X-Men, ‘Legion’ and Black History Month

  • In this Aug. 28, 1963, file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, addresses marchers during his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. AP Photo

For the Bulletin
Thursday, February 16, 2017

As we continue through Black History Month, former comic editor L.A. Williams and “(H)afrocentric” illustrator Ronald R. Nelson chat about how one of Marvel Comics’ most beloved brands, the X-Men, has its roots in the philosophies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. — and how that applies to the new Marvel show, “Legion.”

L.A. Williams: Even if you see a Beastie Boys, Eminem, or El-P video without many black people on the screen, if you understand music history, you know the aforementioned white rappers’ careers were shaped by the black creation of hip-hop.

Similarly, when the TV series “Legion” debuted last week during Black History Month 2017 without many black actors on the show, if you understand black history, you know “Legion” was shaped by the African-American struggles for rights.

“Legion” is a “spin off” of Marvel Comics’ X-Men. Before launching the comic, the X-Men’s creators had nearly eight years of seeing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stirring America’s consciousness as a national and international news-generating leader. In 1963, the same year King headlined the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the X-Men comic debuted. Eventually their popularity grew enough to make them one of comic’s top sellers, prompting a Saturday morning cartoon show in 1992 and live action movies soon after (well before characters like Spider-Man and Wonder Woman appeared in theaters) and now, “Legion.”

Ronald R. Nelson: The X-Men are a team of mutant heroes. Mutants are a subspecies of humans born with superhuman abilities. Some look like average humans while others’ mutant abilities are so dominant, it affects their outward appearance.

LAW: Mutants represent minorities and undergo most of the struggles in fiction that minorities undergo in reality, including schisms among mutants.

Most conflicts in comics aren’t complicated. Daredevil’s Kingpin is greedy. Batman’s Joker is homicidally insane. Captain America’s Red Skull is a Nazi. But in the X-Men's case, their primary antagonist is a mutant called Magneto and, while his actions are generally depicted as ranging from slightly to very flawed, his thinking is rarely shown as illogical.

Modeled after Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, Magneto’s view is that the majority is unalterably hateful and envious and will never accept the minority. They will exploit and eventually exterminate minorities. So minorities must either completely separate from the majority or seize power and rule the majority.

The X-Men are led by Professor Charles Xavier. He represents the belief that hope, faith, righteousness and patience are eventually rewarded. He believes people are generally good but fear what they don't understand, perceive as different, and feel threatened by. His solution? Show the majority how much they have in common with the minority. If mutants are (at worst) non-threatening or (at best) heroic and philanthropic, majority fear and ignorance will subside and there can be peace and unity; i.e., Xavier and his X-Men have a more Martin Luther King Jr.-like approach.

Professor William H. Foster III cites the 1982 X-Men graphic novel, “God Loves, Man Kills,” as one of the best examples of the differing philosophies of Xavier and Magneto and says “The parallels to the struggle for Civil Rights by African-Americans is not accidental.”

Now, if you only want to know the absolute minimum when you watch the new “Legion” series on FX or online, be advised it’s an intense psychological and paranormal thriller for mature audiences. Further reading of this article regarding what we know from the comics may contain some TV series spoilers or reveals.

RRN: While the ideologies of both Professor X and Magneto are clear, Legion’s — the character the new TV show is based on — isn’t.

Legion first appeared in comics in 1985 as David Charles Haller, and in the comics, Xavier is his father. David is an Omega-level mutant (the most powerful level) who suffers from multiple personality disorder and is believed to have more than 1,000 different personalities. Each personality manifests a different power while simultaneously fighting to take control of his body. Some of the individual abilities that each personality can generate are time-travel, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, reality-warping and telepathy. Since we don't know when Legion’s original personality is present, we don't know his real ideology.

LAW: While the African-American Civil Rights Movement shaped the creation of the X-Men, mutants represent any minority that can be misunderstood, stereotyped, feared, and/or exploited. That certainly applies to people with mental illnesses like Legion.

RRN: The “Legion” program reminds me of sci-fi movies like “The Matrix” where the protagonist doesn't know why there are forces against him and is discovering his innate abilities at a very slow pace until events build to a climax which forces him to identify and use said abilities. I’m an illustrator and I liked the show’s retro look. And while there are well-crafted movies and TV shows that have handled the subject of multiple personalities, I'm certain there's none where the main character has (according to the comics) over 1,000 personalities! While there's no confirmation on how many of Legion's personalities and abilities the TV series will explore, I'm very interested to see how the writers approach this subject. With the potential number of personalities, there are at least a thousand stories that can be told!

LAW: It’s got the potential to pull in folks who like the X-Men, the “Orphan Black” series, and M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” movie.

We hope this article prepared you enough to understand the X-Men and the new “Legion” series. We suspect you’ll see the influences of the Civil Right Movement throughout.

Ronald R. Nelson is the illustrator of “(H)afrocentric: The Comic,” available in stores and online via RonaldRNelson.tumblr.com. L.A. Williams is an Amherst Regional High and UMass Amherst alumnus and former comic book editor who runs AquaBabyBooks.com online bookstore.