting merely inspired Storm to change her style, others saying that Storm admires Yukio in a kind of romantic friendship, and still others assuming that they are engaged in a loving and/or sexual relationship (see, e.g., Wheeler 2014a, Edidin and Stokes 2015). The Storm who met Yukio was already somewhat different from when she joined the team. The level-headed and duty-bound leader had begun to question her vow never to kill, particularly when the X-Men’s lives were at stake, and she had begun to find it more difficult to hold her emotions in check to keep her powers under control. She not only ruminated on her changing feelings but also began to change her behavior. Fans were as concerned as the comic’s characters, but interested as well, “What’s this? Ororo stabbing [mutant Morlock leader Callisto] in the heart? . . . Kudos” (Philip Cohen, #178). Storm thinks:

I feel as though I stand at a crossroads. To remain an X-Man—especially as leader—I must sacrifice the beliefs that give my life meaning. Yet the alternative means leaving those I love, forever. . . . And Xavier told me, the day we met, that my powers should be used for the benefit of all humanity. Was I wrong to listen? Can I deny that responsibility? . . . Whatever I choose, I will no longer be the woman I was—but what will I become? Ororo or Storm, which is it to be? (Claremont and Simonson 1983, #171)

It would be both, as Storm allows herself to change outwardly and inwardly, in ways that make her a more strategic and hardnosed leader, while also allowing herself to feel her own emotions more than in the past.

Storm’s transformation from elemental goddess to mohawk leather punk is one of the queerest stories ever told in comics, because it’s a story about liberating oneself from other people’s expectations and finding a greater strength through letting go. . . . Though the character’s bisexuality has never been more than hinted at, it’s clear that Storm’s relationship with the female ronin Yukio was the trigger for her awakening. (Wheeler 2014a)

Following Yukio, with her short punk hair, willingness to use force, and zest for life, Storm at first says, “I envy you your madness, Yukio. It is a luxury denied me ever since my powers first appeared. My safety, and that of those around me, requires an inner serenity . . . I have lately lost” (Claremont and Smith 1983, #172). Later, she gives in, “This madness of yours has infected me—I welcome it!” In a combination of Yukio and Callisto’s clothes and hairstyles, the “new” Storm appears. Proposed as a joke by artist Paul Smith as a way to restyle Storm’s hair after she had lost some of it in the story, and approved by editor Louise Simonson, Storm wore her hair in a Mohawk, with a collar necklace, bicep bracelet, tank top and sleeveless vest, and tight black pants and boots (Cronin 2011; Claremont and Smith 1983, #173). Kitty is upset, fearing a change in her mother figure. Wolverine thinks, “Storm’s change is more’n cosmetic. She’s wilder, tougher. Walkin’ mine and Yukio’s road. Wish I could be sure that’s right for her” (Claremont, Michael Golden and Bret Blevins 1983, Annual #7). Four years later, when the team members are tricked into having dreams of their heart’s desires, Storm’s dream is of a smiling Yukio, “I never knew how to laugh before I met Yukio. In many ways, I have never been as happy since. I want to join her.” But she defers to her duty to lead the X-Men, as usual (Claremont and Alan Davis 1987, Annual #11).

The editor framed the initial letter column about Storm’s changes in her voice: “I am Storm, leader of the X-Men. As many of you noted in the many letters received, I am not the woman I was. Whether my metamorphosis is for good or ill remains to be seen.” Mostly, they were positive: “She’s awesome! Leather pants! Mohawk! Eye makeup! She’s great! . . . I love it!” (Anthony Rosso, #182). Another letter writer felt rather differently, “Why is pretty-nice Storm in an ugly punker suit?!? It looks UUUGGGLLLY!!!” (Sean Gonsalves, #182). “Storm” (editor Ann Nocenti) responded,

Perhaps, Sean, because I was never as “pretty-nice” as you would like to believe. I cannot live my life as a mirror, reflecting images of how others see me and pretending that these are my real selves. I must be what I am. I must discover who—what—I am. And live with that. It may not be pleasant. It may not be what others would prefer me to be, but at least it will be the truth.

Others split the difference: “Just wanted to register my vote of approval for the change in Ororo. It shocks me still, and I don’t particularly like it, but I think it’s a necessary step in the evolution of the character” (Rand Lee, #189).

Storm also has a fraught romantic relationship with disabled Native American male mutant Forge, who is able to conceive of and mold complex machinery with ease. He develops a weapon for the government to neutralize mutants’ powers, to be used on the formerly villainous Rogue. Storm, however, bears the brunt of its blast to protect Rogue and loses her powers. Her depowerment remains the state of affairs for almost forty issues (1984–88, #185–227), not unlike Wonder Woman from 1968 to 1972, or, some might argue, Barbara Gordon from 1988 to 2011. As noted, this is a trope that affects female superheroes more often and for longer periods than male ones—a part of the recurrent storytelling device called “women in refrigerators.” Forge nurses Storm back to health and helps her deal with the loss of her powers, calling attention to his own disabilities. She realizes she no longer has to fear her emotions’ effects on the weather, and they fall in love . . . until she finds out it is he who created the depowering weapon. The duology “Lifedeath” I and II finds Storm saddened by her loss of “oneness with the world,” and emerging stronger yet again, “Is this the mountain I was meant to climb, the purpose—the destiny I have so long sought? A bridge, not simply between old ways and new, but races as well—between humanity and its mutant children!” (Claremont and Barry Windsor-Smith 1985, #198). Artist Barry Windsor-Smith’s expressive, detailed, active Storm is not posed in an objectified manner; she is not sexualized even when she is nude or barely dressed. It is this depowered but powerful Storm, rejecting Forge because she cannot forgive him although she still loves him, who battles Cyclops to remain leader of the X-Men and emerges victorious. “‘Lifedeath’ has to be one of the most well-crafted stories of the year and definitely the best X-Men comic to date. Jean Grey’s death does not even touch it” (Mark Gentry, #196). Most letter writers echoed his praise.

As the 1980s wound down, a number of changes took place in the X-universe. More mutants, particularly female ones, were added to the X-roster such as Betsy Braddock/Psylocke and Rachel Summers/Phoenix. Soon, Jubilation Lee/Jubilee and Alison Blaire/Dazzler would join them and Storm, Kitty, and Rogue. Indeed, Claremont has a young male character comment, “Team used to be so boss! Now they’re all a bunch of girls! They need more boy mutants!” (Claremont and Silvestri 1988, #225). Team books such as the Justice League, or Avengers, were not then and are not now nearly as close to gender parity as were the X-Men at this time. Despite the “complaint” in this panel, the title remained high-selling and popular.

