The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 51 | An “X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills” retrospective

Leaving Proof 51 | An “X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills” retrospective
Published on Monday, September 26, 2011 by
X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills
  • xmengodlovesmankills(Marvel Comics, originally published in 1982 as Marvel Graphic Novel #5: God Loves, Man Kills)
  • Writer: Chris Claremont
  • Artist: Brent Eric Anderson
  • Colorist: Steve Oliff
  • Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
  • Original List Price: $5.95 (US)/$6.95 (CDN)
  • Current List Price (2nd ed., 1st printing, 2011): $14.99 (US)/$16.50 (CDN)

Ask a random sample of X-Men comic book readers in their thirties and forties what their top five, all-time, favourite extended storylines are and you’ll probably get The Dark Phoenix Saga as a consensus number one pick, with The X-Tinction Agenda, Days of Future Past, and The Fall of the Mutants likely to be strong choices for first, second, and third runners-up, respectively. Rounding out the top five would probably be the Inferno storyline. It’s only after those five (and possibly behind significantly less well-regarded but nonetheless popular 1990s crossover fodder like The X-Cutioner’s Song, Fatal Attractions, and The Age of Apocalypse) that you’ll find 1982’s God Loves, Man Kills on a popularity-based list.

Part of the reason God Loves, Man Kills never really reached the same heights in reader popularity as The Dark Phoenix Saga or Days of Future Past, despite what I think to be a vastly superior creative effort behind it, is that it was relatively difficult to get a hold of back when it was first published. God Loves, Man Kills was originally sold as the fifth entry in Marvel’s attempt at a line of over-sized, prestige format one-shots aimed at older readers and sold via direct market outlets. The book wasn’t readily available at the then-ubiquitous newsstands or supermarket spinner racks and the lack of a Comics Code Authority-approved seal (more on that later) meant that even locations that carried direct market fare might have had some reticence in carrying it or selling it to readers below the age of eighteen. Additionally, the non-canonical nature of the story probably hurt its standing with a fan-base that was growing increasingly infatuated with continuity and all sorts of obsessive, connect-the-dots nonsense: Most, if not all, of the Marvel Graphic Novel superhero-based stories were set outside of established continuity, in a streamlined, self-contained setting informed by the general, “common sense,” established conventions of Marvel’s superhero comics (i.e., broad aspects of X-Men lore, such as the idea that mutants are rare genetic aberrations that are feared and hated by most normal humans and that Magneto is the X-Men’s longstanding mutant nemesis, are introduced with little in the way of exposition or explanation; questions about minor and specific details, such as how the current X-Men roster came to be or where all the other superheroes are—if they even exist in the setting—are brushed aside in favour of forwarding the main plot and theme).

This is not to say that the book never found a readership. It was (and continues to be) an unqualified commercial success, all things considered. In an interview article that accompanies the 2011 edition of X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, artist Brent Eric Anderson states that the book consistently sells anywhere from 10,000 to 12,000 copies over the span of the three-and-a-half years between re-printings, no small feat in today’s diminished comic book market. It received the Marvel Premiere Classic hardcover treatment in 2007. And writer/director Bryan Singer adapting it, albeit very loosely—and some might venture to say somewhat carelessly—for 2003’s X2: X-Men United means that current and future comic book readers should continue to discover it in some form.

While Lee and Kirby’s original Uncanny X-Men started out partially as an allegory for the burgeoning 1960s Civil Rights Movement, it didn’t take too long for the eponymous heroes’ adventures to devolve, so to speak, into punch-a-day superhero routine occasionally paying lip service to vaguely articulated notions of equal rights for all regardless of genetic disposition. Not that readers could really blame them or the creative teams that followed in their wake. With even the most expert of writers, the constant use of the mutant-as-persecuted-minority metaphor as a central plot plank in the unsubtle world of the superhero, no matter how well-intentioned, can only work for so long before it inevitably descends into inadvertent parody that, at worst, trivializes the struggles faced by those individuals who are systematically discriminated against because of their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief (or non-belief), or political affiliation.

