Characters so good you didn’t notice they were different. Or you just didn’t care…
Since their inception, the X-Men have been looked at as stand-ins for lesser represented groups. Stan Lee himself said he looked towards figures of his time to model Xavier and Magneto after, namely Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Two massively influential men fighting for similar goals but using vastly different means. Now, I’m not here to praise the skin and cultural diversity. You can get that anywhere these days. What I want to chat about are the many characters that have found a home and fanbases despite being physically limited compared to other characters.
Over the years, whether purposely or coincidentally, the X-Men franchise has housed arguably the most diverse catalog of characters in all of comics. It includes many members of the physically challenged community. Characters like Forge, Cable, Blindfold, Cyclops, and even Professor Xavier were presented to us as less than the whole in regards to their physical appearance, but it didn’t take a bit away from their character. We never saw them in any other form, but we loved them just the same. The characters were more than what made them different, they were more than their so-called limitations.
Without the luxury of social media, and a dedicated streaming video channel on the largest platform the world has ever seen, these characters have been able to cement their place amongst gods. The X-Men, not just as characters, but a franchise as a whole treated all their teammates as equals, never having to question their capabilities or their ceiling. Quite often, they were the ones that made the most difference.
Sadly, today a character’s worth is determined by their superficial outward appearance, gender, sexual orientation, or other socially classifiable factors. That wasn’t the case with the classic X-Men.
Forge lost his limbs in service of his country. Cable, thanks to a lingering childhood illness, is missing nearly half his body and Blindfold lost her eyes during puberty (or soon after when her brother stole them). Both Cyclops and Xavier are victims of accidents. These characters earned places in the greater mythos by way of old-fashioned character development.
Without being pressured or forced to focus on matters that don’t propel the characters forward, the writers of old were able to organically establish their footing. For instance, when Hellion lost his arms from the elbow down during the Nimrod attacks on Utopia or when Karma’s leg was severed by Cameron Hodge during the same story, the loss of their limbs wasn’t the driving force behind their stories. While we were privileged to watch them adjust to their new realities, the loss of their limbs became part of the characters, but was never the core of who they were.
It’s not like with tragic stories, such as No Girl (Martha), writers didn’t have their chances. But the writers specifically chose not to make the X-Men characters’ physical disabilities the core of their character. I assume that is because the X-Men have always been about overcoming obstacles, not needlessly obsessing about them. Doing the right thing over the easy. The stories were character driven and heavily relied on their connections to each other rather than what writers could trivialize. Which is why many of their biggest threats came from within.
However, somewhere down the line, it became ok to boil down a character to a single aspect and endlessly parade them around. When we take a character and focus on one piece of them, they start becoming less of a person, and more of a subject or arguing point.
One of the most insulting things you can do to a member of the physically challenged (or any group, for that matter) is treating them as if they aren’t on the same playing field as the rest of us. Throughout the long careers of Cable, Forge, or Cyclops I never looked at them as if they were less worthy than those around them. I was never made to like them any less, but I won’t lie and say I never noticed, it was just never all that important. Matter of fact, I believe it made them cooler, but not enough to distract from the total sum. I’m hoping for a return of writing practices where we can get great story arcs highlighting whole characters and not just a piece of them.