Changing roles for the female characters in a Darker-Toned X-Universe

The main title, over time, would add more male mutants, and would change in style and tone. In part, this was in keeping with the darker-themed comics and graphic novels that began to take center stage in the mid-to-late 1980s, such as Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, as well as The Killing Joke (see Chapter 2). The X-Men story God Loves Man Kills from 1982 was something of a precursor to this development (Clarke 2011: 203). New mutants arrived and core team members left. The X-Men, having sacrificed themselves to save the world yet again (with Forge’s help as he and Storm reconcile and she regains her powers, as a number of letter writers hoped she would), would pretend to be dead to the rest of the world. Kitty, Rachel, and Nightcrawler would go to the spinoff series Excalibur, written by Claremont and drawn by Alan Davis. This title was more continuous with the style and tone of the early 1980s X-Men—action was intermixed with relationship drama, queer relationships (particularly, with Kitty),[8] serious moments amalgamated with comic ones, and art more similar to the X-Men from 1975 to 1985. Most of the letters across the first ten years of this title are quite complimentary, and most of the letters that talked about specific characters were about Kitty. Excalibur, like Wonder Woman and Star Wars comics in the late 1980s and early 1990s, were among the few that did not (yet) follow a trend that would only accelerate in the coming years, of increasingly violent and muscled male characters, and increasingly sexualized female characters. The cover of Excalibur #4 would comment on the trend, showing no heroes or villains but a nightwatchman sweeping up, asking presumably about his own place on the cover, “Cover? You mean with huge muscular heroic males and beautifully erotic females engaging in gratuitous violence . . .?” (Chris Claremont and Alan Davis 1988; cover by Davis and Paul Neary).

Artist Marc Silvestri began a three-year run on Uncanny X-Men. He then left to become one of the founders of Image Comics, known in the early 1990s for hypermuscular and hypersexualized characters and artist-driven titles. While his first arc, “Fall of the Mutants” (1988) is not far removed from the previous comics, the next prominent arc called “Inferno” (1988–89) would be. The relaxation of the Comics Code’s guidelines on portrayals of female characters in 1989 allowed the “Bad Girl” trend with no fear of repercussion. “Inferno” features markedly sexualized and tough versions of the female characters, as well as females typecast as weak-minded, sexualized, and out of control. Rogue is battling the split between her own and Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel’s personalities in her head. Madelyne Pryor, the Goblin Queen, is a barely dressed and violent clone of Jean Grey who tries to kill (the resurrected) Jean and then kills herself. Jean absorbs her memories and is written as having a split personality. Darowski notes that the “The Dark Phoenix [Jean] and the Goblin Queen [Madelyne] were both killed to balance the scales of justice” but when Professor Xavier became the villain known as Onslaught, he was “simply arrested” (2014b: 115). These women as well as Storm have big hair, big breasts, angry faces, supertight or revealing tattered clothing, and very arched backs accentuating their curves regardless of context. Except for one panel in which Storm finds that Jean is alive and the two women hug (1989, #242), there is little warmth or understanding within the X-family here. This arc foreshadows both the style and substance of the 1990s blockbuster and transmedia X-Men franchise.

The best-selling comic of all time, bad girls, and transitions to television in the 1990s

With X-Men specifically, the increase in sexualization and action-driven plots were intimately tied to changes in the production and distribution of comics in the early 1990s, particularly having to do with the rise of star artists and the rise of the direct market. As noted in the Introduction, in 1972, there were only a couple dozen local comic shops constituting the direct market. By 1983, there were at least 2000. By 1993, there were about 10,000 (Beerbohm 2015; Smith and Duncan 2012; Stroup 2015). “The direct market changed whom comics were sold to and, subsequently, the content standards associated with this audience. Newsstand comics were produced for a mass, undifferentiated audience. But once the direct market takes over, the principal audience for comic books becomes, primarily, the specialty storeowners making the orders, and secondarily, the specialty store consumer” (Clarke 2011: 196). Due to the growth of the direct market and of local comic shops, a new market for spin-offs and variant covers and crossover events could be cultivated catering to the more hard-core fans, the “one niche market of reader-collectors” who frequented such shops (Smith and Duncan 2012: 149). They were mostly male, white, and older, and they were buying the X-books in large numbers. The main title Uncanny X-Men and its several spin-offs, New Mutants, X-Factor, Excalibur, Alpha Flight, and Wolverine, were high sellers. The books, being purchased at even higher numbers than in the early to mid-1980s, had shifted their art style as described above and therefore the art was assumed to play a part in driving the sales.

Marvel, now under the ownership of Revlon executive Ron Perelman, figured that they could further profit from their perceived demographically similar and dedicated audience with new books drawn by emerging “star” artists, at raised prices. The original X-Men, who had been in the spinoff series X-Factor, were merged back with the current X-Men. A new title called X-Men would have half of them (females Rogue, Psylocke, and Jubilee; males Cyclops, Wolverine, Beast, Gambit). Uncanny X-Men would have the other half (females Jean and Storm; males Colossus, Iceman, Archangel, and Bishop). They would be coequal headliners of the X-franchise. Uncanny X-Men in 1989–90 was drawn mostly by Marc Silvestri as mentioned, but also by Jim Lee. Going into the 1990s, New Mutants would be renamed X-Force and would be penciled by Rob Liefeld, X-Men by Jim Lee, and Uncanny X-Men by Whilce Portacio. These four men would be four of the seven star artists who would found Image Comics in 1992.

What would come to be called their “Image House Style” or “Bad Girl” style would be copied, in hopes of also copying their sales, by many artists. At a time when “non-event” top issues sold maybe 125,000 copies per month, the initial sales of the new X-books were record-breaking. X-Force #1 (1991) sold about five million copies to shops. A few months later, the new X-Men #1 (1991) and its five different “collectible” covers became and remains the best-selling comic of all time—at least in terms of direct market sales to an overexpanded number of comics shops, which ordered over eight million copies. Only about three million of those were sold to readers and/or collectors. The rest were held back by dealers and speculators hoping to cash in on the issue. Unfortunately, in retrospect, X-Men #1 relied on “a mix of sexualized women and classic superhero adventure” such that it “is neither memorable nor rare; instead it’s more like the comics’ equivalent of a Michael Bay film—fun, attractive, sexy, bombastic, and ultimately, hollow” (Elliott and Watkins 2014: 112, 108). Longtime writer Chris Claremont left X-Men after only the first three issue arc of the new series. He said, “It was not a happy time . . . .They’re not very good issues. . . . .That book at that point was in the process of being defined by the editor [Bob Harras, who followed Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson] and the new writers and artists the way they wanted it and has been so ever since” (Andersen 2013, quoting Tue Srensen and Ulrik Kristiansen’s interview of Claremont that appeared in 1995 in seriejournalen).

Letter columns, ads, characters, and art (especially covers) reveal the ways in which the perceived audience had changed, and ways in which it was cultivated to change. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, 30–40 percent of the letters chosen for print in the main title Uncanny X-Men were from female writers. But from the late 1980s into the 2000s, those letters were almost entirely by male writers. One female letter writer would show up about once every several issues during this time. The ads changed as well, reflecting the collecting culture. Ads by large comic shops for readers to purchase back issues appeared, as well as those for football and baseball cards, video games, and statuettes of comic characters also sold in such shops. Comics began to be sold in stores selling other types of collectibles as well. Increasingly in the 1990s and into the 2000s, superhero comics niche-marketed to the assumed core audience of white heterosexual males, and the X-Men franchise was at the forefront of the trend.

The number of male characters and the number of white characters each increased during this time, by about 10 percentage points (Darowski 2014b: 137, 138). Female readers dropped off. A letter writer to Excalibur in 1995 noted, “I keep hearing about how comic companies are trying to think of ways to attract more women readers. Well, it’s capable, intelligent characters like Kitty (and Storm, and Jean Grey, and Amanda Sefton, and gee, most of the X-Women) who are going to attract and keep female readers. Hum, maybe that’s why the X-books have so many female readers?” (Elizabeth Milford, Excalibur #88). Editor Suzanne Gaffney’s response made clear the book’s focus on the male characters: “X-Women are terrific--but you’re sure hunks like Peter Rasputin, Logan, and Remy Lebeau have nothing to do with it, Elizabeth?”