When writer Chris Claremont took over the struggling Uncanny X-Men title in the mid-1970s, he largely shifted its narrative emphasis to fantastical melodrama and the occasional digression into space opera, culminating in the work he is still most known for, 1980’s The Dark Phoenix Saga. With God Loves, Man Kills, however, Claremont decided to take the X-Men into, for lack of a better term, a grim and gritty setting. The book, like the four Marvel Graphic Novels that preceded it, was not submitted for Comics Code Authority approval, giving Claremont and Anderson the leeway to feature elements that would likely have needed toning down to be displayed in a Code-approved publication. The book opens with a powerful and unsettling scene, with two black mutant children trying (and failing) to escape a lynching

Claremont doesn’t shy away from using strong language, either. In a key scene early on in the book, fan-favourite character Kitty Pryde uses the racial epithet “nigger” (the first use of the word in a Marvel comic book, as far as I am aware) to make a point in an emotionally-charged conversation with X-Men human ally Stevie Hunter

kittyprydeNwordScene

There are potentially all sorts of problems with these, of course, as in any device that attempts to frame one persecuted group’s struggles as being similar to another group’s (fictional or otherwise). But they are only problems, to some extent, in a pedantic sense. Most readers will implicitly understand that Claremont’s intent is to provide shorthand exposition for the emotional impact of mutants’ experiences of persecution and discrimination, and only those who try to read too much into the above scenes will come away from reading them thinking that he is suggesting that discriminatory and persecutory experiences are equivalent and interchangeable between members of different minority groups.

The Marvel Graphic Novel format helps the story in more ways than just allowing the creative team to depict scenes and use language they normally wouldn’t be able to. The distance from the “regular” Marvel Universe gives the story an immediacy and resonance it likely would not have had in the usual, superhero-suffused context. Since the story occurs in a world where superpowers are seemingly exclusive to mutants (while it isn’t explicitly stated that other, non-mutant superheroes and supervillains do not exist in the story’s setting, it is strongly implied in the dialogue), the arbitrariness of the distinction writers make between mutant super-powered beings and non-mutant super-powered beings, always problematic for me when reading stories featuring Marvel’s merry mutants, is no longer an issue. And freed from the accumulated weight of almost twenty years (at the time it was first published) of backstory featuring sentient mutant islands, universe-consuming cosmic firebirds, and galaxy-faring humanoid alien races with feathers for hair, the relatively mundane menace of potential genocide fueled by religious fanaticism in God Loves, Man Kills is elevated to the status of a genuine existential threat deserving of the attention of the X-Men.

Claremont also manages to avoid falling into the trap of needlessly and predictably vilifying one group of people in order to serve up a contrast to the persecuted protagonists. While the Purifiers—the book’s main villains led by the scripture-quoting Reverend William Stryker—are unquestionably portrayed as a conservative Christian organization that is overwhelmingly Caucasian in racial make-up, Claremont makes it clear that their actions and beliefs aren’t representative of a popularly accepted Christian or Caucasian perspective regarding interracial relations. This is reflected in the book’s title first and foremost: The underlying evil that the heroes fight in the story isn’t Christianity or a superstitious distrust of the science behind evolution, but the perversion of Christian ideals by a corrupt individual to justify genocide and exploit the fearful and ignorant to serve his own hate-filled and murderous agenda. And the mutant superheroes aren’t portrayed as one-dimensional do-gooders, either: in one scene, the X-Men stand aside to let Magneto torture a captured member of the Purifiers in order to extract information regarding the location of their abducted associates.

MagnetoTortureScene

The book is by no means perfect, however. Claremont’s particular brand of purple prose and flowery dialogue, although not as manifest here as in his regular Uncanny X-Men work, still threaten to inundate panels with teeming text boxes and overflowing word balloons. The resolution to the story seems a tad rushed and is a little unsatisfying. Anderson, who replaced Neal Adams on art duties after the legendary artist left over a contract dispute with editor-in-chief Jim Shooter (Adams’ unpublished pencils, as well as an interview explaining his decision to leave the project, are included in the 2011 edition of the book), delivers some of his best early work, although to me it looks like he was still in the process of refining the style that he later crystallized on Somerset Holmes. Still, for me, God Loves, Man Kills, more than The Dark Phoenix Saga, is the definitive X-Men story, rooted in the social consciousness that informed the creation of the original comic book, with just the right amount of treacle and superhero action.

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