Introduced in September 1963, the X-Men were a team of teenage mutants, led by their teacher and mentor Professor Charles Xavier, who fought super-criminals and other mutants, led by Magneto, bent on the destruction of humanity. But rather than be a black-and-white battle between good and evil, the X-Men had a wrinkle: mutants were hated by the “normal” humans they defended. “I loved that idea,” Lee said in 2000, as the first XMen movie hit theatres. ’’It not only made them different, but it was a good metaphor for what was happening with the Civil Rights Movement in the country at that time.”
That metaphor extended to the characters themselves, with Professor X and his vision of harmonious human mutant coexistence standing in for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while Magneto’s rigid attitude toward the defence of mutant-kind reflected the philosophy of Malcolm X. The Sentinels, a brand of massive mutant hunting robot, were introduced two years later as readers watched on TV as black Americans were beaten and abused by white police officers. In 1966, Lee and his X-Men collaborator “King” Kirby again engaged with racial equality when they created Black Panther, a black superhero who was also the king of the fictional African nation Wakanda, an Afrofuturist wonderland of high-tech exceptionalism. And two years later, in a Stan’s Soapbox column, Lee made his most explicit statement yet on civil rights and acceptance. “Let’s lay it right on the line.
Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today,” he wrote in December 1968. “[I]t’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race—to despise an entire nation—to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if a man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance.
The X-Men’s struggles in a world defined by systemic persecution proved malleable enough to outlast the civil rights era. Beginning in the 1980s and continuing through today, the X-Men have been adopted by those fighting for LGBTQ rights who see the mutants’ struggle for acceptance and equality as their own. By creating characters that looked and acted differently, Lee tapped into the struggles that = readers of his books experienced every day. “Marvel has always been and always will be a reflection of the world right outside our window,” Lee explained a year before his death.