Covers and panels in the 1990s are different from the comics of the 1970s and most of the 1980s as well. The late 1970s and early 1980s covers, not dissimilarly from today, did tend to focus on idealized bodies but those bodies were not unbelievably out-of-proportion. In the 1990s, the female characters on covers are impossibly long-legged, small-waisted, big-haired, and large-breasted. If facing front, they have their hips jutted out to the side. Sometimes they are in the “broke back” pose, with an arched and twisted back such that all of their curves in front and back are simultaneously visible. They are usually drawn from the side or the back, with exaggeratedly large breasts and upturned buttocks, partially closed or angrily narrowed eyes and open mouths, and posed in ways that indicated sexual receptivity, or readiness. Comics writer Christy Marx explains, “If an artist were to draw male characters with the same level of sexual receptivity, those characters would also be walking around with permanent erections” (Marx 2005: 177). But rather, the male characters of the 1990s are much more likely to be drawn facing front, hairy, angry, hugely muscled and with a stress on their physical strength and athleticism.

Many letter writers praised the new artists and their styles specifically. For instance, “Jim [Lee]’s art is the best I’ve seen and the way he draws Psylocke . . . hubba hubba” (Toby Neal, Uncanny X-Men #277). Another wrote, “Kudos to Jim Lee for that double page spread on 18 & 19. I thought Psylocke had looked good for the first couple of pages, but then I turned to these pages and all I could think of after that was the remarkable job he did on Ororo and Jean Grey. Yowza!” (Augie De Blieck, X-Men #9). The spread in question shows all of the male X-Men fully dressed, some in uniforms and some not. Psylocke is in the background in a bikini and small jacket with her hip jutted out to the side. Jean is seated, popping out of the top of a tiny strapless dress, with huge hair, and her head, waist, and each breast all about the same size. Storm is standing next to her, like Jean in a strapless dress with the same body type and hair-size, thrusting out her hip and buttocks. It is no doubt such praise that led Marvel to issue their “Swimsuit Issues” beginning in 1991, which like its Sports Illustrated namesake is full of posed women in bikinis (and a few men too). The “Swimsuit Issues” show the female characters posed in the same ways as in the concurrent comic titles, highlighting the artificiality and the lack of narrative reason for them to be posed like that in the comics.

A much smaller number of letter writers did not like aspects of the art, “Whilce [Portacio], I love the art, I have a question, though. Why does every woman have a 40 inch minimum breast size? And how can they possibly wear the clothes that they do if they really are that endowed. Other than this, I think you are redefining comic art” (Russell Johnsen, Uncanny X-Men #285). Editor Bob Harras replied, “Don’t worry Russ, assistant editor Suzanne Gaffney is ever vigilant when it comes to our X-women.” This was the same Suzanne Gaffney noted above, who would edit Excalibur and ask the reader three years later in if female fandom wasn’t based on male character “hunks.” Another writer questioned the art style on the other main title, after Andy Kubert took over penciling from Jim Lee,

[Psylocke and Storm] both seem to be ideal examples of women in the nineties—even though their costumes make them more like sex objects and less like heroes! The X-Men probably wouldn’t have made it this far if it weren’t for the female characters. I just feel that the women of the group should get more emphasis as good female role models—on abilities and personality, and less bathing suit posing. (Jane Han, X-Men #22)

As comic artist and writer Trina Robbins noted at the time,

Using a circular kind of logic, editors at the major comic companies continue to produce sex object-heroines which appeal to a male audience. Their excuse for not adding strong female characters who might appeal to women is that “women don’t read comics.” Of course, as long as female comic characters are insulting to the average woman, she won’t read comics. (1996: 166)

Male and genderqueer readers might similarly be turned off. On the one hand, such exaggeration of female bodies can draw attention to the fact that the superheroes are women. On the other, the emphasis on female sexuality undercuts that heroism (Brown 2011).

Race was addressed during this time period, albeit infrequently, by letter writers as well.

For years I’ve been wanting to see someone of my race and gender included into one of my favorite books, and after almost thirty years on the stands, it’s about time . . . . I would particularly like to thank Mr. Portacio for giving Bishop his distinctly African facial features. Too often, black comic book characters have European features and are just colored brown. (Kristopher Mosby, Uncanny X-Men #285)

Another felt the same artist was doing exactly that, with Storm,

Dear Mr. Portacio . . . [you are] robbing Storm of any and all ethnic identity . . . the way she is drawn is not a black woman at all, but a white woman with brown skin . . . . Those images only reinforce the lie that American society tells in order to create unrealistic standards that few people could ever hope to achieve. (Bea McNeal, Uncanny X-Men #289)

Editor Harras noted that Storm from her creation was “a unique looking black character. Her features have always been set as unusual: white hair and blue eyes . . . . But if we offended you in any way Bea—we apologize, because, believe us, such was not our intent.” He doesn’t address one of the points of these two letters: that most black characters, Storm included, have rather Anglo-European features. Several letter writers thought that Storm and Bishop were being put together as a couple, or should be. Whether this was how they read the dialogue and art or whether they presumed such due to the characters’ similar skin tones is not clear.

Marvel sought to capitalize on the franchise in other ways as well. X-Men: The Animated Series debuted in October 1992 on the Fox Network and ran for seventy-six episodes on Saturday mornings with high ratings.[9] The following year, Marvel licensed the movie rights for the characters to Fox. The animated series probably helped keep the sales of the various X-books relatively high through the mid-1990s, as well as providing comic readers a new medium for their fandom: “X-Men fans were surprised by the respect for the source material provided by the writers and artists working behind the scenes, who were themselves comics professionals and/or fans” (Skir 2005: 20). The core cast of the new cartoon was Storm, Jean, Rogue, Jubilee, Cyclops, Wolverine, Beast, and Gambit—an equal number of males and females, led by the male Professor Xavier. Their look matched that of the contemporaneous main titles, with uniforms as redesigned by artist Jim Lee. Storm, for instance, wore neither her original black bathing suit and cape nor her Mohawked hair with a vest and pants, but rather a full-coverage white catsuit with white cape and huge white hair.

Changes made to the female characters from comics to television had both negative and positive effects. The animated series versions of the male characters were not as hypermuscular as the comics, nor were the (still curvy) female characters as hypersexualized, due to the assumptions of a younger and more diverse target audience for cartoons. Broadcast standards and practices played a role as well, not only in clothing but also in language. For instance, the word “kill” could not be used on Saturday mornings. However, in terms of leadership and of power, the female characters are diminished in the animated series as compared to the comics. Storm does not lead the X-Men, and most of her lines have her narrating how she is using her powers. Teen Jubilee veers more toward annoying than spunky. Jean is sometimes weaker, even fainting as in her 1960s “Marvel Girl” days, and is often positioned as a love object between Cyclops and Wolverine. Indeed, the writer for one of the episodes that stressed this triangle remembers, “This is an element for which I personally lobbied and which was introduced in [the episode] ‘Captive Hearts’. It was based on two panels from the Byrne/Claremont era wherein Wolverine lamented first the apparent death of Jean after a battle with Magneto and later her actual demise after the Dark Phoenix Saga” (Skir 2005: 23). Some of these elements would remain in the films of the 2000s. A number of the episodes in the animated series portrayed some of the “classic” stories noted above, such as the “Phoenix Saga,” the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” and “Days of Future Past” (as would the later films) as well as original stories and current comic arcs such as the 1995 “Age of Apocalypse,” albeit somewhat differently.

Figure 4.1 Rogue, realizing the villainous Mystique is her adoptive mother, allows her to escape without punishment (X-Men: The Animated Series, “Days of Future Past, Part 2,” S01E12, 1993).

The move from comics to television also impacted the representation of X-Women in terms of their numbers and their key storylines. Quantitatively, women were underrepresented in key roles. Qualitatively, the characters of Jean and Rogue generally benefited. For instance, in the “Days of Future Past” comic story (Claremont and Byrne 1981, #141–42), the main character who travels back in time and into a younger version of herself, in order to prevent a political assassination by Mystique that caused a dystopian future, is Kitty. She is sent back by Rachel. The climactic battle sequence takes place between the X-Men, led by Storm, and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, led by Mystique. Mystique’s female partner, Destiny, fires the key gunshot but it misses its target due to Kitty’s intervention. All of the key roles are played by women. In the corresponding animated series episodes (Julia Lane Lewald, Robert Skir, and Marty Isenberg 1993, S01E11–12), though, the main character who travels back in time is Bishop, as noted a male mutant of color. He is sent back by Forge, also a male mutant of color. White male Cyclops, rather than Storm, leads the X-Men. Mystique leads the Brotherhood, is fought by Cajun male mutant Gambit, and is allowed to escape by Rogue upon Rogue’s realization that Mystique is her adoptive mother. Neither Kitty nor Destiny appears at all. Still a leader, Mystique is no longer portrayed with a female life partner. Storm is no longer portrayed as a leader. Such moves would occur at an even higher rate in the later Hollywood films. While some welcome diversity in terms of race, national origin, and disability is added in with the roles played by Bishop and Forge, these characters simply replaced female characters.

With the animated “Phoenix” and “Dark Phoenix” stories, the changes were smaller but significant for the character of Jean. In the animated “Phoenix” saga, Wolverine replaces Storm—who is not present—in wishing Jean luck in piloting the shuttle back to earth and sacrificing herself. Jean emerges from the water declaring that she is Phoenix, as in the comics. The Phoenix is clearly a separate entity from Jean in the cartoon, speaking through her and speaking of her in the third person (Mark Edward Edens and Michael Edens 1994, S03E29–33). This disentangles Jean’s gender and her sexual awakening with the Phoenix’s lust for killing. Second, while in the comics “Dark Phoenix” saga Jean commits genocide, in the animated series she does not. As Dark Phoenix, she still consumes a star, but there are no people around to suffer the consequences. Together, Xavier and Jean “bind” the power of the Phoenix, with him commenting that “the strength of her mind is truly awesome.” As in the comics, Jean tells Scott she loves him and sacrifices herself for fear the Phoenix cannot be controlled. But then in the cartoon, the Phoenix takes a little bit of life force from each of her friends and resurrects her (Jan Strnad, Steven Levi, Larry Parr, and Brooks Wachtel 1994, S03E37–40). All of this has the effect of reinforcing the familial bonds of the team, as well as rehabilitating and strengthening the character of Jean.

Figure 4.2 Together (clockwise from left), Professor Xavier, Storm, Cyclops, Wolverine, Rogue, Beast, and Gambit give some of their “life force” to Jean Grey, center, in her old Marvel Girl uniform (X-Men: The Animated Series, “The Dark Phoenix Saga, Part 4,” S03E17, 1995).

Rogue generally fares well in the animated series, but one episode streamlines her past in ways that erase some of what made her character so distinctive. “A Rogue’s Tale” (Robert Skir and Marty Isenberg 1994, S02E22) begins with Rogue having strange visions. Apparently, Xavier blocked Rogue’s past out of her mind, such that she doesn’t know that Mystique was her adoptive mother, nor why she is having visions of herself (reluctantly) absorbing Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel’s powers. Rogue discovers all of this, then accuses Mystique of using her as a mere weapon, ending with “I ain’t your daughter.” Jean enters Rogue’s mind and sees Rogue and Ms. Marvel as two separate entities, and Rogue puts “Ms. Marvel” in a cage in her mind. Rogue then visits the actual comatose Carol in the hospital and touches her face, seemingly bringing her out of her coma. While these changes probably served to cement Rogue as a beloved central character, it deprives Mystique of nuance and erases Destiny such that Rogue’s adoptive family is no longer queer, it deprives Mystique and Rogue’s relationship of its complexity, and it deprives Rogue of her chosen journey from villain to hero (1982–83, #158–71).

Rogue’s journey and her character engendered very positive fan letters beginning in the late 1980s. Indeed, love for Rogue was a mainstay of the letter columns through the 1990s, with many citing her as their favorite character. For instance, “Things I like . . . Rogue going from the least trusted to one of the core members of the group” (Tom Quinn, Uncanny X-Men #230). Many letters expressed sadness for her plight of being unable to touch, and happiness at her burgeoning relationship with Gambit (although a few wanted her to be with a clone of Magneto, Joseph, instead). As noted, by this point the authorship and content of the letters had changed quite a bit. When once the letters were split between male and female writers, now they were almost all male. Also, when once the letters were split between rhapsodic love and occasional hate for characters and their relationships, now they centered mostly on plot points and on art. Sometimes there were questions about male characters such as Magneto, Xavier, Bishop, and Sabretooth, and only rarely was there mention of female characters other than Rogue. Rogue’s sexualization and her inability to touch the men in her life, coupled with her brashness and sweetness, was a potent combination for 1990s comic readers. She was a mainstay of the animated series, which may have boosted her comic popularity as well.

Anecdotally, it appears that some X-Men comics fans came to the title through the animated series. Several letters in the mid- to late-1990s comics attest to this, such as, “When I first watched the cartoon, I was so happy that such a fantastic cartoon had finally come to Singapore. And then I started to collect X-Men comics” (Jill Chia, X-Men #44), and “I’ve been watching the X-Men cartoon series for almost three years now, but didn’t really get into the comic books til last April, and now I’m hooked” (Amy Dayton, X-Men #58). That these two letters were from female readers made them outliers in the universe of printed letters at this time. These fans may have been within the target group for the animated series, but not for the comics which were still pitched toward the male, older, white demographic observed in comic shops.

In the late 1990s and into the 2000s, the art style of sexualized females and muscular males remained. There were twice as many male characters as female characters, and most of the characters were white (Darowski 2014b: 137–38). This artist-driven era would see more action-oriented plots and crossover events. A few letter writers noted that the feeling of family and character development in general seemed to be lacking. One asserted that it had been so “for about a hundred issues” (Darrell Walker, Uncanny X-Men #309). Such decisions were mutually reinforcing with the audience of readers frequenting local comic shops and thus still being marketed to by comics producers. The core female characters were cycling in and out of main teams. Jean and Scott were famously and finally married upon Jean’s proposal to him, a move that elicited (according to the editors) “a ton” of positive letters from fans. They quit the X-Men, then returned, and Scott was “killed.” Excalibur disbanded, and Kitty returned to and then left the X-Men. Rogue briefly led the field team, but had to step down due to her inability to control her powers (not unusual for female characters). She and Storm became “X-Treme X-Men” in a separate title of that name. Then she was depowered for a time (also not unusual for female characters) and could touch people. More new characters were introduced, some spinoff titles were canceled and new ones begun, such as the alternate-universe continuity-free Ultimate X-Men which initially outsold Uncanny X-Men.

The speculative bubbles of the early 1990s burst. The 10,000 comic shops of 1993 would decrease to about 4,000 by 1996 and about 2,300 by 2002 (Duncan and Smith 2009: 77; Gabilliet 2010: 152). X-books were still among the top ten sellers in the direct market in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but a smaller number of books selling a smaller number of copies. Marvel filed for bankruptcy in 1996, due in part to an internal power struggle and in part to having expanded too much before the crash.

X-Men fandom would be sustained in the 2000s through the narrowed audience for the comics who would support star writers’ turns on the titles, through bookstore sales of trade paperbacks collecting comics issues, and also through the (re-)expansion of the potential audience through Hollywood films that differently characterized the X-Women. The female X-Men in the comics are smart, powerful, kind, independent, and nuanced. But in the films, these characters are more contained and domesticated, with their main plot points positioning them as adjuncts to white, male, heterosexual characters and their development.

The 2000s: New and Astonishing X-Men, and transitions to film

The first five core X-Men films both conform to and exacerbate the gendered and raced lopsidedness of American-produced films in general: X-Men (2000), X2: X-Men United (2003), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X-Men: First Class (2011), and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014).[10] Due to the 1993 agreement between Marvel and Fox, the latter has film rights to the characters. Three of the five films have some basis in six specific comic arcs. In each of these six arcs, the main characters and/or heroes of the stories are women: namely, Kitty, Rogue, Mystique, Jean, and Storm. The corresponding films, however, center both quantitatively and qualitatively on three male, white characters: Wolverine, Xavier, and Magneto. And one female character, Mystique, is nude without any apparent narrative justification. No film need be totally bound by its source material, but when the thrust of adaptation is the same five times—diverse female characters replaced by, or shunted aside by, white male ones—in an era in which we are perhaps more aware than ever of the inequalities of representation in various media, this should give us pause.

The first film, X-Men (David Hayter, Tom DeSanto, and Bryan Singer 2000) stars Scott, Jean, Logan, and Storm. They are wearing black leather uniforms rather than varying colors of spandex, in stark contrast (especially for the female characters) to their comic counterparts. This change would be mirrored in the 2001–04 comics, retitled New X-Men under writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely. They would retain the core characters Scott, Jean, Logan, and Hank/Beast, while adding scantily clad and possibly reformed villain Emma Frost as well as a host of new students. There are no female friendships to speak of in this book. One typical exchange between “good girl” Jean and “bad girl” Emma has the former ask, “What makes you such a bitch, Emma?” and the latter reply, “Breeding, darling.” These two main female characters in this comic series, very different from one another in personality and dress and both compelling, are positioned in a love triangle with Scott such that their relationships to him foster their negative interactions with each other. Jean in the films is positioned in a triangle as well, between Scott and Wolverine such that they argue over her as if she is a prize. This latter triangle, as noted, existed in only “two panels” in the comics in the 1980s, was expanded in the animated series in the 1990s (Skir 2005: 23), and then was amplified in the films. The TV and film Wolverine is much less respectful of the Jean/Scott relationship, and Jean seems more uncertain about her choice to be with Scott. Most of Jean’s scenes in the film are with Logan, Scott, or both.

There are elements of Jean’s characterizations in the films that undermine historic stereotypes of women and the lack of female characters in high-powered occupations. For instance, Jean is introduced on film as a doctor, and seems to have taken on some research and medical work performed in the comics by Hank McCoy/Beast. She testifies before Congress about mutant registration, she contributes to giving the viewer some exposition along with Professor X, and she uses her telepathic and telekinetic powers. Yet Jean’s powers in the films grow, as in the comics, to seemingly unstable levels. In the second film X2: X-Men United (Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, David Hayter, Bryan Singer, and Zak Penn 2003), both Scott and Logan comment that Jean’s power has increased, which worries them. Later, she tells Scott “something’s wrong” as her eyes look fiery. By the end of the film, she looks fiery all over. In the movie’s climax, a dam breaks and the X-Men’s plane is in danger, so she sacrifices herself to hold back the water and lift the plane, as she seemingly disintegrates in the water. This is similar to the comic’s and animated series’ “Phoenix Saga.” In the film, Scott and Logan cry and hug, and Kurt prays. Professor X tells them that they have to respect that “she made a choice.” She is the hero, although one could also argue that her sacrifice was meant to further the development of male characters here more than her own.

The Last Stand (Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn 2006) undercuts Jean’s heroism.[11] It seems at first to parallel the comics’ and animated series’ “Dark Phoenix Saga,” in which she is possessed by the Phoenix and is manipulated by villains, pushing her toward increasing instability and violence. In both of these media, the X-Men stand with her, she professes her love for Scott, and kills herself to save the universe. The film, by contrast, has Professor X explain that the Phoenix is a dark part of Jean’s own “dual personality,” “a beast” that is “all desire and joy and rage,” which he has worked to suppress since he met her as a child. The Jean of the last two films, it seems, was tightly controlled by Xavier, for which Logan berates him. But once she breaks those controls, she kills Scott and asks Logan to kill her but backpedals because she likes the way she is feeling. She then destroys her parents’ house, kills Professor X, and joins Magneto against the X-Men. As Zingsheim says, “The narrative offers Jean space to explore and advance in her powers. [Yet] rather than suggesting the empowerment of femininities, this exploration demonstrates the risk of unsupervised sexual feminine subjects” (2011: 234). At the end, Logan endures extreme physical pain to approach Jean and tell her he is willing to die “not for them” but for her. She asks him again to kill her, saying “Save me.” He tells her he loves her, and kills her. This Jean Grey is not the agent of her own sacrifice, and she is not concerned about saving the world, but rather, herself. Further, her role and her agency in the previous two films are undermined, because this film tells us that Xavier has been controlling her powers and her personality for years (as in the 1960s comics). Logan rather than Jean takes center stage. The comic arc for which Jean is best known, in which she fights against an evil force possessing her in order to save her friends and everyone else, is turned on its head to become yet another stereotypical tale about how women are irrationally, destructively emotional and must be controlled by men.

Figure 4.3 X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)’s adaptation of the Dark Phoenix Saga foregrounds Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and stereotypes Jean (Famke Janssen). By contrast, the animated series’ “Dark Phoenix Saga” in Figure 4.2 emphasizes the X-Men family and Jean’s heroism.

Kitty and Rogue in the films are not dissimilar from Jean. On the one hand, they embody the kind of determination, physical strength, and care for others typical of a superhero. But they too are positioned in a love triangle, so the viewer tends to evaluate them on the basis of their heteronormative relationships rather than as individuals. Rogue is Mystique (and Destiny)’s sassy and headstrong adoptive daughter in the comics, who leaves behind a life of villainy to join the X-Men. In all media, she is haunted by the destructive power of her touch. In an episode of the animated series from 1993 (“The Cure” [S01E09] by Mark Edward Edens) and a comic issue from 1998 (Uncanny X-Men #359 by Stephen Seagle, Joe Kelly, Chris Bachalo, and Ryan Benjamin), she so longs to be able to touch freely that she strongly considers the mutant “cure.” In the animated version, Wolverine and Storm both dismiss the idea of mutants becoming “normal.” But Rogue approaches a doctor (Mystique in disguise), saying, “I don’t want to live my whole life without knowing what it’s like to touch another human being.” Later, though, after using her powers to save Jean, she tells the doctor, “There ain’t no cure for who you are. I am my powers and the good they can do, for my friends and the whole world. I reckon maybe I can live with that after all.” In the comic, the narration reads, “She’s led a life of lonely isolation, denying herself life’s most basic joys. But having kissed the love of her life [Gambit] . . . having convinced herself to give mouth-to-mouth to her fallen teammate Joseph [a clone of Magneto] . . . she knows how good it felt to touch. And God help her, she wants more.” In this version too, Mystique tries to talk her out of it with reference to the mutant metaphor: “How could my own child come to be so filled with self-hatred as to try and change what she is? . . . If someone had invented a ray in the midst of the civil rights movement to turn black skin white, would you have championed its use as well?” Rogue tells her it is not the same thing, and seems to move forward with her plan. But thinking of how such a machine might be used on mutants against their will, she destroys the “cure” machine.

The films focus not on Rogue’s transition to heroism, nor her triumph in her struggle to deal with her inability to touch loved ones, nor her self-sacrifice. Rather, her prominence decreases over the course of the films as her arc increasingly centers on her insecurities about her boyfriend, such that she seeks out and obtains, rather than refusing, the “cure” as she had in the animated series and in the comics. In part, she feels pushed to do this through the love triangle between Rogue, her boyfriend Bobby Drake/Iceman—that is, not Gambit, a relationship that comics and animated series fans had praised for years—and Kitty Pryde. This triangle had never occurred in the main comic series. It had, however, in the parallel “Ultimate” universe of comics. These comics, launched in 2001, were meant as an entry point for new (or returning) readers and were unburdened by continuity, so the characters had numerous differences from their usual incarnations. The writer who launched the series, Mark Millar, was not an X-Men reader and was hired in part because of that. He based the Ultimate X-Men comic characters on their incarnations in the X-Men film of 2000 (Lien-Cooper 2002). As written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Brandon Peterson in 2004, “Ultimate” Bobby and Rogue are a couple; they go ice skating; Rogue is troubled by her inability to touch; Bobby kisses Kitty and Rogue sees; Rogue punches Kitty; Rogue goes off with Gambit (#46–50). The 2006 film The Last Stand filmed a scene (later deleted) with Bobby kissing Kitty while the two are ice skating, with Rogue watching. Even without the kiss, the film highlights the romantic tension between the three. Kitty and Rogue, two beloved characters and stars of the comic series in the 1980s and 1990s, are put in the same space not to be central characters who will work together heroically, but merely to become romantic rivals on opposite sides of a male character. As Madrid states, “The implication is that no matter how powerful a woman is, she needs the love of a man to complete her” (2009: 57).

Despite her prominent role in the comic stories on which the films are based, and despite her starring role in the concurrent animated series X-Men Evolution, Kitty’s presence in the films of the 2000s is greatly diminished such that she is barely on screen at all. She was the main character in three of the six comic arcs from which the films draw: Claremont and Byrne’s “Days of Future Past” (adapted into the film of the same name) in which she time travels and prevents an assassination in hopes of avoiding a dystopic future; Claremont and Anderson’s God Loves Man Kills (adapted into X2) in which she questions the humanity of those who would discriminate against mutants; and part of Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s 2004–08 run on Astonishing X-Men (adapted in part into The Last Stand) in which she opposes a mutant cure and later saves the earth through self-sacrifice. When Whedon was negotiating to write the comic, one of his demands was that he be able to use Kitty, his favorite X-character who had been out of the team for some time previous, and who was in large part his inspiration for Buffy the Vampire Slayer (see Chapter 5). It is clear that the influence went the other way as well. The portrayal of Kitty in the 2000–04 animated series, X-Men: Evolution feels quite similar to Whedon’s 1997–2003 Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Evolution producer Boyd Kirkland said, “I plead guilty to being a big Buffy fan. . . . I always thought it had many similarities to what we were trying to do with this show” (Denaill 2004).[12] Mark Millar, speaking of the concurrent Ultimate X-Men, said the comic series was “competing with Buffy” as well (Lien-Cooper 2002).

Figure 4.4 No longer the protagonist or hero of the story as in the comics’ version of “Days of Future Past,” Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) holds her hands around Wolverine (Hugh Jackman)’s head in the film version of Days of Future Past (2014).

Regardless of Buffy’s popularity at the time and the similarities between them, Kitty’s much-touted brilliance, bravery, martial arts skills, resourcefulness, talents with computers, strong female friendships, on-and-off romance with Piotr/Colossus, and her mother-daughter relationship with Storm are not part of her on-screen characterization. Neither are her initial fear of some mutants nor her teenage hotheadedness, both of which she works through in the comics. Rather, her most memorable moments involve her calling the character Juggernaut a “dickhead” after he calls her a “bitch,” and her ice skating with Bobby in The Last Stand. Rather than holding “in her hands the fate of mutantkind, of humanity, of the earth itself” as in the “Days of Future Past” comic story in which she stars, the film version has her holding her hands shakily around Wolverine’s head for a few minutes (Days of Future Past by Jane Goldman, Simon Kinberg, and Matthew Vaughn 2014).

These changes in personality and this sidelining in importance are also issues with Mystique and Storm. As noted, both in the comics are team leaders, both are mother figures, and both have been written and read as interested in male as well as female partners. While both characters take part in the films and carry weight in representing superheroic (and at some turns, villainous) women on screen for huge international audiences, both play much different roles from their comic counterparts. This conforms to the ways in which women are quantitatively underrepresented in the media, particularly as leaders and mentors, and are more often cast as supporting rather than central characters.

It is clear that neither Storm nor Mystique is a leader in any of the films. In the first one, X-Men, Storm says about twenty sentences, one of which is about how she can’t control her power with precision. This is in contrast to the second comic issue in which she appears, saying, “I have total control over my abilities” (Claremont, Wein, and Cockrum 1975, #94). In X2, Storm’s number of spoken lines is about the same. She teaches a class, ably pilots a plane, goes over a plan with the other X-Men, and plays a pivotal role in saving the day by freeing Professor X from mind control. In The Last Stand, perhaps because actor Halle Berry said that she would return “if they could give Storm a little bit more to do,” (Superhero Hype 2003), Storm does have a more prominent role. She saves Wolverine in what turns out to be a battle simulation, she takes Professor X’s place as headmistress of the School per his wishes, she pilots a plane, she fights hand-to-hand, and she uses her weather powers. She argues with Wolverine more than once, and strongly states that there’s no reason to seek “a cure” for being a mutant because “there’s nothing to cure.” However, even though Cyclops is not present, she does not assume leadership of the X-Men as in the comics. Rather, Wolverine seems to be leading the team as well as the film.

Storm is not included at all in the fourth film, First Class (Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Sheldon Turner, and Brian Singer 2011) and her presence in the fifth film, Days of Future Past, is quite limited. In the comic version of “Days of Future Past,” she leads the X-Men; in the animated series version, she is present but does not lead them; in the film version, she is basically silent cannon fodder. Worse, in the extended battle sequence in “the future” at the end of Days of Future Past, all of the nonwhite mutants outside die protecting all of the white mutants who are inside an armored room. Meanwhile, in “the past,” every mutant is white. This trope, of characters of color being the first or only characters to die across many forms of media, feels particularly uncomfortable in a series grounded in the value of diversity and the wrongheadedness of prejudice. That Storm had been such a prominent character of color for forty years in the comics, and was featured in both animated series, makes her marginalization in this film all the more problematic.

Parallel to Storm, Mystique was shown in the films to have superpowers, to be able to fight, and to be a strategic thinker, but the elements from the comics that make her particularly special are just not translated to the big screen. Mystique in the films is the leader of neither the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants nor the Freedom Force, as in the comics. Rather, Magneto is the strategist and leader. In the first three films, she is framed as Magneto’s partner in crime and romance. In the latter two, she is paired with Hank McCoy/Beast and then Magneto again. None of the films explores or even references the relationships between Mystique and Destiny, Mystique and Rogue, or Mystique and Nightcrawler. But she is also a capable, smart, and physically formidable subject.

However, both actresses who played the character were nude but for a few strategically placed scaly prosthetics, as opposed to the Mystique of the comics and the animated series, who usually wears a long, white, sleeveless dress. This cannot but position her as an object at the same time: something to look at, instead of someone to root for or identify with. The first film’s special makeup designer, Gordon Smith, described how he was told to deal with the character: “The director slamm[ed] his fist down on the table screaming, ‘I want her nude! I want her nude! I want her nude!’ ” (Metropolitan Museum of Art 2008). Perhaps because the actors could not possibly have the proportions and poses of their 1990s–2000s comics counterparts, Mystique’s nudity was a way of sexing up the film and providing a counterpoint to the others’ plain black leather uniforms. Perhaps discomfort with strong females prompted such a counter balance of exaggerated sexualization (see Brown 2004 and 2011, Cocca 2014a, Madrid 2009). In the case of Mystique, some viewers might identify with her strength, some might note that such strength coexists with posing in a sexually appealing way, and some might gaze at the female body with prurient interest and care little for the actual character; others might feel turned off and taken out of the story by the unnecessary nudity, and a last group might have all of these reactions at different points in the X-Men films (Cocca 2016).

Figure 4.5 Rebecca Romijn as Mystique, nude, in X-Men (2000). Compare to Figure 4.1, in which the animated Mystique wears the same long white dress as she does across years of comics.

In the first two movies, the nude Mystique capably carries out much of the villains’ plans single-handedly, prompting Wolverine to observe, “She’s good,” and Magneto agrees, implying they are a couple, “You have no idea.” This changes in the third film: she is “cured” when she throws herself in front of Magneto, and is then rejected by him because she is “no longer one of us . . . such a shame . . . she was so beautiful.” There is only one other glimpse of her, turning over Magneto’s location to the government because, as the white, male president notes, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Not only does she barely appear in the film, but reducing this multifaceted character to a “beautiful” woman “scorned” who would turn on another mutant underrepresents, diminishes, and stereotypes her (and to an extent, all women) at once. Like the character of Jean, Mystique is built up in the first two movies and taken down in the third.

In First Class and Days of Future Past, Mystique is de-aged, romantically interested in Hank, and positioned in the middle of the feud between Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto and Charles Xavier. Both of these men try to secure her affection and loyalty to their ideologies, and both treat her as a much younger and immature character even though the film credits state that Mystique is only two years younger than Xavier. The second of these films frames Mystique as a young, confused, emotional girl, caught between two men in a star-crossed bromance who mostly talk about her as if she is a mere object. This is in sharp contrast to the Days of Future Past comic, in which Mystique is the determined leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, who plans an assassination that is averted due to Kitty pushing Destiny’s bullet off course. One could argue that in the movie version it is she who makes the “right” choice not to carry out the assassination, and that the story is focused on her as she comes to that choice. But it is also the case that the entire film is based around four white men (Xavier, Erik, Logan, and Hank) convincing her that her assumptions and actions are wrong. Her role is central, but at the same time carries forth the historical underrepresentation and stereotyping of female characters.

In short, female characters central to the original X-Men comic arcs have repeatedly had their parts (and in one case, her clothes) diminished in the films. This includes having two characters, Storm and Mystique, who were historically written as team leaders, no longer occupying those roles and being devoid of their comic characterizations as queer mothers. It also involves having four other female characters—Mystique, Jean, Rogue, and Kitty—positioned in love triangles, thus being characterized primarily in romantic relation to males. Rather than subjects of their own destinies as main characters, the women are constructed more as objects of control and as side characters. They also conform to stereotypes of race, gender, and sexuality, as race goes unacknowledged and each white woman is presented as interested in and an object of romance with white men.

However, given that most heroic figures of fiction have been written as male, it should not be understated that these female characters demonstrate for massive audiences that power and heroism are not gendered traits that can be performed only by males. Increasingly vocal, diverse, and organized fans would pressure comics companies for more.

Conclusion: Rebooted comics, rebooted films

By the mid-to-late 2000s, the five most prominent female X-Men characters were not really in the core X-books. They would return in the 2010s. This was likely in response to the movement among groups of more diverse comics fans to push back against the hypermasculinization and hypersexualization lingering from the 1990s. Such preferences have been displayed through increased purchases of non-mainstream digital comics and trade paperbacks in bookstores, through direct contact with producers via social media, and through attendance and conversation at comics conventions. The large comics companies have increasingly sought to monetize that discontent by offering new portrayals of favorite characters as well as scaling down hyperbolic art-driven books in favor of more writer-driven ones. But they do so with caution and at the margins, not wanting to alienate their direct market fan base who had become accustomed to the status quo.

The main title, X-Men, was relaunched in 2013 with a new #1 and the first all-female team: Storm, Rogue, Jubilee, Kitty, Psylocke, and Rachel. Sales for this issue were up 400 percent not only from the previous issue but also from the previous year’s average. It also outsold the previous X-Men #1 from 2010 by tens of thousands. The 2013 book by Brian Wood (who was also writing the Leia-centric Star Wars series for Dark Horse) and several different illustrators initially suffered from stereotyping its female characters. Namely, the women disagreed with each other quite a bit while protecting a baby. Kitty and Rogue were written out of the title and new and younger characters swapped in. Jean returned in 2012’s All New X-Men by Brian Michael Bendis and Stuart Immonen, when she and the other four original teenage X-Men time traveled to the present. No longer close to being the youngest team member, “Professor” Kitty takes them under her wing. Storm is the Mohawked headmistress of the school and also starred in an eleven-issue eponymous solo title by Greg Pak and Victor Ibanez. These books centered the female characters as leaders, friends, and lovers, reminiscent of the 1970s–80s writer-driven era of the books that preceded both the artist-driven era of the 1990s and the women’s non-centrality in the films of the 2000s and 2010s. Initial reactions to all of these were quite positive and stressed the importance of characterization.[13] The stories of these two books and the Uncanny title ended in late 2015 with Uncanny X-Men #600, as Marvel launched its “All-New All-Different” initiative.

“All-New All-Different” Marvel encompassed a launch or relaunch of about seventy books, including four X-titles and two others with X-Men in them. As has been the case since 1963, except for Marjorie Liu writing twenty issues of Astonishing X-Men in 2012–13 and G. Willow Wilson writing four issues of X-Men in 2015, the main ongoing X-titles are written and drawn solely by men.[14] Such creative teams on these books as well as others, along with a demographic accounting of the characters across titles, caused some fans to tweet that rather than “All-New All-Different” the titles should be branded as virtually “All-White All-Male.” The female X-characters are highlighted, albeit mostly separated, in the relaunched titles.

The 2016 film, X-Men: Apocalypse, features Jean Grey and Storm as well as Psylocke and Jubilee, diversifying somewhat in terms of gender and race. Storm and Psylocke are two of Apocalypse’s “Four Horsemen” along with white males Angel and Magneto. Director Brian Singer (the same director who demanded that Mystique be nude in the first film) describes why he chose these four to act as members of Apocalypse’s “cult,” saying,

a cult has traditionally four factions to it . . . a political faction, and I’d always felt Magneto could fill those shoes . . . a military faction, so Archangel could fill those shoes . . . a youth faction, those that you’re trying to seduce and grow into your cult . . . [and a] sexual component because cult leaders tend to sexualize their position and have sex with half the people in their cult. (Dyce 2016)

Magneto and Angel are political and military leaders, while Storm and Psylocke’s roles are to “seduce” and “have sex” with others. The dividing line of gender in X-Men films remains a prominent one.

Longtime X-Writer Chris Claremont notes that the structure of the company has changed since he was writing X-Men stories in the 1970s, when he was “left alone” by editors and corporate management. Now, rather, “a group of creators and editors [plan out] what will happen for the next two years” and those “editors are not only caretakers of a creative arc that runs back forty-five years, but are also responsible to the management structure of a multibillion dollar corporation, Marvel and by extension Disney, to influences that didn’t exist while I was doing the series” (Comic Shenanigans 2015). Film licensee Fox is in the mix as well. As has been true since the first X-Men film, “Marvels’ plan is to maximize box-office marketing and predictability by making the central characters as commercial as possible, which may not be critically aligned with character complexity” and also has an eye toward “long-term licensing potential” (McAllister, Gordon, and Jancovich 2006: 111, 114). Their current definition of “commercial” seems to be, as it was with their previous films, tilting the X-universe quantitatively and qualitatively toward its white and male characters without taking into account that in the 2010s television shows and movies with more diverse casts are earning more at the box office and are higher in the ratings so important to advertisers (Hunt and Ramon 2015). The push and pull over the X-Women characters across decades and across media has yielded representations of them both as clever, compassionate, powerful leaders as well as domesticated, diminished, and sexualized objects of male desire.

The “mutant metaphor,” though, is quite malleable. It could easily be used on the big screen and on the small page to center the outsiders—in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, etc.—it claims to represent. This formula has sold a large number of comics on newsstands to a diverse mass audience, in local comic book shops to a more narrow one, and in digital and trade paperback form to a more diverse audience again. Fans can support diversity among creators and characters by communicating such to film producers and by using their dollars as well, as they have done in the comics sphere to varying degrees of success. The next chapter analyzes another example of outsiders with broad appeal, but one that started on the big screen and transitioned to the small screen and to comics: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and her friends.

[1] “My name is Ororo Munroe. My name is Ororo Iqadi T’Challa. I am a woman, a mutant, a thief, an X-Man, a lover, a wife, a queen. I am all these things. I am Storm, and for me, there are no such things as limits” (Christopher Yost (w) and Diogenes Neves (p) 2009, X-Men: Worlds Apart #4). Portions of this chapter appeared in Cocca 2016. Reprinted with permission.

[2] Darowski is an example of this, “to the reader at the time the Dark Phoenix was a morality tale . . . with implications that sexual awakening in women has dire consequences unless removed” (2014b: 82). Fawaz offers an alternate reading, “The Dark Phoenix Saga is better understood as a frustrated lament over the failures of left world-making and alternative kinship projects in the 1970s rather than a conservative critique of feminist politics” (2011: 387).

[3] The Phoenix splits into five parts, possessing three men and two women. Scott Summers is one, and thinks, “This is what Jean felt like” (Brian Michael Bendis and Olivier Coipel 2012, Avengers vs. X-Men #11).

[4] John Jackson Miller at Comichron computes this figure for 1986–87s Watchmen. The higher end of this percentage probably holds for Uncanny X-Men. In seven of the twelve months of Capital City distributor numbers versus postal service numbers that Miller tallies for Watchmen, an X-Men title outsold it in the direct market (with the “Mutant Massacre”-“Fall of the Mutants” era stories). He says that Watchmen #12 had orders of 34,000 through Capital City and Uncanny X-Men had about double that, so around 70,000. Postal service numbers indicate that Uncanny X-Men at that time printed about 600,000 and sold through about 400,000.

[5] See, for instance, decades apart, New Mutants #45 in 1986, All New X-Men #13 in 2013.

[6] X-Men was renamed Uncanny X-Men with issue #142.

[7] She doesn’t change history; she creates an alternate timeline. Much later in Excalibur, Rachel Summers and Kitty will end that dystopian future (“Days of Futures Yet to Come,” 1993, #67). Still later, Kitty and Piotr’s daughter in the future, Christina Pryde, stars in another sequel, the miniseries “Years of Future Past” (2015).

[8] On Kitty, see, for instance, #19 and #24’s subplot with the alien Sat Yr 9 impersonating Courtney Ross. Penciler Alan Davis said, “Although I knew Chris had some plan for Sat Yr 9 to corrupt Kitty and that the various cross-time versions of Saturnyne were attracted to Kitty, I had no idea what, if any, the goal of this relationship was to be. I just played it as a lesbian affair” (Posted January 7, 2006 at: Some fans read into Kitty and (Piotr’s sister) Illyana Rasputin/Magik’s strong bond as well, with some calling it “Katyana,” particularly because of Kitty’s ability to house and wield the weapon that manifests Illyana’s soul and magical power, the Soulsword.

[9] This was the second attempt at an animated series: the first, Pryde of the X-Men, focused on Kitty, Storm, Dazzler, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, and Cyclops, but did not get past the pilot stage.

[10] X-Men (2000) and X-Men: First Class (2011) are not closely based on specific comic stories, with both serving as origin stories for the X-Men and the latter going further afield from comic portrayals. X2: X-Men United (2003) is based on the graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills (1982), with a dash of the “Phoenix Saga” (X-Men #101–08, 1976–77). X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) is based on the “Gifted” arc (Astonishing X-Men Vol. 3 #1–6, 2004), as well as on the “Dark Phoenix Saga” (X-Men #129–38, 1980) with a little bit of “Power Play” (Uncanny X-Men #359, 1998). X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) is based on the story of the same name (X-Men #141 and Uncanny X-Men #142, 1981).

[11] For examples of negative reviews and comments, see almost 1,900 of them at: Comic Vine hosts a forum thread entitled, “Why did you hate X-Men: The Last Stand?” at and another entitled “Why does everyone hate X-Men: The Last Stand?” at See IFanboy’s podcast review and fan comments from 2006: Jason Adams’ 2014 review, “Awfully Good: X-Men: The Last Stand,” and the comments at, show that even several years later, fan ire had not cooled much. For a more academic critique, see Zingsheim 2011: 234–35.

[12] The Evolution series is not discussed at length here due to this chapter’s focus on storylines that crossed comics, television, and film.

[14] Marie Severin drew several covers of the main title in the early 1970s, Jan Duursema drew a number of issues of X-Factor in the mid-1990s, and Marguerite Bennett wrote the five-issue miniseries Years of Future Past in 2015, but they did not write or draw the interiors of the main title.